Paul Kane to Fort Colvile

In early July, 1847, the artist Paul Kane joined the New Caledonia Brigades, travelling out with them to Fort Colvile, where he would join the Autumn Express to Boat Encampment and Edmonton House. Now let me tell you here that it was always called the Fall Express, but in order to satisfy that oh-so-picky SEO, I am using the term, “Autumn Express.” It’s not that it’s wrong, it just that the word, Autumn, is not a word that would have been used among the HBC gentlemen in the Columbia District. I wouldn’t use the word in a book, but this a blogpost, and if using the word is going to make easier to be found by search engines, we will use it!

So, the men of the outgoing Autumn Express would be at Fort Colvile in late September, and they would head upriver to pick up the incoming men of the incoming Columbia Express at Boat Encampment sometime in October. The Columbia Express men coming into the territory reached Edmonton House in early September; Jasper House later in the same month; and Boat Encampment in October. At Boat Encampment, the passengers who were travelling out to Edmonton House (where they would spend the winter), would transfer from the Autumn Express boats to the horses that had brought the incoming Express men down the mountain-side to Boat Encampment.

So, in order to go out with the outgoing Autumn Express, Paul Kane would have been instructed to be at Fort Colvile sometime in September. According to Paul Kane himself, two men reached Fort Colvile in mid-September, bearing the news of the bloody massacre of the Methodist missionaries at Waiilatpu. Of course, as the massacre did not occur until late November 1847, this statement cannot be true: he must have heard news of the incident while he was at Fort Assiniboine or Edmonton House. As there were no HBC men travelling over the Mountains in winter, news of the massacre can only have reached him with the outgoing York Factory Express who left Fort Vancouver in March, 1848.

So, let’s begin. In the last blogpost in this series Paul Kane arrived at Fort Nez Percés, near modern-day Walla Walla, WA, in July, 1847. He is now going to travel by horseback from Fort Nez Percés to Fort Colvile, by whatever route he chooses. There are two: In the spring, the outgoing York Factory Express men had crossed the Columbia plateau to old Spokane House and Fort Colvile. The New Caledonia Brigades, with whom he is travelling, do not use this route: they have another path that begins upriver from Fort Nez Percés, and goes, via the Grand Coulee, to Okanogan House. The Autumn Express used none of these routes: they went upriver to Fort Colvile in the boats (so far as I know).

So, Paul Kane arrived at Walla Walla [Fort Nez Percés] on July 12th, according to his journal. On July 13, he “procured three horses and a man, and left for the Pelouse [Palouse] or Pavilion [Flag] River; traversed a sandy country where we could find no water until we arrived at the Fouchay River, when we met with Pere José, a Jesuit missionary who had left Walla-Walla on the night before, on the way to his mission of the Coeur de Laine. Here we encamped.” Paul Kane is close to illiterate: he clearly spoke little French, and his spelling is wild! The “Fouchay River” must be the Touchet, which I found mentioned in several of the outgoing York Factory Express journals. And “Coeur de Laine” is, of course, Couer d’Alene, in what is now Idaho, where there was a Jesuit mission. It is likely the proper name of “Pere José” is Pere Joset, who wrote an account of the Indian War of 1858. And if you look below, the Nez Percés River is actually the Snake: although the HBC men ofen called it the Nez Percés. Kane’s journal continues:

July 14th — Started at five o’clock in the morning. Weather intensely hot, and no water procurable all day. Found some Indians who ferried ourself and baggage in a canoe over the Nez Percés [Snake] River, which is here about 250 yards wide. We swam our horses at the mouth of the Pelouse [Palouse] River, where it empties itself into the Nez Percés. The Chief of this place is named Slo-eece-am-cum. He wore his hair divided in long masses, stuck together with grease… He told me that there was a fall up the Pelouse that no white man had ever seen and that he would conduct me up the bed of the river, as it was sufficiently shallow for our horses. I accepted his proposal, and rode eight or ten miles through a wild and savage gorge, composed of dark brown basaltic rocks, heaped in confusion one upon another to the height of 1,000 and 1,3000 feet, sometimes taking the appearance of immense ruins in the distance…. Our path, at the bottom of this gorge, was very difficult, as it lay through masses of tangled brush and fallen rocks…

