Mysteries of the Canadian Fur Trade
Episode 2: The Adventures of George Nelson
The story of Canada, in this author’s opinion, is a book with three sections: intertribal conflict; political ambition; and industrial expansion. Each section is composed of many chapters comprising the exploits, adventures, triumphs, and tragedies of the characters whom it features. And a surprising number of chapters are peppered with anecdotes with which our current understanding of reality is difficult to reconcile.
Every Canadian industry has its stories of the unexplained. Fishermen, whalers, and merchant mariners who plied their trade in the waters of the Atlantic told tales of sea serpents, haunted lighthouses, and phantom ships. Prospectors who searched for the yellow metal during the great gold rushes of the 19th Century spoke of lost mines, lost worlds, and monsters long consigned to the dustbin of prehistory. Farmers and ranchers have their UFO stories, loggers their wildmen stories, and miners their tales of subterranean ghosts.
Of all the strange stories associated with Canadian industry, among the most fascinating are the forgotten tales born out of the oldest and most iconic commercial trade of the Great White North; tales of ghosts, strange animals, clairvoyance, and Indian magic; the mysteries of the Canadian fur trade.
Among the richest sources of strange tales set in the Canadian wilderness are the writings of a 19th Century fur trader named George Nelson, whose career spans one of the most interesting periods in the history of the Canadian fur trade.
George Nelson was born on June 4th, 1786, in the city of Montreal, Quebec. He spent most of his childhood in the town of William Henry, Lower Canada (now Sorel-Tracy, Quebec), where his father, an English immigrant, worked as a schoolmaster. Like most residents of William Henry at that time, Nelson’s mother was a British Loyalist refugee who had fled New York for Canada during the American Revolution. His parents provided him with a good classical education, as evidenced by the quality of his writing in the many journals, letters, and memoirs he would later pen.
In a later reminiscence, Nelson described becoming “seized with the delirium” occasioned by the arrival of voyageurs in William Henry. “These,” he wrote, “were easily distinguished by their gay & lofty mien and jaunty air, as men who had faced dangers & conquered difficulties they only were capable of. The free & thoughtless way in which they squandered their money was not the least of the wonders to those who were unacquainted with influence of example & the habit of thoughtlessness so natural to a roving life.”
In 1802, several months prior to his sixteenth birthday, Nelson travelled to Montreal and secured a position as a clerk with the XY Company, a small fur trading syndicate which had fractured from the larger North-West Company (NWC) just a few years earlier; whose ranks had recently been bolstered by Sir Alexander Mackenzie, the celebrated Scottish explorer who paddled the length of the great northern Mackenzie River in 1789. Interestingly, among the party of XY Company men with whom Nelson set out from Lachine, on the Island of Montreal, were two green recruits who would go on to forge considerable reputations for themselves in the wilderness of North America: 22-year-old Samuel Black, who would explore much of what is now northern British Columbia on behalf of the NWC; and William Morrison, who is said to be the first white man to lay eyes on Lake Itasca, the headwater of the Mississippi River.
The Lady in White
Nelson described his subsequent journey from Lachine to the Grand Portage, at the western end of Lake Superior, in a later reminiscence entitled “A Winter in the St. Croix Valley,” which was published posthumously in the March 1947 issue of the journal Minnesota History. This account contains several old voyageur legends which Nelson learned from his French-Canadian companions.
Shortly after leaving Lachine, the travelers stopped to pay their respects at the chapel of St. Anne, located on the westernmost tip of the Island of Montreal- a time-honoured voyageur tradition, St. Anne being the patron saint of voyageurs. That accomplished, Nelson and his companions left the St. Lawrence and travelled up the Ottawa River in birch bark canoes.
At a portage on the Ottawa River called the Grand Calumet, the French-Canadian voyageurs who handled the canoes told Nelson about a strange event said to have taken place there in 1759, just prior to the British Conquest of Canada, when the trading grounds of the co-called “Upper Country” surrounding the Great Lakes still remained in the hands of the French.
One summer day, the story went, a party of voyageurs returning from either from Fort Michilimackinac, at the northern tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, or the Grand Portage, were in the process of hauling their canoe and furs over the Grand Calumet portage when they stumbled into a large Iroquois war party. A cacophony of blood curdling war cries erupted from the Iroquois ranks, prompting the French-Canadians to leap into their canoe and paddle desperately downstream, plunging headlong into the frothing rapids which the Grand Calumet trail circumvents. Only one poor voyageur was unable to make it into the canoe on account of a bruised heel.
“Every one, most naturally put up prayers,” Nelson wrote, “& vowed masses for their deliverance. They were carried over safely- they did not even ship any water. The next Portage being only a few hundred yards off, they escaped & drove to Montreal with the utmost expedition. The Iroquois ran too to the lower end & saw them arriving at the Portage.”
As the Iroquois braves prepared to attack the voyageurs, they noticed a tall woman in white robes standing at the bow of their canoe, as if guiding it through the current. The French-Canadians saw this apparition as well, and believed it to be the Virgin Mary, the daughter of their patron, St. Anne. Suspecting that the woman in white must be some sort of divine protectress, the Iroquois warriors concluded that an assault on the voyageurs “would be as fruitless as impious” and abandoned their pursuit.
“This was certainly a miraculous escape,” Nelson concluded. “It was indeed in the summer & the waters low, yet no bark Canoe even at very low water can withstand the furious commotions.”
Ten days later, a party from Montreal returned to the Grand Calumet to rescue the lone voyageur who had been left behind. “After much research,” Nelson wrote, “they found him dead, ‘in a hole he had himself dug out with a paddle’! He died from hunger disease & fright. Some say the body was not yet quite cold.”
Some of those who have commented upon Nelson’s tale have suggested that is an anachronistic version of a semi-legendary event said to have actually occurred at the Grand Calumet in 1709. According to this tale, which has a number of different versions, the unfortunate voyageur left behind on the portage trail was a French-Canadian named Jean Cadieux. Legend has it that Cadieux heroically remained ashore with an Algonquin friend in order to distract the Iroquois warriors from his wife and children, who had been travelling with the voyageurs. He and his companion began firing their muskets at the Iroquois from concealment in the trees, commencing a long and grueling firefight. The French-Canadian was mortally wounded in this skirmish and, with the little strength that remained to him, dug himself a Christian grave, complete with a wooden cross, in which he lay down to die. When his companions later recovered his body, they found him clutching a sheet of birch bark on which he had written a poem in his own blood. This verse, called Cadieux’s Lament, was later put to music, and became one of the most popular shanties to be sung by the voyageurs of the Upper Country.
