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Chapter 4

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 6

 p95  Chapter V

In Winter Quarters on Peace River

When Mackenzie arrived at Fort Chipewyan it was to find its affairs had been well administered by his cousin, Roderick, who had during his absence been to headquarters at Grand Portage. He had not heard anything said there in commendation of Alexander's expedition down the great river. The majority of the partners thought it a waste of time and energy that could have been better expended in promoting trade along the beaten channels. In short, they considered he was not acting loyally by his associates in thus indulging a desire to penetrate a region whence they did not expect any profit to come. Mackenzie felt this condemnation of his journey as only a sensitive earnest man can when he knows in his own conscience that he is not blameworthy. Perhaps some of the antagonism shown towards his exploit had its foundation in sheer jealousy. This unfriendly attitude towards his achievement in no wise deterred Mackenzie, however, from indulging in dreaming of future conquests of a similar character. There was also in his mind that western river of whose existence he had learned from the natives far down the Mackenzie. Something was known at that time of the exploits of Captain James Cook and of the Spaniards, but Captain Gray had not yet poked his inquisitive nose into the Columbia River; and of the streams that flowed into the Pacific Ocean, few had been discovered, and of those  p96 few, little was known. Subconsciously Mackenzie was determined to search for that western river that would take him to the western sea.

In the spring of 1790 Alexander Mackenzie attended the gathering of partners at Grand Portage. Simon M'Tavish, sarcastically nicknamed "Le Marquis" and "Le Premier" by the traders because of his haughty dominating manner, complained of the insufficient number of furs sent down from the Athabasca district, thereby indulging in a fling at Mackenzie. No love was lost between the two men, and as time passed the antagonism became more pronounced, to end in open rupture in later years. Mackenzie did not stand alone in the feeling of antipathy towards M'Tavish, and he soon discovered that in that regard he was not lacking in support. He received no encouragement to prosecute further explorations, and his associates sought to cool his ardour and to gratify their envy by practically ignoring his voyage to the Arctic Ocean. Writing from Grand Portage on July 16th, 1790, to Roderick at Athabasca, he said: "My expedition was hardly spoken of, but that is what I expected." It seems difficult to comprehend such insufferable indifference to an exploit of such magnitude, but who can fathom the hidden workings of the human mind when jealousy and envy rule it!

Returning to Fort Chipewyan, he sent Roderick to Great Slave Lake. His own journey thither had convinced him of several things. One was the advisability of instituting some sort of tribal government under a ruling chief, the object of this being to organise that people under his nominee with a view to securing the whole of their catch of furs. He did not approve of the site selected by Le Roux on the northern arm of the lake, giving a preference for another on Mackenzie River, below the outlet of Great Slave Lake, at the mouth of Yellow Knife River. This fort was established in accordance with a promise he had given to the Yellow Knives  p97 the previous year. Writing to Roderick Mackenzie on March 22nd, 1791, he said: "I hope you will make all possible enquiry regarding the country of the Beaver Indians as well as of the country of the Slaves, and more particularly regarding a great river which is reported to run parallel with and falls into the sea westward of the River in which I voyaged, and commit such information to paper." He still harboured the intention of one day setting out to find that river, even as Kim's old lama had always in mind the river he sought so diligently.​a Meanwhile he exerted himself to place his district on a sound business basis, and directed his energies to increase the sale of furs despatched to Lac la Pluie, for his own pecuniary recompense depended upon the revenue of the company, and the higher the returns the greater his share of the profits, and already he thought of the day when he would be able to withdraw from active service and enjoy the fruits of his industry.