At the foot of the falls we made our encampment, and our guide left us, quite satisfied with his present of tobacco and ammunition. The water falls in one perpendicular sheet of about 600 feet in height, from between rocks of a greyish-yellow colour, which rise to about 400 feet above the summit of the fall. The water tumbles into a rocky basin below, with a continuous hollow, echoing roar, and courses with great velocity along its bed, until it falls in the Nez Percés. There was a constant current of air around our encampment, which was delightfully cool and refreshing. When I was there it was low water, and the Indian told me that during the rainy season the falls were much increased in volume and, of course, in grandeur of effect.

His estimation of the height of the falls might be a little off. My Frommer Guide book to Washington tells me that if you are travelling by road from Dayton, WA., to Spokane, you, too, can visit the Palouse Falls. It is now a State Park, and “the spectacular falls here cascade 198 feet into a rock-walled canyon.” If you want to follow in Paul Kane’s footprints, this would be a good start, but you might have to adjust his descriptions.

July 15th. Having finished my sketches of this magnificent scene, we left our encampment for a fall fifteen or twenty miles higher up the river, and it was necessary for us to leave the bed of the river and attain the top of the banks, which being at least 1,000 feet above us, would have been impracticable had we not found a ravine, which although steep and difficult, we managed to lead our horses up. In this hollow we found great quantities of wild currants, of delicious flavour, which proved most refreshing. 

At length we gained the summit. The country around, as far as the eye could reach, seemed to be a perfect desert of yellow, hot sand, with immense broken rock jutting up abruptly here and there over the surface. No trees or shrubs of any kind relieved the monotony of the barren waste. A few patches of tuft grass, thinly scattered here and there, were the only representatives of vegetation, whilst animal life seemed to be entirely extinct…

Of course you know that Paul Kane is not following the path of the outgoing Autumn Express, nor of the New Caledonia Brigades. He is travelling by himself, with a Métis guide. The HBC Brigades, with whom he travelled to Fort Nez Perces, are still making their way up the river to Fort Okanogan — the Autumn Express has not left Fort Vancouver, and it won’t leave Fort Vancouver for a few months yet. So he is spending his time exploring his way through the Columbia District. His journal continues: 

We now followed the course of the river and encamped at the upper fall, where I remained until the 17th, sketching, much gratified with the surrounding magnificent scenes. The fall of the water is only about fifteen feet. Along the margin of the river high bushes and grass grow, whose bright green contrasts vividly with the high hills of yellow sand which enclose them. 

His guide became sulky and wanted to go back to Fort Nez Percés, and although Kane desired to remain for a longer visit, he consented to return. On July 18th, he started for Dr. Whitman’s mission house at Waiiilatpu, which was sixty miles east of Fort Nez Percés, according to Kane. [I believe its only twenty-five miles, but I might be wrong]. He drew pictures of “To-mak-us,” one of the First Nations men who would later murder Dr. Whitman, and whose appearance “was the most savage I ever beheld, as I afterwards heard, by no means belied his character.” 

He enjoyed Dr. Marcus Whitman’s hospitality for four days, and on July 22, he returned to Fort Nez Percés. On the day after his arrival at the fort, the son of the Walla Walla chief Peu-peu-mox-mox, rode into the Indian camp close by the fort, bringing news of the measles infection that would soon flood the territory, killing thousands of First Nations and Métis. Here is what I have written about Peu-peu-mox-mox:  Paul Kane draws a fascinating picture of what happened when the young chief rode into the camp, but it is not the story I am telling in this Autumn Express blogpost. 

