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b. 22 June 1816 at Lachine, Lower Canada


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HENRY, ALEXANDER, fur trader, explorer, and writer; drowned 22 May 1814 in the Columbia River off Fort George (Astoria, Oreg.).

Nothing is recorded of the birth or early life of Alexander Henry the younger. He was a nephew of Alexander Henry* the elder, and had other relatives in the fur trade, including a cousin of the same name (the elder Alexander’s second son) and cousins William and Robert*; his brother, Robert, was also a fur trader. Alexander Henry the younger is known for his copious journal, begun in 1799, which is one of the best records from the early 19th century of the fur trade in the vast area from Lake Superior to the mouth of the Columbia River.

Henry began trading among the Ojibwas in the Lower Red River department of the North West Company in 1791, after which nothing is known of his career until the first journal entry, made in the autumn of 1799 on the Whitemud River (Man.). He spent the winter of 1799–1800 at a post near Fort Dauphin Mountain (Riding Mountain, Man.), leaving there in the spring for Grand Portage (near Grand Portage, Minn.), until 1803 the location of the company’s annual rendezvous. In July 1800 he returned to the interior, moving south from Lake Winnipeg up the Red River. Passing Sault à la Biche (St Andrews Rapids, Man.), where formerly Crees and Assiniboins had assembled in large camps at the edge of meadow country, on 18 August Henry met waiting Ojibwas at the mouth of the Assiniboine River and traded rum for their dried buffalo meat. Though there had once been a missionary and a church in that location, Henry observed that little progress had been made in “civilizing the natives,” and that their numbers had been greatly reduced by smallpox. Those with whom he traded were very much in fear of attack by the Sioux from the south. They had excavated shelter trenches for the security of their people, a measure later to be adopted by the Métis during the North-West rebellion of 1885.

Henry, with a party of 28, proceeded up the Red River, crossing the 49th parallel to the mouth of the Pembina River, where the first NWC settlement on the Red stood, and continuing to the Park River mouth, near which he erected a fort. The post was well defended in case of attack by the Sioux, but that winter was uneventful. In the spring of 1801 Henry built a new post near present-day Pembina, N.Dak., leaving Michel Langlois in charge. The returns of the previous winter had been healthy in the Lower Red River department, and continued to be good despite competition from both the Hudson’s Bay and the New North West (XY) companies. On 30 June 1801 he received a partnership in the NWC, to commence with the outfit of 1802. For several years Henry traded successfully at Pembina, annually leading a summer brigade first to Grand Portage, and after 1803 to Kaministiquia (Thunder Bay, Ont.), the company’s new point of rendezvous on Lake Superior. One of his journal entries for this period provides a picture of the men and their master who made these long voyages: “Canoes heavy loaded has nearly knocked the men up nothing but a certain pride and ambition, natural to the North Men keeps them pushing forward with every exertion in their power; but is a very disagreeable task for the Master to undergo when he joins his own Brigade in a difficult and tedious part of the route. Little or nothing is said in the course of the day . . . but no sooner is your tent put up in the evening then you are attacked by every one in his turn. some complain of having a bad Canoe, others a heavy one. . . . Some want Bark, Others Gum. . . . Having listened to all their numerous complaints and redressed them as far as lays in your power, you must attend to the sick and administer accordingly.”

In 1806 Henry led a trading and exploring party into the Missouri River basin. While visiting among the Mandans he met trader Jean-Baptiste Lafrance from Brandon House (Man.). Henry was shown American flags that had been presented to a Mandan chief by captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their way to the Pacific. In his journal Henry records many Mandan customs and notes the physical features which have led to apocryphal accounts that this tribe was descended from the Welsh. He also met with Cheyenne, Crow, and other Indians. In August 1806 Henry arrived back at his Pembina post.

Two years later he left Pembina for the last time, following company orders to move to the Saskatchewan River. On his way he met David Thompson*, making his second expedition to the Columbia River, on 18 August near Cumberland House (Sask.). Henry wintered at Fort Vermilion (at the mouth of the Vermilion River, Alta), travelling down to Fort William (the new name of Kaministiquia) the following summer. At this point in his journal Henry gives a lengthy ethnographic report on the Crees and appends a quinquelingual vocabulary of English, Ojibwa, Cree, Slavey, and Assiniboin. In 1809 he went to Fort Augustus (Edmonton) and then back to Fort Vermilion. He traded at what he called New White Earth House (near the mouth of Wabamun Creek) during 1810 and wintered that year even farther west, at Rocky Mountain House. In 1811 he crossed the Great Divide by “the Rocky Mountain portage” (Howse Pass) to visit the watershed of the river now named the Kootenay. He traded among the Peigans, Salish, and Sarcees that year and the next.

