James Anderson on Chantrey Inlet

birchbark canoe

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

As we know, James Anderson, his clerk James Green Stewart, and their men, are making their way down the Great Fish River to the Arctic Ocean, in search of evidence of the loss of Sir John Franklin’s men four years earlier. The year is now 1855, and it is July — still early in the summer. Anderson and his men have just passed through massive Lake Franklin, and will soon reach the shores of the Arctic Ocean. As you know already, we are also using some of Captain George Back’s descriptions in this story. George Back and his men had descended this same river in 1834, and Anderson carried his now-published Narrative of the Arctic land expedition to the mouth of the great Fish River, and along the shores of the Arctic Ocean, in the years 1833, 1834, and 1835 (with its sometimes inaccurate maps), as his guide book down the river. So, James Anderson saw the same features that Back had earlier described in his Narrative, and as a result, did not describe them again in his business journal.

As we know, in the last post James Anderson saw the brass cooking pots that the Inuit who lived at the base of the falls coming out of Lake Franklin showed him, but, as James Anderson said, “Nothing could be learned of books and manuscripts.” His journal continues:

“We ran the last Falls — they were only an easy rapid at this stage of the water. At some distance below them we saw 2 Cyaks [kayaks], but they turned tail immediately on seeing us and joined 3 others on shore. Two finally took courage (one an old, the other a young man) to cross to us, but we learnt nothing additional from them — they confirmed the accounts given by the others of the death of the crews of the vessels, etc. The weather has been most gloomy and the wind ahead, with occasional showers. About 5 it commenced raining in earnest and increased to such a degree that I gave the order to encamp, but we could find no fit place till 7 1/2 pm, when we disembarked, thoroughly soaked. No fires could be made, so that pemmican and cold water was the order of the day. Some spirits should be provided for an expedition of this kind — the men really require it on such occasions as this.”

But alcohol was banned in the Mackenzie’s River district, and probably in the Athabasca district as well. There was none to be had in normal conditions: however, we will find out eventually, that there was a little to be had. But I am not telling you that story yet!

George Back had lost no time in finding the mouth of the river where it left Lake Franklin, and he visited the same Inuit village that Anderson saw ten or so years later. He also described the many rapids that existed on this section of the river; a description that Anderson did not give us. Back said: 

We followed the stream, which, as usual, soon broke into a rapid: this was safely passed; but the next, close to it, demanded more caution; for, from its breadth, which was not less than three quarters of a mile, and the white spray which was rising at the vanishing line, it was clearly not to be ventured on without a preliminary examination. And fortunate it was that the precaution was taken, for there was a rapidly inclined descent of twenty feet, divided at the upper end by two islands, and at the lower end by one, thickly spread with perpendicular slabs set up as marks, three or four feet high, and many even more. The entire space of the rapid was shoal, and encumbered with stones which threw up a continuous sheet of foam; but an inner channel along the western bank admitted of the boat’s being lowered down quite light with ropes and poles as far as the lower island. Here, however, there was an awkward fall..

Back’s men finally made the decision to ride down through that last fall: Anderson hardly mentioned the fall. This waterfalls lay about halfway between Lake Franklin and the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Anderson’s journal continues the next day, as he arrives Victoria Headland, at the mouth of the Thewycho, or Great Fish River. They are now on the shores of Chantrey Inlet, a deep and narrow inlet on the northern edge of the continental mainland:

 “July 1855 — Mouth Thlewycho River. Tuesday 31st. The rain prevented us from leaving before 5 1/2 a.m. It recommenced just after embarking and we had a wretched time of it till we reached Victoria Headland to breakfast at 11 a.m.; it then partially cleared up, but we had occasional showers with fog till we encamped at 8 p.m. at Point Beaufort.”

[Point Beaufort is well to the north of Victoria Headland, and we will come to it.]