A prophet hath no honour in his own country, it is said. Nor had Mackenzie received any honour in his own company for his long journey of discovery. What his associates failed to do, his rivals in trade acknowledged and determined to improve upon. The Hudson's Bay Company decided to emulate the example set by Mackenzie, and explore on their own account. All that was known of the Far West at that time was derived from the reports of Peter Pond and from the map he had prepared of the country. It was a map full of gross errors, but as it was the only map in existence showing the western region, it was accepted as reasonably accurate. So far from being so, it was misleading. It showed the distance between Hudson's Bay and Lake Athabasca as much greater than it is, and, with Captain Cook's observations giving the position of the north-west coast of the Pacific, and the position of Hudson's Bay being already known, the result was an impression that the distance between Lake Athabasca and the Pacific was  p98 very short, less than two hundred miles. The Hudson's Bay Company determined to forestall any attempt on the part of Mackenzie or any other Nor'‑Wester to traverse the intervening space, and thus open up to their own trade the unknown western country. To this end they sent out from England Philip Turner to conduct the expedition to the Pacific. (Note D.) In this undertaking the Hudson's Bay Company had the endorsation of the British Government, then feeling some faint desire to acquire information respecting the boundaries of their possessions in North America. The mode of travel, the mode of living, and everything connected with such an expedition as Turner was deputed to undertake, were new to him. He experienced difficulty at every step, and when he reached Fort Chipewyan in 1791 he no doubt rejoiced to find that the observations he took there precluded the necessity of his proceeding farther for the purpose of settling the question of its geographical position. Alexander Mackenzie was on his way east when he heard of this expedition, and he promptly wrote to Roderick Mackenzie at Fort Chipewyan, bidding him to extend hospitality to the members of the expedition. Later he fell in with Turner in person, and again writing to his cousin he informed him that "I find the intention of the expedition is discoveries only. I also find the party ill‑prepared for the undertaking." He had nothing to fear in that quarter. None knew better than he the need for preparedness. He knew some, at least, of his own shortcomings in that respect, and wished to remedy them.

Mackenzie had felt, while on the journey down the Mackenzie River and the return voyage, his lack of astronomical knowledge, and the want of reliable instruments for taking observations. He realised the importance of being able to state in precise terms the geographical position of any point he might visit. He had been hampered on his northern expedition because of his inability  p99 to make his records come up to the standard he desired them to possess, and he determined to so prepare himself for his next excursion that there would be no further grounds for reproach on that score. Not that he had altogether failed in ascertaining his position with fair accuracy. It would be better to say, perhaps, that, considering his lack of proper training, he had made his observations with remarkable ability. Nevertheless he was not content with his performance.

It was while journeying towards Grand Portage that he fell in with Turner. Continuing to the portage, after a short sojourn there he pushed on to Montreal. Writing to Roderick from Fort Vauligny on August 10th, 1791, he told his cousin that "I have some idea of crossing the ocean, but this I cannot determine at present. However, it is my determination, if I live and be in health, to meet you next spring at Lac la Pluie. Though my absence may be short, I can assure you that I leave my friends in this country with much pain."

It is not difficult to glean from those words that he had fully made up his mind to go to England unless some unforeseen circumstance forbade it. A man of his disposition does not lightly relinquish an idea once it has become fixed in his mind. He received no encouragement from his business associates. Doubtless they threw cold water upon his proposal to cross the ocean for the purpose he had in view. They were more concerned in making money through the medium of furs than interested in accuracy of observations to ascertain latitude and longitude. In spite of everything, Mackenzie made the voyage across the Atlantic. Sinking his natural pride, laying aside for the time being his rôle of leader, he became a learner, a pupil, and set himself the task of acquiring the knowledge in which he was at his own valuation deficient. Applying his energies to learn a sufficient amount of astronomy and mathematics, he soon absorbed all that was requisite. He purchased  p100 instruments, and practised their use until he became proficient in handling them. Then, when he had done this to his own satisfaction, in the spring of 1792 he took ship bound for Montreal, and hastened back to his post at Fort Chipewyan.

During the winter of 1791‑92, perhaps before he sailed for England, he had sent word to Roderick at Lake Athabasca to despatch men up the Peace River to cut and prepare timber for the erection there of a house in which Mackenzie intended to spend the following winter, his intention being to make that the base from which he would set out on his next exploration, for he had never for one moment abandoned the hope of searching for and finding that great river west of the Rocky Mountains. All that summer of 1792 at Fort Chipewyan he made his preparations, but never neglecting the business of the trader and bourgeois. Early in October everything was ready, and on the 10th he bade Roderick Mackenzie good‑bye, and left the fort for the Peace River. In the modest language in which his journals are couched, he refers to his departure and purpose in the following characteristic sentences: "Having made every necessary preparation, I left Fort Chipewyan to proceed up the Peace River. I had resolved to go as far as our most distant settlement, which would occupy the remaining part of the season, it being the route by which I proposed to attempt my next discovery, across the mountains from the source of that river; for whatever distance I could reach this fall would be a proportionate advancement of my voyage."

He took with him, in addition to his own canoe, two canoes laden with supplies, and an unstated number of men. Several days in advance of this party, James Finlay the younger had departed from Fort Chipewyan with men and goods for the new establishment, which had been placed under his care and was situated farther up the Peace River than the old establishment to  p101 which Mackenzie had despatched Boyer four years before.

