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A History of Ross River

by Dr. Norman E. Kagan


      The confluence of the Ross and Pelly Rivers was always a major crossroads for travelers coming North from the upper Liard River and those traveling East over the mountains to points on the Mackenzie River. The area served as a meeting place for Native peoples who would gather there in the late Summer. It was first described by Robert Campbell, a Hudson's Bay Company pioneer, who visited the area in the Summer of 1843, and named both rivers.

      A permanent settlement was begun in the Summer of 1901 by Tom Smith, who moved his fishing camp from the mouth of Mica Creek, fifty miles up the Pelly, to the Ross River site, an additional two hundred miles up, with the help of the shallow-bottomed steamer Prospector. Some fifteen Native families wintered over at Smith's Landing that year, and in 1902, Smith added to his supplies with three visits by the steamer La France, which also brought with it numerous Klondikers who had heard rumours of gold. By 1903, a second rival trading post was established across the river on the Pelly's west side by Joe Cote, a French Canadian who had been working as a telegraph lineman at Fort Selkirk. Also that summer, Fred En(e)voldsen returned to the area from Dawson with a full outfit and paying stampeders on the rented steamer Wilbur Crimmin. After a disappointing look around, most of the gold-seekers left, but Fred settled in and later brought up his wife Mary, the first white woman in the region.

      All this growth proved too much for Tom Smith, who left for the undeveloped Teslin Lake area, and sold his trading post to Clement Lewis and his partner Poole Field. Lewis was the young second son of John Travers Lewis, the Anglican Archbishop of Ontario, whose 1901 death left Clement with a small inheritance. Poole Field had been a NWMP constable, but as a child he had heard the stirring tales of Pelly River exploration from Robert Campbell himself, who was a friend of Allan McIver, Poole's maternal grandfather. Lewis and Field renamed the fur post "Nahanni House" and traveled up the Ross River to establish a smaller post at three small lakes now known as Lewis, Field, and Sheldon Lakes.

      In 1905, Field joined a group of Fort Norman Dene Indians who had been trapping on the upper Ross, and traveled with them down the South Nahanni, Liard, and Mackenzie Rivers to Fort Norman and the Great Bear Lake. Meanwhile, Clem Lewis sold their post to the expanding Whitehorse trading company of Taylor and Drury, and stayed on as their representative.

      By 1907, Poole had returned to Ross River, and in 1908, he married Fort Norman Native Kitty Tom and started a family. With his Native friends and Clem Lewis, Dell van Gorder and Ira van Bibber, Field encouraged others to visit Ross River. By 1914 over a thousand Natives and whites were gathering at the settlement in late August. The Indian Bureau was sending up an agent and a medical doctor, and Yukon Anglican Bishop Stringer had assigned a novice deacon, Cecil Swanson, to the region.

      In 1912, Clem Lewis left Ross River to oversee the Taylor and Drury Post at Teslin Lake, which by the way had been sold to them by Tom Smith. Billy Atkinson, who with his wife Mary Adele Laferty had come over from the Nahanni in 1911, joined Poole Field in operating the T & D fur trading post. And in 1914, Joe Cote sold his rival Ross River post to Tom Bee, a former RNWMP constable who had already established a post at Carmacks with the help of his father-in-law, ex-American Civil War Captain Henry Seymour Back. But, harder days lay ahead for the residents of Ross River.

      A flu epidemic took the lives of many in 1916, including Poole's wife, a daughter,and Billy Atkinson's son. Roy Buttle took over the T&D post, and Poole joined Tom Bee across the river. After a time, Billy's wife Mary joined Poole, and in 1917 they left the village for Carmacks. Newcomer Fritz Guder, whom Poole had met in Dawson, arrived at this time and helped Tom Bee at his post. And, that year Constable John Alexander MacDonald established a RCMP Post at Ross River.

      With the discovery of petroleum at Fort Norman in 1920 and the establishment of new trading posts there, many of the Mackenzie River Natives returned East where Poole Field had already re-established himself. Making matters still worse, a severe drought in 1920 led to raging forest fires which swept up the Pelly 160 miles, from 40 miles above the MacMillan River to Ross River. And the following summer, locusts plagued the region. Tom Bee left but the others stayed, and the settlement persevered thru the '20s and harder '30s. With the Second World War, a new age dawned on the community. The need for a secure source of oil led to a massive road and pipeline project, the CANOL. The old settlement of Ross River on the Pelly's east side at the mouth of the Ross was abandoned, and the modern town of Ross River was begun on the west bank just downriver from Joe Cote's old post.

For more details, see "Pelly Pioneers at Ross River," in the Summer 1998 issue of Alaska Geographic (v. 25, #2). Dr. Norman E. Kagan

© 1999-2008 Dr. Norman E. Kagan


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