History is Philosophy teaching by examples. — Thucydides

Trails of the Pathfinders - G. B. Grinnell

Alexander Mackenzie—II

On October 10, 1792, Alexander Mackenzie left Fort Chipewyan to proceed up Peace River, his purpose being to go up the stream so far as the season would permit, and, wintering wherever he must, to cross the mountains at its head and continue westward, if possible, to the Pacific Ocean.

Peace River takes its name from the settlement of their differences at Peace Point by the Knisteneaux and Beaver Indians. "When this country was formerly invaded by the Knisteneaux they found the Beaver Indians inhabiting the land about the Portage La Loche; and the ad joining tribes were those whom they called Slaves. They drove both these tribes before them, when the latter proceeded down the river from the Lake of the Hills, in consequence of which that part of it obtained the name of the Slave River. The former proceeded up the river, and when the Knisteneaux made peace with them, this place was settled to be the boundary."

As they proceeded, the weather was so cold and raw as to make travel unpleasant, but on the afternoon of October 17 they reached the falls, where there were two considerable portages, and where they found recent fires, showing that the canoes that Mackenzie had despatched some days before were not far ahead.

On the z 9th they reached what is termed the Old Establishment, an early fort, and found that the people preceding them had slept there the previous night, and had carelessly set the large house on fire. But for Mackenzie's arrival all the buildings would have been destroyed. On either side of Peace River here were extensive plains, which offered pasturage to great herds of buffalo.

The next morning they reached the fort, and were received with shouts of rejoicing and volleys from the guns, by the Indians, who now expected rum and a carouse. About three hundred Indians belonged here, who, though apparently Chipewyan by race, had adopted the manners and customs of their former enemies, the Crees. The contrast between the neat and decent appearance of the men and the very disagreeable looks of the women was striking. After staying here only long enough to give some advice and presents to the Indians and his instructions to Mr. Findlay, he kept on up the river. It was constantly growing colder and the ice gave some trouble, but on November i he reached the place where he expected to winter.

Two men had been sent forward in the spring to cut and square timber for the erection of a house, and about seventy Indians had joined them. The men had worked well, and prepared timber enough for a considerable fort, as well as a ditch in which to set up the palisades of a stockade. Experience at the Old Establishment had shown that many vegetables would grow well in this soil and climate, but this was no time to think about gardening. What was more important was the fact that the plains on either side of the river abounded in buffalo, elk, wolves, foxes, and bears, while a ridge of highlands or mountains to the westward was inhabited by great numbers of deer, being called Deer Mountain.

As with all traders, Mackenzie's first business was to call the Indians together and give them some rum, tobacco, and advice. They listened to the advice, drank the rum, and smoked the tobacco, promising everything that he asked.

On the 22d of November—although the side-head giving the date in the printed volume says December—the river froze up, so that the hunters had a bridge on which to cross. Game was plenty, yet but for this means of crossing the stream they might have suffered from lack of food. It was here the practice of medicine was forced on Mackenzie. By means of simple remedies and by close personal attention to each case he cured a number of severe ailments among the Indians.

Of one of these he says: "On my arrival here last fall, I found that one of the young Indians had lost the use of his right hand by the bursting of a gun, and that his thumb had been maimed in such a manner as to hang only by a small strip of flesh. Indeed, when he was brought to me his wound was in such an offensive state and emitted such a putrid smell that it required all the resolution I possessed to examine it. His friends had done everything in their power to relieve him, but as it consisted only in singing about him and blowing upon his hand, the wound, as may be well imagined, had got into the deplorable state in which I found it. I was rather alarmed at the difficulty of the case, but as the young man's life was in a state of hazard, I was determined to risk my surgical reputation, and accordingly took him under my care. I immediately formed a poultice of bark, stripped from the roots of the spruce fir, which I applied to the wound, having first washed it with the juice of the bark. This proved a very painful dressing. In a few days, however, the wound was clean and the proud flesh around it destroyed. I wished very much in this state of the business to have separated the thumb from the hand, which I well knew must be effected before the cure could be performed, but he would not consent to that operation till, by the application of vitriol, the flesh by which the thumb was suspended was shriveled almost to a thread. When I had succeeded in this object I perceived that the wound was closing rather faster than I had desired. The salve I applied on the occasion was made of the Canadian balsam, wax, and tallow dropped from a burning candle into water. In short, I was so successful that about Christmas my patient engaged in an hunting party, and brought me the tongue of an elk; nor was he finally ungrateful. When he left me I received the warmest acknowledgments, both from himself and the relations with whom he departed, for my care of him. I certainly did not spare my time or attention on the occasion, as I regularly dressed the wound three times a day during the course of a month."

