Simon Fraser: Tales of a Fur Trader

In the early days of July 1808, Montreal fur trader Simon Fraser caught his first glimpses of the Pacific Ocean.

In the early days of July 1808, Montreal fur trader Simon Fraser caught his first glimpses of the Pacific Ocean.

He had arrived at the mouth of the river that now bears his name some 36 days after leaving Fort George (modern-day Prince George) and almost three years after establishing B.C.’s first European settlement at McLeod Lake. The mission from his employers at the North West Company: to find a navigable route to the western sea so that they could expand their Pacific trade. While Fraser ultimately wasn’t successful – the river proved, at several points, unnavigable – he did succeed in building several trading posts along the way, and thus laid the cornerstones for the B.C. economy.

To commemorate the 200th anniversary of Fraser’s journey, Victoria-based journalist Stephen Hume decided to follow in the trader’s footsteps, studying maps and diaries in archives across North America and interviewing the descendants of people who helped Fraser before jumping aboard his own canoe to retrace that seminal journey. The following is excerpted from the first chapter of Hume’s book, Simon Fraser: In Search of Modern British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, May 2008).

On a fall afternoon about 200 years ago, when the air was crisp with that sharp taste of snow that signals every winter’s march into central British Columbia, a sturdy, auburn-haired man stepped from a flimsy canoe onto a willow-clad tongue of land between two fast-running streams at the northwest end of what we now call McLeod Lake. His name was Simon Fraser. He was not yet 30. And pressed into the soft ground with his footprints, almost 900 kilometres north of Greater Vancouver’s glowing pillars of glass and steel, were the seeds of an enterprise that would grow into today’s great province. The narrow lake before him extended to the southeast, nestled into a trough where the Nechako Plateau butts up against the Misinchinka mountain range, a western outrider of the towering northern Rockies. Then as now – as the dwindling days of 1805 closed in on the lean winter months ahead – a dark forest crowded it, displaying an occasional flare of autumn foliage. Beyond the lake, the land rose to a distant range of hills. Behind Fraser, what we now call the Pack River twisted away into the trees, seeking its confluence to the northwest with the Parsnip, itself a muscular fork of the mighty Peace River that rolled relentlessly northeast through its forbidding canyons toward Athabasca Lake and ultimately the Arctic Ocean.

Even today there’s a stillness about the place that almost belies what sprang from the seeds Fraser planted here so long ago. The glossy lake that now carries my own reflection, the motionless trees and the enormous, crushing silence are dis­turbed only by the faint blat of a truck using its engine to brake on nearby Highway 97. There’s no hint of the megalopolis in the southwestern corner of the province that illuminates the night sky for hundreds of kilometres around, its neon canyons pulsing with electricity generated from these same fast-flowing rivers.

Back then Fraser stood at the farthest end of a tenuous transportation route. It reached back across a wild and dangerous continent. News of his arrival – travel­ling at the speed that river currents allowed, seldom faster than a man could walk – would take a full year to reach the company’s directors in distant Montreal. Their acknowledgment and further instructions would take another year to come back, then one more year for his reply and the latest financial accounting. A three-year turnaround seems almost unimaginable in our age of instant messaging.

While far off Europe seethed with a titanic conflict – Nelson would smash the French fleet at Trafalgar on October 21, and Napoleon would crush the allies’ army at Austerlitz on December 2 – Fraser was left to worry in blessed ignorance about his increasingly leaky canoes and whether he could secure enough fish and game from this unknown country to see his voyageurs, hired hands, guides and hunters through the hungry days that surely lay ahead.

It was late in the season, but we can be reasonably sure it wasn’t late in the day when Fraser made his decision to build a trading post here at McLeod Lake. After 13 years on the northern frontier, he was a seasoned wilderness traveller.[pagebreak]Fraser would want plenty of light to make camp. Night would be blacker and stars brighter than anyone now living can imagine, save for the few who have been to the upper edges of the atmosphere. In 1805 the haze from the “dark satanic mills” of the coal-fired Industrial Revolution had not yet begun to obscure the skies.

