Tag Archives: Northwest Company

They had Witnesses To Prove It

English: Fort Astoria, 1813

English: Fort Astoria, 1813 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If a British naval captain had not been so wide awake, to put it politely, Canada might now own what is American territory as far south as Portland, Oregon.  The Columbia River would be the “St. Lawrence of the West.”

Fort Astoria, near the mouth of the Columbia River, had been established by John Jacob Astor in 1811.  The fort’s only link with the outside world was a ship which visited the fort while on trading trips to Vancouver Island and dropped necessary supplies.  Unfortunately the captain was a rough character, and on one occasion struck an Indian chief who came on board to trade.   The next day members of the tribe came on board, ostensibly to trade, drew their knives and killed the captain and most of the crew.  The ship’s clerk, mortally wounded, crawled down to where the ammunition was stored, and set off a blast that killed the Indians and sent the ship to the bottom.

As a result, the people at Fort Astoria were isolated and without supplies.  They were starving when a party of Nor’Westers appeared, after travelling David Thompson’s route down the Columbia, and they were glad to sell the post to the North West Company.  They would be assured of supplies, and protection from any British naval unit that might appear.

In the meantime, such a unit had been sent to capture Fort Astoria.  It was H.M.S. Raccoon under the command of Captain William Black.  After sailing all the way from Britain he was greatly disappointed to find that Fort Astoria was already British territory, through purchase by the North West Company and not through a brilliant naval action of his own.  So Captain Black put on a show.  On December 12, 1813, he hauled down the British flag and raised it again, while the Americans and Indians watched the performance.

When the War of 1812 ended, it was agreed that all territory taken by military action would be returned.  Britain claimed Fort Astoria because it had been purchased from the Astor Company.  “Oh no,” said the Americans.  “The fort was taken by military action by the captain of H.M.S. Raccoon.”  They had witnesses to prove it, and their case held good.  The fort was returned to the States on October 6, 1818, and Canada lost the territory from the British Columbia border to Portland, Oregon.

If you would like to read more about Fort Astoria, I would suggest the Great Battles of the war of 1812 – there’s a great timeline there.


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Simon Fraser, Fur Trader, Explorer and Daddy

Upper Fountain Rapids of the Fraser River at F...

Upper Fountain Rapids of the Fraser River at Fountain, located 15 km upstream from Lillooet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On May 20, 1776, in Mapletown (near Bennington) New York, Simon Fraser was born.

In his life, he was a fur trader and explorer. As a matter of fact, he charted most of British Columbia!

Fraser worked for the Montreal-based North West Company. In 1805, he had been put in charge of all the company’s operations west of the Rocky Mountains. Fraser built that area’s first trading posts, and, in 1808, he explored what is now known as the Fraser River.  His exploratory efforts were partly responsible for Canada’s boundary later being established at the 49th parallel (after the War of 1812).  According to historian Alexander Begg, Fraser “was offered a knighthood but declined the title due to his limited wealth.”

Fraser settled on land near present day Cornwall, Ontario and married Catherine McDonnell on June 2, 1820.
They had 9 children, but one died in infancy. Fraser was one of the last surviving partners of the North West Company when he died on August 18, 1862. His wife died the next day, and they were buried in a single grave in the Roman Catholic cemetery at St. Andrew’s West. Begg quotes Sanford Fleming in an address to the Royal Society of Canada in 1889 as saying that Fraser died poor.

He did leave behind a legacy.
@ The Fraser River, named for him by the explorer David Thompson.
@ Fraser Lake, a lake in north-central British Columbia and a community on the lake’s western shore.
@ Fort Fraser, just east of Fraser Lake.
@ Simon Fraser University, in Burnaby, British Columbia
@ The Simon Fraser Bridge in Prince George over the Fraser River along Highway 97.
@ Numerous schools, neighbourhoods and roads
@ The Simon Fraser Rose, (explorer series) developed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, was named in his honour.

To learn more about this great man, Simon Fraser, I suggest the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.