The Legend of Monsieur Lafremboise
Nelson and his companions continued up the Ottawa and further up the Mattawa River. On that narrower waterway, the voyageurs told Nelson another strange story about a fur trader named Monsieur Lafremboise, who traded at Fort Michilimackinac. One spring, on his return journey to Montreal, Lafremboise disembarked on the shores of the Mattawa River and, without warning or any apparent cause, fled into the woods. Startled and confused, his voyageurs followed him into the forest and attempted to persuade him to return to the canoes. “He would allow them to come so near as almost to touch him,” Nelson wrote, “& immediately bound off like a deer into the woods.” The voyageurs pursued Lafremboise in this manner for some time but eventually lost track of him deep within the Mattawa wilderness. With great reluctance, they conceded that they would have to leave their friend behind if they hoped to transport their furs to Montreal. Knowing that other canoe-going parties were behind them, they returned to the river, drove a long pole into the riverbank to which they tied a letter describing the strange and tragic development, said a prayer for Lafremboise’s safety and salvation, and continued downriver.
The following day, the voyageurs made camp at another stopping place. To their astonishment, they found Lafremboise walking leisurely about the grounds; incredibly, the fur trader appeared to have beaten his canoe-going companions to the location on foot. When he observed the voyageur’s arrival, Lafremboise flew into a panic and slinked into the woods.
“They followed, but to no purpose!” Nelson wrote. “In the afternoon they again saw him, in another place, & far distant. He exhibited the same alarm, – they endeavoured again, but to no avail. They immediately concluded, of course there must be something Supernatural in this; for it was utterly impossible that any human being by his own mere exertions or powers could possibly travel such immense distances so rapidly, without aid! They concluded ‘it must be the evil Spirit who thus transported him.’”
Nelson and the voyageurs continued up the water trail to Lake Nipissing and the Great Lakes beyond. On the French River, which drains Nipissing into Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay, they came to a beautiful spot which the voyageurs called “L’Enfant Perdu”, or the “The Lost Child”. “The Indians called it the ‘crying child’,” Nelson wrote, “from the cries of a child heard in the ground. After much Search they decided upon digging in the earth. The excavation is still distinctly visible, several hundred feet long, & as they approached the hill it is very deep. They gave up in despair, after digging many days and hearing the cries of a child in distress, they ceased from fatigue & I dare say fear too. They had to leave the place for the cries still continued, & sometimes so near the Surface they fancied to see it.”
This legend evokes a similar story, sometimes also referred to as “L’Enfant Perdu”, about a native child who fell into a fissure in the rock at the head of a portage trail on the Pinawa Channel, more than 750 miles northwest of the French River. Years later, Nelson briefly mentioned this other story in his journal.
The company continued on past St. Ste. Marie and across Lake Superior to the Grand Portage, where its members split up and headed for their respective destinations. Nelson’s first post was at a place called Yellow Lake in the forests south of Lake Superior, in the heart of what is now the American state of Wisconsin. Although the region south of the four largest Great Lakes, which was known at the time as the Northwest Territory, officially belonged to the United States at that time, Canadian fur traders continued to ply their trade there with the blessing of the British Crown, the latter hoping that such commerce would hinder westward American expansion.
Nelson’s first year in the fur trade was a trial by fire. Though but a thoroughly green teenager, by dint of his education, he was put in charge of seasoned French-Canadian voyageurs many years his senior and thrust into service without any training or guidance. Both his subordinates and the natives with whom he traded took advantage of his inexperience, the former shirking their duties out of laziness or cowardice and the latter, usually under the influence of alcohol, extorting trade goods from him through the threat of violence. One native hunter and guide called le Commis, on whom Nelson heavily relied, coerced the young man into marrying his teenage daughter- a commitment which Nelson was reluctant to make for fear of incurring the displeasure and low opinion of his superior, Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Nelson documented his trials and tribulations in both a contemporary journal and an 1836 reminiscence which historians call the ‘Sorel Journal’, often remarking that he was fortunate to have made his mistakes in the Wisconsin district rather than in the North, where both the country and its human inhabitants were less forgiving.
Nelson’s first truly strange experience in the fur trade occurred on the evening of November 28th, 1803, during his second season in Wisconsin, which saw him in charge of XY Company post on the Chippewa River. That night, a fearful Ojibwa hunter named Chubby visited his tent and begged that he be let inside. The young fur trader acquiesced and invited the hunter to lie down on a blanket inside. Unbeknownst to Nelson, Chubby had just committed a murder, and was hiding from his victim’s vengeful relatives.
Back when he was a child, Chubby’s father had been killed by a fellow Ojibwa, a haughty and well-built hunter whom the other band members feared to cross. In those days, Ojibwa custom dictated that the family members of a murder victim had the right and the responsibility to avenge the deceased by killing either the murderer himself or a member of his family. As Chubby had no adult male relatives capable of bringing the killer to justice at the time, however, the murderer got away with his crime. Chubby grew to manhood breaking trails and sharing campfires with his father’s killer, secretly biding his time until he had the strength, courage, and opportunity to take his revenge.
That evening in the fall of 1803, Chubby saw his father’s murderer chatting and drinking with his own brother. Deciding that the time had come to mete out Indian justice, he approached the older man and stabbed him three times in the chest with his hunting knife. Mortally wounded, the middle aged murderer drew his own knife and slashed at Chubby’s brother, with whom he had been chatting, suspecting him to be the culprit. Quickly realizing his error, the dying man then stabbed Chubby deep in the left side, beneath his ribs. The older man proceeded to chase Chubby for a short distance before collapsing and succumbing to his wounds.
Chubby made his way to Nelson’s tent and asked the fur trader to shelter him, afraid that the dead man’s relatives would soon be on the lookout for him. Knowing nothing of the man’s injury nor the nature of his deed, Nelson agreed. Around midnight, two concerned friends arrived at the fur trader’s tent and asked to see Chubby’s wound. Nelson described the incident that followed in both his 1803 journal, and in an 1836 reminiscence which historians call the ‘Sorel Journal’.
