Littell's Living Age/Volume 1/Issue 1/Simpson's Discoveries on the North Coast of America
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Volume 1, Issue 1 : Simpson's Discoveries on the North Coast of America
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From the Quarterly Review.
This, the last page in the history of the British arctic exploration, is a melancholy one; for though the task undertaken was gallantly and successfully accomplished, the publication is posthumous, and the adventurous author lived not to wear the laurels so honorably won. His own recital is one which must be read by his countrymen with satisfaction, only impaired by regret for his melancholy and mysterious fate. Its style, remarkable even beyond that of his recent predecessors for concision, is, like theirs, of that simple and unpretending character which best becomes the narrative of real enterprise and endurance. The achievements it records place the author’s name on the long list of British worthies which begins with Frobisher. The utility of such achievements may indeed be questioned. To what purpose are the realms of all but eternal winter invaded by such repeated incursions? Why expose the nose of man to the blast of the barrens, with the thermometer at 60° below zero: and when government, weary of its efforts, abandons the task, why should officials of the Hudson’s Bay Company exchange their proper functions as purveyors of peltry for those of navigators and geographers? The answer to all such utilitarian interrogatories rises spontaneously to the lips of every one who takes an interest either in the advancement of science or the honor of England. We are indeed no longer lured, like our ancestors, by the prospect of commercial advantages from a north-western communication with Japan or Cathay; but, without condescending to argue the question, we regret no past, we shall grudge no future expenditure, whether of money or heroism, which may have contributed, or hereafter may contribute, to the final discharge of one of Great Britain’s proper functions, the survey of the coastline of North America. This primary object attained, it will yet remain to be shown that the North Pole itself is inaccessible, and that the difficulties of a north-west passage are insurmountable by British navigators. On both these questions we venture to refer our readers to our article, of the year 1840, on Wrangell’s expedition, vol. lxvi. p. 444.
Meanwhile the Franklins, the Backs, and the Simpsons have left but little to be achieved towards the accomplishment of the coast survey. The extent of the hiatus remaining on our maps will be best understood by a reference to Mr. Simpson’s instructions and the objects embraced in his enterprise. We call them Mr. Simpson’s instructions in virtue of his authorship, and without fear of exciting any jealousy on the part of the able and veteran chief of the expedition, Mr. Dease, who appears to have conceded to his youthful subordinate, when occasion permitted, precedence in labor and fatigue, as well as in the scientific operations of the expedition, which were entirely in Mr. Simpson’s hands. Mr. Dease’s merits and services are well known to the readers of Franklin and Back. The first object indicated in the instructions issued by the Hudson’s Bay Company Directors, was the completion of that part of the coast survey to the westward of the Mackenzie River which had been left unfinished by Franklin and Beechey in 1826. Such of our readers as have not recently pored over the additions to our arctic maps, contributed by successive expeditions, have to be reminded that in that year a combined operation was conducted, from the Pacific by Captain Beechey, from the mouth of the Mackenzie River by Captain Franklin, in the hope that the two parties might meet somewhere on the coast. They failed in effecting their junction, but how nearly they succeeded, the following dates and positions will show.
On the 18th of August, the barge of Captain Beechey’s vessel, the Blossom, quitted that ship off Icy Cape, and on the 22d, reached longitude 156° 21’ W., some 120 miles to the eastward of their point of departure. Hence, after being embedded for some days in ice, and after her commander, Mr. Elson, had made up his mind to abandon her and return on foot, she was fortunately extricated, and made sail again to rejoin the Blossom on the 25th. On the 16th of August, Captain Franklin reached longitude 138° 52’ W.; and on the 17th, the weather cleared sufficiently to allow him, as he believed, to ascertain the position of a point of land to the westward, which he named after Captain Beechey; at which point he writes, longitude 149° 27’, “our discoveries terminated.” “Could I have known,” he continues, “or by any possibility imagined, that a party from the Blossom had been at the distance of only 160 miles from me, no difficulties, no dangers, no discouraging circumstances, should have prevailed upon me to return.” It is a satisfaction to know that, in Sir John Franklin’s own opinion, founded on subsequent information, the attempt would have been fruitless, and probably fatal to all concerned. This interval, therefore, of somewhat less than 7° of longitude (averaging 23 miles to a degree,) was all that, since 1826, remained to complete the survey from Mackenzie River westward to the Pacific; and that completion was indicated in the instructions as the first object of the expedition. It will be seen that it was effectually and speedily accomplished.
