History of the Northeast

History of Northeastern British Columbia
Date written and author unknown.
(Added to the library collection September 8, 1976)

 The history of the Fort Nelson can be studied in four broad and overlapping periods. First would come a largely unknown period missionary contact and the inclusion of the local Indians in the treaty system of the Canadian Government. Finally comes the “opening” of Fort Nelson to easy access by the outside world through establishment of an airline and the completion of the Highway.

Prehistory: Of the long-term history of the Slave nothing is known. Presumably they entered the continent from Asia as part of the early migrations and then developed their culture-perhaps on the bedrock of an already existent culture – somewhere in Alaska. No formal archeological work has ever been attempted in the Fort Nelson area, nor in the Slave area as a whole. Casual digging in the lower Mackenzie valley has revealed no remains indicative of a culture that was every different form what exists in the area today.

The traders: Much of the early history of the Mackenzie drainage Athapaskans is bound up with the history of the fur trade. Toward the close of the eighteen-century the area was invaded by the independent traders who in 1783 formed the North West Company of Montreal, which, for almost forty years, was the bitter rival of the Hudson’s Bay Company. By the dawn of the new century trading posts were being established by these rival traders at Forts Simpson (1800) and Liard (1805). Between these years Fort Nelson must have been founded, for following 1804 Fort Nelson, according to Innis is reported to have produced seventy-two packs of fur.

The original Fort Nelson, according to Voorhis, was built by the Hudson’s Bay Company on the right band of the Fort Nelson River, a hundred miles above the river’s mouth. This would put the original site of the post approximately opposite the location of the present site. One informant (GA) reported the original Fort Nelson to have been located only twenty-five miles from the mouth of the Fort Nelson River, and at a site which today is designated on the map as Maloney’s Cabin, from the name of an American trapper who operates from there. This location is about seventy-five miles below the present position of the settlement and is also on the opposite or right bank of the river. Duchaussois states the old Fort Nelson (which, according to him, was built by the North West Company) was located on the bank of the river opposite from that which it now occupies and about halfway between the present post and Fort Liard.

In 1812, there occurred the destruction of the first Fort Nelson. Difficulty in securing supplies provoked a number of Indians to kill the factor, Alexander Henry, Jr., his wife, and family. The Indians invited the trader to come to their camp where they had “lots of meat”. They then hid along the trail and killed him from ambush. Returning to the post they killed the women and children and pillaged the establishment. The factor, four men, and several women were massacred on that occasion. Father Duchaussois presents a slightly different account of the raid. According to him a group of Slave and Bad People, after bringing the bourgeois news of having killed a number of “reindeer”, collected some money and then watched the factor’s men start for the game. After the men had left the Indians attacked and killed the factor, his wife, and children. They pillaged and burned the fort and then ambushed and killed the factor’s men as the latter returned.

Taking his gun, so as to signal for relief, he climbed into a pine tree. There 130 feet above the ground, he had to watch the waters carrying away, pell-mell, all the firewood which he had collected for the winter, and then his sled, and in fact, everything except the house itself.

Father Gourdon left Fort Nelson and went to Fort Liard. A month later, while at that place, he saw the tabernacle of St. Paul’s mission floating in the river. Returning to Fort Nelson he found that a second flood had carried away the entire mission as well as the house of the priest. It may have been after this flood that Fort Nelson was moved across the river to higher ground.

Treaty: The next chapter in the history of Fort Nelson Slave commences with the arrival of Indian agent H. A. Conroy at Fort Nelson in August 1911 to include these people among the signatories to the Dominion’s Indian Treaty Number 8. In the settlement Conroy found 140 Slave and Sekani Indians, presumably including a number who were ineligible for inclusion in the treaty.

As the result of signing this treaty the people gave up a designated tract of land in exchange for an allotment of 160 acres to each Indian. In addition the chief received a present of $32, the headman $22, and each Indian $12 at the time of treaty. Chiefs and headmen would also be supplied with a suit of clothes every third year. In addition the Dominion Government promised to provide teachers for the people as well as implements.

