Canada 150: Simon Fraser journeyed the mighty river that bears his name


To mark Canada’s 150th birthday, we are counting down to Canada Day with profiles of 150 noteworthy British Columbians.

European explorers left names on landmarks, but few spent more than a few months here while in transit. But Simon Fraser spent a decade setting up a commercial network that was in place half a century before British Columbia was even conceptualized.

Fraser’s life traces the geopolitical formation of the North America we now inhabit. He was born May 20, 1776 (before the United States existed) at a rural homestead. Both New York and New Hampshire claimed it. He was the son of highlanders who left Scotland in 1773. His father was a loyalist, and died a prisoner of war. His mother fled with her children to Montreal in 1784. After some brief schooling, he was apprenticed to the North West Company in the western fur trade.

In 1805, Fraser led an expedition up the Peace River and established Fort McLeod, the first permanent European settlement in B.C. west of the Rocky Mountains. A year later, he travelled west to Stuart Lake and founded Fort St. James, then Fort Fraser, yet further west, and in 1807 built Fort George at the site of present day Prince George. Then he launched the venture for which he is most famous.

On May 28, 1808, he began exploration of the great river that now bears his name. Sir Alexander Mackenzie had journeyed downstream as far as present-day Quesnel before taking the advice of First Nations that the river became impassable, turning west to follow the Blackwater River and grease trails. Mackenzie became the first European to reach the Pacific Ocean by an overland route.

Fraser, in four bark canoes, pressed south. He encountered and established amicable trading relations with numerous First Nations on the journey and relied on their goodwill to negotiate desperate rapids, find life-saving portages, borrow canoes and replenish supplies. Reaching tidewater, he was menaced by Musqueam warriors, but chose to avoid a fight and turned around.

He completed the journey in 73 days without losing a man or engaging in conflict with any people he met. Fraser retired from the fur trade in 1818, settled in Ontario where he lived as a farmer and ran a sawmill, married Catherine Macdonnell in 1820 and had eight children. He died Aug. 18, 1862, one day before his wife. Fraser’s lively, detailed and open-minded account of the great trek and the wonders he observed is a classic of B.C. literature.

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