FRASER, SIMON, fur-trader and explorer; b. at Mapletown (near Bennington, Vt) in 1776; d. on his farm near St Andrews, Stormont County, Canada West, 18 Aug. 1862. He was the eighth and youngest child of Simon Fraser, who was descended from the Frasers of Culbokie and Guisachan, a cadet branch of the Frasers of Lovat, and Isabella Grant, daughter of the laird of Daldregan.
Simon Fraser’s parents joined the noted migration of Highlanders, mostly Roman Catholics like themselves, who came to New York in the Pearl in 1773. After spending about a year in Albany the Frasers moved to Mapletown, where they settled on the farm on which the explorer was born. They soon encountered anxious times in Mapletown. The area was in dispute between New York and New Hampshire, and conflicting land titles cost them 60 of their 160 acres. Much more serious was the outbreak of the American Revolution; the Frasers were loyal to the British crown, whereas the community was strongly in sympathy with the rebel cause. In spite of abuse and persecution, Simon Fraser Sr was active in the loyalist interest. He came of a military family (two of his brothers had been officers of the celebrated 78th Regiment, Fraser’s Highlanders, and had fought with James Wolfe* at Quebec), and he determined to join the British forces at the first opportunity. This came in 1777, when General John Burgoyne* led his ill-fated expedition into the region. Simon Fraser and William, his eldest son, enlisted in July and took part in the battle of Bennington on 17 August, when the British were decisively defeated. Then or soon after Fraser was apprehended by the Americans and taken to Albany, where he was imprisoned under such rigorous conditions that he died in little more than a year.
When the war ended, Isabella Fraser determined to move to Canada. Captain John Fraser*, one of the brothers who had served in Fraser’s Highlanders, had settled in Montreal and had been appointed a judge of the Court of Common Pleas. In 1784, with his help, Isabella and her younger children were able to join her son William, who had taken up land at Coteau-du-Lac, west of Montreal.
In 1790, when young Simon was 14, he was sent to Montreal, where Judge Fraser took charge of him. He received some schooling, but his education was brief for in 1792 he was apprenticed to the North West Company. The choice of a career in the fur trade was not surprising. It was a major part of the commercial life of Montreal at the time, two of Isabella Fraser’s brothers were engaged in it, and the Frasers were related to Simon McTavish*, the dominant personality in the North West Company.
Virtually nothing is known about Fraser’s activities during the next dozen years. Records and letters occasionally refer to a Simon Fraser but there were at least four men of the name in the service of the North West Company in the 1790s and it is seldom possible to say with certainty which individual is meant. It is known that he was serving as a clerk in the Athabasca Department in 1799, and it is probable that he spent most of his time there. He was obviously well regarded and a successful trader, for the minutes of the meeting of the partners of the company held at Grand Portage (Minn.) on 30 June 1801 record that “It was unanimously Resolved” that Fraser and five others “should be admitted Partners of the North West Company for one Forty sixth share each, their Interest in the same to Commence with the Outfit of the Year 1802.” To have gained a partnership at the age of 25 was no mean achievement.
For a decade or more the Nor’Westers had been interested in exploring the far west, with two purposes in view. One was an increase in trade; the country west of the Rockies might well prove to be a rich new source of furs. The other was the discovery of a practicable travel route to the Pacific coast over which supplies could be brought into the area and furs taken out, because the old supply route from Montreal would be so long that transportation costs would swallow up profits. There was the further possibility that direct trade might be established between the Pacific coast and the fur markets of China.
Alexander Mackenzie* had tried to find a route to the coast in 1789, but the Mackenzie River had led him to the Arctic Ocean instead of the Pacific. In 1793 he reached the Pacific, but by a route so difficult that it was considered useless for purposes of trade. Western exploration then ceased for a time, largely because of a personality and policy clash between Mackenzie and McTavish. By the time Fraser became a partner, Mackenzie had joined others in the rival XY or New North West Company that was offering the Nor’Westers such vigorous, costly, and violent competition that no men or resources could be spared for expansion. This state of affairs ended in 1804, when McTavish’s death was followed within a few months by the union of the North West and New North West companies.
To avoid friction, Mackenzie was excluded from the management of the combined concern, but the Nor’Westers were less indifferent to his discoveries than they had appeared to be. The coalition cleared the way for the resumption of western expansion, and in 1805 Fraser was given responsibility for extending operations to the country west of the Rockies. Mackenzie’s expeditions had been primarily reconnaissance trips; Fraser’s assignment, by contrast, reflected a definite decision to build trading posts and take possession of the country as well as to explore travel routes. He deserves therefore to rank as the pioneer of permanent settlement in what is now the mainland of British Columbia.
