The men in the 1826 York Factory Express

York Boat sailing
York Boat Sailing, image HBCA-N14645 used with the permission of the Hudson’s Bay Archives

Many of the men who travelled in the York Factory Express worked west of the Rocky Mountains for many years — some worked here for just a year or so. In all cases after 1826, the York Factory Express was how they reached their new territory, and how they left again — if they left again. Many Metis men worked in the Express year after year, and it was a major part of the lives of the Metis west of the Rockies. The Metis voyaged. That was their job, and the York Factory Express and its returning Columbia Express took seven full months out of every working year west of the Rockies. That was their life, and they worked in the Express until they injured themselves and were no longer able to do the heavy work it required. So, when you think of the Metis west of the Rockies, and their work — think York Factory Express.

Sometimes, however, it is difficult to identify these men. The records are incomplete and many cannot be identified and we have to guess. So here I am, doing my best to figure out who these men are!

Chief Trader John McLeod (Senior), of Kamloops, led out the brigade of five or six boats to Boat Encampment and Edmonton House in the first outgoing York Factory Express of 1826. He was born in Stornoway, Scotland, in 1788, and died July 1849 in Montreal. He joined the HBC in 1811, and was closely connected with the Red River Colony in the years of its struggles with the North West Company (NWC). When the two companies merged he was made Chief Trader, and in 1822 McLeod came across the Rocky Mountains to the Thompson’s River District [Kamloops]. When, in 1826, he led out the first York Factory Express, he was about 38 years of age.

So, let’s see if I can figure out who the rest of the men were.

“La Bourse.” There is no La Bourse in Bruce Watson’s Lives Lived West of the Divide, but I strongly suggest this is Claude Lacourse, a Canadien boute who was in the Columbia District in 1823-1826, and in Montreal in outfit 1827-1828.

“Laurant.” We have two Laurants in the district, and neither seems to be correct. Francois Laurant was an Iroquois man who appeared on the Pacific slopes in 1812, and deserted the HBC in spring 1823, heading to Red River from the Bitterroot Valley. The second Laurant is Isadore, who came into the district with the Brigade about 1830, and seemed to spend the winter here. However, i find that this so-called “Laurant” is not Laurant, but Larance — Bazil Larance — who spent time in the Athabasca District, but also worked west of the mountains in outfit 1826-1827, as a steersman in one of the boats. There you are! Save enough paper and you will be able to answer all your own questions!

“Joseph Sagauish.” I would have said this is Joseph Sagoyenhas, and it is quite possible, as Bruce Watson tells us that he may have been in the territory as early as 1816. He is Iroquois, was a middleman at Fort Vancouver 1836-1837, a member of the Snake Party in 1837-1841, back at Fort Vancouver to 1844. However, his record says he joined the HBC from Sault St. Louis in 1836, and when his contract expired he returned to Canada. Hmmmm!

“Ignace.” Impossible to determine which Ignace this is, there are so many. But he was almost certainly Iroquois!

“Charon.” This is more likely to be “Charron,” but Narcisse Charron did not appear to be in the Columbia District in 1826. Another mystery boute here. Any suggestions?

“Gaullou” who “will desert as he is going out against his will.” I found him! This is Jacques Goulais [b], from L’Assomption, Quebec, joined the NWC in 1816 and worked for the HBC until 1825. He was a middleman in the canoe brigades, 1822-1823, and on the Montreal pay list in 1825-1826. That’s interesting: did he go out in 1826? and why unwillingly? Did he have family here that returned for? Maybe he had to leave his family behind in the district because of the bad weather in 1826?

James Douglas and Frances Ermatinger travelled with the Express as far as The Dalles, in Douglas’s case, and Fort Okanogan, in Ermatinger’s case. Sam Black was in charge at Fort Nez Perces, Archibald McDonald at Kamloops, John Warren Dease at Spokane House, a man named Mackenzie was in charge of Rocky Mountain House, and Fisher — was this Henry Fisher, Jr.?, of Fort Assiniboine, was left in charge of Edmonton House while Chief Factor John Rowand went out with the Saskatchewan Brigades. (Yes, this has been confirmed by someone who is reading his papers: it is him). My g.g.grandfather James Birnie joined the Express at Spokane House. James McMillan I found at Edmonton House, but I believe he had explored the Rocky Mountain Portage (Yellowhead Pass) and did not travel out with the Express.

So fine, we’re not getting very far on the outgoing express, but the journal is almost illegible because of rain, and was written in pencil, in any order (and often upside-down) in McLeod’s notebook. It will be easier to determine who was travelling in the incoming 1826 Express (now called the Columbia Express), as Aemilius Simpson’s journals were much easier to read.

