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The Prairie Provinces
Chapter V. Exploration (continued)

The criticism had been made of the Hudson's Bay Company, that it confined its trading to tin* coast of the bay and failed to explore the interior of the country. It was further urged by critics, that the Company had failed to assist in the discovery of a north-west passage to the Pacific. At last, however, a man was found, one Samuel Hearne, who, by reason of his long experience in the fur trade and his familiarity with the life of the Indians, was specially suited for introducing a change in the policy of the Company. At Prince of Wales Fort, a stone structure

built, in 1731, at the mouth of the Churchill River, Hearne had learned from the Indians of a great river to the north, from which they brought samples of copper. In 1709, Hearne was instructed to set out for the interior, to proceed to the Athabaska country and thence north in search of the unknown river. It was hoped that the expedition would clear up the mystery of the passage into the western ocean.

In November, therefore, a start was made, but the unfortunate explorer was forced by the desertion of his guides to return to the Churchill. In 110 way disheartened, Hearne set out again in February of the following year with a party of five Indians. After travelling seven mouths, during which he

suffered the greatest hardships, he had the misfortune to break his quadrant; and, deciding that without this instrument it would be useless to proceed farther, he turned back and began his-weary tramp to Hudson Bay. Despite the discouraging outcome of his two efforts, Hearne made, in December of 1770, his third attempt to reach the Coppermine River. Proceeding due west to the point where the Montreal merchants had reached the Churchill, he turned north. In June he met a party of Copper Indians, who were delighted to learn of the object of the expedition.

On July 13th, Hearne arrived at the Coppermine, down which he passed to the Arctic Ocean, the descent of the river occupying only live days. Having taken possession of the new country in the name of the Company, the happy explorer began his return trip, which was not concluded until June of 1772, some time being-spent among the Indians 011 the north side of Lake Athabaska. Thus, through a worthy representative, the Hudson’s Bay Company satisfied its critics and won a reputation for energy and enterprise.

From the journeys of Hearne date the expansion of the Company’s trade. During the next twenty-five years extensions w^ere made south and west, and the most suitable points seized upon for trading-stations. Among the most important posts built were one on Rainy Lake and another at lie a la Crosse, near Lake Athabaska. Brandon House on the Assiniboine, and Edmonton House and Carlton House on the north branch of the Saskatchewan, were the outposts of the west. Within half a century the influence of the Company (which had been accused of confining its trade to the shores of Hudson Bay) extended from Rainy Lake

to the foot of the Rockies. The centre of this vast district was Cumberland House on Sturgeon Lake.

Roused by the success of their rivals in trade, the Montreal merchants, headed by Frobisher and Simon McTavish, decided upon union. In 1784, the North-West Company was formed and its first meeting held at Grand Portage, The North-West on Lake Superior. Two enterprising Americans, Pond and Pangman, who had been overlooked in this union, formed a rival company, in which was included a young Scotchman named Alexander Mackenzie, who afterwards became famous as an explorer. Common interest soon led these two companies to unite against their more powerful rival on Hudson Bay.

Mackenzie, who had already given evidence of great ability, was placed by the new company in charge of the Athabaska district, with headquarters at Fort Chipewyan, the most important point in the north. But Mackenzie had in mind something more attractive, to him at least, than fur trading. He had heard from Indians how Samuel Hearne had discovered the Coppermine and descended it to the Arctic Ocean, returning by way of Lake Athabaska; and his mind was set upon, reaching the Arctic Ocean, and perhaps the Pacific, by another river of which rumor had come to him. In June, 1789, Mackenzie set out with three canoes from Fort Chipewyan, and in nine days reached Slave Lake by way of Slave River. Leaving several of his party to build Fort Providence, he continued his journey by a river which proved to be the object of his search, and which now bears his name. Forty days after starting, the expedition reached the Arctic Ocean.


The return trip was made without delay, in order that Fort Chipewyan might be reached before the close of the season.

Not satisfied with his great achievement, Mackenzie now made a voyage to England in order that he might acquire the mathematical knowledge necessary to enable him to make accurate observations in his explorations. In 1792, he returned to Canada and, going to Fort Chipewyan, at once entered into careful preparations for the voyage which was destined to realize his life’s ambition. Setting out in October, he ascended the Peace River as far as the most westerly trading-station then established. Here he intended to pass the winter, so that an early start might be made in the spring. By the beginning of May the voyage was resumed. As the party neared the mountains, the difficulties of navigation became very great, the travellers having in some places to draw the canoes up stream by grasping the branches of trees. The discouragement of the men was only overcome-by their leader’s great courage. Struggling on over the height of land, they at last found themselves, to their great delight, on the banks of a navigable stream flowing down on the west side of the mountains. Down this river, since named the Fraser, they made their way, in spite of dangerous rapids and hostile Indians. Finding that this route was too long, Mackenzie left the river at a spot afterwards marked by the erection of Fort Alexander, and by a cross-country journey of sixteen days reached an arm of the sea. To mark the goal of this great expedition, the following words were written upon the face of a rock: “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three.” The return to Fort Chipewyan was made without mishap. The dream of the noble Verendrye had been fulfilled in the discovery of “La Grande Mer de l’Ouest.”

Two other names should be mentioned in connection with western exploration, those of Simon Fraser and David Thompson. Fraser, an employee of the North-West Company, following the route taken by Mackenzie, descended, in 1808, from the Rockies to the Pacific coast by the river which now bears his name. Thompson, who had been sent out from England in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company, finding that his position offered no scope for his ability, made a successful application to the North-West Company for employment. After spending two years in visiting the forts of the latter company and definitely noting their location he, in 1811, made his famous journey to the Pacific coast. He ascended the north branch of the Saskatchewan, crossed the Rockies on horseback, and in canoe descended the Columbia to its mouth, only to find that he had been preceded by two American explorers, Lewis and Clark, who had reached the coast six years earlier.

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