Mysteries of the Canadian Fur Trade:
Today, in the 21st Century, it’s easy to assume that we know it all- that we’ve discovered all there is to discover and explored all there is to explore. Leave the noisy and crowded cities of Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver and take a jaunt through some of Canada’s 350 million hectares of wilderness, however, and this sentiment tends to evaporate. If you’re a connoisseur of Canada’s Great Outdoors, chances are that you know someone who’s experienced something truly bewildering in the wilds of the Great White North. Perhaps you yourself, during one of your backcountry adventures, have seen, heard, or felt something that defies conventional explanation.
Whether you believe them or not, Canada’s forests, mountains, rivers, and lakes are the settings of countless tales of the mysterious and the unexplained. Some of the most fascinating of these can be found in the journals and memoirs of the explorers and voyageurs who traversed the Canadian wilderness during the days of the North American fur trade. Tales of ghosts, strange animals, clairvoyance, and Indian magic, these accounts were written by no-nonsense frontiersmen who had little to gain and everything to lose from their documentation of phenomena which flew in the face of the prevailing opinions of their times- the mysteries of the Canadian fur trade.
Although mariners like Jacques Cartier and Basque fishermen had purchased animal skins from the natives of the Atlantic Coast since the 1540s, the Canadian fur trade really took off in the early 1600s, when French explorer Samuel de Champlain established the colony of Quebec on the shores of the St. Lawrence River. At that time, a new fashion began to take hold of Europe. From the stingy Puritans of England to the ostentatious musketeers of France, men and women across Christendom began wearing stiff hats made from combed beaver felt. To satisfy this new demand, the Eurasian beaver was promptly hunted to near-extinction, causing the pelt of the North American beaver to skyrocket in value.
Eager to capitalize on this new opportunity, French colonists in the valley of the St. Lawrence River began purchasing beaver pelts from their Huron and Algonquin allies, earning a great profit from furs which the Huron acquired from the westerly Great Lakes. At the same time, English and Dutch colonists to the southeast, on the Atlantic Coast, entered into the fur trade with their own allies, foremost among them the powerful Iroquois Confederacy, the mortal enemies of the Huron and Algonquin who dominated the forests of what is now Upstate New York. In no time, the native allies of the French and English colonists clashed in a bloody succession of conflicts known as the Beaver Wars. The Iroquois eventually gained the upper hand in this struggle and, in the 1640s and ‘50s, displaced the Huron and other nations from the Great Lakes. After clashing with the French themselves, the Iroquois finally made peace with their white enemies in 1666.
In the wake of this shaky truce, independent French fur traders called ‘coureur des bois’, or “runners of the woods”, began making long trading trips into the so-called ‘Pays d’en Haut’, or “Upper Country”- the wild territory surrounding the Great Lakes, freshly-occupied by the Iroquois invaders. The newly-appointed governor of New France- a crusty old soldier named Louis de Buade, Compte de Frontenac, wanted a piece of this burgeoning ‘Pays d’en Haut’ pie, and so he used his clout as government official to establish a series of fur trading forts on the shores of the Great Lakes.
The agent whom Frontenac employed to carry out his scheme was a fascinating character named Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. Trained as a Jesuit priest in France, La Salle had come to Canada in search of adventure. In the late 1660s, he had led an unsuccessful exploratory expedition in search of the North-West Passage. His failure to find a trans-continental water route to the Orient prompted his rivals to derisively name his ‘seignory’ on the Island of Montreal ‘La Chine’, or “The China”. Best known today for his exploration of the lower reaches of the Mississippi River and his establishment of the vast colony known as French Louisiana, La Salle would go on to found a disastrous French colony on the shores of Texas, where he would lose his life to a mutineer’s musketball. In the 1670s, however, La Salle, at the request of Count Frontenac, oversaw the construction of several fur trading forts on the shores of the Great Lakes. The first of these was Fort Frontenac, built at the junction of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River in 1673. The second, dubbed ‘Fort Conti’, was constructed at the mouth of the Niagara River in 1678. La Salle planned to build a third fort, called Fort Miami, at the southern end of Lake Michigan. To facilitate this process and establish his company’s supremacy in the upper Great Lakes, however, he first decided to build a 45-ton barque, or sailing ship, on the Niagara River above Niagara Falls.
The construction of this vessel was an unpleasant task for La Salle’s men, who began the project by hauling deck spikes, rigging, and other equipment up the portage trail to the riverbank above Niagara Falls. Throughout the winter, spring, and early summer of 1679, they labored with frozen fingers and empty stomachs, all the while wary of the sullen Iroquois braves who often loitered around the worksite, fingering their tomahawks and war clubs. While his men worked on the ship and the fort, La Salle himself, accompanied by two of his employees, travelled by snowshoe through the forest and across Lake Ontario to Fort Frontenac for the purpose of acquiring provisions.
During La Salle’s absence, the men on the Niagara River completed both the fort and the 45-ton ship. The latter was christened ‘Le Griffon’, or “The Griffon”, that mythical monster being the primary ornament on Count Frontenac’s coat of arms. Its prow bore a wooden carving of the legendary half-lion/half-eagle for which it was named, and its decks bristled with seven small cannons which were fired at its christening.
La Salle finally returned to the Niagara River in early August, 1679, this time accompanied by three Flemish friars. Eager to make use of the new ship, he and all his men embarked on Le Griffon and set out on her maiden voyage across Lake Erie.
