Narrative of the Discoveries on the North Coast of America, effected by the Officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company, during the years 1836—39/Chapter IX
Transactions at Fort Confidence, winter 1837–8.—Death of Peter Taylor,—Winter Discoveries and Surveys.
We were soon surrounded by a crowd of Dogribs and Hare Indians of both sexes, who hailed with delight our residence upon their lands. They manifested unbounded joy at our return from the terrors of the sea, which their timid imaginations had peopled with monsters and cannibals; and it is impossible to depict the eager curiosity with which they viewed the weapons, dresses, and ornaments of the Esquimaux. They told us as a marvel, that, in the barren grounds to the eastward, they had killed a young buck deer with the head of an Esquimaux arrow sticking in the yet soft horn. Our building party had only reached the site of our winter-quarters on the 17th of August, the very day we re-entered the Mackenzie; and a small store, with the skeleton of a dwelling-house, was all that indicated our destined abode. Ritch informed us that, as he ascended Bear Lake River, the ice, recently cleft by the stream, formed two solid walls, in some places forty feet high. They towed their boat with great danger in consequence of the strength of the current, pent up and contracted by these frozen cliffs, along the top of which lay their own slippery and insecure path. The icy masses, in many places undermined and honeycombed by the action of the water, threatened equally the boat that passed underneath, and the men who walked above. In this manner they reached the head of "the rapid" on the 10th of July, a week from the period of our separation. There they encountered the ice from the lake, which had just begun to break up, and came driving down before the easterly winds. They were compelled to land their cargo, and haul up their boat with the utmost precipitation; and the Indian hunters lost one of their canoes. The ice continued descending with fearful rapidity, large fragments being often forced upwards by the pressure, and sometimes choking the passage, till the accumulated weight of water and ice triumphantly burst the barrier. From the rapids it cost the party a fortnight's labour to reach the head of the river, a distance of only thirty miles. During this interval, the fisherman, with all the dogs, had been sent by land to the lake, where he supported his canine charge on the produce of nets set under the ice; and, from the "little lake" at Fort Franklin, the Indians latterly brought fish every day to the people at the boats. At length they reached that place on the 6th of August. The passage of the lake occupied ten days more. From the Scented-grass Mountain nothing but ice was visible, but after a delay of three days they made their way to the Acanyo Islands in Smith's Bay. There they discovered a narrow opening, leading through heavy ice for some distance; but, when it terminated, they had to force their way with great labour and risk for a whole day and night before they reached the northern shore. At the mouth of Haldane River they found a number of Hare Indians suffering severely from influenza, which had carried off two old people. They followed the party the same evening; and Ritch was shocked to learn that they had abandoned an orphan boy, about six years old. He immediately sent back two of our Chipewyans for the child, whom they brought safely to the establishment, where the little fellow passed the winter. From the extraordinary severity of the season, a journey of two hundred and fifty miles occupied forty-five days, and the ice of Great Bear Lake proved no less formidable than that of the Arctic Ocean.
Our first care was to send back the Mackenzie River people, who had rendered us such essential assistance. They started the morning after our arrival, and, being favoured by a steady east wind, crossed Great Bear Lake in three days, and escaped the risk of being set fast. The same day we sent to examine Dease River, in reference to the transport of the boats; but that stream was already frozen. The Indians even pretended to assure us that the sea, at the mouth of the Coppermine River, is open one moon before the ice breaks up in the northern parts of Great Bear Lake. The singular shape of this inland sea, branching out from a common centre into a number of extensive arms, which act as so many points of support to the body of the ice, conduces in no small degree to its tardy disruption. The situation judiciously chosen for the establishment was a wooded point, on the northern side of a deep and narrow strait, formed by a large island. It commands a fine view of the lake to the east and west, and the rocks form a natural landing-place for the boats at the very door. Nets set in the strait furnished Ritch and his three men with subsistence till our arrival. The fishery was likewise of the greatest benefit to the natives, many of whom we found still suffering from the influenza. A few simple medicines were administered, and some assistance in food and clothing rendered to the sufferers, all of whom gradually recovered. In consequence of this unfortunate malady, no provisions had been collected, and our Chipewyan hunters were at this moment lying ill on the barren grounds, twenty miles to the eastward. I paid them a visit on the 30th of September, and remained with them several days, in order to afford them every possible aid. Those who were in the worst state were brought to the house, and through care and nourishing diet slowly regained their strength. The disease afterwards attacked, successively, the women and children, all of whom recovered; and last of all the old man, the father and grandfather of the party, who, from his age and infirmities, sank under it. His body was decently interred by us on the island opposite the establishment, and this mark of respect to the remains of their common parent contributed, more than all previous benefits, to fix the affections of our Chipewyans. We enjoy, indeed, the proud reflection that our expedition, so far from inflicting either famine or disease upon the natives, has, by the blessing of Heaven, been the immediate means of preventing or alleviating those calamities.
To commence a winter within the Arctic Circle with a considerable party destitute of provisions, and the Indians upon whom we mainly depended for subsistence requiring our aid and support, was an alarming condition, which demanded the utmost exertion of our personal resources. More nets were set in the strait; and, while some of the people were employed in erecting the necessary buildings, others were engaged in converting all the twine last received into nets. The sudden change of food, from pemican and flour to white-fish, affected several of the men with dysentery. The fish, indifferent as we found them, soon diminished in number before the increasing cold.
