Notes re the Liard River

Portaging and packing around a difficult rapid
This image na-1406-48 is used with the permission of the Glenbow Archives and shows the men portaging around a difficult rapid, carrying packs and hauling the York Boats with the use of rollers.

I found a lovely little document the other day, while I was looking for something else. It is James Anderson’s Notes on the Navigation of the West Branch or Liard River, information collected from Robert Campbell when Campbell arrived at Fort Simpson after his post, Fort Selkirk, was destroyed by the Chilcat Indians [Tlingit First Nations] in August 1852. You will see that story written up here:

The James Anderson we speak of here is James Anderson A, of the HBC, who is Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s older brother. He was Chief Trader at Fort Chipewyan in 1850-1851, and Chief Trader in charge of Fort Simpson, NWT, 1851-1856.

In Harold A. Innis’s The Fur Trade in Canada [University of Toronto Press, 1964] I found this note on James Anderson and his work in the Mackenzie River district:

The controversy over the management of the Yukon Territory from Mackenzie River between Governor Simpson and Chief Factor Anderson illustrates more specifically the problem of central control. Robert Campbell received every encouragement through letters and promotion in establishing posts in the Yukon district from Governor Simpson, whereas Anderson consistently advocated their abandonment…

In this report, Anderson will explain his thinking to us. But before we begin, the Fort Simpson journal, a copy of which also happens to be in the B.C. Archives, says this:

[weekday] 21st. Wind moderate, men employed as yesterday. Mr. R. Campbell C.T and two men arrived from Fort Selkirk by the way of the West branch route. Fort Selkirk has been taken by Indians and Mr. Campbell and Stewart obliged to quit with the Servants, some for the Youcon and the remainder for here. [Very hard to read].

Fort Simpson Post Journal, BCA

So, here goes — Anderson’s notes on the Liard River:

The usual period of high water in the West Branch (Liard) is from the 10 June to 25th July…The water subsides about the beginning of July and begins to rise about the 10th [June]. In 1840 Campbell left [Fort] Halkett 1 July in canoe, reached Frances Lake 19th; left on foot, 23rd; and reached the Pelly on the 31st.

In 1842 Frances Lake [post] established by Campbell. Left Simpson 27th June (when the water had subsided), arrived at Liard 2nd July, 6 days; left 4 July, reached Devil’s Portage 18th July, 15 days; made a road across the Portage about 3 miles and launched boat and carried cargoes across, 23rd, evening, 5 days; Reached [Fort] Halkett 25th, 2 days; Left 27th, reached Frances Lake 13 August, 18 days — Total voyage including stoppages 49 days. Water High.

In 1843 [Alexander] Christie left [Fort] Simpson 29 June — water very high — and arrived at Liard 8 July.

In fall 1844 Campbell took 41 days to go up to Frances Lake from [Fort] Simpson. 10 Indians deserted, which retarded him, but the water was very low.

In 1850 [James Green] Stewart performed the trip from Simpson to Frances Lake in 46 days — high water the whole way up. Left Simpson 13 June.

Road from Frances Lake to Pelly Banks: A portage (Bad) 20 miles to the head of the Cordellais [?] Cascades, Finlayson’s Branch, thence possible to navigate a canoe about 40 miles to Beaver Forks, thence 18 miles to Finlayson’s Lake, River insignificant, much barred with trees, but it is possible to get a middle-sized canoe up light — thence across Finlayson’s Lake 22 miles. A short portage to another small Lake 3 miles long, whence the waters run westward. Thence a small (Beaver) Creek which passes through some small lakes, out of the direct course. Thence a portage, 40 miles through thick woods, with the exception of 2 small lakes and a short piece of River falling into the Pelly, in all perhaps 7 miles to the Pelly River.

In ’43 Campbell walked from Frances Lake (bad walking) to Pelly Banks in 5 days — left 30th May, arrived 4 June.

In ’43 Campbell mentions that one of his men went from Frances Lake to the cache on the Pelly and returned in 7 Days, with 350 [pounds] meat from the Cache.

From Pelly Banks to the Forks [of] Lewes and Pelly (Fort Selkirk), Campbell with a crew of 3 whites and 3 Indians in canoe left Pelly Banks early on the 5 June 1843, water high, current strong. Early on the 6th reached the Cascades and made the Pic Portage (2840 paces) say 2 miles — 7th and 8th saw Indians, Gens le Couteau. Afternoon 11th arrived at the Forks where he saw 55 men, women and children, Gens de Bois, returned thence and reached Frances Lake 15 July. As they had to hunt their way their march was not forced.

Frances Lake established by Campbell 1842. Campbell discovered the Pelly in 1840. Bell discovered the Lower Youcon 1845. [John] Bell went down Porcupine or Rat River 3 days in 1842. Youcon established 1847.

The Indians who trade with the Chilcats told Campbell in 1843 that a gun sold by us at 20 Made Beaver was given by them for 4 M.B., and a Blanket sold by us at 10 M.B. was given by them at 2 M.B. and other goods in proportion. In 1852 Mr. Campbell told me that the Chilcats purchased their powder from our steamer at 3 lbs per M.B. and sold it 1 lb per M.B., Tobacco 1 lb. per M.B.. Moose skins half dressed are taken readily at a high price by the Chilcats; they will give a blanket – 3 pts — for one.

