Lieutenant Henry James Warre was a Royal Engineer who came to the Pacific Slopes, with his companion Lieutenant Mervin Vavasour, on a secret spying mission for the British Government. The Government wanted to know how the Oregon Territory could be protected against American interests. But did you know that Henry James Warre’s journal is available to all in Peel’s Prairie, Peel 239, Warre, Henry James (Sir) (1819-1898), Sketches in North America and the Oregon Territory [London?]: Dickinson & Co. . I stumbled across this by accident some time ago.
But you might wonder why Henry James Warre is so important to West of the Rocky Mountains history? It is because he was an artist, who drew images of many of the places he visited. In my first book, The Pathfinder, I used some of these images, and in my newly published book, The York Factory Express, I also do. A lot of them, in fact.
I am pleased to find that he wrote a journal of his voyages on the Pacific Slopes. I do, perhaps, wish I had found it earlier, but that is the way it is! Beginning at Red River, here is what he had to say of this expedition through the Rocky Mountains in summer 1846.
The Hudson’s Bay Company have several small forts or trading posts (built of wood and surrounded by strong palisading, having blockhouse armed with small cannon at the angles). We called at three of these posts, between Red River and the Rocky Mountains, in order to exchange our horses.
At each of these station large droves of horses are kept, concealed as much as possible from the Indians.
From fort Edmonton, on the Saskatchewan river, we took a more Southern course, through the heart of the Blackfoot country (our most formidable enemies) in order to reach a pass in the Rocky Mountains, which afforded the easiest and most practicable passage… We were often on the qui vive [on the alert, or lookout], from false alarms about hostile Indians, but by the precautions taken, we escaped without any actual encounter.
These two men — Warre, and Vavasour — travelled into the territory with Chief Factor Peter Skene Ogden in 1845. According to Ogden’s biography on Dictionary of Canadian Biography, “On his return to Canada in 1845 [from London], he [Ogden] accompanied two British army officers, Mervin Vavasour and Henry James Warre, on their secret surveying trip from Lachine, Lower Canada, to the Columbia.” Secret it might have been, but Ogden somehow knew that they were British spies. Warre’s journal continues:
On the morning of the third or fourth day after leaving fort Edmonton, our guide discovered that Indians were in our path, and as it is usual in the country to consider all as enemies till they prove friends, we galloped forward, leaving a few men to protect the baggage..
These First Nations people were travelling with their wives and families, and were not enemies. Unfortunately, unknown to the Royal Engineers and the HBC men, they were being followed by a party of Blackfoot Indians, who were hoping to attack. After the HBC men’s parlay with these friendly First Nations people, the Blackfoot found and attacked them instead, taking wives and children hostage and killing a number of the men. Henry James Warre’s journal continues:
Our passage over the magnificent range of lofty mountains was not accomplished without much difficulty, and at a fearful sacrifice of the noble animals that aided us in the transport…. We left fort Edmonton with sixty horses; on our arrival at fort Colville [Colvile], on the Columbia river, we had only twenty-seven, and several of these were so exhausted, they could not have continued many more days. The steepness of the mountain passes; the want of proper nourishment; the fearful falls that some of these animals sustained, rolling in some instances many hundred feet into the foaming torrent beneath, combined to cause this great loss…
They reached Fort Colvile, and from that place William James Warre’s “party descended the Columbia river in boats, to the Pacific Ocean, a distance of 700 miles, which we reached on the 25th August, having in less than four months traversed the whole continent of North America.” So they came downriver in the Fort Colvile boats, but not with the incoming York Factory Express, who would only reach Boat Encampment and Fort Colvile in early to mid-October. it was likely that no sooner did the boats return to Fort Colvile, than they would be sent upriver to Boat Encampment to pick up the incoming men in the York Factory Express.
Henry James Warre’s journal continues:
During the winter’s residence in the Oregon Territory and on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, we employed ourselves in visiting all the accessible parts of the country. Having obtained horses from the Hudson’s Bay Company, we crossed the forest and prairie land between the Columbia river and Puget’s Sound, to the North. Hiring canoes from the native tries, we coasted through this beautiful Inland sea, and traversed the straits of St. Juan de Fuca to Vancouver’s Island, on which the Hudson’s Bay Company have lately established a trading post, where their vessels which are annually dispatched from England with stores, &c. to carry on the trade with the Indians, will in future land their cargoes, and receive in return the valuable peltries.
This is Fort Victoria, of course, which had been established in 1843 on what they then called Camosun Harbour. It is also true that the London Ships were diverted to Victoria’s fine harbour, instead of being forced to cross the dangerous bar at the mouth of the Columbia River, and then work their way upriver a hundred miles to Fort Vancouver. From this date onward, Forts Vancouver and Nisqually would deliver their furs north to Fort Victoria, and they would get their trade goods delivered from Fort Victoria south to their two forts — an enormous change for Fort Vancouver! But from the beginning, this was Governor George Simpson’s plan, and this plan is what Chief Factor John McLoughlin, now-retired head man at Fort Vancouver, fought for so many years. But McLoughlin is gone, and Peter Skene Ogden is taking over his position — and Ogden has, of course, just arrived at Fort Vancouver with Mervin Vavasour and Henry James Warre.
