Trails of the Pathfinders - G. B. Grinnell

Alexander Henry the Younger—III

On July 28 they started on their return to the north, in constant fears and alarms lest the Assiniboines should steal their horses. A few days later the horses, troubled by mosquitoes, broke their ropes, and eight of them ran off in their hobbles. These could not be found again, and some of the people were obliged to go forward on foot, while the baggage was loaded on the remaining horses.

On his journey back to the Pembina River, Henry had an experience comical to read about, but not to endure. "We took the traverse for the mountain, but on coming to Cypress River found it had overflowed its banks about three acres on each side, and could find no fordable place. We were obliged to turn out of our way some miles, in going to where we perceived a large, dry poplar tree, and a few stunted willows, but there we had the mortification to find that the wood stood on the opposite side of the river. There being no alternative, we unloaded our horses and stripped. I crossed over, collected what brush I could find, and with the poplar formed a raft, so very slight as to carry scarcely more than fifty pounds' weight. The mosquitoes were intolerable, and as we were obliged to remain naked for about four hours, we suffered more than I can describe. The grass on each side was too high to haul our raft through to dry land; we could use it only on the river by means of two long cords, one fastened to each end. Ducharme hauled it over to his side, and after making it fast, he went to dry land for a load in water up to his armpits, whilst I waited with my whole body immersed until he brought down a load and laid it upon the raft. I then hauled it over and carried the load to dry land upon my head. Every time I landed the mosquitoes plagued me insufferably; and still worse, the horse that I had crossed over upon was so tormented that he broke his fetters and ran away. I was under the cruel necessity of pursuing him on the plains entirely naked; fortunately I caught him and brought him back. I suffered a good deal from the sharp-pointed grass pricking my bare feet, and mosquito bites covered my body. The sun was set before we finished our transportation. The water in this river is always excessively cold, and by the time we got all over, our bodies were as blue as indigo; we were shivering like aspen leaves, and our legs were cut and chafed by the coarse, stiff grass. We shot an old swan, and caught two young ones that could not fly; this made us a comfortable supper."

Henry reached the fort August 14.

"One of our hunters killed thirty-six prime bears in the course of the season on the Hair Hills. Whatever number of bears an Indian may kill in the summer or fall is considered of no consequence, as they are valueless and easy to hunt, but after they have taken up their winter quarters the Indians glory in killing them."

In August, 1808, Henry finally left the Panbian River on his way westward, bidding adieu also to the Saulteur tribes, among which, as he says, he had passed sixteen long winters. His journey was through Lake Winnipeg to the Saskatchewan and Lake Bourbon, now known as Cedar Lake. On the 22nd he passed old Fort Bourbon, established in 1749 by Verendrye, and entered one of the channels of the Saskatchewan. Wild-fowl were very abundant as they pushed up the river. At last they entered Sturgeon Lake, and reached Cumberland House. They kept on up the stream, ascending the north branch, from time to time meeting Indians, some of whom were Assiniboines, called Assiniboines of the Saskatchewan, and as they had before this purchased some horses, they were fearful that these might be stolen. It was now September, and the bushes were loaded with choke-cherries and service berries. Buffalo paths running in every direction were deep and numerous. Ammunition was issued early in September to the men for purposes of defense. Soon buffalo were met, and here Henry first ran these animals over the rough ground of the plains, covered with large round stones, and pierced at frequent intervals with badger holes. On September 13 he reached Fort Vermilion, where was a fort of the Hudson's Bay Company, and found the Blackfeet all about. Here Henry wintered, expecting to be visited by numerous tribes from the south.

Just before Christmas, in December, the Blackfeet invited Henry and his Hudson's Bay neighbor to come to their camp and see buffalo driven into the pound. The two men went in dog sledges, and were kindly received by the Indians, but the weather was insufferable, being foggy, and the wind was contrary. They viewed the pound, where they "had only the satisfaction of viewing the mangled carcasses strewn about the pound. The bulls were mostly entire, none but good cows having been cut up. The stench from this enclosure was great, even at this season, for the weather was mild." From the lookout hill, buffalo were seen in enormous numbers, but as the wind was unfavorable, every herd that was brought near to the pound dispersed and ran away. After having been there two days, Henry became disgusted, and returned to the post; but he was followed by a number of Blackfeet, who arrived the next day, and told him that they had scarcely left when a large herd was brought into the pound.