Just before Christmas, Mackenzie moved from his tent into his house, and now began the erection of houses for the men. Long before this the thermometer had been down far below zero, yet the men had been lying out in the cold and snow without any shelter except an open shed. "It would be considered by the inhabitants of a milder climate as a great evil to be exposed to the weather at this rigorous season of the year, but these people are inured to it, and it is necessary to describe in some measure the hardships which they undergo without a murmur, in order to convey a general notion of them.

"The men who were now with me left this place in the beginning of last May and went to the Rainy Lake in canoes, laden with packs of fur, which, from the immense length of the voyage and other occurring circumstances, is a most severe trial of patience and perseverance; there they do not remain a sufficient time for ordinary repose, when they take a load of goods in exchange, and proceed on their return, in a great measure, day and night. They had been arrived near two months, and all that time had been continually engaged in very toilsome labor, with nothing more than a common shed to protect them from the frost and snow. Such is the life which these people lead, and is continued with unremitting exertion till their strength is lost in premature old age."

Mackenzie was now receiving plenty of beaver from the Indians. But, on the other hand, he was not without the usual annoyances to which the fur trader was exposed. The Indians showed a tendency to quarrel among themselves, especially over their gambling at the platter game, which is a sort of throwing of dice, the same, apparently, as the seed game, so common among all the Indians of the plains. On the whole, however, the winter passed quietly, and geese were seen on the 13th of March.

In closing his account of this winter, passed high up on Peace River, Mackenzie gives some account of the Beaver and Rock Mountain Indians living there, who, he says, did not exceed 150 men capable of bearing arms. As late as 1786, when the first traders from Canada arrived on the banks of the Peace River, the natives employed bows and snares, but since then they had become well armed, bows were little used, and snares were unknown. These Indians were excellent hunters and such hard workers in the field that they were extremely lean, being always in the best of training. When a relation died the men blackened the face, cut off their hair, and gashed their arms with knives and arrows. The women often cut off a finger at the death of a favorite son, husband, or father. The Indians told of a time when no timber grew on the hills and plains along Peace River, but they were covered with moss, and the reindeer was the only animal. As the timber spread on them, elk and buffalo made their appearance, and the reindeer retired to the range of highlands called Deer Mountain.

The month of April passed, and early in May Mackenzie loaded six canoes with the furs and provisions he had purchased, and despatched them to Fort Chipewyan. He, however, retained six of the men, who agreed to accompany him up Peace River on his western voyage of discovery, and left his winter interpreter and another person in charge of the fort, to supply the natives with their ammunition during the summer. On the 9th day of May he embarked in a canoe twenty-five feet long, loaded with about 3,000 pounds of provisions, goods for presents, arms, ammunition, and baggage, and ten persons, two of whom were hunters and interpreters.

The first day's journey was through an interesting and beautiful country. "From the place which we quitted this morning the west side of the river displayed a succession of the most beautiful scenery I had ever beheld. The ground rises at intervals to a considerable height and stretches inward to a considerable distance; at every interval or pause in the rise there is a very gently ascending space or lawn, which is alternate with abrupt precipices to the summit of the whole, or, at least, as far as the eye could distinguish. This magnificent theatre of nature has all the decorations which the trees and animals of the country can afford it; groves of poplars in every shape vary the scene, and their intervals are enlivened with vast herds of elks and buffaloes, the former choosing the steeps and uplands, and the latter preferring the plains. At this time the buffaloes were attended with their young ones, who were frisking about them; and it appeared that the elks would soon exhibit the same enlivening circumstance. The whole country displayed _an exuberant verdure; the trees that bear a blossom were advancing fast to that delightful appearance, and the velvet rind of their branches reflecting the oblique rays of a rising or setting sun, added a splendid gaiety to the scene, which no expressions of mine are qualified to describe. The east side of the river consists of a range of high land covered with the white spruce and the soft birch, while the banks abound with the alder and the willow. The water continued to rise, and the current being proportionately strong, we made a greater use of setting poles than paddles."

