Simon Fraser (1776-1862)
Simon Fraser, born in 1776 in Vermont, was one of the earliest explorers of European descent to travel the interior of British Columbia and, in 1808, became the first to descend the Fraser River. During this journey, he was accompanied by Tse’Khene, Secwepemc, St’at’imc, Nlaka’pamux and Sto:lo guides, French-Canadian voyageurs and others, and used knowledge he learned from the Indigenous Peoples he met along the way. The expedition down on the river that now bears his name is considered one of Canada’s greatest explorations.
Fraser was a partner in the North West Company during the critical years of competition in the fur trade. He began his career in 1792 as an apprentice clerk in Montréal. By 1801, he had been promoted to wintering partner, responsible for managing some of the company’s posts as well as the practical details of obtaining furs from the local people. His rise to prominence coincided with the rise of the North West Company as a major commercial force. It controlled over two-thirds of the Canadian fur trade before it finally merged with its main competitor, the Hudson’s Bay Company, in 1821. The North West Company’s expansion was due, in no small part, to the exploration of men like Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser, and David Thompson, all of whom worked for the company during this period.
Like many explorers and fur traders of this era, Fraser was aware that he needed the assistance and knowledge of the Indigenous Peoples. During his journey down the Fraser River (which he originally thought was the Columbia River), he was accompanied by over 20 men which included French-Canadian voyageurs, Scottish clerks, Métis hunters, and Indigenous guides. As the expedition passed through First Nations’ territories, Fraser often sent First Nation representatives ahead of the party to inform the local communities of their imminent arrival and to assure them that the group’s intentions were friendly. The Indigenous groups provided the travellers with important information, advice, guides, food, and canoes. Oral accounts of Fraser’s travels have survived in many of these communities.
Fraser’s voyages, and the fur trading posts he created, drove the North West Company’s expansion west of the Rockies and, as a result, established a permanent British presence in a territory still unmapped by Europeans. His explorations focused on finding a water route from the interior to the coast. Between 1805 and 1808, he crossed the Rocky Mountains and endeavoured to trace the Columbia River to its mouth, giving the name New Caledonia to what is now the north-central region of the province. In 1805, he established Fort McLeod, which was the first permanent European settlement west of the Rocky Mountains in what is now British Columbia. The next year, he established Fort St. James, Fort Fraser and Fort George (later Prince George). In 1808, his final and most arduous journey brought a party of 24 men down a river to the Strait of Georgia, where he discovered he was not on the Columbia River as he thought but instead on the Fraser.
Simon Fraser was unable to locate a viable water route to the Pacific for the North West Company. His party experienced the extremely dangerous and challenging canyons, particularly through Hell Gate and Black Canyon on the Fraser River. His expeditions, however, laid the foundation for others who later succeeded in connecting the Pacific with the interior of British Columbia. Fraser not only initiated the first European settlements in British Columbia, he also contributed to the continental ambitions of the one of the most important commercial empires of 19th century Canada. Fraser retired from the North West Company, married in 1820 and settled near Cornwall, Ontario. He died in August 1862, at the age of 86.
Simon Fraser Descending the Fraser River, 1808. (Library and Archives Canada).
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