For three days, the explorers sailed down the length of the lake. On the fourth day, they turned north and sailed up the Detroit River. They crossed Lake St. Clair beyond and proceeded up the St. Clair River into Lake Huron. There, the explorers were beset by a ferocious gale which threatened to capsize their vessel. Praying to St. Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of mariners, the sailors managed to make their way up Lake Huron to the Island of Michilimackinac, home to Indian villages and a Jesuit mission, and a haven for ‘coureurs des bois’.
La Salle and his crew received a cool welcome from the Jesuits, in whose chapel they celebrated mass. They explorers were also greeted by the local Huron and Ottawa Indians who were amazed by the size of their ship. During their visit, they received the disheartening news that some employees whom La Salle had previous sent ahead to establish a trading relationship with the Indians of Lake Michigan had squandered the explorer’s trading goods and abandoned their mission.
In early September, La Salle and the crew of Le Griffon sailed west from Michilimackinac into Lake Michigan and further southwest into Green Bay. There, on an island, the explorer found the few members of his advance party who had remained loyal to him, discovering to his pleasure that they had acquired a small fortune in furs from their trade with the natives. La Salle then had these furs loaded into the cargo hold of Le Griffon and ordered a handful of his men to transport them to Fort Conti, asking the ship’s pilot to return to Lake Michigan as soon as the cargo was unloaded. Le Griffon departed on September 18th, 1679, just as a storm began to brew.
Aside from the vessel’s own crew, La Salle and his explorers were the last men to set eyes on Le Griffon. The vessel disappeared on her homeward voyage somewhere in the waters of Lakes Michigan, Huron, or Erie. Most assumed that the ship had foundered in a storm and was lost with all hands. This theory is supported by the discoveries of Albert Cullis, who manned the Mississagi Strait Lighthouse on Manitoulin Island in the 19th Century; in the late 1890s, Cullis reputedly discovered a watch chain, three 17th Century coins, and five human skeletons in and around a cave on Manitoulin Island. Another theory regarding the fate of Le Griffon contends that the ship was boarded by hostile Indians who murdered her crew before setting her ablaze; La Salle and his crew certainly had their fair share of rivals who would stop at nothing to protect their own interests in the fur trade. La Salle himself suspected that the ship’s occupants had intentionally scuttled Le Griffon and made off with the furs she contained; in letters to Count Frontenac, the explorer wrote about an Indian rumour which held that, in 1680, white men matching the description of the crew of Le Griffon had been captured by Indians on the Mississippi River paddling canoes filled with valuable goods. The natives killed every crew member but the captain, whom they took prisoner. La Salle believed that these unfortunates constituted his ship’s crew, who had intentionally sank his vessel and made off with his furs with the intention of joining a famous coureurs des bois named Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut. Whatever the case, Le Griffon’s undiscovered wreck is considered today to be the Holy Grail of Great Lakes shipwreck hunters.
Alexander Henry the Elder
Eight years after Le Griffon’s disappearance, France and England’s North American colonies clashed in what is known today as King William’s War- the first of four great intercolonial conflicts fought between New France and England’s Thirteen Colonies. The last and largest of these conflicts was the French and Indian War, the North American theatre of the Seven Years’ War, fought from 1756 to 1763. This fight for Canada culminated in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Montreal Campaign, both of these decisive British victories. The ensuing Treaty of Paris stipulated that France cede most of its North American holdings to Great Britain, ushering in an era of total British rule in Canada.
In the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War, an ambitious young Englishman named Alexander Henry purchased an outfit of trade goods, hired a handful of French-Canadian voyageurs, and set out for the Great Lakes- at that time, the exclusive domain of French-Canadian fur traders and various Anishinaabe First Nations loyal to the French Crown. Henry was the first of the so-called “pedlars”- a handful of independent Montreal-based English and Scottish fur traders who would take over the old Northwestern trading grounds abandoned by the French.
Henry was followed into the ‘Pays d’en Haut’ by British troops who garrisoned themselves in the old French military and trading forts scattered throughout the region. Unlike the erstwhile French, who had gone to great lengths to maintain their relationships with their native trading partners, the British newcomers treated the local Ojibwa and Ottawa Indians as conquered people, much to their annoyance. In the spring of 1763, an Ottawa chief named Pontiac incited a coalition of disgruntled native warriors to besiege the British-occupied Fort Detroit, hoping to end British occupation of the Great Lakes. Following Pontiac’s example, other Algonquin and Iroquoian tribes throughout the region similarly attacked British outposts in what would come to be known as Pontiac’s Rebellion.
At the outbreak of this conflict, Alexander Henry was trading at Fort Michilimackinac, an old French fur trading fort situated at the northern tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula not far from the Island of Michilimackinac. The local Ojibwa, who had secretly decided to participate in Pontiac’s Rebellion, concocted a brilliant plan to capture the fort by surprise. First, they lured most of the British soldiers outside the fort by inviting them to watch a lacrosse game that they held in an adjacent field on the pretext of celebrating King George III’s birthday. While the soldiers were distracted by the Indian athletics, a handful of Ojibwa women inconspicuously made their way towards the fort’s open gates, concealing bundles of knives and tomahawks beneath blankets that they wore around their shoulders. When the women were in place, one of the athletes lobbed the lacrosse ball over the fort’s walls, prompting the entire Ojibwa team to stampede through the fort’s gate. As they entered the fort, the warriors seized the weapons that their women had smuggled inside and proceeded to slaughter or capture every Englishman they found therein. Henry survived the massacre by hiding in the attic of a French-Canadian fur trader’s house. He was discovered several days later by Ojibwa warriors and made prisoner.
