The Changing Role of
Natives in the Exploration of Canada:
Conrad E. Heidenreich
After the French had built their first permanent settlements on the east coast of Canada, Ste. Croix (1604), Port Royal (1605) and Québec (1608), it took them only until 1681 to explore and roughly map the shores of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. This was an astonishing achievement considering that the first Dutch and Englishmen did not even see Lake Ontario until 1685. Conventional wisdom gives one to understand that the French were strongly motivated to explore westward in order to expand their fur trade, to proselytize the Natives and to seek a route across the continent; and what enabled them to do so were the magnificent river systems that connected the Great Lakes to the St. Lawrence River. By contrast, it is said, these motives were all but absent among the Dutch and English as were the easy routes leading westward.
Motives are of course only an essential first step in defining goals; by themselves, without further development, they remain a “pipedream.” To reach goals successfully involves compromises and the development of appropriate cultural and technological innovations necessary for the desired outcome. Penetrating westward into the continent was a very real problem for Europeans who had to move through an alien physical environment inhabited by people about whom they knew nothing.
The key to European inland exploration and fur trade expansion was learning how to cope with the physical environment through which they had to travel and seeking the co-operation of the Native populations who controlled that environment. By the end of the sixteenth century, the French had discovered that the “magnificent” rivers that supposedly led westward were in fact un-navigable to them; they were full of falls and rapids, and flowed swiftly eastward from the Great Lakes to the St. Lawrence and Atlantic coast making it difficult to travel westward, upstream. The St. Lawrence River was a cul-de-sac. European transportation technology (boats, horses, even walking) was useless under these conditions. Europeans who wanted to use these rivers had to change the way they traveled before any movement inland was possible. The canoe, which could have solved part of this problem at an early date, was, until the early seventeenth century, an item of Native technology that no European knew anything about. To Europeans, at first glance, it was obviously “inferior” to their technology because it could not carry the loads they were accustomed to take with them and required the skill to paddle that only the Natives had. The canoe was in fact a technological innovation that belonged to an alien culture, developed to overcome an alien environment. Even if the canoe was recognized as a technological solution to a transportation problem, knowledge of its construction and operation was still required. This meant peaceful relations with the Native populations who controlled not only the knowledge about canoes but also access to the lands in the interior and how to live on those lands.
The expansion of the fur trade into the interior of Canada was also a powerful motive to the French. Since trade has to be mutually beneficial to both partners, it can only function adequately under peaceful relations. The fur trade was a partnership to exploit a resource that provided furs to one partner and durable utilitarian goods to the other. But once trade was established there was still no reason why the Natives should give the French access to their lands and those of their neighbors. What could the French offer them in return? To the Natives, explorers and to some degree traders, were men who wanted to travel across their lands without a discernible purpose or with one that would contribute little to Native concerns and in fact might jeopardize them. In order for explorers to be permitted inland, the concerns of the Natives had to be understood and met in some manner. This meant a diplomatic dialogue to see what each wanted from the other. Such a dialogue was predicated on peaceful relations and a spirit of co-operation.
Besides the motives of the Natives, traders and explorers in promoting or hindering inland expansion, the motives of the French government also have to be examined. While the support of the French monarchs in finding a route across the North American landmass was inconsistent, their policy regarding inland trading was at best ambivalent. Until trading licenses (congés) were introduced in 1681, it was in fact illegal for French traders to travel west of Montreal to the pays d’en haut. This did not stop some men, like Radisson and Des Groseilliers who began to carry out an illegal trade in the northwestern interior by the late 1650s, but if caught, they were subject to severe penalties. Such illegal traders were called coureurs-de-bois. The fear of the home government was that if the interior trade were permitted, too many men would leave the fledgling colony, making it vulnerable to attack especially from the Iroquois. They were also concerned that if French traders were to compete with Native traders and trappers, animosities would be fomented that could jeopardize the existence of the colony. By the early seventeenth century the French realized that success in any of their enterprises in Canada depended on accommodating Native concerns and demands. Whether it was safe settlement on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, expansion of the fur trade, inland exploration, the establishment of interior missions or protection of the colony from potential Dutch-English aggression, the development of a Native policy based on trust and friendship was essential. The problem was how to gain the trust that would lead to peaceful co-operation.
