James Anderson’s Journey part 2

birchbark canoe

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

So, in our last post in this series (which we are just beginning) I left Chief Trader James Anderson A, making his way up the Mackenzie River from Fort Simpson to Great Slave Lake, where he will begin his expedition north, via the Great Fish River, to the Arctic Ocean. Have you forgotten why he’s going so far north? It is 1855, and he is headed north to find out what happened to Sir John Franklin’s men, who the Inuit saw traipsing across the Barren Lands four years earlier. To see how this story began, you can return to the original post, here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/james-andersons-journey/ 

(You might also ask why I call him James Anderson A. It was to distinguish him from his cousin, James Anderson B, who also joined the HBC and was posted in the east, often in Eastmain).

To continue: At the end of that blogpost, Anderson and his men have paused for the night at Point au Foin — which might be translated as Kick Up a Fuss Point but is more likely to be “Fussy Point,” or some name like that. Now, on this part of the journey I have to take my information from various paddlers, from Alexander Mackenzie to modern day paddlers such as Brian Castner (author of Disappointment River), and Jamie Bastedo, author of Northwest Territories. Like all explorers of the Mackenzie River, they paddled downriver, but did not paddle up. Hmmm, I wonder why?

Well, let me tell you why. The Mackenzie River flows northward some 1,738 kilometres to the Arctic from Great Slave Lake — that’s 1,080 miles for those of us who still favour our distances in miles! Not only that, the river is wide — one to two miles wide for most of its distance, and five miles wide where there are islands in the river. For more information, see this: http://thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/mackenzie-river 

As you see from above, it is some 300 kilometres from Fort Simpson (at the mouth of the Liard River) to Great Slave Lake. Anderson has already covered most of this distance, but he is now faced with the last few miles of upriver travel against the Mackenzie’s strong flow. It is early June, and as the above article says, “The river’s peak discharge occurs in June, but its flow is generally uniform… The break-up of ice begins at the Liard River [Fort Simpson] in late April early May. The river is free of ice by early June and stays open until November.” So presuming that everything is more or less the same today as it was in 1855, then Anderson is coming upriver when the flow of the Mackenzie River against him is as strong as it ever gets! As we have said in an earlier post, this is a late spring!

His journal continues from his campsite at Point au Foin:

June 1855 – Mon. 4th — A Beautiful calm warm day & vegetation has made considerable advances during the last 2 or 3 days. We left the encampment at 4 a.m. and encamped at 7 1/2 p.m. — the canoes requiring considerable repairs — at a pipe from the small lake close to the “Ecaurs:” saw only a few pieces of ice until we encamped, when we saw a considerable quantity, I suppose from the small Lake . .  The men who are unaccustomed to the paddle complain of sore arms and breasts.

If I ever knew what the word ‘Ecaurs’ meant, I have now forgotten it. The small or Little Lake is nothing more than a widening in the Mackenzie River. A “pipe,’ as mentioned above, is a measure of distance which in David Thompson’s time used to translate as something close to three French miles (French miles are a little longer than English miles). In the HBC it is sometimes an hour and a half; but it does depend on the difficulty of the work and the generosity of the steersman, who is the man in charge of the canoe. And, you may ask, why are the men who are “unaccustomed to the paddle” sore? Most of the time the men traveled this river in York Boats, and rowing these boats used an entirely different set of muscles, that paddlers did not use. 

Tuesday 5th — Left early, but were stopped by a large body of ice (or rather a stream of drift-ice apparently much broken) supposed to have come from the Channels about Big Island. 

Big Island is the fishery for Fort Simpson and perhaps for the posts on Great Slave Lake as well. It lies in Great Slave Lake itself, at the immediate entrance to the Mackenzie River, and just east of the mouth of the river where it flows northward out of the lake. The section of Great Slave Lake west of Big Island is called Beaver Lake. There was once an HBC post and fishery on Big Island, and later a Roman Catholic Mission. Jamie Bastedo recommends not crossing to the north or east side of Beaver Lake to camp, because of endless bogs — and as you will see later, James Anderson experienced the same bogs at Big Island and on the west shore of Beaver Lake. His journal continues:

Did not unload till sunset, in hopes of a passage clearing. In the evening a heavy gale arose. We are encamped in the little Lake opposite Lobstick [Maypole] Point. The weather warm. I need not say the pain and vexation I feel at these repeated detentions; however, I could do nothing were I further advanced. [Great] Slave Lake is still firm, but the appearance even of advancing is consolatory.

