From the earliest days of Sault Sainte Marie’s acquaintance with the white man, the first position of importance was of necessity given to the fur trade.
From 1605, when the Beaver Company of Montreal sent its agents up the river and over the portages on either shores, till the coming of the great Hudson’s Bay Company the commerce hardly ever ceased.
Now carried on by licensed merchants and again by lawless freebooters, at times occupying the attention and concern of military officers or of priests, the trade continued until within the nineteenth century the last old post was abandoned and pulled down to afford room for vaster enterprises.
In 167o Prince Rupert of England had been granted by King Charles II. a charter for a new company which called itself the Company of Merchant Adventurers trading into Hudson’s Bay. To this association was given the control of all that vast territory whose lakes and rivers drain eventually into Hudson’s Bay and to the posts which they established at various points did the natives bring their packs of furs for barter.
For nearly a century the work of the company’s agents was uninterrupted from the interior save for a raid at long intervals by the French, but with the establishment of peace in 1763 the country became a field of operations for great numbers of independent barterers. For eleven years little notice was taken of these, but their traffic grew to such an extent that, in 1774, the Hudson’s Bay Company found it necessary to establish outposts in its own defence.
This movement, however, was not sufficient for the ” independents” continued to grow in strength, until in 1783 three of them, Peter Pond and Thomas and Joseph Frobisher, formed themselves into a rival organization, which has come down to us under the name of the North West Company.
The new institution was peculiarly Canadian, and with its 5,000 agents throughout the country, most of whom were in some measure identified with the natives, it gradually assumed the control of the great district.
The North West Company erected a post at Sault Sainte Marie at the foot of the Rapids on the north shore where were the house of the bourgeois, or chief factor, the men’s house, a magazine and a number of stores for the reception of merchandize, and here came all furs bound for the west to Montreal and all goods en route from Montreal to the interior.
To facilitate the traffic, a canal was cut for the passage of bateaux and canoes between the islands and the mainland and a lock, the first in the West, the forerunner of the present wonderful engineering triumphs, was constructed, having a lift of nine feet.
A description of this work will doubtless be of interest here.
The lock was 38 feet long and 8 feet 9 inches wide, the lower gate letting down by a windless and the upper folding gates working with a sluice. The sides were held in place by vertical timbers tied together by horizontal pieces at the top and high enough for the boats to pass beneath them. A leading trough of timber framed and planked, 300 feet long, 8 feet 9 inches wide and 6 feet high supported and levelled on beams of cedar through the swamp was constructed to conduct the water from the canal to the lock. The canal itself was 258o feet long and along the whole length of lock, trough and canal a roadway was cut 45 feet wide and there was also laid a log towpath the full way, 12 feet wide for oxen to track the boats.
In the construction of the work 20,000 feetboard measureof 2 inch plank were used as well as 5,000 feetrunning measureof hewn timber.
Whatever year after 1783 it was begun it was completed by 1798.
No record exists of the lock ever having been used, and as a saw mill was built at the foot of the canal used as a raceway, it may have proved unsuccessful for its original purpose because of the great fall of water which it was necessary to overcome. However that may be, it is not mentioned later than 1803 and at the time of the American occupation of the Sault it seems to have been completelyforgotten.
Impressed with the governmental report of Captain Bruyeres referring to the lock and adjoining land, which report is reproduced by the Canadian Archivist, three gentlemen, His Honour Judge Steere, Mr. Joseph Cozens, D.L.S., and Mr. A. S. Wheeler, General Superintendent of St. Mary’s Falls Canal, Michigan, proceeded to the site of the old lock and were successful in unearthing it.
The measurement and details exactly corresponded with those of the report of 1802 and the lock, through the generous patriotism of Mr. Clergue¬, was restored in form, if not in material, and may be seen to-day to the north of the Lake Superior Power Company’s offices.
Although the North West Company was most successful from a point of finance, yet internal disputes marred every meeting of the directorate, and in 1798 a new organization took its birth with Alexander Mackenzieafterwards knighted for his Arctic explorationthe Richardsons and Forsyths at its head. It was styled the New North West Company and was composed of partners of the older firm, but the name by which it was best known was the X. Y. Company,
And now began a three-cornered fight, for each company was the bitter opponent of the other two.
In 1799 the old N. W. Co. applied to the Government for a grant of land at Sault Sainte Marie which was opposed by Messrs. Phyn Inglis & Co., the X. Y. Co.’s London agents, on the ground that the grant would include the channel and portage, and thus shut out other traders.
The Duke of Portland favored the X. Y. Co. and recommended that a large section of the property be reserved by the Government for the use of all.
The same year a grant of land was made to the X. Y. Company on the east side of the fort creek, from the vicinity of which they constructed a private road leading to the waters above the Rapids. They also entered a claim for the right to use the canal constructed while they were members of the old firm and which claim was denied with threatening by the ” Nor’ Westers.”
Lord Selkirk who at this time was the virtual head of the Hudson’s Bay Company, no doubt hoping to gain his ends while the others were quarrelling, now applied for a grant of land at the Sault for the purpose of establishing a colony and a grant of 1200 acres was made to his lordship to be taken from any township not already appropriated, and the rest of such township was to be reserved for a period of five years to be appropriated by him at the rate of 200 acres per each family settled, provided he should settle 5o acres to each such family which was to be in possession before he claimed the extended grant. This was in 1803 when the quarrel was at its most bitter stage and when Forsyth, Richardson & Co., or better the X. Y. Co., wrote the Government, saying :
” By last advices the grand crisis is considered as not being far distant, and we fervently pray that it may terminate in the ruin and disgrace of our unprincipled enemy.”
Yet, in spite of this, the North West Company proved so formidable that Lord Selkirk dared not take the offer of land at the Sault, but instead settled his colony near Lake St Clair.
The government returns for 1802 state that the North West Company had 14 men employed at the Sault, which number does not, of course, include the voyageurs who made the village their headquarters
The devotion of the servants of the various companies was most remarkable and equalled the spirit of at least old time missionaries labouring in a nobler cause.
The spirit of self-sacrifice is admirably illustrated in a letter from Duncan Cameron of the Nor’ Westers to his friend, Alexander Fraser, August 7th, 1803, in which he says :
” I was very ill a part of the Winter, owing, I suppose to the great hardship 1 had to endure last Fall going in * by the extraordinary bad weather I met with and being badly maimed ; but I recovered, as you see, and arrived here the 9th of July, by the way of the Nepigon, with tolerable returns and at that time in good health, which did not last long, for I can assure you that it is with great difficulty I can hold my pen, but I must tell you that the X. Y. sends in to the Nepigon this year therefore if I should leave my bones there I shall go to winter.”
It was with great relief that all concerned learned three years later, in 1805, that the breach had been healed and that only one company remained instead of two. The X. Y. Co. in that year joined forces once again with the older firm, and from then until the outbreak of hostilities between Great Britain and the United States, the history of the Sault is merely noted for its tranquility.
Perhaps the best known melody of these and even later days was the voyageurs’ song ” A la Claire Fontaine,” for it was sung from Quebec right through to the West as far as canoes could journey, and the song with its translation by McLennan is here presented for its familiar words were held in common by all employees of the rival companies.