NAHA Header


An Early Norwegian Fur Trader of the Canadian Northwest
By Hjalmar R. Holand (Volume V: Page 1)

In the year 1819 Captain John Franklin was commissioned by the British government to fit out an expedition for the purpose of exploringthe arctic coast of North America. Nothing was known of the vast region which lies between the mouth of the Coppermine River and the northern parts of Hudson Bay, and the principal purpose of this expedition was to explore the polar coast line east from the Coppermine as far as possible.

Captain Franklin left England in the spring of that year, and when winter came he had reached a Hudson Bay post far up on the Saskatchewan River. The next summer he pushed on and eventually reached Great Slave Lake. But here he met an unexpected obstacle. Not far beyond to the north lay the land of the Eskimos -- a region of mystery and terror. No one was found who had penetrated very far into it; and his French-Canadian boatmen, hunters, and interpreters, as well as the local Indians all as one man refused to venture into this dark and gloomy land -- they prized their lives more than the increased pay that the commander offered them.

In this dilemma Akaitcho, a prominent chief of a distant tribe of Indians, appeared and said that he and his best men would accompany the expedition to the Arctic Sea upon the sole but absolute condition that Franklin would also obtain the services of Willard Ferdinand Wentzel, the manager of a trading post near by, who could speak their language and in whom they had the utmost confidence. Captain Franklin immediately applied to Wentzel for his aid and it was granted. So potent was the reputation of this unknown man of the North that it even restored the courage of the French-Canadian voyageurs and they also agreed to proceed on the same condition. With Wentzel as a sort of pilot and providence the expedition proceeded painfully onward to the Arctic Sea. {1}

This man whom circumstances for a time had appointed doorkeeper to the Canadian arctics was a Norwegian. In a brief biographical sketch of him Masson says: "Mr. Wentzel was a Norwegian" and, furthermore, Wentzel in one of his letters speaks of himself as a Norwegian. {2} The date of his birth and his birthplace are unknown, but he must have been in his twenties in 1799 when he first appeared on the outermost Canadian frontier. Twenty-seven years he spent in that desolate region; and he retired, apparently in good vigor, in 1826. He was therefore probably the first Norwegian resident in Canada.

During all these years Wentzel was a clerk in the employ of the Northwest Company. These "clerks" were local managers of the fur company's stations and Wentzel's field of operations was far out in the Athabasca and MacKenzie River region. Under him he had a few assistants, voyageurs, and hunters, while over him was the district factor. The "factors" were partners and proprietors of the company.

Wentzel also had fond expectations of being promoted to the noble company of proprietors, but in this he was disappointed. The proprietors of the Northwest Company were almost wholly made up of a more or less related ring of thrifty Scotchmen, and as Wentzel not only lacked all family influence but moreover was a "foreigner," his deserts went unrewarded, much though his services were appreciated. Ross Clark, an eminent fur trader, mentions Wentzel in this connection in his entertaining volume Adventures on the Columbia River:

Wentzel had obtained a thorough knowledge of the manners, customs and language of the natives of the Athabasca region. He was an active, enterprising trader, -- but having no family connections to place his claims in the prominent point of view which they ought to occupy, and being moreover of an honest, unbending disposition, his name was struck out of the honor list of favorite clerks intended for proprietors and he had the vexation to see many young men promoted over his head, several of whom had never slept a night with a hungry stomach or seen a shot fired in anger. Disgust followed disappointment and he was now [in 1813] proceeding to Canada [Montreal],determined, if justice were not rendered him by the directors, to quit the service of the Company forever. {3}

Wentzel's hopes were again disappointed, but he was partially placated by many assurances of esteem and was persuaded to return to his remote post by being promised the highest salary paid to any clerk -- two hundred pounds per annum.

Masson gives another reason why Wentzel was not given a partnership. In his biographical sketch which precedes Wentzel's printed letters, he describes the fur trader as follows:

He was a man of small stature, very unhandsome, but highly intelligent and of a jovial, keen, but sarcastic turn of mind; quick at finding out people's weak points and foibles, and taking great delight in mimicking them. This disposition of his deprived him of the kindly support of many who might doubtless have helped him on, and contributed possibly to prevent his promotion in the service of the Company. {4}

This seems, however, an unconvincing explanation, for Wentzel's caustic wit disporting itself for the edification of the voyageurs and Indians who gathered in his log cabin could hardly have been so pregnant as to disturb the deliberations of the board of directors two thousand miles away.

