Manitoba History: The Life and Death of Matonabbee: Fur Trade and Leadership Among the Chipewyan, 1736-1782

by Strother Roberts
History Department, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois

Number 55, June 2007

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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In March 1771, Matonabbee, an important leader among the Chipewyan Indians, found himself on the shores of Wholdaia Lake in what is now south-eastern Northwest Territories. For the last four months, he had been escorting a young Englishman named Samuel Hearne, an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), across the barrens of Canada’s northern interior, searching for a copper mine that native rumours placed along the banks of a northward flowing river. Hearne had made two prior attempts to seek out this “coppermine” river, and both had been utter failures. But crossing frozen Wholdaia Lake, Hearne found something besides the mineral wealth for which he sought. In this most unlikely spot, on the shores of a frozen lake among people who his own countrymen would most likely dismiss as backwards and uncivilized, Samuel Hearne found paradise.

Fort Prince of Wales, 1734 in a painting by Arthur H. Hider for the Hudson’s Bay Company 1922 calendar.
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Calendar Art Series P-386.

Composing his journal a few years later, Hearne wrote of the Lake Wholdaia Chipewyan as living in a state of primitive plenty. The woodlands bordering the lake and nearby Dubawnt River teemed with such numbers of caribou that the Chipewyan hunters, using pounds constructed of bushy trees and snares made of rawhide, could easily provide enough meat for the entire community. Even the elderly in the community were well provided for and spared the deprivations that regularly faced other communities of the normally nomadic Chipewyan during their seasonal travels throughout what would later be northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

This vision of Eden upon the Dubawnt caused Hearne to become quite philosophical about the impact of European contact on Native Americans. At the same time that he celebrated the simple subsistence of the Lake Wholdaia Chipewyan, he lamented what he perceived as the harmful effects of European trade goods on native economies. It was those Indians who “never give themselves the trouble to acquire what they can do well enough without” that Hearne declared to be “the most happy.” [1]

On the other hand, Hearne expressed pity for those among the Indians who spent their time acquiring furs to trade to the Europeans and regularly made the dangerous trip to the Hudson’s Bay and back again, only to exchange their newly acquired European manufactures among their neighbours for more skins and then repeat the journey. In fact, he went so far as to describe them as little more than “slaves and carriers to the rest.” The only explanation that Hearne could conceive for these “carriers” to behave in a manner so clearly against their own interest was the sense of pride that they felt at the elaborate shows of respect given them by their European trading partners. But Hearne seems to suggest that he personally viewed this as small compensation. [2]

It is unlikely that Matonabbee would have shared the sentiments of his English companion. In fact, he fit perfectly into that class of Indians who Hearne described as “carriers to the rest.” But far from becoming a “slave” to those Indians in the interior to whom he provided European goods, Matonabbee had parlayed his role as middleman into a position of respect and authority not only among his own people, the Chipewyan, but also among several of the other native peoples with whom they had contact. While Hearne idealized the Wholdaia Lake Chipewyan as a perfect example of the simple and happy “noble savage,” Matonabbee took as his goal another ideal. This ideal, that of the open-handed leader who earned respect through generosity, was rooted in traditional Chipewyan culture, but conditioned by the still relatively new opportunities of the fur trade.

It was exactly because Matonabbee was an experienced “carrier” to the Chipewyan and Copper Indians, through whose lands Hearne needed to pass, that he was so perfectly qualified as a guide for the Englishman’s expedition. Because these peoples knew Matonabbee and respected him, Hearne was able to place himself under the protection of this “principal man,” and avoid the harsh treatment that he had experienced at native hands on his two previous attempts to reach the Coppermine River. Matonabbee was not only not a “slave” to those native peoples with whom he had contact, but was in fact the true leader of Hearne’s expedition and a respected figure throughout the lands to the west of Hudson’s Bay. The expansion of the Atlantic commercial network into the Canadian interior had opened up new opportunities for the Native American communities that surrounded the Bay. Matonabbee, and other men like him, seized these opportunities to integrate themselves into the fur trade, make themselves indispensable to both their European trading partners and their Indian clients, and ultimately to build themselves lives of prestige and honour.

A stark contradiction existed between the simple lives of the Wholdaia Lake Indians, whose existence Hearne so idealized, and the path to commercial success that Matonabbee had taken to make himself a leading man among the Chipewyan. A seventeenth century Mi’kmaq hunter has gained lasting historical fame for having once remarked within earshot of a French missionary that “the beaver does everything to perfection…he makes for us kettles, axes, swords, knives, and gives drink and food.” [3] For Matonabbee living a century later, the fur trade brought not just access to these material goods, but also the opportunity to gain social prominence and the wide-spread respect of all the Indian peoples living to the west of Hudson’s Bay. Throughout his life the opportunities offered by the fur trade, and the international commercial network of which it was a part, influenced the choices that Matonabbee made, and ultimately shaped the decision that led to his death. Presenting a metaphor for the fate of countless Native American communities throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Matonabbee’s life and death show how the opportunities of the fur trade could all too easily turn to dependency. [4]

From its very inception (or conception), Matonabbee’s life was intimately shaped by the commercial networks facilitated by the fur trade. Matonabbee’s father was a Chipewyan hunter employed by Richard Norton, chief factor of Prince of Wales Fort in the mid-1730s, to provide meat for the Europeans working at the trading post. Matonabbee’s mother was a slave of anonymous origin brought to Prince of Wales Fort by Cree traders and apparently sold either to Matonabbee’s father or to Norton. Matonabbee was born at Prince of Wales Fort, at the nexus of the fur trade for the Hudson’s Bay’s west coast, in either 1736 or 1737. Matonabbee’s father died shortly after the birth of his son, and his mother disappeared from the historical record. Still an infant, Matonabbee was adopted by Chief Factor Norton and his Cree wife. [5]

Matonabbee spent the first five years of his life at Prince of Wales Fort, a multi-ethnic meeting place for Europeans and various bands of Indians. The son of a Chipewyan hunter, Matonabbee’s first words would mostly likely have been Cree. Day to day he would have seen the HBC’s British employees coming and going from the Fort to attend to their assigned tasks. Chipewyan and Crees from migratory bands would have visited the Fort regularly along with various strange Indians from bands for whom the Europeans as yet had no names.

