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Situation of Fort Simpson

Mr. Lewis embarked for York Factory on the 4th of August. I set out on my return on the 6th, and arrived at Fort Simpson on the 22d. Having prepared and sent off the outfit for the different posts with all possible expedition, I found myself afterwards at leisure to note down whatever I thought worthy of being recorded with reference to this section of the country.

There are seven posts in this district; three on the River Liard and its tributaries; three on the banks of McKenzie's River, and one on Peel's River. About two degrees to the north of Good Hope, Fort Simpson, the dépôt of the district, is situated at the confluence of the Liard and McKenzie, in lat. 61° north. Heat and cold are here felt in the extremes; the thermometer frequently falls to 50° minus in winter, and rises sometimes to 100° in the shade in summer. The River Liard has its source in the south among the Rocky Mountains: its current is remarkably strong; and in the early part of summer, when swollen by the melting of the snow, it rushes down in a foaming torrent, and pours into the McKenzie, still covered with solid ice, when a scene ensues terrific and grand:—the ice, resisting for some time the force of the flood, ultimately gives way with the noise of thunder, and clashing, roaring and tumbling, it rolls furiously along until it accumulates to such an extent as to dam the river across. This again presents, for a time, a solid barrier to the flood, which is stopped in its course; it then rises sometimes to the height of thirty and forty feet, overflowing the adjacent country for miles, and leveling the largest trees with the ground. The effects of this frightful conflict are visible in all the lower grounds along the river. The trading posts are situated on the higher grounds, yet they are not secure from danger. Fort Good Hope was swept clean away some years ago, and its inmates only saved themselves by getting into a boat that happened fortunately to be at hand. The McKenzie opens about the end of May, and is ice-bound in November.

The tribes who inhabit the banks of the McKenzie, and the interior parts of the district, are members of the powerful and numerous Chippewayan family, and are known by the names of Slaves, Dogribs, Rabbitskins, and Gens des Montagnes. The Loucheux, or Squint-Eyes, frequent the post on Peel's River, and speak a different language; their hunting-grounds are within the Russian boundary, and are supposed to be rich in fur-bearing animals. The Loucheux have no affinity with the Chippewayan tribes, nor with their neighbors, the Esquimaux, with whom, however, they maintain constant intercourse, though not always of the most friendly kind, violent quarrels frequently occurring between them. The various dialects spoken by the other tribes are intelligible to all; in manners, customs, and personal appearance, there is also the closest similarity.

In one point, however, these tribes differ, not only from the parent tribe, but from all the other tribes of America; they treat their women with the utmost kindness, the men performing all the drudgery that usually falls to the women. Here the men are the hewers of wood and drawers of water; they even clear away the snow for the encampment; and, in short, perform every laborious service. This is indeed passing strange;—the Chippewayans, and all other Indians, treat their women with harshness and cruelty; while the women on the banks of the McKenzie—Scotticé"wear the breeks!" The Rabbitskins and Slaves are in truth a mild, harmless, and even a timid race; could it be this softness of disposition that induced the weaker sex first to dispute, and finally to assume the supremacy? or what cause can be assigned for a trait so peculiar in this remotely situated portion of the Indian race?

These tribes clothe themselves with the skins of rabbits, and feed on their flesh; when the rabbits fail, they are reduced to the greatest distress both for food and raiment. I saw a child that remained naked for several days after its birth, its parents having devoured every inch of their miserable dress that could be spared from their bodies: it was at last swaddled in crow's skins!

These two tribes generally live near the banks of the great rivers, and seem disposed to pass their pilgrimage on earth with as little toil, and as little regard to comfort, as any people in being. They pass summer and winter in the open air; they huddle together in an encampment, without any other shelter from the inclemency of the weather than what is afforded by the spreading branches of some friendly pine, and use no more fire than what is barely sufficient to keep them from freezing. Their wants are few, and easily provided for; when they have killed a few deer to afford them sinews for making rabbit-snares, they may be said to be independent for the remainder of the season. Their work consists in setting those snares, carrying home the game caught in them, eating them when cooked, and then lying down to sleep. A taste, however, for articles of European manufacture is gaining ground among them, and to obtain those articles a more active life is necessary, so that some tolerable fur-hunters are now to be found among them.