At his friends’ insistence, Chubby stirred from his blanket and propped himself up on his elbow, revealing a dark puddle of blood beneath him. “As he laid upon his left side,” Nelson wrote, “a piece of his liver or something from his inside that appeared to have a number of small veins hung out about 3 inches long through his side.” Nelson described the organ as being flat and pointed, and wrote that resembled the spleen of a hog in both size and shape. To Nelson’s horror and astonishment, the Indians promptly severed the organ as close as they could to the wounded man’s body, allowing the remainder to slip back into the gaping cavity. “I shall relate the sequel,” Nelson continued, “tho’ I am well aware no one will believe me. They gave him the piece & made him EAT it! … [He] swallowed it down almost as easily as I would a piece of sugar cake.” Amazingly, Chubby survived this disturbing operation and went on to make a full recovery.
Conjuring at Brunet’s Cabin
The winter of 1803/04 was a particularly unpleasant one for the men of the XY Company, who were forced to abandon their trading post and travel amongst their Ojibwa patrons to avoid the depredations of the neighbouring Dakota Sioux, with whom the Ojibwa were at war. Spurred by desperation, the natives with whom Nelson travelled resorted to conjuring to solve their problems, engaging in a mysterious necromantic ritual during which they purported to communicate with personal supernatural assistants which Nelson called “familiars”.
Nelson’s first experience with this ancient Ojibwa rite took place in December 1803, while he and his men were encamped outside the cabin of a retired voyageur named Brunet. Short on trading goods, Nelson ordered two of his voyageurs to return to their abandoned post and retrieve a barrel of rum from the storehouse. When the men failed to return by December 14th, seven days beyond the date of their expected arrival, an old Indian offered to see what had befallen them for the price of a six-foot-long cord of tobacco. Knowing that the elder had a reputation as an excellent conjuror, Nelson agreed.
That night, after the rest of the camp had retired to bed, the old Indian entered his own tent and prepared his medicine, working, as he insisted he must, without any spectators. The following morning, he emerged from his tent and declared that the two missing men would return that day at noon. He described the site at which they had camped the previous night in great detail, and maintained that they had encountered difficulties on the trail, having nearly drowned, and long since exhausted their provisions. “But they are well,” he concluded, “& bring the rum!”
Sure enough, the two voyageurs arrived at the cabin the following day bearing a keg of rum. Their campsite proved to have appeared exactly as the old Indian described it, and they had indeed nearly drowned and lost all their provisions during their journey, just like the conjurer predicted.
As the winter progressed, Nelson and his men, along with their Ojibwa neighbours, began to go hungry. “We had a small stock of dry Provisions,” Nelson explained in an 1825 letter to his father, written decades after the event, “and speared a few fish once or twice, but there were so many of us that we were soon [brought] to short commons, as the strip of country we were then going [through] contained no other animals but a few [straggling] Bears; but these animals at this season could not be found notwithstanding all the exertions of our hunters.”
In early February 1804, at the insistence of the Ojibwa women with whom he travelled, Nelson applied to the band’s medicine man, paying him one and a half pounds of tobacco so that he might ensure a successful hunt through divination. For three nights in a row, the medicine man smoked his pipe, shook his rattle, and prayed to the spirits, afterwards assuring the company that they would kill a bear the following day. Despite the shaman’s hopeful predictions, however, the hunters returned to camp each evening emptyhanded.
“There was another indian in company with us,” wrote Nelson, “but tenting by himself (and his family). This indian who was very fond of me would frequently call me in and give me a share of what he had, to eat.” One evening, this native- whom Nelson, in another reminiscence, identified as the aforementioned Chubby- told Nelson that he would like to try his hand at conjuring, but was afraid that he might have “polluted [his] person,” thereby rendering himself unworthy of the skill which such work requires, by killing another Indian earlier that autumn. Nevertheless, Chubby was hopeful that his familiars (i.e. spirit guides) might allow him to conjure on the account of the fur traders.
That night, Chubby set about preparing his medicine. “He had an immense large drum,” Nelson wrote, “as large [as] those among the military, and stretched hard: upon this he beat time, but very hard, to accord with his Songs which were as loud as he could bawl.” All night long, the native alternated between beating his drum, shaking his rattle, praying, and smoking. At dawn, he emerged from his tent and declared that two particular Indians- Nelson’s father-in-law, le Commis, and son- would each kill a bear that day. He told the son that he would find his bear quickly, giving him precise directions to its location. He prophesized that Commis, on the other hand, would pass very near his own bear, but would not see it. Once he began to feel hopeless, Commis was to retrace his steps, and would find his bear nestled in the hollow of a fallen tree. The conjuror claimed that he, too, would secure a bear, but would do so only with much difficulty.
“I need not tell you how we laughed at the poor Devil…” Nelson wrote, “but in the evening we found all that he predicted, perfectly verified. This I assure you is a fact, and will maintain it notwithstanding every thing skeptics (excuse the term) or those unacquainted, or but superficially so, with these people might say: and I am also certain that he had no previous knowledge of their being there; for there was plenty of snow and there were no other tracks but those of these 2 human hunters…”
In a later reminiscence in which he elaborated on this story, Nelson concluded, “This is so strange, and so out of the way that I will ask no one to believe it. Those who will not believe the Gospel will still less credit this; yet I say it is true, believe who may. We had a Splendid feast that night, for they were very fat.”
Years after his stint in Wisconsin (in 1811), Nelson wrote a letter to his father in which he outlined some of the beliefs and customs of the Ojibwa with whom he lived and traded. In the first chapter of this ethnology, he described the Ojibwa legend of the Thunderbird.
“The General pass time among the Indians, of their evenings in winter,” Nelson wrote, “is their telling of stories, which are not les various & curious than superstitious… They will tell you stories of the thunder, which they take to be birds of an enormous size, & of the most hideous shape & figure- some among them have these birds to reside occasionally in the water, where they make a terrible havoc with anything human that opposes them.”
Transfer to Lake Winnipeg
In late June, 1804, Nelson and his men travelled from Wisconsin to the Grand Portage on the western shores of Lake Superior, the site of the XY Company’s field headquarters, with their season’s take of furs. By the time they arrived, rumour had already reached Nelson’s superior, Sir Alexander Mackenzie (or “the Knight”, as Nelson and the voyageurs often referred to him) of Nelson’s having taken a native wife, a practice of which he thoroughly disapproved. In his journal, Nelson described how Mackenzie, who had treated him with paternal kindness prior to his Wisconsin posting, now “spoke very little to [him], & seldom took any notice of [him], which [he] was very sorry for.”
