The Outgoing Brigade at Fort St. James

Clinker built boat used on the Fraser River

Boats similar to this Fort Langley, Fraser River, clinker built boat were used all through the fur trade both east and west of the Rocky Mountains

My book, The HBC Brigades: Culture, Conflict, and Perilous Journeys of the Fur Trade, was published by Ronsdale Press in July 2024. You may order the book now through your favorite bookstore, or via Amazon. For American booksellers, the distributor for Ronsdale Press in the United States is Independent Publishers Group.  

In March 1843, clerk Alexander Caulfield Anderson came north to Fort St. James to take the place of Peter Skene Ogden who had traveled out with the express party to Fort Colvile. Ogden made this journey every year. It was an excuse to visit his good friend, Sam Black, who was in charge of the Thompson’s River post at Kamloops.

On March 3rd, Anderson made his first journal entry:

Weather is milder and seeming about to change. This morning Mr. [John] McIntosh accompanied by Laferte and two men of this place… set out for McLeod’s Lake…. Yesterday evening Louis Tarontana & Perrault returned from Babines bearing the cassette of deceased William Morwick. Mr. [William] McBean wrote that the Indians are apparently well-disposed, and profess amicable intentions; but he advanced serious complaints against his interpreter, [Alexis] Bellanger, whose removal he urged in the strongest terms. The man has, it appears, threatened to leave the establishment & in all respects seems, by Mr. McBean’s account, to be more attached to the Indians cause than to ours…

Anderson had walked into the aftermath of the murder of William Morwick by a First Nations man, at the Babine Post. McBean had taken Morwick’s place. This was first crisis Anderson must deal with at the post: more followed quickly. Within a day or two Anderson had “questioned Alexis [Bellanger] as to his misconduct towards Mr. McBean, part of which he did not attempt to deny, but gave a different colouring to the accusations preferred against him. After receiving a severe reprimand he promised to afford grounds for no further complaint…”

Anderson’s next duty was to build some new boats that would be used in the outgoing New Caledonia brigade. Unfortunately he doesn’t write everything about the building of these boats, but we have a snap-shot, perhaps, that we can use to imagine the construction. Here is what he writes in the Fort St. James Post Journal, 1840-46, B.188/a/19, HBCA

Thurs. 9th [March 1843] Cold weather. Nothing new occurring. Commenced preparations for making the boats, … serres, &c. The cold weather & Bourgeau’s sore leg, have caused us to delay this necessary labour.

Mon. 13th. Clear & cold. The weather being too severe to bend the varangues, the three men who were occupied about the boat wood are preparing the keels &c … [Pierre] Gouin preparing rivets for boats, assisted by the lathe. Others at fire wood.

Tues. 14th. .. Still too cold for bending the varangues, but always preparing for the boats.

Wed. 15th. Weather gradually moderating. Commenced today bending varangues. [Joseph] Bourgeau, [Supplie] Larance & [Pierre] Roi, bending and preparing. [Jacques] Coutureau [Couturier] who is still lame, attending the steam box.

Thurs. 16th. Fine mild weather. Continued as yesty & bent the varangues of 1 1/2 boats — say 2 1/2 now bent.

Sat. 18th. The snow vanishing fast. Finished the varangues of 6 boats, wood cutters employed cleaning the fort.

Mon. 20th. Men arranged as below. Bourgeau, Larance, Roi, [Edouard] Crete, [Charles] Touin, Ignace Calument — Boats…. Bourgeau laid the keel of a boat.

Wed. 22nd. .. Turned a boat, ready for putting on the boards in the evening. Courturier for the last two days making wedges for the [fur] press.

Mon. 27th. Touin laid up with boils. Laid down another boat. Nothing new occurring.

Wed. 29th. Couturier working at boats in place of Touin, who is still laid up.

Saty. 1 April. .. Bourgeau turned his third boat ready for planking.

Tues. 4th. Afternoon finished another (the third) boat… I omitted to mention that on Sunday Roi [drove] a long splinter into his wrist, which incapacitates him from working. The men employed as under: Bourgeau, Larance, Crete, Ignace, [Amable] Lacourse, Courturier at boats

Wed. 5th. We began pressing packs in the morning, but after several interruptions at length gave it up & the men wrought in salmon store…  Began 4th boat. Two men are obliged to begin sawing as far from being sufficient for six boats as Mr. Ogden had anticipated, there is found not to be sufficient for the completion of five, which I am very sorry for, as it is now too late to think of attempting to remedy the evil.

Mon. 10th. Fine, but chilly, with Westerly winds. Bourgeau finished 4th boat & laid the keel of another.

Thurs. 13th. .. Bourgeau finished his fifth boat today. Mr. Ogden directed me to get six made, and were the wood ready, there would yet be time to finish another. But there are no materials, one of the keels having been found useless, and there being no more boards. I am thus reluctantly constrained to leave the sixth unattempted.

