James Birnie, 1826

Clinker built boat used on the Fraser River

Boats similar to this Fort Langley, Fraser River, clinker built boat were used all through the fur trade both east and west of the Rocky Mountains. This is similar to the type of boat that James Birnie would have traveled up the Columbia River, but it differs from the boats he would have seen on the Saskatchewan River.

My great-great-grandfather was a member of the 1826 York Factory Express journey that crossed the Rocky Mountains from the Columbia River to Hudson Bay and return. I have known this fact for fifteen years or more, but it has taken me until now to understand he traveled east with History — James Birnie traveled out with the first York Factory Express party to leave Fort Vancouver. The express journey would become an annual event, and play an important role in the history of all the men who worked West of the Rocky Mountains. The Columbia express men would cross the mountains every year for twenty seven years more — but he was in the first York Factory Express!

The Hudson’s Bay Company’s York Factory Express was conceived by Governor George Simpson and Chief Factor John Rowand, of Edmonton House, in 1824 and 1825. The two men had probably met at Norway House, and discussed the best route west to Fort Vancouver from Norway House. The Governor put forward his idea that an experimental northern route might work as well as the familiar old routes, while Rowand argued for his Saskatchewan River route. Simpson’s journeyed west via his experimental route, while Rowand returned to Edmonton House with the Saskatchewan brigades’ York Boats. The two men were to meet at the newly constructed Fort Assiniboine, on the Athabasca River. When Simpson arrived there he discovered that Rowand had already returned to Edmonton House, after a few days wait at the post!

So Governor Simpson was forced to admit that the York Boat journey up the North Saskatchewan River was more efficient than his own route. Simpson ordered the construction of the Assiniboine, or Athabasca Portage north of Edmonton. A trail of some sort obviously already existed: but in winter 1824-25 a good trail was cut through the forest that separated the Athabasca River post from the North Saskatchewan headquarters. This was done, and he rode over the trail himself on his return from the Columbia district in 1825.

In 1826, he instructed that the New Caledonia and Columbia men come out over the Athabasca Pass to Fort Assiniboine, and then cross the portage to Edmonton House. [I haven’t yet confirmed that the New Caledonia men made this journey, but the John McLeod Sr did arrive at Edmonton House]. Unfortunately, the trail was hacked out in the midst of a cold winter, and in the spring when the ground defrosted the trail bed turned into a series of bogs and mud-holes.

There is a journal of the outgoing express, and it was not an easy crossing! There is also an excellent journal for the return journey from York Factory to Fort Vancouver, written by Governor Simpson’s cousin, Aemilius Simpson — who was traveling to Fort Vancouver to take over the coastal shipping business for the HBC. It was Aemilius Simpson’s duty to report to his cousin on the success of the new York Factory Express. Here are some excerpts from his journey across the Athabasca Portage to Fort Assiniboine:

 Mounted our Horses & commenced our Journey across the Portage [from Edmonton House]…. On arriving at a small Creek Mr. [George] Barnston followed a different Track, to what I conceive our Brigade had followed, I pursued what I thought the right one — until I arrived at a Deep Swamp & stream, when I began to suspect I had followed the wrong road. I therefore began to retrace my steps, but found Mr. [Joseph] McGillivray coming by the same Track. I returned again with him & Crossing the Swamp & stream (which obliged the Horse to swim almost) we came up with the Brigade a short distance beyond it… While retracing my steps in the dusk I had a rather unwished for meeting with a Bear. But on taking a short survey of me, he turned into the Woods…

A very coarse night, rain, sleet, with Thunder & Lightning which prevented our Marching in the morning, until after Breakfast, when we continued our Journey at 10 am & pursued our Route, by a road almost impassible to Man or Beast — the Horses & their loads frequently falling into swamps & ruts, in which they almost disappeared, & it required extraordinary efforts at times to extricate the poor animals from their very uncomfortable situation, and calling down upon them the Most Awful imprecations from their Canadian guides….

At 11 we resumed our Journey, passing several Creeks, Swamps & Points of Wood, where the Track is frequently almost impassible from the immense quantity of fallen burnt Trees strewed on the path, & which forms one of the worst obstacles on the line of route, as every gale blows down a new covering of these burnt stumps, however often you clear the path, & to Work your way thro’ this confused mass is irksome & tedious. We forded a branch of the Athabasca which forms an island of a few miles extent, & at 3 pm we arrived at the Main branch opposite Assiniboine Post, to which we Crossed in a Canoe. Thus completing our Journey from Edmonton, in a little less than six days, altho’ only a distance by estimation of about 90 Miles… which may seem to point out the difficulty of passing this Portage, which in any other pat of the World, I really believe would be considered impassable. Yet so familiar is the Voyageur with difficulty, that he is better qualified to overcome them, than any other people I have met with. [Source: “Journal from York Factory to Fort Vancouver, 1826, per Lieut Aemilius Simpson,” B.223/a/3, HBCA]

James Birnie was there. He had come out with the express, and if they and he passed over this portage in the springtime, they may have traveled an even wetter and boggier route than on their incoming passage in the fall. It must have been an experience — and not one that anyone was likely to have wanted to repeat. But repeat they did. The Hudson’s Bay men used this portage and river route every year between 1826 and 1854.

So, James Birnie was a member of the first York Factory Express journey from Fort Vancouver to Hudson Bay: I thought he may even have been clerk-in-charge of this express, but I now know he wasn’t. Birnie never traveled the route again, but spent the rest of his life in the Columbia district. Perhaps for good reason: on March 8th 1827, William Kittson penned a letter from Kootenais House, that contained some shocking [to me] news. The letter was written to John McLeod Sr., and is found in the Malcolm McLeod papers at LAC, and at BCA:

Charlot, during his absence took an Indian Husband and through her negligence lost one of her little girls by Death.

It is true, as far as it goes. How the child died I do not know, but James Birnie and his wife, Charlot, lost a girl child, “born 18th December 1825 at Spokane House.” Another note says the child died in July 1826, while Birnie was away. About the affair with a Native man I do not know, but Charlot and James Birnie lived together happily for many years after.

I told you I would speak of this story when I wrote about Charlot Birnie. I didn’t really know what to say, and I think I still don’t. But I can think about who she was, and what was likely to be in her mind as her husband left her behind. Here’s the story: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/charlot-birnie/ 

The next section of my James Birnie story is here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/birnie-five/

If you want to go back to the beginning of this series, click here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/birnie-one/

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2015. [Updated, October 2016] All rights reserved.