THE fur trade of North America which encouraged and sustained the earliest French and English explorations inland, which was the chief spoil fought for in the colonial wars, and which swept across the continent, the forerunner of colonization, to see the last days of its glory in Old Oregon began as an accident. It was not furs in the first place that brought Europeans adventuring on the northern shores of the New World. Immediately in the wake of those earliest mariners searching for the pathway to the East came other sea rovers to fish for cod. This takes us back to Sebastian Cabot. Sebastian returned from the second English voyage to America the voyage of 1498 with marvelous fish stories, which so stirred the watermen of Europe that fishing vessels from England, France, and Portugal were soon on the Banks of Newfoundland. Presently Spaniards joined them, and it was not long before Basque whalers from the Bay of Biscay were wrestling with Leviathan in American waters. The French seem to have led all the rest, even as they were later to lead the way as trappers and fur traders.’ The fishing fleets went out in April and returned in August. The industry was divided, then as now, into “green” and “dry.” The dry-cod fishers built platforms on shore on which they split and dried their fish. Each ship had its own station to which its crew returned year after year. And these dry-cod fishers, who lived partly on shore for three months of every fishing season, were the first white men to trade with the Indians for furs.
We should not turn away too quickly from the picture of the first Indian who stepped forward to offer a beaver pelt to a man of our race in exchange for some trinket made in Europe. That picture illustrates the opening chapter of a great romance. The Indian’s gesture beckons the white man to the free march of the forest trail and the rhythmic glide of the birch canoe. His beaver pelt is a sign pointing northward, southward, westward. All trails lead to the beaver lands; and, in following them, the trapper shall pierce to the Frozen Sea and to the Ocean of the Setting Sun. And, beside those great inland waters of which the old mariners dreamed, his camp fire shall glow like a star dropped upon the waste.
It was the French who first caught the vision of the fur trade. The Dutch bartered with the Indians at Manhattan and far up the Hudson. And English traders were the first pathfinders across the Appalachians. But it was Frenchmen who, in advance of all others, pursued the little beaver into the wilds of the continent. If the goal they sought was the legendary strait, their activities were quickened and supported by the fur trade. It was as fur traders that Champlain and his associates explored the region of the Great Lakes. It was the beaver that lured on Radisson and Groseilliers, the first white men to reach the prairies beyond the Great Lakes and probably the first to pass overland to Hudson Bay. Again it was the beaver that made possible the exploration of the Mississippi by Joliet and Marquette and La Salle, and the discovery of the Saskatchewan, and of the Black Hills of South Dakota by La Vérendrye.
Before New France fell the French had established trading posts reaching from Montreal up the Great Lakes, across to the Lake of the Woods, on to Lake Winnipeg, and up the Saskatchewan as far as the Rocky Mountains. By a chain of forts circling southward, from the head of Lake Ontario, they dominated the Ohio, the Wabash, the Wisconsin, and the Illinois. They were on the Arkansas, the Red, the Osage, and the Kansas. Through Kaskaskia, New Orleans, Fort Alabama, and their itinerant trade with the tribes from Tennessee to the Gulf, they were masters of the Mississippi.
For the Frenchman in Old Canada the life of the wilderness had an irresistible lure. In vain the authorities at Quebec tried to compel him to live within the settlements and cultivate the soil. The glamor of the woods drew him away to follow the beaver with the Indian trappers. He married among the Indians and reared his children in their lodges. Thus there sprang up that new and entirely unique type of man, the coureur-de-bois, or trapper, and his complement and companion, the voyageur, or canoeman rovers of the forest; first offspring of France in the New World; speaking two mother tongues; care free and good-humored; disdainful of hardship and danger; and indifferent to all education other than the Indian’s lore. The governor might ban them; the priest might deplore their impiety; but through them France wielded the first great fur empire of North America.
This, however, was not an undisputed empire. There was soon an English rival in the field a rival for which two Frenchmen were responsible. It was in the summer of 1666 that those intrepid wanderers and traders, Radisson and Groseilliers, having fallen foul of the Governor at Quebec in the matter of trading licenses, found themselves after a series of vicissitudes in London. Out of ruin, persecution, and shipwreck, they entered into a city of gloom. London lay under the pall of the Great Plague. The gay monarch, Charles II, had fled to Oxford and was holding court there, surrounded by his favorite nobles and his best beloved ladies. But the King was bored; he found life at Oxford very dull; so he welcomed the chance of hearing the two French castaways tell their marvelous tales of adventure in the New World. He enjoyed their stories thought them so good as to be worth forty shillings a week for the rest of the year, a very fair pension indeed for a couple of entertainers in those days.
