Trails of the Pathfinders - G. B. Grinnell

Alexander Henry—II

The French Government had established regulations governing the fur trade in Canada, and in 1765, when Henry made his second expedition, some features of the old system were still preserved. No person was permitted to enter the countries lying northwest of Detroit unless furnished with a license, and military commanders had the privilege of granting to any individual the exclusive trade of particular districts.

At this time beaver were worth two shillings and six-pence per pound; otter skins, six shillings each; martens, one shilling and sixpence; all this in nominal Michilimackinac currency, although here fur was still the current coin. Henry loaded his four canoes with the value of ten thousand pounds' weight of good and merchantable beaver. For provision he purchased fifty bushels of corn, at ten pounds of beaver per bushel. He took into partnership Monsieur Cadotte, and leaving Michilimackinac July 14, and Sault Sainte-Marie the 26th, he proceeded to his wintering ground at Chagouemig. On the 19th of August he reached the river Ontonagan, notable for its abundance of native copper, which the Indians used to manufacture into spoons and bracelets for themselves. This they did by the mere process of hammering it out. Not far beyond this river he met Indians, to whom he gave credit. "The prices were for a stroud blanket, ten beaver skins; for a white blanket, eight; a pound of powder, two; a pound of shot or of ball, one; a gun, twenty; an axe of one pound weight, two; a knife, one." As the value of a skin was about one dollar, the prices to the Indians were fairly high.

Chagouemig, where Henry wintered, is now known as Chequamegon. It is in Wisconsin, a bay which partly divides Bayfield from Ashland county, and seems always to have been a great gathering place for Indians. There were now about fifty lodges here, making, with those who had followed Henry, about one hundred families. All were poor, their trade having been interfered with by the English invasion of Canada and by Pontiac's war. Henry was obliged to distribute goods to them to the amount of three thousand beaver skins, and this done, the Indians separated to look for fur. Henry sent a clerk to Fond du Lac with two loaded canoes; Fond du Lac being, roughly, the site of the present city of Duluth. As soon as Henry was fairly settled, he built a house, and began to collect fish from the lake as food for the winter. Before long he had two thousand trout and whitefish, the former frequently weighing fifty pounds each, the latter from four to six. They were preserved by being hung up by the tail and did not thaw during the winter. When the bay froze over, Henry amused himself by spearing trout, and sometimes caught a hundred in a day, each weighing on an average twenty pounds.

He had some difficulty with the first hunting party which brought furs. The men crowded into his house and demanded rum, and when he refused it, they threatened to take all he had. His men were frightened and all abandoned him. He got hold of a gun, however, and on threatening to shoot the first who should lay hands on anything, the disturbance began to subside and was presently at an end. He now buried the liquor that he had, and when the Indians were finally persuaded that he had none to give them, they went and came very peaceably, paying their debts and purchasing goods. '

The ice broke up in April, and by the middle of May the Indians began to come in with their furs, so that by the close of the spring Henry found himself with a hundred and fifty packs of beaver, weighing a hundred pounds each, besides twenty-five packs of otter and marten skins. These he took to Michilimackinac, accompanied by fifty canoes of Indians, who still had a hundred packs of beaver that they did not sell. It appears, therefore, that Henry's ten thousand pounds of beaver brought him fifty percent profit in beaver, besides the otter and the marten skins which he had.

On his way back he went up the Ontonagan River to see the celebrated mass of copper there, which he estimated to weigh no less than five tons. So pure was it that with an axe he chopped off a piece weighing a hundred pounds. This great mass of copper, which had been worked at for no one knows how long by Indians and by early explorers, lay there for eighty years after Henry saw it; and finally, in 1843, was removed to the Smithsonian Institution at Washington. It was then estimated to weigh between three and four tons, and the cost of transporting it to the national capital was about $3,500.

The following winter was passed at Sault Sainte-Marie, and was rather an unhappy one, as the fishery failed, and there was great suffering from hunger. Canadians and Indians gathered there from the surrounding country, driven in by lack of food. Among the incidents of the winter was the arrival of a young man who had been guilty of cannibalism. He was killed by the Indians, not so much as punishment, as from the fear that he would kill and eat some of their children.