When Richard Norton was replaced as governor at Prince of Wales Fort in 1741, Matonabbee was taken in by relatives of his father. For the next seventeen years Matonabbee lived among his Chipewyan relations, learning the Chipewyan language, their customs and traditions. He traveled with his band during their seasonal migrations, following their primary food source, the caribou. His winters would have been spent in the wooded areas surrounding lakes and streams, and his summers in the open region known as the Barren Grounds. Matonabbee may also have occasionally traveled with his relations to Prince of Wales Fort to trade.

As a grown man, Matonabbee chose to follow in his father’s footsteps. In the fall of 1758, the chief factor of Prince of Wales Fort, Ferdinand Jacobs, recorded the addition of “two Northern Indians” (the term used by HBC employees for the Chipewyan) to the regular work force of the Fort. [6] For the most part, the two Chipewyan men served the Fort as hunters of geese, partridges and other game, but were also occasionally employed as lumberjacks and porters. Once a year they were paid for their services in trade goods, as well as being kept supplied throughout the year with clothing, powder and shot. Since Hearne records that his guide as a young man had served as a hunter at Prince of Wales Fort during the term of Ferdinand Jacobs, it seems likely that one of these “two Northern Indians” was, in fact, Matonabbee.

Aerial view of Prince of Wales Fort

Aerial view of Prince of Wales Fort, near Churchill, 1950s.
Source: Parks Canada

During his second residency at Prince of Wales Fort, Matonabbee had the opportunity to observe the workings of the Fort, to see how visiting Indian bands and their leaders were received, to see how the agents of the HBC behaved, and to get a feel for what they expected of their Indian clients. Renewed contact with the other Indian hunters at the fort would have given Matonabbee an opportunity to brush up his skills in the Cree language, and since he often found himself working alongside the fort’s English labourers, Matonabbee also had the opportunity to learn a small amount of English.

On 31 July 1761, a band of Northern Indians arrived at Prince of Wales Fort. They had traveling with them three men and two women who belonged to a tribe unfamiliar to the English traders of the fort. These strangers expressed an interest in trading with the Fort in the future, and Jacobs immediately “appointed one of them leader of his tribe” and presented all five with costly gifts. Having thus honoured his guests, the Chief Factor encouraged them to Matonabbeesolicit their countrymen to return to the Fort with furs for trade. To further facilitate the opening of trade, Jacobs also decided it would be wise to send a Chipewyan “proficient in the languages” to accompany these strangers back to their homeland. Since the Athapuscows spoke a dialect of the Cree language, Matonabbee’s mastery of Cree would have been crucial for the mission for which Jacobs had chosen him. The young Matonabbee became “Ambassador and Mediator between the Northern Indians and the Athapuscow Tribe” on behalf of the HBC. [7]

Having learned from his strange visitors that they had formerly relied upon other Cree bands located to their southeast for obtaining European trade goods, Jacobs feared that these more southerly Cree might “now be jealous that those strangers have got to the Fountain-Head of Trade.” [8] Jacobs recognized that the Athapuscows’ erstwhile Cree suppliers might not appreciate being cut out of their position as middlemen, and might resort to violence in order to maintain their advantage in the Athapuscow trade. Matonabbee was thus charged by Jacobs to serve the dual functions of both trade ambassador to the Athapuscows and a mediator between these people and their former trading partners.

These Athapuscow Cree were separated from their kin to the southeast by both dialect and geography. Whereas these other Cree groups enjoyed easy access to the posts of the HBC, and thus to European trade goods, the Athapuscow Cree were geographically isolated from the Bay. Making their homes around Lakes Athabasca and Great Slave, their most direct trade route to the Bay lay through Chipewyan territory, but the traditional hostility that existed between the Crees and Chipewyan tended to preclude travel by this route. It was, in fact, this hostility which had led the Hudson’s Bay Company to found Prince of Wales Fort at the mouth of Churchill River in 1717. The new post’s location on the frontier between the Chipewyan and the Cree, meant that the Chipewyan would no longer be obliged to travel through Cree territory on their way to trade with the company. [9]

Unfortunately, such an arrangement required that the Athapuscow Cree be dependent on their southern kin for their supplies of European trade goods. The only other alternatives were making the long and circuitous trip to York Fort themselves, traveling across Chipewyan territory to Prince of Wales Fort, or depending upon the Chipewyan as middlemen. Traveling to the Fort worked for the five Athapuscows in 1761, but it is questionable whether a larger band might have made it through in peace. Likewise, there were dangers inherent for any Chipewyan trader who might attempt to push his wares in Athapuscow lands, as Matonabbee was to find out.

Not long after arriving in Athapuscow country, Matonabbee encountered “several tents” of Athapuscows who seem to have received him with hospitality, even though they were at the time holding prisoner an important Chipewyan leader named Keelshies, along with his family. Presumably Keelshies, an established trader who was at the time well-known at Prince of Wales Fort, must have been traveling among the Athapuscow in an attempt to trade when he was detained. This is not unusual, since Native American communities often traded even in the face of traditional enmities. [10] While there was always the possibility for misunderstanding, business continued in the intervals between actual hostilities. Unfortunately, Keelshies apparently lacked the cross-cultural social skills necessary to make this trade successful. When Matonabbee arrived on the scene, the Athapuscow were still trying to decide just what to do with their Chipewyan prisoner.

