Jason Allard’s Stories of his Father

A view up the Fraser River from Fort Langley

Looking up the Fraser River from Fort Langley, toward the Coquihalla Mountain. Jason Allard was born at fort Langley, and his father, Ovid, arrived at Fort Langley in October 1839. In fact, Ovid Allard helped to build the new Fort Langley after the old fort burned down.

Jason Ovide Allard grew up in the HBC, at Forts Langley and Yale. His father was a Canadien named Ovid Allard, who had several Indigenous wives. Jason’s mother was an Indigenous woman named Justine. So Jason was, of course, Metis — another of the many Metis men who worked and lived in early British Columbia. So many of these men never wrote down the stories of their lives and so they are lost. Fortunately both Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s son, James, and Jason Allard, wrote down their stories, and so they were saved.

I am going to tell you a few stories of Ovid Allard’s life — in truth I am going to let Jason tell some stories of his father’s life. Ovid Allard was born in St. Roch, Montreal, in July 1817. According to Bruce Watson in his Lives Lived West of the Divide, Ovid was seventeen years old and articling for a notarial office in Lachine when he joined the HBC as a middleman in 1834. Watson then says he spent his first five years at Fort Hall (in modern-day Idaho) before coming to FortLangley in 1839, where he helped to rebuild the post after it had burned down.

But there is more to his life than that, and so I am telling his son’s stories. This is what he said of his father’s joining the HBC:

My father entered the service of the Hudson Bay Company in 1834. His childhood was spent with an old Hudson Bay official at Lachine. Soon after he joined the Company he was one of a party which were sent westward. They travelled the best way they could, and depended for food on the game they shot enroute. Windbound on the Great Lakes, the party were without food for five days on one occasion. They were so ravenous when the storm abated that they fell upon a stranded sturgeon without properly cooking it, and four died as a result.

During their long journey, unbelievably hard by present-day travellers, they at times had to eat muskrats, skunks, and dog meat to avoid starvation. Donald McLean, an apprentice clerk with the party, told me years afterwards that dog fat was a good substitute for butter. 

The party travelled under the charge of a Hudson Bay official who had a steersman as foreman. The party usually started about two in the morning, and always before four, and travelled until ten o’clock before halting before breakfast and dinner. They kept travelling until darkness set in. It as a point of honor to beat any previous time for a trip if the trip had been done previously.

What he is saying in that last paragraph, is that they began early in the morning and definitely before 4 o’clock am. They would stop for breakfast at 10 o’clock, and for dinner later in the day — and then continue their journey until night fell. There were also two sets of canoes that left Lachine: the Lachine express, which travelled light and fast, carrying the papers and reports to the Annual meeting at Norway House or Red River; and the heavily-laden Lachine brigades, which carried passengers to Norway House where they would join the Saskatchewan brigades. Unlike other brigades, they did not carry the furs out, as the London ships came in to Montreal. But these large canoes — called Master canoes — also carried provisions and other goods needed in the interior.

Allard and McLean were travelling in the Lachine brigades. Alexander Caulfield Anderson came out from Lachine in these brigades in 1832, and so I know a little bit about them. Anderson left Lachine in a birch bark canoe in April 1832 — which was the normal departing time for the brigades. He would reach Fort Vancouver in early November of the same year, and so spent seven months on the road. It would take Allard and McLean the same length of time to make that journey to their destination, Fort Hall. 

The brigades travelled in 40 foot canoes made of white or silver birch, with seams tightly sewn with spruce fibres called wapete, and waterproofed with many applications of spruce gum. The brigade leader was an experienced voyageur who chose the camping spots and announced the rests, when the voyageurs fired up their pipes to enjoy a leisurely smoke. Each canoe carried a bowsman and a steersman, who wielded their enormous paddles to steer their canoes around the many hazards that littered the rivers — and middle-men, who paddled or poled for 18 hours a day. The voyageurs dressed in multicoloured sashes and red shirts with decorations of ribbons and ostrich feathers, and sang their chansons to a fierce rhythm of 40 to 50 paddle strokes per minute. The language they spoke was a French patois that included more epithets than the average person was comfortable hearing. Allard was a middle-man, and so that was his experience. (McLean, as a clerk, would do little more than sit in the canoe).

Their route led them across Lac St. Louis to St. Anne’s convent, where the voyaguers paused to put in a few coins and receive a blessing. A quick paddle across the lake of Two Mountains brought them to the mouth of the Ottawa River, which carried them to a point where they could cross the height of land by the Mattawa River and paddle through a series of lakes to the French River and a rushing downriver tumble into Lake Huron. At this point, the brigades were 430 miles from Lachine.

