A Stroll over the Portage La Loche

The Flintlock gun

The Voyageur and his flintlock gun. This is the kind of gun that Augustus Peers would have carried. He infuriated me by his shooting of birds and animals he could not have consumed — one of his victims was a hawk sitting on the nest. However, in those days young Englishmen were all sportsmen, and so we must forgive him, unwillingly, for his brutality.

In 1843, young Augustus Peers made his way with Alexis Bonamie dit L’Esperance’s Athabasca boats to Portage La Loche, where he would spend some time at Fort Simpson, McKenzie District. As we already know, in one of my previous posts I described Governor George Simpson’s journey over the same long portage, and you can check that out here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/two-canoes-nine/

Here is another description, and I think quite an enjoyable one. This is not a journal: it is a secondary source as Peers was writing this manuscript for publication in England. After his death the manuscript found its way to a California couple, who placed it in a safe place where we now have access to it.

So here is Peers’s description of boats arriving at Portage La Loche:

We were now rapidly approaching the celebrated Portage La Loche and, after four days progress through river and lake, having crossed several portages, we arrived at Methy[e], or Loche River which from its shallowness we experienced great difficulty in passing. The men were constantly in the water, some fishing for the deepest water while others followed with the boats. Such is the tortuous course of this insignificant river that the boats appeared to be ascending and descending the current at the same time, giving rise to the great deal of mirth among the men [when] those who appeared to be going south would be saluted by the others with “Adieu! Adieu! Pour la riviere Rouge!”

We next entered Methy[e] Lake and having crossed it arrived at Portage La Loche on the evening of the twenty-seventh of June. We had now reached the height of land which divided the waters which flowed north and south.

This being the termination of L’Esperance’s outward passage the boats were unloaded and the cargoes piled up and covered over with oil-clothes, etc.

Here we found a group of free men with their horses! They had come purposely to assist in transporting the goods across the portage. A courier shortly arrived from the north end of the portage and reported the arrival of the McKenzie’s River Brigade in charge of Chief Factor [John Lee] Lewes. I immediately dispatched a messenger with the packet box with a note intimating my intention to join my future bourgeois in the morning. Mr. L. had come from his wintering grounds with the year’s return of furs. An interchange of cargoes would here take place and it was the duty of each brigade to render their respective cargoes at the middle of the portage, which was about twelve miles across.

About a week being allowed to perform this duty, the men might either carry the loads themselves or hire, at their own expense, horses from the free men who came there in the hope of gain. Within the past few years however this system has been changed and the goods are all transported by horses at the expense of the company — a great relief to the men, who, under the old plan, were obliged to carry their loads themselves or pay dearly for the use of horses, and as such payments were generally made in goods any unfortunate individual who was unable to carry such a distance was at the end of the job minus a good part of his kit.

Next morning I was up early and having breakfast. My tent was struck and, pitching all my goods and chattels in a pile, I bargained with a half-breed to transport them the whole twelve miles for a fine cotton shirt and a silk handkerchief — two articles held in great demand by those people who are particularly fond of anything gaudy.

Shouldering my inseparable companion — my gun — I set off in high spirits at the prospects of a walk through the wild forest. As the road was imbedded in trees and shrubs I had but a very limited view till about the eight mile where I came suddenly upon a very picturesque lake of about a mile or so in circumference. As the morning was very beautiful and calm, the bosom of this lake, which resembled a diamond set in emeralds, was placidly tranquil, disturbed only by the gentle rippling caused by an anxious duck as she hurried to the shelter of the long grass with her progeny. As I sat on the moss-clad bank of this lake, which seemed so appropriately placed wherein the weary voyageur might bathe his heated brow, and as I contemplated the scene my gaze fell upon a grave oer-hung [sic] by willows which tended to add solemnity to a scene which from its peacefulness appeared a fitting resting place for the dead.

While wondering to whose memory that moss-covered mound was raised, a person passed by of whom I made enquiry. He told me it was the grave of a half-breed who, many years past, fell a prey to his ambition!  The poor fellow had undertaken a race with another man, light, while he himself bore a load; the margin of this lake was the appointed goal and alas it proved a goal indeed, for the ambitious spirit having mortally injured himself internally fell down and expired on that spot which now marks his resting place.

Arriving at the other end of the portage the most magnificent view of wild forest scenery burst upon my view. I stood upon the brow of an eminence several hundred feet high. To my left for a distance of many miles lay a country diversified by dense masses of somber pines and prairie ground through which meandered with snake-like form Clear Water River, like a stream of molten silver. Immediately in front rose a hill similar to that on which I stood, profusedly decked from base to crown with a luxurious growth of wood, the lighter foliage of the willow and poplar contrasting pleasingly with the deeper shade of the pine. While in the valley immediately beneath my feet glided a tranquil river, on whose banks were encamped the McKenzie River brigade, the smoke from their morning fires floating upwards in spiral wreathes in the calm air, and the tents, boats, men, and horses appearing like tiny atoms when viewed from the dizzy height.

In no part of the vast tract of country through which I had passed did I see anything equal to this splendid panorama, which as it was wholly unexpected I enjoyed the more.

Having enjoyed this scene I commenced the descent by a series of declivities alternating with flats. The horses in descending and ascending this hill are obliged to adopt a zig-zag path and not infrequently it happens that a piece of goods will slip off the back of its carrier and oblige the owner to follow it in its headlong course down the declivity, again to undergo the arduous task of carrying it up.

Arriving at the bottom I soon came to the encampment and amongst several canvas tents I discovered one much larger than the rest, with an ensign floating listlessly from a pole in front of it. This I concluded to be Mr. L’s tent and on going to the door I found him sitting in true Turkish style on a pillow at the farther end of the tent, half buried amid a pile of open letters. Introducing myself I entered the tent and as the cook was busy preparing supper I congratulated myself on having arrived in the nick of time as my walk had considerably whetted my appetite.

I find his unpublished manuscript an enjoyable read, and it is packed with information from his travels. It is a shame it was never published. He died at Peel River House in March 1853. His body was later removed and he was re-buried at Fort Simpson (it would be interesting to know if his grave still existed, but it probably does not). He left behind a wife and two children: his wife was Christina Bell, the eldest daughter of Chief Trader John Bell. She married again, to Alexander McKenzie. Her daughter Louisa Peers died in 1866 or 1867, and the daughter’s money was re-directed to the son, who was named Augustus John Peers.

And in case you haven’t made the connection, Augustus Peers was the older brother of Henry Newsham Peers, who worked west of the Rocky Mountains with my great-grandfather Alexander Caulfield Anderson. Another coincidence: when Augustus Peers died, his superior officer was James Anderson (A), my great-grandfather’s older brother. Everyone knew everyone in this business, and everyone is connected!

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

8 thoughts on “A Stroll over the Portage La Loche

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Connections everywhere! You are then related to Henry Newsham Peers (his brother), who married James Murray Yale’s daughter and whose other daughter married into the Donald Manson family (I think that’s how it works). James Murray Yale’s wife was supposed to have been Pahallak’s daughter, though I don’t know if she is mother of the two girls.