Trails of the Pathfinders - G. B. Grinnell

Alexander Henry the Younger—I

Among the northmen who overran the country long known as the Hudson's Bay Territory, Alexander Henry, the younger, was a commanding figure. He was a nephew of that other Alexander Henry whose adventures have been described earlier in this book. To Alexander Henry, the younger, we owe the most curious and complete record ever printed of the daily life of the fur trader in the north.

Alexander Henry, the younger, was a diarist; he kept a journal in which he set down, in the most matter-of-fact way, everything that happened to him, and, as has been said by Dr. Coues, "it mirrors life in a way Mr. Samuel Pepys might envy could he compare his inimitable diary with this curious companion piece of causerie, and perceive that he who goes over the sea may change his sky, but not his mind."

The wonderful journal of Henry's slept for nearly a century. Where the original may be we do not know, but a copy was made by George Coventry about the year 1824, and this copy about seventy years later came under the notice of Dr. Elliott Coues, whose studies of the old West, have furnished so great a mass of material from which the student of history may glean information.

The diary covers a period of about fifteen years, from 1799 to 1814, during which time Henry travelled from Lake Superior to the Pacific. He lived in and travelled through, at various times, the Canadian Provinces of Ontario, Manitoba, Assiniboia, Keewatin, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia; while in the United States his travels were through Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. In these long journeys he met many different tribes of Indians, and saw much of the Chippewas, the three tribes of the Blackfeet, the Crees, Assiniboines, Sioux, Sarcees, and other northern tribes, while in his southern journeyings he reached the Mandans, the Minitari, the Rees, and even the Cheyennes, south of the Missouri River, and on the west coast saw many tribes of the Columbia.

The journal begins in the autumn of 1799, when he was camped on the White Earth River, near the foot of what is now known as Riding Mountain, in Manitoba, a little west of Portage La Prairie. Here he had stopped after his journey from Montreal, to trade with the Indians the liquor, blankets, strouding, and various trinkets the Indians liked. He made that fall a clear profit of seven hundred pounds. This was his first trial in the Northwest.

In the summer of 1800 Henry was on his way westward, with a brigade of canoes, each of which carried twenty-eight pieces of goods, ten of which were kegs of rum of nine gallons each; loads which sunk the canoes to the gunwales. He was proceeding by the Grande Portage to Lake Winnipeg, over the road which, even then, was being travelled by many fur traders. Wherever he found Indians, they were usually drunk, and when drunk always troublesome. They crossed the Lake of the Woods, and ran down the river Winnipic. At Portage de Lisle one of the canoes, to avoid the trouble of making this portage, passed down near the north shore with a full load. "She had not gone many yards when, by some mismanagement of the foreman, the current bore down her bow full upon the shore against a rock, upon which the fellow, taking advantage of his situation, jumped, while the current whirled the canoe around. The steersman, finding himself within reach of the shore, jumped upon the rock, with one of the midmen; the other midman, not being sufficiently active, remained in the canoe, which was instantly carried out and lost to view among the high waves. At length she appeared, and stood perpendicularly for a moment, when she sank down again, and I then perceived the man rising upon a bale of dry-goods in the midst of the waves. We made every exertion to get near him, and did not cease calling out to him to take courage, and not let go his hold; but alas! he sank under a heavy swell, and when the bale arose the man appeared no more. At this time we were only a few yards from him; but while we were eagerly looking out for him, poor fellow, the whirlpool caught my canoe, and before we could get away she was half-full of water. We then made all haste to get ashore, and go in search of the property. The canoe we found flat upon the water, broken in many places. However, we hauled her ashore, and afterwards collected as many pieces as we could find. The men had landed a few packages above the rapid, otherwise our loss would have been still greater."

On August 16 they entered Lake Winnipeg, and were almost wrecked by a storm, the wind blowing violently over a shoal flat, and raising a tumbling sea. Wild-fowl were plenty; so were also Rocky Mountain locusts, which Henry said were thrown up on the beach to a depth of six to nine inches. He shot a white pelican, of which many were seen. From here Henry went up the Red River to establish a trading-fort, and on the way up he divided his goods, one-half of which were to be sent to Portage La Prairie on the Assiniboine River. The Indians here were chiefly canoe and foot people, and had few horses. Pigeons were very numerous, as were also fish, and the Indians had some dried buffalo meat, which was purchased from them. Fruit was abundant along the bank; plums of three different sorts, pembinas, and grapes.

