Mapping the Northwest

The year 1763 saw the end of nearly 200 years of European conflict over the possession of northern North America, as France was forced to relinquish its claims in Canada. In the latter part of the eighteenth century, a renewed struggle was in command of the still-lucrative fur trade, this time, between rival companies and partnerships.

Competition for trade produced a remarkable series of explorers and mapmakers  --  Canadian, Native, British, and American. Fuelled by the fur-trade, these explorers pushed back the northwestern boundaries of the British claims in Canada and ultimately reached the Pacific Ocean by land. It had taken three hundred years for explorers to cross the country.

The mapping and gathering of information in this era laid the foundation for the mass western immigration of the next century, by which time the fur trade would be almost non-existent.

Samuel Hearne and Matonabbee: Trek to the Arctic Ocean

Samuel Hearne (1745 - 1792)
Matonabbee, a Chipewyan chief

Born in London in 1745, and losing his father at the age of three, Samuel Hearne joined the Royal Navy as captain's batman at age eleven. After leaving the navy, he joined the Hudson's Bay Company in 1766 as first mate of the Churchill, and later the Charlotte.

In 1762, Moses Norton, chief trader at Fort Prince of Wales (Churchill) asked two Native people to search for mines and they returned, in 1767, with a piece of copper which, they said, came from a river flowing between three copper mines in an area that was very rich in furs. Norton went to England to persuade the Hudson's Bay Company, which had not conducted any explorations since James Knight's disappearance in 1719, to send a European to examine the deposits and to see if the river was navigable.

Samuel Hearne was charged with this expedition. He left in November 1769 but returned a few days later after his Native guide abandoned him. The following February, Hearne left again with two Hudson Bay Cree. This time, Conneequese, the guide, got lost and they had to make a difficult journey in the tundra region of the Dubawnt River (Northwest Territories). As all their things were stolen and, worse, Hearne's octant was broken, they returned to Hudson Bay at the end of November 1770.

Hearne left again 12 days later. This time, he was accompanied by Matonabbee, a Chipewyan chief, who enjoyed great prestige within his tribe and among the Cree tribes of Athabasca. Matonabbee had already been to the Coppermine River and he established a communication network between the coastal trading posts and the interior. Moreover, the two men were friends. Hearne left with Matonabbee's band and six wives. On this voyage, Hearne learned that he had to adapt to the Native people's way of life and get used to their food if he was going to survive. After making many mistakes, Hearne understood that he had to trust his friend's experience to get them through.

"... On the first of November we again proceeded on our journey toward the Factory; and on the sixth, came up with Matonabbee and his gang: after which we proceeded on together several days; when I found my new acquaintance, on all occasions, the most sociable, kind, and sensible Indian I had ever met with. He was a man well known and, as an Indian, of universal knowledge, and generally respected."

(Hearne 1795, 56)

In July, Hearne finally arrived at the Coppermine River, which was shallow and interspersed with falls. Near one of these, which he would call "Bloody Falls," he was witness to a horrible massacre of Inuit by Matonabbee's men, which would haunt him the rest of his life. On July 17, 1771, a rainy, foggy day, Hearne reached the Arctic Ocean and took possession of the area for the Hudson's Bay Company. Matonabbee then led him some 45 kilometres south to the copper deposits, about which he had heard so much. He found a small piece of copper weighing only two kilos. Disappointed, he followed his Native companions to winter at Great Slave Lake. He was the first European to reach the Arctic from the interior and to see this enormous lake. He got back to Fort Prince of Wales on June 30, 1772.

'[...] when all the men are heavy laden, they can neither hunt nor travel to any considerable distance; and in case they meet with success in hunting, who is to carry the produce of their labour? Women, added he, were made for labour; one of them can carry, or haul, as much as two men can do. They also pitch our tents, make and mend our clothing, keep us warm at night; and in fact, there is no such thing as travelling any considerable distance, or for any length of time, in this country, without their assistance. Women, said he again, though they do every thing, are maintained at a trifling expence; for as they always stand cook, the very licking of their fingers in scarce times, is sufficient for their subsistence'. [Matonabbee]

"[...] This, however odd it may appear, is but too true a description of the situation of women in this country:" [Hearne]

(Hearne 1795, 55)

Hearne found that no river in the regions he visited flowed west and that there was definitely not a passage to Asia through Hudson Bay. He also found that the small deposit of copper was unworkable and that the Coppermine River was not navigable. Based on this information, the British Admiralty advised Captain James Cook not to attempt any serious search for a passage from the Pacific side below 65º north latitude.

