Web Text-ures Logo
Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)
Kellscraft Studio Logo


JULY, 1789.

Thursday, 9. Thunder and rain prevailed during the night, and, in the course of it, our guide deserted; we therefore compelled another of these people, very much against his will, to supply the place of his fugitive countryman. We also took away the paddles of one of them who remained behind, that he might not follow us on any scheme of promoting the escape of his companion, who was not easily pacified. At length, however, we succeeded In the act of conciliation, and at half past three quitted our station. In a short time we saw a smoke on the East shore, and directed our course towards it. Our new guide began immediately to call to the people that belonged to it in a particular manner, which we did not comprehend. He informed us that, they were not of his tribe, but were a very wicked, malignant people, who would beat us cruelly, pull our hair with great violence from our heads, and maltreat us in various other ways.

The men waited our arrival, but the women and children took to the woods. There were but four of these people, and previous to our landing, they all harangued us at the same moment, and apparently with violent anger and resentment. Our hunters did not understand them, but no sooner had our guide addressed them, than they were appeased. I presented them with beads, awls, etc., and when the women and children returned from the woods, they were gratified with similar articles. There were fifteen of them; and of a more pleasing appearance than any which we had hitherto seen, as they were healthy, full of flesh, and clean in their persons. Their language was somewhat different, but I believe chiefly in the accent, for they and our guide conversed intelligibly with each other; and the English chief clearly comprehended one of them, though he was not himself understood.

Their arms and utensils differ but little from those which have been described in a former chapter. The only iron they have is in small pieces, which serve them for knives. They obtain this metal from the Esquimaux Indians. Their arrows are made of very light wood, and are winged only with two feathers; their bows differed from any which we had seen, and we understood that they were furnished by the Esquimaux, who are their neighbours: they consist of two pieces, with a very strong cord of sinews along the back, which is tied in several places, to preserve its shape; when this cord becomes wet, it requires a strong bow-string, and a powerful arm to draw it. The vessel in which they prepare their food, is made of a thin frame of wood, and of an oblong shape; the bottom is fixed in a groove, in the same manner as a cask. Their shirts are not cut square at the bottom, but taper to a point, from the belt downwards as low as the knee, both before and behind, with a border, embellished with a short fringe. They use also another fringe, similar to that which has been already described, with the addition of the stone of a grey farinaceous berry, of the size and shape of a large barley-corn: it is of a brown colour, and fluted, and being bored is run on each string of the fringe; with this they decorate their shirts, by sewing it in a semicircle on the breast and back, and crossing over both shoulders; the sleeves are wide and short, but the mittens supply their deficiency, as they are long enough to reach over a part of the sleeve, and are commodiously suspended by a cord from the neck. If their leggins were made with waistbands, they might with great propriety be denominated trousers: they fasten them with a cord round the middle, so that they appear to have a sense of decency which their neighbours can not boast. Their shoes are sewed to their leggins, and decorated on every seam. One of the men was clad in a shirt made of the skins of the musk-rat. The dress of the women is the same as that of the men, except in their shirts, which are longer, and without the finishing of a fringe on their breast. Their peculiar mode of tying the hair is as follows: that which grows on the temples, or the fore part of the skull, is formed into two queues, hanging down before the ears; that of the scalp or crown is fashioned in the same manner to the back of the neck, and is then tied with the rest of the hair, at some distance from the head. A thin cord is employed for these purposes, and very neatly worked with hair, artificially coloured. The women, and, indeed, some of the men, let their hair hang loose on their shoulders, whether it be long or short.

We purchased a couple of very large moose skins from them, which were very well dressed; indeed we did not suppose that there were any of those animals in the country; and it appears from the accounts of the natives themselves, that they are very scarce. As for the beaver, the existence of such a creature does not seem to be known by them. Our people bought shirts of them, and many curious articles, &c. They presented us with a most delicious fish, which was less than a herring, and very beautifully spotted with black and yellow: its dorsal fin reached from the head to the tail; in its expanded state takes a triangular form, and is variegated with the colours that enliven the scales: the head is very small, and the mouth is armed with sharp-pointed teeth.

We prevailed on the native, whose language was most intelligible, to accompany us. He informed us that we should sleep ten nights more before we arrived at the sea; that several of his relations resided in the immediate vicinity of this part of the river, and that in three nights we should meet with the Esquimaux, with whom they had formerly made war, but were now in a state of peace and amity. He mentioned the last Indians whom we had seen in terms of great derision; describing them as being no better than old women, and as abominable liars; which coincided with the notion we already entertained of them.

As we pushed off, some of my men discharged their fowling pieces, that were only loaded with powder, at the report of which the Indians were very much alarmed, as they had not before heard the discharge of firearms. This circumstance had such an effect upon our guide, that we had reason to apprehend he would not fulfil his promise. When, however, he was informed that the noise which he had heard was a signal of friendship, he was persuaded to embark in his own small canoe, though he had been offered a seat in ours.