By the winter of 166667 fire had swept London clean of contagion, and the King and his courtiers returned to the city. Once in London and still under the royal favor, the merry monarch’s two entertainers became the rage. Prince Rupert, the King’s Admiral and cousin, just home from the Dutch Wars, was much taken with them. So were the aldermen and the high patrons of commerce; for, though the Dutch wars had given to England the Dutch colony of New Netherland on the Hudson, they had been disastrous to English trade upon the sea; and patriotic and practical Englishmen were looking all ways for means to recoup their losses. So Radisson and Groseilliers (the latter appears in the records as “Mr. Gooseberry were invited to castle, tavern, and coffee-house to expound their views on the fur trade over roasted pullets.
This abundant feasting and story-telling had its dénouement, first, in a voyage to the shores of Hudson Bay to establish the verity of the Frenchmen’s tales as to the trading opportunity in that region, which was English by right of Hudson’s discovery in 1610, and, secondly, in a charter given under the King’s seal in 1670, granting unto his cousin Prince Rupert and seventeen courtiers, designated as the “Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson’s Bay,” in feudal domain, all the lands drained by waters flowing into that great inland sea. This charter, giving away an empire almost half the size of Europe, the King signed with his quill pen. He was richly garbed for the ceremony in the new style of coat and vest designed by himself. He was in a happy frame of mind, for now he had an antidote for the tantrums of milady Castlemaine in the warm-hearted gaiety of “pretty witty Nellie,” as the diarist Pepys calls Nell Gwyn. Surrounding the King, as he affixed his royal signature to the instrument, stood the “gentlemen-adventurers” named therein, among them the weak James, Duke of York, afterwards King, and the martial Rupert, soldier, sailor, and artist, a man of power, and the outstanding figure of the group. Had Rupert been King instead of that pretty philanderer in the chair, perhaps the course of these eventful years would have been better for England. But who can know? What one of that brilliant group imagined that the Company they formed would long outlive the Stuart dynasty? It was decreed that the territory granted under the charter should henceforth be known as Rupert’s Land. But, though the Company of which Rupert was the first Governor still flourishes, there is no Rupert’s Land mentioned on any map of that country today.
The Company sent ships to Hudson Bay and built forts on the Nelson and Hayes rivers and on James Bay. Yearly three vessels sailed from England with goods and returned laden with furs. Unlike the French traders, the officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company did not range the woods to trade but lived in feudal state within their stockaded forts and waited for the Indians to come to them. As a group of Indians approached one of the forts, the commander and his subordinates would emerge to greet them. The commander wore a periwig, a sword, and a silken cloak. His manner was courteous and aloof, his discourse dignified and straight-forward. The Indians quickly learned to know him as a man of his word and a trader who had one price and no rum. This way of trading worked very well for a short time. But one year it was noticed that fewer Indians were coming to trade; the next year there were fewer still. The reason was soon learned. Canadian traders, branching north from the St. Lawrence, were intercepting the tribes and getting their furs.
These Canadians, a company of stout traders and dare-devils as reckless and unscrupulous as ever ranged the wilds, saw that English frost on the shores of Hudson Bay threatening blight to the lilies of France. But this was the year 1686, and France and England were at peace. And could some hundred armed men pass through the gates of Quebec on their dash to Hudson Bay with-out the cognizance of the Governor? They could, if the Governor would look over his other shoulder. Beautiful indeed were the gates of Quebec to the eyes of every loyal Canadian; but were there not other fine views to be admired from the castle windows? Evidently the Governor thought so, for a raiding force was presently on its way overland to Hudson Bay. With the marauders, dressed as Indians, went three Le Moynes, young men in their twenties, one of them that Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville later to win fame on land and sea as the most illustrious fighter of New France and as the founder of the colony of Louisiana which Jefferson was to add to the United States.
Swiftly, by forest, stream, and swamp, the raiders sped northward until they reached the outskirts of the English Fort Moose on the shore of James Bay. Lurking low in the shadows of the moonlit brush fringe, Iberville took note of the drowsy sentry. Then he darted forward, his moccasined feet noiseless on the sod, and plunged his dagger through the watchman’s throat. The snoring traders with-in the fort woke to the firing of guns, the clink of steel, and the yells of savage men leaping and clambering over the bastions. Before the sleep was out of their eyes, their fort was lost and with it their great packs of furs. Fort Moose was only the beginning. All the forts on the Bay save one were looted by the raiders, who then returned to Quebec as fast as they could travel under their burden of furs.
The Adventurers of England carefully transcribed their losses in neat columns and doggedly set the helm of their fortunes once more for the scene of their disaster, only to meet again with the same fate. One summer day, as the supply ships from England sailed into the Bay against a stiff wind, they spoke a vessel wafting out merrily under full canvas with the Union Jack at her masthead. Homeward bound ! “A goode wind and a faire sail to her!” They plodded on to anchor before forts looted and wrecked. It was indeed one of their own ships that had sailed by them, packed deep with furs; but the skipper of that ship was Iberville, the raider.
Iberville made his last visit to Hudson Bay in 1697, before the Peace of Ryswick. Now that France and England were at war, he wore, not the fringed buckskin of a coureur-de-bois, but the uniform of a naval officer of France, and he commanded the Pelican, a French man-of-war. He fought three armed English vessels on the Bay and defeated them after a savage fight amid the ice-floes. It was a strange setting for a naval battle. Perhaps the furtive animals of the wilderness, hearing a sound roll in heavier than the roar of wind and surf, stood still in their tracks and stiffened at the thunder of that fierce fight for their pelts.
After the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, when Hudson Bay was restored to England, the Adventurers strengthened their half-dozen posts on the Bay and built the great stone fort named Prince of Wales, on the Churchill River. This fort mounted forty-two cannon six to twenty-four pounders and was manned by some two score men. The rosters of the other forts listed from eleven to forty men apiece. And there in the bleak stillness and loneliness of the waste, year in, year out, these men lived and traded with the Indians. They drank snow-water for nine months of the year because the river was salt for twelve miles above its mouth; in the brief summers they hauled fresh water with three draft horses kept for the purpose. Their most pleasant duty, says one of them, was killing partridges.
But, in truth, very little is known of what happened during these years on Hudson Bay. When the last echo of Iberville’s guns died away, a curtain of silence, thick and vast as the northern snows, dropped between the traders on thé Bay and the bustling world. The records of the following years lie in the cellars of Hudson’s Bay House in London; barely a hint of their contents has reached us. We know that yearly the ships came and went, bearing huge packs of furs home to London. We know, too, that gifts were made silver fox tippets for Queen Anne, beaver socks for a George or two, “catt skin counterpanes” for some lordship’s “bedd.” Portly merchants and rich nobles, with their good dames, walked abroad in fur trimmings to stir the envious. Milord might be heard to say that he had paid a pretty penny for his beaver mittens “egad, sir, yes, in good English money !” But little could he compute the cost of them. Be-hind that screen of silence was the true reckoning made where, at the short summer’s end, the white haze gathered and lowered and moved down over land and sea, with a breath like steel, stilling the waters, burying the land, piling white towers about the trees, rearing white crags along the shore, drifting against the doors of the trading posts, shutting out the light of the windowpanes with a white tapestry, dropping, dropping. “We cannot reckon any man happy,” said one, “whose lot is cast upon this Bay.” These were the cost of milord’s mittens the monotonous life, the loneliness of the silent years.
Meanwhile, far to the south of Hudson Bay, the great struggle between France and England dragged on. The Americans were pushing westward to the tribes hitherto trading with the French. At length the Governor of Virginia sent the young George Washington to drive the French away from an English trading post on the Ohio, where Pittsburgh now stands, and the first shots of the Seven Years’ War cracked across Great Meadows. The con-quest of Canada followed; and its bloody after-math, the Indian rising called Pontiac’s War which was the red man’s protest against the new masters of the interior trading posts, the English colonial traders ran its course. But the fierce struggle for the hapless little beaver was only beginning.
Out of the ashes of the old French fur trade, which was under governmental ward, arose a swarm of “free traders.” Among them was a woods rover of a new type. English and French pursuing the beaver we have already seen. Now in the throng of the free traders the Scot appears. We shall find him presently taking the French-man’s place among the Indians and rising to a leadership in the fur trade which he is never to surrender. He had his difficulties at first. The Indians in the old French hinterland distinguished only between French and English; and to them the Scot was an Englishman, one of a race they had been taught by the French to hate.
One of the first, if not the first, of the free traders to enter the old French country was Alexander Henry, the elder. In 1761 Henry went from Montreal to Fort Michilimackinac. This fort was a strategic point, as it commanded the route into Lake Superior, and was the chief depot for the furs from the territory comprising Wisconsin and Michigan. Here Henry was visited by sixty Chippewas, their faces blackened with war paint, and tomahawks and scalping knives in their hands. They consented, however, to trade with him and assured him that he might “sleep tranquilly without fear of the Chippewas.” This was a sweet promise not long kept; for during Pontiac’s War, two years later, the same Indians, with some Ottawas, murdered the English at Michilimackinac and took Henry prisoner. He was saved only by the friendly offices of a Chippewa who had formerly adopted him as a brother.
The “Handsome Englishman,” as the Indians called Henry, seems to have been the first British trader to push beyond Michilimackinac into the Lake Superior country. By 1767 his canoes were on Lake Winnipeg. He spent sixteen years in the wilderness and penetrated at least as far north as Beaver Lake and the Churchill River. On the way to the Churchill he traveled with three other adventurers whose names are distinguished in the fur trade, the Frobishers and Peter Pond.
It was not long, indeed, before the free traders from Montreal and Quebec were overrunning the North and establishing themselves in Rupert’s Land the sacred precincts of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Frobishers built Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan and Fort Isle à la Crosse on the lake of the same name a little north of the junction of the Beaver and Churchill rivers. Both sites, commanding the waterways to Hudson Bay, were admirably chosen. At these forts the Indians going down to the Bay were intercepted and induced by higher prices or by rum to sell furs that were, in some instances, already paid for by the Hudson’s Bay Company in credits. Up to this time the old Company had maintained its traditional aloofness, and, except for some notable exploring expeditions, it had not stirred inland from its forts on the Bay. But in 1774, Samuel Hearne, the Company’s celebrated young explorer, discoverer of the Coppermine River, came up from the big stone fort at the mouth of the Churchill and built Cumberland House, on the lake of the same name. The old Company saw at last that it would be obliged to branch inland for the protection of its trade.
The free traders hurt the Hudson’s Bay Company, but they hurt themselves much more sometimes to the extent of killing one another. And their competition and their rum were disastrous to the Indians. Traders were murdered by Indians on the march; their forts were attacked and burned, and their goods were stolen. The precarious condition to which the free traders at length reduced themselves is reflected in an official report to the Governor of Canada on the fur trade, written in 1780. This report says that, though the furs are producing an annual return of £200,000 sterling, the gathering of them is carried on at ,great expense, labor, and risk of both men and property every year furnishing instances of the loss of men and goods by accident or otherwise: that the traders in general are not men of substance but are obliged to obtain credit from the merchants of Montreal and Quebec for each year’s supply of goods; and that, when their trade fails, they are destitute of every means to pay their debts.
It is not surprising, then, that the rival traders at both Michilimackinac and Montreal took counsel together and decided to put an end to ruinous competition. The Michilimackinac Company, formed in 1779, was an association of thirty traders called the Mackinaws. In the same year nine houses in Montreal trading west of Lake Superior joined forces; and four years later (1783) these Montreal merchants, with some others under the leadership of the Frobishers and Simon McTavish, united in the partnership since known as the NorthWest Company, or the Nor’westers, the stormy petrels of the northern wilds.
The Nor’westers began in strife. Some of the “winterers” partners who wintered in the great white land were dissatisfied with the shares al-lotted them and violently withdrew. Among these was Peter Pond, explorer of the Athabaska and Great Slave regions, and too powerful a man to be left in enmity. His demands were speedily met, and he joined the Company. At this, the friends who had withdrawn with him were furiously incensed. They banded together and made war on the North-West Company’s brigades. It became a war with powder and shot, for the Nor’westers stopped at nothing to smash their small rival. But when Pond killed Ross, a leader among the allied free traders, both factions took fright and united in haste to forestall any undesired investigation by the authorities. This beginning was prophetic. In the violence of their methods and, be it said, in the brilliance of their achievements the Nor’westers were to prove themselves deserving successors of the marauding and plundering Frenchmen on Hudson Bay and also of the illustrious French explorers of Old Canada.
The majority of the partners were Scotch Highlanders; and it is not too much to say that they brought to their trade rivalry with the Hudson’s Bay Company the spirit of Celtic chiefs at war. Their rival was a chartered company with a monopolistic grant, while they were only an association without royal favor. The Nor’westers, therefore, saw, as their first need, a loyal organization, every man of which should be bound to their interests by his own. Hence it was arranged that a clerk could become a partner after a brief term of service, the length of which depended upon his own initiative. Thus the Company attracted bold and resolute young men who were not minded to let fears or scruples shut them off from the coveted goal. The man who could produce results counted highest with the Nor’westers. Even some of the original partners contributed only their experience and energy: these were the “winterers” who commanded the trapping army in the field. The funds and the goods for trade were found by the partners resident in Montreal. But the real sinews of war were the voyageurs and the coureurs-de-bois, of whom the North-West Company employed great numbers. The servants of the Hudson’s Bay Company were chiefly English and Scotch, who had first to learn the ways of the wild and so were no match for the Canadian boatmen and trappers, the product of several generations of wilderness life.
The Nor’westers made their interior headquarters on the north shore of Lake Superior, first at Grand Portage (Minnesota) at the mouth of the Pigeon River, and later at Fort William (Ontario) at the mouth of the Kaministikwia. These posts were outside the royal domain of the Hudson’s Bay Company, but not far; only a day’s journey over the watershed separated them from the Rainy Lake region drained by Hudson Bay and therefore Rupert’s Land or Hudson’s Bay Territory. From Grand Portage the Nor’westers’ brigades ranged westward through Rupert’s Land and far north to the Athabaska and Great Slave Lakes. They also tapped the territory south of Lake Superior and southwest as far as the Mandan towns on the Missouri. Nor did they wholly respect the regions to the southwest sacred to the Mackinaws, with whose men they frequently clashed.
