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Arrival of Mr. Lefroy

In the early part of this winter several Indians came in, complaining that they were starving for want of food; and their emaciated forms proved that they did not complain without cause. Our means, however, were too limited to afford them any effectual relief. We were glad to learn afterwards, that although many suffered, none died from actual want; and the rabbits soon afterwards appearing in greater numbers than had been seen for years past, relief was obtained.

Towards the latter end of March, I was gratified by the arrival of Mr. Lefroy. This gentleman seems equal to all the hardships and privations of a voyageur's life, having performed the journey from Athabasca hither, a distance of at least six hundred miles, on snow-shoes, without appearing to have suffered any inconvenience from it; thus proving himself the ablest mangeur de lard we have had in the country for a number of years: there are many of our old winterers who would have been glad to excuse themselves if required to undertake such a journey.

The winter passed without any remarkable occurrence; and on the breaking up of the river, I set off for the lower posts, on the 23d of May, accompanied by Mr. Lefroy, whose zeal for scientific discovery neither cold, nor hunger, nor fatigue, seems to depress. We arrived at Fort Norman on the 27th of May; and after a few hours' delay, embarked, proceeding down stream, night and day.

We reached Fort Good Hope on the 29th, late in the evening; but evening, morning, midnight, and noon-day, are much the same here: I wrote at midnight by the clear light of heaven. The scientific reader need not be informed, that within the arctic circle the sun is but a very short time beneath the horizon, during the summer solstice. The people of Fort Good Hope see him rising and setting behind the same hill; and in clear weather his rays shed a light above the horizon even after he is set; while during the winter solstice the same hill nearly conceals him from view. Yet the gentleman in charge of this post has passed two years without an inch of candle to light himself to bed; and his predecessor did the same; so that he has no reason to complain.

On our way down we observed a land-slip, or avalanche of earth, that had just tumbled into the river. Mr. Lefroy examined the bank whence it had been detached, and found, by measurement, that the frozen ground was forty-six feet in depth!

Our short sojourn at Fort Good Hope was rendered very unpleasant by the dismal weather; it continued snowing the whole time we remained. The storm abating, we embarked at an early hour, on the 31st of May, and had not proceeded above a few leagues, when a fair breeze sprang up, greatly to the satisfaction of all, but especially of the poor fellows whose toil it relieved. It continued increasing; reef after reef was taken in, till our sheet was finally reduced to a few feet in depth; yet so furious was the gale that we ascended the strongest current with nearly the same velocity we had descended; while the snow fell so thick, and the spray from the river was driven about so violently by the wind, that we could scarce see our way, and only escaped being dashed against the beach by keeping in the centre of the stream. It was also extremely cold; so that our situation in an open boat was not the most enviable.

We arrived at Fort Norman on the 2d of June, about five, A.M., and remained until eleven, A.M., when we embarked, the gale still continuing with unabated violence. Immediately after leaving the Fort the gale carried away our mast; fortunate it was for us that it gave way, else the boat must have capsized. We soon got another mast from the Fort, and sped on our way night and day, if it can be said there is any night here, when the light is so powerful as to throw the stars into the shade. Without experiencing much change in wind or weather, we arrived at Fort Simpson on the 8th of June; having thus performed a voyage of about 1,400 miles (going and coming) in eleven days, including stoppages. I found Mr. Lewis so far recovered from the effects of his wound as to be able to take the same active part in the management of affairs as formerly.

The returns from the different posts being now received, we found them to amount to upwards of 15,000l. in value, according to the tariff of last year. Everything being ready for our departure, we left Fort Simpson on the 15th of June, Mr. Lefroy embarking with us. We proceeded to Great Slave Lake without interruption, the weather extremely fine. Within a day's rowing of Fort Resolution we encountered a field of ice that arrested our progress, till a change of wind carried it out to sea.

The moment a passage opened we observed a large canoe making for our encampment. It proved to be Mr. Lefroy's, which he had left with the most of his people at Athabasca. Mr. Lefroy embarked in his own craft, and we proceeded to Fort Resolution in company; and as he had determined on following a different route to Athabasca, we parted here, most probably never to meet again in this life. Few gentlemen ever visited this country who acquired so general esteem as Mr. Lefroy; his gentlemanly bearing and affable manners endeared him to us all. We arrived at Athabasca on the 5th of July, and at Portage La Loche on the 25th, where we found an increased number of half-breeds waiting our arrival.

The brigade from York Factory arrived with the outfit on the 2d of August, and we exchanged cargoes with the utmost expedition, they receiving the returns of the district, and we the outfit brought by them. By this conveyance I received letters from the Governor, acquainting me "that another gentleman was appointed to the charge of McKenzie's River District, and that he (the Governor) could not conceive on what grounds I fancied myself to be the person so appointed, as he was certain I could not have arrived at such a conclusion from perusing the instructions I had received from him last year!" Until now I thought I understood the English language as well as most people; but the Governor makes it appear plainly enough that I ought still to confine myself to the old Celtic.

The instructions above referred to being given in the foregoing pages, I shall leave the reader to form his own opinion of one who, in the high and honorable position of a Governor, could treat so ungenerously one whom he admitted to be a faithful and meritorious servant, and whom he had acknowledged to be deserving of preferment: and that not on the present only, but on several former occasions.