Fri. 14th. Fine. Bourgeau arranging apichimons &c for two boats. Larance working at sheels [keels?]. Crete, Leonard, Couturier, Louis Thibeault, & rest cutting wood, except Brunel & Roi who are laid up.

Saty. 15th. Larance as before. The other men employed till noon cleaning out boat shed, storing boats for the summer, piling the timber lately dragged by Gouin and other necessary jobs, preparatory to beginning to gum on Monday.

Monday 17th. Rained at intervals yesterday — today fine. Named crews of boats & all hands are preparing oars, caulking boats &c.

Wed. 19th. Snowed a little in the morning. Afterwards fine. Finished gumming. Preparing for a start tomorrow. This is rather earlier than was intended; but the season is very forward, and everything being ready, I have decided on moving. It was my intention to go off the day after tomorrow; but the Canadians have a superstitious reluctance to starting on a Friday, which it is customary and prudent to humour, where there is no probability of eradicating it.

There is no further entry in the journal until Peter Skene Ogden returned in September. The outgoing express boats arrived at Fort Alexandria on April 26th, when Donald McLean wrote in that journal:

Wednesday 26th. Weather clear and pleasant. Early this morning the brigade arrived from the interior under the charge of Mr. A. C. Anderson and Mr. Porteus. All well in land. Commencing sowing the wheat received from [Fort] Colvile…

Anderson left Fort Alexandria with the brigade on May 1st, delivering them as far as Prairie de Nicholas, where he handed them off to Peter Skene Ogden. Anderson rarely if ever went all the way to Fort Vancouver. He was usually left behind in the interior to ensure that all went well.

The gum they used to fill the seams of these boats was a pitch from trees, that was melted into the seams by drawing a burning brand along the seam. I also now know they used a cotton batten of some sort, the same as was used in the York Boats (which differed in construction from those used on the West side of the Mountains). In a letter from Stuart’s Lake to George Simpson, written 26th February 1847, Donald Manson complained about the “want of batten” that caused so much grief on their journey up the Fraser River in 1846.

James Anderson, Anderson’s son, described the process of pitching the seams of the boats, that he witnessed in 1849. He was twelve or so years old, and only partially understood what he was viewing:

The wind being unfavourable for crossing the gulf we landed at Point Roberts, a most beautiful spot in those days and made camp under some beautiful maples of gigantic size and climbing one of which I had a nasty fall much to our kind guardian’s consternation. During the afternoon I witnessed for the first time, the removing of all extraneous matter, splinters, etc. by fire much to my consternation believing that our crews were veritably burning their boats behind them.

James’ long suffering guardian was Chief Factor (later Governor) James Douglas, himself.

Should you want to follow a New Caledonia brigade all the way to Fort Vancouver and return, then follow this link:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2014. All rights reserved.

8 thoughts on “The Outgoing Brigade at Fort St. James

  1. Tom Holloway

    Wonderful information, Nancy. Coincidentally, I am been researching the details of the boats uses for river transport in the Columbia District. U.S. Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, who visited Fort Vancouver in 1841, provided this description of the Columbia boat (Narrative, IV, p. 371):

    The boat was somewhat of the model of our whale-boats, only much larger, and of the kind built expressly to accommodate the trade: they are provided yearly at Okonagan, and are constructed in a few days: they are clinker-built, and all the timbers are flat. These boats are so light that they are easily carried across the portages. They use the gum of the pine to cover them instead of pitch.
    And later (P. 378) Wilkes gave more detail:
    The shape of these boats has been before described: they have great strength and buoyancy, carry three tons weight, and have a crew of eight men, besides a padroon. they are thirty feet long and five and a half feet beam, sharp at both ends, clinker-built, and have no knees. In building them, flat timbers of oak are bent to the requisite shape by steaming; they are bolted to a flat keel, at distances of a foot from each other: the planks are of cedar, and generally extend the whole length of the boat. The gunwale is of the same kind of wood, but the rowlocks are of birch. The peculiarity in the construction of these boats is, that they are only riveted at each end with a strong rivet, and being well gummed, they have no occasion for nailing. They answer, and indeed are admirably adapted to, all the purposes for which they are intended; are so light as to be easily transported over the portages by their crews, and in case of accident are easily repaired.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      You do know of the book by James Gibson, The Lifeline of the Oregon Country: the Fraser Columbia Brigade System 1811-47. He describes the boats used on the Columbia. The boats on the Fraser were different, I think being more flat-bottomed, as in bateaux. there is another book I have recently found, “York Boats of the Hudson’s Bay Company” by Dennis F Johnson. Recently republished, has a lot of information re: York Boats and some about those West of the Rockies.

  2. Tom Holloway

    The change of “am” to “have” would be in the first line of my comment. I don’t find any way for me to edit it. Sorry for the confusion. Thanks for the Gibson and Johnson citations.