A number of Indians had joined him, all of whom wanted liquor and supplies. He gave them more or less liquor, with the result that most of them were drunk much of the time, and showed no disposition either to hunt or to trap. As they proceeded up Red River, they approached the country ranged over by the Sioux, between whom and the Ojibwas there was everlasting war. The Indians were therefore in a continual state of alarm, and every time a shot was heard they thought that the enemy were about to attack them. They were now close to the country of the buffalo, and the Indians were bringing in fresh meat. Henry speaks of the abundance of these animals at his camp of August 26, where, he says, "The ravages of the buffaloes at this place are astonishing to a person unaccustomed to these meadows. The beach, once soft black mud, into which a man would sink knee-deep, is now made hard as pavement by the numerous herds coming to drink. The willows are entirely trampled and torn to pieces; even the bark of the smaller trees is rubbed off in many places. The grass on the first bank of the river is entirely worn away. Numerous paths, some of which are a foot deep in the hard turf, come from the plains to the brink of the river, and vast quantities of dung gives this place the appearance of a cattle yard. We have reached the commencement of the great plains of Red River, where the eye is lost in one continuous level westward. Not a tree or a rising ground interrupts the view." Here he had his first experience in running buffalo, and merely for the amusement of it killed not a few.

The Indians continued drinking and fighting among themselves. No one as yet had been killed, but more than one had been severely injured. Now, however, they had used up all their liquor, and Henry refused to give them any more; so that while many continued to loaf about and beg for drink, some went hunting. Keeping on up the Red River, he pushed on southward, being anxious to reach a country where the beaver seemed to be plenty. Game was very abundant—buffalo, elk and bears. "Whilst we were arranging camp I saw a bear on the east side of the river, a little above us, coming down to drink. I crossed over and followed him; he instantly stopped within a few paces, and ran up a large oak. I shot him between the shoulders, and he fell to the ground like a rock, but in a moment was scampering away as fast as he could. I traced him by the blood, and soon found him sitting under a brush heap, grumbling and licking his wounds. A second shot dispatched him. By the hideous scream he uttered when he fell from the tree, I imagined he was coming at me, and was waiting for him with my second barrel cocked, when he ran off. I went for my two men, and it was hard work for us three to drag him to the canoe; he was very fat. I found that my first ball had gone through his heart. I was surprised that he should have been so active after a wound of that kind."

Early in September, Henry, having passed up Red River as far as the mouth of Park River, decided to build there, and began the work of cutting house logs and erecting his stockades. Game was astonishingly abundant, bears being so plenty that they were killed almost daily. Three men came in with twelve bears; a hunter returned with four bears, and so on. Now that they were settled, Henry began to give out to the Indians their debts; by which is meant that he furnished them the articles that they needed for hunting and for their life during the winter, charging them with the articles, which were to be paid for by skins—that is, the, value of a beaver skin. He prepared a seat in a tall oak, which he used as a lookout station, and from which he had an extensive view. Every morning he used to climb to the top of this oak and look over the country, not only to see where the game was, but also to see if people were moving about. After the stockade had been finished, the houses were built, and then came the task of preparing food for the winter. Meantime, the Indians had persuaded Henry again to give them liquor, and they were once more drunk and quarrelling. Happily, when fighting, they did not use their guns or bows, but only their knives; and so, although men and women were frequently severely stabbed and cut, there were no immediate fatalities.

Henry was a good deal of a hunter, and much of his journal is given up to accounts of what he killed. Indian alarms were as frequent as ever, but none of them amounted to anything, being causeless panics. In October Henry made a journey down the river, to look up some of the people that he had sent off to establish small trading-posts. On his return, about the middle of October, he found that his hunter had killed a large grizzly bear, about a mile from the fort, and "mentions that these bears are not numerous along Red River, but are more abundant in the Hair Hills. This is one of the most eastern records for the grizzly bear, although Long—Voyages and Travels, London, 1791—speaks as if they were sometimes found a little further eastward, even east of the west end of Lake Superior.