This last insult I consider the climax to the wrongs I have so long suffered. First I am appointed in the usual terms to the charge of a district. I am allowed to continue in that opinion for a twelvemonth; I enter into correspondence with the gentlemen of the district as their future superintendent, and make my arrangements with them as such; and, au bout du compte, am ordered back to the same district to mix with the crowd, and submit to another master. I leave it to the reader to judge whether such a Governor could possibly have the interests of the Company at heart; even supposing for a moment there were no injustice in the case; I leave it to him to consider what effect a conduct and measures so vacillating, unsteady and arbitrary, are likely to have on the service and interests of the Company.

This last act of the Governor made me completely disgusted with a service where such acts could be tolerated. In no colony subject to the British Crown is there to be found an authority so despotic as is at this day exercised in the mercantile Colony of Rupert's Land; an authority combining the despotism of military rule with the strict surveillance and mean parsimony of the avaricious trader. From Labrador to Nootka Sound the unchecked, uncontrolled will of a single individual gives law to the land. As to the nominal Council which is yearly convoked for form's sake, the few individuals who compose it know better than to offer advice where none would be accepted; they know full well that the Governor has already determined on his own measures before one of them appears in his presence. Their assent is all that is expected of them, and that they never hesitate to give. Many years pass without such a thing as a legally constituted Council being held. A legal Council ought to consist of seven members besides the Governor; three chief factors and four chief traders. The Council, however, seldom consists of more than five members and the Governor.

Some years ago, I happened to be at an establishment where a "Council" was about to be held. On inquiring of his Excellency's Secretary what subject of moment he thought would first engage their attention—

"Engage their attention!" he replied; "bless your heart, man! the minutes of Council were all drawn out before we arrived here; I have them in my pocket."

Clothed with a power so unlimited, it is not to be wondered at that a man who rose from a humble situation should in the end forget what he was and play the tyrant. Let others, if they will, submit to be so ruled with a rod of iron. I at least shall not.

In reply to his favor, I addressed the following letter to his Excellency, a transcript of which I transmitted to the Committee.

"Portage La Loche,
"August 3, 1844.

"To Sir George Simpson, Governor of Rupert's Land:—

I have the honor to acknowledge your several favors from Lachine and Red River, and am mortified to learn by them you should think me so stupid as not to understand your letters on the subject of my appointment to the charge of the district; your language being so clear, in fact, as to admit of no other construction than the one I put upon it. By referring to the minutes of Council for 1843, I find myself appointed to Fort Good Hope for that year; but you wrote me subsequently to the breaking up of the Council, and used these words: 'That is now the finest field we have for the extension of trade, and I count much on your activity for promoting our views in that quarter. But while directing your attention to the extension of your district, you must also use your best endeavors to curtail the indents.'

"Your letter to Mr. C.F. Lewis states, in nearly these words, that I 'am appointed to succeed him;' and you beg of him 'to deliver into my hands all the documents that refer to the affairs of the district.' Mr. Lewis understood your letters in the same sense as myself, and so did every other person who perused them. What your object may have been in altering this arrangement afterwards, is best known to yourself; and whether such conduct can be reconciled with the principles of honor and integrity which you so strongly recommend in others, and which are so necessary to the well-being of society, is a question which I shall leave for the present to your own decision; while I cannot avoid remarking, that the treatment I have experienced from you on this and on many other occasions, is as unworthy of yourself and as unworthy of the high station you fill, as I am undeserving of it.

"When in 1837, I was congratulated by every member of Council then present at Norway House on the prospect of my immediate promotion, (having all voted for me,) your authority was interposed, and I was, as a matter of course, rejected. You were then candid enough to tell me that I should not have your interest until the two candidates you then had in view were provided for, and that it would then be my turn. With this assurance from you I cheerfully prepared for my exile to Ungava. My turn only came, however, after seven other promotions had been made, and I found myself the last on the list of three gentlemen who were promoted at the same time.

"You are pleased to jest with the hardships I experienced while battling the watch with opposition in the Montreal department, and the privations I afterwards endured in New Caledonia. Surely, Sir, you ought to have considered it sufficient to have made me your dupe, and not add insult to oppression. While in the Montreal department I have your handwriting to show your approval of my meritorious conduct, the course I was pursuing being the direct road to preferment; and your intention, even then, to recommend me to the favorable notice of the Governor and Committee; promises in which I placed implicit confidence at the time, being as yet a stranger to the ways of the world. The result of these promises, however, was that the moment opposition had ceased, I was ordered to resign my situation to another, and march to enjoy the delectable scenery of New Caledonia; from thence you sent me to Ungava, where you say you are not aware I experienced any particular hardship or privation.

"You are aware of the circumstances in which I found myself when I arrived there: that consideration was not allowed to interpose between me and my duty, however; and I accordingly traversed that desolate country in the depth of winter, a journey that nearly cost myself and my companions our lives. I then continued to explore the country during the entire period of my command, and finally succeeded in discovering a practicable communication with Esquimaux Bay, and in determining the question so long involved in uncertainty as to the riches the interior possessed, and by so doing saved an enormous expense to the concern. The Hon. Committee are aware of my exertions in that quarter, themselves, as I had the honor of being in direct communication with them while there.

"I have the honour, &c.

(Signed) "John McLean."

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


Notes on Hudson Bay Territory


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