What I would like to develop in the following pages is a broad picture of the gradual evolution of French-Native relations that led to the successful exploration of eastern Canada, and the adoption of French methods, at a much later date, by English explorers traveling inland from Hudson Bay. Without an understanding of these relations any explanation of the exploration of Canada makes little sense.1 Lack of space precludes a discussion of the reasons why the Dutch and English on the Atlantic coast did not develop a comparable exploration program and instead had miserable relations with the resident Native population.
The Sixteenth Century
The sixteenth century began badly for the Canadian Natives. In 1497 Cabot noted their presence but was too cautious to go inland and seek them out.3 Four years later (1501) however, the first Portuguese expedition under Gaspard Corte Real raided Newfoundland and captured 57 Beothuk who were sold into slavery in Lisbon.4 This was Canada’s first export commodity and thus began a depressing litany of mutual distrust and hostility along the Atlantic coast from the Arctic, south to Cape Cod and beyond. Kidnapped Native individuals and small groups began to make appearances at European courts and exhibitions.5 Friendly contact was rare and even when it occurred often degenerated into fighting. Natives were regarded with suspicion. They looked different from Europeans, their technology, social and political institutions, if indeed they were acknowledged to exist, were deemed to be obviously inferior, and worst of all, they were not Christians. That they might be useful to Europeans in some way other than curios and slaves did not become an issue until the early 1580s, except in one case, but only partially so.
The partial exception was the expeditions of Jacques Cartier. On his first expedition in 1534, after engaging in gift exchanges with Mi’kmaq in Chaleur Bay, and with Stadaconans (the St. Lawrence Iroquoians) at Gaspé, Cartier kidnapped two teen-aged boys (Dom Agaya and Taignoagny), sons of the headman Donnacona.6 They were to learn French and serve as guides on a return trip. The following year, they led Cartier’s ships to Stadacona where the city of Québec is now located, but refused to be of further service, an act Cartier regarded as treachery.7 This is the first instance in Canada of Natives serving as guides for explorers. As Cartier’s men became increasingly unwelcome, they were told stories about the wealthy “Kingdom of Saguenay,” stories that were intended to draw them away from the Québec area (Canada, in Cartier’s relations). These fables led Cartier to kidnap ten more Stadaconans, including Donnacona and, yet again, his unfortunate sons in order that they repeat their stories to the French court and serve as guides on a return trip.8 By the time a new expedition was put together in 1541, of the potential guides all but one little girl had died.9 Eventually this expedition and one by Roberval the following year led to fighting and closure of the St. Lawrence River to Europeans.10
During the 1580s the French continued to pursue their fisheries in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and began a small trade in furs. Although the fisheries did not demand Native contact, some contact did occur. With the fur trade however, contact became a necessity, and that contact had to be friendly. By the beginning of the seventeenth century therefore, French traders had developed seasonal trading contacts at various places along the maritime coast and through the Gulf of St. Lawrence as far as Tadoussac. Both sides understood each other in a rudimentary fashion and knew from practice what goods the other wanted. The interdependence of trappers, traders and manufacturers so characteristic of the fur trade had begun.