On the 5th of October, just fifty days later than Ritch's deliverance from the ice of a former winter, the strait froze over, but broke up again the following day, and finally set fast on the 10th, when the thermometer first fell below zero. I took advantage of the interval to proceed with a boat round the island to another and still deeper strait near its southern extremity. There was a camp of natives then in the neighbourhood; and here we established our principal fishery, which, after a temporary failure, and removal towards the Narrakazzae Islands, continued during the greater part of the winter to support from two to four hands, but finally ceased in March. Mr. Dease placed another fishing station on a lake about twenty miles to the northward; but it failed early in November, and was then removed to the sources of Haldane River, four days' journey westward, with no better success. We were therefore compelled to place our reliance upon the capricious movements of the reindeer; and, in order to eke out our scanty and precarious subsistence, I spent a great part of the months of October and November in hunting excursions with those Indians who had recovered from their illness. The deer fortunately began to draw in from the north-east to the country between Great Bear Lake and the Coppermine; and, as soon as any animals were shot, I despatched a share of the prey by our people and dogs to the establishment. At the same time I highly relished the animation of the chase, and the absolute independence of an Indian life. Our tents were usually pitched in the last of the stunted straggling woods, whence we issued out at daybreak among the bare snowy hills of the "barren lands, where the deer could be distinguished a great way off by the contrast of their dun colour with the pure white of the boundless waste. The hunters then disperse, and advance in such a manner as to intercept the deer in their confused retreat to windward, the direction they almost invariably follow. On one occasion I witnessed an extraordinary instance of affection in these timid creatures. Having brought down a fine doe at some distance, I was running forward to dispatch her with my knife, when a handsome young buck bounded up, and raised his fallen favourite with his antlers. She went a few paces, and fell; again he raised her, and continued wheeling around her, till a second ball—for hunger is ruthless—laid him dead at her side. Until the month of December we were living literally from hand to mouth, though all, except the men absolutely required to keep the houses in firewood, were distributed at the fisheries and in the various native camps. The excessive cold at length drove the deer towards the shelter of the woods, where the hunters were more successful. The climate of the elevated unsheltered region to the eastward of Fort Confidence is far more severe than that of the borders of the lake. The winds, too, are more violent; and a bright starlight night is often succeeded by a tempest of snow-drift. From the top of a hill in this quarter I discovered an unknown arm of the lake, which I had afterwards melancholy cause to examine. In a southerly direction the interior of the country is very hilly, but, except on the higher elevations tolerably wooded; and every three or four miles occurs a small lake, contained in the hollows between the hills. In these low sheltered spots, where we generally made our encampments, the largest trees grow, and I noticed two or three that attained a diameter of eighteen inches, which is large timber for such a barren, rocky country. The whole region is apparently of primitive formation; the few rocks, left exposed by the snow, consisting of red and grey granite. In this direction I travelled to within view of M'Tavish Bay with the party of an Indian named Edahadelly, who, to decoy the deer, carried a pair of antlers before him, with which, and a bundle of willow twigs, he used to imitate the motions of the living animal; his own dress, made of its hairy hide, completing the deception.
But to return to the aifairs of the establishment. The houses were constructed on a very small scale, to suit our means and the severity of the climate. They consisted of a log building, forty feet long, and sixteen broad, containing a chamber at either end for Mr. Dease and myself, separated by a hall, sixteen feet square, which answered the threefold purpose of our eating-room, kitchen, and an apartment of all work for the Indians. There was, indeed, the frame of a kitchen erected behind, but we were unable to complete it till the following year, when an observatory was also built. Our men's house was thirty feet long and eighteen broad, and, with the store, formed three sides of a little quadrangle fronting the south. The whole was habitable in a month after our arrival; but, from the smallness of the timber, and the difficulty of procuring enough of the frozen earth to cover the light roofe, our dwelling was miserably cold, the wind and snow having in many places free ingress. The men's quarters were rather more comfortable.
On the evening of the 6th of December a few families of Dog-ribs arrived, in the utmost consternation, from the bay discovered by me to the eastward. They had seen strange tracks of round snow-shoes and the smoke of distant fires, and, abandoning everything, had fled for their lives—burrowing at night under the snow; supposing that either the Esquimaux or Copper Indians had invaded their lands. The first idea that occurred to us was, that it might be some of Captain Back's party from Repulse Bay, who had been overtaken by winter on the coast, and were now wandering in quest of food and shelter. This opinion was communicated to the Indians, and three of the young men reluctantly consented to accompany me, on condition that their families should remain behind till the danger was over. Three of our own people, with dog-sledges, attended me, to bring relief to the supposed sufferers, and we started the following day.
On the 9th we reached the bay, and made our fire in a conspicuous situation, where it would have been visible during the night from a great distance. In such an open stormy country tracks are soon obliterated; but, when we proceeded next day to make the circuit of the northern part of the bay, we found on a low point the remains of an old fire, and the encampment of a single person. We likewise discovered a cache of deer's meat, with several strips of birch bark for kindling fire, and other vestiges, which immediately proved that the stranger must be a half-breed or Fort hunter, and that, though he might have lost his way, he was in no want of provisions. I concluded it to be the expected bearer of our express from Port Simpson—a Cree Indian in the Company's service, called Le Sourd; which would account for the appearances that had terrified the timid natives. The latter, however remained unconvinced, and, with the exaggeration of an alarmed fancy, declared that they had seen a line of fires stretching along the monntains towards the Coppermine River—here only thirty miles distant. The whole day was occupied in searching for further marks of the stronger, to no purpose; from which I inferred that he had retraced his steps southward. But, in case he should return to the same place, we erected marks to guide him to the Indian lodges, not far removed from the borders of the lake. This new branch of M'Tavish Bay is enclosed by a range of barren rocky hills of considerable height—the favourite haunts of the shaggy musk-ox. It becomes continually narrower till near its northern termination, where it contracts to the width of half a mile, and again expands into a circular basin three miles in diameter, which is the nearest approach of Great Bear Lake to the Coppermine River, and is undoubtedly the part indicated by The Hook to Sir John Franklin on that officer's first expedition. The extensive peninsula comprehended between Dease and M'Tavish bays, and terminating in Cape M'Donell, is the hunting-ground from whence we derived the greater portion of our subsistence during a winter of nine months.
On the 29th of December, Le Sourd—the very man who had caused the natives such an alarm—arrived at Fort Confidence, in company with some Indians, carrying our long looked-for packet. His comrade, Peter Taylor, had died on the way in M'Tavish Bay of an old pulmonary complaint, aggravated, no doubt, by the fatigue of the journey; and he himself, having never heard of the latter arm of the lake, had wandered about searching for the establishment, and hunting reindeer, till he fortunately fell in with a camp of our Indians as he was returning towards Fort Norman. He had started from the latter place with his ill-fated companion, who was a relative of his own, in a small canoe, and reached the rapids of Bear Lake River, where they were set fast in October. They then struck over land to the lake, and had fine travelling on the smooth ice, along its southern and eastern shores, the centre of the lake being still open. By the time they reached M'Vicar Bay, Taylor complained of weakness; upon which his friend, with considerate kindness, carried his provisions and spare clothing, and rendered him every possible assistance. At last, when he became unable to walk farther, Le Sourd made a comfortable encampment, and nourished the dying man with venison broth; and, when he expired, carefully laid his body in a grave dug by thawing the earth with fire. He even placed, with Indian superstition, a valuable gun, that the grateful sufferer had given him, beside the remains of its deceased owner. Such generous and faithful conduct, would do honour to human nature in its noblest state, and did not go unrewarded by us. While we lamented the loss of an active and trusty servant, it was consoling to know that his death was not occasioned by privation or unaccustomed fatigue, but by the progress of an incurable disease, which our care, had he reached the establishment, might have alleviated, but could not have arrested.
The packet contained letters from Governor Simpson, and from various private friends. The following is an extract of the Governor's official despatch, dated Norway House, 30th June, 1837. "All we can now say in regard to the expedition is, that both the Government and the Company feel the most lively interest in its success. In regard to supplies, you have a carte blanche; our depots are open to your demands, and you are authorised to call on the districts of Athabasca and Mackenzie's River for any facility or assistance in men, goods, provisions, Indians, craft, &c. &c., you may require. It rests with you to apply for and employ those means as you may find necessary; and we have no farther instructions to give, than to entreat you will use your best endeavours to accomplish the great object in view, by any means, or in any way, you may determine npon. The season has hitherto been unusually cold. Eyen here we are now rarely without fires in the sitting-rooms, and to your mission I fear it is very unfavourable. When you started from hence, it was expected that the objects of the expedition could be completed in two years; but, should the unfavourable state of the season prevent your accomplishing the western survey this summer, you had better make another attempt next year, and defer the eastern survey until the following, i. e. take three summers instead of two. In short, we are more anxious to accomplish this important and interesting object than I am well able to describe, and are willing to incur any expense or inconvenience to the service to that end." A previous letter from London informed us of Sir George Back's expedition to Wager Inlet, or Repulse Bay, in the Terror bomb, with the view of prosecuting the survey of the coast westward in boats; but that his operations were in nowise to alter our plans. Indeed, it appeared not unlikely that we might meet somewhere about the mouth of Great Fish River, an event which would materially contribute to the safety of both parties. It was highly satisfactory to reflect that we had already explored the known western coast, contrary to the expectation of our most sanguine friends, since even the canoes from Canada had been stopped twenty days by ice. Had we failed in our first attempt, and come to winter at Fort Confidence, the whole frozen extent of Great Bear Lake (which seldom breaks up before the 1st of August) would have interposed between us and the navigable waters of the Mackenzie.
Fishing Island, opposite to Fort Confidence, is for the most part tolerably wooded. The land swells into a diminutive hill, having an elevation of two degrees, due south. Over this little hill the sun, as I had previously calculated, did not rise for forty-three days, from 30th November to 12th January. The very children clapped their hands for joy when the bright orb first flashed above the trees; and though we did not, like the ancient Scandinavians of the Polar Circle, hold a festival for his resurrection, our feelings were perhaps no less joyful. To cheer us during this long dark interval, the loveliest of planets, Venus, appeared above our horizon in December, and continued to shine upon our solitary dwelling with daily increasing altitude and lustre. I afterwards repeatedly discovered both her and Jupiter, with the naked eye, in presence of the sun. The intense cold was of extraordinary duration. So early as the 11th of November, the thermometer fell to 32° below zero. The average temperature of the latter half of December was —33½° and that of all January —30°.
The most intense cold was frequently accompanied by strong winds from the east and north-east, and both men and dogs were severely frostbitten while traversing the barren grounds for food. Few of the animal creation remained around us during this dreary period. An occasional track of a wolf, wolverene, or marten was met with in woody spots; a single alpine hare was snared; a very few brace of white ptarmigan were shot; and in the barren grounds to the eastward I procured a curious hawk-owl. On the south-east side of M'Tavish Bay the Indians found the track of a stray moose, which they regarded as an extraordinary occurrence, for that animal loves the shelter of thick woods. The only regular visitants at the house were the raven and the whiskey-john (garrulus Canadensis). A considerable colony of mice hibernated in our store, where they committed some depredations; and a marmot was found frozen to death near one of the fisheries. The white-fish, which were of a tolerable size in the fall, were succeeded in scanty numbers by a smaller and lighter-coloured species during the winter, when the fish retire to the depths of the lake. In the early part of winter, and afterwards in the spring, we took a very few trout of various sizes up to fifty pounds' weight, with lines set under ice latterly seven feet thick. Back's grayling, methy, small sucking-carp, and a casual pike, completed the list of finny captures; and a single fine inconnu was caught in a net, June 1839. Throughout the winter there is a current running outwards, in the straits on either side of Fishing Island. This current is reversed by strong westerly winds, (which usually send a few fish into the nets,) though in what manner the waters of the lake are affected under such a covering of ice, it is difficult to conceive. Several currents were also spoken of by the Indians as existing in the narrow arms of M'Tavish Bay. These must be independent of the tributary streams, which, like Dease River,—the principal feeder,—are all frozen to the bottom.
