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Chapter 7

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Mackenzie of Canada
Mark S. Wade

published by
William Blackwood & Sons Ltd.
Edinburgh and London 1927

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 9

 p215  Chapter VIII

The Return to Fort Chipewyan

At ten o'clock in the evening of that memorable day of July 22nd, Mackenzie turned his back upon the scene of his great triumph and set his face homeward. Returning the same way they had gone, against an adverse tide, so eager were the men to put as great a space as possible between them and the unfriendly natives that they proceeded at a rapid rate, and at half-past four in the morning of the 23rd they arrived at their encampment of the night of the 21st, which they had named Porcupine Cove.

Continuing onward, they drew near the village at the mouth of the Bella Coola River. The water being shallow, the tide at ebb, they landed a mile below the village, and while the men secured the canoe, Mackenzie followed the guide towards the houses, out of one of which two natives emerged and ran towards him "with daggers in their hands and fury in their aspect."

"From their hostile appearance," says Mackenzie, "I could not doubt their purpose. I therefore stopped short, threw down my cloak, and put myself in a posture of defence, with my gun presented towards them, whereupon they promptly dropped their daggers."

Several other natives joined them, among them the man who had been so troublesome near Point Edward, and who again repeated the names of "Macubah and Benzins." His appearance at that village so incensed  p216 the explorer that, he declares, "if he had come within my reach, I verily believe that I should have terminated his insolence for ever." One of the natives contrived to get behind Mackenzie, and grasped his arms from the rear; but although he quickly disengaged himself, he could not understand why the Indian had not plunged his dagger into his back.

"They certainly might have overpowered me," he admits; "and although I should probably have killed one or two of them, I must have fallen at last." Fortunately one of the Canadians appeared, and immediately the natives fled to the shelter of their houses.

Fully ten minutes elapsed, however, ere the remainder of the white men arrived, straggling one after the other, which circumstance led Mackenzie to observe that if the natives had killed him in the first instance, they could easily have successfully despatched the entire party, leaving none to tell the tale.

In the scuffle that had taken place, the hostiles decamped with Mackenzie's hat and cloak. He now determined to compel them to restore them, and, in addition, to disgorge the other articles they had stolen several days before out of the canoe, for most of the men they had encountered at sea in the three canoes near Point Edward were then in the village. Ordering his men to prime their guns afresh — they were muzzle-loading flintlocks in those days, — Mackenzie drew them up before the house in which the natives had taken refuge, and made signs for them to come out. The young man who had served as their guide responded, and explained that the men who had been in the canoes had told their friends in the village that not only had the white strangers treated them ill, but had actually killed four of their number. The explorer endeavoured to show the falsity of such an absurd story, and not only insisted upon the prompt restoration of everything stolen from him, but demanded, by way of penalty  p217 or amends, a supply of fish. Both demands were complied with.

Mackenzie named the place Rascal's Village, and, after taking an observation which gave its latitude as 52° 23′ 43″, he prepared to embark in the canoe. Before departing, however, he asked for more fish, and for some poles to use in taking the canoe up the river. These wants were supplied with alacrity, and the explorer paid for them, and also recompensed them for the use of their canoe. This unexpected generosity brought about a reconciliation and a better understanding.

But the troubles of the explorer were not yet over. The young Indian from Great Village was so terror-stricken by the events of the last few days that he refused to remain with the party, and urged them to depart at once in his father's canoe, which had been left at Rascal's Village when they embarked on the sea. As if Mackenzie had not enough to contend with in placating the natives, his own men again became unruly, and threatened to take their own course on the return journey and cross the mountains on foot. This fractiousness arose out of the fact that the insolent native and four of his companions had gone up the river in a canoe loaded with boxes, creating the fear that they were proceeding to the next village to turn its inhabitants against the strangers. The voyageurs declared they would not embark in the canoe, and to emphasise their determination deliberately threw all their belongings except their blankets into the river, so that they might pass over the mountains lightened of superfluous encumbrances.

