The minister was on “a crusade” — not for God, but for a fur trader.
In the early 1950s, Reverend J.W. Whillans began championing the exploratory feats of Hudson’s Bay Company employee Henry Kelsey, the first known European to walk the northern prairies and see the great bison herds in 1690-92.
Whillans said that the forgotten Englishman was “the first of our western explorers … the greatest of them all.”
In fact, the minister claimed that Kelsey had traveled across the future province of Saskatchewan as far west as the Battle River.
Whillans’s campaign to revive the memory of Kelsey culminated in his 1955 book, First in the West.
Not only did Willans argue that the HBC man was the “discoverer of the Canadian prairies,” but from the title, it seemed that Indigenous people were just part of the flora and fauna.
There’s no question that Kelsey did travel inland from York Factory on the southwest coast of Hudson Bay and spend the better part of two years in the interior in the early 1690s.
But where exactly did he go?
One researcher claimed that the “problem” of his route is “like … a jigsaw puzzle.”
Others in the search for clues to his whereabouts have politely called his travel descriptions “vague.”
The mystery is further compounded by the fact that Kelsey’s original journal did not surface until 1926.
These documents confirmed that the HBC had officially sanctioned Kelsey’s two-year trip inland, but there are large gaps in his journal entries, stretching over several months.
That did not stop Reverend Whillans, who once preached in the Carrot River district, from taking Kelsey’s infrequent location references and trying to match them to places on the ground in Saskatchewan.
What gets overlooked, though, is that Kelsey was entirely dependent on the goodwill and cooperation of the Indigenous peoples of the region.
Indeed, it was impossible for Kelsey to make the trip on his own because he did not know where he was going, let alone how he was going to get there.
Simply put, the HBC servant was a passenger, not a pathfinder.
Kelsey left for the interior on June 12, 1690 with a group of Assiniboine and Cree people who were headed back up the Hayes River after their annual trade session at the fort.
He carried with him a sampling of trade goods and instructions to encourage the interior Indians to come to the bay to trade.
By July 10, a month after departing from York Factory, Kelsey had traveled southwest some 600 miles, including some 33 portages, before stopping at a meeting place at a bend in the Saskatchewan River.
It is now generally accepted that it was probably at The Pas, near the junction of the Carrot River, just on the eastern side of the Manitoba/Saskatchewan interprovincial boundary. It was the Assiniboine and Cree who chose the places to stop and camp on the way inland, in effect leading Kelsey in his so-called “discovery” of the interior by serving as guides and sharing their knowledge about the land.
Kelsey spent his first inland Canadian winter probably in the Upper Assiniboine River area on the edge of the northern parklands.
The following summer, around mid-July 1691, a Cree party took him up the Saskatchewan River through the maze of channels and marshlands that make up the river delta, west to the Carrot River where they left their canoes and set off overland on foot.
Kelsey’s escorts would naturally have followed the extensive system of trails that crossed Indigenous territories and had been used for generations.
Based on what is known about these travel ways from archaeological research, Kelsey must have walked along the Greenbush Trail.
This historic north-south travel way ran from the Shoal Lake area (south of the Saskatchewan delta/Carrot River) through the Pasquia Hills to the Red Deer Forks (where the Fir and Etomani rivers meet).
In fact, some trail features nicely match his journal descriptions, especially his comments about going from wet to drier ground.
These trail ways eventually led to the aspen parklands near Sturgis, Saskatchewan.
He was nowhere near — as Whillans later maintained — the junction of the North Saskatchewan and Battle rivers.
In retrospect, where Kelsey went and what he saw are certainly significant, but who he went with and how he got there are just as important to the story.
The Cree and Assiniboine accepted the European newcomer as their guest and allowed him to enter an Indigenous world, but on their terms.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix as part of the “Say It Ain’t So” series.
PHOTO: In 1970, on the 280th anniversary of Kelsey’s inland trip, Canada Post honoured “the first explorer on the plains” with a six-cent stamp. LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA POS-000573.
Historian Bill Waiser is author of In Search of Almighty Voice, available in May 2020.