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Exploring Expedition Through the Interior of Labrador

The Company having learned, through a pamphlet published by the Moravian missionaries of Labrador, that the country produced excellent furs, were induced by the laudable desire of "ameliorating the condition of the natives," to settle it; and a party was accordingly sent overland from Moose Factory to take possession in the summer of 1831. The Moravians, finding their intention thus anticipated, left both the cure of souls and trade of furs to the Company.

Whatever may have been the Company's real motives in forming a settlement in this quarter, the profits derived from it added but little to the dividends; the substance that glittered at a distance like gold proved to be but base metal. Beavers were nowhere to be found; and although the martens brought an extraordinary high price, they were far from plentiful; while the enormous expense of supplying the district by sea, and supporting it on imported provisions, rendered the "Ungava adventure" a subject of rather unpleasant discussion among the partners, most of whom were opposed to the measure from the first.

Mr. Simpson was, in fact, the prime mover of the project, and aware of the discontent caused by its failure, determined on making every effort to reduce the expense, and, if possible, to increase the returns. Accordingly, I was directed to push outposts into the interior, to support my people on the resources of the country, and at the same time to open a communication with Esquimaux Bay, on the coast of Labrador, with the view of obtaining in future my supplies from thence by inland route; "there being no question of the practicability of the rivers." So said not he who had seen those rivers.

Mr. Erlandson had traversed the country in the spring of 1834, and represented to me the utter impossibility of carrying my instructions into effect. Meantime, the Committee, having learned by dispatches from York Factory that the vessel intended for the business of the district had been lost, and the other, in which I made my passage, placed in so critical a situation as to render her safety in spring a very doubtful matter, considered it advisable to provide for the worst by freighting a small schooner to carry us out our supplies. This vessel very unexpectedly made her appearance on the 22d of September, and we thus found ourselves supplied with goods and provisions for two years' consumption.

Having, as above mentioned, learned from Mr. Erlandson the difficulties of the inland route, and also that a great number of the natives had gone to Esquimaux Bay, with the intention of remaining there, I considered it incumbent upon me to visit that quarter at an early period of the winter, and I accordingly set out from Fort Chimo on the 2d of January. I submit the following narrative of my journey to the reader.

"Tuesday, the 2d of January, 1838.—I left Fort Chimo at eleven A.M., accompanied by the following men, viz.:—

"Donald Henderson, Henry Hay, and two Indian guides, who are to accompany me throughout the journey; Pierre Neven and M. Ferguson go part of the way, each driving a sled of two dogs, loaded with provisions, the other men having sleds drawn by themselves.

"Wednesday, the 3d.—Left our encampment before dawn of day. Excessively cold—some of us got frost-bitten, but not severely. Our principal guide, finding his companion unable to keep up with us, set off to his lodge in quest of a substitute. Encamped early, having proceeded about nine miles.

"Thursday, the 4th.—Started at seven A.M. Reached High Fall Creek at nine A.M. Halted to wait for our guide, who soon joined us, alone, finding no person willing to accompany him. Resumed our march at half-past nine; had not proceeded far, when we perceived that our young guide, Pellican, was left considerably in the rear. We waited till he overtook us, and the miserable creature appearing completely exhausted with fatigue, we encamped at an early hour. Eight miles.

"Friday, the 5th.—Lightened Pellican's sled, and set off at five A.M.; fine weather, though sharp. Advanced sixteen miles.

"Saturday, the 6th.—As the ice was covered with water close to our encampment, it was deemed advisable to await the light of day. Set off at eight A.M., but found it impossible to move forward in consequence of the immense quantity of snow that had fallen during the night. It continuing still to snow, and blowing a violent gale at same time, I gave up the struggle. Advanced about a mile.

