Fort Colvile Brigade

Sioux Island Rapid

Henry Jame Warre, “The Columbia River above Sioux Island Rapid, Washington, LAC Mikan 2834204 C-117072) I think this “big rock” of the HBC fur trade must be the place that later Washington historians called Equilibrium Rock. What do you think?

This is the story of the Fort Covile Brigade in its early years. The story is told by John Work, and there are some very interesting comments made in this journal that should teach us a little more about the HBC Brigades — and something about the York Factory Express too! It certainly has given me something to think about.

The year of this Fort Colvile Brigade journal is 1828, and the journal itself is found in the B.C. Archives, number A/B/40/W89.6A. This is the journal I have used in this post, but have added comments from another journal I found online — “Journal of a Trip from Fort Colville to Fort Vancouver and Return in 1828,” in Washington Historical Quarterly XI, 1920. 

So, let’s go, and we will see how much ground we can cover in this post!

May 1828, Tuesday 20th. At between 3 & 4 o’clock in the afternoon left Colvile with six boats for Okanagan and encamped in the evening one pipe below the grand rapid.

One: you know that pipes are a measurement of distance in the fur trade, the amount of time spent in travelling before the men get a break to smoke and rest, and to relieve themselves. A pipe is generally about an hour and a half, I think — so not an actual distance, but a time of travelling. Secondly: the Grand Rapid in this part of the Columbia River was called, firstly, Thompson’s Rapids, and today, Rickey Rapids. Thirdly, in BC we spell Okanogan as Okanagan, and as that is the spelling used in the B.C. Archives copy of Work’s Fort Colvile Brigades journal, that is the spelling I will use. Sorry, as you see I am also spelling Fort Colville as Fort Colvile! The next line in the journal is a little unclear, but the confusing “then” here might also be a transcription error.

We were detained some time at the rapid, repairing two of the boats that were broken: then one, Michel’s boat, on arrival at the head of the Rapid, L’Etang the guide’s boat in shooting the rapid, however none of the cargo got wet. All the other boats were lightened and half the cargoes carried, and the boats run down at two trips, two crews in one. We have only twenty men for the six boats, 4 men each for two of the boats and three each for the other four, which are certainly weak crews for such a dangerous part of the River, but instead of paddles the people use oars, by which they do more work with less labour.

Now, that last line stopped me! When John Work came into the district in 1823, he described the Columbia boats that he travelled in:

Embarked at 9 o’clock, and proceeded down the Columbia River in three boats or kind of wooden canoes, worked by 8 Men each, who row with paddles and not oars. These boats will carry about 55 pieces and are made of a light construction so that 12 men can carry them across the portages.

I am presuming that when the men rowed with paddles, that they paddled the boats in the traditional fashion: facing forward — but maybe they didn’t. Nevertheless, there is a marked difference between John Work’s description of the Columbia boats he used on the way to Spokane House in 1823, and those he rode in in the outgoing Fort Colvile Brigade of 1828. I have been investigating whether the men used paddles or oars in the bateaux on Fraser River, and I now have finally to admit that over the years things did change, and the use of paddles or oars was one of those things. Fortunately for me, I am able to state that I did know that the Columbia boats were both paddled and rowed — its in my book, The York Factory Express. But, of course, I had long forgotten that fact.

(Order The York Factory Express here:

Let’s continue with John Work’s Fort Colvile Brigade journal: “Our lading consists of 70 packs furs, 2 Kegs Castorium, 12 bales leather, 8 bales Appichimons [saddle blankets], 2 do. [ditto] parrefleches [parfleches], 10 do. Saddles, 1 cage 3 young pigs for New Caledonia, 1 do. a Cask for [Fort] Nez Perces, 6 Indian lodges, Provisions for the voyage &c, which with other baggage makes 24 pieces per boat, and myself and [Louis] La Bonte’s wife and two children passengers. Everything was ready to start at an early hour, but [Jean-Baptiste] Chalifaux’s boat, which was not finished gumming till the afternoon. Cloudy, mild weather.” I have always wondered what the HBC men used for saddles, and I have been told they came in from Fort Colvile: the suggestion was that they were Spanish [Mexican] saddles — maybe so: but that early? Does anyone know that answer to this query of mine? Were they English saddles, imported from London, or leather saddles made of buffalo hides that crossed the mountains with the First Nations bison hunters, or what?