And so, because Wentzel was a poor and friendless man in a tribe of strangers, his deserts went unrewarded and he returned to his lonely cabin on the outermost edge of an inhospitable wilderness. No post could be more desolate or dangerous than the one he occupied. With only three or four Frenchmen and half-breeds he was left to the precarious mercy of the Indians from one year to another. Only once a year when the annual supply train came to deliver goods and take the peltries did he hear any news from the outside world. But the two thousand-mile canoe journey from Hudson Bay to Great Slave Lake was beset with innumerable difficulties and dependent on fickle weather conditions. Frequently therefore the toiling boatmen arrived with only half of the supplies or failed altogether to appear. Partly on account of this the station depended principally upon the Indians for food supplies. Often the Indians were unable to provide game enough for themselves, and then hunger and starvation was the lot of Wentzel and his men. In a letter dated April 30, 1811, he briefly describes one of these periods of starvation: {5}

This last winter has been the most melancholy and most disastrous that could ever have befallen to any one single man to support without becoming torpidly stupid or totally senseless. Our distress and sufferings have been so great, that, of four Christians who were left at this establishment last Fall, I am the only survivor, and in a state more easily conceived than described, when I inform you that, from the 13th of December 1810 to the 12th January, we knew, nor saw any kind of meat but dressed moose deer skins and green parchment skins. At this date we received only seven plues {6} of fresh meat and were upon this little supply no less than eight mouths, of course it was but two meals.

From that period to the 11th of March, we lived upon nothing else but dried beaver skins; our number was then increased to thirteen, and fifteen during the space of 22 days. We destroyed in order to keep ourselves alive upward of three hundred beaver skins besides a few lynx and otter skins. Since that time we have a meal now and then; at intervals we are still two or three days without anything. All my men are dead of starvation . . . .

I am unable to describe my own position; all my Indians have starved more or less; from one small band only, I received news yesterday evening that five were dead of hunger; but of the majority of the Natives, I have not heard of since the month of November, they were already at that time gnawing the clothing they had upon themselves.

Hares have totally failed throughout all parts of the country and larger cattle have been uncommonly scarce at this place in particular, and the cold has been, this winter, the severest I have ever known. The ice on the Grand River [the MacKenzie] is no less than four and a half to five feet thick and at this late date none of the snow has yet disappeared in the woods.

But this letter is exceptional as Wentzel seldom refers to his tribulations and sufferings in his letters, but mostly deals with questions and conditions of public interest. In Masson's Les Bourgeois are printed fifteen of his letters covering about eighty large printed pages and written between 1807 and 1824. Nearly all these letters, remarkable for their excellence of style and clear thought, are addressed to Roderick MacKenzie. {7} That gentleman at one time conceived the idea of writing a history of the American Northwest. In order to get reliable information he addressed letters of inquiry to a number of factors and clerks. The reply from Wentzel is a lengthy epistle, a monograph of ten thousand words. It contains a description of the country, its waterways, mountains, minerals, fauna, flora, and climate. It also describes the Indians' mode of life, their customs, religion, character, government, habitations, food, hunting, and warfare. Finally it contains a vocabulary of three hundred Indian words. {8} It is dated March 27, 1807, and is a very valuable treatise on Indian life, inasmuch as it was written before the daily life of the Indians had been appreciably influenced by contact with white men. MacKenzie never carried out his project of writing a history of the Canadian Northwest, which may or may not have been any great loss, but judging by the sample that Wentzel has given of his own fitness for the task it is much to be deplored that he did not do so.

His letters contain many references to the more than strained relations between the Hudson Bay Company and the Northwest Company, telling of fights, imprisonments and murders. {9} Like other fur traders he had no sympathy with Lord Selkirk's early colonization plans. The following shows the then common attitude toward that premature undertaking: {10}

Such is the information given by our gentlemen of the Red River concerning this land of milk and honey! Forty souls, principally Germans, have arrived at the Bay [Hudson Bay] for settlement; this number will only increase the number of victims sacrificed to the sinister views of a noble impostor. Surely, Government might institute an enquiry into the truth of all these circumstances, I mean the possibility of establishing and supporting a settlement in that country, as well as to ascertain whether the ground is fit for cultivation, and likely to yield subsistance [sic] to the number of poor families attracted thither by the plausible and fanciful insinuations of the Earl of Selkirk and of his agents. Certainly, the Legislature could not act a more generous part in support of humanity than rescue so many poor people from untimely death and sufferings scarcely to be believed.

These Colonists imported with them the measles and chin-cough [whooping cough], which have been so fatal among the natives, that one fifth of the population of the country is said to have been destroyed all the way from Lac La Pluie to Athabasca, {11} so that it would seem as if Governor Semple, as he was styled, from the presage of what might happen, had prophesied this melancholy accident, when he wrote to Mr. Alexander MacDonnell at Qu'appelle, in 1816, that "he possessed means to make his power felt, the shock of which should reach from Montreal to Athabasca." Such is now the state of a country which once seemed to have attracted the envy even of sovereigns.

