The Grand River

birchbark canoe

Image of a birchbark canoe on a Canadian River, from Glenbow Archive, image na-843-14, used with their permission

The historic Ottawa River was often called le Grand River — the “Big River” — by the first voyageurs who travelled up and down its length. And it was a big river: an important river that carried everyone who wanted to trade in the upper country into the interior. In the last blogpost we came as far as the Deschenes Rapids and the Little Chaudiere Falls, two sets of rapids and falls that forced the voyageurs ashore. So, let’s see what we can find upriver from Deschenes Rapids, shall we?

And in doing so, we find that Chats Falls — “named for the raccoons — les chats sauvages — that were once abundant in the area, the Sault des Chats Sauvage, or Chats Falls, at the lower end of Lake Chats (pronounced “shah”) created the next barrier in the upstream journey of Lake Superior bound voyageurs.” This quote, from Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America, continues:  

The Ottawa River at this point is nearly three kilometers wide, and the falls spilled over and around a series of granite outcroppings and small islands in 15 or 16 beautiful falls…. Rather than go around on either shore, the falls were portaged across one of the main islands midstream, from a bend in the river known as Big Bay. A free trader, Joseph Mondian, operated a small post on the point of land across Big Bay. The view must have been delightful, but diminishing returns or perhaps competition induced him to sell the place in 1800 and it soon passed to the North West Company (and after 1821, to the Hudson’s Bay Company.) Under both, it operated at times, providing supplies to the fledgling logging operations that began in the area about 1810.

Here is a description of that post, from Voorhis’s Historic Forts — although the information contained herein disagrees with the above information:

270 — Lac des Chats post. McLean in his “Notes of Twenty-five years Service,” says [in] 1822 that the North West Co and Hudson’s Bay Co had built adjoining posts on the Ottawa River at Chats Falls, probably about 1800. These posts were discontinued after the union of 1821.

Both stories might be true: the twinned posts at Chats Falls might be a different set of posts than Joseph Mondian’s post at the Big Bay. Eric Morse, author of Canoe Routes of the Voyageurs, has illustrated his slim magazine-style book with two drawings of men portaging canoes, and he says that one of the two drawings is easily recognizable as of les Chats Portage, looking down the Ottawa River. The other is of Portage Dufort, which I mentioned in the last post as being “at the upper end of Lac Des Chats,” and which disappeared under a power development in the 1840s. It appears that I am slightly out of order here, but that will fix itself. Here is what Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America has to say of the stretch of fast water that came next:

During the fur trade era, the river immediately above the falls was also a challenge, for five kilometers of rapids had to be traversed before the brigades arrived at the bottom end of Lake Chats, which — then as now — offered smooth sailing.

Today the dam has calmed the “Grand River,” without dimming its beauty, which can be enjoyed at the Morris Island Conservation Area near the community of Fitzroy Harbour. This is a 47-hectare site that includes a series of small islands that are connected by bridges and a causeway along the Ontario side of the river. Here you can see the geological bones of the upper Ottawa Valley: unlike the region around Ottawa, which is mainly limestone, the bedrock here is granite and quartz, with outcroppings of marble. 

And now we come to the Chenaux: 

At the upper end of Lac Chats, the Ottawa River heading upstream faced a section of fast water — the Chenaux — and then a stretch of rapids and falls as the river split and flowed around Calumet and Allumettes Islands.

Four sets of rapids lay along this piece of river: The Décharge du Derigé, the Mountain Portage, the Décharge du Sable, and Portage du Fort — are drowned now beneath Lac du Rocher Fendu (Lake Split Rock) created by the Chenaux Dam. The book, Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America, tells us that this tedious section of river was avoided by taking a series of portages “through a chain of 12 small lakes to the Muskrat River, which winds through the countryside to debouch into the Ottawa at modern Pembroke. With 25 kilometers of canoeing and 12 of portaging, this route — suitable for small Algonquin canoes — was the one along which Samuel de Champlain and his little band were led in 1613.” He lost his astrolabe (a kind of sextant for surveying) along this river, and 250 years later, in 1867, a teenager named Edward George Lee found it in a field. There was no doubting its antiquity: when the astrolabe was professionally cleaned and polished, it still bore the date of manufacture in France — 1603! So many good stories.

