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: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/puget-sound/
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 http://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-heritage-picnic-at-michaud-house-tickets-579307092107
I will also be selling copies of my book at this event. See you there!
Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2023. All rights reserved.
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