Alexis L’Esperance

The Flintlock gun

This is the type of gun that Alexis L’Esperance might have carried — a flintlock gun. 

Alexis L’Esperance appears regularly in the journals of the York Factory Express, but he never is traveling in their boats. His full name is Alexis Bonamie dit L’Esperance — and at one time he did work on the west side of the Rocky Mountains. In the York Factory Express journals that I have collected, however, I find him only in the East, and only on the Saskatchewan River. Everyone in the York Factory Express, and in the Saskatchewan Brigades, knew who he was, and all greeted him as they passed him going in the opposite direction.

Alexis L’Esperance was in charge of his own fleet of York Boats. A long time employee of the Company, he was still employed by the HBC in these years, and these were still their boats. But he always traveled in the opposite direction than the York Boats of the York Factory Express — for good reason. Alexis L’Esperance was in charge of a brigade of York Boats that went north to Portage La Loche by the old route. His was a fabulous journey — almost as fabulous as that of the York Factory-Columbia express.

Alexis L’Esperance, born in Sorel, Quebec, entered the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1816 (Interestingly enough, as most Canadiens joined the North West Company rather than the HBC at that time, I believe). He seems to have been at Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ontario) in 1817, and then came out West to the Peace River District in 1818-1819. He might have crossed the Rockies at that time, but in about 1823-24 he was physically posted to the West side of the Rockies. I don’t know where he was employed at that time, and Bruce Watson’s Lives Lived West of the Divide has no record of him being here. But he might have been one of the men who paddled Governor  George Simpson on his journey down the Fraser River to Fort Langley — a pretty historic journey all by itself.

This is what his HBC biography sheet says of Alexis L’Esperance, during and after his period spent in the Columbia district:

He was posted to the Columbia Department during this time, returning to the Lower Red River District in 1825. His age is given as 26 years in 1824. It was in 1825 that he commenced services as a guide and steersman (ie. the foreman of a crew on freight canoe or York Boat). He retired to the Red River Settlement in 1835. On April 20, 1835, he was granted 50 acres of land in the Settlement (lot number 251) by the Hudson’s Bay Company. However, his involvement with the Company did not cease upon his retirement. He was employed seasonally between at least 1846 and 1870, as steersman and guide on the Portage La Loche Brigade. More information on this Brigade may be found in an article by John Peter Turner in the December 1943 issue of The Beaver which should be available at the Calgary Public Library. No references have been traced to L’Esperance after 1870.

He was born in 1798. By the time he finished his HBC work, he was 72 years old!

Another biography says that he started guiding the Portage la Loche brigade in 1832. I have found him in the 1847 and 1848 journals, and in 1849. So, here are the mentions that I know right now! [I know there is another, that I have not yet re-discovered].

Thomas Lowe: Journal of a Trip to York Factory per York Factory Express, Spring 1847 [A/B/20.4/L95, BCA] Outgoing express at the Grand Rapid, mouth of the Saskatchewan River: “Saturday 13th June 1847. Fine weather. Ran the remainder of the Grand Rapid today… Encamped at the bottom of the Rapids to mend the boats and dry the packs. In the afternoon the Portage la Loche Brigade passed us, in charge of L’Esperance the Guide, consisting of six boats, with goods for McKenzie’s River.”

Thomas Lowe [1847] Return journey: “Tuesday 17th August: Pulled through the remainder of Cedar Lake this morning, and likewise got through Muddy Lake in course of the day. Camped about 10 miles up the River… The Portage La Loche Brigade of 6 boats in charge of L’Esperance drifted past us at night. Mr. Lomond is a passenger.”

Thomas Lowe: Journal of a Trip from Vancouver to York Factory, 1848 [A/B/20.4/L95, BCA] Outgoing express at Grand Rapid again: “June 17, Saturday. Fine weather. As the water is in a good state we run the Grand Rapid with full cargoes, and only one boat was broken. Met L’Esperance at the Grand Rapid with 7 boats on his way to Portage La Loche.”

