François Beaulieu II was a chief of the Yellowknife tribe in Canada, had three wives and was guide to famed Canadian explorer Sir Alexander Mackenzie in 1789 on his historic 1,080-mile expedition the length of the Mackenzie River north from Great Slave Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories to the Arctic Ocean.
He was a Métis — his father French and mother of mixed Cree and Chipewyan Indian ancestry.
He was born in 1771 at Great Slave Lake and late in life became an ardent Catholic — and lived to be 101.
Beaulieu was feared by neighboring tribes — having killed 12 of their members — yet became wealthy as a fur trader and salt miner, and made history as a frontier guide before Lewis and Clark arrived in the Northwest,
When he was a youngster, his father — also named François — abandoned the family and left the country, and his mother then married a Chipewyan hunter traders called “The Rat.”
The boy was believed raised by relatives from the Yellowknife and Dogrib tribes north of Great Slave Lake.
(Yellowknives were also known as “Red Knives” or “Copper Indians” who lived at the eastern end of Great Slave Lake, while the Dogribs were at the northern tip of the lake, and the Slave or Slavey people along the western and southern shores.)
Reports say while a chief of the Yellowknife tribe, Beaulieu “became the terror” of Dogribs, Slaveys and Sekanis for having killed 12 Sekanis around Fort Halkett with his own hand.
In 1788, North West Company sent 24-year-old Scottish explorer Alexander Mackenzie to Lake Athabasca in the Canadian Northwest where he helped establish Fort Chipewyan. From there he made two exploratory expeditions:
The first in 1789 was to follow the river later named after him from Great Slave Lake to its mouth, hopefully on the Pacific Ocean. But it emptied in the Arctic Ocean, so he called it “River of Disappointment.”
Four years later, François Beaulieu was Mackenzie’s guide on his second mission which was to cross the Canadian Rockies and British Columbia to the Pacific Ocean.
Mackenzie’s crew included his dog, cousin Alexander Mackay, Beaulieu and five other voyageurs (fur trade workers) and two hunter-interpreter Dene Indians.
Ahead were towering mountain ranges, dense forests and cascading rivers. Over that daunting landscape, the men had to transport a 26-foot birch bark canoe with 4-foot-9 beam, and 3,000 pounds of provisions, arms, ammunition and trade goods.
Navigating the waterways was often terrifying, with Mackenzie writing, “The agitation of the water was so great, that a wave striking on the bow of the canoe broke the line, and filled us with inexpressible dismay, as it appeared impossible that the vessel could escape from being dashed to pieces, and those who were in her from perishing.”
After crossing the coastal mountain range, they arrived in the Bella Coola Valley 30 miles from the sea, where they were treated royally by the hospitable Nuxalk Indians who provided them with a canoe and five men including one called Young Chief for the rest of the journey.
Young Chief told an interesting story: “One moon ago, two big canoes were here filled with white men. Bad White Men. One man, Chief called ‘Macubah.’ He shot at my friends and me. One other bad man, white man, called ‘Bensins,’ hit me across back with long knife. White man bad.”
Historians believe that “Macubah” and “Bensins” were Indian interpretations for British explorer Captain George Vancouver and Archibald Menzies, his surgeon and naturalist.
Mackenzie and Vancouver missed meeting each other by just days.
Mackenzie inscribed on a rock in melted bear grease, “Alex Mackenzie from Canada by land 22d July 1793” and became the first person to cross North America from coast to coast above Mexico. Some later described him as the “Lewis and Clark of Canada.”
In 1820, Beaulieu met John Franklin (later Sir John) who was exploring Arctic Canada and gave him advice on a planned journey to the mouth of the Coppermine River in the Arctic. Due to supply problems however, Franklin rejected the advice and the expedition became an unexpected horror trip.
Yellowknife Indians guided them to the Arctic Ocean where the expedition planned to obtain food from the local Inuits. Then as previously agreed, the Yellowknife left and returned home.
Then everything went wrong.
The Inuits fled, leaving five Brits and 15 French-Canadian voyageurs to fend for themselves in the remote icy wilderness.
With no shelter from Arctic winds and food running out, they faced starvation for more than three weeks.
Except for the occasional deer, all they could find were maggoty dried salmon and dried mice and small birds left by the Inuit, low-nutrient lichens, rotting leftovers from wolf packs, and boiled leather from spare boots — earning Franklin the sobriquet “the man who ate his boots.”
The voyageurs became disgruntled and sabotaged the boats hoping to force an end to the expedition. Men began to die due to lack of food, and the group split up with one party attempting to reach help at their old Fort Enterprise camp.