A journey to a neighboring bay resulted in no great catch of fish, and returning to the Sault, Henry started for Michilimackinac. At the first encampment, an hour's fishing procured them seven trout, of from ten to twenty pounds' weight. A little later they met a camp of Indians who had fish, and shared with them; and the following day Henry killed a caribou, by which they camped and on which they subsisted for two days.

The following winter Henry stopped at Michipicoten, on the north side of Lake Superior, and about a hundred and fifty miles from the Sault. Here there were a few people known as Gens des Terres, a tribe of Algonquins, living in middle Canada, and ranging from the Athabasca country east to Lake Temiscamingue. A few of them still live near the St. Maurice River, in the Province of Quebec. These people, though miserably poor, and occupying a country containing very few animals, had a high reputation for honesty and worth. Therefore, Henry gave to every man credit for one hundred beaver skins, and to every woman thirty—a very large credit.

There was some game in this country, a few caribou, and some hares and partridges. The hills were well wooded with sugar-maples, and from these, when spring came, Henry made sugar; and for a time this was their sole provision, each man consuming a pound a day, desiring no other food, and being visibly nourished by the sugar. Soon after this, wildfowl appeared in such abundance that subsistence for fifty could without difficulty be shot daily by one man, but this lasted only for a week, by which time the birds all departed. By the end of May all to whom Henry had advanced goods returned, and of the two thousand skins for which he had given them credit, not thirty remained unpaid. The small loss that he did suffer was occasioned by the death of one of the Indians, whose family brought all the skins of which he died possessed, and offered to contribute among themselves the balance.

The following winter was also to be passed at Michipicoten, and in the month of October, after all the Indians had received their goods and had gone away, Henry set out for the Sault on a visit. He took little provision, only a quart of corn for each person.

On the first night they camped on an island sacred to Nanibojou, one of the Chippewa gods, and failed to offer the tobacco which an Indian would always have presented to the spirit. In the night a violent storm arose which continued for three days. When it abated on the third day they went to examine the net which they had set for fish, and found it gone. The wind was ahead to return to Michipicoten, and they steered for the Sault; but that night the wind shifted and blew a gale for nine days following. They soon began to starve, and though Henry hunted faithfully, he killed nothing more than two snowbirds. One of his men informed him that the other two had proposed to kill and eat a young woman, whom they were taking to the Sault, and when taxed with the proposition, these two men had the hardihood to acknowledge it. The next morning, Henry, still searching for food, found on a rock the tripe de roche, a lichen, which, when cooked, yields a jelly which will support life. The discovery of this food, on which they supported themselves thereafter, undoubtedly saved the life of the poor woman. When they embarked on the evening of the ninth day they were weak and miserable; but, luckily, the next morning, meeting two canoes of Indians, they received a gift of fish, and at once landed to feast on them.

In the spring of 1769, and for some years afterward, Henry turned his attention more or less to mines. He visited the Ile de Maurepas, said to contain shining rocks and stones of rare description, but was much disappointed in the island, which seemed commonplace enough. A year later Mr. Baxter, with whom Henry had formed a partnership for copper mining, returned, and during the following winter, at Sault Sainte-Marie, they built vessels for navigating the lakes. Henry had heard of an island (Caribou Island) in Lake Superior described as covered with a heavy yellow sand like gold-dust, and guarded by enormous snakes. With Mr. Baxter he searched for this island and finally found it, but neither yellow sands nor snakes nor gold. Hawks there were in abundance, and one of them picked Henry's cap from his head. There were also caribou, and they killed thirteen, and found many complete and undisturbed skeletons. Continuing their investigations into the mines about the lakes, they found abundant copper ore, and some supposed to contain silver. But their final conclusion was that the cost of carrying the copper ore to Montreal must exceed its marketable value.

In June, 1775, Henry left Sault Sainte-Marie with four large canoes and twelve small ones, carrying goods and provisions to the value of three thousand pounds sterling. He passed west, over the Grand Portage, entered Lac a la Pluie, passed down to the Lake of the Woods, and finally reached Lake Winipegon. Here there were Crees, variously known as Christinaux, Kinistineaux, Killistinoes, and Killistinaux. Lake Winipegon is sometimes called the Lake of the Crees. These people were primitive. Almost entirely naked, the whole body was painted with red ochre; the head was wholly shaved, or the hair was plucked out, except a spot on the crown, where it grew long and was rolled and gathered into a tuft; the ears were pierced, and filled with bones of fishes and land animals. The women, on the other hand, had long hair, which was gathered into a roll on either side of the head above the ear, and was covered with a piece of skin, painted or ornamented with beads of various colors. The traditions of the Cheyennes of to-day point back to precisely similar methods of dressing the hair of the women and of painting the men.