On Christmas and New-Year's days we entertained our assembled people with a dance, followed by a supper consisting of the best fare we could command. By this time we had, through our indefatigable exertions, accumulated two or three weeks' provisions in advance, and no scarcity was experienced during the remainder of the season. The daily ration served out to each man was increased from eight to ten, and to some individuals twelve pounds of venison; or, when they could be got, four or five white-fish weighing from fifteen to twenty pounds. This quantity of solid food, immoderate as it may appear, does not exceed the average standard of the country; and ought certainly to appease even the inordinate appetite of a French Canadian. The Company's servants are not less well clothed and paid than they are fed; they are treated by their immediate masters with a familiar kindness surpassing what I have ever seen elsewhere, even in the United States; and their whole condition affords the strongest possible contrast to the wretched situation of the Russian "Promüschleniks," as described by Langsdorff. The nature of the climate and long journeys, it is true, demand hard labour at times; but it is labour voluntarily endured, and even physically less severe than the compulsory tracking on the rivers of Russia and China: while a great part of the year is passed in comparative idleness; and, if the voyageur finds the fatigues and hardships too great, it rests with himself to be released from them at the close of his three years' contract. I may here introduce a curious fact, that this class of men are found to remain longest in the poorer and colder districts; and that no sooner have they got into the best situations, than they become restless and desirous of change! It is, perhaps, a kindred feeling that urges the American backwoodsman, when he has cleared a farm and made himself comfortable, to sell his improvements, shoulder his axe, and march forward into the wilderness in search of possessions yet more remote. Now that we were fairly established, divine service was duly performed on Sundays, at which both Protestants and Catholics attended. Our Canadians, like their countrymen in general, were deplorably ignorant; the Highlanders and Orkneymen, on the contrary, could both read and write, and the contents of the little library we had provided were in great request among them through the long winter nights. During the summer voyage we had laboured successfully to repress the practice of swearing, so common among voyageurs of every denomination.
The natives now began to come in more frequently, occasionally aiding our people in the laborious transport of the meat. To some we lent guns; all were plentifully supplied with ammunition; and many of the more industrious were furnished with blankets, shirts, and cloth dresses, instead of their own filthy deer-skins. Nothing was easier than for an active hunter to provide himself and family with these comforts; as he received, exclusive of all gratuities, a good price for his meat, which was usually delivered to us several days' journey from the establishment. These Indians always experience a kind reception from us. They sit round the fire while we are partaking of our morning and evening meals — in other words, breakfast and supper; for dinner, that "word of power" in other climes, was unknown at Fort Confidence. When we have eaten, we present them with the remains of our repast, which is, indeed, the common custom of the north. After meals we occupy the same fireside, chatting or smoking together; at night they sleep in our hall, and on winter journeys and hunting excursions side by side with us in the same encampment. Every circumstance indicates a kindly familiar intercourse; the natural result of which is, that the Indians are attached to the Company's officers, whom in common discourse they style their "fathers" and their "brothers." In our particular case I must frankly confess my surprise at the facility with which we acquired their confidence, for only in 1835 a cruel and unparalleled injury had been inflicted upon them by some half-breeds who disgraced the service. Three of these wretches (two of them Red River Catholics, the third a countryman of the victims,) sought a quarrel with a party of unfortunate Hare Indians about one of their women, whom they carried off; and attacking them unawares, after partaking of their hospitality, brutally massacred eleven persons of both sexes. The criminals were taken out for trial to Canada, where the ringleader, Cadien, escaped with the mild sentence of banishment, and his accomplices were acquitted! It is to be hoped that the Company will persevere in their resolution to send no more of this caste to Mackenzie River.
It has, I understand, been sagely proposed by certain theorists to ameliorate the condition of the northern tribes by transforming a race of hunters into a pastoral people, through the domestication of reindeer. But the character of the aborigines would alone present an insuperable obstacle to the experiment. They entertain a rooted superstition that the taming any of the wild reindeer of their country would banish the whole race for ever from their lands. It was for this reason that, in 1817, Mr. Dease could not succeed in obtaining a couple of fawns from the Copper Indians at Great Slave Lake; nor were our applications at Fort Confidence more effectual. I was not sorry for it, as the poor animals could not long have been preserved from the fangs of the dogs — those indispensable assistants to white or red men. Even were this prejudice overcome, the Indians would immediately and naturally inquiry," Why should we be bound like slaves to follow the motions of a band of tame animals, when our woods and barren grounds afford us moose, red-deer, buffalo, carriboo, and musk cattle; when our lakes and rivers supply us with fish, for the mere trouble of killing them?"
