... we are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure. — Samuel Johnson

Trails of the Pathfinders - G. B. Grinnell




Alexander Mackenzie—III

The next day the forests seemed to be on fire, since clouds of thick smoke rose from the wood with a strong odor of burning resin. On the afternoon of June 19 they saw smoke on the shore, but before they could reach land the natives had deserted their camp. Mackenzie sent his Indians after them, but they were threatening and discharged five arrows which, however, did no harm. They had left some property behind them which the men desired to take with them. A few things were taken and some useful implements were left in exchange. The next morning they were off early in a fog, and saw two "red deer" at the edge of the water. Another was seen and might have been killed, but for the dog which frightened it. These, Mackenzie says, are "not so large as the elk of the Peace River, but are the real red deer, which I never saw in the north, though I have been told that they are to be found in great numbers in the plains." Here the natives had stripped the bark from many of the spruce-trees, presumably to roof their cabins. A house was seen thirty feet long and twenty wide, evidently intended for occupation by more than one family.

The constant accidents to which their canoe had been subjected, and the carrying it from place to place, had so racked and broken it that it seemed almost hopeless to go farther in it. On Friday, the 22d, Mackenzie, recognizing the possibility that on his return he might have nothing to eat, made a cache of ninety pounds of pemmican in a deep hole, over which a fire was built.

The next day, as they went on, they saw a small canoe drawn up to the edge of the woods, and soon after another came out from a small river. The man who was in it called to his friends, who at once appeared on the bank, armed with bows, arrows and spears. Although they were evidently much alarmed, they were very threatening in their gestures, and let fly a volley of arrows, which did no harm. Mackenzie landed on the other side of the river and stopped there, his interpreters trying to pacify the Indians, but without success. Two men went off in a canoe down the river, apparently to procure assistance. Mackenzie, now having taken the precaution to send one of his Indians with a gun into the woods to keep within easy reach of them and to shoot any one who might attack him, walked along the beach and invited the Indians to come over and see him, while his interpreter declared to them that these people were his friends. At length two natives came over in a canoe, but stopped a hundred yards from the shore. Mackenzie signalled to them to come to land, showing them various articles which might be attractive, such as looking-glasses, beads, and other things. Very slowly they drew nearer to the shore, but at first would not venture to land. At last they came near enough to get some beads, and were persuaded to come ashore and to sit down. It was found that his interpreters could talk with these people, but though Mackenzie tried to persuade them to come to his canoe they did not wish to, and asked his permission to go back to their own side of the river. This he granted, and their return to their friends was evidently a matter of great rejoicing, while the articles that they took back with them were examined with the greatest curiosity. After a little time the white men were asked to come over to their side, which they did. The Indians were still timid, but the distribution of a few trinkets among them and a little sugar to the children seemed to strengthen their confidence.

These people reported that the river ran to the south and that at its mouth white people were said to be building houses. There were rapids and falls and also very terrible people along the shores; people who lived in underground houses, and who might do them great harm. The night was spent here.

Still travelling in his crazy canoe, Mackenzie kept on. Before long he came to a camp, the Indians of which, as usual, threatened, but the new friends made the day before soon set their fears at rest. Among the Indians here was a Rocky Mountain captive, taken by the Crees, who had carried her across the mountains, but she had escaped from them, and in the effort to return to her own people had been captured by the tribe with whom she was now living. As he saw more and more of these natives he found not a few people from the Rocky Mountains with whom his own hunters could perfectly well converse, and under these circumstances he did everything in his power to learn about the course of the river down which he was passing. There was evidently a considerable trade between the coast and the upper country, for iron, brass, copper, and beads were had from the west.

Mackenzie now had remaining about thirty days' provisions, and not more than one hundred and fifty balls, with about thirty pounds of shot, which also might be used for balls, though with considerable waste. He was somewhat doubtful what to do, not only on account of the shortness of his supplies, but because of the great length of time that it would take him to journey to the sea and return. If he went to the coast by this river it would seem impossible to reach Athabaska the same season. He now called a council and asked the advice of his people, saying that he wished to try to reach the ocean overland, because he thought it would be a saving of time, but declared that he would not attempt to do this, but would go by water unless they would agree that if the land journey proved impracticable they would return with him and continue the voyage to the discharge of the waters, whatever the distance might be. The men were most loyal, and all declared that they would follow him wherever he should go. He now set out to go back up the river to that point which should seem nearest to the seashore. Their guide preferred to travel on the shore, and although Mackenzie did not greatly like this, he thought it unwise to oppose him. The next day, as some of the men were walking along the shore with the guide, they met some Indians who threatened them. The guide ran away, and Mackenzie's people kept with him. Finally the guide escaped from them and the people returned to their leader. Every one was now greatly alarmed, no one understanding what had happened, nor why the Indians were frightened, or enraged, whichever it might be. Mackenzie's people were absolutely panic-stricken, and it was all he could do to hold them together. They selected a position calculated for defence and distributed arms and ammunition.