A little later Henry, with one of his hunters and another man, set off in search of the Red Lake Indians, whom he wished to inform that he had established a trading-post here. The journey was long, and much of it through thick woods and underbrush, and it almost proved fruitless. However, he at length came across a young Indian, who was very much frightened at seeing them, but finally realizing that they were friends, talked freely to them. The Indian reported that his people were at Red Lake waiting for traders, and Henry tried to persuade him to bring them into his fort. Henry then returned to his post.

Winter was now approaching. The Indians were making the mats with which they covered their huts in winter, while many of the men were preparing to go to war. An interesting note on wolves appears here, under date of Sunday, November z: "Last night the wolves were very troublesome; they kept up a terrible howling about the fort, and even attempted to enter Maymiutch's hut. A large white one came boldly into the door, and was advancing toward a young child, when he was shot dead. Some of them are very audacious. I have known them to follow people for several days, attempt to seize a person or a dog, and to be kept off only by firearms. It does not appear that hunger makes them so voracious, as they have been known to pass carcasses of animals which they might have eaten to their fill, but they would not touch flesh, their object seeming to be that of biting. The Canadians swear that these are mad wolves, and are much afraid of them."

Another note of interest to the zoologist is this: "We saw a great herd of cows going at full speed southward, but on coming to our track, which goes to Salt Lake, they began to smell the ground, and as suddenly as if they had been fired at, turned toward the mountain. It is surprising how sagacious these animals are. When in the least alarmed, they will smell the track of even a single person in the grass, and run away in the contrary direction. I have seen large herds walking very slowly to pasture, and feeding as they went, come to a place where some persons had passed on foot, when they would instantly stop, smell the ground, draw back a few paces, bellow, and tear up the earth with their horns. Sometimes the whole herd would range along the road, keeping up a terrible noise, until one of them was hardy enough to jump over, when they would all follow, and run some distance." On November 8, with an Indian, Henry started in search of Indians about Grand Forks. Although the weather had been cold and snowy, it had now turned warm again, and they had much trouble in crossing streams and sloughs. They went south, to what Henry's Indian told him was the border of the Sioux country, and old camping-grounds were pointed out, which the Indian said were Sioux. Beaver appeared to be very numerous, but they killed nothing, making no fire, and firing no guns, and keeping their horses always close to them.

In describing the country passed over, Henry speaks of the Schian River, a tributary of the Red River, which flows into it about ten miles north of Fargo. This, he says, "takes its name from a formerly numerous tribe of Indians who inhabited its upper part. They were a neutral tribe between the Sioux and Saulteurs for many years, but the latter, who are of a jealous disposition, suspected that they favored the Sioux. A very large party having once been unsuccessful in discovering their enemies, on their return wreaked their vengeance on those people, destroying their village, and murdering most of them. This happened about sixty years ago, when the Saulteurs were at war with their natural enemies, the Sioux, of the plains, who are the only inhabitants of St. Peter's River. The Schians, having been nearly exterminated, abandoned their old territory, and fled southward across the Missouri, where they are now a wandering tribe."

This story agrees very well with the traditions related by the Cheyennes to-day, except that the modern stories put back these wars with the Saulteurs much further than 1740. On November 13 Henry reached the post again, having failed to find any of the people that he looked for. Moreover, when he got here he received a messenger from Langlois, one of his clerks at a trading-post at the Panbian (Pembina) Mountains, reporting that a number of more or less turbulent Crees and Assiniboines were gathering there, and that Henry's presence was needed to quiet them. Two days later he set off, stopping at Bois Perce, where "I remained about an hour with die worthless vagabonds, who do nothing but play at the game of platter. Nothing is heard but the noise of the dish, and children bawling from hunger; their scoundrelly fathers are deaf to their cries until necessity obliges them to kill a bull for their sustenance." On his arrival at the post, he found all his people well, and the trouble apparently over.

The weather was now very cold. Swans were passing south in astonishing numbers. Now the men took no more raccoons with their traps, for these animals had begun to hibernate in the hollow trees, where they would remain like the hears until spring, without any sustenance.

Some time before, an Indian named Crooked Legs, while drunk, had very severely stabbed his young wife, who now, however, had perfectly recovered. At a drinking-match, held at the post, just after Henry's return, this woman, in revenge, gave her old husband a cruel beating with a stick, and afterward burned him shockingly with a brand snatched from the fire.