The Seventeenth Century
In 1602, two Montagnais men were invited from the Tadoussac area to visit the French court of Henri IV. The following year they were returned to present a proposal from the king to a huge gathering (tabagie) of the Montagnais at Tadoussac; “that His Majesty wished them well, and desired to people their country, and to make peace with their enemies (who are the Iroquois) or send forces to vanquish them.”11 This proposal was enthusiastically accepted, and with it the French had made an agreement, the first of its kind, that permitted peaceful, unhindered French settlement on the shores of the St. Lawrence River in return for helping the Montagnais against the Iroquois. Samuel de Champlain, who was present at the tabagie, had to deliver on that promise in 1609. After the tabagie, Champlain began his resource survey along the St. Lawrence River, during which he developed the beginnings of a plan to explore the Canadian interior. Before leaving Canada, three months after he had arrived, he entered his ideas in the manuscript for his first book, Des Sauvages (Paris, n.d. and 1604). His insights were: i) that the Natives had useful geographical information that they were willing to share; ii) that they would draw maps if asked; iii) that the only way to travel in Canada was by canoe and by living off the land; iv) that the interior could only be explored with Native help; and v) that the key to all of this was friendly relations with those Natives among whom the French would settle and those whose country they wanted to see.12
In 1608, Champlain returned to the St. Lawrence having surveyed the Atlantic coast and having put some of his ideas about exploration into practice. The following year, at the suggestion of the Montagnais he broadened their alliance to include the Ottawa valley Algonquin and the Huron by aiding them on a raid with two French volunteers against the Mohawk on Lake Champlain.13 To gain greater trust with his “allies” he exchanged young men in order that each would begin to learn the language and customs of the other.14 Although he had been promised that he would be taken to explore the interior, nothing happened. Impatient, he tried to buy canoes but was not successful until four years later (1613). With two canoes, four men and a Native paddler-guide, Champlain’s first solo exploring expedition lurched up the Ottawa River. It soon became evident that steering a canoe was not easy for the French neophyte paddlers. After a few days one Frenchman was sent back and replaced by another Native who was hired to steer the second canoe. Eventually the entire expedition returned prematurely because the Kichesipirini (Big River People) Algonquin denied them further passage.15 To Champlain that meant further broadening the bonds of friendship, which in turn meant supporting all the Natives with whom he was in contact, as he had done in 1609 and 1610, in the one thing they wanted – military aid against the Iroquois.16 At the first opportunity, which came in 1615, Champlain with ten men joined a Huron war party bent on destroying an Iroquois village. Although Champlain considered the raid a military failure, it cemented the new French-Montagnais-Algonquin-Huron alliance. That year also marked the introduction of Recollet priests to the Huron.17
With the raid of 1615, the French had gained access to the interior west of the Lachine rapids and had proven themselves as allies. They did not organize trips or travel on their own, but came as passengers in Native canoes hoping to be dropped off at appropriate places. Some Frenchmen paddled and thereby gained confidence in handling a canoe and the respect of their Native hosts. They also began to learn Native languages and cultures. Trade was in Native hands, but the merchants sent truchements (interpreter-trader’s agents) back with the various Native traders to curry their favor as fur suppliers and customers for the following season. These men were only incidentally explorers. Although we know the names of about half a dozen, the only one about whom we know a little more was Étienne Brûlé, who ranged widely but did not leave a personal record of where he had been and what he saw.
With the permanent introduction of the Jesuits into the missionary field in 1632, all those not under their control were recalled. With that, the Jesuits also became explorers, diplomats and interpreters, roles to which they were eminently suited through their training. They too traveled as passengers. Only rarely did they strike out on their own, as they did in 1640-41 to the Neutrals near the west end of Lake Ontario.18 Like the Recollets before them in 1626-27, they were lucky to get away with their lives because they went without permission of the Huron. Europeans were tolerated but were not free to travel where they wanted. The Jesuits made important discoveries through the geographical reports of their Native hosts and travels of their donnés (servants), some of who ranged more widely with the Natives than the priests.19 By about 1648, the Jesuits were able to put together the geography of all five Great Lakes for the first time in written descriptions and maps.20
