Voyages From Montreal Through The Continent Of North America To The Frozen And Pacific Oceans In 1789 And 1793 With An Account Of The Rise And State Of The Fur Trade


JULY, 1789.

_Wednesday, 1._–At half past four in the morning we continued our
voyage, and in a short time found the river narrowed to about half a
mile. Our course was Westerly among islands, with a strong current.
Though the land is high on both sides, the banks are not perpendicular.
This course was twenty-one miles; and on sounding we found nine fathoms
water. We then proceeded West-North-West nine miles, and passed a river
upon the South-East side; we sounded, and found twelve fathoms; and then
we went North-West by West three miles. Here I lost my lead, which had
fastened at the bottom, with part of the line, the current running so
strong that we could not clear it with eight paddles, and the strength
of the line, which was equal to four paddles. Continued North by West
five miles, and saw a high mountain, bearing South from us; we then
proceeded North-West by North four miles. We now passed a small river
on the North side, then doubled a point to West-South-West. At one
o’clock there came on lightning and thunder, with wind and rain, which
ceased in about half an hour, and left us almost deluged with wet, as we
did not land. There were great quantities of ice along the banks of the

We landed upon a small island, where there were the poles of four lodges
standing, which we concluded to have belonged to the Knisteneaux, on
their war excursions, six or seven years ago. This course was fifteen
miles West, to where the river of the Mountain falls in from the
Southward. It appears to be a very large river, whose mouth is half a
mile broad. About six miles further a small river flows in the same
direction; and our whole course was twenty-four miles. We landed
opposite to an island, the mountains to the Southward being in sight.
As our canoe was deeply laden, and being also in daily expectation of
coming to the rapids or fall, which we had been taught to consider with
apprehension, we concealed two bags of pemmican in the opposite island,
in the hope that they would be of future service to us. The Indians
were of a different opinion, as they entertained no expectation of
returning that season, when the hidden provisions would be spoiled. Near
us were two Indian encampments of the last year. By the manner in which
these people cut their wood, it appears that they have no iron tools.
The current was very strong during the whole of this day’s voyage, and
in the article of provisions two swans were all that the hunters were
able to procure.

_Thursday, 2._–The morning was very foggy: but at half past five we
embarked; it cleared up, however, at seven, when we discovered that the
water, from being very limpid and clear, was become dark and muddy.
This alteration must have proceeded from the influx of some river to the
Southward, but where these streams first blended their waters, the fog
had prevented us from observing. At nine we perceived a very high
mountain ahead, which appeared, on our nearer approach, to be rather a
cluster of mountains, stretching as far as our view could reach to the
Southward, and whose tops were lost in the clouds. At noon there was
lightning, thunder, and rain, and at one, we came abreast of the
mountains; their summits appeared to be barren and rocky, but their
declivities were covered with wood; they appeared also to be sprinkled
with white stones, which glistened in the sun, and were called by the
Indians manetoe aseniak, or spirit stones. I suspected that they were
Talc, though they possessed a more brilliant whiteness; on our return,
however, these appearances were dissolved, as they were nothing more
than patches of snow.

Our course had been West-South-West thirty miles and we proceeded with
great caution, as we continually expected to approach some great rapid
or fall. This was such a prevalent idea, that all of us were
occasionally persuaded that we heard those sounds which betokened a fall
of water. Our course changed to West by North, along the mountains,
twelve miles, North by West, twenty-one miles, and at eight o’clock in
the evening, we went on shore for the night, on the North side of the
river. We saw several encampments of the natives, some of which had
been erected in the present spring, and others at some former period.
The hunters killed only one swan and a beaver; the latter was the first
of its kind which we had seen in this river. The Indians complained of
the perseverance with which we pushed forward, and that they were not
accustomed to such severe fatigue as it occasioned.