On the Great Lakes, the voyageurs often travelled early in the morning and made camp when the dangerous afternoon winds blew. They followed Lake Huron’s north shore to Sault Ste. Marie, where they paddled through a narrow canal built many years earlier by the men of the NWC. Their next major stop would be at Fort William [Thunder Bay], on the north shore of Lake Superior, a few hundred miles to the west. They would probably reach this place in early June, six weeks after leaving Lachine.

Here they clambered into North canoes, which were smaller and lighter than the vessels they had been travelling in to this point. These were the only canoes that could be used on the small rivers and difficult portages north of Lake Superior. Their immediate route led them through Dog Lake and along many marshy rivers and lakes to wild and beautiful Rainy Lake. After a quick stop for re-provisioning at Rainy Lake, they paddled down Rainy River and crossed lake of the Woods by the Grand Traverse. At Rat Portage they entered the spectacular Winnipeg River and followed its course through winding rock channels to Lake Winnipeg. Fort Garry was probably their first destination, but anyone who was being sent to the west, as Ovid Allard and Donald McLean were,  would be sent by canoe to Norway House where they would catch the Saskatchewan brigades on their way down to York Factory.

So, anyway, Ovid Allard went to Fort Hall, in modern-day Idaho, and later helped to build or re-build Fort Boise. I believe he would have come all the way to the Columbia River to Fort Colvile and on to the Snake, but his son does not seem to indicate that was his route. Nevertheless, this is what his son has to say about these adventurous times!

BLACKFOOT RAIDS. The party was headed for the buffalo country on the Western plains, and when they reached their objective their days of starvation were over, for buffalo and other game abounded. The party remained on the plains for five years, with occasional trips to the Snake River country in Idaho. During one of these trips, Fort Boise was built. Trapping and trading for furs occupied the men in the intervals of travelling, and after their arrival on the plains. Dried buffalo meat supplied pemmican for food reserves at the posts.

The Blackfeet Indians were expert and daring horse thieves in those days, and often raided the camps for trained hunting horses. After several such depredations by the Indians the whites retaliated usually by a raid themselves, and stole the horses from the Indians in turn. 

And the HBC men met the American Mountain men at their rendezvous — interesting!

The meetings at rendezvous for the exchange of furs and replenishing of outfits were great holiday events. The general jubilation lasted often a week, with sports the feature. And the sports were such as these frontiersmen enjoyed: rude, rough, and often savage in character.

KIT CARSON’S BEARS. When a British party and an American met at a rendezvous, special programmes were arranged. On one such occasion which my father participated in, two Americans, Kit Carson and Joe Meeks (Wrestling Joe he was known by), staged a bear fight with live bears which had been caught for the great occasion. Both men were famous scouts and Indian fighters. On that occasion, one of the pair tapped an enraged bear on the nose with his ramrod before ramming home the charge, which ended a spectacular encounter. Bets on the horse-races ranged all the way from a blanket to a horse and equipment. 

After some years at Fort Boise, my father was transferred to Fort Vancouver [Vancouver, WA], the headquarters of the western Hudson Bay posts. He arrived there by way of Fort Hall and the Columbia River. Thence he went to Fort Langley on the Fraser, a post established in June 1827 by Chief Factor James McMillan. James Murray Yale was in charge in October 1839 when my father arrived at Fort Langley. He was appointed supervisor and trader with the Indians, an important position then calling for pluck and resource.

So this is very interesting. Fort Hall was built of adobe, and stood on the Snake River some nine miles above the junction of the Portneuf River with the Snake. Fort Boise was built in 1834, near the confluence of the Boise River with the Snake, and was rebuilt in 1836-37, of better materials. In 1838 it was rebuilt again in a new location, closer to the confluence of the two rivers. This time it was built of adobe rather than wood.  A member of my family (William Charles) was at Fort Boise some ten years later, but I really know little about the place except it was a very dangerous place to be because of the Yakima Wars, and for that reason it was closed down in 1855.

I do not write about the mountain men, but I have a very good book about the Americans in the fur trade which includes stories of the mountain men. If you want to learn more about this section of the fur trade, then get Eric Jay Dolin’s book, Fur, Fortune, and Empire: the Epic History of the Fur Trade in America [New York: W.W.Norton & Co., 2010]. If you want to learn more about the Fur Trade routes in Canada and the northern states, then get this book: Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America, by Barbara Huck et al [Winnipeg: Heartland Associates, 2002]. As far as I am aware, both of these books are still readily available.

Oh, and if you want to know where Jason Allard’s stories are found, they are in the British Columbia Archives, under the title: “Jason Allard. Enclosed sketches of early life in B.C.,” E/D/Al50 (small L, not I — very tricky!) There are other files under his name in the same archives as well, and some of his stories are really quite funny — especially the story of the cheese. Nope! Not telling you that story right now, but I will tell it sometime in the future!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2018. All rights reserved.

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