Selkirk established 1848. Mr. McPherson under date July 26/47 states that the Trade at Forts Norman and Good Hope had suffered much on account of the Mountain Indians resorting to Frances Lake and Pelly Banks.

Calculation for a trip from Simpson via the West Branch and Youcon and to return via Bell’s River and Youcon — to leave 20 May.

Simpson to Liard, 7 Days

Liard to Halkett, 12 days

Halkett to Frances Lake, 10 days

Frances Lake to Pelly Banks, 7 days

Pelly Banks to Forks (Fort Selkirk), 5 days

Selkirk to Youcon, 8 days (allowing 3 days for exploration)

Youcon to La Pierre’s House, 12 days

La Pierre’s House to Peel’s River, 4 days

Peel’s River to [Fort] Simpson, 17 days

Total, 82 days. Allow three days for detentions, 85 days. Arrive at Simpson, 12th August, which would be a close shave.

Note: This calculation was made under the idea of being met by a canoe at Pelly Banks and of receiving a supply of Provisions at Selkirk. Now we would have to hunt our way and carry the canoe across.

The last sentence in the note meant that now that Fort Selkirk was destroyed, Anderson could not depend on getting supplies at that place, nor would there be a canoe waiting for him at Pelly Banks, should he want to see the place. I find no evidence that Anderson made this journey, but he might have. It is an interesting idea, and I think, in fact, this helped him with his decision to not rebuild Fort Selkirk.

There’s more. In a letter written by James Anderson to Sir George Simpson, November 27 1852, he describes Campbell and the meetings that the two men had at Fort Simpson.

Campbell cannot forget his flowery reports and magnificent predictions, all of which have so miserably failed, and instead of fairly avowing that he was deceived, he tries to make it appear that the failure of his schemes were from want of proper support from the gentlemen in charge of the District. This is not right, nor is it true; neither expense nor trouble were spared to forward his views, and I never knew greater forbearance attended to anyone than there was to Mr. Campbell. How his respected threats of retirement from the service, insinuations and improper language, were submitted to is surprising to me. Campbell is a kind hearted man and one who no one could dislike in his private capacity; but as an officer, for want of judgement, want of method, jumping to hasty conclusions, and rash assertion I will task him [my view of it.]

I have seen his flurried mode of conducting business and am pretty certain that he would confuse the clearest and most simple business, much more such a tangled and hopeless affair as the West Branch. Like Mr. Shandy’s Bull he goes about his duties in a most imposing manner, but has not yet provided a calf. [This is a classical reference of some sort, possibly referring to a story in a 9 volume book titled The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, published 1759-1767]. It is from no want of zeal untiring industry or effervescent energy that Campbell fails, but from the total absence of cool judgement to direct these observable qualities.

I certainly had formed a higher opinion of [James Green] Stewart’s judgement than I had of Campbell’s, but it appears that he can give one opinion to me and the very reverse to you; I therefore set his authority — such as it is — aside as worthless…

Mr. Campbell tells me that he intends to go out at the expiration of two years; if such be the case, I wish that he had not been sent here, as those perpetual changes are most injurious to the business, and in his case it is something like a General beginning an action with his enemy in a position where it is sure to be defeated, and running away before the battle is decided…

Campbell with his usual indiscretion told the Portage people that he was coming in to establish Frances Lake. The remarks our men made on hearing of it, if not mutinous, were something approaching it; of course I hear less of these things than others, but I heard enough and Campbell more; the men are less reserved with the officers, and the Reports I have received on the subject are anything but pleasant. The trouble this has given me in rehiring the men, you can hardly conceive, fortunately I had secured most of them previously. The person in charge of this district, if he do his duty conscientiously, has enough to occupy him without being unnecessarily harassed in this manner.

I beg to call your attention to Mr. Campbell’s reply to my letter to him, a copy of which accompanies the public letter. It is Campbell all over. You desire me to consult with Campbell. My dear Sir George, it would be as feasible to fix a shadow or catch a sunbeam, as to get Campbell to give you three consecutive reasons for his opinions. Talk to him of Trades and he will fly to the Pole. I have shown him step by step the grounds I arrived at my conclusions and begged him to point out where I was wrong — No, he will agree to everything but at the end “Tho’ he’s convinced against his will, ….he’s of the same opinion still.” He never loses his temper, and one cannot dislike a person they see is almost a monomaniac on this subject. I leave it for you to say if it is not more vexatious to have a person of this kind to deal with, and most unpleasant to be obliged by duty to write in this manner of one whose private qualities you really esteem.

James Anderson, Journal, A/C/40/A.32.3, BCA

In case you are wondering why so many documents by James Anderson A are in the B.C. Archives, James’s son James Mckenzie Anderson, and A.C. Anderson’s son, James Robert Anderson, knew each other, even though they lived on opposite sides of the country. The two sons copied out their fathers’s reports and shared them with each other. James A’s reports are preserved in the B.C. Archives. The copies of A.C.’s letters and correspondence were destroyed when James McKenzie Anderson’s house burned down. Or maybe they weren’t — we don’t know. They are destroyed, however — two of James A’s elderly female descendants used to read all the old letters and papers stored in the house, before tossing them in the fire. “Oh, the horror!” said the person who told me this story!

History is fun, and it’s important; but not everyone appreciates it, nor understands its importance.

Go back to the beginning:

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

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