HomeOntarioThe Adventures of Alexander Henry the Elder: Part 6

The Adventures of Alexander Henry the Elder: Part 6

The Adventures of Alexander Henry the Elder: Part 6

Continued from The Adventures of Alexander Henry the Elder: Part 5.

Winter at Mackinac

Before chronicling his winter at Mackinac, Alexander Henry described the provisions on which the French-Canadian voyageurs subsisted during their long voyages into the heart of Indian country. Specifically, the voyageurs from Mackinac were supplied with maize, or Indian corn, grown in the southwesterly village of L’Arbre Croche, home of the Ottawa natives with whom Henry and his men just had their uncomfortable brush. “This species of grain,” Henry wrote, “is prepared for use by boiling it in a strong lye, after which the husk may be easily removed; and it is next mashed and dried. In this state it is soft and friable like rice.” This process, known today as “nixtamalization”, not only makes the corn more nutritious and palatable, but also destroys potentially dangerous toxins which sometimes contaminate untreated maize. Henry wrote that the French-Canadian voyageurs subsisted almost entirely on this substance, along with pure rendered fat, during their 14-month-long journeys into the Canadian wilderness, each man being allotted 30 quarts of nixtamilized corn and two pounds of fat per month. Henry speculated that the unique ability of French-Canadian voyageurs to stomach and survive indefinitely upon this bland fare was a major factor behind the French’s hitherto monopoly of the fur trade in the region.

Fort Mackinac’s new British commander allowed Alexander Henry and the men who remained with him to spend that winter at the fort. The adventurers combatted the winter’s monotony with hunting partridges and hares, and ice-fishing for lake trout, whitefish, and sturgeon. Henry wrote that his men and the fort’s occupants dined chiefly on trout.

Sir William Johnson.

Although few natives visited the fort that winter, a certain Ottawa chief and his family came often to sell beaver meat. This chief, Henry wrote, had been taken prisoner by Sir William Johnson, a celebrated British commander, during the recent Battle of Fort Niagara. Johnson had granted the chief his freedom, and given him a silver medal and a British flag. Very pleased with these unexpected gifts, the chief became sympathetic to the British cause and began displaying the Union Jack atop his wigwam. This act angered many of his compatriots who remained loyal to the French, some of whom destroyed his home and tore his flag to pieces. Thereafter, the chief often came to the fort and showed the tattered remains of his British flag to the soldiers, who would then supply him with “as much liquor as he said was necessary to make him cry over the misfortune of losing his flag.”

Sault Ste. Marie

On May 15, 1762, about a month and a half after the ice broke upon on Lake Huron, Alexander Henry set out in one of his canoes for the northerly village of Sault de Sainte Marie, the site of a Jesuit mission and one of the oldest French fur trading forts in North America, nestled in the strait which separates Lake Huron from Lake Superior. Henry paddled past what he called “Le Detour” (the site of present-day DeTour Village, Michigan), the tip of the peninsula which separates Lake Huron from St. Mary’s River, the latter being the ribbon of water separating Huron from Superior, on which Sault de Sainte Marie is situated.

Henry reached Sault Ste. Marie on May 19th, after a four-day journey, and paid a visit to the fort. He described the complex as consisting of four houses enclosed within a square of wooden palisades. Encamped nearby were bands of both Ojibwa Indians and members of a peaceful nomadic tribe which Henry called the O’pimittish Ininiwac (literally “Men of the Woods”) and the Gens de Terre (French for “Earth Men”)- probably the Mississauga Indians.

Hoping to become fluent in the Ojibwa language, Henry spent more than half a year at Sault Ste. Marie, spending his time fishing, smoking his catch in the Indian fashion, conversing with the fort’s interpreter, a Metis named Jean Baptiste Cadotte, whose family spoke only Ojibwa under their roof. During his stay, a troop of British soldiers arrived at the fort and garrisoned themselves within it.

On December 22nd, a fire broke out in the fort, consuming the commander’s residence and destroying much of the soldiers’ supplies and provisions. The soldiers managed to sustain themselves for some time by snaring hares, hunting partridges, and spearfishing via holes cut through the ice. In February, Henry, the garrison’s commander, and a handful of Ojibwa hunters and French-Canadian voyageurs made the journey to Michilimackinac, where they purchased provisions for the soldiers at Sault Ste. Marie.

During his stay in Michilimackinac, Henry befriended an Ojibwa chief named Wawatam, who often came to the fort to visit him. During one of his calls, he brought his entire family with him, along with a gift of skins, maple sugar, and dried meat, which he presented to Henry. The native then informed the Englishman that, years prior, he had spent several days fasting alone in the wilderness in the hope of receiving a vision from the Great Spirit. During this spiritual retreat, he had a dream in which he adopted an Englishman as his brother. Wawatam believed that Henry must be the Englishman he saw in his dream, and proposed that they become blood brothers. Henry accepted Wawatam’s proposal and gave the Ojibwa a present of his own, much to Wawatam’s pleasure.

Henry stayed on the island until March 10th, whereupon he snowshoed back to Sault Ste. Marie via the Saint Martin Bay, which he called the “Bay of Boutchitaouy”. During this trek, Henry suffered from what he called “snowshoe evil”- an inflammation of the tendons of the lower leg which locals cured by pressing burning touchwood to the affected site and burning the flesh to the nerve. “This experiment,” Henry wrote, “though I had frequently seen it attended with success in others, I did not think proper to make upon myself.”

Continued in The Adventures of Alexander Henry the Elder: Part 7.

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I'm a Western Canadian writer, carver, and fiddler who has a special place in his heart for history and the unexplained.

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