To the eastward a wider field was open to conjecture and discovery. In 1826, while Franklin was working to the west, his admirable coadjutor Richardson had surveyed the interval between the Mackenzie and Coppermine rivers. In 1834 Captain Back had descended the Tlewocho, or Great Fish River, to its estuary; but he had been able to survey but little of the neighboring coast in either direction; and, with the exception of this point, the region between the 115th and 83d degrees of longitude, from the Coppermine River to the offshoot, called Melville Peninsula, was still unexplored. It would appear from the instructions that the exploration of this interval to its full eastward extent did not enter into the immediate contemplation of the directors. The party is merely instructed, starting from the Coppermine, to reach, if possible, the scene of Captain Back’s discoveries; deciding, as in case of success it must, on its way the question at issue between Sir John Ross and Sir George Back, whether Boothia, the land so named by the former officer, be a peninsula joined on to the main land to the west of the Tlewocho, or whether, as Back opined, a strait existed which had escaped Ross’s observation. It will be seen that Mr. Simpson more than performed the service indicated in this instruction; that, after discovering and passing through the strait suspected by Sir G. Back, and thus disposing of the presumed peninsula, and of Sir J. Ross’s famous discovery of a difference of level between the seas on either side, he followed the coast-line to some little extent beyond the point where Back was repelled by the advanced state of the season. From this summary it will be seen that, for some ten degrees of longitude, the coast of the continent still presents a field for further adventure. We have been robbed of one peninsula, but it appears nearly certain that a considerable tract of land, of which the eastern continuous coast has been ascertained by Parry and Franklin, deserves the name it bears of Melville Peninsula; that it shoots out to the north for some 5° of latitude, and is joined to the main land by a narrow isthmus near Repulse Bay. This latter fact does not indeed rest as yet on actual observation, but there is every reason to put faith in the Esquimaux accounts, which bring a gulf of the Polar Sea to within 40 or 50 miles of Repulse Bay.
Our author’s narrative is prefaced by an interesting though meagre sketch of his biography, by the pen of a surviving brother. The boy is not always father to the man. The transformation of a sickly and timid youth, educated for the Scottish church, into the hardy man who walks fifty miles a-day in snow-shoes, is one of those phenomena which we believe to be quite as common as the instances of juvenile promise and precocious aptitude for a particular career so often traced out by the biographers of eminent men. In 1829, at the age of twenty-one, Mr. Simpson, despairing of early advancement in the Kirk, and averse from the usual resource of private tuition, accepted from the governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Mr., now Sir George Simpson—(a relative, we presume, but in what degree is not stated)—an offer of employment under the Company, and sailed for North America. By the same powerful interest it appears that he was appointed, in 1836, to the second station in command of the expedition which forms the subject of the present narrative. There can be no doubt that during his apprenticeship he showed qualities which justified his selection, and no one who peruses the record will accuse the governor of nepotism.
To any one acquainted with the numerous works of Mr. Simpson's predecessors, his volume can of course present little attraction in the way of novelty. The incidents, whether of the summer's journey or the winter’s residence at one of the Company's forts, admit of little variety, as described either by a Back or a Simpson. The same exertions of fortitude and endurance, the same devices of skill and ingenuity to meet danger in its various forms of river-rapid, of marine ice, of fog, and squall, and current, are required of each successive arctic adventurer; but the simplicity and concision of the present narrative prevents weariness even with these details. There is one fact, evidence of which pervades the volume, and which makes us rise from its perusal with peculiar satisfaction; we mean the truly humanizing and Christian effect of the operations of the Hudson’s Bay Company on the aboriginal tribes. The period is not distant when the “ ,” which raged between the Hudson’s Bay Company and a rival association, reddened the desert with other blood than that of the beaver or musk-ox. The blessings, indeed, usually bestowed by the white Christian on the red heathen are soon enumerated;—fire-arms, fire-water, and the small-pox; but probably in no part of the world had the European invaders set a worse example to the native tribes than here, or enlisted them into more savage contests than those which raged, within the present century, within the dominions and between the subjects of the British crown in North America. It is perhaps useless now to inquire into the relative guilt of the parties engaged, and to attempt to discriminate between aggression and lawful resistance. The true history of such contests would rival in unprofitable tedium the Florentine and Pisan wars of Guicciardini. We know no better picture of the character of the struggle than is to be found in the work of Mr. Ross Cox, a gentleman who from an adventurous trader has become an efficient and trusted officer of the Irish police. His narrative, published in 1830, has scarcely an equal for incident and adventure, unless it be in Mr. Irvine’s charming volume, the “Adventures of the Followers of Columbus.” We shall have occasion to remark, that some of his observations on the habits of native tribes derive confirmation from the volume under review. It is gratifying to us, as Englishmen and Christians, to be able to show the reverse of such a picture. Subsequently to the coalition effected between the two companies in 1821, their system towards the natives appears to have been one which Howard and Wilberforce would have approved, and might have directed. Sufficient proofs of this fact appear at the outset of Mr. Simpson’s volume, even in his description, though cursory, of the Red River settlement, from which he started for his journey.
