The Fur Traders’ Dog Sledge, or Train

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.

I have been advised that I have forgotten a few of the transportation systems used by the fur traders of the HBC — and of course, I have. These are for the most part independent of the three organized systems I have already spoken of — that is, The London Ships, The York Factory express, and the New Caledonia Brigades.

But during the year fur traders and their employees traveled around their territory using a variety of methods of transportation.
HBC ships sailed up and down the Northwest Coast, of course, visiting all the forts from Fort Langley, on the lower Fraser River, to Fort Simpson on the Nass River. The ships brought in men and trade goods, and returned to Fort Victoria (after 1843) with furs and men who were being transferred to another post.

Horse was, of course, another method of getting around, in the interior at least. On many occasions while he was in charge of Fort Alexandria, Anderson sent out his men “en drouine,” with pack-horses, to trade for furs or fish with the Natives.

There were fur trade carioles, as well. James also writes about the “carryall” at Fort Alexandria: “My father had a carryall and a pair of good horses so that we had some sleighing and as part of the amusement a spill in the snow occasionally.” My French dictionary describes a cariole as a cart. I have a really good description (and link) to these fur trade carioles, and here it is: 

(For those of you interested in the fur trade, there is lots of relevant information on this site.)

Snowshoes were in common use in New Caledonia as well as everywhere else. Anderson’s son, James, wrote that at Fort Alexandria, “Snowshoes we had to wear all winter as there was no other way to get about, but oh how sick and tired I got of them before the close of the long winter.” He was five at that time, and in later years wrote, “I have often looked in amusement at the gaily got up young men and women in the East going out for a snowshoe walk on hard snow, and wonder how they would like it if they had to use snowshoes for five months and go through new fallen snow…” as he had to do as a child.

Canoe travel was also used, as this was a land of rivers. In 1835, Alexander Caulfield Anderson and eight employees traveled in two canoes up the Fraser River to its source, to pick up the cache of leathers (moose-hides, etc) stored at Tete Jaune Cache. He was supposed to return to Fort George [Prince George] in a few weeks, but of course early winter interfered with those plans! On their return journey, an early winter froze the canoes into the river. They were somewhere around modern-day McBride, British Columbia. To save their own lives, the men cached their leathers, and walked the entire way to Edmonton House, at modern-day Edmonton, Alberta.

It was at Edmonton House that Alexander Caulfield Anderson discovered an alternate method of transportation used in the fur trade everywhere — dog sledges.

Edmonton House was a noisy place. Not only was there constant drumming from the Native village outside the walls of the fort, but hundred of dogs used to haul their sledges were kept tied to logs outside the fort walls as well. The dogs’ howls were constant; visitors mention the dogs’ noise inside the post, but these dogs must also have been heard miles away from the fort.

But these were the dogs that brought Anderson and some of his men home, in mid-winter, over Athabasca Pass via Jasper’s House, to Fort St. James.

From my book, The Pathfinder, a description of the sledges:
“In early December, Anderson and a few men retraced their steps toward Fort Assiniboine and Jasper’s House, this time with seven sledges, drawn by three dogs apiece, that carried 300 pounds of pemmican. Anderson described their journey:
“Three of us passed in advance in order to trace the road, while the sledge drivers followed in the rear upon the track thus beaten. Of course, all were provided with large snow-shoes… On such occasions we usually started about two o’clock in the morning, and continued till near sunset, with the solid delay of an hour for breakfast. The dogs used for transport in this part of the country are ordinary curs; the sole requisites being that they combine hardiness under severe cold with a certain degree of strength, activity, and endurance. The sledges used are merely flat planks of Birch half an inch thick, turned up in front, about sixteen inches broad and nine feet of length for load. The load is protected by a parchment envelope which is laced over all with a stout cord passing through a succession of loops fastened along either side of the sledge…”

So, very simple affairs, but fairly efficient. They left Edmonton House in early December, and arrived at Fort George in early 1836. Not bad travelling, when you consider the distance between Edmonton and Prince George!

From the Fort St James and Fort Alexandria journals, I have a few mentions of the fur trade “trains.”

