Through the Eyes of Others
by John Warden
This article was first published in the Winter 2014 edition of Nature Alberta
There is a story, perhaps from the Cree at Norway House in what is now Manitoba. A group of men, voyageurs from the ‘Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson's Bay’ were standing on the shores of the river:
One white man was dressed like a woman, in a skirt of funny colour. He had whiskers growing from his belt and fancy leggings. He carried a black swan which had many legs with ribbons tied to them. The swan’s body he put under his arm upside down, then he put its head in his mouth and bit it. At the same time he pinched its neck with his fingers and squeezed the body under his arm until it made a terrible noise."
Seen through the eyes of the local Cree, this is perhaps one of the most colourful depictions of a Hudson’s Bay man ever written. Yet, who was this man and why was he abusing that bird?
You may have guessed from the fanciful description that he was a bagpiper. While his name may not be as familiar as Alexander Mackenzie or Anthony Henday, he was the official bagpiper to Sir George Simpson, the governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in Canada. His name was Colin Fraser.
Fraser accompanied Simpson on an 1828 canoe expedition from York Factory, to Norway House and across the country to Fort Langley, on the west coast. The closest we come to Fraser’s own words come from Paul Kane’s Wanderings of an Artist, where Fraser reminisces that at every stop and every fort, he piped the Governor ashore:
... much to the astonishment of the natives who supposed him to be a relation of the Great Spirit, having of course never beheld so extraordinary a looking man or such a musical instrument.
Fraser’s life was steeped in the history of the time. If you came through Fort Edmonton or travelled the Athabasca Pass anytime between 1828 and 1867, it seems likely that you would have bumped into Colin Fraser. And once you’d seen this ‘six foot highlander in Scottish kilt and flowing plume’, you didn’t forget him. But he was also surrounded by the natural history of Alberta. While we don’t have a diary or a journal of his observations, we can get a real sense of the nature of Alberta in those days, by looking through the eyes those who met him. In doing so, we pull together the individual bits and pieces that together, paint an encompassing panorama of our natural history.
Dr. Archibald McDonald travelled with Simpson and Fraser as the official scribe for the 1828 expedition. To look through their eyes, we can go to McDonald’s journal, Peace River, a canoe voyage from Hudson’s Bay to the Pacific. His observations from those early days begin to document the natural environment of the Peace Country and add to our understanding of the time and place:
17th August: We could distinctly see the Caribou Mountains at a distance, to our right. Early to-night, the Northern Lights [were] seen to very great advantage. Often a complete arch from east to west, of the most brilliant [colours] sprang up. 18th August: Breakfasted below the Caribou River, which we left on our right about noon. At three we passed Wolf Point. Made portage at six at...Mountain Fall (also called Grand Falls) [which] is a grand sheet of water, about half a mile across, and perhaps ten or fifteen feet high. 20th August: Arrived at Fort Vermilion before ten... where we [had] a sumptuous supper of hot moose steaks and potatoes. They seem to have good gardens here of potatoes and barley.
Don’t you just want to jump into a canoe and go? The Caribou Mountains, Wolf Point and a waterfall on the Peace River, to see those places in those days, must have been amazing. Yet we can still see much of it today, the river and the mountains remain there for us.
After travelling cross-country with Governor Simpson for two years, Fraser was posted to York Factory and Churchill. He returned to Alberta in the spring of 1832 where we find him amongst the vast herds of buffalo on the prairies of southern Alberta, hunting with the Piikani. Eleanor Luxton tells us that it was that same year that Fraser helped HBC Chief Trader John Edward Harriot build Peigan Post. The post was built at the junction of the Bow River and Old Fort Creek, and came to be known by the locals as Old Bow Fort. It is from the journal though of the Palliser Expedition, 36 years later that we to see the view from the post that Colin Fraser helped build:
The scenery around is mild and beautiful. Its site is at the base of the Rocky Mountains which tower above it to the height of 3,000 or 4,000 feet, the white summits of which, from a sprinkling of snow that had recently fallen, formed a pretty contrast with the dense sombre forests at their feet. The Bow River flows by in all the wildness of mountain character, foaming at intervals over ledges of rock in its valley and then rushing onwards between high banks clad with luxuriant vegetation.