Two of his companions, whom he represented as his brothers, followed us in their canoes; and they amused us not only with their native songs, but with others, in imitation of the Esquimaux; and our new guide was so enlivened by them, that the antics he performed, in keeping time to the singing, alarmed us with continual apprehension that his boat must upset: but he was not long content with his confined situation, and paddling up alongside our canoe, requested us to receive him in it, though but a short time before he had resolutely refused to accept our invitation. No sooner had he entered our canoe, than he began to perform an Esquimaux dance, to our no small alarm. He was, however, soon prevailed upon to be more tranquil; when he began to display various indecencies, according to the customs of the Esquimaux, of which he boasted an intimate acquaintance. On our putting to shore, in order to leave his canoe, he informed us, that on the opposite hill the Esquimaux, three winters before, killed his grandfather. We saw a fox, and a ground-hog on the hill, the latter of which the brother of our guide shot with his bow and arrow.

About four in the afternoon we perceived a smoke on the West shore, when we traversed and landed. The natives made a most terrible uproar, talking with great vociferation, and running about as if they were deprived of their senses, while the greater part of the women, with the children, fled away. Perceiving the disorder which our appearance occasioned among these people, we had waited some time before we quitted the canoe; and I have no doubt, if we had been without people to introduce us, that they would have attempted some violence against us; for when the Indians send away their women and children, it is always with a hostile design. At length we pacified them with the usual presents, but they preferred beads to any of the articles that I offered them; particularly such as were of a blue colour; and one of them even requested to exchange a knife which I had given him for a small quantity of those ornamental baubles. I purchased of them two shirts for my hunters; and at the same time they presented me with some arrows, and dried fish. This party consisted of five families, to the amount, as I suppose, of forty men, women, and children; but I did not see them all, as several were afraid to venture from their hiding-places. They are called Deguthee Dinees, or the Quarrellers.

Our guide, like his predecessors, now manifested his wish to leave us, and entertained similar apprehensions that we should not return by this passage. He had his alarms also respecting the Esquimaux, who might kill us and take away the women. Our Indians, however, assured him that we had no fears of any kind, and that he need not be alarmed for himself. They also convinced him that we should return by the way we were going, so that he consented to re-embark without giving us any further trouble; and eight small canoes followed us. Our courses this day were South-West by West six miles, South-West by South thirty miles, South-West three miles, West by South twelve miles, West by North two miles, and we encamped at eight in the evening on the Eastern bank of the river.

The Indians whom I found here, informed me, that from the place where I this morning met the first of their tribe, the distance overland, on the East side, to the sea, was not long, and that from hence, by proceeding to the Westward, it was still shorter. They also represented the land on both sides as projecting to a point. These people do not appear to harbour any thievish dispositions; at least we did not perceive that they took, or wanted to take, anything from us by stealth or artifice. They enjoyed the amusements of dancing and jumping in common with those we had already seen; and, indeed, these exorcises seem to be their favourite diversions.

About mid-day the weather was sultry, but in the afternoon it became cold. There was a large quantity of wild flax, the growth of the last year, laying on the ground, and the new plants were sprouting up through it. This circumstance I did not observe in any other part.

At four in the morning we embarked, at a small distance from the place of our encampment: the river, which here becomes narrower, flows between high rocks; and a meandering course took us North-West four miles. At this spot the banks became low; indeed, from the first rapid, the country does not wear a mountainous appearance; but the banks of the river are generally lofty, in some places perfectly naked, and in others well covered with small trees, such as the fir and the birch. We continued our last course for two miles, with mountains before us, whose tops were covered with snow.

The land is low on both sides of the river, except these mountains, whose base is. distant about ten miles: here the river widens, and runs through various channels, formed by islands, some of which are without a tree, and little more than banks of mud and sand; while others are covered with a kind of spruce fir, and trees of a larger size than we had seen for the last ten days. Their banks, which are about six feet above the surface of the water, display a face of solid ice, intermixed with veins of black earth, and as the heat of the sun melts the ice, the trees frequently fall into the river.

So various were the channels of the river at this time, that we were at a loss which to take. Our guide preferred the Easternmost, on account of the Esquimaux, but I determined to take the middle channel, as it appeared to be a larger body of water, and running North and South: besides, as there was a greater chance of seeing them I concluded, that we could always go to the Eastward, whenever we might prefer it. Our course was now West by North six miles, North-West by West, the snowy mountains being West by South from us, and stretching to the Northward as far as we could see. According to the information of the Indians, they are part of the chain of mountains which we approached on the third of this month. I obtained an observation this day that gave me 67. 47. North latitude, which was farther North than I expected, according to the course I kept: but the difference was owing to the variation of the compass, which was more Easterly than I imagined. From hence it was evident that these waters emptied themselves into the Hyperborean Sea; and though it was probable that, from the want of provision, we could not return to Athabasca in the course of the season, I nevertheless, determined to penetrate to the discharge of them.