Nelson stayed at Grand Portage for three weeks, awaiting further orders. In a later reminiscence, he wrote, “The Knight sent for me, reprimanded me in a true fatherly manner, because he had had time to examine my ways, & told me to prepare to go in to the North Lake Winnipick [Winnipeg]. I thanked him as was my duty, & I am sure he saw in my eyes there was not so much blame in me after all. The word North passed through my Soul like a sword. With all my ambition to encounter dangers, this word was like a shot. Lake Winnipick too, where all our people suffered so much every year, where so many had died of hunger in all its most frightful shapes- was not calculated to re-assure me, I who had suffered so much the year before in that fine country of Riv’ des Sauteaux. I don’t believe I ever recovered the full sway of my spirits after that.”
Leaving his Ojibwa wife in the care of another man, Nelson and his new crew travelled 360 miles (580 kilometres) northwest to a post on the Riviere-aux-Morts, or the River of the Dead (now called Netley Creek), a tributary of the Red River which enters the latter just upriver from its mouth at the southern end of Lake Winnipeg. In the Sorel Journal, Nelson explained that the waterway owed its ghoulish name to a massacre that took place there in the mid-1700s, in which a large party Sioux war party slaughtered a band of Saulteaux Indians. Although his first season in southern Manitoba did not furnish him with much in the way of ghost stories, with which one might expect the Riviere-aux-Morts to abound, it did yield a number of colourful anecdotes. In the Sorel Journal, for instance, Nelson described an incident in which a rival crew of North West Company voyageurs gorged themselves on wild mushrooms which quickly proved to be of the hallucinogenic variety. Later that season, some of his own men, without his knowledge, took revenge on a gang of Swampy Cree who had attempted to murder them by finding a barrel of rum they had cached in the woods, quaffing half of its contents themselves, and refilling the barrel with their own urine.
A more important event also took place in the season of 1804-1805: shortly after Nelson’s transfer, Simon McTavish, co-founder and chief partner of the North West Company, died in Montreal, prompting Nelson’s employer, the XY Company, to allow itself to be reabsorbed back into the North West Company. Thus, Nelson and his men found themselves working for and alongside their former rivals.
Lac du Bonnet
Nelson spent the season of 1805-1806 working a post on the southern shore of Lac du Bonnet, about 26 miles (42 kilometres) southeast of Lake Winnipeg, at a place known today as Wendigo Beach. Although the journal he kept during this time is little more than a chronological account of the often-mundane tasks required to keep the Lac du Bonnet post running smoothly, peppered with a few hair-raising adventures, it does make frequent references to L’Isle du Windigo, or Wendigo Island. This half-kilometre-long spit of land, which sits near the eastern end of the lake, is named after a dark native legend which we will explore shortly.
The following year, Nelson was transferred to a new post at the mouth of the Dauphin River about 145 miles (233 kilometres) to the northwest, on the western shores of Lake Winnipeg. Before his departure, he assisted North West Company partner William McKay with exhuming skeletons from the cemetery at Bas de la Riviere, not far from the Riviere-aux-Morts. The North West Company had decided to rebuild the post in that area, called Fort Alexander, and McKay concluded that the old cemetery was the ideal spot on which to build it. Ever after, mysterious fires occasionally broke out in the fort’s kitchen, driving one NWC proprietor nearly to despair.
Nelson and company began the journey to the Dauphin River in the early autumn of 1806. Along the way, they met with a terrible accident which culminated in Nelson’s first strange experience in Manitoba.
On the morning of September 12th, 1806, Nelson joined his men around a campfire while the cook prepared their breakfast. Tragically, one of his voyageurs had mistaken a 50-pound keg of gunpowder for a barrel of sugar and left it sitting by the fire. An errant spark from the pipe of his interpreter, Francois Richard, touched off the powder keg, generating a tremendous explosion which hurled Richard 15 feet over a tuft of willows. Nelson himself was severely burned by the blast and had to be helped out of his clothes.
In a later reminiscence in which he described the accident, Nelson wrote, “While the men were still busy employed in stripping the remnants of the [shreds] of clothing hanging upon me, in which they were necessarily very Slow to give me the least possible pain being so lacerated & excoriated, I turned my head towards Mr. Cameron’s tent where I heard crying, weeping, lamentations &c. – I saw…! Oh God! A tall black man, shining like a [Negro], – a large frizzly head, blood shot eyes, a thick yellow Smoke issuing from his nostrils & mouth, and his tongue red as fire! ‘My God! My God! Have mercy upon me! – this is certainly the devil come for me for my numerous Sins’!” In fact, the ghastly apparition was poor Francois Richard, who had survived the explosion; the gunpowder had incinerated most of his clothes and roasted him from head to toe.
Nelson and Richard were doctored by both the voyageurs and several local Cree who arrived on the scene after hearing the explosion. Their burns were treated with a larch pine salve and a warm liquid which Nelson called “Swamp tea”, and were covered with plaster. On the advice of the natives, Nelson forced himself to vomit in order to purge himself of the sulfur he had swallowed and inhaled.
By the end of October, Nelson was nearly fully recovered from his burns. Richard, however, developed infected black ulcers above his kidneys and slid into a steep decline. “The 26th was very stormy,” Nelson wrote, “& the night was unusually dismal. About 8 o’clock at night we heard a strange, very loud & shrill cry, it was again repeated. Some thought it was the cry of a loon, tho’ they had long since returned [south], some a bear, some an owl. Some of the women said it was one of the water deities. ‘What is all this talking about,’ said the poor old man. ‘It is my father who has sent to warn me to prepare, for I must die!’ The next morning about 8 o’clock he breathed his last in great agony! May the Almighty God receive his Soul into grace, mercy, & peace.”
The Mysteries of Lake Winnipeg
George Nelson spent nine years working out of various posts on the western shores of Lake Winnipeg, marrying a Saulteaux Ojibwa wife, and learning much about the Saulteaux and Cree natives with whom he conducted business. He documented his Lake Winnipeg adventures in his journal, and in later reminiscences, mentioning several strange experiences that he could not explain.
