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The Trailblazers' Terrible Fate

The Trailblazers' Terrible Fate

It's the North's coldest cold case: Two centuries ago at the mouth of the Mackenzie, six bold fur traders came to grief. Did 'Eskimos' murder them? Or was it an inside job?
By Randy Freeman
Feb 18
2011
From the January/February 2011 Issue

"Dead. They’re all dead.” 

At first, the men stationed at Trout River Fort couldn’t believe their ears. They urged their Slavey translator to ask the question again: “What happened to the Livingston expedition?” But they got the same shocking answer. They’d all been murdered.

It was the late summer of 1799 and the sight of the skinny, ragged Dene man dragging his canoe against the current of the mighty Deh Cho caused alarm. The traders at the fort raced down to the riverbank, perplexed. They were expecting the triumphant return of Duncan Livingston and the men he’d led down the Mackenzie. Instead, this emaciated First Nations guide, who’d been one of Livingston’s crew, brought news of disaster. The rest of the expedition – six healthy, adventurous men – had been massacred. The traders reeled from the news. Yet the precise circumstances of their deaths remained a mystery, and do so to this day. 

Earlier that summer, Livingston, the ambitious young man in charge of Trout River Fort, had set off with his crew and two canoes loaded with trade goods. His employer, the North West Company, was in desperate competition with the Hudson’s Bay Company. To win this war, Livingston’s bosses gave him a make-or-break assignment: be the first trader to explore the Mackenzie Valley. It was beyond the reach of the HBC, and, they hoped, a land so rich in furs it would reverse the North West Company’s flagging fortunes.  

At the time, Livingston’s success seemed likely. He’d started his fur-trading career in Montreal nine years earlier, when, still in his boyhood, he’d become an apprentice clerk. Back then, he was a nobody; his hometown and exact age seem never to have been recorded. It’s known, however, that he was quickly sent to the frontier: the Northwest Territories. For much of 1791, he worked at the North West Company post where the Slave River pours into Great Slave Lake. By 1793, he’d been deployed even farther afield, to what’s now the village of Whatì. This was, for white people at the time, the edge of the unknown. Though scary, it was the perfect proving-ground for a bold young trader.

Reports of Livingston’s work had impressed the North West Company partners. He was intelligent, dedicated and fearless -- qualities the company needed. Here, they thought, was a man who could explore new country, make new contacts with “wild Indians and Eskimos,” and open new realms to trade and profit. 

Livingston’s first tests came in the mid-1790s, when his superiors sent him on several short exploratory trips down “Mackenzie’s River” to gauge its fur-trade potential. On one trip, in the spring of 1795, he built the first-ever trading post on the river, where it’s met by the Trout River, just upstream of the modern-day village of Jean Marie River. Trout River Fort proved profitable, and the North West Company liked what they saw.  

In the fall of 1795, the company leaders ordered Livingston to come to their annual meeting at Grand Portage on Lake Superior. They wanted him to tell them more about his explorations in this new fur country. When he did, they decided he should expand trade all the way down the Mackenzie, clear to the Arctic Ocean. 

At the time, the lower Mackenzie was “terra incognita.” Only one other white man, the North West Company’s Alexander Mackenzie, had been to the river’s mouth, and that was a perfunctory visit. Just six years earlier, in 1789, Mackenzie had floated all the way to the Delta, reached salt water, and confirmed his worst fears: This was not a Northwest Passage to the Pacific. Calling his waterway the River of Disappointment, he retreated south. 

Mackenzie hadn’t tried to trade; indeed, he’d made no direct contact with humans at the river’s mouth, seeing nothing but abandoned camps. Yet both he and Livingston knew that the inhabitants of the Arctic were not the familiar Dene who for decades had welcomed fur traders. Rather, the Delta was inhabited by a fearsome and mysterious people said to enjoy their meat raw – the Eskimos.

By the spring of 1799 – a decade after Mackenzie’s voyage -- Livingston was ready to throw the Lower Mackenzie wide open. He had the equipment, the trade goods and the men he needed. Among his crew was James Sutherland, an interpreter fluent in Dene dialects; canoe paddlers Jacques Beauchamp, Joseph Ayotte and Nicholas Demarse; and three Dene from the Trout River area. They should, by all rights, have succeeded. 

As he fled upstream, he said he looked back to see the Eskimo capture Sutherland. They tied a rope around his neck, tied the other end to a boulder, and threw him in the river.

But they  didn’t. That grim, late summer day in 1799, the sole survivor (whose name was never recorded) explained what happened. Livingston and his men had proceeded downstream with ease, he said – past the Mackenzie’s confluence with the Liard, the Great Bear, the Peel. The country was indeed rich in furs, and the inhabitants were Dene, eager to greet their cousins from further south. But then they entered the Delta, and the river sprawled into tangled veins. Shortly after passing the mouth of a large river that flowed in from the southwest, they stumbled upon a lone Eskimo. The man, caught by surprise, fired an arrow at them. It missed, and before he could fire another, Livingston’s men grabbed him, calmed him down and gave him gifts. Through a series of gestures, Livingston made it clear they wanted him to bring back more Eskimo, so they too could receive gifts. 

The man left and, sure enough, returned with a large group of his countrymen. They were not, however, keen to trade. They set upon Livingston and his men, firing arrows and killing all except Sutherland and the lone Dene man. As he fled upstream, he said he looked back to see the Eskimo capture Sutherland. They tied a rope around his neck, tied the other end to a boulder, and threw him in the river. 

The survivor’s story was horrifying – but at Trout Rock Fort, it was soon cast into doubt. Some whispered that the Dene guides were in fact the murderers. Perhaps they’d killed Livingston because they were so fearful of the Eskimos that they’d pleaded to turn back. When their requests were denied, a battle broke out, leaving the single Dene survivor.

According to other suspicions, Livingston’s party had encountered not Eskimos but a large group of Quarrelers -- an old name for the Gwich’in, the most northerly Dene. When the Quarrelers barred the expedition from passing through their land, all but the lucky Dene man were murdered.

An even more vivid account came from an unpublished history of the Northern fur trade written 50 years after the incident by Roderick McKenzie. Likely pieced together from the many versions of the story that existed in oral history, McKenzie’s tale claimed the Livingston expedition made it past the Arctic Red River, where they encountered a single Eskimo travelling upstream. The man, through gestures, told Livingston and his men to stop and wait on shore for more Eskimos to arrive. 

Livingston, McKenzie writes, made camp and posted a lookout. The rest were asleep when the lookout saw six Eskimo kayakers land on the riverbank well downstream. They left their bows and spears behind and walked to the camp, where they immediately began shouting, shaking their fists and grabbing whatever trade goods they could find. To pacify them, Livingston allowed them to walk away with whatever they could carry. They returned to their kayaks, paddled the rest of the way to Livingston’s camp, and appeared to want to trade. 

It was, however, a trick. In a surprise attack, the Eskimos started firing arrows and hurling spears. Livingston, who’d come down to the water to meet them, was the first killed. The others, though caught off guard, managed to fire their guns and kill four of the seven Eskimos. But before they could reload, they too were shot and speared to death. The single remaining Dene fled back up the Mackenzie. 

Whatever the real story, the demise of Duncan Livingston and his expedition shaped the future of the Mackenzie fur trade. While both the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company soon established trading posts on the big river, they stayed well back from the Delta. It would be another half-century before a post was built in Gwich’in territory, and another half-century until traders finally entered the land of the much-feared Eskimos.