Thomas Lowe [1848] Return journey: [August] “12, Saturday. Pulling the whole day against a strong current. In the evening met L’Esperance with 7 boats, on his way to York Factory with the Returns of McKenzie’s River. Encamped near the Island below the Pas.”

As you can see, the incoming York Factory Express (called the Saskatchewan Brigades and the Columbia Express) met Alexis L’Esperance at almost the same place both ways, and both years. Let’s see what happens with John Charles’ York Factory Express, 1849.

John Charles, Journal of the Columbia Express Party, 1849 [A/B/20.4/C38A, BCA] An explanation here: it was a cold year, and when Charles’ party arrived at Grand Rapid, he found that Lake Winnipeg “appeared like winter.” They were delayed by ice for a week before they attempted the crossing of the lake. “Wednesday [August] 20th. Left Grand Rapid about 1 am but were obliged to put ashore about 7 o’clock in consequence of the ice being in such large masses in the Lake and it not only being useless but dangerous for us to proceed. L’Esperance with 7 boats in his charge arrived at our encampment being on his way to Portage la Loche. He had been five days coming from Norway House.”

Alexis L’Esperance lived in the Red River Settlement on Red River, more or less where Winnipeg is now. In the spring he took out the Colony’s goods to Norway House, where he dropped them off. There he picked up the goods intended for the McKenzie district, to be delivered to Portage la Loche (Methye Portage). His boats crossed the top of Lake Winnipeg and pushed up the Saskatchewan River as far as Cumberland House and Lake.

At Cumberland House Alexis L’Esperance and his York boats took the old route northward, via a whole series of lakes, rivers and portages: north across Cumberland Lake, Sturgeon Lake, the rapid-filled Sturgeon-Weir [“Wicked”] River, and Amisk Lake, [where Peter Pond had an early post]. Amisk Lake is 19 km north of Flin Flon, Manitoba.

They crossed Frog Portage to the upper Churchill River, at Trade Lake. The Churchill drains 300,000 square miles of Northern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and is basically a series of lakes connected by falls and rapids, surrounded by rock outcroppings with ancient pictographs. The Brigades traveled west, upriver, passing modern-day Stanley Mission and the Rapid River that drains Lac la Ronge, a modern-day provincial park. They crossed Otter Rapids, and then Pin Portage. Somewhere upriver is Lac Ile-a-la-Crosse, where stood the post called Ile-a-la-Crosse. West of that lake they paddled into Peter Pond Lake, up Methye River to Lac la Loche. One and a half kilometers up a winding stream from Lac la Loche is the Portage la Loche, or Methye Portage — a beautiful place, but a brutal portage.

However, Alexis L’Esperance didn’t have to make the portage. He would meet the McKenzie River men at the height of land [Rendezvous Lake] and, after dropping off their trade goods, he returned downriver to Norway House and York Factory with their furs — reaching Hudson Bay before the London Ship departed. After that, he picked up the goods for the Red River settlement, and returned home. I don’t know if his journey was as long as the York Factory Express journey, nor as difficult. But he made this journey for many years, every year, and he did not retire from this work until he was seventy years old. He was a true voyageur — a traveler. It did not matter that he traveled the same route every year — this was his life.

So where is Portage La Loche? It is part of the Clearwater River Provincial Wilderness Park, and the beautiful Clearwater River is on the north side of the twenty mile portage and part of the Athabasca River system that flows north toward the Arctic Ocean. Portage La Loche is the height of land that separates all the rivers flowing east to Hudson Bay, from those flowing north to the Athabasca. It is still quite isolated — the closest town to Portage La Loche is La Loche, Saskatchewan. The town is 20 kms from the north end of Lac La Loche, and you must travel between the town and the Portage La Loche trail-head by boat or canoe.

Click here for Alexis L’Esperance’s biography:

If you wish to purchase my book, “The York Factory Express,” you may do so through my publisher, Ronsdale Press: Thank you!

All this information and more is available in the book, by Barbara Huck et al, Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America. It is still available in book stores and can almost certainly be found in your library.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2015. All rights reserved.