My new conductor being very much discouraged and quite tired of his situation, used his influence to prevent our proceeding. He had never been, he said, at the Benahullo Toe, or White Man's Lake; and that when he went to the Esquimaux Lake, which is at no great distance, he passed over land from the place where we found him, and to that part where the Esquimaux pass the summer. In short, my hunters also became so disheartened from these accounts, and other circumstances, that I was confident they would have left me, if it had been in their power. I, however, satisfied them in some degree, by the assurance, that I would proceed onwards but seven days more, and if I did not then get to the sea, I would return. Indeed, the low state of our provisions, without any other consideration, formed a very sufficient security for the maintenance of my engagement. Our last course was thirty-two miles, with a stronger current than could be expected in such a low country.

We now proceeded North-North-West four miles, North-West three miles, North-East two miles, North-West by West three miles, and North-East two miles. At half past eight in the evening we landed and pitched our tents, near to where there had been three encampments of the Esquimaux, since the breaking up of the ice. The natives, who followed us yesterday, left us at our station this morning. In the course of the day we saw large flocks of wild fowl.

Saturday, 11. I sat up all night to observe the sun. At half past twelve I called up one of the men to view a spectacle which he had never before seen; when, on seeing the sun so high, he thought it was a signal to embark, and began to call the rest of his companions, who would scarcely be persuaded by me, that the sun had not descended nearer to the horizon, and that it was now but a short time past midnight.

We reposed, however, till three quarters after three, when we entered the canoe, and steered about North-West, the river taking a very serpentine course. About seven we saw a ridge of high land; at twelve we landed at a spot where we observed that some of the natives had lately been. I counted thirty places where there had been fires; and some of the men who went further, saw as many more. They must have been here for a considerable time, though it does not appear that they had erected any huts. A great number of poles, however, were seen fixed in the river, to which they had attached their nets, and there seemed to be an excellent fishery.

One of the fish, of the many which we saw leap out of the water, fell into our canoe; it was about ten inches long, and of a round shape. About the places where they had made their fires, were scattered pieces of whalebone, and thick burned leather, with parts of the frames of three canoes; we could also observe where they had spilled train oil; and there was the singular appearance of a spruce fir, stripped of its branches to the top like an English May-pole. The weather was cloudy, and the air cold and unpleasant. From this place for about five miles, the river widens, it then flows in a variety of narrow, meandering channels, amongst low islands, enlivened with no trees, but a few dwarf willows.

At four, we landed, where there were three houses, or rather huts, belonging to the natives. The ground-plot is of an oval form, about fifteen feet long, ten feet wide in the middle, and eight feet at either end; the whole of it is dug about twelve inches below the surface of the ground, and one half of it is covered over with willow branches; which probably serves as a bed for the whole family.

A space, in the middle of the other part, of about four feet wide, is deepened twelve inches more, and is the only spot in the house where a grown person can stand upright. One side of it is covered, as has been already described, and the other is the hearth or fireplace, of which, however, they do not make much use. Though it was close to the wall, the latter did not appear to be burned. The door or entrance is in the middle of one end of the house, and is about two feet and an half high, and two feet wide, and has a covered way or porch five feet in length; so that it is absolutely necessary to creep on all fours in order to get into, or out of, this curious habitation. There is a hole of about eighteen inches square on the top of it, which serves the threefold purpose of a window, an occasional door, and a chimney. The underground part of the floor is lined with split wood. Six or eight stumps of small trees driven into the earth, with the root upwards, on which are laid some cross pieces of timber, support the roof of the building, which is an oblong square of ten feet by six. The whole is made of drift-wood covered with branches and dry-grass; over which is laid a foot deep of earth. On each side of these houses are a few square holes in the ground of about two feet in depth, which are covered with split wood and. earth, except in the middle. These appeared to be contrived for the preservation of the winter stock of provisions. In and about the houses we found sledge runners and bones, pieces of whalebone, and poplar bark cut in circles, which are used as corks to buoy the nets, and are fixed to them by pieces of whalebone. Before each hut a great number of stumps of trees were fixed in the ground, upon which it appeared that they hung their fish to dry.

We now continued our voyage, and encamped at eight o'clock. I calculated our course at about North-West, and, allowing for the windings, that we had made fifty-four miles. We expected, throughout the day, to meet with some of the natives. On several of the islands we perceived the print of their feet in the sand, as if they had been there but a few days before, to procure wild fowl. There were frequent showers of rain in the afternoon, and the weather was raw and disagreeable. We saw a black fox; but trees were now become very rare objects, except a few dwarf willows, of not more than three feet in height.

