Columbia Express

Warre Courtesy American Antiquarian Soc.

Boat Encampment, Painting by Henry James Warre, Courtesy American Antiquarian Society. This is easily identified as being painted at the Boat Encampment. We know this because there are First Nations present, and also the horses from Jasper’s House. The First Nations are members of Capot Blanc’s band from Cranberry Lake, and they often met the York Factory Express at Boat Encampment.  

As we know, if you have purchased and read my book, The York Factory Express, the proper name for the incoming Express was the Columbia Express — although some people refer to it as the “Annual Brigades.” The York Factory Express was its proper name, however.

The Express from Fort Vancouver was called the York Factory Express going out, because York Factory was its destination. Coming home to the Columbia District from Edmonton House, it was referred to as the Columbia Express. Even though both of these Expresses travelled with the Saskatchewan Brigades between Edmonton House and York Factory, they were separate components within those Brigades. If the Express was going to the Columbia, it was always known as “the Express,” even though it travelled with the Saskatchewan Brigades.

So, in this continuation of my last blogpost titled “Incoming Express,” we will see what we can learn of the Expresses that crossed the continent from 1840 onward. 

We will remember that John McLoughlin travelled into the territory in the 1839 Columbia Express. His biography indicates that he left Fort Vancouver for London in the York Factory Express on the date March 22, 1838, and he returned to the Columbia District in the Columbia Express, arriving at Fort Vancouver on October 17, 1839. We know this! It is a fact! So why did Roderick Finlayson (below) not even mention him in his journal?

Because it was written much after the event, and he had forgotten McLoughlin who was long out of power.

So, let’s have Roderick Finlayson’s story of the 1839 Columbia Express, the one which omits McLoughlin entirely. Part of his story appears in this post:, but Finlayson has more to say of the Columbia Express journey in his “History of Vancouver Island and the Northwest Coast,” below:

The names of the intermediate stations we passed are Forts Carlton, Pitt, & Edmonton; at the latter which was then the headquarters of the District, we remained to further organize, when we left the boats and took horses with which we crossed the plain country to Fort Assiniboine on the Athabasca River, when we ascended in bark canoes till we reached Jasper’s House, a station at the headwaters of the river, where we again changed our canoes for horses, and rode over the Rocky Mts to a place called the Boat Encampment on the Upper Columbia River. At that time we met a party from the Fort at Colvile with boats suitable for navigation on the Columbia, sent there in accordance with a previous arrangement. Sent the horse brigade back to Jasper’s House and proceeded down the Columbia river to Colvile or Kettle Falls as it was then called; remained a few days at Colvile and continued our journey in the same boats, stopping at all the stations then on the Columbia, viz. Okanagan, Spokane, Walla Walla, until we reached the Dalles, where we lightened the boats; carried our baggage across the portage, and ran the boats, to get down the river there, as it was dangerous to risk the property in the boats, while they were run down the rapid and contracted stream. After the Dalles were passed, we came to the Cascades when the same process was gone through; having passed the Cascades the river widens out, runs smooth. And now all hands were preparing to arrive at the great depot Vancouver, then on the Columbia. In order to make a fine display in arriving at the Vancouver landing, we hoisted flags. Men and officers dressed in their best, ranged the boats in proper order, that of the commanding officer ahead, and others following, the men Canadian and Iroquois voyageurs singing lustily their Canadian boat songs. On hearing the singing and the noise of the oars, the party at the Fort turned out, headed by the chief, a venerable looking old gentleman whose long grey locks hung over his shoulders in the fashion of the day. This was the celebrated Dr. McLoughlin, who commanded over all the country west of the Rocky Mts., and was called the Emperor of the West. His second in command then was Mr. [James] Douglas, afterward Sir James. We were all hospitably received at the fort. In order to celebrate our arrival, we had a grand banquet given us, where all the delicacies of the West Country were brought out in profusion. The month of October, the 7th, I believe, was the date of our arrival at Vancouver.

It is likely he arrived at Fort Vancouver on November 7th, as John McLoughlin, who was travelling with this same Columbia Express, arrived on October 17. The discrepancy in these two dates is made clear in McLoughlin’s letter written from Fort Vancouver on October 24, 1839:

I arrived here on the 17th Inst. I left Boat Encampment on the 3d and in consequence of not meeting the Boat from Colvile there (as we were earlier at the Boat Encampment than usual), I was obliged to leave half my party but as I met the Boat from Colvile on the 4th and on the 8th sent another Boat to them from Colvile, and the party has sufficient provision to wait, I expect them only in eight or ten days.

So John McLoughlin came downriver in the first boat, and Roderick Finlayson was left behind with the others at Boat Encampment, coming in with the later boats. He was very young, by the way. A note here, too, re: Finlayson’s description of John McLoughlin. You know that all of these men, voyageurs and gentlemen alike, wore their hair long, and likely had beards too. 