The untiring efforts of the Company’s Church establishment, Protestant and Roman Catholic, extend from Labrador to the Pacific—from where the rattlesnake basks in the hot summer of climes westward of the Rocky mountains, to where the Indian ceases to roam, and the Esquimaux becomes the sole representative of humanity. These exertions are not the less creditable if, as Mr. Simpson, we fear truly, states, they are often unrewarded: not always however. In the maritime districts of the far West the Indian character is softened, as he states, by the influences of the Pacific; food is abundant, man congregates in villages, and here the labors of the missionaries promise every success. Even among the wandering hunters of the North the endeavors of the Company to check the supply of spirituous liquors and to instil morality, have not been unavailing. Mr. Simpson says:—
“No stronger proof of the salutary effect of the injunctions of the Company’s officers can be adduced than that, while peace and decorum mark the general character of the Northern tribes, bloodshed, rapine, and unbridled lust are the characteristics of the fierce hordes of Assiniboines, Pigeons, Blackfeet, Circees, Fall and Blood Indians who inhabit the plains between the Saskatchewan and Missouri, and are without the pale of the Company’s influence and authority.”—p. 19.
On the 1st of December, 1836, Mr. Simpson quitted the Red River settlement for Athabasca. This preliminary journey, of one thousand two hundred and seventy-seven statute miles, was completed with singular precision on the very day prefixed for its termination, the 1st of February. For the first three days, as far as the Manitobah Lake, the nature of the country and the state of the weather permitted the use of horses and wheel carriages. The remainder of the journey was performed on foot, the baggage being conveyed on sledges drawn by dogs. The author’s route enabled him to enjoy the seasonable hospitality of three of the Company's stations between the Red River and the Athabascan station, Fort Chipewayan, destined for his residence till the period when returning spring should enable him to effect the descent of the Coppermine River.
The first point decided on at this station was, that instead of building, according to the letter of their instructions, one large boat for their future expedition, they should construct two of smaller dimensions; a measure to which Mr. Simpson attributes the ultimate safety and success of the party. This portion of the author’s narrative exhibits further gratifying evidence of the influence of the Company on the character of the Chipewayan Indians; and of the establishment of friendly relations between this race and the Esquimaux. The wanton and relentless massacre of the latter, described by Hearne, is a specimen of the former habits of the natives, conspicuous by its contrast to the present state of things; and the regulations of the Company for the prevention of the sale of spirits, and for the supply of necessaries to the Indian, seem admirable in effect as well as intention.
The expedition set sail from Athabasca on the 1st of June. On the 10th it reached the Great Slave Lake, where, for eleven weary days, it suffered provoking detention by the ice, and it was not till the 29th that it entered the great River Mackenzie. Fort Good Hope, situated in lat. 66° 16’, the most northerly station of the Company, was reached on the 5th of July, and at 4 P. M. of the 9th, the Arctic Ocean burst on the view of the party. The expedition plodded its westward way along the coast surveyed by Franklin in 1826, meeting and overcoming the usual difficulties of such a route, and holding friendly but cautious intercourse with various families of Esquimaux, till it reached Franklin’s Return Reef on the 23d. The weather here became stormy, and the temperature such as to bring the winter-dresses of the party into requisition. The ice drove them occasionally almost beyond sight of the coast, but one happy run of twenty-five hours effected nearly half the distance between the point reached by Franklin and the Point Barrow, from which Captain Beechey’s barge returned in 1826. In this interval the mouths of two considerable rivers were discovered. Of one of these, named by the party the Colville, Mr. Simpson remarks (p. 171): “That it separates the Franklin and Pelly mountains, the last seen by us, and probably flows in a long course through a rich fur country and unknown tribes on the west side of the Rocky mountains.” Mr. Simpson thinks that it is probably identical with a river of which Mr. Campbell, one of the most adventurous of the Company’s servants, who has pushed its establishments into the Rocky mountains and to the confines of the Russian territory, received accounts from the natives; if so, it has a course of at least 1000 English miles. It appears that Mr. Campbell, in 1839, narrowly escaped massacre and starvation at the hands of the Nahanie indians, but that his future operations are likely to be facilitated by a transaction with the Russian Governor, the emninent Baron Wrangel, by which the Russian line of coast as far as Cape Spencer is leased to the Company. On the 28th they hauled up their boats on a cape, in longitude 1540, which they named after Governor Simpson. The ice now rapidly accumulated, and on the 31st Mr. Simpson writes:—“From the extreme coldness of the weather and the interminable ice, the further