The Crees were friendly, and gave the traveller presents of wild rice and dried meat. He kept on along the lake and soon joined Peter Pond, a well-known trader of early days. A little later, in early September, the two Frobishers and Mr. Patterson overtook them. On the 1st of October they reached the River de Bourbon, now known as the Saskatchewan, and proceeded up it, using the tow-line to overcome the Great Rapids. They passed on into Lake de Bourbon, now Cedar Lake, and by old Fort Bourbon, built by the Sieur de Wrendrye. At the mouth of the Pasquayah River they found a village of Swampy Crees, the chief of whom expressed his gratification at their coming, but remarked that, as it would be possible for him to kill them all when they returned, he expected them to be extremely liberal with their presents. He then specified what it was that he desired, namely, three casks of gunpowder, four bags of shot and ball, two bales of tobacco, three kegs of rum, and three guns, together with many smaller articles. Finally he declared that he was a peaceable man, and always tried to get along without quarrels. The traders were obliged to submit to being thus robbed, and passed on up the river to Cumberland House. Here they separated, M. Cadotte going on with four canoes to the Fort des Prairies, a name given then and later to many of the trading posts built on the prairie. This one is probably that Fort des Prairies which was situated just below the junction of the north and south forks of the Saskatchewan River, and was known as Fort Nippewen. Mr. Pond, with two canoes, went to Fort Dauphin, on Lake Dauphin, while the Messrs. Frobisher and Henry agreed to winter together on Beaver Lake. Here they found a good place for a post, and were soon well lodged. Fish were abundant, and the post soon assumed the appearance of a settlement. Owing to the lateness of the season, their canoes could not be buried in the ground, as was the common practice, and they were therefore placed on scaffolds. The fishing here was very successful, and moose were killed. The Indians brought in beaver and bear's meat, and some skins for sale.

In January, 1776, Henry left the fort on Beaver Lake, attended by two men, and provided with dried meat, frozen fish, and cornmeal, to make an excursion over the plains, "or, as the French denominate them, the Prairies, or Meadows." There was snow on the ground, and the baggage was hauled by the men on sledges. The cold was bitter, but they were provided with "ox skins, which the traders call buffalo robes."

Beaver Lake was in the wooded country, and, indeed, all Henry's journeyings hitherto had been through a region that was timbered; but here, striking south and west, by way of Cumberland House, he says, "I was not far advanced before the country betrayed some approaches to the characteristic nakedness of the plains. The wood dwindled away, both in size and quantity, so that it was with difficulty we could collect sufficient for making a fire, and without fire we could not drink, for melted snow was our only resource, the ice on the river being too thick to be penetrated by the axe." Moreover, the weather was bitterly cold, and after a time provisions grew scanty. No game was seen and no trace of anything human. The men began to starve and to grow weak, but as tracks of elk and moose were seen, Henry cheered them up by telling them that they would certainly kill something before long.

"On the twentieth, the last remains of our provisions were expended; but I had taken the precaution to conceal a cake of chocolate in reserve for an occasion like that which was now arrived. Toward evening my men, after walking the whole day, began to lose their strength, but we nevertheless kept on our feet till it was late, and when we encamped I informed them of the treasure which was still in store. I desired them to fill the kettle with snow, and argued with them the while that the chocolate would keep us alive for five days at least, an interval in which we should surely meet with some Indian at the chase. Their spirits revived at the suggestion, and, the kettle being filled with two gallons of water, I put into it one square of the chocolate. The quantity was scarcely sufficient to alter the color of the water, but each of us drank half a gallon of the warm liquor, by which we were much refreshed, and in its enjoyment felt no more of the fatigues of the day. In the morning we allowed ourselves a similar repast, after finishing which we marched vigorously for six hours. But now the spirits of my companions again deserted them, and they declared that they neither would, nor could, proceed any further. For myself, they advised me to leave them, and accomplish the journey as I could; but for themselves, they said, that they must die soon, and might as well die where they were as anywhere else.

