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Banner: Pathfinders and Passageways: The Exploration of Canada About This Site
The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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Simon Fraser (1776 - 1862)

Born in Vermont in 1776 of Loyalist Scottish-Catholic parents, Simon Fraser immigrated to Canada in 1784 with his widowed mother. Fraser was a relative of Simon McTavish, the principal director of the North West Company, and entered that company as an apprentice at the age of 16. A clerk in Athabasca in 1799, he became one of the associates of the North West Company in 1801. The XY and North West companies, which amalgamated in 1804, undertook to further examine the territory traveled by Alexander Mackenzie while continuing their explorations towards the Pacific. The amalgamated company entrusted this mission to Simon Fraser. He was to re-examine the route taken by Mackenzie, continue down the river that the latter had abandoned, and verify the information Mackenzie had been given by the Native people regarding the dangers of this river. Fraser would pursue the formidable river, which bears his name today, right to its mouth.

Portrait: Simon Fraser

Before setting off, Fraser established two trading posts in 1805 that would reduce the costs of exploration by relaying supplies. The first, Rocky Mountain Portage House (not to be confused with Rocky Mountain House, established further south in 1799), was built at the end of the Peace River canyon. The second, Fort McLeod, was on Trout Lake, in Sékanais territory. The latter post was the first permanent white establishment beyond the Rockies and within the limits of present-day Canada. During the winter, James McDougall, the clerk of Fort McLeod, learned of a much bigger lake in the west and travelled to Stuart Lake in the territory of the Carrier people.

In 1806, late break-up held up Fraser's departure from Rocky Mountain Portage House until May 20. Using Mackenzie's journal as a guide, he ascended the Peace River with a crew of ten inexperienced men, some of whom fell prey to accidents or illness during the voyage. Arriving at Stuart Lake two months later, Fraser built a post there. Next, using information from Native people, he explored Stuart River, to the Nechako, which flowed into the Fraser. That year, the salmon ran late and there was famine among the Native peoples of this region so that they could not provide Fraser and his men with food. With too few trade goods and supplies, Fraser abandoned his project of surveying part of the river before winter. He returned in the fall of 1807, built Fort George (Prince George) near the mouth of the Nechako, and called this area "New Caledonia".

Coloured lithograph: Fort George

On May 28, 1808, Fraser left Fort George with twenty-three men in four canoes: John Stuart, Jules-Maurice Quesnel, nineteen other Company employees and two Native guides. Soon after leaving, the guides warned him that, down-river, the river became a string of falls and rapids. This proved to be true  --  the portages were extremely difficult, to the point that the crews risked going down the rapids in their canoes. In several spots, they had no choice as the river was bordered by high escarpments. Fraser realized that the Native peoples had been right in saying that going down this river was madness. A little above Lillooet, the members of the expedition left their canoes and the effects that they could not carry and continued the exploration on foot. The land route was almost as difficult as the waterway. "We had to pass where no human being should venture," wrote Fraser. When the river again became navigable, Fraser borrowed  --  sometimes requisitioned  --  First Nations canoes. Luckily, the two guides who accompanied him frequently went ahead to assure the Native peoples there of Fraser's peaceful intentions.

Fraser finally reached the mouth of the river, but what a disappointment! He could not see the open ocean. He visited the village of the Musqueam and reached the Gulf of Georgia to Grey Point, but Vancouver Island hid the open sea from him. Fraser could not go as far as he would have liked to because the Cowichan were hostile. The latter chased his canoes and harassed his men all the way to the vicinity of present-day Hope. Numerous canoes filled with Native people several times tried to upset Fraser's craft but they were repelled each time without loss to either side. When the Cowichan finally gave up, the men were exhausted and discouraged. Nevertheless, on August 6, they reached Fort George alive and well. Going down river had taken 36 days and the return voyage 37.


"Yet we reached our destination about 8 in the morning. [...] Here I must again acknowledge my great disappointment in not seeing the main ocean  --  having gone so near it as to be almost within view. Besides we wished very much to settle the situation by an observation for the longitude. The latitude is 49º nearly; while that of the entrance of the Columbia is 46º 20' [...] This River, therefore, is not the Columbia  --  if I had been convinced of this truth where I left my canoes, I would certainly have returned from thence."

(Fraser [1967], 39)

Like Mackenzie, Fraser had the feeling of having failed. The trip was of no immediate commercial use to the North West Company. However, he proved one point: up until that time, it was believed that the river Mackenzie had avoided was the Columbia. Fraser proved that it wasn't. He wrote, "if I had been convinced of this truth where I left my canoes, I would certainly have returned from thence."

Fraser left New Caledonia in 1809 and never returned. He continued to work in the fur trade and took part in the conflict between the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company at the Red River and at Fort William, where he was imprisoned by Lord Selkirk. In 1818, like his associates, he was acquitted of treason, conspiracy and being an accessory to murder, accusations that had been brought against him. Fraser left the fur trade in 1817 and settled in St. Andrews, Ontario, where he married and had eight children. He died there in 1862.

Fraser owes his fame to his expeditions of 1805 to 1808. Gifted with unusual physical endurance and courage, he remained calm and resolved when facing dangers and difficulties. Few exploits surpass Fraser's passage down the turbulent river that bears his name. Still, his expedition did not arouse popular interest before the centenary celebrations of it in 1908.

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