_Friday, 3._–The rain was continual through the night, and did not
subside till seven this morning, when we embarked and steered
North-North-West for twelve miles, the river being enclosed by high
mountains on either side. We had a strong head-wind, and the rain was
so violent as to compel us to land at ten o’ clock. According to my
reckoning, since my last observation, we had run two hundred and
seventeen miles West, and forty-four miles North. At a quarter past two
the rain subsided, and we got again under way, our former course
continuing for five miles. Here a river fell in from the North, and in
a short time the current became strong and rapid, running with great
rapidity among rocky islands, which were the first that we had seen in
this river, and indicated our near approach to rapids and falls. Our
present course was North-West by North ten miles, North-West three
miles, West-North-West twelve miles, and North-West three miles, when we
encamped at eight in the evening, at the foot of an high hill, on the
North shore, which in some parts rose perpendicular from the river. I
immediately ascended it, accompanied by two men and some Indians, and in
about an hour and an half, with very hard walking, we gained the summit,
when I was very much surprised to find it crowned by an encampment. The
Indians informed me, that it is the custom of the people who have no
arms to choose these elevated spots for the places of their residence,
as they can render them inaccessible to their enemies, particularly the
Knisteneaux, of whom they are in continual dread. The prospect from
this height was not so extensive as we expected, as it was terminated by
a circular range of hills, of the same elevation as that on which we
stood. The intervals between the hills were covered with small lakes,
which were inhabited by great numbers of swans. We, saw no trees but
the pine and the birch, which were small in size and few in number.

We were obliged to shorten our stay here, from the swarms of mosquitoes
which attacked us on all sides and were, indeed, the only inhabitants of
the place. We saw several encampments of the natives in the course of
the day, but none of them were of this year’s establishment. Since four
in the afternoon the current had been so strong, that it was at length,
in an actual ebullition, and produced an hissing noise like a kettle of
water in a moderate state of boiling. The weather was now become
extremely cold, which was the more sensibly felt, as it had been very
sultry sometime before and since we had been in the river.

Saturday 4 — At five in the morning, the wind and weather having
undergone no alteration from yesterday, we proceeded North-West by West
twenty-two miles, North-West six miles, North-West by North four miles
and West-North-West five miles; we then passed the mouth of a small
river from the North, and after doubling a point, South-West one mile,
we passed the influx of an other river from the South. We then
continued our course North-North-West, with a mountain ahead, fifteen
miles, when the opening of two rivers appeared opposite to each other:
we then proceeded West four miles, and North-West thirteen miles. At
eight in the evening, we encamped on an island. The current was as
strong through the whole of this day as it had been the preceding
after-noon; nevertheless, a quantity of ice appeared along the banks of
the river. The hunters killed a beaver and a goose, the former of which
sunk before they could get to him: beavers, otters, bears, etc., if shot
dead at once, remain like a bladder, but if there remains enough of life
for them to struggle, they soon fill with water and go to the bottom.

_Sunday, 5._–The sun set last night at fifty-three minutes past nine,
by my watch, and rose at seven minutes before two this morning: we
embarked soon after, steering North-North-West, through islands for five
miles, and West four miles. The river then increased in breadth, and
the current began to slacken in a small degree; after the continuation
of our course, we perceived a ridge of high mountains before us, covered
with snow. West-South-West ten miles, and at three-quarters past seven
o’clock, we saw several smokes on the North shore, which we made every
exertion to approach. As we drew nearer, we discovered the natives
running about in great apparent confusion; some were making to the
woods, and others hurrying to their canoes. Our hunters landed before
us, and addressed the few that had not escaped, in the Chipewyan
language, which, so great was their confusion and terror, they did not
appear to understand. But when they perceived that it was impossible to
avoid us, as we were all landed, they made us signs to keep at a
distance, with which we complied, and not only unloaded our canoe, but
pitched our tents, before we made any attempt to approach them. During
this interval, the English chief and his young men were employed in
reconciling them to our arrival; and when they had recovered from their
alarm of hostile intention, it appeared that some of them perfectly
comprehended the language of our Indians; so that they were at length
persuaded, though not without evident signs of reluctance and
apprehension, to come to us. Their reception, however, soon dissipated
their fears, and they hastened to call their fugitive companions from
their hiding places.

There were five families, consisting of twenty-five or thirty persons,
and of two different tribes, the Slave and Dog-rib Indians. We made
them smoke, though it was evident they did not know the use of tobacco;
we likewise supplied them with grog; but I am disposed to think, that
they accepted our civilities rather from fear than inclination. We
acquired a more effectual influence over them by the distribution of
knives, beads, awls, rings, gartering, fire-steels, flints, and hatchets;
so that they became more familiar even than we expected, for we could
not keep them out of our tents: though I did not observe that they
attempted to purloin any-thing.