Entering Peace River by one of its several outlets, which he names Pine River, and which others call Quatre Fourches River, on October 12th, 1792, the ascent of that stream was begun. Between Embarras River, one of the mouths of the Athabasca River emptying into Athabasca Lake, and the northerly mouth of the Peace where it flows into Peace River, lies an extensive delta, including Lake Claire (Clear Water Lake) and Lake Mamawaº (Mackenzie's Lake Vassieu) and the marshes bordering thereon, and all that part of the Peace River valley below Peace Point. The delta is composed of alluvial soil washed down by the rivers into Lake Athabasca, which at that westerly end has been thus silted up. The river, or more correctly rivers, known as the Quatre Fourches, the Four Forks or Branches, comprise one discharging from Lake Claire into Lake Athabasca, one from Lake Athabasca to Slave River, one from Peace River into Slave River, and the fourth, between Athabasca Lake and Peace River, either discharging into Peace River from the lake, or, in the spring, flowing from Peace River into the lake. It was presumably up the latter that Mackenzie ascended to reach Peace River.

[image ALT: A schematic map of a tangle of two large lakes (Lake Athabasca and Lake Claire), one very small one (Lake Mammawa), and at least five rivers of varying sizes (the Slave, the Peace, the Athabasca, the Quatre Fourches, the Embarras). These watercourses are in north central Canada.]

Junction of Athabasca, Peace, and Slave Rivers.

On the 13th he reached Peace Point, where the Beaver Indians were wont to hold peace parleys with their enemies, and from which circumstance the river derives its name. Passing Boulder Rapids, or Rapid Bouillé, without finding it worthy of mention, Mackenzie reached the Chutes, two miles above Little Red River, the one obstacle in an otherwise navigable waterway for a distance of nine hundred miles from the mouth of Peace River to Rocky Mountain Portage. From the camp fires observed at the portage past the falls and rapids of the Chutes, Mackenzie concluded that the Finlay party could not be far in advance. That night it snowed.

Having made the portages, the first of eight hundred  p103 yards, and the second, a mile farther up‑stream, about five hundred yards, on the preceding afternoon, on the 18th the journey was resumed. Loon (Wabiskaw) River was passed before noon, and that night they camped at Grand Isle. Leaving there at three o'clock in the morning of the 19th, five hours' paddling against the current took them to "Old Establishment," established by Boyer in 1788. This site is near the present Fort Vermilion. "Our people ahead slept here last night, and from their carelessness," he writes, "the fire was communicated to and burned down the large house, and was proceeding fast to the smaller buildings when we arrived to extinguish it."

As the route up to that point, Old Establishment, had been surveyed by M. Vaudrieul, or Vaudreuil, formerly in the service of the North‑West Company, and who was at Fort Chipewyan in 1789, Mackenzie does not enlarge upon it in his notes. After putting out the fire and travelling a further thirty‑six miles, they came upon

"Mr Finlay with his canoes, who was encamped near the fort of which he was going to take charge during the ensuing winter, and made every necessary preparative for a becoming appearance on our arrival the following morning. Although I had been since 1787 in the Athabasca country, I had never yet seen a native of that part of it which we had now reached.

"At six o'clock in the morning of the 20th we landed before the house amidst the rejoi­cing and firing of the people, who were animated with the prospect of again indulging themselves in the luxury of rum, of which they had been deprived since the beginning of May, as it is the practice throughout the North‑West neither to sell or give any rum to the natives during the summer. . . . As they very soon expressed their desire of the expected regale, I called them together, to the number of forty‑two hunters, or men capable of bearing arms, to offer some advice, which would be equally advantageous  p104 to them and to us, and I strengthened my admonition with a nine-gallon cask of reduced rum and a quantity of tobacco. At the same time I observed that, as I should not often visit them, I had instanced a greater degree of liberality than they had been accustomed to."

And yet they say the Scots have no sense of humour!

The nights were so cold, and ice formed on the river to such an extent and thickness, that his men began to fear they might not be able to continue the journey, and Mackenzie realised that he could not afford to tarry by the wayside. Accordingly he sent the laden canoes on ahead, and on the 23rd, two days later, he followed. Arriving at the junction of the Smoky River and the Peace, they continued along the latter for six miles, and landed on November 1st at the place which had been selected for the site of their winter quarters, the men being thoroughly exhausted by their exertions in forcing a passage through the fast-forming ice. "Nor," says Mackenzie in his journal, "were their labours at an end, for there was not a single hut to receive us. It was, however, now in my power to feed and sustain them in a more comfortable manner."

[image ALT: A photograph of an irregular expanse of water with one forested island and what appears to be a sandbar. It is in fact the junction of the Peace and Smoky Rivers in north central Canada.]