Wednesday 6th — Left at 7 a.m. Stopped by ice at the Islands at 7 1/2 a.m. until 5 p.m.; we then managed to cross among the drift-ice and reached Charleson’s Fishery where we were again compelled to encamp by our enemy at 8 p.m. 

They were detained for an entire day, by ice “drifting so thick that we can’t see water; it is all smashed into separate candles.” Candle Ice occurs in springtime, when the solid ice loses structural integrity after repeated thawing and re-freezing and becomes so fragile that, at the slightest touch, it shatters into spines or icicles that can be as long as the ice is thick (generally six or so inches long at this point). (It was fangmeli @pangmeli on Twitter who wrote this lovely little description of something that most of us will never see). Anderson and his men were detained here on June 7 and for two days after. It was only on June 10 that “we managed to cross the River amongst the drift-ice and put ashore to supper at 9 p.m.; afterwards we continue our route.” Remember that it is summer in the north and it stays light late into the night at this time of the year. His journal continues. Like all people who lived in these northern regions, he described the weather and its beauty and ferocity:

The sky to the NW became of an inky colour with long streamers like waving hair hanging like a fringe; the sun shone through this as if a hole had been cut in the cloud; this shifted gradually round the compass, Easterly, accompanied by violent squalls and heavy showers of hail and rain. We had some narrow shaves in the ice and the tracking at the Rapid was execrable.

Monday 11th — We marched all last night; put up the Batteau Rapid about daybreak.

This is a transcribed document,  and so-called “Batteau” Rapid is Batture Rapid, now the shallow and gravel-bar filled Fort Providence Rapids. They had reached the point before the Big Island Fort, and I think Anderson was referring to the Big Island when he said “we were within sight of Isle aux Bruleaux,” where they were again stopped by drift-ice, “but managed to get on by dint of wading and hauling the canoes through the small channels and afterwards by keeping along shore — which was shoal and full of stones.” It was at this point that he reached the Big Island, and he sent all his men to the fort excepting his servant, who stayed with him. “The men,” he said, “marched 26 hours, except during the time they put on shore to sup and breakfast.”

So they have now come up the Mackenzie River through what they called Mills Lake, where the proper river channel is on the south side of the lake. South of Mills Lake is the Fort Providence Rapids, and beyond that, Beaver Lake and Great Slave Lake. 

Tuesday 12th — The ice cleared sufficiently about mid-day to cross over to the Island along which we found a channel, and reached a point on it about 15 miles from Big Island [Fort] at 6 p.m. Here we found our road barred by ice and encamped on a nasty swampy point. 

They were trapped here all the next day, and the day after, too. “This perpetual detention is most distressing,” Anderson wrote, “but it is useless repining.” Finally, on Saturday 16th . . .

Very warm, with a slight shower, foggy. Mosquitoes dreadfully thick. About 5 p.m. we managed to set off from our beastly swampy encampment. We found some lanes of water and bored through much drift-ice till we reached near the De Marais Islands, where we could get no further, the ice being hard and in close pack. At the same time the fog was impenetrable. . . We bored away into the bay and suddenly came on one of the Islands and afterwards managed to reach the last one by sunset. Canoes rather damaged. Saw several fields of ice still white and hard; very cold in the evening.

It is not hard to see where he is when you have a good map. “De Marais Islands” is Point Desmarais and the islands offshore. They were following the west shore of Great Slave Lake towards its south shore and the mouth of the Hay River. (You can google a map of Great Slave Lake — I don’t post images that are not mine, and so can’t include a map here, sorry). Anderson’s journal continues:

Left very early in hopes of finding a clear road; we were soon however undeceived, as after pushing through much drift=ice and injuring the canoes, we were brought to a stand by thickly packed ice in the bay at a short distance from Pt des Roches [Point de Roche, just west of modern-day Hay River.] Foggy, with some showers of rain; were the wind to blow offshore, I think that we could get on as the ice is in pieces and moving . . 