The discontents of our hunters were now renewed by the accounts which our guide had been giving of that part of our voyage that was approaching. According to his information, we were to see a larger lake on the morrow. Neither he nor his relations, he said, knew any thing about it, except that part which is opposite to, and not far from, their country. The Esquimaux alone, he added, inhabit its shores, and kill a large fish that is found in it, which is a principal part of their food; this, we presumed, must be the whale. He also mentioned white bears, and another large animal which was seen in those parts, but our hunters could not understand the description which he gave of it. He also represented their canoes as being of a large construction, which would commodiously contain four or five families. However, to reconcile the English chief to the necessary continuance in my service, I presented him with one of my capotes or travelling coats; at the same time, to satisfy the guide, and keep him, if possible, in good humour, I gave him a skin of the moose-deer, which, in his opinion, was a valuable present.

Sunday, 12. It rained with violence throughout the night, and till two in the morning; the weather continuing very cold. We proceeded on the same meandering course as yesterday, the wind North-North-West, and the country so naked that scarce a shrub was to be seen. At ten in the morning, we landed where there were four huts, exactly the same as those which have been so lately described. The adjacent land is high and covered with short grass and flowers, though the earth was not thawed above four inches from the surface; beneath which was a solid body of ice. This beautiful appearance, however, was strangely contrasted with the ice and snow that are seen in the valleys.

The soil, where there is any, is a yellow clay mixed with stones. These huts appear to have been inhabited during the last winter; and we had reason to think that some of the natives had been lately there, as the beach was covered with the track of their feet. Many of the runners and bars of their sledges were laid together, near the houses, in a manner that seemed to denote the return of the proprietors. There were also pieces of netting made of sinews, and some bark of the willow. The thread of the former was plaited, and no ordinary portion of time must have been employed in manufacturing so great a length of cord. A square stone-kettle, with a flat bottom, also occupied our attention, which was capable of containing two gallons; and we were puzzled as to the means these people must have employed to have chiselled it out of a solid rock into its present form. To these articles may be added, small pieces of flint fixed into handles of wood, which probably serve as knives; several wooden dishes; the stern and part of a large canoe; pieces of very thick leather, which we conjectured to be the covering of a canoe; several bones of large fish, and two heads; but we could not determine the animal to which they belonged, though we conjectured that it must be the sea-horse.

When we had satisfied our curiosity we re-embarked, but we were at a loss what course to steer, as our guide seemed to be as ignorant of this country as ourselves. Though the current was very strong, we appeared to have come to the entrance of the lake. The stream set to the West, and we went with it to an high point, at the distance of about eight miles, which we conjectured to be an island; but, on approaching it, we perceived it to be connected with the shore by a low neck of land. I now took an observation which gave 69. 1. North latitude. From the point that has been just mentioned, we continued the same course for the Westernmost point of an high island, and the Westernmost land in sight, at the distance of fifteen miles.

The lake was quite open to us to the Westward, and out of the channel of the river there was not more than four feet water, and in some places the depth did not exceed one foot. From the shallowness of the water it was impossible to coast to the Westward. At five o'clock we arrived at the island, and during the last fifteen miles, five feet was the deepest water. The lake now appeared to be covered with ice, for about two leagues distance, and no land ahead, so that we were prevented from proceeding in this direction by the ice, and the shallowness of the water along the shore.

We landed at the boundary of our voyage in this direction, and as soon as the tents were pitched I ordered the nets to be set, when I proceeded with the English chief to the highest part of the island, from which we discovered the solid ice, extending from the South-West by compass to the Eastward. As far as the eye could reach to the South-West-ward, we could dimly perceive a chain of mountains, stretching further to the North than the edge of the ice, at the distance of upwards of twenty leagues. To the Eastward we saw many islands, and in our progress we met with a considerable number of white partridges, now become brown. There were also flocks of very beautiful plovers, and I found the nest of one of them with four eggs. White owls, likewise, were among the inhabitants of the place: but the dead, as well as the living, demanded our attention, for we came to the grave of one of the natives, by which lay a bow, a paddle, and a spear.. The Indians informed me that they landed on a small island, about four leagues from hence, where they had seen the tracks of two men, that were quite fresh; they had also found a secret store of train oil, and several bones of white bears were scattered about the place where it was hid. The wind was now so high that it was impracticable for us to visit the nets.

My people could not, at this time, refrain from expressions of real concern, that they were obliged to return without reaching the sea: indeed, the hope of attaining this object encouraged them to bear, without repining, the hardships of our unremitting voyage. For some time past their spirits were animated by the expectation that another day would bring them to the Mer d' ouest: and even in our present situation they declared their readiness to follow me wherever I should be pleased to lead them. We saw several large white gulls, and other birds, whose back, and upper feathers of the wing are brown; and whose belly, and under feathers of the wing are white.

Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.