Rum was constantly desired by the Indians, and was begged for on every pretext. If a woman's husband died, or a man's wife, they came to Henry to beg, or buy, rum to cheer their hearts in their sorrow. A curious trapping incident is reported November 28. "La Rocque, Sr., came in with his traps, with a skunk, a badger, and a large white wolf, all three caught in the same trap at once, as he said. This was thought extraordinary—indeed a falsehood—until he explained the affair. His trap was made in a hollow stump, in the center of which there was a deep hole in the ground. He found the wolf, just caught, and still alive. He despatched him, and, on taking him out, noticed something stirring and making a noise in the hole in the ground. Upon looking in he perceived the badger, which he killed with a stick, and upon pulling him out, smelt the horrid stench of the skunk, which was in one corner of the hole. He soon despatched him also. From this the Indians all predicted some great misfortune, either to the person to whom the traps belonged, or to our fort."

Two days later some of the men went raccoon hunting, the weather being warm. "They returned in the evening with seven, which they had found in one hollow tree. The size of this tree was enormous, having a hollow six feet in diameter, the rim or shell being two feet thick, including the bark. Raccoon hunting is common here in the winter season. The hunter examines every hollow tree met with, and when he sees the fresh marks of the claws, he makes a hole with an ax, and then opens the hollow place, in which he lights a fire, to find out if there be any raccoons within, as they often climb trees in the autumn, and, not finding them proper for the purpose, leave them, and seek others. But if they be within, the smoke obliges them to ascend and put their heads out of the hole they enter. On observing this, the ax is applied to the tree; with the assistance of the fire it is soon down, and the hunter stands ready to despatch the animals while they are stunned by the fall. But sometimes they are so obstinate as to remain at the bottom of the hole until they are suffocated or roasted to death. The bears, both grizzly and common black, which reside on Red River, take to hollow trees also, and are hunted by the Indians in the same manner as raccoons. But the bears in the Hair Hills and other places never take to the trees for their winter quarters; they reside in holes in the ground, in the most intricate thicket they can find, generally under the roots of trees that have been torn up by the wind, or have otherwise fallen. These are more difficult to find, requiring good dogs that are naturally given to hunt bears. The reason why the bears differ so widely in the choice of their winter habitations is obvious. The low lands along the river, where the woods principally grow, are every spring subject to overflow, when the ice breaks up. The mud carried down with the current and left on the banks, makes their dens uncomfortable. On the Hair Hills and other high lands, where the ground is free from inundation, the soft and sandy soil is not so cold as the stiff black mud on the banks of the river, which appears to be made ground. Frequently, on digging holes in winter, we found the frost had penetrated the ground nearly four feet, like one solid body of ice, while in high, dry, sandy soil it seldom exceeds one foot in depth."

Winter had now set in, as well by the calendar as by temperature. It was ushered in by a great prairie fire, which seemed likely to burn over the whole country. At first it was supposed that the Sioux had fired the prairie, but later it appeared that the Crees had done it by accident. These Crees reported that they had seen a calf as white as snow in a herd of buffalo; and Henry mentions how greatly white buffalo are esteemed among the nations of the Missouri, but that they are not valued by the Crees and Assiniboines, except to trade to other tribes. Occasionally buffalo are seen that are dirty gray, but these are very rare. Christmas and New Year passed, these holidays being celebrated by drinking, so that for New Year's Day Henry says: "By sunrise every soul of them was raving drunk—even the children." Buffalo were now seen in great abundance, and came within gun-shot of the fort. A day or two later it was necessary to go out only a short distance from the fort to kill buffalo, but the cold was so intense that it was impossible to cut up those killed; On January 2 there arrived at the fort, Berdash, a man who, as used to be not very uncommon, wore the dress and busied himself with the occupations properly belonging to women. He was a swift runner, and was considered the fleetest man among the Saulteurs. "Both his speed and his courage were tested some years ago on the Schian River, where Monsieur Reaume attempted to make peace between the two nations, and Berdash accompanied a party of Saulteurs to the Sioux camp. They at first appeared reconciled to each other, at the intercession of the whites, but on the return of the Saulteurs, the Sioux pursued them. Both parties were on foot, and the Sioux had the name of being extraordinarily swift. The Saulteurs imprudently dispersed in the plains, and several of them were killed, but the party with Berdash escaped without any accident, in the following manner: One of them had got from the Sioux a bow, but only a few arrows. On starting and finding themselves pursued, they ran a considerable distance, until they perceived the Sioux were gaining fast upon them, when Berdash took the bow and arrows from his comrades, and told them to run as fast as possible, without minding him, as he feared no danger. He then faced the enemy, and began to let fly his arrows. This checked their course, and they returned the compliment with interest, but it was so far off that only a chance arrow could have hurt him, as they had nearly spent their strength when they fell near him. His own arrows were soon expended, but he lost no time in gathering up those that fell near him, and thus he had a continual supply. Seeing his friends some distance off, and the Sioux moving to surround him, he turned and ran full speed to join his comrades, the Sioux after him. When the latter approached too near, Berdash again stopped and faced them, with his bow and arrows, and kept them at bay. Thus did he continue to maneuver until they reached a spot of strong wood, which the Sioux dared not enter. Some of the Saulteurs who were present have often recounted the affair to me. It seemed the Sioux from the first were inclined to treachery, being very numerous and the others but few. The Saulteurs were well provided with guns and ammunition, but on the first meeting were surrounded, and the guns taken away from them, in return for which the Sioux gave them bows and arrows; but in a manner to be of little use, giving one a bow and no arrows, another a quiver of arrows, but no bow."