"While things were in this melancholy posture, I filled the kettle and boiled another square of chocolate. When prepared I prevailed upon my desponding companions to return to their warm beverage. On taking it they recovered inconceivably, and, after smoking a pipe, consented to go forward. While their stomachs were comforted by the warm water they walked well, but as evening approached fatigue overcame them, and they relapsed into their former condition, and, the chocolate being now almost entirely consumed, I began to fear that I must really abandon them, for I was able to endure more hardship than they, and, had it not been for keeping company with them, I could have advanced double the distance within the time which had been spent. To my great joy, however, the usual quantity of warm water revived them.

"For breakfast the next morning I put the last square of chocolate into the kettle, and, our meal finished, we began our march in but very indifferent spirits. We were surrounded by large herds of wolves which sometimes came close upon us, and who knew, as we were prone to think, the extremity in which we were, and marked us for their prey; but I carried a gun, and this was our protection. I fired several times, but unfortunately missed at each, for *a morsel of wolf's flesh would have afforded us a banquet.

"Our misery, nevertheless, was still nearer its end than we imagined, and the event was such as to give one of the innumerable proofs that despair is not made for man. Before sunset we discovered on the ice some remains of the bones of an elk left there by the wolves. Having instantly gathered them, we encamped, and, filling our kettle, prepared ourselves a meal of strong and excellent soup. The greater part of the night was passed in boiling and regaling on our booty, and early in the morning we felt ourselves strong enough to proceed.

"This day, the twenty-fifth, we found the borders of the plains reaching to the very banks of the river, which were two hundred feet above the level of the ice. Water marks presented themselves at twenty feet above the actual level.

"Want had lost his dominion over us. At noon we saw the horns of a red deer [an elk or wapiti] standing in the snow on the river. On examination we found that the whole carcass was with them, the animal having broke through the ice in the beginning of the winter in attempting to cross the river too early in the season, while his horns, fastening themselves in the ice, had prevented him from sinking. By cutting away the ice we were enabled to lay bare a part of the back and shoulders, and thus procure a stock of food amply sufficient for the rest of our journey. We accordingly encamped and employed our kettle to good purpose, forgot all our misfortunes, and prepared to walk with cheerfulness the twenty leagues which, as we reckoned, still lay between ourselves and Fort des Prairies.

"Though the deer must have been in this situation ever since the month of November, yet its flesh was perfectly good. Its horns alone were five foot high or more, and it will therefore not appear extraordinary that they should be seen above the snow.

"On the twenty-seventh, in the morning, we discovered the print of snow-shoes, demonstrating that several persons had passed that way the day before. These were the first marks of other human feet than our own which we had seen since our leaving Cumberland House, and it was much to feel that we had fellow-creatures in the wide waste surrounding us. In the evening we reached the fort."

At Fort des Prairies, Henry saw more provisions than he had ever before dreamed of. In one heap he saw fifty tons of buffalo meat, so fat that the men could hardly find meat lean enough to eat. Immediately south of this plains country, which he was on the edge of, was the land of the Osinipoilles [Assiniboines, a tribe of the Dakota or Sioux nation], and some of these people being at the fort, Henry determined to visit them at their village, and on the 5th of February set out to do so. The Indians whom they accompanied carried their baggage on dog travois. They used snow-shoes and travelled swiftly, and at night camped in the shelter of a little grove of wood. There were fourteen people in the tent in which Henry slept that night, but these were not enough to keep each other warm. They started each morning at daylight, and travelled as long as they could, and over snow that was often four feet deep. During the journey they saw buffalo, which Henry calls wild oxen, but did not disturb them, as they had no time to do so, and no means of carrying the flesh if they had killed any. One night they met two young men who had come out to meet the party. They had not known that there were white men with it, and announced that they must return to advise the chief of this; but before they could start, a storm came up which prevented their departure. All that night and part of the next day the wind blew fiercely, with drifting snow. "In the morning we were alarmed by the approach of a herd of oxen, who came from the open ground to shelter themselves in the wood. Their numbers were so great that we dreaded lest they should fairly trample down the camp; nor could it have happened otherwise but for the dogs, almost as numerous as they, who were able to keep them in check. The Indians killed several when close upon their tents, but neither the fire of the Indians nor the noise of the dogs could soon drive them away. Whatever were the terrors which filled the wood, they had no other escape from the terrors of the storm."