Only a few days later, Paul Kane witnessed another historic moment, when an American Indian chief buried himself alive. The story, already written, is here:

And so, you can see that Paul Kane’s stories have a lot to contribute to the history of the Autumn Express west of the Rocky Mountains. To continue Kane’s story: “July 29th — I had determined to go to [Fort] Colvile by the Grand Coulet [Coulee]: this from the appearance of the two extremities, seemed to have been a former bed of the Columbia River, but no person could tell me anything about it, nor could I hear of any one, either Indian or White, who had penetrated any considerable distance up it.” Well, the gentlemen of the HBC Brigades travelled through this Coulee every year, on their way upriver to Fort Okanogan, so that was not true: He continues: 

At last a half-breed, called Donny, although ignorant of the route, agreed to accompany me. We procured two riding horses, and one to carry our provisions, consisting of two fine hams, which had been sent to me from Fort Vancouver, and a stock of dried salmon cured by the Indians. About ten miles from the fort, we swam our horses across the Nez Percés [Snake] River where it enters the Columbia, and then proceeded along the banks of the Columbia about ten miles further, where we encamped for the night…

July 30th. Proceeded along the shore for eight or ten miles, when I discovered that I had left by pistols and some other articles at our last night’s encampment. I had, therefore, to send my man back for them, whilst I sat by the river, with horses and baggage, under a burning sun, without the slightest shelter… At length my man returned with the missing articles… We now continued our course along the river until evening, when we encamped, and as we were very hungry, and expected a hard journey next day, we determined upon attacking one of our hams. I accordingly seized hold of the bone to pull it from the bag with which it was covered, when, alas! the bare bone slipped out, leaving a living mass of maggots, into which the heat had turned the flesh, behind. Upon examination, we found the other in the same state, and had to satisfy our hunger on the salmon which, as usual, was full of sand. 

On July 31st they camped at a dry camp: the lake was salt. On August 1st they found no water until noon, “when we fell in with a narrow lake, about a mile long, very shallow, and swarming with pelicans, whose dung had made the water green and thick.” They actually tasted the water, but like the earlier lake, it was salty and undrinkable. Still, the two men were so hungry for water that they strained some through a cloth, and drank it. They then found three or four gallons of water trapped in rocks, and drank that. The horses then drank the rest of the water, “to the last drop,” Kane says. This is desert country: they were in danger of being lost and dying from the shortage of water. 

On August 2nd Kane found he had been sleeping with a lizard, but “found no ill effects from it.” They continued their journey, and now Paul Kane tells us that they are travelling without a compass. (Remember that the guide does not know the route.) Fortunately, the two men came to a gully and crossed it, and on the other side found themselves on a “piece of table land, about half a mile in circumference, covered with luxuriant grass, and having in its centre a small lake of exquisitely cool, fresh water.” They were extremely lucky! Kane’s guide waded into the lake and stayed there, drinking its water. The horses followed him in, and so, too, did Paul Kane. They stayed for three hours, “luxuriating in the delicious water, so sweet to us after suffering the torments of thirst for so long.” Then suddenly, they had to decamp because they had somehow set fire to the grass. The two men were separated, and Kane had to search for his guide, but found him. They went on to stumble onto the Grand Coulee itself, or what they supposed was the Grand Coulee, and followed it to what they supposed to be the Columbia River near Fort Okanogan. Some American Indians told them they were two days journey from Fort Colvile, but “This I did not believe, although I could not tell why they wished to deceive me. I gave them a little tobacco, and hoped to get some provisions from them, but they said they had none, so we were obliged to make our supper on the salmon as usual.”