On January 14 he was awakened by the bellowing of buffalo, and found the plains black, and apparently in motion. An enormous herd of buffalo surrounded the fort, and were moving northward, extending south as far as the eye could see. "I had seen almost incredible numbers of buffalo in the fall, but nothing in comparison to what I now beheld. The ground was covered at every point of the compass as far as the eye could reach, and every animal was in motion. All hands soon attacked them with a tremendous running fire, which put them to a quicker pace, but had no effect in altering their course. The first roads beaten in the snow were followed by those in the rear. They passed in full speed, until about nine o'clock, when their numbers decreased, and they kept further off in the plains. There was about fifteen inches of snow on a level, in some places drifted in great banks. Notwithstanding the buffalo were so numerous, and twelve guns were employed, we killed only three cows and one old bull, but must have wounded a great number." The next day the plains were still covered with buffalo, moving northward; and this continued for a day or two. The stock of winter provisions was now all laid in—an abundance of good, fat buffalo meat. In February the buffalo began to get poor, as they always do at that time, and toward the end of the month some of the men caught a cow on the ice of the river, the dogs having surrounded her, and the men entangling her legs in a line, so that she fell on her side; they then dragged her, still alive, to the fort, when she jumped to her feet and ran to attack the dogs. Two men mounted on her back, but she was as active with this load as before, jumping and kicking at the dogs in most agile fashion.

On February 28 an Indian brought in a spring calf, which he had found dead, an unusually early birth. The Indians declared that this meant an early spring.

The first outarde—Canada goose—was seen March 12, and on the same day a swan. On this day, too, it was noted that the sap of the box-elder began to run; this yields a fine white sugar, but not so sweet as that from the real sugar maple (Acer). He notes that bittersweet is abundant along the Red River, and that the Indians eat it in time of famine.

Alexander Henry


Now the river, on account of melting snow, began to rise, and to lift up the ice. Henry began to get out his canoes and mend them up for the summer use. Wild-fowl made their appearance in great numbers, and on the 23rd young calves were seen by the men. And now, the ice of the river coming down, carried with it great numbers of dead buffalo from above, which had been drowned in crossing the river while the ice was weak. Their numbers were astonishing. Often they were drifted to the shore, where the women cut up some of the fattest for their own use, the flesh seeming to be fresh and good. On the 7th of April one of his men brought in to Henry three wolves born this spring; another had brought in six, which he had found in one hole, and which were now very tame. It was proposed to keep them for sledge dogs in winter.

A little later the odor of the decaying buffalo lying there along the river was terrible. In fact, on his journey down the river with his goods, which were now to be despatched to Montreal, the stench of the drowned buffalo was such that Henry could not eat his supper.

At last he despatched his goods, and about the first of June left for the Grand Portage. The proceeds of the winter's trade amounted to nearly two thousand pounds, Halifax currency.