Wed. 21. Overcast, cool weather the forepart of the day, but very warm in the afternoon. Embarked at daylight this morning and continued our route without any accident or delay whatever, except a short time for breakfast, till a little before sunset when we encamped below the big stone [Equilibrium Rock, see image at top of page], a little above the little dalles [Warre’s “Sioux Island Rapids,” see above illustration] which is a superior days work for so few men. The current is very strong and swept us along at a rapid rate, but the water is not so high as last year; it is, however, in a good state, and none of the rapids dangerous.

Notwithstanding the care & time that were taken gumming the boats, some of them are leaky & two of them had to be gummed yesterday evening. Some of the people were complaining of fatigue this evening.

Thursday 22nd. Cloudy, cool weather in the morning, very warm afterwards. Resumed our route at day light [about 3.30 am] and arrived at Okanagan before breakfast, and found some of the people still not up. The Dalles were found good and the boats shot down them without stopping.

Received & examined the cargoes, all in good order, & had them stowed bye, and as the men had worked hard, gave them the remainder of the day to rest previous to commencing gumming the boats that were here. No news as yet of Mr. [William] Connolly & his people, [and] he had appointed the 24th as the date on which he was to reach Okanagan. We expected that being so weakly manned it would have taken us also to that date to reach this, whereas we were only about a day & a half. We have barley and corn to feed the people from Colvile till they reach [Fort] Vancouver, if we don’t be detained too long here, but finding some salmon in store some of it was served out to the people, and the barley and corn reserved till Mr. Connolly’s people arrive, who have been living on nothing else but salmon all winter.

Friday 23. Very warm in the middle of the day, stormy in the afternoon. Had three of the men employed making oars. All the other gumming their boats that were here to be in readiness when the New Caledonia people [under William Connolly] arrive. One of the boats was in the water and does not require much repairs, but the other two being exposed to the sun the gum was melted off them and the wood rent & seams opened so that it takes a considerable deal of labour to put them in order. There are two other boats here but they are so old & out of order and the wood so much decayed, that it is considered impracticable to repair them so that they could be brought up the river again with any safety.

Two of our men, Chalifoux & [Joseph] Pin are both badly with sore eyes.

Saturday 24th. Stormy weather, warm in the middle of the day. The men had finished gumming the boats and had them in the water before breakfast. About noon Mr. [Francis] Ermatinger & a man arrived from above. Mr. Connolly & party are expected in two days.

Sunday 25. A storm of wind, like to be choaked with dust.

Monday 26. Fine weather, some gusts of wind. Mr. Connolly arrived at noon, his people are close too. 

Tuesday 27. Fine warm weather. Mr. Connolly’s men arrived with Mr. [Thomas] Dears in the forenoon, and the Cargoes of the boats, 9 in number, made out & everything arranged ready to start tomorrow. Two horses were killed and given to the people with some barley for a regale [treat].

Wedy. 28th. Fine weather. Blowing fresh part of the day. Some time was spent in the morning gumming two of the boats that were a little leaky, that detained us till between 7 & 8 o’clock when the brigade started, Nine boats [blank] Men and Mr. Dears, & Mr. Ermatinger & myself under the charge of Mr. Connolly. The cargoes amount to 33 pieces per boat, vis 228 packs of furs, 11 kegs castorium, 7 bales leather, 6 do. Appichimons, 8 do. saddles, 1 do. parfleches, 16 pieces gum, 6 lodges with baggage &c. The men used oars in preference to paddles and had as many as could be worked in each boat. the wind sometimes retarded us but the current was very strong and we made a long days march. In the evening before unset we encamped a little above the Priests Rapids. The oars are far superior to paddles, the men do more work with greater ease.

The is so interesting to me, that they used oars in the Columbia boats. I will have to research a little to discover if the York Factory Express men used them, but if they did the oars would have to be available to them at Boat Encampment. I know that in 1827, Edward Ermatinger wrote that when the incoming Express reached Boat Encampment, that the men were “occupied the remainder of the day making paddles &c.” So the York Factory Express men used paddles in 1827: did they change to oars at a later date? I don’t know the answer yet. John Work’s Fort Colvile Brigade journal continues:  