Henry spent the better part of 1763 living among the Ojibwa, spared from the more harrowing experiences suffered by his fellow prisoners, many of whom were murdered and cannibalized, due to his adoption by an Ojibwa chief named Wawatam, whom he had befriended prior to the massacre.
Shortly after the massacre, the Ojibwa transported their prisoners to the Island of Michilimackinac, fearful of an English counterattack and believing that the island would be easier to defend than their village. Prior to their journey, they threw a live dog into Lake Michigan as a sacrifice to the spirit whom they believed controlled the weather on the Great Lakes.
After spending several days on the island, the Ojibwa captured a handful of inbound English canoes laden with trade goods, among which were several casks of rum. Fearful that his friend might be murdered that night in the inevitable drunken carousal, Wawatam brought Henry to a small, dark cave on the island’s central heights and instructed him to wait there until his return.
Henry made a bed of spruce boughs in the middle of the cave, wrapped himself in a blanket, and went to sleep. He was awakened the following morning by some protrusion beneath him, which had begun to press uncomfortably into his body. The offending object proved to be a bone, which Henry assumed must be that of a deer or some other animal which some bygone predator had dragged into the cave to eat. “But when daylight visited my chamber,” Henry wrote, “I discovered with some feelings of horror that I was lying on nothing less than a heap of human bones and skulls which covered all the floor!”
Wawatam returned to the cave two days later, having finally recovered from the night of revelry. Henry showed him the bones, of which Wawatam professed to have had no prior knowledge. The friends speculated that the cave must have been used as a sort of charnel house by Indians centuries ago, in the dim recesses of the Great Lakes’ unrecorded history.
The Shaking Tent
In early 1764, Henry escaped from his captors and travelled with a trio of French-Canadian voyageurs to the fur trading post at Sault Ste. Marie. There, he fell in with another band of Ojibwa who had just received a summons from British military commander Sir William Johnson. Johnson, desirous of bringing an end to Pontiac’s Rebellion, had invited the representatives of all the Great Lakes tribes to attend a great peace conference on the shores of the Niagara River. In order to determine whether or not they ought to attend this council, the Ojibwa attempted to commune with a deity they called the ‘Great Turtle’. And thus, Alexander Henry bore witness to a strange phenomenon associated with a mysterious Indian rite called the ceremony of the Shaking Tent.
Henry described the ritual in his 1809 autobiography entitled ‘Travels and Adventures in Canada and the Indian Territories Between the Years 1760-1776’. First, the Indians built a cylindrical tent composed of five vertical poles, each composed a different type of wood, bound by a wooden hoop at the top and covered with moose skins. At nightfall, while the whole band watched, the medicine man chosen to preside over the ceremony emerged half-naked from his wigwam, walked over to the tent, and crawled through the entrance. As soon as he entered, the tent began to shake. Suddenly, a cacophony of voices erupted inside, some of them yelling, some barking like dogs, others howling. “In this horrible concert,” Henry wrote, “were mingled screams and sobs, as of despair, anguish, and the sharpest pain. Articulate speech was also uttered, as if from human lips; but in a tongue unknown to the audience. After some time these confused and frightful noises were succeeded by a perfect silence; and now a voice not heard before seemed to manifest the arrival of a new character in the tent. This was a low and feeble voice, resembling the cry of a young puppy. The sound was no sooner distinguished, than all the Indians clapped their hands for joy, exclaiming that this was the Chief Spirit, the Turtle, the spirit that never lied.”
Throughout the half hour that ensued, a variety of songs issued from the tent, each of them sung by a different voice. Finally, once the last song died out, the medicine man called out from inside the tent that the spirit of the Great Turtle was ready to answer any questions the Indians might have for him.
First, the band’s chief asked whether the English planned to attack them, and whether there were many English troops at Fort Niagara, the site of the scheduled rendezvous, situated near the ruins of La Salle’s old Fort Conti. Immediately, the tent shook with such violence that Henry expected it to fall apart. When the tent finally rocked to a halt, the shaman announced that the Great Turtle had departed.
The Ojibwa waited with bated breath for the spirit’s reply. Fifteen minutes later, the tent shook again, and the tremulous voice of the Great Turtle began babbling in a language which none of the onlookers could understand. Once the spirit had delivered its incompressible report, the medicine man, who apparently understood every word, informed those assembled that the Great Turtle had flown across Lake Huron and over the easterly forest to Fort Niagara, where he found few Englishmen. He proceeded down the length of Lake Ontario and further down the St. Lawrence River to Montreal, where he found a huge fleet of ships filled with British soldiers.
The chief then asked the Great Turtle whether Sir William Johnson would receive them as friends. “Sir William Johnson,” the medicine man replied, interpreting the words of the spirit, “will fill their canoes with presents; with blankets, kettles, guns, gunpowder and shot, and large barrels of rum such as the stoutest of the Indians will not be able to lift; and every man will return in safety to his family.” At this, the assemblage cheered, and many warriors declared their intention to attend the meeting at Fort Niagara.
The natives proceeded to ask the spirit questions about distant friends and the fate of sick family members. Henry himself, despite his skepticism, presented the Great Turtle with the customary gift of tobacco before asking whether he would ever see his native country again. The spirit replied that he would. Indeed, Henry would go on to survive Pontiac’s Rebellion and make three voyages to his native England.