advance of our boats appeared hopeless. In four days we had only made good as many miles, and in the event of a late return to the Mackenzie, we had every reason to apprehend being set fast in Bear Lake river, or at least at Fort Franklin, which would have been ruinous to our future plans. I therefore lost no time in imparting to Mr. Dease my desire of exploring the remainder of the coast to Point Barrow on foot. In order to secure the safe retreat of the party, he handsomely consented to remain with the boats; and as Point Barrow was still distant only two degrees of longitude, ten or twelve days were considered sufficient for my return.” The author therefore, selecting five companions, started on his pedestrian expedition on the 1st of August. While the boats had been forcing their way through the shore ice to Cape Simpson, the appearance of the ice to seaward had been so smooth and solid that the party had longed for horses and carioles to drive at once to Point Barrow. Our author could not, indeed, resort to this expedient to facilitate the interesting labor of the remaining interval of unexplored coast. He could not call a coach, but he did better, for finding the sea open he called an oomiak—one of the large family-boats of the Esquimaux which bear that name. The incident of his meeting with the family which supplied him with the loan of this invaluable conveyance was certainly one of the most fortunate of his journey. The taste for tobacco, acquired from intercourse with the Russians, was a passport to their good graces. Among other mutual civilities Mr. Simpson exchanged his travelling service of plate, consisting of a tin pan, for a platter made out of a mammoth tusk, as appropriate to his daily mess of pemmican as pewter to the draught beloved by metropolitan coalheavers. The Esquimaux suffered him without scruple to select the best of three oomiaks for his purpose. These boats float in half a foot of water, and the one selected bounded gallantly over the high waves of an inlet five miles wide, which would have cost him a weary march to circumvent by land. Disregarding the portentous appearance of young ice and the landward flight of wild fowl, omens of approaching winter, and occasionally carrying their light craft over the older ice, they hurried onward to their goal, and reached it with triumph and gratitude on the morning of the 4th.
Point Barrow, henceforth famous as the focus to which British enterprise from west and east has successfully converged, is described as a long, low spit of gravel, some five miles across. It appears to be a place of considerable resort; a kind of Brighton to the Esquimaux, a summer camp, a winter burrow, and a fashionable burying-place. Mr. Elson, in 1826, had been deterred, by the hostile demeanor of the natives, from attempts at intercourse; but Mr. Simpson was bolder, and though the natives were numerous, and their demonstrations at first suspicious, he opened with them a brisk and friendly intercourse, exchanging the ever current coin of tobacco for seal-skin boots, water-proof shirts of seals’ entrails, ivory toys, &c. Dances followed, performed by Ceritos in deer-skin unmentionables; and it was not till Mr. Simpson launched again on the ocean, averting his prow reluctantly from a lane of open water which invited him to Behrings Straits, that an attempt to steal his paddles, and some appearance of a disposition to misdirect his course, afforded any ground for apprehending bad intentions. He was soon joyfully received by the party from whom he had borrowed his frail but buoyant and effective conveyance; and as he required its further use, four of them readily consented to accompany him in their canoes. These people displayed acute sensibility to the power of music, listening with delight to the French and Highland boat-songs of the party. This sensibility is shared by the Indian tribe of Loucheux, but strange to say, is not found among their neighbors the Chipewayans. These distinctive peculiarities among races in juxtaposition are interesting, and not confined to savage tribes. We doubt whether, in this respect of musical faculty, the Loucheux differ more from the Chipewnyans than do the natives of the hilly districts of Lancashire and Derbyshire from those of some neighboring counties. In discussing the origin of the native tribes, Mr. Simpson (after attributing, as we think, on very questionable grounds, and differing with his predecessors in discovery, an European origin to the Esquimaux) enumerates several distinct families (if Indians, whom he supposes to have migrated from Asia, but who have preserved the most decided differences of language and customs. He mentions the practice prevalent in New Caledonia of burning the dead, and of subjecting the widow to various degrading and painful observances, which probably indicate an Hindoo affinity, though not extending to the suttee of Hindostan. Mr. Ross Cox had the opportunity of observing this practice, which we believe the influence of the Company has since nearly abolished. We have lately seen it stated that in the Marquesas Islands the ocean is substituted for the pile, and the widow is sunk with the corpse of her partner. With all respect for the philosophers of the last century, who endeavored to set up the superiority of savage over civilized man, we prefer the more cumbrous contrivance of jointure, with all its delays to impatient lovers and burthens on heirs.
