BY THE last quarter of the eighteenth century the nation of Canada was not yet even a gleam in the eyes of statesmen and explorers. Much less had they conceived the wild possibility of a transcontinental state. No one knew, indeed, what lay between the prairies and the Pacific or imagined the appalling barrier of the Rockies.
Nevertheless the great race which must unite or split the continent—a race of long-distance champions, of a haunted Scotsman, a plodding Canadian and two systematic young Americans, of Englishmen, Spaniards, Russians and countless other contenders without name or record was getting under way and accelerating daily in giant strides. And though it still pursued an ancient will-o’-the-wisp and followed a long clumsy detour, that race to the sea, one of man’s largest adventures, was unconsciously treading down under its moccasins America’s permanent international boundary.
The Northwest Passage, as always since Champlain’s lime, was the first object of this fierce and blundering quest. True enough, the absence of such a short cut to Asia should have been proved long since to any sensible man, but the old dream was too compelling to be abandoned at the behest of mere facts.
And so a new map of America emerged, the imagined composite of a hundred rumors and Indian legends. It was presented in numerous versions but all agreed on the general shape of the continent.
The continental spine and watershed ran north from Mexico, just west of the Mississippi, to a point south of Lake Winnipeg. Thus had the “shining mountains” of La Vérendrye’s day (actually the Turtle Hills of southern Manitoba) grown into a nonexistent range.
West of this the land was flat to the Pacific, except for a small range along the seashore. Across the western plain and emptying into the western sea flowed an imaginary river called the Oregon, the Great River of the West, which had obsessed Champlain and all his successors. The Northwest Passage, north of the Oregon, began in Hudson Bay and ran southwestward, as a strait of varying width, depending on the mapmaker. The Oregon entered this strait on some maps. On others its mouth lay south of the strait’s Pacific entrance.
On the fringes of this no man’s land there roamed those unique wilderness creatures, the voyageurs. Because of them, the loyal English of Montreal had learned to master the west and win title to its fur long before the Americans of the Revolution.
In crews of eight to fourteen, the voyageurs could propel a canoe thirty-five or forty feet long, with a five-foot beam, to Grand Portage, carrying four tons of trade goods; lug this cargo in bales of ninety pounds—two bales per man—across the ten-day portage of nine miles; transfer them to the twenty-five-foot craft of the smaller western waterways; paddle across the prairies in crews of five to eight; repair the ever-leaking birch bark with thread of juniper root and cement of pine gum every day; guide it through white water where the touch of a rock would puncture this paper-thin hide; and, after six months of ceaseless movement from dawn to dark at six miles an hour—sometimes a daily log of seventy miles—could bring back the furs safely to Montreal.
Only the voyageurs knew the canoe, the wilderness and the Indians by a century and a half of experience. Only they possessed the complex, far-flung and brittle organization that could conduct the trade. Their peculiarities therefore—their aversion to cleanliness, their occasional debauches, their Indian concubines, their appalling superstitions and ridiculous ritual at every great portage, their unceasing chatter and paddle songs—must be endured. No one else could do their work and no Englishman would willingly attempt it for perhaps two hundred shillings a season and a diet of dried corn, buffalo grease, wild rice, frozen fish and West Indies rum.
The intricate techniques of the fur trade, America’s first large-scale industry, thus remained unchanged after the conquest of Canada, but both private management and state regulation had changed. In fact, regulation, as enforced by the French government, largely disappeared when the English traders of Montreal applied free enterprise to the west, with oceans of rum, price cutting, chiseling, violence and finally massacre.
It was not a pretty business. It was frowned on by the sedentary Hudson’s Bay Company. But in the hands of the peddlers from Montreal it was building the future boundary of America.
By the seventies the English peddlers and their Canadian voyageurs were siphoning off the best furs before they could reach the Bay, where the Gentlemen Adventurers of England still drowsed in their century-old slumber.
The Company awoke at last. It sent Samuel Hearne inland to build posts and drum up Indian business. Ultimately that insatiable explorer, among the most daring of his breed, reached the Coppermine River on the Arctic shore and there witnessed one of America’s notable atrocities. Deaf to Hearne’s protests and tears, his Indian guides butchered a village of sleeping Eskimos, a young girl dying at his feet and “twining around their spears like an eel.” He proved pretty conclusively, by reaching the Arctic, that no Northwest Passage divided the continent.
But for all its money and political power in London, the company could never keep up with the peddlers and their incomparable voyageurs. The Company’s imported Orkneymen in their newly invented York boats rowed by clumsy oars were no match for the Canadians’ paddle and birchbark.
