Clerk James Douglas

A York Boat under sail

This powerful image of a York Boat under sail is used with the permission of the Glenbow Archives. Its number is na-1847-5. The HBC men sailed these boats anytime the wind was blowing in right direction, both going downriver, and coming upriver.

James Douglas was a clerk when he took out the York Factory Express to Hudson Bay in 1835; although he returned to the Columbia District as a Chief Trader, having received his commission at Red River that same summer. Perhaps knowing that he would receive said commission is the reason why he left Fort Vancouver so early in the year. 

I have always heard, however, that as a clerk James Douglas took out three York Factory Expresses to Hudson Bay and return. I did not know the years, nor did I find journals for any of these cross-country expeditions. If he kept a journal of his two earlier Expresses, they are long lost, and even the original of the third journal, whose transcript is in the British Columbia Archives, has disappeared.

I have, however, accidentally discovered in what other years HBC clerk James Douglas took out the York Factory Express. The journal we have is for 1835. A researcher emailed me to ask this question — “I came across a reference…

you might be able to help me with. In the letter attached below from John McLoughlin to James Douglas, dated 21 March 1833, McLoughlin attached a list of the men at Fort Vancouver, and where they worked. Douglas is instructed to “show it to the Governor … Wishing you a pleasant passage.”

I assume from this that Douglas is about to head east with the York Factory Express. From materials you have at hand, do you have a quick way of verifying that assumption? 

It was easy to confirm, as I have a half a dozen or so York Factory Express journals to look at. In all of these journals, the York Factory Express started from Fort Vancouver on or after the first weekday after March 20. As I say in my now-published book, The York Factory Express:

But now we are on the banks of the Columbia River, waiting for departure. Because of the Canadien employees (who carried on an ancient maritime tradition of never starting a journey on a Friday), it had become a tradition in the fur trader never to start a long voyage on that weekday — nor would the gentlemen have wished to miss their day of worship on Sunday. The traditional start date for the Express was March 20, and most York Factory Express boats paddled away from Fort Vancouver on the first Monday following that date.

But I should say, “most York Factory Express boats paddled away from Fort Vancouver on that date, or on the first Monday following that date.” That is a mouthful of words, however, and many of them unnecessary. And in fact, that statement was not always true. It seems to me that the clerks-in-charge of the Express were responsible for arranging all the provisions and manpower needed, and perhaps there were events that delayed the voyage a few days — the boats weren’t finished, maybe, or perhaps some men had not yet arrived to join the party. So, as an experiment, let’s see how regularly the Expresses left Fort Vancouver and on which dates.

In the journals I do have, Edward Ermatinger’s 1827 Express left Tuesday March 20, and his 1828 Express on Saturday March 22nd. George Traill Allan tells us his Express left Fort Vancouver on March 22, 1841; looking at the calendar for that year March 22 would have been a Monday. Thomas Lowe’s 1847 Express began on March 24, a Wednesday; his 1848 Express on Monday, March 20. And John Charles’s Express journey began on Tuesday, March 20. Only clerk James Douglas’s Express journey started at a date that was entirely different from any other: that is, Tuesday, March 3. He may have been eager to reach Red River in order to receive his Commission, but he accomplished very little with this early start. 

By the way, the other date I have for James Douglas’s leading the York Factory Express across the continent is 1832, and I found that in his biography online at — that is the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. As I don’t have his journal for that nor any journal for that year, I know nothing about this Express and its dates. I will of course swear that the other journey clerk James Douglas took across the continent was in 1831 — but I am wrong, apparently. And that wrongness has delayed the publishing of this post, because I was searching for what I thought I had discovered that gave me that information, and did not find it. Oh, well…

And yet, I think I am right. In George Trail Allan’s 1831 journal, he writes of departing Norway House on his way to Fort Vancouver…

Wednesday 27th [July] 1831: I sailed from Norway House at 3 o’clock am for the Columbia River in the same boat with Mr. [James?] Douglas, Clerk, and in company with Chief Factors McIntosh and [Duncan] Finlayson, and Messrs [Richard] Grant and [Pierre Chrysologue] Pambrun, clerks…

The mystery remains unsolved, I think. Anyway, I said above that clerk James Douglas’s Express journey that started on March 3 accomplished little in getting to Red River any sooner than he otherwise would have done. So, let’s see if I can support THAT argument with facts at least: [Hint: I can’t]

Clerk James Douglas arrived at Fort Nez Percés (Walla Walla) on March 10; at Fort Colvile on March 10 — but he stayed two weeks there, there which was a little unusual. The boats from Fort Okanogan arrived on March 27. And clerk James Douglas and his York Factory Express departed Fort Colvile on April 4. He arrived at Boat Encampment on April 13, and at Jasper’s House on April 19.