In 1774, Hearne built the first Hudson's Bay Company trading post in the interior of the continent. Fort Cumberland, built on the lake of the same name, aimed at competing with the numerous Montreal trading posts around it. The following year, Hearne was named chief trader at Fort Prince of Wales. He was imprisoned in August 1782 when Lapérouse's French forces took over the defenceless fort. In September 1783, he built a house near the ruined fort and called it "Fort Churchill". He lived there until his resignation on August 16, 1787.

Hearne kept busy in retirement by writing about his explorations. This manuscript, and its accompanying maps and drawings, interested the Admiralty and the scientists of the time and even Lapérouse insisted that his manuscript be published, but it would only be three years after Hearne's death that A Journey From Prince of Wales's Fort, in Hudson's Bay, to the Northern Ocean was seen. Shortly before his death, Hearne added two chapters on the Chipewyan people and on the fauna of northern regions. In addition to his descriptions of geographical places, events and personalities, Hearne's narrative contains a wealth of information on the treatment of women, hunting methods and made-objects among the Inuit. Like several people at the end of the 18th century, Hearne wondered about the impact of the fur trade on Native communities. His physical endurance as well as his instinct for observation, intellectual curiosity, and critical abilities make Samuel Hearne one of the most interesting explorers in the Hudson's Bay Company's history. His writing style brings his story alive.

Peter Pond: Search for fortune

Peter Pond (c. 1739 - 1807)

Peter Pond was born in Milford, Connecticut, around 1739. After a brief military career, in 1765 he joined his father in Detroit to work in the fur trade. He quickly made enough money to enter into partnership with free traders who would be involved in the future North West Company (Simon McTavish, Alexander Henry, the Frobisher brothers, and others) and to organize an expedition west of the Great Lakes. It was while looking to extend their territory that he discovered Athabasca, that rich reservoir of pelts between Lac Île-à-la-Crosse and the Peace River. The maps he subsequently drew, based on his explorations and on the information provided to him by Native peoples, would grant him international renown at the end of the 18th century.

From 1773 to 1775, Pond collected furs in present-day Minnesota and Wisconsin. His journal reveals that he had not completed his studies but that he had an acute sense of observation when describing the Sioux, the Saulteux (Ojibwa) and the Mandan. In 1775, two events drew his interest to the northwest: the First Nations wars in the Mississippi area and the many furs from Saskatchewan that he had heard of traders bringing to Montreal and to Hudson's Bay. Pond then joined Alexander Henry to winter at Dauphin Lake  --  which had been known since La Vérendrye  --  while Thomas Frobisher went up the Saskatchewan with Charles Paterson, another free trader.

In 1777, the profitable trade conducted by Thomas Frobisher at Lac Île-à-la-Crosse, on the edge of the Athabasca drainage system interested other traders in the area. However, at such a distance, labour and the transport of supplies were very expensive. Benjamin and Joseph Frobisher, as well as McTavish and Company, joined forces and asked Pond to lead an expedition into the Athabasca region, an area not well known by traders beyond accounts by Native peoples.

In 1778-1779, Pond travelled to Île-à-la-Crosse, crossed a few small lakes and reached the La Loche (Methye) portage, which was shown to him by Native people. Some 19 kilometres long, this portage was so steep that it took him eight days to cross with the canoes, food and trade-goods, but allowed him to cross from La Loche Lake, in the hydrographic basin of Hudson's Bay, to Pelican River (Clearwater) in the Athabasca basin. This find would open up the Athabasca country to the fur trade. Pond wintered on the Athabasca River some 25 kilometres from Lake Athabasca. He intercepted a large group of Cree and Chipewyan who were making an annual trip to Fort Prince of Wales. Pleased not to have to go as far as Hudson's Bay, they agreed to pay a little more for trade goods. As a result, Pond found himself with more pelts than his canoes could carry. He had to hide some and return for them later.

After this success, Pond joined the trading company of McBeath, Côté and Graves and, in 1781-1782, wintered at Lac La Ronge with Jean-Étienne Waddens, a representative of another company. An argument arose between the two men and Pond shot Waddens. He escaped the law, his action having taken place in an area outside the jurisdiction of the courts.

