James Anderson on the Back River 1

birchbark canoe

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

So James Anderson and James Green Stewart and their men have now reached the headwaters of the Great Fish River, and will begin their journey north to the Arctic Ocean. The year is 1855, and only one other group of white men have explored this river. In 1834, the naval officer Commander George Back descended the Great Fish River in his boat. From this point — the headwaters of the Great Fish River — his voice will sometimes join Anderson’s in the descriptions of the places that they both saw.

First, let me tell you a little about George Back. He was a naval officer and Arctic explorer who was never employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1819 to 1822, he accompanied Lieutenant John Franklin on his overland expedition to the Coppermine River, and later joined him in a second expedition. When in 1829 his friend Sir John Ross had gone missing in the Arctic, Back offered to command a search by way of the Thlew-ee-choh or Great Fish River {later called Back’s River). Back accessed the Great Fish River by a different route than Anderson did: he went up the Hoar Frost River, past and through Beverley’s Falls, Cook’s Lake, Walmsley Lake, and then followed a series of streams eastward to Clinton-Colden Lake. Antoine de Charloit was one of Back’s men, and so it is likely that this series of streams included modern-day Lac du Charloit. 

So Back travelled to the headwaters of the Great Fish River via Clinton-Colden Lake and Lake Aylmer. Anderson’s path joined Back’s at the north end of Lake Aylmer, and he would not see Clinton-Colden Lake until he returned home by it. In 1833, Back reached the Great Fish River too late in the year to explore its length, and so returned to his winter post on Great Slave Lake via Clinton-Colden Lake, Artillery Lake, and the Lockhart River. Anderson would later follow that route on his way home to Great Slave Lake — or almost the same route. He knew from Back’s journal how difficult the Lockhart River was, and when he reached the end of Artillery Lake, he explored a little and found another river that would lead him and his men down the hill to Great Slave Lake. 

But we are getting ahead of ourselves: that story is not yet. 

So James Anderson and his party of men have now reached Sussex Lake, which forms the headwaters of the Great Fish River. The Great Fish River’s Indigenous name varies in these journals: Back called it the Thlew-ee-choh, and James Anderson the Thlewecho. Today it is called the Back River, and you can easily find its winding route on any map of the Northwest Territories.

As I said in my last post, James Anderson and his men will continue their journey down the river to Musk-Ox Lake, using Back’s Narrative as their guide-book. Here is the beginning of Anderson’s journey:

Friday [July] 13th. The men were so fatigued that I gave them an extra hour’s sleep. We made two portages, one of 1/4 miles, the other 1 1/4 miles over the angular debris of rocks; 4 men were so lame as to be unable to carry. We then proceeded across the little Lake and Musk Ox Lake — Back’s descriptions are excellent. I think he underestimated the distance between the portage and Musk Ox Lake.

And this is what George Back had to say in his Narrative, of his passage down the Thlew-ee-chow to Musk Ox Lake in 1833:

The stream again widened into what might be called a lake, and received the waters of Icy River from the westward, as well as those of another river from the Eastward. The bank of the first were still cased in ponderous ice far up the valley, and the confluence was marked by a sort of curved surface, in the form of a low arch, from side the side, under which the water rushed in a yeasty current with a deep and rumbling noise. Some islands were passed, and one of the last had a singularly white appearance, which was caused, as I afterwards found, by large, round, light coloured stones, which formed its cone-shaped sides… A narrow brought us to Musk-ox Lake, about six miles long, surrounded by tolerably steep hills, abounding, as Maufelly [his guide] said, at certain seasons, with those animals; and now having arrived at the commencement of a series of rapids which the canoe was too weak to run, and too rickety to be carried over, I had no choice but to stop, and rest…

Back wrote this in 1833 on his first exploration to the headwaters of the river, when they were travelling in a canoe. When they returned in 1834, they would be using a boat. This is what James Anderson said as his journal continues past Sussex Lake:  

Icy River was fast. The Island particularized by Back in the small lake is no longer conical, the middle is sunk and the NW and SE ends raised like a saddle… At the head of Musk Ox Rapid we found a few Copper Indians; we purchased some meat from them and encamped a considerable distance down the Rapids. The entire ladings were run, except at one place where a décharge was made. From this encampment a sick man (Laferté) and 4 Indians will return. The former and one of the Indians proceed to join Mr. [James] Lockhart, the others will join their relatives at Clinton-Colden Straits.

James Lockhart was an important part of this expedition, in the sense that he manned Fort Reliance, at the bottom end of the Lockhart River where it flows into McLeod Bay, (the northern bay of Great Slave Lake). If you remember, James Anderson’s Mountain Portage began in the same northern bay, although well to the west of Fort Reliance. Clinton-Colden Straits was the fishery for the Copper Indians, now known as the Yellowknives Dene. Anderson’s journal continues:  

The expedition will now consist of 14 men, Mr. [James Green] Stewart, and myself. This will leave only 4 men for one canoe and 5 for the two others, 3 of whom are lame; these crews are quite insufficient — & I shall therefore leave one of the canoes either tomorrow or the day after. The weather was cloudy with slight showers of rain. We find enough of dry willows to cook with, in Lake Aylmer we had nothing but heath. Saw a grouse today with its brood — it attacked me bravely. A wolf was also seen as well as a crow (likely a raven) and a few (green-winged) teal which have long been strangers to us. 

