Beaulieu, Legend of the Great Slave Métis
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
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
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.
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
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. 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.