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Trip to Esquimaux Bay

Immediately on the opening of the navigation I started for Esquimaux Bay, with two Indians, in a small canoe, and without any of the usual conveniences. Mr. Erlandson having been ordered to the southern department, followed in another canoe.

Arrived at the post, we were gratified by the receipt of dispatches just come to hand by the ship. The Governor's letter apprized me that a vessel would be sent round to Ungava every alternate year; and strictly enjoined me to have no further communication with Esquimaux Bay overland, "as much unnecessary expense was incurred by these journeys." Thus were we consigned to our fate for a period of two years with as little feeling as if we had been so many cattle, and debarred from all communication with our friends, by word or letter, merely to save a trifling expense!

Could the Honorable Company be swayed by so paltry a consideration in subjecting us to so grievous an inconvenience? Surely not; a body of men so respectable could neither have authorized nor sanctioned such sordid parsimony. The generous proposition originated with Mr. Simpson alone, and to him be the honor ascribed.

Being fully persuaded in my own mind of the utter hopelessness of the Ungava adventure, I transmitted a report to the Governor and Committee on the subject; recommending the abandonment of the settlement altogether, as the enormous expense of supplying us by sea precluded the idea of any profit being ever realized; while it was quite evident the Company's benevolent views toward the Esquimaux could not be carried into effect. The extreme poverty and barrenness of their country, and their pertinacious adherence to their seal-skin dresses, which no argument of ours could induce them to exchange for the less comfortable articles of European clothing, were insurmountable obstacles. The Honorable Company, while they wished to supply the wants of the Esquimaux, still urged the expediency of securing the trade of the interior.

A circumstance that came to my knowledge in the course of the winter promised the attainment of that object. I learned from an old Indian, that the fall and rapid I met with on my way to the sea the preceding season, could be avoided, by following a chain of small lakes. My informant had never seen those falls himself, and could, from the oral report he had heard, give but a very imperfect description of the route. Still, I determined on making another attempt to explore the whole river, knowing well, that if I succeeded in discovering the new route, there could be no further difficulty in supplying the interior. Meantime, I was gratified to learn, by letters from my friend Mr. Dease, that the expedition in which he had been engaged was crowned with success;—the long sought-after north-west passage being at length laid open to the knowledge of mankind, and a question, that at one time excited the enterprise of the merchant and the curiosity of the learned, settled beyond a doubt.

While on this subject, I cannot help expressing my surprise at the manner Mr. Dease's name is mentioned in the published narrative of the expedition, where he is represented as being employed merely as purveyor. It might have been said with equal propriety that Mr. Simpson was employed merely as astronomer. The fact is, the services of both gentlemen were equally necessary; and to the prudence, judgment, and experience of Mr. Dease, the successful issue of the enterprise may undoubtedly be ascribed, no less than to the astronomical science of Mr. Simpson.

Having finished my correspondence, I embarked for Fort Chimo, on board a brig that had been recently built for the trade of this district and that of Esquimaux Bay. Our passage afforded no adventure worthy of notice; icebergs we saw in abundance, whose dimensions astonished us, but having no desire to form a close acquaintance with them, we kept at a respectful distance; and finally entered the Ungava River, on the 24th of August, at so early an hour of the day, that we expected to reach the post ere night-fall.

We were doomed to disappointment. As we ascended the river, the breeze fell, and darkness set in upon us; yet we still pressed on. Presently, however, so dense a fog arose, that nothing could be seen a yard off. In this dilemma our safest course would have been to anchor, but unfortunately that part of the river was the most unfavorable possible for our purpose, from the extraordinary strength of the current, and the rocky nature of the bottom. Our skipper seemed quite at a loss, but accident decided. The vessel struck, altered her course a little, struck again, put about, and struck again and again. The anchor was dropped as the only chance of escaping the dangers in which we were involved. The anchor dragged a short time, and finally caught apparently in a cleft of the rocks.

Soon after the tide began to flow, and we fancied our dangers over; but the crisis was not yet come. The ebb-tide returned, rushing down with the current of the river with such overwhelming velocity, that we expected the vessel would be torn from her moorings. Two men were placed at the helm to keep her steady, but, in spite of their utmost exertions, she was dashed from side to side like a feather, while the current pitched into her till the water entered the hawse-holes. Pitching, and swinging, and dashed about in this fearful manner for some time, the anchor was at length disengaged, and dragged along the bottom with a grating noise, which, with the roaring of the rapid, and the whistling of the wind through the rigging, formed a combination of sounds that would have appalled the most resolute. The fog having cleared away, we discovered a point projecting far into the river, some two hundred yards below, towards which we were drifting broadside, and rapidly nearing. The boats were got ready, to escape, if possible, the impending catastrophe, when the vessel was suddenly brought to with a tremendous jerk, and instantly swung round to the tide. By this time, however, its strength was considerably abated, and daylight soon appearing, I sent on an Esquimaux who had come on board, with a note to the post, requesting that a pilot should be sent us with the utmost dispatch.

Meantime, seeing our way clear before us, we weighed anchor, and advanced to within three miles of the establishment, when a boat was seen approaching, rowed by six stout islanders. On coming along-side, a rope was thrown to them, and made fast to the fore-stem. Four of the men had scrambled on board, when a sudden blast swelled our sails, and propelled us through the water with such force, that the fore-part of the boat was torn away, leaving one of the men floundering in the water, and the other clinging to the rope. The latter was dragged on board, severely bruised; but the former remained in the water for at least two hours, and would have perished before our eyes, had he not got hold of a couple of oars, by which he managed to keep himself afloat. We soon anchored opposite the post, and every exertion being made to expedite the departure of the vessel, we were in the course of a few days left to vegetate in quiet.

On examining the quantity of provisions I had received, I was not a little alarmed to find it scarcely sufficient for the consumption of one year, his Excellency's communication having acquainted me that it was a supply for two years! Thus we were thrown on the precarious resources of the country for life or for death; for if those resources should fail us, we must either remain and starve on the spot, or, abandoning the settlement, endeavour to escape to Esquimaux Bay and run the risk of starving by the way. Economy so ill-timed argued as little in favor of the Governor's judgment as of his humanity. Admitting our lives were of so trifling a value, the abandonment of the settlement, with all the goods and furs in it, would have subjected the Company to a very serious loss. Every precaution, however, was taken to provide against a contingency which involved such serious consequences; the men were dispersed in every direction to shift for themselves, some being supplied with guns and ammunition, others with nets, a lake of considerable extent having been lately discovered, which the natives reported to abound with fish. Early in the month of December my fishermen came in with the mortifying intelligence of the entire failure of the fishery; and soon after a messenger arrived from the hunting party to beg a supply of provisions, which my limited means, alas! compelled me to deny. Not a deer had been seen, and the partridges had become so scarce of late that they barely afforded the means of sustaining life. All I could therefore do for my poor men was to supply them with more ammunition and send them off again.

While their lot was thus wretched, mine was not enviable; one solitary meal a day was all I allowed myself and those who remained with me; and I must do them the justice to say, that they submitted to these privations without a murmur, being aware that it was only by exercising the most rigid economy that our provisions could hold out the allotted time; the arrival of the ship being an event too uncertain to be calculated upon. By stinting ourselves in this manner, we managed to eke out a miserable subsistence, without expending much of our imported provisions, until the arrival of the deer in the month of March, when we fared plentifully if not sumptuously.

Notes of a Twenty-Five Years Service in the Hudson's Bay Territory, 1849


Notes on Hudson Bay Territory


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