Following the Shaking Tent ceremony, Henry sixteen Ojibwa braves set out for Fort Niagara, stopping at several Indian villages along the way. One afternoon, while waiting out a storm on the shore, Henry nearly stepped on a rattlesnake. When he saw the serpent, he retrieved his musket from his canoe and prepared to kill it. He was stopped at the last moment by his companions, who believed that the rattlesnake, specimens of which rarely appeared in that part of the country, was one of their reincarnated ancestors. Instead of killing it, they lit their pipes and blew tobacco in its face. Apparently pleased with the odour, the snake eventually relaxed and slithered away.
Interestingly, a similar story appears in the memoirs of Jonathan Carver, a New English contemporary of Henry’s, entitled ‘Travels Through North America in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768’. In 1766, while traversing a portage trail between the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers in the forest west of Lake Michigan, Carver came across a den of rattlesnakes. One of Carver’s travelling companions- a French-Canadian fur trader name Pinnisance- proceeded to tell the New Englander “a remarkable story concerning one of these reptiles, of which he said he was an eye witness”.
According to Pinnisance, a Menominee Indian once tamed a rattlesnake and “treated it as a Deity; calling it his Great Father, and carrying it with him in a box wherever he went… The French gentleman was surprised, one day, to see the Indian place the box which contained his god on the ground, and opening the door give him his liberty; telling him, whilst he did it, to be sure and return by the time he himself should come back… The Indian was so confident of his creature’s obedience that he offered to lay the Frenchman a wager of two gallons of rum that at the time appointed he would come and crawl into his box.” Pinnisance took the Menominee up on his offer. At the appointed time, “the Indian set down his box and called for his great father.” Although the rattlesnake failed to make its scheduled appearance, the Indian was undeterred, and offered to double his bet with the Frenchman if the snake failed to arrive in two days. “This was further agreed on,” Carver wrote, “when behold on the second day, about one o’clock, the snake arrived, and, of his own accord, crawled into the box, which was placed ready for him. The French gentleman vouched for the truth of this story, and from the accounts I have often received of the docility of those creatures, I see no reason to doubt his veracity.”
The Porte de l’Enfer
Alexander Henry would go on to have many more adventures in the ‘Pays d’en Haut’ and the great Northwestern wilderness beyond, all of which he chronicled in his memoirs. In his writings, he described many haunted spots and curious locales. On the Mattawa River, for example, Henry and the French-Canadian voyageurs in his employ came to a place where the shore was rocky and barren, stained with hematitive and puncuated by the occasional burial cairn. The blood-red hue of the riverbank and the Indian graves that dotted it gave the place an eerie atmosphere, augmented by the presence of a yawning black cave which Henry’s crew called the“Porte de l’Enfer”, or “Hell’s Gate”.
“In the side of a hill,” wrote Henry of this sinister landmark, “on the north side of the river, there is a curious cave concerning which marvelous tales are related by the voyageurs.” Although Henry and his crew were fortuante enough to avoid meeting the demon whom fur trader lore designated the denizen of this stygian cavern, they were accosted by monsters of another sort. “Mosquitoes and a minute species of black fly abound on this river,” wrote Henry, “the latter of which are still more troublesome than the former. To obtain a respite from their vexations we were obliged at the carrying-places to make fires and stand in the smoke.”
Lost Child Portage
Another riverside curiosity which makes its appearance in Henry’s memoirs is located on a scenic branch of the Winnipeg River called the Pinawa Channel. In the summer of 1775, Henry and a handful of French-Canadian voyageurs headed down this waterway 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.”
Another Canadian locality pregnant with mystery and local superstition is Cape Gargantua, situated on the eastern shores of the Bay of Michipicoten at the northern end of Lake Superior. The cape was named by French voyageurs after one of the two titular protagonists of ‘The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel’, a collection of satirical novels written by 16th Century French scholar Francois Rebelais detailing the adventures of a giant and his son. The cape is home to a cluster of tiny volcanic islands, one of which, according to Henry’s Indian friends, is the burial place of Nanabozho, the “Great Hare”, their most venerated legendary ancestor. Henry wrote that it was the Indians’ pratice to leave sacrifices like tobacco and kettles to Nanabozho whenever they passed his resting place to ensure safe passage along Lake Superior.
In October 1767, Henry decided to make a trip from the Bay of Michipicoten to Sault Ste. Marie with three French-Canadians and a young Indian woman. The travelers spent the first night of their voyage on the island containing the grave of Nanabozho and neglected to make the customary offerings to the ancient patriarch of the Ojibwa people. That night, a violent storm swept across Lake Superior, forcing Henry and his companions to spend several days on the island. The travellers managed to paddle a short distance down the coast before being forced to make camnp on the shores of the mainland due to the poor weather. The storm raged on for nine days, stranding the travellers in their campsite.
Henry and his companions quickly exhausted their rations and began to go hungry. Eventually, two of the French-Canadians plotted to kill and eat the Indian girl, and were disappointed when Henry discovered their plan and put an end to it. Fortunately, Henry shortly discovered some edible lichen on a nearby mountaintop, which the company happily boiled and ate. “It saved the life of the poor woman,” Henry wrote, “for the men who had projected to kill her would unquestionably have accomplished their purpose. One of them gave me to understand that he was not absolutely a novice in such an affair; that he had wintered in the Northwest, and had been obliged to eat human flesh.”
