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It may never be known for certain what attracted settlers to the Lake of the Woods area. Some may have come for the fur trade, or to log. Others may have arrived to prospect for gold or to work in one of the many gold mines, while still others may have looked to commercial fishing, or to participate in the steamboat industry. Whatever the reasons for their arrival, it appears that the successful settler possessed a deep appreciation and respect for nature, and a readiness to combine “earning an income” with “living off the land” as a way of life. The early settlers, like the first fur traders, greatly benefited from the cooperative spirit of the Aboriginal community in the area. As the original inhabitants of this region, First Nation peoples had lived and used the resources in this territory for centuries.
The first Canadian to visit the area was likely Jacques de Noyon, a native of Three Rivers, Quebec. De Noyon was in search of a route to the Pacific and by about 1688 had made his way to Lake of the Woods. It appears, however, that he never went farther west than Lake of the Woods. It would be another forty-four years before another native of Three Rivers, Quebec, Pierre Gaultier de la Verendrye, would make the journey to the lake region. La Verendrye built Fort St. Charles in 1732 on the western side of Lake of the Woods, and the post was the first non-aboriginal settlement on the lake. Fort St. Charles continued as a working post for approximately thirty years.
After La Verendrye’s death in 1749 the post appeared to remained active until the Treaty of Paris (1763) which handed the territory over to Britain. After the transfer the post apparently fell victim to decay or was destroyed. In 1775, the explorer/fur trader Alexander Henry Sr. hinted that the post may have fallen victim to Sioux looting. The fort was “formerly frequented by numerous bands of Chipeways, but these have since been almost entirely destroyed by the Nadowessies (Sioux). When strong, they were troublesome. On account of a particular instance of pillage, they have been called Pilleurs.” While journeying on the lake, Alexander Henry did not deviate from the established route through the area and did not explore any of the surrounding lands or waterways.
In the last quarter of the 1700’s the fur trading companies began to establish trading post along Rainy River and at present day Fort Frances. Lake of the Woods, therefore, became part of a large fur trade transportation system which carried furs from the Athabasca region to the Montreal market, and in return provided trade goods from Montreal to the posts of the interior. As David Thompson, explorer-cartographer noted:
‘…..the canoes from Montreal came, carrying forty to forty five pieces of merchandise, including spirituous liquors; each piece of the weight of ninety to one hundred pounds; these canoes then were loaded with the packs of furs, the products of the winter trade of the interior countries, and returned to Montreal; the merchandise for the winter trade of the distant trading posts were here assorted, and made up in pieces each weighing ninety pounds; the canoes were of a less size, and the load was twenty five pieces, besides the provisions for the voyage and the baggage of the men: Being a weight of about 2900 pounds, to which add five men, the weight a canoe carries will be 3700 pounds.’
The canoes traveled in groups known as “brigades” of four or eight. The routes taken through the lake were steadfastly adhered to. “The canoe track is their home & it is their pride to know every crook & turn in it; but to attempt the least deviation is precisely like the driving of swine. They will seek every chance to come back & obstinately go forward.” The two most common routes seemed to begin at the mouth of Rainy River. The first path entailed paddling along the west side of the lake, cutting across the Big Traverse. The second course avoided the Big and Little Traverse by going east of the Big Traverse through a series of islands and bays on the south west side of the Aulneau Peninsula through to French Portage and French Portage Narrows and up to Rat Portage and the Winnipeg River.
While the Rainy River and Fort Frances posts were lynch pins in the long transportation system, Post managers did not overlook the fur riches in their immediate vicinity. With the consent and guidance of the First Nation peoples in the area, sub-posts or outposts were set up at several locations in Lake of the Woods, including Whitefish Bay, then known as Whitefish Lake. The establishment of an outpost effectively incorporated the region into the growing fur trading network which flourished across North America. The sub-post at Whitefish Lake proved to be a good source of furs, fish and wild rice. Building the post near the Aboriginal wintering grounds eliminated the need for the Aboriginal people to travel to Rainy or Fort Frances to trade; greatly reducing the chance that they would barter with a competitor. The men employed at the sub-post were a collection of voyageurs and local Aboriginals. The long term presence of fur traders and voyageurs among the Aboriginal people led to, in some cases, intermarriage with Aboriginals and the creation of families which are still members of the present day communities.