Mr. Simpson was certainly as fortunate in avoiding collision with the natives as in procuring assistance from them; but the measure of proceeding with so small a party was, with reference to them, one of extreme hazard. The usual source of collision is the inability of the savage to resist temptation to pilfer. We have seen that at Point Barrow this risk occurred. Mr. Dease also, while waiting the return of the party, had to protect himself from similar attempts. Man hates and fears those whom he has injured. Mr. Simpson justly observes, that should the Russians ever furnish the Esquimaux with fire-arms, the day of discovery with small parties will be over. This was, however, the only juncture at which the natives were met with in force sufficient to create danger; and though it was certainly a critical one, the object in view was one of those which justify a rush at the fence without a scrutiny into the possible ditch at the other side.
While the operations above described were in progress, a party, left behind at Fort Good Hope, had ascended the Bear Lake River, and established themselves on the lake of that name to prepare the winter residence of the expedition. The ascent of the stream, however, had been one of difficulty, conducted between impending walls of ice, in some instances forty feet high. Thirty miles of such navigation had cost a fortnight’s labor, and the passage of the lake itself was scarcely less difficult. It was not till the 17th of August, the day on which the coasting party reentered the Mackenzie River, that the building party reached the scene of its labors, named Fort Confidence. Mr. Simpson’s arrival here occurred on the 29th of September. They found their simple and diminutive log dwellings finished as well as the scanty materials of the country allowed, but miserably inadequate to the climate. An express soon after reached them, conveying, among other intelligence, that of Sir. G. Back’s intended expedition to Wager Inlet, and affording hopes of a meeting with that officer in the course of the summer, which were frustrated by the well-known failure of his gallant efforts. The incidents of the winter residence demand little comment. From the 11th of November to the end of January the temperature ranged from 32° to 33° below zero. Occasionally, however, it descended to 50° and when at 49° the author cast a bullet of quicksilver, which, fired from a pistol at ten paces, passed through an inch plank. The students of Liebig will not be surprised to hear that, when abundance permitted, the daily ration of an individual was from eight to twelve pounds of venison. On some occasions it appears that the allowance to the Company’s servants has been fourteen pounds of moose or buffalo. We apprehend that bone is included, but the amount is yet enormous, as compared with the consumption of man in temperate climates. The great chemist clearly explains why this large amount of solid and nitrogenized food should be not only innocent but salutary under an arctic temperature. How far, however, it be necessary, and how great the addition desirable for due enjoyment, or essential to the healthy condition of the frame, apart from the adventitious consequences of habit, may be doubted. We have at least reason to doubt that the officers of these expeditions, whose education and habits removed them from the influences of idleness and mere sensuality, have felt and had occasion to satisfy any inordinate cravings. Experience and theory alike condemn the use of spirituous liquors as aids to exertion in these climates.
The 11th of March exhibited the greatest degree of cold observed. A spirit thermometer, more scrupulous than its fellows, stood at 60°, an older one at 66°.
Had Mr. Simpson’s ardent mind and powerful frame been totally unoccupied during his long and wearisome detention, he might have been driven to the remedy which our French neighbors accuse us of adopting for low spirits, and have committed an appropriate suicide with a quicksilver bullet. He was not, however, driven to this resource. His winter excursions, on Great Bear Lake and the neighboring barrens, exceeded a thousand miles. On the 27th of March he set out, with two men and four dogs, to explore the country between Bear Lake and the Coppermine, their intended pathway to the sea. Buried in the snowdrift of a north-easter, scarcely broken by the screen of a few dwarf spruces, the author naturally felt it difficult to comprehend how people could perish in an English snow-storm in the hot desert of Salisbury Plain, or the tropical regions of Shap Fell.
Indian education begins early. Lewis and Clarke describe equestrians of some two years old using both whip and bridle with vigor and effect. An unweaned member of an Indian family reached Fort Confidence on snow shoes two feet in length:—
“I must not,” says Mr. Simpson, “close this part of the narrative without bestowing a just encomium on the generally docile character of the natives of Great Bear Lake. They soon become attached to white men, and are fond of imitating their manners. In our little hall I have repeatedly seen the youngsters who were most about us get up from their chairs, and politely hand them to any of our people who happened to enter. Some of them even learned to take off their caps in the house, and to wash instead of greasing their faces. Their indulgent treatment of their women, who indeed possess the mastery, was noticed by Sir J. Franklin. I wish I could speak as favorably of their honesty and veracity.”—p. 243.