Fort St. James, Friday March 3rd 1843: “This morning Mr. McIntosh accompanied by Laferte and two men of this place set out for McLeod’s Lake. The latter, with two trains, convey 1 keg spirits 8 gals and 300 salmon for delivery there.” Only two weeks later: “Four trains with 200 salmon each for delivery, set out in the morning of tomorrow for McLeod’s Lake. The 800 now sent, with 350 already forwarded, make 1150 instead of the one thousand ordered by Mr. Ogden…” The next day, “There are 11 beavers & some trifles short… a difference arising, I imagine from an error, as the trains have not been untied since they left Connollys Lake. Mr. Maxwell, it appears, has kept a dog (Canard) off the train, which is to be regretted, as the set is thus spoilt.” On the last day of the month, there is another mention of the men taking supplies to McLeod’s Lake — they took their time getting there: “Perrault lays the blame on Leonard, who, he says, will not march, nor exert himself in any way and has suffered the dogs to gnaw the greater part of his load, from laziness to drive them off during the night. Conduct such as this ought surely to meet with some punishment…” At this point, summer comes and the snow melts and all mention of the dogs also melt away. It is quite clear that in 1843, dogs and trains were heavily used in the environs of Fort St. James, Stuarts Lake.

They are mentioned less often at Fort Alexandria, and so perhaps were not often used there. The derouines are mentioned, however: “M. Ogden returned from his drouine [sic]. He has brought 3,000 salmon procured at the barrier on Chilcotin River” in mid-September, 1843.

On the 26th of October, 1844, Anderson writes: “Sufficient snow for cabrioling; accordingly I took a short drive today…: I presume that, despite the spelling of this word, Anderson took the cariole out, perhaps with horses as he does not ever mention dogs in these journals. Of course, Fort Alexandria snow melted quickly when it fell, and possibly dog trains were not as useful in this part of the country, as they were in the more northerly posts.

However, in March 1845, the men from Fort George arrived at Fort Alexandria, and they may have come via dog train. A few days after their arrival, Anderson writes: “On Saturday night, notwithstanding every precaution that I had taken, the rascally dogs from above broke into the yard; and having forced their way into the poultry house, destroyed nearly all the Turkeys & one half of the hens, before they were discovered….”

I believe that there were not many dogs at Fort Alexandria itself, but the men in northern New Caledonia, and at Fort George [Prince George] did have them. At one point the Fort Alexandria cat is mentioned, but dogs are not. Even in mid-December and snow, the men of Fort Alexandria used horses, not dogs, to get around.

However, dogs did arrive at the fort, and leave. Anderson’s son, James, had a little story about the HBC trains used in New Caledonia in the winter time.

“Those fierce train dogs, how terrified I was when I awoke one night by a noise going on and discovered a huge wolf-like brute staring at me and snarling. I shrieked with terror (he was only five) and the intruder was ejected. The cause of all the trouble was that the winter outfit of furs from Fort George in charge of Mr. [Donald] Manson, in attempting to cross the Fraser on rotten ice above the Fort, had broken through and suffered some loss, arriving at the Fort late at night and this dog was one of the team…”

This last (and other James Anderson quotes) come from James Robert Anderson’s Memoirs, “Notes and Comments on Early Days and events in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon,” typescript. Copies of this manuscript can be found in the British Columbia archives, Mss 1912.

Copyright Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2014. All rights reserved.


2 thoughts on “The Fur Traders’ Dog Sledge, or Train

  1. Tom Holloway

    Thanks for the great info!
    There is more on snowshoe travel, and a good description of the difficult climb up the Grand Côte from Boat Encampment to the summit of Athabasca Pass in Alexander Ross, “Fur Hunters of the Far West,” (London: Smith and Elder, 1855) vol 2. [This book, like many titles published before 1923, can be downloaded for free at Google Books.] This is from pp. 194-95:

    “At nine o’clock in the morning we commenced the ascent of the Grande Cote, and continued to ascend in a thousand sinuous windings till five o’clock in the afternoon; we then found ourselves on the top of it, a distance of about three miles in length, but scarcely a mile and a quarter in a straight line. At first the ascent was gradual, but it increased in difficulty as we advanced; and this was the more keenly felt as we became fatigued and tired of the task. In some places the ascent was so precipitous, and the short and intricate turnings so steep, that we had to get up them by clinging to the branches that stood in our way, and we not unfrequently had recourse to our hands and knees; when this failed we had to be assisted by each other, dragging first the man, and then his load up, before we got to the summit. None but a voyageur or Indian can comprehend how men with heavy loads could accomplish such a task. And much greater would his surprise be if told that at certain seasons, when the snows are off the ground, loaded horses ascend and descend this route as far as Portage Point, and that few accidents ever occur.”

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      I just copied out Gabriele Franchere’s verson, will have to find this one too. I have Cecil Dryden’s Up the Columbia for Furs, which is fictionalized version of journals of Ross Cox and Alexander Ross. I must re-read…