Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory. — Disraeli

Trails of the Pathfinders - G. B. Grinnell




Alexander Mackenzie—I

Of the early explorers of the north none is more celebrated than Alexander Mackenzie, the first man to penetrate from the interior to the Frozen Ocean, and the first in the farther north to cross the continent. Among the leaders of the northwest he is pre-eminent as a discoverer, and of the early northmen his name is the most often mentioned. His journeyings—that to the Arctic made in the year 1789, and that across the continent in 1792 and 1793—are told of in a splendid volume, published in London in the year 1801, entitled, Voyages from Montreal and the River St. Lawrence, Through the Continent of North America to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans, in the rear 1789 and 1793. Its publication was soon followed by the conferring of knighthood on the author.

The earliest explorations of the interior of this continent were all of them by water. By water the first missionaries pushed their way up the St. Lawrence and through the Great Lakes, and then crossing over by short portages to the Mississippi, journeyed down that great highway of more modern times until they came to the Gulf of Mexico. Later, missionaries and explorers and traders, still from Montreal, followed the water trail up the Great Lakes to the Grand Portage, and thence pressed westward until they reached Lake Winnipeg, the Saskatchewan, and all that broad country which lies east of the northern Rocky Mountains. The frail birch canoe carried their scanty provisions and their goods for trade, and returned laden to the gun-wale with rich packages of furs. Later still, when the people of the United States began to push westward, it was down the Alleghany and the Ohio—still largely by water—that their journeyings were conducted.

Alexander Mackenzie was a fur trader, and he made his way westward, by the usual route, to the Grand Portage, Lake Winnipeg, then up the Saskatchewan and across to Fort Chipewyan, on the Lake of the Hills—now known as Athabaska Lake. Though the journey was long, it was full of interest; the country had been seen by few white people, it abounded in life of many descriptions, all wild, and for the most part undisturbed. He reached Fort Chipewyan with ninety or a hundred men, and without any provision for their sustenance; but the lake was full of fish, its shores abounded with game. The autumn fishing was successful, and the cold during the winter intense, so that fish were caught in great numbers and frozen, remaining good until spring. During the spring and fall vast flocks of wild fowl resorted to the lakes, and immense numbers were killed, so that for short terms the geese supported the life of the traders.

In 1783 and 1784 the Northwest Fur Company had been established, in opposition to the Hudson's Bay Company, and included among its partners many of the most celebrated traders of the north. Mackenzie had for five years been employed in the counting house of Messrs. Gregory and McLeod, and was admitted a partner in the Northwest Fur Company, and went to the Indian country in 1785. How enormous the trade that this company carried on is shown by a list of the returns for a single year, which gives io6,000 beaver skins, 2,100 bear, 4,600 otter, 17,006 musquash, 32,000 marten, 6,000 lynx, boo wolverine, 1,650 fisher, besides a less number of fox, kit-fox, wolf, elk, raccoon and deer skins, and buffalo robes. Mackenzie was astronomer as well as trader. He was also an observer who considered the economic possibilities of the country, its fauna and its flora, and especially the game, as well as the human inhabitants.

Mackenzie started from Fort Chipewyan, on the south side of the Lake of the Hills, June 3, 1789, in a birch-bark canoe. His crew consisted of four Canadians, a German, and two Indian women. An Indian interpreter, known as English Chief, and his two wives journeyed in a small canoe, while two young Indians followed in a third. English Chief had been one of the followers of a chief who was with Mr. Hearne on his explorations to the Coppermine River. A fourth canoe, in charge of one of the clerks of the company, Mr. Le Roux, accompanied them, carrying a load of trade goods and presents, together with a part of the provisions and ammunition of the expedition. Their route was without much adventure until they reached Slave Lake, still covered with ice, somewhat melted near the shore. The gnats and mosquitoes which had troubled them during the first few days that they had been on their way, here left them. Mackenzie says: "The Indians informed me that at a very small distance from either bank of the river are very extensive plains frequented by large herds of buffaloes: while the moose and reindeer keep in the woods that border on it. The beavers, which are in great numbers, build their habitations in small lakes and rivers, as in the larger streams the ice carries everything along with it during the spring. The mud banks in the river are covered with wild fowl, and we this morning killed two swans, ten geese, and one beaver, without suffering the delay of an hour; so that we might have soon filled the canoe with them, if that had been our object." That same day they reached the house erected on Slave Lake by Messrs. Grant and Le Roux in 1786, and here they stopped and pitched their tents, as it seemed likely that the ice would detain them for some time. The nets were set and many fish were caught. Berries were already ripe, and the women were occupied in gathering them, while wild fowl were breeding, and they collected some dozens of their eggs. On Monday, June 15, the ice broke up near them, and cleared a passage to the islands opposite; and at sunset they embarked and crossed to them, where they stopped to gum their canoes, and the next day set out again, following the shores of the lake. Ice interrupted their passage from time to time. They supplied themselves with food by means of their nets.

