Home from Fraser’s River

Fur trade building at Fort Langley

Fur trade warehouse at the future Fort Langley, the same as found in any fur trade fort, including the buildings found at their home fort, Fort George.

For the men of the 1824 Expedition, making their way home from Fraser’s River was a far easier journey than making their way to the river, via the clogged Nicomekl and over the T’Saikwakyan Portage to the banks of the Salmon River. So, let’s take a look at how they got home. As you know, in the last blogpost we left them encamped at or near the mouth of Fraser’s River, here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/exploring-frasers-river/

We have two journals to play with: John Work’s was the official journal of the voyage, and Francis Annance’s was a private journal, apparently written for himself. For the most part, Work’s journal gives a better description of the journey home from Fraser’s River. 

So, on December 20: “Overcast, mild weather with fog and slight showers of rain forenoon,” John Work writes. “Cleared up afterwards and became a fine sunshining day. Light wind from the E. and N.E.” Well, I can see why they chose to take to open water from the mouth of Fraser’s River, with the light winds now coming from the east. “Embarked at 1/4 before 7 o’clock and continued our course down the river…. through one of the principal channels which is at least [blank] yards wide to its discharge into the sea. There were two other channels on the south side and a large one supposed to be on the North side. The channel through which we came was sounded in several places towards its discharge and found to be from 7 to 3 1/2 fathoms about high water.” So they did not take the very southernmost channel, which I think is the canoe passage: this channel would bring the men south of Westham Island into open water. The wider channel of Fraser’s River, which these HBC men used to depart Fraser’s River, lay slightly north and would bring them north of Barber Island, and north of Westham Island as well. And what I suppose the HBC men later called the ship channel was the large channel to the North, mentioned by Work, above, and it would have taken the HBC men north of Lulu Island, and past Sea Island. 

Francis Annance’s journal tells us that they left Fraser’s River this way: “Left the village early this morning and made our way to the entrance into the sea. Made a few soundings, found the river four and [in] some places seven fathoms deep; but as we passed high tide we cannot be sure as to the depth.” Neither of these HBC men mention the sand-heads which are known to lie off the canoe channel, and which twelve-year-old James Robert Anderson described in his memoirs:

We were soon in the gulf where I had my first view of salt water, my feeling of loneliness increasing the further we got from shore. But what was my astonishment when as it appeared to me we were miles from land, to see one of the crew get into the water and wade; this as I afterwards found out, was on the South Sand head. The wind being unfavourable for crossing the gulf we landed at Point Roberts, a most beautiful spot in those days, and made camp…

Annance’s December 20 journal entry continues, with their departure from Fraser’s River: “Our course at present is south east to Point Roberts, whence we are to make the traverse on our way home. To the west we saw Vancouver Island, about thirty miles.” Work said that: “From the entrance of the river the boats proceeded along the outside of the low strip of land S.E. by S 2 miles, S.E. by E 5 miles, to near a point of high land along which we continued 4 miles S.S.E., One S.S.E, 33 E.N.E and One N.E. to its outward extremity, then across the open sea to the East side of a bay on the northern shore E. by N. 6 miles, E.S.E. 4 and E. 4.” The reference to “across the open sea,” is, I have discovered from Annance’s writing, the traverse to Birch Bay from the southern point of Point Roberts.

As his men paddled away from Fraser’s River, Work also describes what he saw of Point Roberts. “The point above mentioned is [Capt. George] Vancouver’s Point Roberts, part of the shore along which we passed is low clothed with grass and bushes and has a pleasing appearance. Toward the outer end the shore is bold and composed of clay with some rocks along the water’s edge, at the very lower end is a low point of considerable extent entirely covered with an old Indian village.” Then they made the portage across open water, and he said,  “Where we are now encamped is the Birch Bay of Vancouver.” Modern-day Birch Bay is in Washington State, and it is a big, deep bay immediately south of Semiahmoo Bay. They are already well away from Fraser’s River, and on their way down the eastern shore of Puget Sound.  