Indeed, cannibalism was a part and parcel of life in the ‘Pays d’en Haut’. As Henry himself could attest, Ojibwa and Ottawa warriors often slaughtered and ate prisoners they captured in battle in the belief that, by doing so, they might absorb the enemy’s courage. The natives made a great distinction, however, between the consumption of an enemy warrior in the aftermath of battle and the consumption of human flesh as a means of survival in the cold winter months, when game was often hard to come by. Although they looked favourably upon the former, they regarded the latter with fear and revulsion, associating it with an evil spirit called the Wendigo.
According to Algonquin legend, the Wendigo roamed throughout the wilderness in the winter in search of human hosts. Men or women possessed by this spirit would develop an insatiable craving for human flesh which would drive them to butcher and eat their friends and family, even when other food sources were readily available. Cases of suspected Wendigo possession occurred with casual frequency in the Canadian wilderness during the days of the North American fur trade. Most often, these cases ended with the gruesome execution of the suspected Wendigo, often at the request of the afflicted. Every once in a while, however, cases of alleged Wendigo possession resulted in bizarre cannibalistic killing sprees which modern psychology cannot explain.
Alexander Henry witnesed this strange phenomenon first-hand in the winter of 1766, while camped on the southern shores of Lake Superior with his French-Canadian employees. During their stay, they were joined by a band of Indians who were fleeing from famine. Two days after the band’s arrival, a filthy and unkempt adolescent emitting a terrible odour wandered out of the woods. The native told Henry and his crew that his family had been starving, and that he alone had the strength to leave their camp in search of food. “His arrival struck our camp with horror and uneasiness,” Henry wrote, “and it was not long before the Indians came to me, saying that they suspected he had been eating human flesh, and even that he had killed and devoured the family which he pretended to have left behind.”
Although the teenager denied the charges when questioned, the Indians ecamped nearby decided to investigate and followed his trail back to his family’s camp. “The next day,” Henry wrote, “they returned, bringing with them a human hand and skull. The hand had been left roasting before a fire, while the intestines, taken out of the body from which it was cut, hung fresh on a neighboring tree.”
When presented with this evidence, the teenager confessed that he did, indeed, cannibalize his family, which constituted his uncle and aunt and four of their children. Following a failed hunting expedition, his uncle had fallen into depression and asked his wife to kill him. Although the wife failed to comply with her husband’s demand, the teenager and his eldest cousin decided to carry out the deed instead. The boys murdered their respective father and uncle and ate his body. Shortly thereafter, they did the same to the two youngest children. As the dead man’s widow was too feeble to travel, the boys left her behind and headed into the forest towards Lake Superior. Along the way, the teenager killed his elder cousin and cannibalized him. The body parts that the Indians found by the fire constituted his last remains.
“The Indians entertain an opinion,” Henry wrote, “that the man who has once made human flesh his food will never afterward be satisfied with any other. It is probable that we saw things in some measure through the medium of our prejudices; but I confess that this distressing object appeared to verify the doctrine. He ate with relish nothing that was given him; but, indifferent to the food prepared, fixed his eyes continually on the children which were in the Indian lodge, and frequently exclaimed; ‘How fat they are!’” Fearful that he would attempt to cannibalize their children, the Indians executed the teenager by splitting his head with an axe when his attention was distracted.
In 1779, some of Alexander Henry’s friends and fellow pedlars- Benjamin and Joseph Frobisher, Simon McTavish, and others- founded a fur trading enterprise called the North West Company. In a few short years, the North West Company would grow to became a major rival of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the great English fur trading enterprise which had controlled the Hudson’s Bay drainage basin, a vast region known as Rupert’s Land, since the late 1600s. Competition drove Nor’ Westers (as men of the North West Company were known) to expand their territory west and north. In the 1780s, a New English Nor’ Wester named Peter Pond expanded the company’s holdings into Athabasca Country, in what is now Northern Alberta. Later that decade, a Scottish-born Nor’ Wester named Alexander Mackenzie extended the company’s reach into Mackenzie Country- the watershed of the mighty Mackenzie River of what is now Canada’s Northwest Territories.
In 1821, the North West Company, under pressure from the British Crown, amalgamated with its main rival, the Hudson’s Bay Company. Under the direction of its governor, George Simpson, this powerful fur trade monopoly sent explorers west of the Mackenzie Mountains, hoping to extend its influence into the forests of what is now Yukon Territory. Foremost among these trailblazers was a tough Highland Scot named Robert Campbell.
Robert Campbell documented his adventures in the wilderness of Northwestern Canada in two journals. Little known outside of small academic circles, these accounts are peppered with fascinating anecdotes which offer us a rare glimpse into the mysteries of the Canadian North.
The Water Horse
Robert Campbell entered the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1830, at the age of twenty-two, and left his family’s sheep farm in Glen Lyon, Scotland, to help establish an experimental farm at the Selkirk Settlement- a Scottish colony situated on the shores of Manitoba’s Red River. In his journal, Campbell casually mentioned seeing a “sea-horse” in Hudson Bay during the voyage to York Factory, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Canadian headquarters. To the modern mind, the word “seahorse” conjures up images of small fish belonging to the genus Hippocampus. To 19th Century Hinglanders like Robert Campell, however, “sea-horse” was the English translation of the Scottish Gaelic word ‘aughisky’, a denotation for a large supernatural acquatic monster of Celtic mythology with the head of a horse and the body of an eel. As their ship was trapped in ice at the time, Campbell and some of his fellow travellers approached the strange creature by walking over the sea ice towards it. When they got within firing range, they shot at the monster with their muskets and watched it roll into a hole in the water.
