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From the time that the hardy Norse navigators from Iceland, the Cabots, Columbus, Vespucius, Drake, Cartier, and Hudson from England, France, and Spain, descended upon the coasts of North America, down to the present era, this continent has attracted the attention of a continuous stream of explorers by both land and sea. Great as were the exploits of the early navigators, the hazardous enterprises of the dauntless adventurers who plunged into the unknown wilderness by land achieved that which was no less great.
In the roster of those explorers by land occur the names, among others, of Hennepin, Joliet, Marquette, La Salle, Verendrye, Radisson, Grosseillier, Hearne, Kelsey, Finlay, Simon Fraser, David Thompson, Alexander Mackenzie, Franklin, Richardson, Back, Dease, Thomas Simpson, Campbell, Tyrrell. The story of their achievements is a glorious chapter in the history of North America, and more especially of that broad domain extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from the international boundary line with the United States to the Polar regions, the Dominion of Canada.
The motives that actuated these men varied. Some p2 of the explorers, Hennepin, La Salle, Louis Joliet, Jacques Marquette, members of the Society of Jesus, sought to extend the benefits of Christianity to virgin fields. Their zeal in the cause of religion did not prevent them from observing the fertility of the country through which their travels led them, or from taking note of the natural resources of the land, of the character of its native population, of the vastness of its forests, the immensity of its plains, and the grandeur of its rivers. Others sought to reap a rich material reward by trading with the aborigines for furs, risking their lives in penetrating unknown regions where dwelt people of strange customs. Still others were moved by a desire to add to the prestige of their race by priority of discovery, and by adding to the constantly increasing fund of human knowledge.
To all these men, the mysteries of the unknown possessed an irresistible charm. The daily encountering and surmounting of difficulties, journeying under trying conditions that tested alike their endurance and courage, battling with the elements, with the strong currents of rapid, rock-strewn streams, overcoming the opposition of hostile natives, served but to whet their appetite for further adventure. In these enterprises the first in the field were the French, who, directing their ventures from the towns of New France, added laurels to the name of their homeland. After them came the British.
From the natives and other sources the early explorers heard of the existence of a great western sea, and in the minds of many of them, in the midst of their commercial avocation, there ever lurked a hope that their wanderings would conduct them to that goal of their dreams. One of them was Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de la Verendrye. Prior to his divulge, Du Luth, La Noue, and Charlevoix had been commissioned to learn what they could concerning possible overland routes to that western sea, the Pacific Ocean. Accompanied by his sons, Verendrye made his way far to the west, discovered p3 the Red River of the North, and established Fort Rouge at the mouth of the Assiniboine River — the site of the present city of Winnipeg. Pressing still farther west, he established Fort la Reine (Portage la Prairie), and, with that as his base, essayed to reach the Pacific. Obstacles interfered with the carrying out of his plans, but the work he had begun was continued by two of his sons, who reached the headwaters of the Missouri River in Wyoming, and gazed upon the barrier of the Rocky Mountains. Insurmountable difficulties necessitated the abandonment of their project, nor was the attempt renewed by them. It was left for another explorer, a young Scotsman, one Alexander Mackenzie, to accomplish that which they had failed to achieve, to scale the ramparts of the great mountain barriers and feast his eyes upon the waters of the mighty western sea.
Prior to the explorations of the Jesuit Fathers, La Salle, Marquette, Joliet, and Hennepin, and long before the Verendryes penetrated the unknown far west, the great inland sea, discovered in 1610 by Henry Hudson, the English sea captain, and named after him Hudson's Bay, was entered by several British navigators. One of these, Captain Gillam, entered that bay in 1668, with a pioneer expedition to engage in fur‑trading on behalf of Prince Rupert and a number of influential Londoners. Between the date of Hudson's discovery of the bay that bears his name, and the trading expedition under Gillam, Captain Button (afterwards knighted), Captain Luke Foxe of London, and Thomas James of Bristol visited it. Captain Button wintered at the mouth of the Nelson River and named it Port Nelson, and there subsequently the Hudson's Bay Company established York Factory.
