by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
William H. Keating, a member of the 1823 American expedition that had surveyed the 49th Parallel near Pembina, when travelling north to the Red River Settlement aboard a barge, observed that the course of the river was “extremely winding” and the “depth is not great.”
“In many points its navigation was obstructed by shoals, and in one or two spots by primitive rocks apparently out of place; but the river was at that time extremely low.”
The scientist, who wrote an account of the party’s travels entitled, Narrative of an Expedition to the Source of St. Peter’s River, Lake Winnepeek, Lake of the Woods, &c. (the St. Peter’s River is today’s Minnesota River, while Lake Winnepeek is Lake Winnipeg), while floating lazily down the Red with the current, further observed that trees higher up along the riverbank showed signs of having bark rubbed by ice, which “seemed to indicate that the river at times rises at least fifteen feet.
“Our guide told us, but we are induced to doubt the accuracy of his statement, that sometimes it rises forty feet and inundates the prairies between Fort Douglas and Pembina, so that canoes are paddled across the prairies.”
While Keating may have been skeptical, the guide was only recounting what anyone then and now living along the entire course of the Red River knows — it is periodically subject to rather dramatic floods. Just three years after the expedition entered the Red River Valley, the river overflowed its banks, causing the greatest flood in recorded history.
At times of higher water than the expedition encountered, Keating commented that the river “would afford ample scope for steamboat navigation.”
There was merit to his observation. In 1859, the tiny steamer Anson Northup sailed up the Red to Fort Garry from Lafayette in what is now North Dakota, and became the first steamboat to reach the Red River Settlement.
The barge used by the expedition was owned by a Pembina resident referred to as “Mr. Nolan.” The “principal resident” of Pembina was sending the barge down river with a load of provisions for the Red River Settlement. The U.S. soldiers in the expedition were to paddle in three “wooden canoes” to the Hudson’s Bay Company post at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers.
In all, it took three days to travel downstream to the settlement.
“At the lower settlement there are two forts,” wrote Keating, “one called Fort Garry belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC); the other, called Fort Douglas, is the property of the colony ...”
The Fort Garry mentioned by Keating began life as Fort Gibraltar and was a North West Company (Nor’Wester) fur trading post. The first Fort Gibraltar was captured by HBC employee Colin Robertson and 20 men in 1816, dismantled, its logs floated downriver to reinforce Fort Douglas and what remained was set ablaze. At the time, the HBC and its Red River colonists were engaged in a life-or-death struggle with the Nor’Westers which culminated in the Battle of Seven Oaks and the killing of 20 colonists and HBC men led by Governor Robert Semple.
The Nor’Westers rebuilt the fort after its capture by the HBC was deemed illegal in Eastern Canadian courts. After the two fur-trading companies merged in 1821 under the banner of the HBC, the fort at The Forks of the Red and Assiniboine was renamed Fort Garry. This fort was destroyed in the 1826 flood. Upper Fort Garry was rebuilt further to the west of the original fort’s location in 1826, along today’s Main Street.
Fort Douglas was erected in present-day Point Douglas at the foot of George Street by the HBC to protect the Red River colonists, as such it was originally referred to as Colony Fort until renamed in honour of the settlement’s beneficiary, Thomas Douglas, the fifth Earl of Selkirk. Following the Battle of Sevens Oaks, Fort Douglas was occupied by the Métis led by Cuthbert Grant, and then re-occupied by the HBC when de Meurons and de Wattville soliders hired by Lord Selkirk secured the settlement. When the companies merged, the HBC moved its headquarters to Fort Gibraltar (Fort Garry), but Fort Douglas remained the home of the HBC governor until it, too, was destroyed in the 1826 flood. Fort Douglas was never rebuilt.
Keating said there were two houses of worship in the settlement, one was the Protestant Episcopal Church (Anglican, St. John’s), erected and supported by the London Bible Society, while the other was the Roman Catholic Cathedral at St. Boniface.
According to Keating’s narrative, there were 600 residents at Red River. He noted that agricultural improvements were continually being made by the settlers, with wheat yields “repeatedly” being 40 and more bushels to the acre.
The price of land per acre was originally $2, but reduced to $1 in 1823.
“One of the greatest evils, which the colonists have experienced,” wrote Keating, “was the abundance of grasshoppers, that almost ruined the crops for one or two years.”
In 1818, grasshoppers (actually, Rocky Mountain locusts) devoured the entire Red River crop. Grasshoppers plagued the region well into the late 1800s. The last recorded specimen of locust in Manitoba was in 1902, after which the species was declared officially extinct. It was an extraordinary declaration as the locusts had previously amassed in the billions, if not trillions. It is the only known insect pest species to have vanished in the 10,000-year history of agriculture on the earth.
The expedition, led by Major Stephen H. Long, camped on a high bluff, “about seventy or eighty feet above the Red River, near Fort Garry ...
