Bits and Pieces

Columbia River

This is the Columbia River near Castlegar, close to the mouth of the Kootenay River, looking toward the Arrow Lakes. This image is from the Columbia Basin of Regional History, the Valemount Historical Society & Kootenay Gallery of Art, History & Science, image number 0131.0349.

Lately, in my research in other quarters, I have been running across bits and pieces of other gentlemen’s York Factory Express journals. None of them are long enough, nor interesting enough, to make a blogpost on their own — but maybe combined, it will work. So, let’s see what will happen:

But first, I have a question for my readers. My sister is close to blind, and is reading The York Factory Express with a large magnifying glass and a bright light, and finding it hard work! The book will be an e-book eventually but not yet. So, in the meantime and for her and her only, I am playing with Zoom. I am recording The York Factory Express, in bits and pieces, likely one-hour long online segments, and sending her the links so that she can listen to it when she has time.

And then the thought occurred to me — would this be useful to anyone else who is interested in this history, but unable to read the books, or even to manage them? Would this be a useful thing for me to do for more people than just my sister? Let me know, and I can make it a thing I do.

Anyway, let me know via the contact sheet of my site. And I will tell you if my sister was able to access what bits and pieces I recorded for her this morning. As you can see I don’t even know whether what I did worked! 

Okay, so let us move on to a few brief descriptions of various York Factory Express journals. Obviously, I am choosing bits and pieces of interest from these various journals. First, here is Roderick Finlayson’s description of his 1839 journey across the continent from Fort William, on the Ottawa River. From his Autobiography, written in 1891:

In the spring of 1839 I was directed by the Governor to hold myself in readiness at four hours notice to join a brigade of four large bark canoes on the way up from the Lachine, the head office, with officers and men appointed to proceed to the Columbia district, on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, in order to take possession of part of the Russian territory on the North Pacific for trade purposes, that was leased from the Russian American fur company, by the Hudson’s Bay Company in London. 

Bits and pieces? Yes. This is happening because of the newly-signed contract between the Russian fur traders and the HBC, to take over the Russian posts on the North Pacific. It is interesting that the Hudson’s Bay Company imported men all the way from Lachine to serve at these new posts; it is also interesting to note that some of these men who came out with Finlayson were the “murderers” that were at Fort Stikine. If you are curious to know more about this story, see here: 

To continue Finlayson’s story in a few more bits and pieces: “I then had to leave Fort William with much regret to a successor appointed, and joined the party for the West. 

We proceeded up the Ottawa with four large Birch bark canoes, the party consisting of forty men and officers, to Lake Nipissing, thence down the French River to Lake Huron, up Lake Huron to Lake Superior, along the north shore of which we paddled our way to what is now Port Arthur [Thunder Bay], changed our canoes here for smaller ones and pursued our way up the Kaministiquia River to the height of land, where the canoes and luggage had to be carried by the men until we reached the water leading into the Lake of the woods, paddled our canoes through the lake to the River (Rainy River) that falls into Lake Winnipeg, paddled along the North shore of Lake Winnipeg to Norway House, another station of the company’s on the north of the lake where we remained about a week.

No bits and pieces here! That is ONE sentence. A lot of words. The river that actually falls into Lake Winnipeg is, of course, the beautiful Winnipeg River. But other than that, he has everything right, and has even spelled Kaministiquia River correctly! (I had to look it up.) To continue his story in more bits and pieces: at Norway House

There we met a large number of officers and men from the Interior with their annual collection of furs, bound for York Factory, there to deliver their furs and receive their annual outfits for the next year. From Norway House we continued our way down the river (Nelson) [actually the Nelson, then via the Echimamish to the Hayes], which leads to York Factory on Hudson’s Bay, the head depot there, which we reached in due time, and where we remained about a fortnight replenishing our stock of provisions, etc., for the westward journey. Here I had a first view of the sea since leaving New York.

