Exploring Fraser’s River

Canvas tents

A typical fur trade encampment of the fur trade, with canvas tents for the gentlemen, and cook fires for all. In the background, the palisades of replica Fort Langley.

James McMillan, John Work, and Francis Annance, and all the other men in this 1824 expedition, have reached the banks of Fraser’s River. The date on which they arrived was December 16, 1824, and according to Francis Annance, “They made two miles and encamped. Here it is about six or eight hundred yards wide. The tide rises about five feet perpendicular. The course is east.”

On the next day, December 17, they began exploring Fraser’s River, heading upriver from McMillan Island. Francis Annance says that “This morning made about two miles [to] another Island; opposite to which we found a small village on a small river issuing from the north side.” This long narrow island is named Crescent Island today, and it lies off the mouth of Stave River. Annance’s story continues: “The natives are little men; and appear rather shy,” he noted. Oh, and this is interesting! “In the lodges we saw a sort of loom, with which they manufacture blankets with the hair of dogs and the down of ducks and geese.” The dogs whose wool they used to make these blankets were the Salish Wool Dogs, and I wrote about them here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/salish-wool-dog/

In his journal, John Work describes the residence at the mouth of the Stave, as “a miserable habitation formed of plank, both sides and roof,” and he notices the filth and the smell of rotting salmon. “Nevertheless,” he says,”the inhabitants appeared healthy and seemed to have plenty of dried salmon provided. Our Indians were understood by these people, yet we got very little information from them.” The HBC men continued exploring Fraser’s River. Francis Annance tells us that they paddled upriver “about twelve miles then encamped at a point, where our guide told us there was a large river [Harrison River, although Nicomen River is a possibility].” Of the Fraser itself, Work says that “the river still keeps its breadth, the banks are lower and wooded in some places principally with poplar, behind these the land rises in hills which appear to be chiefly clothed with pine and cedar.” 

On December 18, John Work noted in his journal: “Rained without intermission all night and all day.” Francis Annance wrote, “Rain without mercy.” Annance also said that “the river is covered with ice not far above.” (And yes, the Fraser River used to freeze solid, and in some years it froze solid at Fort Langley.) The HBC men learned this from the Sto:lo people who came to visit the HBC camp, as Annance explains: “Little before twelve the Indians to the number of about fifty came to our camp. We presented a pipe to them to smoke; but they did not know how to make use of it. They all appear very small men; except one big fellow, finely dressed in his way with a clean European blanket and a large Chinook hat ornamented with white shells quite in the style of a Grandee: he is about six feet high and well proportioned. This we took to be Chief as he appeared to be the leading character.”  The chief, if chief he was, drew them a map of the river, which he said turned northward: in fact it turns to the northeast just beyond the mouth of Harrison River, and at Hope it turns northward.

The Sto:lo people were very familiar with other First Nations from the interior, and even familiar with those who lived near the Thompson’s River post of Kamloops. The HBC men gave the Sto:lo men a letter “to be sent by them to the Fort at Kamloops, which they assured us, will reach them in due time: and so we parted better friends than before,” Annance said. John Work noticed that some of the men were dressed in European garments: “A new blanket, two guns, a pair of trousers and a few other European articles, some of them very old and worn out, were in the possession of these people. These articles we understood were received in battle from tribes farther up the river and that they had passed from white people through several tribes before that.” Then, Work said, “Mr. McMillan having determined to retire, deeming it unnecessary to proceed farther up the river, we embarked past noon and retired to the camp which we left yesterday.” So, instead of exploring Fraser’s River eastward, the HBC men returned to spend the night in the camp that was some two miles above McMillan’s Island.

On December 19, they headed downriver. “Started early. Passing several islands and site of villages, about midday we fell in with the natives again on an island opposite to their village on a little river,” Annance says. John Work’s journal says they passed McMillan’s Island, Barnston Island, and the mouth of Pitt River with Douglas Island at its entrance. Then, he says, “On the N side of the river W.S.W. 3 miles [from Douglas Island], a small island is in the N. side of the river just below the bay.” This may be Tree Island, and if so they are paddling past modern-day New Westminster. “S by W 3 miles about the middle of this course there is a bay and an island, and immediately below the river is divided into two channels by an island. Proceeded down the E. one.” This island is Annacis Island, later named for Frances Annance. “Toward evening the shores on both sides of the river became low and swampy.” At this point they are passing the Tilbury neighbourhood, which is just west of Annacis Island and on the south bank of the Fraser: if you ever drive River Road, you will pass Tilbury Island, which is very close to shore, separated from it only from River Road by a slough.  

So what does Francis Annance say of the island that is now named for him? Sadly, he doesn’t mention it. He does say this: “Saw the site of several villages, we came to the beginning of the marshy ground [at Tilbury]. Here we looked for a place most eligible for a Fort. Having found one, we marked HBC on the trees on the water side and pushed off.” So in exploring Fraser’s River they did find a possible location for a new fort, and when Frances Annance and James McMillan returned to Fraser’s River in 1827 to establish the new post, they found the markings on the two trees. 

