George McDougall

Location of HBC Fort Alexandria

The fort that Anderson arrived at in winter 1842 was on the left bank of the Fraser River; a few years later he moved Fort Alexandria onto the point of land that sticks out into the river. The NWC post that George McDougall built was further upriver.

In my research for my next book, I stumbled on a very interesting man whose name was familiar, but about whom I knew little. His name is George McDougall, and it was he who built the North West Company’s [NWC] Fort Alexandria on the Fraser River in 1821.

George was born about 1788 in Montreal, and he died on the Athabasca River in 1849. I was told he worked in the Peace River district about 1815 for an Hudson’s Bay Company [HBC] party commanded by John Clarke — and I have found the story at last. It is a long one, and not pleasant at all. Here goes:

The story begins with Colin Robertson, who quit the NWC and put together the HBC’s first attempt to penetrate the Athabasca district using Canadien voyageurs and officers. James Murray Yale [later of Fort Langley], was part of this expedition. At Lake Winnipeg two more clerks joined, and George McDougall was one of them. Robertson left, and the “impetuous, swashbuckling 33-year old” John Clarke took charge.

The party clashed with the NWC men at Cumberland Lake, where Clarke threatened to blow out William Connolly’s brains. [Connolly, later of New Caledonia]. On October 2nd, 1815, the HBC brigade swept past the NWC’s Fort Chipewyan, in the Athabasca district. But the NWC was prepared for them, and stationed men around the entrance of Lake Athabasca to keep the Natives away. Two days after they arrived there, the HBC men were out of food because no Native man dared to trade with them, for fear of the NWC. Because of the shortage of food, a few men remained to build Fort Wedderburn, while others headed west to Fort Vermilion, in the Peace River, 320 miles away.

But the NWC men drove the animals away from the river and the HBC men began to starve. They paused at Wabasca River, but Clarke knew he would starve if he remained with the slow moving brigade with Yale. He and George McDougall took the strongest voyageurs, and tried to outrace the NWC men who were preventing them from obtaining food. But the starving men could not maintain the pace, and by the time they reached Fort Vermilion the NWC men had already driven the Natives away from the fort.

McDougall was sent back to find Yale and his men, and found them still starving in their camp, guarding their goods. Instead of moving forward, McDougall opened the kegs of rum the brigades carried, and he and his men remained for a number of days in a continual state of intoxication, according to Yale. When they finally pulled themselves together, the weakest men paddled downriver to Fort Wedderburn, and the strongest went west to Fort Vermilion. Yale’s group remained behind, huddled around their fire and guarding their goods.

The next day McDougall’s men were caught in ice and they were forced to walk. A party of NWC men camped beside them, but refused to give the men provisions unless McDougall signed over the men’s contracts and the company’s property, including that which still remained at Wabasca River. To save his men (and himself), McDougall agreed.

At the Vermilion Fort in Peace River, Clarke became anxious about McDougall’s continued absence, and went in search of him. He found McDougall at the camp, with one voyageur dead and others too weak to move. The rest had gone with the NWC men. Clarke hurried on to Yale’s camp and found him and all hands “reduced to the very last extremity.” Three more voyageurs died there.

Then the NWC men arrived to claim their booty, but Clarke refused to give them anything. In front of the starving HBC men, the NWC man threw pemmican to his dogs. The infuriated Clarke argued with the NWC man, and they fired a few shots. It made little difference. Clarke was finally forced to give up his goods.

Clarke returned to Fort Wedderburn but Yale was too weak, and the NWC took him west to Fort Vermilion. Two starving voyageurs reached Fort Wedderburn ahead of Clarke, in tears, and reported that if McDougall had allowed them to set off earlier they would have all survived. But the man in charge of Fort Wedderburn had only ten fish in his larder. He asked the neighboring NWC men for help, and Simon Fraser [later of New Caledonia] took a sled loaded with provisions to look for the HBC men. They found them — three corpses lying in the snow, and the evidence of cannibalism sickened them so that they abandoned their search.