In the ensuing days, voyageur Michel Terohaute was suspected of killing several others and resorting to cannibalism. Then he murdered Robert Hood, before he in turn was shot and killed for his crime by John Richardson, the party’s surgeon.
Richardson then went for help and returned with Indians and food.
Eleven men had lost their lives, with historians suggesting it may have been because Franklin failed to follow François Beaulieu’s advice.
In 1845, Britain sent the 59-year-old explorer on one more mission to the Arctic, with two Royal Navy vessels, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, commissioned to explore the un-navigated part of the Northwest Passage. The entire expedition of 129 men was lost.
Their remains were found years later on Beechey Island and King William Island — having died of pneumonia, lead poisoning and possibly tuberculosis, according to a research team in 1981. Cut marks on bones suggested possible cannibalism.
In the years that followed, François Beaulieu is said to have “lived the life of a sultan with three wives and other casual relationships,” settling with his family and other Indians on the Salt River, a tributary of the Slave River.
Hudson’s Bay Company thought well of him and gave him a monopoly on mining salt found in great abundance on the banks of the river, to supply all the forts and missions of the north. In addition to salt, he sold crops from his farm, milk from his cows, and fish and furs to the company.
When he was about 80, Beaulieu became a convert from pagan to Catholic. Between 1840 and 1860, the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches built missions in the Athabasca and Mackenzie regions, providing health care and assistance to the Indians — by then suffering from white-man diseases.
The churches also established schools and orphanages.
Before he could join the church, François Beaulieu had to divest himself of two of his three wives. After providing for the two, he chose to keep Catherine St. German and formally married her in September 1848.
Three months later, he was baptized at Fort Chipewyan by Father Alexandre-Antonin Taché.
Still full of energy, Beaulieu continued hunting and vigorously promoted his new religious faith. One report said, “He was precise in religious observances, generous in aiding the church, and exerted himself ‘to open the eyes of those Indians who had been led astray by the Protestant minister.’”
One official Canadian report says, “As one of the pre-eminent Métis leaders of his age, Beaulieu’s work, both for the fur companies and later as an independent trader, helped to establish the economic and social links between the people of the Mackenzie River Basin and what, in his lifetime, became Canada.
“His success and influence as a free trader in the age of the fur monopoly was critical to forging an independent economic base for the Métis of the Far North.”
Father Émile-Fortuné Petitot wrote, “When I saw Beaulieu in 1862, he was 85 years old, yet he still hunted by himself, traveled hundreds of miles, running behind his dogs.”
François Beaulieu was the founding father of the Métis people — giving them a clear sense of identity as they played their historic role in the dawn of a new nation.
• • •
Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• • •
King George did one thing right…
Despite King George III being the nemesis of American colonials, he was not without virtue. Years before the American Revolution, he sought protection for Canada’s Indians.
In 1763, he issued a Royal Proclamation recognizing the Indians in Canada as “nations or tribes” and that they “should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of such parts of Our Dominions and Territories as, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us, are reserved to them, or any of them, as their Hunting Grounds…”
The Royal Proclamation further recognized the Indians’ right to self-government, with King George seeking peaceful cooperation between two very different cultures — with neither dominating the other.
What happened to John Franklin?
After two years of not hearing from the John Franklin expedition, Franklin’s wife Jane asked the Admiralty to send a search party — which they did, offering a £20,000 reward for finding them. Both British and American ships headed for the Arctic, with more of the search ships being lost than in the expedition itself.
Lady Franklin sponsored seven expeditions between 1850 and 1875 to find her husband, and his records which she believed were buried somewhere. Two of the expeditions failed to reach the Arctic.
A note was found on King William Island stating that Franklin died there on June 11, 1847, but his gravesite has never been found.
Lady Franklin’s Lament…
We were homeward bound one night on the deep
Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep
I dreamed a dream and I thought it true
Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew
With a hundred seamen he sailed away
To the frozen ocean in the month of May
To seek a passage around the pole
Where we poor sailors do sometimes go
Through cruel hardships they vainly strove
Their ships on mountains of ice were drove
Only the Eskimo with his skin canoe
Was the only one that ever came through
In Baffin’s Bay where the whale fish blow
The fate of Franklin no man may know
The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell
Lord Franklin alone with his sailors do dwell
And now my burden it gives me pain
For my long-lost Franklin I would cross the main
Ten thousand pounds I would freely give
To know on earth, that my Franklin do live
The Métis are an ethnic group in Canada and the U.S. whose parents are mixed-race — the men usually French ancestry and the women indigenous (Indian or First Nation). The word “metis” is old French meaning “mixed.”