Travel between Canada and Red River, 1857

winter 1870 red river

William Armstrong, watercolour, “Winter Travel between St. Paul and Red River,” (1870). Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1933-257-1 Gift of Mrs. William MacDougall Copyright: Expired

Transcript, “The Great North West,” The Daily Globe [a.k.a Toronto Globe] (22 January 1857).

The Great North West.

The references in this and other journals to the position and resources of the Red River settlement, have excited much interest among the commercial community of Toronto, and we are happy to say that a practical step has already been taken to obtain more extensive information upon the subject than we yet have in our possession. Captain Wm. Kennedy has just left the city for the purpose of visiting the settlement, making the fullest enquiries into its condition, and deciding upon the practicability of opening a commercial connexion with its inhabitants. Captain Kennedy was born on the Banks of the Saskatchewan, and was for some years in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company. After he left it, he became a resident of Canada, and established an extensive fishery at Saugeen. When Lady Franklin fitted out her expedition to search for her long lost husband, Captain Kennedy was entrusted with the command, and conducted the enterprise to the entire satisfaction of all connected with it. The gentlemen who have interested themselves in the North West question have been fortunate in meeting with so capable a colleague as Captain Kennedy. Active, energetic, and fearless, well accustomed to the kind of country through which he will travel, and thoroughly acquainted with the general aspect of the North West question, he is the very man for the enterprise in which he is engaged.

As our readers are aware, the people of the Red River are supplied with goods from two sources. Through the Company they receive them from England via Hudson’s Bay and York factory, and from the Americans by way of the Minnesota prairies. One of the objects of Captain Kennedy’s mission is to ascertain whether a route cannot be opened from the head of Lake Superior. The Hudson’s Bay Company have hitherto positively forbidden the people of Red River to travel by this line. A few days ago, a Church f England missionary who has been labouring in the territory, arrived in Toronto by way of St. Paul’s, having been refused permission to come by Lake Superior. We do not imagine, however, that any impediments will be placed in the way of Captain Kennedy’s mission by the Company. The controllers of its destiny are perfectly aware that their day is over in the Red River, and that they can no longer continue their policy of cutting it off from civilization. The question for decision is not now whether the Company will permit goods to pass by Fort William, but whether the line of navigation between that place and Red River can be used with as much facility as the other routes to the settlement, from York Factory and St. Paul’s. The advocates of the Company in Canada have endeavoured to make it appear that the route to Lake Superior is not only more difficult than the others, but that it is much longer, and they have likewise given very unfavourable account of the country through which it passes. We are fortunately not left to glean the facts of the case from the assertions of anonymous writers. We have now before us a series of letters written by a well-known clergy-man of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Canada, the Rev. John Ryerson, while on a missionary tour to the Red River and Hudson’s Bay in the year 1855. These communications were originally published in the Christian Guardian, but have since been collected in book form. Mr. Ryerson travelled from Fort William to the Red River in company with three missionaries who were about to establish themselves in the territory, and after leaving them at their various destinations, he continued on to York Factory, from whence he sailed for England in one of the Company’s ships. We may take another opportunity to refer to Mr. Ryerson’s general remarks about the territory, but in the meantime we must confine ourselves to the record of his journey between Fort William and Red River. At the end of his work he gives us a table of the distance between these places, and a list of the portages which it is necessary to make in order to avoid the falls and rapids. The figures are probably supplied by the Company and must be received with caution, but we accept them in the meantime, and compile the following summary of the distances, with the names of the rivers and lakes:–


The above gives us a total of 683 miles as the distance by water from Lake Superior to the southern extremity of Lake Winnipeg. From the same point on the latter lake to the extreme northern end is 300, and from that point down Hill, Jack and Hayes Rivers to York Factory on Hudson’s Bay, 500 miles. Adding these together we find that the distance to York Factory from the Red River is 117 miles further than to Lake Superior. As to the route to St. Paul’s, the communication is carried on at present altogether by land. The distance is variously stated from 500 to 700 miles. Even taking the lowest number, after allowing for the difference between land and water transportation, the advantage would be on the side of the route by Lake Superior. The advocates of the Company have alleged that the navigation on the rivers and lakes which we have enumerated is very much broken, and so it is; but still the number of portages is not much larger on that route than on the other which leads to York Factory. There are 52 portages in one and 37 on the other. It has to be noticed also that the York Factory route is constantly travelled by the Company’s heavily laden boats, and that the streams are kept clear, whereas on the Lake Superior line it has been the aim of the Company to injure the navigation, and the creeks have been suffered to fill up with drift wood, which has probably increased the number of portages.