Annance was also quite impressed by Point Roberts, south of the mouth of Fraser’s River. “Point Roberts is a fine place for a Fort,” he said, “Well timbered and high. The vessel can anchor at the [unreadable] and be secure from all winds…. At the traverse [across to Birch Bay] we saw the greatest sight that ever a man wished to behold: in a vast water surrounded with mountains high and low, some covered with everlasting snow seemed to lose themselves in the heavens. It would require the fire and genius of Homer to do justice to the scene.” Once they were off Point Roberts, these men were well away from the mouth of Fraser’s River.

On December 21, Annance writes, “Started before day. Sailed the first [word] of the day. Passed Fish Island and Bellingham Bay about noon and encamped on the Channel of the [illegible] between Bellingham Bay and Skatchet [Skagit] Bay.” According to Work’s journal, they camped at the Swinomish Slough at La Conner. Work also tells us that on their journey home from Fraser’s River, they had “Clear stormy weather in the night with a slight frost. Cloudy sunshining weather during the day… Embarked at 6 o’clock and after getting out of the little channel.. proceeded E.S.E. across a bay about 10 miles to the entrance of a narrow shallow channel….The winds were favourable and the sails were up part of the day, but it was so light that they were of little service.”

Of their travels away from Fraser’s River on December 22, Annance says only, “Started early again, passed the Skatchett [Skagit] and the Snohooms [Snohomish] on Possession Bay [Elliott Bay, on Possession Sound] and encamped near our former encampment. About forty miles again.” Work said the weather was showery and the wind south easterly. “Embarked at 4 o’clock and after getting out of the little channel,” proceeded across a bay to the entrance of a narrow shallow channel and into a fine bay [Port Susan] up which they paddled twelve miles to the head of an island on their right hand. They were passing through the same landscape they had passed on their way up Puget Sound to Fraser’s River, and camped that night at “a little brook, and though it is scarcely large enough to get a kettle of water drawn from it, yet there are the marks of beaver in it, their cuttings are carried down by the current.” 

On December 23, Annance reported that there was “Dreadful rain all night and very strong wind, so that we cannot stir. Towards evening we made four or five miles then encamped again.” It was very fortunate that they had left the mouth of Fraser’s River when they did, as the current weather they were experiencing would probably have prevented their departure for some time. According to Work, the weather on December 23 was “Stormy with weighty showers of rain in the night. Stormy with almost continual heavy rain all day. Wind S.E. It being too stormy in the morning, we did not embark till 11 o’clock when it became a little moderate.” They continued along the eastern shore of Puget Sound until 2 pm, when they put ashore, “it being too rough to proceed.” On December 24, according to Annance, they “Went off in the night and made the traverse before day: passed the Soquams [“Soquamis,” according to Work] and Puyallups and came to the village where took our first guides and here we encamped again. Here we left one of our boats in care of the guide. This near the end of the Sound. From the end of the south to Point Roberts at Fraser’s River, there are one hundred and thirty miles, or thereabouts. Here we alter our course; we must turn straight to our right thro’ bays to go to the portage.”

Maybe for Annance, 4 o’clock in the morning was still “night.” Work indicated they had “Stormy and weighty rain in the night and cold, cloudy, fair weather afterpart of the day. Embarked a little after 4 o’clock in the morning and encamped at 2 o’clock in the afternoon at Sinoughton’s, our guides’ village, which is called Chilacoom [Steilacoom]. It was stormy in the morning but pretty moderate afterwards. Our course all day was about S. by E. 44 miles, we are now resting in the same track we pursued on our way going” to Fraser’s River.

They were now more or less at the bottom of Puget Sound, and on December 25 they turned toward the west to reach the end of the Portage. Annance said that they “took leave of our guide before and went off. Breakfasted at the end of the portage and encamped about the middle. Rain again.” John Work indicated that it was “showery in the night and weighty rain the great part of the day.” His record of the journey from Fraser’s River continued: “Embarked at 4 o’clock and reached the portage at 10 where the people immediately commenced carrying and had the boats and baggage more than half across the portage at night. On account of the heavy rain the road is much more wet and miry than we passed last, yet we got on more expeditiously as the road is cleared.” And his journal agrees with Annance’s, in that one of the boats was left at Sinoughton’s village [Steilacoom], and the baggage was embarked in the other two remaining boats.