The next great object of Mr. Simpson’s instructions was, as we have stated, to trace the unexplored interval from Franklin’s point Turnagain to the Tlewocho estuary. For this object he was to reach the coast by the Coppermine River, with the choice, as far as his instructors could give it, of spending one or two seasons on the attempt, and of returning by whichever of the two rivers he might prefer. He started on the 6th of June, ascended the Dease River, crossed the Dismal Lakes on the still solid ice, partly with the assistance of sails, and launching on the Kendal River reached the confluence of that stream with the Coppermine on the 20th. The rapids of the Coppermine made of the descent and ascent of that river perhaps the two most critical operations of the expedition. Franklin had descended them in July, when at their summer level; they were now in spring flood, but skill and nerve brought the party through. We extract the following passage:—
“The day was bright arid lovely as we shot down rapid after rapid; in many of which we had to pull for our lives to keep out of the suction of the precipices, along whose base the breakers raged and foamed with overwhelming fury. Shortly before noon we came in sight of the Escape Rapid of Franklin, and a glance at the overhanging cliffs told us that there was no alternative but to run down with full cargo. In an instant we were in the vortex; and, before we were aware, my boat was borne towards an isolated rock which the boiling surge almost concealed. To clear it on the outside was no longer possible; our only chance of safety was to run between it and the lofty eastern cliff. The word was passed, and every breath was hushed. A stream, which dashed down upon us over the brow of the precipice more than a hundred feet in height, mingled with the spray that whirled upwards from the rapid, forming a terrific shower-bath. The pass was about eight feet wide, and the error of a single foot on either side would have been instant destruction. As, guided by Sinclair’s consummate skill, the boat shot safely through those jaws of death, an involuntary cheer arose.”—p. 258.
If it had appeared strange to Mr. Simpson, with his thermometer at 50°, that people should perish of cold in England, during this performance he must have been equally at a loss to account for the destruction of life which so often used to attend the shooting of Old London Bridge.
From the 1st to the 17th of July the party were detained by the ice at the mouth of the Coppermine. From the latter date to the 19th of August they were occupied in struggling along the coast to the point reached by Franklin in 1821, and here the prospect before them showed that they had drawn a blank in the lottery of arctic summers. On the 16th of August Franklin had seen a perfectly open sea from this point. Before them now, to the eastward, lay an unbroken barrier of ice, glittering with snow, evidently destined soon to unite with the new formation of approaching winter. Behind them the disjointed masses through which they had forced their way kept closing in under the pressure of violent gales. Mr. Simpson, under these discouraging circumstances, again decided on the experiment of a pedestrian journey of exploration for some ten days with seven of the party, to be followed by Mr. Dease with the remaining five men in one of their two boats, should wind and weather so far change as to permit. This enterprise was well rewarded. Franklin’s furthest point was passed on the 21st. From a cape named after that officer, a little beyond that point, land was seen twenty or twenty-five miles to the northward, and stretching from west to north-east. Was this land insular or continental,—were the party coasting a bay or the shore of a continuous sea? This interesting question was solved on the 23d, on which day Mr. Simpson writes:—
“The coast led somewhat more to the northward. The travelling was exceedingly painful. We, however, advanced with spirit, all hands being in eager expectation respecting the great northern land, which seemed interminable. Along its distant shore the beams of the declining sun were reflected from a broad channel of open water; while on the coast we were tracing the ice lay still immovable, and extended many miles to seaward. As we drew near in the evening an elevated cape, land appeared all round, and our worst fears seemed confirmed. With bitter disappointment I ascended the height, from whence a vast and splendid prospect burst suddenly upon me. The sea, as if transformed by enchantment, rolled its free waves at my feet, and beyond the range of vision to the eastward. Islands, of various shape and size, overspread its surface; and the northern land terminated to the eye in a bold and lofty cape, bearing east-north-east, thirty or forty miles distant, while the continental coast trended away south-east. I stood in fact on a remarkable headland at the eastern outlet of an ice-obstructed strait. On the extensive land to the northward I bestowed the name of our most gracious sovereign, Queen Victoria. Its eastern visible extremity I called Cape Pelly, in compliment to the governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the promontory where we encamped Cape Alexander, after an only brother, who would give his right hand to be the sharer of my journeys.”
With these discoveries Mr. Simpson for this season was forced to content himself:—
“They were not in themselves,” he observes, “unimportant; but their value was much enhanced by the disclosure of an open sea to the eastward, and the suggestion of a new route—along the southern coast of Victoria Land—by which that open sea might be attained while the shores of the continent were yet environed by an impenetrable barrier of ice, as they were this season.”—p. 300.