Out of Gillam's expedition arose that company of adventurers of England, trading into Hudson's Bay, known as the Hudson's Bay Company, which obtained p4 a Royal Charter from King Charles the Second in 1670, and acting on that authority, established trading posts at various points along the shores of Hudson's Bay. Administrative powers were vested in a local Governor whose authority was paramount. One, Governor Sargeant, was urged in letters he received from the Governor and Council in England to send men into the interior "to draw down the Indians by fair and gentle means to trade with us." Little was done to further these ends, or in the way of western exploration, during the earlier years of their occupancy of the country, such activities being restricted, in the main, to localities more or less tributary to the bay. It appeared, indeed, to be the general policy of those in charge of the trading posts to cling closely to them.
This policy of masterly passivity was first broken by a mere youth of barely eighteen years of age, who volunteered to journey to Churchill River and fix upon a site for a new fort. One report of this expedition of Henry Kelsey states that in 1688 Governor George Geyer was instructed to send him, "because we are informed that he is a very active lad, delighting much in the Indians' company, and being never better pleased than when he is travelling amongst them." Two years later Kelsey undertook a journey in the country of the Assiniboine, and in 1691 he is credited with having accompanied the Indians on a journey which he estimated at •four hundred miles or more, penetrating as far as the haunts of the buffalo and the grizzly bear. On those journeys he took possession of the country in the name of the Hudson's Bay Company with all the assurance of the period, and at the same time managed to secure the goodwill and trade of the natives, one of whose women he married after the fashion of the country, and took her back to York Factory with him. With these expeditions the activities of the Company in the way of exploration seem to have become exhausted for the time p5 being. There is no record of any other officer or employee of the Company engaging in similar journeyings until many years later. Such of the Indians that wished to obtain the white man's goods in exchange for furs, took them to the forts to trade, and the traders appear to have rested content with that arrangement. It saved them trouble and the Company expense. But such conditions could not long continue unchallenged.
The Hudson's Bay Company were not the only ones engaged in the fur trade. The French had engaged in it in New France for many years, and gradually the French traders extended their field of operations. Forcing their way up torrential streams and through dense forests, traversing in frail craft the wind-swept inland seas, they penetrated the wilderness towards the setting sun. First they made their way to the shores of the Great Lakes, but their eagerness led them still farther afield; there was always a still unknown west to be explored and exploited, inviting, alluring. Gradually the mysterious unknown was opened to the gaze of the intrepid adventurous spirits who lifted the veil, and where none but the natives and wild animals had trod, the feet of white men wandered. Far beyond the Great Lakes lay the vast territory Kelsey had visited, and which remained a terra incognita to the white trader until the Verendryes, in 1713, aflame with the fire of zeal in the cause of exploration, established Fort St Charles on the west shore of the Lake of the Woods as a base for their future operations.
In 1756 the French had a chain of forts extending from Montreal far to the west. Their activities were ubiquitous. St Denis, Bourgmont,a Dutisne, the Mallets, Le Gardeur de St Pierre, De la Corne, and others had explored the western country. Trading posts were found at Presqu'ile, Le Boeuf, Venango, and Du Quesne, commanding the navigation of the Ohio River. They had posts on the Illinois, Wabash, St Joseph's, and Wisconsin p6 Rivers. French settlements existed at New Orleans and other points on the Mississippi. Posts had been established at several places on the Red River, as well as on the Arkansas, Kansas, and Osage Rivers; at Prairie du Chien and Lake Pepin in Wisconsin. Bougainville, writing two years before the British conquest of Canada, said: "The Post of the Western Sea is the most advanced towards the north; it is situated among many Indian tribes with whom we trade, and who have intercourse with the English towards Hudson Bay. We have there several forts built of stockades, trusted generally to the care of one or two officers, seven or eight soldiers, and eighty engagés Canadiens. We can push farther the discoveries we have made in that country, and communicate even with California. The Post of the Mer de l'Ouest includes the forts of St Pierre, St Charles, Dauphin, Poskoiac, and Des Prairies (De la Jonquière), all of which are built with palisades that can give protection only against the Indians."
The French traders made great inroads in the trade of the Hudson's Bay Company. The Indians found it more convenient to have the goods they desired brought almost to their doors, instead of carrying their furs many hundreds of miles to the Company's forts. To counteract this, the Company despatched Anthony Hendry in 1754 to the Saskatchewan district, his mission being to endeavour to divert the trade in furs from the French traders to the Hudson's Bay Company. He visited the French post established by De la Corne, and, pushing farther on, wintered among the Blackfeet. Hendry formed a very high opinion of the French traders, who had succeeded in obtaining a marked influence over the natives, and who had acquired several tribal languages.