Soon the peddlers broke out of the plains into the northern forests and lakes, until their round trip from Montreal to the trade posts took two full seasons. The drive to the Pacific surged with quickening fury across a flat prairie land of infinite weariness; of sluggish, labyrinthine rivers, of swamps, gullies, endless horizons, gaudy sunsets and shattering dawns; of teeming buffalo, deer, grizzly bear and fish, of waterfowl darkening the sky; of searing heat, ferocious wind and man-killing blizzard; of black flies, mosquitoes and daily torture on the portage; of Indians in filthy hide wigwams practicing barbarities, sexual rites, emasculations and murder by bullet, arrow, knife, bare hands or teeth, all minutely recorded in many a trader’s diary but unprintable; of loneliness, pestilence and sudden death; of Indian ghosts, demons and the windigo wailing under the winter moon; of one reliable medicine, cure-all, political weapon and legal coinage called rum.
Yet civilization of a sort and a crude culture unlike any seen before in the world were sprouting like wild weeds from the prairie earth. They lived in uncounted little trade posts from the Lakes to the foothills of the Rockies, in educated Englishmen and Scots who might cohabit with squaws but would snowshoe a hundred miles to the nearest white neighbor for the chance of company, a year-old newspaper or a tattered book. They live most distinctly in a new race, bred of French Canadians and Indians and now appearing as the métis. These buffalo hunters would contrive, in due time, two rebellions, their own brief republic and extraordinary political consequences still unsettled in the twentieth century.
The Indian, his life revolutionized by the spread of the Spanish horse out of Mexico, the trader his sod shanty, busy all summer with the trapper laboring all winter to cut wood for next year’s hits, finding occasional release from dead monotony in dances, shooting matches, drinking parties and brutal fights, could not place themselves in continental space, in time or international politics.
But they had left the Americans half a continent behind. They had grasped all but the last contents of a sea-to-sea nation while their rivals were still poised on the east bank of the Mississippi. They had added to the two basic ingredients of the Canadian chemistry—the original French and the United Empire Loyalists— a third element, the. prairie creature, forever distinguishable from his fellows. They had produced a special breed that might accomplish the final leap to the sea and hoi what it found for Canada.
Their business had become as costly as it was barbarous. They were busily cutting the throat of the Hudson’s Bay Company and their own by excess of private enterprise. Even the superior furs of the far west, bringing extra prices in Europe, even the discovery of a cheap, convenient and nonperishable diet called pemmican—sun-dried and pulverized buffalo meat mixed with melted fat and often with wild berries—could not support the cost of hauling trade goods and furs across three quarters of the continent when the individual trader continually raised his buying prices to the Indians and reduced his selling prices to the Montreal merchants. So the peddlers began to experiment with combines.
The first successful combine was founded by ... and Joseph Frobisher, Alexander Henry ... Pond just before the American Revolution. Unaware of events at Philadelphia, these men from the Thirteen Colonies, who considered themselves still British, pooled their resources and ..beyond all their competitors, into the Athabasca country.
Pond reached this Ultima Thule in 1778 and found there more and better furs than he had ever imagined. Athabaska soon became the fur traders’ paradise. Once the peddlers had formed their final combine—the powerful North West Company its partners of the Athabaska Department, were established as an elite, with extra profits, a private base at Rainy Lake, gargantuan summer revels and then the hurried return to the northwest, before the rivers froze. From Lake Athabaska they pushed on to the Peace River. They had touched the halfway point on the north-south arc and the last barrier between known America and the Pacific.
Pond, a clever, pushing, uneducated and unscrupulous Yankee with a quenchless thirst for geography now became, without knowing it, one of America’s most important figures.
Some wandering Indians told him of another great river, perhaps the Great River of legend, which fell out of a high mountain range into the western sea. Brooding on these stories in his hut, Pond revised his maps, drew new ones of his own, came to believe in his wild guesses and resolved to follow them to the unknown.
He was too old for that, at fifty. Besides, he had lately incurred the displeasure of his more respectable partners by his part in two killings. But he had with him at Lake Athabaska a young Scot, Alexander Mackenzie, whom he had long plied with his own geographical lore.
Though Mackenzie, a gentleman of education and social background, regarded his ignorant boss with contempt, he listened. When Pond retired, Mackenzie was ready to attempt the last bound to the Pacific—in the wrong direction.
Mackenzie had startling news to ponder at the last outpost of the moccasin telegraph. English sailors Cook, Clerke and Vancouver the long-delayed dispatches reported from London, had beaten the Canadian voyageurs to the coast and the sea otter. Now that, the value of a doomed creature was realized, an incidental contest for the Pacific coast of America had opened with five contenders—Spain, Russia, Britain, the newly formed United States and Canada. The great empires might regard the coast as no more than an extra dividend on their world-wide investments. It was essential to the United States and Canada. Without it they could not possess the continent, and probably could not amass enough power to survive.
Mackenzie dreamed Pond’s dream of an overland dash to the sea. His dreams, as he wrote home to Scotland, sometimes terrified him. A Scot from the Hebrides, he wore a cold, deceptive surface. His face was stolid and strikingly handsome, his hair curly, his cheeks bristling with sideburns, his chin deeply cleft. Only his piercing eyes revealed an inner Scottish fire.
