His father was a professional soldier, a captain in Burgoyne’s army, which was defeated by the Revolutionaries. The elder Fraser was taken prisoner of war at Saratoga and, although records are scanty, seems to have died in prison at Albany. Simon and his three brothers and five sisters were somehow brought to Canada by the impoverished widow among the United Empire Loyalists who settled at St. Andrews near the Ottawa River not far from Cornwall.
Whether the aristocratic relative educated the boy or not, Simon did have a few years’ education in Montreal. Early historians classed him as an “illiterate”, based on the writing of his journal. This was a rather unfair judgment considering that a journal is a day-by-day account of experiences, jotted down when they occur. Besides, in the days of Mackenzie, Thompson and Fraser, spelling and grammar were not standardized, nor were teachers always qualified. Fraser managed well enough to chronicle one of the most remarkable feats of all time – the descent of the river, which now bears his name.
In the same year that Alexander Mackenzie started his journey to the Pacific, Simon was apprenticed to the NorthWest Company as a clerk — he was sixteen. Clerks were rated as “gentlemen”, not merely employees.
In ten years he had risen to the position of a full-fledged partner or bourgeois in the company, no small achievement. To be a partner in a huge commercial enterprise at twenty-six showed enterprise and executive ability. Having had experience in the NorthWest Company’s inland headquarters at Grand Portage on Lake Superior, he was promoted by general vote to an immense responsibility. He was to extend the Athabasca district, which then ended at Fort St. John, far over into the Rocky Mountain Trench. He was also directed to find a practical route to the Pacific as soon as possible. In other words, he was to finish the job Mackenzie had left half-completed in 1793.
The Company had been displeased with Mackenzie for leaving the big river [the Fraser] at a place now called Alexandria, and turning West to the sea by a route too difficult for canoe-freighting of furs.
David Thompson, the surveyor, had been a trader out of Fort Fork during the winter previous to Fraser’s arrival in the Peace. He had surveyed as far west, at least, as Fort St. John, or Rocky Mountain House as it was then called. Thompson was soon to start exploring the southern part of Alberta and British Columbia. He hoped to find a pass through the mountains to reach the “River of the West” which Captain James Cook had noted. Captain Gray of Boston had explored its mouth in 1792, and named it the “Columbia” after his vessel. Mackenzie had assumed that the big river he left for a shorter route to the sea was indeed the Columbia. Fraser was supposed to find out whether Mackenzie had been mistaken in not following the river to the great natural harbour which Captain Cook had discovered.
There was no great rush, as far as the traders knew, to complete the task. Fraser went about it carefully and methodically. Father Morice says that in the spring of 1805 a junior man, James McDougall, had already gone up the Parsnip to what later became McLeod Lake. He went even further west to a lake about fifteen miles east of present Fort St. James, which became know as Carrier or Porteur Lake.
In the fall of 1805, Fraser went over to see for himself, and named the lake at the head of the Pack River, “McLeod”, in honour of a friend Archibald Norman McLeod. Leaving some men to build a fort and trade with the local Indians, he came back to Rocky Mountain Portage House where he had left fourteen men (two clerks and twelve servants) to build a post.
All winter he collected information from the Indians about the country to which he was going, and he had bales of goods sent to the western end of the portage around the Canyon, to be able to get away as soon as the ice went in the spring.
He heard vague rumors about another unexplored river [the Skeena] but dismissed them from his mind because the river was said to run northwest. He wanted to go southwest to intercept the Americans who were rumored to be pressing west also. If he could get to the mouth of the “River of the West” first he could back up Captain Cook’s discovery and win the country for the Nor’westers whom everybody called “The Canadians”.
Two canoe-loads of furs represented their winter trade. When these were safely on their way to Fort Chipewyan, Fraser started for the interior. It was May 20, 1806. They unloaded freight at Fort McLeod. When they arrived at the present location of Prince George, they turned up the Nechaco River. They reached a large lake, now called Stuart Lake after Fraser’s young lieutenant John Stuart. Here they built Fort St. James, and named the area The Columbia District. Fraser had agreed to establish a third fort in the area, which he proceeded to do on another lake discovered by his young assistant. This was called Fort Fraser on Fraser Lake. Then they returned to Fort St. James for the winter of 1806-07 and “adopted” native wives as most traders did.
Fraser had been writing to Montreal for supplies and permission to get on with the job of further exploring the river which Mackenzie had left. The easterners had been dragging their feet, unconcerned that the newly independent United States was purchasing land west of the Mississippi and had sent out an expedition to get to the West Coast. This Lewis and Clark expedition was making trouble for David Thompson who was trying to reach the mouth of the Columbia by a southern route through the Rockies. The American expedition was so cruel to the American Indians that Mackenzie’s old friends, the Piegans, had turned against all white men.
It may seem strange that so much news could pass back and forth among the far-flung and isolated posts. Every summer, though, someone from every post — usually the factor — had to go down to Fort William where he met every other factor, and heard all the news from the whole Northwest quarter of the continent, and from the east as far as Montreal.
In the summer of 1807 the traders in Montreal suddenly sprang to life. They had just learned that the Lewis and Clark expedition had reached the Pacific. They dispatched an urgent letter to Fraser by Jules Maurice Quesnel to get to the sea as soon as he could. Fraser moved out to the confluence of the Nechaco and the Fraser rivers and built a base, which he called Fort George. Very nearby, the present city of Prince George now stands.
On May 29, 1808 he and his two young lieutenants, Stuart and Quesnel, set out with nineteen voyageurs.