On the 26th of September, 1810, Henry set off on horseback, westward; the canoes, of course, coming up the stream. Their destination was Rocky Mountain House, a post located on the north Saskatchewan River, a mile and a half above the mouth of Clearwater, three miles below Pangman's Tree, so named from the fact that Peter Pangman carved an inscription on it when he first sighted the mountains in I 7W.

On the way up the stream they found signs of beaver extremely abundant; but although one of the Indians set traps in the hope of taking some, the winds blew the smoke of the camp toward the traps, and the beaver did not leave their houses that night. The next day, however, they took two, the signs still showing the presence of great quantities of beaver. Ahead of Henry was a camp of Sarsi, twenty-five lodges, which had just left, for at their camp on Medicine Lodge River, a branch of the Red Deer; the fires were still burning. They must have made a good hunt here, since the bones of beaver, bear, moose, elk and buffalo lay about their camp in great quantities. That afternoon they met five lodges of Bloods and Sarsi, with whom they camped. Game was abundant, and Henry notes on the 5th the appearance of a herd of strongwood buffalo, the bison of the hills and mountains, so different in appearance and some of their habits from those of the prairie. Here, too, were seen the fresh tracks of a grizzly bear, measuring fourteen inches in length.

When they reached the fort they found the Piegans friendly and quiet, but suspicious of the whites. "These Piegans had the fresh hide of a bull they had killed at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. This was really a curiosity; the hair on the back was dirty white, and the long hair under the throat and forelegs iron-gray, and sides and belly were yellow. I wished to purchase it, but the owners would not part with it under any consideration." It is well understood that white buffalo, or those that are spotted, or indeed of any unusual color, are very highly esteemed by the tribes of the plains. Henry has referred to this before, and I have called attention to the sacredness of the white buffalo's hide among the Blackfeet, Bloods, and Piegans, and among the Cheyennes further to the south.

It was now an active time, Bloods, Piegans, and Sarsi coming and going, bringing in some beaver, for which they received tobacco, rum, and trifles, and occasionally a gift of clothing to some man who had brought in an especially good lot of beaver. On November 4 the traders had in store 720 beaver, 33 grizzly bears, 20 buffalo robes, 300 muskrats, 100 lynx—not a bad trade for the season of the year.

November 9: "I rode up river about three miles to the rising ground on the north side, where Mr. Pang-man carved his name on the pine in 1790. This spot was the utmost distant of discoveries on the Saskatchewan toward the Rocky Mountains, of which, indeed, we had a tolerable view from this hill. The winding course of the river is seen until it enters the gap of the mountains, a little east of which appears another gap, through which, I am told, flows a south branch that empties into the Saskatchewan some miles above this place. The mountains appear at no great distance, all covered with snow; while we have none." The arrival this day of an express from below brought the news that an act of Parliament had been passed prohibiting the sale of spirituous liquors among the Indians.

The weather was now cold, the river occasionally choking up with ice, and snow fell. The canoes were split by the frost, and axes broke while the men were chopping with them. Men were sent out to get dogs for hauling, and as soon as the country became covered with snow, dog trains were sent down to lower Terre Blanche to bring up goods. Gros Ventres of the Prairie had just returned with sixty horses, stolen from the Flatheads, and others had gone off to try to take more. On the 27th of December, "Our hunter had killed a large grizzly bear, very lean, and, as usual with them in that state, very wicked; he narrowly escaped being devoured. They seldom den for the winter, as black bears do, but wander about in search of prey."

In February Henry made a trip to the Continental Divide, to where the waters of a branch of the Columbia rise within a very short distance of the Saskatchewan. He was obliged to tell the Piegans that he was going down the stream instead of up. Travel was by dog sledge, and over the frozen river, in which there were no air holes to be seen. On the way up, during the first day, they found a carcass of a deer that had been killed by wolves. The ice was of great thickness, so that at night, when a man was endeavoring to get water from the stream, he was obliged to cut with an axe for an hour before it flowed. As they went up the stream, the banks grew higher and nearer together, and at one point there were seen tracks of animals coming down the mountains among the rocks. "These are the gray sheep which have been seen about this place, and which delight to dwell among precipices and caverns, where they feed on a peculiar sort of clay." The reference is evidently to a "lick," a place where a mineral spring has given a saline taste to the earth round about. Such licks are common enough in the Rocky Mountains and many other places, and are regularly visited by sheep, which often gnaw away the earth in many places and over a considerable space. A little further up the stream they were in full view of the mountains. The river being low, flowed through numerous channels, some of which were free from ice; others which were frozen, had water flowing over the ice. On account of the wind there was little snow on the gravel bars, and the hauling was hard for the dogs and bad for the sleds.