After the cession of New France to England in 1763, the fur trade suffered a period of comparative inactivity on the part of the independent traders, to the corresponding advantage of the Hudson's Bay Company, to whom p7 the Indians were then obliged to have recourse in order to satisfy the wants and habits acquired from their intercourse with the whites. It was not for several years that mercantile adventurers again essayed to operate. There were many discouraging influences that tended to retard an early resumption of activity — the extreme length of the journey necessary to reach the confines of the territory where trading could be engaged in advantageously, the great expense attendant upon the long and tedious transportation of supplies, and the risk of attacks by hostile Indians adversely influenced against the English by the French, being predominant among them. In 1766 a resumption of the trade was attempted. Those who engaged in the venture, however, remained satisfied to go the length of the Kaministiquia River, •about thirty miles eastward of La Grandeº Portage, where the French had established an important post at the head of Lake Superior.
Encouraged by the success of the venture, increased numbers essayed the hazard. One of these was a Thomas Curry, who was so imbued with the spirit of daring and adventure that he determined to extend his journey to the farthest limit of French penetration to the west. With guides and interpreters he set out in 1770, and in due season reached Fort Bourbon, one of the French posts, at the west end of Cedar Lake on the Saskatchewan River, and almost directly north of Lake Winnipegosis, securing so many furs that the proceeds amounted to a satisfactory competence.
James Finlay was another trader who made the Saskatchewan his field of operations. Burpee suggests that he and Curry were together, but whether they travelled in company or not they were undoubtedly among the first traders to enter that region. Finlay is said to have been on the Saskatchewan in 1767. In 1771 he ascended the river and reached Nipawee, or Fort Lacorne, the same post of De la Corne visited by the Hudson's Bay p8 Company officer, Hendry, in 1754‑55. He, too, was successful in his operations, and returned to Montreal greatly enriched.
Governor Norton of Fort Prince of Wales, at the mouth of Churchill River on Hudson's Bay, despatched Samuel Hearne in 1769 to discover a river where copper abounded, to discover whether a north-west passage existed from Hudson's Bay to the western sea, and to establish amicable relations with the natives encountered on his explorations. Twice his expedition had to return to the fort, but the third attempt was crowned with success. Leaving Fort Prince of Wales on 7th December 1770 with sleds and dogs, Hearne set forth over the snow in the depths of a hyperborean winter on his hazardous quest, discovered Coppermine River, which he followed to its mouth, emptying into the Arctic Ocean, in June 1771, and began his return journey the following month. Before leaving the Coppermine, he erected a cairn and took possession of the country for the Company. Extending his travels to Athabasca Lake, he did not return to Fort Prince of Wales until 30th June 1772.
At this date began that intense rivalry between the Hudson's Bay Company and the independent traders that culminated in the ultimate amalgamation of the opposing interests, but not until much blood had been needlessly shed. Among those who took part in the fur trade were a number of merchants from Montreal. Two of these, Thomas and Joseph Frobisher, brothers, determined to secure for themselves some of the trade that had for years steadily flowed to the Hudson's Bay posts, by intercepting the Indians en route. To this end they built a trading post on Sturgeon Lake (near the former Fort Poskoiac) on the Saskatchewan River. The site was admirably suited to the purpose in view. Near it must pass all the current of traffic from the interior intended to reach Fort Prince of Wales by way of Churchill River, or by the Nelson River to York p9 Factory. This bold stroke of strategy did not long escape the notice of the Hudson's Bay Company. A counter-stroke was decided upon, and Samuel Hearne was the man selected to put it into effect. Two years after the Frobishers established their fort on Sturgeon Lake, Hearne built a rival establishment on Pine Island Lake, the western arm of Sturgeon Lake, within a few hundred yards of his competitors.