Fortunately, Matonabbee was able to secure the release of Keelshies and “a few others”, though the Athapuscows did strip him of all of his property and of his six wives. Still even this partial victory serves as a testament to Matonabbee’s skill at dealing with other peoples. In the first real test of his abilities, the young Matonabbee had proven that he possessed the skill necessary to mediate between different cultures and disparate interests.

His diplomatic skills could not entirely keep Matonabbee safe, however. Hearne tells of the young Chipewyan finally fleeing from the Athapuscow country following an attempt by a band of “Southern Indians,” Crees from the southeast, to rob him of his material possessions and of the servant who was traveling with him. Both a traditional animosity between the Crees and Chipewyan and resentment towards this ambassador from the chief factor of Prince of Wales Fort, who was threatening to cut them out of the Athapuscow trade, would have led the Crees to view Matonabbee and his mission with hostility.

Following this escape, Matonabbee beat a retreat out of Athapuscow territory, back to the safety of Chipewyan lands, and ultimately back to Prince of Wales Fort. If Matonabbee’s later journey with Hearne is any indication, the journey between Prince of Wales Fort and Athapuscow territory would have taken about six months, placing Matonabbee’s initial contact with the Athapuscow in their own lands sometime in February 1762. The return trip would have brought him back to the fort sometime around August or September, depending on how much time he spent among the Athapuscows. This timetable is corroborated by a letter written on 3 August 1763 by Moses Norton, the son of Richard Norton and successor to Ferdinand Jacobs as chief factor at Prince of Wales Fort, in which he made reference to a conversation he had had with “the Men whose Steem Matunappa brought” sometime in the previous year. [11]

The reference to this “steem” is intriguing. The word is most likely meant to be “stem” and would seem to refer to the shaft of a Calumet, the near ubiquitous calumet (peace-pipe) of late eighteenth North American Indian culture. When strange Indians or important leaders from either the Chipewyan or Crees visited their Forts, the Hudson’s Bay Company governors often participated in the native calumet smoking ceremonies as a means of cementing friendly relations and possibly of creating fictive familial relationships between the ceremony’s participants. For an Indian leader to send his calumet stem to a post’s commander signified his intention to visit that post in the near future. In this case the stem seems to symbolize Matonabbee’s success in encouraging at least one of the leaders of the Athapuscows to make the trip to Prince of Wales Fort to trade in the following year.

By the spring of 1763 (another six months traveling time would make it about March), Matonabbee was back among the Athapuscows. This time he had with him “a considerable number of chosen men of his own nation.” [12] A letter written by Moses Norton in this year suggests that Keelshies may have been among this number, in which case he would likely have been the band’s principal leader. [13] Hearne tells us that Matonabbee was engaged in further improving his own relationship, and by extension that of the Chipewyan and of the HBC, with the Athapuscows. It seems likely that Keelshies was traveling with Matonabbee in an attempt to exploit the new markets that the young man was opening up.

Throughout the spring, Matonabbee traveled through Athapuscow territory meeting with its leading men. When summer came, many of those accompanying Matonabbee departed the Athapuscow region and headed east into their summer hunting grounds. Those who remained soon found that they were being followed by a much larger gang of seemingly hostile Crees. On several occasions these Cree attempted to draw near to the Chipewyan under the cover of night or to otherwise ambush them. Luckily, Matonabbee was able, through a combination of diplomacy and bravado, to defuse the situation. [14]

While his actions of 1762 and 1763 can be seen as a great success for Hudson’s Bay Company diplomacy, Matonabbee’s deeds were probably more directly a benefit to himself. The Athapuscow Indians did begin to visit Prince of Wales Fort following Matonabbee’s visit. However, the newly brokered friendship between the Athapuscow Cree and Chipewyan held the most potential to benefit those in a position to act as middlemen to the former tribe, men such as Keelshies and Matonabbee.

It does not appear that Matonabbee returned to Prince of Wales Fort again until November of 1764. On 9 August 1764 Norton received news from ten Chipewyan who had come to the fort to trade that the Matonabbee and Keelshies, who he had been expecting in that summer, were on their way. [15] Apparently the two leaders, having completed their business with the Athapuscow, had moved on to trade with the Copper Indians, whose territory lay roughly between Great Bear and Great Slave Lakes, and from there intended to set out on their return to the fort. [16] Matonabbee would travel this same trade circuit, only in reverse, during his journey with Hearne.

Anticipating the arrival of these two leaders and their “gang,” Norton decided to keep the fort’s account books open, even though the arrival of the yearly sloop from England, which usually put in around mid-August, was drawing near. Norton anticipated Keelshies and Matonabbee to be bringing in a large supply of furs and hoped to be able to include them in the shipment for 1762-63, a year in which business had been especially poor. Norton was to be disappointed, however, for the men do not seem to have arrived at the fort until three months too late for their furs to be loaded for the trip back to England. On November 20th, Norton records the arrival of “Captn Keel’Clees” who he identifies as the leader he had been waiting so long for. [17]

Perplexingly, no direct mention of Matonabbee is made. It would seem that Matonabbee, though of sufficient prominence for Norton to mention him by name in a letter to Jacobs, was not yet held in high enough regard by the Hudson’s Bay Company to be named as a captain in his own right. Although the value of his services to the HBC had been considerable, Norton still considered Matonabbee subordinate to the older and more experienced Keelshies.

The problem with this chronology of Matonabbee’s life is that it contradicts the received wisdom. According to most currently accepted versions of Matonabbee’s life, he and another Chipewyan leader named Idotliazee were dispatched by Moses Norton from Prince of Wales Fort in 1762 and charged with exploring the rivers that lay to the northwest of the fort and which emptied themselves into the Northern (Arctic) Ocean. [18] Consequently, Matonabbee’s embassy to the Athapuscows is also often dated earlier in his life, usually during the late 1750s.