The Dogribs occupy the barren grounds that are around Great Bear Lake, and extend to the Copper-mine River. That part of the country abounds in reindeer, whose skin and flesh afford food and raiment to the natives. They are a strong, athletic, well formed race of Indians, and are considered more warlike than their neighbors, who evidently dread them.

None of the Indians who frequent the posts on McKenzie's River have hereditary chiefs; the dignity is conferred by the gentlemen in charge of posts on the best hunters. On these occasions a suit of clothes is bestowed, the most valued article of which is a coat of coarse red cloth, decorated with lace; and, as the reward of extraordinary merit, a felt hat is added, ornamented in the same manner, with a feather stuck in the side of it. Thus equipped, the new made chief sallies forth to receive the gratulations of his admiring friends and relatives, among whom the coat is ultimately divided, and probably finishes its course in the shape of a tobacco-pouch. In course of time, the individuals thus distinguished obtain some weight in the councils of their people, but their influence is very limited; the whole of the Chippewayan tribes seem averse to superior rule.

Like the Esquimaux and Carriers, they seem to have had no idea of religion prior to the settlement of Europeans among them; all the terms they at present use in reference to the subject seem of recent origin, and invented by the interpreters. They name the Deity, "Ya ga ta-that-hee-hee,"—"The Man who reclines on the sky;" angels are called "the birds of the Deity,"—"ya gat he-be e Yadzé;" the devil, "Ha is linee," or, "the sorcerer."

The Slaves and Rabbitskins have also their magicians, whom alone they fear and reverence. Polygamy is not common, yet there are instances of one man having two female masters. In times of famine the cravings of hunger often drive these poor Indians to desperation, when the feelings of humanity and of nature seem utterly eradicated.

During the fearful distress of the two past years, a band of Slaves came to Fort Simpson in a condition not to be described. Many of them had perished by the way; but the history of one family is the most shocking I ever heard. The husband first destroyed the wife, and packed her up as provision for the journey. The supply proving insufficient, one of the children was next sacrificed. The cannibal was finally left by the party he accompanied with only one child remaining—a boy of seven or eight years of age. Mr. Lewis immediately dispatched two men with some pemmican, to meet him; the aid came too late,—they found the monster roasting a part of his last child at the fire. Horrified at the sight, they uttered not a word, but threw the provisions into the encampment, and retreated as fast as they could. A few days afterwards this brute arrived strong and hearty, and appeared as unconcerned as if all had gone on well with him and his family. Cannibalism is more frequently known among the Slaves and Rabbitskins than any other of the kindred tribes; and it is said that women are generally the perpetrators of the crime; it is also said, that when once they have tasted of this unhallowed food they prefer it to every other.

All the Chippewayan tribes dispose of their dead by placing them in tombs made of wood, and sufficiently strong to resist the attacks of wild beasts. The body is laid in the tomb at full length, without any particular direction being observed as to the head or feet. Neither they, nor any other Indians I am acquainted with, place their dead in a sitting posture.

It is affirmed by some writers that the Indians have a tradition among them of the migration of their progenitors from east to west. I have had every opportunity of investigating the question, and able interpreters wherever I wintered; but I never could learn that any such tradition existed. Even in their tales and legends there is never any reference to a distant land; when questioned in regard to this, their invariable answer is, "Our fathers and our fathers' fathers have hunted on these lands ever since the flood, and we never heard of any other country till the whites came among us." These tribes have the same tradition in regard to the flood, that I heard among the Algonquins at the gates of Montreal, some trifling incidents excepted.

