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by circumstances from carrying my intention into effect. From those early impressions, the grand enterprises of the great fur companies, and the hazardous errantry of their associates in the wild parts of our vast continent, have always been themes of charmed interest to me; and I have felt anxious to get at the details of their adventurous expeditions among the savage tribes, that peopled the depths of the wilderness.” — pp. 3, 4.
Thus prepared to engage with enthusiasm in the subject, Mr. Irving gladly availed himself of the opportunities, which the friendship of Mr. John Jacob Astor afforded him, to learn the history of the enterprise projected by that gentleman, for the establishment of the fur trade west of the Rocky Mountains. The journals of the persons in Mr. Astor's employment, and their correspondence with the projector of the establishment, furnished the materials of the inquiry ; the publications of contemporary travellers across the American steppes, from Lewis and Clarke down, supplied additional illustrations; and the volumes before us are the result.
We have read them with interest and profit. The anecdotes they relate are many of them of a spirit-stirring character, as we shall presently show by some specimens. Considerable valuable information relative to the enterprise of Mr. Astor, the North American fur trade, and the Indian tribes, on both sides of the Rocky Mountains, is placed in a highly attractive form. The whole work bears the impress of Mr. Irving's taste. A great variety of somewhat discordant materials is brought into a consistent whole, of which the parts have a due reference to each other; and some sketches of lise and traits of humor come fresh from the pen of Geoffrey Crayon. If it be necessary to find any fault with the work, we might object to some of the details of the overland journeys across the Rocky Mountains, as being, after the publications already given to the world, deficient in the interest of novelty, and for that reason, less entitled to the space they occupy. They are, however, as well worth reading as nine tenths of the personal narratives of travellers, even of the most respectable class; and nothing can be objected to them, but their want of claim to the honor of being recorded by Mr. Irving's classical pen. We cannot forbear remarking, that we presume it is merely by accident, that the unfinished map in the second volume has found admission into the work.
The first chapter relates the rise and progress of the fur
trade in Canada; and a highly graphic account is given of the personages by whom it was carried on. The following is the description of one class of them, called “Coureurs des bois.”
“A new and anomalous class of men gradually grew out of this trade. These were called coureurs des bois, rangers of the woods; originally men who had accompanied the Indians in their hunting expeditions and made themselves acquainted with remote tracts and tribes; and who now became, as it were, pedlars of the wilderness. These men would set out from Montreal with canoes well stocked with goods, with arms and ammunition, and would make their way up the mazy and wandering rivers that interlace the vast forests of the Canadas, coasting the most remote lakes, and creating new wants and habitudes among the natives. Sometimes they sojourned for months among them, assimilating to their tastes and habits with the happy facility of Frenchmen; adopting in some degree the Indian dress, and not unfrequently taking to themselves Indian wives.
“Twelve, fifteen, eighteen months would often elapse without any tidings of them, when they would come sweeping their way down the Ottawa in full glee, their canoes laden down with packs of beaver skins. Now came their turn for revelry and extravagance. * You would be amazed,' says an old writer already quoted, if you saw how lewd these pedlars are when they return; how they feast and game, and how prodigal they are not only in their clothes, but upon their sweethearts. Such of them as are married have the wisdom to retire to their own houses; but the bachelors act just as an East Indiaman and pirates are wont to do; for they lavish, eat, drink, and play all away as long as the goods hold out; and when these are gone, they even sell their embroidery, their lace and their clothes. This done, they are forced upon a new voyage for subsistence.'*
Many of these coureurs des bois became so accustomed to the Indian mode of living, and the perfect freedom of the wilderness, that they lost all relish for civilization, and identified themselves with the savages among whom they dwelt, or could · only be distinguished from them by superior licentiousness. Their conduct and example gradually corrupted the natives, and impeded the works of the Catholic missionaries, who were at this time prosecuting their pious labors in the wilds of Canada."
Vol. 1. pp. 15-17.
" * La Hontan, Vol. 1. Let. 4."
The following is also a highly spirited sketch.
“ To behold the North-west Company in all its state and . grandeur, however, it was necessary to witness an annual gathering at the great interior place of conference established at Fort William, near what is called the Grand Portage, on Lake Superior. Here two or three of the leading partners from Montreal proceeded once a year to meet the partners from the various trading posts of the wilderness, to discuss the affairs of the company during the preceding year, and to arrange plans for the future.
“On these occasions might be seen the change since the unceremonious times of the old French traders; now the aristocratical character of the Briton shone forth magnificently, or rather the feudal spirit of the Highlander. Every partner, who had charge of an interior post, and a score of retainers at his command, felt like the chiestain of a Highland clan, and was almost as important in the eyes of his dependents as of himself. To him a visit to the grand conference at Fort William was a most important event; and he repaired there as to a meeting of parliament.