The information which they gave respecting the river, had so much of the
fabulous, that I shall not detail it: it will be sufficient just to
mention their attempts to persuade us that it would require several
winters to get to the sea, and that old age would come upon us before
the period of our return: we were also to encounter monsters of such
horrid shapes and destructive powers as could only exist in their wild
imaginations. They added, besides, that there were two impassable falls
in the river, the first of which was about thirty days march from us.

Though I placed no faith in these strange relations, they had a very
different effect upon our Indians, who were already tired of the voyage.
It was their opinion and anxious wish, that we should not hesitate to
return. They said that, according to the information which they had
received, there were very few animals in the country beyond us, and that
as we proceeded, the scarcity would increase, and we should absolutely
perish from hunger, if no other accident befel us. It was with no small
trouble that they were convinced of the folly of these reasonings; and
by my desire, they induced one of those Indians to accompany us, in
consideration of a small kettle, an axe, a knife, and some other

Though it was now three o’clock in the afternoon, the canoe was ordered
to be re-loaded, and as we were ready to embark our new recruit was
desired to prepare himself for his departure, which he would have
declined; but as none of his friends would take his place, we may be
said, after the delay of an hour, to have compelled him to embark.
Previous to his departure a ceremony took place, of which I could not
learn the meaning; he cut off a lock of his hair, and having divided it
into three parts, he fastened one of them to the hair on the upper part
of his wife’s head, blowing on it three times with the utmost violence
in his power, and uttering certain words. The other two he fastened
with the same formalities, on the heads of his two children.

During our short stay with these people, they amused us with dancing,
which they accompanied with their voices: but neither their song or
their dance possessed much variety. The men and women formed a
promiscuous ring. The former have a bone dagger or piece of stick
between the fingers of the right hand, which they keep extended above
the head, in continual motion: the left they seldom raise so high, but
work it backwards and forwards in a horizontal direction; while they
leap about and throw themselves into various antic postures, to the
measure of their music, always bringing their heels close to each other
at every pause. The men occasionally howl in imitation of some animal,
and he who continues this violent exercise for the longest period,
appears to be considered as the best performer. The women suffer their
arms to hang as without the power of motion. They are a meagre, ugly,
ill-made people, particularly about the legs, which are very clumsy and
covered with scabs. The latter circumstance proceeds probably from
their habitually roasting them before the fire. Many of them appeared
to be in a very unhealthy state, which is owing, as I imagine, to their
natural filthiness. They are of a moderate stature, and as far as could
be discovered, through the coat of dirt and grease that covers them, are
of a fairer complexion than the generality of Indians who are the
natives of warmer climates.

Some of them have their hair of a great length; while others suffer a
long tress to fall behind, and the rest is cut so short as to expose
their ears, but no other attention whatever is paid to it. The beards
of some of the old men were long, and the rest had them pulled out by
the roots so that not a hair could be seen on their chins. The men have
two double lines, either black or blue, tattooed upon each cheek, from
the ear to the nose. The gristle of the latter is perforated so as to
admit a goose-quill or a small piece of wood to be passed through the
orifice. Their clothing is made of the dressed skins of the rein or
moose-deer, though more commonly of the former. These they prepare in
the hair for winter, and make shirts of both, which reach to the middle
of their thighs. Some of them are decorated with an embroidery of very
neat workmanship with porcupine quills and the hair of the moose,
coloured red, black, yellow, and white. Their upper garments are
sufficiently large to cover the whole body, with a fringe round the
bottom, and are used both sleeping and awake. Their leggins come half
way up the thigh, and are sewed to their shoes: they are embroidered
round the ancle, and upon every seam. The dress of the women is the
same as that of the men. The former have no covering on their private
parts, except a tassel of leather which dangles from a small cord, as it
appears, to keep off the flies, which would otherwise be very
troublesome. Whether circumcision be practised among them, I cannot
pretend to say, but the appearance of it was general among those whom I

Their ornaments consist of gorgets, bracelets for the arms and wrists,
made of wood, horn, or bone, belts, garters, and a kind of band to go
round the head, composed of strips of leather of one inch and an half
broad, embroidered with porcupine quills, and stuck round with the claws
of bears or wild fowl inverted, to which are suspended a few short
thongs of the skin of an animal that resembles the ermine, in the form
of a tassel. Their cinctures and garters are formed of porcupine quills
woven with sinews, in a style of peculiar skill and neatness: they have
others of different materials, and more ordinary workmanship; and to
both they attach a long fringe of strings of leather, worked round with
hair of various colours. Their mittens are also suspended from the neck
in a position convenient for the reception of the hands.

