Sunday, November 11, 2012

From Fort William to Norway House

We are going to begin this posting with a quote from David Lavender's book, "Winner Take All":
"Those who had crossed the Height of Land that hemmed in Lake Superior were acknowledged as members of a select brotherhood by being baptized with water sprinkled from an evergreen bough. From then on they had the right to don gay sashes at Grand Portage or Kaministiguia, put feathers in their caps, and strut down to the camp of the porkeaters from Montreal, stand spraddle-legged in front of them and invite a fight with the boast, "Je suise un home du nord.""

He was a man of the north -- he had travelled the route between Fort William and Lake Winnipeg and beyond; he was a true adventurer and far better than any of the "porkeaters" who had brought the Montreal canoes up from Lachine.
He was a permanent employee in the fur trade; he was wiry and short and averaged five feet in height but was enormously strong and apparently inexhaustible.
His pace was breathtaking; he paddled at 40 or 50 strokes a minute and averaged about 100 kilometers a day, even while travelling upriver.
On the innumerable portages along these rivers north of Lake Superior, he carried two or three ninety pound packs at a time, at a dogtrot over the rough trails, using, as aids, leather tumplines that circled his forehead and passed over his shoulders.
He waded his canoe through the various obstacles, or carried it across the portage on his shoulders.
And from Lavender's "Winner Take All," another quote:
"Another bond came from the way they travelled together month after month, each proud of his own canoe, his fellows, his brigade. On the trail they were under the charge not of one of the "gentlemen," but of one of their own class who had risen, because of superior ability, to be a guide. It was he who chose each camping place, announced the rest pauses when the men could fire up their clay pipes, and decided how each rapid should be met. The guide was also responsible for the property in the canoes under his supervision. His was the almost impossible task of making sure that liquor kegs were not surreptitiously tapped during the march (all travel was called a march) and that goods were not harmed by rough handling."

Aha -- there is a story in that last line, which I will tell you eventually.
But first, let us talk about Fort William, which was built at the mouth of the Kaministiguia River in 1801-1803, by the men of the North West Company.
The actual fort stood on the north bank of the Kiministikwia River, opposite where the middle channel broke off. (I see my spelling here varies -- I am not sure which spelling is correct).
Its south side faced the river, and its east side Lake Superior; it was surround by fifteen foot tall palisades and its interior was 490 feet square.
Two blockhouse or bastions stood, one in the south west corner and one in the south east; the main gate was cut into the south wall and it, too, had a guard house or turret overhead.
The gardens were west of the fort; inside the fort was the cooperage, the canoe building yard, and shops for tinsmiths and blacksmiths and carpenters and more.
The counting house stood along the west wall, the fire pump and stone store on the south wall.
Along the east wall was the lookout, where men stood to watch for the brigades coming along the lake.
In the centre of the enclosed fort grounds was the "court," a square formed by warehouses, clerks' quarters and other storehouses.
The Grand Hall stood on the north side of the court; it was a wooden building with a large central hall that help two hundred celebrants at one time.
This was where the gentlemen congregated at the NWC's summer rendezvous every year.
The voyageurs themselves camped outside the fort walls, where their bragging and fights would be less disruptive to the business of the fur trade.

The modern day replica of Fort William is built further upriver than the original fort stood; its old location is apparently buried under the modern-day site of the Canadian Pacific Railway yard in Thunder Bay.

From old Fort William, let us now travel north and west from Lake Superior, to and through Lake Winnipeg to Norway House.
I have told you the fort stood opposite the place where the middle channel broke off.
From here, the canoes went upriver for thirty miles, where there were shallow riffles of fast water and one decharge.
The first portage was called the Mountain portage, and it passed the 120-foot-tall Kakabeka Falls on the right or west bank.
It was not an easy portage; nor was any part of the route easy.
It followed a convoluted waterway with numerous portages all the way to Lake Winnipeg.
But it was a beautiful route, and for the westbound voyageurs the journey was downstream almost all the way to Lake Winnipeg.

Generally the Nor'Westers saved time by transporting goods by road to a place above the Kakabeka Falls -- almost certainly the HBC men continued this practice.
Above the falls the river dropped a difficult ten feet to the mile with seven portages and one decharge.
At Dog Lake -- named for an Indian effigy of an outsized dog lying at the top of a 400 foot high hill that overlooked the beautiful Kaministikiwia Valley -- the gentlemen climbed the hill to enjoy the view while the voyageurs packed their goods and canoes over the trail below.
They paddled fifty miles across Dog Lake, and followed the marshy Dog River, Jordain Creek, and Cold Water Creek, to Cold Water River.
Three boggy portages on the west side of the cold lake brought them to Land Lake and Lac de Milieu (now Savanne Lake).
They followed the winding Savanne River to island studded Lac des Mille Lacs, and portaged over a divide at Baril Portage, into another river -- the Pickerel.
From the west end of Pickerel Lake they crossed over the Pickerel and Deux Rivieres portages into Sturgeon Lake, then down the Maligne River to Lac la Croix.

Before 1830 the voyageurs followed the Loon River from the west end of Lac la Croix, through Vermillion and Sand Point Lake into Lake Namakan.
After 1830, it appears that they preferred another route, which left Lac la Crois from a bay on the north shore and stroke directly for Namaken Lake, by what they called the Michan River.
I presume that the Michan River is the route that Alexander Caulfield Anderson travelled when he went over this river route in 1832.

