Liard River 3

Tracking the York Boats upriver.

This tracking image is used with the permission of the Glenbow Archives, image na-949-115. The guide yells “Haul, Haul,” while the voyageurs pull the boats upriver and the gentlemen stand by, watching.

So the men going up the Liard River have reached the old location of Fort Halkett, where it stood on the banks of the Smith River. I am continuing, with information from Theodore J. Karamanski’s book, Fur Trade and Exploration: Opening the Far Northwest, 1821-1852, but with information and descriptions from other sources as well.  In my last blogpost, found here: we reached the junction of the Smith River, though the HBC post is not yet built there.

So let’s continue with John McLeod’s journey up the Liard River.

The already dangerous voyage now became spiced by an added element of destruction, a forest fire. The banks of the Liard on both sides were ablaze. Hundreds of miles of magnificent spruce and poplar forest were transformed into smoke and ash. Even on the river, away from the flaring fires of the forest, the explorers were beset by the conflagration’s side effects. Thick, heavy clouds of smoke embraced the river, darkening the sun and choking off all fresh air save for the sultry drafts escaping from the fire. McLeod could see no more than three hundred yards ahead of his canoe. To make matters worse, he had been informed by his guide to expect three miles of cascades in this section of the river. Fortunately, when the bowman spotted a rapid ahead, the party had already gone past the heart of the fire. The banks adjacent to the rapid were covered with smoking grey ash and tangled charred trees, while the rapid itself was a difficult two-mile canyon strewn with hazards. [Karamanski, p. 104]

McLeod portaged around this rapid and canyon. Except for a sharply rising rock a hundred feet high, it was an easy carry over level ground. Because of the fire, “The carrying place has been known ever since as Portage Brule, or the Burntwood Portage,” Karamanski tells us. Above the portage, McLeod and his men passed the mouth of a river that was about three hundred feet wide. This McLeod called the Charles River —  named for the Chief Factor John Charles, father of three boys who worked west of the Rocky Mountains in the 1840s: Thomas Charles, who was at the Thleuz-Cuz post under Alexander Caulfield Anderson, then at Fort Alexandria; John Charles, who took out the York Factory Express in 1849, and was killed on its return journey; and William Charles, who worked at HBC posts such as Fort Boise, in the south, before coming north to Forts Vancouver and Victoria. This, I find, is the fascinating thing about the fur trade: all the stories are connected! (Today’s Charles River is Coal River, named for the coal deposits near its junction with the Liard.)

From Charles River, McLeod continued his way up the Liard, soon finding himself fighting his way up Whirlpool Canyon.

Here treacherous crosscurrents produced by the restraining limestone walls of the canyon create a series of whirlpools, which which alternate between sucking the water deep into their vortices and throwing it up, with a sound that a later voyageur described as “resembling the rumbling of distant thunder.”

The party continued to inch its way upriver, sometimes by tracking and sometimes by poling, taking each hazard as it came. Near nightfall on August 4, they came to the foot of Mountain Portage Rapids, where they set up camp since everyone was dead-tired after a long day of toil… The next morning McLeod spurned the portage trail and risked the dangers of the rapid. As he emerged from the white water, he noticed a large river flowing into the Liard from the south. Its waters were dark and silty, though it was a broad three hundred yards wide. McLeod correctly surmised that this was the same river whose upper reaches marked Samuel Black’s farthest progress during his 1824 expedition. This was confirmed by the “written inscription nailed to a tree, and other marks left of which the Indians make particular mention.” McLeod named the waterway Black’s River in honor of his fellow explorer. [Karamanski, p. 104-106]

The modern name of Black’s river is the Kechika. The map in the back of Sam Black’s Rocky Mountain Journal shows that his party crossed the divide between the Stikine River system, and the Finlay, on August 14, 1824. On August 17, the map indicates that Sam Black’s “furthest camp” was at the mouth of a small river that flowed into the Turnagain River. The Turnagain River flowed into the Kechika River, which flows north off the page of the map and into the Liard! That is how close Sam Black came to the Liard River: only a few days more travel would have brought him there, but not by an easy or useful path. A footnote on page 172 says that “Black’s furthest camp on the Turnagain was about one hundred and twenty-five miles as the crow flies from the nearest point on Liard River.” So he was very close!