Their lodges are of a very simple structure: a few poles supported by a
fork, and forming a semicircle at the bottom, with some branches or a
piece of bark as a covering, constitutes the whole of their native
architecture. They build two of these huts facing each other, and make
the fire between them. The furniture harmonises with the buildings:
they have a few dishes of wood, bark, or horn; the vessels in which they
cook their victuals are in the shape of a gourd, narrow at the top and
wide at the bottom, and of watape,[1] fabricated in such a manner as to
hold water, which is made to boil by putting a succession of red-hot
stones into it. These vessels contain from two to six gallons. They
have a number of small leather bags to hold their embroidered work,
lines, and nets. They always keep an large quantity of the fibres of
willow bark, which they work into thread on their thighs. Their nets
are from three to forty fathoms in length, and from thirteen to
thirty-six inches in depth. The short deep ones they set in the eddy
current of rivers, and the long ones in the lakes. They likewise make
lines of the sinews of the rein-deer, and manufacture their hooks from
wood, horn, or bone. Their arms and weapons for hunting, are bows and
arrows, spears, daggers, and pogamagans, or clubs. The bows are about
five or six feet in length, and the strings are of sinews or raw skins.
The arrows are two feet and an half long, including the barb, which is
variously formed of bone, horn, flint, iron, or copper, and are winged
with three feathers. The pole of the spears is about six feet in
length, and pointed with a barbed bone of ten inches. With this weapon
they strike the rein-deer in the water. The daggers are flat and
sharp-pointed, about twelve inches long, and made of horn or bone. The
pogamagon is made of the horn of the rein-deer, the branches being all
cut off, except that which forms the extremity. This instrument is
about two feet in length, and is employed to despatch their enemies in
battle, and such animals as they catch in snares placed for that
purpose. These are about three fathom long, and are made of the green
skin of the rein or moose-deer, but in such small strips, that it
requires from ten to thirty strands to make this cord, which is not
thicker than a cod-line; and strong enough to resist any animal that can
be entangled in it. Snares or nooses are also made of sinews to take
lesser animals, such as hares and white partridges, which are very
numerous. Their axes are manufactured of a piece of brown or grey stone
from six to eight inches long, and two inches thick. The inside is
flat, and the outside round and tapering to an edge, an inch wide. They
are fastened by the middle with the flat side inwards to a handle two
feet long, with a cord of green skin. This is the tool with which they
split their wood, and we believe, the only one of its kind among them,
They kindle fire, by striking together a piece of white or yellow
pyrites and a flint stone, over a piece of touchwood. They are
universally provided with a small bag containing these materials, so
that they are in a continual state of preparation to produce fire. From
the adjoining tribes, the Red-Knives and Chepewyans, they procure, in
barter for marten skins and a few beaver, small pieces of iron, of which
they manufacture knives, by fixing them at the end of a short stick, and
with them and the beaver’s teeth, they finish all their work. They keep
them in a sheath hanging to their neck, which also contains their awls
both of iron and horn.

Their canoes are small, pointed at both ends, flat-bottomed and covered
in the fore part. They are made of the bark of the birch-tree and
fir-wood, but of so slight a construction, that the man whom one of
these light vessels bears on the water, can, in return, carry it over
land without any difficulty. It is very seldom that more than one
person embarks in them, nor are they capable of receiving more than two.
The paddles are six feet long, one half of which is occupied by a blade
of about eight inches wide. These people informed us, that we had
passed large bodies of Indians who inhabit the mountains on the east
side of the river.

At four in the afternoon we embarked, and our Indian acquaintance
promised to remain on the bank of the river till the fall, in case we
should return. Our course was West-South-West, and we soon passed the
Great Bear Lake River, which is of a considerable depth and an hundred
yards wide: its water is clear, and has the greenish hue of the sea. We
had not proceeded more than six miles when we were obliged to land for
the night, in consequence of an heavy gust of wind, accompanied with
rain. We encamped beneath a rocky hill, on the top of which, according
to the information of our guide, it blew a storm every day throughout
the year. He found himself very uncomfortable in his new situation, and
pretended that he was very ill, in order that he might be permitted to
return to his relations. To prevent his escape, it became necessary to
keep a strict watch over him during the night.

_Monday, 6._–At three o’clock, in a very raw and cloudy morning, we
embarked, and steered West-South-West four miles, West four miles,
West-North-West five miles, West eight miles, West by South fifteen
miles, West twenty-seven miles, South-West nine miles, then West six
miles, and encamped at half past seven. We passed through numerous
islands, and had a ridge of snowy mountains always in sight. Our
conductor informed us that great numbers of bears and small white
buffaloes, frequent those mountains, which are also inhabited by
Indians. We encamped in a similar situation to that of the preceding
evening, beneath another high rocky hill, which I attempted to ascend,
in company with one of the hunters, but before we had got half way to
the summit, we were almost suffocated by clouds of mosquitoes, and were
obliged to return. I observed, however, that the mountains terminated
here, and that a river flowed from the Westward: I also discovered a
strong rippling current, or rapid, which ran close under a steep
precipice of the hill.

_Tuesday, 7._–We embarked at four in the morning and crossed to the
opposite side of the river, in consequence of the rapid; but we might
have spared ourselves this trouble, as there would have been no danger
in continuing our course, without any circuitous deviation whatever.
This circumstance convinced us of the erroneous account given by the
natives of the great and approaching dangers of our navigation, as this
rapid was stated to be one of them. Our course was now North-North-West
three miles, West-North-West four miles, North-West ten miles, North two
miles, when we came to a river that flowed from the Eastward. Here we
landed at an encampment of four fires, all the inhabitants of which ran
off with the utmost speed except and old man and an old woman. Our
guide called aloud to the fugitives, and entreated them to stay, but
without effect the old man, however, did not hesitate to approach us,
and represented himself as too far advanced in life, and too indifferent
about the short time he had to remain in the world, to be very anxious
about escaping from any danger that threatened him; at the same time he
pulled his grey hairs from his head by handfuls to distribute among us,
and implored our favour for himself and his relations. Our guide,
however, at length removed his fears, and persuaded him to recall the
fugitives, who consisted of eighteen people; whom I reconciled to me on
their return with presents of beads, knives, awls, &c., with which they
appeared to be greatly delighted. They differed in no respect from
those whom we had already seen; nor were they deficient in hospitable
attentions; they provided us with fish, which was very well boiled, and
cheerfully accepted by us. Our guide still sickened after his home, and
was so anxious to return thither, that we were under the necessity of
forcing him to embark.

These people informed us that we were close to another great rapid, and
that there were several lodges of their relations in its vicinity.

Four canoes, with a man in each, followed us, to point out the
particular channels we should follow for the secure passage of the
rapid. They also abounded in discouraging stories concerning the
dangers and difficulties which we were to encounter.

From hence our course was North-North-East two miles, when the river
appeared to be enclosed, as it were, with lofty, perpendicular, white
rocks, which did not afford us a very agreeable prospect. We now went
on shore, in order to examine the rapid, but did not perceive any signs
of it, though the Indians still continued to magnify its dangers:
however, as they ventured down it, in their small canoes, our
apprehensions were consequently removed, and we followed them at some
distance, but did not find any increase in the rapidity of the current;
at length the Indians informed us that we should find no other rapid but
that which was now bearing us along. The river at this place is not
above three hundred yards in breadth, but on sounding I found fifty
fathoms water. At the two rivulets that offer their tributary streams
from either side, we found six families, consisting of about thirty-five
persons, who gave us an ample quantity of excellent fish, which were,
however, confined to white fish, the poisson inconnu, and another of a
round form and greenish colour, which was about fourteen inches in
length. We gratified them with a few presents, and continued our
voyage. The men, however, followed us in fifteen canoes.