The conduct of these men appears to us as puerile in the extreme, but they should not be judged either hastily or harshly. For many weeks they had toiled unceasingly, generally in a state of discomfort, frequently wet through, often half famished, always filled with alarm at the hostile demonstrations of the natives, their night's rest too often broken, eternally on the qui vive — can it be wondered  p218 at, then, that their nerves were on edge, their tempers frazzled, and their naturally excitable natures ready to take fire at every fresh alarm? Mackenzie knew this, and instead of upbraiding them in harsh terms he reasoned with them, pointed out the folly and the danger of the course they contemplated, and in the end persuaded them to renew their trust in his leadership; but they flatly refused to take to the canoe again, and persisted in walking, the canoe being manned by Mackenzie, Mackay, two of the voyageurs who had not sworn, as had the other, not to embark, and one of the Indian hunters who was ill.

All along the river whenever they came to any houses they were accorded a welcome by the inhabitants, despite the fact that the insolent coast Indian and his associates visited all those people in advance. On the 24th they awoke to find that the young Indian from Great Village had gone off with their canoe, leaving them without any means of transport. Fortunately two of the people near whose houses they had passed the night provided a canoe, and took them up the river. Everywhere they were fed on salmon and berries, and shown every kindness, the voyageurs travelling on foot sharing in all these benefits. Some of the fish caught by these river Indians are described by Mackenzie, who did not consider them salmon. He says "the flesh is white, but neither rich nor well flavoured." They were those inferior varieties of salmon that none but Indians will eat, the dog salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) and the humpback salmon (O. gorbusca).

On Thursday, 25th, they arrived at two unoccupied houses, beyond which the natives who had conveyed them in their canoe refused to go by water, but agreed to conduct them by land, there being a good trail to Great Village. Mackenzie and some of his people visited the vacant houses out of curiosity, and met with a hot and uncomfortable reception from a host of fleas, with which they swarmed, "and we were immediately in the same  p219 condition, "says Mackenzie jocularly, "for which we had no remedy but to take to the water."a

The guides went forward too quickly for the sick Indian hunter, and instead of keeping their promise made their escape, much to the disappointment of the explorer, who had hoped they would give the old chief at Great Village a good report of them, and so offset any unfavourable story that his son might tell him. Despite his natural anxiety, Mackenzie did not fail to observe the immense size of the trees. "This road conducted us through the finest wood of cedar trees I had ever seen." Some of them measured twenty-four feet in girth, and alders were seven and a half feet in circumference, and rose to forty feet without a branch.

As they neared the village the men's arms were examined and put in order, and Mackenzie gave Mackay — whose gun had been dragged from the canoe by the branch of a tree as they ascended the river and lost — one of his pistols. As one of their recent guides had reported to him that the man whom he had given some Turlington's balsam was dead, Mackenzie feared it might be thought that his end had been hastened by it. This, and the possibility of an ill report by the chief's son, might result in a hostile reception, and it was well to be prepared for the worst. Arriving at the village, however, they were received in a friendly enough spirit by the people, but the chief did not appear for some time. When he at length did so they found him to be inclined to be surly because of the anxiety he had felt respecting his son, who had, however, returned home safely. A few presents and payment of the guide for his services had a salutary effect, and the gift of ten roasted salmon from the chief closed the episode.

It was here that Mackenzie had lost his dog, but despite the statement that it had howled about the village ever since, a search for it proved barren of results.

Escorted to the last house in the village by the chief,  p220 his son, and a number of people, the travellers resumed their journey on foot, with Mackay in the lead and Mackenzie himself bringing up the rear. On the way through a stately forest they fell in with the missing dog, reduced almost to a skeleton, and apparently afraid of them, yet continuing to follow. By dropping food so that he could find it, he gradually became accustomed to them again, and resumed his place among them.

On the 26th, at eight in the morning, they reached Friendly Village, and were received with marked kindness, the chief, Soocomlick, being especially attentive and generous in providing fish for their journey. There they remained three hours, and when they took their departure at eleven o'clock, every man of the village accompanied them along the trail for about a mile.

So generously had the Friendly villagers studied them with salmon that each man carried about twenty pounds' weight of it, Mackenzie and Mackay alone having less so that they would not have so much weight to carry. As an illustration of Mackenzie's care for the Indians in his party, it is worthy of mention that when they came to ford the river, the explorer carried the sick hunter across on his back.

Leaving the valley at one o'clock at noon, they began to climb the first mountain on the return trail.

"The fatigue of ascending these precipices1 I shall not attempt to describe," remarks Mackenzie, "and it was past five when we arrived at a spot where we could get water, and in such an extremity of weariness that it was with great pain any of us could crawl about to gather wood for the necessary purpose of making a fire. . . . Nor was it possible to be in this situation without contemplating the wonders of it. Such was the depth of the precipices below and the height of the mountains above, with the rude and wild magnificence of the scenery around,  p221 that I shall not attempt to describe such an astonishing and awful combination of objects, of which, indeed, no description can convey an adequate idea. Even at this place, which is only, as it were, the first step towards gaining the summit of the mountains, the climate was very sensibly changed. The air that fanned the village when we left at noon was mild and cheering; the grass was verdant, and the wild fruits ripe around it. But here the snow was not yet dissolved, the ground was still bound by the frost, the herbage had scarce begun to spring, and the crowberry bushes were just beginning to blossom."

On August 4th they reached the place, which they had left a month before, where they had left their canoe, which they found in good order, "nor was there the print of a man's foot near the spot." Pitching the tent and making a blazing fire, each man was given a "regale" of rum in celebration of their safe return to their canoe, "but," states the explorer, "we had been so long without tasting any spirituous liquor that we had lost all relish for it."

A party of Indians camped on the opposite side of the river made hostile demonstrations when they observed the strangers, but the interpreter gave them such explanation as served to pacify them, and to send a messenger to summon the natives who had been in that place on Mackenzie's former visit there, and who were at this time some distance up the river on an island. When they came they were rewarded for the care they had taken of the property of the expedition. Mackenzie was determined to create the best impression he could, and was careful to treat the natives fairly at all times.

On Monday, 5th, they began preparing for the return voyage up the great river. The journal says: "At nine this morning I sent five men in the canoe for the various articles we had left below, and they soon returned with them, and, except some bale goods which had got  p222 wet, they were in good order, particularly the provisions, of which we were now in great need."

This item from the journal should set at rest for all time any question respecting the course taken by Mackenzie when he left the Fraser for Bella Coola. If they went up the Blackwater in their canoe, as has been generally asserted, after caching the pemmican, gunpowder, and bales of goods, they must necessarily have left the canoe up that stream. If, however, that were the case, why should Mackenzie send his canoe down that same Blackwater, which he himself states is a shallow stream, for the concealed goods, and put his men to all the labour of paddling or poling the laden vessel back up the same stream, since they would only have to take them down again in order to reach the Fraser, where lay their homeward way? Such a supposition is preposterous.

The truth is, that Mackenzie did not ascend the Blackwater in his canoe at all. There is actually not a shred of evidence to show that he took his canoe one paddle length up. On the contrary, there is much upon which to base the belief that he did not. To turn back to July 3rd. What did Mackenzie do? He was then at the mouth of the Blackwater, which stream he "found to be navigable only for small canoes." His large canoe, heavily laden, could not have ascended it. He says: "Before I left this place, to which I gave the name of West-Road River." And Again: "At four in the afternoon we left this place, proceeding up the river" — the Fraser, not the Blackwater, which he distinctly says they left.

The place where they left the Fraser for the coast is several miles above the mouth of the Blackwater, and, by taking a trail leading to the west, they avoided all the obstacles presented in the valley of that stream. There are several such trails that must have been in existence at that time leading to the same part of the Pacific coast.  p223 One of these starts from opposite Alexandria — Mackenzie's turning-back point — and, leaving the Fraser valley, traverses an elevated plateau. It then crosses the upper Chilcotin River and passes Puntze Lake. Beyond the lake there lies an undulating wooded plateau, and beyond it the southerly sources of the Bella Coola River. This trail was utilised in 1862 by a merchant and packer named Barron, who operated a pack train over it, taking in supplies from the coast to the Cariboo gold-fields. It was also used by miners going to and from the mines. Had Mackenzie followed that trail he would have found it less difficult and arduous than the one his guides conducted him over. It must have been known to the Fraser River Indians with whom he sojourned on June 22nd and 23rd, and it is quite possible they did not tell him of it because of their evident desire to induce him to leave their own part of the country. The easy way to get rid of him was to tell him of the other and more distant trail.