Travellers today, heading west from Calgary on Highway 1 or 1A see the lay of this land. It has changed since of the days of Fraser, Harriot and Palliser. The hand of man is evident, but the mountains remain, magnificent. On Highway 1A, there are places to pull over and stop, where you can get out of your car and admire the view. It’s a place of majesty and history, a place to try and see past the rushing traffic, to the thundering hooves of bison, the sigh of the wind and perhaps, drifting across the years, the haunting notes of the pipes. Most people though, push through on the Trans Canada. Not slowing down, if they see, it’s a glance. Oh look, there’s the mountains!
From 1834 to 1850, Fraser was in charge of the HBC post at Jasper House in what is now Jasper National Park. Jasper House was an important place in those days, a way station, trading post and supply point for anyone travelling the Athabasca or Yellowhead passes.
Father Pierre Jean de Smet, was one of those people, travelling the Athabasca Pass and arriving at Jasper House in May of 1846. He spent fifteen days with Fraser and his family, time enough to get a sense of the place. His eloquent letters to his Bishop note that ‘moose, elk and reindeer were plentiful in the Athabasca valley, the reindeer feeding on a kind of white moss’. Through de Smet, we can see the land:
The upper Athabasca is, unquestionably, the most elevated part of North America. All its mountains are prodigious, and their rocky and snow-capped summits seem to lose themselves in the clouds. At this season, immense masses of snow often become loosened and roll down the mountains' sides with a terrific noise that resounds throughout these quiet solitudes like distant thunder — so irresistible is the velocity of their descent, that they frequently carry with them enormous fragments of rock, and force a passage through the dense forests which cover the base of the mountain. Every day, and often every hour, the noise of ten avalanches descending at once breaks upon the ear; on every side we see them precipitated with a frightful rapidity.
As Father de Smet was heading up the Athabasca Pass that spring, to cross over into what is now British Columbia, he met the Hudson Bay Company brigade coming down the other way. Accompanying the brigade were Lt. Henry J. Warre, and Lt. Mervin Vavasour, two British Army spies who had been on a covert military mission to Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River in Oregon. Warre’s description of descending the Athabasca Pass is worth noting:
We are obliged to be constantly crossing and re-crossing the Athabasca [Whirlpool] River – the water at times much above the knee & cold as the surrounding ice. We camped on a patch of clear ground on a Batture or open beach in the midst of a Mountain Torrent [Kane Creek] raising out of a large and very beautiful Glacier [Kane Glacier] descending from near the mountain top into the valley; clear blue Cobalt blue ice. The surrounding mountains appear to raise nearly perpendicularly, on every side of us, to an immense height, their base only, being covered in stunted pine trees. The ‘Campment de fusil’, as it is called, was certainly very beautiful.
On reaching Jasper House, Warre, an ‘amateur’ painter, made what is believed to be the first two recorded sketches of Jasper House, one of which shows Pyramid Mountain in the background and the other, Roche Miette. The finished paintings, which now reside with the Royal Ontario Museum, allow us to see and to contemplate, the Athabasca valley of those days.
Later that same year, in November of 1846, another painter, Paul Kane, travelled with Colin Fraser from Fort Edmonton to Jasper House. Painters are the masters of the long slow look and during their journey, Kane made sketches of the Athabasca Valley and Jasper House. The distinct face of Roche Miette, the Palisades, and the Boule Range can be easily identified in his paintings.
One his return trip, eastbound over the pass a year later, (06 Nov 1947), Kane stayed with Fraser at Jasper House for nine days during which time he wrote in his journal, later published as Wanderings of an Artist:
This place is completely surrounded by lofty mountains some of them close to the house, others many miles distant and is subject to violent tornadoes which sweep through the mountain gorges with terrific fury. A great number of mountain sheep had been driven down into the valleys by the intensity of the cold which had set in this winter with unusual severity. I have counted as many as five large flocks of these animals grazing in different directions from the house at one time and the Indians brought them in every day so that we fared most sumptuously. These sheep are those most commonly called the big horn. I made a sketch of a ram's head of an enormous size; his horns were similar in shape to those of our domestic ram but measured forty two inches in length. They are considerably larger than our domestic sheep, their coat somewhat resembles in texture and colour the red deer but a little darker.
There is a National Historic Site marker and plaque in Jasper National Park commemorating Jasper House. You can find it at the roadside pull-out at Disaster Point where, nearly every day during the summer high season there is a traffic jam. It’s not because of tourists wanting to read about Jasper House and Colin Fraser, but because of the big horn sheep that still congregate there in large numbers. If you do stop there though, I urge you to stand over by the cairn and look out over the Athabasca valley. Imagine the avalanches, the wind and the winter and then, consider the words of Father Lacombe describing life at Jasper House for Colin Fraser:
It is told with as much grim truth as humour, that when stationed at the lonely post of Jasper he used to take down his pipes at night and dance to their wild skirl before his own shadow on the wall.
Fraser left the mountains, glaciers and snow of Jasper House in 1850 for a posting to Fort Edmonton. There in 1856 he met the legendary hunter, guide and translator Peter Erasmus, who wrote of Fraser in his book Buffalo Days and Nights, and in doing so, provides us with a wonderful portrait of the Edmonton river valley:
Striding back and forth on the walk that surrounded the factors three storied building was a man by the name of Colin Fraser, playing a set of the bagpipes. He seemed quite indifferent to the weather which was at least 30 degrees below zero. The deep notes of his instrument echoed back from the high hills of the ice covered Saskatchewan River. It was beautiful, even to my unfamiliar ear.
I know Edmonton in the winter. I’ve stood out on the Capilano Bridge at thirty below as the northern lights danced in the sky above me and the ice groaned below me. I’ve also heard the piper at the Banff Springs Hotel, his melancholy music, echoing off the mountains, so it’s easy for me to put it all together and see through the eyes of Peter Erasmus. For me too, it’s beautiful and wonderful.
In 1862, a group of prospectors known as the ‘Overlanders’, headed for the goldfields of the Caribou Country in British Columbia. They stopped at the HBC post at Lac St. Anne and heading west the next morning, there was Colin Fraser, at the edge of the village in full Scottish highlander regalia playing his bagpipes. Eighteen miles later, the expedition stopped for the night near Lake Isle. As noted in The Overlanders' Quest for Gold, they had been followed by wolves most of the way from Lac St. Anne.
The wolves started up, howling at a gibbous moon, whining and snuffling in the bushes, so close it seemed like a single great beast ready to devour them. When they finally fell silent, other sounds from the restless forest were exaggerated in the still night air: owls hooting, and small animals stirring leaves rustling and twigs shifting.
Such was the way of the land when Viscount Milton and Dr. Walter Cheadle, both young men in their twenties, headed out across the Canadian prairies and through the mountains. They were on vacation, and as noted in Cheadle's Journal of a Trip across Canada, they stopped at the HBC post at Lac St. Anne, where they too met Colin Fraser. Cheadle recounts the details:
[Fraser] gave us lessons in tying fishing flies with worsted [yarn] and coloured silk for bodies and speckled duck’s feathers for wings. [He] assured us that Rocky Mountain trout would take them, greedily. [Fraser] told us he had been 38 years in the service [of the Hudson’s Bay Company] and that for 15 years had not been further into civilization than Edmonton. Yet he was as happy and contented as possible.