On the 18th, two of the hunters killed a reindeer and its fawn. The ice continued to hinder them, but they worked along slowly. On one of the islands that they passed reindeer were seen, and seven killed. The island was named Isle de Carre Boeuf. Here occurs a somewhat unusual usage of the term pemmican, described to be "fish dried in the sun, and afterward pounded for the convenience of carriage." The more common meaning of the term is, flesh dried and pounded and mixed with grease—as buffalo pemmican, elk pemmican, caribou pemmican. On Tuesday, the 23d, the explorer met with a little camp—three lodges—of Red-Knife Indians, so called from their copper knives. They informed the explorer that others of their people were near at hand. These Indians now known as Yellow-Knives,—are of Athabaskan stock, thus allied to the Hare, Dog-Rib, and Chipewyan peoples, also to the Navajos and Apaches of the south. They possessed some furs, and Mr. Le Roux secured from them eight packs of good beaver and marten skins. They seemed to know little or nothing about the country to the north, and Mackenzie's inquiries brought forth no useful information.

The ice in the lake was still troublesome, though breaking up fast. On Monday, June 29, they entered the river by which Slave Lake discharges to the north, and made good progress down it. On both sides of the river the Indians reported that there were extensive plains, which abounded in buffalo and moose-deer. By this time the wild fowl had begun to molt, and the Indians no longer troubled to shoot them, but pursued them in their canoes, killing them with sticks or capturing them alive. On the 1st of July, keeping on down the river, they made a cache of provisions on an island. By this time they had come in sight of high mountains to the west, barren and rocky at the top, but well wooded on the slopes.

On July 3 the current was stronger, and their progress still more rapid. They saw frequent signs of camps, but none of very recent occupation; but on the 5th, smoke was seen on the north shore of the river, and as the canoes drew nearer, natives were discovered running about in apparent alarm. Some took refuge in the woods, others hurried to their canoes. The hunters landed, and calling out to the Chipewyans in their own tongue, assured them that the party was a friendly one, and after some difficulty the Indians became convinced that there was no danger. These were five families of two different tribes, the Slave and the Dog-Rib. Mackenzie offered them the pipe, though it was quite apparent that they were unacquainted with tobacco, and also gave them a drink of grog, which also seemed new to them. However, they appreciated the beauties of knives, beads, awls, rings, hatchets, etc., and soon became so trustful that "They became more familiar even than we expected, for we could not keep them out of our tents; though I did not observe that they attempted to purloin anything.

"The information that they gave respecting the river had so much of the fabulous that I shall not detail it, it will be sufficient just to mention their attempts to persuade us that it would require several winters to get to the sea, and that old age would come upon us before the period of our return; we were also to encounter monsters of such horrid shapes and destructive power as could only exist in their wild imagination. They added, besides, that there were two impassable falls in the river, the first of which was about thirty days' march from us."

While these stories did not affect Mackenzie, they did influence his Indians, who were already tired of the voyage, and anxious to turn back, and it required some effort to convince them that it was better to go on. One of the natives was persuaded to accompany them as a guide, and though he afterward wished to withdraw, he was not allowed to, and with some ceremony he finally took his unwilling departure with the white men. These people used bone knives, were tattooed on the face, wore a goose-quill, or a small piece of wood, through the nose, and used vessels woven of wattap—the roots of the spruce or tamarack—in which they boiled their food by hot stones. Arrows were pointed with horn, flint, iron, or copper, and their axes were made of stone. From the neighboring Red-Knives and Chipewyans, by barter for skins, they obtained small pieces of iron, from which also they made knives. Their awls were of iron or horn.