To the voyageur of the Nor’westers’ brigades there was only one person more ridiculous than a Mackinaw voyageur, and that was a Hudson’s Bay man. The Mackinaw voyageur might be a great man in his own opinion; but let him walk humbly when men of the Nor’westers hove to at Michilimackinac for extra canoes on their way to le pays d’En Haut! “Je suis un homme du Nord!” the Nor’wester would brag as he jostled aside the despised Mackinaw. Anything to provoke a fight! Like master, like man! Such discourtesies well reflected the views of the partners themselves to-wards their rivals in trade. The Nor’westers held in contempt the Hudson’s Bay Company, with its slow ways and its code of lawful dealing. Its pious principles one price, no violence, and no rum for Indians the Nor’westers regarded with unutterable scorn.
But let us see what these Nor’westers did to roll back the mystery of unknown lands. Far to the northwest, a thousand miles from Lake Superior, stood their Fort Chipewyan, on the south side of Lake Athabaska. There lived Alexander Mackenzie, a young Scot in his thirties, who had begun his career as a clerk in a free trading establishment and because of his abilities had been granted a partnership in the North-West Company. Mackenzie proposed to make Fort Chipewyan not merely an outpost of his Company’s trade but the emporium of the greatest trapper’s country on the continent. He saw the commanding position of his fort on Lake Athabaska as the central depot for a vast traffic. Great water highways led to it from every direction. On the south and west the inflowing streams of the Athabaska and the Peace linked him on the one hand to the Saskatchewan Valley and on the other to the Rocky Mountains. To the east lay a chain of lakes and streams stretching towards the rivers entering Hudson Bay. And to the north a tremendous river, issuing from Lake Athabaska, gathered up its mighty waters in the Great Slave Lake and moved on through the northern forests.
This river was unknown. Beyond the Great Slave Lake no white man had followed its course to the Frozen Sea. Nor had any white man yet penetrated the Rocky Mountains and reached the Pacific by land. Both these achievements fell to the glory of Alexander Mackenzie. In the summer of 1789 he discovered and explored to the Arctic the great river now known as the Mackenzie. And three years later, he passed up the Peace River, crossed the Rockies, and, on July 22, 1793, painted his name in red letters on a rock beside the Pacific Ocean.
Mackenzie’s Odyssey was soon the gossip and song of the whole North. In Rupert’s Land, building forts for the Hudson’s Bay Company, was a young surveyor named David Thompson, who was greatly disturbed by it and discontented. He, too, wished to cross the mountains and explore. His ambition was to survey and map the whole of the great Northwest, to pierce the mystery of the wilderness with the clear light of science. But Thompson’s pleas to the Company fell on deaf ears. He was too good a trader and altogether too valuable a man to send awandering. The North-West Company, however, would give him his opportunity if the Hudson’s Bay Company would not. So it came about that Thompson, on May 23, 1797, being then at Deer Lake, wrote in his journal: “This Day I left the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company and entered that of the Company of the Merchants from Canada. May God Almighty prosper me.”
Thompson received his instructions at Grand Portage in June, the month after he entered the Company’s service. He was to survey and map the fur country, showing the geographical position of the forts, and to find the forty-ninth parallel, which was to mark the boundary between the American and British Northwests. He was to go south to the Missouri and explore the sites of ancient villages, hunt for fossils, and learn what he could of the ancient history of the country. For the rest he could follow his heart’s desire; and his progress would be facilitated by orders on the trading posts for whatever he needed in men and goods. His was the biggest dream of all. Other men sought one river; but to Thompson the River of the West was only as a single brook on the great map he meant to make of the whole Northwest.
Thompson set out from Grand Portage, to be on trail almost continuously for nine years. In that time he ranged from Great Slave Lake to the Missouri, traced the headwaters of the Mississippi, entered the Rocky Mountains from the head of the Saskatchewan, made numbers of geographical sketches and scientific notes on the country from the Rockies to Hudson Bay and the Great Lakes, and surveyed the shores of Lake Superior.’ His labors were by no means ended. In 1807 he crossed the Rockies. He spent four years on the Columbia and its tributaries, building forts and trading with new tribes; returning to the Nor’-westers’ forts east of the mountains from time to time with large packs of furs. He was thus the first man to make a detailed survey of those parts of Idaho, Montana, Washington, and British Columbia which are watered by the Columbia or by its source and branch streams.
