On Simpson Island, that is just below the Forks of the Mackenzie River, once stood the Fort of the Forks.  This Northwest Company fur trade post had been constructed in 1803 and permanently occupied in 1804.  Activities there fell under the command of Willard Ferdinand Wentzel whose surviving journals cover much of the brief existence of the post.  Even though the texts are all too often brief, they nonetheless relate details of activities around the post and some of the characteristics of the Fort of the Forks.  Thanks to his writings for example, we know that there were several buildings at the post, including living quarters, a warehouse, an ice house and at least one outhouse.  We also know that there was a garden at the fort where a surprising array of crops were grown, including potatoes, peas, oats....  

Life at this isolated fur trade post located several thousand kilometres from Montréal was not easy.  First of all, just getting there took at least two years in the birch bark canoes that were manned by the hardy voyageurs; a trip that was surely filled at times with  great adventures and dangers.  Once at the post, and following the end of the brief summer trading season, a period of long silence and monotony set in, especially during the winter time.  And there was always a risk of running short of food.

In fact, the winter of 1810/11 was one of the most painful and deadly.  Hare became a survival food during hard times, whether you were Native or not, and that winter, they failed.  In all likelihood, the hare were at the low point of their seven year cycle. To make matters even worse, the weather was very cold; so cold that the ice on the Mackenzie River was so thick that nets could not be set under the ice in the hopes of catching some fish.  It wasn't long before the meagre food supplies began to run out. There was no choice but to try to stay alive by eating the fur pelts that had been obtained from the Native people who had come to the post and exchanged them for the trade goods so laboriously hauled to the Forks from Montréal.  But these skins have next to no nutritional value as they were first scraped clean of any fatty matter in order to prepare them for trade.  

Wentzel related how among the local First Nation band, five people died of starvation.  At the Fort of the Forks, four people died during the month of March from want of food.  Those four Northwest Company employees were: William Henry, the post's hunter, Louis LeMai dit Poudrier as well as one of his children, and François Pilon.  The Fort of the Forks was abandoned the following spring.  We were not told the nature or location of the burials of these four unfortunate people.  However, given the abandonment of the site and the weakened condition that the survivors must have found themselves in, it is likely that they were buried very close to the post, if not within it.  They might even have used an existing depression or pit, such as the ice house, which was going to be abandoned in any event. 

Follow this link to read Wentzel's letter to Roderic Mackenzie describing the loss of four of his men.

Who was this François Pilon?
Some Pilons return to the Forks of the Mackenzie in 2002

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