The gentlemen were “Messrs. Mr. Stewart [John Stuart], C.F; Rowan [John Rowand], C.F; [James] McMillan, C.T; [Joseph] McGillivray, C.T., [James] McDougall, clerk; [James] Birnie, clerk; Sinclair, mate of the vessel building in the Columbia.” They were joined by Mr. George Barnston as they ascended the Jack Tent River (part of the Hayes). Simpson did not speak much of the voyageurs except to describe how hard they worked, so we will have little information about them. But the gentlemen are:

George Barnston, of Fort Langley and Fort Nez Perces, was a very interesting man, and a good friend of my great-grandfather, Alexander Caulfield Anderson. Barnston was born in 1800 and arrived in Fort Vancouver in the 1826 express — the same express as Aemilius Simpson travelled in. He was in fact sent out in the Express to act as Simpson’s assistant, as he was a surveyor and an army engineer. In 1827 he was a member of the party sent to establish Fort Langley, and Barnston Island, in the Fraser River off Fort Langley, is of course named for him. Governor Simpson thought that Barnston was “overly sensitive, gloomy and even of unsound mind…” Barnston spent a winter at Fort Nez Perces, where he had a massive fist-fight with an Indigenous man who first sold him a horse and then stole it back. Barnston quit to HBC and returned to Montreal, but rejoined and travelled out, with my great-grandfather, in the canoes from Lachine. That’s how they met each other, but Barnston never crossed the mountains again. At some future date, his story will make a great blogpost!

“Sinclair” was Thomas Sinclair, who was sloop-master of Simpson’s new ship, the Cadboro, being built on the coast. He had joined the HBC in 1824, and appeared to be a good rough sailor, but was in fact little more than a falling-down-drunk. As Simpson lay dying of liver disease on his ship anchored off Fort Simpson, on the Northwest coast, Sinclair remained so intoxicated he was unable to assist the dying man. He was offered the ship after Simpson’s death, but within a year was removed from the position and returned to England.

“Prudens.” This is, of course, John Peter Pruden, who entered the HBC in 1791 as an apprentice. He spent much of his time in the Saskatchewan District, and in 1824 was at Carlton House. He went on furlough, and in 1826 returned to Carlton House in this incoming brigade.

“Clouson.” This is Robert Clouston, an Orcadian who worked in the Athabasca district. He was a blacksmith promoted to the rank of Clerk in 1821 — that did not often happen! He retired in 1828 to the Red River Settlement.

Mr. Leith, who was in charge of Cumberland House, also travelled in this Express. This is James Leith, born 1777 in Glenkindie, Scotland, son of Alexander Leith and Mary Elizabeth Gordon. He joined the NWC, and was involved in the battles between that company and HBC. When the two companies merged, he became Chief Trader. He spent the rest of his career in the Athabasca, and at Cumberland House, and retired in 1829.

Chief Factor John Rowand of Edmonton House is mentioned in almost all York Factory Express Journals. He led out the Saskatchewan Brigades, of course, in which the York Factory Express had a boat or two. He was a short, corpulent man who had been a fur trader since the tender age of 14. George Simpson appointed him Chief Factor of Edmonton House in 1823, and in 1825 he was part of the decision to create the York Factory Express, merging it with the Saskatchewan brigades for everyone’s safety. This of course involved building a good trail from Fort Assiniboine, on the Athabasca River, to Edmonton House, on the North Saskatchewan. For a few years, that was the most difficult part of the journey east!

In 1826, John Stuart was being transferred from Carlton House to Lesser Slave Lake, apparently being punished by Governor Simpson for something that had happened at Red River (I have run across this story somewhere, but don’t now know where I found it). This John Stuart was the same man who descended the Fraser River with Simon Fraser in the early 1800s, and who spent many years west of the Rocky Mountains! In fact, his early trails through what became British Columbia laid the grounds for the later brigade trails.

“Mr. Harriott” also appears often in these journals over the years. He is Mr. John Edward Harriott, a son of John Peter Pruden’s sister, according to his Biography in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography online. (I never knew that!). In 1809 he entered the service of the HBC, and in 1811 went to the Saskatchewan District, where he worked with Pruden. He was at Carlton House till 1826, and after that at Fort Assiniboine and in the Columbia District. He was an exemplary employee, and I can tell from the journals that everyone liked him.

This is the McDougall who was on this journey:

Two men who accompanied the Franklin Expeditions in their various forms were also mentioned in Aemilius Simpson’s Journal. The first was Mr. Thomas Drummond, a Scottish naturalist and botanist, who accompanied the Express to Boat Encampment and then returned to Edmonton House with the horses. Robert Hood, however, was already long dead when Simpson brought up his story. He was involved with the first Arctic Land Expedition led by John Franklin in 1819-22. It was a disaster, and eleven of the 20 members of the party died of starvation. On October 1821, Hood was only a few days from death and thirty miles from Fort Enterprise, when he was shot through the head by Michel Terohaute, one of the voyageurs. And consumed. The story is told in the book, The Man Who Ate His Boots, by Anthony Brandt.

If you wish to order the book The York Factory Express you can do so through my publisher, Ronsdale Press, here: Thank you.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2019. All rights reserved.