Fraser died at Lac St. Anne in 1867. He was a man of the prairies, the mountains and the rivers. Buffalo and beaver, wolves, grizzly bear, moose and caribou were part of his everyday life. Colin Fraser may not have written about our natural history, but he lived it.
Some might say that Fraser’s place in our natural history is that of best actor in a supporting role. But that’s too insignificant a title for Colin Fraser. He may not have recorded his observations, but he did something perhaps even more significant, he stayed here. The other explorers and fur traders came and then left. Fraser though, lived his life in Alberta, married and raised a family here. His descendants, and they are many, are our neighbours. He is remembered by them, and his name lingers with us through the Colin Range and Mount Colin.
Colin Fraser’s his bagpipes are displayed at the Provincial Museum in Edmonton. They are kept safe, behind glass, but if you could hold them, you would feel the very fabric of our history in your hands. No, not a supporting actor, Colin Fraser should be remembered for his lifetime achievement. He was a Hudson’s Bay man, and through the eyes of others, we see him at the very center of the stories that frame the roots of our natural history.
I finished the first draft of this essay while at our vacation rental home in Sooke B.C.. With a glass of white wine in hand I went out onto the deck and sat by the ocean, thinking of Colin Fraser who had plied the waters of nearby Puget Sound while aboard the HBC sailing ship, the Cadboro. It was fall, and the migrating salmon were jumping out in the basin. Fly- fishermen were thick on nearby Billings Spit and I wondered, were any of them using flies of silk and speckled duck feathers? Probably not, maybe those only work for trout. Then, as I sat there, in the quiet of the evening, pleased with the way this story was coming together, I heard the skirl of bagpipes drifting across the waters. It was our neighbour Paul, practicing with his own bagpipes. He couldn’t have known it, but the timing was perfect.
Cheadle, Walter. (1971), Cheadle's Journal of Trip across Canada, 1862-1863, Edmonton: M.G. Hurtig and Rutland, Vt.: C.E. Tuttle Co.
Chittenden, H.M. and Richardson, A.T., (1905), Life, letters and travels of Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, S. J, 1801-1873, Francis P. Harper, New York.
Erasmus, P. (1976), Buffalo Days and Nights: As Told to Henry Thompson. Calgary: Fifth House Publishers.
Eva Emery Dye. (1900), McLoughlin and Old Oregon A Chronicle. Chicago: A.C. McClurg,
Gallaher, B. (2002), The journey: The Overlanders' Quest for Gold. Victoria, B.C: TouchWood Editions. http://www.stalbertgazette.com/article/20130807/SAG0801/308079997/-1/sag0801/story-behind-historic-plates-the-true-gem
Hughes, Katherine. (1911), Father Lacombe: The black-robe voyageur. Toronto: William Briggs.
Kane, Paul. (1859), Wanderings of an artist among the Indians of North America from Canada to Vancouver's Island and Oregon through the Hudson's Bay Company's territory and back again. London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans and Roberts.
Leduc, Joanne (Editor), (1981), Overland from Canada to British Columbia : By Mr. Thomas McMicking, University of British Columbia Press.
Luxton, Eleanor Georgina (2008). Banff: Canada's First National Park (2 ed.). Summerthought Publishing.
Marsh, J. (2009), Culturing Wilderness in Jasper National Park: Studies in Two Centuries of Human History in the Upper Athabasca River Watershed, edited by I. S. MacLaren.
Peace River, a canoe voyage from Hudson’s Bay to Pacific, by the late Sir George Simpson (governor, hon. Hudson’s Bay Company) in 1828; journal of the late chief factor, Archibald McDonald (hon. Hudson’s Bay Company) who accompanied him, ed. Malcolm McLeod (Ottawa, 1872),
The Journals, Detailed Reports and Observations, Relative to the Exploration by Captain Palliser of that Portion of British North America Between the Western Shore of Lake Superior and the Pacific Ocean, 1863.