Portage La Biche was used as a transportation corridor by Cree middlemen and Métis fur traders for many years before the arrival of David Thompson in 1798. The route Thompson took to Lac La Biche was shown to him by Laderoote, a guide who met Thompson’s brigade by modern-day Briereville. Laderoote was extremely familiar with the route, suggesting that he had taken it several times.
Freemen, traders not employed by the North West Company (NWC) or Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) moving through the area would not have been living in permanent structures. Instead, according to HBC employee John Lee Lewes (in service 1807-1853), the freemen in the Athabasca region, “get completely attached to the Country and Indian way of living and are all like them constantly moving about living in leathern tents made of the skins of the Moose or Buffaloe [sic]”.
The first freemen confirmed to have settled permanently in the Lac La Biche region were Antoine Desjarlais (whose brother decided to settle nearby at Lesser Slave Lake) and a Cardinal (or Cardinalle), although it is unclear whether it was Jacques or Joseph Cardinal, as both were frequently reported in the area. While it is clear that the Desjarlais family had found a permanent home at Lac La Biche by 1805, we can also see that their family was in the area numerous times beforehand through records of events such as the birth of Antoine’s nephew, Baptiste “Nishecabo” Desjarlais, at Lac La Biche in 1787. Both families are mentioned several times in records by those passing through the region, such as George Simpson, Gabriel Franchère, David Douglas, and Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché.