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AW-GEE-NAH (English Chief), Chipewyan chief; fl. 1771–1821.

Little is known of the family of the English Chief, but his relatives were said to rendezvous at Great Slave Lake (N.W.T.), which may have been his family locale. The Chipewyans, members of the Athapaskan linguistic family, inhabited the Arctic drainage lands to the west of Hudson Bay. The English Chief was with the “leading Indian” Matonabbee* when he guided Hudson’s Bay Company explorer Samuel Hearne* to the Coppermine River in 1771. Following the death of Matonabbee and the smallpox epidemic of 1781–83, the English Chief assumed leadership of a band trekking to Fort Churchill (Churchill, Man.) to trade with the HBC. Shortly after North West Company partners began to arrive in the Athabasca country, around 1786, they persuaded the English Chief to act as middleman and carrier in the vicinity of Athabasca and Great Slave lakes.

Accompanied by two wives and his brother, the English Chief acted as guide, interpreter, and hunter for NWC explorer Alexander Mackenzie* on a journey from Fort Chipewyan (Alta) to the Arctic in 1789. During this voyage the English Chief was impressed by the prospects of carrying beaver pelts from the Beaver and Slavey tribes of the Liard–Mackenzie River region to NWC posts. He demonstrated to Mackenzie his working knowledge of the Slavey, Dogrib, and Beaver languages. Like Matonabbee, the English Chief showed no reluctance to plunder the weaker Hares and Dogribs, who were not kin and, more important, were intimidated by firearms. On his return the English Chief had sufficient prestige to fulfil the role of leader of a band of Yellowknife middlemen. From these foundations laid in 1790, the Yellowknives would act as carriers to the Dogribs, Beavers, Hares, and Kutchins until 1823, when the Dogribs rebelled against them. The English Chief himself operated in the upper Peace River area throughout the 1790s as provisioner to the NWC and was a carrier to the Beavers at least until 1821, the last reference to him in fur-trade records.

During the period 1805–14 the NWC had extended its posts to the more remote regions of the Mackenzie, Liard, and Peace rivers, reducing the need for middle-men such as the English Chief. After 1805 he apparently relocated in the area of Lake Athabasca and lower Peace River, alternately acting as carrier and as hunter at Fort Chipewyan for the NWC. By 1815 the Athabasca trade was undergoing severe dislocation. The Indians were affected by the decline of the large mammal populations in the Peace and Athabasca regions, and were withdrawing north to hunt the barren-ground caribou. Returns from posts on the lower Mackenzie River decreased because of the Indians’ increased hostility towards the Nor’Westers, and the latter consequently retreated from those posts in 1815. A year later an HBC expedition to the Athabasca, led by John Clarke*, arrived in the region determined to counter the NWC’s trading activities. The English Chief befriended the HBC by saving some expedition members who were starving in the Peace River area. By 1819 the HBC was firmly established at Lake Athabasca and, by supplying food to a starving brigade near Lake Athabasca and by acting as post hunter, the English Chief had ingratiated himself with George Simpson*, who was directing the HBC’s Athabasca campaign from Fort Wedderburne (Alta).

The life of the English Chief was indicative of the changes occurring for the Athapaskan tribes attached to the fur trade between 1770 and 1820. He had followed the middleman Matonabbee and had led trading bands to Fort Churchill before European fur traders established themselves in the Athabasca; he had then acted as a carrier from NWC posts to the Indians in the recesses of the Arctic drainage lowlands. Later he also became a fort hunter for the HBC and an adviser to the company during a period when depletion of resources – particularly the buffalo, elk, and moose in the Peace River region – forced their rationalization. Specialized activities for Indians were then introduced in the fur trade, while strict conservation measures were employed by the HBC in the regions of the Peace and Athabasca rivers.

W. A. Sloan

PAC, MG 19, C1, 51. PAM, HBCA, B.39/a/1–5; B.224/c/1: f.2d. Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest (Masson), vol.1. HBRS, 1 (Rich). Samuel Hearne, A journey from Prince of Waless Fort, in Hudsons Bay, to the northern ocean . . . in the years 1769, 1770, 1771 & 1772, ed. R. [G.] Glover (new ed., Toronto, 1958). Mackenzie, Journals and letters (Lamb). W. A. Sloan, “Contact and enlightened co-operation: a history of the fur trade in the Arctic drainage lowlands, 1717–1821” (phd thesis, Univ. of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 1985); “The native response to the extension of the European traders into the Athabasca and Mackenzie basin, 1770–1814,” CHR, 60 (1979): 281–99.

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Cite This Article

W. A. Sloan, “AW-GEE-NAH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 28, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/aw_gee_nah_6E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/aw_gee_nah_6E.html
Author of Article:   W. A. Sloan
Title of Article:   AW-GEE-NAH
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   1987
Access Date:   February 28, 2024