However, Norton makes no mention of organizing a journey of exploration in 1762. In fact, Norton’s first indication of interest in gathering intelligence on the Coppermine region during his governorship did not come until August 1764. In that year, Prince of Wales Fort was visited by a Chipewyan leader named Owl Eye. In response to questions put to him by Norton, Owl Eye drew out a map of the northern coast on which he marked out the site of two known copper mines, and also assured Norton that the country bordering the river abounded in fur-bearing game. [19]

There is no further reference to Norton’s attempting to gather information on the Coppermine region until August 1766. On the 15th, Norton was informed by a party of ten Northern Indians who had come to Prince of Wales Fort to trade that “the leader I had out searching at Rivers ye Coppermine &c will not be in this summer but expect him early next summer.” [20] This record seems to confirm that Norton had indeed engaged a Chipewyan to explore the Coppermine region sometime prior to 1766, although it does not provide a more exact date for the expedition’s inception. Also, this report seems to contradict Norton’s letter of 1767 in which he spoke of two leaders who had been dispatched from the fort to the Coppermine River. The case for two explorers is reinforced, however, by Norton’s post journal entry of 9 August 1767, in which he records that the two leaders who he had sent to explore the coast up to the Coppermine River had returned. [21] It was these two men, left anonymous in the journal, who had brought the sample of copper ore and the draft map drawn on deerskin (Norton later transferred the map to paper) which Norton would reference in his letter to the Governor and Committee a month later. It is Hearne, in the published journal of his own trek to the Coppermine River, who identifies these two captains as Matonabbee and Idotliazee. [22]

Samuel Hearne

Samuel Hearne (1745-1792)
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Personalities, Hearne, S.

The report delivered by Matonabbee and Idotliazee when they returned to Prince of Wales Fort in 1767 provided Moses Norton with the information that he needed to plan an expedition to the north, in search of the fabled Coppermine River. Following his successful trip to England in 1768/69 to lobby the Governor and Committee to finance the expedition, Norton dispatched the first corps of explorers under the leadership of Samuel Hearne in November 1769. This abortive first attempt lasted only about a month. Hearne’s second attempt to reach the Coppermine River was more prolonged, lasting nine months and reaching the Dubawnt River, but also proved unsuccessful.

It was during his return trip following this second aborted attempt to reach the Coppermine River that Hearne first met Matonabbee, who was himself on his way to Prince of Wales Fort to trade. Upon speaking with Matonabbee, Hearne found that he was willing to accompany the Englishman to the Coppermine River, should he be engaged to do so by Moses Norton. Clearly, Matonabbee fully appreciated the fact that it was Norton alone who controlled the distribution of goods from Prince of Wales Fort and consequently it was from Norton that he could expect to receive both payment and supplies for a trip to the north.

Matonabbee would have recognized a great opportunity in serving as guide to Hearne. Matonabbee already had trade contacts among the Copper Indians, through whose lands any expedition to the Coppermine River would have to pass. Indeed, it is quite possible that Matonabbee may have found himself traveling that way on business of his own in 1771, independent of Samuel Hearne’s search for copper. But serving as guide to Hearne offered him the chance to make the trip on the company’s dime… the Hudson’s Bay Company’s dime, that is. Chief Factor Norton gladly fitted out “Captn Meto-nap-pu” and his Chipewyan followers with all of the “proper Necessaries for the Journey.” [23] Hearne was likewise outfitted with an ample supply of ammunition and all other items that Matonabbee informed him would be necessary for the expedition.

Hearne and Matonabbee left Prince of Wales Fort on 7 December 1770. Three months later they had reached Wholdaia Lake. Matonabbee’s leadership of the expedition to this point aroused a great deal of admiration in Hearne who remarked on the Chipewyan’s complete knowledge of “everything that would contribute either to facilitate or retard the ease or progress of traveling in these dreary parts of the world.” [24] But the trip to the mouth of the Coppermine River was only about half completed, and Matonabbee had yet to prove his true worth as a guide for the wayward Englishman.

On 3 May, the party arrived on the shores of Clowey Lake (modern day Lake MacArthur). [25] Here they encountered a gathering of over two hundred other Chipewyan who had come to the lake to gather birch wood for the construction of canoes. Hearne appears to have been apprehensive when first confronted by this large camp of Chipewyan, but soon discovered that his worries were misplaced. At Clowey Lake, and throughout the journey, Hearne’s safety was ensured by his being “under the protection of a principal man.” [26] Hearne’s safety was secured by his status as the honoured guest of an important Chipewyan leader. [27]

The reason that Matonabbee was held in such high regard among these Chipewyan was soon made evident. Upon arrival at the lake, Matonabbee began the necessary ceremonies of ritualized generosity. Hearne commended Matonabbee for his liberality in dispensing powder and ball “from his own stock” as gifts to other Chipewyan with whom he met. Matonabbee’s liberality was most likely motivated by his own role as a prominent Chipewyan leader. Matonabbee distributed ball and powder among the Chipewyan assembled both to confirm and to maintain his superior status within Chipewyan society. In return for his generosity, the assembled Chipewyan accorded him the regard due a trading captain of Matonabbee’s station.

By taking the duties of generosity upon himself, Matonabbee also established himself as the leader of the Coppermine expedition, at least in the eyes of the Chipewyan with whom the expedition had contact. Hearne was saved from the imposition of gift-seeking Chipewyan because he had been clearly relegated to the role of a subordinate within the microcosm of Chipewyan society that the expedition represented. It is questionable whether Hearne fully recognized this point, or whether he would have accepted it if he had. By never pressing the point, Matonabbee proved his adroitness at mediating between both European and Chipewyan cultures.

Besides engaging in ritualized generosity, Matonabbee also traded with the Chipewyan at Clowey. In exchange for various items of European manufacture which he had obtained just recently at Prince of Wales Fort, Matonabbee received beaver and marten skins. It is interesting that Hearne describes this trade as being a means for Matonabbee “purposely to give away among his countrymen” the spoils of his Hudson’s Bay Company trade. [28] This suggests that these exchanges were recognized by the Chipewyan as a form of asymmetrical trade. The value of European goods would have been far greater at Clowey Lake, having made the sometimes deadly trip across the Barrens, than at Prince of Wales Fort. These asymmetrical exchanges would have served to further solidify Matonabbee’s place within the Chipewyan authority-rank hierarchy.

Here at Clowey, Matonabbee proved himself everything that Hearne had included in his definition of the unfortunate life of a “carrier.” He bought up “all those small quantity of furs” that other Chipewyan had collected and then brought them to Prince of Wales Fort “under his own name.” Having traded for European goods, Matonabbee once again returned to the Chipewyan and once again traded for skins with those Chipewyan “who require only as much iron-work at a time as can be purchased with three or four beaver skins.” [29] That Matonabbee’s role as a carrier was exactly what had gained him the regard of the Chipewyan, and what consequently assured Hearne’s own security among those gathered at Clowey Lake, seemed lost on the Englishman.

On 1 June, the Chipewyan men parted with their children and most of their wives, arranging to meet with them again on their return, and then continued on towards the Coppermine River. It was at this point that Hearne became aware of the fact that the Chipewyan men he was traveling with were less an expedition of exploration heading for the copper mines of the north, than they were a war party heading for the lands of the Inuit.

On this expedition Matonabbee was to play the part of both a trade captain and a captain in war. On 22 June, on the banks of the Congecathawhachaga (Anatessy) River, the party encountered a number of Copper Indians hunting caribou from canoes. Among them were several men with whom Matonabbee was acquainted. These men were presented with gifts and then trade commenced between Matonabbee, and those of his men who had goods to trade, and the Coppers. Following this, many of the Copper Indians agreed to join the in the attack against the Inuit and the war party was ferried across the river. Apparently, Matonabbee’s connections among the Coppers were sufficient not just for facilitating trade but also for inspiring men to follow him in raiding.

Now leading a multi-ethnic coalition which contained about one-hundred fifty Chipewyan, an indeterminate number of Copper Indians, two Crees, and one Englishman, Matonabbee set out on the final leg of his journey to the Coppermine River. On 5 July, the party came to a camp of Inuit consisting of five tents, which may have housed up to fifty Inuit, including women and children. This was compared to Matonabbee’s party of upwards of two hundred men. Further stacking the odds, most of Matonabbee’s men were armed with fire-arms, whereas the Inuit had none. Following a successful attack on these tents that resulted in the deaths of the greater part of their inhabitants and the flight of the rest, the men fell to looting the Inuit camp of anything of value, most particularly of copper knives and utensils that the Inuit fashioned from the ore deposits that Hearne was now seeking. [30]

Hearne finally reached the “copper mines,” which he had been seeking for the last year and a half, on 18 July 1771. To Hearne’s disappointment the reports of plentiful copper that had reached Prince of Wales Fort proved to have been greatly exaggerated. After searching the area for four hours Hearne was only able to discover a single small ingot of copper. Faced with the disappointing truth about the “Coppermine” River, Hearne had to content himself with claiming the river’s mouth in the name of the Hudson’s Bay Company and preparing himself for the return trip.

Three months into this return trip, the expedition encountered a group of Copper Indians who Matonabbee had made arrangements to meet when he had visited them back in June. These Coppers were accompanied by a group of Dogrib Indians who had heard of Matonabbee’s presence in the region and were eager to take this opportunity to obtain European trade goods. Such a meeting testifies to the level of organization of which Matonabbee and his counterparts among the Copper and Dogrib Indians were capable.

After completing his business with the Dogribs, Matonabbee resolved to leave Chipewyan lands for Athapuscow territory. This plan corresponded to instructions that Moses Norton had given to Hearne to return through Athapuscow lands and there to look for one of three leaders who had agreed to transport him back to the fort by canoe, if the season permitted and the rivers were not iced over. [31] It seems, however, that the idea to now visit the Athapuscow was Matonabbee’s own and that he meant it only as one more stop on his mission of returning Hearne safely back to Prince of Wales Fort. Matonabbee’s proposed visit to the Athapuscows would have been a repetition of his travels in the years 1763 - 64, though this time in reverse, suggesting that traveling between the Copper Indians, the Athapuscows and Prince of Wales Fort represented a regular trade circuit for Matonabbee.

This illustrates the importance of carriers to the distribution of goods in the lands north and west of Prince of Wales Fort. Matonabbee acted as a funnel for furs going to the Hudson’s Bay Company from the Chipewyan, the Coppers, the Dogribs, and the Athapuscows. Beaver, marten, caribou, etc. skins from lands that stretched from Hudson’s Bay to west of Great Bear and Great Slave Lakes and north to the Arctic Ocean all flowed through the hands of Matonabbee, or at least through the hands of his wives who had the unenviable task of transporting this great wealth of skins. Then in turn, European trade goods flowed back out to these extremities, once again through the person of Matonabbee.

The expedition arrived back at Prince of Wales Fort on 30 June 1772, two years and almost eight months since Samuel Hearne had first set out for the Coppermine River and almost eight years since Matonabbee had first been engaged to explore the region. Despite his disappointment over the expedition’s failure to find any appreciable copper deposits, Moses Norton honoured Matonabbee’s service to the HBC by declaring him the “chief Leader of the North Indians in General.” [32] This impressive title indicates the high regard in which Matonabbee was now held by Norton, and in which he would be held by Norton’s successors as governor of Prince of Wales Fort, Andrew Graham and later Samuel Hearne himself.

For Matonabbee to continue as a leader among the Chipewyan, however, there would have to continue to be Chipewyan willing to follow him. Samuel Hearne dismissed other Europeans trading with the Indians in North American for assuming that because a leader might come in at the head of a large gang, “all who accompany them on those occasions are entirely devoted to their service and command all year.” [33] Instead, leaders were only able to attract followers based upon their own reputations for generosity, by appealing to the self-interest of their followers.