Two days later they reached the neighborhood of the camp, which was situated in a woody island. Messengers came to welcome them, and a guard armed with bows and spears, evidently the soldiers, to escort them to the home which had been assigned them. They were quartered in a comfortable skin lodge, seated on buffalo robes; women brought them water for washing, and presently a man invited them to a feast, himself showing them the way to the head chief's tent. The usual smoking, feasting, and speech-making followed.

These Osinipoilles seemed not before to have seen white men, for when walking about the camp, crowds of women and children followed them, very respectfully, but evidently devoured by insatiable curiosity. Water here was obtained by hanging a buffalo paunch kettle filled with snow in the smoke of the fire, and, as the snow melted, more and more was added, until the paunch was full of water. During their stay they never had occasion to cook in the lodge, being constantly invited to feasts. They had with them always the guard of soldiers, who were careful to allow no one to crowd upon or annoy the travellers. They had been here but a short time when the head chief sent them word that he was going to hunt buffalo the next day, and asked them to be of the party.

"In the morning we went to the hunt accordingly. The chief was followed by about forty men and a great number of women. We proceeded to a small island [of timber] on the plain, at the distance of five miles from the village. On our way we saw large herds of oxen at feed, but the hunters forebore to molest them lest they should take the alarm.

"Arrived at the island, the women pitched a few tents, while the chief led his hunters to its southern end, where there was a pound or inclosure. The fence was about four feet high, and formed of strong stakes of birch wood, wattled with smaller branches of the same. The day was spent in making repairs, and by the evening all was ready for the hunt.

"At daylight several of the more expert hunters were sent to decoy the animals into the pound. They were dressed in ox skins, with the hair and horns. Their faces were covered, and their gestures so closely resembled those of the animals themselves that, had I not been in the secret, I should have been as much deceived as the oxen.

"At ten o'clock one of the hunters returned, bringing information of the herd. Immediately all the dogs were muzzled; and, this done, the whole crowd of men and women surrounded the outside of the pound. The herd, of which the extent was so great that I cannot pretend to estimate the numbers, was distant half a mile, advancing slowly, and frequently stopping to feed. The part played by the decoyers was that of approaching them within hearing and then bellowing like themselves. On hearing the noise, the oxen did not fail to give it attention, and, whether from curiosity or sympathy, advanced to meet those from whom it proceeded. These, in the meantime, fell back deliberately toward the pound, always repeating the call whenever the oxen stopped. This was reiterated till the leaders of the herd had followed the decoyers into the jaws of the pound, which, though wide asunder toward the plain, terminated, like a funnel, in a small aperture or gateway, and within this was the pound itself. The Indians remark that in all herds of animals there are chiefs, or leaders, by whom the motions of the rest are determined.

"The decoyers now retired within the pound, and were followed by the oxen. But the former retired still further, withdrawing themselves at certain movable parts of the fence, while the latter were fallen upon by all the hunters and presently wounded and killed by showers of arrows. Amid the uproar which ensued the oxen made several attempts to force the fence, but the Indians stopped them and drove them back by shaking skins before their eyes. Skins were also made use of to stop the entrance, being let down by strings as soon as the oxen were inside. The slaughter was prolonged till the evening, when the hunters returned to their tents. Next morning all the tongues were presented to the chief, to the number of seventy-two.

"The women brought the meat to the village on sledges drawn by dogs. The lumps on the shoulders, and the hearts, as well as the tongues, were set apart for feasts, while the rest was consumed as ordinary food, or dried, for sale at the fort."

Henry has much to say about the Assiniboines, their methods of hunting, religion, marriage, healing, and many other customs. He notes especially their cruelty to their slaves, and says that the Assiniboines seldom married captive women.

On the 19th of February the Assiniboine camp started to the Fort des Prairies, and on the 28th camped at a little distance from it; but Henry and his companions went on, and reached the post that evening. Henry declares that "The Osinipoilles at this period had had no acquaintance with any foreign nation sufficient to affect their ancient and pristine habits. Like the other Indians, they were cruel to their enemies; but, as far as the experience of myself and other Europeans authorizes me to speak, they were a harmless people with a large share of simplicity of manners and plain dealing. They lived in fear of the Cristinaux, by whom they were not only frequently imposed upon, but pillaged, when the latter met their bands in smaller numbers than their own."