I have a little more information on the Columbia Express that McLoughlin travelled in. When he reached Boat Encampment on October 3, 1839, McLoughlin met “Mr. [Alexander] Fisher on his way across the mountains, at which I was surprised, as by the minutes of Council he was only allowed to cross the mountains this spring, but he showed me a letter from you authorizing him to cross last fall.” McLoughlin’s letter was addressed to Governor Simpson, and Fisher was going out in the Fall Express, likely spending the winter at Edmonton House.

So this is good: I have no journal for 1840, and I do not know who led the Express out in March. However, I do know who led the Express in and when it arrived at Fort Vancouver. On November 20,  1840, McLoughlin wrote: “On 31 ult. [October] the Express from York arrived under the charge of Mr. Dugald McTavish. I am happy to be able to inform you that they encountered with no misfortune on the Route, that the people were in good health and the Otters [for the Russians] delivered in good condition.”

That year, however, Governor Simpson had wanted the gentlemen of the incoming Express to take barometrical observations at the height of the Mountains, which instructions were apparently not received in time. McLoughlin wrote, “In default of which I do myself the pleasure to forward observations made on the degree of heat at which water boils at several places between this and York by which a nigh approximation is made to the Elevation of those places above the level of the sea, copy of which I sent out last spring, and I will not fail to attend to your instructions on this subject whenever an opportunity arrives.” The footnote says that the observations have not been found, and also tells us that they were to be done at the request of the Geographical Society.

I am taking much of the information for this blog post from The Letters of John McLoughlin from Fort Vancouver to the Governor and Committee, Second Series, 1839-1840 [Champlain Society, for the Hudson’s Bay Record Society, 1943].

1841. The 1841 Express was taken out by George Traill Allan, and Dr. William Fraser Tolmie also travelled out with him. Allan’s journal is in The York Factory Express. I did not know who brought the Express back in, but when I look at George Traill Allan’s biography, it does appear that he did return to the Columbia District with the incoming Columbia Express. Tolmie did not: he went on to London in the Prince Albert, and then to Paris where he would study medicine.  

1842. As it happens, I know who led out and brought in the 1842 York Factory Express: it was Alexander Caulfield Anderson, my great grandfather. He did not keep a journal; it seems not to have been a requirement of the job. He left his family behind at Fort Colvile, and departed that place on April 24. Rain caused the Columbia River to flood between the Upper Arrow Lakes and the Dalles des Morts, and as Anderson said, “In 1842 I.. reached the mountains only on the twelfth day, though my boats were unusually well manned with Canadian and other voyageurs, and the most expert Iroquois conductors.” [Joe Tayentas, another favourite of mine, was his Guide on this journey]. At Norway House he attended the annual meeting, and departed the place on July 1, travelling in a light canoe. He arrived at York Factory on July 7, five days after the Saskatchewan Boats had come in. Some months after the Columbia Express departed York Factory on the raw cold morning of July 16, the chief factor’s wife wrote a gossipy letter that contained some information about Anderson: 

The gentlemen here are too apt to thrash and indeed point their guns at their men and Mr. Anderson, who came across from Vancouver last year was so detested that they confessed that if he had fallen into the river, not one would have held out a stick to him. 

Anderson had a disagreement with one of the Canadiens who worked at Fort Nisqually, and his punishment was removal from the post, and being placed in charge of taking out the York Factory Express where he would spend seven months being disliked by the voyageurs on the journey. On his return to the Columbia District with the Columbia Express, he collected his family left behind at Fort Colvile, and rode north to take over the charge of Fort Alexandria, where he spent many years.

1843. It is likely John O’Brien who led out the York Factory Express in 1843, but I do not yet know who brought the Columbia Express home. On November 15, 1843, however, John McLoughlin reported that:

A few days after the departure of the Express last March, a momentary excitement broke out among the Nez Percés and Cayouse Tribes who inhabit the Country about Walla Walla, caused by a report spread among them that Dr. White, who as I informed you last Fall gave himself out as Indian Agent for the United States, had said he would take their lands from them, which it is certain he never said, and also from another report which came to the Willamette, that the Cayouse and Nez Percés had said they intended to attack the white Settlers in that place, which was also unfounded.

On November 18, 1843, McLoughlin reported that “the Express arrived yesterday, and as the despatches are closing I have merely time to say it arrived safe, and to make a few brief remarks on the despatches.” The rest of his very long letter deals with his son’s death by murder at Fort Stikine. McLoughlin drops the ball on his reports because of this: however, help is coming. About this time, clerk Thomas Lowe arrives at Fort Vancouver from the Northwest coast, and remains there for many years. His journals are a wonderful source of information.

Lowe arrived at Fort Vancouver in June, 1843, but unfortunately, he did not keep a journal after October 1, 1843, so when the Express came into Fort Vancouver, he made no note of it. 