If we examine the first fifty years of French activity we can see some interesting developments. The French were drawn westward in order to find routes across the continent, to proselytize the Natives and to persuade them to trap animals and bring the skins to the St. Lawrence merchants. The key to these aims was friendly Native relations. Champlain learned that he had to aid the Natives in war in order to gain their trust; without them exploration was impossible. The priests were tolerated because, initially at least, they were regarded as being innocuous and were portrayed by the French as important men and symbols of friendship between them and their Native allies. In expanding their interior missions to seek more Native converts the priests aided the cause of exploration. Although Pope Paul III had declared the Natives to be human on 29 May 1537, under the Encyclical Sublimus Dei,21 many Europeans remained doubtful and regarded them at best as uncultured savages. Through their missions and publications the Jesuits in particular helped to transform this image. The Jesuit de Brébeuf, for example, argued that the Natives should be seen “as ransomed by the blood of the son of God, and as our brethren,”22 while the lawyer Marc Lescarbot argued that “they share your human nature” and “to call them savage is unmerited and abusive.”23 Among the French the question of intellectual or racial inferiority did not arise. Some aspects of Native culture were abhorred, especially their belief systems, and every effort was made to change these. Familiarity did not “breed contempt,” but over time a great deal of understanding. To the Jesuits, the Native was “perfectible” in a Christian sense if he converted and gave up certain customs that conflicted with Christianity.24 In 1635, in order to hasten the spread of Christianity, the Jesuit Superior at Québec, Father Paul Le Jeune proposed to the governor, Champlain that they try to promote Huron-French intermarriage.25 Champlain agreed not only for religious reasons, but also because intermarriage was a way of further cementing French-Native alliances. He also thought that by building a settlement in the Huron country, the French/Huron population could complete the exploration of the continent.26 While the Huron were ambivalent about accepting this proposal, the French court accepted and still promoted it during the late 1660s, namely that French and Natives “mingle” and “constitute only one people and one race.”27 The civil, mercantile and religious authorities saw the Natives as human beings with whom they could live, travel, go to war, explore and intermarry. Acceptance of each other as human beings was a first step in opening the country to exploration. A second step was that the French be willing to learn from the Natives how to cope in the Canadian environment. This meant relinquishing aspects of their culture when they were away from the colony, such as food, clothing, shelter, etiquette and modes of transportation. By the time of Champlain’s death (1635), Natives and French were beginning to adapt to each other, and the French to Canada’s natural environment. These adaptations eventually led to the remarkably peaceful exploration of Canada.
In 1648, the Iroquois wars turned more virulent and with the Iroquois victories the interior missions, the fur trade, the system of Native alliances and any hope of further exploration collapsed. In 1653 the Onondaga offered to make peace on behalf of all Iroquois except the Mohawk, an offer the French eagerly seized. Father Simon Le Moyne was chosen to go to Onondaga and work out the details. This led to the opening of the mission Ste. Marie de Gannentaa and the exploration of the Iroquois country.28 The following year Des Groseilliers and a companion were asked by Governor Lauson to accompany a group of Huron-Tionnontati traders who were returning to the western Great Lakes where they had fled from the Iroquois.29 They had taken advantage of the impending peace to trade at the St. Lawrence settlements. The aim of Des Groseilliers’ journey was to contact as many Native groups as possible in the hope of reviving the fur trade. Although this was not an exploring expedition, it resulted in significant oral reports, especially to the Jesuits who were keenly interested in opening missions to the refugees from the east who had settled around the western Great Lakes. With these reports and others gathered from the Montagnais, Cree and Algonquin, Father Druillettes managed to put together a good perspective on the geography north of the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes.30 Parts of his map survived in Tabula Novae Franciae – 1660, which was published in François Du Creux’s Historiae Canadensis (Paris, 1664). A renewed outbreak of war with the Iroquois in 1658 collapsed inland exploration again. It convinced the French that peaceful trade, the missions and exploration could only be gained through a major war against the Iroquois. In 1659, while the colony was debating the dwindling prospects of reviving their activities in the pays d’en haut unless an army was sent from France, Des Groseilliers, this time with Radisson, joined a small group of Ojibwa on the way to their refuge on the south shore of Lake Superior. The governor however, fearing that many men needed to protect the colony would follow them to seek their fortune, had forbidden Radisson and Des Groseilliers to go. Consequently Des Groseilliers was briefly incarcerated upon their return the following year.31 They did however bring news to the Jesuits of the location of large Native populations, most of them refugees from the Iroquois wars, in the Green Bay area and along the south shore of Lake Superior. A few weeks after the return of the two traders, Father Druillettes met a Nipissing convert, Michel Awatanik, who had paddled from Green Bay with his family to James Bay and from there via the Rupert River and Lake Mistassini to Tadoussac between 1658 and 1660.32 Des Groseilliers’ and Awatanik’s geographical reports made the Jesuits determined to launch a missionary effort north toward James Bay and west to Lake Superior. Father Ménard headed west in 1660, and the following year Fathers Dablon and Druillettes, accompanied by three traders and guided by Awatanik and his family, went north from Tadoussac. Ménard lost his life trying to find a dying convert in the forest against the advice of his Native hosts. The other party had to return half way to James Bay when Awatanik became totally distraught and incapable of guiding after he lost his family to convulsive seizures.33 French exploration was still entirely dependent on Native support.
