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Voyages from Montreal Through the Continent of North America
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OCTOBER 10, 1792.
Having made every necessary preparation, I left Fort Chepewyan, 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.
In consequence of this design, I left the establishment of Fort Chepewyan, in charge of Mr. Roderic Mackenzie, accompanied by two canoes laden with the necessary articles for trade: we accordingly steered West for one of the branches that communicates with the Peace River, called the Pine River; at the entrance of which we waited for the other canoes, in order to take some supplies from them, as I had reason to apprehend they would not be able to keep up with us. We entered the Peace River at seven in the morning of the 12th, taking a Westerly course. It is evident, that all the land between it and the Lake of the Hills, as far as the Elk River, is formed by the quantity of earth and mud, which is carried down by the streams of those two great rivers. In this space there are several lakes. The Lake Clear Water, which is the deepest, Lake Vassieu, and the Athabasca Lake, which is the largest of the three, and whose denomination in the Kneisteneaux language implies, a flat, low, swampy country, subject to inundations. The two last lakes are now so shallow, that from the cause just mentioned, there is every reason to expect, that in a few years they will have exchanged their character, and become extensive forests.
This country is so level, that, at some seasons, it is entirely overflowed, which accounts for the periodical influx and reflux of the waters between the Lake of the Hills and the Peace River.
On the 13th at noon we came to the Peace Point; from which, according to the report of my interpreter, the river derives its name; it was the spot where the Knisteneaux and Beaver Indians settled their dispute; the real name of the river and point being that of the land which was the object of contention.
When this country was formerly invaded by the Knisteneaux, they found the Beaver Indians inhabiting the land about Portage la Roche; and the adjoining tribe were those whom they called slaves. They drove both these tribes before them; when the latter proceeded down the river frog the Lake of the Hills, in consequence of which that part of it obtained the name of the Slave River. The former proceeded up the river; and when the Knisteneaux made peace with them, this place was settled to be the boundary.
We continued our voyage, and I did not find the current so strong in this river as I had been induced to believe, though this, perhaps, was not the period to form a correct notion of that circumstance, as well as of the breadth, the water being very low; so that the stream has not appeared to me to be in any part that I have seen, more than a quarter of a mile wide.
The weather was cold and raw, so as to render our progress unpleasant; at the same time we did not relax in our expedition, and, at three on the afternoon of the 17th we arrived at the falls. The river at this place is about four hundred yards broad, and the fall about twenty feet high: the first carrying place is eight hundred paces in length, and the last, which is about a mile onwards, is something more than two-thirds of that distance. Here we found several fires, from which circumstance we concluded, that the canoes destined for this quarter, which left the fort some days before us, could not be far a-head. The weather continued to be very cold, and the snow that fell during the night was several inches deep.
On the morning of the 18th, as soon as we got out of the draught of the fall, the wind being at North-East, and strong in our favour, we hoisted sail, which carried us on at a considerable rate against the current, and passed the Loon River before twelve o'clock; from thence we soon came along the Grande Isle, at the upper end of which we encamped for the night. It now froze very hard: indeed, it had so much the appearance of winter, that I began to entertain some alarm lest we might be stopped by the ice: we therefore set off at three o'clock in the morning of the 19th, and about eight we landed at the Old Establishment.
The passage to this place from Athabasca having been surveyed by M. Vandrieul, formerly in the Company's service, I did not think it necessary to give any particular attention to it; I shall, however, just observe, that the course in general from the Lake of the Hills to the falls, is Westerly, and as much to the North as the South of it, from thence it is about West-South-West to this fort.
The country in general is low from our entrance of the river to the falls, and with the exception of a few open parts covered with grass, it is clothed with wood. Where the banks are very low the soil is good, being composed of the sediment of the river and putrefied leaves and vegetables. Where they are more elevated, they display a face of yellowish clay, mixed with small stones. On a line with the falls, and on either side of the river, there are said to be very extensive plains, which afford pasture to numerous herds of buffaloes. Our people a-head slept here last night, and, from their carelessness, 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.
We continued our voyage, the course of the river being South-West by West one mile and a quarter, South by East one mile, South-West by South three miles, West by South one mile, South-South-West two miles, South four miles, South-West seven miles and a half, South by West one mile, North-North-West two miles and a half, South five miles and a quarter, South-West one mile and a half, North-East by East three miles and a half, and South-East by East one mile.
We overtook Mr. Finlay, with his canoes, who was encamped near the fort of which he was going to take the 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 the year 1787, in the Athabasca country, I had never yet seen a single 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 rug, of which they had been deprived since the beginning of May; as it is a practice throughout the North-West neither to sell or give any rum to the natives during the summer. There was at this time only one chief with his people, the other two being hourly expected with their bands; and on the 21st and 22d they all arrived except the war chief and fifteen men. 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 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.
