Journey to the Fraser River

Fort George [Astoria]

Fort George [Astoria] where James Birnie spent many years in the service of the HBC. Image from Library and Archives Canada, number C-040856, and used with their permission.

In late 1824, a group of HBC men under Chief Factor James McMillan made a boat journey from Fort George [Astoria] to the Fraser River, to find a location for the planned Fort Langley. It’s an interesting story, but not an enjoyable experience for the men who had to undertake this duty.

As we know, in 1824, Governor George Simpson arrived in the Columbia District in one of his rushed visits to the west side of the Rockies. He was travelling with Chief Factor James McMillan, and it was while his boat was tumbling down the rapid-filled Columbia, in the area around Les Dalles des Morts [Death Rapids], that he broached the idea to McMillan that he [McMillan] should set up a fur trade post on the Fraser River, in what is now British Columbia. “In the course of the day,” he wrote, “I imparted to Mr. McMillan my views in regard to extending the trade to the Northwest of Fort George [Astoria], and pointed out to him the importance of having an establishment at the mouth of Frazer’s River: This was done with the view that he should volunteer his services to explore the Coast at length in the course of the winter, but he did not see my drift, or would not take the hint. In the evening, however, I again opened the subject and intimated that rather than allow another Season [to] pass without obtaining a knowledge of the Coast natives and resources of that part of the Country (our ignorance of which after being established on the coast upwards of Fourteen years being a disgrace to the whole concern), I should undertake it myself; this had the desired effect and Mr. McMillan immediately offered his services on this dangerous and unpleasant mission.”

Oh, no, not manipulative at all, is he? Governor Simpson hoped that the future Fort Langley, on the Fraser River, would replace the yet-to-be-built Fort Vancouver as the new Pacific Coast headquarters, as it was north of the 49th parallel and clearly in British territory, while the future Fort Vancouver was not. So, even in 1824, Simpson was concerned about the new boundary line that would eventually divide the Columbia district into British and American territories. 

On October 28, 1824, Governor Simpson reached Spokane House, where he hauled John Work away to take part in this project. The party arrived at Fort George on November 7th, 1824, where the first and most important job was to build boats for the expedition to the Fraser River. I suggest, without knowing for certain, that the three boats used by this Fraser River Expedition, under James McMillan, were Columbia Boats. The carpenters at the later Fort Vancouver also built flat bottomed Batteaux, and Ship’s Boats — but, as you will see, the expedition men paddled the boats and did not row them. That makes it even more likely that the boats used on this expedition were the canoe-like Columbia boats.

And so, James McMillan, John Work (of Spokane House), Francis Noel Annance, and Thomas McKay, with about thirty-five voyageurs, travelled north to the Fraser River to choose the site for the “new” Pacific Coast headquarters. Interpreter Michel Laframboise was here, as was Jean-Baptiste Proveau, one of the men who had accompanied Simon Fraser and Paul Stuart down the Fraser River in 1808. Thomas McKay was here, too. He had met his step-father, Chief Factor John McLoughlin, at Jasper’s House, but I think this was accidental, as he was already known to be at Fort George [Astoria]. He must have been clerk-in-charge of the brigades that took out the furs to Jasper’s House, and brought home the trade goods in the years before the York Factory Express existed.  

The men who went north to Fraser River did not travel by ship, as there were no HBC ships on the coast at the time, and there would be none until the HBC ship Cadboro arrived in early 1827. As it happens, I know that when Aemilius Simpson arrived on the Pacific coast with the incoming York Factory Express of 1826, there was no ship for him to command.  

So, here’s how the story goes: Governor Simpson arrived at Fort George on November 7, 1824. Ten days later, on November 18, James McMillan and his crew of thirty-nine men began their journey north to the Fraser River on a cold, drizzling day. They would not be travelling over the Cowlitz Portage, as it was too dangerous: an 1818 massacre had closed this route to the HBC men.

Francis Noel Annance was on this expedition: he was Métis, but one of the most intelligent and educated men on the west coast at this time. On this expedition, his duties were to act as chief trader, and at times to help with the hunting for food. He kept his own journal, in which he wrote: “This day we left this place on our expedition to the mouth of the Fraser River which is supposed to empty itself into Puget Sound. Our party headed by James McMillan, Esquire, consists of three clerks and an Interpreter and thirty-six men. Having crossed the Bay, we camped at the west end of it, the beginning of the portage across the neck of Cape Disappointment.” I believe that if you travelled the entire distance along this portage it would take you to Shoalwater Bay, but these men were not interested in reaching the Pacific coast: their route led them by a different course to Puget Sound. 

John Work was assigned the duty of keeping the records of this journey to Fraser River, and this is what he has to say of the first day away from Fort George: “Everything being in readiness, the expedition left Fort George at a quarter past one o’clock and in 2 hours and 10 minutes reached the portage in Bakers Bay, a distance of not less than 14 miles. This portage is about [blank] miles to the Northward of Cape Disappointment. This portage is made to avoid doubling the Cape, which is not practicable with our boats. Though the wind did not blow very strong, there was a heavy swell in the middle of the River. Mr. [Alexander] Kennedy accompanied in a boat to Bakers Bay and stopped with us for the night. It was drizzling rain in the after part of the day, with some showers.” They were on their way to Fraser River!

The portage they were taking to reach Fraser River would lead them “to a small lake about half a mile long.” John Work said that the 1,060-yard long “portage was wet and dirty, but in dry weather it would be a fine road. From this little lake [Whealdon’s Pond, or Black Lake] part of the people carried part of the cargo, while the remainder of the people with the boats and the rest of the property proceeded down a small creek [Tarlet Slough] that receives its waters from the lake. This creek is so narrow that the boats could scarcely be got dragged through it, and all the property had to be carried the greater part of the way. The road along this little creek, which runs through a little swampy plain [Cranberry Marshes], is very soft and wet… Mr. Kennedy, who came to see us across the river, took leave of us at the little lake.”

Now take a look at Annance’s journal entry for November 20, the day after Work’s entry above: “Again a most fearful storm of thunder, rain and lightning! The ground groaned and wept: the trees shrieked with horror, and bowed down with fear; while we awaited with painful anxiety, the probable effects of these dreadful elements that waged over our heads! The night was dark as the middle of darkness and the surrounding atmosphere appeared a mass of electrified matter. This morning, in spite of the rain and cold, we left the encampment and immediately fell into a little river, where the tides come up: here our boats were lightened and going thro’ branches and upon and under logs in the little river, we passed through a prairie lined with spruce fir on each side, then fell in the Chinooks Bay [Willapa Bay].” John Work called Chinook’s Bay “Grey’s Bay,” and he does say that “there was a small village of Chinooks, consisting of 5 inhabited and uninhabited houses.” 

Their journey to the Fraser River was not an easy one. “Fair weather, a fine gentle breeze of wind from the S.E., some weighty rain in the night.” This is John Work’s journal entry for November 21. “As it would have been too long to wait for the tide rising sufficiently high, the boats and property were carried about 1/4 mile, and we were on the water at 8 o’clock.” Annance writes: “Embarked early, hoisted our sails, away we went. Little after pm reached the end of the bay [North Cove], where we are to make a portage; not being able to pass in the open seas with our boats. Made two miles then we camped. The road is upon the sandy beach, most excellent; the sand being hard; some places partially covered with grass and wood.”

They were well on their way to Fraser River, tho’ still a long way away. “All hands at work at an early hour,” Work tells us on November 22. Some men were “clearing a road along a little river, so that the boats might be got through that way in preference to attempting the sea shore. About all the people were sent for the boats, which they brought with great labour a distance of about 3 miles, the greater part of which they had to be dragged through places almost entirely dry or little better than swamps.” Annance tells us that they “Made about two miles again. The wind has been tremendous. Our boats were brought across the point from the [illegible] of the bay into the sea this evening… It is needless to say, we had rain last night for we have had it every day since we commenced our voyage. In some countries we pray for rain; but in this we receive it in abundance without the intercession of prayers, and enjoy it without gratitude.” I think I like Francis Annance’s writing!

On November 23, a Tuesday, Annance wrote: “Fine day. The sun shines with all his splendour upon the beautiful and glittering sandy shores. Our boats but one were brought to end of the portage into a bay called Chehalis Bay [South Bay], or Gray’s Harbor; this was performed by towing them near the beach inside of the harbor.” Work’s journal entry says, “At daylight all the people were employed carrying the boats from the woods where they were left yesterday to the sea shore, afterwards part of the men, 6 and boat [boy?], conducted them along shore in the inside of the breakers, where they had just water enough to float them to the other end of the portage… In performing this business part of the men stopped in the boats with poles to keep her right and to watch the waves, while the rest dragged her along with a line, the swells were often nearly upsetting her. The surges often flowed in about the men at the line until they were up to the middle. The remainder of the people were employed carrying the property a distance of 4,620 yards NNW. The road still continues very good.”

“Fine again,” Annance writes on November 24. “Made two miles this morning then we thrust across the point thro’ the woods into the bay where our boats are. The road across the point is very bad; full of trees, mud, shrubs and very dirty encumbrances.” Works says that “As soon as it was daylight, all hands were at work and carried the property along shore 3,20 yards NNW and then struck along the woods to a branch of the Chehalis Bay [Gray’s Harbour]… where the goods were all brought by 1 o’clock. The road along the sea shore was the same as yesterday, but that across the woods is very bad… As soon as the goods were got across the half of the people were sent to take round the boat which was left yesterday and to bring it and the other two up to this place; they have not yet arrived.” Their journey to the Fraser River was becoming no easier. 