On the 29th they rejoined Mr. Dease and his party, who had continued ice-bound till the day previous, when he wisely judged it too late to attempt progress by sea to the eastward.
The course now adopted by the party is best explained and vindicated in Mr. Simpson’s own words:—
“The bad weather and advanced season now rendered every one anxious to return to winter quarters, and I reluctantly acquiesced in the general sentiment; but for doing so I had reasons peculiar to myself. I considered that we could not now expect to reach Backs Great Fish River; that by exploring a part only of the unknown coast intervening, our return to the Coppermine must be so long protracted as to preclude the possibility of taking the boats up that bad river; and that by abandoning them on the coast to the Esquimaux we excluded the prospect of accomplishing the whole by a third voyage, with the benefit perhaps of a more propitious season. Three great travellers, Hearne, Franklin, and Richardson, had successively pronounced the ascent of the Coppermine, above the Bloody Fall, to be impracticable with boats; and our people, recollecting only the violence amid impetuosity of our descent, entertained the same opinion. Fully aware of the great importance of this point to any future operations, I had with a careful eye inspected every part of the river, and formed in my own mind the following conclusions respecting the upward navigation:—1st. That in a river of that size there must always be a lead somewhere, of depth enough for light boats. 2d. That the force of the rapids would be found much abated, and that with strong ropes the worst of them might be surmounted. 3d. From the fury of the breakers in June I inferred the existence at no great depth of a narrow projecting ledge of rock that bared by the falling of the waters, would afford footing to the towing-party, without which the ascent indeed must have baffled all our efforts.”—p. 303.
These views proved in the sequel to be just and well-founded. We refer our readers to the narrative to learn how highly indeed the skill and courage of the party were taxed to demonstrate the soundness of the above conclusions. Every danger, however, was baffled, and every difficulty surmounted; and on the 14th the party regained Fort Confidence in safety.
The summer of 1839 proved more favorable to the task of discovery than its predecessor. On reaching the Coppermine, on the 19th of June, the party found that the ice had ceased to drift down on the 16th, ten days earlier than the last year. The rapids were passed with far greater facility and on reaching Cape Barrow, on the 18th of July, they found the wide extent of Coronation Gulf partially open. Threading the ice across the inlet to Cape Franklin, they met with, instead of the unbroken barrier which had foiled them last year, an open channel two miles wide along the main. On the 8th of August they had followed the coast as far as the 99th degree of longitude; i. e. some 11 degrees to the eastward of their point of departure. On the 10th, Mr. Simpson writes:—
“We proceeded north-eastward all day among the islands, and some began to apprehend that we had lost the continent altogether, till in the evening we opened a strait running in to the southward of east, while the rapid rush of the tide from that quarter left no longer any room to doubt the neighborhood of an open sea leading to the mouth of Back's Great Fish River. * * * I must candidly acknowledge,’ he continues, “that we were not prepared to find so southerly a strait leading to the estuary of the Great Fish River, but rather expected first to double Cape Felix of Captain James Ross, towards which the coast had been latterly trending. The extensive land, on which that conspicuous cape stands, forms the northern shore of the strait through which we passed on the 11th; and which led us, the same afternoon, by an outlet only three miles wide to the much desired eastern sea. That glorious sight was first boheld by myself from the top of one of the high limestone islands; and I had the satisfaction of announcing it to some of the men, who, incited by curiosity, followed me thither. The joyful news was soon conveyed to Mr. Dease, who was with the boats at the end of the island, about half a mile off; and even the most desponding of our people forgot for the time the great distance we should have to return to winter quarters, though a wish that a party had been appointed to meet us somewhere on the Great Fish River, or even at Fort Reliance, was frequently expressed.”
A strong wind from the westward rapidly extricated the party from the labyrinth of islands which had long impeded their voyage; and on the 13th, says Mr. Simpson, “On doubling a very sharp point, that offered a lee spot for the boats, I landed, and saw before me a perfect sandy desert. It was Back's Point Sir C. Ogle that we had at length reached!”
