I seem to be writing a lot about cannibalism, and will do more — especially as this book I am working on now has just a little bit to do with the Franklin expeditions. In doing some background work for this planned book, I dipped in to Rae’s Arctic Correspondence 1844-1845, edited by E.E. Rich [London: Hudson’s Bay Record Society, 1953], and found this little story. The name of the person Rae speaks of is familiar to many: he was Pierre Chrysologue Pambrun Junior, son of the gentleman of the same name, who was in charge of Fort Nez Perces in 1840-1841.
So anyway, Pierre went on to join the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1841, and was posted to Fort Simpson, on the Mackenzie River, as apprentice postmaster. He spent time at Frances Lake, Fort Good Hope, and Fort Halkett, all in the Mackenzie River district. Many of these posts were accessed by the Liard River — certainly not the gentlest river around. A modern day paddler tells us that huge tree trunks come roaring down the river into the Mackenzie: some one else mentioned that a tremendous amount of mud came down that river. I know from a trip up the Alaska Highway many years ago that the bridge over the Liard River washed out every summer and it took months to repair. (I don’t know if that is still true, but it was then).
When clerk Augustus Peers arrived at Fort Simpson, John Lee Lewes was in charge of the district. Lewes had an accident with a gun, which severely damaged his hand, and was replaced (I presume) by Chief Factor [Doctor] John Rae. When Rae left Fort Simpson, Chief Trader James Anderson (A) took his place. James Anderson was Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s older brother and, so, obviously, this is the reason why I am interested in this one story of the Franklin Expedition. This cannibalism post is just an event I discovered while I was researching this story.
This is what Augustus Richard Peers had to say of the Mackenzie District, and the Liard River:
McKenzie’s River District is very extensive. The posts attached to it are: Fort Simpson (depot); Fort Resolution; Fort de Liard; Fort Halkett; Fort Francis Lake — since abandoned; Fort Selkirk; Fort Norman; Fort Good Hope; Fort Peel’s River; Rat Portage House; Fort Youkon.
These outposts received their supply of goods from Fort Simpson, so that our time was fully occupied for the next ten days in unpacking and repacking the several outfits and dispatching boats ladened therewith to the posts far and near. The routes to the western posts via the Liard River was the most tedious one from the difficulty of the navigation and even the most hardy of the voyageurs looked upon a trip in that quarter with dread. The whole is a succession of formidable rapids and foaming cataracts up which the boats are dragged by lines or launched over the hills and a voyage was seldom accomplished without some serious accidents transpiring. In the fall I write of, one of the boats while crossing Portage le Diable [sic] slipped over a precipice and was dashed to splinters amongst the crags beneath. The repeated hardships of this route have since led to its abandonment and the goods for the western posts are now sent via the winter’s route from Peel’s River across the Rocky Mountains… [Augustus Richard Peers, Journal 1841-52]
So here is the letter I stumbled on, that mentioned young Pierre Pambrun. The report is written to Governor George Simpson, and is dated July 29, 1850. So all this happened over the winter of 1849-1850.
By the arrival at Fort Simpson of Mr. J. Stewart on the 8th June  we learnt that the mismanagement of the west Branch business last fall has caused all the misfortunes at Pelly Banks that were likely to arise from so unfortunate an event….
The “event” mentioned above, is this: John O’Brien, clerk, was appointed to Pelly Banks for outfit 1849-50, but “became so ill in body and mind whilst on the way there, and met with so many troubles, that he returned to Fort Simpson without delivering the outfits. Fort Selkirk was also affected by the non-arrival of supplies and in the spring of 1850, J. G. Stewart, accompanied by one man, made the journey of 1,100 miles to Fort Simpson to get help.” [Rae’s Arctic Correspondence, footnote, page 126]. My ears perked up at this: “Mr. J. G. Stewart” is James Green Stewart, clerk, who in summer 1855 accompanied Chief Trader James Anderson (A) to the Arctic by Back’s, or Great Fish River, in search of Franklin’s men.
Dr. Rae’s report continues:
On the 30th of November, when Mr. Pambrun and his 2 men were absent searching for food, the Fort caught fire and everything in it was consumed with the exception of about 3 packs Furs and a little powder. Furs to the value of more than 800 pounds were destroyed. During the winter great privations were suffered from want of food and clothing, until the 5th March when [Hyacinth] Dubois, one of the men, died, and his companion [William] Foubister, shared the same fate on the 25th after eating all or greater part of his dead companion. Mr. Pambrun, by great efforts, managed to support life until joined by Mr. J. Stewart who came to Pelly Banks to obtain information and to learn the cause that there was no communication from Fort Simpson, to which place he accompanied Mr. Stewart and is in charge there for the summer.
Just so we can locate ourselves here: Fort Halkett was situated on the north bank of the Liard River at its junction with Smith River. The Frances Lake post was built 1840 as the result of an exploration up the “north branch” of the Liard River, or Frances River, to the lake itself — Frances Lake today is at the headwaters of the Liard River, though in those times they seemed to call it the Frances River.
Directly north of the Frances Lake post was the Pelly Banks post, on the Pelly River — but this was part of the Yukon River system, not the Liard River system. The Yukon River flows west through modern-day Alaska, to the Bering Sea! So, at this time the HBC men must have portaged their goods overland from Frances Lake post, to the Pelly Banks post!
