Peter Warren Dease travels north from Fort Alexandria

Fur trade building at Fort Langley

Fur trade warehouse at Fort Langley, the same as found in any fur trade fort including Forts Alexandria, and Fort George.

So it is now time for me to bring Peter Warren Dease north from Fort Alexandria to Fort George [Prince George]. Dease’s journals are usually quite brief: but I would say that in this leg of his journey in and out, he may have had more difficulties than in any other part of the long journey.

My last post in this series brought Willian Connolly north to the same place in 1826, in this post: 

Peter Warren Dease’s journal begins here, with his departure from Fort Alexandria in 1831:

20. [August]. The outfit made out. Want of Bark for the Canoes is a great obstacle to us at the present moment, for which the Worst of the Canoes could not be done with today, and but 2 men capable of doing that work properly. 44 Pieces will remain in Depot here until sent for.

These impediments retarded us until the 24th [August] when all being ready the Canoes were loaded with 35 Pieces in four of them. The Old one being so bad was loaded with 18 least liable to damage, with Mr. [Francis Noel] Annance as Passenger. On turning round the Point in passing a fishing Weir the Canoe was allowed to turn in shore too soon. The Stern came against the Weir & broke it off.

Dease means that the tail of the canoe was broken off — something that happened quite often. These birch-bark canoes were always fragile — especially those made in New Caledonia. Good birch bark was rare west of the Rocky Mountains, and a birch tree, once harvested, could not be harvested again for another decade. In addition to this, the birch that grew in New Caledonia were much smaller than those in the east. When Peter Skene Ogden took over from Dease in 1835, he had boats [batteaux] built to replace the canoes. These clinker-built boats were strongly built, and much more able than canoes to handle the rough waters of the Fraser River.

Dease’s journal continues:

Being near shore, fortunately, all the property was saved. The Canoe filled but was got out to repair it, the goods put out to Dry and the men sett about mending it which could not be Completed.

25th. The Canoe being patched up as well as means admit Embarked at half past 11 am & put up for the night above Big Island rather Early to allow them to gum the Canoe.

Friday 26th. Started at an Early hour. The Canoes so very leaky cause a great loss of time, being obliged to put ashore to Gum them. Put up at 5pm on that account.

27. Had heavy rain all night which continued some time this morning. Provisions being scarce got a few fish above Quesnel’s River which the Indians demanded most Extravagant prices for. Very few are caught by them, the are consequently reluctant to part with what they have. Put up about Canoe Island.

Clearly, this was a poor year for salmon on the Fraser River. The river has a predictable four-year cycle, with one year being very good, the next extremely poor. The fishery recovered in stages over the next two summers until the Fraser River had, once again, another good year. As always, a bad year meant suffering for the Indigenous people and the HBC traders. This is a problem that never went away: In October 1851, James Douglas wrote from Fort Victoria that: “The news from the Interior are of a mixed character, the brigades had all safely reached their respective homes but it appears that there is a scarcity of salmon throughout New Caledonia and in Thompson’s River, which will cause distress among the Indians and prove injurious to the trade.”

Dease’s journal continues:

28. Two of the Canoes were very badly broken, Caused a great loss of time, during which time Mr. William McGillivray with an Indian and a Boy in a small Canoe arrived from Fort George. By him I have the satisfaction of Hearing from the Posts of McLeod’s, Stuart’s & Fraser’s Lakes where all was well by last accounts. The Returns of Fort George are better than last year — the other Posts rather less. It is reported that the Indians of the upper Forks of Fraser’s Lake have been towards the Coast and bartered about 100 Beavers with the natives from that Quarter, who bring Goods which they sell at very low prices.

As I say in The Pathfinder: “The Dakelh assembled at Thleuz-cuz Lake for their fisheries every summer and were usually joined by Nuxalk men from the coast, who carried precious fish oil up one of many grease trails that wound through the mountains that separated the lake from the coast. The Nuxalk rendered this whitish, lard-like oil from the eulachon, a smelt or herring that spawned every summer in such numbers they turned the tidal rivers black. At Thleuz-cuz and other traditional trading places, the Nuxalk traded their oil for furs from the Interior.” Interestingly, I have since learned that the Dakelh traded the oil with their neighbours to the east, and it reached Okanagan Lake and may well have been carried even further east, over Athabasca Pass! This happens even today — one person I know, who grew up on Monte Lake, remembers the oil arriving.

The state of that Post did not admit of the Interpreter leaving his Charge, otherwise we might have drawn in some of these furs, as most of those Indians are due Balances to the Company After repairing damages proceeded & put up at Asco or Liard [Cottonwood] River, having Embarked Mr. McGillivray & lightened the Canoes by putting 2 pieces in the Indians’ Canoe.

When George Simpson came through the territory in 1824, the McLeod’s Lake post was called Trout Lake post. According to A.C. Anderson’s map, Trout Lake is just north of McLeod’s Lake. Though history tells us the original post was built on McLeod’s Lake, I sometimes wonder if it wasn’t. Anyway, his journal continues here:

29, Got up the Big Rapid where Charleau’s Canoe was in such an unmanageable State that it was left & the Pieces put on the other Canoes, until we can find means of Getting a Wooden Canoe from Indians, they being too heavy loaded for safety in such a Strong Stream. Put up about 6 miles below the West Road River.