A rare man was David Thompson a little man, but every inch of him an inch of power. Except for his short stature he might readily have passed for an Indian with his jet black hair cut straight across his forehead, fringing his brows, with his black eyes, and his tanned cheeks painted with Nature’s vermilion. An associate has left this description of him: “Never mind his Bunyan-like face and cropped hair: he has a very powerful mind and a singular faculty of picture-making. He can create a wilderness and people it with warring savages, or climb the Rocky Mountains with you in a snow storm, so clearly and palpably, that only shut your eyes and you hear the crack of the rifle, or feel the snow flakes melt on your cheeks as he talks.”‘ In fort or on trail Thompson ruled his men like a benevolent master; and he was a law to himself, whatever the orders of his Company. He would have no liquor with his brigades; he would not use it in trade. Once two of the partners, Donald McTavish and John Mc-Donald of Garth whom we shall meet later compelled him to take some kegs of whiskey for trade with the tribes in the mountains. Thompson selected a vicious, unbroken horse to pack the kegs and then let it go through the defiles at its own gait. The horse was in perfect sympathy with Thompson’s ideas only splinters of the kegs remained when the brigade reached the trading post and Thompson reported that he felt sure the same costly accident would occur if another unwise attempt were made to transport liquor across the mountains.
Devoutly religious, Thompson sought the spiritual welfare of the voyageurs and coureurs-de-bois who traveled with him. He preached the moral life, a manhood sprung from the Godhead and confident in its source, brotherly and equitable, finding its joys not in excesses of the senses but in self-mastery. Seldom passed an evening in camp that Thompson did not read aloud three chapters from the Old Testament and three chapters from the New, and then expound their meaning in “most extraordinarily pronounced French.” By the rushing Saskatchewan, among the snow wastes of Athabaska, on the bleak crags of the Rocky Mountains, this prophet in buckskin, like Isaiah of old, called to a primitive people, “Make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.”
While Thompson was searching for the source of the Columbia, another Nor’wester, Simon Fraser, also exploring beyond the mountains, far north of the Columbia, discovered the Fraser River and followed it down to the widening of its mouth near the sea.
The journals of Fraser, Mackenzie, Thompson, and the elder Henry, like those of Lewis and Clark, are records of heroism as well as of discovery; and they are the earliest epics of the Great West. The ideal of sheer manhood pitted against vast and primal Nature, which is the underlying theme of these journals, still animates the literature of the West; but it is doubtful if any of the later writings present that ideal more faithfully than do the journals of these old explorers. Unconsciously, out of his deep sincerity, Thompson makes himself known to us as the Star-Man, the name given him by some of the tribes, by day and night on the plains and the mountains, taking observations with his primitive instruments, so that by the fixed law of the heavens he might at last bring the whole of that vast unknown land into the clear apprehension and, so, into the service of mankind. No finer touch of art than his is needed to picture for us this trader-astronomer and his small band of half a dozen men, almost out of food, pressing slowly and pain-fully through the dense snows of Athabaska Pass where the dogs seemed to “swim in the road beat by the snowshoes,” and, so high lay their route, that the stars looked to be within hands’ reach while somewhere behind them, as they knew, in close pursuit followed a warrior band of the fierce Piegans. Nor could literary imagination conceive of a more dramatic escape than the one he narrates without comment. The Indians came upon his trail in the mountains, and, perceiving the helpless situation of their quarry, knowing they had but to advance and kill, were stopped by the sight of three huge bears which emerged from the rocks and stood across the Star-Man’s tracks. There the Piegans turned back, understanding that the Great Spirit had sent the bears to protect his son, for, as they said, “we all believe the Great Spirit speaks to you in the night when you are looking at the Moon and Stars and tells you of what we know nothing.” One line from Thompson’s pen lays bare the explorer’s heart, when, following the mystifying bends and doublings of the upper Columbia, he cried out: “God give me to see where its waters flow into the ocean!,”
There was another side to the life of the Nor’-westers. Whatever their lot, whether in fort or afield or in the countinghouse district of Montreal, they took life gaily. Their Beaver Club, on Beaver Hall Hill in Montreal, was a famous place. It was an exclusive club. No partner was eligible for membership in it unless he had spent at least one winter in the North. Men who had gone hardily through the rough life of a winter in le pays d’En Haut could be relied upon to keep the Beaver Club from stagnating, at any rate, and a right rollicking place they made of it, from all accounts, as they met o’nights to eat and drink, to toast the King and each other and all the lads of the North conglomerately and severally.
Spring was above all others the: season of unbounded joy, for in spring the brigades came in with their furs. Then it was that hilarity broke away from the confining walls of the Beaver Club and resounded through the streets and taverns of Montreal and along the bank of the St. Lawrence. On these nights, as April glided into May, fiddles screeched and voyageurs and trappers jigged and sang by the gleaming camp fires beside the river, while some of their comrades sprawled on the ground whiffing the beloved “tabac”; and betimes Indian drums sounded under the scream of the fiddles like the undertone of booming surf in a shrill wind to the padding of the feet of Indian trappers in the wild buffalo and wolf dances.