Someone, some time, must paddle or walk across the continent. Now that Pond was gone Mackenzie resolved to be that man.
His motives were ostensibly commercial. The North West Company was stretched too thin from Montreal to the edge of the Rockies; it had beaten all its competitors west, but under its high costs of transportation it was going broke. It must reach the far western fur country by a short cut from the Pacific and, incidentally, take its share of the sea otter.
These economic calculations could not explain the quiet, passion of the young Scot. Driven by his private demon, he must be the vessel chosen by fortune to carry the white man’s burden to the sea.
Pond’s instructions, before his departure from Athabaska, were beautifully clear. Mackenzie was to follow a river emptying out of Great Slave Lake. It would lead him to the Pacific coast after curving around the northernmost flank of the Rockies. It was, in fact, the Great River of the myth. On reaching the coast, Mackenzie, by means of his own devising—for this was no concern of Pond —was to cross the ocean and walk through Russia to England.
The assignment was even more insane than most in those days of splendid geographical lunacy but Mackenzie’s demon compelled him to follow it.
On June 3, 1789, when he was twenty-five, he started down Pond’s Great River. His canoe carried, besides himself, five French-Canadian voyageurs, an Indian and two squaws. A second canoe was loaded with supplies and manned by Indians. This unpromising expedition descended the Slave River out of Lake Athabaska to Great Slave Lake and there was swept by a mighty current upon the boundless realm of Pond’s fantasy.
The unknown river, on which no white man had floated before, took an encouraging westward twist and then seemed to flow straight north. This was disturbing to Mackenzie, but doubtless the current would turn west in good time, as Pond had promised. Day after day Mackenzie watched its course with increasing alarm. Always it lay north. Now he noted a range of high mountains on his left. Was there a gap in them? He must find out soon for the northern summer would be brief.
He pushed on furiously. His crew saw for the first time the vehement flame burning within the young Scot. The voyageurs strained at their paddles to complete this mad journey and escape the terrifying loneliness of the barrens.
No gap appeared in the mountains. Ahead lay only endless desolation.
On June 12 the canoes burst into the Arctic Ocean. Mackenzie had traversed the river now bearing his own name. It was another of America’s great rivers, by any reckoning, but not the Great River, not the route to the Pacific. He named it Disappointment and, after three days spent in observing the Arctic tides, turned back, tantalized, baffled and heartbroken.
On his way south he met Indians who told him that just west of the mountains a river ran to the sea, only a short distance away, that along this river lived giants with wings, and that its mouth was occupied by white men in a large fort.
Mackenzie’s dream soared again. It would take him some time to explore the real western river. Meanwhile he reported the Disappointment to his partners of the North West Company. They were not impressed by Mackenzie’s worthless northern detour, ending nowhere. Their only interest lay in fur and a short cut to the Pacific.
He was embittered but more determined than ever. Thinking these things over in his Athabaska post he realized his deficiencies as an explorer. After his first mistakes he needed more education and some accurate instruments. With Scottish thoroughness this painstaking young man paddled all the way to Montreal, sailed for England and spent a winter studying astronomy and navigation.
The spring of 1792 found him back at his post and ready for the last adventure. He planned carefully, as always. Since the leap across the Rockies might be too long for one year he paddled out of Lake Athabaska in October and up the Peace River to its junction with the Smoky. There he wintered.
Seven o’clock in the evening of Thursday, May 9, 1793, was a notable hour in the record of North America and, like most notable hours, it was overlooked until long afterward.
A canoe “twenty-five feet long within, exclusive of the curves of stem and stern, twenty-six inches hold, and four feet, nine inches beam at the same time ... so light that two men might carry her on a good road three or four miles without resting” (so reads Mackenzie’s meticulous record) glided info the current of the Peace. The watchers on shore “shed tears on the reflection of those dangers which we might encounter.” Mackenzie, Alexander McKay his lieutenant, two veterans of the Arctic voyage, four voyageurs, two Indian hunters and a dog faded into the sunset. The single canoe: was aimed westward at the Rockies and the Pacific. Its commander had passed his point of no return.
The ten men and their dog soon entered the outer defiles of the mountains and the demented waters of Peace River canyon. Mackenzie leaped ashore, a rope fastened to his shoulders. He tried to haul the canoe through this cauldron, but the rope broke, the canoe danced into the rapids and for a moment everything seemed lost. Then a freakish current carried the light craft to the shore, where the voyageurs pulled it out on the rocks.
These experienced men had seen no water like the Peace. They would go no farther. A regale of rum made them think better of it. The canoe was carried over a nine-mile portage at a speed of about two miles a day. Calmer water above led through a dark jungle of spruce and jack pine to the wide junction of the Finlay and the Parsnip. Here some Indians told Mackenzie of a western river flowing to the “stinking waters,” and of white men who wore armor “from head to heel” and sailed in “huge canoes with sails like the clouds.”