On Sunday 26th: the wind was south easterly, with “very weighty rain in the night and raining the most of the day,” according to Work. Annance said, “Finished the portage early and went down the fork of the Chehalis River. Made a small portage and encamped little distance from an encampment of the Prairie de Butte [Mound Prairie] on another prairie near the village of Pierre Charles. Here it was determined that we should separate: Mr. [James] McMillan with Mr. [John] Work to go by the Cowlitz, and Mr. [Thomas] McKay and myself by Chehalis, our old road.” Most of the men would be travelling with McKay and Annance, and they travelled by this route in order to bring the boats home. 

Firstly, we will follow Francis Annance on his journey home from Fraser’s River: he is travelling the same route by which they came to Puget Sound. It is December 26, 1824, and Annance says, “Late in the afternoon we parted. We found plenty of water in the little river. Encamped at the fork: fine day.

“December 27: Fine day again. Passed the Chehalis village, encamped on the bay near the portage, made about fifty miles today.” They were determined to get home from Fraser’s River as soon as they could manage it. 

“December 28: Arrived early at the portage, made the portage the same day and encamped at the other end.

“December 29. Very strong. Moved slower boats round the point and remained here all day on account of the wind.

“December 30. Left our encampment. The wind still strong, moved slowly. Encamped on an Island in the bay opposite to our old encampment.” It seems that these high winds which appeared to follow them all the way down Puget Sound, and the Pacific Coast, would have delayed these men in Fraser’s River for some time!

“December 31st. Fine day. Started very early, being determined to get to the Fort today. Made Cape Disappointment portage and began the Chinook traverse little before sunset and arrived at Fort George sometime after dark.” So did they beat John Work’s crew on their journey from Fraser’s River? Let’s find out!

John Work’s journal of his journey home from Fraser’s River reads: “December 27: “Sharp frost in the night. Fair weather with fog. Wind Southerly…. A man went ahead yesterday to procure horses from the Indians. It was noon today when he returned with the information that they were to be had. The boats then proceeded on their route down the River and we crossed a fine plain about 6 miles to the Halloweena Village, but the Indians not being able to get the horses collected, we had to encamp close by for the night.

December 28: “Sharp frost in the night and foggy during the day. Having procured the horses and got everything ready, started on our journey at 8 o’clock and encamped at 4 in the evening. The people found such difficulty in dividing up the loaded horses that it was quite dark before some of them reached the camp, the men got so tired with one of the horses that they left him and carried his load themselves.

December 29: “Frost in the night. Cloudy fair weather during the day. Proceeded on our journey at 7 o’clock and by 11 arrived at the Cowlitch [Cowlitz]  River, it was 12 before all the people arrived. The course was still about S.E. 10 or 12 miles and lay through alternate plains and woods the same as yesterday. Some small streams crossed the road, the Nisqually and Cowlitch [Cowlitz] mountains appeared in the morning, the former to the N.E. and the latter to the E. A canoe was hired from the Indians to carry us to the Fort, but when we had embarked it was found too small and another had to be hired…”

They reached the banks of the Columbia River that night, and on December 30th, Work’s journal indicated that there was “Frost in the night. Blowing fresh the forepart of the day with weighty rain in the afternoon. Put ashore to sup at 8 o’clock last night and after supper, embarked and continued under way all night and arrived at the Fort at 10 o’clock in the morning. The wind being pretty fresh in the night caused a swell…. we took in a good deal of water before we got ashore at the portage, but the wind being then off the land we got safely to the Fort. The little canoe had to put ashore in the night and did not arrive till the afternoon.” So James McMillan and John Work got home from their adventures on Fraser’s River about a day and a half before Francis Annance and his men did.

And that is the end of the journals and of the 1824 journey to Fraser’s River and back. Francis Annance’s final comment in his journal summed up the journey pretty well: “Thus we finished without any cross accident; performed and seen everything that was necessary to be done and seen according to the intentions of the voyage with an expedition and success that were hardly thought of. I may say in the language of Caesar, veni vidi vici: we came, we saw everything, and overcame everything.” 

To return to the beginning of this series, go here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/fraser-river/

When I continue this series (which may not be immediately) it will appear here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/whatever-i-call-it/ 

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