“Overcast with drizzling rain and weighty showers.” Work reported on November 25. Francis Annance says that “Near twelve o’clock all the canoes come and we set off immediately.” You will notice that Annance called the boats they were travelling in, “canoes,” which makes it even more likely that their boats were Columbia Boats, which were canoe-shaped. That means that for a short time, there were Columbia River boats on the Fraser River — something I find exciting! “Our course is north; then from the point opposite to the sandy entrance of the bay north west, then almost east, forming something like a right angled triangle from our encampment to the entrance of the Chehalis River to which we must go. Made about twelve miles from our last encampment. Bad encampments, everything is wet. This land is low and the tide comes over it.” Work remarks that “it is sometimes difficult to find a dry place to encamp on account of the rising tides, fresh water is also sometimes a scarce article, and that which we got being obtained from the swamps is of a bad quality and sometimes brackish.”

An amusing incident, perhaps, but dangerous too: “Left our encampment early with all possible speed as it rained very hard,” Annance writes on November 26. “Made our way to the entrance of the Chehalis River: took breakfast a little above the entrance in the midst of rain that left nothing dry about us. The river is about hundred yards wide, and not very deep… About six miles from the entrance we saw a small village: all the natives fled into the woods at our approach, taking us to be war party coming upon them.” John Work said “though these people are well accustomed to the Whites and have been still on friendly terms with them, we were surprised to find them all under arms on our approach, and at some of the villages assuming threatening attitudes, shouting from behind the trees and presenting their arms, particularly their bows and arrows, as if in the act of discharging them. On inquiring into the cause of this unexpected conduct, we learned that Cumcumilus’ Son Cassica has spread a report among these people that the Whites were coming to attack them and they were too credulous as to disbelieve it, but they were soon undeceived and a present of tobacco to some of the chief men dismissed all appearance of hostility.”

I will finish this portion of the Fraser River post here, and continue it in a future blogpost, which, when published, will appear here:  

The sources for this Fraser River post, and those that follow, are: Bruce McKelvie’s Fort Langley: Outpost of Empire; “Journey thro’ the Land,” by Francis N. Annance, in Cowlitz Historical Quarterly, No. 1, 1991; and “Journal of John Work, November and December 1824,” in Washington Historical Quarterly III (1912). 

There is, by the way, a reason why I am looking at these particular journals. I will be part of an event being held at the Heritage Picnic at Michaud House, 5202 204 Street, Langley, B.C. Michaud House stands on the banks of the Nicomekl River, which river these gentlemen and voyageurs travelled on their way to the Fraser River. At this event, I will be speaking about voyageurs and genealogy, but also, specifically, about this 1824 journey to the Fraser River. The date for this event is Saturday, May 13 — and you have to purchase tickets for it, via

I will also be selling copies of my book at this event. See you there! 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2023. All rights reserved. 






16 thoughts on “Journey to the Fraser River

  1. Dave Martin

    A great post! Thank you!
    What a wet, miserable journey to the mouth of the Frazier! I like Annance’s writing style too. He’s almost as good as you!
    Question about Thomas MacKay’s participation in this 1824-25 Fraser River expedition…
    In their 1824–25 Snake Country Expedition journals, Peter Skene Ogden and William Kittson both frequently mention Thomas McKay’s presence on their expedition. In fact, MacKay is given credit for being the first to sight the Great Salt Lake.
    Seems both these expeditions were taking place concurrently?

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      According to Bruce Watson (Lives Lived West of the Divide), he was clerk for the Snake Party 1825-1827 — that job would begin in summer 1825 I think? Before that he was clerk at Fort Nez Perces, as well as being a clerk at Fort George. As clerk at either of these places he could have gone up the Columbia River to Jasper House, where he met his adopted father John McLoughlin. So I think it all fits.

  2. Dave Martin

    Nancy, Will there be an online broadcast of the Heritage Picnic at Michaud House event?

  3. Voyageurs & Cie


    There won’t be any broadcast yet. Only during the Bicentennial of the Voyageurs of 1824/2024. The picnic is the introduction to the bicentennial at Portage Park/Michaud House. For the picnic on May 13, the tickets are limited to 50 people. But in 2024 it will be completely public. I am the organizer of the event right now with the Heritage Picnic and the research. Robert Foxcurran will also be present at the picnic this year. Its the 3rd edition. The promo video is on Joanne Estelle Plourde(Twitter). The Poster for the Heritage Picnic is travelling around Facebook.