On the 5th he overtook his people, who had started several days earlier, and who had killed three sheep and three cows. Here Henry stopped for a day, and sent off three men to hunt sheep, wishing to obtain the entire skin of an old ram. This they failed to secure, but one of them had seen the tracks of a white goat. The next day, keeping on, sheep tracks were seen, and Henry indulges in reflections on the wonderful places which they passed over, and their sureness of foot. The following day, "Shortly after leaving camp, we saw a herd of about thirty rams feeding among the rocks on the north side. They did not seem to be shy, though the noise of our bells and dogs was sufficient to have alarmed a herd of buffalo two miles off. The rams stood for some time gazing at us, and did not retreat until some people with dogs climbed up to fire at them, when they set off at full speed, directing their course up the mountain. I was astonished to see with what agility they scaled the cliffs and crags. At one time I supposed them hemmed in by rocks so steep and smooth that it seemed impossible for any animal to escape being dashed to pieces below, but the whole herd passed this place on a narrow horizontal ledge, without a single misstep, and were soon out of sight." Here Henry seems to have seen his first flock of dippers, which interested him not a little; and on the ice above this point he found the remains of a ram which had been run down by wolves and devoured.

There were plenty of buffalo on Kutenai Plains, which they now reached, but they killed none, a hunter firing at a sheep having driven them off. Moose and elk were plenty here, as well as white-tailed deer and grizzly bears; and here, too, were seen "white partridges"—in other words, white-tailed ptarmigan. Still following up the river, the snow grew deeper and deeper, so that at length they were obliged to take to snow-shoes, and to beat a path for their dogs. On the 9th of February they reached the Continental Divide, and passing through thick forest came to a small opening where three streams of Columbian waters join. The brook thus formed is Blueberry Creek, which runs into the Columbia. That morning, when leaving camp, in the Kutenai Park, a place where the Kutenais used to drive buffalo over the cliff, Henry had left his hunter, Desjarlaix, behind, telling him to try to kill a white goat. Shortly after his return to the camp, his hunter came in and told Henry that he had seen large white goats on the mountain, directly off Kutenai Park, where he had been trying since daybreak to get a shot at them. "He was almost exhausted, the snow being up to his middle, and the ground so steep as not to admit of snow-shoes. He had worked about a quarter of the way up the mountain, but had been obliged to abandon the attempt to reach the animals. They did not appear the least shy, but stood gazing at him, and cropping the stunted shrubs and blades of long grass which grew in crevices in places where the wind had blown the snow off. As I desired to obtain the skin of one of those animals, I gave him dry mittens and trousers to put on, went with him to the foot of the mountain, and I pointed out a place where I supposed it was possible to reach them. We could perceive all three, still standing abreast on the edge of a precipice, looking down upon us, but they were at a great height. He once more undertook the arduous task of climbing up in pursuit of them, while I returned to the camp. A hunter in these mountains requires many pairs of shoes (i. e., moccasins), the rocks are so rough and sharp that a pair of good strong moose-leather shoes are soon torn to pieces. The white goat is [not] larger than the gray sheep, thickly covered with long, pure white wool, and has short black, nearly erect horns. These animals seldom leave the mountain tops; winter or summer they prefer the highest regions. Late in the evening my hunter returned, exhausted, and covered with ice, having labored in the snow till his clothes became all wet, and soon after stiff with ice. He had ascended half way when the sun set, which obliged him to return. "

The next day Henry wished to send his hunter out again, but the poor fellow was so done up and his legs so swollen by the exercise of the day before that the effort was given up. They therefore started down the river, past the camp of the day before, where they found that the men had killed sheep, buffalo, a large black wolf, and a Canada lynx. The following day they saw a herd of rams on the rocks, and tried to get a shot, "but one of our men, being some distance ahead, and not observing them, continued to drive on, which alarmed and drove them up into the mountains. I regretted this very much as the herd consisted of old rams with enormous horns; one of them appeared to be very lean, with extraordinarily heavy horns, whose weight he seemed scarcely able to support. When the horns grow to such great length, forming a complete curve, the ends project on both sides of the head so as to prevent the animal from feeding, which, with their great weight, causes the sheep to dwindle to a mere skeleton and die. We soon afterward saw a herd of buffalo on the hills near the river, but on hearing the sound of the bells they ran away, and appeared much more shy than sheep." Continuing down the river, they reached the fort, February 13.