Now followed a time of great anxiety. A young woman came to the camp, but they could secure no information from her. That night an old blind man was captured, returning to the house, having been driven from his hiding-place in the woods by hunger. He was fed and well treated and soon gained confidence. Occasionally an Indian was seen on the river in a canoe, but none of them would approach nor reply to any calls. At length, Mackenzie decided to leave this place and to continue up the river. The canoe was absolutely unfit for service, and one man was kept bailing all the time, to keep her afloat. On the 27th they stopped at an island where there seemed to be on the mainland trees which would furnish the proper material for a new canoe, and here they stopped and built one. Here, too, their guide, who had deserted them at the time of the panic, returned, claiming great credit for keeping the promise that he had earlier made to them. On the 1st of July, however, he left them again, with his companions, and went up the river. The old man they still had with them, but he was anxious to get away. The canoe having been completed and proving serviceable, they started up the river from this island, which they had named Canoe Island. It now seemed necessary to reduce the rations, again cutting the people down to two meals a day, which they did not at all like. Their food now consisted chiefly of the dried roes of fish, boiled with a little flour and grain, so as to make a substantial and not unpleasant dish. At Canoe Island flies had been very troublesome, so that Mackenzie says, "During our stay there we had been most cruelly tormented by flies, particularly by sand-flies, which I am disposed to consider as the most tormenting insect of its kind in nature."

The way up the river was difficult, often impracticable for paddles, and it was hard to use a tow-line on account of the steepness of the banks. On July 3 they reached a point which answered to the description of the place where they should leave the stream to go overland to the west, and here a river came in, which Mackenzie calls West Road River. Some of the men thought it would be better to keep on up the stream a little farther, in the hope of finding an easier crossing, although at this point there was a beaten trail. They proceeded, therefore, and before long met their guide, who apparently had twice deserted. He was accompanied by some other Indians, called Nascud Denee, who were friendly, and who declared that from their village, a little farther up the stream, the road to the sea was short.

On reaching the place where they were to leave the river, Mackenzie cached some pemmican, wild rice, Indian corn, powder, and trade goods, and also took the canoe out of the water, placed it bottom up on a platform and protected it as well as possible. They now started on their foot journey, carrying about four hundred pounds of pemmican, the instruments, some goods, and their arms and ammunition.

The journey westward was slow and difficult. They met many people, all of whom were friendly, and when their guide left them, as he did in a day or two, they succeeded in procuring other guides for short distances from the various villages that they passed, and went forward with comparatively little difficulty, although the almost continuous rain was unpleasant enough. The people whom they met as they proceeded showed more and more evidences of intercourse with the whites, having a number of articles obtained by trade. Most of these people seemed to belong to different small tribes of Athabaskan stock. They seemed less and less surprised at the appearance of the white men and, while still more or less astonished at their fire-arms, did not appear to be frightened by the explosions. Game was so scarce that practically none was killed, their provisions being largely fish, obtained from the natives or caught by themselves. The killing one day of two eagles and three gray partridges is important enough to be mentioned.

Mackenzie describes in considerable detail some of the houses of the Indians which he passed. He notes also, on July 14., that he had reached a place where it is the practice of the Indians to burn the bodies of their dead. On the i5th they fell in with a village of particularly clean and attractive people, who were on their way to the sea with articles for trade with the white people. They said that in view of the fact that the women and children with them could not travel fast it would be three days before they could reach the end of their journey. This was welcome news to the explorer.

Before they had gone very far, however, these people changed their minds, and determined to go to the sea by a different and somewhat longer route, and so the white men separated from them, having procured guides from four new Indians, who had just joined the party and belonged to a tribe Mackenzie had not yet seen.

The way was difficult, full of swamps and fallen timber. Ground-hogs were seen, and a number of them captured, and before long a deer was killed. They were now high up in the mountains, and were marching through the snow. The country became very rough and they travelled along precipices, while snow-covered peaks frowned on them from above. On these mountains, according to their guides, were many animals, which, "from their description, must be wild goats." The timber grew very large.

