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Canadian canoe routes (early): This article covers the water routes used by early explorers of Canada with special emphasis on the fur trade.
Both Canada and Siberia were explored mainly by river. Both countries have many navigable rivers with short portages between them. There are no serious barriers to canoe travel east of the Rockies or from the Urals almost to the Pacific. Both expansions were driven and paid for by the fur trade (mostly beaver in Canada, sable and many others in Siberia). In both countries furs were obtained by the natives and exported by Europeans. In Siberia a band of armed Cossacks would enter a native village and demand yasak or tribute. In Canada furs were obtained by honest trade. The Russians first entered Siberia with the Conquest of the Khanate of Sibir in 1582 and reached the Pacific 57 years later near Okhotsk in 1639. European settlement of Canada began in 1603 and 1608 (Port Royal, Nova Scotia and Quebec City). Canadians reached the Arctic in 1789 and the Pacific in 1793 (both by Alexander Mackenzie). For Siberia see Siberian River Routes.
An explorer naturally wishes to travel as far as possible by water. Hudson Bay gets one more than a third of the way across the continent, but it leads to unproductive country and is blocked by ice for most of the year. The Mississippi River is a natural entry point, but it only began to be used in 1718 with the foundation of New Orleans. Early sea ships could follow the Hudson River as far as Albany, but this leads north to the Saint Laurence and westward travel was blocked by the Iroquois league. The Chesapeake and Delaware Bays lead a short way inland and the other east coast rivers are too short or shallow to be of much use. This leaves the St. Lawrence River.
French Era: In the sixteenth century, cod fishermen began trading for furs, especially at Tadoussac on the St. Lawrence River. With the foundation of Quebec in 1608, Coureurs des bois spread out through the many rivers and lakes to trade with the Indians, while Indians would carry canoe-loads of fur down to Montreal. Nearby tribes became middlemen, drawing furs from further inland. Montreal was the main base where furs were stored before transshipment to Europe. By the end of the period, trade and exploration had spread to all the Great Lakes and was extending down the Mississippi. Meanwhile, the British maintained posts on Hudson Bay, ignored the interior and waited for Indians to bring furs to them.
British Era: The second era began when trade reached the pays d'en haut west of Lake Superior. In these cold lands beaver had longer and thicker fur. After the British conquered Canada in 1759, management of the Montreal trade was taken over by English-speakers while the real work continued to be done by French-Canadians. The Montreal-based North West Company was formed in 1779 largely because distances had become so great as to require a highly-organized transport system (The Athabasca country was 3000 miles from Montreal and a canoe might go 1000 miles in a month). The independent coureur des bois was replaced by hired voyageurs. Since the west country was too far for a round trip in one season, each spring, when the ice broke up, boats would set out from Montreal while winterers would start east. They exchanged their goods at Grand Portage on Lake Superior and returned before the rivers froze five months later. To save the cost of hauling food from Montreal Metis around Winnipeg began the large-scale production of pemmican. The Hudson Bay trade was diverted southwest to the edge of the prairie where pemmican was picked up to feed the voyageurs on their journey northwest to the Athabasca country. Competition from the Nor'Westers forced the Hudson's Bay Company to build posts in the interior. The two companies competed for a while and, in 1821, merged. Management was taken over by the capital-rich HBC, but trading methods were those of the Montreal-based Nor'Westers. Much trade shifted to York Factory and later some went south to Minnesota. After 1810 the western posts were linked the British bases on the Oregon coast. By mid-century the HBC ruled an inland empire that stretched from Hudson Bay to the Pacific. The Carlton Trail became a land route across the prairies. HBC land claims were transferred to Canada by the Rupert's Land Act 1868. From 1874 the North-West Mounted Police began to extend formal government into the area. The fur trade routes grew obsolete from the 1880s with the coming of railways and steamships.
Seagoing ships can reach Quebec City and smaller ones can reach Montreal. One might think that the route would continue up the St. Lawrence, but this was not the case. Possible reasons are the Lachine Rapids and other rapids above Montreal, Niagara Falls, Iroquois hostility, the poorer quality of southern furs and the lack of large birch trees to make canoes. The route west from Montreal has been called the 'first Trans-Canada Highway'. It ran from near Montreal, up the Ottawa River, west up the Mattawa River to Trout Lake and over the 7-mile La Vase portage at what is now North Bay on Lake Nipissing and down the French River to Georgian Bay of Lake Huron. This route was first used by Champlain in 1613 and later. When the Iroquois made the Ottawa dangerous it was possible for small canoes to continue up the Ottawa above the Mattawa and from its sources cross to the Saint-Maurice River and down to the St. Lawrence at Trois-Rivières.