Among other evils which afflicted these early colonists of Lord Selkirk were grasshoppers. Wentzel gives the following account of this plague in 1819:

Respecting the Colony in Red River, accounts from that quarter mention that all their crops of the preceding season had been destroyed by grasshoppers, a kind of locust. Nothing escaped the voracity of these insects; wheat, barley, potatoes, all were destroyed, and fire having overrun the plains in Red River, buffaloes had become so scarce that none were to be found nearer than at the upper part of Pembina River, so that the poor colonists were reduced to great distress and want. Some of them have been running throughout the country up to Cumberland and Lac La Pluie [about 500 miles] to obtain seed for the ensuing season. {12}

These citations from Wentzel's letters may be terminated by a letter addressed to Lieutenant John MacKenzie, a son of Roderick MacKenzie, which in its form and contents is more self-revealing than the other letters. {13}

Lac La Pluie, August 4th, 1818


My departure for Montreal was so unexpected, in consequence of only twenty-four hours' notice from Mr. Thaine, that I could not obtain leave to go and pay my respects to Mr. and Mrs. MacKenzie, and now I am again so occupied that I cannot get an hour to write as I could wish to my friends in Montreal, for I have no less than all the Athabasca and Lesser Slave Lake departments' complement of men to equip and give advances to. Therefore you will, I am persuaded, pardon me for only writing a few lines as an acknowledgement of civilities from you which I shall always remember with secret pleasure and satisfaction.

You will be surprised to hear that we have now no less than five priests in the country, three of whom are gone to preach the Gospel amongst the settlers of Red River and convert the Natives preparatory to their entering the regions of the Blessed, and I am sure you will join me in wishing them all the success due to their laudable and enterprising spirit.

I have been to that land of promise and saw a great number of philosophers, proselytes to the Diogenes doctrine of stoicism, for the most part of the colonists have their habitation under the ground. Perhaps you will say this looks more like the Esquimaux mode of living; well, let it be so, I am willing, but I must say it is the most miserable condition a man can be reduced to in this life, for I am not one of those who think that existence is sweet in any shape.

No! No! I have not forgot Miss La F . . . e, nor the pleasant moments we have passed together, the thoughts of which now make me feel the miserable state to which I am subjected more acutely than I ever did before, although by seeing me cracking my jokes and cutting my capers a person might be led to believe that I was certainly the most thoughtless mortal in existence -- which I consider a misfortune that I am not.

However let my situation be what it will, I shall always recollect your father's kindness with gratitude and Mrs. MacKenzie's condescension with reverence, while I am with unfeigned esteem and regard,

Very dear John,
Your sincere well wisher,

Such were the circumstances and the personality of the man whose aid Captain Franklin had to invoke in order to carry out his instructions from the British government. By reason of his long experience in those subarctic wilds, his knowledge of Indian ways and dialects, and his general intelligence, Wentzel was acknowledged by both white men and Indians to be the very best man Franklin could get to assist in carrying on his important enterprise. It was therefore with great eagerness than Franklin hastened to Fort Providence on the MacKenzie River where Wentzel then was stationed. The preliminaries were quickly arranged and soon the expedition, with the addition of Wentzel and Akaitcho's Indians, pushed on to a lake about two hundred miles north of Great Slave Lake. As they there reached the northernmost fringe of the timber where sufficient fuel for the winter could be obtained, a commodious winter camp was built, which was given the name of Fort Enterprise.

Wentzel's duties during the year he was with the expedition were, according to Captain Franklin, "the management of the Indians, the superintendence of the Canadian voyagers, the obtaining and the general distribution of the provision, and the issue of the other stores. These services he was well qualified to perform, having been accustomed to execute similar duties, during a residence of upwards of twenty years in this country. We also deemed Mr. Wentzel to be a great acquisition to our party, as a check on the interpreters, he being one of the few traders who speak the Chipewyan language." {14}

Besides all these duties Wentzel was also the principal entertainer of the large party during the long winter. Franklin says he was "an excellent musician" having great skill with the violin. {15} He also knew all the voyageur songs and melodies and with his fiddle led the score of French boatmen in boisterous singing which greatly enlivened the long arctic night.. {16} Finally he had an almost endless repertoire of strange Indian tales which were equally interesting to the French and the English. One of these tales is here briefly summarized because of its similarity to the pathetic story of Thorgils Orrabeinsfostre in Floamannasaga. {17}