The Nahanni Indians
After spending two years in the Selkirk Settlement, Campbell, at the request of Governor Simpson, travelled north to the Mackenzie District, where he joined the fur trade.
In the spring of 1836, while Campbell was stationed at Fort Simpson- a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post situated at the confluence of the Liard and Mackenzie Rivers- an old fur trader named John Hutchinson paddled up to the fort and regaled its residents with a harrowing tale. Hutchinson and his crew had spent the previous winter at Fort Halkett- a remote fur trading post located deep in Liard River Country- with orders to establish another trading post at southwesterly Dease Lake. Two years prior, a fur trader named John McLeod had discovered Dease Lake and explored an Indian trail on its western bank. This trail led to the upper reaches of what we know today as the Stikine River. Governor Simpson correctly surmised that the Stikine led to the Pacific Ocean, where the Russians dominated the fur trade, and hoped that a trading post at Dease Lake would facilitate a future expedition into its valley. If the Hudson’s Bay Company managed to establish a presence on the Stikine River, perhaps it could divert business away from its Russian competetors.
On the journey to Dease Lake, while traversing the Portage Brule- a trail which circumvented one of the Liard River’s most dangerous rapids- one of Hutchinson’s voyageurs espied a fesh pair of moccassin tracks near the trail. Fearing that the tracks might have been left by the advance scout of an Indian war party, Hutchinson dispatched two of his Indian scouts on a reconnaissance mission up the trail. After some time had elapsed, the natives raced back to the main party and breathlessly reported that a hundred Nahanni Indians were creeping down the trail towards them. The Nahanni was a mysterious tribe associated with the valley of the South Nahanni River- a remote region steeped in sinister myths and legends- and its warriors were universally feared across Mackenzie Country. Despite Hutchinson’s efforts to organize an orderly retreated, his employees, overcome by panic, made a desperate break for the river, leaving behind everything but their muskets, paddles, and canoe. Hutchinson had no choice but to follow his fearful crew. The party leapt into the boat and paddled furiously down the Liard for the safety of Fort Simpson.
Eager to prove himself, Robert Campbell volunteered to finish the task that Hutchinson had abandoned. In the spring of 1837, he and a handful of voyageurs and Indian scouts trekked up the Liard River to the Portage Brule. There, Campbell and his men found the trade goods that the previous party had left behind. “The goods were scattered about all the way down to the water’s edge,” Campbell wrote, “just as they had been dropped by the men, running to the canoes. Of course everything was spoilt, except such articls as ball and shot, and the provisions eaten by wild animals.” If the supposed Nahanni war party had passed that way, its warriors had failed to avail themselves of the trade goods.
By the time they reached Fort Halkett, it was too late in the season to push on to Dease Lake. Accordingly, Campbell and his crew spent the winter at the fort, nestled in what Campbell described as “our quiet retreat in the heart of the Rocky Mountains”.
The explorers completed their journey to Dease Lake the following spring. After tasking some of his employees with the construction of a fort on the lake’s shore, Campbell and three men- two Indian boys named Kitza and Lapie and an interpreter named Francis Hoole- set off down the westerly Indian trail in the direction of the Stikine River. The small party crossed a terrifying log bridge over a raging torrent that John McLeod had mentioned in his journal. Shortly thereafter, they came to a second log bridge, on the other side of which they found an encampment of Tahltan Indians who were colloquially referred to as the ‘Trading Nahanni’. The natives informed Campbell and his men that a great Indian gathering was taking place in the Stikine Valley. This event, hosted by the powerful Tlingit Indians of the Pacific Coast, was held twice every summer, when the Tlingit came upriver to trade Russian goods for Tahltan furs. The Tahtan chief confessed that the Tlingit had always instructed him and his people to kill any white men that appeared from the east, as they were the enemies of the Russians who provided the Tlingit with guns and steel. Fortunately for Campbell and his crew, this sub-chief of the Trading Nahanni was not particularly fond of his domineering Tlingit trading partners and decided to let the explorers live.
When Campbell expressed his desire to attend the great Indian rendezvous, the chief became alarmed. He told the Scotsman that a powerful Tlingit chief named Shakes presided over the gathering, and would surely kill Campbell and his men if they fell into his hands. “Though I and my band would be willing to protect you,” the chief warned, “we could not do so as Shakes’ men are as the sands of the beach.”
Undeterred, the Highlander implored the chief to take him to the assembly. When the leader, seeing Campbell’s determination, reluctantly agreed to escort him to the camp, the fur trader loaded a brace of flintlock pistols, slipped a dagger into his belt, grabbed his double-barrelled percussion lock rifle, and followed the Indian towards the Stikine, accompanied by his men.
“From the top of a hill we caught our first glimpse of the immense camp… of which we had heard so much, and indeed the description given us was not excaggerated. Such a concourse of Indians I had never before seen assembled. They were gathered from all parts of the Western slope of the Rockies and from along the Pacific Coast. These Indians camped here for weeks at a time, living on salmon which could be caught in thousands in the Stikine by gaffing or spearing, to aid them in which the Indians had a sort of dam built across the river.
