Pierre Pambrun Jr.

The Flintlock gun

The Voyageur and his flintlock gun. This is the same kind of gun that Pierre Pambrun Jr broke the hammer of, and in desperation, he fired the gun using a piece of birch fungus as tinder. 

There is more to Pierre Pambrun’s story, it seems — I am referring to the story told in my last post found here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/cannibalism-again/

There is, of course, always more! But I looked at the index in the HBRS book, London Correspondence Inward from Eden Colvile, 1849-1852, and found this, in a letter written by Colvile to Barclay, August 27 1851:

Since I commenced writing this letter I have received despatches from McKenzie River. I learn from Mr. Bell that the trade shews a considerable improvement over last Outfit, the increase being chiefly in Martens… I regret to state that this year a case of starvation has again occurred by which one of the Company’s servants named Peter Ashbourne has lost his life. It appears that Mr. Pambrun, who was in charge of Frances Lake, having reason to apprehend that his supply of provisions would fall short, despatched the said Ashbourne & another man to find their way to Fort Halkett, and that on the road Ashbourne fell lame, & the other man was compelled to leave him in the encampment, since which time he has never been seen or heard of…

So that story is a little different than the first. I suppose it is possible that Pambrun remained behind near the burned-out post, while he sent the two men upriver from Frances Lake to Fort Halkett. But this story conflicts with the other written by Rae in other ways. In this case it is said that the dead man’s name is Pierre Ashburne dit Lambert. According to the records, Ashburne or Ashbourne was native-born, so Metis, and was employed in the Mackenzie River District as a middleman. Is this the same story, or another? This does not appear to be the “Canadian” man who was cannibalized by the Orkneyman, and it even appears to have happened at another place, in another year.  

So we have a puzzle! One story, or two? I think this is pretty clearly two stories, and this, above, is the second incident that involves Pierre Pambrun Jr. and his time in the Yukon and northern British Columbia.

In this same book I discovered how the HBC replaced the difficult route up the Liard River, that proved so disastrous in 1849, by a land portage from the Porcupine River south to the westward Yukon River. Previously  the HBC used the Liard River to access the posts at Frances Lake and on the Yukon River. In a letter written to Archibald Barclay on January 28th 1852, Colvile says this: 

In Mackenzie’s River district Rabbits were again making their appearance, and Martens were said to be very numerous. I have much pleasure in informing you that Mr. Campbell has established the identity of the Pelly and Youcon [Rivers], having descended the River from Fort Selkirk to the latter post in about three days. The navigation is remarkably easy, there not being a single portage in the whole distance, and he thinks that loaded craft can ascend to Fort Selkirk in about fourteen days. He has this year taken in his Outfit by the way of Peel’s River and the Youcon, and the post of Frances Lake and the dangerous navigation of the West Branch [Liard River], which has proved of late years so disastrous is, I trust, finally abandoned.

In summer 1851 the new route from Peel’s River to the Yukon River, via the Porcupine, was established. The Frances Lake post was closed, as was the Pelly Banks post. But Fort Halkett on the Liard River remained open until 1865. Presumably it was supplied from the north, and the Liard River route was abandoned.

By the way, if you follow my Klondike posts, we will eventually make our way to the Yukon River via the Porcupine. It will just take a while, as I have plenty to talk about.

There is more on the Pierre Pambrun cannibalism story — the first story: the following appears in a book written by Lieutenant William H. Hooper, titled Ten Months amongst the tents of the Tuski  [London: John Murray, 1853]. Hooper was a member of the Arctic Boat Expedition in search of Sir John Franklin, and he and his party happened to be at Fort Simpson, when Pierre Pambrun and James Green Stewart arrived at that post from Frances Lake. I want to warn you this is not pleasant reading (I’ll warn you again before it gets really bad, so you can make the choice to NOT read it). Here is how that story goes.

On the 8th of June, three gentlemen of the company arrived from the posts on the West branch [of the Mackenzie R] or Liard River, which falls into the Mackenzie just above Fort Simpson. One of these, a Mr. P[ambrun], had suffered almost incredible privations during the past winter, the two men who were with him having died from starvation. The details are heart-rendering, horrible, and even revolting.

