The extra-thick and glossy furs of the isolated Athabasca country lured traders from the shores of Hudson’s Bay. The furs were collected for shipment to far-away Grand Portage at the west end of Lake Superior to be canoed south of the hostile English Bay traders to the far-away port of Montreal and on to Europe.
The Hudson’s Bay traders for over a hundred years let the Cree Indians solve their own problems by pushing up the rivers that flowed to the chain of posts that surrounded the Bay. These Indians obtained whatever furs they could scrounge or steal from the Beavers, or trade for cheap goods obtained at the posts–then made their way back again to the Bay where the traders, known to the Indians as “The English” received the precious commodity. They then baled it and shipped it away to London yearly as the British vessels made their dangerous visits to York Factory and Moose factory on the Bay. True, one young fellow named Henry Kelsey, a Hudson’s Bay employee, penetrated to the prairies in 1690, but nothing ever came of it at the time because the Governors of the Company gave no orders to follow up his enterprise.
Until the English took Quebec in 1759, the traders out of Montreal were mostly French coureurs de bois, who took the incredibly hard way up the great Lakes and the rivers flowing into Lake Superior to reach the Crees before they got down to the Hudson’s Bay posts. In 1754-55 a Hudson’s Bay man, Anthony Henday, undertook a notable exploration of the prairies, but the Bay gave him no recognition for his efforts. He quit the company in 1763. The Company lost a good man!
Only a few years before La Verendrye had scouted the same general area for the French traders in Montreal, the bitter rivals of the Bay. Hence when peace was declared in 1763 between France and England, both factions knew a good deal about routes to the prairies whose drainage system, Saskatchewan-Nelson Rivers, was technically Hudson’s Bay territory under the Charter.
After the war when Quebec fell the traders from that area, although French in the beginning, became known as The Canadians to distinguish them from The English of the Hudson’s Bay. The French were joined by many Scots and some Englishmen who moved north from the British Colonies. After the American Revolution a great number more moved North with the Empire Loyalists who were now in danger in the new Republic. They became “Canadians” also. Scots and Frenchmen have a long history of associating easily with each other. The French were adventurers; the Scots were fortune-hungry and neither group liked the English very much. Together they became a dynamic combination, centered in Montreal. They worked out a bold new concept – make a business of skirting the outside perimeter of the Bay’s chartered territory and get to the Indians before they could reach the Cree middlemen. Even the Cree could be persuaded to give up their long dangerous journeys to the Bay to trade. Thus the Northwest Company had its start. Here our transportation system had its terminal – Montreal, 3000 miles away.
The Northwesters dominated the Great Lakes stretch by establishing Grande Portage on the western end of Lake Superior – a huge establishment later moved a few miles north to Fort William (now Thunder Bay). From Grand Portage the North canoe, smaller and lighter, replaced the Lake canoes for trips into the interior.
Meanwhile the Hudson’s Bay had been hurt by the free traders invading the hinterlands and draining off the furs to Montreal. At last orders came from London to build inland posts. They had an unchallenged right to ascend any river system that drained into the Hudson’s Bay. One of these was the Saskatchewan-Nelson system entering the Bay at York Factor, after flowing through the north end of Lake Winnipeg. Posts were built at Cumberland Lake on the Saskatchewan, from which it was an easy and rather monotonous trip for hundreds of miles up the Saskatchewan to the region of Edmonton today. Edmonton House was built across the river from today’s Fort Saskatchewan – so very close to the Peace River Country, and yet effectively cut off for trade until a road was built. David Thompson was one of the few who followed the old Cree War Trail from there to Lesser Slave Lake. It involved long overland passages, unsuitable for transporting furs.
The prairie Indians were well fed clothed and mounted. They had all they needed and the chiefs were not impressed with what the traders had to offer.
At Cumberland House, south of today’s Flin Flon, a chain of lakes and some dangerous, almost continual rapids led northwest from the Saskatchewan River to a 300-yard portage over to the Churchill River. This tributary of the Saskatchewan was the Sturgeon-Weir River to the English and Riviere Maligne (Bad River) to the French voyageurs. At the end of this difficult chain of waters lay Lac Isle-a-la-Crosse, where the Northwesters built a post. Legally this post was in Hudson’s Bay territory. From here Pete Pond made his way over the Methye Portage. He got control of the Athabasca River, making any further expansion of the Hudson’s Bay Company infinitely harder, the more so that the Athabasca was legally beyond their chartered rights to trade in.
The Bay did its best to leapfrog their rival’s posts. One attempt to reach the rich Athabasca country was a route up the Burntwood River, a tributary of the Nelson over a short portage to the Churchill River then by Reindeer and Wolliston Lakes and Fond du Lake River to the east of Lake Athabasca. The Northwesters were already well fortified in Fort Chipewyan at the west end. However the Bay eventually established Fort Wedderburn almost along side Fort Chipewyan.
These were the fur traders’ approaches to the Peace River country. Alexander MacKenzie extended the tradiing routes to the Arctic and the Pacific between 1789 and 1793.
One thing we must remember. Lake Athabasca was the gateway to the Peace, no matter how you approached — from Hudson’s Bay, or Lake Superior — until the Athabasca Trail from Edmonton opened the way for steamboats. The Athabasca and Peace Rivers were the main arteries of the fur trade until late in the 1800’s.