On the opposite page to this entry, James Anderson lists the men who will continue this expedition north to the Arctic Ocean: They are, Baptiste Assaminton [Accusation], Joseph Anarin, Ignace Montour, Iroquois boatsmen. The names vary in these journals: Baptiste Assaminton’s name, for example, is spelled a number of different ways, as is Thomas Mustegan’s. 

Thomas Mustegan and Paulet Papanakies are the Steersmen, and both are Muskekegon/Cree according to James Anderson. Muskekegon (or Muskegon) are Swampy Cree: they are the people who live around Norway House and Grand Rapids and in the wilderness between Playgreen Lake and Hudson Bay itself. 

John Fidler is listed as a Half-breed Steersman. Henry Fidler, Edward Kipling, Donald MacLeod and George Daniel are all listed as Half-breed Midshipmen. Jeremiah Johnson, a Muskekegon/Cree, was also a midshipman, as was Canadien Joseph Boucher. As I discovered later, Boucher was also the cook for the expedition. Murdock McLennan/McLellan was a Highlander and Midshipman, and William Reid, an Orkney man and Midshipman. Generally the canoemen in the middle of the boat are called Middlemen, but Anderson is using a slightly different term for them in this journal.

Thomas Mustegan was the chief of the band of Ojibway Indians at Norway House, and was described as a splendid man, physically strong even in his old age, with a reputation for being honest and hardworking. Paulet Papanakies was also an Ojibway, who in later years lived at Fisher River [Ontario]. He was a quiet, deliberate man who had a lot of life experience and had often been at York Factory. In his old age he was described as still strong and of unimpaired faculties. He was praised, particularly, for his eyesight, and you will see why this is important at a later stage of this journal. 

Three of James Anderson’s men were with Chief Factor John Rae on his 1854 Arctic Expedition. These were Henry Fidler, John Fidler, and Murdock McLennan/McLellan. Henry Fidler was described as a half-breed who lived in the Red River Settlement, and possibly John Fidler was his brother or cousin. Both may have been descendants of the HBC surveyor Peter Fidler, and neither appeared to have worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Although born in the Orkneys about 1826, McLennan was a Highlander, and was described as an active and steady, hard-working man who was a good boats-man. When the Anderson-Stewart Expedition returned home, he retired to the Red River Settlement.

James Green Stewart, who was James Anderson’s second in command, was born in 1820 and entered the service of the company as a young man. In the 1850s he had explored the Yukon River with Robert Campbell, and founded Fort Selkirk After Fort Selkirk was destroyed, however, Anderson sent Stewart out of the Mackenzie River District, and he ended up at Carlton House. Because of his experience in the north with Robert Campbell, Sir George Simpson assigned Stewart as Anderson’s second-in-command. Stewart arrived at Fort Chipewyan, Athabasca Lake, on March 28, 1855, after a not-entirely-uneventful canoe journey from Carlton House. He and his employees built the canoes that the expedition used. He left Fort Chipewyan in the two new canoes on May 22, and arrived at Great Slave Lake and Fort Resolution five days later — quite some time before James Anderson arrived at the post. 

So now it is time to tell the story of the rest of James Anderson’s journey north, down the Great Fish or Back River all the way to the Arctic Ocean in 1855: 

Saturday 14th [July]. Blowing a NE gale accompanied by rain and fog, which prevented us from leaving the Encampment till 10 1/2 am. We were obliged to carry most of the ladings for the remainder of the Rapids, say half-way (2 miles), but the canoes and agrets were run with difficulty and rather damaged, particularly one of the [Fort] Resolution ones, the bark of which is most wretched.

The word agrets is a voyageur word for equipment: equipment for boats; and also equipment for horses. 

The ladings were carried at the Rapid where Back nearly lost his Boat, but the Canoes were merely lifted over a ledge of Rock and were run safely with all the agrets.

Of course now we want the story of Back losing his Boat in 1834, as it is told in his Narrative. Back wrote: 

The Boat had now arrived, and the rest of the men being busied in making the portage, she was pushed off with four good hands, quite light, to run the fall [rapid]. Unfortunately the steersman kept her rather too much to the left; in consequence of which, after descending the first fall, she was drawn upon a shelving rock forming part of the ledge of the second: this brought her up with a crash which threatened immediate destruction, and called forth a shriek from the prostrate crew. The immense force of the water drove her further on so that she hung only by the stern. The steersman jumped on the rock; but though he maintained his footing, he could not lift her off… In an instant her stern was swept round by the large fall. I held my breath, expecting to see her dashed to shivers against a protruding rock, upon which a wave five feet high was breaking directly before her; but happily, the steering oar had been only half laid in; and, taking the rock, it twirled her broadside to the rapid, which then carried her down without further injury. The water being pumped out it was found that she did not leak…

James Anderson’s journal continues: “We encamped close to the spot — a little below it — where Capt. Back repaired his boat, and which he left on the 8th at 10 am. Two of our present weak crews are so lame that they cannot carry. Encamped at 8 1/2 pm. Two nets were set, as fish appeared to be numerous. Two musk oxen were seen at the Rapid of that name.