On January 25th, 1809, for example, while working at the Dauphin River post, Nelson and a voyageur named Etienne Charbonneau “heard a Great noise upon the Lake resembling an extraordinary Clap of thunder…” Later that night, he and his men observed that two celestial bodies, which he identified as the Evening Star (i.e. the planet Venus) and an adjacent star, not only seemed to be twice as large and bright as usual, but also appeared to bounce “to & from each other, as to excite an uncommon degree of curiosity in every one who beheld it.” Nelson later learned that on the very same night, a Cree hunter encamped on the lake’s northern shore awoke in the night to feed his campfire and observed that the moon was very high in the sky. Less than half an hour later, after placing some wood on the fire and smoking his pipe, the Cree was astonished to find the moon sinking below the horizon.
Another unusual event occurred on the night of February 20th, 1811, at the post on the Dauphin River. Several hours before dawn, one of Nelson’s voyageurs, named Jean-Baptiste Larocque, awoke at the same time as his Ojibwa wife to see a mysterious hunched figure approaching the sleeping form of his comrade, Joseph Bertrand Desrocher. Frightened, Larocque turned his back on the apparition. The spectre apparently perceived this motion and directed its attention toward the voyageur and his wife instead, stooping over the cowering couple before vanishing into thin air. Larocque and his wife were so shaken by the experience that they refused to leave their bed until a Dutch voyageur named Jean-Baptiste Welles lit a fire in the cabin. This strange event is rendered all the spookier considering that it occurred during the height of a virulent epidemic of some mysterious hemorrhagic fever that was sweeping across the country, causing its sufferers to bleed out of their mouths and eyes.
During this time, the North-West Company developed a ferocious rivalry with the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), the old English fur trading syndicate which had controlled the Hudson Bay drainage basin since its 17th Century founding. Nelson abhorred the duplicity and ruthless aggression which such cutthroat competition required of its participants. “The Demon of Ambition,” as he put it in one of his aforementioned reminiscences, “followed us, blinded our better judgement, & sharpned our wits only to oppose, annoy, & injure each other.” After a brief stint at a small trading post north of Lake Superior, Nelson quit the industry in 1816, taking his native wife and four daughters with him to his hometown, William Henry.
Big Dog Mountain
Financial necessity forced George Nelson to rejoin the North-West Company two years later, whereupon he was put in charge of a succession of trading posts in what is now northern Manitoba. His transfers gradually pushed him further east into what is now northern Saskatchewan. In 1821, when the North-West Company, at the behest of the British Crown, amalgamated with the Hudson’s Bay Company, Nelson was assigned to Cumberland House, an HBC post on the Saskatchewan River in what is now east-central Saskatchewan.
In another of his journals, Nelson documented his journey from Fort William to his new post, Fort William being the old North-West Company’s field headquarters on the western shore of Lake Superior, located in present-day Thunder Bay, Ontario. One interesting landmark he encountered along the way was a huge impression of a dog on a hill known today as Dog Mountain, which was visible from the Grande Portage des Chiens, or the Big Dogs Portage. This mysterious formation, which modern anthropologists have classified an ‘effigy mound’, appears in the journals and memoirs of several other fur traders, always accompanied by different native legends which purport to explain its origin. According to the version which Nelson learned from a Metis clerk, the depression is the final resting place of a gigantic dog which the Sioux killed and buried centuries ago. “The place is still visible,” Nelson wrote on July 25th, 1822, “but far exceeding the size of any animal I ever saw.”
Lac La Ronge
After a year at Cumberland House, Nelson found himself in charge of Fort Lac la Ronge, a post in what is now north-central Saskatchewan, where the town of La Ronge now stands. In that lonely northern outpost in the heart of Canada’s vast boreal forest, in what would prove to be the twilight of his fur trading career, George Nelson wrote a remarkable series of letters to his father, William Nelson, in which he described the spiritual beliefs of the Ojibwa, Cree, and Chipewyan Indians alongside whom he had lived for two decades. These letters contain startling tales of strange animals and preternatural phenomena which Nelson heard from his native friends, along with many of Nelson’s own unexplainable experiences in the northern wilderness.
The Shaking Tent
In his first letter to his father, supposed to have been written in the spring or early summer of 1823, Nelson described the ritual of the Shaking Tent, a necromantic rite by which the Cree and Ojibwa purported to commune with inhuman spirits for the purpose of acquiring occult knowledge. Nelson wrote that the frame of the tent itself, in which the ritual is performed, was typically composed of about six to eight poles, each of them about 8 or 9 feet long and 2 or 2.5 inches in diameter, arranged to form a cylinder with a diameter of about 3 feet. Each pole is stripped of its branches, sharpened into a point at one end, and driven a foot or two into the ground. That accomplished, the poles are encircled by three or four hoops which are tied securely to each of them.
Once the frame of the Shaking Tent has been erected, it is covered with skins or oilcloth, with an opening left at the top. The medicine man elected to perform the ceremony is then stripped to his loincloth and bound hand and foot, the constraints sometimes being so earnestly applied that the shaman is twisted into a crumpled heap. The medicine man’s assistant then raises the tent’s covering and thrusts the shaman inside with his rattle.
Some medicine men, upon entering the tent, begin to sing. Others make a speech inviting any spirits present in the area to enter the structure. After a period of time, which could be as short as five minutes or as long as several hours, the cords with which the medicine man was tied are ejected from either the top or bottom of the tent, landing right in the lap of the assistant who tied them.
“It is then that the Devil is at work,” Nelson wrote. A succession of spirits proceed to fly into the tent, as evidenced by the rustling of fabric at the tent’s upper aperture or the shaking of the medicine man’s rattle. “When any enter,” Nelson wrote, “the hut moves in a most violent manner- I have frequently thought that it would be knocked down, or torn out of the Ground.”
According to Nelson’s informants, some medicine men were so powerful that their Shaking Tents required two concentric walls of poles, each of them encircled by well-fastened hoops. “Thus arranged,” the fur trader wrote, “they seem to be beyond the Power of any 3 or 4 men to move, yet when the Spirits enter it sets a-going with a motion equal to that of a single pole indifferently stuck in the Ground and violently moved by a man. I have never seen any of these double ones, but twice or thrice saw the others, whilst the conjuror was in. Some time afterwards, when they were off, I shook them with both hands and with all my strength but the motion was nothing like that of the Conjurors.”