In his two outgoing Expresses, Edward Ermatinger arrived at Fort Colvile on April 12, 1827, and departs on April 17 — at about the same time that clerk James Douglas is reaching Jasper’s House, see above. In 1828, Ermatinger arrived at Fort Colvile on April 11 and departs on the 20th, so spending some time at Fort Colvile seems to be normal for the outgoing York Factory Express. George Traill Allan arrived at Fort Colvile on April 7, 1841, and left it on April 25, so his schedule is closer to Edward Ermatinger’s than to clerk James Douglas’s. In 1847, Thomas Lowe arrived at Fort Colvile on April 12th and departed April 22nd; in 1848 he rode through heavy snow to arrive at Fort Colvile on April 13th, and departed April 24. John Charles arrived at Fort Colvile April 10th, and departed April 23rd, after closing the accounts for the district. The clerks, including James Douglas, had work to do at Fort Colvile.

Let’s see what happened on the journey between Jasper’s House and Fort Assiniboine, as I know some Expresses were delayed some time on the Athabasca River. Clerk James Douglas’s Express began their journey from Jasper’s House on April 21st, and arrived at Fort Assiniboine on April 27th. It normally only took four days to descend this river, but clerk James Douglas’s Athabasca River was blocked by ice and almost impassible for much of the distance! This is why I say that the York Factory Express journey was carefully timed, to prevent them from having to make their way down frozen rivers.

In 1827, Edward Ermatinger left Jasper’s House on May 5th, and reached Fort Assiniboine on the 7th; in 1828 he left Jasper’s May 9th and arrived at Fort Assiniboine on the 10th. Nevertheless, he is still running behind clerk James Douglas’s time.Alan left Jasper’s on May 14th and reached Fort Assiniboine on the 16th. In 1847, Thomas Lowe left Jasper’s on May 9th and reached Fort Assiniboine May 11th; in 1848 he left Jasper’s House on May 11 and reached Fort Assiniboine on the 13th. John Charles was delayed by ice on his journey down the Athabasca River, having left Jasper’s House on May 11th he finally reached Fort Assiniboine May 19th. 

But in 1835, clerk James Douglas is still running ahead of all these men and their Expresses. He reaches Edmonton House on April 30th, and departs it on May 2nd. He doesn’t exactly say he is going downriver with the Saskatchewan Brigades, but, surely, he is — and that is also a very early time for the Saskatchewan Brigades to go downriver!

Clerk James Douglas reached Carlton House on May 9th, and remains behind there to ride overland to Red River via Fort Pelly. In 1827, Ermatinger reached Carlton House on June 3rd; in 1828, May 27th. George Traill Allan reached Carlton House on May 25th, 1841; Thomas Lowe on May 28th, 1847, and June 4, 1848. John Charles was running a little late, having been delayed by ice on the Athabasca. Nevertheless, he arrived at Carlton House on June 3rd, 1849.

So James Douglas’s early departure was feasible, if more difficult than desired. Nevertheless, they did not seem to keep to that early schedule, and I think it is possible that Edmonton House demanded that earlier departure from the York Factory Express so they could arrive more quickly at York Factory. I wonder, too, if the Annual Meeting at Red River was held earlier than normal that year, which forced all these men to make their journeys two weeks earlier? So far as I can see, it did not happen again, that the York Factory Express left Fort Vancouver so early in the year.

So, my book, The York Factory Express, is now published, and I am extremely pleased with it. I think that most of you who have ordered it will have received your copy. If you haven’t ordered it and now want a copy, you can place your order with the publisher, here: 

Thank you.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021. All rights reserved.

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