James Anderson’s Journey

birchbark canoe
“Canoeing on a Canadian River, ca. 1881.” Glenbow Archives, image na-843-14, and used with their permission. The canoes that James Anderson and James Green Stewart used on their expedition were not nearly as nice as this one, as you will see in the description below.

James Anderson’s journey took him all the way north from Fort Simpson to the Arctic Ocean in 1855. Anderson’s journey began at the Hudson’s Bay Company post which he has been in charge of since 1852. He was Chief Factor and in charge of the entire district, which means that he oversaw all the posts on the west side of the Mountains: those up the Liard River, Fort Selkirk on the Pelly River, and Fort Yukon on the Yukon River. He was also in charge of the posts on the Mackenzie River and south, as far south as Great Slave Lake. It was a big territory, and a very fur rich territory. In this territory, the big problem was transportation!

But this story will not be about transportation. It will be about exploration and the search for Sir John Franklin and his crew — or by the time Anderson was joining the search, proof of the party’s death by starvation and the possible but unlikely rescue of the last remnants of men who might still have survived — unlikely as it may have been.

I suppose you all know by now that James Anderson is in my family and is elder brother of Alexander Caulfield Anderson. The two boys both joined the HBC fur trade at the same time, with James spending his career east of the Rockies and Alexander in the west. For the first few years James was on Hudson Bay, and then spent many years at Lake Nipigon. Then he was sent to the Athabasca District, where in 1850 he was placed in charge of Fort Chipewyan.

A year later, James Anderson took charge of the Mackenzie River District after John Rae left the territory. Rae had explored sections of the Arctic and returned with Inuit stories of white men starving on what he identified as “Back’s River.” He and his men overwintered some distance to the east of Back’s River, but still had occasion to listen to stories the Inuit told him. This is what he reported to Governor George Simpson on his return to York Factory. The letter is dated 1st September 1854:

In the Spring, four winters past, (1850) whilst some Esquimaux families were killing Seals near the north shore of a large Island named in Arrowsmith’s Charts, King William’s Land, about forty white men were seen travelling in company southward over the ice, and dragging a boat and sledges with them. They were passing along the west shore of the above named Island. None of the party could speak the Esquimaux language so well as to be understood, but by signs the Natives were led to believe that the Ship or ships had been crushed by ice, and that they were then going to where they expected to find deer to shoot. From the appearance of the Men (all of whom with the exception of one Officer, were hauling on the drag ropes of the sledge and were looking thin) — they were then supposed to be getting short of provisions, and they purchased a small Seal or piece of Seal from the natives. The Officer was described as being a tall, stout, middle aged man: When their days journey terminated, they pitched Tents to rest in.

At a later date the same Season but previous to the disruption of the ice, the corpses of some thirty persons and some graves were discovered on the Continent, and five dead bodies on an island near it, about a long day’s journey to the north west of the mouth of a large stream, which can be no other than Back’s Great Fish River (named by the Esquimaux Ool-koo-i-hi-ca-lik), as its description, and that of the low shore in the neighbourhood of Point Ogle and Montreal Island agree exactly with that of Sir George Back. Some of the bodies were in a tent or tents; others were under the boat which had been turned over to form a shelter, and some lay scattered about in different directions…

From the mutilated state of man of the bodies and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched Countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative, as a means of sustaining life. A few of the unfortunate Men must have survived until the arrival of the wild fowl (say until the end of May), as shots were heard, and fresh bones and feathers of geese were noticed near the scene of the sad event.

John Rae’s Correspondence, edited by E.E. Rich, London: The Hudson’s Bay Record Society, 1953, p. 274-276

So Chief Factor James Anderson was sent to find and rescue any of the men who might have survived, or to find the graves (or bodies) if they had not. From Fort Simpson, he began his journey south to Great Slave Lake, where he would be close to the headwaters of the Great Fish River. His guide was a copy of Captain George Back’s 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, which Governor George Simpson sent to him in the incoming boats. And yes, this book contained the map that he followed north to the Arctic Ocean, as you will see. When he set off from Fort Simpson, he knew this was the only map he had, and the only map he would have for his entire journey. If you want to see how difficult this journey might have been, and how little help the map was to him, you can borrow the above book from your local library, as it was republished in 1970, maps and all, by M.G. Hurtig, Edmonton.

