Simon Fraser--Explorer
by Barbara Rogers - Greater Vancouver Book

Simon Fraser could be called the founding father of British Columbia because he built the first colonial trading posts west of the Rockies, enabling the British Crown to eventually claim the land. He is, however, best known for his daring exploration of the great river which bears his name.

Descended from a noble Scottish Highland family, the Lovat Frasers, he was the youngest son of Simon Fraser of Culbokie and Isabel Grant of Duldreggan. In September 1773 the family emigrated to America on the SS Pearl and settled in Albany, New York. Simon Jr. was born in the hamlet of Mapleton, Hoosick Township on May 20, 1776, the very eve of the American Revolution. Simon's Loyalist father was captured at the Battle of Bennington and died a prisoner in Albany jail. His widowed mother fled with her family to Canada in 1784.

Uncle John Fraser, a Montreal judge, took charge of Simon's education and when the boy turned 16 secured him a clerical position with the famous North West Company. In 1793 Simon was sent to the Athabascan wilderness to learn his trade at the isolated Peace River Nor'Wester posts. By 1802 he was appointed one of the company's youngest partners. In 1805 he was chosen for the important role of expanding the company's trade to the land beyond the Rockies and to explore the river (then believed to be the Columbia) to its mouth. Between 1805 and 1807 he established the first four forts west of the Rockies at McLeod, Stuart and Fraser Lakes and Fort George. He named this new wilderness domain New Caledonia.

On May 22, 1808, Simon Fraser began the expedition which has been described as one of the greatest explorations in North AmericaCthe Fraser River with its whirlpools, treacherous currents and perilous rapids. He set off from Stuart Lake with two clerks, John Stuart and Jules Quesnel, 19 voyageurs and two Indian guides. Fraser's personal qualities of courage, determination, leadership and remarkable insight into human nature would all be tested during the greatest adventure of his life.

The group encountered thousands of First Nations peoples who had never before seen Europeans. Without their hospitality, assistance and guidance the expedition would have been impossible, a fact frequently acknowledged by the explorer. He learned to announce his arrival and intentions by always sending ambassadors ahead to inform the next village.

The river, even more dangerous in the June freshet, presented insurmountable challenges and, once embarked, the towering precipices made it impossible to land. After surviving numerous near drownings and upset canoes even the determined Fraser was, at last, convinced that it was impossible to continue by water.

Reluctantly, he cached the canoes near Leon Creek and continued on foot which brought new trials. At the Black Canyon they were forced to follow Indian guides as they climbed forbidding cliffs using intricate scaffolds, bridges and ladders hundreds of feet above the swirling water. One missed step would be their last. Entering the Fraser Valley their greatest threat would be man. Their sojourn in the Fraser Valley was brief, from June 28 to July 8, but their lives were in constant danger. Without canoes and with few provisions, Fraser was forced to rely on the natives for both. His excitement grew when he learned that the ocean was within a day's travel.

Problems arose at an unidentified "mystery" village near present-day Fort Langley where Fraser was amazed at the size of a communal cedar-plank house 195 metres long and 15 metres broad. At first all was well. The group was hospitably received and the chief promised to lend them his large canoe for the next day's dash to the ocean. The residents were fascinated by the strange visitors' pale skins and blue and grey eyes. They called them Sky People. When the wondrous trade goods were spread out to dry, the young braves watched with avaricious eyes. During the night a few braves helped themselves.

July 2 Should have been Fraser's day of triumph. Instead it was a long trying day in which they barely escaped with their lives. The thefts discovered, the culprits were kicked which, though considered an appropriate punishment by Europeans of that era, to the natives was a deadly insult, They resolved to kill the Sky People. The chief refused to lend his canoe. Fraser was aghast. The whole success of his mission depended on obtaining transportation. While he used all his persuasive powers, an almost comical tug-of-war rook place for the canoe. Eventually the chief relented and, with some of his men, accompanied Fraser.