“The Assiniboin (today’s Assiniboine River) is a beautiful romantic stream, whose breadth, at its mouth, does not exceed fifty yards, yet it is an important river on account of its length. We are informed that it is at least five hundred miles long ...
“The beautiful confluence of the Assiniboin and Red rivers washed the base of the bluff. Extensive prairies, upon which a number of domestic cattle were grazing, lay before us, while a young buffalo bull, which had been presented to the bishop (Joseph-Norbert Provencher), was seen on the opposite bank (St. Boniface), employed at labour. Both the banks of the river displayed occasional groups of Indian lodges and European tents, belonging to Indians, half-breeds (Métis), or to our party.
“On the stream, a number of canoes, constructed either from logs or birch bark, were seen occasionally gliding before us, under the quick and dexterous management of the paddlers; while some, filled with Indian boys, engaged on successfully angling for beautiful silver fishes (goldeye or tullibee?) ...”
Keating wrote that French-Canadian carters, who passed by the bluff on which the expedition camped, urged “their spare and lazy horses, by the often and angrily repeated words, ‘marche donc,’” which is a French-Canadian phrase for “giddy-up.”
On the day of their departure from Fort Garry, on Sunday, August 17, 1823, the party — reinforced by an Ojibway (Keating used the U.S. name Chippewa) interpreter, a pilot (guide, whose name was Baptiste Desmarais) and nine canoe men, of whom were five Canadians (voyageurs) and four Métis (Keating referred to them as Bois Brulés) — totalled 23 men, who were divided into three birch bark canoes, known as canot du nord.
The canot du nord was seven metres long, light enough that two men could carry it, and required a crew of only six to eight men. The canoe was primarily used by the Nor’Wester voyageurs, who paddled from Montréal to Western Canada. It was preferred by the Nor’Westers because of the many rugged rivers and portages along the way. Due to its smaller size, this variety of canoe could only carry about a ton of freight.
Keating explained how the canot du nord was built: “A canoe of this kind is generally constructed of the ribs of (white) cedar bent so as to impart to it its proper form, the ends being secured to a band that forms the superior edge of the vessel, and acts as a gunwale; over these ribs the birch bark is laid in as large pieces as possible, generally so that there shall be but two longitudinal seams, and two or three traverse; between the bark and ribs very thin splints of cedar are placed so as to prevent the bark from splitting; all the joints are sewed with long threads obtained by splitting the roots of a tree called by the voyageurs epinette, and which is probably a spruce (Keating was correct) ... the seams as well as the cracks are covered with pitch (actually a resin) ... made of the gum of the epinette; this is applied hot, and renders the canoe watertight.”
Keating said the canoe was the only mode of transportation used on the waterways in the country around Red River, but by 1821 and with the merger of the two fur trading companies, the York boat was replacing the canot du nord on Western Canadian waterways as carriers of freight, as it could carry more than three tons of goods. York boats carried freight goods from Hudson Bay to HBC posts in the interior, including Red River, and furs from the interior to Hudson Bay.
During their first day, the expedition passed by St. Peter’s Indian Settlement, centred around where Cook’s Creek enters the Red.
He also mentioned Death River (now Netley Creek), and said the river received its “gloomy” name from a time about 45 years earlier when the Sioux destroyed 250 “lodges of Chippewa.”
Sometime during the 1780s, Peguis and his people migrated to The Forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers from Eastern Canada. They paddled north to Netley Creek where they found a large band of Cree peoples, and some Assiniboine peoples, dead in their camp.
There are two stories explaining the deaths. According to the first story, smallpox, a deadly disease to aboriginal people, caused the deaths.
In the second story, the region was where the Cree and Assiniboine peoples made camp. During the summer, the men went to York Factory, Hudson Bay, to trade their furs. The old people, children, and women remained in camp. A large band of Dakota Sioux attacked the camp and killed those who remained.
Whatever story is true, Peguis and his band called the creek Nee-bo-win Seepee, which means Death River or River of Death in English. By 1808, HBC fur traders were calling it by the less “gloomy” name of Netley Creek.
Keating was undoubtedly told the latter explanation for the name by the people he hired at the Red River Settlement. Since the alleged massacre predates the settlement, its telling had by then become part of local folklore.
After a first day of travel, the expedition camped on a small island, 56 kilometres below the settlement. The next day, they reached the mouth of the Red River and the entrance to Lake Winnipeg.
“As we travelled near to the eastern shore (of the lake), we always kept land in sight on our right, but on the left, the eye met with nothing but an uniform sheet of water, limited by no land, divided by no island.”
The southern section of the South Basin of Lake Winnipeg lacks the ruggedness and rocky outcrops found further to the north where Hecla, Black and Deer islands are located. In the deeper North Basin of Lake Winnipeg, there are other significant islands, such as Berens, Matheson, Commissioner, Moose and Reindeer.