On the 1st of February, two servants and two Indians were despatched to Fort Simpson with our spring packet, containing letters, charts, &c. They were directed to take the shortest route, by M'Tavish and M'Vicar bays, and from thrice to follow a chain of minor lakes, leading through the woody country to the southward, known to the Indians. From Fort Simpson they were instructed to return as soon possible, with dogs and sledges, carrying a small supply of moose-skins, and the irons for sledge-runners, required to transport our boats over snow and ice to the Coppermine River. At the same time we wrote to Governor Simpson, stating the probability of our having to employ two summers in exploring the coast eastward of Bathurst's Inlet. To provide for a prolonged residence within the Polar Circle, we addressed the gentlemen in charge of Athabasca and Mackenzie River, requesting an additional supply of pemican, dressed leather, dogs, birchwood for sledges, ammunition, and tobacco,—articles essential to our subsistence; as for everything else, we resolved to live like the natives. The cold continued excessive, with frequent easterly gales, even when the thermometer stood below –50°; a circumstance that fearfully distinguishes our winter-quarters irom those of former expeditions. West and even north-west winds commonly brought on snow and less severe weather. This is at variance with what obtains over a considerable part of North America, but may be accounted for by the situation of the place, in the margin of the woods close to the "barren lands." The appellation of Barrens, or Barren Lands, is given to the whole north-east angle of the continent from the 60th parallel of latitude, because that extensive region is destitute of wood. The winds that sweep over it are therefore more intensely cold than those which traverse the well-wooded country through which Mackenzie River flows. While engaged at various times during this winter in hunting excursions with Indians to the eastward, and in surveying the different routes to the Coppermine River, I could not help remarking the increase in the severity of the cold, and the frequency of storms, when we got out into the hilly "barren lands." The lakes and rivers are there much earlier frozen, and it will be found that they also break up at a later period than those under the same parallel to the westward. The average depth of snow was about three feet, but enormous drift-banks lay in the hollows of the moantains.
Ritch was sent in quest of wood for new oars, and for planks to repair the sea-boats; but, after a search resumed several days in different directions, he found only a few pieces fit for the former purpose, none for the latter. I subsequently fell in with some straight tall trees on the south branch of Dease River. The wood around Fort Confidence is stunted, knotty, and twisted into all manner of shapes—the deformed growth of frozen ages. From the eastern side of M'Tavish Bay, a distance of seventy miles, a quantity of dwarf birch was procured, for additional boat-timbers, snow-shoe frames, and axe handles.
March was scarcely less severe than February, the mean temperature of the whole month being 20° below zero.
On the 11th, at 5 A.M., occurred the greatest degree of cold registered during the winter. A spirit thermometer by Dollond (which shewed the highest temperature of any at the place, and was that always employed,) stood at 60° below zero; and another, of older date, brought from Fort Chipewyan, at —66° This intense cold was accompanied by a fresh westerly breeze, which several of our people had to face that morning, returning with meat from M'Tavish Bay. Spite of their deer-skin robes and capots, their faces bore palpable marks of the weather; and, when they reached the house, not a man was able to unlash his sledge till he had first thoroughly warmed his shivering frame.
The winds were no less constant and piercing than during the preceding months, but blew more frequently from the westward. In the early part of the month our last fishery on the south side of the island entirely failed; and, after supplying for a time with meat-rations the men who were stationed there, they were withdrawn, and appointed to other duties. Lines were re-set in the strait, but their produce did not even repay the baits employed, and they were again taken up. Fortunately our Chipewyan hunters and the native Indians vied with each other in amassing reindeer and musk-ox flesh; and our six sledges of dogs, with each a driver, were almost continually employed, bringing to Fort Confidence the means of existence. Le Babillard, an Indian frequently mentioned in the narrative of Franklin's last expedition, now approached with his party from the southward, and opened a communication with us. About the same time two young Indians arrived with news from Forts Norman and Good Hope. They were full of a marvellous report, current among the natives, of an approaching change in the order of nature. Among other prodigies, a race of men had sprung up from the earth whose eyes and mouths were placed in their breasts. These monsters practised an unbounded hospitality, having always on the fire a gigantic copper cauldron, containing the carcases of five moosedeer! and the appropriate scene of this wild tale was the Horn Mountains, on the west side of Great Slave Lake. The whole story afterwards turned out to have originated in a dream.
On the 25th the people despatched with our February express returned from Fort Simpson, having performed the journey in nineteen days. They brought us our letters from home, together with intelligence of the demise of his Majesty William the Fourth, and the accession of our gracious sovereign Queen Victoria; which news had reached the Hudson's Bay ships before they sailed from the Hebrides, in July. We at the same time received a distressing account of the fatal ravages of the small-pox among the Assiniboines of the Saskatchewan. Thirty men of that tribe had crossed the plains to the banks of the Missouri in the summer of 1837, with the view of stealing horses. They found the unfortunate natives of the Missouri dying by hundreds of that terrible disease, which was introduced by an American steamboat, and, in the mad hope of assuaging the fever, casting themselves into the deadly stream. Under such circumstances they had no difficulty in making themselves masters of one hundred and sixty horses, and with this rich booty set out for their own camp. But the distemper had communicated itself to them, and ere long broke out on the way. Two-thirds of the robbers perished, and the survivors were obliged to abandon their ill-gotten spoil. The Company's people at Carlton had been all vaccinated; yet the contagion was communicated from the Assisiboine camp, and two of the servants fell victims to its malignity. It is with sincere pleasure I add, that the humane precautions taken by Chief Factor Rowand, and the other gentlemen in the Saskatchewan, to vaccinate the Crees, saved the whole of that valuable tribe from the disastrous consequences of the malady, which happily did not penetrate farther north. We afterwards learned that it spread throughout the Plain tribes along the American lines to the Rocky Mountains; that it broke out on the north-west coast, and committed dreadful havoc among the sanguinary tribes from Vancouver Island northward, and at the Russian settlements. Of the Mandans of the Missouri it was said that only twelve remained, and that a party of Sioux were on their way to extinguish this feeble remnant of a once powerful tribe. So much for the generosity of savage warfare!