The guide whom they took from this country was anxious to return to his people, and had to be watched constantly to prevent his escape. As the explorers passed on northward they were constantly in sight of the ridge of snowy mountains to the west. "Our conductor informed us that great numbers of bears and small white buffaloes frequent those mountains, which are also inhabited by Indians." These white buffalo have been thought to be white goats; probably they were the white sheep (Ovis dally) which inhabit the mountains to the west of the Mackenzie River.

The next day more natives were met with, who, as usual, fled on the approach of the white men. One old man, however, did not run, but approached the travellers, "and represented himself as too far advanced in life, and too indifferent about the short time he had to remain in the world, to be very anxious about escaping from any danger that threatened him; at the same time, he pulled his gray hairs from his head by handfuls to distribute among us, and implored our favor for himself and for his relations. Our guide, however, at length removed his fears, and persuaded him to recall the fugitives, who consisted of eighteen people." These joyfully received the presents of beads, knives, and awls, which were offered them, and overwhelmed the explorers with hospitable attentions, giving them food, which was gladly accepted. They told of dangers to be met with farther down the river, and some of the natives accompanied Mackenzie's people to point out the safest channel of the rapids, which they declared to be just beyond; but as a matter of fact there were no rapids. The river was about three hundred yards broad, and Mackenzie's soundings gave fifty fathoms of water.

Along the river there were almost continuous encampments of Indians, all of whom were spoken to, and all of whom traded food, such as hares, ptarmigan and fish, to the travellers. The last parties met with were Hare Indians, who told wonderful stories of danger and of fearful things to be met on the river; and these terrors were not distant, for according to the Indians, behind an island opposite their camp dwelt a spirit in the river which swallowed every person that approached it. Unfortunately, Mackenzie had no time to cross to the island, to see whether it would swallow him.

The people met a little farther along were more attractive than those seen earlier, many of whom had been sick, while these were "healthy, full of flesh, and clean in their persons." Their ornaments and utensils did not differ greatly from those farther up the river. They had a little iron, which they obtained from the Eskimos; their arrows were made of very light wood, and winged with two feathers, while their bows were of Eskimo type, made of two pieces spliced with sinew. Their shirts were not cut square at the bottom, but tapered to a point from the belt down-ward as low as the knee, before and behind, and these points were fringed. Over the breast, back, and shoulders their shirts were also fringed, the fringe being ornamented with the stone of a berry, which was drilled and run on each string of the fringe. The sleeves of the shirts were short and wide, and long mittens covered their hands and arms. Their leggings were like trousers, and the shoes sewed to the leggings.

These people told them that it would take ten more nights to reach the sea, but after three nights they would meet the Eskimo. The reports of some guns discharged as the canoes pushed off greatly alarmed the Indians, and the guide that they had hired at this place seemed inclined to leave them, until advised that the noise was a signal of friendship. The guide and two of his companions who accompanied them on their journey were merry fellows, singing not only their native songs, but others in imitation of the Eskimos. Not satisfied with singing, their guide proceeded to dance, and transferring himself to the white men's canoe, he danced in it, to their no small alarm lest it should be upset.

Mackenzie now began to be a little uneasy, for his provisions were growing scant, his hunters discouraged, and his men generally seemed anxious to return. Some of them declared that they must turn back, and the explorer was obliged to satisfy them by the assurance that he would go forward only seven days more, and if he did not then reach the sea, would return. They had now reached latitude 68, and the sun was continually above the horizon. On the 11th they met an abandoned camp of Indians, where were seen parts of the fragments of three canoes, and places where oil had been spilt. Later, an Eskimo hut was found, and about it a great deal of property. Now, they began to see fresh tracks of the Eskimos on the beach. According to their guide, they were approaching a large lake, where the Eskimos lived, and in which they killed large fish found there, which Mackenzie presumed must be whales. White bears, and other large animals not identified from the description, were told of, as well as the Eskimo canoes, which could conveniently carry four or five families.

