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An Apostle of the North
Memoirs of the Right Reverend William Carpenter Bompas, D.D.

By H.A. Cody, B.A.

London: Seeley, 1908.

Chapter III. The Exploration of the North-West

'Forward! . . . Into the sleet and snow,
Over bleak rivers that flow
Far to the North and Westward.'


THE progress of civilization and Christianity in the Canadian North-West, as in many other parts of the world, is due in a large measure to great fur-trading companies. With a wonderful devotion to the cause in hand, they pushed beyond the bounds of civilization and entered regions never before trodden by white man. They built forts, gained the respect of savage tribes, and ruled them with a firm hand. By their boats missionaries travelled over the noble streams into the wilderness, ministered to the natives who gathered around the forts, and received supplies from the companies' stores.

That they had their faults is quite evident, and there are only too many to-day ready to lay grave charges at their door. But we must not forget what an important part they played in preserving Canada as a British colony. Neither must we omit the fact that the first clergyman of the Church of England, the Rev. John West, was brought into the North-West by the Hudson Bay Company in 1820, or that upon the magnificent gift of £12,000 from Mr. Alexander Leith, a chief factor of the same Company, the bishopric of Rupert's Land was established in 1849.

Considering that these great companies, and especially the Hudson Bay Company, pioneered the way, and opened up the vast territory over which Mr. Bompas travelled and laboured so many years, it seems well to give some account of these early explorations.

As friction between bodies produces heat, fire, and light, so by the rivalry of fur-trading companies the northland of Canada was opened up and a new era ushered in. Eager to outstrip one another, they were ever pushing farther and farther into the country, and, as has been well said, "The great explorers of the period (1763-1812) were all connected with the fur trade."

Away to the north stretched a region, a land of wonder and strange stories. Indians told of a "great river" in the far North-West, and showed specimens of copper found along its banks. The Hudson Bay Company, acting upon these reports, decided to make a thorough investigation, with the object of solving the North-West Passage by land, to ascertain what mines were near the mouth of the Great River, "to smoke the calumet of peace with the Indians, and to take accurate astronomical observations."

The man chosen for this work, Samuel Hearne, the "Mungo Park of Canada," was a trustworthy servant of the Company, who, on November 6,1769, started on his voyage of exploration from Prince of Wales Fort, on the shore of Hudson Bay. Owing to the desertion of over half his men, the attempt proved a failure, and he was forced to turn back.

Two months later he started again, and followed a north-westerly course over streams, lakes, and then inland across the "Barren Grounds." Food was very scarce, and they were reduced to great straits. "For a whole week cranberries, scraps of leather, and burnt bones were their only food." To add to their troubles, when 500 miles had been made, their only quadrant was blown over and broken. So again Hearne was forced to retrace his weary steps to the Bay.

Nothing daunted by these failures, this noble-hearted explorer once more started on his northward quest. This time he was more successful. With a strong band of Indians who were waging war against the Eskimos, he floated down stream, and ere long gained the sea, the first white man to reach the Arctic Ocean from the interior.

"The most unpleasant part of Mr. Hearne's story," wrote Bishop Bompas in his "Diocese of Mackenzie River," "is that the party of Indians with whom he travelled, entirely without his sanction, made an unprovoked attack on a number of Esquimaux encamped on the Coppermine River, and in the night barbarously massacred the whole body of men, women, and children, and spoiled their tents. The site of the massacre became known afterwards as the 'Bloody Falls.'

"It is remarkable that there is a bird in those parts which the Indians there call the 'alarm bird,' or 'bird of warning '--a sort of owl, which hovers over the heads of strangers and precedes them in the direction they go. If these birds see other moving objects, they flit alternately from one party to the other with screaming noise, so that the Indians place great confidence in the alarm bird to apprise them of the approach of strangers or to conduct them to herds of deer or musk oxen.

"Mr. Hearne remarks that all the time the Indians lay in ambush, preparatory to the above-mentioned horrid massacre, a large flock of these birds were continually flying about and hovering alternately over the Indian and Esquimaux tents, making a noise to awake any man out of the soundest sleep. The Esquimaux, unhappily, have a great objection to being disturbed from sleep, and will not be awakened--an obstinacy which seems to have cost that band their lives."

Hearne, like Columbus, was not to have the honour of giving his name to the great river he discovered. This was reserved for another intrepid explorer, Alexander Mackenzie, of the North-West Company. In 1789 he started from Fort Chipe-wyan, on Lake Athabasca, in search of the "Western Sea." He, too, was confronted with great difficulties. Wild Indians told "of demon-haunted caves and impassable falls." Terrified by these tales, his Indians refused to go further. With infinite patience Mackenzie induced them to continue seven days longer, and if in that time they did not discover the sea he promised to turn back. Before the end of the week the mouth of the river was reached, and the explorer knew it was the Arctic Ocean he had gained instead of the Western Sea.

