Cumberland House

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.

There is little mention of the York Factory Express and Saskatchewan Brigades passing through Cumberland House in the post journals in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives. Nevertheless, there is lots of information on this important post. So, let’s begin with the few mentions I do have of the Saskatchewan brigades in the above-noted post journals:

[May 31] 1828 …Swept out the stores and the Fort…by putting things in order for the voyage to York Factory.

Sunday, June 1, 1828…Omitted in yesterdays [entry] that the Following Gentlemen arrived from the Interior by the Sascatchewan Route viz. Messrs [John] Rowand, Mcgillivray, Dease, [blurred] Ermatinger & [John Edward] Harriott with 16 Boats well loaded with Sundries. Sent two men down this morning to the Fisheries…

I think the “Dease” here is actually Thomas Dears, who left Fort Vancouver with this express, although the editor of Edward Ermatinger’s journal says it is probably John Warren Dease and he had access to the same information that I had. The “Mcgillivray” is Joseph McGillivray of Fort Alexandria, who is leaving the territory on furlough; he will not return. There is also a “McDonald” mentioned leaving Edmonton House, and I don’t know why he is not listed, unless the blurry smear before Ermatinger’s name is him and not “Edward.” And that’s probably it: a little research tells me that Archibald McDonald of Fort Colvile went out with this Express!

Below we have an excerpt from the 1831 Cumberland House Journal, kept by Thomas Isbister:

August 20th. I arrived in Company with two Indians in a Small canoe for the purpose of taking a Boat to the entrance of Lower Little River to meet the Saskatchewan Brigade and receive the Outfit for this place.

Tuesday 21st. Took George Ballendine and some Indians with the old Boat and a Canoe and met the Brigaders at the Fishing Weir River where we encamped. Some of the crafts were in the rear; and did not arrive to night.

Wednesday 22nd. All the crafts arrived this morning, and the Guides determined to make track to Pass by the upper Little River, which not being certain whether they would or not was the cause of Me coming down to meet them. Arrived at the House at even[ing], as also My Master with the English River Boats, the Boats from Portage la Loche had left the House a little before on their way for York Factory.

Thursday 23rd. The Saskatchewan Brigade of Ten Boats left us this morning. Mr. McKenzie’s remained till the afternoon during which time the Inventory was taken…

The “Mr. McKenzie” here is not any McKenzie/Mackenzie I know of — Roderick Mackenzie Sr. was in charge at the Ile-à-la-Crosse post in 1830, and would have passed through Cumberland House — but that is still a year or two in the future. But that really is all that I can learn about the Saskatchewan Brigades at Cumberland House in their post journals, because all other relevant journals are missing. There is still lots to know, however. For example, in 1843, Augustus Peers arrived in Cumberland Lake with the Portage La Loche boats. He visited, and described, Cumberland House as it was then:

On the last day of June we entered Cumberland Lake. In a bay at its western extremity stands Cumberland House. Our course lay along the eastern shore, but as it was necessary to call at the Fort for a further supply of provisions…I accompanied the guide and after a pleasant sail we came to the landing. As the proper manager of the fort was on his way to York Factory with his returns of furs, we found the place in the temporary charge of an Orkneyman. The approach to the houses lay by a dry and well-beaten road through a shady grove of trees which must afford to the inhabitants a delightful retreat on a summer’s evening…

Fort Cumberland, which is constructed entirely of wood, is prettily situated on a long low bank surrounded by trees. The Lake on which it stands is very extensive and well stocked with excellent white fish and sturgeon, some of the latter with new milk formed my breakfast, which proved a great treat. The flesh of the sturgeon is very rich and though a great delicacy is not a fish on which one could live without getting tired of. They are sometimes kept alive for a considerable time tethered by a rope passed through the gills and mouth to a post sunk in the water. 

There is a large garden attached to the establishment in which are grown potatoes, etc, and as the hop plant grows in the neighbourhood, beer is also added to the other creature comforts of this place. The swampy and sedgy borders of the lake afford shelter and feeding to the numerous flocks of wild fowl in the spring and autumn, and many choose to bring forth their young progeny here.

Several bags of pemican were conveyed to the boat in a cart built in the rough-rustic style and drawn by oxen. We embarked, and leaving this peaceful retreat of the fur trader…[they returned to the boats and continued their journey toward Portage La Loche].

