The Adventures of Alexander Henry the Elder: Part 14
Continued from The Adventures of Alexander Henry the Elder: Part 13.
Journey to the Northwest
In the summer of 1775, Alexander Henry decided to take up trading once again. He purchased 3,000 pounds sterling-worth of provisions, bought four large canoes and twelves smaller ones, and hired a crew of 51 French-Canadian voyageurs. On June 10, he and his men left Sault Ste. Marie for the northwestern shores of Lake Superior. They passed a large hollow rock called Tete de la Loutre, or the “Otter’s Head”, and camped at the mouth of the Pijitic River, known today as the “Pic River”. They visited Pic Island and paddled past the Pays Plat, or “Flat Land”- a flat wooded shore between two mountains where the French had once operated a trading post.
Finally, the voyageurs reached the so-called Grand Portage, located on the western end of Lake Superior southwest of the present-day city of Thunder Bay, Ontario. There, he and his men hauled their canoes and provisions overland to what Henry called the River aux Groseilles, or “Gooseberry River” (known today as the Pigeon River), the lower 21 miles of which were unnavigable due to rapids and waterfalls. They proceeded up the Pigeon River, portaged around what are known today as the “High Falls”, and entered what Henry called the Hauteur de Terre, or “Land’s Height”- a wooded, lake-ridden highland. There, they followed a chain of lakes and rivers to Saganaga Lake, once the site of an Ojibwe village, and further northwest to what is known today as Rainy Lake, which Henry called “Lake a la Pluie”. They continued up the Rainy River to the Lake of the Woods. There, Henry and his men found an Indian village of several hundred souls. The village chiefs welcomed the traders cordially with gifts and speeches. In return, Henry gave the natives a present consisting of a sixty-pound keg of gunpowder, eighty pound bags of shot and additional gunpowder, and a keg of rum. After purchasing wild rice from the Indians, Henry and his crew paddled across the Lake of the Woods and portaged to the Winnipeg River.
The voyageurs continued down the Winnipeg River, portaging around its more turbulent sections. They headed down a scenic branch of the river called the Pinawa Channel and encamped at the head of a portage trail called the Carrying-Place of the Lost Child. “Here,” Henry wrote, is a chasm in the rock, nowhere more than two yards in breadth, but of great and immeasurable depth. The Indians relate that many ages past a child fell into this chasm, from the bottom of which it is still heard at times to cry.”
At the entrance to Lake Winnipeg, the voyageurs came upon a village of Cree Indians, whom Henry called “Christinaux”. Henry wrote that the Cree were very different in appearance and custom from the Ojibwa, and remarked that a few Cree men lent some of their wives, of which they had several, to some of his voyageurs, asking that they return them in a year’s time.
On August 18th, 1775, Henry and his men left the Cree camp and paddled up the lake’s eastern shore. They soon met and were joined by Peter Pond, a gruff soldier, adventurer, and fur trader famous for his violent temper. The following day, they were beset by a storm which killed four men and destroyed one canoe.
On August 21st, the voyageurs paddled across Lake Winnipeg to its southern shore. There, several weeks later, they encountered brothers Joseph and Thomas Frobisher- fur traders and distant relatives of the famous Elizabethan explorer Sir Martin Frobisher.
In early autumn, the explorers were in desperate need of food. Spurred by the fear of starvation, they proceeded up the Saskatchewan River, which Henry called the “River de Bourbon, Pasquayah, or Sascatchiwaine”. They tracked and portaged up and around the Grand Rapids and entered Cedar Lake. They crossed the lake and continued up the Saskatchewan River, in which they caught several large sturgeon and killed a huge number of wild fowl.
Eighty leagues upriver from the ruins of an old French fur trading post called Fort Bourbon, Henry and his men came to another old trading post called Fort Paskoya, around which revolved a Cree village. There, the village chief- a tall, chubby, sly-looking warrior named Chatique, or “Pelican”- invited the Europeans to a council in his teepee. Pelican informed the travellers that he would allow them to continue up the Saskatchewan River only if they gave him a present consisting of three casks of gunpowder, four bags of shot, two bales of tobacco, three kegs of rum, and some knives. Left with little alternative, the voyageurs complied with the demand and continued up the river. Shortly after their departure, they were overtaken by Chief Pelican himself, who had pursued them alone in a canoe. The daring chief boarded one of their canoes with a spear in his hand and demanded another keg of rum. Knowing there could be serious consequences if they killed the chief, the voyageurs granted Pelican’s request and parted ways with him.
On October 26th, the adventurers reached Cumberland House- a Hudson’s Bay Company fort built the year prior on the shores of Cumberland Lake by English explorer Samuel Hearne. Although the great explorer himself was absent at the time, the fort was occupied by Highlanders from the Orkney Islands, who treated Henry and his men with hospitality. There, Henry’s party fractured into several different groups, each of which headed to a separate fort in the region. Henry and the Frobisher brothers, along with forty of their employees, remained together and decided to make for what is known today as Amisk Lake, which Henry called “Beaver Lake, or Lake aux Castors”.
Henry and company paddled their canoes across Cumberland Lake, then across Namew Lake, which Henry called “Sturgeon Lake” (‘Namew’ being the Cree word for ‘Sturgeon’), and further up the Sturgeon-Weir River, which Henry called the “River Maligne”, or “Bad River”, battling rapids all the way. They continued to Amisk Lake just as the water began to freeze. There, the party split into three groups, two of which were tasked with ice fishing and the third of which was given the task of constructing a fort on the lake’s shore. Ten days later, the voyageurs completed the construction of what is known today as Frobisher-Henry Fort. Henry and his men spent the winter fishing and hunting on Amisk Lake, subsisting on trout and elk.
Continued in The Adventures of Alexander Henry the Elder: Part 15.