In 1665, a substantial army of 1200 soldiers arrived in Canada and forced a peace on the Iroquois. With them came Jean Talon the new Intendant. One of his first acts was to develop an exploration policy.34 Although French traders were at the time not permitted to go west of Montreal, the search for minerals, souls and staking of land claims against the English was encouraged. With the Iroquois at peace and with the confidence the French had developed in traveling and living outside the colony, expeditions again left for the interior. These were organized far differently from earlier ones. No longer were the French merely passengers. They paddled their own canoes and hunted along the way, but still carried Native guides and interpreters, particularly when they entered unknown areas. Also in the interior were a growing number of coureurs de bois, illegal traders who lived, traveled and traded with the Natives much to the annoyance of the authorities. This period saw the explorations of La Salle, Peré, the Jolliet brothers Louis and Adrien, Daumont de Saint-Lusson, Fathers Albanel, Allouez, Hennepin, Marquette, and many others. One example will suffice to show how dependent the French still were on Native support.35
When the two Sulpicians, Dollier and Galinée, left Montreal in July 1669, to establish a mission to the Shawnee on the Ohio River, they had a Shawnee guide with whom they could barely communicate because his Algonquin was very different from that which the priests had learned in the Montreal area. Knowing that they would encounter Iroquois, they needed a second interpreter. Although their companion La Salle claimed to speak Iroquoian, the two Sulpicians did not believe him (correctly as they discovered) and hired a Dutchman who could speak Iroquois but unfortunately little French. By the time they were portaging from Lake Ontario to the Grand River both their guide-interpreters had disappeared. Luckily they met Adrien Jolliet on the portage who was on his way to Montreal. He gave them a map and told them of a canoe he had hidden on the shore of Lake Erie. The Sulpicians spent a pleasant winter beside a little river on the north shore of the lake, but the following spring on the day after they set out, one of their canoes blew away in a storm with some of their baggage. A few days later they lost most of their remaining supplies in a night storm. They had left their packs on the beach, too tired after paddling all day to move them to high ground. Now their plans to establish a mission had to be abandoned. Fortunately they found Jolliet’s canoe and eventually made their way to the Jesuit mission at Sault Sainte-Marie. None of these mistakes would have occurred if Native guides had been with them.
A well-organized trip that set a new standard was Marquette and Jolliet’s exploration of the Mississippi in 1673.36 During the winter Jolliet had collected Native maps and geographical accounts, enabling him to have had a good idea where he was going and what he would find before he set out. Both Jolliet and Marquette spoke enough Native languages to take them through the known areas as far as the Fox River where they hired their first guides. From there they proceeded cautiously south, promoted good relations with the Natives they met and hired interpreters as they needed them. This was one of the first journeys of exploration that the French made with less Native help.
La Salle’s explorations were the first done substantially without Native help, but were hampered by a lack of good Native relations, especially with the Iroquois (1680) and the Santee Dakota (1681). Some of his men, Accault, Auguel and Hennepin, did however equip themselves with Native maps before setting off for the Mississippi in 1681, and collected geographical information from the Santee while in their captivity.37
After 1681, when the interior trade was legalized through a permit (congé) system, French canoe traffic and establishment of posts increased markedly.38 So did the capacity of the canoes on which the entire interior trade and exploration was dependent. Because trading licenses were in canoe loads, enterprising canoe builders at Trois- Rivières and Montreal gradually transformed the standard 15-23 foot Native canoe into the much larger voyageur canoe up to twice the original length, eventually with capacities of over four tons. Along the edge of the explored Great Lakes employees of the traders began to contact Native groups who lived further north and west by traveling either with them or by hiring guides to take them there. Some of the best known are, Daniel Greysolon de Dulhut in the Lake Superior area and headwaters of the Mississippi (1683-84); Jean Peré from the north shore of Lake Superior to James Bay (1684); and Jacques de Noyon westward from Lake Superior to Rainy Lake (1688).
