Author Tags: 1700-1800, Early B.C., Forts and Fur
I have never seen anything to equal this country, for I cannot find words to describe our situation at times....We had to pass where no human should venture.” — Simon Fraser, in the Fraser Canyon, 1808
Simon Fraser was born to Catholic parents on the eve of the American Revolution on May 20, 1776, in the hamlet of Mapleton, Hoosick Township, Vermont. His mother Isabel Fraser (neé Grant) was from Duldreggan, Scotland; his father Simon Fraser, Sr., was from Culbokie, Scotland.
Embarking from Fort William on the west coast of Scotland, the Fraser had emigrated on the Pearl in 1773, along with 425 clansmen from the Highlands. Relatively well-off, Simon Fraser, Sr., was able to purchase a quarter section of land and raise extensive livestock, but he soon became embroiled in territorial squabbles over jurisdiction between New York and Vermont. The bitter turmoil was essentially religious: most Scottish immigrants were Roman Catholics and the Vermont secessionists were mostly Anglican.
Having had New York title to almost 25 hectares of his best cropland declared void in Vermont, Fraser, Sr., sided with Britain when civil strife erupted into the American Revolutionary War. He and his eldest son William enlisted in the Queen’s Loyal Rangers commanded by Colonel John Peters. Wounded and captured on the battlefield during the Battle of Bennington in 1777, a decisive battle during which the United Empire Loyalists were defeated by the upstart Americans, Fraser, Sr., was placed in a crowded Albany jail where he died amid sordid conditions in 1779.
Stripped of her property rights, in poor health, with her household looted by her neighbours, and her collection of Gaelic books destroyed, Isabella Grant and her children were banished by the rebel colonies shortly after her husband’s death. At age fifty, when the Americans emerged victorious against the British forces, she and her seven remaining children fled to Canada, settling near Cornwall, Ontario.
Fortunately for Simon Fraser, the North West Company under Simon McTavish was managed with Highland clannishness. An age-old alliance between the McTavishes and the Frasers had continued overseas from Scotland. Simon Fraser was able to attain an introductory position as a sixteen-year-old clerk in 1792 with the assistance of his uncle Captain John Fraser, a judge of the Court of Common Pleas in Montreal. This uncle had been prominent in the Fraser’s Highlanders regiment in Quebec and later became a member of the Legislative Council.
Sent to the Athabasca region in 1793, Fraser quickly rose through the ranks and was appointed one of the company’s youngest partners in 1801. Although Fraser was a forceful character, it helped a great deal to have relatives in high places.
By 1805, having risen to the rank of shareholder, Simon Fraser was given the task of expanding operations west of the Rockies and exploring the river presumed to be the Columbia.
While heading the first European-led exploratory expedition into the Peace River area, Fraser built four trading posts, most notably Fort McLeod at McLeod Lake, an encampment that has endured as the oldest permanent European settlement west of the Rocky Mountains. Fraser also founded Fort George (now known as Prince George), Rocky Mountain Portage House (the beginnings of Hudson’s Hope), Fort St. James on Stuart Lake and Fort Fraser on Fraser Lake.
For the winter of 1806–1807, Fraser remained at Fort St. James where he took a country wife, abandoning her in the spring. Describing the rough territory west of the Rocky Mountains and north of the 49th parallel as a “land of brown heath and shaggy wood,” Fraser named this inland area New Caledonia—even though he had never seen Scotland. Fraser chose the name mainly because the hills reminded him of his mother’s description of her native Scotland.
Determined to find a waterway to ship furs from New Caledonia to the Pacific Ocean, the thirty-two-year-old explorer began his expedition down the Fraser River from Stuart Lake on May 22, 1808, with four canoes and approximately twenty NWC employees. The expedition included clerks John Stuart, aged twenty-two, and Jules-Maurice Quesnel, aged twenty-nine, and two Aboriginal guides. The other men recorded in Fraser’s diary were French Canadians: La Chappelle, Baptiste, D’Alaire, La Certe, Jean Baptiste, Boucher, Gagnier Bourbonnais and La Garde.
Spring was not the best season to have chosen for the trip; on June 2, Fraser noted a rise of eight feet in one day. His men increasingly had to portage their canoes to avoid dangerous areas. Aboriginals and John Stuart advised him to renounce the river route in favour of horses, but Fraser was keenly aware of the necessity to develop waterways for trade. “Going to the sea by an indirect way was not the object of the undertaking,” he wrote. “I therefore would not deviate.” In addition to opening a viable shipping route for the fur trade, Fraser was eager to rival the accomplishments of Sir Alexander Mackenzie and produce an equally popular journal. He would later recall for his readers, “It was a desperate undertaking!”
Upon reaching Camosin (Lytton), where a much clearer river flowed into the muddy waters of his river, Fraser decided to name the other greenish river after NWC share-holder David Thompson, presuming incorrectly that Thompson was exploring its headwaters.
Fraser’s party could not ride their canoes through the harrowing rapids of the Fraser Canyon. They cached their canoes near Lytton and travelled by land to the lower end of the canyon. In his journal, Fraser described their Indiana Jones-like progress with precarious rope ladders. In the deadliest sections, Aboriginals carried their ninety-pound shoulder packs of supplies. After circumventing Hell’s Gate, dugouts could once more be used. Near the present-day site of Yale, Fraser and his men absconded with one canoe after its owner refused to sell it.