The formation of a trade party held certain advantages for both the party’s leader and for those who chose to follow him. Small groups of Chipewyan, ranging from single individuals, in rare cases, to bands of up to sixty, visited Prince of Wales Fort continuously throughout the late spring, summer and autumn. Prestigious leaders such as Matonabbee or Keelshies, while they may have started the journey to the fort with only their own local band, collected further followers at pre-arranged rendezvous points or through chance encounters with smaller trading groups. These smaller groups of traders were glad to attach themselves to a principal man, knowing that such men enjoyed much honour at the fort and could expect lavish gifts from the fort’s chief factor. For their part, the leaders exercised all of the influence they possessed in order to recruit more followers, knowing that the larger the party and the more furs they were able to bring in, the more generous the chief factor would be in his gifts. [34]

Thanks to Hearne, we have a picture of Matonabbee’s role within this economy. In November 1776, Matonabbee came in at the head of a band of over 300 Chipewyan, who brought with them over 5000 made-beaver worth of furs. [35] (The made-beaver, or MB, was the standard of value in which the Hudson’s Bay Company priced goods at its trading posts). Besides these furs, which were destined for the European fur market, they also carried in over 7000 pounds of venison and musk-ox flesh to fill the Prince of Wales Fort larders. [36] Over the next nine days, all other work stopped and the fort’s entire European workforce was employed in carrying on trade with the Chipewyan. The fort’s armourer was kept busy mending guns for the Indians, while the smith mended their pots, kettles and other items. The tailor fitted clothing for them, while the remainder of the post’s workers were engaged hauling trade goods out of the post warehouse and furs back in. [37] Hearne himself, who had become governor of Prince of Wales Fort in January 1776, was engaged directly in bargaining with the Chipewyan through their leader Matonabbee.

Hearne opened the encounter by “dressing” Matonabbee out as a “Captain of the first rank.” [38] Ceremonially this meant that Hearne formerly recognized Matonabbee as an important leader among his own people by offering him a symbol of his rank, a captain’s uniform, modeled on the dress uniform worn by men of that rank in the Royal Navy. Hearne also presented a full suit of clothes to each of Matonabbee’s six wives. In all Hearne estimated these goods to amount to a value of 400 MB. Having made these gifts, Hearne felt that he had well fulfilled his duty as host. He therefore seems to have been greatly annoyed when Matonabbee came to him after trading had begun and pressed him for further gifts for distribution among the men who had followed him to the fort. Matonabbee pressed Hearne to present him with, along with a long list of other trading goods, seven lieutenants’ coats to be presented to certain men within his band. These goods, estimated at 700 MB, pushed the total value of gifts asked of Hearne over the course of the nine days that the Chipewyan stayed at the fort to 1100 MB.

At first Hearne balked at what he perceived to be the excessive demands of Matonabbee. But the Chipewyan captain declared he was not to be “denied such a trifle as that was,” and threatened to take his business to the “Canadian Traders” if his requests were not satisfied. This was a very real threat to Hearne. By 1776 Canadian traders working out of Montreal had begun to establish trading houses in the Canadian interior in order to intercept Indians traveling to the HBC posts to trade. Hearne would have been extremely loathe to lose business to the company’s competitors, especially since the 5000 MB brought in by Matonabbee and his band represented over 40% of the total value of furs brought to Prince of Wales Fort during Hearne’s first year as its governor. [39] In the end, Hearne acquiesced to Matonabbee’s gift requests.

Hearne may be excused for underestimating the level of generosity that Matonabbee felt was his due on this occasion. Although he had had extensive contact with the Chipewyan beforehand and had spent the year from June 1774 to 1775 in establishing Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan River, Hearne had been governor of Prince of Wales Fort for less than 10 months in November 1776. In this short time, and in the year spent at Cumberland House, Hearne had gained little experience in trading with the Chipewyan in his new role as chief factor. Samuel Hearne, as a wayward explorer, had occupied a rather contemptible position in Chipewyan society and required the protection of a principal man just to ensure his material safety. Samuel Hearne, Chief Factor of Prince of Wales Fort, occupied a vastly superior role within the authority-ranking hierarchy of Chipewyan society, even if Hearne himself was not fully aware of that role and all that it entailed. Furthermore, no governor at Prince of Wales Fort had ever done business with a band of Chipewyan the size of that Matonabbee led to the fort in 1776.

Since Hearne did not fully understand his own role in this system of exchange, it is not surprising that he also did not appreciate the role that Matonabbee had to play. To Hearne trade captains such as Matonabbee were “beggars” and mere “mouthpieces” for their followers, roles that they accepted only because of their “desire of being thought men of great consequence and interest with the English.” These leaders would ask for gifts “only to give away to the most worthless of their gang” and if their requests were denied would, in Hearne’s estimation, become “divested of every degree of reason.” [40]

Hearne signature at Sloop's Cove

Tourists visit Samuel Hearne’s signature on a rock at Sloop’s Cove near Churchill, 1983.
Source: M. Zbigniewicz

Of course, behaviour that seemed irrational to Hearne, an Englishman, was the height of reason for Matonabbee. Matonabbee’s insistence was indicative of the reciprocity necessary for the operation of the traditional Chipewyan economy. His leadership was predicated upon an expectation of his generosity. In order to retain the regard of his men, Matonabbee had to ensure that the gifts that he negotiated on their behalf would be sufficient to satisfy their expectations of a leader’s generosity. Generosity that even extended to the “most worthless” among those who followed him.

In the end, Matonabbee displayed his own deep understanding of the commercial relationship between the HBC and himself by stressing the social connection that underlay it. In effect, Matonabbee reminded Hearne that the market-oriented social connections that had for years kept Matonabbee a loyal customer of the Hudson’s Bay Company were predicated upon the open-handedness of the company’s governors. If this generosity should dry up, he indicated that he was more than willing to embark on a new trading relationship with the company’s Canadian rivals. Following this threat, Matonabbee received the gifts that he had requested.