30. Rained hard Yesterday & this day also. Passed 2 Villages of Natives from whom we Purchased salmon sufficient for the Canoes today & tomorrow. Received also some furrs for Debts due at Fort George. The 4 Canoes Cause much delay to Keep the property from getting wet. Put up above West Road River.

In one of his manuscripts, Alexander Caulfield Anderson wrote this of the West Road River — “This stream, which can scarcely be called navigable to any useful end, is called by the natives Nas-coh, the people in its vicinity Nas-cotin. Higher up its chief branch is called Tee-a-coh (ie. literally “Road River.”) One of its chief feeders is the lake Thleu-uz-cuz (ie. “Split Fish” — the Slou a cuss of Mackenzie). By the line of this stream, crossing afterward the dividing ridges, [Alexander] MacKenzie penetrated to the Sea at the head of Milbank Sound, where he narrowly missed falling in with the exploring parties of [Captain George] Vancouver.”

Dease’s journal continues here:

Wednesday 31. At an Indian House where we stopped for one of the Canoes which was injured to gum & repair, Hired a Wooden Canoe to lighten the others in which 3 men & 8 Pieces were put, and proceeded. Cloudy with showers of Rain now and then. At another house traded a few fresh salmon & some furrs for Fort George, also got 4 pieces Bark which was Paid for with Tobacco. Were stopped twice to Gum the Canoes.

September, Thursday 1. Stopped twice again to Gum the Canoes & put up about 6 miles below the Rapid of Stoney Islands.

2. Two of the canoes were broken, to require repairs which Caused much delay. Got above the Rapids & pushed on ahead of the Canoes which Mr. Annance remains with. Could not get to the House [Fort George].

3, Reached Fort George at 6 am. All safe and everything in good Order. The Returns amount to 12 Packs mostly Beaver, and the principal Hunters not yet come in. Gardens have produced well, & had the Post been well supplied with #9 twine for the Sturgeon fishery, would have taken a number of those large fishes one of which was Killed during the summer measures 14 1/2 feet in length. We are now very deficient in all Kinds of twine this year, which was not to be got at [Fort] Vancouver. The other Canoes Cast up at 11 am and will require thorough repairs before leaving this.

4th, 5th. Were Employed Getting Gum, Bark & Roots & repairing the 4 Canoes. The Outfit of the Post made out and all ready for Departure tomorrow. Very few Salmon taken here & have received but 3 from the Natives since arrival.

The Bark he is referring to is birch bark. In The Pathfinder, I write this of the Montreal canoes found west of Fort William, on Lake Superior.

The brigade travelled in 40-foot Montreal canoes made of white or silver birch, with seams tightly sewn with spruce fibres called wapete, and waterproofed with many applications of spruce gum. Despite their delicate birchbark skins, these were tough, strong canoes, ideally suited for the rough river passage, and they carried four tons of freight and passengers.

Well, the construction of the canoes is the same, but those west of the Rocky Mountains were not as tough and as strong as those built in the east — as you can see. But perhaps the NWC and HBC men were not careful with that resource. This is what Alexander Caulfield Anderson has to say of the shortage of birch in New Caledonia ever since his arrival at Fraser Lake in 1835.

The canoe-Birch (Betula Alba) is found in various parts of British Columbia; but rarely of size for useful purposes of importance until we approach the Rocky Mountains. At McKenzie’s Fork, above Fort George, it grows luxuriantly, and thence upwards. At Tete Jaune’s Cache it is abundant and of large size. At Fort St. James, and in the vicinity of the other posts, it was formerly sufficiently abundant; but immense numbers of trees have been destroyed since the first settlement, either to procure the bark for making canoes, or the wood for dog-sledges. Being hard, close-grained and elastic, it is peculiarly well adapted for the latter purpose.  The natives do not use the bark for canoes, this custom having been borrowed by us from the Crees, Algonquins, Iroquois, and other Eastern tribes. The lighter canoes of the Ta-Cully [Dakelh] of the upper district are made of single sheets of spruce bark; the more solid, from the excavated trunk of the Balsam Poplar; a wood which being light and not liable to split, is well adapted for the purpose.

So that should help explain the shortage of good birch bark in the district. The NWC had been here since the early 1800’s, and had probably destroyed more than a few trees in their search for good bark: the HBC men were obviously no more careful. But it would be difficult to imagine that a resource which was plentiful when they first arrived would disappear. However, it did.

When the next and last post in this series is published, it will appear here:

If you want to read the whole series, go here:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2018. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “Peter Warren Dease travels north from Fort Alexandria

  1. Garth O'Meara

    Hi Nancy…enjoyed this article. We have been doing ethnohistoric work on First Nations around Fraser Lake and south of Burns Lake and have had some reference to the Upper Forks near Fraser Lake…have you any more info on such locale from you research? Take care. Garth.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Hi, yes I probably do. I have just put eye drops in and so can’t see very well. Let me get back to you tomorrow. And its Peter Warren Dease, not John, as you probably know. I will also correct that tomorrow. 😉

    2. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      I am getting back to you at last, sorry for losing this question. The Upper Forks near Fraser Lake would be, I presume, the Nechako and Stuart River junction. There was an Indigenous village called Chinlac there. There were, however, other major rivers that flowed into the Nechako above that junction. I can look through Anderson’s writing and see if he has a different answer, but that will take some time. If I stumble on it, I will let you know.