Nelson proceeded to describe the various spiritual entities purported to enter the tent. “The first who enters is commonly… the Turtle… a Jolly Jovial sort of fellow, who, after disencumbering his votary, chats and jokes with those outside and asks for a pipe to smoke… The Thunder also frequently comes but he is desired to remain outside as he would break all. It is reported that once he entered and split one of the Poles to shivers. The Flying Squirrel also enters- he is no liar, but you must take everything he says… the opposite: his nature is such that he durst not tell the truth but in this ambiguous manner, otherwise the conjuror would soon die after. I do not know that the Skunk ever comes, but the Wolverine… does and he is known immediately by his stink, which occasions no small merriment at his expense, on the outside. The Loon also enters- he is known by his usual cry ‘nee-weah-weewey’ [‘I want to have a wife’, in Cree], repeated commonly 3 times as he does when in the water.”
Nelson went on to describe another ghostly visitor called Strong Neck, whom he likened to the mythical Greek hero Hercules on account of his tremendous strength. “He does not seem fond of Jokes,” Nelson wrote, “and when the other Spirits announce his coming all those on the outside must cover their heads and not look up; for it appears that he cannot come invisible as the others do, or will not, but still does not [choose] to be seen.”
Other spirits which enter the Shaking Tent include the souls of ancient Indians; the Sun, who speaks English; the Pike, who speaks French; the Buffalo Bull, who speaks a mysterious foreign language; the Bear, who “makes a devil of a racket”; the Serpent, who is supposed to be Satan; and the a trickster figure, whom the Cree called ‘Weesuckajack’.
Those who attend the ritual of the Shaking Tent are free to ask the spirits questions about distant or future events. The spirits’ replies are often incomprehensible to the attendees, necessitating the medicine man’s translation. At the end of the ceremony, Weesuckajack commands the other spirits to return to their homes, whereupon the tent shakes one last time as the spirits depart through its upper aperture.
Conjuring for a NWC Gentleman
While in La Ronge, one of Nelson’s native clients informed him that, some years before his arrival, a North West Company fur trader, whom Nelson neglected to name, paid a local medicine man to conjure for him in the hope of ascertaining what had befallen an inbound party which had failed to arrive on schedule. Before the ceremony commenced, the shaman exchanged a few heated words with a local Metis boy, who expressed his skepticism regarding the efficacy of the Shaking Tent ceremony.
The medicine men entered the tent began to summon the spirits. After a few minutes, those outside the tent could hear him crying out loud, as if in fear and surprise. Incredibly, his voice appeared to rise into the air, higher and higher, until it faded from perception.
When all became quiet, one of the native onlookers urged the Metis boy to enter the tent to satisfy his skepticism. The boy did as requested and crawled under the covering. To his astonishment, the medicine man was nowhere to be found. The boy stood up, groping in the dark for any sign of the missing shaman. Suddenly, a ferocious cyclonic wind descended upon him, and small star-like lights appeared everywhere he looked. The boy scrambled from the tent, terrified, whereupon a faint cry sounded from the sky. The cry became increasing louder, as if descending to earth, and soon the voice of the medicine man could be heard within the tent. The shaman emerged from the structure and informed the astonished onlookers that four spirits had carried him over the forest, to the camp of the men whose tardiness the NWC gentleman had asked him to explain. He correctly predicted that the travelers would arrive at the fort the following day.
Nelson’s Shaking Tent Experience
In the summer of 1823, Nelson witnessed an extraordinary Shaking Tent ceremony conducted by an ancient medicine man at Lac la Ronge. At the beginning of the ritual, the shaman was tied up so securely that the blood welled painfully in his fingertips. Before any of the onlookers could place him inside the structure, he slid across the ground and into the tent as if dragged by some invisible force. This action was accompanied by an unearthly noise which Nelson could not describe. No more than a minute and a half later, the cords with which the medicine man had been bound, not one knot of which appeared to be untied, flew out through the top. Nelson was “struck dumb with astonishment.”
Before long, various spirits entered the tent and began speaking. Although the shaman suffered from a lung infection which reduced his voice to a quiet rasp, some of the voices that issued from the tent were strong and clear.
“About midnight,” Nelson wrote, “the Conjuror addressed me and asked if I wished to see any of [the spirits]. I accepted the offer and thrust my head underneath, and being upon my back I looked up and near the top observed a light as of a Star in a Cloudy night about 1 1/2 in. long and 1 broad; tho’ dim, yet perfectly distinct…
“A little after one [a.m.] one of my men looked in, with several [Indians], and saw several small lights about as large as the Thumb nail. A few minutes before 2 [a.m.], they gave another shaking to the frame and made their exit.”
At the end of his tale, Nelson concluded, “I am fully convinced, as much so as that I am in [existence], that the Spirits of some kind did really and virtually enter, some truly terrific, but others again quite of a different character.”
The Shaking Tent Dream
In a later letter, Nelson described another startling Shaking Tent story told to him by a Cree Indian. One summer, many years ago, the Indian in question had travelled to another Cree camp about 300 miles from his own home in order to visit some friends. During this sojourn, he met an old acquaintance who asked to purchase the items in his medicine bundle, the latter being a skin pouch in which lucky or sacred items, called “medicines”, are kept. The traveler did as requested, but the native erroneously suspected that he was withholding his most powerful “medicine” from him and grew angry. The native berated the traveler and warned him that he would pay for his selfishness one day. Hoping to put as much distance between himself and his disgruntled acquaintance, the traveler returned home.
Later that winter, the storyteller was sleeping soundly in his own lodge when he dreamt that his soul left his body and flew over the forest to the country he had visited the previous summer. He saw himself approach an Indian camp, and then observed, with a thrill of horror, that his soul was being drawn towards a Shaking Tent. The Indian strained with all his might to avoid entering the ominous structure.
As he struggled, he heard a friendly voice, which he supposed to be that of a benevolent spirit, forbid the conjuror inside the tent from doing anything malicious to the Indian’s soul. Apparently afraid of the consequences of disobedience, the conjuror released the soul from his hold.
Immediately, the Indian woke up in his own lodge, lathered in sweat, his limbs being forcefully restrained by two men and several women. They told him that, while he was sleeping, he had leapt from his bed and stalked about the lodge “in the most dreadful agonies and convulsions”, as if under the influence of some spell.