Little did these opposing interests dream what fateful events hung upon the strenuous competition thus set afoot. The struggle then begun endured for half a century, stirring the worst passions of hundreds of men, putting in motion uncontrollable powers of evil, setting men of the same race at each other's throats. But it did more than that. It drove the independent traders to seek mutual protection, in co‑operating for the common interest and benefit, against a common and powerful competitor. A number of these traders pooled their interests and became more aggressive. The Frobishers, Alexander Henry, Cadot, and Pond met at Sturgeon Lake and decided upon a plan of campaign. Cadot went up the Saskatchewan, Pond proceeded to Isle à la Crosse and the Athabasca district, and the Frobishers and Henry, with a large supply of goods, hurried to Churchill River to intercept the northern Indians, and to divert their trade from the Hudson's Bay posts.
The first experiment in co‑operation proved satisfactory, the outcome indicating a means whereby the independent traders might carry on their business at less expense and greater profit. There had hitherto been not only extremely keen rivalry between them, but in some instances rascality of the most depraved kind was practised. Each trader strove to get the advantage of his competitors, and the means adopted too often being far from irreproachable, the effect upon the Indians was far from salutary. The traders quickly realised the benefits to be obtained from concerted p10 action, and out of the initial experiences was evolved that greatest of all fur‑trading enterprises, the North‑West Company, an organisation whose energy, initiative, and progressive policy far transcended anything attempted by the older and more conservative Hudson's Bay Company. It came into existence at Montreal in the winter of 1783‑84, the management of its affairs being entrusted to Benjamin and Joseph Frobisher and Simon M'Tavish.
The North‑West Company, an association of business men bonded together to carry on the fur trade, unconnected with any of the other ventures in which they might be interested individually, consisted of twenty shares divided unequally among the several partners or associates, who were divided into two classes: those who remained in Montreal and managed the business of the company and were styled agents; and proprietors, or wintering partners, who wintered among the Indians and were concerned, along with their assistants, in the actual trading for the furs. The agents provided the capital, or credit, for the purchase in England of the goods required for the business, stored them at their own expense in Montreal until they were shipped to Grand Portage, whence they were distributed to the various posts under the control of the wintering partners. The agents saw to the packing and despatch of the goods, and paid all incidental charges in that connection. Those who from long service and influence held double shares could retire from the concern whenever they pleased, retain one share and nominate some subordinate in the service to receive the other, although seniority and merit were generally given prior consideration. The subordinates, clerks, engaged for five or seven years, and their hope in life was to attain the rank of partner and participate in the profits. Only those in the service could become partners, except with the consent of the other partners. This fair-dealing with the young men p11 who entered the service of the company created a spirit of emulation that made for the welfare of the company and all in it, and offered a substantial reward for faithful service.
In 1768 the capital involved represented a sum forty thousand pounds, but by 1799 it had increased to more than three times that amount, yielding handsome profits which exceeded those of any other enterprise in America.
With the exception of alcoholic liquors and provisions, all the goods obtained for this trade were purchased in England, and thus directly encouraged British industries. The money so invested did not bring any direct return for four years after the order was sent in. For example, an order sent to England from Montreal in 1796 saw the goods delivered in 1797. Repacked and forwarded by canoe, they were not in the hands of the traders in the Indian country until 1798, to be exchanged for furs that winter. The furs so obtained reached Montreal in 1799, were sent to London, where they were sold and paid for in 1800.
As affording an idea of the activities of this vigorous company of traders, in 1798 the number of furs obtained in trade included 116,000 beaver skins, 32,000 marten, 17,000 musquash, 6000 lynx, 4600 otter, 4000 kitt fox, 3800 wolf, 2700 deer, 2100 bear, and over 3000 furs of other animals. Part of these were sent through the United States to Canton, a leading fur market at that period, the others being forwarded to England. The reason given for forwarding that portion of the season's production viâ the United States is accounted for by Mackenzie as owing to the difficulty of getting home the produce procured in return for the furs from China in the East India Company's ships, together with duty payable, and the various restrictions of that company, whereas "from America there are no impediments; they get immediately to market, and the produce of them p12 is brought back, and perhaps sold in the course of twelve months. From such advantages the furs of Canada will, no doubt, find their way to China by America, which would not be the case if British subjects had the same privileges that are allowed to foreigners, as London would then be found the best and safest market."