“On the top of the hill I lost sight of my companions, including the Nahany Chief, and went down to the closely packed crowd awaiting us below escorted by an Indian who called himself Jack, and could speak a little broken English. Every word I said in reply to the numberless questions asked me was taken up and yelled by a hundred throats till the surrounding rocks and the valley re-echoed with the sound.
“Presently, a lane was cleared through the crowd for Shakes to come down to meet me. Shakes was a coast Indian, tall and strongly built, and as I afterwards learned was all-powerful among the Indians on that side of the Mountains. He ruled despotically over an immense band of Indians of different tribes… He shook hands with me and led me to a tent which had been put up for me. After entering and sitting down, he produced a bottle of whiskey and a cup. I merely tasted the liquor, but all the others in the tent had a drink. Meanwhile, the din outside was something fearful. Suddenly, the eaves of the tent were raised from the outside and then the whole tent was swept away amidst loud shouts. I was subsequently informed that this was done by the Nehanies, who regarded me as their guest and friend, and who had reasons to suspect that Shakes would murder me inside and consequently pulled the tent down, calling out as they did so, “If the White Chief is killed there will be plenty blood spilled here…”
Once the Tahltan warriors were satisfied that their friend was safe, at least for the time being, Shakes asked Campbell to give him a demonstration of his double-barrelled percussion lock rifle- a true novelty to the natives, whose experience with firearms was limited to the smoothbore flintlock muskets they acquired from the Russians. Campbell did as requested, firing off one of his two rounds at a distant target to a chorus of whoops and cheers. Suspecting that the Tlingit chief planned to seize him once his weapon was empty, Campbell reloaded the empty barrel before taking another shot. He repeated this procedure for as long as Shakes required him to shoot, never giving the chief the opportunity to catch him unarmed.
The White Queen
At one point, Shakes became distracted long enough for Campbell to slip away from him and his Tlingit countrymen. He made his way back up the hill from which he had first descended and found Kitza, Lapie, and Hoole waiting for him at the top. Alongside Campbell’s masculine companions stood a fairer figure- the Chieftainess of the Trading Nahanni. Years after Campbell’s encounter, the Scotsman’s description of this remarkable woman would become twisted into the legend of the White Queen- a fantastic tale of the Northland which told of a mysterious Caucasian princess who ruled with an iron first over the fearsome Nahanni Indians of the remote Nahanni Valley.
Wrote Campbell of this Tahltan noblewoman:
“The Nahany tribe over which she and her father, a very old man, held sway were then about 500 strong and, like other Indians, led a nomadic hunting life… She commanded the respect not only of her own people, but of the tribes they had intercouse with. She was a fine looking woman rather above the middle height and about 35 years old. In her actions and personal appearance, she was more like the Whites than the pure Indian race. She had a pleasing face lit up with fine intelligent eyes, which, when she was excited, flashed like fire. She was tidy and tasteful in her dress. To the kindness and influence of this Chieftainess, we owed much on more than one occasion, in fact in all probability we owed our lives to her more than once.
“At our first meeting… she gave us an evidence of her own power. It appeared that during my absence in the valley, a gun, firebag, small kettle and axe had been taken from my party by the Indians, and as they were indepsensable for our return to Dease Lake, I was much annoyed. The Chieftainess saw there was something wrong and on discovering the cause, she gave some directions to two young Indians, who started off to the great camp, and who to my astonishment soon returned with the missing articles… On parting, I gave her my handkerchief and all the loose nicknacks I had about me and received in return her silver bracelets. We walked hard and late and got across the bridge in safety, much elated at the result of our trip.”
Robert Campbell and his men met the chieftess a second time later that winter at their fort on Dease Lake, when they were severely low on provions. Of their second encounter, Campbell wrote:
“The first really large band of Indians that visited us came in February. They were followers of the Chieftainess, whom I have already mentioned, and who was with them. Her visit turned out to be a most providential one to us, as we were at the time perfectly destitute of food of any kind. Ine of our men had died just then at a camp she had passed and she expressed her sincere sympathy with our forlorn condition. Her kindness to us was unbounded. She ordered her servants… to cook the best they had for our use, and it was served under her own directions. We partook of a sumptuous repast- the first for many a day- consisting of excellent dried salmon and delicious fresh cariboo meat…
“The whole band passed the night with us in the fort, and to illustrate the Chieftainess’ extraordinary control over them let me mention an incident that took place. In the course of the evening, when everything had seemingly quieted down for the night, yell after yell suddenly broke the silence, the now furious savages rushed into the room where McLeod and I were sitting, loading their guns, some of them seized our weapons from racks on the wall and would assuredly have shot us had not the Chieftainess, who was lodged in the other end of the house, rushed in and commanded silence. She found out the instigator of the riot, walked up to him, and, stamping her foot on the ground, repeatedly spat in his face, her eyes blazing with anger. Peace and quiet reigned as suddenly as the outbreak had burst forth. I have seen many far-famed warrior Chiefs with their bands in every kind of mood, but I never saw one who had such absolute authority or was as bold and ready to exercise it as that noble woman. She was truly a born leader, whose mandate none dared dispute. Her controlling presence and intrepid interference no doubt saved our lives.”
Robert Campbell would go on to relate other strange adventures in the wilderness of Northern Canada. One of these took place on June 10th, 1843, near a brand new fur trading post called Pelly Banks, located in southeastern Yukon at the confluence of what are now Campbell Creek and the Pelly River.