On the following days camps of Beaver Indians were seen, and Mackenzie was somewhat anxious lest they should encourage his hunters to desert, but this did not take place. Game continued abundant, and on the 13th they saw along the river tracks of large bears, some of which were nine inches' wide. "We saw one of their dens, or winter quarters, called watee, in an island, which was ten feet deep, five feet high, and six feet wide, but we had not yet seen one of those animals. The Indians entertain great apprehension of this kind of bear which is called the grisly bear, and they never venture to attack it but in a party of at least three or four."

The land on both sides of the river was high and irregular, and the banks and the rocky cliffs exhibited strata of red, green, and yellow colors. "Some parts, indeed, offer a beautiful scenery, in some degrees similar to that which we passed on the second day of our voyage, and equally enlivened with the elk and the buffalo, who were feeding in great numbers and unmolested by the hunter." The next day they passed a river, of the mouth of which Mackenzie says: "This spot would be an excellent situation for a fort or factory, as there is plenty of wood and every reason to believe that the country abounds in beaver. As for the other animals, they are in evident abundance, as in every direction the elk and the buffalo are seen in possession of the hills and the plains." Two elks were killed and a buffalo wounded that day. The land above their camp spread out in an extensive plain, gradually rising to a high ridge, chiefly grassy, and dotted with poplar and white birch trees. "The country is so crowded with animals as to have the appearance, in some places, of a stall-yard, from the state of the ground and the quantity of dung which is scattered over it. The soil is black and light. We this day saw two grisly and hideous bears."

Although the ascent of the river had not been easy and they had frequently been obliged to unload and repair their canoe, it was not until Sunday, the 19th, that they met rapids and cascades, which presented greater difficulties. The canoe was heavily laden, the current enormously swift, and broken constantly by rocks and shoals; the only means of advance was by the tow-line, and the beach was often narrow or wanting.

At the beginning of this very difficult stretch of water they found several islands of solid rock with but little soil upon them, the rock worn away near the water's surface, but unworn higher up, so that the islands presented, as it were, so many large tables, each of which was supported by a pedestal of a more circumscribed projection. On these islands geese were breeding.

Carrying over short distances, often crossing the river in a very swift water, in constant danger from the great stones which frequently fell from the banks above, and much of the time in the water, they pursued their way for a short distance over this very difficult passage. The work was terribly hard, and as far as they could see up the river there was no improvement of the channel. Therefore, Mackenzie sent out a party of six men to explore, and on their return that same night they reported that it was necessary to make a long carry—nine miles they said—before smooth water would be met with. The canoe was therefore unloaded, the baggage carried up to the top of the bank above the river, and then the canoe was fairly hauled up to the same height. There they camped. In two days' march from this place, carrying the load and the canoe, they again met quiet water.

The journal for Thursday, the 23d, enumerates the different sorts of trees which they saw, among which is named boispicant, a tree which Mackenzie had not seen before, but which was apparently the west-coast shrub—the devil's club, which grows in a few places on the eastern slope of the Continental Divide. Although he did not know it, Mackenzie was now quite close to the summit of the Rocky Mountains.

The river here was wide, flowing in great volume, and very swiftly but smooth. There were many animals in the country, for their tracks were seen everywhere; and when Mackenzie left a bundle of presents on a pole, as a good-will offering to any natives who might pass by, one of his Indians added to the bundle a small, round piece of green wood, chewed at one end to form a brush, such as the Indians use to pick out the marrow from bones. This was the sign of a country with many animals in it. At a number of points along the river they had found places where wood had been chopped with axes, showing that the Indians who had passed along here had had intercourse with the whites.

They were now flanked on both sides by high mountains covered with snow, and the cold was so severe that the men, although working hard, could not get along without their blanket coats. On the last day of May the men were so cold that they landed in order to kindle a fire.