Participation in the fur trade, however, did little to further the explorers’ or the general public’s understanding of the region. Explorers and travellers made comment on the beauty of the Lake of the Woods, but offered no detailed examination of the entire lake; largely due to the fact that they were more interested in points farther west. If local fur traders mapped the area, it seems that no maps survived the test of time.
The first extensive survey of Lake of the Woods appears to be the result of the Treaty of Ghent and a joint Boundary Commission that was set up to determine the border between the United States and British North America. David Thompson, explorer-cartographer, worked for the British Boundary Commission, and James Ferguson was the Principal Surveyor for the US Boundary Commission. The surveyors reached the lake in 1823, and each surveyor had his own local guides. Thompson and Dr. John Bigsby’s group proceeded to chart a course from the mouth of Rainy River to Rat Portage via the south shore and the west side of the Aulneau Peninsula, locating the Northwest Angle and Monument Bay; which ultimately established the present day Canada-US Boundary.
On their return voyage from Rat Portage they traveled along the north east shore of the lake passing through Yellow Girl Bay and into what was then referred to as Dryberry Bay, (likely the beginning of Long Bay). On existing one of the bays on the north shore of the lake they located a channel which led them into Whitefish Lake/Bay. They ventured only a couple of miles into Whitefish Lake/Bay before returning through another channel farther west leading into Yellow Girl and Sunset Channel. Despite their short foray into Whitefish Lake/Bay they provided the first official survey evidence to determine that Whitefish Lake/Bay was part of Lake of the Woods.
They continued their journey around the west side of the Aulneau and along its south shore towards Sabaskong Bay, Turtle Portage, and present day Nestor Falls. Based on the report of Dr. Bigsby, their Aboriginal guide informed them that from the mouth of Turtle Portage through Whitefish Lake/Bay to the mouth of Yellow Girl Bay where they entered (probably near Rendez Vous Point), was approximately thirty five miles. Bigsby was also informed by the guide that from the a river flowing into Sabaskong Bay an overland route using a series of rivers and portages was used to reach the Fort at Rainy Lake.
Through the efforts of their Aboriginal guides and as a result of the Boundary Commission, a new international boundary was struck and explorers gained a better understanding of the lake beyond the common water routes of the fur traders. It appears, however, that further exploratory surveys were not commissioned as the lake basin did not warrant the expenditures. Consequently, the territory remained primarily a fur trade region and continued to be controlled by the First Nation peoples; passage through the area followed the routes used by the previous generation of fur traders.
It would be another thirty four years before any effort was made to map out the lake routes through the territory. In 1857 a Canadian expedition led by George Gladman was given the task to explore passages from Lake Superior to Red River and to the Rockies. In July, Gladman and his colleagues S.J. Dawson, W.H. Napier and H.Y Hind set off from Collingwood, Upper Canada. They arrived at the Fort Frances HBCo. fur trading post in August. When they reached the Post, Gladman decided to divide the group into three parties in order to explore the differing routes to the Red River settlement. Dawson and Hind were to follow a little known western route exiting Lake of the Woods by Muskeg River (Reed River). At the head of the Muskeg River they would cross swamp land, eventually hooking up with Roseau Lake. From there they would follow the Roseau River to the Red River leading to the colony at Fort Garry. Gladman would proceed to Rat Portage via the Big Traverse and Big Narrows. From Rat Portage Gladman would follow the Winnipeg River and eventually arrived at the Red River Settlement.
Dawson and Hind, however, were intercepted just north of Garden Island by a principal Ojibway chief. Suspicious of Dawson and Hind’s motives, the chief insisted that they resume the common route of the fur traders. “The white man comes looks at their flowers, their trees and their rivers; others soon follow him; the lands of the Indians pass from their hands and they have a home nowhere. You must go by the way the white man has hitherto gone.”As a result, Dawson and Hind went north to Rat Portage and did not explore the over land route to Red River from the west side of Lake of the Woods.
A third route, not usually used by travellers, was shown to W.H. Napier, an engineer with the expedition. Napier followed a northerly path from the Northwest angle of Rainy Lake to Rat Portage. “This is the winter road and is preferred to the route by the Rainy River as being more sheltered and free from the long open traverse necessary in crossing to the Rat Portage from the mouth of Rainy River. From the Rainy Lake this road follows a chain of small lakes and connecting creeks with occasional portages until the North East corner of the Lake of the Woods is reached when the route continues thro’ the numerous islands on to the Rat Portage.” Maps submitted by the expedition indicate that the winter route crossed Turtle Portage and passed up Whitefish Lake/Bay. It also seems likely that this passage, or a variation, would have been used to reach the subposts located in Whitefish Lake/Bay.