The final stretch was equally dangerous and unpredictable. Initially, near the site of present-day Fort Langley, Fraser was able to acquire the temporary use of a large canoe in order to proceed to the mouth of the river, but overnight thefts of some possessions resulted in physical confrontations. Fraser had to use his considerable wits to convince the chief to allow his expedition to proceed.
Opposite the site of present-day New Westminster, Kwantlens forewarned Fraser of fearsome people at the mouth of the river, the Musqueam, whereupon his Aboriginal escorts refused to accompany him further. For the first time, Fraser was unable to honour the protocol of sending an emissary in advance to apprise the Musqueam of his pending arrival.
Upon reaching the Gulf of Georgia on July 2, forty days after he began, Simon Fraser calculated his latitude was 49° north. He knew the mouth of the Columbia was located at latitude 46°20', so it was obvious he had not found the mouth of the Columbia as hoped.
Just as Alexander Mackenzie was not able to tarry long when he reached waters of the Pacific Ocean, Fraser was met with hostility by the Musqueam band and barely escaped with his life. “The warriors made their appearance from every direction, howling like so many wolves, and brandishing their war clubs.”
A frantic struggle to retain control of their canoe ensued, forcing Fraser to retreat up the river, pursued by both Musqueams and Kwantlens, only to be forced to return the canoe to its owners, who also became hostile. “It was then,” Simon Fraser wrote, “that our situation might really be considered as critical. Placed upon a small sandy island, few in number without canoes, without provisions, and surrounded by upwards of 700 barbarians. However, our resolution did not forsake us.”
Half-starved, exhausted, and sleep-deprived, Fraser’s men threatened mutiny until he persuaded them all to take a vow of mutual allegiance. Fraser recorded in his diary that he would never have tackled the dangers of the canyon had he known the outcome of his journey.
Not only had Simon Fraser discovered the Fraser River was not the Columbia, his journal could serve as evidence that it was not navigable for fur trading purposes. But Fraser had duplicated the career of Alexander Mackenzie in one respect: each man had discovered his own River of Disappointment and those two rivers bear their names today. Thompson would soon designate “Fraser’s River” on one of his maps.
It took Simon Fraser and his men 33 days to return upriver to Fort George. Along the way he overcame harassment from Aboriginals along the riverbanks and dissent within his own ranks for refusing to switch to an overland route.
Fraser subsequently served at posts on the Mackenzie River and Athabasca. Placed in charge of the Red River Department in 1811, he reputedly declined a knighthood because it might entail too much expense to maintain.
By 1816, competition between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company was so fierce that Aboriginals were sometimes encouraged to kill members of rival companies. On June 19, Aboriginals killed twenty Red River settlers in what came to be known as the Seven Oaks Massacre.
Since Simon Fraser had been present at Seven Oaks, when Lord Selkirk took Fort William in retaliation, Fraser and some of his fellow NWC owners were arrested as accessories to murder and sent to Montreal for trial. They were acquitted.
Having made a small fortune in the fur trade, Simon Fraser left the North West Company after his trial and returned to his family-owned land near Cornwall, Ontario, in 1818, where he operated mills and a farm. On June 7, 1820, at age forty-four, he married Catherine MacDonell of Matilda, Ontario. They had five sons and three daughters.
Simon Fraser died on August 18, 1862, at the age of eighty-six. His wife died the following day and they were buried in the same grave at St. Andrews West cemetery in Ontario.
According to journalist Stephen Hume, who believes Simon Fraser ought to be glorified as the founder of British Columbia, there are at least 37 place names honouring Fraser in the province. Officially opened on September 9, 1965, the university atop Burnaby Mountain in Burnaby is named Simon Fraser University because the Fraser River is visible from its location.
The much-circulated profile of Simon Fraser by an unknown artist cannot be authenticated as a genuine likeness, but it remains the only purported portrait of the man once described as “that square, bushy-haired fellow with a face like a thundercloud.” A painting of Simon Fraser clinging to the cliff-face in Fraser Canyon, by John Innes, as well as the heroic image of Fraser at the front of a canoe, leading the way through rapids, by C.W. Jefferys, are also well-known.
The relative lack of biographical details about Simon Fraser is complicated by the fact that University of Toronto librarian W. Stewart Wallace, in his book The Pedlars and Other Papers on the Nor’Westers, has identified four other Simon Frasers in the fur trade, and two of these were also partners in the North West Company. Prominent in the Fraser’s Highlanders, an older Simon “Bonhomme” Fraser was a cousin of Simon McTavish. He had a son, also named Simon Fraser, who became a NWC shareholder and died in London in 1796. A third Simon Fraser of Ste. Anne’s, born about 1760, was elected as a member of the Beaver Club in 1803 and remained active until 1816. The fifth and final Simon Fraser during the era of the North West Company was a clerk who was present at the NWC’s annual meeting in 1821.
Fraser, Simon. The Letters and Journals of Simon Fraser, 1806-1808 (Toronto: Macmillan, 1960). Edited by W. Kaye Lamb.
Campbell, Marjorie Wilkins, ed. The Savage River: Seventy-One Days With Simon Fraser (Macmillan, 1968; Fifth House, 2003).
Spargo, John. Two Bennington-Born Explorers and Makers of Modern Canada (Bradford, Vermont: Green Mountain Press, 1950).