Where lay that river? Should Mackenzie turn north on the Finlay or south on the Parsnip? It was a terrible decision for the young Scot. By lucky guess he turned south, ascended the Parsnip, reached a rise at its headwaters and, after a portage of only eight hundred and seventeen paces, crossed from the Arctic to the Pacific watershed, embarking on the Bad River.
The canoe immediately swamped in fierce rapids but, before it could sink, was tossed upon a sand bar. Seeing their craft broken and all the supplies and ammunition soaked, tin: voyageurs said they would go no farther. Mackenzie did not argue with them. Alone he began to repair the canoe with resin and oilcloth. His determination impressed them and they agreed to take one more chance.
On June 17 they were carried into a current so wide that Mackenzie took it for the river of his dream. Later on it would be called the Fraser. Nameless now, unknown and appalling in its sheer canyons of clay, it bore north, turned south and never seemed to turn west. Was it to be Mackenzie’s second Disappointment? Where did it reach the Pacific? Perhaps not north of Spanish Mexico? He was bewildered, all his newly acquired knowledge of navigation turned upside down.
The Carriers, a ferocious tribe whose widows carried their husbands’ ashes on their bodies, at first attacked the white men with arrows, and later, seeing the glitter of trinkets spread on the riverbank, gathered to parley. Their chief drew a map in the sand. By this rough diagram the river seemed to move forever southward, beyond the Indians’ experience, and, as they indicated with alarming gurgles in their throats, plunged through an impassable canyon they knew not where. However, they said in sign language, there was an easy trail west to the sea.
Again a moment of terrible decision for the young Scot. To follow the river or abandon it and strike overland on the word of a few garrulous natives? As before, Mackenzie’s guess was lucky.
He called his crew together and “after passing a warm eulogium on their fortitude, patience and perseverance, I stated the difficulties that ; threatened our continuing to navigate the river ... I then proceeded for the foregoing reasons to propose a shorter route, by trying the overland road to the sea ... I declared my resolution ; not to attempt it unless they would engage, if we could not after all proceed overland, to return with me and continue our voyage to the discharge of the waters, whatever the distance might be. At all events, I declared in the most solemn manner that I would not abandon my design of reaching the sea, if I made the attempt alone, and that I did not despair of returning in safety to my friends.”
If necessary, he would march to the Pacific accompanied only by his demon. North American exploration had produced few equals of that scene on the Fraser’s bank—the alternative perils of river or wilderness, the doubtful crew, the young Scot of quiet fury who would reach the sea or perish.
The voyageurs discussed their commander’s ultimatum around their campfire. Reluctantly they agreed to follow him. A Carrier guided the company westward up the Blackwater to the last portage of the continent. Now they struggled through a thick coastal forest, soaked by rain, hungry and hardly able to walk in their weakness. The guide attempted to desert and Mackenzie had to sleep beside this verminous creature, stinking of fish oil.
A Landmark in Red Ochre
After two weeks’ march, there was still no sign of the sea. In the middle of July the exhausted travelers beheld the Dean River, forded it and reached the Bella Coola. Here they found Indians with white men’s goods. The sea could be only a few miles distant.
Mackenzie hired dugout canoes from the Indians and with his companions paddled down the river. Suddenly they smelled the welcome odor of salt water. They entered it in North Bentick Arm, pushed westward into Burke Channel and on July 22 looked out on the glittering waters of the Pacific.
Mackenzie mixed Indian red ochre and bear’s grease to make a crude paint. With his own hand he wrote his testimony in neat letters across a slab of sea rock: “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second day of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three. Lat. 52° 20'48'' N.”
That was all. No flourishes. No postures. Only the cold fact. But what a fact! The first white man had paddled and walked across the whole hulk of the continent. Canada had reached the Pacific. And though Mackenzie retraced his steps, almost losing his life in an Indian ambush, and retired to his native Scotland, his life’s work done, though his words upon the sea rocks were soon expunged by wind and weather, Canada was on the Pacific to stay. If a Canadian nation could be built, it would be transcontinental. It would share America, east and west, with the United States.
While Mackenzie lived the leisurely but short life of a Scottish gentleman, nothing could repress the forces unloosed by his western adventure. A moment of continental decision, for which all the past had been only a prelude, was now approaching. The race moved with sudden momentum by two separate courses—from the Mississippi to the mouth of the Columbia, where no white man had walked before; and from Montreal to the Pacific, in Mackenzie’s footsteps and by an unsuspected new river.
It was a race between an American republic constitutionally whole but geographically scarcely half made up, and a loose collection of British colonies known as Canada but a lifetime away from nationhood. A blind, groping and bungled race for the most part, neither competitor knowing the presence of the other, yet always sure of its objectives the highest stakes in the world. Such a race could not long move in peace. Soon it must quicken into war, a war designed to extinguish the northern competitor forever.