“The partners from Montreal, however, were the lords of the ascendant; coming from the midst of luxurious and ostentatious life, they quite eclipsed their compeers from the woods, whose forms and faces had been battered and hardened by hard living and hard service, and whose garments and equipments were all the worse for wear. Indeed, the partners from below considered the whole dignity of the company as represented in their persons, and conducted themselves in suitable style. They ascended the rivers in great state, like sovereigns making a progress; or rather like Highland chieftains navigating their subject lakes. They were wrapped in rich furs, their huge canoes freighted with every convenience and luxury, and manned by Canadian voyageurs, as obedient as Highland clansmen. They carried up with them cooks and bakers, together with delicacies of every kind, and abundance of choice wines for the banquets which attended this great convocation. Happy were they, too, if they could meet with some distinguished stranger, above all, some titled member of the British nobility, to accompany them on this stately occasion, and grace their high solemnities.
“Fort William, the scene of this important annual meeting, was a considerable village on the banks of Lake Superior. Here, in an immense wooden building, was the great council hall, as also the banqueting chamber, decorated with Indian arms and accoutrements, and the trophies of the sur trade. The house swarmed at this time with traders and voyageurs, some from Montreal, bound to the interior posts ; some from the interior posts, bound to Montreal. The councils were held in great state, for every member felt as if sitting in parliament, and every retainer and dependent looked up to the assemblage with awe, as to the House of Lords. There was a vast deal of solemn deliberation, and hard Scottish reasoning, with an occasional swell of pompous declamation.
" These grave and weighty councils were alternated by huge feasts and revels, like some of the old feasts described in Highland castles. The tables in the great banqueting room groaned under the weight of game of all kinds; of venison from the woods, and fish from the lakes, with hunters' delicacies, such as buffaloes' tongues and beavers' tails, and various luxuries from Montreal, all served up by experienced cooks brought for the purpose. There was no stint of generous wine, for it was a hard-drinking period, a time of loyal toasts, and bacchanalian songs, and brimming bumpers.
“While the chiefs thus revelled in hall, and made the rafters resound with bursts of loyalty and old Scottish songs, chaunted in voices cracked and sharpened by the northern blast, their merriment was echoed and prolonged by a mongrel legion of retainers, canadian voyageurs, half-breeds, Indian hunters, and vagabond hangers-on, who feasted sumptuously without on the crumbs that fell from their table, and made the welkin ring with old French ditties, mingled with Indian yelps and yellings.
“Such was the North-west Company in its powerful and prosperous days, when it held a kind of feudal sway over a vast domain of lake and forest. We are dwelling too long, perhaps, upon these individual pictures, endeared to us by the associations of early life, when, as yet a stripling youth, we have sat at the hospitable boards of the 'mighty North-westers,' then lords of the ascendant at Montreal, and gazed with wondering and inexperienced eye at their baronial wassailing, and listened with astonished ear to their tales of hardships and adventures. It is one object of our task, however, to present scenes of the rough life of the wilderness, and we are tempted to fix these few memorials of a transient state of things fast passing into oblivion;
for the feudal state of Fort William is at an end; its council chamber is silent and deserted; its banquet hall no longer echoes to the burst of loyalty, or the auld world” ditty; the lords of the lakes and forests have passed away; and the hospitable magnates of Montreal — where are they ?” – Vol. 1.
Having sketched the history of the Canadian fur trade, Mr. Irving proceeds to the more immediate subject of his work, the enterprise of Mr. Astor, which bad for its object to divert a portion of this lucrative traffic into a new channel. The following brief biograpbical notice of this eminent person will give pleasure to our readers, and afford thein a sufficient idea of the general character of the project, of which the history is written in the present work.
“ John Jacob Astor, the individual in question, was born in the honest little German village of Waldorf, near Heidelberg, on the banks of the Rhine. He was brought up in the simplicity of rural life, but, while yet a mere stripling, left his home, and launched himself amid the busy scenes of London, having had, from his very boy hood, a singular presentiment that he would ultimately arrive at great fortune.
“At the close of the American Revolution he was still in London, and scarce on the threshold of active life. An elder brother had been for some few years resident in the United States, and Mr. Astor determined to follow him, and to seek his fortunes in the rising country. Investing a small sum which he had amassed since leaving his native village, in merchandise suited to the American market, he embarked, in the inonth of November, 1783, in a ship bound to Baltimore, and arrived in Hampton Roads in the month of January. The winter was extremely severe, and the ship, with many others, was detained by the ice in and about Chesapeake Bay for nearly three months.
“ During this period, the passengers of the various ships used occasionally to go on shore, and mingle sociably together. In this way Mr. Astor became acquainted with a countryman of his, a furrier by trade. Having had a previous impression that this might be a lucrative trade in the new world, he made many
a inquiries of his new acquaintance on the subject, who cheerfully gave him all the information in his power as to the quality and value of different furs, and the mode of carrying on the traffic. He subsequently accompanied him to New York, and by his advice, Mr. Astor was induced to invest the proceeds of his merchandise in furs. With these he sailed from New York to London in 1784, disposed of themi advantageously, made himself further acquainted with the course of the trade, and returned the same year to New York, with a view to settle in the United States.
“ He now devoted himself to the branch of commerce with which he had thus casually been made acquainted.
He began his career, of course, on the narrowest scale; but he brought to VOL. XLIV. No. 94.