It must also be remarked that goods can be laid down at Fort William at lower rates thab either at York Factory or St. Paul’s, and that furs and other country produce will command a better price there. Altogether, we can see no reason why the Red River trader, when the way is opened for him, should not receive his goods by Fort William; nor why the merchants of Toronto should not supply them to him. A vessel can reach the fine bay on which Fort William is situated in 50 hours after leaving Collingwood, and Toronto is, in fact, the nearest point at which European goods are to be brought in the original packages. The Red River people only number some twelve or fifteen thousand, and it might be supposed that their trade is not worth looking after, but let a moment’s thought be bestowed on the position of their country, and its importance is seen at once. This insignificant number are settled in a magnificent prairie country, 1000 miles in length by 500 in breadth; they are located on the shores of a lake 300 miles long, which receives the waters of rivers several thousand miles in navigable length. The Hudson’s Bay Company’s advocates appear to think that they will retain the exclusive right to trade over the greater part of this vast territory, but they only show their shortsightedness. Let settlers occupy the waters connecting with Lake Winnipeg, and the Company’s monopoly will be of very little value. They cannot prevent people buying and selling, save by keeping them out of the country, and that will speedily become impossible. Now, who will be likely to carry on the traffic over this great territory? Most certainly it will be the people of Red River, born and brought up in the country, expert hunters, bold woodsmen, adventurous voyaguers. It is they who will succeed to the business of the Hudson’s Bay Company, when it is laid on the shelf. This is why we think it so necessary that the merchants of Toronto should at once open communications with the Red River country, and develop its nascent trade, even at some hazard and expense.

While taking a favourable view of the prospect of opening a trade with the Red River, and of being able at present to compete with the Americans, we cannot help looking forward with some anxiety to the future. Minnesota is filling up so fast and the western railway system is extending so far that we fear it is probable that the Americans will tap the waters of the Red River by an iron road, before we can offer equal facilities on our territory. The navigation of our rivers though well enough adapted for a new trade is not fitted to compete with the railway. There are some advantages, however, on our side which may be taken advantage of by an enterprising people. Though much of the navigation is broken between Lake Superior and Lake Winnipeg, there are long reaches of unbroken navigation, and railways connecting these portions would complete the communication by steam. The country travelled by this route has been sadly misrepresented by the agents of the Company, and we have selected a few sketches from Mr. Ryerson’s letters to show the opinion formed of it by a shrewd observer, accustomed, like most Canadians, to observe closely the natural characteristics of the countries through which he travels. Such a soil as Mr. Ryerson describes will not long lack occupants, and we indulge sanguine expectations that the settlement of the region may keep pace with the advances of the Americans:–

Dog River.

We were three hours crossing the Lac du Chien or Dog Lake; on the other side we entered a beautiful river of the same name, up which we paddled for two hours, when we stopped to dinner.

The land is beautiful, rich and well timbered on both sides of this river for the distance of more than twenty-five miles from its mouth. A most delightful settlement could be formed here, and, if the Hudson’s Bay Company would encourage it, no doubt would be formed in a very short time. Along the banks of the river Du Chien I noticed the first Norway pine that I had seen since coming into the territory; it was generally of the middling size, very straight and free from knots.

The Height of Land.

This day at five o’clock p.m., we reached the Savan or Prairie Portage, the height of land between Fort William and York Depots. It is between three and four miles long, and a continuous cedar swamp from one end to the other, and is therefore very properly named the savan or swamp portage. This portage is the dividing ridge between the lakes Superior and Winnipeg, and lies 840 feet above them, and 1,683 feet above the sea. In going from Lake Superior to these high lands of swamp, which separate the waters flowing into Hudson’s Bay from those of Lake Superior, you ascend 853 feet; and from thence to Lake Winnipeg you descend 830 feet more; making the whole descent from the Savan portage to York Fort depot, 1,683 feet.

Lac-La-Pluie River.

