Henry Kelsey sees the buffalo on the western plains illustrated by Charles William Jefferys (1869-1961)
|Died||1 November 1724 (aged 56-57)|
|Resting place||St Alfege's Church, Greenwich|
Henry Kelsey (c. 1667 - 1 November 1724), was an English fur trader, explorer, and sailor who played an important role in establishing the Hudson's Bay Company in Canada. Kelsey was born in 1667 and married in East Greenwich, south-east of central London. He is the first recorded European to have visited the present-day provinces of Saskatchewan and, possibly, Alberta, as well as the first to have explored the Great Plains from the north. In his travels to the plains he encountered several Plains First Nations (Plains Indians), as well as vast herds of the American bison, their primary source of food.
Kelsey was apprenticed in London at age 17 to the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) in 1684 and departed England for Canada on 6 May 1684. He was posted at a fort on Hudson's Bay near present-day York Factory, Manitoba, near the mouth of the Nelson River on Hudson Bay. Kelsey started exploring in the winter of 1688-1689 when he and a First Nations boy carried mail overland 200 miles from Fort York to Fort Severn, another HBC post. He was described as "a very active Lad delighting much in Indians' company, being never better pleased than when he is traveling among them." In the summer of 1689, Kelsey and the same First Nations boy tried to find First Nations north of the Churchill River to open trade with them. Kelsey travelled inland for about 235 miles north of the Churchill, but returned without having any success.
In 1690, HBC governor at York Factory, George Geyer, sent Kelsey on a journey up the Nelson River "to call, encourage, and invite the remoter Indians to a trade with us." Beaver pelts were the item most desired by the HBC. Kelsey left York Factory on 12 June 1690 with a group of Indians and proceeded by canoe up the Nelson River (southwest). He carried with him a sample of hatchets, beads, and tobacco the company offered. Kelsey and the Indians reached a place he named Deering's Point, probably near present-day The Pas, Manitoba, on 10 July after a journey of 600 miles; they had passed through five lakes and undertaken 33 portages. Deering's Point was a gathering place for Indians who journeyed down the Nelson River to trade at York Factory. Kelsey sent a letter, carried by Indians, back to York Factory with his observations about the journey and the Indians he had met. He said that the various Indian nations were continually at war with each other, which hindered prospects for trade. Kelsey spent the winter near Deering's Point.
In spring 1691, Kelsey received a supply of trade goods from York Factory; his orders were to obtain what beaver pelts he could and to return the following year with as many Indians as possible to introduce them to the trading post. On 15 July 1691, he set out from Deering's Point "to discover and bring to commerce the "Naywatame poets," an Indian people of the Great Plains. At Deering's Point, Kelsey was still in the austere Taiga forest of northern Canada. His apparent goal was to reach the Indians of the richer lands of the Aspen Parkland and prairies to his south and west. Accompanied by Cree, Kelsey ascended the Carrot River by canoe, crossed into present-day Saskatchewan, then continued on foot to a point northwest of present-day Yorkton, entering the aspen parkland. Kelsey's route was probably via several well-traveled Indian foot trails. Entering the aspen parkland, possibly near the Touchwood Hills, he encountered the Assiniboine, a buffalo-hunting people of the Great Plains. The Assiniboine and other peoples of the region were still on foot at this time, the later horse culture of the Plains Indians not having yet reached Canada.
On 20 August, Kelsey described a "great store of buffalo" and "silver-haired" bears, the first sightings by a European of buffalo and grizzly bears on the northern Great Plains. His party had gone hungry during their ascent of the journey through the taiga, but now Kelsey and his Indian companions feasted on buffalo. Kelsey also noted the abundance of beaver in the many ponds and lakes of the aspen parkland. Continuing his journey, possibly to a point south and west of Saskatoon, Kelsey tried to make peace between the Assiniboine and their neighbours, the Naywatame poets. It is unclear who the Naywatame were; Kelsey commented "they knew not the use of canoes," which indicates that they were Plains Indians.
Scholars have advanced several theories as to the identity of the Naywatame. On linguistic grounds, they are proposed to be Siouan, possibly Stoney or another people closely related to the Assiniboine. Identification of them as Hidatsa or Mandan is proposed, although those tribes were resident 300 miles further south along the Missouri River in North Dakota. Possibly they were Gros Ventre or Blackfeet, Algonquin speakers who were discovered living in this region by later explorers in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Kelsey's peace initiatives failed, and he was unable to open trade relations with the Naywatame. They were afraid to make a journey across enemy Assiniboine territory to go to York Factory. Kelsey wintered with the Indians and returned to York Factory in the summer of 1692, accompanied by numerous Assiniboine and Cree eager for trade with the HBC.
Kelsey returned to England in 1693, reenlisted in 1694 and returned to York Factory. In 1694 and again in 1697, York Factory was captured by the French. Kelsey returned to England at these times, on the second occasion as a prisoner of the French. In 1698, he went back to the New World, this time to Fort Albany on James Bay.
In 1701, he became master of a trading frigate, the Knight, in Hudson Bay, continuing the trade in beaver pelts. In 1703, he returned for a time to England. In 1705 Kelsey went back to Fort Albany as chief trader. In 1712, he returned again to England.
In 1714 he made his sixth journey across the Atlantic Ocean, appointed as Deputy Governor of York Factory, which the British had recaptured from the French. In 1717, he was appointed as Governor of York Factory and in 1718 as Governor of all the Hudson's Bay settlements. In 1719 and 1721, he undertook missions to the Arctic, where he met with Inuit people and searched for copper deposits.
In 1722, Kelsey was recalled to England. He died on 1 November, 1724 and was buried on 2 November 1724 in St Alfege Church, Greenwich. He was distinguished for his ability to establish good relations with Indians, which enabled him to be mostly successful as a trader.
Numerous places and institutions have been named in his honour.