Fort Vermilion, a replica of the early Hudson Bay Trading Post complete with log palisades and block houses, is reminiscent of the historical days of the fur trading voyageurs. It is 200 square feet. and is made wholly of native material hand cut and peeled logs, hand split cedar shingles. This fort welcomes all travelers to the area. The progressive citizens of the community constructed this wonderful structure.
BATTLEGROUND FOR EARLY FUR TRADERS
Grievous indeed is the terminology of this sad and supercilious story with a dreary and dungeon-like Fort William prisoners cell figuring along the way. Just recently, some years later, we personally went to the site of the battle to savor a while of its historic atmosphere.
Through the sand at waters edge on Campbells edge on Campbells beach we drew a probing finger. Immediately beneath the whitened surface we found the moist materials to be the color of old and weathered bloodstains.
How fitting that experience for the scribblers frame of mind. It prodded us to production of this report. It is one of fact rather than fiction. Let us therefore be up and at the spinning of the yarn. Had by chance you beached your canoe at this point during dawning years of the 19th century you would have found established there a Hudsons Bay Company trading post. Had it been for instance the year 1809 you would have found chief trader, Bill Corrigal I charge. Log buildings housing the enterprise stood about 50-60 yards back from the shoreline. Through damaged by wanton vandals a commemorative historic cairn erected by the Hudson Bay Company still marks the spot.
The Indian stayed with the white traders at the Hudson Bay Company post over night and I the morning asked to borrow back the canoe for a few days to take the goods he had obtained to another part of the lake where he made his home with his family. Corrigal agreed. As the trapper prepared to leave the Hudson Bay Company chief trader sent three men to waters edge with him to lend a hand in loading the canoe.
From the St. Lawrence to the Athabaska they frequently fought with fists, clubs, knives swords, revolvers, rifles and all manner of other weapons. All too frequently such vicious skirmishes ended in permanent injuries and death. So it was to be this bloodletting day on the big Eagle Lake.
At the same location and only about 50 yards distant from the Hudson Bay Company post, traders of the fiercely competitive North West Company had built an opposition establishment for the purpose of inveigling all the business they possibly could by fair means or foul from traders of Hudson Bay Company. There was no love lost between men of this ilk and time, you can rest assured. Counterpart to Corrigal of the Hudson Bay Company post at the rival nearby site of NWC operations was a man in command of the Norwesters and was apparently a hard and hot-headed customer.
On arrival at the scene they loudly claimed the Indian was also indebted to their firm and on the strength of that proclamation proceeded to drag his merchandise-laden canoe over to their dock. On shore Hudson Bay Companys chief trader Corrigal was observing this ruckus and when he saw the Norwesters begin lugging at the canoe, he figured hed had enough. He hastily ordered two of his men, Jim Tate and John Corrigals head and swore if he so much as laid a finger on the canoe. Now all hell broke loose.
Macdonnell, maddened with the taste of blood he had drawn on Tate now roared in on the unarmed Corrigal. To escape, the latter ran into the lake and the enraged Norwester after him. Presently the water got too deep for Corrigal to keep running and wading so he circled back to shore. As he made the arc the pursuing Macdonell was able to cut him off. He slashed his upper arm open to the bone with the sword and swung again at his head.
By this time another Hudson Bay Company man name Bob Leask had entered the water to assist Corrigal. He carried a paddle and with it intercepted the blow at Corrigals noggin. The sword cut the paddle clean in two but gave Corrigal time to escape to shore with his head still intact though with a crippled arm.
A SHOT RINGS OUT
Now Madconnell with the sword and Adhemer with the pistols began chasing every Hudson Bay Comapany man that came in their line of vision. One of them, a fellow named John Mowat who Macdonell had nicked with the sword previously came to the conclusion hed had the proverbial gut full. He up with a rifle and shot Macdonell dead in his tracks.
That ended the mad melee. The Northwesters carried their chiefs body away and we presume a bit of intelligent searching and digging would likely reveal the skeleton near the spot. Corrigal fearing a renewed attack barricaded his men behind the stockades of his trading post. However no further belligerence developed. The Northsters instead determined to play it shrewd and smooth.