Keating said the location of the lake in the centre of the continent “is singular and interesting.”
“Few lakes receive so many and such large streams; by many of these, and of the rivers that flow from it, a direct communication is kept up, not only with distant points of the Eastern and Atlantic Ocean, but also the Pacific or Western.”
They paddled for 38 kilometres from the mouth of the Red to a “pebbly beach,” which they were told was encompassed by a great swamp called Grand Marais. The community of Grand Marias is today immediately south of Grand Beach. After a dinner, they paddled to Elk Island (today, a provincial heritage park) and Traverse Bay, where the Winnipeg River flows into the lake.
Keating claimed that the peninsula leading to Traverse Bay “was then underwater, so as to expose merely an island of about four miles long and three broad, usually called Elk Island. In order to avoid passing all around it, it is usual to unload and carry the canoes and cargo over this peninsula, which forms two small portages of about thirty yards long. Our canoes passed, however, without difficulty, owing to a high wind, which sweeping the surface of the lake from the north-west had raised the water upon this bar.”
What they encountered was a clear and transparent river that was in sharp contrast to the silt-filled Red River and Lake Winnipeg. In Cree, the name of the lake fittingly means “muddy waters.” The greater clarity of the Winnipeg River results from flowing through the transition between the Canadian Shield (rock) and the prairie. The river’s downstream course is from Lake of the Woods to Lake Winnipeg.
Near the mouth of the river, they stopped at Fort Alexander, a former Nor’Wester post, which was still at the time commonly called Fort Bas de la Rivière, which in English means the Lower River Fort. In 1800, fur trader Daniel Harmon wrote that the Nor’Westers and the HBC had forts a few rods apart. Explorer and fur trader David Thompson said that the Nor’Westers’ post was in 1796 called Winnipeg House, and owed its origin to the French (Charles N. Bell, Some Historical Names and Places of the Canadian Northwest, MHS Transactions, 1885). In 1822, the HBC renamed it Fort Alexander.
Bas de la Rivière (Lower River) was a geographical term that referred to the stretch of the Winnipeg River from the Pointe au Foutre (an expletive, probably originating from what the voyageurs thought about the river after they finally traversed its length) — the last rapids on the river when travelling from the east — to Pointe au Sable (Sable Point: near present-day Victoria Beach) along the south coast of Traverse Bay, where the Winnipeg River enters Lake Winnipeg. At Pointe au Sable, the Nor’Westers unloaded their cargo to check for wetness — a hazard caused by the whitewater of the Winnipeg River — before proceeding across Lake Winnipeg en route to other trading posts, including those along the Red River. It was also a place to rest after the arduous rapids and portages of the Winnipeg River.
At Fort Alexander, the American expedition saw a buffalo bull and a cow with calf associating with domestic cattle. “They were young, but had been so far tamed as to come and lick salt on the hand, even of strangers.”
Keating mused about the possibilities of domesticating buffalo to replace European oxen in order to make them more useful and sustain the species. Even in 1823, it was recognized by some that the pace of slaughter could eventually lead to the extinction of the buffalo from the plains.
While camped on a wharf projecting into the river at Fort Alexander, Keating observed a high wind blowing from the lake accumulated water in Traverse Bay, flooding the wharf. The next morning the water had subsided. If they hadn’t witnessed the cause, Keating said the expedition may have mistaken the occurrence as the effect of a tide, which it resembled. Of course, the South Basin of Lake Winnipeg is notorious for its “wind tides,” which during times of high water can flood adjacent land.
At Fort Alexander, a Mr. Bell served them sturgeon, which at the time was quite abundant in Lake Winnipeg and its tributaries. Keating said that sturgeon was the “principal subsistence of the residents upon the water.”
In fact, sturgeon were referred to as the “buffalo of the waters,” because they were such an important food.
Archbishop Alexandre-Antonin Tache (1823-94) of St. Boniface described the plentiful sturgeon in Manitoba: “This large fish delights in a part of this territory, it willing frequents Lake Winnipeg, and nearly all the important rivers flowing into and out of it ... In our great central basin they are found in abundance. There are very fine sturgeon in Lake Winnipeg; I have seen them seven feet long (2.13 metres) and one hundred and fifty pounds (68 kilograms) in weight. The fish is excellent to eat; it furnishes a great deal of oil, and its air bladder, simply dried, supplies the very useful isinglass of commerce.”
Isinglass is a form of natural gelatin prepared from sturgeon bladders and used in preparing desserts and confections and clarifying beer and wine.
Bell also served the Americans buffalo meat, specifically the tongue and hump, which had been salted. Keating pronounced it very flavourful and “far superior” to what he called “jerked meat,” which was the ubiquitous pemmican, the staple food of the fur trade.
(Next week: part 3)