In the autumn of 1805 he ascended the Peace River and built Rocky Mountain Portage House at the eastern end of the Peace River Canyon. This post was intended to be both a trading post and a base for the push across the mountains. It is clear that Fraser had been instructed to reexamine Mackenzie’s route up the Peace and Parsnip rivers, over the divide that separated the watersheds of the Peace and the Fraser, and thence down the Fraser, which was still believed to be the Columbia. Indian reports of impassable rapids and canyons had caused Mackenzie to turn back in the vicinity of Alexandria; Fraser was to press on down the river and put the Indian tales to the test.
He was accompanied by John Stuart*, who was to be his companion and invaluable lieutenant on most of his travels, and James McDougall, a younger clerk. Soon after Rocky Mountain Portage was established, Fraser and McDougall set off to build an advance post farther west. They went up the Peace, turned up the Parsnip, and found the Pack River, which led them to Trout Lake (McLeod Lake). The Sekani Indians there were friendly and a small fort, Trout Lake Post (Fort McLeod), was built – the first permanent white settlement west of the Rockies in what is now Canada. During the winter the engagé left in charge when Fraser and McDougall returned to Rocky Mountain Portage deserted his post, and McDougall was sent back to look after the company’s property. This move had an important result, for McDougall, having heard Indian reports of a much larger lake to the west, went to investigate and discovered the “Carriers’ Lake” (Stuart Lake). It was in the heart of the country inhabited by the Carriers and obviously provided an excellent site for a trading post. Fraser decided to combine the building of this post with the exploration he planned to undertake in 1806. McDougall had learned that a river of some kind drained Stuart Lake into the Fraser River, and Fraser’s plan, which he duly carried out, was to go down the Fraser until he came to this river (it turned out to be a combination of the Nechako River and its tributary the Stuart River) and ascend it to Stuart Lake.
Just before leaving Rocky Mountain Portage, Fraser sent the winter’s harvest of furs to Dunvegan (Alta). It included 14 packs from Trout Lake – the first furs traded west of the mountains. Fraser was delighted with their quality. “The furs are really fine,” he noted in his journal. “They were chiefly killed in the proper season and many of them are superior to any I have seen in Athabasca . . . .”
Break-up was late in 1806; it was 20 May before the Peace was clear of ice and Fraser and Stuart could start up the river. The travellers encountered many difficulties. Most of the rivers and creeks they followed were in freshet and swift currents impeded their progress. Good bark for canoe-building was lacking at the Portage, and the old and makeshift craft with which they set out had to be replaced at Trout Lake. Their ten crewmen were an unskilled and unsatisfactory lot; most of them suffered from illness or injuries along the way. Fraser evidently had a copy of Mackenzie’s journal, and in his own indulged occasionally in derogatory remarks about “the Knight’s” explorations. Mackenzie had failed to notice either the Pack River or the Nechako, and Fraser remarked on 5 June that he “could prove that he seldom or ever paid the attention he pretends to have done . . . .” But when he himself struggled over the height of land and encountered the rapids, rocks, fallen trees, and other hazards on the Bad River (as Mackenzie had named James Creek), he was compelled to admit on 10 July that Mackenzie had described it “with great exactness. It is certainly well named and a most dangerous place . . . .”
Fraser faced further difficulties at Stuart Lake, which he finally reached on 26 July. A post (the future Fort St James) was built there, but few goods were available with which to barter for furs. The salmon run was late and the Indians were near starvation; Fraser and his men were soon in a like state. He had intended to return to the Fraser River and trace at least part of its course before winter, but lack of goods and provisions forced him to postpone this major part of his mission. Instead, he sent Stuart to visit Fraser Lake, which the Indians had described, and later he and Stuart built there the post subsequently called Fort Fraser. The whole area Fraser named New Caledonia, because, it is believed, the country reminded him of his mother’s descriptions of the Scottish Highlands.
To his distress, no supplies or additional men reached Fraser until the autumn of 1807, and the exploration of the river had to be postponed until 1808. All he could do in the interval was establish Fort George (Prince George), on the river near the mouth of the Nechako, which was both a good site for a trading post and a convenient starting point for the trip downstream.