A young Indian of the Chipewyan tribe had separated from his fellows for the purpose of trenching beaver. Only his wife accompanied him and the time came when she gave birth to her first child. Three days later she died. Her husband grieved deeply and in the depths of his sorrow he vowed that he would never take another woman to wife. However, he could not entirely yield himself to grief, for it now behooved him to provide nourishment for his little son. In order to do this he gladly undertook to nurse the child -- a work which among his people was considered disgraceful to a warrior. He made a cradle for the child and swaddled it tenderly in soft moss. Then he prepared a strong soup from the best parts of a deer. But the child could not stomach this diet and screamed in agony. Then in anguish he prayed earnestly to the Great Spirit which gives life and pressed the child again and again to his breast. The force of the powerful emotion by which he was actuated produced the same effect in his case as it has done in some others which have been recorded; a flow of milk took place from his breast and he succeeded in bringing up the child.

Eventually he taught the boy to become a great hunter and found him a good wife in the tribe. He kept his oath never to take another wife and found his greatest delight in taking care of his grandchildren. When his friends and relatives objected to this and said such employment was unworthy of a great Indian, he told them that he had promised the Great Spirit who had saved his child that he would banish all pride and vanity from his life and ever seek humble tasks. As proof that the Great Spirit looked with favor upon his oath he mentioned that, while he always carried the child on his back when stalking the moose, the little one never made the slightest disturbance during the hunt. Wentzel had often talked with this old man and noticed that his left breast still had the enlargement which it got while he nursed the child.

At one time during the winter the party suffered from famine as game was very scarce. With loathing Captain Franklin and his officers saw the Indians dig in the snow and greedily devour the offal and skins of reindeer which had previously been thrown away during a period of plenty. Little did they dream that the time was coming when they would pick over this refuse a second time.

By the middle of June there were a few signs of spring and the expedition started on its journey to the polar sea. But as the lakes and rivers were still frozen, it was necessary to draw their canoes over the ice for more than a hundred miles. Finally after an exhausting journey of five weeks they reached the Arctic Sea at the mouth of the Coppermine River, a distance of three hundred and fifty miles from Fort Enterprise.

This was as far as Wentzel and the Indians had contracted to accompany the expedition. A river was here named in parting honor of Wentzel, and with his dusky companions he set out on his return journey entrusted with dispatches from the commander and with instructions to collect a supply of game to be stored at Fort Enterprise in case the expedition should return that way.

With twenty companions Captain Franklin then set out eastward along the shore in two canoes on a journey which was to become one of the most terrible in the history of polar exploration. They had provisions for fifteen days and expected to find game and fish sufficient to sustain them. Very little game was found, however, and after a few weeks they had consumed the last of their provisions. They had proceeded only a few hundred miles along the shore when the first snow-flurries of fall warned them that it was time they should return. With the hope of finding game inland they determined to strike a bee line for Fort Enterprise across the barrens. But they found nothing at all except now and then some bones from a carcass devoured by wolves. These they burned and greedily devoured. This was their food together with old shoes and other leather parts of their equipment and some tripe de roche -- a sickly looking moss that grew on rocks. Still worse than their gnawing hunger were the days when they could find nothing wherewith to make a fire and they lay for days, shivering in snowdrifts. They became almost insane with+ suffering, but the thought of reaching Fort Enterprise spurred them on. That camp in the edge of the timber now seemed to them a very paradise of comfort for there Wentzel, their good provider, would have a veritable storehouse of food and fuel. One after another was left behind frozen to death or unable to rise because of weakness from hunger. An Iroquois Indian who was a member of the party murdered one of the officers and as the Indian was suspected of cannibalism he was shot down like a mad dog.

At last, after six weeks of incredible suffering, all the merry Canadian boatmen had perished and only Captain Franklin and three of his companions from England were left. These four men were mere skeletons, able to walk or crawl only a mile or two per day. With amazing endurance they kept on and finally reached Fort Enterprise. But here they reached the climax of their misery: the fort was deserted and not a scrap of food in it! Nor was there any note from Wentzel explaining this strange circumstance. Had he basely deserted them?

There now remained nothing for them to do but to laboriously dig up the fragments of skin and bone which the Indians had rejected the previous winter. Each day they became appreciably weaker, Franklin was no longer able to help himself, and they knew their time had come. After some days or weeks of this, however, they were overjoyed to receive a visit from two Indians. They could not talk with them, but it was unnecessary, for the Indians brought them plenty of food and later conducted them to Akaitcho's camp where they were tenderly nursed back to health.