The two men were now leading their horses along the southern banks of what was probably the Columbia River, heading toward Fort Colvile. If they had actually been two days journey from Fort Colvile, as the First Nations men had told them, they would have arrived there on  August 8th. The next day two First Nations men helped them across the river, as they said it was the shortest way to Fort Colvile. Kane and Donny, the Guide, trusted these men and camped nearby, “dreadfully fatigued from the length of our day’s travel, the labour we had gone through, and the weakness under which we suffered from the want of sufficient food.” His journal continues:

These Indians, as I afterwards learned, were generally very unfriendly to the whites, and had often given trouble to small parties passing, generally levying a pretty heavy toll for a free passage through their territory. But to me they were all kindness, presenting me with plenty of fresh salmon and dried berries, which were most acceptable, after the disgusting fare on which we had been so long struggling to support life: and one of them proposed to accompany me as a guide to Colvile. My last day’s experience made me gladly accept of this offer [sic]; and long before darkness set in, I found myself as sound asleep as the most weary of dyspeptic patients could wish himself to be.

August 7th. Started very early in the morning with the guide, and made what is called in those parts, a long day. We were continually ascending and descending, and found it very fatiguing. It was quite dark when we encamped on the banks of the river.

August 8th. Started again very early for the purpose of reaching Colvile before night. Came to a high hill overlooking the Columbia for many miles of the course, and sat down on its summit to enjoy the magnificent prospect, and give a short rest to the horses….We proceeded on until we were within a mile of Kettle Falls, where we swam across in the usual way, holding on by the tails of our horses; and just at dusk we were kindly received by Mr. [John Lee] Lewes.

And so, Paul Kane has reached Fort Colvile, on the Columbia River, where he will wait until the Autumn Express arrives from Fort Vancouver. He will then make his way up the Columbia River to Boat Encampment, and cross the Rocky Mountains to Edmonton House, leaving the Columbia District behind him. It would not be until a few years later that he published his narrative, and as we can see, he has mixed up parts of his story. Nevertheless, its a good story that will continue on the next few blogposts. When the next section is written, it will appear here:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2022. All rights reserved.

The image above is of Fort Colvile, on the Columbia River, painted by Henry James Warre, and found in the collection of the American Antiquarian Society. I admit, I still have to get the proper designation attached to this image, and will do it soon. 

On Twitter: @Marguerite_HBC

Facebook Author Page: Nancy-Marguerite-Anderson-Author 











3 thoughts on “Paul Kane to Fort Colvile

  1. Dirk Mendel

    Interestingly, while traveling south this summer we stumbled upon Palouse Falls. We camped at Lewis And Clark Trail Campground and took a day trip to Palouse Falla after a couple of rainy days in mid-May. That is a pretty impressive falls that we viewed from Frywell Overlook. Apparently, the overlook was named after a fellow who discovered 10,000-year-old human remains just downstream from the falls. The next day we visited the Walla Walla Museum and here there was only a very small display of the NWC & HB history of the area. So, thanks for sharing the Lane story.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      The entire area around Palouse Falls and River is supposed to be beautiful — I’ve only seen pictures of it. The ancient Shawpatin Trail leads across this plateau, but I don’t think it came anywhere close to the Palouse Falls. I am glad you discovered it and enjoyed it: sometime I will have to make my way down there.

  2. Jacqueline Cook

    A couple of comments on your narrative, not Paul Kane’s. We have details he did not…
    “And “Coeur de Laine” is, of course, Couer d’Alene, in what is now Idaho, where there was a Jesuit mission.”

    Kane was speaking of the Tribe not the city (established in 1878)

    This is most likely to be Cataldo or Sacret Heart of Jesus Mission established in 1842 by Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet. It is also known, today, as Coeur D’Alene’s Old Mission State Park

    It is located between towns now known as Canyon and Cataldo, It is some distance from the town of Coeur d’Alene.


    “He drew pictures of “To-mak-us,” one of the First Nations men who would later murder Dr. Whitman”

    The Americans did not prove the “Cayuse Five” who were accused of killing Marcus Whitman did so. Five Cayuse warriors sacrifced their lives in order to end the Cayuse War and have peace.

    Thank you.