Here then the author’s performance of his duty, as designated by his instructions, was complete; but he was naturally desirous to push his exploration as far to the eastward beyond Sir G. Back's limit as the season would permit. He still considered it possible that the isthmus, the existence of which in the region assigned to it by Sir John Ross, he had disproved, might be found further eastward. The men assented without a murmur to the unexpected prolongation of their hard service—a circumstance which says much for them, and for the commanders who had won their attachment. The Great Fish River and the other streams which reach this coast flow through unwooded regions; a fact which much aggravates the condition of the coast navigator, who finds no drift-wood for fuel, and on his shivering bivouac is reduced to uncooked pemmican and cold water for his diet. The latter luxury itself was scarce among the islands; strong north-east winds prevailed, and one of Sir G. Back’s stores, on Montreal Island, to which they were directed by M’Kay, one of that officer’s expedition, afforded nothing but pemmican alive with maggots, and chocolate rotten with five years’ decay. In the teeth of all these difficulties they persevered, running over from Montreal Island to the eastern coast, to a cape somewhat north of Cape Hay, the extreme point seen by Sir G. Back, to which they gave the name of Britannia. Hence, with a fair wind and tossing sea, they made a run of thirty miles to a cape which they christened after the name of Lord Selkirk; and some three miles further, on the 20th, the return of the north-east wind forced them into the mouth of a small river.
“It was now,” says Mr. Simpson, “quite evident to us, even in our most sanguine mood, that the time was come for commencing our retreat to the distant Coppermine River, and that any further foolhardy perseverance could only lead to the loss of the whole party, and also of the great object which we had so successfully achieved. The men were therefore directed to construct another monument in commemoration of our visit; while Mr. Dease and I walked to an eminence three miles off, to see the further trending of the coast. Our view of the low main shore was limited to about five miles, when it seemed to turn off more to the right. Far without lay several lofty islands, and in the northeast, more distant still, appeared some high blue land; this, which we designated Cape Sir J. Ross, is in all probability one of the south-eastern promontories of Boothia. We could therefore hardly doubt being now arrived at that large gulf uniformly described by the Esquimaux as containing many islands, and with numerous indentations, running down to the southward till it approaches within forty miles of Repulse and Wager Bays. The exploration of such a gulf to the strait of the Fury and Hecla would necessarily demand the whole time and energies of another expedition, having some point of retreat much nearer to the scene of operations than Great Bear Lake; and we felt assured that the Honorable Company who had already done so much in the cause of discovery, would not abandon their munificent work till the precise limits of this great continent were fully and finally established.—p. 376.
After all that has been accomplished, the Juvenal would be an exaggeration, but we confess we sympathize with the hope here expressed, and are satisfied that the Company might easily accomplish the remaining task, probably by making one of their establishments on the eastern coast,—Fort Churchill, for instance,—the starting place or base of their operation. The mouth of the stream which bounded the last career of the admirable little boats, and received their name, the Castor and Pollux, lies in latitude 68° 28’ 23” North, longitude 94° 14’ West; or, adopting Back’s longitude, which for some reason Simpson could not reconcile with his own, in longitude 93° 7’ 30”. The expedition, on its return, instead of pursuing the shores of the main land, coasted the southern shores of Boothia, and their new discovery, Victoria Land; the former for nearly sixty-seven miles, to within fifty-seven miles of Ross’s pillar, and within ninety miles of the magnetic pole. Their run along Victoria Land amounted to upwards of one hundred and seventy miles. Their winds were favorable, their navigation, though sometimes rough for craft so light, was prosperous, and on the 10th, having triumphantly crossed the strait of fifty miles, to Cape Barrow, they revelled once more in the luxury of a driftwood fire, to which they had been strangers since July. The party regained the Coppermine River on the 16th of September, after the longest voyage yet performed by boats in the Polar sea—in all one thousand six hundred and thirty-one statute miles.of
It would remain for us to notice the sad and mysterious termination of a life so distinguished by enterprise and honorable service, but the task is distressing; and, as we could do nothing towards elucidating the truth, we leave our readers to read for themselves in the preface the few ascertained particulars of the occurrence. It is more than enough for us to know that Mr. Simpson perished by violence on his way from the Red River settlement towards England. It is just possible that some tardy confession, or some word spoken in the veracity of intoxication, may confirm our own impression that, after killing two of his half-breed companions in self-defence, he was murdered in revenge. Till then the possibility may be, however reluctantly, admitted, of the tale as told by the survivors, that insanity was the cause of the catastrophe. More fortunate, in one sense, than Parke or Hudson, he has left behind him his own record of his own achievements. And we cannot close the volume without once more remarking on its literary merit. For judicious selection of topics and incidents, for clearness and simplicity of description, it is the model of a diary, and like the masculine and modest character of the mail, reflects honor on Mr. Simpson’s venerable Alma Mater, King’s College, Aberdeen.
- We have been assured that in the Russian expedition to Khiva, those who, avoiding the use of spirits, confined themselves to tea, alone survived.