Modern developments: The final chapter of Fort Nelson history to date might well conclude with the arrival of the Alcan Highway into this region, thus ending the isolation of this northern area. Fort Nelson has always been difficult of access from the south. The only practical means of reaching the settlement, until the completion of the railroad to McMurray, was down the Athabasca River to Lake Chipewyan, thence down the Slave River to Great Slave Lake and across the lake into the Mackenzie River. One hundred and fifty miles northeast and Mackenzie reaches the confluence of the Liard at Fort Simpson. The course was then a hundred and fifty miles southwest to the Fort Nelson, a total distance of about six hundred miles. As a result of this distance Fort Nelson remained relatively isolated from the stream of Mackenzie valley traffic and from contact with the outside world.

In 1934-35 Grant McConachie, then president of Yukon Southern Air Transport, made charter flights to Fort Nelson. The latter year saw the beginning of mail service between Fort St. John and Fort Nelson. In 1937 this services was extended to Edmonton on the south and Whitehorse on the north. The planes continued to touch at Fort Nelson where the company built a wireless station and a float for mooring planes when the river was open. In 1942 Yukon Southern was integrated into Canadian pacific mooring the Nelson Forks and Fort Liard mail flights several times during the summer. Now planes began to land on the new airport across the river which, in 1942, was extended for joint use by the U. S. Army Air Forces, the Royal Canadian Air Force, and Canadian Pacific Airways. In 1942, the Alcan Highway was projected to serve the string of military airports stretching between Fort St. John and Alaska and was ready for traffic in the winter of 1942-43. The changes which the highway and its links to the outside world will introduce into the culture of the Fort Nelson Slave are matters for the future.

From now until 1865, according to Voorhis, the post was abandoned. According to Duchaussois, the post was rebuilt in 1867. The second Fort Nelson was located on the easily flooded point at the foot of the road now leading from Fort Nelson airport to the road now leading from Fort Nelson airport to the river. A flood is said to have destroyed the second Fort Nelson, perhaps in 1890, after which the post was reestablished at this present site on the east bank of the Fort Nelson River. The Hudson’s Bay Company manager still retains garden space on the point across the river where, in July 1943, over twenty feet of flood water destroyed all the growing plants.

For many years the present Fort Nelson served an area stretching from the Liard to about one hundred miles north of Fort St. John. Sekani and Slave met here to camp and trade together, while across the river were the isolated camps of the much feared Grand Lakers. During most of the period the Hudson’s Bay Company was the only trading firm operating in Fort Nelson.

The missionaries: The third chapter of the history of Fort Nelson area began with the arrival of the missionaries. These were the French Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the pioneer missionaries of the Canadian North. The first group of the Oblates arrived in Canada in 1845. In 1847, Father Tache became the first Oblate to enter the Athabascan area. He visited Fort Chipewyan where a Catholic mission was established in 1851. In

1857 the missionaries, operating from Fort Chipewyan, tavelled to the western Slave area and succeeded in reading Fort Simpson. A Catholic mission was established at Fort Liard in 1867. In 1868, one year after the rebuilding of Fort Nelson, Father (later Bishop) Grouard, six years after his arrival from France and at the age of twenty-two, established the Mission of St. Paul at Fort Nelson. Here Father Grouard ministered to Slave and Sekani Indians. No permanent missionary was left in charge of St. Paul’s mission. In succeeding years the mission came to be visited by Fathers Brochu, Vacher, Novel de Krangue, and others. In the fall of 1878 the rise of native “prophet”caused Father Lecomte to come to Fort Nelson a year after his ordination. This man was to spend ten years residence in the settlement, where he composed a Slave dictionary “still highly valued” It was a copy of this dictionary that the writer was permitted to examine and borrow. Father Lecomte is said to have accompanied himself on a guitar as he sang hymns in English, French, and Slave. In 1888, a severe famine periled the Europeans in Fort Nelson. The Hudson’s Bay Company trader, depending on the Indians for food, told the missionary that starvation was certain if the native did not soon return with meat. The bourgeois, his employees, and servants are reported to have gone out daily hunting rabbits and partridges; other people were reduced to eating rabbit’s paws and bear skins. Eventually some Indians returned, but they themselves were starving and Father Lecomte shard his own precious store of pemmican with them. “Being unable to procure any more rabbits we made ourselves large snowshoes and tried for some elk.” Finally a servant of the priest killed an “original” and the famine was broken. The main body of Indians returned on May 24 with a little dry meat, but hardly any fur, having been forced to eat their furs during the famine period.