From the French River south to the Jesuit Huron missions at the southern end of Georgian Bay (1626–1640). Or west through the Strait of Mackinac to Lake Michigan. Or west north of Manitoulin Island and up the St Marys River (26 feet difference in elevation) to Lake Superior. On Lake Superior voyageurs would normally hug the northern shore because of the danger of frequent squalls that could overturn their boats.
The route up the St. Lawrence to Lake Ontario, Niagara Falls, Lake Erie, Detroit River, Lake St. Clair, St. Clair River and lower Lake Huron developed later (Adrien Jolliet in 1669 was probably the first) and was never the main westward route. North of the St. Lawrence were many complex lakes and rivers that were sometimes used to go as far as James Bay.
Where the US border meets Lake Superior is Grand Portage, Minnesota. From here to Lake of the Woods the canoe route ran along the current US-Canadian border. Over a 9 miles (14 km) portage south of the falls and canyon of the Pigeon River, west up the 50 miles (80 km) long Pigeon River and Arrow River to South Lake, and then across the 400 metres (1,300 ft) Height of Land Portage to North Lake whose waters drain into Hudson Bay. From North Lake down the ? river through a chain of lakes including Gunflint Lake and Basswood Lake to Lac La Croix where the route from Fort William comes in. Down the Loon River to Lake Namakan and north over either of two portages to Rainy Lake (a depot was established here to shorten the voyage of the Athabasca brigade) and down the Rainy River to Lake of the Woods 210 miles (340 km) west-northwest of Grand Portage. Leaving the US border, northwest down the Winnipeg River with 26 portages to Lake Winnipeg, a poor lake for small craft. This area was opened up by La Vérendrye in 1731-1737. Following the current downstream leads to the Nelson River and Hudson Bay, which is not very useful. (The Nelson River is difficult and the parallel Hayes River was preferred. The Hayes route became more important after 1821 when much trade shifted from Montreal to York Factory)
In 1803 it was found that Grand Portage was on the US side of the border and the Lake Superior base was moved 45 miles (72 km) northeast to Fort William, Ontario. For the two routes from Lake Superior see Grand Portage National Monument and Kaministiquia River.
A minor route ran Duluth, Minnesota west and north up the Saint Joseph River and Embarras River over another Height of Land Portage and north up the Pike River (Minnesota) and Vermilion River (Minnesota) to Rainy Lake on the Grand Portage route. During the negotiations for the Webster-Ashburton Treaty Britain tried to make this as the Canadian border.
The Saskatchewan River enters Lake Winnipeg at Grand Rapids, Manitoba. Around these rapids to Cedar Lake. [Cedar Lake is one of the chain of lakes that look like a single lake west of Lake Winnipeg. Although it was not much used, a route ran from Cedar Lake south over the 4 miles (6.4 km) Mossy portage to Lake Winnipegosis and then the mile-and-a-half Meadow Portage to Lake Manitoba and the at least 5 miles (8.0 km) of Portage La Prairie to the Assiniboine River. Another route reached Lake Manitoba from Lake Winnipeg via the Dauphin River. Up the Saskatchewan, past Cumberland House and up the North Saskatchewan River almost to the Rocky Mountains at Fort Edmonton and Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. The North Saskatchewan is approximately the southern limit of forested beaver country. There are no portages between Cumberland and Edmonton, but there are sand bars and 125 miles (201 km) stretch of strong current east of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan where canoes were drug upstream on ropes. Above Prince Albert is the La Montée prairie country where voyageurs were fed by buffalo hunters. Both York boats and north canoes were used. Trade was helped by the fact that the Cree Language was spoken along the whole route. South of the river there was enough grass for horses and one could travel from Edmonton to Red River on horseback. Horses were used for speed and canoes for freight. There are, of course, no canoe routes over the Rockies.
The Assiniboine River which meets the Red River just south of Lake Winnipeg provided another route west. The Red River of the North, which flows north into the southern tip of Lake Winnipeg gained some importance after 1812 with the establishment of the Red River Colony and when the Metis began supplying buffalo Pemmican to feed the voyageurs. These are prairie rivers and not good beaver country. Much transport was by horse and Red River cart.
The axis from Lake Superior to the Mackenzie River runs along the southwest side of the forested beaver country between the prairie to the southwest and the Barren Grounds to the northeast. Here beaver fur is longer and thicker than further southeast. The southern part of the axis was near the source of pemmican. From the depot at Cumberland House, Saskatchewan on the lower Saskatchewan River, north up the Sturgeon-Weir River, across Frog Portage to the east-flowing Churchill River which is mostly a chain of lakes, west up the Churchill past the depot on Lac Île-à-la-Crosse, through Peter Pond Lake to Lac La Loche and over the 12-mile Methye Portage to the Clearwater River whose waters reach the Arctic. The Methye Portage, which was first reached by Peter Pond in 1778 ranks with Grand Portage as the most difficult of the major portages. West down the Clearwater River to the Athabasca River at Fort McMurray, north down the Athabasca to the Peace-Athabasca Delta and the depot at Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, at the west end of Lake Athabasca. This was about as far as canoes could reach and return in one season and was the gathering place for furs from the rich Athabasca region and further west. One could continue into poorer country north down the Slave River to the Great Slave Lake and northwest down the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean.