Hearne’s seemingly flippant dismissal of Matonabbee as a “beggar” and mere “mouthpiece” must be viewed through the European standards of deference and strict social definition with which he was familiar. These standards led Hearne to overlook what June Helm termed “influence differentials” within Chipewyan society. [41] Being regarded as a “man of great consequence and interest with the English” translated into prestige for the captain among his own followers. By supplying trade captains, such as Matonabbee, with large quantities of European trade goods to distribute, post governors’ helped to increase the captain’s reputation within his own community while simultaneously tying him to the Hudson’s Bay Company as the source of his status. [42]

The lieutenant’s coats served a similar purpose, representing a granting of regard from Matonabbee to certain principal men among his followers. At the same time, these coats signalled to the Chipewyan, to the Hudson’s Bay Company, and to their recipients, that these seven, while men of some regard in their own rights, were still inferior in rank to their “captain”, Matonabbee. In this way, these pseudo-military uniforms served to do more explicitly what the introduction of European trade goods in general had been doing for decades, that is to create a new form of social hierarchy within Chipewyan society.

What Matonabbee excelled at was mediating between the interests of the Chipewyan and of the HBC. While Moses Norton’s conference of the title “Chief Leader of the North Indians” upon Matonabbee in 1772 did not translate into de facto authority over the Chipewyan, Matonabbee’s close relationship to the governors of Prince of Wales Fort did provide him with the resources required to establish such an authority.

Following his successful extraction of gifts form Hearne, Matonabbee set out once again to trade with his contacts among the Athapuscows. [43] Presumably this would have been the first stop on his now familiar triangle-trade circuit between the Athapuscows, the Copper Indians, and Prince of Wales Fort. Matonabbee did not return to the fort again until July 1779, leading a band of about thirty Chipewyan. While these traders seem to have been well-laden with furs, it is hard to overlook the ten-fold drop in Matonabbee’s following since his visit in 1776.

The increasing presence of independent Euro-American traders in the lands of the Athapuscow Indians is the most obvious explanation for this fall in Matonabbee’s following. These independent traders, the “Canadian Traders” that Matonabbee had threatened Hearne with in 1776, were the forerunners of the NorthWest Company. These men had been making considerable inroads into the trade with the interior Indians for over a decade. This incursion into the HBC’s trade reached a new height with Peter Pond’s trading venture through Athapuscow lands in 1778-79. [44] Matonabbee himself had met and traded with Pond in 1778. [45] With easy access to European goods right in their own backyard, the Athapuscows and even some Chipewyan would naturally have chosen to trade their furs to Pond’s party rather than to the Chipewyan middlemen made up the bulk of Matonabbee’s followers and of Prince of Wales Fort’ customers.

Then in 1781 and 1782, the Hudson’s Bay region was struck with a particularly deadly outbreak of smallpox. By Hearne’s estimation, the Chipewyan suffered an almost ninety-percent population drop during these years. In a cruel irony, the epidemic had passed to the Chipewyan through their trade contacts with the Athapuscows who assumedly acquired it from their more southerly Cree kin. As Hearne grimly noted, it may have been better for the Chipewyan if Matonabbee’s peace mission of 1762 had failed and the two peoples had remained hostile and isolated. [46]

Matonabbee next visited Prince of Wales Fort in the spring of 1782 and when he left he informed Hearne that he intended to return once again in the winter of that year. The Chipewyan trading captain was never again to return to the site of his birth, however. In 1778, France had declared war against England in support of the young United States and its bid for independence. Despite its origin as a localized insurrection among the thirteen American colonies, the far-flung holdings of both the British and the French quickly pulled the two powers into a world war. As part of this war, the French sought to disrupt or destroy British trade along Hudson’s Bay, and hopefully to establish French control of the fur trade in the region at war’s end. [47]

In August 1782, three French warships appeared in the waters of Hudson’s Bay off the shore of Prince of Wales Fort. Faced with French ships in the Bay and two hundred-fifty French marines approaching overland, Samuel Hearne and the thirty-eight employees then at the post were hopelessly outnumbered. To make matters worse, the fort’s cannon were decades old, many cracked and useless. Outmanned and outgunned, Samuel Hearne was forced to surrender Prince of Wales Fort. [48] The French promptly demolished the fort and set out for York Fort to repeat their victory.

Although a new post, Fort Churchill, was founded by Samuel Hearne four or five miles up the Churchill River a year later, Matonabbee would never again cross the Barren Lands to trade with his former traveling companion. Keelshies had been present at Prince of Wales Fort during its capture and presumably he, or some member of his group, encountered Matonabbee in the interior lands some time shortly after and informed him of the fort’s destruction. Upon learning the fate of his childhood home, the place where he had worked as a hunter and grown into a man, the source of the European trade goods that under-girded his authority within Chipewyan society, Matonabbee hanged himself. [49]

There is a certain degree of dramatic irony in the sad death of Matonabbee in 1782. That year marked a turning point in the history of the fur trade. The burning of Prince of Wales Fort added an exclamation point to the fact that the Hudson’s Bay Company had lost its monopoly in the trade of interior tribes such as the Athapuscows, Coppers and Dogribs. Independent traders working out of Montreal, who combined to form the NorthWest Company in 1784, intercepted Indians with furs within the borders of their own lands and offered them an alternative to the Chipewyan middlemen who had formerly carried their furs for them to Prince of Wales Fort. To combat this new competition the Hudson’s Bay Company began founding its own trading houses in the interior. After 1782, Matonabbee’s long-lived relationship with the servants of the Hudson’s Bay Company never again would have brought him the advantages it had at the peak of his authority in 1776. Those of his clients among the Chipewyan and Athapuscows who had survived the scourge of smallpox would have taken their trade to the Canadians, or to the HBC’s new interior posts, instead of to Matonabbee.