But neither the North West Company men, nor the later HBC traders, used this quiet back-route. They went up the main river, pushing their way past the rapids at Calumet and Allumette Islands and into the upper Grand River [Ottawa River]. Daniel Robert Laxer, author of the book Listening to the Fur Trade: Soundways and Music in the British North American Fur Trade, 1760-1840, tells us a little about the water at Grand Calumet Island, which is halfway along the Grand River [Ottawa River] of the fur traders. Grand Calumet Island is a significant location, Laxer says, “surrounded by a dramatic series of roaring rapids… These necessitated a long portage — the longest until that point when headed west from Montreal.” The carrying place was called the “Portage of Sept Chutes,” because it passed seven waterfalls.

The book Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America tells us that “the Ottawa River splits to circumvent the du Grand Calumet — Calumet Island. The name comes from the dense white limestone — like alabaster in colour and consistency — found there. This stone was, as Alexander Henry noted, “soft enough to be whittled into pipes or calumets,” first by the North Americans and then by the French.” The book goes on to explain:

The eastern channel was the one generally taken by the canoe brigades, for most of the drop in the river could be picked up in the grand Calumet Portage, at just over two kilometers the longest between Montreal and Grand Portage. The long, uphill portage trail circumvented two steep ravines. Today the rapids have largely disappeared beneath the Calumet Dam and the portage trail has begotten two island roads. 

Daniel Laxer also tells us that there is a gravesite here, maintained by all the voyageurs who came later. One story is of a young voyageur, named Cadieux, left behind by his crew while fleeing an Iroquois war party. He supposedly composed and wrote his “death song” on a piece of birchbark, and according to Laxer, the voyageurs who came later “offered their prayers to him and sang his song.” But there are many stories associated with this place, and no one knows what is true or untrue.

The song that Cadieux supposedly wrote was of course, a complainte, and I have written about this form of song in my book, The York Factory Express, when, on August 19, 1848, an accident occurred in Thomas Lowe’s incoming Express, when:

“The Saskatchewan is at present unusually high, and the current strong. An unfortunate accident happened this morning in hauling one of the boats round a strong point below the Rocher Rouge. The Boat sheered round, and the men having been hauled into the water, one of them (a young Canadian named Xavier Sylvestre) was drowned. He came up from Canada this season, and was going to the Columbia. His body was not found, as the current swept into the middle of the river. Breakfasted at the head of the Rocher Rouge, and got up to the entrance of Cross Lake afterward, but as there was a strong head wind blowing we were windbound here.”

Lowe said little more about the accident in his journal at the time, but certainly a ceremony of some sort took place at Red Rock — a ritual that would have included a prayer at the riverside. Some might have fired their guns in the air, or thrown tobacco on the water. One man would have made a wooden cross and planted it on the riverside. It is also likely that, as part of the ceremony, the gentlemen would have handed out rum.

One more tradition may have been observed. As the men continued their way upriver, they may have created a song called a complainte. The voyageurs always sang as they worked, but after Xavier’s death their singing would take a different form. A complainte was a song composed by the voyageurs themselves, a song that commemorated a sad death — a eulogy, in effect, for the man who had died. The complainte might be sung every year as the Saskatchewan Brigade passed this point, or it might be quickly forgotten. But almost certainly, in 1848, the voyageurs created Xavier Sylvestre’s complainte and sang it as they continued their upriver journey.