A Highland Scot, Robert Campbell was doubtless familiar with the phenomenon of Second Sight- a condition most commonly associated with the Gaels of the Scottish Highlands in which the sufferer is said to have the ability to receive information, usually through dreams or visions, pertaining to distant or future events. The accounts of various frontiersmen seem to suggest that the Dene peoples of Northern Canada are similarly blessed with a predisposition for Second Sight. As Robert Campbell put it in his memoirs, “All Indians I have ever met believe that certain highly favoured individuals can by means of ‘conjuring’ look into the future and fortell events that are to happen; and strange to say I have known several instances in which the predictions of the conjurer have come true or very nearly so. In the case I am about to mention, it will be seen how singularly correct the divination was.”
As Campbell relates, one of his Dene employees- a left-handed hunter named Gauche- was asked by his fellow tribesmen to try to see, through the use of “conjuring”, what lay before them on their upcoming journey down the Pelly River. The Indian did as his fellow tribemen requested and made four predictions:
- On their journey, the company would meet two Indians on the right bank of the river.
- Afterwards, the company would meet a family of Indians with whom they would smoke and eat.
- They would kill plenty of small game but no large game over the course of their journey, although they would see plenty of large game on the mountainous slopes along the river.
- They would encounter a large band of strange Indians at the confluence of two large rivers. Since Gauche saw no blood in his vision, he was confident that this encounter would be a peaceful one.
Sure enough, on their second day on the river, Campbell and his crew saw two Indians on the right bank of the river, in accordance with Gauche’s first prediction. “That’s what Gauche said,” muttered one of the Indians. Campbell, who had been hitherto unaware of his employees’ exercise in clairvoyance, asked the Indian what he meant and learned of Gauche’s prophecies.
The next day, the explorers surprised an Indian family encamped on the riverbank. These natives had never seen white men before. Frightened by their strange appearance, the wife and children hid in the brush, while the father stayed to greet Campbell and his companions. When the father found that the explorers were friendly, he called for his wife and children to emerge from their hiding places and join him. In accordance with Gauche’s second prediction, the fur traders had a peaceful smoke and dinner with the family before continuing on their journey.
Campbell and company continued on to the Pelly’s confluence with the what Campbell named the Lewes River, a tributary of the upper Yukon River. “Early next day,” Campbell wrote, “a short distance below the forks, we came upon a large band of ‘Wood’ Indians, whom we took completely by surprise, which almost amounted to awe, as they had never seen white men before. Two of their leading chiefs… were tall, stalwart, good-looking men, clad from head to foot in dressed deer skins, ornamented with beads and porcupine quills of all colours.” These were Northern Tutchone Indians, and Campbell’s run-in with them satisfied Gauche’s fourth prediction.
The explorers smoke, ate, conversed, and exchanged presents with the Tutchone Indians. When the natives warned Campbell’s crew that they would encounter hostile cannibals downriver, the voyageurs refused to proceed any further, and Campbell was obliged to turn his party around. When their expedition finally came to an end, the first, second, and fourth of Gauche’s predictions had been realized. Whether or not the third prophecy was fulfilled depends on one’s definition of big game; although Campbell and his crew had seen plenty of bear and moose on the rocky heights overlooking the river, they were obliged to subsist on bighorn sheep throughout the course of their journey.
The Omen of Fort Selkirk
The crowning achievement of Robert Campbell’s long and arduous career in the Canadian Northwest was his 1848 founding of Fort Selkirk at the confluence of the Pelly and Lewes River, just upriver of his 1843 run-in with the Northern Tutchone Indians. In the years that followed Fort Selkirk’s establishment, Campbell tried in vain to compete for Yukon furs with the better-supplied Russians on the Pacific Coast.
In the Saturday, May 1st, 1852 entry in his second journal, Campbell wrote:
“I was awoke early this morning by the chattering of a magpie just outside the wall where I slept- an unusual circumstance, seeing that bird is rarely seen in this country and that I have not seen any for years. As soon as I went out to look at it, it shortly disappeared before any person was up. It put me in mind of dear home, where it is so common, but what it had to communicate I could not comprehend. Grant it may be a forerunner of good tidings.”
Three and a half months later, on August 20th, 1852, Robert Campbell watched twenty-seven Chilkat Tlingit from the Pacific Coast haul their canoes onto the banks of the Pelly and make their way towards Fort Selkirk. While the Chilkats loaded their muskets, apparently intent on causing mischief, Campbell ordered his men to barricade the fort’s doors. The Indians spent the night attempting to break into Fort Selkirk, prying at every window.
The following day- on Saturday, August 21st, 1852- the Chilkats finally broke into Fort Selkirk and plundered its storeroom. When Campbell attempted to bar the door to his employees’ living quarters, three Chilkat braves levelled their rifles at his heart. One warrior moved to stab the trader with his knife; Campbell was saved at the last moment by one of his dogs, who leaped onto the warrior and took a knife to the heart in defence of its master.
In the chaos that ensued, Campbell and his employees managed to escape the fort and flee downriver in canoes. By the time they returned with a band of friendly Tutchone Indians, they found the fort deserted and stripped of its contents.
In later life, Robert Campbell firmly maintained that the magpie he had seen on the morning of May 1st, 1852, was an omen sent by God to warn him of the trouble that awaited him. Omen or not, the tale of Robert Campbell and the magpie, like the Shaking Tent of the Ojibwa and the fate of Le Griffon, remains one of the many great unsolved Mysteries of the Canadian Fur Trade.