Monday 18th — Got off at mid-day and after 5 hours hard labour in getting thro’ the ice reached Pt des Roches [Point de Roche] . . . The bay beyond the point quite blocked up.

Tuesday 19th — At 7 pm yesterday a slight land breeze drove the ice from round the point and left a channel. The net was instantly raised and we started — the channel, however, only extended a mile. We then began to bore through the ice and at last found a fine open channel which with many bars of ice took us to [the mouth of] Hay River; afterwards we bored through a great deal of ice with occasional lanes of water and reached here after being 23 hours on the water (6 p.m.) We are encamped on a stony islet about two miles from the Sulphur Springs [Sulphur Point]. Much to my surprise the lake here seems much stronger than towards Big Island. The floes seem unbroken, white and hard; we shall require a breeze of wind ere we can start, as it is impossible to get through such ice. The canoes suffered much damage. We have been troubled with perpetual fogs for the last 3 days. Much of the ice yesterday and today covered with sulphur.

On Wednesday, June 20, they reached and passed Presque Isle [Presqu’ile Point] “after which we got pretty clear water to Les Isles aux Mort [Ile du Mort]. A head wind put us ashore on one of Les Isles Brules [Burnt Islands] for 3 hours. We then started and reached the house about 10 1/2 pm.”

“The house” was Fort Resolution, his destination and the meeting place with James Green Stewart, who had arrived some time before him. This is what Ernest Voorhis has to say of Fort Resolution in his “Historic Forts and Trading Posts of the french regime and of the English Fur Trading Companies.”

Hudson’s Bay Company fort on south shore of Great Slave Lake about 4 miles south of mouth Slave River. It was first built in 1815 and marked the most northerly operations of the Hudson’s Bay Co until after the union of 1821. After the union, the present fort was constructed on the site of the first fort. The first North West Co fort on Slave lake was built by Cuthbert Grant and [Louis] Leroux for Peter Pond in 1786 on the Slave River, left bank, a few miles from its mouth. This was called Slave Fort. A short time after, it was moved to Moose Deer Island, a few miles from the mouth of Slave River and opposite Fort Resolution. There the North West Co. remained until the coalition of 1821 when Slave fort was abandoned.

So James Anderson and his crew have reached Fort Resolution, where they will join James Green Stewart and begin their journey to the Great Fish River. To get that far, we still have a lot of Great Slave Lake to cross. When this post is written, it will appear here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/james-andersons-journey-3/ 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.








2 thoughts on “James Anderson’s Journey part 2

  1. peter solhjell

    Great Co. history Nancy. Have you ever done anything on Bella CooLa post.
    I know you have done a bit on HBC at Bella Bella. and also know there is little on Bella Coola, Bilchoola, BilCoolix bilwhoola etc. The local Nuxhalk say Bilckcuolix.
    I have a great photo of the post taken in 1896 by a Norwegian photographer
    when John clayton owned it. could email you a copy if you wish.
    I’m also sure you are aware of Dunn’s travel in here on one of the Beaver’s first trips on the B C coast ?
    Peter solhjell

  2. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

    Yes, Fort McLoughlin was first constructed in 1833 by Donald Manson, and my great grandfather A.C. Anderson was there and part of the crew. This was his first posting after he arrived at Fort Vancouver from Lachine. I was aware that John Dunn was also there but not that he had arrived on the Beaver.
    The post was abandoned in 1843 and its men brought down to help construct Fort Victoria. It was burned down, apparently, by the local First Nations, and its nails traded at a nearby post, likely Fort Simpson as Fort Rupert was not built before 1849. The post was re-opened in 1873, and this time with a smaller trading post surrounded by a stockade. It was rented out to John Clayton of Bella Coola for $5.00 a month, and this is the post that you have a photo of. I certainly could write about the earlier Fort McLoughlin if anyone wanted me to, but know little about the later one.