Thursday 29th. Overcast in the morning and cloudy [raining] afterwards. Resumed our route at daylight, or a little before it, and put a shore near the lower end of the Priest’s Rapids to wait for one of the boats, Gros Pierre [or perhaps Louis Primeau], that had fallen behind, and in the mean time breakfasted, after which Pierre L’Etang the guide, who was in Mr. Connolly’s boat, embarked with Pierre [or Louis Primeau] when all proceeded and ran down the rest of the rapid, and continued their course, but Pierre’s boat, which remained behind. As the place was not dangerous and the guide aboard, no accident was apprehended, and the boats did not stop till they reached [Fort] Nez Perces in the afternoon, when some leather Appichimons, Saddles, gum &c which was to be left for Mr. [Peter Skene] Ogden were landed, and the Nez Perces furs received and distributed among the boats, and everything arranged to continue our journey tomorrow morning. Late in the evening L’Etang, the guide, arrived with another man in an Indian canoe with the Melancholy intelligence that when coming down the lower part of Priest’s Rapid in the morning, just after the other boats, when they struck upon a stone, broke the boat, and three of the seven men that were in her, viz. Gros Pierre [or Primeau], an Iroquois; the foreman, Plesey [Joseph Plouffe] the Sacrant [Ducant] [???]; the steersman [J. F.] Laurent were drowned, and the others very narrowly escaped. Some Indians assisted the survivors in getting some of the packs ashore but how many would be save cannot yet be ascertained. Laurant had been sick and was very weak. The guide assesses [states that] a gust of wind, and the people not pulling fast enough as the cause of their not being able to clear the rock. Mr. Ermatinger and Mr. Dears were immediately sent off with two boats and 22 Men to endeavour to recover the bodies and to secure the furs that may be saved from the water. 

You will see that I have some phrases in square brackets: I am taking this information from both journals mentioned at the top of the page, and sometimes the transcriptions vary. The words in brackets are from the journal published in Washington Historical Quarterly, which has good information in its footnotes. To continue with Work’s Fort Colvile Brigade journal:

I am to start early tomorrow morning on horseback with two men for the same purpose, by crossing to the [north] side of the river and straight across the plains, it is expected we will arrive before the boats and prevent the Indians from carrying off any of the packs, if they be so inclined.

Friday 30th. Blowing a storm the forepart of the day. The weather was so stormy and the river so rough, that it was impossible to cross the horses without drowning them, and I could not start as was intended for the Priests rapid…

So named by John Stuart of the Astor party, who passed this point in 1811, from seeing an Indian priest performing some religious ceremony there, according to the Washington Historical Society article. And Jacques Finlay, mentioned below, is of course Jaco Finlay, who lived and died at old Spokane House, and who had been one of David Thompson’s men.

…where the accident happened yesterday, even had the horses been got across in the evening I could not have got there before the boats and to get there after them would be of no use. The furs were all carried from the water side into the fort. An Indian arrived from Spokan with letters from Mr. [William] Kittson of the 25th Inst., announcing the death of Jacques Finlay about 10 days ago. Nothing material has happened at Colvile lately. The crops are coming on well.

Saturday 31 [May]. Stormy in the morning, calm afterwards, a little rain in the evening. The furs all well covered with lodges and oil cloths.

June 1828. Sunday 1st. Dark cloudy weather. Mr. Ermatinger & Dears arrived with their party arrived [sic] at noon, they found all the furs a keg of castorium, a bale of leather, & 3 pieces [skins] of gum, with a kettle, oil cloth & some other small things are lost. Nothing was seen of the bodies of the three unfortunate men that were drowned. The Old priest and his people behaved well. One of the old man’s sons came to the fort & received a remuneration for his good conduct & the assistance given in saving the furs. The afterpart of the day was employed drying the furs, repairing the boats & getting every thing ready to start early tomorrow morning. The beaver skins seem not to be much injured, but some of the small furs will be a good deal the worse of the wetting; fortunately there were not many of the latter in that boat. 

Monday 2nd. Cloudy, blowing fresh the most of the day. Left Walla Walla at sunrising, this brigade consists of 9 boats, [blank] Men, [blank] pieces per boat consisting of [blank] packs of furs, [blank] kegs Castorium, provisions & baggage. We were nearly three hours ashore drying the wet furs that were not sufficiently dry yesterday. Some time was also lost going ashore to trade provisions. The wind also considerably retarded our progress, nevertheless, we encamped in the evening a little above [John] Day’s River. A horse & some salmon & roots were traded from the Indians during the day. Notwithstanding the want the men were in of refreshment, Mr. [Samuel] Black is of such an unaccommodating disposition that he would not give them a horse, after a great many evasions [or after a great deal of coaxing] he offered a colt that was so small that it would not have furnished a meal for the people, & would not be accepted. However, he gave us three bags of corn & pease & a little grease.

