The early explorers of
Eastern Canada, Cartier and Champlain, found themselves among Indians of
the great Algonquin nation, whose territory extended from far south to
the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and north of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa
rivers, even to the prairies. To the west, above Lakes Nipissing, Huron,
and Superior, dwelt a hardy branch of the Algonquins, called the
Ojibiways or Chippewas. These seem to have been a warlike tribe, capable
of protecting themselves even against the attacks of the fierce Iroquois
In their new climate
the Ojibiway section of the Algonquins became a separate people, called
the Crees. A band of these, emigrating from the neighborhood of Sault
Ste. Marie, were found later in great numbers about Lake Nepigon, and
were known as the Salteaux. The Crees extended west as far as Lake
Winnipeg, and north to Hudson Bay. On account of the swampy nature of
the land which they occupied, they were called the “Crees of the
Muskegs,” or “Muskegons.”
from Lake Winnipeg, along the banks of the North Saskatchewan, were
the Wood Crees, so called because they clung to the wooded shores of
the lakes and rivers. These resembled their Ojibiway ancestors more
than did the Muskegons. To the south of the Saskatchewan were found
the Plain Crees, who were wanderers forsaking canoe for horse.
Close to the Rocky
Mountains, where the South Saskatchewan takes its rise, dwelt the
Blackfoot Indians, who were probably of the Algonquin race.
French travellers early
came across a new tribe of Indians from the western shore of Lake
Superior. These, because of their likeness to the Five Nation Indians,
they called the “ Little Iroquois of the West.” Being a nation of
allies, they were named Dakotas, but more familiarly Sioux.
The popular theory
regarding these Indians is that they ascended the Mississippi with the
Iroquois, and that on arriving at the mouth of the Ohio the nation
divided, one part turning north-east, the other north to the district of
the Dakotas, west of the Great Lakes. The Dakotas, whose country
extended south of the boundaries of Manitoba and Assiniboia, were very
fierce, earning the title of “Tigers of the Plains.” At an early date,
before the traders reached the country, a feud broke out among the
Dakotas, which resulted in a split in the nation.
One section, moving
north, settled on the Assiniboine, and became known as the “ Sioux of
the Stony River” (the meaning of “ Assiniboine ” in Cree). These were
soon on friendly terms with the Crees, learning their language and in
many cases inter-marrying with them.
North of the Crees, the
country was occupied by the Athabaskans.
These, beginning at
Hudson Bay, dwelt along Churchill River, Lakes Athabaska and Slave, and
the Peace River. They were much less warlike than their neighbors, but
were great travellers. A tribe related to the Athabaskans, the Sar-cees,
lived near the Blackfoot Indians. The Eskimos, or Innuits, inhabited the
Arctic coast, all the way from Labrador through the district of the
Coppermine into the Alaskan peninsula.
In the early years of
the fur trade, the Hudson’s Bay Company confined its trading to the
shores of the bay, and the French traders, with few exceptions, dealt
with the Indians at Lake Nepigon. Thus the latter were compelled to make
very long trips to reach the trading-posts. Sometimes it took two or
three months to accomplish the journey. The tribes which came to York
Factory from the far interior, usually assembled at Lake Winnipeg. From
this meeting place they would make their way, in number sometimes
exceeding a thousand, down the Nelson River to the Company’s fort. The
hardships of the journey were so great that they were often forced to
throw away many of their furs, retaining only the lighter and more
valuable ones. Such an effect had one trip upon some that they never
fully recovered, and could not, under any circumstances, be persuaded to
pass through the same experience.
On arriving within
sight of the fort, the Indians usually discharged their fowling-pieces;
and the salute was returned at the command of the chief factor by firing
several small cannon. While the squaws and younger men unloaded the
bundles .of furs, the chiefs in charge of the expedition
were ushered into the
trading room, where pipes and tobacco were immediately forthcoming.
After a preliminary smoke the business of trading was proceeded with.
The furs were weighed and their value estimated. At first the articles
used in exchange were trinkets of trifling value, such as beads and
similar ornaments; but later a new policy was adopted, and such things
were given as would assist the Indians in their hunting.
The greatest curse
connected with the traders’ dealings with the Indians was the sale of
intoxicating liquors. On the whole it was the policy of the Hudson’s Bay
Company to discourage this evil practice, but competition made it more
and more common. It was when the three great companies, the “Hudson’s
Bay,” the “North-West,” and the “X Y,” were rivals for the trade of the
West that the Indians suffered most from the use of “fire-water,” while
the perils of the trader’s life became consequently greater. With the
union of the companies the evil almost disappeared.
One of the most
striking features of the history of the North-West is the absence, save
for an occasional massacre, of Indian wars, all the more striking in
contrast with the experience of western settlers in the United States.
This must be attributed, to a great extent, to the good judgment of the
officers of the fur trading companies. The Indians seem to have quickly
realized that it was to their interest to remain on friendly terms with