The Lac-La-Pluie River is a magnificent stream of water: it is decidedly the most beautiful river of any I have seen since coming into the territory. It has a rapid current, and is about a quarter of a mile wide; its noble banks are covered with the richest foliage of every hue: the trees along them are large and more varied than any I have yet seen: ash, poplar, cedar, red and white pines, oak and birch, and an abundance of flowers of gaudy and variegated colours everywhere beautify the scene. Large quantities of as rich and fine land as is to be found in America also lies along on both banks of this splendid river. The climate is also very fine, and as thriving a settlement of agriculturalists and trades people could be formed here as are found in Canada.

Lake Of The Woods.

At 12 o’clock we reached the mouth of the Lac-La-Pluie River, which empties itself into Lac-Du-Bois, of Lake of the Woods, as it is now frequently called. The Lake of the Woods is a splendid sheet of water sixty-eight miles in length, and from fifteen to twenty five miles in breadth; dotted all over with hundreds of beautiful islands, many of which are covered with a heavy and luxuriant foliage.

The Rat Portage.

There is a splendid fall in the water at the Rat portage. The waters from Lac-La-Pluie, Lac0du-Bois and their tributary streams are all here gathered into a narrow channel not more than six rods wide, and hurled over a precipice between thirty and forty feet high with most terrific crashing violence. I stood looking at the jumping, leaping, and foaming waters and listening to their thundering roar, until dizzied with the noise and grandeur of the scene I could not but exclaim “How terrible is God in His doings, but how wonderful His works to the children of men.” The water below the falls widens out into small lakes and ponds, connected together by short and narrow rivers, the most of them very rapid, some of them precipitately so. There is a considerable quality of good land in the neighbourhood of the rat Station; the potatoes and other vegetables I saw growing there looked very fine.

White Dog Mission

At 12 o’clock we put ashore for dinner, and no great distance from our dining place, we passed a small village of Indians, where the Episcopal Church has a mission, called White Dog Mission. I had a letter to the Rev. W. McDonald, the minister in charge; but being in great haste to get on, and meeting with a boat belonging to the mission, I did not stop to deliver it, but gave it to one of the men in the boat. The mission village, if a village it can be called, is beautifully situated on a rising spot of ground facing a small bay that opens into the river. A small tract of land in the immediate neighbourhood seems to be good, and wood, doubtless, admit of productive cultivation. I noticed potatoes, oats, &c., growing finely.

Cap De Bonet Portage.

Between breakfast and dinner we made three portages, the last of which called “Cap de Bonet” Portage, was a quarter of a mile long. We passed several camps of Indians: four of the men in two canoes came to us and assisted us in making a portage: we gave them some tobacco, with which they seemed well pleased. I am of the opinion that this would be a good locality to establish a mission and build a mission village; there is about here a great deal of excellent land, the climate is healthy, and it is in the midst of numerous bands of Indians, who are teachable and friendly disposed.

Fort Alexander.

Fort Alexander belongs to the Lac La Pluie District, and although Mr. Ballantyne, in his book, says, that it is not “famous for its appearance,” yet in my judgment it is not surpassed, if equalled in beauty and pleasantness by any station belonging to the Company, between St. Marie and Red River. It is situated on an elbow of land made by a bend in the river Winnipeg, three miles from the river’s mouth. The bank of the river where the Fort stands is about twenty feet high. The scenery for many miles around is strikingly beautiful. The climate for Hudson’s Bay Territory is remarkably fine, and salubrious, the land amazingly rich and productive. The water in the lakes Lac La Pluie, Lac Du Bois, Winnipeg, &c., is not deep and because of their wide surface and great shallowness, during the summer season, they become exceedingly warm; this has a wonderful effect on the temperature of the atmosphere in the adjacent neighbourhoods, and no doubt makes the great difference in the climate )or at least is one of the principal causes of it in these parts; the land is not only very rich, susceptible of the highest cultivation, but vegetation is rapid, luxuriant, and comes to maturity. They grow spring wheat here to perfection, and in few places do vegetables of most every kind thrive better,– there is now in full view, which with delight I look upon through the window while I write, a fine field of wheat.– These things fully satisfy me of the correctness of the opinion I have already expressed, that this is one of the most eligible places for establishing a mission and building a Mission Village to be found in the southern department of the Company’s territory. In addition to what I have already said, I would remark that Fort Alexander is in the centre of a country over which there are scattered a great many Indians, who resort to the Fort every year in great numbers, besides a number of families who are continually about the place.


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