Sam Black was a very odd man and extremely paranoid for his own safety, but I have never heard of him being so stingy before now. It might be interesting to write a blogpost about him, combining all the odd stories I have heard over the years — and I am sure I have not heard all of them! But let us continue the story of the Fort Colvile Brigade of 1828.

Tuesday 3. Blew a storm in the night and all day. It was a little calm in the morning and we embarked, but a little after sunrise we had to put ashore at Days River with the wind, where we remained all day. A few Indians are encamped here, from whom a few salmon were got, but nothing worth while to give the people to save our other provisions.

Wedy. 4th. Blew a storm all day so that we could not stir. 

Thursday 5th. Blew in the night, but calmed a little after sunrise, when we embarked but were again stopped by the wind near the Chutes, where we breakfasted, after which it again became a little calm & we proceeded and made the portage & afterwards proceeded to the Dalles & made the portage to the rocks with boats and all. Here we encamped early, there would not have been time to get to another convenient encampment. Traded a sufficiency of salmon to serve the people for nearly two days. There are not many Indians about the Dalles now; the most of them are out in the plains collecting roots.

Friday 6th. The wind less than some days past. Embarked early this morning, made the lower portage of the Dalles, had to put ashore to gum one of the boats, afterwards proceeded down the river. Reached the Cascades in the afternoon, made the portage with all the goods, & got the boats half way across. Part of the way they were lowered by the line, & part carried. When the men left the boats drawn up on the beach, a swell caught one of them & carried it out into the river, it ran down the lower part of the Cascades and the portage Neuf [New Portage]. Some Indians below pulled it ashore; it sustained very little damage. We could get few salmon from the Indians. Their intercourse with the fort has entirely spoiled the trade, none can be got now at any kind of reasonable price.

Saturday 7th. Overcast, some showers. Had the boats brought to the lower end of the portage, which occupied [detained] the people a considerable part of the morning. In order to save time we breakfasted before we started, when we then proceeded, made the New Portage, and continued our route to [Fort] Vancouver, where we arrived in the evening. It was, however, too late to get the packs carried up to the fort.

Sunday 8th. Fair weather. All the packs carted up to the fort & the respective cargoes removed. It was too late in the day to open any of them.

“Carted.” Did Fort Vancouver have a cart of some sort, to pack all the goods up to the Fort? It would make sense, would it not? This could easily be a transcription error, of course: but as I have people following my blog, who would be likely to know the answer, I will ask the question, and we all learn. Its still early years — in 1826, Fort Vancouver did not even have large barges or boats to carry in the goods from the London ship anchored offshore, and Connolly and his New Caledonia men had to do the work.  

Monday 9th. Cloudy in the morning, fine weather afterwards. Employed opening, examining, & beating the furs. We were not able to finish the whole of them a few of them were a little wet but had sustained no damage.

Tuesday 10. Weather as yesterday till towards evening, when excessively heavy rain came on. Busy at the furs but we were stopped by the rain. Some of the New Caledonia ones are not yet opened.

Wedy. 11th. Overcast, some showers. The unfavourableness [of the] weather prevented us from doing anything with the furs today.

This is as good place as any to temporarily pause the story of the Fort Colvile Brigades that came down the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver in 1828. When I continue the story, it will appear here:  And if you know any of the answers to the questions I have, post them in the comments — like I said, then everyone learns.

As you are already aware, my book, The HBC Brigades: Culture, Conflict, and Perilous Journeys of the Fur Trade, will be published by Ronsdale Press in May, 2024. When I have the link for ordering, I will post it here:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2024. All rights reserved.





6 thoughts on “Fort Colvile Brigade

  1. Tom Holloway

    Excellent. A few points:
    1) On the confusing “then,” insert “another” after, and it makes sense.
    2) Saddles! I have read a lot of HBC journals of horse brigades, keeping my eye out for details on such equipment, and have seen no mention of riding saddles (or bridles, for that matter). I’m sure none were imported from England, or they would appear in shipping manifests and post inventories. It’s hard for me to believe that the euro-descended men rode bareback, or on only a folded blanket, with no stirrups, as Natives did. I have, however, seen mention of making and transporting pack saddles, and I think the saddles mentioned here were pack saddles.
    3) There were “small farm carts” in Fort Vancouver inventories of “articles in use,” probably resembling Red River carts, that were used to transport all sorts of things from the river’s edge to the stockade, which in 1828 was still on a bluff more than a mile away and several hundred feet higher. (This was a main reason for moving the stockade to a location much lower and closer to the river, in 1829.)