On this day their guide hurried ahead, leaving the laden white people to follow, and when it grew dark the men were anxious to stop for the night, but Mackenzie pushed on, and at last reached a village where he saw fires with people cooking over them. He entered a house and shook hands, and the people directed him to go to a large house, where he was cordially received and fed with roasted salmon. A little later they were regaled on salmon roes, pounded fine, beaten up and flavored with something bitter, which we may conjecture to have been soap ollalie. The natives here were capturing salmon with their dip nets and by weirs. They were kindly and hospitable, and had very strong beliefs and feelings with regard to their fish. Mackenzie declared that they never taste flesh, and that one of their dogs having swallowed part of a bone left at the campfire was beaten by his master till he disgorged it. A bone having been thrown into the river by one of Mackenzie's people, a young man dived, brought it up and put it in the fire, and then proceeded to wash his polluted hands. The chief of the tribe declined to let the white men have a canoe because they had with them some deer meat, which, if put in the canoe on their river, would cause the fish to leave the river, so that the people must starve. Mackenzie asked what he should do with the meat, and the Indian told him to give it to a native present who belonged to a tribe of flesh eaters. The canoe was then loaned them.

These people seemed to belong to a different family from the Chipewyans; at least Mackenzie says their language appeared to have no resemblance to that of the Atnahs. Seven natives with two canoes took the explorers and their baggage down the river. They travelled fast, and the skill of the Indians greatly impressed Mackenzie, who says: "I had imagined that the Canadians who accompanied me were the most expert canoe men in the world, but they are very inferior to these people, as they themselves acknowledge, in conducting those vessels."

Just above a village the whole party landed, the Indians preceding the white men to announce their approach. When they reached the village they found it in a turmoil, the natives armed and rushing about apparently in a great state of alarm. There was nothing to do except to face the music, and Mackenzie walked boldly forward into the midst of the village, when most of the people laid aside their arms and came forward to meet them. He shook hands with those nearest to him, when suddenly an elderly man broke through the crowd and embraced him, as did also a younger man, the chief's son. Another son of the old chief approached, and as Mackenzie stepped forward to shake hands with him the younger fellow broke the string of a handsome robe of sea-otter skin which he had on and put it over Mackenzie's shoulders. The chief took Mackenzie to his house, and treated him in a most hospitable manner. He was offered a dish made of the dried inner bark of the hemlock tree, soaked in fresh salmon oil. Food was plenty here, for the salmon run was at its height. Fish were drying on lines strung all about the village. These people were also very careful that nothing should be done to alarm their fish. They objected to water being taken from the river in an iron kettle, on the ground that the salmon disliked the smell of iron. Wooden boxes for holding water were given the explorers, however. Here were seen panels made of thick cedar boards, neatly joined and painted with hieroglyphics and figures of different animals, such as are commonly seen on the coast.

Here Mackenzie was obliged to do some doctoring, and he describes the methods of the native physicians in treating their patients.

Mackenzie had several times asked the chief for canoes to take the party to the sea, but his requests had received little attention. When, however, he tried to take an observation the chief objected, not, apparently, because the natives were afraid of the instruments, but because their use might frighten the salmon from that part of the river. Just as they were about to embark in the large canoe, forty-five feet long, four feet wide, and three and a half feet in depth, it was discovered that an axe was missing, and there was a short halt. Mackenzie's resolution procured the return of the axe, and they went on. Villages were seen along the river, and once or twice they stopped. The people they passed seemed to have more and more articles of European manufacture, and they treated Mackenzie very well. On the evening of this day, at a village where they stopped, Mackenzie says, "I could perceive, personally, the termination of the river and its discharge into an arm of the sea."

The Indians now seemed unwilling to go farther, but two of them were persuaded to keep on, and, taking another canoe, about eight o'clock on Saturday, July 20, they left the river and reached an arm of the sea. The tide was out, and the large mud flats, sea-weed covered, were bare. Gulls, eagles, and ducks were seen. The weather was boisterous, and before long they put ashore in a cove for the night. One of the young natives here deserted, but, being pursued, was brought back. Since they had left the river porpoises and sea-otter—or seals—had been continually in sight. Fresh water was had from streams running down the mountains, and just after dark the young chief from up the river came into camp with a large porcupine, which was eagerly devoured by the half-starved men. The next day they came across three canoes with fifteen people, one of whom seemed to have had some trouble with white men not long before. The people they now met were somewhat annoying, for they begged, pilfered, and seemed to wish to see everything that the white men possessed. They constantly spoke of a white man named Macubah, very likely meaning Vancouver, and for the negative distinctly answered "No, no."

On the face of a rock at this point Mackenzie inscribed, with vermilion, a brief note, "Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the 22d July, 1793." Here also he was able to establish his position with some exactness, and this done he started to return. At a village near the mouth of the river a number of people rushed toward Mackenzie, apparently about to attack him, and it seemed that these were the ones who had been fired on by the white people not long before. Mackenzie stood ready with his gun, and the Indians, seeing his attitude, dropped their knives. There was something of a scuffle, though Mackenzie was uninjured, and the Indians made off with his hat and cloak. After a little while, the young chief returning, explained that the men belonging to the canoes which had met them below in an inlet, had declared that the white people had killed four of their party. An explanation that this statement was false brought about a hollow truce, but relations were still somewhat strained. The Indians brought them food, however, and gave them setting poles, all of which were paid for.

Mackenzie's people were very much frightened, and were determined to leave the canoe and to start on foot over the mountains. So firm was this resolution that they threw everything that they had, except their blankets, into the river. Mackenzie, however, with his usual patience and resolution, set to work to guide them in the right way, and declaring that, now he had accomplished his object, he had no other object but the common safety, that he wished to return in the easiest and safest way, and that one of their party was sick and could not travel, and that they must stay with him. The result of this was that his people agreed that they would continue to follow him; but several of them declared that they would not again enter the canoe, of which they were much afraid. Five men, therefore, including Mackenzie and the sick Indian, entered the canoe, and made their slow way up the river. When they came in sight of a house they saw the young Indian, who had left them a day or two before, coming toward them with six people in a canoe. This encouraged them, as showing that the natives who had been spreading here reports about them had not been listened to. At this village they were treated well. At the main village above, the old chief received them as cordially as before, and fed them on fish and berries.

Farther up the river it appeared that a sick man, to whom Mackenzie had given some simple remedy, had died, and it was feared that the death might have been attributed to this remedy. Above this point they again took to the trail. They were very suspicious of the Indians, as the Indians were of them, and were constantly alarmed; and a panic in one party was succeeded by a panic in the other. At other villages they were kindly received, and various presents were given them, and Mackenzie devotes many pages to a description of the habits of these people. When they left the friendly village each man carried about twenty pounds of fish, and they also had a little flour and some pemmican. The sick Indian was slightly better, but could not travel fast, and in crossing rapids or difficult streams Mackenzie carried him on his back.

It was now the last of July, the weather was warmer, the grass green, and the wild fruits ripe. High up on the mountains, though, the snow still dung, and the frost was hard. They were now marching fast, and as they went along they recovered from time to time the provisions that they had hid on their westward journey. On the 4th of August they reached the place where they had left their canoe, and found all their property in good order. There was not a footprint near their cache. The Indians whom they met near at hand were frightened at first, but soon became friendly. Notwithstanding the fact that they had left the property of the explorer absolutely untouched, they took away from the camp a variety of small articles, which Mackenzie recovered by informing them that the salmon, which was their favorite food and necessary to their existence, came from the sea which belonged to the white men, and that since at the entrance of the river it was possible to prevent those fish from coming up it, the white man possessed the power to starve the Indians and their children. "To avert our anger, therefore, they must return all the articles which had been stolen from us. This finesse succeeded."

On the 6th of August, they embarked in their canoe on their return journey. The stream was full of salmon, and the work of pushing up the river was slow and difficult, but they were on the march toward home. Rains were frequent, but not long continued. On the 15th they reached the place where the canoe had been wrecked on the i3th of June, and made unsuccessful search for the bag of balls then lost. The following day they came to the Continental Divide, and it was here that Mackenzie had the thought of transferring some living salmon from the head of the Columbia to that of the Peace River. But, like most of his men, he was now in pretty bad condition from privation, excessive labor and cold, and he was unable to carry out the desire. On the i 7th they carried across from the little lake to Peace River, and started down that stream. The passage was swift, and on the 18th they went down in one day what it had taken them seven to come up.

They were now again reduced to a short allowance of food, and Mr. Mackay and the Indians were sent ahead to try and kill something, while the remainder of the party began to repair the canoe and to carry the baggage around the rapid, which, on their ascent, they had called Rocky Mountain Portage. About sunset Mr. Mackay returned with the flesh of a buffalo, and we may imagine the sensations of these northmen when they again put their teeth into this familiar food. The journey down the river continued swift, and they were careful to land at the head of each rapids and inspect it, but the canoe being light they passed over most places without difficulty. The hunters killed fat meat, and Mackenzie gives an idea of the appetites by saying that, in three meals, ten people and a dog ate up an elk.

On the 23d they were passing through a beautiful country full of buffalo, and on this day they killed a buffalo and a bear. On the 24th of August they rounded a point and came in view of the fort. "We threw out our flag and accompanied it with a general discharge of fire-arms, while the men were in such spirits, and made such an active use of their paddles, that we arrived before the two men whom we left here in the spring could recover their senses to answer us. Thus we landed at four in the afternoon at the place which we left on the 9th of May. Here my voyages of discovery terminate. Their toils and their dangers, their solicitudes and sufferings have not been exaggerated in my descriptions. . . . I received, however, the reward of my labors, for they were crowned with success."