Paul Kane and the Brigades

Sioux Island Rapid

Henry James Warre, “The Columbia River above Sioux Island Rapid, Washington, LAC Mikan 2834204 C-117072)

In 1848, the artist, Paul Kane, left Fort Vancouver with the New Caledonia Brigades, traveling with them as far as Fort Colvile. This is the first leg of his journey out of the territory west of the Rocky Mountains. He would eventually accompany the outgoing Fall Express up the Columbia River to Boat Encampment, where he would meet the men from the Saskatchewan District who had brought the incoming passengers and men over the mountains from Edmonton House to Boat Encampment. Paul Kane would cross the mountains with the Saskatchewan men, and spend the winter at Edmonton House. Then, in the spring, he’d catch a ride with the outgoing Saskatchewan Brigades (and the York Factory Express), to Norway House and beyond. Hence, the Fall Express is very much a part of the York Factory Express!

But at the moment, Paul Kane is travelling with the New Caledonia Brigades as far as Fort Colvile. The outgoing Fall Express would leave Fort Vancouver a few months after Paul Kane had departed Fort Vancouver with the Brigades. As I am not actually sure when the Fall Express left headquarters for Fort Colvile and Boat Encampment, let me check to see what Thomas Lowe has to say. He is the only person I can think of who can give us that information.

We quickly find the answer in his journals. On September 2, 1843, Lowe writes that “A batteau started for the Interior with goods, dispatches, etc. for Walla Walla, in charge of Joe Monique, guide.” So, its not clear yet. But in 1844, Lowe writes on August 31, that “Joseph Monique and three other Iroquois Boutes started this afternoon in a boat for the Interior to meet the Express from York Factory.” And on September 2, 1845: “A Boat with 6 Boutes left here in the forenoon to meet the Express at the Boat Encampment, two of the Boutes to leave at Walla Walla in order to bring down the Snake Country Returns. They took up a Packet for the East Side and Interior.” And on September 2, 1846, he writes: “This morning the Boat started with the Boutes who are to bring down the Express.”

(A little aside: Joseph Monique was born, probably, at Sault St. Louis, in Lower Canada, about 1803. He was boute in New Caledonia as early as 1829, and at Fort Vancouver in 1830. He spent some time at Kamloops and also returned to New Caledonia, but spent most of his time at Fort Vancouver. In 1835 and 1836, he went out in the York Factory Express, returning to the Columbia district on both occasions. In 1837, John McLoughlin heard that Monique was planning to run off with the wife of a Fort Colvile man, and he prevented this from happening. By outfit 1844-45, Monique was dead: he took out the 1844 Fall Express, but not the later Expresses.)

So now we know: the single boat of the outgoing Fall Express left Fort Vancouver in the first week of September every year, with papers that were to go out across the mountains with the Edmonton House men who had brought the Express down the mountains to Boat Encampment. And here is a clue to a number of Paul Kane’s paintings: Any painting that had men, boats, and horses in it was painted at Boat Encampment. This is the only place where these three things met.

Anyway, Paul Kane is travelling out with the Brigades to Fort Colvile, which has left him some time for exploring and painting. As you know, the Brigades are heavily laden with trade goods, supplies, and passengers for the interior posts, while the Express Boats, including the Fall Express boats, are lightly laden and move much more quickly. I’m not sure I am going to follow Paul Kane through all his many adventures, but here we have the beginning of his story:

The nine boats composing the brigade had now completed their outfit, and were all prepared for their different destinations. Mr. Lewis [John Lee Lewes] was to command until he arrived at his own post, Colville; but we had great difficulty in collecting the men, between sixty and seventy in number. Some wanted their allowance of rum, or regale, before they started, given to the Company’s men only preparatory to a long voyage. Others were bidding farewell to their Indian loves, and were hard to be found: in fact, all hesitated to give up the life of idleness and plenty in which they had been luxuriating for the last two or three weeks for the toils and privations which they well knew were before them. However, towards evening we succeeded in collecting our crews, and Mr. Lewis [Lewes] promised them their regale on the first fitting opportunity. The fort gave us a salute of seven guns, which was repeated by the Company’s ship lying at the store-house. The occupants of the fort crowded round us; and at last, amidst cheers and hearty wishes for our safety, we pushed off. Owing to the lateness of the hour at which we started, we only got to the Company’s mills, eight miles from the fort, that evening. 

Well, both the regale, and the ships firing their guns on departure, was fairly typical for the Brigades, and also for the departure of the York Factory Express. I don’t know if the departing Fall Express got the same attention: they were only going as far as Boat Encampment, after all!

Paul Kane’s journal continues: 

July 2nd. We started very early this morning, and the men plied their oars with unusual vigour, as they were to get their regale this evening. By 2 o’clock p.m. we had reached the Prairie de Thé, a distance of twenty-eight miles. Here we landed to let the men have their customary debauch. In the Hudson’s Bay Company’s service no rations of liquor are given to the men, either while they are stopping in fort or while travelling, nor are they allowed to purchase any; but when they are about commencing a long journey, the men are given what is called a regale, which consists of a pint of rum each. This, however, they are not allowed to drink until they are some distance from the post, where those who are entitled to get drunk may do so without interfering with the resident servants of the establishment. 

Immediately on landing, the camp was made, fires lit, and victuals cooked; in short, every preparation for the night was completed before the liquor was given out. As soon as the men got their allowance, they commenced all sorts of athletic games: running, jumping, wrestling, etc. We had eight Sandwich Islanders amongst the crews, who afforded great amusement by a sort of pantomimic dance, accompanied by singing. The whole thing was exceedingly grotesque and ridiculous, and elicited peals of laughter from the audience…

In 1855, the Fort Nisqually clerk commented on the dances that the Hawaiians (Sandwich Islanders) were encouraged to demonstrate:  

We had in our employ at that time about ten Kanakas (Sandwich Islanders) and to vary the entertainment I would persuade these men to dance some of their native dances. They would cheerful comply, and standing in a row would begin a wild and monotonous chant, keeping time by moving their bodies with great exactitude and twisting about, in which I could see no dancing but merely posturing and sometimes it seemed to me to be an unseemly performance in the presence of ladies.

There were no ladies at this camp to be offended, however: although, maybe there were! The gentlemen might bring their wives downriver to Fort Vancouver, and some of the men might also do so. Paul Kane mentions no women, however, although that does not mean that women were not present. It was normal, in the fur trade, to not mention the presence of women on the Brigades or in the Express. Paul Kane’s story continues:

Gradually, as the rum began to take effect, the brigades belonging to different posts began to boast of their deeds of daring and endurance. This gradually led on to trying which was the best man. Numberless fights ensued; black eyes and bloody noses became plentiful, but all terminated in good humour. 

The men were all fighting to see who would be the “bully” of the Brigade, of course. This was a fur trade tradition everywhere, and very much a part of what happened, both in the Express, and in the Brigades as well, as you can see here: . Paul Kane’s story continues:

The next day the men were stupid from the effects of drink, but quite good tempered and obedient; in fact, the fights of the previous evening seemed to be a sort of final settlement of all old grudges and disputes. We did not get away until 3 o’clock p.m., and only made a distance of about fourteen miles. We encamped at the foot of the Cascades, where the first portage in ascending the Columbia commences. 

July 4th and 5th. We were engaged both days in carrying the parcels of goods across the portage, and dragging the empty boats up by lines. This is a large fishing station, and immense numbers of fish are caught by the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Cascade Indians, who congregate about here in great numbers at the fishing season, which happened at the time of our passing. They gave us a good deal of trouble and uneasiness, as it was only by the utmost vigilance that we could keep them from stealing. On the evening of the 5th we got over the portage: and although the men were tired, we proceeded seven miles further up the river before we encamped, so as to get clear of the Indians….

And while the First Nations men were giving all their attention to the Brigade boats, and the Brigade men were watching the First Nations, Paul Kane found and stole a skull from a nearby Indigenous grave-yard, knowing full well that if the First Nations had seen him stealing from a grave, they would have attacked and perhaps murdered the HBC men. But he did it anyway!

July 6th. It rained heavily all day, and the wind became so high, that we were obliged to put ashore, although the ground was very low and swampy, and the mosquitoes were in myriads. 

It ALWAYS rained at the Cascades. There was also always wind! Another thing that happened in the area around the Cascades is that the lush coastal greenery suddenly died away, overtaken by the dry, desert conditions of the interior.

July 7th. Passed a Methodist mission, and came to the Portage of the Dalles. We employed the Indians here to make the portage, thirty to each boat, for which each man receives five balls and powder…. The country begins to look barren and is entirely destitute of wood. Salmon in great abundance is caught in these rapids. 

July 8th. Arrived at the Chutes: we found no difficulty as to the carriage of our boats, as the Indians were very numerous and willing to be employed. In former times these people were more troublesome than any other tribes on the Columbia River. In making this portage, it was then necessary to have sixty armed men for the protection of the goods…. We were on the present occasion obliged to buy wood from the Indians to cook our supper, not a tree nor even a bush being visible in any direction. The Indians, who obtain drift-wood for their own use when the river is high and brings it within their reach, of course prize it highly from its scarcity. The Indians who reside and congregate about the Chutes for the purpose of fishing are called the Sheen tribe; they do not flatten their heads, and appear to be a hardy, brave people, at this time particularly friendly to the Hudson’s Bay Company people, and at peace with their Flathead neighbours. [By Flathead, Paul Kane is referring to the Chinooks, downriver, who traditionally flattened the heads of their children.] The Indians hereabouts catch a few deer and some other game, out of whose skins they make whatever dresses they wear, which are, however, very scanty….

July 9th. Left the Chutes with a strong, fair wind running up the rapids under sail, while the water curled over the bows of the boats, which we only prevented from filling by shortening the sail. We encamped in the neighbourhood of a very thievish tribe of Indians, according to report, and were obliged to make use of one of the burial canoes for fuel, taking the boxes out and depositing them carefully near some of the others…

I am omitting another story of conflict with the First Nations here, as I am only interested in the journey. 

July 10th. Saw great quantities of rattlesnakes today, some few of which we killed; the men, while tracking (that is, hauling the boats along the edge of the shore by a line, in places where the river is too rapid to row), were in great dread of them, as they had no shoes, but, fortunately, no one was bitten. It is said by the Indians that salt applied plentifully and immediately to the wound will effect a cure; also that drinking copiously of ardent spirits, as soon as the bite has been inflicted, will avert the danger….

Salt almost sounds like a practical cure for snake-bite: has anyone tested it?

July 11th. Many Indians followed us for a long distance on horseback along the shore. I obtained one of their horses and, accompanied by an Indian, took a gallop of seven or eight miles into the interior, and found the country equally sterile and unpromising as on the banks of the stream… As we approached the place where the Walla Walla debauches into the Columbia River, we came in sight of two extraordinary rocks projecting from a high steep cone or mound about 700 feet above the level of the river. These are called by the voyageurs the Chimney Rocks, and from their being visible from a great distance they are very serviceable as landmarks…. 

July 12th. I arrived at Walla Walla. It is a small fort, built of dobies [adobe], or blocks of mud bakied in the sun, which is here intensely hot. Fort Walla Walla is situated at the mouth of the river of the same name, in the most sandy and barren desert that can be conceived, and is about 500 miles from the mouth of the Columbia. Little or no rain ever falls here, although a few miles lower down the river it is seen from hence to pour down in torrents. Owing to its being built at the mouth of a gully, formed by the Columbia River through high, mountainous land leading to the Pacific Ocean, it is exposed to furious gales of wind, which rush through the opening in the hills with inconceivable violence, and raise the sand in clouds so dense and continuous as frequently to render travelling impossible. 

Yes, in 1849, John Charles’s outgoing Express experienced one of these sand-storms, when he wrote: “The sun was near about setting when we reached the Nez Perces [Snake] River. Camped on the beach, but soon regretting having done so, for the Wind having suddenly sprung up the sand was blown about in such clouds that we were obliged to hurry to bed for fear of being blinded by it.” Paul Kane’s journal continues here: 

I was kindly received by Mr. [William McBean] McBain, a clerk in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s service, who with five men, had charge of the fort. The establishment is kept up solely for trading with the Indians from the interior, as those about the post have few or no peltries to deal in.

The Walla Walla Indians live almost entirely upon salmon throughout the whole year. In the summer season they inhabit lodges made of mats of rushes spread on poles. Owing to the absence of trees in their vicinity they have to depend for the small quantity of fuel which they require upon the drift-wood, which they collect from the river in the spring. In the winter they dig a large circular excavation in the ground, about ten or twelve feet deep and from forty to fifty feet in circumference, and cover it over with split logs, over which they place a layer of mud collected from the river. A hole is left at one side of this roofing, large enough for one person to enter at a time. A stick with notches reaches to the bottom of the excavation, and serves as a ladder, by means of which they ascend and descend into the subterranean dwelling. Here twelve or fifteen persons burrow through the winter, having little or no occasion for fuel; their food of dried salmon being most frequently eaten uncooked, and the place being excessively warm from the numbers congregated together in so small and confined a space.

I hadn’t imagined that the Nez Percés and Cayuse lodges, or lodges of the other First Nations nearby, would be built like this! The First Nations on the Thompson and Chilcotin Plateaus, in British Columbia, built similar underground houses, called pit-houses, or kekuli — as you can see here: These semi-underground houses will differ from the Walla Walla and Cayuse pit-houses, but there might be some similarities, too. 

We have reached Fort Nez Perces, or Walla Walla, and this is a good place to stop for now. We will continue Paul Kane’s journey from Fort Nez Perces in the next post, and when that is written and published, you will find it here: 

If you want to go back to the beginning of the Paul Kane thread, go here:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2022. All rights reserved.

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4 thoughts on “Paul Kane and the Brigades

  1. Sharon Seal

    I am enjoying this Nancy, very much. I have some inconcsistencies in my research regarding Paul Kane and his timeline of where he was when he heard of the Whitman massacre. I shall be interested to see if you cover that portion of his journey and those details in future posts.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      There are inconsistencies. I don’t know if I will put this in next blogpost, so will tell you now (if I can find it). A few days before leaving Fort Colvile, he writes: “September 21st — this evening two men arrived from Walla Walla, and my grief and horror can be well imagined when they told me the sad fate of those with whom I had so lately been a cherished guest. It appears that the war party before mentioned had brought the measles back with them, and that it spread with fearful rapidity through the neighbouring tribes..” etc. etc. He goes on to describe the massacre, which, as we know, happened at the end of November. His book was written later, of course. He may have heard rumours of the spread of measles on or by September 21st, and when he wrote the book put the whole story in. He spent the winter at Edmonton House, but would probably not have heard of the massacre until spring, when the York Factory Express arrived at Edmonton House. I don’t think that anyone would have been able to travel over the mountains with the news after November, because of snow and cold, etc.

  2. Sharon Seal

    Thanks for that response Nancy – you confirm exactly what I had figured out as well. Paul Kane appears to have been with the Whitmans in July before going on to Colville, saw the scalp dance and did some drawings of it in Colville, then left September 22 for Ft Edmonton. He later made a painting from those sketches. Whitmans were not massacred until November 29. Artist J M Stanley on the other hand had been doing a painting of Mrs Walker in October and was camped nearby the Whitman Mission when the Whitmans were killed. He was warned on November 30 by his Spokane Indian guide Solomon in time to safely leave the area. I find the history of the plateau endlessly fascinating – not only the fur trade people, but so many naturalists and artists visited here as well.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      There is a book, Unsettled Ground: the Whitman Massacre and its Shifting legacy in the American West, by Cassandra Tate. It is on my TBR pile; I was going to read it while I was down in Walla Walla but as you know the conference was cancelled.