Flood at Fort Norman

York Boats under sail
This image of York Boats sailing on Lesser Slave Lake is from the Glenbow Archives, na-2283-10, and I have used it with their permission. The HBCA has the same image, though they say it is taken on the Hayes River.

In 1852, Chief Trader James Anderson (A), who was then in charge of the Athabasca District, made a journey from the district’s headquarters of Fort Simpson, down the Mackenzie River to Good Hope — via Fort Norman. The journal, or at least a transcription of it, is in the British Columbia Archives and is titled “Journal of a Voyage from Fort Simpson to Good Hope.” Now, I want to explain why it’s here, and why it is probably a transcription.

James Anderson was Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s older brother. After their fathers’s deaths, James Robert Anderson (son of A.C. Anderson), and James McKenzie Anderson (son of James Anderson), shared letters and records that were in their possession with each other. It is likely that all of the James Anderson (A) journals held in B.C. Archives are in James McKenzie Anderson’s handwriting. Unfortunately, though we know that James Robert Anderson shared information with James McKenzie Anderson, nothing survived the fire that destroyed James McKenzie Anderson’s home in the late 1800s.

So, here’s James Anderson’s journal of his voyage down the Mackenzie River to Fort Norman, the next post south of Fort Good Hope. Remember he is heading north, down the Mackenzie River toward the Arctic Ocean. I am so used to rivers flowing east or west or south that I have to remind myself, constantly, that the Mackenzie River flows north!

May 1852. Friday 21st. Left at 5 p.m. Drifted all night.

Saturday 22nd. Heavy thunder last night; detained 12 hours by rain and head wind; drifted all night.

Even when drifting downriver with the current in late spring, it was not necessarily easy to travel the Mackenzie River! In his own journal, Augustus Peers describes how the boats are allowed to drift downriver:

In boat travelling on the Mackenzie and other rivers where there is no danger to be apprehended from rapids, etc., the boats are allowed to drift with the current all night while the crews lie down and sleep till morning dawns, when they again resume the oar. By this means no delay is incurred for as the current is generally strong a boat will drift a long way in a few hours.

They could not always safely drift their boats down the Mackenzie River, however, but this stretch of the river was considered safe. The birch bark canoes they sometimes used here were never drifted as they were far more fragile, and if they even rubbed against the bank they might be damaged.

We return now to James Anderson’s journey down the Mackenzie River.

Sunday 23rd. Carried sail from 9 a.m. till sunset; drifted.

Monday 24th. Arrived at New Fort Norman about 7 a.m. Fort in a fine dry situation out of reach of the Spring floods near the mouth of Bear River. Fish plentiful. Situation not so convenient for the Indians as the old Fort. Buildings too close to each other and not very well built. Everything in good order. Remained about 2 hours.

In his journal, Richard Peers described the old Fort Norman, which he took charge of in summer 1844.

I found nothing particularly prepossessing in the appearance of my future residence. Being only an outpost [of] three houses — one for the use of the person in charge; another for the servants, and a store for furs and provisions — comprised the post which pro firma was like many more of its class, dubbed with the very formidable and terror-striking name of “Fort.”… My domicile consisted of a long, low log building of about forty feet long and with an office and bedroom in one end, a hall in the middle, and several more rooms on the other extremity. The interior of these several apartments was tastefully white-washed, the edges of the doors and window panes having a pleasing look imparted by a paint formed of vermilion in part. Half of the walls were painted with charcoal and glue, which combination gave to the rooms an airy cheerfulness so that on the whole I had reason to be contented with my lot…. Fort Norman, though not classed among the head posts of the district, is nevertheless a good fur trading post, and in good years may vie with many others as it is situated in a country abounding in beaver and martins.

This is interesting — I think he says “glue.” At least this is how the transcriber saw the word. In his journal, Peers also described one of the floods that old location of Fort Norman was subject to, but it is not the flood that destroyed the fort.

Fort Norman from its low situation was ever subject to danger by the overflowing of the river at the time of the disruption of the ice. Knowing the danger, I had the cattle stationed upon a neighbouring hill at the back of the fort, and the safety of my precious stock of furs, which had increased to several packs, were similarly provided for, and as a still further precaution the large boat was brought up to the back of the houses as a means of escape for ourselves. A watch was set to watch the motion of the ice which in its appointed season began slowly to move from its moorings, and soon gave us warning that it would go. It continued to drift down at an even pace, and pretty strong strong one too, and I was about to congratulate myself on my apparent safety. Shortly however, the speed of the ice gradually decreased till at length it ceased to move. The ice had choked in some part of the river below, and as the current had received a check, the water was backed, and rose rapidly inch by inch, and foot, till at least it reached the edge of the bank and in a few minutes more the muddy water was pouring in torrents into the valley between the river and the fort. Still the water rose and soon I had the mortification to see the newly put-up garden fencing borne down by the restless flood. The “old familiar scene,” but an hour ago so dull and monotonous, had now received a touch of the romantic, which was not a little heightened by the huge masses of ice as they came toppling over the bank, ploughing up the inundated fields and then, loosing support, came headlong down, filling the valley with a noise like artillery, engulfing themselves for a moment in the water beneath, and as they rose to the surface with a convulsive heave were whirled onwards with the rest.

Things now wore a threatening aspect; the fort was flooded and water had risen three feet upon the stockades and as we had every reason to think that it would rise still higher we embarked with our worldly goods, provisions, dogs, and everything of a perishable nature, in the boat. Thus we sat watching the state of affairs, but as the water did not rise higher I embarked in the small canoe and enjoyed the novelty of the scene….

Once more the ice moved on and the pent up water, finding vent, ran off the land so rapidly that we were soon left high and dry — no, not exactly dry, for the land, before dotted by numerous patches of snow now wore a very grimy appearance and we had work enough for the next few days in putting things to rights.

Since I left that post its total destruction has been caused by a similar flood but of a much more serious extent. The water rose so high that it actually over-topped the buildings which amid the thundering of the ice were lifted from their foundations and dashed to pieces amid the woods. Not a post remained standing, and all the cattle were drowned. The bourgeois of the depot on his usual visit to the lower posts after the departure of the ice found the water still so high that his boat was enabled to pass over the bank, and his dismay was not a little to find the fort gone and its inmates in the boat among the trees.

Augustus Peers arrived at Fort Simpson in August 1843, and remained there until April 1844 when he was sent north to Fort Norman. The first flood occurred when he was still at the post, and the second after he left Fort Norman — apparently in 1852.

To return the the beginning of this series about the Mackenzie River and the Yukon, go here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/liard-river/

When the next in this series is posted, it will appear here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2019. All rights reserved.

One thought on “Flood at Fort Norman

  1. Judith Kane

    Love reading these posts about my ancestors. Lots of brave adventurous people back then.
    I have a new e-mail as posted below