An Interview with Alexander Henry
We are destroying both mind and body
Fort Pembina, 1805
Alexander Henry has been most successful in his business in Pembina. Last year, the Northwest Company took over a third group trying to make money in the area, the XY Company, which built a fort in 1801. Recently, Henry’s company has come to a friendly agreement with the Hudson’s Bay Company which put an end to the competition. The two have divided trade with the native peoples and have agreed to force Indians to pay the prices they set for goods in exchange for fur. Henry has agreed to answer a few questions about his experience in Pembina.
Tell us frankly, Mr. Henry, what do the native people think of the white traders?
Well, they have come to depend upon the trade goods. They call them their “necessaries.” But I know that they despise us in their hearts.
Why do they despise you?
They have good reason. They now totally neglect their ancient customs. We have destroyed both mind and body with that pernicious article, rum.
Aren’t you afraid?
I’m a tough bone for them to gnaw. I also have to admit that our use of liquor and making the native peoples dependent on our goods have put them in a most difficult position.
Are you saying that the people here are worse off since you have come?
Yes, I think that I have to admit this. We are not, of course, responsible for all the misery in this area. War with the Sioux people, the Dakota tribes, was going on before I got here. Just this year, 300 Yankton warriors killed ten Chippewa on the Tongue River, including my wife’s parents. But we are responsible for the murders caused by liquor.
How is business?
This past season we were able to send 2,736 beaver pelts north from our forts on the Assiniboine and Red Rivers, but I know that we will soon be sending less than 700. We are going to have to make more dried buffalo (pemmican) to make up for the furs, which just are not there any more. But I am quite optimistic because we have finally stopped cutting each other’s throat. Now that the competition is over, things may go better.
How do you spend your time here at Fort Pembina?
I love to hunt, and I’m very good at it. We amuse ourselves by waiting for buffalo to come and drink at the river. When the poor brutes come within ten yards, we fire with 25 guns, kill and wound many. We take only the tongues. I read, write in my journal, and spend time with my wife and children and the fifty or sixty Chippewa who live here at the fort. I like to watch my wife and the other women slide down the hill to the river. Naturally, I have had to spend a great deal of time taking care of the problems caused by liquor. I do find time to garden. We grow great quantities of potatoes as well as cabbage, carrots, onions and turnips. I also love to travel. Every summer all the Nor’ Westers get together for a huge feast and party at an event we call the “Rendezvous.” I am proud to say that my men are one of the best outfits operating throughout the North West territory. I plan to make a trip west to see the village peoples on the Missouri.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.