To continue. A number of natives arrived from both up and down the Fraser, each wearing a beaver robe, fifteen of which Mackenzie purchased for large knives. Although none of the things left in the shelter built for their reception near where the canoe had been housed during the journey to the coast had been molested in their absence, several articles were stolen. Mackenzie called the natives together, and gravely told them that the sea where the salmon came from belonged to the white men, and that, as they could prevent the fish from entering the mouth of the river and thus deprive them of their main food-supply, and bring about the starvation of all their people, they would be wise to avert white men's anger by returning the things that had been purloined. This appalling revelation of the white man's power created such a state of consternation among the Indians that messengers were sent in all directions to collect the missing articles, the most part of which were recovered.

 p224  On August 6th the canoe was loaded, and all embarked. Later in the day they landed at a house on Woodpecker Island, where they procured some salmon and four beaver-skins. Heavy rains filled the tributary streams and creeks, causing a perceptible rise in the main river, and increasing the current and the labour of the voyageurs.

On the 8th they passed the rapids in Fort George Cañon, and on the 13th, without untoward incident on the way, came "to the narrow gut between the mountains of rock, which was a passage of some risk." This is the place described as having been passed on June 18, and is on the north fork of the Fraser (M'Gregor River). "The state of the water was such," says Mackenzie, "that we got up without difficulty, and had more time to examine these extraordinary rocks than in our outward passage. They are as perpendicular as a wall, and give the idea of a succession of enormous Gothic churches."

They were on very short allowance of food; the weather turned very cold, and to hearten as well as warm, on the 14th their leader gave the men the last of the supply of rum. That night they camped on the banks of James Creek (Bad River), and on the 15th arrived at their old camping-ground of June 13th. The water being low, they searched for the bag of ball they had lost when the canoe had collapsed, but without success. At two o'clock in the afternoon of the 16th they came to the portage leading to the first lake, and reached the high land "which separates the source of the Tacoutche Tesse, or Columbaº River, and Unjigah, or Peace River."

Not until then does Mackenzie give the great river a name. On his way down he had not known what river he was on, nor where it would take him; but when he prepared his journal for the press he had learned of Gray's discovery, and of Lieutenant Broughton's ascent of the Columbia as far as the site of the present town of Vancouver, in the State of Washington, and he jumped to the conclusion that the river he had discovered, and  p225 which he had designated "Great River," must be the Columbia. That belief prevailed until Simon Fraser in 1808 made the discovery that the mouth of the Tacoutche Tesse was several hundred miles farther north than that of the Columbia, and was therefore a separate stream altogether.

It was characteristic of the man that at the time, in the midst of anxieties respecting the health of his men and their sustenance, as well as his own condition, he should have thought of planting the salmon in the Peace River system. He writes: "If I could have spared the time, and had been able to exert myself, for I was now afflicted with a swelling in my ancles" (fateful forerunner of the illness that cut short an active and useful life!) "so that I could not even walk, but with great pain and difficulty, it was my intention to have taken some salmon alive, and colonised them in the Peace River, although it is very doubtful whether that fish would live in waters that have not a communication with the sea."

So bad was Mackenzie's condition that he was compelled to submit to being carried over an inundated meadow at the portage that took them to the Parsnip. At half-past seven in the morning of the 17th they began to glide with the current of that river, and on the 18th the explorer comments: "We were seven days in going up that part of the river which we came down to‑day; and it now swarmed, as it were, with beavers and wild fowl," which doubtless afforded them some relief from their short commons.

How light their hearts, how buoyant their spirits, as they rapidly descended the Parsnip! In a short time they would be among their own people, back with their old companions, once more to take up their old tasks in a country they knew, among natives of whose tongue, habits, and disposition they had intimate knowledge.

