York Factory Express: Cumberland House to Carlton House

Clinker built boat used on the Fraser River

Boats similar to this Fort Langley, Fraser River, clinker built boat were used all through the fur trade both east and west of the Rocky Mountains. However the York Boats used on the Saskatchewan River were not clinker-built, but carvel, which meant that the boards did not overlap each other but were placed edge to edge. This allowed for easier repairs of broken boards en route. Full details will, of course, be in my book, and when I get my images for the York Factory Express book, I will replace these images with better. It all takes time…. an amazing amount of time.

The York Factory Express had left Fort Vancouver in late March — a few days after March 20, usually. In early May they crossed the Rocky Mountains by hiking over the Athabasca Pass to Jasper’s House. In late May or early June they left Edmonton House in their York Boats. At the end of June they were at York Factory, on Hudson Bay, and in early July they began their return journey. By August the men of the incoming York Factory Express (now called the Columbia Express) were making their way up the Saskatchewan River toward Edmonton House.

In this section of the incoming route, the men of the Saskatchewan brigades and the York Factory Express, who are traveling together in these boats, are leaving historic Cumberland House Post, in the muddy estuary of the Saskatchewan River. Whose journals will we read this week? I will have to decide.

In case you didn’t know, there is a delightful article published in an early Beaver Magazine, written by a woman who had been a passenger in the York Boats as a child. She had a wonderful description of the York Boats, and of the Cree men who at that time manned those boats. This is what she said:

The rowers sat on the opposite side of the boat to that on which their blade dipped into the water, and they were seated alternately on the left and right sides of the boat facing the stern, one man to each oar. They rose to their feet as they leaned on the huge sweep, pushing it forward and down to lift the blade out of the water, then sank to a sitting position on the thwart as it bit deeply into the water again. Then, as they pulled and strained mightily, the muscles of their arms, shoulders and backs stood out like bands of iron. Most of them wore around their foreheads and jet black hair a strip of crimson calico to keep the perspiration from rolling down into their eyes. The hand grip of the oars was bound with cloth or a strip of deer skin to prevent their hands from blistering. With their swarthy complexions, their flashing white teeth and bright, black eyes, they brought to mind vividly stories of pirates and galley slaves — except that these were laughing, kindly ones. [Dorothy L. Boggis, “York Boat Coming” Beaver Magazine, June 1954, p. 50].

As you can see from this description, rowing these heavy boats upriver was no easy task, but the Canadiens, and their mixed-blood descendants, did the heavy work willingly. They were young and strong, and their overabundance of testosterone was the engine that powered their boats. Many Canadien and mixed-blood man went out and in with the York Factory Express year after year — it was a part of their life, and they were happy in it. They may well have missed the excitement of this roving life once old-age or injury forced them to leave it behind.

Michel Kaonasse was one of these men who was forced to leave the hard work of the York Factory Express behind him. He was, like most Guides, an Iroquois, from the Montreal area. He had worked under my great-grandfather Alexander Caulfield Anderson at Fort Alexandria in 1843, when his wife died there. In early 1848, Thomas Lowe reported that the Guide who had taken out the York Factory Express for eight years in a row had died, and it is likely that Michel Kaonasse replaced him in March. The next year [1849] he was Guide for John Charles’s York Factory Express, and was blamed for the accident that happened in the Little Dalles of the Columbia River [Nespelem Canyon], when one boat rammed a rock and its ten men escaped drowning by clambering onto a tiny island in the middle of the river. They were eventually rescued, but the Gentlemen at Fort Vancouver blamed the Guide, who had been distracted. Kaonasse may have taken the express out in 1850 and 1851, but in 1852 he became disabled and was replaced by another man.

Here is Thomas Lowe’s Journal of 1848, and Michel Kaonasse is probably the Guide. By this time the rivers that led into Cumberland House were totally silted up, and the York Boats no longer called at the post but picked up their supply of pemmican on the Saskatchewan River.

“August 17, Thursday. Very warm day, and no wind. This forenoon the Columbia Boat struck a pointed stump under the water, and as the wood in that part of the boat was completely rotten, it made a considerable hole. As we struck very lightly, none of us took any notice of it, never supposing that it had done any damage, and we only found it out when the boat was half full of water, so that nearly all the bales got more or less wet, and everything else that could get injured by the water. We immediately had the boat unloaded and repaired and Mr. [John] Rowand’s boat remained behind with us to have the bales opened and dried, the rest of the Brigade going on. It was evening before we could start, but we carried on late.

