The Adventures of Alexander Henry the Elder: Part 16
Continued from The Adventures of Alexander Henry the Elder: Part 15.
The Chipewyans of Lake Athabasca
On the morning of February 20th, the Assiniboine broke camp and, accompanied by Henry and his companions, set out for Fort de la Corne. They arrived at the fort on the evening of February 28th, having stopped at another Assiniboine village in the middle of their journey and convinced its inhabitants to similarly pay a visit to the French-turned-English fur trading fort. There, Great Road’s warriors exchanged dried meat and furs for European trinkets.
The Assiniboine spent four days at the fort, whereupon they parted amicably with Henry and the other traders, apparently satisfied with their reception. Henry himself left the fort on March 22nd and returned to Amisk Lake. There, Henry and the fort’s occupants spent the next two months fishing and hunting fowl. On May 21st, Alexander Henry, Joseph Frobisher, and forty French-Canadian voyageurs set out for the northerly Churchill River, which empties into Hudson Bay. They reached their destination with little difficulty and met up with Thomas Frobisher, who had made the same journey earlier. Together, the party travelled up the Churchill River, hoping to meet with a band of Chipewyan Indians who had travelled all the way from Lake Athabasca (which Henry called “Lake Arabuthcow”), with whom Thomas Frobisher had scheduled a rendezvous.
The Europeans met with the natives upriver as prearranged. After exchanging gifts, the traders asked the Chipewyans to accompany them to Amisk Lake. The Indians acquiesced, and the party made the return journey without incident, accompanied by their new native friends. At Frobisher-Henry Fort, the Chipewyans traded furs for rum, diluted at their own request, and for guns, ammunition, blankets, hatchets, and other European goods. Throughout the course of their transactions, the natives told the Europeans about Peace River Country, the Pacific Ocean west of the Rocky Mountains, and of the Slave River which empties into Great Slave Lake.
Once their business was concluded, the Chipewyans set out on their return journey to Lake Athabasca, accompanied by Thomas Frobisher. Alexander Henry, on the other hand, decided to return to the Grand Portage on the western shores of Lake Superior. All throughout the journey, Henry and his travelling companions met with Indians who informed them that strange white men from the southeast had killed all the Englishmen in Montreal and Quebec, and would soon occupy the Great Lakes. Henry suspected, and later learned definitively, that these were exaggerated tidings of the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War.
The Beaver Club
Although Alexander Henry the Elder’s memoirs end with his return to the Grand Portage, this point does not mark the end of his adventures. In the fall of 1776, Henry sailed to England, where he visited the London headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company and proposed that the great British fur trading syndicate make a practice of hiring the French-Canadians voyageurs of the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. That accomplished, he proceeded to Versailles, France, where he gained audience with the French queen, Marie Antoinette.
Alexander Henry returned to British North America in the spring of 1777 and thrust himself back into the fur trade, conducting most of his business on the Great Lakes. He returned to England twice more, in 1778 and 1780, before finally settling in Montreal, where he established himself as a merchant. Throughout the 1780s, he had five children with a wealthy English widow named Julia Kittson, whom he eventually married in the summer of 1785.
In February of that year, Alexander Henry and eighteen fellow English fur traders who had cut their teeth in the Great Lakes and the Northwest beyond- including the Frobisher brothers, Peter Pond, and other friends Henry had made during his travels; many of them co-founders of the North West Company, a Montreal-based fur trading enterprise which would serve as rival to the Hudson’s Bay Company throughout the late 18th and early 19th Centuries- established a gentleman’s club which they called the ‘Beaver Club’. These nouveau riche gentlemen frontiersmen established a tradition of meeting at one another’s homes,
or hotels or taverns in Montreal, for very peculiar dinners. Dressed in their finest clothes, club members would initiate the evening’s festivities by passing around a peace pipe in the Indian style, as every one of them had done around countless campfires during their adventures in the Canadian wilds. When the ritual was complete, the frontiersmen would sit down to a feast of country fare, the menu including courses such as pemmican, venison, buffalo tongue, whitefish, and wild rice, all prepared in European style and served with the finest crystal and silverware. When the meal was finished, the participants would spend the rest of the night drinking, smoking, dancing, singing old voyageur songs, and regaling each other with tales of their exploits and adventures during their fur trading days.
Prompted by financial difficulties, Alexander Henry returned to the fur trade in the spring of 1786 and remained in the business until 1790. In the 1790s, Henry played a role in organizing North West Company fur shipments to Qing China.
Alexander Henry spent the rest of his days in Montreal, enjoying a place in high society and remaining an active and enthusiastic member of the Beaver Club. He spent his time engaging in various business ventures, serving as a captain in the Canadian militia, and working as a justice of the peace. In a private letter to a friend, penned in 1809, he lamented the changing spirit of the Canadian fur trade, writing, “There is only us four old friends alive, all the new North westards are a parcel of Boys and upstarts, who were not born in our time, and supposes they know much more of the Indian trade than any before him.”
On April 4th, 1824, 85-year-old Alexander Henry the Elder passed away in his home in Montreal, leaving behind five children, an entertaining and historically invaluable memoir, and a place in history as one of the first “pedlars”, or English coureur des bois, to resume the Great Lakes and Northwestern fur trade in the wake of the British conquest of New France.