Their great labor, so long continued, had made Mackenzie's people more or less discontented. They were tired of the journey and anxious to get back. Moreover, some wanted to go in one direction and some in another, and the forking of the river gave rise to open grumbling. However, Mackenzie handled them well, and they went on. On the 1st of June he says: "In no part of the Northwest did I see so much beaver-work within an equal distance as in the course of this day. In some places they had cut down several acres of large poplars; and we saw also a great number of these active and sagacious animals. The time which these wonderful creatures allot for their labors, whether in erecting their curious habitations or providing food, is the whole of the interval between the setting and the rising sun."

Ever since they had started the water in the river had been rising, since, of course, the advancing summer was melting the snows in the neighboring mountains and swelling all the streams. On the 5th of June Mackenzie left the canoe and ascending a high hill or mountain crossed the country, and climbing a tree looked ahead. He saw little that was interesting, and on returning to the river could see nothing of the canoe. Made anxious by this, he went forward to see if it was ahead, sending others of his people back to look for it. He had no food, and was preparing to lie out during the night when a shot from Mr. Mackay and the Indian who had been sent back announced that the canoe had been discovered. His people excused their slow progress by saying that their canoe had been damaged and that the travel had been harder than on any previous day, and Mackenzie pretended to believe them. The difficulties of the way were indeed great. The current was so strong that paddles could not be used, so deep that the poles were useless, while the bank of the river was so lined with willows and other trees that it was impossible to pass the line. The water was still rising and the current growing stronger. In spite of all these impediments they pushed on, and were already beginning to look for the carrying-place, where they should cross the mountains to the stream which ran toward the Pacific.

On Sunday, June 9, they noticed a small fire, and in a short time heard people in the timber, as if in a state of confusion. The Indians were frightened by the discovery of the explorer's party, and the explorer's party were not a little alarmed for fear they should be attacked. Very judiciously Mackenzie turned his canoe off to the opposite side of the river, and before they were half-way across two men appeared on the rising ground opposite them, brandishing their spears, displaying bows and arrows, and shouting. The interpreter called to the Indians, telling them that the white people were friendly, yet the Indians preserved a threatening attitude, but after some talk consented to the landing of the party, though evidently very much frightened. They laid aside their weapons, and when Mackenzie stepped forward and shook hands with each of them, one of them, trembling with fear, drew his knife from his sleeve and offered it to Mackenzie as a mark of submission.

These Indians had heard of white men before, but had never seen any, and were extremely curious as well as suspicious. They had but just reached here and had not yet made their camp, but on the discovery of Mackenzie's party had run away, leaving their property behind.

The explorer made a great effort to conciliate and to attach them to him, and during the day the whole party of Indians came in, three men, three women, and seven or eight boys and girls. They were delighted with the beads which were given them, and seemed to enjoy the pemmican, their own provision consisting entirely of dried fish. They possessed some iron, which they said they obtained from people distant about eleven days' march, and that those people travelled for a month to reach the country of other tribes, who lived in houses and who extended their journeys to the Stinking Lake, or the ocean, where they traded with white people, who came in boats as large as islands.

This account discouraged Mackenzie, who feared that the end of his journey was far distant. However, he continued his efforts to lull the suspicions of the Indians, and treated them and their children with especial kindness. The next day, sitting about the fire and listening to the talk of the Indians and interpreters, some portion of which he could understand, he recognized that one of the. Indians spoke of a great river flowing near the source of the one which they were ascending, and of portages leading to a small river, which discharged into the great river; and a little patient work led the Indian to describe what seemed a practicable route toward the ocean.

These Indians were of low stature, not exceeding five feet six or seven inches, lean, round-faced, with pierced noses and loose-hanging hair. They wore robes of the skins of the beaver, the ground-hog, or the reindeer, dressed with the hair on. Their leggings and moccasins were of dressed moose, elk, or reindeer skin. They wore collars of grizzly-bear claws. Their cedar bows were six feet in length, and bore a short iron spike on one end, and so might be used as a spear or lance. They also carried lances headed with iron or bone. Their knives and axes were of iron. They made lines of rawhide, which were fine and strong, while their nets and fishing-lines were of willow bark and nettles. Their hooks were of bone set in wood, their kettles of basketry, their spoons of horn or wood. Their canoes were made of spruce bark. Among certain presents given Mackenzie before he parted from these people were a net made of nettles and "a white horn in the shape of a spoon, which resembles the horn of the buffalo of the Coppermine River"—by which undoubtedly is meant the musk-ox—"but their description of the animal to which it belonged does not answer to that." This horn was probably that of a mountain sheep.

