Time and Distance in the York Factory Express

Potatoes, but not the heritage potatoes that were grown in the fur trade

These are not the heritage potatoes grown in the fur trade, but modern-day descendants of them. In 1827, Edward Ermatinger wrote, “Owing to the liberality of the gentlemen by whose posts we passed along the communication we were enabled nearly every night since we left Fort Vancouver to treat ourselves with potatoes at supper and finished the remains of our stock from Fort Colvile today, probably the first ever eaten at this place. Fruits of attention to gardening.”

Time and Distance: How long did it take the York Factory Express men to make their way from Fort Vancouver to York Factory? It varied every year.

The York Factory Express left Fort Vancouver, in modern-day Washington State, on or just after March 20 every year. Because of the voyageurs they would never leave on a long voyage such as this one on a Friday, as you know by this post: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/voyageur-superstition/ But they would also not leave on a Sunday. I find that in these journals, for the most part, the York Factory Express left Fort Vancouver on the Monday that followed March 20. But not always. In 1835, James Douglas left headquarters on March 3rd. He had so much trouble with ice upriver they never did it again, as far as I can tell. 

The York Factory Express men carried provisions enough to get them to the next upriver post — Fort Nez Perces, in later years known as “Walla Walla.” This post was only 208 miles east of Fort Vancouver, and as York Factory was 2695 miles away, it was but a short part of their journey. Fort Vancouver was pretty close to sea-level, but Fort Nez Perces was 941 feet above, and it generally took about 8 days to travel the distance between the two posts. In 1828, however, Edward Ermatinger took only 6 days, and in 1848, Thomas Lowe took 10. At any point in time they could be delayed by weather conditions, especially wind and rain. 

The express-men wasted little time at Fort Nez Perces. Their next stop would be at Fort Colvile, which was still 2,109 miles from York Factory, and 586 Miles from Fort Vancouver. In 1825 Edward Ermatinger went up the Columbia River with the boats, and it took him 15 days to reach Fort Colvile. He stopped at Fort Okanogan, about 434 miles from Fort Vancouver, and passed the mouth of the Spokane River approximately 539 miles from Fort Vancouver. My distances might vary here, as I am getting them from two different sources (and Fort Vancouver was not exactly 100 miles from the mouth of the river). According to one source, Kettle Falls was 604 miles from Fort Vancouver, and Fort Colvile was about 3/4 mile above the falls, if I remember correctly. The boats always went upriver, of course, but most of the time the gentlemen rode across the scablands to Spokane House and Fort Colvile, arriving at the latter post four or five days before the boats. Judging from the various journals, it took from 7 to 12 days to make the horse journey over the Columbia Plateau by the historic Shawpatin Trail.

As you will see in this chapter, provisioning was interesting. The clerk in charge of the express was the man responsible for provisioning the express boats, and it seems that in 1841, Francis Ermatinger was a creative in providing food for his voyageurs, or as every clerk called them, “the people.” Here is George Traill Allan’s story.  http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/second-leg/ 

Fort Colvile was 1,443 feet above sea level, and still 2,109 miles from York Factory: the express had traveled 586 miles from Fort Vancouver, according to another source. It stood just north of the Spokane Falls and is now, unfortunately, buried under a reservoir. It was, however, some 40 miles south of the 49th parallel. The next part of their voyage was up the Columbia River to Boat Encampment, some 300 miles north of Fort Colvile. The York Factory Express men would paddle their canoe-like boats past the mouth of the Mouton Blanc or White Sheep River and through the second Little Dalles on the river. This Little Dalles was not the worst of the dalles (canyons with rapids) on this river, but it was dangerous enough. A jutting reef at the upriver end of this narrow rock-walled canyon divided the Columbia River into two powerful currents that churned downriver toward the boats. A hundred feet downstream, these converged into a massive whirlpool that could swallow massive trees with little trouble. But when the whirlpool flattened, the Guide yelled at his men to paddle, and no man hesitated. As far as I am aware, they always made it through this narrow, whirlpool and rapid filled section of the Columbia River.

Upriver from the Little Dalles (the second of three Little Dalles on this river) was the Pend-d’Oreille River (just north of the 49th parallel, in British Territory). It became the first of the British Territory’s gold rushes, and in 1856, Fort Shepherd was built by the HBC on the Columbia River, as a direct result of that goldrush. See http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/hbc-buildings/  So in the years after 1856, the outgoing York Factory Express would have stopped at Fort Shepherd for a rest, though they had already been provisioned at Fort Colvile. (Fort Shepherd was never known for its farms).

Beyond the Pend-d’Oreille River was McGillivray’s River (Kootenay River), and the rapid filled Columbia River that would lead them to the Lower and Upper Arrow Lake. In the Lower Arrow Lake there is a remarkable cliff called the Arrow Rock, at which occurred another tradition of the express-men west of the Rocky Mountains. As A. C. Anderson mentioned to his son:

 …the fact that on arriving at the rock in question the Indian Canoe men all shot arrows at the rock, many of which stuck in the moss, which I believe was considered to be lucky. [James Robert Anderson, “Indian Tribes of North America,” unpublished mss, Mss 1912, Box 16, file 1, p.23, BCA]

At the top end of the Arrow Lakes, the York Factory Express was 892 miles from the ocean, and about 792 from Fort Vancouver.  Going up the lake the express-men often traded with the Sinixt for mule deer meat, fish, and Bear Paw snowshoes for their walk across the mountains from Boat Encampment to Jasper’s House. Between the top end of Arrow Lake and the Little Dalles canyon was Thomas Lowe’s Grande Batture — modern day “Big Eddy,” located on a sharp river bend some 933 miles from the mouth of the Columbia, and 833 miles from Fort Vancouver. This confused section of the river was the beginning of the most dangerous and difficult part of the Columbia River.

The third Little Dalles on the river was 30 miles north of Arrow Lake, and just north of present day Revelstoke. It was a long rapid, three or four miles in length, and today’s Steamboat Rapid is the northernmost rapid in Little Dalles Canyon. David Douglas wrote of this rapid:

Where the river takes a sudden bend, and to all appearance is lost in the mountains, a scene of the most terrific grandeur presents itself; the whole torrent is confined to a breadth of thirty-five yards, and tossed in rapids, whirlpools, and eddies; on both sides are mountains towering to the height of six or eight thousand feet from their base, rising with rugged perpendicular precipices from the very bed of the river, covered with dead timber of enormous growth, the roots of which, laid bare by the torrents, and now hurled by the violence of the wind from their original high places, come hurrying down the stream, bringing enormous fragments of earth attached to their roots, and spreading devastation all before them. The sun feebly tipped the mountain-tops as we passed this place, and, seen through the shadowy pines, imparted a melancholy air to the whole gloomy scene. [“Douglas’s journey to Hudson Bay,” published in Companion to the Botanical Magazine… vol. II]

North of the Little Dalles, Edward Ermatinger wrote that “the part of the river we passed today is full of Rapids and strong current with occasional pieces of smooth current — in mounting the Rapids we sometimes used the Line but more frequently the poles.” So you didn’t just paddle up this section of the river, you poled up it. And that is a skill that the voyageurs had in spades!   http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/tracking/

The rapid below Death Rapids was called Priests Rapids, on the Columbia River north of Downie Creek. Ermatinger said that the river  became “more rapidous as we ascend.” He also said that the Dalles des Morts, or Death Rapids, was “rather a dangerous place.” There is a lovely little story attached to this part of the river, which you will find here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/cannibalism/

Rapide Croche, in Edward Ermatinger’s journal, might be Gordon Rapid, on the Columbia River north of Goldstream River on modern maps. I discovered that in these journals the word “Croche” might mean “Crooked,””Quavering,” or “Cross.” It might also be called St. Martin’s Rapid in these journals, and in fact it might be where NWC and HBC employee, Joseph St. Martin, drowned in September 1825. 

Boat Encampment was approximately 1,574 feet above sea level, and 300 miles north of Fort Colvile. To reach York Factory, they still had 1,809 miles to travel, and they had already come 886 miles from Fort Vancouver. They must have traveled an average of 30 miles a day in this section of the river, because it took most express men 10 days to make the journey (sometimes 11 and in one year, 12). They were going out in spring, and as usual, the high water in the river made the whirlpools worse, but the rapids less threatening. When they came downriver in the late summer, things would be quite different! Generally, it appears that from Boat Encampment to Fort Vancouver they took an average of 4 days to Fort Colvile. From Fort Colvile to Fort Nez Perces it might have been anywhere from 5 to 7 days, and from Fort Nez Perces to Fort Vancouver four to five days only. Naturally coming downriver was a lot faster than going up, and these men were so eager to reach home they would paddle all night if the river was clear of danger.

David Douglas described the Columbia River at Boat Encampment, noting that the bigger channel (60 yards wide) lay on the north side of the islands in the middle of the river’s big bend. The 40-yard wide Canoe River flowed in from the north, and from the east the Wood River tumbled down the mountainside into the Big Bend of the Columbia. The Wood was the smallest of the three rivers, but the most important to these express-men. Almost all the HBC men considered the Wood the continuation of the Columbia.

This is probably the first of a series (almost certainly, I think). When the next one is posted, it will appear here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2018. All rights reserved. (Check my mathematics, though. East of the Rockies I’m fine, but west of the Rockies I have several sources who disagree on distance. That’s the way it is).

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