In 1783, Pond went to Athabasca where he explored the waterways around Lake Athabasca. Native people told him the approximate locations of Great Slave Lake and Great Bear Lake and possibly also those of the Peace and Mackenzie rivers. During the winter of 1784-1785, in Montreal, Pond transcribed this information on a map, showing rivers and lakes from west of the Great Lakes and Hudson's Bay to the Rocky Mountains and, north, to the Arctic. The map included a large river (the Mackenzie) which, originating in Lake Athabasca, crossed Great Slave Lake and flowed towards the Arctic Ocean. In 1785, a copy of this map, accompanied by a report  --  probably written by one of the Frobishers, but signed by Pond  --  was submitted to the United States Congress and another to the Lieutenant-Governor of Quebec, Henry Hamilton. Pond asked Hamilton to support his project to explore the limits of North America's northwest. Sent on to London, the request was denied.

"Copy of a Map presented to the Congres by Peter Pond, a native of Milford in the State of Connecticut

This extraordinary man has resided 17 years in those countries & from his own Discoveries as well as from the reports of Indians, he assures himself of having at last Discovered a passage to the N.O. Sea; his gone again to ascertain some important observations. New York, 1st March 1785.

The original Map being incumbered with great deal of writing, I have thought it best to transcribe it separately with the references marked, by the numbers. - Copied by St. John de Crevecoeur for his Grace of La Rochefoucault."

Having become a partner in the North West Company, founded in 1784, Pond got as far as the Peace River area in 1786-1787. During the winter, he again quarreled with a competitor, John Ross, who was killed by a bullet during a brawl. A witness would later state that a Canadian called Pesche shot Ross, on Pond's orders. This second murder forced the trader-explorer to abandon the fur trade, and he left the northwest in the spring of 1788, never to return.

Pond continued to draw maps of the northwest. A version prepared for the Empress of Russia showed that he was aware of Captain Cook's discoveries. The latter had taken an Alaskan inlet (which bears his name today) for a river flowing from the east. Pond transposed this information onto a map in 1787, leading one to believe strongly that it flowed from Great Slave Lake. The alacrity with which Pond made changes, trusting to James Cook's unconfirmed discoveries, severely tainted his credibility. However, he was not the only one to make this kind of mistake.

In 1790, Pond sold his shares in the North West Company to William McGillivray and returned to Milford, Connecticut, where he died in 1807. A violent and ambitious man, Peter Pond contributed to the mapping of Canada by drawing the general outline of the river basin that Mackenzie, heavily influenced by his predecessor, recorded in 1789.

Dorchester's letter regarding Pond:

"Quebec 23rd November 1790.
I transmit a Sketch of the North Western parts of this Continent, communicated by Peter Pond, an Indian Trader from this province, shewing his discoveries, the track pursued, and the stations occupied by him and his party, during an excursion of several years, ... Mr. Pond proposing some advantage to himself from publishing it hereafter with a detailed account, had requested care may be taken to prevent its getting into other hands, than those of the King's Ministers.
I am told he has quitted this province somewhat dissatisfied with the Trading Company, whom he served, and with a view of seeking employment in the United States, of which he is a native."

(Wagner 1955, 37-38)

Alexander Mackenzie : Reaches the Pacific

Alexander Mackenzie (1764 - 1820)

Alexander Mackenzie, the first explorer to cross North America, was born in Scotland in 1764. At the age of ten, he emigrated to New York and four years later came to study in Montreal. At only 15 years old, Mackenzie became a clerk in the company of fur merchants Finlay and Gregory (which became Gregory, MacLeod and Company in 1783). Five years later, he was offered a share in the company on the condition that he went to Grand-Portage.

The American Revolution ended just as Mackenzie's career was starting. The creation of the Canadian-American border diverted the attention of the Montreal merchants from the basin south of the Great Lakes, which had become American territory, to the northwest, in Canadian territory. Mackenzie, located by Gregory, MacLeod in just this region, found himself in the right place at the right time, with the Montreal merchants ready to invest in finding a commercial route to the sea -- which was now known to be in the west, thanks to Captain James Cook. Mackenzie followed his dream of being the first to find this route.

From 1785 to 1787, Mackenzie traded furs at Lac Île-à-la-Crosse for Gregory, MacLeod and Company. John Ross's assassination in the winter of 1786-1787 moved the competitors to unite in an effort to decrease violence. Gregory, MacLeod and Company merged with the North West Company, and Mackenzie was made a partner. To acquire a fur trading monopoly from London, the North West Company promoted its explorations and its knowledge of the northwestern territory. The Company asked Mackenzie to spend the following winter with Peter Pond in Athabasca as he was to succeed him in the region.