1844. Nor does Thomas Lowe’s journal cover March 1844, when he would have mentioned the departure of the York Factory Express. In the fall of 1844, James Allan Grahame and Joseph William McKay come into Fort Vancouver with the Columbia Express. In his “Recollections,” written much later, Joseph William McKay says this about his incoming journey. (This following quote is taken from the new book written by Greg N. Fraser, Joseph William McKay: a Métis Business Leader in Colonial British Columbia).

At the Simcoe Mission, on the north side of the Columbia in what is now Washington Territory, we were besieged by Cayuse Indians who had come across the river from the Hood River country.

The Simcoe Mission was not located on the river until after 1844, but it’s understandable that if McKay was in the region when it was built, he would refer to its location as being the place where the Indian attack occurred. But the HBC men were having no trouble with the Cayouse at that time, unless it was caused by what was happening on the river in 1843, see above. And Thomas Lowe does not mention the battle, although he does mention James Allan Grahame’s arrival at Fort Vancouver:

31st [October 1844] Thursday. About 9 o’clock in the morning the Express from York Factory arrived in charge of Mr. D[ugald] McTavish, who went across in the Spring. There were 3 Boats and 42 men, 35 of whom are new hands mostly from Orkney, a Mr. Grahame also apprentice Clerk who came to the country last Fall and wintered at Red River. He comes from Edinburgh and is nephew to Mr. [George Traill] Allan at Woahoo. A Botanist of the name of Gyer [sic] from Germany joined the Boats at Walla Walla, and came down here with the intention of going to England by the Barque Columbia. Mr. [Archibald] McDonald it appears had gone with his family to the Boat Encampment on his way home, and Mr. Pelly from the other side remained in charge of Colvile till another successor is appointed… Mr. McTavish got nearly drowned in going down the York Factory River, and received a severe fall from a horse in the Plains of the Saskatchewan. 

So, Thomas Lowe makes no mention of the Indian attack that was written of in later years by Joseph William McKay. Also notice that, according to Lowe, Dugald McTavish, who arrived at Fort Vancouver in November, 1840, took out the outgoing York Factory Express in 1844. 

1845. Thomas Lowe gives us the information that this Express left Fort Vancouver on the afternoon of March 20, “with 4 boats in charge of Mr. [Dugald] McTavish, taking up the Goods for Colvile and day fine.” It returned to Fort Vancouver on October 9, a Sunday. (Although some correspondence from Governor Simpson says that this Express was delayed in its arrival at Fort Vancouver, it does not seem that it was.) Lowe wrote: 

Fine weather. At half past seven this morning the York Factory Express arrived, in charge of Mr. Dugald McTavish, brought down 10 new hands. Chief Factor [John Lee] Lewes and family, and Mr. [Neil McLean] McArthur, apprentice clerk, crossed the mountains with the Express, but both have remained at [Fort] Colvile. Chief Factor [Peter Skene] Ogden, who went up to Colvile about a month ago, returned here with the Express boats.”

John Lee Lewes remained in charge at Fort Colvile for two or three years. He had come down from Fort Simpson, on the Mackenzie River, where he had accidentally shot his hand, damaging it so badly that it was removed. He is mentioned in the Paul Kane thread, and also in the “Journeys” thread, when Augustus Peers arrives at the Mackenzie River headquarters of Fort Simpson. He was an interesting man (one of my favourites), and I have quite a few stories about him on this website and in books to come.

1846. We know a lot about the incoming Columbia Express, because artist Paul Kane came in with it and kept a journal — if you want to read it, go to the Paul Kane thread on this website. The leader of this Express was Richard Lane, and he had also gone out with the York Factory Express in March 1846. Thomas Lowe gives us information about the outgoing York Factory Express, which left Fort Vancouver on March 25. “This afternoon about 3 o’clock the Express started for York Factory, passengers Francis Ermatinger, Esq., [Royal Engineer] Lieutenants [Henry James] Warre and [Mervin] Vavasour, Mr. [Richard] Lane, and Mr. [Joseph] Burke, who only goes up to Walla Walla in the boats. The Fort fired a salute of 7 guns, and as the Boats were passing the Modeste manned the rigging and gave three cheers. Mr. Ermatinger intends going to England on furlough, the two Officers go down to Canada, and Mr. Lane returns in the Fall with the Express.” It’s likely that Francis Ermatinger led it out, and Richard Lane led it in.

You will remember Joseph Burke, who I have already written about here? 

In 1847, Thomas Lowe himself takes out this Express, and his journals are in my book, The York Factory Express. In 1848 he also leads it out and in, and in 1849, John Charles is in charge of the Express. All of these journals are contained in my book, and so I have no need to tell you more. Information in regard to the remaining York Factory Express journeys are also included in this book, and so there is no need for me to go further in this series. If you want to learn more about the Express, then order the book here: and thank you. 

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


4 thoughts on “Columbia Express

  1. Tom Holloway

    Excellent. Lots of information in this post, on the coming and going. I have one small tweak to suggest: Lt. Mervin Vavasour was in the military engineers, but his traveling companion, Lt. Henry Warre, was an infantry officer—besides being an accomplished and prolific painter!