This is part of what Sam Black had to say on the day he decided to turn back from his camp on the Turnagain River:

Thus after mature consideration & deliberation, our Councilling has ended in a Resolve to return the best way we can to Lake Thutade [on Finlays river]… although this River [the Turnagain] may be one of the Branches of Liard River the distance between this & the discoveries already made from Liard River establishments is now very great & presume the same kind of Country as here mountains & rock & Beaver to be found here & there all over the Branch or river, where eligible or a sufficiency of earth accumulated to rise wood mud &c, for this country in general is a series of Rocky vallies & mountains close to one another, & the Rivers running on stone & rock except excavations of the River Beds of Calm places in which the earth accumulates forming mud Banks or points. To perform this part of the resolve to come out by Mackenzies River from this place, we would have to steer about an East by North Course as near as possible amongst the mountains for we might not be always able to follow the River which is often the case amongst these mountains even some times when large River & a smoother way expected & tho’ not more than 80 or 100 Geo: Miles in a straight Line perhaps (except there Liard River runs right North general course & in this case more perhaps) to Liard River, yet we know by experience, would cost many a weary step winding about amongst mountains & vallies in bad Roads, perhaps more so for we do not know the Country, than to go to the sources of Finlays Branch, and a longer time than imagined to perform the Voyage or that the low state of our provisions might warrant undertaking, having no caches in that direction to secure our retreat across these horrid mountains on our right or East of us — I therefore hope for the indulgence of the Gentlemen of the concern for not following that part of the resolve of making our exit in Mackenzie’s River particularly when real service is improbable: — To follow this River, should it not turn out to be some of the branches of Liard River in our present state, we would only have to return in a few days at all hazards…. [A Journal of A Voyage From Rocky Mountain Portage in Peace River To the Sources of Finlays Branch And North West Ward in Summer 1824, by Sam Black, p.171-172]

Sam Black had affixed a board “on a Tree emblematical of our having been here in the service of the Honorable Hudson’s Bay Company..” — the First Nations stories were true. But this is interesting: Sam Black’s instructions had been to cross the height of land and find a river that would bring him to the Mackenzie River, from whence he would return to civilization. What a journey that would have been! He would, however, have arrived on the banks of the Liard River with no canoes, and so would have had to walk down the river banks to the Mackenzie.

Karamanski continues his story as his men follow up the Liard River, beyond the Kechika River. “The rest of the day was spent in the usual upstream struggle; the voyageurs wading through the shallows with the tracking line over their shoulders, pulled the canoe up the nameless riffles created by every bend in the river.” Some men complained (no wonder!), and they rested for a day in front of the fire. After a day and a half of light duty and a full stomach, because they had shot a moose, the men were in a much better mood. They broke camp at 4 am. on August 8, and through the fog they heard the rumble of rapids ahead. These were the Cranberry Rapids, the last major obstacle on the river. They poled up the rapids easily, and beyond the river valley spread out and mountains were replaced by gently rolling hills. On August 14 McLeod reached a major tributary of the river which he named Dease River, after Peter Warren Dease. On reaching the first rapid on the Dease, he turned back, continuing his journey up the Liard for another full week. The riverbed became smaller and they felt they were approaching the end of their journey. By accident he directed his canoe up the Frances River (which is today still called the Frances River, I note). Fallen trees blocks the channel, and as darkness fell they were forced to camp short of their goal. It was not until the middle of the next day that they were able to reach Frances Lake.

From Frances Lake, future explorers would find their way from that lake north by a portage to the Pelly and the Yukon River, where the HBC post of Pelly Banks stood. But this will be in a future post. As far as McLeod was concerned, he had completed his journey. Back on the Liard he and his men made their way quickly downstream. At the Mountain Portage Rapids, McLeod decided to run the rapids and broke his canoe on a rock. They barely made it ashore, but repaired the canoe and continued downriver. At the Portage Brule Rapids, the voyageurs ran the rapid but broke their canoe into three pieces in the cascade of water from a rock that protruded into the stream — two men were drowned, and two others barely made it ashore. With difficulty, McLeod’s men rebuilt the canoe using only a crooked knife, which resulted in what McLeod called “our crazy craft.” They descended the river again, carefully sticking close to shore and taking no risks, and enjoyed no more dangerous adventures. On September 9 they reached Fort Simpson in safety. McLeod had completed his exploratory survey of the Liard River all the way to Frances Lake in seventy-four days.

In 1832, Chief Factor Edward Smith (called Old Daddy Smith by his men) ordered that Fort Halkett be moved from the Fort Nelson River to the upper Liard, near the Smith River. There was a delay, but it seems that John McLeod completed the post at its new location by 1834. Robert Campbell came into the territory in fall of 1834, and John McLeod left in spring 1835, after spending his winter at Fort Simpson (where he met Campbell) and at Fort Halkett. According to R. M. Patterson, in his book Trail to the Interior [Victoria: Touchwood Editions, 2007], p. 126, Robert Campbell picked John McLeod’s brains.

That fall a new man came to Fort Simpson. His name was Robert Campbell and he came from the experimental farm at Red River. In the early winter Murdock McPherson came down from Fort Liard to take over Fort Simpson, and with him, as a visitor, came John McLeod. Thus, through the dark winter days, Campbell, the future explorer of the Yukon, was able to pick the brains of the explorer of the South Nahanni and the Upper Liard countries. What he was told set his imagination on fire, and it was with regret that he saw McLeod, “a most genial man,” depart in December for Fort Halkett — a five-hundred mile trip on snowshoes, but only a pleasant country walk compared with the trips the future held in store for Campbell…

What good writing! Both of these authors are a wonderful read: Karamanski, and Patterson. Patterson also described the location of Fort Halkett:

The Alaska Road runs past the site of Fort Halkett today, but in 1837 it was one of the loneliest places in the North. The fort stood on the north bank of the Liard, just above the inflow of Smith River. The setting is plainly shown in a sketch map of Campbell’s of 1847, and the name “Smith’s River” dates from the founding of the fort during Chief Factor Edward Smith’s time at Fort Simpson.There were worse places than Fort Halkett. It was a good garden spot, Campbell says, and a wonderful place for wild fruit — raspberries and strawberries, blueberries and cranberries. In winter they relied on their fisheries, which were on lakes thirty miles or more up Smith River. Nearby were warm springs — cold as ice in summer but warm (though not hot) in wintertime and keeping a channel open all winter for miles along the riverbank. [R.M. Patterson, Trail to the Interior, p. 128]

In 1836, it was planned that Fort Halkett be moved up the Dease River to the shores of Dease Lake, where it would be a stepping stone to a planned new post called Fort Drew, to be established about 200 miles west on the Stikine River system. Robert Campbell supervised Fort Simpson in summer 1836, while the Chief Factor was away from the post, and while the new post was supposedly being built. But Hutchinson, who was supposedly building the new post, arrived with his full crew at Fort Simpson, telling a tale of near disaster — a supposed attack by the Nahanni or Stikine First Nations. Fort Halkett stood abandoned. Hutchison quit the Company rather than go back to Fort Halkett, and Robert Campbell went into the Liard River to build the new post at Dease Lake. In March 1837, Campbell snow-shoed to Fort Liard, on the lower river, where he built canoes and put together his crews.

By the time Campbell arrived at Fort Halkett, still at its Smith River location, he found it undamaged and he recovered most of its goods. However, it was too late in the year (1837) to establish the new post on Dease Lake.  In spring 1838 Campbell prepared to set off for Dease Lake, and another man named McLeod joined him (not John McLeod, above). From the Nahanni First Nations the HBC men learned that there was a great Indian rendezvous to the west of them. Campbell’s party set off down the Stikine River with the Nahannis who were on their way to the Rendezvous, and crossing over what they called the “Terror Bridge,” they arrived at the rendezvous. In his book, Patterson describes what Campbell saw as he approached the rendezvous:

From the top of a hill about thirteen miles from the Tuya they first set eyes on the great encampment “of which we had heard so much, and indeed the description given us was not exaggerated. Such a concourse of Indians I had never before seen assembled. They were gathered from all parts of the western slope of the Rockies and from along the Pacific Coast. These Indians camped here for weeks at a time, living on salmon which could be caught in thousands in the Stikine by gaffing or spearing, to aid them in which they had built a sort of dam across the river.” In the crowd of Nahannis, Campbell became separated from his companions and from the chief. Another Indian who could speak some broken English attached himself to the explorer, and together they went down into the throng below. “Every word I said in replay to the numberless questions asked me was taken up and yelled by a hundred throats till the surrounding rocks and the valley re-echoed with the sound.”