In British and Canadian eyes the river discovered by Mackenzie formed the natural boundary between Canada and the United States. It was the same river, no doubt, that Vancouver had sighted. It was, of course, the Columbia. By a tragic mistake —so thought the North West Company, partners in Montreal and the government in London—Mackenzie had failed to descend the Columbia to the sea and thus to anchor the boundary before the Americans could infringe it.
With the purchase of the French colony of Louisiana the American republic now owned everything from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific, north of the ill-defined Mexican boundary, and as far north in Canada as it could exert its power. Events would soon show that it intended, later on, to possess Canada entire.
President Thomas Jefferson had formed his own shrewd ideas after reading Mackenzie’s alarming book published in 1801. Mackenzie insisted that the Canadian-American boundary should be pushed south to the forty-fifth parallel, at least in the far west, to embrace the Columbia. This, said Jefferson, would never do. He had constructed on paper an entirely new division of the continent.
Jefferson was determined that the boundary must start at the northwest angle of the Lake of the Woods, continue to the forty-ninth parallel and then westward by that line to his newly purchased Louisiana. He did not know the extent of those lands. No one did. To make sure they extended far enough north he construed their sweep as including the whole drainage basin of the Missouri River, wherever it lay, and even if it lay north of forty-nine degrees. Thus in his mind the unfixed border between the United States and Canada would not necessarily follow any straight line of latitude but would curve northward as required to protect the republic’s vital interests. As a minimum he intended to hold the lower reaches of the Columbia.
The first step then after the Louisiana Purchase was obviously the exploration of the new American territory and the acquisition of the Columbia.
The President launched the transcontinental race in a secret message to Congress, dated Jan. 18, 1803, asking money for a thorough exploration of the new American west. Congress agreed. Jefferson chose for this task his close friend and assistant, Meriwether Lewis, and William Clark, brother of the famous ranger, George Rogers Clark. It proved a perfect choice.
Lewis, then twenty-nine, had made himself an expert soldier, bush man and administrator. He was a lonely and moody character of powerful but tortured mind. His life would be short and closed mysteriously five years later by suicide or murder.
Clark, thirty-three, complemented his partner with a happy, gregarious disposition, the simplicity of the born frontiersman, an intuitive sense of geography and a way with the Indians, who called him the Red-Headed Chief.
The two youthful explorers, among the ablest and certainly the most systematic ever seen in America, “Hoisted Sail and Set out in high Spirits” up the Missouri on May 14, 1804, confident that the river would lead them, with an easy overland portage, to the Pacific. The United States had always lagged far behind French and British Canada throughout the west but the Lewis and Clark expedition was making up for lost time.
Explorers Who Ate Horses
They reckoned without the glittering peaks of the Rockies, the unexpected mountain barrier that startled and dismayed them. It was fifteen months before they reached the crest of this continental backbone. Then on Aug. 12, 1805, a memorable day in the life of the young nation, Lewis saw a tiny trickle of water flowing westward. It was the Columbia River. The republic had crossed the divide.
Now, traversing a welter of cliffs, canyons and narrow ledges, beleaguered by drenching rain, sleet, frost and eight inches of snow, weakened by dysentery, staving off starvation by devouring their horses, they made their way to the sea in dugouts of pine, amid a coastal jungle, a smell of salt water and a horde of strange Indians in painted wooden canoes. By November they were camped just south of the Columbia’s mouth on the sandy shore of the Pacific.
No North American explorers had gone farther than Lewis and Clark, none had succeeded better and none had ever amassed, in one expedition, a comparable store of knowledge. Two young soldiers, a band of frontiersmen, a squaw, her infant and a Newfoundland dog had stretched the republic from sea to sea, beaten the Canadians to the Columbia’s mouth and roughed out the ultimate cleavage of the continent.
The Spaniards, Cook, and Vancouver had begun the struggle for Oregon. Lewis and Clark had merely touched it and, after one winter, departed. The Canadians would possess it. And even while Lewis and Clark were toiling through the Rockies a Canadian named Simon Fraser had reached an unknown river to revolutionize the map of America once more.
Fraser was as much American by descent as his rivals. His grandparents had come from Scotland and settled in Vermont. The Frasers chose the losing side of the Revolution. Simon’s father was captured by the revolutionists and apparently died as their prisoner in Albany. The widow, left destitute with four sons and five daughters, was caught up in the Loyalist migration to Canada and settled at St. Andrews near the Ottawa River.
There was nothing to distinguish this family of refugees from many others, except the character of Simon. His mother, evidently suspecting his qualities, managed to send him to school briefly in Montreal. In 1792—as Mackenzie was about to descend the river that would bear Fraser’s name—the youth of sixteen was articled as a clerk to the North West Company. That irrepressible organization had always owned more talent than money. Its choice of men amounted to something like genius. The talents of young Fraser, therefore, were quickly noted. By 1802 he was a full partner and the company had picked him as Mackenzie’s successor in the west.