The following summer, the Indian returned to the distant camp of his friends, where he learned that the native to whom he had sold his medicines the previous year harboured a grudge against him, and had attempted to lure his soul into his Shaking Tent at the exact time at which he had suffered his horrifying nightmare.
Pah-kak- The Skeleton Ghost
In another of his letters to his father, written in early April 1823, George Nelson described a supernatural entity called the Pah-kak, or Skeleton, which the Cree feared to encounter in the woods. These entities were believed to be the ghosts of those who died in a state of emaciation, from either starvation or tuberculosis, and appeared in the form of skeletons with skin.
At the time the letter was written, Nelson was playing host to a sick Indian who claimed to have had several frightening encounters with these entities. The first incident, the native explained, took place on a spring night several years prior, when he took his canoe out onto Lac la Ronge to hunt moose. He paddled over to a shallow part of the lake, tied his craft to a slump of rushes so that it would not drift, and waited quietly, hoping to hear the bellowing of a bull moose.
While he waited, the native discerned a strange sound in the distance, directly ahead of him. The sound resembled a human voice crying “hey, hey, hey” in rapid succession, its tone oddly cold and monotonous. The hairs of his neck stood on end as the noise drifted directly towards him, as if it were floating on the air.
Terrified, the native laid low in his canoe, not daring to hazard a glance in the direction of the unearthly voice, which was now fast approaching. Despite this precaution, the aerial vociferant flew straight up to the canoe and threw the Indian into the lake. Choking and sputtering, the hunter scrambled for the shore, hounded all the while by the mysterious chanter, which hovered directly above his head, crying its metronomic incantation. “Then I took some dry grass,” the Indian told Nelson, “which I rubbed and bruised till it became soft and put it under my arm pits and crumpled myself into a small heap and remained till the sun began to warm…” All night long, the chanter hovered above the Indian, maintaining its incessant cry, before finally departing at dawn.
The native’s second encounter with such an entity took place while he was hunting beaver with a friend. The pair ventured far from camp and, after killing six beavers, built a roaring fire and decided to sleep under the stars. “I awoke in the night,” the Indian told Nelson, “and was much astonished to observe a man seated on the opposite side of the fire, resting his head on both hands, with his elbows on his knees apparently in a very pensive, sullen manner. He had but skin and bone- not the least particle of flesh: and this one had hair on his bony head. I gently pushed my friend and told him to look at that stranger. We were both extremely agitated in consequence of our fear, and were at a loss what to do. Having no alternative, I arose; conceiving he came to ask for something to eat I took a Beaver, cut it in two, and… presented him the half of it: he did not deign to look at it- I was much afraid. I then bethought of cutting it into mouthfuls, which after presenting him I threw into the fire- thus I did with the whole; and when done, he arose and walked off peaceably in the air.”
The native’s third encounter took place on the night of March 31st, 1823, several days before Nelson wrote his letter. “At a late hour in the night,” Nelson wrote, “he was pulled most violently out of his bed; so that his wife that was lying beside him awoke and with difficulty kept him down.” Shortly thereafter, the cabin in which the couple were sleeping shook violently.
Later on in his letter, Nelson described an elaborate ritual by which the Cree attempted to protect themselves from the vexations of these skeletal ghosts, which involved tobacco smoking, speech making, dancing, incantations, and offering bowls of grease to a wooden figure intended to represent the spirit in question.
In many of his letters, George Nelson described the Cree and Saulteaux versions of the Wendigo (or Weetigo) legend, as told to him by his Indian friends.
“There is a kind of disease… peculiar to the Crees and Sauteaux’s,” Nelson began in one of his letters, “and of which they have the greatest dread and [horror]; and certainly not without the very [greatest] cause, the consequences 49 times out of 50 being death unfortunately to many besides the subjects or objects, themselves. They term this Win-digo… the proper signification of which… is Giant…
“Suffice it to say that [the Windigo] are of uncommon size- Goliath is an unborn infant to them… Their head reaching to the tops of the highest Poplars (about 70, or 80, feet) they are of proportionate size, of course they must be very heavy: their gait tho’ grand and majestic, at every step the Earth shakes. They frequently pursue their Prey… invisibly, yet they cannot so completely divest themselves of all the incommodities of nature as to prevent their approach being known. A secret and unaccountable [horror] pervades the whole system of one, several, or the whole band, of those of whom he is in pursuit…
“These Giants as far as I can learn reside somewhere about the North Pole; and even at this day frequently pay their unwelcome visits… It seems also that they delegate their Power to the Indians occasionally; and this occasions that cannibalism… proceeds… from a sort of distemper much resembling [mania].”
Nelson went on to describe how, in the boreal forest, where the natives lead a nomadic lifestyle and subsist on game, men frequently go hungry. Out of desperation, some starving Indians have been known to occasionally break their gravest cultural taboo and feed upon the flesh of the dead. “I believe that those who have once preyed upon their fellows,” Nelson wrote, “ever after feel a great desire for the same nourishment, and are not so scrupulous about the means of procuring it. I have seen several that had been reduced [to] this disturbing alternative, and tho’ many years after, there appeared to me a wildness in their eyes, a confusion in their countenances much resembling that of reprieved murderers.”
The Windigo of Lake Winnipeg
One of Nelson’s Wendigo experience took place on May 7th, 1808, while he was working at the newly-constructed post on the Dauphin River, on the western shores of Lake Winnipeg. In his journal, he wrote, “An uproar in the indian Camp has turned all upside down. It is occasioned by Old Muffle’s women [‘Old Muffle’ being Nelson’s nickname for Mouffle d’Orignal, a prominent local Ojibwa hunter] two of whom went to gather gum, but find a very uncommon large track in the woods bent outwards, they took it to be the Windigo.”
Four years later, in December 1812, while working on the Pigeon River directly east across Lake Winnipeg from the Dauphin River post, Nelson had his first encounter with a Windigo. One evening, a Cree hunter at an Indian camp not far from his post began saying strange things to his married daughter, telling her that he loved her so much he could eat a piece of her. When darkness fell, the man’s teeth began to chatter, and a strange tremulous moan issued from his lips. He stripped stark naked, left the tent, and curled up on a pile of firewood that his daughter had laid on the ground outside. His daughter and son-in-law urged him to come back inside, but to no avail; the hunter spent the night outside, and arose just before dawn seemingly no worse for wear.
