Expedition by Land.- Wilson P. Hunt.- His Character.- Donald M'Kenzie.- Recruiting
Service Among the Voyageurs. - A Bark Canoe.- Chapel of St. Anne.-Votive Offerings.-
Pious Carousals, - A Ragged Regiment.-Mackinaw.- Picture of a Trading Post.-Frolicking Voyageurs.-Swells and Swaggerers.- Indian Coxcombs.-A Man of the North.-Jockeyship of Voyageurs- Inefficacy of Gold.- Weight of a Feather- Mr. Ramsay
Crooks- His Character.- His Risks Among the Indians.-His Warning Concerning Sioux
and Blackfeet.-Embarkation of Recruits.- Parting Scenes Between Brothers, Cousins,
Wives, Sweethearts, and Pot Companions.
WE have followed up the fortunes of the maritime part of this enterprise to the shores of
the Pacific, and have conducted the affairs of the embryo establishment to the opening
of the new year; let us now turn back to the adventurous band to whom was intrusted
the land expedition, and who were to make their way to the mouth of the Columbia, up
vast rivers, across trackless plains, and over the rugged barriers of the Rocky
The conduct of this expedition, as has been already mentioned, was assigned to Mr.
Wilson Price Hunt, of Trenton, New Jersey, one of the partners of the company, who
was ultimately to be at the head of the establishment at the mouth of the Columbia. He
is represented as a man scrupulously upright and faithful his dealings, amicable in his
disposition, and of most accommodating manners; and his whole conduct will be found
in unison with such a character. He was not practically experienced in the Indian trade;
that is to say, he had never made any expeditions of traffic into the heart of the
wilderness, but he had been engaged in commerce at St. Louis, then a frontier
settlement on the Mississippi, where the chief branch of his business had consisted in
furnishing Indian traders with goods and equipments. In this way, he had acquired
much knowledge of the trade at second hand, and of the various tribes, and the interior
country over which it extended.
Another of the partners, Mr. Donald M'Kenzie, was associated with Mr. Hunt in the
expedition, and excelled on those points in which the other was deficient; for he had
been ten years in the interior, in the service of the Northwest Company, and valued
himself on his knowledge of "woodcraft," and the strategy of Indian trade and Indian
warfare. He had a frame seasoned to toils and hardships; a spirit not to be intimidated,
and was reputed to be a "remarkable shot;" which of itself was sufficient to give him
renown upon the frontier.
Mr. Hunt and his coadjutor repaired, about the latter part of July, 1810, to Montreal, the
ancient emporium of the fur trade where everything requisite for the expedition could be
procured. One of the first objects was to recruit a complement of Canadian voyageurs
from the disbanded herd usually to be found loitering about the place. A degree of
jockeyship, however, is required for this service, for a Canadian voyageur is as full of
latent tricks and vice as a horse; and when he makes the greatest external promise, is
prone to prove the greatest "take in." Besides, the Northwest Company, who
maintained a long established control at Montreal, and knew the qualities of every
voyageur, secretly interdicted the prime hands from engaging in this new service; so
that, although liberal terms were offered, few presented themselves but such as were
not worth having.
From these Mr. Hunt engaged a number sufficient, as he supposed, for present
purposes; and, having laid in a supply of ammunition, provisions, and Indian goods,
embarked all on board one of those great canoes at that time universally used by the
fur traders for navigating the intricate and often-obstructed rivers. The canoe was
between thirty and forty feet long, and several feet in width; constructed of birch bark,
sewed with fibres of the roots of the spruce tree, and daubed with resin of the pine,
instead of tar. The cargo was made up in packages, weighing from ninety to one
hundred pounds each, for the facility of loading and unloading, and of transportation at
portages. The canoe itself, though capable of sustaining a freight of upwards of four
tons, could readily be carried on men's shoulders. Canoes of this size are generally
managed by eight or ten men, two of whom are picked veterans, who receive double
wages, and are stationed, one at the bow and the other at the stern, to keep a look-out
and to steer. They are termed the foreman and the steersman. The rest, who ply the
paddles, are called middle men. When there is a favorable breeze, the canoe is
occasionally navigated with a sail.
The expedition took its regular departure, as usual, from St. Anne's, near the extremity
of the island of Montreal, the great starting-place of the traders to the interior. Here
stood the ancient chapel of St. Anne, the patroness of the Canadian voyageurs; where
they made confession, and offered up their vows, previous to departing on any
hazardous expedition. The shrine of the saint was decorated with relics and votive
offerings hung up by these superstitious beings, either to propitiate her favor, or in
gratitude for some signal deliverance in the wilderness. It was the custom, too, of these
devout vagabonds, after leaving the chapel, to have a grand carouse, in honor of the
saint and for the prosperity of the voyage. In this part of their devotions, the crew of Mr.