On the 27th I set out, with two men and four dogs, to explore the barren grounds stretching from Dease River to the Coppermine, and to determine the most practicable route for the transport of our boats, baggage, and provisions. For three days we ascended Dease River, in a north-easterly direction, carefully tracing its course, which is very crooked. The ice-marks visible upon the trees and banks indicated the height of the water when liberated in the spring, but at this period we found it everywhere frozen to the bottom. The woods grew thinner and more stunted as we advanced; and on the third evening we encamped in a small cluster of dwarf spruces, barely sufficient, in number, to yield us firing, and brush for our beds. In the night a gale sprang up from the north-east, with a tremendous storm of snow-drift, which almost buried us alive, as huddled together with our dogs we lay exposed to the fury of the tempest. It continued unmitigated throughout the following day, and we sought a miserable screen behind our sledges, placed on edge in the deep snow. To the Arctic traveller it appears almost incredible how people perish, under similar circumstances, in the climate of Britain! The position of this encampment is in lat. 67° 15′ N., long. 117° 5′ W.
On the 31st the wind was still strong and penetrating; but, the snow having ceased, we were glad to continue our journey. As we were now about five miles to the northward of the point where Dr. Richardson and party, in August 1826, crossed a small stream, which I supposed our boats might descend in June to the Coppermine River, I changed our course to east-south-east, with the hope of falling upon it in the evening. The difficulties of the route prevented this; but, from the top of one of the barren, rugged hills among which we were travelling, I espied a valley to the northward, containing several lakes, and, what was of infinitely more consequence to us, a wood to encamp in. In this oasis we were detained another day by a heavy fall of snow. The night was clear and very cold; and next morning, 2nd April, we had to face a severe easterly wind. We proceeded through a sort of pass among the hills, where we witnessed a whirl-wind, which we all, at the first distant view, exclaimed to be the smoke of a large fire. As we passed near it, our respiration was almost suspended by the rapid motion of the air and the excessive cold. A high and steep descent brought us suddenly upon the banks of the streamlet we sought, where a solitary cluster of trees doubtfully indicated its existence. Here we breakfasted, and I obtained the lat. 67° 11′ 17″ N., long. 117° 5″ W., variation 49° 30′ E. Starting again we travelled sixteen miles, partly along the scarcely distinguishable streamlet, partly on the neighbouring hills, and at 7 in the evening reached some woods, scarcely taller than a man, but the first we had seen since noon. Immediately above this spot the stream expanded into a lake, by the junction of a branch from the northward; and was named Kendall River, in compliment to Lieut. Kendall of the former expedition. Parhelia were constant almost all day, and frequently appeared during this journey. The succeeding day was fine; and we traced the stream, now somewhat increased in size, but, like Dease Biver, frozen to the bottom, for fifteen miles, when it opened upon the Coppermine through a narrow gorge of perpendicular rocks. The noble view of the river, with its frozen windings through that wild waste of snows and mountains, repaid our fatigue; and we proudly drank of its melted ice, within fifty miles of the northern sea. I procured observations, which place the confluence of the tributary stream in lat. 67° 7′ 1″ N., long. 116° 21′ 15″ W., variation 48° E. The temperature at Fort Confidence was —20°; here it might be —25° or — 30°. We returned to sleep at our encampment of the preceding night. Some white partridges were shot in the course of the day; but the deer kept higher up on the hillsides, where, the snow being carried off by the winds, they find least difficulty in getting at the moss—their favourite food.
On the 4th we again breakfasted at the place where we had first fallen on the stream. Here our dogs luckily found the half-devoured carcase of a deer, which had been driven over the cliffs by wolves, four of which ravenous animals were scared from their feast by our approach. This was a most acceptable windfall, as our provisions were at a very low ebb. Conjecturing that the brook, by a circuit to the southward, might issue from the lakes where we were stopped on the 1st, (which it approaches, but which afterwards proved to be the source of a branch of Dease River,) I proceeded to ascend it for six miles farther, in a south-westerly direction, and encamped in the last and only clump of pines visible from the summit of a hill. The following day was extremely cold, enhanced by a piercing head wind, which assailed us as we traversed a bleak, elevated region. I prosecuted the ascent of the brook for another league, in a southerly direction, till it became lost among sharp rocks and frowning precipices. Leaving these on our left, we climbed a wild range of hills; and travelling over their uneven summits, west-south-west, for thirty miles, the snow cast up into waves by the vehemence of the winds, we reached at a late hour the welcome shelter of the woods, on the south branch of Dease River. The descent from the mountains to the river was animated by numerous herds of reindeer, and we had no small trouble in curbing the eager spirit of our dogs.
