York Factory Express, Carlton, Cumberland and Norway Houses

York Boats under sail

This image of York Boats sailing on Lesser Slave Lake is from the Glenbow Archives, na-2283-10, and I have used it with their permission. The HBCA has the same image, though they say it is taken on Lake Winnipeg.

In 1847, Fort Vancouver’s clerk Thomas Lowe began his journey from Carlton House, on the North Saskatchewan River, on the morning of June 1st, “at daylight, and were enabled to make a long days march, as the river has risen from the recent rains.

“Thursday 3rd. Rainy. Came to Cole’s Rapids before breakfast, but having broken two boats, put ashore to breakfast, and get them repaired. In course of the day 5 more boats were broken, one of them having gone to pieces, the crew saving themselves by springing into a boat which was passing. Most of the cargo was picked up and distributed amongst the [Saskatchewan] Brigade, although the packs were very much injured with wet. Encamped half way down the Rapids.”

The vicious and troublesome set of rapids called Cole’s Rapids was named for John Cole, one of a group of independent fur traders who wintered at Peter Pangman’s post in 1778. These rogue traders mistreated the Natives by trading rum for furs, and drugging troublesome Natives with laudanum — to the point where they gave a little chief an overdose and killed him. This murder angered the Natives, who camped outside the fort as the traders made preparation to take their furs downriver. A pitched battle began when one Native man deliberately shot John Cole dead. The others escaped into their house, but surrendered, and the Natives confiscated the furs and sent the fur traders on their way. This incident served as a notice to other independent fur traders, who became more careful in their treatment of the Natives after that!

Here is a little more on John Cole: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/john-cole/

But Thomas Lowe is coming down the North Saskatchewan in 1848, some seventy years later. For him, as for the other fur traders, it was the rapids that were troublesome, and not the Indigenous people. Lowe’s troubles continued the next day: “Friday, 4th June 1847. Ran several of the Rapids before breakfast, but two more boats having been broken, the remainder were run down to the bottom of the Rapids by experienced steersmen only, who had thus to make two trips, and it was 2 o’clock in the afternoon before we were able to start from the termination of Cole’s Rapids, in which 8 boats were broken more or less severely, and one entirely lost. A short distance below these rapids, the Southern Branch [South Saskatchewan River] falls into the Saskatchewan, and as there happened to be a good flush of water in it, we made a good distance before camping. Raining at intervals during the day.

On the Saturday that followed they made good time, and the next night drifted downriver all night. On Monday, June 7th, they stopped at Cumberland House for provisions. “Here two boats & the bateaux were left, their ladings to be taken to Norway House by the Athabasca Brigade….

“Tuesday 8th. Very warm. Had a fine breeze all day, and reached the Pas in the evening, where we remained all night. A sufficient number of Indians were engaged at this place to make up the boats crews to 3 men each, a few had 4 besides the steersman. About 10 pieces of Pemican [sic] were likewise taken out of each boat.” The pemmican would probably be stored at Henry Budd’s Cumberland House mission station, now well-established at the Pas, with Reverend James Hunter acting as missionary to the local Cree.

On Wednesday they started from the Pas, and made their way to Muddy Lake; on Thursday they rowed against a head wind across Cedar Lake and camped on an island near the east end of that lake. On Friday they made Cross Lake, and then: “In the forenoon 3 boats were broken in the Red Stone Rapid, and as a good deal of time was lost in repairing them, we only got as far as the head of the Grand Rapids, where we encamped. Rained very hard in course of the night.

“Saturday 12th. Rained all morning, and could not start until after breakfast. In running the Grand Rapid, Laplante’s Boat struck on the rocks, and blocked up the channel, when the Columbia boat, which was close behind, ran foul of it and cut it down to the keel. The crew immediately jumped into the Columbia Boats, and left [Laplante’s boat] in the middle of the Rapid. Before a boat could be unloaded and sent to haul it off, the cargo was completely soaked. Another one was likewise slightly broken, and we were obliged to encamp at the lower end of the Portage, having only come about a mile since starting this morning.

On Sunday they ran the remainder of the Grand Rapids, with the boats only half loaded [demi-charge], and camped at the bottom to men the boats and dry the packs. That afternoon, “the Portage La Loche Brigade passed us, in charge of L’Esperance the Guide, consisting of six boats..” French-Canadian Alexis Bonamie dit L’Esperance worked as steersman and guide on the Portage la Loche Brigade for thirty years, and he ghosted up and down the river many times in these York Factory Express accounts.

By Tuesday their furs were dried and repacked, and they “Started in the afternoon and pulled down to the entrance of Lake Winnipeg. Encamped in the Horse Shoe.” This probably referred to the horseshoe-shaped bay at the mouth of the Saskatchewan River. On Wednesday they “started this morning under sail, and came about 10 miles, but as it began to blow a strong head wind, had to put ashore on an island in the Lake. A heavy thunder storm in the afternoon.”

The boats and men remained storm-bound for two days. On Saturday 19th June, “Started early this morning, and had a fine side wind the whole day, which carried us through Lake Winnipeg, although we had much difficulty in rounding Mossy Point. Fine clear weather throughout the day, but a thunder storm at night. Mr. [John] Rowand who was the foremost of our Brigade, after passing Mossy Point, fell in with Sir George Simpson, who was in a boat on his way from Red River to Norway House. The Governor was accompanied by Chief Factor [John Edward] Harriott & Mr. [Robert] Clouston. Mr. Rowand’s boat and the Governor’s pushed on ahead, in order to reach Norway House tonight, but we remained behind with the Brigade, and encamped on an Island at the commencement of Play Green Lake.”

The Saskatchewan Brigade boats arrived at Norway House at 3 o’clock the next day, and Lowe reported that Governor Simpson, Harriott, Rowand and Clouston all made it to Norway House about 10 o’clock the night before. In 1849 the Annual General Meeting of the HBC was being held at Norway House, and Thomas Lowe was seconded by Governor Simpson to make copies of the Minutes of Council for distribution to the Chief Factors and Chief Traders on their return to the Columbia District. Once all the work was done and the meeting was closed, the gentlemen made their way to York Factory, on Hudson Bay, in canoes. Quite often they arrived at their headquarters on the Bay some days before their men did.

But at York Factory, the gentlemen-clerks had work to do. They may have ridden as passengers across the continent to Norway House, and at their headquarters it was the employees’ time to carouse, and the gentleman’s time to prepare their boats and loads for the return journey home.

If you want to understand what the York Factory Express was, and at the same time go to the beginning of this series, go to: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/second-book/

The next leg of the journey has now been posted here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/ninth-leg/

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2014. All rights reserved.