On September 24 one of their shareholders (partners as they were called)arrived at Eagle Lake with 10 men and the following day another partner name Haldane appeared on the scene. Apparently they held consultation and decided on a course of legal action through the medium of a murder charge. They went to the barricaded Hudson Bay Company gates and demanded the man who had shot Macdonell. They said if they didnt get him theyd either shoot all the Hudson Bay Company men or get the Indians to do it, even if it cost a keg of brandy per head.
John Mowat, the man who did the shooting then stepped forward to tell them he was the party responsible for the job and that if he was again in similar circumstances he would repeat the performance. At this the Norwesters now playing under the guise of goody goodies announced they would take Mowat, along with two witnesses to Montreal for trial. Tate and Leask volunteered to accompany the accused fellow trader.
Doubtless before that sojourn was over they wished themselves back in the wilds of big Eagle or maybe even on the red hot flagstones of hell. They were to wind up charged with being accomplices to murder while the luckless Mowat ended branded with a hot iron, all in the name of justice.
The motley gang left the Eagle lake country almost immediately, bound by birch bark canoe for Montreal. October 2 they reached Rainy Lake where they wintered. It is something of a miracle the Hudson Bay Company men survived that winter, enduring the treatment they received at the hands of their hypocritical captors.
Their hides were just about ready for hanging on the fence by the time they reached Fort William the following June. Through the precautions now seem superfluous Mowat was nonetheless immediately placed in chains. In the wilds of Northwestern Ontario in 1809 he was hardly likely to have escaped very far even had he attempted to and in addition to that he had voluntarily submitted to being taken into custody.
However it was thus the party moved in canoes from Eagle Lake by way of Wabigoon and Manitou lakes across country to Rainy Lake. They arrived at Rainy October 2. Mowat and his two volunteer witnesses were in for a long rough winter. It is something of a miracle that they survived.
Since there was no chance of making Montreal before freeze up the lay over at Rainy lake was inevitable but the conditions it was effected under are hardly tolerable, much less excusable. Mowat was kept in close confinement throughout the winter and rarely through the long ordeal was he allowed out of the irons. For the two volunteer witnesses accompanying the accused man the captors had real cozy ideas as well. These two unfortunates they subjected to all the insults and indignities they could thin of and in addition they were made to do all the drudgery and dirty work around camp for which they were fed just barely enough to stay alive and able keep slugging at their tasks.
Come break up in the spring they moved toward Montreal over the old canoe route via Fort William. During a stopover there at the North West Companys wilderness headquarters and emporium of their far-flung fur trade, Mowat was locked in a windowless an unlighted dungeon about six feet square at the fort.
After the winter in irons at Rainy lake; the hell-hole at Fort William and the ensuing canoe journey to Montreal there was hardly enough left to his carcass to make wolf bait to say nothing of the condition of his spiritual and mental outlook.
Montreal in those days was the very incubator of the North West Companys prominence and power and anyone charged with an offence against those self styled untouchables had about as much chance of a fair hearing and unprejudiced trial as the proverbial snowball in hell. It was certain to come up snake eyes for any who dared to roll the dice of destiny against the Norwesters on their own stamping grounds.
Thus it was, that not only did the boys from big Eagle charge Mowat with the murder of Macdonell but also grabbed and imprisoned his two volunteer witnesses on charges against Leask and Tate. They were then reluctantly released.
The trial judge in his attitudes instructions and summations appears to have left little doubt he was all in favor of the jury finding for murder in spite of the evidence of Macdonells conduct which had goaded Mowat to the killing in the first place.
But in spite of his prejudicial attitude and biased belaboring of the jury, they returned a manslaughter verdict rather that one of murder. This apparently irked the judge and caused him to thumb deep in the big book before passing sentence. It was that of only six months in prison but in addition Mowat was to be branded on the hand with a hot iron.
Thus, he was marked among men forever as a murderer in spite of Macdonells beastly belligerence at big Eagle Lake where that basic marvel of the mess was that someone hadnt blown his head off long before Mowat did. When the condemned man was released bearing the scar of the brand, he struck off through the bush for the USA from where it was believed he planned to return to his native England.
Did he make it? No one knows, for the luckless fellow was never seen or heard of again. Friends surmised he drowned after breaking through ice while crossing rivers along his path.
We tend to believe he never fell in at all. After the fine deal he got at his trial preceded by the castigations of his captors enroute to it and the whole followed by the searing in of the red hot we figure he simply jumped into the river and drowned.
Information taken from Ontario Sunset Country Vacation Guide printed in 1979.