Fort Simpson was situated on Simpson Island, an island in the Mackenzie at the mouth of the Liard River. In making his way from Fort Simpson to Fort Resolution, on Great Slave Lake, Anderson and his men are paddling upriver against the heavy flow of the Mackenzie, southward. Between Fort Simpson and the Rabbitskin River the current is especially strong and fast, and there may occur what paddlers call “strange boils.” Almost a mile south of the mouth of the Rabbitskin River there are rapids, and at the Head of the Line there is also a stronger current. Once past the Head of the Line there was no more lining or portaging of boats or canoes upriver; hence its name. So, let’s see how far we get on James Anderson’s journey:

Monday 28 May — I took my departure with 2 canoes and 10 men laden with supplies for the Expedition at a little after mid-day. Ice still drifting in the Upper Mackenzie. We broke one of the canoes near the Green Island [the island still bears that name], it drifted so thickly that we were compelled to encamp at 7 1/2 p.m. at the head of the Island. The water appears to have risen very high in the River: appearance of several Dykes [ice-jams].

Tuesday 29th. Detained by ice till 8 1/2 a.m. when we left and reached the point below Rabbitskin River, where we were compelled to encamp, the ice drifting very thickly. In the midst of this Baptiste Le Noir came drifting in a small canoe: he says that the river is free as far as Couteaux Jaune’s [Yellowknife?] River, but impracticable for even a boat to ascend. The people shot a few ducks and rabbits. A few drops of rain fell and the sky was overcast all day. Got a fresh stock of duck eggs.

Wednesday 30th. The ice detained us till 10 1/2 a.m. We got many knocks and rubs, but reached Spence’s [Spence] River at 8 1/2 p.m. Saw Babillard &c &c & old Le Noir and son. Got a few fish, 2 geese, a beaver and a piece of bear from them. They had hunts varying from 40 to upwards of 100 M.B. [Made Beaver]. The birches and poplars began to put on their leaves. The weather was warm today. Previous to leaving Fort Simpson the highest the thermometer reached this spring was 62 degrees.

Thursday 31st. After gumming the canoes, embarked at 4 1/2 a.m. Obliged to take to the paddle owing to the quantities of ice on the beach. Experienced some heavy showers, accompanied by thunder. We had much trouble with drift-ice, but managed to reach a little above the stream when we saw the ice coming down full channel, evidently from the little Lake [a widening in the river]. By using our best exertions we managed to get our canoes out of the water (5 p.m.) just as the ice came down with tremendous force, sending huge boulders up the bank like skittle Balls. The canoes suffered much to-day, on one occasion a mass of ice tumbled from off the Bank, sent a wave into the canoe and broke the paddle of one of the men; a few inches more and we should have been all smashed into a thousand pieces: as it was, we escaped, except an Indian who was hurt by the handle of the broken paddle being driven into his side.

Friday, June 1st. Detained all day by ice; immense quantities have passed: about 3 a.m. the waters rose with a sudden rush, bringing down immense fields, portions of which were shoved with tremendous force up the Banks. Fortunately I caused the baggage and canoes to be carried high up before the men went to sleep — still one of our canoes had a narrow escape. The ice tho’ still drifting thickly (at 8 1/2 p.m.) is getting a little clearer. This is a bad place for hunting: nothing has been killed to-day by the hunters. Weather warm.

Saturday 2nd. Still detained by ice. Cloudy with some slight showers. The Big Island boat arrived at 11 a.m.; took out its crew and sent the [Fort] Simpson people except two Indians, back in it. Mr. [Lawrence] Clark was a passenger. The ice is drifting thinly this evening, and I am in hopes that we shall be able to leave this evening.