Sixteen people died of starvation in the HBC’s 1815 Athabasca campaign. James Murray Yale returned from Fort Vermilion in a fury, but George McDougall had other plans. He abandoned the HBC and made his way west to where his brother worked for the North West Company at Fort St. James. He was hired by the NWC, and in 1821, the NWC and HBC merged. Once again, George McDougall found himself working for the HBC.

But by that time he was in the midst of constructing the first Fort Alexandria, on the Fraser River — and he had previously constructed the first Fort George — called Chala-oo-Chick — on the Nechako River near modern day Prince George. McDougall was at Fort Alexandria until 1827, and in 1830 he established the Chilcotin post, west of Fort Alexandria.

George McDougall made history again, in 1827. At the request of his sick brother James, George made another perilous journey, this time across the snowbound Tete Jaune Pass to Jasper. He would later meet up and join Edward Ermatinger’s outgoing express, here: McDougall’s original journal has been lost, but Thomas Young, of Jasper, found it before it disappeared and copied a portion of it. His record is found in the book Yellowhead Pass and Its People, by Valemont Historic Society [D.W.Frieson & Sons, 1984] p.2-3:

MacDougal States: That he received instructions from James MacDougal, His Brother, who was in charge of Fort St. James at this time, to arrange to take a party and to make the journey to Fort Carlton, via Yellowhead Pass, following the Fraser, up-stream from the junction Nechako, and the Fraser Rivers, until he reached the summit of the Rockies, and then follow the Miette River to its Junction with the Athabaska, and then following the usual route to Edmonton.

MacDougal writes as of April 17th, 1827, as follows: “I left this date with supplies and six men with Snowshoes and sufficient food supplies to last thirty days. We found the going easy for the first day, following the River on the ice.

April 18-27: Made good headway, and thawing, the sun warm and in the sheltered places the water was setting in small pools. This caused the Snow-shoes to become heavy with snow sticking to them.

April 25th, 1827: Arrived at Tete-Jaune-Cache, after encountering very heavy travel. The men were nearly exhausted, and one of them died of a vile disease. Tete-Jaune Cache is a place where one, an Iroquois Indian half-breed, who was fair-haired, had made a Fur-Cache, or a place to store his catch of furs, and was known as Tete-Jaune Cache, or Yellowhead. It is near the meeting of the Grand River — which flows from the base of Mt. Robson and the Fraser River. Here I rested for two days, and made repairs to our Snow-shoes which were nearly worn out and in bad shape. One of my best men came to me and advised me that some of the Pemmican was missing and that our supply of Pemmican consisted of a few pounds. I called the men together and made a search of their packs. I found that one of the men had thrown away the Pemmican that was a part of his load to lighten his pack. I was much enraged at his evil work, for the way ahead was unknown to us, and we found our party with but six small portions of Pemmican to cherish us for the remainder of our journey to Jasper House. After hearing from all of my people and searching each man, I dealt out punishment to the one who had risked the lives of myself and my people — (Note: Mr. Murrary, requested not to publish the method of Punishment, as it might not be the wish of the Company, that this should be done. While I have the detail on my notes I have omitted to quote them here for this reason.) And with four men set out on the trail, which was unmarked and was deeply covered with snow. This was on April 17th.

Fallen timber, deep snow covered the way and we could make but small progress, and the men were so tired each night that I could not get them to make proper shelter for themselves and was in great dread that they would not live out the night.

May 1st 1827: On this day we came to the winter house of William Henry, having had nothing to eat for two days. My people were exhausted, and but for coming upon fresh snow-shoe tracks at the Miette River, which gave them courage to st[r]uggle on we might have all perished. Mr. Henry was short of provisions for his own people, but he received us with great kindness, and here we rested for two days, and being refreshed we left for Jasper house on May 4th.

Further Notes: From the diary, east to Carlton House I did not make but few notes. He states that he arrived at Carlton-house without mishap, and after spending some considerable time at that Fort, he returned to Fort St. James via the Yellowhead Pass in September of 1827. And had with him his Brother’s wife of whom he writes she was a good woman, and nursed his brother back to health.