So, that is Calumet Island. In Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America, the authors tells us that: “Above Calumet Island, the river broadens into Lac Coulonge. Nicolas d’Alleboust, the Sieur de Coulonge, founded a French fur post — Fort Coulonge — here about 1635.” And here is the fort, from Voorhis’s Historic Forts:

121 — Fort Coulonge. French fort on the left bank of Ottawa river (north side) at the mouth of Coulonge River, between Grand Calumet and Allumettes Islands — stockaded fort erected about 1680 or earlier. The family of Louis d-Ailleboust, Sieur de Coulonge, traded with the Indians on the Ottawa River from 1670 to 1760 and erected several trading posts, of which Fort Coulonge was one. After the cession of Canada this post was deserted by the French. Alexander Henry Sr., one of the first free traders, passed this fort 1761, and states that it was deserted at that time, “a trading post surrounded by stockades, built by the French.” Harmon was there 1800, and mentions the fort. It was soon operated by the North West Co. who rehabilitated many of the vacant French fort which had not been destroyed. The Hudson’s Bay Company after the coalition in 1821 took over this fort and operated it until about 1865. It appears on the Arrowsmith map 1832, 1857, and 1854, but is not included among the Company lists later than 1869. McLean in his “Twenty five years Serivce” speaks of being there in 1822-23.

My great grandfather Alexander Caulfield Anderson saw this fort in 1832, as he was travelling up the Ottawa River with the brigades that were carrying him to the Columbia: Here is what I said about his visit in The Pathfinder:

 At Fort Coulonge, the largest and oldest fort on the Ottawa River, the brigade rested briefly and re-provisioned. To the north were more rapids, and the granite cliffs of the Canadian Shield closed in and towered over both men and boats. When at last the cliffs opened up again, the voyageurs set up camp on on a sandy point of land on the west shore. Across the river from their camp loomed a black-stained cliff, a special place for the Natives, who tied tobacco to the arrows they shot at the cliff face as an offering…

But we are getting ahead of ourselves here, and Lac des Allumettes comes first. In his book, Winner Take All:  David Lavender tells us that the bypass that Samuel de Champlain took through twelve small lakes led the fur traders to “a wide stretch of of the Ottawa later known as Lac des Allumettes. (So this route bypassed the rapids around Grand Calumet Island, and the wide river near Fort Coulonge, but not Lac des Allumettes.) On an island in the lake stood the major village of the Algonquins, placed there so that the inhabitants could exact toll from all who passed,” Lavender tells us.  In the book, Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America, the authors tell us that “At the top of Lac Coulonge, the Ottawa splits again around Ile aux Allumettes — Allumette Island — named for the placid stretch of the river on its west side — Allumette Lake. Here, reeds and cattails grow; they once provided torches — allumettes in French — for the valley’s Algonquin.” The story of the Grand River continues:

To get to the lake, the fur traders had to circumvent another set of rapids around what is now called Morrison Island. Inhabited for at least 5,000 years, it was controlled for decades by a series of 17th century Algonquin leaders named Tessouat, who regulated all commerce on the main river with a toll operation. Today’s downstream paddlers won’t find any tolls, and the curling white water of the Allumette Rapids is still exciting, even with high water levels. 

Allumette Lake is long and narrow, stretching northwest to the ancient Laurentian Mountains.

There were a couple of historic forts on the Grand River’s Lake Allumette. The first is the fort from which Roderick Finlayson set out for the Pacific Northwest coast in 1839: Fort William.

601 — Fort William (1). North West Co fort on left bank of Ottawa River above the north end of Alumettes Island. It was known also as Fort Lac des Alumettes and stood on the site of an old French fort. The Hudson’s Bay Company succeeded to this establishment in 1821.

142 — Fort Dumoine. An old French fortified trading post at mouth of Dumoine River, about 9 miles above Allumette Island in Ottawa River. It was deserted in 1761 when Alexander Henry Sr. passed on his journey west. It was deserted at the cession of Canada when all the Ottawa River posts were abandoned. 

So, here we have another batch of rapids, falls, and old posts that once stood on the Grand River — which we now all call the Ottawa. There are more to come: for those of you that are familiar with the Grand River then you will know that Point aux Baptemes is the next stop of interest on the Ottawa. But we will leave this pleasant and historic spot for our next blogpost, which will appear here when I write it. 

If you wish to return to the beginning of this thread, go here: 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2022. All rights reserved. 

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