The North‑West Company employed a large number of men — 120 clerks and interpreters, 1120 canoe‑men, and 35 guides. Three hundred and fifty canoe‑men, 5 clerks, and 18 guides were engaged during the summer in conveying goods between Montreal and Grand Portage, and to them the term Porkeaters, or Goers and Comers, was applied. Leaving Lachine in May, the fleet of canoes, heavily laden so that only •six inches of freeboard showed above the water, ascended the Ottawa River, and by following an intricate course through diverse waterways, the making of several portages, reached Lake Huron. Passing the island of St Joseph and the Sault Ste. Marie, Lake Superior was entered, and near the head of the lake, on a pleasant bay, they arrived at their destination, Grand Portage, where stood the establishment or fort of the company. "The bottom of the bay," writes Mackenzie, "which forms an amphitheatre, is cleared of wood and inclosed, and on the left corner of it, beneath an hill •three or four hundred feet in height, and crowned by others of a still greater altitude, is the fort, picketed in with cedar pallisadoes,º and inclosing houses built with wood and covered with shingles. They are calculated for every convenience of trade, as well as to accommodate the proprietors and clerks during their short residence there." Few traces of the fort now remain.
The portage itself, a fairly well-made road, wide enough for the passage of sleighs drawn by horse or oxen in the winter season when the soft marshy ground was frozen hard, was •some ten miles in length to avoid the falls on Pigeon River. At other seasons the packages of goods had to be carried over the portage by the men.
p13 From the west and north came the "Northmen," clerks, traders, and canoe‑men, with furs from the distant posts. The men upon arrival were regaled with food and drink and tobacco. In 1783 five hundred men might be found there at one time. A decade later sometimes as many as twelve hundred would be assembled there, and as drinking was a habit indulged in by many of them, and usually attended with much singing and dancing and occasionally fighting, the fort presented a lively scene.
"The mode of living at the Grand Portage is as follows," writes Mackenzie. "The properties, clerks, guides, and interpreters mess together to the number sometimes of an hundred, at several tables in one large hall, the provision consisting of bread, salt pork, beef, hams, fish and venison, butter peas, Indian corn, potatoes, tea, spirits, wine, &c., and plenty of milk, for which purpose several milch cows were constantly kept. The mechanics have rations of such provision, but the canoe‑men, both from the North and from Montreal, have no other allowance here or on the voyage than Indian corn and melted fat." The latter preparation was hominy boiled, and to which melted fat was added, the dish resembling a thick pudding.
At a later date, when the North‑West Company moved their great distributing centre to Kaministiquia, naming it Fort William (after William M'Gillivray, one of the principal shareholders or partners), a considerable village grew up alongside the post. There, as at Grand Portage, the annual meeting of partners was held, the wintering partners coming in from the outlying districts, as far away as Fort Chipewyan, and two or three of the "agents" journeying from Montreal, with all its comforts, for the purpose. The business of the past year was discussed, and plans laid for the coming season.
"Here, in an immense wooden building, was the great council hall, as also the banqueting chamber, decorated with Indian p14 arms and accoutrements and the trophies of the fur trade," says Washington Irving in 'Astoria.' "The house swarmed at this time with traders and voyageurs, some from Montreal bound to the interior posts, some from the interior posts bound to Montreal. The councils were held in great state, for every member felt as if sitting in parliament, and every retainer and dependant looked up to the assemblage with awe, as to the house of lords. There was a vast deal of solemn deliberation and hard Scottish reasoning, with an occasional swell of pompous declamation.
"These grave and weighty councils were alternated by huge feasts and revels, like some of the feasts described in Highland castles. The tables in the great banqueting-room groaned under the weight of game of all kinds; of venison from the woods, and fish from the lakes, with hunters' delicacies such as buffaloes' tongues and beavers' tails; and various luxuries from Montreal, all served up by experienced cooks brought for the purpose. There was no stint of generous wine, for it was a hard-drinking period, a time of loyal toasts, of bacchanalian songs, and brimming bumpers.
"While the chiefs thus revelled in hall, and made the rafters resound with bursts of loyalty and old Scottish songs, chanted in voices cracked and sharpened by the northern blast, their merriment was echoed and prolonged by a mongrel legion of retainers, Canadian voyageurs, half-breeds, Indian hunters, and vagabond hangers‑on, who feasted sumptuously without on the crumbs that fell from their tables, and made the welkin ring with old French ditties, mingled with Indian yelps and yellings.