The party of 24 that left Fort George in four canoes on 28 May 1808 included Fraser, Stuart, Jules-Maurice Quesnel*, a young clerk, 19 other company employees, and two Indians. From the start they were greeted by Indian reports that the river below “was but a succession of falls and cascades” which they would find impossible to pass. Even the portages were extremely difficult, so much so that they tempted Fraser’s crews to run rapids almost regardless of danger in order to avoid the immense labour of carrying canoes and cargoes around obstructions. In many places steep, high banks made it impossible to leave the river, once launched upon it, and the canoes would have been helpless if they had come without warning to rapids or falls. The river was in freshet; at one point it rose eight feet in 24 hours. By 10 June, Fraser was convinced at last that the Indians were right in contending that it was madness to descend the river itself. Some distance above the site of Lillooet the canoes were stored on a scaffold in a shady spot, goods that could not be carried were cached, and the party pressed forward on foot.
Travel on land proved to be almost as great an ordeal as travel by water. “I have been for a long period among the Rocky Mountains,” Fraser wrote, “but have never seen any thing equal to this country, for I cannot find words to describe our situation at times. We had to pass where no human being should venture.” Occasionally it was practicable to take to the river again, but they were then involved in the difficulties of borrowing, or, on at least one occasion, virtually commandeering canoes from the Indians.
Fraser showed great skill in dealing with the Indians. Friendly relations had to be established with those encountered along the way, and there was also the delicate matter of passing from the territory of one tribe to that of another. By means of the two Indians he had with him, he saw to it whenever possible that the tribe next to be visited had been warned of his coming and assured that his intentions were friendly. Nevertheless he was ever on the alert for trouble. “However kind savages may appear,” he wrote on 20 June, “I know that it is not in their nature to be sincere in their professions to strangers .... It is certain the less familiar we are with one another the better for us.” The natives were numerous; crowds numbering hundreds were met several times and on one occasion Fraser estimated that 1,200 had assembled.
All went reasonably well until he reached the mouth of the river, where the Cowichans were first suspicious and then openly hostile. Fraser was unable to go as far into the Strait of Georgia as he wished to do, and when he hurried back up the river the Indians pursued and harassed his party as far as the vicinity of Hope. Scores of canoes closed in repeatedly with the intention of upsetting Fraser’s canoe, but each time they were fended off successfully and without casualties on either side. The Indians finally abandoned the chase, but Fraser’s men were left completely exhausted and discouraged.
The supreme test of Fraser’s leadership came when many of his men determined to leave the river and try to find their way back to Fort George independently. He “remonstrated and threatened by turns” and insisted that the only hope of safety lay in keeping together. His journal for 6 July records the sequel: “After much debate . . . we all shook hands, resolving never to separate during the voyage; which resolution was immediately confirmed by the following oath . . . : ‘I solemnly swear before Almighty God that I shall sooner perish than forsake in distress any of our crew during the present voyage.’ After this ceremony was over all hands dressed in their best apparel, and each took charge of his own bundle.” Fort George was reached safely on 6 August. The journey down the river had taken 36 days and the return trip 37 days.
There has been considerable debate as to whether Fraser actually reached the mouth of the river, largely because he expressed in his journal his “great disappointment in not seeing the main ocean, having gone so near it as to be almost within view.” But the Musqueam Indian village, which he visited, was at the mouth of the Fraser River and he paddled some distance beyond it in the direction of Point Grey. Fraser’s remark was made under the impression that the ocean was near at hand, whereas in fact it was still about 140 miles away, beyond Vancouver Island.
The journey that had been carried through with such effort and heroism ended for Fraser in disappointment and a sense of failure. The river would be of no use as a travel route, and at its mouth he discovered that the latitude was about 49°. “This River, therefore, is not the Columbia,” Fraser wrote sadly. “If I had been convinced of this fact where I left my canoes, I would certainly have returned from thence.” Like Mackenzie’s journey to the Arctic, the expedition had been a useless enterprise from the point of view of the North West Company.
Fraser left New Caledonia in 1809, attended the annual rendezvous at Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.), and then went on leave. When he returned to duty in 1810 he was assigned again to the Athabasca Department, where he remained until 1814. For much of this time he was in charge of the Mackenzie River District. After a second leave in 1814–15 he went to Fort William with the spring brigade from Montreal and travelled on to Red River, where he immediately became involved in the strife between the North West Company and the colony established by Lord Selkirk [Douglas*] which the Nor’Westers regarded as a threat to the fur trade. He was one of the partners who escorted Miles Macdonell*, governor of the colony, to Fort William as a prisoner in the summer of 1815. The violence of the clash between the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company was not to Fraser’s liking; he made a determined effort to retire, but was persuaded finally to return to Athabasca for one more year. Like many of the Nor’Westers he was doubtless aware that mischief was planned in Red River in 1816; he was one of those who arrived “judiciously late” for the rendezvous that year, and so kept clear of the Seven Oaks massacre on 19 June when Robert Semple*, the governor at the Red River Settlement, and 19 of his men were killed in a clash between half-breeds and colonists. Nevertheless he was one of the partners arrested by Lord Selkirk at Fort William; he was taken in September to Montreal where he was promptly released on bail. He was back at Fort William in 1817, when the North West Company regained possession of the post, but this was evidently his last appearance in the fur trade.