This narrow channel is three miles long, and its course
North-North-East. We then steered North three miles, and landed at an
encampment of three or more families, containing twenty-two persons,
which was situated on the bank of a river, of a considerable appearance,
which came from the Eastward. We obtained hares and partridges from
these people, and presented in return such articles as greatly delighted
them. They very much regretted that they had no goods or merchandise to
exchange with us, as they had left them at a lake, from whence the river
issued, and in whose vicinity some of their people were employed in
setting snares for rein-deer. They engaged to go for their articles of
trade, and would wait our return, which we assumed them would be within
two months. There was a youth among them in the capacity of a slave,
whom our Indians understood much better than any of the natives of this
country whom they had yet seen; he was invited to accompany us, but took
the first opportunity to conceal himself, and we saw him no more.

We now steered West five miles, when we again landed, and found two
families, containing seven people, but had reason to believe that there
were others hidden in the woods. We received from them two dozen of
hares, and they were about to boil two more, which they also gave us.
We were not ungrateful for their kindness, and left them. Our course
was now North-West four miles, and at nine we landed and pitched our
tents, when one of our people killed a grey crane. Our conductor
renewed his complaints, not, as he assured us, from any apprehension of
our ill treatment, but of the Esquimaux, whom he represented as a very
wicked and malignant people; who would put us all to death. He added,
also, that it was but two summers since a large party of them came up
this river, and killed many of his relations. Two Indians followed us
from the last lodges.

_Wednesday, 8._–At half past two in the morning we embarked, and
steered a Westerly course, and soon after put ashore at two lodges of
nine Indians. We made them a few trifling presents, but without
disembarking, and had proceeded but a small distance from thence, when
we observed several smokes beneath a hill, on the North shore, and on
our approach we perceived the natives climbing the ascent to gain the
woods. The Indians, however, in the two small canoes which were ahead
of us, having assured them of our friendly intentions, they returned to
their fires, and we disembarked. Several of them were clad in
hare-skins, but in every other circumstance they resembled those whom we
had already seen. We were, however, informed that they were of a
different tribe, called the Hare Indians, as hares and fish are their
principal support, from the scarcity of rein-deer and beaver, which are
the only animals of the larger kind that frequent this part of the
country. They were twenty-five in number; and among them was a woman
who was afflicted with an abscess in the belly, and reduced, in
consequence, to a mere skeleton: at the same time several old women were
singing and howling around her; but whether these noises were to operate
as a charm for her cure, or merely to amuse and console her, I do not
pretend to determine. A small quantity of our usual presents were
received by them with the greatest satisfaction.

Here we made an exchange of our guide, who had become so troublesome
that we were obliged to watch him night and day, except when he was upon
the water. The man, however, who had agreed to go in his place soon
repented of his engagement, and endeavoured to persuade us that some of
his relations further down the river, would readily accompany us, and
were much better acquainted with the river than himself. But, as he had
informed us ten minutes before that we should see no more of his tribe,
we paid very little attention to his remonstrances, and compelled him to

In about three hours a man overtook us in a canoe, and we suspected that
his object was to facilitate, in some way or other, the escape of our
conductor. About twelve we also observed an Indian walking along the
North-East shore, when the small canoes paddled towards him. We
accordingly followed, and found three men, three women, and two
children, who had been on an hunting expedition. They had some flesh of
the rein-deer, which they offered to us, but it was so rotten, as well
as offensive to the smell, that we excused ourselves from accepting it.
They had also their wonderful stories of danger and terror, as well as
their countrymen, whom we had already seen; and we were now informed,
that behind the opposite island there was a Manitoe or spirit, in the
river, which swallowed every person that approached it. As it would
have employed half a day to have indulged our curiosity in proceeding to
examine this phenomenon, we did not deviate from our course, but left
these people with the usual presents, and proceeded on our voyage. Our
course and distance this day were West twenty-eight miles,
West-North-West twenty-three miles, West-South-West six miles, West by
North five miles, South-West four miles, and encamped at eight o’clock.
A fog prevailed the greater part of the day, with frequent showers of
small rain.

[1] Watape is the name given to the divided roots of the spruce fir,
which the natives weave into a degree of compactness that renders it
capable of containing a fluid. The different parts of the bark canoes
are also sewed together with this kind of filament.