Henry finished the winter at Rocky Mountain House, and in May, 1811, started down the river to Fort Augustus.

There is now a long break, extending over two years, in Henry's journal, the third part, as Dr. Coues has divided it, being devoted to the Columbia. November 15, 1813, finds him at Astoria, the scene of so many trials of fur traders, and the place about which so many hooks have been written. The journal for the two intervening years has not been discovered. It may yet turn up and, if it shall, will undoubtedly give us much interesting information. What we know is that Henry came to Astoria from Fort William, but how he got there we do not know. His party came, however, in bark canoes, for a contemporary writer says as much as that. Not only was Henry here on the west coast, but his nephew, William Henry, who had been frequently associated with him in past years, even back on the Pembina River.

The character of the Indians here interested Henry, and he makes his usual frank and not always elegant comments on them. On November 30 the British ship "Raccoon" reached Astoria, captured the place, and thereafter it was a British trading-post, under the name Fort George. Duncan McDougal, the chief factor, had left the Northwest Company to enter Mr. Astor's service, in 1810, but without any particular hesitation he surrendered to the British ship, although the Indians were only too anxious to defend the place for the Americans, and to assist the white men in holding it. As a matter of fact, however, most of the employees of Mr. Astor were British subjects, and were very glad to have the place taken.

Much time was expended on the final settlement of the accounts between McDougal, who had been Mr. Astor's representative at Astoria, and the representatives of the Northwest Company, who were now in possession; but at last this was all finished, and on December 31 the "Raccoon" made sail, and disappeared behind Point Adams.

Rains were constant, and the fur traders and their property suffered much from wet and dampness. With this spring, Henry for the first time seems to have seen the Indians catching smelts and herrings, and describes the well-known rake used on the western coast: "They had a pole about ten feet long and two inches thick, on one side of which was fixed a range of small sharp bones, like teeth, about one inch long, a quarter of an inch asunder, the range of teeth ascending six feet up the blade. This instrument is used in smelt fishery." As is well known, the Indians sweep this instrument through the water in places where the small fish are schooled, and at each sweep of the rake from one to half dozen fish are impaled, when the implement being brought to the surface and held over the canoe, the fish are jarred from it into the vessel. On the 28th of February a ship, the Pedler," brought Mr. Hunt, who was second to Mr. Astor in the management of the Pacific Fur Company, and headed the original overland Astor expedition in 1810-1812.

There was now a gathering of all the partners and those interested in the Northwest Company and the Pacific Fur Company for a settling of accounts between Hunt and McDougal. The "Pedler" got under way April 2. On April 4 a brigade of ten canoes set off up the river. This left a small contingent at Fort George, and this contingent very ill provided. They had a little spoiled California beef and a little bad grease. In addition they had only the smelts caught by the Indians and these were often spoiled, so that the men refused to eat them, and the little provision that they could buy from the Indians, a few beaver, deer, and elk—called biche by Henry. As a result many of the men were ill, and fourteen were in hospital at one time. To help out the lack of sugar or molasses, they experimented in making a decoction of camas root, which produces a kind of syrup, preferable to molasses for sweetening coffee. Among the skins brought in by the Indians were occasionally those of tame cats, which Henry conjectures to be the offspring of cats lost from Spanish ships that had been cast ashore.

April 22 a ship was seen, which proved to be the "Isaac Todd," on which came Mr. J. C. McTavish, who was to take charge of Fort George as governor. Work went on; loading and unloading the ship, buying provisions, the annoyances of small quarrels between various people. The entry in Henry's diary of May 2I, 1814, is partly finished, and then ends with a dash; for on Sunday, May 22, Alexander Henry, Donald McTavish, and five sailors were drowned while going out to the ship.

So perished Alexander Henry, the younger, after twenty-two years of adventure, extending from the Great Lakes to the Pacific, and from the Missouri River north to Lake Athabasca. It may fairly be said of all the books that have been written by the early travellers and traders in America this is the most interesting and the most curious.