It was not until 1926 that historians could be certain that Henry Kelsey really did reach as far west as Saskatchewan in 1691. He was an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company and his career was distorted by witnesses who criticized the company during a parliamentary investigation in 1749. The story of his journey to Western Canada came to light in 1926 when his diary was found in the library of Castle Dodds, at Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland.
The Hudson’s Bay Company was granted its charter in 1670 on the understanding that it would explore the enormous territory under its control, and try to find the Northwest Passage. Kelsey, although only twenty years old, was working at the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Fort Nelson, Hudson Bay. He volunteered to go with a party of Stone Indians to their hunting grounds, and left with them on June 12, 1690.
Many of the great explorers, Cartier, Champlain, Mackenzie, Fraser, and Thompson kept diaries. Fortunately Kelsey did too, but much of his writing was in poor verse. He described his departure:
Then up ye River I with heavy heart
Did Take my way & from all English part
To live among ye natives of this place
If God permits me for one two years space.
Kelsey’s writings are entertaining but do not give a clear account of where he went. It is known now that he reached The Pas, which he named Deering’s Point after a director of the company. He was the first white man to see the Prairies, musk oxen, and a buffalo hunt; he actually took part in a buffalo hunt on August 23, 1691.
Kelsey was given the name Mis Top Ashish by the Indians. It meant Little Giant because he saved an Assiniboine Indian in a fight with two fierce grizzly bears.
Before any other white man penetrated the Prairies (La Vérendrye and his sons did so in 1738), Kelsey had spent nearly forty years on Hudson Bay, including the two years exploring the interior. He was captured by Iberville in 1694 when the great French-Canadian military leader attacked York Factory.
For more about today’s post, I suggest going to Dictionary of Canadian Biography to learn about the man, and the Manitoba Historical History with more of his diary is revealed. And lastly, a site I just found, the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.
Previous somewhat-related article
- Where the Buffalo Almost Didn’t Roam … (tkmorin.wordpress.com)
First time I heard of Kelsey. Too bad he doesn’t have enough historical info. Thank you.
Ah, having to depend on others’ reports in order to learn something … a little disappointing sometimes, eh?