“18, Friday. Exceedingly hot. Started very early, and before breakfast overtook the Brigade. After breakfast Mr. Rowand’s boat started to go ahead in order to reach Carlton [House] before the Brigade. Encamped about two miles above Musquitoe Point.

“19, Saturday. Sultry, and in the afternoon a thunder storm, with rain. Tracking most of the day. Passed Thorburn’s Rapid in the afternoon, and encamped about 6 miles beyond.” Thorburn’s Rapid, named for an early fur trader, is buried under modern-day Tobin Lake.

“20, Sunday. Fine warm weather. Passed Point de Tors (on the right bank of the River) about noon. Tracking & pulling all day. Encamped about 5 miles below the regular tracking ground.” In French, Torse means “chest,” or “torso.” This might be a spot where two men stripped down and had a fist fight, as is sometimes recorded in these journals.

“21, Monday. Exceedingly warm. Came to the tracking ground early this morning, and kept at it the whole day afterwards, on the right bank. Encamped a short distance beyond Napaway Rapid.” When the men are “tracking,” they are hauling the boats upriver by lines, while walking along the river banks. In this part of the river they did this for days on end. The further up the river they traveled, the stronger was the current, and the harder they worked. Sometimes the banks were muddy and they sank to their knees, sometimes the banks were laid with smooth round stones and tracking was easier.

“23, Wednesday. Cloudy and squally, but no rain. Breakfasted at Fort de Corn, where there were several lodges of Indians, who traded a good quantity of dried meat with us. Tracking all day. In the evening one of the boats was slightly broken, and we lost upwards of an hour by it.” There were a number of old forts in this part of the river. Fort Aux Trembles was constructed by independent traders and operated between 1773 and 1777. Fort a la Corne [or Fort St. Louis] was built in 1753 by Chevalier Louis-Francois de la Corne, and stood just south of the confluence of the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers. West of Fort a la Corne was Batoche’s Fort or Point, which might be the location of the NWC’s old Fort Batoche that operated for a single season. Finally Fort Maranquin had once stood close to the confluence of the two rivers. The men who worked this river had long memories, and there was always someone willing to share the story of every point along this river.

“24, Thursday. Weather overcast. Breakfasted at the foot of Cole’s Rapid, and Mr. [Owen Charles] Beardmore & I afterwards walked up to Campement des Femmes, and as the Brigade did not come up, we slept out.” They are now in the North Saskatchewan River. The story of Cole’s Rapids is told here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/john-cole/

“25, Friday. This morning the boats came up to us and breakfasted. Got up the Rapid Croche [Crooked Rapid] about noon, and tracked & rowed the remainder of the day against a strong head wind.

“August 26, Saturday. Exceedingly warm, although there was a strong breeze ahead. Passed some Indians about noon on the right bank of the River. Made the usual day’s march.

“27, Sunday. Warm clear weather. After breakfast came to where the Carlton [House] horses are kept, when Mr. Beardmore & I took horses and rode to the Fort, where we arrived at sunset. Messrs. [John] Rowand and Finlayson arrived here early this morning with the light boat.” Chief Factor Nicol Finlayson was taking charge of Carlton House.

“28, Monday. Fine day. The [Saskatchewan] Brigade arrived at breakfast time, when we had the Outfit for the Post taken out, and everything arranged before night. A boat is to be left here.”

By this point, some of these journal keepers are beginning to show the wear and tear of the long endless trek to Hudson Bay and return. The entries in their journals become briefer and less descriptive. In 1849 John Charles literally mashed his days together. But in five long months these clerks have traveled more than 2,500 river miles to reach York Factory, and an additional 1,500 miles at this point on their return journey — some 4,000 miles in all! Obviously, these men are tired and bored and exhausted. That, too, was part of the York Factory Express journey.

To go back to the beginning of this series, go here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/first-leg/

The next section is now published, and found here:  http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/fifteenth-leg/

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2016. All rights reserved.