Saturday, September 8, 2012

Simon Fraser

Photo: The Canadian Encyclopedia

Simon Fraser was an early explorer of Canada -- except, of course, the Canada we know today did not yet exist. He was born at Mapletown in New York in 1776 and died in Ontario in 1862.

But what was this man really like? Would he be surprised to learn he had a large and important university named after him? Or that the world-famous SFU Pipe Band, dressed in the university's own tartan, was led by one of the world's major band leaders?

He was the youngest of ten, but in those days, this was not an outlandish number of children. Were Simon's parents too exhausted to bother with their youngest? Did his older siblings play with him, cosset him, entertain him?

We don't know. Across the abyss of time, it is hard to determine with any certainty what personal and social forces formed and motivated him.

We do know he was descended from the noble Lovat clan of Scottish Highlanders. History drove his ancestors out of Scotland. In 1745, Scottish Highland chieftains rebelled against the British Crown and tried to claim the throne for Bonnie Prince Charlie. The attempt failed. In April 1746, the Battle of Culloden sounded the death knell not only of many rebel and British government troops, but of the Highland way of life. Lands, rights and goods were seized, clans were forbidden to wear tartan and the kilt was banned.

In the years that followed, there was a huge exodus of Highlanders from Scotland. Many came to North America, and Simon Fraser's family were among these emigrants. When they settled in New York in 1773, their troubles were far from over. Ironically, Simon's father joined the United Empire Loyalist forces during the Revolutionary War. He was captured and died in jail. His wife, Simon's mother, fled with her children to Canada and settled near Cornwall, Ontario.

Between the ages of 14 and 16, young Simon was educated in Montreal by his uncle, a judge, and then apprenticed to the Northwest Company and sent west to learn the fur trade. He soon became a partner and was chosen to expand the company's operations to the far (west) side of the Rockies.

In 1808, he explored the Fraser River. He left Fort George (now Prince George) in May with a handful of voyageurs, two clerks and a couple of native guides, and followed the Fraser to the sea, portaging their canoes even along the perilous cliffs of the mighty Fraser Canyon with the help of the native guides.

He did not name the river after himself; this was done later by geographer David Thompson, for whom Simon Fraser had already named the river that today still bears his name.

After Simon Fraser retired from the fur trade, he returned to Ontario, where he eventually took part in the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837, which was a step along the road toward responsible government for the soon-to-be-born nation of Canada.

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