Mackenzie was to ascertain whether the river (later named after him) flowing out of Great Slave Lake actually did go to Cook Inlet in Alaska, as Pond believed it did. On June 3, 1789, Mackenzie left Athabasca with the Chipewyan chief called "English Chief," some First Nations women, four Canadian voyageurs, a young German, and servants. Mackenzie's expedition descended the river, a distance of 6 987.5 kilometres, in 14 days. For close to 1 950 kilometres, Mackenzie did travel somewhat to the west but, at Camsell Bend, his heading became due north. After some hesitation, Mackenzie continued to the Arctic Ocean and stayed on Whale Island (Garry) for four days, where he observed white whales as well as the ebb and flow of the tides. Going up-river was much harder and took almost two months. The discovery of one of the longest rivers in the world did not enthuse Mackenzie's partners in the North West Company. As it did not lead to the Pacific it was of no immediate use to them. Mackenzie himself was disappointed. Nevertheless, he started playing with another idea -- going west on the Peace River.

Before Mackenzie could undertake his next voyage of exploration, he needed to add to the information he had gathered from Native people other data from previous explorations and better instruments for pinpointing his geographical position. His meeting with Phillip Turnor, the Hudson's Bay Company's surveying and astronomy expert, at Cumberland House convinced him to go to London in the winter of 1791-1792 for the required training and instruments. He brought back a compass, a sextant, a chronometer and a telescope. Using surveys conducted by Cook on the Pacific coast and by Turnor at Fort Chipewyan, Mackenzie found that Pond had underestimated the distance between Fort Chipewyan and the Pacific Ocean. He had to ready his expedition for longer distances in light of this information.

Arriving from London, Mackenzie passed through Montreal and then traveled to the junction of the Peace and Smoky rivers to spend the winter. He had already crossed almost half the planet by ship, canoe and on foot. On May 9, 1793, he left with nine people: Alexander MacKay, second in command, two Native people and six voyageurs.

Shortly after leaving, terrified by the portages in the canyons of the Peace River, some of the voyageurs begged Mackenzie to turn back, but the explorer persuaded them to go on. At the fork of the Parsnip and Finlay rivers, an old Native man suggested to Mackenzie that he make the portage above the Parsnip to reach the river that flowed west. After crossing many streams and swamps, Mackenzie went down the McGregor River and then the Fraser. At one camp, some Native people strongly advised him against going down this river, which was impassable in places and whose mouth was very far away. They recommended another route to reach the ocean. Mackenzie then went back up the Fraser to the West Road River, crossed the valley of the same name, reached the Mackenzie Pass at 6 000 feet of altitude and entered the deep gorge of the Bella Coola. Here he met the amiable nation of the Bella Coola and called their settlement "Friendly Village." Two days later, going down the tumultuous river, he saw six curious little huts built on stilts on a height of land. "From these houses I could perceive the termination of the river, and its discharge into a narrow arm of the sea," wrote Mackenzie. He had just crossed the continent.

"At about eight we got out of the river, which discharges itself by various channels into an arm of the sea. The tide was out, and had left a large space covered with sea-weed. The surrounding hills were involved in fog. The wind was at West, which was a-head of us, and very strong; the bay appearing to be from one to three miles in breadth. As we advanced along the land we saw a great number of sea-otters. We fired several shots at them, but without any success from the rapidity with which they plunge under the water."

(Mackenzie 1801, 340-341)

On the sea, at Dean Channel, some Bella Bella, who were not very friendly to the explorers, told Mackenzie that he had missed George Vancouver by slightly more than six weeks. The following morning, Mackenzie mixed vermilion with melted grease and wrote this inscription on the southeast face of a rock: "Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three".

Two days later, Mackenzie and his men turned back and, traveling an average of 53 kilometres per day, they reached Fort Chipewyan in a month, everyone alive and well. But this trip was too long, too expensive and too difficult for Montreal trade. Mackenzie suggested that the Hudson's Bay Company, the North West Company and the East India Company seal an agreement, but this greatly irritated his partners. He then founded his own company -- the XY Company -- in 1798, which amalgamated with the North West Company in 1804. The amalgamation of the North West Company with the Hudson's Bay Company would not come until March 1821.

Published in 1801, the account of Mackenzie's voyage greatly contributed to spreading knowledge about the continent. On February 10, 1802, he became Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Gradually, Mackenzie retreated from the fur trade and finally returned to Scotland. He married there and fathered three children. He died in January of 1820.