It will be interesting to read the Fort Langley journals of 1827, to see why they did not build the fort here. Does a tree still exist that has the HBC marking on it? I know the locals have something they call the HBC tree, and it is in New Westminster or nearby Delta: I will see if I can learn more about this interesting tree.

So, the HBC men are finished exploring Fraser’s River for now, and are looking to set up their camp for the night. They paddled past a seemingly deserted Sto:lo village a mile long, and when they found no good campsite beyond, they returned to spend the night there. It is the evening of December 19, and John Work says of this village: “We passed the site of several old villages, the one where we are now encamped extends at least 3/4 mile along the shore, while passing it I counted 54 houses but on coming near they are found to be so situated that not more than 1/2 of them were counted.” Annance says, “This is a terrible large village! The natives are scattered about in the small rivers catching salmon. This must contain not less than a thousand men.” 

In the next post, the HBC men will head for home — not by the Nicomekl River, but by paddling out the mouth of the Fraser River and rounding Point Roberts. This last post might be a shorter post than the others, as glancing over Frances Annance’s journal I find he has not a lot to say. He is eager to get home, as you can guess! When the post is written, it will appear here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/frasers-river/ 

And to go to the first post in this series, go here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/fraser-river/

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2023. All rights reserved.

An update: I am well and now in remission. It is taking me a while to adjust to this new reality. 

As you know, the reason why I am writing this series of posts is to remind you to attend the Heritage Picnic at Michaud House, 5202 204 Street, Langley. Michaud House stands on the banks of the Nicolmekl River, which river these gentlemen and voyageurs travelled to reached the Fraser River in 1824. At this event I will be speaking of voyageurs and genealogy, and of the 1824 journey to the Fraser River. The date for this event is Saturday, May 13, and you have purchase tickets for it, at http://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-heritage-picnic-at-michaud-house-tickets-579307092107



8 thoughts on “Exploring Fraser’s River

  1. Stanley Copp

    If memory serves, the 1st Fort Langley site at Derby was chosen with an eye towards defense, available local resources (e.g., berries), and proximity to Indigenous trading partners. The river bank also allowed for loading/unloading of the HBCo ship ‘Cadboro’. Everything was moved (lock, stock and barrel) upriver in 1839/1840 because the riverbanks were eroding. I will have to check in my copy of the Derby journals, but a trip to the original site is worthwhile and there is an improved trail North to Fort Langley II (present location).

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Thanks for that information. I just ordered a copy of the Fort Langley journals (which I presume you are called the Derby journals) because our local library actually threw out their copy of the book! It will be interesting to follow up on what happened when the fort was built in future posts. I know amazingly little about Fort Langley before 1846, naturally, as my g.grandfather wasn’t there till then.

  2. Réjean Beaulieu

    It would appear that the remaining records of this expedition did not leave a single rough map of key features such as the Little Campbell (Ta’talu) mouth, Nicomekl river mouth, Serpentine river mouth, Salmon River mouth, Kwantlen (McMillan Island), Annacis Island, Pitt River mouth, portage points, etc. Only descriptors, at best. Would the sketches have been part of McMillan records that vanished. Fraser 1808 expedition left some very coarse sketches. Any thoughts???

      1. Rejean Beaulieu

        Was asking the same to Historian Bruce Watson earlier today during our weekly stroll. Bruce reminded me that Fort Vancouver was once holding all related records (including presumably McMillan 1824 log and notes for Simpson) and the entire Fort Vancouver logs went missing when transfered over to Fort Victoria when HBC was withdrawing South of 49. Nobody knows what really happened to these records. Terrible loss!

        1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

          I heard that in the early days there were many very interesting records from Fort Vancouver at the new post. However, I don’t know if that’s true. John Charles’s York Factory Express Journal, which I had supposed had come from Fort Vancouver, was more likely to have been donated to the fledgling archives by his brother, Thomas, who worked with A.C. Anderson at Fort Alexandria, and who then retired to Victoria in its early days. Or even more likely, William Charles, who certainly lived in Victoria. Thomas Lowe’s journals might have been sent over from Scotland, etc. etc. So Bruce might be right.

  3. Stanley (Stan) Copp

    It is really unfortunate that your local library threw out their copy of the Fort Langley journals – which makes it somewhat imperative to figure out how to better inform people about the fascinating early history of the province (including pre-Colonial First Nations)! I hope to continue researching some of the notable Fort Langley personnel (like McMillan, Yale, Allard, et al) for publication, as I’m not up to the demands of blogging. Kudos to you for your posts – I have devoured them all and await more.
    ps. I co-directed several seasons of archaeological excavations at Ft. Langley II for Parks Canada back in the late 80’s to early 90’s. This was a multi-community college set of field schools the results of which, unfortunately, remain ‘gray literature’ and are unpublished. I should see if I can’t do something about this beyond the two articles that exist!