"Such was the North‑West Company in its powerful and prosperous days, when it held a kind of feudal sway over a vast domain of lake and forest."
Of lesser literary fame another writer, one of the clerks and traders of the company, Ross Cox, gives a no less p15 spirited, if not so flamboyant, picture of Fort William as it was in his day.
"Fort William may therefore be looked upon as the metropolitan post of the interior, and its fashionable season generally continues from the end of May to the latter end of August. During this period good living and festivity predominate, and the luxuries of the dinner-table compensate in some degree for the long fasts and short commons experienced by those who are stationed in the remote posts. The voyageurs too enjoy their carnival, and between rum and baubles the hard-earned wages of years are often dissipated in a few weeks.
"The dining-hall is a noble apartment, and sufficiently capacious to entertain two hundred. A finely executed bust of the late Simon M'Tavish is placed in it, with portraits of various proprietors. A full-length likeness of Nelson, together with a splendid painting of the battle of the Nile, also decorated the walls, and were presented by the Honourable William M'Gillivray to the Company. At the upper end of the hall there is a very large map of the Indian country, drawn with great accuracy by Mr David Thompson, astronomer to the company, and comprising all their trading posts from Hudson's Bay to Athabasca and Great Slave Lake.
"The buildings at Fort William consist of a large house in which the dining-hall is situated, and in which the gentleman in charge resides; the council house; a range of snug buildings for the Doctor's residence; extensive stores for the merchandise and furs; a forge; various workshops, with apartments for the mechanics, a number of whom are always stationed here. There is also a prison for refractory voyageurs. The whole is surrounded by wooden fortifications, flanked by bastions, and is sufficiently strong to withstand any attack from the natives. Outside the fort is a shipyard, in which the Company's vessels on the lake are built and repaired. The kitchen-garden is well stocked, p16 and there are extensive fields of Indian corn and potatoes. There are also several head of cattle, with sheep, hogs, poultry, &c., and a few horses for domestic use."
Such, then, constituted the headquarters of the great company of Canadian fur‑traders, and such the nature of their organisation, beginning first with the Grand Portage establishment, which possessed all the features of that subsequently built at Kaministiquia, and in its most prosperous days the scene of many stirring incidents. It is essential to describe at some length these particulars concerning this Company and its affairs, because with them Alexander Mackenzie had a great deal to do, and without having some knowledge of the vast resources of the North‑West Company, and of its almost perfect organisation that enabled its business to proceed with clockwork precision, it would be impossible to comprehend the vastness of the task that confronted him when he came to enter into direct competition with it.
a Here is the source of this paragraph, on p32 of The North West Company by Gordon Charles Davidson (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1918), a work listed by Wade in his bibliography. It will be noted that the paraphrase is betrayed by the same typographical errors in Davidson — my italics — although to be fair, our author has added one of his own, and by omitting a comma has in addition unwittingly conflated Saint‑Denis and Bourgmont (properly: Etienne de Véniard, sieur de Bourgmont):
The North West traders were by no means the first to penetrate the secrets of the western wilderness. The French in 1756 held a chain of posts from Montreal to the foot of the Rockies. The posts of Presqu'ile, Le Boeuf, Venango, and Du Quesne commanded the navigation of the Ohio. They had stations on the St. Josephs, Wisconsin, Wabash, and Illinois rivers which quite monopolised the trade of the surrounding country. Thriving settlements of long standing at Kaskasia,º New Orleans, and elsewhere on the Mississippi gave them control of that mighty river. In the Southwest they had posts at Natchitochesº, Cododachos, and Taovayas on the Red River, and on the Arkansas, Osage and Kansas. They had establishments at Prairie du Chien and Lake Pepin in Wisconsin. Pascoyac, on the upper Saskatchewan, was nine hundred leagues beyond Michilimackinac, and the journey thither usually occupied three months. The most western French post, La Jonquière, was still a hundred leagues beyond Pascoyac. St. Denis, La Harp,º Dutisne,º Bouremont, the Mallets, La Vérendrye and his sons, Le Gardeur de St. Pierre, and other adventurers had explored this western country.1
[followed by the same passage in Bougainville]
1 Cruikshank, Early Traders and Trade Routes in Canadian Institute, Transactions, III, 254.
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