Simon Fraser and the fearsome river

Simon Fraser (1776 - 1862)

Born in Vermont in 1776 of Loyalist Scottish-Catholic parents, Simon Fraser immigrated to Canada in 1784 with his widowed mother. Fraser was a relative of Simon McTavish, the principal director of the North West Company, and entered that company as an apprentice at the age of 16. A clerk in Athabasca in 1799, he became one of the associates of the North West Company in 1801. The XY and North West companies, which amalgamated in 1804, undertook to further examine the territory traveled by Alexander Mackenzie while continuing their explorations towards the Pacific. The amalgamated company entrusted this mission to Simon Fraser. He was to re-examine the route taken by Mackenzie, continue down the river that the latter had abandoned, and verify the information Mackenzie had been given by the Native people regarding the dangers of this river. Fraser would pursue the formidable river, which bears his name today, right to its mouth.

Before setting off, Fraser established two trading posts in 1805 that would reduce the costs of exploration by relaying supplies. The first, Rocky Mountain Portage House (not to be confused with Rocky Mountain House, established further south in 1799), was built at the end of the Peace River canyon. The second, Fort McLeod, was on Trout Lake, in Sékanais territory. The latter post was the first permanent white establishment beyond the Rockies and within the limits of present-day Canada. During the winter, James McDougall, the clerk of Fort McLeod, learned of a much bigger lake in the west and travelled to Stuart Lake in the territory of the Carrier people.

In 1806, late break-up held up Fraser's departure from Rocky Mountain Portage House until May 20. Using Mackenzie's journal as a guide, he ascended the Peace River with a crew of ten inexperienced men, some of whom fell prey to accidents or illness during the voyage. Arriving at Stuart Lake two months later, Fraser built a post there. Next, using information from Native people, he explored Stuart River, to the Nechako, which flowed into the Fraser. That year, the salmon ran late and there was famine among the Native peoples of this region so that they could not provide Fraser and his men with food. With too few trade goods and supplies, Fraser abandoned his project of surveying part of the river before winter. He returned in the fall of 1807, built Fort George (Prince George) near the mouth of the Nechako, and called this area "New Caledonia".

On May 28, 1808, Fraser left Fort George with twenty-three men in four canoes: John Stuart, Jules-Maurice Quesnel, nineteen other Company employees and two Native guides. Soon after leaving, the guides warned him that, down-river, the river became a string of falls and rapids. This proved to be true  --  the portages were extremely difficult, to the point that the crews risked going down the rapids in their canoes. In several spots, they had no choice as the river was bordered by high escarpments. Fraser realized that the Native peoples had been right in saying that going down this river was madness. A little above Lillooet, the members of the expedition left their canoes and the effects that they could not carry and continued the exploration on foot. The land route was almost as difficult as the waterway. "We had to pass where no human being should venture," wrote Fraser. When the river again became navigable, Fraser borrowed  --  sometimes requisitioned  --  First Nations canoes. Luckily, the two guides who accompanied him frequently went ahead to assure the Native peoples there of Fraser's peaceful intentions.

Fraser finally reached the mouth of the river, but what a disappointment! He could not see the open ocean. He visited the village of the Musqueam and reached the Gulf of Georgia to Grey Point, but Vancouver Island hid the open sea from him. Fraser could not go as far as he would have liked to because the Cowichan were hostile. The latter chased his canoes and harassed his men all the way to the vicinity of present-day Hope. Numerous canoes filled with Native people several times tried to upset Fraser's craft but they were repelled each time without loss to either side. When the Cowichan finally gave up, the men were exhausted and discouraged. Nevertheless, on August 6, they reached Fort George alive and well. Going down river had taken 36 days and the return voyage 37.

"Yet we reached our destination about 8 in the morning. [...] Here I must again acknowledge my great disappointment in not seeing the main ocean  --  having gone so near it as to be almost within view. Besides we wished very much to settle the situation by an observation for the longitude. The latitude is 49º nearly; while that of the entrance of the Columbia is 46º 20' [...] This River, therefore, is not the Columbia  --  if I had been convinced of this truth where I left my canoes, I would certainly have returned from thence."

(Fraser [1967], 39)

Like Mackenzie, Fraser had the feeling of having failed. The trip was of no immediate commercial use to the North West Company. However, he proved one point: up until that time, it was believed that the river Mackenzie had avoided was the Columbia. Fraser proved that it wasn't. He wrote, "if I had been convinced of this truth where I left my canoes, I would certainly have returned from thence."

Fraser left New Caledonia in 1809 and never returned. He continued to work in the fur trade and took part in the conflict between the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company at the Red River and at Fort William, where he was imprisoned by Lord Selkirk. In 1818, like his associates, he was acquitted of treason, conspiracy and being an accessory to murder, accusations that had been brought against him. Fraser left the fur trade in 1817 and settled in St. Andrews, Ontario, where he married and had eight children. He died there in 1862.