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His Maps … Were Accurate!

1814 map of the Pacific Northwest and central ...

1814 map of the Pacific Northwest and central Canada by David Thompson. The Kootenay River is shown near the bottom left as McGillivray’s River. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On July 15, 1811, David Thompson reached the mouth of the Columbia River only to find that John Jacob Astor‘s fur company had established a post there late in March.  This was a great disappointment to Thompson, who had hoped to claim the territory for Britain.  Nevertheless, this is an opportunity to present a  few highlights in the life of the man who was probably the greatest geographer in the world.

David Thompson was of Welsh extraction and came from a poor family.  He was only fourteen years of age when he was apprenticed to the Hudson’s Bay Company and sent to Fort Churchill, Hudson Bay, in 1784.  He spent thirteen years there and at other company posts in Saskatchewan, and also a winter with Natives at the present site of Calgary.  Surveying, which he studied with Philip Turner, became his favourite hobby.

In 1797 he transferred to the Northwest Company and made a 4,000 mile journey of exploration that included the headwaters of the Mississippi.  Later he was made a partner in the company.  Years were spent tracing the crazy course of the Columbia River, which curves back and forth between Canada and the United States, almost entwining itself with the Kootenay.  Thompson was the first man to travel the full length of the Columbia and back again.  He began his final assault on the Columbia in 1810.  He manufactured snowshoes and sleds and started from the Athabaska River on December 29 in weather 32 ° F ( 0 º C) below zero!  He travelled through the Rockies under these conditions to the junction of the Canoe and Columbia Rivers.

After Thompson finished his work in the West, he went to live at Terrebonne, near Montreal, where he prepared a map of Western Canada which is now in the Ontario Archives.  His maps were not like those of the early explorers.  They were accurate.

When Thompson arrived at Churchill in 1784, the map of Canada was blank from Lake Winnipeg to the west coast of Vancouver Island.  When he departed from the West in 1812, he had mapped the main travel routes through 1,700,000 square miles of Canadian and American territory!  It is tragic to remember that David Thompson died in 1857, in poverty and nearly blind.

To learn more of David Thompson and his work, I can direct you to a few sites to get you started. To begin, I suggest a new-to-me website, for an interesting video about today’s post – really interesting! And then there’s his Biography – I’m not sure who the author is, though. Another place to go is the David Thompson Columbia Brigade. And lastly, I suggest the Canadian Encyclopedia – you can never go wrong there!


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46 Degrees 20 Seconds

Fraser River

Fraser River (Photo credit: Tjflex2)

Simon Fraser’s journey down the mighty river in British Columbia that now bears his name was one of the most dangerous ever undertaken by man.

The Northwest Company wanted to extend its fur trading activities to the Pacific coast, but before this could be done, a route from the Peace River to the Pacific had to be found. Simon Fraser was to find it. He did not have the scientific training of Alexander Mackenzie, the first man to cross the continent, but he was a man of tenacious courage.

Accompanied by John Stuart, Jules Maurice Quesnel, nineteen voyageurs and two Indian guides, Fraser left Fort George on May 29, 1808. Down the muddy river, which he thought was the Columbia, they battled rapids and whirlpools, sometimes carrying their canoes down banks so steep that their lives hung by a thread. Near Pavilion, Fraser had the canoes placed on a scaffold, hid most of the supplies and continued on foot. At an Indian encampment (now Lytton), they were shown European goods which could only have come from the Pacific. Nearby, there was a beautiful river of clear blue water flowing into the main river, and Fraser called it the Thompson, after his fellow explorer David Thompson. Unknown to Fraser, Thompson himself was on the Columbia at that moment.

The journey down from Lytton was even more dangerous. Soon they had to abandon their cedar dugouts and scramble along the river banks. When they reached Black Canyon, one of the Indians climbed to the summit and pulled up the others with a rope hung from a long pole. They made their perilous way past Hell’s Gate, creeping above the precipices by hanging onto ropes fastened to trees. In this way they crawled to what is now Spuzzum and Yale!