"Sunday, the 7th.—Got up about three A.M., literally buried in snow. Our blankets being wet, we waited in our encampment drying them till eight o'clock, when we started with only half loads, with which we intended to proceed to the first lake, and then return for the remainder; but to our great satisfaction we soon discovered that the tempest which had incommoded us so much last night had cleared the ice of snow; we therefore returned for the property we had left; then proceeding at a fine rate, having beautiful weather, we soon reached the lake; when my guides, discovering a herd of deer on an adjacent hill, immediately set off at a bound, followed by Pellican and my two brules. I saw at once my day's journey was at an end, and accordingly directed my encampment to be made. Our hunters joined us in the evening with the choice parts of three deer they had killed. Proceeded eight miles.

"Monday, the 8th.—Very cold, tempestuous weather. Our progress was much retarded by the great depth of snow in the woods through which our route lay. Thirteen miles.

"Tuesday, the 9th.—Blowing a hurricane; the cold being also intense, we could not venture out on the ice without incurring the risk of being frost-bitten; we therefore remained in our quarters, such as they were, until the weather should moderate.

"Wednesday, the 10th.—My guides appeared very unwilling to quit their encampment this morning, pretending indisposition. They might have been really ill; but the beastly manner in which they had been gorging themselves for the past two days being well known to be the cause of their illness, no one felt disposed to pity them. I therefore sprang into their encampment, and pitching the remainder of their choice morsels into the snow, drove them out before me. Traveled through woods the whole day. Encamped at half-past three. Eighteen miles.

"Thursday, the 11th.—Started at five, A.M. Soon fell on a large lake, on which we traveled till three, P.M., when we encamped. Thus far the lake extends S.E. and N.W., being about two miles in width. As Mr. Erlandson was the first European who had traversed these inhospitable wilds, I had the gratification of giving his name to the lake. It is reported by the natives to abound in fish of the best quality; rein-deer are also said to be numerous at certain seasons of the year. Proceeded fifteen miles.

"Friday, the 12th.—Being immoderately cold, and the wind blowing direct in our faces, we could not attempt traveling on the lake.

"Saturday, the 13th.—Weather fine. Left Erlandson's Lake about one, A.M.; it still stretched out before us as far as the eye could reach, and cannot be less than forty miles in length; its medium breadth, however, does not exceed two miles and a half. The circumjacent country is remarkably well wooded, even to the tops of the highest hills, and is reported by the natives to abound in martens. A few industrious Indians would not fail to turn such advantages to good account; but they can avail the Company very little, while the natives alone are in possession of them. Went on twenty-four miles.

"Sunday, the 14th.—Set off at five, A.M. Passed over several small lakes; the country well wooded. Entered upon a small river about noon, the banks covered with large pine. Encamped at three, P.M. Advanced sixteen miles.

"Monday, the 15th.—Took our departure at seven, A.M. Traveled without halting the whole day. Eighteen miles.

"Tuesday, the 16th.—Decamped at five, A.M.; the snow very deep in the woods. Fell on Whale River at ten, A.M. The face of the country presents scarcely any variety; from Erlandson's Lake to this river it is generally well wooded, but afterwards becomes extremely barren, nothing to be seen on both sides of the river but bare rocks. Proceeded sixteen miles.

"Wednesday, the 17th.—Started at five, A.M. Our route in the morning led us through a chain of small lakes, and brought us out again on Whale River, on which we traveled till four, P.M. The appearance of the country much the same as described yesterday. Proceeded eighteen miles.

"Thursday, the 18th.—P. Neven being unable to travel from indisposition, I resolved on passing the day to await the issue, deeming his malady to be of no very serious nature. In the meantime I took an exact account of my provisions which I found to be so far reduced, that no further assistance was required for its conveyance. I accordingly made the necessary arrangements to send the men back.

"Friday, the 19th.—Early in the morning, P. Neven (being now convalescent) and Mordoch Ferguson set off on their return, whilst I and my party proceeded on our onward route. I retained a sled of dogs, intending to drive them myself. We traveled eleven miles on Whale River, then struck across the country to the eastward. Encamped at four, P.M. Fourteen miles.