Having received our equipment for the western journey at this place, we parted with our friends at the FActory and left under the command of Dr. John McLoughlin, then the Chief Factor in charge of the Columbia District, with many hearty cheers from our friends at the Factory, and proceeded up the river to Norway House again. Here we exchanged our canoes for Batteaux [York Boats], for navigating Lake Winnipeg and the Saskatchewan River…

This was not the normal procedure, so far as I know — there are, however, many missing journals and sometimes the ones that we do have are not clear on everything that happened in these expresses. But this year, at least, Dr. John McLoughlin, who is returning from his furlough in London, came upriver in birchbark canoes rather than the York boats that usually travelled up the Hayes River. That probably gave the gentlemen more time to relax at York Factory, and considering their future journey, that was not a bad thing. To continue:

From Norway House we coasted along the northwest end of the lake to the mouth of the Saskatchewan River, up which we proceeded, calling at the stations of Fort Carleton [Carlton], Fort Pitt and Edmonton on the river. At the last place, the chief station of the Saskatchewan district, we left our Batteaux [York Boats] and took horses across the plains to the Athabasca River, to Fort Assiniboine, where we again took birch bark canoes and paddled up the Athabasca River to Jasper’s House, in the rocky mountains.

It is interesting that they travelled up the Athabasca River river in birchbark canoes, as in 1835 James Douglas made the decision to use boats rather than canoes for the journey to Jasper’s House. Nevertheless, it may have happened this way. He may also have confused bits and pieces of his story: we must remember that this was written down in 1891, fifty-two years after he made this journey. Born in 1818, he was 73 years old, not yet old enough to have lost his marbles. Until just before his retirement in Victoria he was still on active duty for the Company, and so there is no reason to believe that what he is saying is incorrect. Perhaps the person who wrote the story down (if it was not him) made mistakes. His story continues:

From this place we again took horses and crossed the Rocky Mountains to the head waters of the Columbia River where we found bateaux [Columbia boats] again waiting for us, and passed down the Columbia river, calling at Fort Colvile, Okanagan, Walla Walla, stations belonging to the Company, and reached Fort Vancouver on the Columbia, the head station of the company in the Columbia District, which we reached about the middle of November, being six months since I left Fort William on the Ottawa.

So that is Roderick Finlayson’s story of the York Factory Express, told in bits and pieces many years after he made the journey. Here is John Tod’s story, taken from his “History of New Caledonia and the Northwest Coast,” which is, of course, in the B.C. Archives. We begin with his story of the London ship that brought him across the Atlantic Ocean to York Factory. This again was written years after the story occurred, and so bits and pieces of it might be incorrect.

John Tod was born at Levin, Scotland, in 1793. Hearing of the Red River Colony for which Lord Selkirk was recruiting, he went to his (Lord Selkirk’s) agent at Glasgow and engaged with him for four years, with sixteen others between 17 and 18 years of age. Sailed from Glasgow in a small vessel and landed at Stornaway, where we waited 6 weeks for one of the H.B.Co ships to take us to York Factory. This was perhaps the first time that Scotchmen and Irishmen had been taken by the H.B. Co. It was hired by the Company and manned by their own men — named the Edward and Ann. We remained three days in the harbor three miles out, the captain giving the crew nothing but oatmeal. The men complained, the captain replied, “do you know what you can do, you can jump overboard if you don’t like your fare.” At that, the speaker and leader sprang into the water, and half a dozen others followed his example. The life boats at once were lowered, and boats from shore were sent out by those who saw there was [an] unusual commotion about the vessel. The men were all carried back to shore and remained there, and the Captain, alarmed for fear all would do the same, sailed that night, leaving much business unfinished. He had been long in the H.B. Co., and always had quiet men from the Orkneys and all Englishmen, and this was their first encounter with men of this calibre.