Victoria Headland, on the Arctic Ocean at the mouth of the Great Fish River, had been named by Back in 1834, as we see here. Fortunately for us, Back also described the Great Fish River as it flowed northward into the Arctic Ocean from Franklin Lake — a description that Anderson did not give to us:

The afternoon permitted us to proceed; and it was while threading our way between some sand-banks, with a strong current, that we first caught sight of a majestic headland in the extreme distance to the north, which had a coast-like appearance. This important promontory was subsequently honoured by receiving the name of Her Royal Highness the Princess Victoria. The sand-banks also now became broken into cliffs, which dwindling away on the eastern side to a vanishing point, subsided on the western into low flats, the level of which was just broken by half a dozen sandy knolls sparingly tipped with a few blades of dry grass. The banks on this side were cut by several channels leading to the left, but shallow, and not navigable. The country on both sides was swampy, and gradually sloped upwards to the distant mountains. 

This then may be considered as the mouth of the Thlew-co-choh [Great Fish River], which after a violent and tortuous course of five hundred and thirty geographical miles, running through an iron-ribbed country without a single tree on the whole of its banks, expanding into fine large lakes with clear horizons, most embarrassing to the navigator, and broken into falls, cascades, and rapids, to the number of no less than eighty-three on the whole, pours its waters into the Polar Sea in latitude 67 degrees, 11 ‘ 00″ N., and longitude 94 degrees, 30 ‘ 0″ West; that is to say, about thirty-seven miles more south than the mouth of the Coppermine River, and nineteen miles more south than that of Back’s River at the lower extremity of Bathhurst’s Inlet. 

The rush of the current, opposed by a fresh breeze, and possibly by the tide,  raised such high and breaking waves as we put out with an intention of gaining the headland, that the laden boat was unable to resist them, and shipped a great deal of water. It became, therefore, not only prudent but necessary to put into a bay, which in the map is distinguished as Cockburn’s Bay.

They have reached Chantrey Inlet, in modern day Nunavit. Chantrey Inlet carves its way 100 miles into the continental mainland; it is fifty miles wide at its mouth, and wider in some places in the depth of the inlet. On the eastern side of the bay stands the cliffs and highlands of the continental mainland, which stretches northward 100 miles to the base of the Boothia Peninsula. To the west is the lowland of the Adelaide Peninsula, which runs as far north as the eastern side of the bay: 100 miles. Off the northernmost tip of the Adelaide Peninsula is King William Island. Yes, they are now on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, but deep in the base of a bay that is almost surrounded by land. But they are only a few miles from what we now call Terror Bay, where Sir John Franklin’s ship, Terror, was discovered a few years ago. We are also close to Starvation Cove, near which the Erebus was discovered, sunken. We are in the immediate neighbourhood of these historic places — but we are not there yet, and we will never quite reach either of those places.

Nevertheless, there is a story there. 

So James Anderson, James Green Stewart, and their men, have now reached the mouth of the Great Fish River, deep in the depths of Chantrey Inlet. They can see to the east of them the rocky heights of Victoria Headland, and Point Backhouse, which is not too far away. Some distance north of Point Backhouse is Point Beaufort, and that is as far north as they will go, on the east side of the Chantrey Inlet at least. Their destination is, of course, Montreal Island, where, according to stories collected from the Inuit, some of Sir John Franklin’s men were known to have been. They can probably see Montreal Island in the distance, a dark shadow against the low lying lands of the Adelaide Peninsula to the west. 

James Anderson would certainly not be the first HBC man to have reached Montreal Island. Captain Back was the first man to reach Chantrey Inlet in 1834, but because of ice was unable to explore west of the mouth of the Great Fish River, as he had intended to do. In 1839, two HBC men, Peter Warren Dease and Thomas Simpson, descended the Coppermine River to the west, for the second time (the first exploration had been in 1838), and travelled by boat toward the estuary of the Great Fish River. On August 16, they arrived on Montreal Island, before exploring and mapping the mainland east of Chantrey Inlet. These two HBC men failed to determine whether or not the Boothia Peninsula was an island or a peninsula, or whether King William Land was an island or not. Because these questions still lingered, unanswered, Thomas Simpson then volunteered to explore the Great Fish River, but died, tragically, before he could do so.