Pelly Banks station, where the catastrophe occurred, is situated upon the Pelly River, about 1000 miles distant from Fort Simpson. The Pelly joins the Lewis [Lewes] at Fort Selkirk, 310 miles from Pelly Banks, the united stream forming the river Youcon [Yukon]. In the spring of 1848, Mr. P was ordered to this post, and remained at that or the Francis Lake station close to it during the summer with two men, when they often had a scarcity of food, but endured no severe privation. Mr. O’Brien arrived at Frances Lake about the middle of October 1851, having been obliged to send thirteen men in a boat, out of eighteen men and two boats, back to head-quarters in consequence of the lateness of the season and state of the waters. There were now seven man and two officers at the post, with scarcely any food coming in, and they were reduced to eating moose, rein-deer, bear, and beaver skins; half a moose skin being the allowance for six men for one day. It may be considered how little food they had, from the fact that Mr. O’Brien started in the spring of 1849 for Fort Halkett, 410 miles distant, with five men and only four days’ provisions, eking out the remainder of their subsistence by their guns. During the following summer Mr. P, with two white men and an engaged Indian, managed to live tolerably on the produce of their guns and nets; but at the latter end of August food again began to be scarce, and they anxiously looked forward to the arrival of the annual boats from Fort Simpson with stores, ammunition, &c for the Indian trade. To their deep disappointment none arrived. Having, therefore, no means of barter, and this intelligence quickly spreading amongst the Indians, nothing in the shape of provisions was brought in by the Indians, with the exception of sixteen pounds of meat and six marmots. 

Of course the local First Nations people would not look after the HBC men, for provisions in this territory were as short for them as they were for the fur traders! To continue the story:

To add to their misery, the Fort [Pelly Banks post] took fire late in November, and was burned down: thus nearly all remaining resources in store, including most of the furs, were destroyed, a little powder and some furs only being saved. Having eaten up everything to the very pack or bale-cords made of green hide, leather, and even their moccasins, they began in the middle of December to singe and eat the remaining furs. The Indian with his wife, his young brother, and two little girls, went to encamp in the woods, where they dragged on a miserable existence with the aid of rabbits and esculent roots. Mr. P having, perhaps, more confidence in his own powers than in those of his men, gave them up the furs, telling them to try and make them last out until spring, while he himself went off in the beginning of January to a lake to try and catch fish. Here is his diet-table for 57 days: — 20 fish; 18 rabbits; 8 partridges; 10 squirrels; 1 fox; 1 crow or raven; 1 owl.

On his return, on the 13th of March, he found to his horror but one man; and, asking for the other, was informed that he had died eight days since from sheer inanition: for although the furs were by no means exhausted, they did not contain matter sufficient for the creation of blood; and thus, though often eating to surfeiting, he sank gradually until his last feeble breath was drawn. Mr. P asked the remaining man where the body was; he replied that he had cached it inside, but that the wolves had dragged it away. He [Pambrun] went out, but could discover no trace of it; and coming in, sat down by the fire, which was composed of the boards of the house, the poor fellow being too weak to cut up wood. He observed some bones in the fireplace, and momentary suspicions of a frightful nature crossed his mind, but these were speedily dissipated by the remark made by the man, that these were the bones of deer, &c, which had, in past time, fallen through the chinks of the boards, and had been picked up when the flooring was taken for firewood. After cutting wood and fetching water enough to last until he should return, Mr. P went off, determining again to seek his food rather than deprive his companion of the remaining furs, and hoping that he might perchance get through the season on them. He repaired to the lodge of the Indian, who had been to the Fort since the death of the other man, and on Mr. P expressing his wonder that the body was not to be found, the Indian replied, “Is it not possible, my father, that you do not know what has become of it? did you not see the bones in the fireplace?” Mr. P replied, that the survivor had told him that those were bones picked from under the floor. “My father,” was the answer, “I am an Indian, yet I know that the live man has eaten the dead. Deers’ bones I know, and the bones of all other beasts I know. Those were none such: they were the bones of a human being, for when I went to the house I also saw those bones in the ashes, and received a like answer to yours, but, taking a piece of skin and putting it to roast at the fire, I let it fall as if by accident, then raking among the coals with a stick, I turned the bones over, and saw that they were certainly those of a human being. My father, I am an Indian; yet, trust what I say, one has eaten the other.”

The story gets worse from here on, and if you want to read no further, I don’t blame you. But in the cold long winters of the north, where provisions were poor, this must have on occasion happened. We will continue the story…

In five days, according to promise, Mr. P returned to the Fort, having existed meanwhile on an occasional partridge or rabbit. On entering the house he found the poor fellow lying before the fire, totally unable to help himself, and now told him that, since he found him so weak, henceforward, “live or die, he would leave him no more.” He managed to shoot a raven for him, and went to fetch wood and water, and to try for some game. Returning sooner than was expected, and opening the door quickly and wide, as had lately been his custom, he saw the kettle on the fire, and on inquiry, was answered that it contained merely water; but, going to the pot, he saw that it held something more — and searching the inside of the kettle, horrible to tell, drew out a whole liver. Paralyzed by this dreadful sight, he could not speak, while the poor starving wretch, now discovered in the commission of the horrid deed, cowered down on the hearth, and dared not lift his eyes to meet those of his fellow sufferer. 

