York Factory Express: Edmonton House to Carlton House

Montrose McGillivray was a flashy dresser

These fur traders hunted their game with flintlock gun and black powder. These were good guns, and accurate — but it took an experienced man some twelve seconds to reload his gun with gunpowder and ball!

The North Saskatchewan River began its journey to the sea in the Rocky Mountains, an icy cascade that emerged from the base of a glacier. Its silt-shaded waters flowed past the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Rocky Mountain House [Rocky Mountain House, AB], carving a watery path deep into the prairie highlands it encountered. By the time it reached Edmonton House, the river flowed through a steep-banked valley almost 200 feet below the level of the surrounding parklands. In spring, melting snows brought high rushing water that shifted the river’s many sandbars to new locations. But in the fall the express boats pushed their way up a very much shallower river.

Just as the river constantly changed, so too did the location of Edmonton House: in its early years it stood near the town of Fort Saskatchewan, and later, downriver at the mouth of White Mud Creek. By the time Edward Ermatinger reached the fort in 1827, it was located on modern-day Rossdale Flats, where Edmonton’s power plant now stands. But on occasion, high water flooded the flats and, in 1830, the fort was moved to the top of a high bluff that overlooked the curving river valley.

At Edmonton House, the Columbia express men joined the men of the Saskatchewan Brigade and travelled downriver with them. The express had travelled light and fast, carrying little more than the papers and letters for the Council meeting at Red River or Norway House. The Saskatchewan Brigades, however, carried out packs of furs and casks of castoreum to Hudson Bay, and returned with their ninety-pound pactons of trade goods to keep them in business for the next winter’s trading.

(The Columbia Department had brigades, too, but in that Western department those brigades traveled south and west to Fort Vancouver, returning to Fort St. James, in north-central British Columia, in late summer.)

In 1827, Edward Ermatinger had a harrowing trip down the North Saskatchewan River. He began his journal at Edmonton House on May 26: “The boats leave Edmonton at 9 am. Passengers C.F. [John] Stuart & [John] Rowand, Messrs. [David] Douglas, [Finan] McDonald, [John Edward] Harriott, [George] McDougall and E.E. Manned Mr. Stuart’s boat 5 men, Mr. R.’s 4 and the rest 3 each. Proceed till 8 pm and encamp, distance 50 miles.”

As you see, the Columbia express men were spread out in the boats that Chief Factors John Stuart of Lesser Slave Lake, and John Rowand of Edmonton House. Yes, this John Stuart is the same man who opened up the territory west of the Rocky Mountains with Simon Fraser, and he was now in charge at Lesser Slave Lake. David Thompson’s clerk, Finan McDonald, was going out to retire, and had spent the winter at Edmonton House. George McDougall had made his historic crossing of “Leather Pass” in winter, on his way to pick up his sick brother’s wife and children. David Douglas, the botanist, was returning to England. It is an interesting group, and there is an interesting story to follow.

This group of men descended the fast flowing North Saskatchewan quickly, as they always did. On the 27th, Finan McDonald shot a “red deer,” or elk for food. The next day they had a head wind, but passed old Fort George [1792-1801] and stopped for their supper at Dog Rump Creek. Every day they hunted for their food, as they carried no dried provisions in these early years, and their supply post of Fort Pitt had not yet been built. This was, of course, something that put them in danger of being attacked by one of the many wild animals that roamed over these unoccupied plains — grizzly and black bears, bison, pronghorn antelope, elk, and more.

On Saturday, June 2nd, Edward Ermatinger made this entry in his journal:

A very serious accident attends the evening’s hunting. Mr. H[arriott] having wounded two other [American Bison] Bulls goes off with a view of getting them accompanied by Messrs. F[inan] McDonald and E.E. [Edward Ermatinger]. On approaching them they made off. Mr. H pursued and overtook one, followed by Mr. McD — the former fired but did not bring the Bull down. Mr. McD’s rifle snapped and while he was endeavouring to distinguish his object in the dark of the night to have another shot the animal rushed toward him with the utmost impetuosity. Mr. McD as soon as he perceived him, which was not till he was very close, tried to escape by running across a small plain to shelter himself as it appeared to him in a hammock of woods, but before he reached it he become out of breath and threw himself down trusting to fate. The first blow the animal gave him he tossed him with great violence and gored the most fleshy part of his thigh nearly to the bone. Mr. McD, after this seized him by the wool of the head and held him for some time, but the immense power of the animal obliged him to quit his hold — on doing this, he supposes, he dislocated his wrist. He remembers having received 6 blows, one of which was so dreadful that his whole side is bruised black and blue and some of his ribs appear to be broken — the last furious butt made him call out, and what is very strange the Bull at the same instant fell down as if a ball had struck him.

In this state they both remained for above an hour while Mr. H ran to the Boats at least 2 miles distant for assistance, Mr. E remaining near the spot to point it out, for altho’ these two gentlemen heard and saw as far as the darkness of the night permitted the whole of this distressing affair, they were unable to render immediate relief, lest in firing at the Bull they might kill the man. A large armed party being collected were devising means of extricating Mr. McD from his painful situation, when one of the men’s guns went off in the air by accident. This caused the Bull to rise. He looked at the party attentively for a moment and then galloped off. Mr. McD whom they found perfectly sensible altho’ he had fainted several times as he himself says, also states that the Bull watched him the whole time they lay together and that he durst not stir. The animal too he says appeared to suffer much groaning and vomiting blood a great deal. The ground around bore evident marks of this deplorable catastrophe, being gored up in many places and covered with blood — a shot pouch which Mr. McD wore at his left side, made of thick sealskin, covered with porcupine quills and stuffed with rags, &c, for wadding was found to be pierced thro’ and thro’ and must have saved his life, altho’ he was not aware when this happened.

McDonald was carried on “blankets fastened upon poles” on the men’s shoulders to the Boat, where his wounds were dressed by David Douglas. Then the party departed for Carlton House downriver, where they hoped to find a doctor. No medical man was at the place, and in order that McDonald get medical aid as quickly as possible, “a boat manned by 5 men is dispatched with him to Cumberland [House] accompanied by Mr. [George] McDougall. The other boats afterwards receive an addition to their cargoes from the returns of this place and 8 of them depart in the evening.”

Story and quotes from Edward Ermatinger’s York Factory Express Journal: Being a record of journeys made between Fort Vancouver and Hudson Bay in the years 1827-1828 [Ottawa]: Royal Society of Canada, 1912.

Here is a little Edward Ermatinger story for you: http//nancymargueriteanderson.com/edward-ermatinger/

The next leg of the York Factory Express is available now, at http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/eighth-leg/

Edward Ermatinger’s two journals [1827 and 1828] are found online, and you might want to view them here: http//www.peel.library.ualberta.ca/bibliography/169/2.html

For more information on the flintlock guns that these men hunted with, see: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/flintlock-guns/

If you want to read the stories of the Columbia Brigade, here is the link to the first section of their annual journey from Fort St. James to Fort Vancouver, and return:  http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/brigade-one/

If you want to start at the beginning of this thread, follow this link to the first York Factory Express post at Fort Vancouver: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/first-leg/ I suspect that before I am done I will have about twenty “legs” in this series. It is quite a big project — and a seven month long journey for the men who are returning to Fort Vancouver. They will return in late November or early December.

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