In 1782, Matonabbee would have faced a hostile world where most of the social relationships upon which the high regard he enjoyed was based had disappeared either through death or through the incursions of Canadian interlopers. Robbed of these connections Matonabbee was effectively robbed of his livelihood, of his rank, and of the very source of his identity for the past two decades. Matonabbee had built his reputation as a mediator of cultures: between the Chipewyan and the English. Now he was cut off from both. The Chipewyan society of which he had been a part had been disrupted by disease and by a loss of their trade to Canadian interlopers. The English, in 1782, had seemingly been exiled from the lands surrounding Hudson’s Bay. In despair over the loss of his place within Chipewyan society, Matonabbee resorted to suicide. Through both great success and ultimate tragedy, the eighteenth century fur trade proved to be the very life and death of Matonabbee.


Editor’s note: In 1988, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada recognized Matonabbee as a figure of national historic significance.

1. Hearne, Samuel, A Journey to the Northern Ocean: A Journey from Prince of Wale’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean in the Years 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, Richard Glover ed. Toronto: Macmillan Company of Canada Limited, 1958, p. 52.

2. Hearne, Glover ed., pp. 51-52.

3. LeClercq, Chrestien, New Relation of Gaspesia: With the Customs and Religion of the Gaspesian Indians, William F. Ganong ed. and trans. Toronto: Champlain Society, 1910, p. 277.

4. Although in the case of Matonabbee this dependency remained largely social and psychological, over time in most Native American communities involved in the fur trade dependency was all to much of a physically material reality. Richard White, Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983, xiv-xv.

5. Hearne, Glover ed., p. 223.

6. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (hereafter, HBCA), Fort Churchill Post Records, 28 September 1758, B42/a/52.

7. HBCA, 1 August 1761, B42/a/55.

8. Ibid.

9. Smith, James G. E., “Chipewyan, Cree and Inuit Relations West of Hudson Bay, 1714-1955.” Ethnohistory, 1981, vol. 28, no. 2, p. 141.

10. Albers, Patricia C, “Symbiosis, Merger, and War: Contrasting Forms of Intertribal Relationship Among Historic Plains Indians.” In John H. Moore, ed., The Political Economy of North American Indians. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993, p. 102.

11. HBCA, Fort Churchill Correspondence Books, Moses Norton to Ferdinand Jacobs, 3 August 1763, B42/b/9

12. Hearne, Glover ed., p. 226.

13. HBCA , Moses Norton to Ferdinand Jacobs, 3 August 1763, B42/b/9

14. Hearne, Glover ed., p. 227.

15. HBCA, Moses Norton to Ferdinand Jacobs, 13 August 1763, B42/b/9; and HBCA, 9 August 1764, B.42/a/60.

16. Yerbury, J. C., “The Post-Contact Chipewyan: Trade Rivalries and Changing Territorial Boundaries.” Ethnohistory, 1976, vol. 23, no. 3, p. 246.

17. HBCA, 20 Nov 1764, B42.a.62.

18. Helm, June, “Matonabbee’s Map.” Arctic Anthropology, 1989, vol. 26, no. 2, p. 28.

19. HBCA, 5 August 1764, B42/a/60.

20. HBCA, 15 August 1766, B42/a/64.

21. HBCA, 9 August 1767, B42/a/67.

22. Hearne, Glover ed., p. 227.

23. HBCA, Norton to Jacobs, 4 February 1771, B42/b/18.

24. Hearne, Glover ed., p. 39.

25. Fuller, W. A., “Samuel Hearne’s Track: Some Obscurities Clarified,” Arctic, 1999, vol. 52, no.3, p. 261.

26. Hearne, Glover ed., p. 63.

27. Venema, Kathleen, “Under the Protection of a Principal Man,” Essays on Canadian Writing, 2000, vol. 70, pp. 162-165.

28. Hearne, Glover ed., p. 64.

29. Hearne, Glover ed., p. 53.

30. Hearne, Glover ed., p. 104.

31. HBCA, Norton to Hearne, 28 August 1770, HB42/b/17

32. HBCA, 30 June 1772, B.42/a/83.

33. Hearne, Glover ed., p. 186.

34. Hearne, Glover ed., p. 186.

35. HBCA, 30 November 1776, B42/a/94

36. HBCA, 4 November 1776, B42/a/94; and HBCA, Hearne to Humphrey Marten, 26 January 1777, B42/a/94.

37. HBCA, 4-13 November 1776, B42/a/94

38. Hearne, Samuel, A Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean, in the Years 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, Joseph Tyrrell ed. Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1911, pp. 285n.

39. HBCA, Hearne to Humphrey Marten, 8 August 1777, B42/a/94.

40. Hearne, Glover ed., pp. 284-285.

41. Helm, June, “Patterns of Allocation among the Arctic Drainage Dene.” In June Helm, ed., Essays in Economic Anthropology, Dedicated to the Memory of Karl Polanyi. Seattle: The Society, distributed by the university of Washington Press, p. 40.

42. Klein, Alan M., “Political Economy of the Buffalo Hide Trade: Race and Class on the Plains.” In John H. Moore, ed., The Political Economy of North American Indians. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993, p. 153.

43. HBCA, Hearne to Humphrey Marten, 26 January 1777, B42/a/94.

44. Innis, Harold, The Fur Trade in Canada; an Introduction to Canadian Economic History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1956, p. 152.

45. Rich, E. E., ed., Cumberland House Journals and Inland Journals, 1775-1782. London: Hudson’s Bay Record Society, 1952, pp. 5 - 6.

46. Hearne, Tyrell ed., p. 200n.

47. Rich, E. E., Hudson’s Bay Company, vol. 2, p. 84.

48. Ibid, pp. 85-86.

49. Hearne, Glover ed., p. 228.

Page revised: 3 February 2013