Whether or not his eye lingered upon the esthetic qualities of the view, it must have noted the spot’s advantages. A near-constant breeze from the lake would blow summer mosquitoes and black flies off the point. Clean running water was abun­dant. There would be fish in the lake – Trout Lake, it was called by the Tse’Khene people he’d already encountered – and it was well-positioned for further explora­tion. Indeed, he already knew of other lakes off to the west.

Fraser’s canoe was held together with spruce-root stitching, its birchbark skin little thicker than the cardboard in a pizza box and its seams waterproofed with sticky black pitch. The slight craft had already carried him nearly 4,000 kilometres to this spot, and had itself been carried over spine-popping portages where newcomers discovered the trail was marked upon the naked bedrock by sweat dripping from the burdened men just ahead of them.

By comparison, my own six-metre canoe, a bit battered after 30 years of paddling but nonetheless sound for its adventures, is a space-age marvel of nearly puncture-proof aluminum. A knife-edge keel keeps it tracking true and my shat­terproof aluminum paddles with plastic blades are far more efficient than wooden ones with their tendency to splinter on rocky bottoms. Its classic shape may be the same as its birchbark ancestor, but its materials reflect the technological gulf that separates my time from Fraser’s.

Fraser lived in a world powered by wind, water and muscle. Medicine was rudi­mentary and relied on principles and practices we now know to be wrong, even life-threatening. His world was illuminated by open flame. Information travelled at what scholars estimate was an average pace of 2.4 km/h. He navigated by the stars, the seasonal rising and setting of the sun, the length of shadows and the direction of flowing water. His only weather reports were broadcast by the sky.

I communicate by cellphone and send emails on a wireless hand-held com­puter. I can count on the triangulated signals from satellites to locate me within a few metres of my true position. I get my weather report over a portable radio that reports changing weather conditions by the hour and even alerts me to sudden hazards with an automated alarm, and its information comes from someone in a concrete bunker in Vancouver whose computers analyze photographs taken from space. Fraser’s messages to and from Montreal took years to conclude, but mine are immediate. Ground that he took months to cover I can traverse in a few hours.

Yet that frail bark canoe had taken him safely down thundering chutes where white crosses gleaming on the riverbanks marked the graves of the drowned, those who miscalculated by a hair or hesitated for a second. It had carried him across quaking, mosquito-infested muskegs, into gorges so deep and gloomy they seemed like gates to the underworld, and onward into unmapped territory occupied by peoples who had never met a European and might prefer to kill him rather than invite him to dinner.

Fraser wasn’t the first white man to penetrate this region of what is now B.C. Alexander Mackenzie had passed through on his famous dash to the Pacific 13 years earlier. In 1794, a fort had been built not far from present-day Fort St. John, although it was soon to be abandoned. John Finlay had briefly ventured through the Peace River canyon in 1797 and up the north fork that now bears his name. David Thompson had explored the Peace in 1804, establishing a base on the east side of the Rockies before turning his attention southward to the Kootenays and a route to the Columbia River. One of Fraser’s associates, James McDougall, had then made a quick reconnaissance of the country to the west that Fraser now sur­veyed. But of this bold few, Fraser was perhaps the most important. He was the first to come with clear intentions of creating a permanent European presence at this farthest reach of the known world. From the commercial enterprise he launched would unfold a truly astonishing future.

When Fraser stepped ashore on the little promontory at McLeod Lake, he was fulfilling instructions from his board of directors. At a meeting on the Great Lakes earlier that year, he had been ordered to expand the North West Company’s trading interests beyond the Rocky Mountains and to commercially exploit, if possible, the territory Mackenzie had briefly traversed on his exploratory mission to the Pacific Ocean.

Although the fur trade would reign for only another 50 years in the prov­ince, it would lay down the infrastructure of transportation routes, supply depots, permanent settlements, geographical knowledge, and perhaps most important, an emerging psychology of place. This would ensure British sovereignty over the region in the face of American expansionism. It would also facilitate the develop­ment of resources that began with the Fraser River gold rush in 1858.[pagebreak]In 10 generations, the seeds sown by Fraser would blossom into one of the country’s largest provincial economies, its most important western port, a global player in world commodity markets, a crucial component in the North American energy grid, home to leading-edge high-tech industries of the information age, great universities and a metropolitan area whose population now is more than six times greater than all of Canada’s population in 1805.