Fraser owes his fame to his expeditions of 1805 to 1808. Gifted with unusual physical endurance and courage, he remained calm and resolved when facing dangers and difficulties. Few exploits surpass Fraser's passage down the turbulent river that bears his name. Still, his expedition did not arouse popular interest before the centenary celebrations of it in 1908.

David Thompson : The intrepid surveyor

David Thompson (1770 - 1857)

Of modest origins, David Thompson was born at Westminster, England, in 1770. He attended a school for poor children, where he did so well in math and navigational techniques that, at the age of 14, he was hired as an apprentice by the Hudson's Bay Company. He was sent to Hudson Bay as a clerical assistant and had the good fortune to spend his first year with the explorer Samuel Hearne at Fort Churchill, transcribing parts of the manuscript of his voyages. Immobilized by a bad fracture at Fort Cumberland in the winter of 1789-1790, Thompson met Philip Turnor, who taught him and Peter Fidler surveying and astronomy. Thompson acquired from his teacher a sextant, a telescope and nautical almanacs.

At the end of the summer of 1790, Thompson offered his services to the Company's secretary to conduct observations along the coast of Hudson's Bay. A first project to continue Turnor's work in Athabasca in 1792 was aborted because of friction with Native people and disputes among Company employees. In the spring of 1795, he learned that he had been appointed as surveyor since May 1794, with a considerable salary, but had been assigned jobs other than surveying. Frustrated at not being able to ply his trade, Thompson left the Hudson's Bay Company for the North West Company on May 23, 1797. He was starting a new life.

There was no map sufficiently precise to satisfy the requirements of the Jay Treaty of 1794 on the southwest boundary of the Great Lakes area that had been discovered by the La Vérendryes half a century earlier, so Thompson began to survey it. The Jay Treaty obliged merchants to respect the boundary as set by the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the American Revolution, but enforcing this remained difficult as the precise location of the boundary was unclear. One year later, Thompson provided the most precise observations yet available on the area between the Red River, Missouri and the Mississippi.

In 1798, Thompson surveyed the territory around the Churchill River to the source of the North Saskatchewan River and continued to the Athabasca River before returning via the Methye portage. Returning through the same area the following year, on June 10, 1799, at Île-à-la-Crosse, Thompson married Charlotte Small, Métis daughter of Patrick Small, an associate of the North West Company. This young woman, age 13, would accompany him on almost all his voyages and the happiness and stability of their marriage  --  not common then  --  would be enviable.

In 1801, Thompson tried to find a favourable route to the Pacific by going on the Ram River, but high water levels forced him back to Rocky Mountain House. More than ever, he was gripped by the desire to explore a new route to the sea after the American expedition of Lewis and Clarke in 1806, which had reached the mouth of the Columbia River by going through the area south of the Canadian border. The North West Company needed to know if this river could serve as an access route to its trading territories. It became imperative for the Company to establish a presence in the area and, possibly, to modify its barter system to include the Columbia. Thompson was given this mandate.

Thompson left on the North Saskatchewan with nine men and his wife and three children. After spending the winter at Rocky Mountain House, the group reached the crest of the mountains on June 25, 1807 and went down the Blaeberry River to the body of water called Kootana (Kootenay Lake). At this time, Thompson did not know that he had just reached the upper reaches of the Columbia River. For three years, the men traded furs here and Thompson surveyed the territory of the Kootenay and the Flathead peoples. The presence of white traders in this area diminished the position that the Peigan had previously held as middle-men, a fact which led to tensions that affected Thompson's expedition in 1810.

The Pacific Fur Company had settled at the mouth of the Columbia on the Pacific Ocean. The North West Company feared that furs would be drained from its reserve in the Rockies, and asked that Thompson explore a land route to the Columbia from the Company's base camp in the mountains. The Peigan blocked a large convoy of merchandise sent to Thompson, forcing him to take a detour. The way was so difficult that it discouraged the people he had hired and they abandoned him. With the three men left, Thompson reached the Columbia River at the mouth of the Canoe River and went down as far as Saleesh House. From there, by canoe and on horseback, they reached Spokane House, and took to the river again to Kettle falls. On July 15, 1811, colours flying, they landed at Fort Astoria Footnote 1. The Pacific Fur Company had gotten there before Thompson but he had just discovered a commercial route between Montreal and the Pacific. Unfortunately, this route became American territory after the Treaty of Oregon was signed in 1847.