Next morning, the 6th, the temperature was —31° with a sharp easterly wind: we reached the house about 7 P.M. There I found three Indians, who offered to conduct us by a longer but more level route than any we had traversed. I accordingly mounted my snow-shoes again on the 9th, at the head of six dog-sledges, with each a driver; two extra men to remain at the station till the passage of the light boats in June, and the Indians to act as hunters there during the interval. Having already thoroughly examined the river, I preferred striking out into the plains on its northern side; these we generally followed, crossing the river for the last time, in lat. 67° 22′ 14″ N., long, 117° 42′ 45″ W., at a little lake a few miles from its source. From thence a height of land of six miles, north-north-east, led to a narrow chain of lakes, that wind for upwards of thirty miles in a south-easterly direction through a dismally barren, rocky country, producing not a tree or shrub, and seemingly unfrequented by any living creature. During the preceding day's march musk-cattle were very numerous, and we succeeded in shooting three as they filed off to the high grounds. We saw no reindeer; the depth of snow, which averaged not less than three feet, hard packed in the plains, preventing them from frequenting this region, of which the shaggy musk-bull and white wolf appeared to maintain exclusive possession. The Dismal Lakes, as I knew from their trending, give rise to that northern branch of the stream noticed by me on the evening of the 2nd; and we encamped at the very spot which I then marked as the most proper for forwarding our provisions and baggage to, over the snow, though my new companions, instead of a river, could perceive only "a cairn of stones." The portion we had brought with us, amounting to about a third of the whole quantity, I now consigned to the two men appointed to guard it. They were furnished with leather lodges as a defence against the cold, which was still very great; the thermometer in the night frequently falling below —30° accompanied by violent winds. Next morning we set out on our return. The whole journey occupied seven days; viz. four going laden, and three returning light, the distance being ninety-five statute miles. By often repeated trials we had found the climate of the barren lands, even a single day's march eastward of Fort Confidence, far more severe than at that place, which lies low and comparatively sheltered. On the present occasion two of our best dogs got frozen. The hard snow was extremely galling to the feet, and several of the party suffered from snow-blindness. We saved our people from that painful evil for the rest of the season by constructing short tubes of wood and bark, covered at the outer end with green gauze, and worn as shades. The Indians, unlike the Esquimaux, are too stupid to contrive any precaution against ophthalmia; almost every one who arrived was afflicted with it; but, by dropping laadanum in their eyes, in two or three days a cure was always effected.
One of our young Chipewyans had the misfortune to lose the tip of a finger from the bursting of his gun, in consequence of the ball running forward. Several guns burst in the chase from the same cause, but happily no other personal accident ensued. The increase of daylight was strikingly rapid, and by the middle of the month the twilight was perceptible at midnight. The weather, however, continued very severe; the thermometer, so late as the 20th of the month, shewing 26° below zero. The Indians left with the men at the Coppermine station were consequently unable to hunt upon the mountains, and the most active of them got badly frozen in the leg.
On the 24th, the thermometer rose at noon to the freezing point, for the first time since the 17th of October, a period of six months and a week! The mean temperature for the whole of that long and dismal interval is 14° below zero, or 46° of frost. Our people being all assembled, we gave them a dance in celebration of St. George's day, and before despatching our last packet to Mackenzie River.
Among the Indians who came in about the close of the month, was a family, the youngest member of which, a boy scarcely two years old, and still unweaned, walked on snow-shoes! I had the curiosity to measure them, and found their dimensions exactly two feet in length, including the curved point, by six inches at the broadest part. The little urchin was so fond of these painful appendages, that he hugged them as a plaything, and bawled lustily when his mother attempted to take them from him.
Now that the constant daylight renders the aurora borealis no longer visible, I shall make one or two general remarks regarding it. Its most common appearance at Fort Confidence is an arch with little motion, passing through the zenith, and spanning the heavens from north-west to south-east. Now, since the variation of the compass is here little more than four points easterly, it follows that there is a tendency in this remarkable phenomenon to dispose itself at right angles to the magnetic meridian. In the depth of winter, thin white clouds, seen during the short imperfect daylight, in many instances proved to be the aurora, which also not unfrequently appeared through a hazy sky. Its displays were seldom very brilliant, and it hardly ever exhibited those vivid prismatic tints which I had often admired in lower latitudes. The solar radiation during this month was very powerful, the universal covering of snow strongly reflecting the sunshine. Two of Dollond's thermometers, having respectively a northern and southern aspect, both freely exposed to the wind, and neither blackened, differed at mid-day from 20° to 40°. In the month of March, on three occasions, the difference exceeded 40°; whereas in January, before the re-appearance of the sun, the southern thermometer sometimes stood lowest, and never shewed an excess of more than four degrees. Not until April did we enjoy a view of the genuine blue sky, for throughout the colder months the lower region of the atmosphere is suffused with icy spiculæ—the offspring of intense congelation—which dim the splendour of the firmament. To the same cause may be referred the frequency of mock suns and halos, which were often seen hanging over the opposite island, apparently not a mile distant.
The month of May commenced with the temperature at zero. It did not again fall below that point, but froze sharply almost every night, and during many of the days. The weather generally was cold and boisterous, and the mean temperature of the month was 30. The easterly winds were again predominant. I was absent from the establishment, with two men, for the first twelve days of the month, on a survey of that arm of the lake which I discovered and partially examined in December. It is bounded on the eastern side by a continuation of the primitive rocky range of hills seen by Dr. Richardson. These attain an elevation of six or eight hundred feet, where M'Tavish Bay approaches closest to the Coppermine River, in lat. 66° 40′ N., long. 117° 20′ W. This terminating point being nearer the river, by at least one half, than Fort Confidence, it was my intention to examine the interjacent country; but, upon proceeding some distance, it became so rugged and mountainous as to be impracticable with dogs and sledges, far less with boats. Thus concluded my winter excursionsr on Great Bear Lake and the barren lands, exceeding in all a thousand miles.