Unlike most other Indians, the Slaves have no fixed bounds to their hunting-grounds, but roam at large, and kill whatever game comes in their way, without fear of their neighbors. The hunter who first finds a beaver-lodge claims it as his property, but his claim is not always respected.

Besides the Indians enumerated in the preceding pages, a number of stragglers, but little known to us, occasionally resort to the post. A band of these nine in number made their appearance at Fort Norman this summer; and, after trading their furs, set out for Fort Good Hope, with the avowed intention of plundering the establishment, and carrying off all the women they could find. On arriving at the post they rushed in, their naked bodies blackened and painted after the manner of warriors bent on shedding blood; each carrying a gun and dirk in his hands.

The chief, on being presented with the usual gratuity a piece of tobacco, rudely refused it; and commenced a violent harangue against the whites, charging them with the death of all the Indians who had perished by hunger during the last three years; and finally challenged M. Dechambault, the gentleman in charge of the post, to single combat. M. Dechambault, dicto citius, instantly sprung upon him, and twisting his arm into his long hair, laid him at his feet; and pointing his dagger at his throat, dared him to utter another word. So sudden and unexpected was this intrepid act, that the rest of the party looked on in silent astonishment, without power to assist their fallen chief, or revenge his disgrace. M. Dechambault was too generous to strike a prostrate foe, even although a savage, but allowed the crest-fallen chief to get on his legs again; and thus the affair ended.

The Company owe the safety of the establishment to Mr. D.'s intrepidity: had he hesitated to act at the decisive moment, the game was up with him, for he had only two lads with him, on whose aid he could place but little reliance. Mr. D. has been thirty years in the Company's service, and is still a clerk; but he is himself to blame for his want of promotion, having been so inconsiderate as to allow himself to be born in Canada, a crime which admits of no expiation.

This district is at present by far the richest in furs of any in the country; this is owing partly to the indolence of the natives, and partly to the circumstance of the beaver in some localities being, through the barrenness of the surrounding country, inaccessible to the hunter. When the haunts of the animal become overcrowded, they send forth colonies to other quarters.

At the first arrival of the Europeans, large animals, especially moose and wood rein-deer, were abundant everywhere. In those times the resources of the district were adequate to the supply of provisions for every purpose; whereas, of late years, we have been under the necessity of applying for assistance to other districts.

A new field has lately been laid open for the extension of the trade of this district. An enterprising individual—Mr. R. Campbell—having been for several years employed in exploring the interior, last summer succeeded in finding his way to the west side of the Rocky Mountain chain. The defile he followed led him to the banks of a very large river, on which he embarked with his party of hardy pioneers; and following its course for several days through a charming country, rich in game of every description—elk, rein-deer, and beaver, he eventually fell in with Indians, who received them kindly, although they had never seen Europeans before. From them he learned that a party of whites, Russians of course, had ascended the river in the course of the summer, had quarreled with the natives, and killed several of them; and that the whites had returned forthwith to the coast. These friendly Indians entreated Mr. C. to proceed no farther, representing that he and his party were sure to fall victims to their revenge. This, however, could not shake his resolution; he had set out with the determination of proceeding to the sea at all hazards, and no prospect of danger could turn him from it; till his party refused to proceed farther on any conditions, when he was compelled to return.

The returns of this district have, for years past, averaged 12,000l. per annum; the outfit, including supplies for officers and servants, has not exceeded as many hundreds. The affairs of the different posts are managed by seven or eight clerks and postmasters; and there are about forty hired servants—Europeans, Canadians, and half-breeds; Indians are hired for the trip to the portage. The living for some years past has not been such as Gil Blas describes, as "fit to tickle the palate of a bishop;" at Fort Simpson we had, for the most part of the season, fish and potatoes for breakfast, potatoes and fish for dinner, and cakes made of flour and grease for supper. The fish procured in this quarter is of a very inferior quality.

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


Notes on Hudson Bay Territory


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