Thompson returned to Montreal with his family. In 1814, he completed an enormous map showing the northwest from Lake Superior to the Pacific. Thompson continued his surveying career in Lower and Upper Canada and, especially, with the International Boundary Commission, which determined the southern border of Canada. In 1815, he bought a farm at Williamston, Ontario.

The Englishman John Bigsby met Thompson at a chic evening given by William McGillivray in Montreal in 1819. Bigsby was very impressed by this strange-looking man of some 50 years:

"He was plainly dressed, quiet, and observant, His figure was short and compact, and his black hair was worn long all round, and cut square, as if by one stroke of the shears, just above the eyebrows. His complexion was of the gardener's ruddy brown, while the expression of his deeply-furrowed features was friendly and intelligent, but his cut-short nose gave him an odd look. His speech betrayed the Welshman, although he left his native hills when very young. [...] He was astronomer, first, to the Hudson's Bay Company, and then to the Boundary Commission."

On this last point, Bigsby had neglected to mention the North West Company. He continued, in describing Thompson:

"No living person possesses a tithe of his information respecting the Hudson's Bay countries, which from 1793 to 1820 he was constantly traversing. Never mind his Bunyan-like face and cropped hair; he had a very powerful mind, and a singular faculty of picture-making. He can create a wilderness and people it with warring savages, or climb the Rocky Mountains with you in a snow-storm, so clearly and palpably, that only shut your eyes and you hear the crack of the rifle, or feel the snow-flakes melt on your cheeks as he talks."

(Bigsby 1850, 112-114)

In his old age, Thompson retired to live with his daughter in Longueuil, where he died in 1857, poor and forgotten. In the 1880s, Joseph B. Tyrrell, the historian, started a campaign that regained for Thompson his true stature as a great Canadian explorer and geographer.

Tuesday, May 23rd, 1797

"This day left the service of the Hudson's Bay Co., and [entered] that of the Company of Merchants from Canada. May God Almighty prosper me."

(Tyrrell 1888, 7)

[Trip to Lake Athabasca]

"There is always a Canoe with three steady men and a native woman waiting the arrival of the annual Ship from England to carry the Letters and Instructions of the Company to the interior country trading houses; but very few men came out with her for the trade, and those few were only five feet five inches and under; a Mr James Spence was in charge of the Canoe, and his Indian wife looking steadily at the Men, and then at her husband; at length said, James have you not always told me, that the people in your country are as numerous as the leaves on the trees, how can you speak such a falsehood, do not we all see plainly that the very last of them is come, if there were any more would these dwarfs have come here. This appeared a home truth, and James Spence had to be silent."

(Glover 1962, 108-109)

The North West Company

As the fur trade expanded deeper into the Canadian Northwest, independent traders such as Peter Pond and the Frobisher brothers found it increasingly difficult to finance and supply their operations. It became apparent that a co-operative venture might make trade more efficient by reducing expenses associated with competition. The result of their negotiations was the North West Company (NWC), a shifting partnership of Montreal merchants and inland traders. Formed initially in 1779, it went through several reorganizations before emerging as the dominant player in Montreal-based trade.

Men recruited from Scotland and England, who were often related to one another, led the NWC. They served as apprentice clerks in the fur country, learning the trade from the bottom up, and then graduated to full partnerships in the company. These were the so-called "Nor'westers". Some supervised the trade in the West, while others were responsible for the Montreal end of the business, exporting furs and importing the trade goods and supplies. The lower ranks of the company were filled by French-Canadian voyageurs, the work force of the fur trade. They paddled the canoes, hauled cargo across the portages and built the trading posts. The voyageurs' knowledge of wilderness travel, their experience with the Native people of Canada, and their great stamina made them invaluable to the Nor'westers.

The thirst for furs led the Nor'westers to the country around Athabasca Lake, and their arrival there was followed by a series of explorations by Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser and David Thompson that carried NWC trade across the Rocky Mountains and all the way to the Pacific Coast. For a time it seemed that the NWC would prevail against its greatest rival, the Hudson's Bay Company, for dominance in the fur trade.