Chief Factor John Rae was then assigned the duty of completing Simpson’s exploration, although his assignment differed from Simpson’s. Beginning in 1846, he made a number of explorations in this part of the world. In 1854, Rae went overland from Repulse Bay, on northernmost Hudson Bay, to the east shore of Chantrey Inlet but far north of its depths near the mouth of the Great Fish River. At the Castor and Pollux River he heard stories of Sir John Franklin’s men; on his return to Repulse Bay he heard more stories, and finally identified the place, where Franklin’s men had been seen, as Montreal Island. His report, sent to Governor Simpson, was the report that encouraged the Governor to send James Anderson and James Green Stewart north to the Arctic Ocean, via the Great Fish River.

So, there we are. James Anderson has arrived on the Arctic Ocean, and now he must do his job.

In his Narrative, Captain George Back described Point Beaufort as a “projecting, barren rock, about eight hundred feet high, forming the northern point of the bay, (and which has been designated Point Beaufort, after the present distinguished hydrography of the navy…).” James Anderson also described the east shore of Chantrey Inlet, saying: “Red granite is the prevailing rock all the points on this side of the inlet. Victoria Headland is principally composed of hills of rounded stones like shingle, though I believe them to be only decomposed rocks. Willows were found at the waterfall at Victoria Headland — fuel of two kinds in small quantities, and most of the flowers we saw inland. No animals were seen today nor any trace of any — except a wolf and two seals, the latter below Victoria headland. There is no such thing as a deer pass, or any place where even Esquimaux could live.”

And yet, the Inuit did live here. This is the historical territory of a nomadic group of Inuit called the Utkuhiksalik, or “the people of the place where there is soapstone.” Although James Anderson does not mention it in his journal, we do know that a group of his men, including James Green Stewart, met an Inuit man, or group of men, at the mouth of the river, and had a conversation with them. James Anderson seems to have played no part of his conversation, and I wonder if he was even aware of it.

James Anderson’s journal continues: “We have seen no marks this afternoon, at this encampment I found all the “agrets” of an Esquimaux, most of them of deer horn, and a few of iron. One had holes evidently drilled by a tradesman.” “Agrets” is a voyageur word for equipment. “Bands of Canada Geese seen this evening, also Esquimaux ducks, a loon, and a large gull . Noticed the tide at Victoria Headland.”

As James Anderson said above, he and his men passed Victoria Headland and camped at Cape Beaufort, which stood across Chantrey Inlet from Montreal Island. This is probably where he found the “agrets” of the Inuit man. James Anderson begins his journal the next day with “August 1855. Montreal Island. Wednesday, August 1st. Detained by wind and rain till 2 1/2 pm. The wind from from the S.W. and has doubtless cleared away some of the ice. We took the Traverse to Montreal Island and with the aid of the paddle made it in 3 hours. We lost some time among drift ice, driving very rapidly with wind and tide from Elliots’ Bay [to the west and south, across Chantrey Inlet from Cape Backhouse]. We had some narrow escapes and I was heartily glad to get safe through it. The ice is 6 or 7 inches thick and perfectly sound. We are encamped on the north side of a rocky island divided by a channel from Montreal Island. The whole inlet to the North and Eastward is choked with ice. Tomorrow morning the island shall be thoroughly explored for vestiges of the missing party. Saw 2 or 3 seals, some gulls, loons, and many Esquimaux ducks. A track of a deer was seen on the island.”

 So, like it or not, James Anderson has not yet reached Montreal Island.

To return to the beginning of this series, go here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/james-andersons-journey/

When the next post in this series is published, it will appear here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/montreal-island/  

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

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