No less boisterous would be the scene in the candle-lighted banquet room of the Beaver Club, where sat lusty Scots wearing gold-braided uniforms, eating and drinking from silver salvers and goblets, all engraved with the Club’s crest –a beaver and the motto, Fortitude in Distress. While from the river’s bank rose the strains of the voyageur’s song
” Lui-ya longtemps que je t’aime, Jamais je ne t’oublierai ”
or the roar and bellow of the buffalo cry from the trampling Indian dancers whirling with their pine-knot torches, the revelers in the Beaver Club poured still another libation to the lads of the North. A McTavish or a McKay danced the Highland sword-dance, to the plaudits and quaffings about the board. Fortitude in Distress! On two thousand miles of peril they had proved again that the brigades of the Nor’westers were manned by the swiftest, the hardiest, and the boldest men who roamed the wilds. At length came the concluding ceremony, a tribute to the voyageur. The lordly Nor’westers and their guests knelt on the floor and, with tongs, pokers, canes, or whatever would serve their purpose, imitated the canoeman’s swift, rhythmic strokes, while they sang in rousing chorus one of his favorite paddle-songs.
When by river, lake, and portage the canoe brigades arrived early in summer at Fort William on Lake Superior, even wilder scenes were enacted. The Nor’westers did not own Montreal; but Fort William was theirs, and at Fort William they made such laws and social conventions as pleased them. The fort held a huge banquet hall where two hundred men could feast at their ease. Portraits of the King and of Nelson adorned the rough walls. But the picture most contemplated, no doubt, was the large map of the fur country drawn by David Thompson. The fare on the rude tables was not inferior to that prepared in the Beaver Club, for the best French chefs, at lordly hire, had been cajoled to endanger their art and their lives on rapids and whirlpools in order to cook venison steaks and buffalo tongues to a king’s taste in Fort William. To a Nor’wester’s nice palate there was, it seems, nothing incongruous in a buffalo’s tongue served up in one of those seductive sauces with which a Pompadour or a Montespan had once essayed to recapture the butterfly heart of her monarch. The finest of wines had also been carried over the long route to give tang to the welcome home. And, when the last drop was drained, the casks were rolled out on the floor and such Nor’westers as could still keep semblance of a balance would sit astride of them shouting and singing. Among the feasters were traders from the Far North some of whom wintered on the Mackenzie River. Fort William was all that these outlanders ever saw of civilization. Here for a short time once a year they spoke with white men, ate and drank and clasped hands with their kind.
One of the events of this yearly gathering was the buffalo hunt. It was not only for pemmican and dried meat that the trapper hunted the buffalo.
He needed the skins for clothing and for bedding, for the making of his tent and bull-boat and saddle. The bone was put to various uses, supplementing the trapper’s steel weapons; and the sinew sometimes served as thread or cord.
The trappers mounted and rode westward to their favorite hunting grounds in the country of the Mandans. Between the Saskatchewan and the Missouri lay one of the greatest buffalo ranges, where these animals roamed in such numbers that often a single herd was known to take several days to pass a given point; and the plains were plowed deep with their trails leading to and from their drinking-places. Sometimes the white trappers followed the favorite hunting methods of the Indian members of their fraternity, which were either to drive the buffalo over a cliff, for hunters stationed below to make an end of by rifle or bow and arrow, or to decoy them into a corral. This latter was accomplished by an Indian in a buffalo robe, skilled in the native art of mimicry. As a rule, however, the trappers preferred a fair field and no favor. They rode down on the herd, singled out their quarry, and fired the first shots that started the stampede. Then not only the hunter’s skillful riding and his accuracy of aim but the intelligence and speed of his horse were required to keep the battle an even one. For a stumble, a misstep, an instant’s slowness in wheeling and dodging, meant death to the hunter and his mount.
After the hunt and, of course, the feast which celebrated it the trappers prepared the meat and skins for winter use. All must now be made ready for the time when they should set forth to trap. Weapons were overhauled by the smith. The trapper’s garments were cut and fashioned by his Indian wife, probably, for the gates of the fort were wide open to the tawny belles of the plains. Nothing too simple in style was considered good sartorial art. The trapper must have his moccasins plentifully beaded or worked with brightly dyed quills, and his leggings and jacket must be fringed. He was forced to go without the little bells or jingling bits of metal in which the canoe-man rejoiced, for his task of stalking wild animals necessitated a silent wardrobe. But he could have a bright sash, wonderful gauntlets, a beaded cap, as well as a fur one for cold weather, fur pouches for powder and shot, and perhaps a beaded bear’s or swan’s foot pouch for his tobacco. With these added to his hunting suit, the trapper considered himself appropriately tailored. Sometimes a cap mounted with horns or furry ears was included in the trousseau in which he was to wed the white Solitude. This was an Indian hunter’s device for deceiving wild animals where the man must cross open snowy spaces to get within range. Other methods also the trapper practised to conceal his presence from the creatures of the wilderness. When he set his traps, he trailed the hide of a freshly killed deer over his tracks to obscure the man-smell; and if he had handled his traps without deer hide on his hands, he smeared them with an oily substance extracted from the beaver, which served also as a bait.