In the mid-1680s, war broke out again with the Iroquois. Exploration was curtailed as men were channeled into the militia and fur trading was intensified to pay for the war. In 1685, Dutch-English merchants from Albany tried to use the confusion of the war to send trading expeditions to the eastern Great Lakes (Roseboom and MacGregory). This is the first mention that any English from the eastern colonies had made it to any of the Great Lakes. They were guided not by Natives but by renegade Frenchmen. French militia and traders apprehended them in 1687 and deported them.39 By 1697, the war was effectively over, but trading, helped by the capture of the H.B.Co. posts in 1686 had been so successful that a huge glut of beaver had developed on the markets in Paris (some 1 mill. livre weight or ca. 500, 000 skins).40 Consequently most of the interior trading posts were closed and exploration halted except out from the New Orleans colony.
The Eighteenth Century
a) The French
After the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) and the disappearance of the glut in beaver (due to moths and vermin), the French began to re-open their interior posts. By the mid-1720s they were ready to continue de Noyon’s explorations west of Lake Superior to discover the much-rumored La Mer de l’Ouest.41 Information about the “western sea” came from the Cree and Assiniboine, as did the maps gathered by La Vérendrye senior to take them there.42 Equipped with guides and maps the various members of the La Vérendrye family, ably assisted by their nephew La Jemerais, began to push westward in slow stages by canoe and in constant contact with the resident Native groups. Their 1738 journey from the Assiniboine River to the Missouri was on foot as they traveled with a village of Assiniboine on their way to visit the Mandan. Other villages were contacted as they moved along and presents given to smooth the way. In 1741, two of La Vérendrye’s sons, Louis-Joseph and François, with Native guides, struck out across the plains on horses to within sight of the Big Horn Mountains. Although the French had long wanted to probe westward along the Saskatchewan River, constant wars between members of the Blackfoot confederacy and the Assiniboine-Cree alliance prevented them from doing so. Several French attempts to promote peace came to nothing. Finally in 1751 the opportunity came when it seemed a peace had been worked out with the Blackfoot. Two canoes with ten men were sent westward with some Blackfoot prisoners the French had ransomed from their Cree-Assiniboine allies who were to be returned as peace offerings. A post was built within sight of the Rocky Mountains. Unfortunately, a troop of Assiniboine warriors, who had followed the French, came upon a Blackfoot village near the new French post and massacred its occupants, thus ending further exploration. 43
Although the push westward was the main thrust of French exploration in the eighteenth century, there was some other activity, most notably the geographical inquiries and maps gathered from Montagnais informants by the Jesuit Father Pierre Laure during the early 1730s. These maps were used by Nicolas Bellin and became the standard maps of the northern interior of Quebec until the surveys made in the nineteenth century.44
b) The English
English exploration outward from the shores of Hudson Bay began in the same way as earlier French exploration. The first was by Henry Kelsey, a young man of 23 years, who volunteered to head inland with Assiniboine traders who were returning to their camps on the edge of the plains in 1690.45 He was the first European to see the Canadian west. Two years later he returned. Unfortunately he wrote his journal in “poetry” making it difficult to know where he had been. The next was William Stewart who was sent to make peace in 1715 between the Cree and Chipewyan in order that the latter could come unhindered to Fort Churchill to trade. He was the first European traveler into the northern “Barren Grounds” (tundra). It is certain that Stewart would never have returned if it had not been for the diplomacy and linguistic skills of Thanadelthur, a Chipewyan woman who had been a slave among the Cree, but was ransomed by the H.B.Co. to be Stewart’s guide.46
These were the only journeys out from the “bayside” until 1754, when the H.B.Co. decided to send men inland to winter and to meet French competition. These men were the so-called “winterers.”47 They would leave from York Factory with Cree and Assiniboine traders, travel up the Hayes or Nelson Rivers in the late summer and return the following spring, always traveling as guests of various Natives groups. Anthony Henday, in 1754, was the first of these. Others followed every year until 1774 when the H.B.Co. built Cumberland House, their first interior post. The next significant probe into the northern “Barren Grounds” after Stewart was by Samuel Hearne.48 He was given a number of tasks, of which finding the Coppermine River with its supposed copper deposits and the possibility of an east-west passage across the north were the most important. He set out on foot in November 1769, after the muskeg had frozen, with Cree and Chipewyan guides. A month later he was back in Churchill, his guides having deserted him for lack of food. A second attempt early in 1770 also came to naught. In the late fall of the same year he met the experienced Chipewyan headman Matonabbee who offered to guide him. In Matonabbee’s opinion, Hearne’s previous expeditions ended in failure because his incompetent guides had not taken enough women along to carry the baggage, pitch the tents and cook while the unencumbered men procured food. Matonabbee’s insight is worth quoting because, in a somewhat politically incorrect manner by present standards, it conveys what it took to explore the “Barren Grounds” successfully.