Junction of Peace and Smoky Rivers.

The two men who had been sent there in the early part of the season were on hand with about seventy Indians to receive the travellers, which they did with repeated volleys and manifestations of joy. No sooner was his tent pitched than Mackenzie proceeded to lecture the natives, after he had first taken the precaution to give each of them "about four inches of Brazil tobacco, a dram of spirits, and lighted the pipe." He told them he would treat them with kindness if they behaved themselves, but, as he had heard how troublesome they had been to his predecessor, he would deal severely with them if they failed of their duty to him. A gift of rum and more tobacco, as a token of peace, ended the ceremony.

Mackenzie found that the men despatched for the purpose had prepared all the timber for the house, and the  p105 palisades for the stockade, eighteen feet long and seven inches in diameter, to enclose a square of a hundred and twenty feet. Occupied in settling matters with the Indians, fitting them out for the winter hunt, it was not until November 7th that Mackenzie could devote time to house-building. On that date he set all hands to work on the house, store-houses, and stockade.

On the 22nd the Peace River froze over, the Smoky having already been frozen about a week, and on the 28th the temperature dropped to sixteen degrees below zero. The house-building proceeded daily despite the severity of the weather, and on December 23rd Mackenzie left his tent and took up his abode in the house. He then set the men at building their own quarters, materials for five cabins, seventeen by twelve feet, being already collected. Mackenzie found the Indians wholly lacking in the knowledge of the medicinal properties of the plant life with which they were surrounded, and he reports how he was called upon to assume the rôle of physician and surgeon. One of his patients was a native woman with an inflamed breast, which had been treated by lacerating it with flints. Mackenzie effected a cure by cleanliness, poulti­cing, and the application of a healing salve. One of his men injured a thumb, lymphangitis followed, and septicaemia threatened. Mackenzie saved his life by a timely letting of blood. Still another case he successfully managed was that of a young Indian whose hand had been injured by the bursting of a gun. The wound was in an offensive state from neglect, and part of it was sloughing. Mackenzie cleansed it and applied a poultice of spruce bark. He wished to cut away the thumb, which was hanging by a thread of flesh, but the patient would not consent, and Mackenzie applied "vitriol" (probably blue stone, sulphate of copper) to it until it shrivelled to a thread, and was easily got rid of. The application of a salve made of Canada balsam, wax, and tallow dropped from a burning candle into  p106 water, healed the sore, much to the delight of the young warrior.

New Year's Day, 1793, was ushered in at this remote post in conformity with the usual custom of the traders. Mackenzie was aroused from sleep by the discharge of firearms at daybreak, and the customary expressions of goodwill were exchanged. In return they were treated with plenty of spirits and cakes, as so many of the traders were Scots; but little attention was paid to Christmas Day at the various trading posts, in conformity with the rule that obtains in Scotland, where it is not uncommon to find business carried on, on the festival of the Nativity, much the same as on any other day, while on New Year's Day a general holiday prevails, and the occasion is one of rejoi­cing. Mackenzie makes no mention of Christmas whatever, but does not neglect the first day of January.

Among those who were gathered about the new fort were two "Rocky Mountain Indians," who informed Mackenzie that "that part of the river that intervenes between this place and the mountains bear much the same appearance as that around us . . . but that the course of the latter (the river) is interrupted, near and in the mountains, by successive rapids and considerable falls," and this information the explorer found in due course to be absolutely correct. "These men also informed me that there is another great river towards the mid‑day sun, whose current runs in that direction, and that the distance from it is not great across the mountains." From these men, therefore, Mackenzie received the first inkling of the existence of the Fraser River.

The weather, which had been quite bearable until then, became extremely cold with the advent of February — so cold was it on the night of the 2nd of that month that Mackenzie's watch stopped, "a circumstance which had never happened to this watch since my residence in the country." The cold continued unabated until March 16th, when a Chinook wind brought with it milder weather,  p107 and on April 1st the hunters shot five wild geese. By the 5th the snow had entirely disappeared, and on the 20th the mosquitoes began to annoy. The river, however, was still ice‑bound, and Mr Mackay gathered a bouquet of pink flowers. On the 25th the river was free of ice.

During the winter an Indian, rejoi­cing in the name of White Partridge, was murdered by one of Mackenzie's native hunters; the cause confirmed the accuracy of the belief held in some quarters that to discover the reason for a crime of that sort, cherchez la femme. The murderer and his victim had been close friends for several years. The former had three wives, and White Partridge becoming enamoured of one of them, his friend very generously resigned her to him. After three years had gone by the husband suddenly became jealous, and the relations between the woman and White Partridge were publicly suspended, but the couple met clandestinely. The affair ended in the killing of White Partridge. The important phase of this occurrence was that for a time it threatened to wreck all Mackenzie's plans.