"Saturday, the 20th.—The moon affording no longer light to find our way in the night, we must now wait till daylight. Started at seven A.M.; crossed a point of wood, chiefly larch, of a miserably small growth; then came out on a large lake (comparatively speaking), on which we traveled till four, P.M. Thirteen miles.

"Sunday, the 21st.—Set off at seven A.M. About eleven, we fell on the fresh tracks of a large herd of deer, which my guides carefully examined; their experience not only enabling them to determine the precise time they had passed, but the very spot where they were likely to be found, which they affirmed was close to us. My dogs being very much reduced, and not having the means of increasing their present modicum of food, I determined on availing myself of an opportunity which might not again occur of procuring a supply. The Indians accordingly set off in quest of them, desiring us at their departure to make no fire until the sun had reached a certain position in the heavens which they pointed out to us. We made our encampment at the time appointed, and were soon joined by our hunters, dragging after them a fine doe; they had got only one shot at the herd, which immediately took to the bare hills, where pursuit was in vain. Our guides being encamped by themselves, I was curious to ascertain by ocular evidence the manner in which the first kettle would be disposed of, nor did I wait long till my curiosity was gratified. The cannibals fell upon the half-cooked flesh with a voracity which I could not have believed even savages capable of; and in an incredibly short space of time the kettle was disposed of;—and this, too, after their usual daily allowance, which is equal to, and sometimes exceeds, that of the other men, who say they have enough. Proceeded seven miles.

"Monday, the 22nd.—On examining the remains of the deer this morning, I found my quadrupeds would benefit but little by my good intentions and loss of time, our guides having applied themselves so sedulously to the doe during the night, as to leave but little for their canine brethren. We started at seven, A.M., the traveling very heavy in the woods. About noon we came upon a large lake, where we made better speed. Thirteen miles.

"Tuesday, the 23rd.—Traveled through woods the greater part of the day; encamped at four o'clock. Sixteen miles.

"Wednesday, the 24th.—Decamped at seven, A.M. Our route lay through swamps and small lakes, with strips of wood intervening. Martens appear to be numerous, but beavers must be extremely rare, for we have discovered no traces whatever of their existence anywhere along our route, though innumerable small lakes and rivers, such as beavers frequent, are to be met with in every direction; but the country produces no food for them. At ten A.M. we arrived at a considerable lake, where my guides told me we had reached the highest land. On asking them if this were the lake where we intended to build, they pointed to the south-west, saying it was four days' journey off in that direction!—so far had I been led from the route I intended to have followed, notwithstanding the perfect understanding I had with my perfidious guides prior to our departure from the establishment. Encamped at three, P.M. Twelve miles.

"Thursday, the 25th.—Immediately on leaving our encampment, we fell on a large river flowing to the north-east, which I took to be George's River. We followed it for a short distance, and then directed our course over bare hills. Encamped at three, P.M. Eleven miles.

"Friday, the 26th.—Having passed the night in a clump of small pines, which sheltered us from the inclemency of the weather, we were not aware of the violence of the storm which was raging round us, until, pursuing our route over a ridge of bare hills, we were completely exposed to its fury. We found the cold intense, the wind blowing in our faces, so that it was impossible to proceed. Observing a hummock of wood close to us, we shaped our course for it, where we were no sooner arrived, than it began to snow and drift. The few trees to which we had retreated being far apart, and the wind blowing with the utmost violence, we experienced the greatest difficulty in clearing an encampment. The storm continuing unabated, we passed a miserable day in our snow burrow. Two miles.

"Saturday, the 27th.—Arose from our comfortless couché at half-past four. The snow having drifted over us, and being melted by the heat of the fire in the early part of the night, we found our blankets and capotes hard frozen in the morning. Thawing and drying them occupied us till nine A.M., when we set off. Snow very deep. Proceeded nine miles.

"Sunday, the 28th.—Set off at seven, A.M. Snow still increasing in depth, and our progress decreasing in proportion. At one, P.M., we came upon a large river flowing to the north, on which we traveled a short distance; then followed the course of a small stream running in an easterly direction. Leaving this stream, our route lay over marshes and small lakes; the country flat, yielding dwarf pine intermixed with larch. Encamped at half-past four; advanced eight miles.