  4. Dave Martin

    My apologies. It is demonstratively apparent I am not one of your more scholarly fans. Though Thomas McKay was present on many of the PSO’s later Snake Country Expeditions, he was not on the 1824-25 expedition. Having read the name ‘McKay’ in Ogden and Kittson’s 1824-25 journals, assumed (a mistake I’m oft found to make) it was Thomas. Checking other sources I now see it was a Charles McKay. I can’t find much detail on him personally. There is a Charles Richard McKay born in 1808 who is said to have been a member of PSO’s 1824-25 expedition. That would have put him at 16 to 17 years of age. Do you know anything about this Charles McKay?
    My second apology… In a rushed voice to text comment, I further showcased my ineptness – Fraser River not Frazier.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Charles McKay, probably born in Scotland, 1798.
      This is him. He was interpreter for the Snake River party, 1824-1826, and Interpreter for Columbia District 1826-1827. He joined the HBC in 1816 and worked on the east side of the Rockies, before arriving here. In the fall of 1824 he set out from the Flathead Post to the Snake Country, where he viewed, from a mountain top (I understand) the Great Salt Lake. McKay retired in 1826, and so he would have gone out with James Birnie and John McLeod Sr., in the York Factory Express of that year!

  5. Tom Holloway

    Excellent. But I doubt that three new boats were built at Fort George in the 10 days from Simpson’s arrival to McMillan’s departure. The North West Company had been building Columbia boats at Fort George and then at Spokane House since 1813, and Simpson’s own party had just come down the Columbia in several such boats. So there were quite likely three boats available for the exploratory trip north. As you note, several long portages were necessary, so Columbia boats were ideal for the trip, since they were built for portaging around major river obstacles.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      I think you are right. I found my source for that statement, and it comes from Bruce McKelvie’s book Fort Langley: Outpost of Empire. He would not have known about the boats coming downriver from Boat Encampment, and certainly he wouldn’t have known how long it took to build a boat. I missed that. Oh, well.

  6. Tom Holloway

    I just dipped into McKelvie (via the Internet Archive, where anyone can now “borrow” it and read at will). He clearly delved deeply into the sources, but it seems that his stylistic flourishes and embellishments sometimes got away from him.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      McKelvie was a newspaper man through and through — hence the flourishes! He was editor both of the Vancouver Sun, and the Victoria Times (I think) at various times of course. He also worked with my mother’s cousin H.H.C. “Torchy” Anderson at the Vancouver Sun, alongside a Mr. Green. All three of them were interested in Sasquatches, and of course my g.grandfather was supposedly the first to see a sasquatch [in 1846, or so the story goes.] Green went on to become a sasquatch chaser as a newspaper man who now owned the Agassiz newspaper near Harrison Lake. He began the ad campaign with stories of sasquatches snatching people off the beach in front of Harrison Hot Springs Hotel (generally on April 1st but no one seemed to make the connection between the date and the event). His campaign made Harrison Hot Springs famous.
      Anyway, when McKelvie was doing his historical writing, there was no access to any Hudson’s Bay Company material except what little stuff was in the B.C. Archives. This was long before the HBC records came to Canada, and in fact the HBC in London was not allowing anyone one access to their records, which they considered privately-owned corporate records.
      I think I have written about these three men in my Sasquatch blogpost, years ago. It should still be there if you enter sasquatch in the search bar at time of page.

  7. Réjean

    I would argue that the most compelling argument for these boats to be Columbia boats is simply the large size of crew (-vs- fur cargo) that travelled on this McMillan expedition. Not too many other boats sitting in inventory (Fort George, Spokane House or Boat Encampment) would have provided for that. The canoe/paddling justification could have applied to all sorts of other boats.

    May I also point out that the 1824 bicentennial is also most significant South of 49 since it was the first time ever newcomers had reached “overland” Puget Sound? Thanks for helping promote these upcoming bicentennials otherwise very much avoided imho in these times of “reconciliation”. Not aware of any initiative South of 49.

  8. Voyageurs & Cie

    Most significant Réjean? They were British subjects, Metis, Hawaïan, Scottish, Indians from Nisqually area(Steilacoom village)(Annance), son of Skaatchat Chief or Skagit(WorK) with one american(William Canon). That is m-b one answer to the overall lack of awareness of the McMillan expedition with the Voyageurs of 1824 from Fort George(Astoria). It was a unique dangerous mission. It was not repeated every year.

  9. Joseph Barreca

    Having just visited Long Beach and Willapa Bay two days ago, I admire but certainly do not envy these men. The bay is very shallow and muddy. The hiking paths through the woods are only walkable because huge trees have been sawn and moved out of the way. A very hard journey indeed.