Clearly John Tod was not one of the men who jumped ship! His story continues as he tells us, “We used to get ashore on the icebergs and had a tedious time on account of being delayed by them. When we reached York Factory, the 20th of September, three months after leaving our native country, we were left there…” He was soon appointed to Severn, and that is where I left his story for now.  There is more to this story, of course, because John Tod had one very interesting journey in with his incoming Express, and it is found in some volumes of John McLoughlin’s letters, below. Like many stories, it is in bits and pieces — as the reports came in and the letters were written the story changes. The first letter was written by James Douglas on the 4th of November, 1838, to the London Committee of the Hudson’s Bay Co.: 

I dispatched the Barque Columbia from this place on the 18th of last month, but owing to a passage protracted by unfavourable weather, beyond all precedent, she has not yet reached Fort George [Astoria]; and I am in consequence enabled to communicate the arrival of Chief Trader [John] Tod, on the 31st ulto, with a detachment of the recruits from York Factory. The main body were detained on the Upper Columbia by want of the necessary craft to convey them from the Mountains to Fort Colvile, and cannot be expected here before the 7th or 8th of the present month.

More bits and pieces: On November 7, 1838, James Douglas reported:

In my letter of the 4th Inst. I mentioned the arrival at this place of Chief Trader Tod with a detachment of the York Factory Express recruits, and noticed the cause which had made it necessary for him to leave the vulk of the party behind. A Boat which Mr. Tod had sent back from the Upper Columbia [Arrow] Lake, left the Baot Encampment on the 22d October with the last of the party. In the evening of the same day, when running one of the Rapids below Dalles des Morts, the Boat unfortunately filled, and the following persons perished in attempting to gain the shore: Mr. and Mrs. Wallace, Mr. [blank] Banks, Botanists, Mr. Leblanc and his three children, Kenneth McDonald, Fabien Vital, J. Bte Laliberté, Two children of André Chalifoux; in all twelve persons, who have travelled from their distant homes to find an untimely grave beneath the raging waters of the Columbia.

These particulars, without any additional information, were made known to us within the last hour by an express from Chief Trader [Archibald] McDonald at Fort Colvile. The other individuals of the party were well; but we cannot expect them here before ten or twelve days.

More bits and pieces of the story came into Fort Vancouver with the survivors. The accident was caused by one of the botanists who panicked in the rapids, and jumped overboard with his new wife, to swim to shore. The boat was swamped, and not only were the botanist and his wife unable to make it ashore, nor were a number of other people. It is a disaster that must have been remembered by many in the territory, and many might have blamed John Tod — but he was not there. Nor was the Guide responsible for the accident: it must be blamed on the botanist. This was one of the more tragic incoming express journeys, I am not aware of any other that had so many deaths attached to it. 

And so we end on a serious note. If you want to order my book, The York Factory Express, you can do so through my publisher, here: (Yes, they still say pre-order, but the book is published and you can order it.) Alternatively, you can order a signed copy from me by filling out a contact form on my site. I have PayPal, and most people seem happy to use that to pay for the book. Thank you. 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021.  

10 thoughts on “Bits and Pieces

  1. Murray Daneliuk

    I love these journals you find!
    There is also a Duncan Finlayson Columbia journal from 1831, I believe, and it also gives a description of the new Fort Edmonton up on the hill.
    I wish this was transcribed, too!

  2. Kees van Weel

    I just finished “Peace River, a Canoe Voyage from Hudson’s Bay to Pacific” by Archibald McDonald, a fascinating read. I believe that you are responsible for my getting on ABE Books and purchasing this copy, and I thank you for the inspiration!

    On another note, I was struck by the fact that so many people died in the rapids below the appropriately named Dalles des Morts which would translate to the rapids of death, if I am not mistaken.


  3. Gordon MacIvor

    So now your quest is to find a 1832 journal or diary.
    My Great Grandfather, Norman McIver, from Shawbost (on the west coast of Lewis) left from Stornoway and was on the Columbia Express from York Factory to Fort Vancouver in 1832.
    In 1839 he returned to Lewis on the York Factory Express so a journal or diary of that year would be fascinating to report.

  4. Peter Janzen

    I came across a publication on Amazon called The Company Of Adventurers which
    was written by Isaac Cowie which he calls “A narrative of seven years in the service of The Hudson’s Bay Company”. He describes in great detail his travels from the Orkneys to York Factory to Norway House to Fort Garry and thus to his posting at Fort Qu’Appelle. He arrived in 1867 and this 1912 book is a revised compilation of his writings for the Winnipeg Telegram in 1902. You would be particularly interested in the details of his travels up to Norway House, and his many references to the works of previous chroniclers