At the Kwantlen summer village of Kikait, opposite present day New Westminster, Fraser learned the Kwantlens were at war with the coastal Musqueams. The chief's followers refused to let him embark. Fraser was forced to commandeer the canoe and leave without a guide. Worse, he was unable to honor the native protocol of announcing his arrival and purpose. Consequently, when they arrived at Musqueam they were considered enemies. Villagers ran to fetch their warriors. Curiosity overcoming caution Fraser went ashore to examine a huge community house 457 metres in length. Warned to return to their canoe, they found it abandoned high and dry by the ebbing tide. Their armed Kwantlen pursuers, seeing the group's predicament, closed in, joined by the Musqueam warriors who "began to make their appearance from every direction howling like so many wolves, brandishing their war clubs." The crew desperately dragged their canoe to deep water, threatening their opponents with their firearms. Unable to continue they were forced to turn back up the river.

They paddled at great speed arriving at dawn at the "mystery" village, where they hoped to obtain provisions. The chief refused and demanded the return of his canoe. Fraser reluctantly decided to head back to New Caledonia. Their Kwantlen pursuers then arrived and encouraged the villagers to pillage the visitor's goods. The next few minutes were chaotic. Fraser pretended to be in a great rage, which restored order but once again they were obliged to take the canoe by force, leaving a blanket as payment. The chase was on! The day was to end in even greater disappointment, for when observations were taken, Fraser realized that the river they were on was not the Columbia. All their efforts had been in vain!

But their immediate problem was to extricate themselves from their perilous situation. Fraser's crew paddled all night hoping to beat their pursuers to the next village in order to secure badly needed provisions. However, the chief soon arrived to demand his canoe. The natives became aggressive and violent. The young explorer now found himself in a similar situation to that of Captain Cook in Hawaii, where the outcome was fatal to the great navigator. Fraser described their predicament in the formal language of the day: "It was then, that our situation might really be considered as critical. Placed upon a small sandy Island, few in number without canoes, without provisions, and surrounded by upwards of 700 barbarians. However, our resolution did not forsake us." Fraser's men were forced to threaten the hostile natives with their guns until they could embark. The chase resumed. For the next two days other, previously friendly riverside villagers, stirred up by their tormenters, joined in the pursuit.

July 6 was yet another trying day. Somewhere between Hope and Yale they came to a large camp of hostile, armed Indians. The natives tried to seize the canoe. In the melee, Fraser's canoe was caught in a strong current which carried the men down some rapids.

With heroic exertions the skillful voyageurs managed to land at the foot of a large hill. Stuart and some of the crew immediately jumped ashore to set up a defence. Their pursuers withdrew but kept watch. By now the crew were half-starved, and exhausted by the continuous paddling and lack of sleep. Traumatized by the non-stop, hostile harassment, some of them refused to re-embark. Almost hysterical with fear they threatened to disperse overland rather than be killed on the water. Fraser jumped ashore to reason with the mutinous crew. In turn he remonstrated, pleaded, threatened, endeavouring to show them the folly of their plan. Eventually, he appealed to their mutual spiritual belief and succeeded in getting everyone to shake hands and take an oath of loyalty: "I solemnly swear before Almighty God that I shall sooner perish than forsake in distress any of our crew during the present voyage." This brief ceremony over, Fraser had everyone change into their best apparel. The Indians were astonished to see their prey in such good spirits, noisily laughing and singing as they paddled away from the Lower Mainland. Awed by this unusual behavior the non-plussed pursuers retreated downriver.

Simon Fraser spent 10 more gruelling years in the fur trade before finally retiring in l818. He settled on family land in St. Andrews West, near Cornwall, Ontario, where he farmed and operated mills. On June 7, 1820, he married Catherine MacDonell of Leek and they raised five sons and three daughters. Together for 42 years, they died within hours of each other. Simon on August 18, 1862, and Catherine a few hours later on August 13. They were buried in the same grave in the small Catholic cemetery at St. Andrews West.

Over a century after his death, a new Vancouver university searched for a suitable name. Since the Fraser River could be seen from the Burnaby Mountain site, the name "Simon Fraser University" was chosen. At the opening ceremonies, on September 9, 1965, while his kinsman, Lord Lovat, officiated, Simon's second great-grandson, Donald Fraser of Fargo, North Dakota, beamed proudly from the audience.

Published by: The Linkman Press

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