Voyageurs! Les Canadiens des bateux! Their rhythmic chants fill the air as the loaded canoes head again for the north-west. Patrick Small, a veteran of the fur trade, sees the vision of tomorrow. The union of the "free traders" will end bitter strife between Canadians so that the English can be stopped and pushed out from the inland positions. The August warmth drew the blackflies and mosquitoes out to harass the weary paddlers. Still, better to be a free man than be chained to a house and village and farm. Vive les sauvages!
Group of Nine
(Photograph courtesy of Fred Darbyshire.)
So it was in early fall of 1784, that Patrick Small took up residence in the Frobisher Fort. Seeing that only minor work had to be done to make ready the buildings, Patrick looked forward to the days to come. Little journeys to the camps of the Chipewyans and Crees left Patrick feeling the absence of a help-mate and wife. Then to his surprise and glad delight, he found one of these beautiful women who would come with him as a mate. The long winter would not be empty any longer.
As is the general rule in this land, marriage gives not only a wife, but also a whole community. Both sides react in brotherly fashion, the trader in generous benevolence and the band of his wife, in loyalty to the trader in trading and other affairs of survival. Patrick Small not only received a wife, he also secured the trade of her tribe.
Again, summer came to Manitou's land. All of the people spread across the land in search of food and free moments with Manitou's earth. The hunt is soon on. The winter to come needs the thought and work of today. In small parties, the canoes sail off to lakes, rivers and streams that have always been kind to the people. Often, a moose would offer his life and his body to help his brother to be free of hunger and well clothed. His drying flesh was preserved for the cold days of winter silence. All must share together in the circle of Manitou's world.
September 1st, 1785, there was born unto Patrick Small and his unknown wife, a girl child. Perhaps because of some remembrances of a home in a different land, Patrick named her Charlotte. The house would now learn to live with excitement, laughter and tears that a child can give. Sakitawak has now known the union of two peoples. Already, a "new nation" is in the making. What more could happen to give life an edge of interest? A child had given the post a new appearance. And now, there comes a stranger.
That fall of 1785, a brigade of canoes arrived at this post on Lake Ile-a-la-Crosse.
Alexander MacKenzie, the party leader, had come to set up a post in opposition to Patrick Small. Hurriedly, he set his men to work at the construction. He then assessed his competitor and knew that there would be no easy task in obtaining furs from under the practiced eye of Patrick Small. Alexander MacKenzie of the XY Company, made sure that he was not going to fail in this venture.
The winter passed without mishap to anyone, and again summer drew the canoes to the maze of rivers and lakes. The Grand Portage called the traders once more. Goods assembled from Montreal for each outlying post, and furs were sent packing to the great houses of the capitalists of Montreal and London. New faces came to try their luck in this northland, and some left to return no more.For another year Patrick Small was to be opposed by Alexander MacKenzie at Ile-a-la-Crosse. Alexander's cousin Roderick, was sent to oppose McGillivary just up river at Lac des Serpents (Snake Lake, now called Pinehouse). Indeed, the country was beginning to appear even crowded. But, there was room for one more, a second girl child was born to Patrick and his wife. They named her Nancy.
Grandmother and Child
(Photograph Courtesy of Rose Daigneault.)
Alexander MacKenzie bent his quill and ink into busy service this year, trying to guide cousin Roderick and other outpost traders of his XY Company. Alexander's letters give impressions of the Cree and Chipewyan peoples to young Roderick. On September 22nd, 1786 he writes:
"I met the bearer and three other Chipewyans here last night - made them presents and they promised to go and find you all winter. You will require to be generous with them. They are much afraid of the Crees. You will see Le Petit Boeuf - he is very troublesome in liquor - then be on your guard - he is an excellent hunter - try to retain him."
A second letter, soon after this, tells Roderick of general news, mostly about trials of tough competition. Mention is made of the general unwilling attitude of the Cree people to trade with him rather than Patrick Small.
"There are about ten Crees at the other fort - all family connections - none of them come near us - I have no one that can make raquettes (snowshoes) - I do not know what to do without that article - See what it is to be without women."
With trade a hardship on the XY Company, it was only with relief that eventually the season came to a close with the approach of summer. In preparation for the annual brigàde to the Grand Portage, the Chiefs of the NW Company and XY Company called their workers into Ile-a-la-Crosse. Patrick Small's trader at Lac Des Serpents, who opposed Roderick MacKenzie was William McGillivray. Both of these young men had abandoned traditional animosity of competitors, and had spent the winter in very friendly relations. Their return to headquarters was a pleasant spectacle to the surprised district chiefs and native peoples.
"In the spring, after the trade was over, my neighbour and I on comparing notes, agreed to travel in company to Ile-a-la-Crosse our Headquarters - where our canoes arrived side by side - the crews singing in concert - notwithstanding the surprise this chorus would have caused among the natives, we were both cordially received at the water side by our respective Employers and what is more Mr. McGillivray and I lived on friendly terms ever after."