"Monday, the 29th.—Started at seven. Appearance of the country much the same as yesterday. Fifteen miles.

"Tuesday, the 30th.—Decamped at seven. Weather mild, and walking heavy. Our principal guide appears rapidly declining in strength, which does not surprise me, considering the laborious duty he has had to perform; always beating the track a-head, without being once relieved by his worthless associate. Fourteen miles.

"Wednesday, the 31st.—Started at seven. Still very mild. Observed a few small birch trees. Encamped at four, P.M. Fifteen miles.

"Thursday, the 1st of February.—Started at the usual hour. We have been travelling through a very rough country for these two days past. The fact is, that our guides, having only passed here in summer, are unacquainted with the winter track. We are, therefore, evidently pursuing a circuitous course, which, with every other disadvantage, subjects us to the risk of running short of provisions,—a contingency which our reduced stock warns us to prepare for ere long. We can afford no more food to the dogs; their load is now transferred to the men's sleds. Fifteen miles.

"Friday, the 2d.—Decamped at seven, A.M. Pursued our route over extensive swamps and small lakes, where there is scarcely any wood to be seen. The face of the surrounding country being level, the least elevation commands a most extensive view; but the eye turns away in disgust from the cheerless prospect which the desolate flats present. I deemed it expedient to curtail our allowance of provisions this evening. Eighteen miles.

"Saturday, the 3d.—Set off at seven, A.M. Reached Michigama Lake at one, P.M.; on which we traveled till five o'clock, when we encamped on an island. Proceeded twenty miles.

"Sunday, the 4th.—Left our encampment at the usual hour. Halted for our scanty meal at ten, A.M. After an hour's delay we resumed our march, and encamped at four, P.M., on an island near the mainland on the east side of the lake, having performed about twenty miles. I here repeated to the Indians my earnest wish to proceed to Esquimaux Bay, by North River, which takes its rise in this lake. They replied that nothing could induce them to comply with my wishes, as inevitable starvation would be the consequence; no game could be found by the way, and we would have, therefore, to depend solely on our own provisions, which were barely sufficient for the shortest route. I had thus the mortification to find, that I should entirely fail in accomplishing the main object I had in view in crossing the country.

"Monday, the 5th.—Decamped at seven, A.M. Reached the mainland at half-past eight; then ascended a river flowing from the north-east, which discharges itself into Michigama Lake, Pellican taking the lead, being the only one acquainted with this part of the country. The Indians shot an otter. No wood to be seen, but miserably small pine, thinly scattered over the country. Encamped at Gull Lake. Fifteen miles.

"Tuesday, the 6th.—Left our encampment at seven. Our guide lost his way about noon, which after an hour's search, he succeeded in finding; when we resumed our slow march, Pellican proceeding at a snail's pace, which neither threats nor entreaties could in the least accelerate. Encamped at five, P.M. Eleven miles.

"Wednesday, the 7th.—Started at half-past six, A.M. Arrived at the site of an extensive Indian camp, which appeared to have been recently occupied. Our guides knowing the Indians to be their friends from Ungava, and their trail leading in the direction of our route, required no longer to be urged on. An immediate impulse was given to Pellican's sluggish motions, increasing his speed to such a degree, that it required our utmost exertions to keep up with him. Encamped near a high fall on North-West River, which is here walled in by inaccessible precipices on both sides. The view above the fall is interrupted by stupendous rocks; the natives say that the appearance of the river and surrounding country is the same from this fall to Michigama Lake; the river is deemed to be impracticable for any kind of craft. Eighteen miles.

"Thursday, the 8th.—Set off at seven, A.M. Fine traveling on the river. We passed two portages and rapids. Encamped at forty-five minutes past five. Twenty miles.