Near Mount Baker, fierce Cowichan Indians tried to block their way but were kept off through fear of the guns Fraser and his men had managed to carry. On July 2 they reached the Indian village of Musqueam. They were only a few miles from the Pacific and could see the mountains of Vancouver Island. Fraser took a reading for latitude, and he had been on the Columbia, as he thought, it would have been 46 degrees 20 seconds. Fraser came so close, but he never saw the Pacific.

A tired, discouraged man returned to Fort George on August 5.

If you would like to learn more about today’s post, I suggest going to The United Empire Loyalists‘ Association of Canada, Vancouver Branch to read Simon Fraser, Loyalist son and explorer of British Columbia. Then there’s Project to read the Simon Fraser e-book by Denton, Vernon Llewllyn in 1928. To enjoy paintings of Hellsgate Canyon, you must visit And lastly, I suggest reading Nicholas Doe‘s Simon Fraser’s Latitudes – very interesting!


Posted by on July 2, 2013 in On This Day


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Pushing His Luck …

The Red River drainage basin, with the Souris ...

The Red River drainage basin, with the Souris River highlighted (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lord Selkirk’s decision to colonize the area near the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers was not received warmly by either the North West Company or the Hudson’s Bay Company.  Both Companies hunted and traded in the Assiniboia region.  They feared that a farming settlement would surely interfere with their business.

Friction between the settlers and fur traders soon erupted.  Miles Macdonnell, appointed Governor of Assiniboia by Selkirk, was angry to see the Nor’Westers transporting bales of pemmican through his territory while many of his own settlers were starving.

Pemmican was made by pounding strips of dried buffalo meat into powder.  Wild berries and melted buffalo fat were then mixed with the powder and compressed into bales weighing as much as ninety pounds.  Pemmican was the most important food on the Prairies at that time.

In January, 1814, Macdonnell posted his “Pemmican Proclamation,” forbidding the export of food supplies from Assiniboia.  From the standpoint of the colony, his decision was beneficial, but how were the Métis and the trading companies to survive without their supplies?

Macdonnell was still not satisfied.  He sent an armed party to Souris, a North West Company trading post on the Assiniboine River.  There, they confiscated about 6000 bales of pemmican.  Macdonnell was “pushing his luck.”  He boasted that he would “crush all the Nor’Westers on the river, should they be so handy as to resist my authority.”

The partners of the North West Company, meeting at Fort William, decided to destroy the Selkirk at Fort William.  A temporary compromise was reached on June 28, 1814, but Miles Macdonnell was nevertheless terribly shaken by the enmity he had aroused.  Even the Hudson’s Bay Company men turned against him.  Macdonnell,  a discouraged, beaten man, wrote to Selkirk and asked to be relieved of his command.

Macdonnell spent his later years at his farm in Upper Canada.  He died at the home of his brother in Point Fortune, Lower Canada, on June 28, 1828.

To read more about today’s post, I have a few notable sites for you to visit. There is the Lord Selkirk Association of Rupert Land, and the Electric Canadian .com, and the Roots Web. The always dependable Canadian Encyclopedia. And lastly, if you have the time a 272-page document, I really do recommend the The Assiniboine Basin by Martin Kavanagh.


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Weakened by consumption, he returned to England

English: Landing of the Selkirk Settlers, Red ...

Landing of the Selkirk Settlers, Red River, 1812, J.E. Schaflein, HBCA, PAM P-388 (N11312), HBC’s 1924 calendar illustration, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Provincial Archives of Manitoba (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


In 1811, Lord Selkirk bought a controlling interest in the Hudson’s Bay Company so that he could set up a settlement at Red River, now Manitoba. At that time there was great rivalry between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Northwest Company of Montreal.  the Nor’Westers, as they were called, were bitterly opposed to agricultural settlers going into the West because it might spoil the hunting and trapping for furs.

