James Anderson’s Journey part 3

birchbark canoe

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

In this post we are following James Anderson as he and his party paddled across Great Slave Lake, heading north from Fort Resolution to McLeod Bay. At this point he is following the path of the British explorer George Back, Commander (and later Captain) of the Royal Navy, who had explored the river the “Copper Indians,” or Yellowknife Dene, called the Thlewycho, or Great Fish River.

Anderson’s second-in-command was James Green Stewart — the same man who we found on the Yukon River with Robert Campbell in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Stewart had come upriver from Carlton House to join the expedition, emptying the post store at Ile-à-la-Crosse on the way. Even before Anderson left Fort Simpson, he had commented on Stewart’s “perfect fever of useless excitement.” On his arrival at Fort Resolution, Anderson listened to complaints made by John Bell, at Fort Chipewyan (Athabasca Lake), and Bernard Rogan Ross of Fort Resolution, who told him of Stewart’s wasteful use of supplies and equipment. He inspected the canoes that Stewart had built (two at Fort Chipewyan and one at Fort Resolution), and found them tremendously overbuilt and heavy (although by the end of his journey he admitted that they had proven to be “capital sea boats.”) From these beginning these two men did not get along (Anderson was a harder man than Stewart had dealt with before.) Anderson and Stewart had their first argument at Fort Resolution: many more would follow.

So, two days after Anderson had arrived at Fort Resolution, Great Slave Lake, the expedition set off northward across the lake. The men who accompanied Anderson and Stewart were very interesting characters — experienced men who knew the North. Not all would go down the Great Fish River with the party, and so it is worth listing them all now, and the actual expedition party members at a later date. Some of you will find your ancestors here:

Baptiste Assaminton, sometimes referred to as Baptiste Assinijunton [Accusation]; bowsman. He was Muskegon [Muskekegon] Cree from Norway House. Muskegon Cree are what we sometimes call Swampy Cree.

Ignace Montour, bowsman; and Joseph Anarin, sometimes referred to as Joseph Anarize; bowsman. Ignace is an Iroquois name, in case you didn’t know that. However, both these men were Iroquois, from Norway House or from Red River.

The steersmen were: Alfred Laferté, Canadien; and John Fidler, Métis from Red River. As I said, not all these men would go down the river with the expedition, and Alfred Laferté is one who was cut from the expedition: Anderson said he was a trouble-maker.

The middlemen or paddlers were: Murdock McLellan, a highlander born in Orkney and an experienced boatman; Ham Fisher; Edward Kipling, Métis from Red River; Donald McLeod; George Daniel; Joseph Boucher, Canadien, who as I discover later was the cook for the expedition; William Reid, an Orkneyman; Paulet Papanakies and Joseph Johnson, both Muskegon/Cree from Norway House or Red River. Four “Copper Indians” also accompanied them as hunters or guides: these were today’s Yellowknife Dene.

So let’s begin the journey. They were delayed by storms, and began the journey across the lake on 

Saturday, June 23rd [1855]. Left at 3 a.m., but could not get beyond Rocky Island , owing to strong head winds. The [Fort] Resolution canoe excessively leaky. Set two [fish] nets in the evening. 

Sunday 24th. About 4 a.m. the wind lulled and we made a start, but it soon arose again and we were driven ashore at Point Des Roches (when we take the Traverse) where we remained all day…

Monday 25th. Unable to move from our encampment. Blowing a heavy gale all day, with no appearance of its abating. An Indian here says that his band follow a road from near the ‘Mountain’ to Lake Aylmer; it is through a chain of small lakes with many portages — six of them long one. I wished to follow this road, but unless I can get additional information shall adopt another which they all represent as longer but perfectly safe and with few portages. This falls on the east of Lake Artillery near the Rat Lodge.

The Mountain Portage which Anderson is now considering is one that George Back looked at, but rejected, because it was only suitable for “Indian canoes.” The other route mentioned by Anderson, is the one that George Back used on his return from the Great Fish River, and it is the same route that Anderson and Stewart would later return by. So you will hear the Rat Lodge story eventually, but not right now. 

Because he was travelling down the Great Fish River following a late spring in the territory, Anderson would eventually decide to take the Mountain Portage route to Aylmer Lake. This would be the first time white men traveled over this old Dene route to their fisheries at Aylmer and Clinton-Colden Lakes. By the way, Anderson was using the maps in Captain George Back’s Narrative of a Journey to the shores of the Arctic Ocean in 1833, 1834, and 1835, [London, 1836] as a guide, and a simple map of the route was shown in the book. So, let’s continue. They were delayed the entire day of the 26th by the wind.

Wednesday, 27th. The wind fell a little after 4 a.m. and we started immediately. Just after making the traverse, it began to blow from the N.W. harder than ever, but we felt little of it among the numerous Islands of Simpson Group, but in making some of the Traverses the canoes shipped water. The evening is delightfully calm and serene. We are encamped abut 8 miles from Point Keith at 8 1/2 p.m. The view from a high rock near our encampment is of extraordinary beauty. On this rock was a nest (last year) of a fishing Eagle composed of sticks, hay and moss…

Like all the Andersons in his family, James Anderson was a bit of a naturalist, and he made special note of the birds and animals throughout this journal. Many members of his family were noted natural-historians and artists, including his uncle John Anderson, who studied under Thomas Bewick, the engraver, and was one of his better students (until he threw his career away and ran away to South Africa. But that has nothing to do with this story.) So, to continue:

Thursday 28th. A fine day with one or two showers. Wind rather strong ahead… We left our encampment at 3 a.m. and encamped at 9 p.m. at the N. E. end of Tal, thet, la [Taltheilia Narrows], (a strait which does not freeze during the winter), on an island called the “Bag.”… We met with a little ice in this strait and I fear we shall be stopped tomorrow, as it appears unbroken in the distance. I saw an eagle’s nest; the young eagles were peering over the edge. 