Sunday 3rd. Cloudy all day. Just as we were preparing to leave this, a canoe arrived from [Fort] Simpson which Mr. [Robert?] Miles was kind enough to send with some provisions upon learning the state of the ice from the Indians: of them I took one bag of pemmican, 22 bags grease, 25 [Wood Bison] tongues, 1 bag potatoes, and sent back the remainder. We left rather too soon as we broke both canoes with ice and were compelled to put on shore to repair them. It was touch work getting up to the Head of the Line; the water is high, which precludes tracking, and the current very strong. Both canoes were nearly upset in rounding fallen trees, and the old canoe had a most narrow escape of being crushed by a floe of ice. Saw 5 Indians with excellent hunts, and a boy of 12 years old who had killed 70 M.B. in martens. The lowest their men had was 80, the others 100 and upwards. Encamped late in the little lake opposite Point au Foin [“To Kick Up a Fuss” Point]; men much fatigued after this hard day’s work — it was one continued stretch.

Let’s have a word about sources here. James Anderson’s Journal, May 28-Sept 3, 1855. Journal of expedition in search of Sir John Franklin, is in the British Columbia Archives under A/C/40/An32.7. It is a transcription, likely written by James Mackenzie Anderson and given to his cousin, James Robert Anderson, son of A.C. Anderson. Another copy was published by J. R. Tyrrel under the title of “A Story of a Franklin Search Expedition,” in Transactions of the Canadian Institute, volume VII (Toronto, 1910). It contains phrases that the B.C Archives copy does not contain: in fact I think it goes both ways! Then there’s the copy in the Annual Report of the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Toronto, 1919-1920, which contains information plus the journal itself — all of these differ from each other. Finally, there is the beautifully written book edited by William Barr, Searching for Franklin: The Land Arctic Searching Expedition: James Anderson’s and James Stewart’s Expedition via the Back River, 1855 [London, the Halkuyt Society, 1999]. This last has additional information about the journey and is well worth getting your hands on a copy of if you are interested in learning more.

Did you realize that the James Stewart mentioned above in William Barr’s book-title, is James Green Stewart, who we have already met at Fort Selkirk, on the Pelly River. It is amazing how all of these stories tie together!

Anyway, from the above book we learn that “The season is a very late one. From the brief notice given us birch bark canoes must be used and those not of the best quality. They cannot bear hard usage and there is every probability that they will be much injured before we reach even the Thlewycho [Great Fish or Back River], one of the most dangerous rivers known; if we reach the sea in safety I shall be much surprised & don’t expect it.” This is from a letter written by James Anderson to Lady Franklin, 7 June 1855. He also says that, “As we can barely take down enough provisions for the summer trip, we shall be unable to winter on the coast.” Both of these quotes are found in the above mentioned book by William Barr. So this information should set you up for future posts in this series, and there will be more information to come when James Anderson actually arrives at Fort Resolution, on Great Slave Lake. This post will be his starting point for the journey down the Great Fish River to the Arctic Ocean — and yes, he does make it all the way to the ocean itself, as you will see!

When the next post in this series is published, it will appear here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/james-anderson-2/

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2019. All rights reserved.

6 thoughts on “James Anderson’s Journey

  1. Warren Burles

    Fabulous stuff.. I agree with your first sentiment, take the day off. We and then me, an arm chair amateur historian .. need you, our lead voyageur to be in good health and good humour too.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      I don’t know which mountains you think I mean, but I am referring to the Mackenzie Mountains, and the Fort Simpson department was made up of Fort Halkett, Fort Francis Lake, Fort Selkirk, Fort Yukon, and Rat’s Portage House or Lapierre’s House (on the Porcupine River), as well as Fort Resolution, Fort Norman, Fort Good Hope, Peel’s River Post (Fort McPherson), and Fort Simpson itself– according to Augustus Peers. And Anderson closed down the post at Francis Lake and also Fort Selkirk, as we know from the circle route we just did though the Yukon. He didn’t control any posts on the coast, if that is what you are thinking of.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Thanks. And there is an additional reference I forgot to mention. A lot of the modern information about the places along the river came from a book by Jamie Bastedo, titled “Northwest Territories.”