York Factory Express: Fort Nez Perces to Fort Colvile

Map of the Columbia district, HBC

Map, Fort Vancouver to Fort Colvile

I learned something new last week, and it has blown me away! I am, after all, the expert on the brigade trails, am I not? And did not the outgoing York Factory Express travel over the same route as the brigades did, on their way to the Okanogan post? I would have expected so…

But I was wrong!

I have a good-sized collection of express journals collected over the years, and I am posting another section from one of these journals. It will cover the journey from Fort Nez Perces (Walla Walla) to Fort Colvile, in Eastern Washington State — slightly north west of modern-day Spokane. The author of the journal I am posting is a fur trader named George Traill Allan. He was born in Perthshire, Scotland, in 1807, and joined the fur trade about 1830. He crossed the country with the incoming express of 1831, and worked for about ten years in the fur trade at Fort Vancouver. Now, in 1841, he is travelling out of the territory for a year of furlough in the east.

George Traill Allan was quite different from other furtraders. He was small, about 5 foot 1 inches tall, and very slight — “delicate” might be the word used to describe him. His journal follows — but first, let me tell you a little about the river they are travelling:

From Fort Nez Perces the fur traders continued their journey up the Columbia River. Their next stop would be at Fort Colvile, just north of Kettle Falls. Again the boats faced barriers in the form of rapids, but they were less hazardous than those on the lower river. River travel varied. When the river ran high between its banks, whirlpools formed; when the water was low the rapids became more intense. At Priests’ Rapids, the river climbed 70 feet in ten miles. Paquin Rapid followed shortly after, and then the more dangerous Rocky Island, or Isles de Pierres Rapids. The Little Dalles blocked the river a few miles east of Okanogan House, and finally the employees negotiated the Grand Rapids, seven miles south of Kettle Falls.

This was the river that Edward Ermatinger had journeyed up in 1827 and again, in 1828… but later fur traders did not. The boats continued to follow the Columbia through the rapids and falls to Forts Okanogan and Colvile, with perhaps some of the gentlemen or maybe only one clerk to supervise. The others took to horseback and rode across country to the Spokan woods and Fort Colvile, by an overland route. — I knew that, but I thought they rode through the Grand Coulee, as the brigades did.

I was wrong.

George Traill Allan’s express party left Fort Nez Perces on April 1st, 1841: “Having arranged everything for my trip on horseback from Walla Walla [Fort Nez Perces] to Fort Colvile, I started today at noon accompanied by a man, a boy and an Indian, as Guide, with a band of forty-six Horses, the Boats having gone off the day before with the other gentlemen: my object in going across land being to get a-head of the Boats & so gain time to close all the accounts at Fort Colvile before their arrival. As the Country though which I now passed was all much of the same description, I may here mention, that its general appearance was not particularly pleasing, consisting principally of hills without a stick of wood to adorn their summits or relive the eye from the sameness of the landscape which now presented itself to an immense extent. The surface of the ground over which we rode at no tardy pace was so covered with badger holes that it required the utmost caution to guide our riding horses clear of them; as for the light horses, we allowed them to look out for themselves.

“After a ride of four days we reached Fort Spokane, an old establishment, abandoned some years ago, situated on the banks of the River of that name in a beautiful spot. On crossing the River, which we did by the assistance of two Indians in a small Canoe, I was very much surprised, when gaining the opposite bank, to hear my name distinctly pronounced by one of a band of Indians assembled there to greet our arrival; but on looking in the direction from whence the voice came I immediately recognized my old friend, a young Indian Chief called Garry, who had entered the Columbia with me ten years before. He had been educated at Red River at the expense of the Company and when I had known him was well-clothed and could both read and write: now, however, the march of improvement had apparently retrograded, as he made his appearance wrapped up in a Buffalo Robe a la Savage. Having presented some Tobacco to the Indians I requested Garry to send for one of our horses which I had been obliged to abandon that morning, he being too much fatigued to come on, and to forward him to Colvile, all which he promised to do, and I have no doubt has already performed.

“The evening before our arrival at Spokane we encountered a very severe snowstorm, but we were fortunate enough, that very evening, to find abundance of wood, an article of which we had hitherto only procured a sufficiency to boil the tea-kettle. We were therefore enabled to make a very large fire and managed with the aid of my bed oil-cloth to erect a kind of shelter from the peling of the pitiless storm during the night. — On the night of the 7th April we reached Fort Colvile about 10 o’clock to my great pleasure, where I was received with the utmost kindness by my old acquaintance, Mr. Chief Trader Archibald McDonald and his amiable wife. Being very desirous, if possible, to reach Fort Colvile today (the 7th) I had ridden very hard — so much so, that another of our horses gave in, within a few miles of the Fort. I had, however, no alternative but to ride hard or go supperless to bed as our provisions were entirely out. This I do not regret, because it gave me an opportunity of proving the correctness of two old adages, viz. Put a hungry man on horse-back and he’ll ride to the Deil; & keep a thing seven years & you will find a use for it. — To understand however, the allusion to the latter of these wise sayings, it will be necessary here to state, that on leaving Fort Vancouver Mr. [Francis] Ermatinger, a veritable John Bull and our caterer for the grub department of the voyage, had prevailed upon Captain Brotchie, whose vessel was then laying at Vancouver, to get made for us a couple of large plum puddings, & the same plum puddings upon being tried on the voyage from Vancouver to Walla Walla, had been found wanting, not in quantity but in quality, and until our arrival at the last mentioned post had layen [sic] neglected and almost forgotten. While seeing me equipped for the trip on horseback from Walla Walla to Fort Colvile, Mr. Ermatinger had slipped in amongst my eatables a piece of those identical puddings; being this morning therefore pressed by hunger, I had, I presume, dived deeper than usual into the recesses of my haversack and finding poor Brotchie, I made, sans cermoni & cannibal-like, a most hearty Breakfast upon his remains….”

Well, you didn’t expect all my posts to be serious, did you? The fur trade has its funny stories, too, and George Traill Allan always saw the funny side of any situation he found himself in. But, at the same time, you will notice that I have chosen a journal which does not lay out the route that the express men took to reach Spokane House and Fort Colvile. You will have to guess…. and wait for the book.

A note on spelling: The fur traders sometimes spelled Spokane “Spokan.” Fort Colvile is the fur trade fort, Colville the American town and the American army fort. Okanagan is Canadian: Okanogan is American. Yes, the varied spelling always confuses people (especially editors), and some people are really distracted by what they see as misspelled words. But in this post, these words are spelled the way they are supposed to be.

Here’s the link to the next post in this series: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/third-leg/

Copyright Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2014. All rights reserved.