Yellowknife’s First…Explorers

A 19th century map of the NWT

Historian Ryan Silke has brought us stories of Yellowknife’s first rocks and first inhabitants. In this third installment of his series, he explores the first European to travel across the mainland Arctic – or at least the first to write about it.

The experiences of the Dene, who discovered and explored what we now call the Northwest Territories thousands of years ago in the hunt for animals, plants, materials, and knowledge of the land, is preserved in the rich oral history passed down from their descendants. The arrival of Europeans in the North, on the other hand, comes to us through the written accounts of adventurous men on the hunt to please their Imperialist bosses. An incredible expedition brought the first of these strangers, Samuel Hearne, near to present day Yellowknife in 1771.

The Fur Trade

Exploration of Western Canada was driven by the pursuit of natural resources. With a swift mark of penmanship on parchment in 1670, the British royalty decreed that ownership of all the land draining into Hudson’s Bay be granted to The Hudson’s Bay Company. It became known as Rupert’s Land.

The HBC acted as a defacto government on behalf of the British Crown while collecting animal furs for shipment to eastern markets. To accomplish this task, the company made pacts with aboriginal people. To the southwest of Hudson’s Bay were the Algonquian-speaking Cree; to the northwest were the Chipewyan Dene, an Athapaskan linguistic people. The influence of European material goods spread quickly, through indirect trade using aboriginal middlemen who brought furs from distant parts of the North.

Though crisscrossed with ancient trails and place names, the Canadian northwest was a blank spot on European paper maps. Details shared by aboriginal people allowed cartographers to place rough lines denoting major waterways and blobs where great lakes might be found. The Chipewyan also shared stories about rich copper mines in the north at Neetha-San-Dazey, “the far off metal river.” It was mined by a people that the Europeans coined the Copper Indians, cousins of Chipewyans who met the migration of caribou herds deep into the Arctic. At the metal river, they picked at the exposure of copper to make tools.




Hearne’s Expedition

In 1769, encouraged by rumours of rich minerals, the HBC decided to learn more about the country to the north. It asked 24-year-old ship’s mate Samuel Hearne to lead an overland expedition from Hudson’s Bay. Of all the men, Hearne was most qualified, having navigation experience from his days with the British Navy, and a natural talent for drawing and cartography. His first two attempts to cross the continent were a dismal failure. His third, successful feat was due entirely to having Chipewyan chief Matonabbee as pro-

tector and guide.

Hearne was fortunate to gain his friendship and trust.

Matonabbee was born at Prince of Wales Fort on Hudson’s Bay and commanded great English and diplomatic skills of considerable merit. Using this status, he bolstered the position of his tribe in the fur trade and maintained peace with rival Cree tribes. Hearne described him as courageous, kind, and sensible. He writes: “…his benevolence and universal humanity to all the human race, according to his abilities and manner of life, could not be exceeded by the most illustrious personage now on record.” Matonabbee opted to travel with his large family in support of Hearne’s mission. The men navigated and hunted, while the women prepared food, sewed, and carried the heavy loads, a division of labour that is chauvinistic by today’s standards but ensured efficiency in mobile societies.

The expedition left the fort in December 1770. Samuel Hearne followed the lead of his Dene guides – in what he wore, how he traveled, what he ate. He understood that his life was in the hands of a capable Arctic people. Still the troupe faced feast or famine principles of the North. Days went by when no caribou could be shot and no fish caught. On the tundra, where no trees grew, and cold rains would soak the mosses they relied on for making fires, Hearne learned to eat raw meat with the others.

The Copper People

Along the way, Samuel Hearne met the T’satsąot’ınę, whom he called Copper Indians. Culminating in a great feast of dry meat and fat, the Copper people proclaimed their eagerness to join Hearne. They reached the Arctic coast in July 1771 where Hearne believed his were the first European eyes to see this ocean. Near the mouth of the Coppermine River, they came across a camp of Inuit families and a bloody battle took place. It was a slaughter and plunder, a tragic event in the eyes of Hearne who could do little but observe as the Inuit were killed.

And the copper that he was tasked to find was hardly the thing of lore. Hearne was no expert in judging the value of rocks or their geology, but his description of “jumbles of rock and gravel” speaks of disappointment. Having traveled so far was an achievement in itself. Still, Hearne must have felt regret that the Coppermine River did not live up to its name. On the return trek, Hearne and Matonabbee followed what we now call the Beaulieu River (90 km east of Yellowknife) back to Great Slave Lake, arriving home on Hudson’s Bay in June 1772 after one and a half years.

Hearne’s expedition proved of little worth to the HBC. The fantastic copper was a fable, and the fur resources of the tundra were negligible. To the ethnographer, Hearne’s written account of the Dene is priceless. The T’satsąot’ınę are the ancestors of the people who now call themselves the Yellowknives Dene. His published journal was the first European description of their culture and customs. Hearne respected the independence that the northern Dene enjoyed, and thought them happier than the southern tribes that were entwined with the fur trade. How long, he pondered, could the Copper people remain so?

None of Hearne’s ethnographic ideals meant much as the HBC strategic pursuit of fur continued. The destruction of their forts on Hudson’s Bay by the French Navy in 1782 disrupted HBC hegemony and marked a transitioning of power and personalities in the fur trade. Samuel Hearne was taken prisoner by the French and eventually returned to England to live out his days. Many Chipewyan subsequently died of disease and in Hearne’s final pages, he sadly records the death of Matonabbee and his family soon after the fall of Prince of Wales Fort.

The HBC was one of many business interests asserting influence in Western Canada. Independent American, British, French, and Scottish traders competed with the HBC, and in the 1780s they became organized to the point where they could dispatch Canadian voyageurs deeper into the north-

west and make new alliances with aboriginal groups along the way. Soon they crossed over from Rupert’s Land into the Mackenzie River watershed. The fur trade was about to enter Yellowknife Bay on Great Slave Lake.

To be continued…

Ryan Silke is a Yellowknife historian.


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