The number of people belonging to this establishment amounts to about three hundred, of which, sixty are hunters. Although they appear from their language to be of the same stock as the Chepewyans, they differ from them in appearance, manners, and customs, as they have adopted those of their former enemies, the Knisteneaux; they speak their language, as well as cut their hair, paint, and dress like them, and possess their immoderate fondness for liquor and tobacco. This description, however, can be applied only to the men, as the women are less adorned even than those of the Chepewyan tribes. We could not observe, without some degree of surprize, the contrast between the neat and decent appearance of the men, and the nastiness of the women. I am disposed, however, to think, that this circumstance is generally owing to the extreme submission and abasement of the latter: for I observed, that one of the chiefs allowed two of his wives more liberty and familiarity than were accorded to the others, as well as a more becoming exterior, and their appearance was proportionably pleasing; I shall, however, take a future opportunity to speak more at large on this subject.
There were frequent changes of the weather in the course of the day, and it froze rather hard in the night. The thickness of the ice in the morning was a sufficient notice for me to proceed. I accordingly gave the natives such good counsel as might influence their behaviour, communicated my directions to Mr. Findlay for his future conduct, and took my leave under several vollies of musketry, on the morning of the 23d. I had already dispatched my loaded canoes two days before, with directions to continue their progress without waiting for me. Our course was South-South-East one mile and an half, South three quarters; East seven miles and a half, veering gradually to the West four miles and an half. South-East by South three miles, South-East three miles aud an half, East-South-East to Long Point three miles, South-West one mile and a quarter, East by North four miles and three quarters, West three miles and an half, West-South-West one mile, East by South five miles and a half, South three miles and three quarters, South-East by South three miles, East-South-East three miles, East-North-East one mile, when there was a river that flowed in on the right, East two miles and an half, East-South-East half a mile, South-East by South seven miles and an half, South two miles, South-South-East three miles and an half; in the course of which we passed an island South by West, where a rivulet flowed in on the right, one mile, East one mile and an half, South five miles, South-East by South four miles and an half, South-West one mile, South-East by East four miles and an half, West-South-West half a mile, South-West six miles and three quarters, South-East by South one mile and an half, South one mile and an half; South-East by South two miles, South-West three quarters of a mile, South-East by South two miles and an half, East by South one mile and three quarters, South two miles, South-East one mile and an half, South-South-East half a mile, East by South two miles and an half, North-East three miles, South-West by West short distance to the establishment of last year, East-North-East four miles, South-South-East one mile and three quarters, South half a mile, South-East by South three quarters of a mile, North-East by East one mile, South three miles, South-South-East one mile and three quarters, South by East four miles and an half, South-West three miles, South by East two miles, South by West one mile and an half, South-West two miles, South by West four miles and an half, South-West one mile and an half, and South by East three miles. Here we arrived at the forks of the river; the Eastern branch appearing to be not more than half the size of the Western one. We pursued the latter, in a course South-West by West six miles, and landed on the first of November at the place which was designed to be my winter residence: indeed, the weather had been so cold and disagreeable, that I was more than once apprehensive of our being stopped by the ice, and, after all, it required the utmost exertions of which my men were capable to prevent it; so that on their arrival they were quite exhausted. Nor 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.
We found two men here who had been sent forward last spring, for the purpose of squaring timber for the erection of a house, and cutting pallisades, &c., to surround it. With them was the principal chief of the place, and about seventy men, who had been anxiously waiting for our arrival, and received us with every mark of satisfaction and regard which they could express. If we might judge from the quantity of powder that was wasted on our arrival, they certainly had not been in want of ammunition, at least during the summer.
The banks of the river, from the falls, are in general lofty, except at low woody points, accidentally formed in the manner I have already mentioned: they also displayed, in all their broken parts, a face of clay, intermixed with stone; in some places there likewise appeared a black mould.
In the summer of 1788, a small spot was cleared at the Old Establishment, which is situated on a bank thirty feet above the level of the river, and was sown with turnips, carrots, and parsnips. The first grew to a large size, and the others thrived very well. An experiment was also made with potatoes and cabbage, the former of which were successful; but for want of care the latter failed. The next winter the person who had undertaken this cultivation, suffered the potatoes which had been collected for seed, to catch the frost, and none had been since brought to this place. There is not the least doubt but the soil would be very productive, if a proper attention was given to its preparation. In the fall of the year 1787, when I first arrived at Athabasca, Mr. Pond was settled on the banks of the Elk River, where he remained for three years, and had formed as fine a kitchen garden as I ever saw in Canada.
In addition to the wood which flourished below the fall, these banks produce the cypress tree, arrow-wood, and the thorn. On either side of the river, though invisible from it, are extensive plains, which abound in buffaloes, elks, wolves, foxes, and bears. At a considerable distance to the Westward, is an immense ridge of high land or mountains, which take an oblique direction from below the falls, and are inhabited by great numbers of deer, which are seldom disturbed, but when the Indians go to hunt the beaver in those parts; and, being tired with the flesh of the latter, vary their food with that of the former. This ridge bears the name of the Deer Mountain. Opposite to our present situation, are beautiful meadows, with various animals grazing on them, and groves of poplars irregularly scattered over them.
