This post is part of my series on the York Factory Express, a major HBC journey the men from the west side of the Rocky Mountains made year after year.
At Jasper’s House the York Factory Express men are on the Athabasca River, which will lead them to Fort Assiniboine, their next stop. Fort Assiniboine was built at a place where the Athabasca River dipped southward to a point only 75 miles north of Edmonton House, on the North Saskatchewan River. It was abandoned in the early 1850’s, but in October 1823, fur trader John Work stumbled on the post just as it was being constructed — he was not travelling in the incoming York Factory Express, but in the canoe brigades that came before its creation.
“Embarked at day light and about noon arrived at a new House which Mr. McDonald the gentlemen who is superintending the building calls Fort Assiniboyne, it is situated on the north side of the river. This is the House which was to have been built at McLeod’s Branch, the distance of which is four days work up the River, so that we were surprised at understanding that the buildings were here.” [Source: John Work Journal… York Factory to Spokane House, Transcript, A/B/40/W89.1A, BCA]
By the way, I find it interesting that these York Factory Express men traveled on so many river systems. On the West side of the Rocky Mountains, they pushed their way up a river that flowed West, into the Pacific Ocean. Between Jasper’s House and Fort Assiniboine, they paddled down a river that curled north to eventually empty into the Arctic. At Fort Assiniboine, the York Factory Express men left the Athabasca to make their way overland to the waters of the North Saskatchewan River. That river would take them into the Saskatchewan and down the Hayes, to Hudson Bay and the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
The York Factory Express men who continued south to the civilization of what was then Canada, would travel of the Winnipeg River, to rivers that flowed into the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. The only river system that was never touched by these travellers was that of the Missouri/Mississippi River. As you may or may not know, the Milk River, that flows through the southern prairies, is part of that massive river system.
But back to our story: Most outgoing York Factory Expresses made the journey down the Athabasca River to Fort Assiniboine in three or four days — but some did not! In 1849, Jasper House’s clerk, Colin Fraser, had already warned John Charles that the Athabasca River east of Jasper’s House may be filled with ice that would delay his journey.
By 1849 the York Factory Express men had abandoned the canoes they had used in earlier years, and were traveling the Athabasca River in boats that resembled those they had used on the Columbia River, west of the Rocky Mountains. This is John Charles’s 1849 York Factory Express journal:
[May 1849] “Friday 11th. Left Jaspers House about 11 am the boat being laden with the returns of that place. The water is so low that the boat was constantly thumping on the stones. Camped at sunset. Fine weather.
“Saturday 12th. This morning our progress was checked by the river being blocked up with ice in two places where we made portages by carrying the pieces and hauling the boats over the ice; we had not, however, proceeded three miles further down the river when we again encountered ice in floating masses through which we could not find a passage notwithstanding our repeated efforts. We were therefore obliged to put ashore and camp.
“Sunday 13th. We embarked at daylight, but just about sunrise we were again under the necessity of putting ashore and wait until the ice drifted down.
“Monday 14th. Made a little more progress today than yesterday. Wind blowing pretty hard and the ice floating down in pretty large masses.” It was not often that the York Factory Express was delayed by ice on the Athabasca River, or at least the journals that I have do not indicate that this happened often. His journal continues:
“Tuesday 15th. Embarked at daylight and were again obliged to put ashore for breakfast and wait until the channel would be again clear of ice. After spending a greater part of the day in this manner we again left, but were obliged to encamp early. Commenced raining last night and continued almost all day without intermission.
“Wednesday 16th. Left our encampment at broad daylight and put ashore at the next point; that being the utmost extent of our progress today. After breakfast we were visited by a couple of freemen from a lodge a few miles below us. Fine day. Weather tolerably warm. The ice drifting down slowly.
“Thursday 17th. Arrived at the lodge about 7 am and got some dried meat and a few tongues from one of the Freemen named Baptiste who embarked in our boat for Edmonton. Made about eight miles to day. Clear weather in the forenoon, but somewhat cloudy towards evening with appearance of rain.” Rain was always a problem, because the water would penetrate the valuable packs the York Factory Express men carried, and damage the furs they contained.
“Friday 18th. The river having risen considerably last night, we were enabled to travel all day without encountering ice of any consequence. Saw two moose deer, but did not succeed in killing either of them. Had a few passing showers of rain with occasional glimpses of sunshine.
“Saturday 19th. Arrived at Fort Assiniboine early this morning. Had the boat taken up the bank and placed under the boatshed. The saddles &c &c for the Portage were taken across to the place where we unloaded the boat. It rained so hard all day that we could not possibly leave until tomorrow.” At last, the York Factory Express of 1849 has reached Fort Assiniboine.
The next stage of their journey would take these York Factory Express men on horseback across the Athabasca Portage to Edmonton House. By this time the road was quite good, but in earlier years the fur traders had dreaded their necessary journeys through this stretch of country!
By the way, young John Charles was the Metis son of retired HBC Chief Factor John Charles, who had joined the fur trade in 1799 and worked 40 years in the business. John’s two brothers also joined the fur trade. The first and perhaps eldest was Thomas Charles, who worked under Alexander Caulfield Anderson at Fort Alexandria for a number of years, and who I believe married one of John McLean’s daughters. The second was William Charles, who was employed at Boise and other posts south of Fort Vancouver in the 1840’s, and who eventually became one of the most powerful men in the fur trade West of the Rocky Mountains. William married a daughter of James Birnie, and so, as a result, these three boys are members of my fur trade family tree. I am proud of all three of them, but John Charles remains my favourite.
If you want to go to the beginning of the York Factory express series and follow it through, click here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/york-factory-express-introduction/
As you know, George McDougall joined Edward Ermatinger’s Express on this river, and here is that story once again. If you search for George McDougall in the search button at the top of the page, you will find that story there. And if you search the word, Eatables, you might find a little story of an occasion that occurred in the descent of the Athabasca River.
If you want to purchase my book, The York Factory Express, go here: http://ronsdalepress.com/york-factory-express-the/
Thank you! And to go on to the next leg of the York Factory Express, go here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/sixth-leg/
Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2014. All rights reserved.
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- James Birnie, 1826-1827
- The wreck of the Hojunmaru, 1833-34