“For, said he, when all the men are heavy laden, they can neither hunt nor travel to any considerable distance; and in case they meet with success in hunting, who is to carry the produce of their labor? Women were made for labor; one of them can carry, or haul, as much as two men can do. They also pitch our tents, make and mend our clothing, keep us warm at night; and, in fact, there is no such thing as traveling any considerable distance, or for any length of time, in this country, without their assistance. Women though they do every thing, are maintained at a trifling expense; for as they always stand cook[ing], the very licking of their fingers in scarce times, is sufficient for their subsistence.”49
The expedition departed on 7 December 1770 and returned, 30 June 1772, after completing a vast sweep through the tundra and edge of the boreal forest. Without Matonabbee and his family of seven wives and retinue to guide and take care of him, Hearne could not have succeeded in this journey.
After the mid-1770s, the fur trade increasingly drove exploration. Competition between the H.B.Co. and the newly created North West Co. made it necessary to find Native groups in fur-producing areas that would undertake trapping. In 1778, Peter Pond of the Nor’westers “discovered” the 20 km-long Methy Portage (Portage la Loche), the only practical link to the Athabaska country from the headwaters of the Churchill River and other rivers already explored north of the upper Saskatchewan. The Cree and the Chipewyan who wanted a trading post in the Athabaska area to save them the dangerous trip to the “bayside” posts, had shown Pond this route. The Methy portage opened the fur-rich Athabaska country to traders. As Peter Pond became more familiar with the southern edge of the Athabaska area, he speculated that the Slave River that connected Lake Athabaska to Great Slave Lake might have its outlet at the Pacific Ocean. If it did, this would be a much shorter route for exporting furs than the overland trip to the St. Lawrence River.50 The person who decided to explore this route was one of Pond’s partners in the N.W.Co, Alexander Mackenzie.51 Mackenzie did not need guides since he was exploring a river, but he needed hunters who would provision him and act as interpreters in case they came across people with whom they were unfamiliar. In addition to his five men, two of whom had their Native wives with them, he hired two canoes of Natives, whose leader (the “English Chief”) had traveled with Matonabbee and Hearne. As interpreters these Natives did help to overcome some tricky situations with Native groups who had not seen Europeans before and exhibited hostile intentions. The canoes departed on June 3, 1789 from Fort Chipewyan and were back 102 days later on September 12. Mackenzie was disappointed at finding that the “Disappointment River,” as he wanted to call the Mackenzie River, did not drain into the Pacific. Since the river did not flow to the Pacific, Mackenzie began to plan the exploration of an alternate route. After some debate, his choice fell on the upper Peace River, which flowed out of the Rockies. As he wintered on the Peace River, he traded for furs and questioned the Native traders about the geography of the upper Peace and any tributaries that he could follow across the first mountain range. On the 9th of May he departed in a 25-foot canoe with 7 men and two Natives hired as hunters and interpreter/guides. Since Natives inhabited the valleys of the mountainous interior, it was usually possible to question them about alternate routes when difficulties were encountered. As the party came to increasingly rough stretches of the Fraser River and was warned of possible hostilities from the Carriers, Mackenzie heeded the advice of his interpreter/guides and headed west overland. Eventually they came to the headwaters of the Bella Coola River. Here they obtained canoes and paddled down the river to the coast reaching the Dean Channel on July 22, 1793, seventy-four days after they had started from their wintering post. The English had crossed the continent by land, thirteen years before Lewis and Clark did it on November 15, 1806. As on every other trip, guides, interpreters and the good will of resident Native populations made success possible.