There they met “the great chief from the sea,” the Tlinget chief named Shakes. As R. M. Patterson writes:

Meanwhile a lane was being cleared through the crowd so that Shakes could come forward and meet Campbell. This title of Shakes was not necessarily hereditary. It passed of right to the most capable of the family — if he was man enough to hold it and to use it wisely. Otherwise it might be fought over and pass into some other family. But no matter how it went, it had to go to a strong and kingly man — and such a man Campbell now saw approaching.

“Shakes was a Coast Indian,” Campbell writes, “tall and strongly built… He rules despotically over an immense band of Indians of different tribes, and he came up the Stikine every year, with boats and goods, to the splendid rendezvous where I met him. Here he traded with the Indians of the Interior for the Russians, who supplied him with goods at the mouth of the river. He shook hands with ma and led me to a tent..”

The name “Shakes,” was familiar to me, and I went back to my notes of when Peter Skene Ogden, James Birnie, Alexander Caulfield Anderson, and William Fraser Tolmie were face to face with two Tlingit chiefs as they anchored off the Russian fort established at the mouth of the Stikine River. Ogden had intended to build a fort ten miles up the river in British territory, but he met opposition from both the Russians, and the Stikine chiefs. In his report, of “Transactions at Stikine, 1834,” Peter Skene Ogden noted the names of the two First Nations men who visited his vessel:

In the afternoon we had a visit from two of the principal Chiefs of the Stikine tribe, Seiks and Anacago; they assumed a tone I was not in the habit of hearing, and requested to know if we had come here with the intention of erecting an Establishment, and that although the Russians had one they had no objections to our building also in the Sound, but were determined to prevent us if we attempted to proceed up the River, as by so doing we would injure their trade with the interior.

“Seiks.” “Shakes.” I think they are the same man, and that Shakes traveled from the coast after meeting Ogden, to meet Campbell in the interior. In his Journal, William Fraser Tolmie described the Tlingit man he called “Seiz, the Stikine Chief.”

He is a tall well formed Indian, rather corpulent but that adds to his dignity of deportment — countenance on the Grecian model, encircled by flowing locks of jet black hair, bushy whiskers, mustachios and beard of the same hue — his dress a fox skin robe — he looks somewhat like Colonel Anderson, but his features are larger — is forward and presuming. (“Colonel Anderson” is Tolmie’s nick-name for Alexander Caulfield Anderson).

So this is once again a story of how all these stories tie together. As I said before, the story, from Peter Skene Ogden’s and Anderson’s side, is told in my book, The Pathfinder. Until now I did not know of Campbell’s meeting with “Shakes.” The Stikine chief’s reputation had preceded him: Campbell carried loaded pistols and a dirk in his belt, and “a double-barrelled percussion gun which was a great source of wonder to them as the only guns they were familiar with were single barrelled flintlocks.” Shakes asked him to fire his gun to demonstrate it, and after every shot fired the whole camp yelled and clapped their hands. At length Campbell got clear of Shakes and the crowds of warriors that surrounded him, and returned the post on Dease Lake. The HBC men spent a miserable winter, with little food and constant harassment from the Nahannis. When spring arrived, they abandoned the Dease Lake post and re-established Fort Halkett at its old Smith River location.

From that convenient location, they expanded their knowledge of the Liard River and Frances Lake, hoping to find a way into what we now call the Yukon. When that exploration is written, it will be posted here:

But first, I am going to tell you Peter Skene Ogden’s story of the attempt to build a post on the Stikine River in 1834. That post is to be found here when published:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2018. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Liard River 3

  1. Nora Lande

    This article is so interesting. Robert Campbell was also the HBC CF when my gg grandfather Andrew Flett worked in the McKenzie District at various posts. Andrews’ second wife was Mary Campbell, daughter of Robert Campbell. The stories of survival are incredible due to disease, near starvation and the never ending harsh environment. Thanks for sharing.