Gateway to the Classics: Growth of the British Empire by M. B. Synge
Growth of the British Empire by  M. B. Synge

The Fur‑Traders' Land

"Follow after—follow after. We have watered the root,

And the land has come to blossom that ripens the fruit.

Follow after—we are waiting, by the trails that we lost,

For the sounds of many footsteps, for the tread of a host."

— Kipling

F AR away to the north of Canada lay the vast kingdom of the old fur-traders—that "great lone land," which sleeps for more than half the year, under its coat of snow, beneath the dazzling brightness of the northern sky. Only for two or three months in summer the many streams are unbound, vegetation bursts forth, and the summer green is as intense, as was the wintry whiteness. Here the fur-traders were kings.

As long ago as 1670, a great fur company had been started in England under Prince Rupert, to trade with natives on the shores of Hudson's Bay. It was called the Hudson's Bay Company, and had trading rights over enormous tracts of territory. Throughout these vast unexplored treeless regions around the frozen Arctic Sea, wolves and bears, foxes, otters, martens, beavers, and minks roamed unmolested—save for the few Eskimo, who dwelt on the northern shores. "A skin for a skin" was the fierce motto of the Hudson's Bay Company merchants, who pursued their tasks of purchasing skins of fur from the natives.

For a long time they kept to the coast only, but growing more adventurous, they ventured inland, until on the Pacific coast, in the prairies of the Red River, on the desolate shores of Labrador, floated the red-cross flag of England, bearing the magic trading letters H.B.C. Here they built their forts; and here came the natives, dressed in fur, with their bundles of precious skins to barter to the merchant adventurers. Each skin was carefully examined by the white men, and paid for with English articles loved by the Eskimo. Thus a hatchet, a kettle, half pound of beads, or eight knives, would purchase one beaver skin, while a red coat would purchase five.

So far the merchant adventurers from England held undisputed sway over British North America. But the growth of Canada, under the British flag, brought competition. English colonists from the shores of the great lakes, began to penetrate farther and farther westward, until in 1783, the Montreal settlers founded a rival company, called the North-Western Company.

There was a strange fascination about the life of the fur-trader. It was dreary enough in those scattered forts, rising amid the wastes of snow. But each man was his own king, and the wild life of adventure suited many a restless settler from his far-off home.

"Lords of the lakes and forests," the Montreal fur-traders, with dogs and sledges, bounded merrily over the snow, until often enough they developed into exploring parties.

There was an energetic young Highlander, named Alexander Mackenzie, belonging to the North-Western Company. He started one day from Lake Athabasca and discovered the great river that now bears his name—a river second only to the Mississippi in America. He followed it with difficulty to its mouth, and looked out upon the frozen Arctic Sea. The whole country, watered by the Mackenzie river, now bears his name. A few years later, he discovered the country known to-day as British Columbia. This immense tract of territory was an unknown land, hidden behind the Rocky Mountains, when Mackenzie entered it by its natural gateway—the Peace river. Having reached the Pacific coast, he mixed some vermilion with melted grease and inscribed these words large on a face of rock: "Alexander Mackenzie from Canada by land, July 22, 1793." A few years later another pioneer adventurer from Canada, named Simon Fraser, discovered the great river that races through British Columbia, and bears his name to-day.

So the North-Western Company settlers became formidable rivals, to the old established Hudson Bay adventurers. Constant disputes took place: parties of rival traders fought out their differences with gun and hatchet amid the vast solitudes of snow: the "Red River Massacre" was one of the most notorious of these fierce combats. But at last, in 1821, the two companies adopted the wise course of uniting, and peace reigned once more.

Meanwhile the value of this great lone land, was becoming known and realised. The population of Canada was growing, men were pushing northwards and westwards, farmers from Scotland and Ireland were clearing the forests and growing wheat in quantities, until the fur-traders found themselves being pushed farther and farther northwards.

A cry of gold from the Pacific coast in 1858 brought matters to a crisis. Men who, but ten years before, had rushed to California, now made their way north to British territory. Victoria, the little capital of Vancouver's Island, suddenly awoke to find itself a busy commercial city. Across the desolate wastes of country, men struggled from Canada and all parts of the world. Up the golden Fraser river, they floated in home-made rafts and unsafe canoes in search of the precious metal. Then came the old story. Some settled form of government was necessary. The Hudson Bay Company could no longer administer the country, which England now undertook to govern under the name of British Columbia.

This was the beginning of the end. Other vast territories were ceded to England, to be included in the Dominion of Canada, and to-day, the Hudson Bay Company's trade is restricted to the rocky coast of Labrador and the desolate shores of the Arctic Sea, where colonisation is impossible.

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