On the 13th of May I laid aside my snowshoes; but our last Indian couriers to Fort Simpson started on the 15th with these necessary appendages, which continued in use by the natives during the remainder of the month. I had formerly walked in the depth of winter from York Factory on Hudson's Bay to Red River, and, again, from Red River to Athabasca,—a distance little short of two thousand miles,—wearing only an ordinary cloth capot, and have accomplished fifty miles in a day. Here, however, myself and my companions soon found that the wanderer within the unsheltered precincts of the Polar Circle must be far otherwise provided. Accordingly, on our distant excursions, we usually assumed capots of dressed moose-skin, impervious to the wind, or of reindeer hide with the hairy side outwards, and were provided with robes of the latter light and warm material for a covering at night, when, to increase the supply of animal heat, our dogs couched close around us. Yet in a stormy, barren, mountainous country, where, in many parts, a whole day's journey intervenes between one miserable clump of pines and the next, we were often exposed to suffering, and even danger, from the cold; and several of our dogs were at various times frozen to death.
In the early part of May Fort Confidence was visited by a party of twenty-seven Hare Indians from Smith Bay, with a small but acceptable supply of provisions, for which they were liberally recompensed. Our long-expected winter packet from the southern parts of the country was brought on the 9th, by Indians, via Marten Lake. Not the least valued part of its contents was a file of that excellent paper the New York Albion, with some numbers of the London Times, sent us by our worthy friend Chief Factor Christie. Those only who are cut off from the rest of the world can fully appreciate such marks of attention.
On the 15th a solitary goose, the first harbinger of spring, flew over the house; followed, two days after, by some Canada, Hutchin's, and snow geese. A few laughing geese, swans, and northern divers made their appearance somewhat later; also ducks of the smaller species. But the whole number of fowl that passed was inconsiderable, more being shot at Athabasca in one day than we procured altogether.
On the 18th a man and boy arrived from a camp of strange Hare Indians, whom they had quitted to the westward in a starving condition. We immediately sent them a quantity of pounded meat, which was the means of saving their lives; and on the 27th the remainder of the party, twenty-two in number, chiefly old men, women, and children, came to the establishment. They darted like vultures upon a kettle of meat which was prepared in the hall; but I must do them the justice to say, that, despite their hunger, they made a fair distribution of the food, which is more, I suspect, than Europeans similarly circumstanced would have done. An old man, a woman, and two children had died in the course of the winter; and one blind old man, brought to the house, was hauled on a sledge, or led with a string, and sometimes carried by his wife and daughter. The party had separated from the rest of the tribe; and the number of men capable of hunting being disproportionally small, caused the misery that we had the satisfaction to relieve. Our own stock of food was meanwhile fast wasting away; for Dog-ribs, Hare Indians, and Chipewyans had now all congregated around us, and, instead of bringing us assistance, many of them drew rations from our store. Besides such occasional assistance, we constantly had some old or helpless persons left upon our hands.
No means were neglected to procure subsistence for ourselves and the natives. Nets were set in Dease River, but produced next to nothing; ammunition was liberally distributed, and, towards the end of the month, a few straggling deer were killed. About the same period the rapids in the lower part of the river broke up; and our sea-boats, which had been thoroughly repaired and strengthened, were dragged over the ice to its mouth, to be in readiness for the moment that the ascent of the stream should become practicable. A messenger having arrived from a lake about a day's journey to the northward, reporting an abundant fishery under the ice, we despatched the whole of the lately-starving Hare Indians thither. The Dog-ribs and our Chipewyan hunters at the same time prepared to separate and disperse themselves for the summer over the best hunting-grounds to the eastward. Their departure in the beginning of June was a twofold relief to us, as we had some preparations to make for our approaching voyage. I must not 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 John Franklin; I wish I could speak as favourably of their honesty and veracity.
The position of Fort Confidence, as determined by a variety of observations, is in lat. 66° 53′ 36″ N.; long. 118° 48′ 45″ W. The magnetic variation, in October 1837, was 48° 30′ E.; the dip of the needle (in June 1839), 84° 48′ N.
- One of the largest, taken at Fort Confidence 2d May, weighed forty-seven pounds, length four and a half feet, mid-girth twenty-seven inches (Salmo namaycush).
- I had the curiosity, when the thermometer stood at -49°, to cast a pistol-bullet of quicksilver, which at ten paces passed through an inch plank, but flattened and broke against the wall three or four paces beyond it.
- Mr. Dease assured me that under an ancient manager of Athabasca, who passed for a severe economist, and whose assistant he was at the time, the men succeeded in obtaining the exorbitant daily allowance of fourteen pounds, or one stone, of moose or buffalo meat!
- Yet was there one of them who complained he had not enough, and did not scruple to help himself to an additional supply whenever the opportunity offered : it would have taken twenty pounds of animal food daily to satisfy him. This man, Framond, being in other respects a very indifferent servant, was discharged the following year; and his place supplied from Mackenzie River by a young Maskegon, or Swampy Cree Indian, in the service, educated at Red River, and named James Hope, who was engaged by us at the same annual wages as our other middlemen, viz. £40 sterling.
- At least as far as Mr. Dease and myself were concerned; for the men and families messed as often as they thought proper, and were, as usual, much more difficult to please than their masters.
- In May 1839 our dogs drove off a pair of wolves that passed the house in hot pursuit of a large deer; took up the chase themselves; ran down, strangled, and devoured the prey on the ice a few miles to the westward.
- A stranger would have been sorely puzzled to know whether he was about to descend or ascend the brook. The following was our method of ascertaining this important point: Through the snow, which almost choked up the valley, a few willow tops protruded here and there. To two or three of these were attached little balls of roots and grass, that had been carried down by the high water of the preceding spring. These adhering to the lower side of the twig, proved that our faces were turned down the stream.
- By the old Atha thermometer, 18° or 50° of frost.
- The distance we travelled, returning by Cape M'Donell, was three hundred statute miles, which will give some idea of the magnitude and grandeur of our inland sea.