Do you wonder how both cattle and oxen were found at Cumberland House? They were brought upriver as calves, in the boats coming in from York Factory. I found cats in the depths of New Caledonia, where it was impossible to have cats unless they were transported from a nearby post and used for their rat-catching skills. The men at Fort Alexandria [New Caledonia] attempted to ship turkeys to another post nearby, but the male turkey got away and the rest were returned to Fort Alexandria. It’s something you don’t think about, but animals were transported between forts all the time — how else did they get to Fort Alexandria? As it happens, I know there were oxen at York Factory, because Augustus Peers said so. And, of course, they were originally shipped from London or (more likely) Orkney, as calves.

From Ernest Voorhis’s “Historic Forts and Trading Posts of the French Regime and of the English Fur trading Companies,” an excerpt from the long history of Cumberland House. For the purposes of this blogpost, this is what you need to know about the location of Cumberland House and Lake:

It is a strategic point as two routes open thence to the interior, west and south by Saskatchewan River, northwest and north to the upper Churchill country. The Hudson’s Bay Co. post was located about 500 yards from Frobisher’s House of 1772, on the south shore, “on the Saskatchewan River at a spot where it is touched by Cumberland Lake.” It was built on an island at the south-east end of Pine Island Lake, about 4 miles north of the Saskatchewan River, into which are three outlets from the lake, namely, Big Stone River immediately in the rear and west of the Fort, Tearing River 4 miles to the east, and Fishing Weir Creek leading to the north. Pine Island is made by the lake on the north, Saskatchewan River on the south, Big Stone river on the west, and Tearing River on the east.

There is more on this fort only a few blogposts back:

So picture this: The Saskatchewan River flows from the west to the east, past a large island with a small creek or entrance at either end. The island runs along the North bank of the river, and on the north side of that island stands Cumberland House, facing the large lake that is, once again, north of the island itself. Two creeks lead from the Saskatchewan River into Cumberland Lake: over the years they both silted up but the Big Stone was blocked first. By 1848 Tearing Creek was also silted up. I really have no idea how the Portage la Loche boats dealt with this problem, but for the Saskatchewan Brigades they picked up provisions on the Saskatchewan River side of the island on which the fort stood, which goods had been carried across the island from the fort (or through the narrow, silted up channels by a smaller boat than a York Boat). So, let’s see how they managed this over the years: 

In 1827, Edward Ermatinger’s boat “arrived at Cumberland,” on the outgoing journey: on their return journey they seem to have arrived in the lake, though they had to wait till daylight to find the fort. But they also came in [upriver] “through lakes and narrows,” and that is very interesting. It is possible, I suppose, they came up the Saskatchewan River, but there was also another route, used in 1826 by Aemilius Simpson. 

One year later, in 1828, the express arrived at Cumberland Lake from upriver and discovered that it was “too shoal, unable to enter.” Perhaps because the water level in the Saskatchewan River was lower than usual that year. In 1835, James Douglas is not clear on whether or not they made it into the lake on their return journey, but they certainly did not travel “through lakes and narrows” to reach the lake. Thomas Lowe kept the best records. In 1847, he “arrived at Cumberland this morning at 8 o’clock,” on the outgoing journey, when the water was high in the river. On the way upriver, however: “Got to the mouth of the river leading to Cumberland Lake, where we encamped…the Cumberland Outfit was taken from the Boats and put into the Cumberland boat, which of course leaves us here.” In 1848, on the outgoing journey: “Got to the Cumberland Portage about two hours after sunset.” Next day, “Walked across to the Fort this morning.” But on the incoming journey they attempted to get into the Lake:

After breakfast entered a small channel which leads (through a Lake) to Cumberland, but as there was not water enough, after working hard and hauling the boats through the mud the whole day, we had to return to the main River by the same road as we came, and encamped at our breakfasting place, at the entrance of the channel, long after dark.

In 1849, John Charles makes no mention of entering the lake, although as the water is higher in the spring it is possible he could have. On his return, though, “About 10 pm we past [passed] Pemican Portage,” after taking in a load of goods and provisions at Constance’s Store, at the Pas. I think that by 1849, the HBC of Cumberland were using a free-trader’s storehouse, to store goods that would be transferred to the Saskatchewan brigades on their way upriver. The creeks were irretrievably silted in, I suspect.