Before many days they were in serious trouble. “Our situation,” he wrote, “was most precarious; our lives hung as it were, upon a thread, as the failure of the line or a false step of one of the men, might have hurled the whole of us into eternity.” Again, “We had to pass where no human being should venture.”
Very likely the natives were very much aware of Fraser’s awkwardness, for they seriously advised him to give up the water route. Fraser wrote simply “Going to the sea by an indirect way was not the object of the undertaking. I therefore would not deviate.” He had been instructed to “descend the river”. Literal and unimaginative, it never seems to have occurred to him that those who sent him had not a glimmer of the difficulties they ordered him to face. So he went on.
He was patient and kind with John Stuart who had had enough of the river, and wanted to go on with horses. One of the four he finally obtained, promptly fell over a cliff and was lost. Soon the voyageurs were electing to run the rapids rather than try to portage over the hills and rocks. Fraser watched them go. His journal entry ends with his first exclamation mark. “It was a desperate undertaking!” This from a dour Scot was strong language!
Somewhere between the present-day towns of Lillooett and Lytton he had to abandon the canoes. The canyon here was so narrow that the modern road is carved out of solid rock, gravel banks and vast slides of broken stone. The walking was harder than the paddling for there was no foothold, and the river was straight below. Each man carried an eighty to ninety pound pack. One man got wedged into the rocks helplessly. Fraser himself wrote in his journal “I crawled, not without great risk … and saved his life by causing his load to drop from his back over the precipice into the river”.
One who has driven that road cannot help wondering, “How did the men ever sleep, and how did they keep their loads from rolling into the river?”
By June 19 they reached the confluence of the clean, blue Thompson and “Old Muddy”, the Fraser. Simon thought that Thompson was at the time exploring the headwaters of this river, so he named it for his fellow-explorer who never even glimpsed it. Thompson was then exploring the headwaters of the Columbia, and also working his way to the sea. Odd that a river he never saw is Thompson’s best-known memorial thanks to Simon Fraser.
At Camchin, the Indians’ name for the village, Fraser found so many evidences of European goods, that he knew a way of transporting them was known to the Indians. Surely, the mouth of the river must be near.
The river above Camchin was bad. Below in places, it was impossible, but one of the Indians, “Little Fellow”, consented to guide them over a trail they had used for centuries. It used every flat ledge, and when the ledge ended, they built ladders of tree trunks and cross-twigs, hanging one below the other, and anchored at top and bottom to stones or tree, like the rope “shrouds” of a sailing vessel. Yet between these crazy contraptions the narrow ledges had deep footpaths, imprinted by the moccasined feet of many generations.
Luckily, some of the Indians came along. They shouldered the ninety-pound packs, leaving Fraser and his men free to make their way in places that were “so small” as to render it, at times, difficult even for one person sideways. Can you see the explorers faces to the cliff, clinging by their fingernails, like twenty-four huge four-legged insects, side-stepping, side-stepping, side-stepping, with overhanging cliffs above, and the frightful Fraser in full spring flood swirling below? Bruce Hutchison describes the place as “Nightmare country, black with shifting shadow, hung with mist and thunderous with the steady beat of water”.
At Hell’s Gate the ordeal was over. A little further down, Indian dugouts could be used once more. At present-day Hope an alarming circumstance appeared. The river made a right angle turn west. He knew that the mouth of the Columbia was at latitude 46°20’. Here he was at latitude 49° and ocean tides were discernible. He knew that this could not be the Columbia because he was much too far North. It must be another river. Of course we know now that it was. Nevertheless, the party pushed on toward the mouth of the river, where New Westminster is now. The coastal Indians were very hostile. Fraser, short of provisions, had to turn back without actually seeing the Pacific as Mackenzie did before him.
Thompson did reach the mouth of the Columbia, in July 1811, but the Americans had beaten him to it and had built a fort.
Meantime, Fraser must go back, this time with the full knowledge of the terrors ahead. It had taken him forty days to descend; it took him only thirty-three to get back to Fort George. By his qualities of leadership he averted the loss of his entire company. The party had taken a canoe by force from an Indian near Yale who refused to sell it. The Indians expected the expedition to perish. When they turned up again, the Indians were still indignant, and harassed the expedition by shooting at them, or dropping boulders from above on the perilous places. All of Fraser’s men wanted to start off overland, in which case all would have certainly perished by starvation. Fraser must have earned their respect for he not only persuaded them to turn back by the way they had come, but achieved the formation of a team “by oath before God to stay together, and abide by his councils.” Fraser was generous in his acknowledgment that without the Indians he could never have got to the sea and back again.
In 1811 he was put in charge of the whole Red River Department, and was offered a knighthood in recognition of his services in establishing the 49° of latitude as undisputed British territory. But a knighthood required more money to sustain than Fraser had and he had to refuse.
Fraser happened to be present at Seven Oaks in Manitoba when some Nor’westers caused the death of Governor Semple of the Hudson’s Bay. Lord Selkirk took Fort William in retaliation, and Fraser was among those arrested and sent to Montreal.
He retired from the Northwest Company just before the two companies amalgamated. He married the daughter of Captain Allan McDonnell of Matilda, Ontario. He died at St. Andrews near Cornwall in April 1862, at the age of eighty-six. Whether he ever achieved any other successes is immaterial. He had effectively established a cornerstone for the eventual boundaries of Canada. Because Fraser was indisputably the first man on the spot, the shortsighted British government had no excuse to set the international further north than the 49th parallel.