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Fraser: the Man and the River

For the week of Monday May 26, 2003

On May 28, 1808, Simon Fraser left Fort George with a group of men from the Northwest Company and two Aboriginal people. They set off on a long and dangerous expedition in the hope of finding a new navigable passage to the Pacific Coast and of extending trade in the West.

Simon Fraser

Simon Fraser
© Library and Archives Canada / C-004768

Born in 1776 in Mapletown (near Bennington, Vermont), Simon Fraser came from a family of Scottish immigrants. When the American Revolution broke out, his father, defending Loyalist interests, was taken prisoner and died behind bars. At the end of the war, his mother decided to emigrate to Montréal. Fraser began his career in the fur trade with the Northwest Company at the age of 16. In 1801, he became an associate of the Company, an extraordinary feat for such a young man.

In 1805, the Company assigned Fraser and his team the task of developing the fur trade beyond the Rockies. They wanted to explore the river they believed to be the Columbia, but a lack of supplies delayed their expedition until the spring of 1808. Aboriginal people in the region forewarned them that the river had many waterfalls and rapids that were practically unnavigable. Despite this news, they proceeded, but they encountered major difficulties during their journey. Some of them even came close to death. By mid-June, Fraser decided to alternate between water and land travel.

Fraser River

Fraser River
© Natural Resources Canada / C 2003

During this voyage, Fraser's great negociating ability with Aboriginal groups helped immensely his team to cross their territories. After many trials, they made it down the river in 36 days; however, they discovered it was not the Columbia. Fraser felt that he failed since his exploration gained nothing for the Northwest Company. Even so, this expedition turned out to be an important development in Canadian exploration, and that is why the river is today named the Fraser. The question of whether Fraser actually reached its mouth still remains controversial although he did write in his journal that he visited the village of Musqueams, located at the mouth of the river. At the time of his death in 1862, he was one of the last associates of the Company.

The exploration of the Fraser River was designated an event of national historic significance in 1927, and a commemorative plaque was erected in Musqueam, British Columbia.

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