The first Selkirk settlers arrived at Fort Douglas, now Winnipeg, in August 1812.  The Nor’Westers disputed the legality of the sale of the area to Lord Selkirk and trouble began when they saw the new arrivals ploughing the land and building a storehouse for wheat.  When Miles Macdonnell, the leader of the settlers, ordered the Nor’Westers to give up their posts on the Red River, they reacted by destroying the houses and crops of the new settlers and driving many of them out of the country.  Others were induced to go to Upper Canada where the Northwest Company offered them land.

There were many skirmishes between the Selkirk settlers and the Nor’Westers.  The worst took place on June 19, 1816,  after Governor Semple of the Hudson”s Bay Company had sent a fearless officer, Colin Robertson, to arrest Nor’Wester Duncan Cameron for having burned a Selkirk village.

On June 19, a force of 70 armed Nor’Westers and Métis approached Fort Douglas.  Governor Semple went out with thirty men and demanded to know what they planned to do.  Angry words led to shots being fired, and in a few minutes Semple and most of his followers had been killed.  Six managed to get aback to Fort Douglas to tell the story.  The encounter took place near a group of seven oak trees, and is known in history as “The Battle of Seven Oaks.”

Once  more the Selkirk settlers were driven from their homes and lands.  When Lord Selkirk heard the news he seized the Northwest Company’s trading post at Fort William, and a number of its more important officers.  For this action Lord Selkirk was compelled to go on trial in Upper Canada, and fined £2,000 (pounds)!   By this time, he was in poor health, and went to the south of France where he died.

Okay, so those are the basic details. Want to learn more about the Battle (or incident) of Seven Oaks? I can start your journey with a few places to go to. There’s Canada in the Making from; then there’s the Canadian Encyclopedia, and the CBC Learning site. Another good place to go to is The Kid’s Site of Canadian Settlement (it’s written for kids, but I enjoy such passages). Then go on to Red River Selkirk Settlement (it’s written for teachers), and then the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.


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Pacific or Arctic?

Approximate extent of the Mackenzie River wate...

Approximate extent of the Mackenzie River watershed Longest river in Canada, the Mackenzie River. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Alexander Mackenzie began his exploration of the Mackenzie River on June 3, 1789, four years before becoming the first man to cross the North American continent.

Mackenzie came to Canada from Scotland when he was fifteen to become a clerk for the Northwest Company in Montreal.  he became a minor partner and was sent to take charge of a trading post at Detroit.  However, the Nor’westers needed young, rugged men in the north, and Mackenzie was sent to build a post on Lake Athabaska in 1785.  He named it Fort Chipewyan.

Mackenzie soon became familiar with the surrounding territory, even Great Slave Lake, larger than Lake Ontario.  There was a giant river running north from Great Slave Lake and Mackenzie wanted to know where it went: to the Pacific, or the Arctic?

He set out in a canoe with a German, four French-Canadian voyageurs and two of their wives.  The women’s skills were essential on a long trip such as Mackenzie planned.  The expedition paddled the 230 miles to Great Slave Lake, where they had to wait for two weeks because it was still frozen.  By July 1, they were able to continue down the river which was, at times, six miles wide.  After they had gone 500 miles, they met some Indians who tried to stop them from going farther.  The Indians told such tales about the horrors of the river, and the evil spirits, that the German and the voyageurs were ready to turn back, but not Mackenzie.

By July 12, they had reached the river mouth.  It was dreary and disappointing.  The great river divided into narrow channels and flowed through marshy land into the Arctic Sea. Mackenzie spent three days there under the midnight sun, and then burned back.  Two months later he reached Fort Chipewyan.

It seems incredible that Mackenzie and his companions could have covered such a distance by canoe in such a short time, especially as they had to paddle back against the current.  From Great Slave Lake, the Mackenzie River is 1,200 miles long.  The distance to and from Lake Athabaska, where Fort Chipewyan is located, must also be added.

If you would like to read some more about this, I can suggest a few places. To start, I recommend, and then Beyond the Map, and The Alexander Mackenzie Voyageur Route. Another interesting site is at Mackenzie River Bicentennial Dollar.


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