In 1813 the NWC dispatched Henry and Alexander Stewart (Stuart), both partners, to establish trade at the mouth of the Columbia River, where John Jacob Astor had set up a depot [see Duncan McDougall]. They were to work in conjunction with the Isaac Todd, sent from London via Cape Horn under Royal Navy escort to oust the Americans, with whom the British were now at war. Henry records the Nor’Westers’ purchase of Astoria (which they renamed Fort George), hms Racoon’s arrival, Indian raids, and finally the Isaac Todd’s arrival. Reports of these episodes by Gabriel Franchère*, Ross Cox*, and Alexander Ross* corroborate Henry’s narrative. He provides useful data on chief Comcomly and the Chinook Indians, and also records his visit to Lewis and Clark’s westernmost post, Fort Clatsop (near Astoria), and his trips into the Cowlitz and Willamette River valleys. On 22 May 1814 Henry, with Donald McTavish and five sailors, was going in an open boat from Fort George to the Isaac Todd. The boat capsized, and Henry and McTavish drowned.

During his years in the greater northwest, Alexander Henry travelled from Lake Superior to the Columbia River mouth, living for long periods of time at various outposts and crossing the Rocky Mountains several times. His journal is an important source for anthropological and ethnological study. The journal entry for 25 Feb. 1803 observes: “Now the Indians are totally neglecting all their ancient customs and manners and to what else can this degenracy be ascribed but to their intercource with us. . . . If there is a murder committed among the Soulteux it is always in a drinking match, so that we may in truth say that Liquor is the mother of all evil even in the North West.” Yet Henry was principally a businessman and he had little sympathy for his customers. He judged them by European standards. A good illustration is found in his journal entry for 4 March 1814, which describes certain Chinook women whom he found taking their daily bath by the sea: “They were perfectly naked, and my presence did not affect their operations in the least. The disgusting creatures were perfectly composed, and seemed not to notice me. Although they stood naked in different postures, yet so close did they keep their thighs together that nothing could be seen.”

Early in 1801 (quite against his will, according to his journal) Henry had taken an Indian wife, daughter of the Ojibwa chief Liard. Returning to his room after New Year’s celebrations, he found that she had occupied it and, he reported, “the devil could not have got her out.” It is not certain how many children they had, but his Fort Vermilion roster indicates one man, one woman, and three children in his quarters. His will, executed at Fort William on 15 July 1813, indicates that he had three “reputed sons” born in the west during the 1790s. It also mentions his three daughters and one son, children of an Indian woman “who has been in the habit of living with me since the year 1802” and who was the daughter of the Buffalo, an Ojibwa chief.

Barry M. Gough

A transcript of Henry’s journal, made from the original by George Coventry* about 1824, is in PAC, MG 19, A13. Included as well is an outline of the contents, probably also by Coventry. Sections of the journal have been published in an adulterated version in New light on early hist. of greater northwest (Coues). Excerpts also appear in “Henry’s Astoria journal,” The Oregon country under the Union Jack: a reference book of historical documents for scholars and historians, comp. B. C. Payette (Montreal, 1961; 2nd ed., 1962), 1–170, and C. N. Bell, “Henry’s journal . . . ,” Man., Hist. and Scientific Soc., Trans. (Winnipeg), 31 (May 1888); 35 (1889); 37 (1889). Henry’s will is in ANQ-M, CM 1, 7 Oct. 1815. See also L. J. Burpee, The search for the western sea: the story of the exploration of north-western America (London, 1908; new ed., 2v., Toronto, 1935).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Barry M. Gough, “HENRY, ALEXANDER (d. 1814),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 22, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/henry_alexander_1814_5E.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/henry_alexander_1814_5E.html
Author of Article:   Barry M. Gough
Title of Article:   HENRY, ALEXANDER (d. 1814)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1983
Year of revision:   1983
Access Date:   June 22, 2024