Search for furs and a route to the Pacific leads Fraser down the river

Simon Fraser is well known in the academic community. He is also recognized among those who are drawn to the water in British Columbia.

Well, at least his name is anyway.

Fraser may be best known today for the university and river that bear his name in the province ? Simon Fraser University and the Fraser River. After all these years, though, the exploits that earned him those honours may have faded.

Sometimes referred to as the founding father of British Columbia, Fraser built the first trading posts and settlements west of the Rocky Mountains. He is perhaps best remembered for exploring the river that now bears his name.

Fraser was born in 1775 in the American colonies, but grew up in Quebec. A family connection eventually opened up a career with the North West Company ? a collection of small fur trading companies.

Beginning as an apprentice at the age of 16, he worked as a clerk and moved up through the company. He was made a full partner in 1801 at the age of 25.

The early 1800s brought changes to the North West Company. In addition to new leadership, the company took on a new mandate. In an effort to secure more furs and find a trade route to the Pacific Ocean, the company expanded its operations west of the Rockies for the first time.

Fraser was tasked with this mission and was eager to build on Alexander Mackenzie?s earlier work. Although Mackenzie reached the Pacific in 1793, his route was not believed to be ideal.

Besides finding a navigable river route, Fraser was responsible for establishing trading posts and building relationships with the First Nations he encountered.

Along with about 25 men, Fraser?s journey began in the fall of 1805 along the Peace River. Before winter set in they had established two trading posts. The second of the two posts ? Trout Lake Post, which was later renamed Fort McLeod ? enjoyed the distinction of being the first permanent European settlement west of the Rockies in Canada.

Over the next couple of years, Fraser continued his push west and worked at setting up new posts. By May 1808 he was ready to finish his mission.

Thirty-six days after leaving Fort George ? near present-day Prince George ? Fraser?s party reached the Strait of Georgia. Ignoring the warnings of guides to avoid the river, Fraser?s group encountered extremely dangerous falls and rapids.

The portages proved so hazardous in some places that they risked going down the rapids in their canoes instead. Other times they were forced to abandon their canoes and follow along on foot.

Fraser established good relations with many of the First Nations bands he encountered, sharing food, information and even canoes. However, not all encounters were pleasant. After facing a hostile reception as it reached the mouth of the river, his group was eventually forced back into the interior.

With the hostilities and islands preventing direct access to the open sea, Fraser was reported to be disappointed in the outcome. Like Mackenzie, he believed he had failed in his efforts.

In hindsight, he came to realize that he had accomplished what he had set out to do. He also discovered the river, which would one day bear his name, was not the Columbia River as previously thought.

Fraser continued in the fur trade and got caught in the Battle of Seven Oaks ? a conflict between the North West Company and rival Hudson?s Bay Company at the Red River Colony.

Leaving the fur trade in 1817, Fraser moved to Ontario. He died in 1862.

(Paul Spasoff is a freelance writer with an interest in Western Canadian history. Paul can be reached at backtothepast@sasktel.net)