Apart from their courage and their hunger for the wilderness the two men were as unlike as men could be. Mackenzie was handsome, educated, refined and imaginative; Fraser homely, with a bullet head, sloping forehead, lank hair, grizzled eyebrows, harsh protuberant chin—a cold man and stubborn, hiding with difficulty a fierce inner pride and an envy of his famous predecessor. In short, the kind of laborious, systematic and glum Scot who largely controlled the Canadian west already, was building a nation and soon would dominate its government.
While bitterly disappointed by Mackenzie’s failure to descend his river, supposedly the Columbia, the North West Company was slow to repair this blunder. There seemed to be no immediate hurry. The Americans had never been a match for the Canadians in the continental race. Not until 1805, when Lewis and Clark were nearing the Pacific coast, did Fraser start on his march across Canada. He had heard nothing of the American expedition. So far as he was aware he faced no competition in the race.
Following Mackenzie’s trail, he pushed up the Peace and the Parsnip and in the autumn built Fort McLeod, the first Canadian post west of the Rockies.
When Fraser returned to Fort McLeod in the spring of 1806 he found that his lieutenant, James McDougall, had spent the winter in a thrust to Mackenzie’s river and up its first important tributary, the Nechako. Fraser decided to pursue McDougall’s discoveries before starting down the main stream. It gratified his vanity and perhaps a rooted inferiority complex to observe that Mackenzie had missed the Nechako entirely and had been careless in some of his observations.
Thus Fraser’s rather spiteful diary: “Trout Lake is a considerable large and navigable river in all seasons. It does not appear to have been noticed by Sir A. M. K. (Mackenzie) as he used to indulge himself in a little sleep. Likely he did not see it and I can account for many other omissions in no other manner than his being asleep at the time he pretends to have been very exact; but was I qualified to make observations and inclined to find fault with him, I could prove he seldom or ever paid the attention he pretends to have done, and that many of his remarks were not made of himself but communicated by his men . . . Sir A. M. K. appears to have been very inaccurate in the courses or there must have been a vast difference in the compass he made use of and the one we had . . .”
Lewis and Clark had twice crossed the continent by now, but Fraser still saw no reason to hurry. He returned in the autumn to his post on the Peace and wintered there. Meanwhile, in Montreal, the North West Company partners had heard of the Americans’ expedition to the Columbia. They wrote Fraser in some panic urging him to descend that river without more delay. Thus roused by the news from Montreal, Fraser returned in the spring of 1808 to Mackenzie’s river. On May 22 at five in the morning four canoes floated into the swirl of the main current. One of America’s largest adventures had begun.
Life Hung From a Thread
Fraser was accompanied by John Stuart and Jules Quesnel as his lieutenants, nineteen paddlers and two Indians. The two dozen men unwittingly were headed into the worst water of the continent.
They wallowed through a dangerous clay canyon, passed the mouth of a substantial river on their left, named for Quesnel, and there overlooked one of America’s richest hoards of gold. Presently they saw Indians gathered on both banks and gesticulating wildly. Fraser decided to confer with them. His incomplete diary records the conference in sign language and its bad news: “According to the accounts we received here, the river below is but a succession of falls and cascades which we would find impossible to pass . . . Their opinion, therefore, was that we should discontinue our journey ... I remarked that our determination of going was fixed . . .”
It was the same sound advice received by Mackenzie, and it had persuaded him to strike westward overland. Fraser would not leave the river until he had reached the sea. The Indians produced a guide next day but his information only added to the white men’s confusion. They spread an oilcloth on the ground and asked the guide to draw a map of the river’s lower channel.
They were south of Mackenzie’s turning-off point. No white man had seen this part of the river. No one could imagine the perils ahead. And they were on the wrong river. Nevertheless, Fraser decided to descend it.
On June 1 he launched one canoe experimentally on an “immense body of water, passing through this narrow space in a turbulent manner, forming numerous gulfs and cascades and making a tremendous noise and of an awful forbidding appearance.” The canoe split on a rock. Its five paddlers clung to the slippery bank.
Fraser’s diary pictures with Scottish phlegm the first of many accidents: “The bank was extremely high and steep and we had to plunge our daggers at intervals into the ground to check our speed, as otherwise we were exposed to slide into the river. We cut steps in the declivity, fastened a line to the front of the canoe, with which some of the men ascended in order to haul it up, while others supported it upon their arms. In this manner our situation was most precarious; our lives hung, as it were, upon a thread, as the failure of the line or a false step by any one of the men might have hurled the whole of us into Eternity. However, we fortunately cleared the bank before dark.”