  2. Dave Martin

    A fascinating blogspot Nancy! Especially some of the fur trade jargon explanations like– ‘pipes’ and ‘carted’, along with the interesting questions and insights raised about paddles vs oars, and HBC saddles.

    As to your reference to Sam Black, he definitely had good reason to be paranoid. All those HBC employees he and Ogden terrorized. I think a future blogspot bio on him would be most interesting.

  3. Curt Cunningham

    Another excellent article Nancy! Thank you.

    I am a little confused about the location of the Little Dalles in Work’s journal. The Little Dalles today is located above Kettle Falls near Marble. Could the Little Dalles that Work refers to be Hell Gate? If so then could the “rock” they camped at be what is today known as Whitestone? This rock is located just above Hell Gate.

    As to your question about the Sioux Island rapids I could find no mention of them in the books I have read about the upper Columbia in Washington. From looking at the painting I came up with 3 guesses. The 1st possibility could be at the bend in the river about 5 miles downstream from the mouth of the Nespelem River. The 2nd one could be the bend in the river about 5 miles below the mouth of Hawk Creek. My 3rd guess could be Monaghan Rapids which are just below an island called Buckley Bar which is about 2 miles above the Equilibrium Rapids. The island still exists.

    In the report of Lt. Thomas Symons about his trip down the Columbia in 1881 he writes; “Six miles further we passed the mouth of the Nespelem River. A strong ripple exists just above the mouth and a great bar-island just below.” This would be near the location of my 1st guess.

    Also in the report of Lt. Thomas Symons he names Equilibrium Rock. He writes that; the rock seemed to be nearly spherical and to rest in an apparent state of very unstable equilibrium. These I have called Equilibrium Rapids.” These rapids are also known as Jumbo Rapids and they are about 2 miles above the mouth of the Nespelem River.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      You are asking me questions I do not know the answer for. The HBC men had different names than the later Americans, for the places on the river. I only just learned about Equilibrium Rock, and thought it is Big Rock (or Grosse Roche) of the HBC, and there was a good landing place just above and a rapid just below — I presumed that was also Hellgate, but am now feeling I might be wrong and that Hellgate is further up the river?. Sioux Island Rapids never did exist (I think): it was just a name given by the rapid below the big Rock called a Sault (a rapid) by the French-speaking voyageurs, and translated by Warre, the artist, into Sioux. A group of historians on the Okanogan River helped me with this identification — the blog is
      Lieutenant Symons book is absolutely new to me. I did, however, consult a website that listed all the rapids on the Columbia River, and it was very useful. I may dig it out again tomorrow…
      I know the answer to this question, though: There were three Little Dalles on the Columbia (excluding the Dalles in the passage through the Cascades) — one at Revelstoke, BC, one where the American custom house was in 1859 or so, north of Fort Colvile, and one in Nespelem Canyon, just above Fort Okanogan.
      Thanks for your tough questions! 😉

  4. John Hansen

    In Northern England, (where some of the BC employees would have come from), we use the term “carted” to simply refer to carrying by any means. Often used with reference to a difficult load.

    In this very good summary we again feel the ‘matter of fact’ way that accounts are made of incidents which today, we would have a team of health and safety lawyers debating, and looking for someone to blame.

    I was quite interested to see the age old “oars versus paddles” debate. The leverage gained by an oar in a rowlock is huge compared to a paddle. However if an oar hits a rock it will push the entire boat around, and will possibly damage the gunwale, or even snap the oar itself. A paddle will bounce back and if handled well won’t harm either the boat or the crew member. In Scandinavia paddles are rarely used. Generally over the other side of the Atlantic we assume paddles are the preferred method in Canada. In problematic waters paddles can have an advantage over the mechanically superior oar method.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Thanks, John, for the insight on oars and paddles. In most of the boats here they didn’t have oarlocks, but put the oars between two pegs on the gunwale. I think those pegs must have been able to take tremendous pressure…