On the 12th, in the morning, they landed where there were four huts. "The adjacent land is high and covered with short grass and flowers, though the earth was not thawed above four inches from the surface, beneath which was a solid body of ice. This beautiful appearance, however, was strongly contrasted with the ice and snow that was seen in the valleys. The soil, where there is any, is a yellow clay mixed with stones. These huts appear to have been abandoned during the last winter, and we had reason to think that some of the natives had been lately there, as the beach was covered with the tracks of their feet. Many of the runners and bars of their sledges were laid together near the houses in a manner that seemed to denote the return of the proprietors. There were also pieces of netting made of sinews, and some of bark of the willow. A thread of the former was platted, and no ordinary portion of time must have been employed in manufacturing so great a length of cord. A square stone kettle with a flat bottom also occupied our attention, which was capable of containing two gallons; and we were puzzled as to the means these people must, have employed to have chiseled it out of a solid rock into its present form."

When they had satisfied their curiosity they were about to re-embark, but were puzzled to know where they should go or what channel they should take. The lake was quite open to them to the westward, and the water very shallow, so much so that it was impossible to go very close to the shore. They therefore went to an island, where they camped, and, having set the net, Mackenzie and his interpreter climbed to the highest part of the island, from which they discovered solid ice, extending from the southwest by compass to the north and to the eastward. To the east were many islands.

As they passed along, on their walk of exploration, they came upon a number of white partridges, now becoming brown—the ptarmigan—and beautiful plover, which were breeding. There were also white owls, and presently they came upon an Eskimo grave.

Even the Indians and the Canadians, seeing that the time for turning back had almost come, began to regret that they must return without coming to the sea, not knowing that they were already upon it. For the next two or three nights they were several times obliged to move the baggage to keep the water from flowing about it, and at last Mackenzie concluded that this was the tide that was rising and falling. One morning many large animals were seen in the water, and Mackenzie recognized them as whales, and ordered the canoe to start in pursuit. Fortunately, just at this time a fog arose and the whales were not overtaken. These were white whales, and, the Indian guide stated, were one of the principal sources of food for the Eskimo.

All Mackenzie's efforts to meet these northern people failed, and on Thursday, the 16th of July, the canoes entered the river and began the return journey. They were still subsisting largely on the wild fowl that the Indians killed and the fish that they took in their nets, and these were barely enough to support them. Indeed, on some days the wild fowl were so shy that they could not be approached, and this obliged them to draw more or less on their store of provisions. However, on the 18th, and before they had gotten away from the country of the Eskimos, the hunters killed two reindeer, a very fortunate addition to their supply of food. But this killing of the reindeer was not without its unfortunate side, for it so alarmed their guide that he deserted that night. However, geese were plenty, and on the following day the hunters killed twenty-two, and the next day fifteen, and four swans.

They were now obliged to resort to the laborious and slow towing-line to ascend the river. They met a party of Indians, among whom was the brother of the guide who had recently deserted, and Mackenzie sat up all night to watch them. They were greatly interested when they saw him writing, wondering what he was doing. As the night drew on, some women came from the forest to the camp, and after remaining for a short time, went away. "Those who remained immediately kindled a small fire and layed themselves down to sleep around it, like so many whelps, having neither skins nor garments of any kind to cover them, notwithstanding the cold that prevailed. My people having placed their kettle of meat on the fire, I was obliged to guard it from the natives, who made several attempts to possess themselves of its contents; and this was the only instance I had hitherto discovered of their being influenced by a pilfering disposition. It might perhaps be a general opinion that provisions were a common property."

From here they continued to tow the canoe up the river. Some Indian huts seen were built of driftwood. On the slope of the beach, and on the inside, earth was dug away to form a level floor. Within these huts were drying scaffolds, covered with split fish, and fires made in different parts of the hut warmed and dried the air, and hastened the operation of drying. The Indians, probably the Loucheux, an Athabascan tribe, told him of the Eskimos who dressed like themselves, wore their hair short, and had two holes perforated, one on each side of the mouth, in line with the under lip, on which they placed long beads—the labrets, so well known as ornaments of the primitive Eskimos. They reported the animals of their country to be reindeer, bears, wolverines, martens, foxes, hares, and white buffaloes—white sheep (Ovis d alli)—and that the latter were only to be found in the mountains to the westward.

On the journey up the river the towing-line was much in use, but often, when the wind was north, it was possible to use the sail. For six days on this southward journey the party had not touched any of their provision stores, but in this time, Mackenzie says, they had consumed two reindeer, four swans, forty-five geese, and a considerable quantity of fish. "I have always observed that the northmen possessed very hearty appetites, but they were much exceeded by those with me since we entered this river. I should really have thought it absolute gluttony in my people, if my own appetite had not increased in a similar proportion.