Again the Indians warned Fraser to turn back, or at least to travel well away from the river, by horse, over the rolling clay plateau. He refused. “Going to the sea by an indirect way was not the object of this undertaking; I therefore would not deviate and continued our route according to our original intention.”
Several hard but brief portages and a “desperate undertaking” in some wild rapids brought him to impassable water. Reluctantly he cached his canoes and the party continued on foot along the jagged and almost vertical bank.
Again, between the dull lines of the diary, one can read this man’s recklessness. When one of his companions became wedged in a crevice, “Seeing this poor fellow in such an awkward and dangerous predicament I crawled, not without great risk, to his assistance and saved his life by causing his load to drop from his back over the precipice into the river. This carrying place, two miles long, so shattered our shoes that our feet became quite sore and full of blisters.”
On June 19 they reached the mouth of a great river flowing in from the east and mingling its emerald-green waters with the brown of its parent. Fraser named it for his friend, David Thompson, who, lie wrongly supposed, was then exploring its upper waters among the Rockies. Thompson would be remembered for a river he never saw.
The junction of these two river valleys provided a natural nexus of travel and nourished a formidable Indian village called Camchin, the site of modern Lytton. Here Fraser discovered white men’s goods. He had touched the ancient Indian route of commerce between the coast and the interior. Already the profits of the sea-otter business, in barter between Indian, Spaniard, Briton, American and Russian, were moving far inland.
The intelligent Indians of Camchin told Fraser that no canoe could live in the river a few miles beyond this point. As Fraser insisted on embarking again, the Great Chief or “Little Fellow” accompanied him. The Indians’ warning was soon proved accurate.
Below Camchin the river suddenly closed into a black canyon. Its huge body, constricted to a narrow gut, writhed in deafening paroxysm between sheer walls of stone, churned through endless slimy chasms and, at the final horror of Hell’s Gate, rose and fell in rhythmic pulsation of brown foam.
Not a moment too soon the canoes were dragged ashore. Now began perhaps the most dreadful march ever undertaken by white men in the west.
The Indians had mastered the canyon long ago. Their trail ran zigzag up the slippery cliffs, clung to every damp ledge and reached the ledge above by a clumsy ladder of tree trunks and withes. Ninety pounds on each man’s back, Fraser and his followers crawled like spiders up this monstrous vine growth.
The diary again: “Here we were obliged to carry among loose stones in the face of a steep hill between two precipices. Near the top, where the ascent was perfectly perpendicular, one of the Indians climbed up to the summit and by means of a long rope drew us up one after another. This work took three hours, and then we continued our course up and down the hills and along the steep declivities of mountains where hanging rocks and projecting cliffs, at the edge of the bank of the river, made the passage so small as to render it, at times, difficult even for one person sideways . . .
“I have been for a long period in the Rocky Mountains but have never seen anything like this country. It is so wild that I cannot find words to describe our situation at times. We had to pass where no human beings should venture; yet in those places there is a regular footpath impressed, or rather indented, upon the very rocks by frequent traveling. Besides this, steps which are formed like a ladder or the shrouds of a ship, by poles hanging to one another and crossed at certain distances with twigs, the whole suspended from the top to the foot of the deep precipices and fastened at both extremities to stones and trees, furnish a safe and convenient passage to the natives; but we, who had not had the advantage of their education and experience, were often in imminent danger when obliged to follow their example.”
On the Indians’ fragile web they pursued this river of nightmare as it turned abruptly westward and bored its way through the last mountain range of the continent. At last, in final spasm, it burst from its dark prison and oozed, oily and peaceful, through a rank coastal forest.
Fraser was able to buy some dugout canoes from the local Indians and travel comfortably again. But a gnawing suspicion had gripped this systematic man. His reckoning showed the mouth of the Columbia far to the south and this river was now moving straight west.
Soon he noted its waters flooding and ebbing in regular tides, saw the first seagulls and felt the tang of salt air. He could deny his fears no longer—this was not the Columbia. Mackenzie had been wrong. All the mapmakers of the east had been wrong. Mackenzie had found and Fraser had explored a river unknown before. This was Fraser’s own river, to be known thenceforward by his name.
Where the Fraser threads its flat delta and enters the sea by a series of separate channels, he measured its latitude on July 2—about three degrees north of the Columbia. His mission had failed.
Fraser could not see the Pacific, for it was hidden by the whale’s back of Vancouver’s Island. Yet he had seen enough to alter the entire prospects of Canada.
If the Americans could hold Oregon, against all reason and expectation, Fraser had located a natural barrier to their northward expansion. He had found, in fact, the western Canadian mate of the St. Lawrence on the east coast. Though he did not suspect it, his river contained within its sand bars certain yellow flecks which, in just half a century, would people this region and later join it, by railway, with the eastern colonies to make a second transcontinental state.
