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François Beaulieu, Legend of the Great Slave Métis

Akaitcho, Great Chief of the Yellowknife
In the summer of 1820, as word spread along the north shore of Great Slave Lake that a white explorer was planning to journey to the Arctic coast, Akaitcho, Chief of the Yellowknife, reacted with grave concern. The Inuit to the north had long been bitter enemies of the Dene tribes to the south.

But despite his misgivings, Akaitcho appeared when summoned to a meeting at Fort Providence, near the present city of Yellowknife. Approaching the meeting hall with a “measured and dignified step” (according to Franklin’s records), the Chief drank to the undertaking and pledged his wholehearted assistance.

Akaitcho and his people guided Franklin and his companions down the Coppermine River, reaching its mouth by the late July. But when the explorers insisted on pushing further, to map the eastward coast of the Arctic Ocean, Akaitcho and his men departed, anxious to find food before winter set in. When Franklin and his party finally turned back, their canoes were badly damaged and food supplies were critically low. They had no choice but to travel by foot, and soon began succumbing to cold, starvation and exhaustion. After a hellish ordeal of death, murder and suspected cannibalism, explorer George Back located Akaitcho and his people and brought them to the starving men. The Yellowknife people shared what little they had, and guided the survivors to safety.

The Yellowknife Chief, reputed to be a skilled warrior, was also a great peacemaker, who along with Dogrib Chief Edzo, ended years of hostility and warfare between the tribes. The Chief’s legacy endures in the Akaitcho Territory of Great Slave Lake (Akaitcho Treaty 8), which includes the First Nations communities of Deninu Kue, Lutsel K'e, Ndilo and Dettah.

Tribal chief, Arctic guide, interpreter, fur trader, salt merchant, devout Roman Catholic, vicious enemy, multiple murderer, patriarch and centenarian – François Beaulieu lived a life of contrasts and extremes.

Thought to be the son of a French-Canadian trapper and an aboriginal mother, Beaulieu was born in 1771 at Salt River, on a tributary of the Slave River south of Great Slave Lake. Beaulieu’s early history remains cloudy; historians have variously described him as Métis, Chipewyan, Cree, and as chief of the Yellowknife tribe. John Franklin claimed that Beaulieu was raised by the Dogribs.

He travelled widely, hunting, fishing and trapping in an area that extended as far south as the Red River area of southern Manitoba, and as far north as the Arctic coast. His contribution to the success of early European exploration has long been underestimated by conventional historical accounts. In 1793, at the age of 22, he accompanied Alexander Mackenzie overland to the Pacific. As guide to John Franklin in 1825, he led Franklin’s men, Dr. John Richardson and E.N. Kendall, by boat from Great Bear Lake to Fort Franklin, the most successful boat journey made by naval personnel in the Canadian Arctic.

Terror and Trade: Often ruthless and ferocious, Beaulieu was the bitter enemy of the Dogribs, Slaveys and Sekanis, and is said to have killed 12 people with his own hands. In the prime of his life, he had as many as 7 wives.

In his later years, Beaulieu became a clever entrepreneur, trading in furs and salt in a cunning network of trappers and allies. He frequently mocked and outsmarted the fur trading establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who preferred to hire him as an employee rather than confront him as a rival.

Renunciation: Following his conversion to the Catholic faith at the age of 77, Beaulieu renounced all but one wife and became a devoted supporter of the church. He is credited with bringing the first priest to Fort Resolution, on the south shore of Great Slave Lake in 1852, and with building the community’s first church. The former “terror” of the Great Slave became a pillar of piety and prayer, opening his home to the sick and the poor.

Beaulieu hunted until the age of 85, and lived to be just over 100, leaving a legacy of descendants that still reside in the Great Slave area. The Beaulieu River, draining into Great Slave Lake, bears his name.
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