Canoes were readied, and the two parties were off to the Grand Portage. Roderick was left to care for the XY Company's concerns at Ile-a-la-Crosse for the summer, and Mr. LeSieur was left by Patrick Small, to care for the NW Company's business. Soon after their departure, the Athabasca brigade of the XY Company reached Ile-a-la-Crosse with the news of the death of Mr. Ross (Chief Trader at the Athabasca region) by Peter Pond's men. Roderick immediately set off to bring this terrible news to his employers meeting at the Grand Portage. Ill luck found him in a canoe that had a guide "knowing little or nothing of the route", so, the two managed to lose their way as often as was possible. Eventually, Roderick reached the Portage to give his news. Roderick relates in his "Memoirs" that
"the proprietors of our concern lost no time in giving due communication of the misfortune to those of the other concern -meetings upon meetings immediately took place and the result was the union of the two companies"
That summer of 1787, saw a change to strengthen even more the NW Company. Gone was the last of the internal quarreling of petty Canadian pedlars. In its stead, stood a company which could and would dominate the fur-bearing northlands.
Patrick Small returned to Ile-a-la-Crosse, and took with him as assistant, young Roderick MacKenzie. Alexander MacKenzie was posted to the Athabasca, from where he was to make his fame, upon discovery and mapping, of the mighty MacKenzie River.
Life in Ile-a-la-Crosse again assumed the peaceful and productive occupation of securing what the land had to offer. Families prospered and grew with marriage between cultures the rule of survival. Many travelers lodged within the dwellings of traders and trappers alike. Voyageurs spent merry evenings recounting brave and daring deeds to new-found relatives and to their young and growing families. Stories of Canada and the great cities of Montreal, Quebec, and Trois Rivieres, enchanted the wanderers who had adopted the Frenchman as son-in-law and brother-in-law.
In the autumn of 1790, a party led by Peter Fidler, Malcolm Ross, and Phillip Turnor, landed at Ile-a-la-Crosse. These men turned to Patrick Small for assistance in their need. They were low on provisions, several of them were suffering from injuries, and low spirited. Patrick allowed them the use of two houses. Thankfully they made camp and allowed themselves the opportunity to regard their new home for the coming winter. The houses in the yard of the trading post were built where today, nearly two hundred years later, the Roman Catholic Mission now stands. The three, being employees of the Hudson's Bay Company, saw the country and location for what it really was; the heart of the inland fur trade.
The winter passed with low provisions plaguing all at the post. Willingly, Patrick gave what he could to the Hudson's Bay men. Food, meat and net thread passed into their hands. On New Year's Day, Malcolm Ross notes:
"Had it not been for Mr. Small, we should not have been able to be here last fall."Human kindness had once again risen above the petty differences of men in rivalry".
Patrick Small, having spent seven seasons in the post at Ile-a-la-Crosse, retired from the fur trade and left the North-West. Knowing the ridicule and ill treatment awaiting his wife and children in the land of the "White" man, he left alone. Charlotte, Nancy and their mother, were to remain at the post on a pension to ensure their survival against starvation and great want. So often were these trusting women abandoned with children to care for.
Soon after Patrick's departure, William Mcgillivray took over as chief trader. A journal was kept by Mr. McGillvray which shows the daily business of the fur trade. He notes that the local people were in the main part, Cree people. The year was a poor one. Fish became elusive and refused to be caught. The morale of all in the north sank. Trapping was quite unproductive in comparison to other years, most likely because hunger and want gave little ambition to work the traplines. William notes to his friend, Roderick MacKenzie, who is now at the Athabasca post in a letter dated February 28, 1792, the problems plaguing him at Ile-A-La-Crossse. His disappointment causes him to lament:
"In short there never were such poor appearances - everything is going wrong - and it may be a matter of surprise to many how the English River has dwindled away."
Mr and Mrs. Gerard at Fort Black
(Photograph Courtesy of Mr. McCallum and Ms. Merasty)
So reads the records of the North West Company at Sakitawak. Openly, they admit to the extensive trade with rum. Many times refusing to trade in necessary goods with the Cree and Chipewyans when their trapping efforts had yielded little, they would give only rum and a "severe scolding", and wait until next season. Some of these "White" men honoured their wives and children and remained. Most left with their accumulated fortunes, to wed again in the lands of their birth. They left behind them, young men and women, that in their frustration and confusion, would war with their father's brothers in search for a homeland and identity. Neither "White" nor "Indian", they had to shape the world anew to find the place, a task that has yet to be completed.
A home? What belonged to them of this land? Looking around, these children knew that this meeting place of Sakitawak, the place of their birth, was their home. This settlement of Ile-a-la-Crosse survived with their births and increased. For the rest, they could only share with the people of their parents.