Fraser turned back with his heartbreak but little time for regret. Most of the Indians of the canyon had been friendly. A few had fired arrows at the white men and rolled stones on them, but the hostile tribes saw no reason to exert themselves since the strangers doubtless would perish before they could return. Now, when they appeared in the lower reaches of the canyon again, they met an organized and determined attack. Day and night they were harassed by arrow and stone until Fraser found his men breaking under the strain, planning to desert and talking madly of a dash straight eastward through the mountains where winter assuredly would annihilate them.
Loyalty Above the Thunder
There had been difficulties enough before. This was the moment of Fraser’s supreme peril and it called from him a supreme act of leadership: “Considering this scheme as a desperate undertaking I debarked and endeavored to persuade the delinquents of their infatuation; but two of them declared in their own names and in the names of the others that their plan was fixed and that they saw no other way by which they could save themselves from immediate destruction than by flying out of the way of danger; for, said they, continuing by water, surrounded by hostile nations, who watched every opportunity to attack and torment them, created in their mind a state of suspicion worse than death. I remonstrated and threatened by turns and the other gentlemen joined me in my endeavors to expose the folly of their undertaking and the advantages that would accrue to us all by remaining as we had hitherto been in perfect union for our common safety. After much debate on both sides, they yielded and we all shook hands, resolved not to separate during the voyage.”
In that scene—two dozen men, hungry, tattered, maddened by unseen enemies and lost on a strange river at the far edge of a continent —the quality of Fraser shines through the inarticulate diary. As he had mastered the river, he mastered his followers. They raised their hands and shouted an oath of loyalty above the thunder of the canyon.
Then they climbed the Indians’ crazy ladders again, found their cached canoes and were back at Fort George, without a single casualty, on Aug. 5, just thirty-four days from the sea. The downward journey with the current had taken thirty-five. Against obstacles and dangers far worse than any experienced by Lewis and Clark the dogged American-Canadian Scot had fulfilled his schedule. But he had missed the Columbia.
The first Canadian to see, or rather to recognize the Columbia, was Fraser’s friend David Thompson. The famous surveyor and astronomer of the North West Company had been wandering since 1799 among the swamps, plains and western foothills of the prairies and even into Fraser’s New Caledonia, never able to find the elusive prize. In the summer of 1807, as Fraser was awaiting supplies to descend Mackenzie’s river, Thompson was ready for a final attempt.
He struck west from the plains into the Rockies and discovered a river apparently moving to the Pacific. “May God give me,” he wrote, “to see where its waters flow into the ocean” It led him to a larger stream which flowed northward. This was the Columbia, but Thompson failed to identify it.
Greatly confused, he wintered on a lake, now called Windermere. By their longitude these waters could be no part of Mackenzie’s river. In the following spring, therefore, Thompson crossed a portage of a mile and found yet another river. Surely it must be the Columbia. He followed it southward to the rim of the Lewis-Clark discoveries in the country of the Flathead Indians, who shaped the skulls of their young with bandages and stones. Then this river too (the Kootenay) turned north. Geography again was out of joint.
After all these and many other disappointments Thompson retreated to the prairies, more puzzled than ever. The North West Company was now thoroughly alarmed. More Americans were about to descend on Oregon. Where Mackenzie and Fraser had failed. Thompson must find the Columbia without more loitering and claim its mouth.
Since the route into the Rockies from the North Saskatchewan was held by the hostile Piegans, Thompson struggled up the Athabaska in the autumn of 1810, nearly lost his life by snow and starvation, but, packing bis supplies on four exhausted horses and two dogs, crossed the divide and finally hit the Columbia toward the end of January 1811 at the northern tip of its big bend. There he wintered.
Next spring, for unknown reasons, he ascended the current instead of following it downstream and struck overland to the Spokane River. He rode it to a larger stream. After a dozen years of futile roving he had found the prize—apparently too late.
At the mouth of the Snake he planted a pole, raised the Union Jack and claimed the surrounding territory for Britain and the North West Company. But when he paddled on down the Columbia to the sea on July 15 it was to find there a post of newly cut logs. John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company, under Jefferson’s patronage, had built Fort Astoria. Arriving by sea around the Horn, the Americans had beaten Thompson to the Columbia’s mouth by a scant four months.
He met at Astoria several of his old friends from the North West Company, veteran traders whom Astor had shrewdly hired to manage his fur business. These men greeted Thompson boisterously, dined him on salmon, duck and partridge, toasted his overland journey in the wines of Europe. It was a touching reunion, hut Thompson had lost the race.
He started back up the Columbia after a week’s rest. A year later he reached Fort William to report the arrival of the Astorians on the Columbia. This was shocking news to the Nor’ Westers. Their three great servants, Mackenzie, Fraser and Thompson all had failed.
That disappointment was short-lived. The struggle for the great river of the west soon merged into a War for the whole continent. ★
NEXT ISSUE: PART FOUR
How Brock Founded the Canadian Myth