"Friday, the 9th.—Decamped at seven. Traveling good; the banks of the river high and precipitous, and almost destitute of wood. We observed, however, a few birches. Encamped at six, P.M. Twenty miles.

"Saturday, the 10th.—Started at eight, A.M. About noon we arrived at a wide expansion of the river, where it suddenly bends to the west. Here we again quitted the river, directing our course to the eastward. The navigation of this part of the river is represented by the natives to be impracticable, and similar to the upper part. Our snow-shoes being the worse for wear, we encamped at an early hour for the purpose of repairing them. Advanced fifteen miles.

"Sunday, the 11th.—Decamped at seven, A.M. Pursued our course through the roughest country I ever traveled. The appearance of it struck me as resembling the ocean when agitated by a storm, supposing its billows transformed into solid rock. We commenced ascending and descending in the morning, and kept at it till night. The men complained much of fatigue. Proceeded fourteen miles.

"Monday, the 12th.—The weather being so much overcast that we could not find our way, we remained in our encampment till eight, A.M. Encamped at a quarter past five. Fifteen miles.

"Tuesday, the 13th.—Set off at half-past seven, amidst a tremendous snow-storm, which continued without intermission the whole day; we sunk knee-deep in the snow, and found it not the most pleasant recreation in the world. About noon we passed a hut, which my guide told me had been the residence of a trader, two years ago. Late in the evening we arrived at another hut, on North West River, where we found two of Mr. McGillivray's people, who were stationed there for the purpose of trapping martens. Nine miles.

"Wednesday, the 14th.—The weather being unpropitious, and finding ourselves very snug in our present quarters, we passed the day enjoying the comfort of a roof.

"Thursday, the 15th.—Left our Canadian hosts at early dawn; the snow very deep on the river. Proceeded till ten, A.M., when D. Henderson was suddenly seized by a violent fit, which completely incapacitated him from traveling. Discovering a hut close by, a fire was immediately kindled in it, and a place prepared for our invalid to lie down; in our present circumstances nothing more could be done. I waited by him till two, P.M., then pursued my route, accompanied by the Indians, leaving H. Hay to take care of him. Accomplished fourteen miles.

"Friday, the 16th.—Set off at four, A.M. Arrived at dusk at Port Smith, where, although I was well known, my Esquimaux dress and long beard defied recognition, until I announced myself by name.

"Saturday, the 17th.—An Indian was dispatched early in the morning, to meet my men with a supply of the north-west panacea, Turlington Balsam; and I was glad to see them arrive in the evening, more in want of food than medicine."

Two days after our arrival, all the Nascopie or Ungava Indians, at present residing in this part of the country, numbering seventy or eighty souls, came to the establishment, with the produce of their winter hunts. Mr. McGillivray and myself having come to an understanding regarding them, we both addressed them, representing to them the advantages they would derive from having posts so conveniently situated on their lands, &c. After some deliberation among themselves, they expressed their intention to be guided by our advice, and to return forthwith to their lands. Having sent off my dispatches by Indian couriers, for Mashquaro, on the 3d of March, to be forwarded thence to Canada, via the Company's posts along the Gulf and River St. Lawrence, I sent H. Hay for my guides (who had gone to pay the kettles of their friends a visit), preparatory to my departure hence, which has been deferred to a much later period than I had calculated upon, from the prevalence of excessively bad weather for a fortnight.

Hay, having met the Indians on the way, returned the same evening; but they were so emaciated that I could scarcely recognize them, looking like so many spectres—a metamorphosis caused by the influenza, at that time prevalent in the country. My principal guide, however, declared himself able to proceed on the journey, with a light load; and it was arranged that Pellican should accompany his relative. Two young men, who came in with my guide, appearing not quite so much reduced as the others, I proposed to them to accompany me as far as Michigama Lake, to assist in hauling our provisions, which they consented to do; and they accordingly took their departure along with my guide, on the 4th of March. Myself and two men, along with my "husky" interpreter, followed next morning; but as we are to retrace our steps by the same way we came, it will be unnecessary to narrate the occurrences of each day.

We arrived in the evening at the first Indian camp, where I found one of the young men I had hired, relapsed into his former malady, and unable to proceed further. This, although a disappointment, did not much affect me, as I had hopes my guide would be able to continue his route, from the circumstance of his having passed on to the farthest camp. When we arrived, about noon next day, and found, not only our guide, but every individual in the camp, suffering under the fatal malady, this was the climax to my disappointment. I determined on returning to Fort Smith with my guide, where, by proper treatment, I hoped he might yet recover in time to admit of my returning before the end of the season.

I accordingly returned, accompanied by H. Hay, who conducted the dog-sledge, on which I had placed my sick Indian, leaving D. Henderson in charge of the provisions, along with the Esquimaux. On the morning of the 9th, I dispatched H. Hay to join Henderson, with directions to haul the provisions on to McGillivray's hut, there to await further orders.

My guide, for a few days, appeared to be in a hopeless state, refusing sustenance of any kind, and became delirious. This was the crisis of the malady; for he soon began to take some food, and recovered strength daily. He at length proposed to attempt the journey, to which I joyfully assented; and once more took leave of Fort Smith, on the 19th of March, and joined my men next day.

Remaining two days, to give the guide time to recruit his strength, I started on the morning of the 23d; the Indians had recovered strength enough to enable them to proceed towards their winter deposit of provisions, near Michigama Lake, leaving us an excellent track. We overtook them on the 26th. I found it impossible to separate my guide from his relatives while we pursued the same route. We arrived on the 30th at their last stage, and encamped together.

Next morning as we were about to start, a message arrived from my guide, announcing his determination to proceed no farther, unless Pellican were permitted to accompany us. I sent for him immediately, and endeavored to impress on his mind the unreasonableness of such a proposition, our provisions being scarcely sufficient for ourselves—that it would expose the whole party to the risk of starvation; but I addressed a thing without reason and without understanding, and was accordingly obliged, once more, to yield.

We reached the highest land on the 2d of April, where, on examining our remaining stock of provisions, the alarming fact that it was altogether insufficient to carry us to the establishment, was but too apparent. It was therefore necessary to take immediate measures to avert, if possible, an evil that threatened so fearful consequences; and the only course that presented itself was to divide into two parties,—the one to proceed with all possible dispatch to the fort, by the shortest route, and to send forward a supply to the other, which it was anticipated would reach them ere they were reduced to absolute want.

Pursuant to this resolution I set off, accompanied by the guide and H. Hay; leaving D. Henderson to make the best of his way, with the Esquimaux and Pellican. Having taken but a very small share of the provisions with us, and meeting with no game on the way, we were soon reduced to the utmost extremity. One of our dogs being starved to death, we were ultimately obliged to knock the surviving one on the head, to supply ourselves with what we considered, in present circumstances, "food for the gods." Such as it was, it enabled us to keep soul and body together till we reached Fort Chimo, on the 20th of April, where we found all the Nascopies of this part of the country assembled to greet the arrival of their long-expected friends—our guides. I immediately selected a couple of smart-looking lads to go to meet my rear-guard,—the other servants about the establishment, who were accustomed to snow-shoes, being absent, watching the deer.

On the third day after their departure the couriers returned, with Pellican. On inquiring of the latter what had become of my men, he replied that he had left them encamped at a lake about sixty miles distant, where the Esquimaux, abandoning himself to despair, could not be prevailed upon to go a step farther; and that he (Pellican) had been sent forward by Henderson to urge on the party whom they expected. They were within a day's journey of them; and yet the wretches returned immediately on meeting Pellican, leaving the others to their fate. No Indians I had ever known would have acted so basely; yet these are an "unsophisticated race" of aborigines, who have but little intercourse with the whites, and must, of course, be free from the contamination of their manners. Our hunters being now arrived, were sent off, without delay, in quest of the missing; and I had the satisfaction to see my famished companions de voyage arrive, on the 26th of April.

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


Notes on Hudson Bay Territory


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