On the 19th they passed the Forks, where the Finlay and the Parsnip unite to form the Peace, and on the 20th  p226 they were once again at Rocky Mountain Portage. Sending Mackay and the Indians ahead to hunt for game, Mackenzie superintended the preparations for making the long twelve‑mile portage. At sunset the hunters returned laden with buffalo meat, and a hearty meal wound up the day. The portage was completed on the evening of the 21st, and on the 22nd they were again afloat, and safely ran the rapids that had given them so much trouble on the former journey. Again the hunters were sent ahead to provide food, and again they were successful; and when at noon the canoe with the explorer and his voyageurs arrived where Mackay and the Indians were awaiting them, it was to find they had killed two elk, and had a huge joint of venison already roasted ready for them.

That afternoon they killed another elk while en route. "To give some notion of our appetites," says Mackenzie, "I shall state the elk, or at least the carcase of it, which we brought away, to have weighed two hundred and fifty pounds; and as we had taken a very hearty meal at one o'clock, it might naturally be supposed that we should not be very voracious at supper. Nevertheless, a kettle full of the elk flesh was boiled and eaten, and that vessel replenished and put on the fire. All that remained, with the bones, &c., was placed, after the Indian fashion, round the fire to roast, and at ten next morning the whole was consumed by ten persons and a large dog, who was allowed his share of the banquet. This is no exaggeration; nor did any inconvenience result from what may be considered as an inordinate indulgence."

Now they were approaching the place whence they had embarked in the spring, and their eagerness to be "home" once more impelled them to be on their way before daylight on the 23rd. Now they were in a land of abundance, where game was so plentiful that all fear of want vanished. With satiety came fastidiousness, and when in the course of the day they shot a bear and a buffalo, they left them where they fell, because "they were not sufficiently fat  p227 to satisfy our fastidious appetites." That night when they landed they prepared themselves for arrival at Forks Fort the following day: such a clipping of beards and hair, mending and patching of clothing, perhaps a little done in the way of laundry work!

Yet near as was Forks Fort, only a few hours' travel distant, they fell in with some Indians who were astonished to see them, the first white people they had ever seen. Eagerly the voyageurs gazed ahead as the afternoon of the 24th wore on, looking for the desired fort. In and out of the water flashed the gleaming paddles, faster and faster flew the canoe, louder and cheerily their voices united in their chansons, each man's heart beating high. Never had men done what they had accomplished. They had been to the far ends of the earth, and were returned in safety. What tales they would have to tell to their friends at the fort, and, later on, by the firesides of their relatives in distant Quebec. Ah, this was something like a home-coming!

"At length," says the journal in the plain unadorned phraseology of the great explorer, "as we rounded a point, and came in view of the Fort, we threw out a flag, and accompanied it with a general discharge of our firearms; while the men were in such spirits, that we arrived before the two men we left here in the spring could recover from their senses to answer us. Thus we landed at four in the afternoon at the place which we left in the month of May.

"Here my voyages of discovery terminate. Their toils and dangers, their solicitudes and sufferings, have not been exaggerated in my description. On the contrary, in many instances language has failed me in the attempt to describe them. I received, however, the reward of my labours, for they were crowned with success."

In that last pithy sentence, pregnant with exultation, is concentrated all the praise that a thousand pens could  p228 write, or a thousand voices sing. The reward of his labours lay in the fact that in each voyage he had succeeded in accomplishing the object with which he had set out; "for they were crowned with success."

Happy he who can apply that crowning glory to his work, the knowledge of success. What mattered the mutterings of envious associates in business or the sarcasms of "Le Premier"! His reward, his chief recompense, did not rest on the whim or caprice of another, but wholly in his own proud consciousness of a task well done.

Mackenzie did not tarry at Forks Fort. In September he was back at Fort Chipewyan, enjoying the companionship of his cousin Roderick, after an absence of eleven months.