Napier’s exploration of the alternate route from Rainy Lake over the back country to Lake of the Woods and through White Fish Lake/Bay to Rat Portage was a rare exception to the usual passage. The Aboriginal people usually restricted travellers to the established fur trade corridors. As Palliser, Dawson and Hind had learned, the land in question was Ojibway territory and the inhabitants were suspicious of the intentions of newcomers. After Confederation (1867), it became apparent that if Canada were to expand west and populate the prairies with European immigrants, treaties would have to be concluded with the First Nation peoples. In 1873, the Dominion Government and the Ojibway signed Treaty Three which ceded a vast tract of territory, including Lake of the Woods, to the Government of Canada.
With Ojibway claim over the land relinquished, the pace of exploration and resource extraction quickened. Timber merchants were also active in evaluating and mapping out suitable timber berths, and shortly after Treaty Three, G.M. Dawson from the Geological and Natural History Survey of Canada made extensive observations on the resource potential of the area. Dawson’s report, published in 1875, was the first in a series of exploration reports conducted by the group. By the early 1880’s, the Geological and Natural History Survey of Canada began an ambitious project designed to systematically map the lake and surrounding area. In 1883 A.C. Lawson began work at the mouth of Rainy River, proceeded through Sabaskong Bay and the south and south west portions of the lake. The next year, Lawson and his crew continued on the north part of the lake. He ended the summer by charting the “back route” known as the “winter road” previously explored by Napier. Lawson returned in 1885 and concluded his mapping by surveying Whitefish Bay, the southern part of the Aulneau and the islands in the immediate vicinity. The completion of the survey marked the first time the Lake of the Woods was systematically mapped with the topography and geology recorded.
Having a comprehensive map of the lake was no doubt of great assistance to the logging and mining industries, but it seems likely that many of the first newcomers to the area followed the established routes and settled in close proximity to fur trade posts. It appears that the first wave of settlers arrived in the late 1870’s to early 1880’s. Recollections of a few of the early settlers such as J.N. Pither and Frank Gardner reveal that the area was populated by a few fur traders and the First Nation peoples; as Gardner pointed out, “My first appearance on the Lake of the Woods was in September 1875. At that time there were no settlers on any part of the lake.” Soon after Gardner’s arrival more immigrants moved into the area. W.A. Johnston credited the construction of the CPR in 1881 as a significant factor in the influx of new settlers.
While many no doubt arrived at Rat Portage via the CPR, the passage by way of Rainy River remained an important one. According to Robert Horley Sr., early migration to Whitefish Bay and Sioux Narrows involved one of three routes. Steamers followed Rainy River into Lake of the Woods, then around the Aulneau Peninsula through Tranquil and Sunset channel and through Whitefish Narrows into Whitefish Bay. Alternatively, some traveled from Rainy River to Morson, Ontario. By the 1880’s the Morson area had developed into a prosperous settlement engaged in farming, fishing and lumbering. Consequently, Morson was a fairly logical departure point. From Morson travellers followed a path leading to Nestor Falls, Crow Lake, Height of Land, Pipestone, and Clearwater. A final route involved crossing Sabaskong Bay to Turtle Portage; once over the portage the traveler entered Whitefish Bay. By 1897 locals had established winter roads across the Aulneau to shorten travel time. One road extended from Sabaskasing Bay in the south to Stron Bay near Sunset Channel, west of Cliff Island on the north part of the peninsula.
For the period 1885-1935, early settlement appeared to be scattered and sporadic. The lake had several small communities as well as numerous settlers living among the many islands and bays. Some of the better known locations lasted for over thirty five years and included Falcon Narrows, Big Island, French Portage, Whitefish Bay and Regina Bay. Many who settled in the area developed family ties with the Aboriginal communities of Whitefish Bay, Sabaskong, Big Island and Northwest Angle. The southern portion of Whitefish Bay and Regina Bay proved to be quite popular with settlers as several permanent and semi permanent dwellings and tourist camps were established.
While the settlers were separated by distance, they shared common lifestyle characteristics. It appears that living in the lake area meant accepting a lifestyle which relied on a combination of earning wages and using the natural resources for basic necessities such as building houses, boats and canoes. Food was secured by hunting and trapping wild game, and fishing; and nearly all pioneer dwellings had gardens. Other food articles and provisions were likely supplemented with purchases at the post or in one of the towns.
