This Week in History


Miss-top-ashish: Little Giant of the Prairies

For the week of Monday July 11, 2005

On July 12, 1690 Hudson’s Bay Company employee Henry Kelsey started his travel journal – the first written history of western Canada. He first arrived on Hudson Bay in 1684 as a cabin boy aboard the Happy Return and remained as a courier. From 1684-1722, ‘Boy Kelsey’ advanced through the Company ranks to become Governor of York Factory but his crowning achievement was his documented trek across the great Canadian prairies.

1970 Stamp honouring Henry Kelsey
© Canada Post Corporation. Reproduced with permission.

Kelsey was an intelligent, keen observer who spoke the Cree language and understood Aboriginal customs. His first inland mission in 1689, to invite the northern Dene peoples to bring their furs directly to Hudson Bay, failed due to extreme weather and insufficient supplies. However, Kelsey became the first non-Aboriginal person to document the arctic muskox.

In 1690, Kelsey journeyed westwards to convince the western Canadian bands to trade their furs directly with the Hudson Bay forts. Kelsey also sought to persuade the Naywatame Poets nation to halt their disruptive inter-tribal raids. For two years, Kelsey travelled through his “inland country of good report,” across the sub-arctic lowlands, the boreal forest and aspen parkland regions, and the grassland prairies of present day Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Kelsey was the first European to observe and document the wood buffalo and the grizzly bear. In fact, Kelsey earned his Cree nickname, Miss-top-ashish (Little Giant), after he killed two threatening and ravenous grizzlies. Kelsey lived among and travelled with several semi-nomadic bands. His journal, written in an irregular poetic style, includes commentaries on Aboriginal pipe ceremonies, tool usage, medical practices and family organization. Although unable to stop the Naywatame raids, Kelsey did convince several inland bands to trade directly with the Hudson’s Bay Company forts.

Kelsey on the Plains: Rex Woods (artist)
© Confederation Life Collection / Library and Archives Canada
Unfortunately, in order to keep Kelsey’s journal out of competitor’s hands, the Hudson’s Bay Company never publicized his accomplishment. The journal resurfaced during a 1759 British government inquiry into the Hudson’s Bay Company monopoly, but it was denounced as fraudulent by Company critics and subsequently disappeared. In 1926, Kelsey’s journal was rediscovered among the personal papers of Arthur Dobbs, the principal critic of the Company in 1759. Kelsey also authored a Cree dictionary and several other journals detailing his personal experiences and Company life.

Kelsey was the first European to explore the Canadian prairies, a commercial venture that would not be duplicated for another fifty years. For his accomplishment, Henry Kelsey was designated a National Historic Person in 1931.

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