For more information on Musk Oxen, see this post: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/musk-ox/ These odd animals will be a constant presence on this river journey. Anderson’s journal continues:

 Sunday, 15th. Left at 4 am. The nets produced nothing, although the fish were visibly numerous… Ran 10 Rapids with full ladings, except at 2 Rapids when Mr. Stewart and myself, 3 men per canoe, and 6 pieces were put ashore. Encamped at 9 1/2 pm at the foot of the Malley’s Rapids, some distance below Capt. Back’s encampment of July 9th. I do not find the Rapids nearly so bad as I was led to expect by Capt. Back’s Narrative — the water is certainly lower than it was when he passed, which renders them in this part of the river worse.

Malley’s Rapids, above, were named by Captain Back for one of his companions, artilleryman William Malley. We will find the names of Back’s men up and down this river. As to James Anderson’s comment in the above quote, in all rivers, lower water worsens the rapids; high water creates more whirlpools. In this case it might also be true that the canoes behaved better than Back’s boat in this fast flowing river. This is how Back described the piece of river that Anderson mentioned, above:

At 10 am we pushed from the shore, and found the rain had caused a rise of full eight inches in the river, which varied in breadth from two hundred yards to a quarter of a mile, as long as it kept between the rocky ridge of the mountains, a distance of about six miles…. A wide and deep channel that was passed terminated in a rapid, which having first carefully examined, was run with a full cargo, and brought us to a small lake perfectly free from ice. This lake is remarkable, as forming the northern boundary of the Heywood chain of Mountains, which here slope off into inconsiderable and regular hills, so thickly strewed with grey rocks and stones as to have the appearance of an immense quarry with loose rubbish about it. The river now became contracted and formed an easy rapid, upon the northern bank of which I made our first cache of pemmican, nearly opposite to a little sand-hill. The stream soon became wider, and opened into a lake so completely blocked up with ice as to arrest our progress, and at 6 pm we encamped.

In his journal, James Anderson wrote:

Saw some Canada geese. A cache of 1 Bag Pemmican was made exactly where Back made his first cache. Wind still Northerly, squally with showers of rain. A little before encamping saw a reindeer (caribou) but could not put ashore as we were just entering a rapid. When making this portage a big Musk bull was discovered and I had the luck to knock him over. The men are now cutting him up. Query the quality of the meat.

In the appendix to Back’s Narrative, Dr. John Richardson described the Musk Oxen:

This animal inhabits the barren lands and the most northern of Parry’s Islands, but retires to the verge of the woods in the depth of winter. It feeds, like the rein-deer (caribou), chiefly on lichens; and the meat of a well-fed cow is agreeable tasted [sic] and juicy; but that of a lean cow and of the bull is strongly impregnated with a disagreeable musky flavour, so as to be palatable only to a very hungry man.

James Anderson was right to be sceptical of the quality of the meat, and he and Stewart “shall sup on a goose shot by Mr. Stewart. The worst canoe was left at the Cache. We are now rather deep but get on well with 7 men per canoe. Some frozen snow was encumbering the shore of a rapid. 5 deer are now running about on the other side of the river; one is a fawn. Slate rocks on the beach at our encampment — and two or three small alders which we have not seen for some time.” His journal continues with the events of Monday July 16:

 Our canoes required so much repairing that we could not leave till 10 3/4 am. All the rapids mentioned by Back were run without difficulty. 

And here is how George Back described another rapid on this section of the Great Fish River:

An easy rapid, and the shelving shore of a sand-hill, rather encouraged the hope that the river would turn out favourably; but that illusion was soon dispelled by a very long rapid immediately succeeding, where the boat was only saved by all hands jumping into the breakers and keeping her stern up the stream until she was cleared from a rock that had brought her up. We had hardly time to get into our places again, when we were carried with considerable velocity past a river which joined from the westward; a rapid then followed; after which another tributary  was observed coming from the same quarter. 

Anderson commented on Back’s journal, saying “The water must have been higher and the Rapids stronger when he passed.” His journal entry continued:

Saw 4 deer and Fidler shot one; saw two bands of Musk Oxen, one of 5, the other of 20 animals, besides 5 or 6 solitary bulls, but only one shot was fired at them. Eleven grey wavys [grey geese] were also run down. Back’s description of the country is in general very correct, but I did not perceive several branches of the River before arriving at Lake Beechey at the entrance or head of which we encamped at 9 pm. Wind dead ahead and strong all day; weather cloudy and chilly. The rocks at our encampment composed of slate.

And so we leave James Anderson and his men encamped at the head of Beechey Lake, on the Great Fish or Back River, in 1855. When we continue this journey, you will find it posted here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/james-andersons-journey-8/

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




2 thoughts on “James Anderson on the Back River 1

  1. Jackie Corrigan

    Yes you’re right. Henry and John Fidler were brothers, grandsons of Peter Fidler. Henry died 29 April 1908, and John on 29 November 1915.