Hunt proved themselves by no means deficient. Indeed, he soon discovered that his
recruits, enlisted at Montreal, were fit to vie with the ragged regiment of Falstaff. Some
were able-bodied, but inexpert; others were expert, but lazy; while a third class were
expert and willing, but totally worn out, being broken-down veterans, incapable of toil.
With this inefficient crew he made his way up the Ottawa River, and by the ancient
route of the fur traders, along a succession of small lakes and rivers, to
Michilimackinac. Their progress was slow and tedious. Mr. Hunt was not accustomed to
the management of "voyageurs," and he had a crew admirably disposed to play the old
soldier, and balk their work; and ever ready to come to a halt, land, make a fire, put on
the great pot, and smoke, and gossip, and sing by the hour.
It was not until the 22d of July that they arrived at Mackinaw, situated on the island of
the same name, at the confluence of lakes Huron and Michigan. This famous old
French trading post continued to be a rallying point for a multifarious and motley
population. The inhabitants were amphibious in their habits, most of them being, or
having been voyageurs or canoe men. It was the great place of arrival and departure of
the southwest fur trade. Here the Mackinaw Company had established its principal
post, from whence it communicated with the interior and with Montreal. Hence its
various traders and trappers set out for their respective destinations about Lake
Superior and its tributary waters, or for the Mississippi, the Arkansas, the Missouri, and
the other regions of the west. Here, after the absence of a year, or more, they returned
with their peltries, and settled their accounts; the furs rendered in by them being
transmitted in canoes from hence to Montreal. Mackinaw was, therefore, for a great part
of the year, very scantily peopled; but at certain seasons the traders arrived from all
points, with their crews of voyageurs, and the place swarmed like a hive.
Mackinaw, at that time, was a mere village, stretching along a small bay, with a fine
broad beach in front of its principal row of houses, and dominated by the old fort, which
crowned an impending height. The beach was a kind of public promenade where were
displayed all the vagaries of a seaport on the arrival of a fleet from a long cruise. Here
voyageurs frolicked away their wages, fiddling and dancing in the booths and cabins,
buying all kinds of knick-knacks, dressing themselves out finely, and parading up and
down, like arrant braggarts and coxcombs. Sometimes they met with rival coxcombs in
the young Indians from the opposite shore, who would appear on the beach painted
and decorated in fantastic style, and would saunter up and down, to be gazed at and
admired, perfectly satisfied that they eclipsed their pale-faccd competitors.
Now and then a chance party of "Northwesters" appeared at Mackinaw from the
rendezvous at Fort William. These held themselves up as the chivalry of the fur trade.
They were men of iron; proof against cold weather, hard fare, and perils of all kinds.
Some would wear the Northwest button, and a formidable dirk, and assume something
of a military air. They generally wore feathers in their hats, and affected the "brave." "Je
suis un homme du nord!"-"I am a man of the north,"-one of these swelling fellows would
exclaim, sticking his arms akimbo and ruffling by the Southwesters, whom he regarded
with great contempt, as men softened by mild climates and the luxurious fare of bread
and bacon, and whom he stigmatized with the inglorious name of pork-eaters. The
superiority assumed by these vainglorious swaggerers was, in general, tacitly admitted.
Indeed, some of them had acquired great notoriety for deeds of hardihood and
courage; for the fur trade had Its heroes, whose names resounded throughout the
Such was Mackinaw at the time of which we are treating. It now, doubtless, presents a
totally different aspect. The fur companies no longer assemble there; the navigation of
the lake is carried on by steamboats and various shipping, and the race of traders, and
trappers, and voyageurs, and Indian dandies, have vapored out their brief hour and
disappeared. Such changes does the lapse of a handful of years make in this ever-changing country.
At this place Mr. Hunt remained for some time, to complete his assortment of Indian
goods, and to increase his number of voyageurs, as well as to engage some of a more
efficient character than those enlisted at Montreal.
And now commenced another game of Jockeyship. There were able and efficient men
in abundance at Mackinaw, but for several days not one presented himself. If offers
were made to any, they were listened to with a shake of the head. Should any one
seem inclined to enlist, there were officious idlers and busybodies, of that class who
are ever ready to dissuade others from any enterprise in which they themselves have
no concern. These would pull him by the sleeve, take him on one side, and murmur in
his ear, or would suggest difficulties outright.
it was objected that the expedition would have to navigate unknown rivers, and pass
through howling wildernesses infested by savage tribes, who had already cut off the
unfortunate voyageurs that had ventured among them; that it was to climb the Rocky
Mountains and descend into desolate and famished regions, where the traveller was
often obliged to subsist on grasshoppers and crickets, or to kill his own horse for food.