Fraser’s few surviving letters show he could be amiable, but he was also as tough as nails and ruthless when necessary. He expected results, and he got them. He was a natural leader, born to the hard and sometimes brutal life at the far edge of the known. He had a flinty eye for the bottom line but could be smooth, too, and on occasion must have been a fast talker – and quick to seize the calculated risk if the potential payback looked good. And he was a patriot. He was already 61 when he joined a volunteer infantry unit raised during the Rebellion of 1837, suf­fering a serious lifelong injury on active service. Yet, however reasonable, much of this is admittedly a writer’s speculation.

If Fraser’s character seems elusive, the formal record offers eloquent hints. He’d started in his era’s equivalent of the stockroom – apprenticed at 16 as a clerk to a North West Company fur warehouse in Montreal – but by the time he set out for what he would call New Caledonia, he had already risen to a full partnership in one of the biggest, most profitable corporations of the day. Think of a Grade 10 student now dropping out of school to take a keyboarding job with Microsoft, who within a decade emerges as a partner. At McLeod Lake, in the uncharted heart of a largely unexplored continent, his pale blue eyes ever alert for warning signs of an ambush or the onslaught of a startled grizzly bear – both ever-present possibilities – this aggressive young entre­preneur launched the daring enterprise from which modern B.C. would be forged.

Yet while this young businessman ensured the rise of this province, I found Fraser little more than a footnote to much of the formal work by both academics and popular historians. A sketch of the explorer’s life is included in an American museum curator’s book published in 1950, but John Spargo’s treatment runs to a scant 39 pages and most of the narrative bears upon Daniel Williams Harmon, an Ameri­can contemporary in the fur trade. Vancouver’s Barbara Rogers diligently sifted through obscure and fragmentary records – she found four Simon Frasers simultaneously active in the fur trade, not to mention the confusing fact that several famous relatives shared the patronym – and assembled four well-researched articles for the British Columbia Genealogist in 1989 and 1990.

But the man who founded B.C. generally commands only a few pages here and there, even in major works such as Margaret Ormsby’s sweeping British Colum­bia: A History or Peter Newman’s extraordinary, wonderfully accessible multivol­ume history of the fur trade and its role in shaping today’s Canada, Company of Adventurers.

To be sure, many British Columbians know that our great, defining river bears Fraser’s name. If we check the Gazetteer of Canada, we discover 36 other geo­graphical features in the province do too. We know he has a university named for him, an elementary school, a street or two, and less directly, a health authority, a sustainable stewardship organization, a conservative think tank and a famous – or infamous, depending upon point of view – beer parlour.

I went up the mountain to Simon Fraser University to read some of the original letters held there, trying to glean some sense of the man from the elegant, sweeping copperplate script on documents that his fingers had touched so long ago. Archi­vist Frances Fournier told me, however, I was the first person to ask to see them since they’d come into the collections decades earlier.

Even after a drowsy morning in a silent library, straining to decipher a fading alien hand that neatly lined family connections and lineages onto crumbling pages older than Canada, I still nursed that vexing question I’d started with – just who was Simon Fraser, anyway?

He seems a curious candidate for nonentity – particularly considering the high drama of his life and the way its adventurous arc parallels the momentous events that shaped our province, our country and our continent.[pagebreak]The Highland clearances by which Scottish clan society was shattered and dis­persed after a failed Roman Catholic rebellion against Protestant English rule, the American Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the Loyalist migrations that recon­figured Canada, the War of 1812, the sequential eclipse of France and Spain and Russia in North America, the meteoric ascendance of the United States, its own Civil War and bloody campaigns of ethnic cleansing against native Indian nations, the violent annexation of territory from Mexico, bushwhackings and blood feuds in a wild Canadian west that makes the American myth seem tame by comparison, the rise and fall of fur empires on a lawless frontier, the Industrial Revolution, the destruction of the bison (often popularly called the buffalo) and the settling of the Prairies, the loss of the Oregon Territory, the steps leading to the eventual union of New Caledonia with Vancouver Island to create British Columbia: all these occurred within the span of Simon Fraser’s long and eventful – yet remark­ably obscure – life.