He now began to hear, from the people whom he met, of a great river to the west of the one he was travelling on, and beyond the mountains, perhaps the Yukon or the Fraser. But the country through which this river ran was inhabited by strange creatures. "The Indians represented them as being of gigantic stature and adorned with wings, which, however, they never employed in flying; that they fed on large birds, which they killed with the greatest ease, though common men would be certain victims of their voracity if they ventured to approach them. They also described the people that inhabited the mouth of the river as possessing the extraordinary power of killing with their eyes, and devouring a large beaver at a single meal. They added that canoes of very large dimensions visited that place. These tales, however, they told not of their own knowledge, but from reports of other tribes."

It was at this camp that Mackenzie was obliged to shoot an Indian dog, which it was impossible to keep from interfering with his baggage, which, of course, contained the provisions. "It was in vain that I had remonstrated on this subject, so that I was obliged to commit the act which is just mentioned. When these people heard the report of the pistol, and saw the dog dead, they were seized with a very great alarm, and the women took the children on their backs and ran into the woods. I ordered the cause of this act of severity to be explained, with the assurance that no injuries would be offered to themselves. The woman, however, to whom the dog belonged was very much affected, and declared that the loss of five children during the preceding winter had not affected her so much as the death of this animal; but her grief was not of very long duration, and a few beads, etc., soon assuaged her sorrow."

On the way up the river, August 2, small springs of mineral water were observed, as well as lumps of iron ore, and finally a "coal mine," or bed of lignite, on fire. The beach was covered with coal, and the English Chief gathered some of it to be used as a black dye, to color porcupine quills. A little farther on the Indian hunters killed a beaver, whose fur was now beginning to grow long. Tracks of moose and reindeer were seen, but all of them old. Since the weather was growing cooler the reindeer would now leave the plains to come into the woods, for the mosquitoes were beginning to disappear. Though the river had fallen much the current was still very strong, and the work difficult. The weather was cold, and now their violent exercise scarcely kept them warm. The *women constantly remained in the canoes, making moose-skin moccasins for the men, who as constantly wore them out, a pair lasting not more than one day.

On the 7th they saw two reindeer on the beach before them, but the Indians, quarrelling to see which should be the first to get near them, alarmed the deer, which ran away. However, a female reindeer was killed, whose legs showed wounds, and it was supposed that she had been pursued by wolves, which devoured her young one. One of the young Indians took her udder, which was full of milk, and, squeezing it over some boiled corn, ate the mixture with great relish.

On the 10th, accompanied by one of his young Indians, Mackenzie strove without success to reach the mountains which were seen on the southwest of the river.

For the last few days the hunters had been unsuccessful, killing only a beaver, a few hares, and a few water-fowl, but on the 13th they reached the island where they had hidden their pemmican on the way down, and raising the cache, found themselves once more in plenty. A little later they saw another camp of Indians, who, very much frightened, drew their canoes up on the beach and fled to the woods, leaving much of their property behind them. This was pounced upon by Mackenzie's Indians, and he took his interpreter severely to task for their conduct. This brought on a more or less violent dispute, in the course of which the English Chief declared that he would accompany Mackenzie no farther, but would leave him and remain here. The Indian and all his relations wept bitterly, but after a few hours Mackenzie persuaded him to continue the journey, and propitiated him by a gift of rum.

On the 17th and 18th of August the hunters were more successful, and on the last day the English Chief killed a buffalo, while a few water-fowl were brought in daily. They now found signs of a Cree encampment and presently reached the entrance of Slave Lake. Coasting around this, often in heavy weather, they came upon Mr. Le Roux, from the fort there, and found that he had been somewhat successful in trading for skins, having five packs, principally of marten. Large game seemed abundant here, and the tracks of buffalo, moose, and reindeer were seen. On August 30 they reached Mr. Le Roux's house.

Here Mackenzie's Indians left him, on the ground that he travelled too fast for them and that they feared they should be drowned if they followed so reckless a sailor. Mr. Le Roux's establishment was left on the 31St of August, and twelve days later, after many difficulties from storm and cold, they reached Fort Chipewyan, having concluded a voyage which had occupied one hundred and two days.