To the west of Pelly Banks was Fort Selkirk, on the Pelly River at its junction with the Lewes River — again on the Yukon River system. So if all these posts, including those on the Yukon River system, were supplied by the difficult transportation up the Liard River and its canyons, it is no wonder that they changed their provisioning route — though frankly it seems just as difficult as the old route. Here’s how it must have worked: When the Pelly Banks post burned down in 1849 they didn’t rebuilt.
But they still had to get goods to the Yukon River posts. The HBC then transported goods to the Peel’s River post, also known as Fort McPherson. The Peel’s River post was north of the Mackenzie River post of Fort Good Hope, and almost on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. But by following the Rat River west, the Peel’s River men could portage the goods to the Porcupine River, and follow it down to Fort Yukon — or more likely, the Fort Yukon men came out to pick up their goods at the Peel’s River post. It was still a long way up the Yukon River to Fort Selkirk, but the Fort Selkirk men could look after that part of the transportation of their goods to their home post. I shake my head at how much work was involved in taking out the furs and bringing in the trade goods for this part of the world, but the value of the furs must have paid for the work the men had to do! [The maps in the back of Rae’s Arctic Correspondence are very good!]
Anyway — back to the cannibalism that occurred at Pelly’s Bank post over the winter of 1849-1850. In a later letter to the Governors and Chief Factors, John Rae reported more fully on the matter in a letter dated August 1, 1850:
By the failure of the boats to reach Frances Lake last Autumn some danger of starvation to those stationed at the posts on the Pelly [Banks] and Lewes [River] was anticipated. It is distressing to state that these anticipations have been more than realized, as far as regards Pelly Banks, at which place there appeared to be less danger than at Fort Halkett: as I had been informed that there had been a quantity of ammunition on hand at the former place, which was in part true.
Mr. Pambrun, finding that the boats did not arrive, sent his two men to fish, while he endeavoured to support himself by hunting. On the 30th November, when all parties were thus employed at a distance, the house caught fire and was completely consumed with about 800 pounds worth of Furs and a little powder being all that was saved. During the winter the party suffered much from hunger and want of sufficient clothing until the 5th March, when haven eaten all the skins one of the men (a Canadian named Dubois) died of starvation, and the other (an Orkneyman named Foubister) shared the same fate 20 days afterwards, having eaten all or greater part of his dead Companion. Mr. Pambrun by hunting succeeded in keeping himself alive, until joined by Mr. J. Stewart and a man from Fort Selkirk with whom he came down to Fort Simpson, which place they reached on the 8th June during my absence at Fort Good Hope. Immediately on my return from whence, preparations were made for sending a boat with a light cargo of the most requisite goods as far as Francis Lake…
This story is also told in a book by William Hulme Hooper, Ten Months among the Tents of the Tuksi: with Incidents of an Arctic Boat Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin, As Far as the Mackenzie River, and Cape Bathurst, pp. 329-36, [Cambridge University Press, 2014]. If this happened in 1850, then this must be the story of William J. S Pullen and W.H. Hooper’s [well, obviously it is] expedition by small boat from Point Barrow east to Mackenzie River in search of the Franklin Expedition, 1849-1851. They reached Cape Bathurst but were stopped by ice. This, too, might be an interesting read.
So on the 30th August 1850, Rae reported to Governor Simpson that on his arrival at Fort Simpson from the Methye Portage, from which place he wrote his letter above, he “found Mr. Pambrun and all at the Fort well… No time was lost in getting the outfits ready for the west branch [the Liard], and they were sent off on the 22nd in 3 boats under charge of Mr. Pambrun, who is to pass the winter at Frances Lake with 4 or 5 men. He will have 25 or 30 bags pemican for winter stock.” In April 1851, Rae described Pambrun as he had seen him at Fort Simpson:
Mr. Pambrun was represented to me [by Mr. McPherson] as one of the most efficient or the most efficient half-breed clerk in the District. I consider from the little I saw of him at Fort Simpson to be among the worst. McMurray, Hardisty and Pruden are all his superiors in every way. Pambrun is a powerful, active, and bustling fellow enough, but full of conceit, and quite deficient in management, a quality so very requisite at a bad provision Post. He wishes to leave the service and he will be no great loss to the District. I firmly believe that had Stewart been in charge at Frances Lake or Pelly Banks during the past two or three years, few or none of these melancholy occurrence that have distinguished that quarter would have taken place.
So there you go! Pierre Pambrun Junior apparently left the district and retired, and I can’t say as I blame him. He probably went down to Red River: as he was Metis he had no connection with Lachine (unless his father had family in Montreal). In 1853 he rejoined the Hudson’s Bay Company and turned up at the Lac la Biche post, clerking there for three years. He retired and went to Red River, returning to Lac la Biche area as a free trader. Little is known of his time as a free-trader, and of course his descendants would love to fill in this gap, so if you know anything just put it the comments. Interestingly, in 1861 he was hired on again by the HBC, becoming clerk at Lac la Biche from 1861 to 1871; Fort Pitt from 1874-1876, and finally Lesser Slave Lake from 1877-1878.
This may be the first post in a series of posts on James Anderson’s expedition (which story of course involves more cannibalism!), and if it does prove to be so, then the next post will appear here:
Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2018. All rights reserved.
- The Fraser Canyon War
- “Indian Mounds”