Now a sober Indian would feel degraded if he indulged in tears, but if drunk he may do so without any qualms of conscience. White Partridge's friends sent to Mackenzie for rum, upon which to attain that state of intoxication that would permit them to give proper expression to their grief for the deceased. Mackenzie promptly refused, whereupon they threatened to go to war. Had they done so, Mackenzie would have been deprived of assistance upon which he had relied, and the company would have been deprived of a number of hunters and trappers, and have suffered a diminution in the pack of furs from that quarter. There was nothing for Mackenzie to do, therefore, "from motives of interest as well as humanity," as he candidly stated, but to capitulate when a second deputation of "persons of some weight among those people" came to repeat the request. He stipulated, however, "that they would continue peaceably at home."

 p108  During the month of April, Mackenzie had been occupied in trading with the Indians, and, in preparation for his own western journey and the despatch of a part of his men to Fort Chipewyan with the furs he had purchased, he had caused the old canoes to be repaired and four new ones constructed. He had also engaged his hunters, and when all these matters had been satisfactorily set in train, he devoted himself to writing his business and private correspondence. On May 8th he sent six canoes, loaded with furs and carrying letters, to Chipewyan.

On January 10th, 1793, he sent a letter to Roderick, but whether he sent it then or deferred doing so until May is not clear. A portion of it has reference to his prospective voyage of discovery in the following terms: "I have not been able to obtain any certain information thus far respecting the country behind this. I was thinking that if Mackay should be spared, he would be of great service to me should I undertake the opening of a route by Lac des Carriboux; I would take Finlay, but he is of a weak constitution."

Now that he was despatching a brigade to Lake Athabasca, he again wrote to his cousin: —

"Forks Peace River,

8th May 1793.

"Dear Rory, — I have been so vexed and disturbed of late that I cannot sit down to anything steadily. The Indians in general have disappointed me in their hunt. I have had great trouble to procure young men to accompany me in my expedition; none of them like it. I at last prevailed on three. A fourth was desirous to go, but I would not take him, and, to be revenged, he induced my guide to run away, and both have disappeared last evening. The two remaining Indians know no more of the country than I do myself, and it may be that they are on the eve of following the example of the others, for no dependence can be put on the promise of any of these people. Without Indians I have little hopes of success.

"The guide who deserted me was acquainted with another  p109 large river to the westward of this, at the distance of two days' march, but the difficulty is to find that river out. At any rate, we are too far advanced in the undertaking not to make the attempt. . . . I never was so undecided in my intentions as this year regarding my going to the Portage or remaining inland. I weighed everything in my mind over and over again, and cannot find that my opponents there can do me any injury without running the risk of impairing their own interest; therefore I ought to fear nothing on that score. With this weight on my mind, and my desire to mix in the business at Grand Portage, I would not have remained inland had I any intention of continuing in the country beyond the ensuing winter.

"Should I be successful, I shall retire with great advantage; if not, I cannot be worse off than I am at present. I begin to think it is the height of folly in a man to reside in a country of this kind, deprived of every comfort that can render life agreeable, especially when he has a competency to enjoy life in a civilised society, which ought to be the case with me."

On the 9th, the day after the above was written, he wrote this significant sentence to Roderick: "I send you a couple of guineas; the rest I take with me to traffic with the Russians." It is apparent from this that Mackenzie expected to reach the Russian trading post which the Hare and Dog‑rib Indians had told him, in 1789, existed at the mouth of the great river of the west. It would appear, therefore, that Mackenzie's quest was for the river, which he believed to be Cook's River (in reality the Yukon), when he left the quarters near Smoky River on May 9th, 1793, the day after he had despatched the canoes laden with furs for Fort Chipewyan.

It was the custom of the fur‑traders to begin a journey towards the close rather than the beginning of the day, and it is probable that the laden canoes that set out on the 8th did not leave the post until late in the afternoon. They would descend the river for a few miles and then  p110 encamp, the object being to gradually separate themselves from the neighbourhood of their friends and associates; while apart from them, they were still within measurable distance and easy reach. Doubtless, Mackenzie sent his letter dated the 9th by special courier to overtake the homeward-bound party at their first camping-place, which would perhaps not be more than five or six miles distant.

Thayer's Note:

a An allusion to Rudyard Kipling's novel Kim.

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