After the voyages of Captain Cook European ships entered the Pacific in large numbers. A Maritime fur trade developed from the Oregon Country mainly to China. The inland canoe routes were linked to the Pacific coast in 1811 when David Thompson reached the mouth of the Columbia River. A fur trade developed in the interior. Here, horses were used more often than canoes, furs were trapped by non-Indians and the pelts exported by ship. Here Canadians competed, rather successfully, with the American Fur Company. The Oregon Country was divided at the 49th parallel in 1846.
The interior of British Columbia around the upper Fraser River was called New Caledonia (Canada). Goods were carried from Fort Chipewyan up the Peace River (1,500 foot elevation gain and only one significant portage at Hudson Hope, British Columbia) to Fort McLeod and carried over the mountains. It normally took two years for heavy goods to cross the continent, goods being stored at Fort Chipewyan over the winter. Later there was a horse trail from the Fraser River south to Fort Okanogan on the Columbia River.
The route to the Columbia River ran from Fort Chipewyan southwest up the Athabasca River to Fort Assiniboine and after 1825, west from Fort Edmonton on the North Saskatchewan over a 80-mile horse track to Fort Assiniboine. From there up the Athabasca to Jasper House and by horse over Simpson Pass to Boat Encampment on the Columbia. The route was used for messages and light freight but was not practical for heavy freight.
The far northwest was supplied by an unusual route which was found in 1851 by Robert Campbell (fur trader) who travelled in the opposite direction from the one described here. From the Mackenzie River delta south up the Peel River to the depot at Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories. Then back down the Peel and west up the Rat River (by poling or dragging, not paddling) or by a parallel trail and over a half-mile portage to the Little Bell River, then Bell River (Yukon) past a post called Lapierre's House and down the Porcupine River to Fort Yukon, Alaska about 300 miles west of Fort McPherson. Then at least 400 miles south-southeast up the Yukon River and Pelly River, then the Findlayson and Campbell Rivers and a portage to Frances Lake, down the Frances River to the Liard River and east to Fort Simpson on the Mackenzie about 275 miles east of Frances Lake. There was some transport on the Laird, but the Laird river canyon made this difficult.
In 1682 La Salle reached the mouth of the Mississippi from the Great Lakes. From about 1715 the French sought to link the St. Lawrence and Mississippi basins and bottle up the English on the east coast. From the southeast side of Lake Michigan, east up the St. Joseph River to near the present site of South Bend, Indiana and across a short portage to the Kankakee River, west down to Kankakee, which joins the Des Plaines River to become the Illinois River which runs first west and then southwest to the Mississippi. Another route was the Chicago River and across the Chicago Portage to the Des Plaines River and south to the Illinois. Alternatively, from the northeast side of Lake Michigan, at the head of Green Bay, up the Fox River, past serious rapids to Lake Winnebago, up the Fox and over a short portage to the Wisconsin River and southwest to the Mississippi. By the time of the British conquest there were French trading posts from New Orleans up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers to the Great Lakes.
This was the main axis of British-French and British-US military conflict late in the period. From Quebec upriver about a third of the way to Montreal, up the Richelieu River to Lake Champlain, portage west parallel to the La Chute River (230 feet drop in 3½-miles) to Lake George, overland to the Hudson River and downstream to New York.
Although the French had long been in the Ohio country (La Salle in 1669, Fort des Miamis from 1715), this area only became important after about 1743 when the French tried to block Anglo-American expansion into the Ohio country. From Lake Erie, at Fort Presque Isle (1753), south up an army-built wagon road to Fort Le Boeuf at the head of the Rivière aux Boeufs (LeBoeuf Creek), down LeBoeuf Creek to French Creek to Fort Machault at its junction with the Allegheny River and down the Allegany to Fort Duquesne (1754) at modern-day Pittsburgh. The British response to this move was the beginning of the French and Indian War.
The Hudson's Bay Company began establishing posts on the Bay in 1668. Unlike the French-Canadians, the English were usually content to sit on the coast and let the Indians bring furs to them. 'Asleep by the frozen sea' is how Joseph Robson describe it. Movement inland began about 1750 after the French entered the western country and tried to divert the Hudson Bay fur trade to Montreal. The most important route ran from York Factory up the Hayes River (not the Nelson River) to Norway House at the north end of Lake Winnipeg. Most posts were on the southwest side of the bay. Inland were many complex routes, most being too small for heavy freight canoes. Main routes from east to west were: