South of Fort Colvile, on the Columbia River

The Columbia River, where the ships that stopped at Fort Vancouver anchored

The bank of the mighty Columbia River off Fort Vancouver, in November, the same time of year when the York Factory Express men came home.

This post is the twenty first leg of the York Factory Express journey, and we are “falling down” the Columbia River south of Fort Colvile. The gentlemen who were keeping these journals were tired and in a hurry to get home. Often the journals had few descriptions of their passage, and many stopped keeping their journals at a post upriver from their destination of Fort Vancouver.

In 1827, Edward Ermatinger returned to the Columbia District in charge of the incoming express. His journal is simple and clear, and he also has a list of the many products these incoming boats carried around the territory. He started from Fort Colvile:

16th [October] Fine weather. People employed this day gumming their boats. One they take over the Kettle Falls portage [3/4 mile south of Fort Colvile] and one is already there left in the summer. The latter requires pitching all over. Get our luggage transported in carts below the Portage.

17th. Fine weather. One of our Boats was not finished pitching [water-proofing] until near eleven o’clock when we embarked with crews and cargoes as follows: viz Boat #1: 3 bags corn; 1 keg Gum; 1 Pack Leather; 1 bale Straps; [part omitted] 3 bags Pemmican; 2 do. Potatoes &c; 2 case and basket. Boat #2: 5 bags Potatoes; 1 pack Parfleches; 1 Keg Gum; [part omitted] 1 Box 3 Pigs & Barley

At a guess the boats were delivering live pigs to a downriver post, either Fort Okanogan or Fort Nez Perces [Walla Walla]. The Fort Colvile pigs, the first of which arrived there in 1826 with the outgoing York Factory Express, were delivered all over the territory. I know they reached the Fraser River post of Fort Alexandria before the 1840’s.

Made portage with Boats and Cargoes at the Grand Rapid which occupied us above 2 hours. Encamped at 1/4 past 5 o’clock.

The Grand Rapids were seven miles south of the Kettle Falls, and were known as the Rickey Rapids in later years.

21st Fine weather. Started at 6 a.m. and encamped at the head of the Isles des Pierres Rapids at 5 pm.

The Isles des Pierres Rapids had a few names in the various journals: the Rocky Island Rapids, or Isles des Pierre. South of these rapids were the Paquin [Buckland] Rapids, and Priest’s Rapids. These rapids were all dangerous, and the Priests rapids was the most dangerous as it was the steepest part of the river. Generally the men waited until full daylight before they made their descent.

22nd Fine weather. Embarked about 6 a.m. and ran the Isles des Pierres Rapids — ran the Priest’s Rapids also. Put ashore a little above the Marle Banks and took supper.

The Marle Banks is an interesting place. Marl is a rich earth of clay mixed with remnants of sea shells, that the Canadiens called les Terres Jaunes. The clay cliff of the Marle Banks stood on their left hand side as they were coming downriver. Today, this is called Hanford Reach.

[We] afterwards started with the intention of drifting all night but the people paddled till 10 p.m. when we considered safest to put ashore till morning, the night being very dark and the river shoal in some places.

23rd. Fine weather. Started at 4 a.m. and arrived at [Fort] Nez Perces about 1 p.m. We passed great numbers of Indians this morning on their way downwards. At Nez Perces we found Mr. [James] Birnie sent up from Fort Vancouver to meet us and strengthen the party going down. Great numbers of Indians encamped round the Fort.

This is 1827. As the 1826 York Factory Express was going up the Columbia River, a Cayuse chief told the Hudson’s Bay men at the Dalles, that “the Indians at the Chutes were ill inclined towards us.” [A/B/40/M22.2A, part II, BCA] As a result, in 1826 and 1827, extra men were sent up from headquarters to ensure the express men made it through The Chutes in safety.

As an example of the brevity of some of the journals I had to deal with, I enclose what George Traill Allen had to say of his journey from Fort Colvile to Fort Vancouver:

We remained about two days at Colvile and then bidding farewell to Mr. Heron, we set out for Okanagan where we arrived in two days. It is a small post under the charge of a couple of men. We only remained there a few hours when we again embarked. During our voyage from Colvile to Okanagan I had one narrow escape from drowning. In descending one of those dreadful rapids for which the upper parts of the Columbia River are so noted, of the three boats the one in which I happened to be was in the middle, and owing to some mismanagement of the other boats, ours was pushed into nearly the middle of the rapid and consequently took in a deluge of water, but were glad to escape with our lives.

On the 25th of October 1831, we arrived safely at Fort Vancouver.

James Douglas’s 1835 journal ends at Fort Nez Perces, with no details of his journey from Fort Colvile down the river except he listed the portages and landmarks. Thomas Lowe’s 1847 journal is the best, if you know what is happening in this territory at that time, and what will happen a week or so after he leaves Fort Nez Perces:

Sunday 14th [November]. Fine weather. Arrived at Fort Nez Perces after breakfast, and Mr. [William] McBean gave us a salute of 7 guns. Here we found the Measles very prevalent, the Indians were dying in great numbers. Delivered 4 bags flour for the [Waiilatpu] Mission, and left 2 bags flour and 1 keg Biscuit for the use of the Express next spring. [Edouard] Crete whom we brought from [Fort] Okanogan was left here, and an Owhyhee [Hawaiian] put in the boats in place of him. Got 2 pigs killed for the boats crews. Had the boats loaded and gummed, ready for starting tomorrow.