But what had become of Wentzel? With the rare forbearance which characterized Franklin, that gallant explorer withholds any bitter denunciation of Wentzel which he may have felt inclined to express, but no doubt Wentzel was the subject of many bitter invectives in the privacy of the conversation of the four sufferers.

It was not until months later when Franklin received his mail that he learned what had become of Wentzel. A letter from the latter reached him recounting a story of suffering second only to his own. When Wentzel and the Indians started homeward from the mouth of the Coppermine River the game suddenly seemed to have disappeared and soon they were starving. Like Franklin and his men they were forced to eat the very shoes they walked in. Thirteen Indians died from starvation. When they reached Fort Enterprise they had nothing to leave, for they were all destitute. Wentzel wished to leave a note at the camp telling of their distress, but not a scrap of paper was to be found. However, he found a split log which he smoothed with an axe and on this wrote a letter to Franklin. The slab with its writing was placed against Franklin's bed, so that he would be sure to see it when he came. This slab must have been accidentally used as fuel before it came to Franklin's attention. Thereupon Wentzel and the remaining Indians departed for the south hoping to find some game. When after many weeks of suffering Wentzel parted from Akaitcho, he impressed upon the chief the necessity of sending some meat to Fort Enterprise as soon as game could be found. Soon thereafter Akaitcho and his hunters caught up with a herd of caribou and he at once sent two of his men to Fort Enterprise with food, as has already been told. {18}

Like most Europeans in the wilderness, Wentzel married an Indian woman, by whom he had two children, a boy and a girl. The son's name was Alexander. He became a reputable carpenter and built the church at St. Norbert in 1853. He married a half-breed woman by whom he had four sons, who in 1890 were all living at St. Agathe.

Such, in brief, is the story of this first Norwegian settler in Canada. He was an advance scout of civilization at the very ends of the earth, but he filled his arduous post with patience, bravery and efficiency.

<1> John Franklin, Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea, 1:232 (London, 1824). Letters of Wentzel and documents concerning this expedition may be found in L. R. Masson, Les Bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord Quest, Lettres et Rapports Inédites, 1:135-151 (Quebec, 1889).

<2> Masson, Les Bourgeois, Lettres et Rapports Inédites, 1:69. Wentzel's reference to himself as a Norwegian appears on page 105 of the same volume.

<3> Ross Clark, Adventures on the Columbia River, 282, 283 (New York, 1832). Masson, in his sketch of Wentzel, says, "Mr. George Keith, one of the 'Partners' in the North West Company, and, later, one of the Chief Factors in the Hudson Bay Company, in his letters to Mr. Roderick MacKenzie, speaks in the most complimentary terms of his [Wentzel's] long years of service." Les Bourgeois, Lettres et Rapports Inédites, 1:69.

<4> Les Bourgeois, Lettres et Rapports Inédites, 1:69.

<5> The letter is addressed to Roderick MacKenzie and is printed in Masson, Les Bourgeois, Lettres et Rapports Inédites, 1: 106-108.

<6> In fur trade parlance, a "plue" was a beaver-skin of good quality, or the value in commodities which such a skin would purchase.

<7> Although his style is clear and sometimes even elegant, it is lacking in idioms and its Norwegianisms frequently bear witness to his Norwegian origin, as, for instance, "already at that time" in the above letter -- a translation of the Norwegian allerede red den tid.

<8> This document is among the letters published by Masson. See Les Bourgeois, Lettres et Rapports Inédites, 1:73-96.

<9> Masson, Les Bourgeois, Lettres et Rapports Inédites, 1: 122-129.

<10> Masson, Les Bourgeois, Lettres et Rapports Inédites, 1: 130.

<11> Captain Franklin, who traveled through this region about the same time, makes many references to the great mortality among the Indians from these two maladies. See his Journey to the Polar Sea, vol. 1.

<12> Masson, Les Bourgeois, Lettres et Rapports Inédites, 1:129.

<13> This letter is printed in Masson, Les Bourgeois, Lettres et Rapports Inédites, 1: 152-153.

<14> Franklin, Journey to the Polar Sea, 1:314.

<15> Franklin, Journey to the Polar Sea, 2:38-39.

<16> Wentzel had made a collection of these voyageur songs and sent them to Roderick MacKenzie. Masson says, however, that they are "mostly obscene and unfit for publication." Les Bourgeois, Lettres et Rapports Inédites, 1 : 71

<17> Franklin's account of the narrative appears in Journey to the Polar Sea, 1: 244-245.

<18> Wentzel's letter is printed in Franklin, Journey to the Polar Sea, a: 396-398.


<<   Previous Page   |   Next Page  >>

To the Home Page