Some years ago — in 1909,º to be precise — one of those rare mortals endowed with an understanding mind and a reverence for places almost hallowed by association with the achievements of great men, and who had descended the Mackenzie as far as the delta, and ascended the Peace to Smoky River, visited Forks Fort — or what then remained of it. The visit is described with facile pen in these terms:

"From that far‑off day in spring when we first touched the Clearwater we have been following in the historic footprints of Sir Alexander Mackenzie. We now take a day off, with the object of locating Mackenzie's last camp on the Peace, which he reached in 1792, and from which, in the spring of 1793, he started west across the map seeking an unknown route to Pacific Ocean. We find the remains of that camp. It is in the corner of a potato field . . . only the foundations of the walls are left and the crumbling bricks of two old chimneys. . . . There is no more historic spot than that on which we stand this September day, and as yet it is all unmarked of commemorative stone or recording tablet. . . . I stoop and pluck from where it nods behind the old chimney  p229 a wild larkspur, and as I half mechanically count its forty‑two seed-pods, I try hard to throw back my thoughts to the year 1792 — one hundred and sixteenº years. It is a far call! Canada is tardy in her recognition of her early builders of Empire. Our cousins to the south would appear to be more appreciative.2 In song and story and by a memorial World's Fair the people of the United States have honoured the discoveries of Lewis and Clark, but Mackenzie crossed the continent a full dozen years in advance of these explorers.

"Our mind feels back across the centuries to little-known Montreal, where, amid the bales of peltries and the trading trinkets of the Fur Company, a hidden voice is speaking and a young man listens. That man is Alexander Mackenzie, a self-taught Scot, a Canadian bourgeois. In the noisy mid‑day clatter of the fort he hears the voice, in the waking hours of the dawn, and 'when evening shuts the deed off, calls the glory from the grey.' He cannot get away from that haunting challenge; he would not if he could. There are interminable changes rung on the everlasting whisper, but its burden is ever the same —

" 'Something lost behind the Ranges,

Lost and waiting for you, Go!"

"No more might it satisfy him to out‑do his competitors and carry back to Grand Portage canoes overflowing  p230 with furs. It was of a Western Sea that he had greatly dreamed among the bear-skins and beavers of Montreal, and to that ocean which split its waves 'somewhere' far beyond the snow crests of the Rockies he would go. . . . Mackenzie heard the beat of the surf upon the rocks, and came out from among the pines to the silver Pacific sparkling in the sun. It was a sweet day in summer's prime, and as the gulls cried overhead and the sun mixed scent of seaweed with balsam breath from inshore, we can imagine but not divine the feelings of that brave man who had thrown himself face downward on the sand, and from whose presence the awed companions stole silently away. We remember the words of another builder of Empire: —

" 'Anybody might have found it,

But God's whisper came to me.' "

A few months ago others endowed with the same reverential spirit gathered at the site of the old Forks Fort, and sought for some tangible evidence of its former existence. Overgrown with weeds, a little stone cairn, the remains of a fireplace and chimney, alone remained to indicate the spot, so nearly has all trace of the memorable starting-point of the great discoverer's dash for the Western Sea disappeared from the eyes of man.

The Author's Notes:

1 The height, ascertained by Lieutenant Palmer in 1863, was 3840 feet.

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2 In further illustration of the greater appreciation of their explorers shown by the people of the United States the following news item, culled from the Vancouver (B. C.) 'Daily Province' of December 13th, 1925, is quoted in full:

"Astoria, Ore., Dec. 12. — Plans for the erection of a 125‑foot monument to Captain Robert Gray, discoverer of the Columbia River, the explorers Lewis and Clark, and John Jacob Astor, founder of Astoria, were announced here by Ralph Budd, President of the Great Northern Railway. The monument, which will be in the form of a column based on a large pedestal, will be 12 feet in diameter, and will be crowned by an observation platform covered by a stone canopy, and it is estimated will cost in the neighbourhood of $75,000 or $100,000."

This monument was unveiled on 22nd July 1926.b

Thayer's Notes:

a Water will work fine as a remedy for fleas enjoying a short visit, as in this case; but the reader should not get the idea that it works at all for firmly entrenched resident fleas — as anyone knows who has ever bathed a dog. From personal experience in the remoter parts of North Africa, I can vouch for the remedy relied on by old Africa hands: ammonia. (No, alcohol doesn't work either.)

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b Detailed information on the monument is provided at the Friends of the Astoria Column website.

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Page updated: 1 Jan 17