“Thus did he every night for about a month,” Nelson wrote, “and every time slept out naked; nor would he eat, excepting at times a little raw flesh. In the day time he was more composed, but his face &c, bore the appearance of one possessed of the Devil.”
Eventually, the hunter recovered from his strange mental malady and lived peacefully in the area for many years afterward.
The Wendigo Woman of Lac La Ronge
Nelson went on to relate several chilling anecdotes illustrating the mysterious craving for human flesh sometimes acquired by those who condescended to cannibalism. According to one story, sometime in the late 1810s, prior to Nelson’s arrival in the country, an Indian woman paid a visit to the trading post at Lac La Ronge.
“Her appearance was haggard, wild, and distressed,” Nelson wrote. “However she was taken into the house- questions put as usual, but the answers, vague, indefinite and contradictory.” The traders gave the women some good food, but although she appeared to be ravenous, she only feigned eating, slipping morsels down the neck of her gown. “This [roused] suspicion,” Nelson wrote. “But what added to this was the extraordinary stench she emitted.”
The traders’ suspicions were confirmed when one of their dogs dragged a ragged human shoulder in from the trail on which the woman had travelled. Horrified, yet lacking sufficient evidence that the woman had committed any crime, they directed their unwanted visitor to a nearby Cree camp.
“As soon as she made her appearance,” Nelson wrote, “the indians immediately conceived what was the matter; but thro’ charity as well as for safety and to find the truth they gave her to eat, principally marrow-fat.” The woman refused the refreshment. She proceeded to kiss and embrace her hosts’ children, as was customary, and was unable to conceal the voracious appetite that this courtesy aroused in her.
That night, the men of the household kept a watchful eye on their guest, sleeping with their weapons close at hand. Sure enough, the woman quietly rose from her furs in the dead of night and crept over to one of the sleeping children. One of the men perceived this; before the woman could do any harm, he seized a tomahawk and buried it in her brains. Nelson appears to imply that, despite the sound blow which the Indian administered, the woman began to attack him, and would have succeeded in killing him had his companions not leapt to his defense and put an end to her existence.
Engaging in cannibalism was not the only way by which people made themselves vulnerable to the influence of the Windigo. Anyone who happened to dream of the Far North, or of a land filled with ice, was in danger of falling under the Windigo’s spell.
In such dreams, the dreamer would often be invited to partake in a feast of fowl or some other wild game that had been prepared for him. The wary dreamer, upon examining the victuals more closely, would find that the game he was enticed to eat was actually human flesh. Those who failed to recognize the true nature of the meal would, after eating their fill, be informed that they were doomed to become cannibals, and were advised that a particular sign, like children eating snow indoors, would portend their imminent transformation.
A Windigo Execution
“A young Indian a few years back had one of the above dreams,” wrote Nelson later on in the same letter. Noticing that the dreams seemed to be occurring more frequently, and with greater intensity, the Indian implored his friends to kill him if they ever perceived the slightest sign of his transforming into a Windigo, warning them that he might soon become too strong for them to kill. “He had been a good hunter and a peaceable indian,” Nelson wrote, “and of course much loved by his friends: this business depressed them a great deal.” Nevertheless, acceding to his wishes, the band members developed a plan by which to execute him.
One day, the entire band packed their belongings and moved camp, as the Cree routinely did from time to time. On some pretense, the brother of the afflicted man convinced the latter to remain with him in the old camp for some time. Eventually, the brother declared that the band must have finished pitching their new camp, and suggested that the two of them rejoin them. The brother set off up the trail at a jog, leaving the sick man trailing behind him.
When he was certain the afflicted man could no longer see him, the brother concealed himself in the brush, loaded and primed his musket, and waited for the Wendigo-to-be, hoping to ambush him on the trail. “This was a preconceived scheme,” Nelson wrote. “The other men of course were not far off. The sick one drew near, in a very slow and thoughtful manner: however when he came near to where his brother was hid, he stopped, looked up and called out, ‘Thou thinkest thyself well hid from me my brother; but I see thee: it is well thou undertakest, it had been better for thee however hadst thou began sooner. Remember what I told you all – it is my heart, my heart, that is terrible, and however you may injure my body if you do not completely annihilate my heart nothing is done.’”
The brother was certain that the sick man could not possibly have noticed him, so well was he camouflaged, and suspected that the knowledge of his presence was proof that his brother had acquired preternatural abilities as a result of his affliction. Convinced that the time had come, he emerged from his hiding place, raised his musket, and shot the sick man in the chest, aiming for his heart. The musket ball passed straight through the man’s body, and the sick man dropped to his knees. To his brother’s astonishment, however, the sick man rose to his feet immediately and continued on up the trail, laughing as he walked. The brother observed that not a single drop of blood oozed from the sick man’s wound, and took it as an indication that his heart had turned to ice, as was said to happen to those possessed by the spirit of the Wendigo.
At the report of the musket, the other hunters of the band rushed to the scene. Seeing the sick man alive and unharmed, they hacked him to pieces with their ice picks and tomahawks. “According to his desire,” Nelson wrote, “they had collected a large pile of dry wood, and laid him upon it. The body was soon consumed, but the heart remained perfect and entire: it rolled several times off the Pile – they replaced it as often: fear ceased [seized] them – then with their [ice chisels] they cut and hacked it into small bits, but yet with difficulty was it consumed!!!”
George Nelson’s was not the only Canadian Wendigo story involving a human heart which proved uncommonly resistant to fire. Another fur trader named Philip Godsell, who worked in a different area, and for a different company, described a very similar tale in his own writings, but that’s a story for another time and another episode of Mysteries of the Canadian Fur Trade.
“A Winter in the St. Croix Valley,” by George Nelson, published posthumously in the March 1947 issue of the journal Minnesota History
The Orders of the Dreamed: George Nelson on Cree and Northern Ojibwa Religion and Myth, 1823 (1988), by Jennifer S.H. Brown and Robert Brightman
My First Years in the Fur Trade: The Journals of 1802-1804, by George Nelson, edited by Laura Peers and Theresa Schenck (2002)
Friends, Foes, and Furs: George Nelson’s Lake Winnipeg Journals, 1804-1822, edited by Harry W. Duckworth (2019)
“Death in the French River World,” by Lorraine Boissoneault in the October 7th, 2016 issue of VoyageurHeritage.com