"It is hard," says Bishop Bompas, "to overpraise the intrepid courage, cool prudence, and inquiring intelligence of that noble traveller. . . . Sir Alexander Mackenzie took the greatest pains to conciliate all Indians whom he met by presents and promises of peaceful trade, and he energetically restrained all attempts at murder or rapine made by the Indians who accompanied him. He did not meet with Esquimaux, and it is little wonder that these and the Mackenzie River Indians were shy of him, as it was then customary for the Athabasca Indians to make annual war expeditions down the Mackenzie for purposes* of plunder, massacre, and rapine, as well as for the kidnapping of women and slaves."

In after-years many eminent explorers, such as Franklin, Richardson, Simpson, and Rae, entered the country, the accounts of whose journeys and thrilling adventures may be read elsewhere.

Several years after the discovery of the Mackenzie River, trading-posts were established at various places along this stream and its tributaries. To these the Indians brought their furs, and a thriving business was carried on. For a time there was a keen rivalry between the Hudson Bay Company and the North-West Company, but at length a union was effected under the name of the former.

Not satisfied with the great advance which had thus been made, these "lords of the forest and lakes" turned their attention in another direction. Ever before their vision rose the majestic peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Beyond those barriers were unknown regions. What possibilities lay in that terra incognita they could only conjecture. News reached them of a great river flowing to the west, the estuary of which had been explored by the Russians several years before, and named by them the "Quickpak." This stream they knew must drain a large territory, which might prove valuable for fur-trading purposes.

There was a man in the Company's service especially fitted for the task of pathfinder into the new region. This was Robert Campbell, a Scotchman by birth, over 6 feet of upstanding flesh, bone, muscle, and iron nerve, as dauntless a pioneer as ever shot a swirling rapid or faced a howling blizzard. To him, therefore, the task was consigned in the spring of 1840 by Sir George Simpson, Governor of the Company.

At once he began the undertaking, and after a hard and dangerous voyage up the Liard River, over lakes and portages, a stream was reached, which Campbell named the Pelly, in honour of Sir H. Pelly. A raft was hurriedly made, on which they floated several miles down the river to view the country. Considering they had gone far enough from their base of supplies, the raft was abandoned, but not before Campbell had cast into the stream a sealed tin can with notice of his discovery, the date, and other information.

This discovery of the Pelly River only served to increase the interest of the Company, and it was resolved to push forward the investigation. In 1842 birch bark in sufficient quantity for the building of a canoe was sent up to the Pelly River, and the same year the construction of a fur-trading post was begun, and named Fort Pelly Banks. Early in June, 1843, Mr. Campbell started down the stream in the canoe which had been built, accompanied by two French Canadians and an Indian interpreter. After a long voyage they reached the mouth of the river, where it flows into another of considerable size. This Campbell named the Lewes, after Chief Factor John Lewes. Here a large camp of Wood or Stick Indians was found, who gazed with curiosity, mingled with dread, upon the hardy adventurers from the East. It was Campbell's earnest desire to continue down the river in order to explore the country. This he was unable to do, owing to the many stories told by the Indians of the wild people along the river, which so terrified his companions that they refused to proceed. There was nothing left but to return, which he did most reluctantly, the Indians treacherously pursuing in the hope of slaying them.

In the spring of 1848 Campbell once more returned, and erected a post for trading purposes at the confluence of the Lewes and Pelly Bivers. This place was called Fort Selkirk, and occupied a dangerous position, owing to the animosity of a tribe of Indians, known as the Chilcats, along the Pacific Coast. From time immemorial they had kept the natives of the interior in abject submission, having defeated them in a great battle. They refused to allow them to cross the mountains to trade with the white men on the coast, as they themselves did a thriving business as "middle men." When they beheld the hated white race establishing a post in what they considered their rightful domain, and drawing away the principal part of the trade, their anger knew no bounds. Crossing the mountains, they floated down the river, and without a word of warning attacked the fort and razed it to the ground. Campbell was not present at the destruction of his trading-post, as two years after its erection he had started down the river to see at any cost what lay beyond.

In the meantime another entry had been made into the Yukon region away to the north. In 1842 Mr. J. Bell, in the employ of the Hudson Bay Company, crossed the Rocky Mountains, and descended the Porcupine River for three days' journey. In 1846 he returned and moved down the river to its mouth till he reached a great stream, which the Indians told him was the Yukon. Believing this to be in British territory, Mr. A. H. Murray established a trading-post at this spot the following year, and called it Fort Yukon. It was here that the first missionary work was carried on by the Church Missionary Society, the scene of Archdeacon McDonald's wonderful labours for the Master.

At this post Mr. Campbell arrived from Fort Selkirk, the first white man to make the journey. He had ascended the Porcupine River, crossed the Rocky Mountains, dropped down the Peel River, and ascended the Mackenzie to Fort Simpson. Great was the surprise of the men at this latter place to see Campbell return in an opposite direction from that in which he had started out.

In this brief outline of the discovery of the Mackenzie and the Yukon Rivers we have seen the brave efforts of these noble pioneers. We shall see later how they were followed by the great King's messengers with the glorious gospel of salvation.

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