One of the biggest problems faced by the NWC was distance. It was impossible to travel from Montreal all the way to the fur country and back in a single season. To solve this problem the company created a two-stage transportation system. In the interior each spring, the wintering partners gathered up the furs they had traded and as soon as the ice had melted they paddled eastward down rivers and across lakes. From Montreal the supply canoes made their way westward up the St. Lawrence River and across the Great Lakes. The two brigades met at Fort William, a large wooden trading post at the western end of Lake Superior, in what is now called Thunder Bay. For several days each summer the fort was alive with a noisy throng of traders and trappers exchanging furs, trade goods and news of the year's events. Once business was complete they held a festive banquet and dance to mark the end of another trading season, before turning around and heading back in the directions from which they had come.

For half a century the NWC battled the Hudson's Bay Company for supremacy in the fur trade. The rivalry was bitter, and sometimes violent. Competition came to a head at the Red River Colony in southern Manitoba in 1816 when 22 people died in a clash set off by fur-trade animosities. Finally the British government stepped in to restore peace in the Northwest. Under pressure, the two companies amalgamated in 1821. A re-organized Hudson's Bay Company absorbed its rival and the North West Company passed into history.


In 1754, French competition forced the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) to send one of their employees, Anthony Henday, inland to persuade resident Native people to trade with them at the Bay rather than at French posts. Over the next 20 years, the HBC sent 23 such wintering journeys to the Lake Winnipeg, Saskatchewan River and upper Churchill River areas. Few detailed journals or maps resulted, as this was not the purpose of the journeys. In 1770-74, Andrew Graham, a factor at York Factory and Fort Severn, drew on the experiences of two of these 'winterers', Matthew Cocking and William Tomison, to produce the first English map of the western interior.

Exploration to the Northwest was slow to develop. Based on Native maps collected in the 1760s, the HBC came to believe that there was a northern river (the Coppermine) which connected Baffin Bay or Hudson Bay to a large interior lake (Great Slave) and a second river which led from there to the Pacific Ocean. In 1770, the HBC sent Samuel Hearne, guided by Matonabbee, on his epic journey to the Coppermine River to look for such a route and to report on the presence of copper. He determined that the Coppermine emptied into the Arctic Ocean, that there was little copper in the area and that there was no east-west water route north of the Churchill River.

By the time Hearne returned, competition from Montreal-based traders, or "pedlars," had grown to the point that the HBC ordered him to the Saskatchewan to build their first inland post, Cumberland House, in 1774. This decision initiated a new phase of the fur trade, exploration and mapping. Surveyors were sent inland on major rivers to assess the river systems for wooden boat traffic and to estimate the extent of "pedlar" penetration. In 1778 the HBC hired Philip Turnor as its first trained inland surveyor. He was a fortunate choice. Not only did the quality of the HBC's maps improve, but Turnor also trained some of the Company's best surveyors, among them Peter Fidler and David Thompson.

Mapping by the Montreal traders and the North West Company was infrequent until David Thompson joined them in 1797. Around 1775, Alexander Henry produced a map from accounts by Native people that showed Lake Athabasca at its northwestern extremity. Three years later Native guides showed Peter Pond, a colleague of Henry's, the Methy portage that opened a route across the drainage divide from the Churchill River to the rich fur country of the Athabasca. Although Pond originally thought that the Athabasca system flowed into the Arctic Ocean, by the time he talked to Alexander Mackenzie, he was of the opinion that it emptied into the Pacific, and when Mackenzie reached the mouth of the river named after him in 1789, he was very disappointed. After taking lessons in surveying, Mackenzie made his second journey, reaching the Pacific on July 22, 1793. The continent had finally been crossed.

The explorer and mapmaker who produced the finest work of the century was David Thompson. Between the time of his arrival in Canada (1784) and when he ceased surveying in the west (1812), he walked over and produced detailed maps of the country from the eastern end of Lake Superior to the Pacific Ocean and between latitudes 40° and 60°N. Although none of Thompson's maps were published, their impact on those of other mapmakers was definitive.

Significant maps of the period

[Graham, Andrew]

"Plan Of Hudson's-Bay, & Rivers... ." [1774].

Hearne, Samuel

A Map exhibiting Mr. Hearnes Tracks in his two journies...1770, 1771 and 1772... . 1795.

Henry, Alexander

"A Map Of The North West parts of America... ." [1775-76].

Mackenzie, Alexander

A Map of America Between Latitude 40 and 70 Degrees North... .

[Norton, Moses]

"A Draught Brought by Two Northern Indian Leaders Calld Meatonabee & Idotlyazee... ." [1765-69].

Pond, Peter

"Copy of a Map presented to Congress... ." 1785.

Thompson, David

"Map of the North-West Territory of the Province of Canada... ." 1813-14.

Turnor, Philip

"A Chart of Rivers and Lakes... ." 1778-79.

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