At length one man was hardy enough to engage, and he was used like a "stool-pigeon,"
to decoy others; but several days elapsed before any more could be prevailed upon to
join him. A few then came to terms. It was desirable to engage them for five years, but
some refused to engage for more than three. Then they must have part of their pay in
advance, which was readily granted. When they had pocketed the amount, and
squandered it in regales or in outfits, they began to talk of pecuniary obligations at
Mackinaw, which must be discharged before they would be free to depart; or
engagements with other persons, which were only to be canceled by a "reasonable
consideration." It was in vain to argue or remonstrate. The money advanced had
already been sacked and spent, and must be lost and the recruits left behind, unless
they could be freed from their debts and engagements. Accordingly, a fine was paid for
one; a judgment for another; a tavern bill for a third, and almost all had to be bought off
from some prior engagement, either real or pretended.
Mr. Hunt groaned in spirit at the incessant and unreasonable demands of these
worthies upon his purse; yet with all this outlay of funds, the number recruited was but
scanty, and many of the most desirable still held themselves aloof, and were not to be
caught by a golden bait. With these he tried another temptation. Among the recruits
who had enlisted he distributed feathers and ostrich plumes. These they put in their
hats, and thus figured about Mackinaw, assuming airs of vast importance, as
"voyageurs" in a new company, that was to eclipse the Northwest. The effect was
complete. A French Canadian is too vain and mercurial a being to withstand the finery
and ostentation of the feather. Numbers immediately pressed into the service. One
must have an ostrich plume; another, a white feather with a red end; a third, a bunch of
cock's tails. Thus all paraded about, in vainglorious style, more delighted with the
feathers in their hats than with the money in their pockets; and considering themselves
fully equal to the boastful "men of the north."
While thus recruiting the number of rank and file, Mr. Hunt was joined by a person
whom he had invited, by letter, to engage as a partner in the expedition. This was Mr.
Ramsay Crooks, a young man, a native of Scotland, who had served under the
Northwest Company, and been engaged in trading expeditions upon his individual
account, among the tribes of the Missouri. Mr. Hunt knew him personally, and had
conceived a high and merited opinion of his judgment, enterprise, and integrity; he was
rejoiced, therefore, when the latter consented to accompany him. Mr. Crooks, however,
drew from experience a picture of the dangers to which they would be subjected, and
urged the importance of going with a considerable force. In ascending the upper
Missouri they would have to pass through the country of the Sioux Indians, who had
manifested repeated hostility to the white traders, and rendered their expeditions
extremely perilous; firing upon them from the river banks as they passed beneath in
their boats, and attacking them in their encampments. Mr. Crooks himself, when
voyaging in company with another trader of the name of M'Lellan, had been interrupted
by these marauders, and had considered himself fortunate in escaping down the river
without loss of life or property, but with a total abandonment of his trading voyage.
Should they be fortunate enough to pass through the country of the Sioux without
molestation, they would have another tribe still more savage and warlike beyond, and
deadly foes of white men.
These were the Blackfeet Indians, who ranged over a wide extent of country which they
would have to traverse. Under all these circumstances, it was thought advisable to
augment the party considerably. It already exceeded the number of thirty, to which it
had originally been limited; but it was determined, on arriving at St. Louis, to increase it
to the number of sixty.
These matters being arranged, they prepared to embark; but the embarkation of a crew
of Canadian voyageurs, on a distant expedition, is not so easy a matter as might be
imagined; especially of such a set of vainglorious fellows with money in both pockets,
and cocks' tails in their hats. Like sailors, the Canadian voyageurs generally preface a
long cruise with a carouse. They have their cronies, their brothers, their cousins, their
wives, their sweethearts, all to be entertained at their expense. They feast, they fiddle,
they drink, they sing, they dance, they frolic and fight, until they are all as mad as so
many drunken Indians. The publicans are all obedience to their commands, never
hesitating to let them run up scores without limit, knowing that, when their own money is
expended, the purses of their employers must answer for the bill, or the voyage must
be delayed. Neither was it possible, at that time, to remedy the matter at Mackinaw. In
that amphibious community there was always a propensity to wrest the laws in favor of
riotous or mutinous boatmen. It was necessary, also, to keep the recruits in good
humor, seeing the novelty and danger of the service into which they were entering, and
the ease with which they might at anytime escape it by jumping into a canoe and going
Such were the scenes that beset Mr. Hunt, and gave him a foretaste of the difficulties of
his command. The little cabarets and sutlers' shops along the bay resounded with the
scraping of fiddles, with snatches of old French songs, with Indian whoops and yells,
while every plumed and feathered vagabond had his troop of loving cousins and
comrades at his heels. It was with the utmost difficulty they could be extricated from the
clutches of the publicans and the embraces of their pot companions, who followed them
to the water's edge with many a hug, a kiss on each cheek, and a maudlin benediction
in Canadian French.
It was about the 12th of August that they left Mackinaw, and pursued the usual route by
Green Bay, Fox and Wisconsin rivers, to Prairie du Chien, and thence down the
Mississippi to St. Louis, where they landed on the 3d of September.