I cannot imagine the guilt a person feels when they are caught in a situation like this. I cannot imagine how it feels to have had to make this choice at all; then to carry it through. And carry it through time and again, as you cook up the next batch of your human-supper. I imagine the horror of this never goes away. 

Of him [Pambrun] amazement, grief, loathing, yet withal pity, took possession alternately; poor fellow! not equally low with his companion, probably because less desponding and more robust in constitution, weak and starving as he was, the revolting sight overcame him, and he rushed into the open air for relief. Compassion for the poor wretch led him again to re-enter the house, but, unable to speak, he commenced hewing a log. His unfortunate companion asked him, however, what was the matter — why did he rush so wildly out? “Will you now confess,” said Mr. P, “that you have eaten poor Dubois?” The miserable being slowly and fearfully acknowledged that such was the case, and pleaded that not alone the love of life (and oh! when life is fleeting, then is the love for it the strongest) — not the love of life alone incited him to the deed, but that he wished to live — aye! — mark it well — that his aged mother might not be deprived of her sole support, her only stay.

Mr. P now procured wood and water sufficient for two days — but he could no longer bear to remain: the thought of this deed haunted him like a fate, and he departed, promising to return in two days. The skeleton before him prayed and entreated him not to go, not again to leave him all lone and solitary. But he could not stay, poison was in the very atmosphere for him. He went, and in two days returned again, and throwing the door open quickly as usual — “what a sight presented itself!” The man, or what had once been a man, lay dead upon the hearth, stiff and cold, a skin-covered frame of bones. The fire had burnt out for lack of fuel, and beside the corpse was the kettle, whose contents had so lately confirmed his frightful suspicions. It was now perfectly empty — flesh, broth — all utterly consumed…

Mr P took the body outside the Fort and laid it “on cache;” then writing two letters, one for Whites, the other for Indians, he took himself to a distance and there encamped. For nearly three weeks he dragged on a poor existence with skins and some little game, and was reduced to the former extremity, when the brother of the engaged Indian arrived with some meat for him, hoping haply [sic] to find him still alive. On meeting, they both shed tears of joy. “My father, my father,” said the red man, “is it possible that you are still alive? oh! what delight for us to be able to save you.” He said he was not surprised to find that the other man was dead, having estimated at the last meeting that he would not live ten days longer.

“There was little rest for the kettle that night,” and next morning the Indian started off to return to his brother, and stop him from drying the meat he had. On the following morning Mr. P departed also for the camp, and when arrived soon recovered a little strength. After a fortnight’s stay he returned to the Fort and encamped opposite to it, as he had now some meat to live upon; but an old woman, whom he had succoured on the road, arrived shortly after and remained at the camp, so that there was not a large share for each. Seven days after his arrival, Mr. [James Green] S[tewart] with three men came in; two of these being Indians returned to Fort Selkirk, the others with Mr P starting next day for Fort Halkett: having only forty pounds of pemican for the journey [down the Liard River to Fort Simpson] they had therefore to depend mainly upon their guns; they were fortunately all good shots, and wild fowl were in abundance. 

Some of Mr. P’s stratagems to obtain food during the winter were sufficiently ingenious, for he had very little shot, though powder enough. At one time he looped a partridge with a long pole and a snare (these birds are very tame in extreme cold); on another occasion he shot a squirrel with a piece of green stick, and, the hammer of his [gun] being broken, fired with a piece of birch fungus, used as tinder, having first tried a lighted stick, which diverted his aim.

And that is the end of Pierre Pambrun Jr.’s shocking story as told in this book. For the first report on this story, look up the post mentioned at the top of the page. Pambrun retired from the HBC soon after the second incident (at the top of this post) occurred. He traveled with the incoming Columbia express to Fort Vancouver, where he spent the winter. That’s where his father had lived and died; that’s where his brothers were now settled. We know this because, in December 1852, Chief Factor John Ballenden of Fort Vancouver wrote a letter to Governor Simpson, saying:

In my letter of Nov. 18th [1852] last I mentioned that I had no person this season to send across with the account. Since then Mr. P.C. Pambrun, who crossed with the express this Autumn, has volunteered to cross & return with the party provided the Board of Management would insure him of resuming his situation on this side of the Mountains. He is a well-meaning steady young man, & would I think prove very useful on this side. He writes a good hand, & I think would be fully capable of taking hither or to Victoria such explanations as will be necessary to close the accounts of the Columbia & open those of the Western Department. [B.223/b/40, fo. 44, HBCA]

Simpson must not have allowed Pambrun to take charge of the outgoing York Factory Express. But Pambrun did rejoin the HBC a few years later, and worked east of the Rocky Mountains at Lac la Biche. For the first few years I believe he was a free-trader, and later the company hired him again. In later years, when the Klondike gold rush hit the news, it was he who told his neighbours how to reach the goldfields.  

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