My tent was no sooner pitched, than I summoned the Indians together, and gave each of them about four inches of Brazil tobacco, a dram of spirits, and lighted the pipe. As they had been very troublesome to my predecessor, I informed them that I had heard of their misconduct, and was come among them to inquire into the truth of it. I added also that it would be an established rule with me to treat them with kindness, if their behaviour should be such as to deserve it; but, at the same time, that I should be equally severe if they failed in those returns which I had a right to expect from them. I then presented them with a quantity of rum, which I recommended to be used with discretion; and added some tobacco, as a token of peace. They, in return, made me the fairest promises; and having expressed the pride they felt on beholding me in their country, took their leave.
I now proceeded to examine my situation; and it was with great satisfaction I observed that the two men who had been sent hither some time before us, to cut and square timber for our future operations, had employed the intervening period with activity and skill. They had formed a sufficient quantity of pallisades of eighteen feet long, and seven inches in diameter, to inclose a square spot of an hundred and twenty feet; they had also dug a ditch of three feet deep to receive them; and had prepared timber, planks, &c., for the erection of a house.
I was, however, so much occupied in settling matters with the Indians, and equipping them for their winter hunting, that I could not give my attention to any other object, till the 7th, when I set all hands at work to construct the fort, build the house, and form store houses. On the preceding day the river began to run with ice, which we call the last of the navigation. On the 11th we had a South-West wind, with snow. On the 16th, the ice stopped in the other fork, which was not above a league from us, across the intervening neck of land. The water in this branch continued to flow till the 22d, when it was arrested also by the frost, so that we had a passage across the river, which would last to the latter end of the succeeding April. This was a fortunate circumstance, as we depended for our support upon what the hunters could provide for us, and they had been prevented by the running of the ice from crossing the river. They now, however, very shortly procured us as much fresh meat as we required, though it was for some time a toilsome business to my people, for as there was not yet a sufficient quantity of snow to run sledges, they were under the necessity of loading themselves with the spoils of the chase.
On the 27th the frost was so severe that the axes of the workmen became almost as brittle as glass. The weather was very various until the 2d of December, when my Fahrenheit's thermometer was injured by an accident, which rendered it altogether useless. The table on page 353, therefore, from the 16th of November, to this unfortunate circumstance, is the only correct account of the weather which I can offer.
In this situation, removed from all those ready aids which add so much to the comfort, and, indeed is a principal characteristic of civilized life, I was under the necessity of employing my judgment and experience in accessory circumstances by no means connected with the habits of my life, or the enterprise in which I was immediately engaged. I was now among the people who had no knowledge whatever of remediable application to those disorders and accidents to which man is liable in every part of the globe, in the distant wilderness, as in the peopled city. They had not the least acquaintance with that primitive medicine, which consists in an experience of the healing virtues of herbs and plants, and is frequently found among uncivilised and savage nations. This circumstance now obliged me to be their physician and surgeon, as a woman with a swelled breast, which had been lacerated with flint stones for the cure of it, presented herself to my attention, and by cleanliness, poultices, and healing salve, I succeeded in producing a cure. One of my people, also, who was at work in the woods, was attacked with a sudden pain near the first joint of his thumb, which disabled him from holding an axe. On examining his arm, I was astonished to find a narrow red stripe, about half an inch wide, from his thumb to his shoulder; the pain was violent, and accompanied with chilliness and shivering. This was a case that appeared to be beyond my skill, but it was necessary to do something towards relieving the mind of the patient, though I might be unsuccessful in removing his complaint. I accordingly prepared a kind of volatile linament of rum and soap, with which I ordered his arm to be rubbed, but with little or no effect. He was in a raving state throughout the night, and the red stripe not only increased, but was also accompanied with the appearance of several blotches on his body, and pains in his stomach; the propriety of taking some blood from him now occurred to me, and I ventured, from absolute necessity, to perform that operation for the first time, and with an effect that justified the treatment. The following night afforded him rest, and in a short time he regained his former health and activity.
I was very much surprised on walking in the woods at such an inclement period of the year, to be saluted with the singing of birds, while they seemed by their vivacity to be actuated by the invigorating power of a more genial season. Of these birds the male was something less than the robin; part of his body is of a delicate fawn colour, and his neck, breast, and belly, of a deep scarlet; the wings are black, edged with fawn colour, and two white stripes running across them; the tail is variegated, and the head crowned with a tuft. The female is smaller than the male, and of a fawn colour throughout, except on the neck, which is enlivened by an hue of glossy yellow. I have no doubt but they are constant inhabitants of this climate, as well as some other small birds which we saw, of a grey colour.