It might be that the gaily fringed and handsomely accoutered trapper, who set out with buoy-ant heart as the snows fell, would return with wealth in his pack. It might be that he would never return. The bait in his traps would lure other beasts than the beaver or fox or mink he invited; and, to the wolf-pack, the man-smell caused no fear.
While the Nor’westers were thus spreading the trapper’s kingdom towards the northern and west-ern oceans, the traders of St. Louis were not letting the time pass unimproved. Lewis and Clark had opened the way for them to expand their trade.
Not idly or casually had Jefferson instructed Lewis to form trading relations with the Indians along the Missouri. In the year after the return of the great expedition, Manuel Lisa, a Spanish trader, formed a partnership with Drouillard, who had been with Lewis and Clark, and ascended the Missouri to the Yellowstone. On the way he met the lone explorer and trapper, John Colter, and easily persuaded him to turn back. Up the Yellowstone they went, into the country of the war-like and pilfering Crows, to the mouth of the Big Horn. Here Lisa built a fort and opened trade. In the following year (1808) the Missouri Fur Company was organized with William Clark and Lisa as two of the partners; and in another two years the company had built trading posts in the Mandan towns and at Three Forks.
Not unhampered did the Missouri Fur Company’s brigades, led by Lisa and Drouillard, pass upon the river highway; and it was believed by them and their friends that the Indians who fired volleys at their pirogues were set upon them by the Nor’westers to discourage the invasion of what those autocratic fur barons considered to be their territory. Drouillard, who was in charge of the post at Three Forks, was waylaid and killed by Blackfeet while he was out hunting in the Jefferson Valley, in the year that the fort was built. Colter was captured by Indians of the same tribe. His courageous demeanor so impressed the Blackfeet that they gave the white man a chance for his life. Colter was stripped even to his moccasins, led out a hundred yards or so on to the plain and told to run. His run for life by which he miraculously escaped should long ago have inspired some maker of ballads. After a race of six miles over the plain, which was covered with prickly pear, he cast the Indians off his trail by diving under a raft in the river where he hid until the Blackfeet gave up the search. Then he swam downstream, landed, and traveled for seven days, naked, without weapons, his feet full of thorns, until he reached Lisa’s fort on the Yellowstone.
The next notable figure on the fur-trading field was John Jacob Astor of New York. Astor was planning a vast scheme which involved the establishment of trading posts on the Columbia, a chain of posts across the plainsin fact, the control of the entire fur trade of the continent. He was acquainted with the Nor’westers, having bought furs from them for some years for his New York trade, and was anxious for them to join him in his enterprise on the Columbia if the matter could be arranged. As a preliminary step, he proposed that he and they should buy out the Mackinaws and thus remove a rival from the trade about the Lakes. It suited the Nor’westers to help Astor obliterate the Mackinaws, which was finally done, but further than that his plans for mastery of the fur trade met with no sympathy from them. In particular they disliked his views with regard to posts on the Pacific Coast, for they were themselves about to petition the British Government for a charter for a monopoly of the trade west and immediately east’ of the Rockies; and it had been with this purpose in mind that they had sent Thompson and Fraser on their journeys of exploration. Now appeared this cloud, Astor the American, on their bright horizon. The leading partners had a conference with Thompson ; and although there seems to be no record of it, there is little doubt that he was bidden to build a post on the upper Columbia and to lay claim to the territory about its head-waters and the Snake, and thence to complete his exploration of the Columbia to its mouth. If his orders had been to beat Astor’s ship, the Tonquin, in a race to the mouth of the river as has often been stated he would not have spent the spring of 1811 on its upper waters. It was not by preceding Astor’s men on the coast but by the charter they hoped to receive as a result of their explorations that the Nor’westers expected to gain Oregon, for as a chartered company they would be backed by the British Government.
Whether John Jacob Astor knew the plans of the Nor’westers, even as they knew his, is conjectural. However that may be, he proceeded with his own enterprise. His first contingent would sail in the ship Tonquin from New York and take the sea route round Cape Horn the route which Robert Gray had sailed twenty years before to the entrance of the River of the West. And a fleet of pirogues, conveying men in his service, would strike from St. Louis up the Missouri to follow the trail of Lewis and Clark into Oregon.