The IW's American explorer

By John Medland

Published on Friday, January 04, 2013 - 11:17


The IW's American explorer

Anthony Henday enters the Blackfoot camp in 1754. Picture by Franklin Arbuckle, c1949, from the HBC Corporate Collection.

WIGHT LIVING IN 1754, the chief officer of a sub-Arctic trading outpost in the north of Canada asked for a volunteer for a dangerous diplomatic mission.

A 30-year-old IW labourer, Anthony Henday, stepped forward into history. Over the next two years, Henday became the first European to explore north-western North America to within sight of the Rocky Mountains. He is now regarded as one of the founders of modern Canada.

The baptism of an Anthony Henday is recorded at Shorwell Church in 1725. We know from later accounts that in 1748 he was condemned as a smuggler and declared an "outlaw".

Two years later, Henday was employed by the Hudson Bay Company as a fishing-net maker. All these facts suggest he came from a family of Island longshoremen.

The Hudsons Bay Company had been created by Royal Charter in 1670 as a monopoly on the lucrative fur trade of western Arctic North America. Henday was posted to the trading factory at York.

In the early 1750s, it seemed the French were winning a continental competition with Britain to control eastern North America. In the 1740s and 1750s the French expanded their trading colonisation into the region south west of York, which was claimed by the company.

James Isham, the chief officer at York, instructed Henday to invite the Archithinues tribe to send furs to Fort York in return for trade goods. Isham had only the vaguest idea of who the Archithinues were.

On June 26, 1754, Henday set off with a returning trading party of Cree Native Americans.

For the first few weeks, the Cree party travelled by canoe through lakes and up the rivers of modern Manitoba. They passed through the western French trading outposts into lands not yet visited by Europeans.

In August, the trading party met up with their women and families and continued their trek, partly overland and in part by river through modern Saskatchewan. Henday formed an important relationship with a Cree woman who could gather native food, cook and help him with the translation of the various languages they encountered.

On September 6, in modern Alberta, the party met with Eagle Indians.

Henday’s diplomacy was effective. Trading parties of Eagle people annually traded with York after his visit. The Cree party continued overland across the prairie. On September 15, Henday recorded, "Buffalo so numerous obliged to make them sheer out of our way."

They were now meeting with parties of mounted Archithinue buffalo hunters. They called themselves the Niitsitapi (the 'real people’). We know them as the Blackfeet.

On October 14, about 18 miles southeast of what is now Red Deer, Alberta, Henday’s party came to a great camp of 200 tepees neatly pitched in two rows.

Henday was led up the imposing street to the buffalo-hide lodge of the head chief, capable of seating about 50 people. His reception was attended by 20 elders.

The tribal leader seated Henday at his right hand on a newly-dressed buffalo hide. Tobacco pipes were passed. Boiled buffalo meat was circulated in baskets of woven grass and the honoured guest was presented with a delicacy of 12 tongues.

The next day Henday asked the chief that some of the young men be allowed to return to York with him. The chief replied that they "could not live without buffalo meat or leave their horses and that they did not know how to use canoes."

He had heard the people who went down to the bay often starved on the journey.

"Such remarks I thought exceeding true," noted Henday, who had only half-completed the gruelling journey after 16 weeks of travel.

That winter, Henday’s party continued exploring to within sight of the Rocky Mountains. From March 5 to April 28, 1755, they camped at the confluence of the Sturgeon and North Saskatchewan rivers, about 20 miles from modern Edmonton, building canoes for the long journey back to Hudson’s Bay.

As they paddled down the North Saskatchewan that spring, they were met by bands of Indians who joined them or traded their furs to the Crees for English goods.

When Henday’s party of 60 canoes reached Fort Saint-Louis, the French traders traded from them about a thousand prime skins. Henday was traded out, "there are scarce a gun, kettle, hatchet, or knife amongst us," he said.

Henday reported of the French traders superiority, speaking "several languages to perfection: they have the advantage of us in every shape; and if they had Brazile tobacco they would entirely cut off our trade."

Luckily, news that fighting had broken out between British and French soldiers the previous year in Ohio had not reached St Louis.

On June 23, 1755, three days short of a year of leaving, Henday arrived back at York with 70 canoes filled with furs. His compatriots simply couldn’t believe some of his tales.

A week later he set off again with a company official called Grover, who was soon beaten by the hardship. The expedition was obliged to return.

In 1756, Henday set off to survey a possible settlement site 500 miles inland. He fell ill and the expedition was abandoned. Illness dogged him for the next two years but in June 1759 he set off again to visit the Blackfeet with a companion, Joseph Smith.

"Henday, Smith, and 61 canoes of Indians reappeared at York in June 1760."

Sadly, the journal of this second year-long expedition has not survived.

The French and Indian wars (1754-1763) ended with the effective expulsion of the French from mainland North America. This removed the need for Henday’s diplomatic trade missions.

In 1762 Henday resigned. No one knows what happened to him after he picked up his wages in London. There were plenty of opportunities in the contemporary Atlantic world for such a talented man to literally lose himself.

There is, as far as I know, no legacy of Henday’s achievements here but in Canada Henday is well remembered. In fact, this humble Shorwell longshoreman is commemorated in a structure set to outdo all the Pharoah’s pyramids put together.

Anthony Henday Drive is the M25 of the city of Edmonton. When the frictionless freeway is completed in 2016, it will be 78km long with 78 connecting roads. Plans for the latest section can be seen

• With thanks to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online and Graham Ward, of Stagwell Farm, who alerted me to this story.

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