Augustus Peers [whose journals brought us from London to York Factory to Fort Simpson] would have shot these eaglets — James Anderson is more mature, and did not. Anderson’s party is now encamped at or near the end of a long peninsula that stretches across the north side of the lake, separating Great Slave Lake itself, from McLeod Bay. Point Keith, mentioned above, was the northern end of one of the Simpson Islands, now Keith Island. North of Keith Island is Etthen Island, and north of Etthen Island is the Taltheilia Narrows, which lies between the west end of Pethei Peninsula and the mainland. This interesting peninsula is made up of three long, extended islands or peninsulas: Pethei, the westward peninsula or island, and side-by-side to its immediate east, Kahochella (north) and Douglas (south) Peninsulas. North of these three islands or peninsulas is McLeod Bay, and south of it is Christie Bay, part of Great Slave Lake. We are heading for McLeod Bay!

Friday 29th. Young ice formed last night, and we could not leave till the sun had some effect on it and the old ice, which when cemented together is as strong as ever. We embarked at 6 a.m. and after breaking through some ice put on shore at a high rocky island where we remained until 12 o’clock, then made a move, but after proceeded two or 3 miles, put in shore again as the ice was still too strong. Started again at 3 p.m. The ice was now breakable and we found occasional pools of water. We managed to reach a small stream about 15 or 16 miles from the mountain portage — a road leading to the Barren Lands and Lake Aylmer. Back rejected this route as impassable, but as it is the only chance we have of reaching the Thlewy-cho in time to descend to the sea, I have determined on adopting it.

So he has made up his mind to follow the Mountain Portage, as you see.

The head of the lake [McLeod’s Bay] is still firm and the other lakes (Artillery, Clinton-Colden, etc.) will probably be still unbroken. This mountain route is a chain of small lakes with many portages… It was curious to see the men at this date on the ice chopping a road!

Sunday 30th. Calm and clear; the ice froze in a mass last night and we could not attempt to leave before 2 p.m.; it is thicker than what we saw yesterday and bore the men easily; it was from 1 to 2 1/2 feet thick. By dint of chopping and pushing pieces apart we made about 3 miles when it became so thickly packed that I could not venture to proceed further without risking the destruction of the canoes & we encamped at 5 p.m. within sight of our last encampment…

I wonder why they just did not haul their canoes over the ice, like sledges? I am presuming that canoes are not built strong enough for that use, and it might have caused their destruction. Does anyone else have an opinion on this, remembering that these are heavily-built birchbark canoes carrying loads?

Sunday July 1st [1855]. The wind arose (N.E.) rather fresh and by driving away the ice permitted us to leave. We made about 2 miles and were again driven ashore till past 3, when by breaking through some ice we got paddling till 9 p.m. (breaking occasionally through ice) when we were brought to a stop by an impenetrable pack — opposite Kah,oo,challah or Rabbit Point. 

Kah,oo,challah is today’s Kahochella Peninsula, mentioned above as being one of three long islands or peninsulas dividing McLeod Bay from Great Slave Lake itself. It sounds as if it could be translated as “Rabbit Peninsula,” but it might just be Rabbit Point. Does anyone here speak the language of the Yellowknife Dene?

The wind blew very fresh from 2 to 7 o’clock and has broken up the ice which had not previously moved… The water is of immense depth even close to the shore. Only a few ducks and geese are seen and a chance Gull and a few small birds. I have not seen the Cyprus (Banksiana Pine) since leaving [Fort] Resolution. We passed two insignificant streams today.

Monday 2nd. Obliged this morning to make a portage 1/2 mile previous to embarking, after which we only met with two banks of ice. We embarked at 3 a.m. and reached the “Mountain Portage” at 8 1/2 p.m. We passed one insignificant stream about 2 miles from the portage and another falls into the Bay where the portage commences. This portage is an ugly business — it is almost a continual ascent for over 1500 feet. In the first place a portage of about 1/2 mile is made to a pond of about a mile in length, which I have named Sandy Portage Lake. Another portage is then made (over these mountains) of about 3 miles to a small lake now named [blank in mss]. The whole of the ladings with the canoes rendered by 10 p.m. and the men are now laughing over their day’s work!!

So, the canoes arrived at the foot of the Mountain Portage at 8.30 p.m., according to the journals in the B.C.Archives. I think in fact it is 8.30 a.m., and my other major source, William Barr’s Searching for Franklin: The Land Arctic Searching Expedition, agrees with me (or more accurately, I agree with him.) By 10 o’clock that night Anderson and his men have made two portages through two lakes and over a mountain range or two, and the men are laughing around the campfire! These men are amazing, and amazingly tough!

We will continue with the passage through the Mountain Portage in my next posting, which will be found here when published: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/james-andersons-journey-4/  

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

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021. All rights reserved.