The Athabasca Portage North from Edmonton House

Packhorses on Athabasca Portage

This is image na-3934-16, from Glenbow Archives, and is used with their permission. The packhorses that the HBC men used were probably smaller than these horses, but the scene would be very similar to this.

In this York Factory Express post (the Seventeenth in this series) I am going to comment on Edward Ermatinger’s 1827 incoming Express (called the Columbia Express), as they cross over the Athabasca Portage to Fort Assiniboine — on horseback. The incoming express is not beginning from the place we now know Edmonton House stood. In 1827, when Edward Ermatinger reached the post, it stood on Edmonton’s Rossland Flats, on the north side of the river close to its ford. But when the North Saskatchewan River ran high, its waters occasionally flooded the flats, and in 1830 the HBC men moved it on the top of high bluffs that overlooked the curving river valley.

Let’s jump into the story:

[September] 13th. Fine weather. Left Edmonton this afternoon with 29 loaded and 6 saddle horses. Passengers pieces and baggage being as follows: Messrs Todd, McDougal, Ermatinger, Louis Leblanc, the ladies of Messrs McLeod and McDougal and 2 children…. We were accompanied by Messrs. [John Edward] Harriott and [Michel] Klyne with their people and outfit. Crossed the Sturgeon River and encamped. Carried the pieces across.

You will see mentions of “McDougal” and, later, the wives and children of “McDougal.” There were, however, two McDougall’s on the west side of the Rockies, and no one really knew which McDougall was on Edward Ermatinger’s incoming express. The answer is easy to discover, however, but involves reading journals from the west side of the Rocky Mountains. In his brigade journals, William Connolly clearly says that James McDougall went out with the Express in 1826. Aemilius Simpson, who crosses the mountain from the east in 1826 later that summer, tells us that the McDougall who accompanied the incoming express had left his wife and children at Carlton House. But in spring 1827, when the express is to go out from Fort St. James, New Caledonia, James McDougall was sick, and he sent his brother, George, across the mountains to pick up his family from Carlton House, and return home with them — this is made clear in George McDougall’s outgoing journal, which has been published, with much information missing. So we know that the man in Edward Ermatinger’s 1827 journal is George McDougall, though the wife and children who accompany him belong to his brother, James. In fact, the editors of Edward Ermatinger’s outgoing  journal, published in 1912 in the Royal Society of Canada Journals, made it clear on May 6th, 1827, that the man he caught up with on the Athabasca River was, in fact, George McDougall. They also make it clear that they had seen George McDougall’s outgoing journal of 1827, the original (or full transcript) of which I have not yet been able to find!

14th, Thursday. Started at sunrise and made our first stage to the Grand Echaffaud by 11. Resumed [at] 2 and encamped at Riviere que basse near Lac a Berland [today’s Sandy Lake?]. Light rain.

Riviere que basse was named for the fish now called bass, or so my dictionary tells me. What was the Grand Echaffaud? My French dictionary spells this with one f, and says it is a scaffold. In this case, it was a meat scaffold, where the hunters’ game was cached to keep it safe from the depredations of wild animals until it could be delivered to Edmonton House. In 1835, James Douglas also mentioned a *little scaffold,* and so there must have been more than one meat scaffold north of Edmonton House. There were even scaffolds at Fort Vancouver, as somewhere in Thomas Lowe’s journals he mentions that a horse ran through the scaffold.

15th. Fine weather. Proceeded this day as far as Lac La None, having made one halt. 2 men sent ahead to repair the canoes at Fort Assiniboine. Picard arrives at our encampment with letters from John Rowand Esq.

16th. Fine weather. The party went as far as Jolie Prairie and encamped, having made one stop near Paddle River. Messrs. Klyne and Ermatinger went off ahead this morning for the fort. [So the person writing this journal is not Edward Ermatinger, at least from this point on to Fort Assiniboine].

17th. Sunday. Fine weather. Starting from Jolie Prairie our party reached Les Deux Rivieres [Two creeks] and encamped.

18th. Fine weather. The whole Brigade reached Fort Assiniboine before noon all safe, except that LeBlanc’s horse got astray the night before last and was left. Messrs. Klyne and Ermatinger with the 2 men arrived yesterday morning. Shortly after arrival the people set about making their poles and paddles while the Boutes are repairing the canoes. We only found here two good canoes and 3 much broken — and as we require 4, we have chose the two best of the latter and the 2 former.

19th. Fine weather. People employed as yesterday. The 2 old canoes have had half their bottoms renewed.

If you know about the Athabasca River, you will have noticed that at this time the York Factory Express men were going upriver to Jasper’s House in birchbark canoes. In later years they would use boats that were similar to the Saskatchewan River York Boats, but had sturgeon noses. These boats were easier to built than the pointed York Boats and for years they were the boats that were worked on the Athabasca. By the time Thomas Lowe traveled the Athabasca in 1847 and 1848, he was traveling in sturgeon-nosed boats. But Ermatinger went up the river in 1827 in birchbark canoes, and George Traill Allan also traveled up the river in canoes in 1831. It was Allan who complained how often they had to repair their birchbark canoes:

We set off in the canoes. Two gentlemen and nine men in each, and during our voyage which continued thirteen days we encountered many hardships and delays. The river, so shallow and full of sandbanks, or as the Canadians call them, Battures, as to break our frail bark canoes five or six times a day and force us ashore to kindle fires and repair them.

Ah, as romantic as the birchbark canoes may have been, they were certainly a nuisance on the shallow Athabasca River. When did the change-over occur? I’m not telling you — but its a good story!

Did you notice that the men carved their poles and paddles for the upriver journey? I found this occurred on a few occasions, and must have been seen quite often as they traveled across the country in the earlier canoe brigades. Thomas Lowe mentions that when his men arrived at Boat Encampment from the east side of the mountains, the men carved new paddles at the campfire that night. This may seen odd, but on the west of the mountains the Columbia Boats were paddled and poled, and never rowed as York Boats were.

The Todd in this story will be Dr, William Todd, surgeon, born in Ireland in 1784 or thereabouts. He served two years in the Columbia District and on the Northwest Coast, and returned to the east side of the Rockies. His son, William Todd Jr., came west in 1842, and served under Alexander Caulfield Anderson at Fort Alexandria when he was still very young. His work was not satisfactory, but he was little more than a child. He matured and spent years in New Caledonia, working in the fur trade under Donald Manson [and others] all the way to 1866 and, perhaps, beyond.

The “ladies of Messr. McLeod” were not those of John McLeod, Senior, who had left the territory in 1826, leading out the York Factory Express of that year. I think it must have been the family of Alexander Roderick McLeod, who had come to the Columbia District in 1825. Klyne was, of course, Michel Klyne who was for many years in charge of Jasper’s House, and John Edward Harriott was probably at this time in charge of Fort Assiniboine.

If you want further information, and confirmation of which McDougall was on this 1827 express, follow these two links: and

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

If you want to return to the beginning of this series, go to:

The next post is now published and found here:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2016. All rights reserved.