But, in 1826, Aemilius Simpson has this to say of the route his brigades took coming upriver to Cumberland House. They clearly did not come up the Saskatchewan River:

We continued our ascent of the Saskatchewan, when having come about 8 Leagues in a winding direction to the SW we struck out of the Main stream into a swampy channel which led us into a Lake which we proceeded to cross in a Westerly direction for 5 Miles which brought us to a chain of Swampy Channels leading to the West by which Track we cut off a great part of the Distance to Cumberland House…At 8.30 pm we put up for the night under a Clump of Willows, having come an estimated Distance of 36 miles during the day….

At 3 am we continue our Journey & having come about 5 Leagues we arrived at Cumberland House at 8.30 am.

This is not the same route that later incoming brigades traveled (except, possibly, Edward Ermatingers of 1827). I have seen it suggested that in the early years they came in by “Saskeram Lake,” but that doesn’t seem to fit either, as I believe the Saskeram was south of the Saskatchewan River. As you may or may not know, all this section of river is now underwater behind the Grand Rapids dam. It’s a huge lake, that has swallowed the Grand Rapids, Lac Traverse, Cedar Lake, Lac Vaseux, and the entire river almost all the way to modern-day The Pas. What that means is that the alternate river route to Cumberland Lake is mostly buried by the water of the current Cedar Lake, so it can’t be found anymore.

So mapping that section of the river would be a little difficult, would it not? In the book, Historical Atlas of Manitoba: A Selection of Facsimile Maps, Plans and Sketches from 1612 to 1969, by John Warkentin and Richard I. Ruggles [Manitoba Historical Society, 1970] I found a map of the original Saskatchewan River (that is, before the Grand Rapids dam was built), drawn in 1960. It is a Physiographic Diagram, and it shows the Lacustrine (lake-like) plain that surrounds the Saskatchewan River from Lac Traverse to Cedar Lake (now underwater). West of Cedar Lake the river passes through a massive region of bog and marsh (now underwater), which ends just before The Pas. I learned a bit about this, too — this is part of the estuary of the Saskatchewan River, where an early (and imaginary) settler said:

The processes which transform lakes into swamps would seem to operate particularly rapidly in the Northwest if one is to accept the testimonies of many travellers in that country. For example, [Alexander] Mackenzie noted that “many lakes are draining and filling up by early which is carried into them from high lands by the rivers.” He mentions particularly Cedar Lake near the mouth of the Saskatchewan, whose increasingly shallow waters are well known to the canoemen who are now forced to pole their way through its dense grasses. In the course of time, he predicts that the lake will be converted into a pine forest. [Eric Ross, Beyond the River and the Bay: Some observations on the state of the Canadian Northwest in 1811 with a View to Providing the Intending Settler with an Intimate Knowledge of That Country, p. 9 [University of Toronto Press, 1973. The author, Eric Ross, is modern, but his book is written in the voice of that imaginary settler described above.]

Anyway, so all around Cedar Lake you have bogs and marshes. But then, just before the Saskatchewan River reaches the modern town of The Pas, it butts up against a line of little rounded hills that the mapper says is “Morainic Upland.” Moraine, in other words. In fact, the Pas Moraine is a wide ridge that rises as much as 200 feet above the surrounding estuary, deposited by the Laurentian glacier as it slowly melted away. And, as I say in the book I am now writing…

A long distance below and above it, the Saskatchewan flows through a vast reedy marsh. But at The Pas, there is an extensive gravel plain, an island of dry ground in a watery wilderness. 

In my first book I had to learn about eskers. In my second book I learned about the Canadian Shield, mostly. In my third book, I had to learn about buttes, volcanic plugs, and kames. Kames are mounds of gravel, etc., left behind by retreating glaciers. 

So, in my fourth book I am now running across Moraines — another glacial feature. But this country is built from glaciers — in this case the Laurentian glacier. And the nice thing about learning about these glacial features is that I can suddenly become aware that those “sandhills” all along the Great Fish River are kames!

You can order my book, The York Factory Express, through your local bookstore and via Amazon. For American booksellers, the distributor for Ronsdale Press in the United States is Independent Publishers Group. Thank you!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.