Monday 15th. Last night it came on to blow very hard and we had to unload the boats and haul them upon the beach… Were unable to start until midday… Encamped a short distance below the Grand [Umatilla] Rapid.

Tuesday 16th. Had fine weather today. Encamped a very short distance above the Chutes.

Wednesday 17th. Cloudy, but no rain until the evening. Reached the Chutes early this morning, and succeeded in getting the boats and pieces across with our eight men & only about a dozen Indians, most of them being sick. Had the boats gummed, and pushed off just about dark. Encamped at the head of the Grand Dalles.

As they are passing The Chutes, the Dalles, and the Cascades, they are making their way through the range of mountains that separates the interior of the Oregon Territory from the coastal plains, where Fort Vancouver stood. These are the Cascade Mountains of present day Washington State and Oregon.

Thursday 18th. Rained last night, and during most part of today. Had to put ashore for a short time in consequence of the strong head wind. Got to within a short distance of the Cascades.

Friday 19th. Blew very strong last night, and we could not start until after daylight this morning. Reached the Cascades in time for breakfast. Found about 70 waggons of American Immigrants there.

The American immigrants had come out over the Oregon Trail, and the HBC men later believed that they had brought the measles with them. They had not, but that is another story.

It was sundown before we got the pieces across and the boats passed. Pushed off from the lower end of the Portage in the evening, and put ashore for supper some distance below. Carried on in the night time, and with the help of a favorable breeze of wind, reached the Saw Mill a little after midnight.

The “Saw Mill” was the Fort Vancouver sawmill, a few miles upriver from the fort itself. The men would sleep for a while, and then dress for their arrival. “Dressing” meant they put on their fanciest shirts, hidden away for the journey, and paddled into Fort Vancouver with their voices raised in song, flags and feathers flying. That was one of the traditions of the Canadiens and the Metis — that they arrived at each post as fresh as if their journey was a short jaunt down the river.

But these men had been away from their home for seven months!

Saturday 20th November. Raining the whole day. Started from the Saw Mill two hours after daylight, and reached [Fort] Vancouver about ten a.m. Found all well. The Fort fired a salute of 7 guns. The measles now raging much in the upper country have not yet reached this. Mr [John] Work is here from the North West Coast, having arrived with Mr. [James] Douglas four days ago. The men got their Regale in the evening.

The men’s regale was, of course, rum — the celebratory drink of the Hudson’s Bay Company voyageurs!

So, the York Factory Express had returned home once again, as it did every year in the years between 1826 and 1854. There were problems on occasion, but not many. Sometimes they were late getting in, because of rain on the Saskatchewan or for other weather related reasons. Only once did an express leader arrive at Boat Encampment to find no provisions or boats awaiting him, and even though he returned to Jasper, the papers got through to Fort Vancouver. Sadly, one man was killed in Athabasca Pass — a tragic loss to the HBC as he was a promising young clerk. This story is in the book, but I will tell the whole story in a later post, here. Sometime.

To return to the beginning of this series, go to:

This is the last leg. There will be no continuation. If you wish to purchase my book, “The York Factory Express,” you can do so through my publisher, here: Thank you!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2016. All rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “South of Fort Colvile, on the Columbia River

  1. Tom Holloway

    Very interesting, as usual. Of further note, just 2 weeks after Thomas Lowe’s observations on the measles raging at Walla Walla, on Nov. 29, 1847, the Cayuse Indians at nearby Waiilatpu murdered Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and 11 others in what became known as the Whitman massacre.

    As I read these journals I’ve been trying to pin down whether it was possible to ride or even lead horses or other livestock on the portage trail around the Cascades, the last obstacle when going down the Columbia. I think not, but I’m very interested in clarifying that point. Any thoughts or notes on it would be most helpful.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Yes, indeed, I did know that the Waiilatpu Massacre happened just a week or so after Thomas Lowe came downriver. I was also wondering how the American immigrants got there with their waggons, but it is not actually part of my story so I haven’t researched it at all. I know that when the men brought horses from Walla Walla to Fort Vancouver they took a different route, and I’ll see what I can find on that. Peter Skene Ogden also came by a different route one year, I believe. I’ll see what I can locate over Christmas-time. By the way, Happy Christmas [if you celebrate it].

  2. Tom Holloway

    I believe the first American wagons (as we spell it down here 😉 came as far as The Dalles in 1843. Some were disassembled and sent whooshing down the Cascades on rafts, but many were left at The Dalles while their contents were taken on a trail around the south side of Mt. Hood on pack animals. Finally in 1846 a toll road (the Barlow Road) was opened allowing wagons to go from The Dalles into the Willamette Valley.
    And a Happy Christmas to you, too!