Those who were attracted to the area seemed to be well suited. For much of the period between 1885-1935, jobs seemed to follow seasonal cycles. The logging-lumber industry and the economic spin-off opportunities that the industry generated appeared to set the tone for many area residents. Other industries included commercial fishing, mining, trapping, fur trading, steamboat travel, lake freighting, boat building, guiding, carpentry and small scale farming. Late spring, summer and early fall seemed to allow people the opportunity to engage in various jobs such as guiding, carpentry, and farming; as well as commercial fishing as practiced by Olof Johnson, the Morriseaus, the McPhersons and the Boucha family, all long time residents of French Portage.
During the winter months, the logging industry provided employment for hundreds, if not thousands of local men. Many of the locals, like Pierre Dubois, Henry Thompson, Tommy Harrison, Fred Caron, John Gardner and Paul Sammons worked in one or more aspects of the forest industry; logging in the winter months, and working on river drives, log tows or in the mill during the summer months. Apparently logging offered settlers like Joe Soisson during the first decade of the 1900’s, the opportunity to run a logging and tourist camp on the north shore of Long Bay. Soisson seems to have housed loggers in the winter, and in spring, summer and fall he offered the camp to hunting and fishing enthusiasts. In that capacity, Soisson may have operated the area’s first tourist camp.
Freighting services were another important source of employment as supplies would be sent by boat from Rat Portage/Kenora to trading posts on Regina Bay, logging camps or private camps located on the islands. In the case of Anton Vick, during the 1920’s and 30’s, transporting supplies such as fish, dry goods, and building materials was a yearly business. When the lake was free from ice his boat, the Larchmount, was used. In winter a truck equipped with a wing plow made ice roads to logging camps and trading posts to continue deliveries.
Some occupations like operating a trading post were a yearly endeavour. The HBCo. post on Regina Bay seemed to play an instrumental role in the development of the Sioux Narrows community. As a fur trade sub-post the establishment acted as a meeting place and supply depot for both First Nations and early settlers. When the HBCo. decided to close the post in the 1890’s it was taken over by Joseph Desrosier. His son Phillip, an avid trapper, maintained an active presence in the fur industry for well over fifty years, while Joseph operated the trading post until 1932. The long term presence of the trading post appears to have led settlers to gravitate to its location as it was a remote contact point to larger centres such as Rat Portage. With the arrival of more settlers another trading post was started by Paul Sammons. While it is not clear when Sammon’s post opened, some say as early as the late 1880’s. The post enjoyed the pleasure of a number of customers as early family histories recount many stories associated with Sammon’s establishment.
Also significant to the development of Sioux Narrows was the existence of the Regina Bay gold mine. The mine, and others like it in the area, provided work and promoted prospecting for those caught in the rush for gold. From 1895-1900 the mine was in full operation employing approximately eighty-five men. By the 1900’s the mine had a schoolhouse, miner’s residences and a common hall. Over the following forty-five year period the mine was closed as often as it was open, yet the intermittent employment opportunities seemed to be sufficient to attract additional settlers to the area.
The locations of the trading posts and gold mine were important early determinants in localizing a settlement pattern in the greater Sioux Narrows area. It appears the final significant factor which led to the development of a permanent community in the area was the construction of Highway 71 and the bridge which spans the Sioux Narrows gap. Road and bridge construction likely provided welcome business for some of the first camps in the area. For example, Crawford’s Camp, built in 1934, was located near the narrows allowing the crew to walk to work; and Rene and Marie Mantha’s camp on Long Bay hosted work crews as well. It should be noted, however, that tourists had been coming to the area previous to road access, and staying at small camps like Maple Leaf camp, Sioux Point or Long Bay Camp. The first tourists/adventurers were escorted from Morson and boated to Turtle Portage where they crossed the portage and entered Whitefish Bay. The number of tourists and their economic impact, however, were small in comparison to the later period.
With the opening of the road and bridges on Highway 71, tourists from the US and other parts of Canada could travel by car to the lake area. While the true impact of car travel would wait until after the Second World War initial signs of a new tourist industry in the years 1936-1940 were encouraging. By the late 1930’s new buildings and businesses began to be located along the highway and near the bridge site to support a new service industry based on tourism.