What accounts for the relatively peaceful exploration of the Canadian interior? It is obvious that the French realized very early that exploration and the related activities of trade and establishing missions could not take place without Native help. In order to get that help they had to adapt themselves to some extent to Native customs, to commit themselves to alliances and to give aid in war. The French quickly learned that they could not develop good relations with any Native group if they aided or traded with their enemies. Of course this practice made enemies out of people like the Iroquois who were fighting the Algonquin, Huron and Montagnais; the Fox who were enemies of the Odawah and Ojibwa and friends of the Iroquois, or the Dakota who were enemies of the Cree and Assiniboine. The French also had to adopt some Native customs, especially in travel, food, dress and the like. Intermarriage was a way of cementing alliances and the adoption of Christianity, a hoped for by-product of intermarriage and the work of missionaries, would, it was thought, further bind those alliances. The offspring of those marriages (métis) had the advantage of having “a foot in both camps.” Many of the métis men were welcomed into the French troops stationed at the interior forts. As descendants of both French and Native parents, the more able ones became officers who were placed in command of both French and Native forces. Traders desired métis women in marriage because they had practical fur trade skills and were culturally adapted to living under wilderness conditions, whereas French and English women, even if enough were available, did not. The French had no problem with intermarriage; in fact it was encouraged if the couple became Catholics. Adoption of some Native customs, intermarriage and aid in war, all helped to inspire mutual confidence. Of paramount importance to French success was that they made it clear they were not after Native land. Nor did they trap fur-bearing animals outside the confines of the colony. In the pays d’en haut when a fort was erected permission was sought first and yearly gifts were given at regular times, which the Natives regarded as a form of rent on their land.52 After 1681, when trade and posts were permitted west of Montreal, French traders (and before them coureurs de bois) brought goods directly to their customers and saved them the trip to the St. Lawrence colonies. In spite of outrageous prices the traders were generally welcome. After the Iroquois wars in the late 1640s had dispersed many of the eastern groups with whom the French had close relations, knowledge of the French diffused with them westwards. In later years, only in rare cases did explorers come across Native groups that had not heard of them. In other words, the Native groups the French met and from whom they requested help in exploring did not feel threatened by them.
Unlike the French, where westward expansion was driven by missionaries, the possibility of a transcontinental route and later, the fur trade, English exploration from Hudson Bay was motivated almost exclusively by the fur trade and occasionally by trying to find a northwest passage. In the methods used by the English, there were striking parallels to that of the French because they too were reliant on local Native populations. Initially, one or a few Englishmen would attach themselves to Native groups who were returning to the interior after trading at the bayside posts much like Radisson and Des Groseilliers did in the 1650s. As more H.B.Co. men and Nor’westers started to live at interior posts, they undertook exploration on their own but never without first gathering Native geographical information and hiring guide/interpreters, very much like the French a hundred years before them. Initially the English learned much from the French, especially from Radisson and Des Groseilliers whose expertise had helped found the H.B.Co. They continued to learn from the French after the fall of New France by hiring expert Canadian voyageurs who knew how to paddle canoes and communicate with Natives.
It is astonishing how little attention has been paid in our histories to the role of Natives in exploration. Reading the original texts, especially those concerning French exploration, shows that explorers themselves did not try to hide the fact that they got Native help. The distortions and omissions came much later, in the second half of the nineteenth century, after Natives had been degraded and cast aside on reserves, or vilified as savages. During this time, North Americans were spreading across the continent and were looking for heroes in the men who had preceded them. In this process the Natives were shoved aside or ignored because heroes do not need helpers, especially if these are deemed to be inferior savages.
For an overview of the period covered by this paper see: John Logan
Allen, ed., North American Exploration: Vol.
2, A Continent Defined (Lincoln, 1997)
Chap. 10, Conrad Heidenreich, “Early French Exploration in the North American
Interior,” p. 65-148. Chap. 11, William J. Eccles. “French Exploration in
North America, 1700-1800,” p. 149-202. Chap. 12, Richard I. Ruggles,
“British Exploration of Rupert’s Land,” p. 203-268.
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