His predecessor in exploring the far northwest, Mackenzie, is justly lionized as the first to reach the Pacific Ocean overland in 1793. Thompson, the buckskin-clad geographer who explored and mapped most of the western Prairies and the Rocky Mountains, deserves his new biography. Fraser’s American counterparts, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who also crossed the Rockies – from the Missouri River to the mouth of the Columbia – in 1805, attract a great national clamour in the U.S.

Library of Congress catalogues list more than 10,000 titles that refer to Lewis and Clark. Run a simple keyword search there for Simon Fraser and you get a handful – mostly referring to the university of the same name.

Some say Fraser’s place in history is minor because his own great voyage of exploration, the journey that confirmed that the Fraser and the Columbia were dif­ferent rivers – immensely important industrial intelligence in its time – was a com­mercial failure. He didn’t find a quick, viable river route from the fur-rich Interior to the sea, which would have meant faster shipment and vastly greater profitability. But neither did Mackenzie. Fort Clatsop, where Lewis and Clark wintered at the Columbia’s mouth, was soon abandoned.

The settlement at Trout Lake Post, however, which Fraser founded several months before Lewis and Clark put up their defensive palisades, still exists. Later named Fort McLeod in honour of Fraser’s friend, it justly claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in what is now Canada’s western­most province.

For the epicentre of so much history, McLeod Lake is a humble place today. It has a combined gas station, liquor outlet, post office and general store in an old Hudson’s Bay Company building that was moved more than half a century ago from the original site on the west bank of the river outlet to Highway 97.

Up a spur road lies the Tse’Khene settlement of McLeod Lake, a tidy, forward-looking community of several hundred that coalesced when nomadic hunting bands settled near the fur-trade post. The main industry is now logging through the band’s Duz Cho company, although prospects for oil and gas development seem increasingly bright.

Yet what began here 200 years ago in this quiet, dispersed settlement of about 250 souls, most of them Tse’Khene as in Fraser’s day, would lead to the economic powerhouse that pumps out wealth on a scale that even the explorer’s wealthiest senior partners could not have imagined.

When officers of the North West Company instructed Fraser to set up business on the western side of the Rockies, the bustling metropolis of Montreal had a pop­ulation of fewer than 10,000, smaller than present-day Parksville. New York City was about the size of present-day Prince George – minuscule in comparison to the more than four million people who now inhabit the province.

The real provincial gross domestic product for B.C. in 2005, for example, was more than 13 times greater than the real GDP for the entire United States in 1805. Today, B.C.’s real GDP is close to four times that of the entire United Kingdom 200 years ago.

It was from the tiny post on Trout Lake – in the region Fraser named New Cale­donia after a romanticized homeland that people of Scots ancestry like him knew only from stories – that he would establish Fort St. James and Fort Fraser, which would in turn spawn Fort George, Fort Alexandria, Fort Kamloops, Fort Langley and Fort Victoria. This network of trading posts became the sturdy framework for permanent communities upon which the muscle and sinew of B.C.’s economy out­side the Lower Mainland would grow.

From here Fraser would later mount his unsurpassed reconnaissance down the turbulent river that bears his name, all the way to tidewater and back in a stunning 71 days. Most of us would find this feat daunting even with outboard engines, metal-skinned canoes and trailers to assist on the portages.

Other factors shaped B.C., of course. These included the geopolitical jockeying of British and Spanish empires at Nootka Sound, the struggle by a newly independent United States to wrest control of the territory north of California from the despised British, the waxing and waning of Russian imperial influence on the north coast, the discovery of coal on Vancouver Island that rendered it a vital supply depot in the Pacific just at the time the powerful Royal Navy changed from sail to steam, and the great gold rush that flooded up the Fraser River in 1858.

But we can safely say that the moment Fraser landed on the north end of what is now McLeod Lake and decided to build a permanent trading post, he set in relentless motion the commercial events from which our province would fashion itself.

Copyright 2008 by Stephen Hume