On the 22d of March Henry set out to return to Beaver Lake. They reached Cumberland House on the 5th of April, and Beaver Lake on the 9th. The lake was still covered with ice, and fish had grown scarce, so that it was necessary to keep fishing all the time in order to provide sustenance. Early in May, however, water-fowl made their appearance, and for some little time there was abundance. They left their post on the 2 I St of April, very short of provisions. They travelled slowly, finally coming to a large lake which, on the 6th of June, was still frozen over, but the ice was too weak to be crossed. The Indians killed some moose. On reaching Churchill River they set out for Lake Arabuthcow [Athabasca] with six Canadians and an Indian woman as guide. The river was sometimes broad and slow-flowing, and again narrow and very rapid. Fish were plenty. On January 24th they reached Isle a la Crosse Lake, and met a number of Indians, to whom they made presents and whom they invited to visit them at their fort. These Indians seem to have been Chipewyans, known to ethnologists as Athabascans. They accepted the white men's invitation, and all started for the fort, continuing the journey day and night, stopping only to boil the kettle.

The discipline among these Athabasca Indians seemed exceedingly good, as, in fact, it usually was in primitive times. The orders given by the chief were conscientiously obeyed, and this under circumstances of much temptation, since, when liquor was being served out to the young men, a certain number were told off who were ordered not to drink at all, but to maintain a constant guard over the white men.

In the trade which followed, the Indians delivered their skins at a small window in the fort, made for that purpose, asking at the same time for the different articles they wished to purchase, of which the prices had been previously settled with the chiefs. The trade lasted for more than two days, and amounted to 12,000 beaver skins, besides large numbers of otter and marten skins. These Indians had come from Lake Arabuthcow, at which they had wintered. They reported that at the farther end of that lake was a river called Peace River, which descended from the Stony or Rocky Mountains, from which mountains the distance to the Salt Lake, meaning the Pacific Ocean, was not great. Other things the Indians told Henry which he did not then understand, but a few years later Alexander Mackenzie was to meet these problems and to solve many of them. These Indians dressed in beaver skins, and were orderly and unoffending. Mr. Joseph Frobisher and Henry now set out to return to the Grand Portage, leaving the remainder of their merchandise in the care of Thomas Frobisher, who was to go with them to Lake Athabasca.

When Henry reached the Lake of the Woods he found there some Indians, who told him that a strange nation had entered Montreal, taken Quebec, killed all the English, and would certainly be at the Grand Portage before they reached there. Henry remarked to his companion that he suspected the Bastonnais had been up to some mischief in Canada, and the Indians at once exclaimed, "Yes, that's the name, Bastonnais." Bastonnais or Bostonnais, that is, "Boston men," was a name commonly used in the Northwest to distinguish the Americans from the English, or "King George men."

Without further accident Henry reached the Grand Portage, from which place he continued to Montreal, which he reached the 15th of October. Here he found that the Americans had been driven out, and that the city was protected by the forces of General Burgoyne. The capture of Montreal took place in the fall of 1775, and Quebec was besieged during the winter of 1775-1776, and it was nearly a year later that Henry heard the news at the Lake of the Woods.

This ends the account of Henry's travels, but he was still in the fur trade for many years later. In 1785 he was a leading merchant of Montreal, and in 1790 he returned to Michilimackinac.

His book was published in New York in 1809, and thus not until eight years after the publication of Alexander Mackenzie's great work. Henry died in Montreal, April 4, 1824, in the 85th year of his age.

Besides himself being a fur trader, Henry was a father of fur traders. His son, William Henry, is constantly mentioned in the diary of Alexander Henry the younger. A second son, Alexander, was also in the fur trade, and was killed on the Liard River. Alexander Henry the younger, a nephew, is well known, and will be noticed hereafter. A Mr. Bethune, constantly spoken of by Alexander Henry, Jr., may, or may not, have been a relative. Certain it is that Alexander Henry had nephews named Bethune.

The narrative is remarkable from its simplicity and clearness of style, as well as for the keen powers of observation shown by the writer. It is one of the most interesting of the many interesting volumes on the fur trade of its own and later times.