With a guide engaged from these people Mackenzie pushed on, promising the Indians that he would return in two months. The journey up the river was difficult, and the canoe by this time was in bad shape, so that a little jar caused it to leak, and repairs were frequent. At length they left the main stream, by the instruction of the guide, who declared that it began only a short distance away, having its origin in a great valley which was full of snow, the melting of which supplied the river. The branch which they went up was only about ten yards broad and the one they now entered still narrower. The current was slow, and the channel so crooked that it was sometimes difficult to work the canoe. Soon they entered a small lake choked with driftwood, and camped at an old Indian camp. Beaver were abundant here, as were swans and geese, but they killed none of them, for fear of alarming any natives by the discharge of fire-arms. This Mackenzie regarded as the highest source of the Peace River.

At the head of the lake they found a carry where there was a beaten path, about eight hundred yards long, to another small lake. From here two streams were seen tumbling down the rocks from the right and emptying into the lake that they had left, while two others, falling from the opposite side, poured into the lake they were approaching. Now they had crossed the Continental Divide, and instead of fighting with the current they would be going down the stream. We may imagine something of what Mackenzie's feelings must have been when he had surmounted the Divide and saw before him a direct passage to the western ocean. But his troubles were by no means over.

From the lake they passed into a small river, full of wood which had slipped down the mountain side, and which constantly obstructed the way. At first there was scarcely water enough to float the canoe, but the water grew deeper, and toward evening they entered another lake. Its outlet was very swift, and they had difficulty in keeping the canoe from being driven against the trees which had fallen across it.

Men sent ahead down the river to report on its practicability came back with terrible stories of rapids, fallen trees, and large stones. The guide was now very uncomfortable, and wished to return, but this, of course, was not permitted.


After carrying around the nearest obstacles they pushed off again, but the force of the current was so great as to drive the canoe sideways down the river again and break her. Mackenzie and the men jumped overboard, but before they could straighten her course or stop her they came to deeper water, and were obliged to re-embark, one man being left behind in the river. Almost immediately they drove against a rock, which shattered the stern of the canoe, and now the vessel darted to the other side of the river and the bow was smashed as well as the stern. The foreman tried to check her by holding to branches of a tree, but was pulled out of the canoe and ashore. A moment later she struck some rocks, which broke several large holes in the bottom, and in a moment every one was overboard trying to hold up the wreck. The strength of the current, however, forced them down the stream several hundred yards, but at last the vessel was guided into shallow water, and an eddy, and there stopped and dragged to shore. In a short time the man that they had left behind joined them, and they were now able to see what their condition was. They had lost some of their baggage and the whole of their stock of balls, but they still had some lead in the form of shot, from which bullets might be made. The men were frightened and anxious to get back, but a liberal dose of rum with a hearty meal and some encouraging words from their leader quieted their fears, and made them willing to go on. Men were sent off to look for bark with which to repair the canoe and also to look for the main river, which their guide told them was not far distant. These men came back with unsatisfactory reports, declaring that the river they were following was quite impracticable, while they had not been able to see the other larger river.

The next day the canoe, having been repaired, was lightened and a part of the men took her slowly down the river, while the remainder carried the baggage along the shore. It was evident that this stream could not be followed much farther, and again exploring parties were sent out to see if the great river could not be found. They saw it, but declared that to reach it would be very difficult. That night Mackenzie, as usual, sat up to watch the guide, so that he should not desert, but Mr. Mackay, who relieved him, permitted the man to slip away, and he was not seen again. The river that they were descending became more and more swift and rough, and was, in fact, wholly impracticable. It was now determined to cut a way for the canoe across a neck of the land, and at eight o'clock that night they had the inexpressible satisfaction of finding themselves "on the bank of a navigable river on the western side of the first great range of mountains."

Rain the next morning postponed their start until eight o'clock, when they were on the water and driven by a strong current, which, though it carried them along swiftly, was perfectly safe, since the river seemed deep. The stream was constantly joined by other rivers, and after a time it broadened out and the current became slow, so that they proceeded with more deliberation. An Indian cabin of recent construction was seen on the shore, and toward night a smoke on the bank indicated natives.