Fraser, with five other partners, was tried at York (Toronto) in 1818 for “treason and conspiracy” and “accessory to murder,” but all were acquitted. By that time he had settled on farm lands on the Raisin River, near St Andrews; the 1861 census records that his holdings then consisted of 240 acres valued at $4,000. He had engaged in a number of enterprises, including a sawmill and a grist mill, but they did not prosper. He was greatly handicapped by a severe knee injury suffered when serving as captain of the 1st Regiment of the Stormont militia during the rebellion of 1837–38. The small pension he received was little compensation for an injury which, as he informed Governor General Charles Bagot*, had been “the cause of reducing him from a state of comparative affluence to penuery, owing to his not being capable to attend to his ordinary business.” The rest of his long life was passed in straitened circumstances.
On 7 June 1820 Fraser married Catherine, daughter of Captain Allan Macdonell, a prominent resident of nearby Matilda Township. Five sons and three daughters grew to maturity. Fraser was one of the last surviving partners of the North West Company when he died on 18 Aug. 1862. His wife died the next day, and they were buried in a single grave in the Roman Catholic cemetery at St Andrews.
Fraser’s fame rests upon his remarkable journeys in the years 1805–8. These are recorded in considerable detail in his three journals and 11 contemporary letters. Writing to John Stuart, he described his 1806 journal as being “exceeding ill wrote worse worded & not well spelt,” but his narratives are direct and frequently dramatic. The versions now available are “fair copies,” a term for somewhat revised versions of the originals. The most important of them is the account of the 1808 expedition down the Fraser River.
Possessed of great physical courage and endurance, Fraser remained calm and determined in the face of dangers and difficulties. Few feats of exploration surpass his journey to the sea and back in 1808. Nevertheless, recognition of his achievement was slow in coming. A son and daughter received small pensions from the government of Canada in 1890, but little popular interest was aroused until the government of British Columbia organized a centennial celebration of the journey in 1908. An exhibition was held and a memorial column was unveiled on the bank of the Fraser at New Westminster; a bust by Louis Hébert* was added to the column in 1911. The HBC placed a marker and inscription on his grave in 1921. The journey down the Fraser was re-enacted in 1958, the 150th anniversary, when British Columbia was celebrating its own centenary.
[Simon Fraser’s “Journal of a voyage from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, performed in the year 1808” is preserved at MTCL. Transcripts of a fragment of Fraser’s second journal, 1808, and of his journal for 1806 are at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley; the original copies of the two journals have been lost. The Bancroft Library also possesses transcripts of 11 letters written by Fraser in 1806 and 1807, four of which can also be found as original letterbook copies at the PABC. In addition, there are Fraser family papers in the possession of Mr Donald C. Fraser, Fargo, N.D. Copies of all these and of various other documents have been collected in PAC, MG 19, A9. The 1806 journal is printed in PAC Report, 1929, 109–59, and the 1808 journal in Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest: récits de voyages, lettres et rapports inédits relatifs au Nord-Ouest canadien, L.-F.-R. Masson, édit. (2v., Québec, 1889–90; réimpr. New York, 1960), I, but the versions printed are imperfect and, in the case of the 1806 journal, garbled. Both journals, the fragment of the second journal for 1808, the letters of 1806–7, and other primary documents have been collected and edited by W. K. Lamb in The letters and journals of Simon Fraser, 1806–1808 (Toronto, 1960), which also includes a biographical introduction. w.k.l.]
Documents relating to NWC (Wallace). Alexander Mackenzie, History of the Frasers of Lovat, with genealogies of the principal families of the name . . . (Inverness, Scot., 1896). Morice, History of northern interior of B.C. (1905). John Spargo, Two Bennington-born explorers and makers of modern. Canada ([Bradford, Vt.], 1950). E. O. S. Scholefield, “Simon Fraser,” Westward Ho! (Vancouver), III (1908), 217–31, 440–45; IV (1909), 61–76, 138–44.