Liard River to Pelly Banks

Furs at HBC replica fort at Fort Langley, B. C.

This selections of furs is displayed at Fort Langley, but the same furs would be found at any HBC fort in the territory.

My last blogpost covered the HBC attempt to build a post on the lower Stikine River. They failed, and Peter Skene Ogden returned to Fort Simpson, on the Nass River, where they rebuilt the older fort in a more friendly location. There is no reason why I should not write the compete story of this removal (which was pretty exciting at times), and when I do, the story will appear here:

We are returning to the Liard River, where Robert Campbell has now replaced John McLeod in the newly rebuilt Fort Halkett, on the banks of the Smith River. The year is 1839 — five years after Ogden’s run in with Seix (“Shakes”) in 1834, and a half a year after McLeod met (and escaped from) “Shakes” at the massive Indigenous rendezvous on the Stikine River. But also in 1839, a contract had been signed between the Russians and the British government, which meant that the HBC men no longer had to attempt to access the Stikine River basin from the east. Now their explorations turned toward the north, and the Company established a series of posts on the Mackenzie River north of Fort Simpson. The northernmost of these posts was the Peel river post, later named Fort McPherson.

But these stories will be told in another series: at the moment we are following Robert Campbell northward as he proceeds up the Liard River toward Frances Lake. The ice came off the Liard in May, 1840, and Campbell left Fort Halkett, heading north toward the “North Branch of the Liard,” which was to be named Frances River for the Governor’s wife. In his book, Fur Trade and Exploration: Opening the Far Northwest, 1821-1852, Theodore Kamaraski writes this about their journey up the Frances River.

The Frances’s current was moderate for the first few days of upstream travel, until the party reached Middle Canyon. There, yellowed and rugged limestone cliffs shadowed the river and constrained the current in a canyon strewn with boulders and jutting ledges of rock. The canyon, about three miles long, is caused by Simpson’s Mountains, which block the Frances River’s passage south, creating a hazard to navigation. The voyageurs had many anxious and difficult moments, scrambling along the nearly precipitous banks of the river, as they tried to put the canoes upstream.

Middle Canyon was the prelude to two further canyons on the Frances River. The first of these, False Canyon, was an extremely picturesque place with fine black granite cliffs hemming the river. Its beauty was enhanced because the water, although constricted to a narrow 200-foot passage, ran deep and smooth, free of rapids. The voyageurs had no such luck with Upper Canyon, which was an unpleasant succession of rapids and small falls; they were forced to repeat the wearisome tactic of wading and towing the canoes. Three miles above Upper Canyon, Campbell came to the final rapids on the Frances, a deceptive, difficult half mile of fast water. In his journal Campbell makes little mention of the canyons on the Frances, which a later traveler referred to as “savage and dangerous.”

Well, I have just learned from the footnotes of this book, that Robert Campbell’s journals are published, under the title of Two Journals of Robert Campbell, Chief Factor, Hudson’s Bay Company, 1803 to 1853; early journal, 1808 to 1852, later journal, Sept. 1850 to Feb. 1853, published in Seattle, Washington, in 1958. Not only that, but the British Columbia archives has a copy of the journals, catalogue number NW972.17 C189t. I think, rather than take the story from Kamaranski’s excellent book, I will see what Campbell has to say for himself! First, he describes Fort Halkett:

Fort Halkett is situated on the bank of Smith River at its confluence with the Liard, & except in the river valley is surrounded by rugged mountains, whose hard rocky slides [sides?] were beautified by occasional green slopes, & woods of the general varieties indigenous to that country, viz: spruce, poplar, pine, birch & tamarack, while small shrubs grew in profusion. Wild fruits, such as rasp & straw berries, blue berries, & cranberries, are very abundant. Our garden also yielded well. For our winter’s sustenance we depended mainly on our fisheries which were established on lakes 30 miles or so by Smith River, together with what our Indian hunters brought in. In the neighbourhood are some curious warm-water springs issuing from the sloping bank of the river. The water, though cold as ice in summer, is warm (but not hot) in winter and keeps a channel open all winter for miles along the bank. The water encrustates the ground it rises through as though it froze the ground, and it seems continually to have to be making new exits for itself.

In 1840, he is on his way to Frances Lake and the Pelly. Here is what he wrote:

After passing the Nahanny [Dease River] which led to our old quarters at Dease’s Lake, our route up the Liard took us in serpentine curves against a swift current through a valley well-wooded with Pine & Poplar, the mountains on both sides increasing in altitude as we advanced, & showing lovely slopes of bright verdure facing the South.

19 July. After ascending the stream far into the mountains, on this date we reached a beautiful sheet of water which in honor of Lady Simpson, I called Frances Lake. About 4 miles further on, the lake divides into 2 branches round “Simpson’s Tower,” (which I named after Sir George). It is of considerable altitude, over 2,000 feet. The West wing extends about 30 or 40 miles, the East about 20 or 30, each being on the average about a mile broad, & the water clear & deep. A river which entered the North end of the East branch I named the Thomas, after Thomas Simpson. The Hills slope off from the edge of the Lake, along which are many picturesque coves, while the scenery in general is very striking.

Frances Lake might be called two lakes. He went up the west arm of the lake, and to his left was a range of mountains, that Campbell took little notice of. Today these are called the Campbell Mountains — a group of low mountains no more than five or six thousand feet above sea level.

On a small Island — the only one there is — in the West branch, which is situated on the N. extremity of this branch, I left 3 of the men with a canoe & nets & guns to fish & hunt round there & wait our return, while I went off on foot with Hoole & the 3 Indians, carrying our blankets, &c., on our backs & our guns in our hands, to cross the mountains in quest of any river we might find flowing from the West side. Traversing a rough wooded country along the base of hills, we ascended the valley of a river, which enters Frances Lake nearly opposite the little Island; for the last 10 miles of its course it cuts its tortuous way, a foaming torrent through a rocky chasm. We traced it to its source in a lake 10 miles long & about 1 mile in breadth, which with the river I named Finlayson’s Lake and river (after Chief Factor Duncan Finlayson, afterwards a member of the H.B. Co. Board of Directors). The lake is situated so near the watershed that, in high floods, its water flow at one end down one side of the mountains, & at the other end, down the other side.

For 3 days on this trip we had neither the luck to kill nor the pleasure to eat; but having managed to make pine bark canoes we paddled to the W. end of Finlayson’s Lake & shortly after that we got deer & beaver more than sufficient for our wants. On the 6th day of our journey from “Simpson’s Tower,” we had the satisfaction of seeing from a high bank a large river in the distance flowing Northwest. I name the bank from which we caught the first glimpse of the river “Pelly Banks,” & the river “Pelly River,” after our home Governor, Sir H. Pelly. Descending to the River we drank out of its pellucid eater to Her Majesty & the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Now I wonder where the Pelly Banks post was built? Was it built where they first saw the Pelly River, or at a point on the Pelly River, below where Campbell named “Pelly’s Banks.” We will find out.

We constructed a raft & drifted down the stream a few miles, & threw in a sealed tin can with memoranda of our discovery, the date, &c., with a request to the finder, if perchance the can should fall into anyone’s hands, to make the fact known. After taking possession in the name of the Company by marking a tree “H.B.C.” with date, & flying the H.B.C. ensign the while overhead, we retraced our steps to Frances Lake, highly delighted with our success; the return trip being made with much more ease & comfort, as we had our canoes at Finlayson’s Lake. In them we paddled & drifted, hunting beaver & other game as we went along, till we reached the head of the rapids within 10 miles of Frances Lake. In due time we rejoined the rest of the Party, who during our absence had built a rough shanty at the foot of “Simpson’s Tower,” on the point at the forks of the Lake. This edifice was dignified by the name of “Glenlyon House.”

I am amused — it is a very fancy name for a shack in the wilderness, and everyone must have taken some pleasure in whatever naming-ceremony Campbell used. I am pretty sure this place was abandoned and never visited again, but I might be wrong. I wonder if anything still exists?

We now returned downstream to Fort Halkett, which we reached about the middle of September, with our canoe loaded with provisions. We saw no Indians, nor trace of them during the entire trip. Our arrival was very opportune as next day the outfit & packet arrived from Fort Simpson in charge of Jean Baptiste Bruce, the well-known guide.

In his book, Fur Trade and Exploration, Theodore Karamanski says that on his way out from Frances Lake, Campbell had his men built two more canoes. He learned that Murdock McPherson…

had been replaced as commander of the Mackenzie District by a robust, forty-nine-year-old Englishman, named John Lee Lewes. Born in 1791, the son of a popular actor, Charles Lee Lewes, John Lewes had entered the Hudson’s Bay Company’s service in 1807. He rose to chief trader in 1821 and was chief factor in 1830. George Simpson, although he respected Lewes’s integrity, sneered that he was “Deficient in point of Education.” Lewes’s correspondence, however, reveals a knowledgeable man with a lively pen. [Kamaraski, p. 176]

John Lee Lewes is a favourite of mine, and I wrote about him here:  

Jean Baptiste Bruce and his men returned to Fort Simpson:

Early on the morning of the 18th September, Bruce, Mr. Mowat, 7 men left for Fort Simpson, and before noon of that day, as I learned with profound sorrow three days afterwards, Mr. Mowat & 5 others were drowned. While running a rapid, their canoe went to pieces & those six sank to rise no more. Bruce and 2 others managed to swim to shore, & came back to tell us the mournful news, which was inexpressibly sad to me, as I knew them all so well.

And so the Liard River claimed six more victims!

To return to the beginning of this series, go here:

Note that this new WordPress does not work well at all, and it takes six or so tries for me to make it lead you to this page. It now seems to be working…

When the next post in this series is published, it will appear here:

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