Namaken Lake has two outlets, and the North West Company men followed a smaller waterway that flowed from the east side of the lake and headed directly for Rainy Lake, passing just below Kettle Falls.
Two small portages brought them into wild and beautiful Rainy Lake.
As they begin their descent of the Rainy River, they leave behind them the rocky Canadian Shield, and begin to travel through a gentler, softer country.
A two day journey down this rapid river, uninterrupted by portages of any sort, brings them into Lake of the Woods -- a large rocky lake filled with small islands.
Here the voyageurs could get lost, and on occasion, they did.

The north and east part of the Lake of the Woods had deep water, rocky shores and thousands of islands; but the shores on the southwest were shallow and marshy, while the south shore had sand dunes.
The voyageurs entered the lake on its south shore, and headed straight north across the open lake, making what they called "la grande traverse" across what is now called Traverse Bay.
Normally the voyageurs skirted the west side of Big Island -- but if the treacherous wind they called La Vieille ("Old Woman") blew, they paddled through sheltered narrows east of both Big Island, and Bigelow Island.
At the north end of the lake they entered the Winnipeg River by one of three channels.
They almost always used the shortest portage at Portage Bay, though lighter HBC canoes used a longer portage to the east.
Another historian says they headed "to the western tip of Aulneau Peninsula, a more direct and nearly north-south route, seventy five miles long. At the tip of the pininsula they had a portage in the middle of the lake at low water."
Though descriptions differ, it is probable that both writers are talking of the same place.
This is the famous Rat Portage.
We are now close to modern day Kenora, and Eric Morse says here that another portage might have been used.

At Rat Portage, the voyageurs entered the wild and beautiful waterway called the Winnipeg River. Eric Morse says the Winnipeg River is "unquestionably the grandest and most beautiful river the Montreal Northmen saw on their whole journey from Lake Superior to Lake Athabasca."
It ran through "tortured rock" and "dropped quickly with spectacular rapids and falls."
It was a downhill journey and over its 225 kilometer length the river dropped 100 meters.
Canoeing the entire length of the river to Lake Winnipeg required twenty six portages, or carrying places!
First came the Dalles, eight miles downriver.
Next an island which the voyageurs passed on its rapid filled north side, using five portages at least.
Some they passed on the right side, some on the left; it took an experienced guide to know the best route, as you can see.
There was yellow rock at Terre Jaune, white clay at Terre Blanche, and a dark hollow in the rock beside La Cave rapid.
Portage de l'Isle followed nineteen miles later, and the voyageurs portaged across a small island in the rapid.
Over the next sixty miles the Winnipeg River continues to drop rapidly, and at Lac du Bonnet has lost 160 feet in altitude.
There were 14 additional portages -- Sturgeon Falls being one of them.

The Winnipeg River comes to an end at a large island, where a channel to the north splits off and becomes the Pinawa River.
The river to the left -- the Blanche River -- was much rougher, and so the voyageurs preferred the shallow, rocky Pinawa.
Eight more portages brought them all the way into massive Lake Winnipeg, where the voyageurs took a course straight across Traverse Bay to a low spot in the narrow neck just south of modern-day Victoria Beach.
They portaged over the neck and, paddling the the mouth of the Red River, went down it as far as Fort Garry.

When Alexander Caulfield Anderson came over this route in 1832, he arrived at the half constructed lower Fort Garry -- the Stone Fort.
There he met John Stuart -- yes, the same John Stuart who was clerk in New Caledonia with Simon Fraser, after whom Stuart Lake was named.
When I tell you that Alexander Caulfield Anderson knew everybody, this is what I mean -- he met Simon Fraser at Lachine, and John Stuart at the half-built Stone Fort, or Lower Fort Garry.
John Stuart and Alexander Anderson would have a later conversation, which I will write about sometime -- it is a story that, I believe, will surprise a few historians and archivists.

The Stone fort was built on the west bank of the Red River a few kilometers below St. Andrew Rapids, high above the reach of the floodwaters of the Red River.
Despite its advantages for the brigades, Lower Fort Garry was never really viable and in 1836 the HBC re-built their old fort at the "Forks", where Winnipeg now stands.

From my book, The Pathfinder:
"At that time, the original Fort Garry, which had been flooded out so many times the wooden buildings were rotten, was in the process of being replaced by a stone fort closer to Lake Winnipeg.   The new fort was only half finished, but the brigaders stopped here to pick up the Red River fur returns, which they were to carry north to York Factory. At Fort Garry, the chief factor arranged for Anderson to travel by canoe ahead of the brigade so he could catch up to the boats from the Saskatchewan District to the west, as they passed through Norway House, at the north end of Lake Winnipeg, on their way to York Factory.
"Anderson arrived at Norway House on the morning of June 27, and by five o'clock that evening he was travelling east toward York Factory, with the men from Edmonton House and the Columbia  District. The Fort Vancouver men had crossed the Rocky Mountains in the early spring, carrying the papers and records of the Columbia district east to the annual meeting of the Company at Norway House. While the chief factors attended the meeting, the men of the Columbia express continued on to York Factory to help the Saskatchewan men off-load their furs for shipment to England, and pick up the thousands of pounds of supplies and trade goods to be carried back to Edmonton House. As Anderson had been assigned to the Columbia district, he would now travel with the Columbia express wherever it went -- first east to York Factory; then west to Edmonton House and beyond."

1 comment:

  1. I love the architecture of the old forts here in New England. I can imagine my ancestors who were military men building and then defending the fort.

    Regards, Jim
    Hidden Genealogy Nuggets