Confirmation: In the Journal of Douglas [David Douglas, botanist], 1827, on his way east bound via the Athabasca Pass, with a party in charge of Mr. Edward Ermatinger, both of these Gentlemen in their Journals record overtaking George MacDougal, on their second day after leaving Jasper-house. Remarking as follows — This party, which suffered severe privations, seems to have made the first crossings [of Yellowhead Pass] from the west.

George McDougall appears to have gone out with the York Factory Express to Hudson Bay often, and is mentioned in many a York Factory Express journal. There is a Mr. McDougall mentioned in Aemilius Simpson’s 1826 journal, but no one knows whether it is George or his brother, James. At a guess it is James, and he left his family on the Saskatchewan River, which necessitated George’s journey over the mountains. George is, of course, in David Douglas’ 1827 journal, and Edward Ermatinger’s of the same year. He does not appear in Edward Ermatinger’s 1828 journal.

I have since determined that it was James McDougall: here is his story.

George is not mentioned in George Traill Allan’s 1831 journal [but I believe he is there], nor in James Douglas’ journal of 1835. These are both very personal journals, so that means little. In 1841, George Traill Allan followed George McDougall’s Lesser Slave Lake party across the Athabasca Portage, saying, “I had some hopes of overtaking Mr. McDougall with whom I am well acquainted.” [That’s why I believe he traveled in with George Traill Allan’s express]. Allan did catch up to McDougall, and shared a glass of wine with him. In 1847, George McDougall arrived at Fort Assiniboine at the same time as the Thomas Lowe’s York Factory Express. “He left his boats to meet us.” In Thomas Lowe’s 1848 journal, George McDougall arrived at Fort Assiniboine from Lesser Slave Lake, with two boats. In 1849, John Charles awaited McDougall’s arrival, but Alexis Nault appeared in his stead.

Everyone appeared to like George McDougall — that is, everyone but Governor George Simpson. Simpson called McDougall an unexceptional but efficient trader, and never promoted him — like others he disapproved of (for example, James Birnie, and William Kittson).

In winter 1849, after the incoming York Factory express passed through Edmonton House, Chief Factor John Rowand had the job of reporting on two sudden deaths. George McDougall’s was one of them.

Saskatchewan District, Edmonton, 29th December 1849, To the Governor, Chief Factors and Chief Traders, HB Company

… I beg leave to bring under your notice the few incidents that have occurred since my arrival at this place… The distribution of the Outfit for the several Outposts was completed as early as possible. On the 29th September the several Gentlemen were off for their respective stations. On the 14th October I received intelligence of the death of Mr. Geo. McDougall that gentleman died on his way to Slave Lake in the Athabasca river after a short illness of five or six days; in consequence of his unfortunate & unforeseen circumstances on the 16th I was under the necessity of sending Mr. Christie to adjust the Company’s affairs at Slave Lake, leaving Louis Chastellain in charge for the time being…

The two stories that I have quoted at the beginning of this page are found in British Columbia Historical News [Journal of the British Columbia Historical Federation], Volume 32, No. 4, Fall 1999, and Volume 18, No. 2, 2005. Both articles are written by a descendant of James Murray Yale, named Yvonne Klan. She died in 2004, and her partner, Peter Trower, submitted the second article on her behalf. Her biography of James Murray Yale was never published and probably not completed. If you want to do further research, it appears her papers were deposited at Simon Fraser University.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2015. [Updated August 1, 2015]. All rights reserved.

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One thought on “George McDougall

  1. Wade "Caribooian" Twitter

    Hello. 1st love your work. Thank you.
    2nd. I grew up in Lac La Hache and there is a lake named McDougall to the east of the town. The road that passed our home was on the old Barkerville road (before the paved hwy). Now I am day dreaming that perhaps the Barkerville road was due in part to the previous fur traders paths. This McDougall Lake is not near the road today, likely a full mile away but perhaps he named it or it was named in his honour. Something to think about. Thanks for the post, now you got me thinking. Cheers.