But we are talking about Henry James Warre in this post… His journal continues:
To the South of the Columbia we visited the American settlement on the banks of the river Willamette… and extended our tour through this beautiful undulating, fertile country to the borders of North California, examining in our course the great channels of communication which is the present untrodden state of the country are almost exclusively confined to the numerous navigable streams and rivers, or exploring the depths of the magnificent forests on their banks.
At Fort Victoria, Henry James Warre and Mervin Vavasour met the crew and captains of the British ships Modeste, under Captain T. Baillie, and America, under Captain Hon. C. Gordon, “by whom we were mostly kindly and hospitably received. The “Modeste” subsequently entered the Columbia, and “wintered” opposite fort Vancouver, the principal establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company West of the Rocky Mountains, situated 110 miles from the mouth of this river.” To my amusement, he then writes…
To the gentlemen connected to the Hon Hudson’s Bay Company I must also be permitted to offer my acknowledgements, for the facilities they afforded us in travelling about the country; and we were most cordially welcomed in the wooden walls of fort Vancouver, when obliged to seek shelter from the perpetual rain which commenced in November and continued with little intermission to the following March.
An Englishman complaining about the rain? He did admire the scenery, though. “Whether we regard the enormous size of the timber (I have seen one hundred trees together whose average girth is from twenty-five to thirty feet), the magnificence of the rivers, the height and beauty of the distant mountains — capped with perpetual snow — or the luxuriance of the undulating country at their base, we have a prospect as wonderful for the growth of its productions as for the beauty of the greenery.”
Henry James Warre and Mervin Vavasour returned to Great Britain in the outgoing York Factory Express of 1846.
The passage of the Rocky Mountains was not considered practicable till the beginning of May, on account of the depth of the snow in the country lying at their base, which would render it impossible to transport the baggage, provisions, &c., sufficient for our party for so great a distance over the frozen surface. We were, therefore, obliged to delay our departure on our homeward journey till the end of March, which would allow time for the ascent of the Columbia river, and enable us to reach the boat encampment, from whence we were to commence the ascent of the mountains at the proper season.
The York Factory Express always left Fort Vancouver on March 20, or on the first weekday that followed that date. Of course in one year they did not, as you will see from my last post, when the 1835 Express was led out by James Douglas.
On the 25th March , we took leave of our many kind and hospitable friends, and commenced our homeward journey. Several of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s servants whose term of servitude had expired, and who was desirous of returning to their native land, increased our party to about thirty; we were distributed in two large boats, laden with every variety of store for the Indian trade of the interior country, which we deposited at the different forts or trading posts we passed in the ascent of the river.
The ascent of the rapid current of the Columbia was very tedious; we could seldom average more than 25 or 30 miles a day; and often, where the river was more than usually impeded with falls and rapids, we could not even accomplish this distance.
We reached “Les Dalles” on the 29th, a distance of 80 miles from fort Vancouver, having made the “portage” of the beautiful falls 49 miles below, call[ed] the “Cascades.” At the point called “Les Dalles,” the river has been obstructed in its approach to the sea, by a broad strata of basaltic rock rising nearly 100 feet above the usual level of the ground, through which the water has forced a narrow passage of nearly a mile in length, and not more than 100 feet in breadth. During the spring season, when the snow melting on the mountains increased the quantity of water, this magnificent river is kept back till it is said to rise above 60 feet, forming itself into a large lake above the barrier, and forcing itself through the narrow gorge with a terrific force. The view of Mount Hood from this point is very beautiful, rising to a height of nearly 18,000 feet, and covered with its dazzling mantle of perpetual snow.
This last-mentioned mage is in my book, in the first lot of images that immediately follows page 43. There are in fact several of Henry James Warre’s images in this section; and in fact, many of the images in this book are Henry James Warre’s. To continue with his journal:
We arrived at fort Walla Walla, a distance of 800 miles, on the 3rd April, and here obtained horses to ride across the country to fort Colville [Colvile], leaving the boats to continue their more circuitous course by the river to the same point, about 450 miles. The direct route to fort Colville is about 250 miles, 200 of which are through a barren sandy dessert, comparable only with the Great Sahara in Africa, during the passage of which we could hardly find sufficient wood or water to supply our most ordinary wants, or sufficient nourishment to afford a scanty meal to our half famished horses. The country is intersected by deep ravines, scarped with perpendicular basaltic rock, which obliged us to make very long detours before we could find a point that afforded even a dangerous crossing. In many instances these ravines formed the bed of a rapid river, which only increased our desire for water, which, within view, was the most tempting from being unattainable…
At fort Colville, we again embarked in boats to ascend the Upper Columbia river to the Boat Encampment, a distance of 250 miles. We abandoned the boats at this point, and commenced, on foot, the ascent of the Rocky Mountains.
We had for many days been surrounded by magnificent mountains, and had passed through such a beautiful country, that the effect of this grand and solitary scene… was partially destroyed, by the sublimity of that which had preceded it. The mountains are about 10,000 feet in height, unequalled in any part of Switzerland for the ruggedness of their peaks and beauty of form, capped and dazzling in their white mantle of snow.
Our pedestrian labours now commenced. For three days we continued the ascent of the valley of the Canoe [Wood] river, wading twenty times in the course of each day though this mountain torrent, landing on the snow which covered the whole country, and over the half thawed surface of which we dragged the heavy lumbering, but well adapted, shoe, that prevented our being submerged at every step; at night we formed our couch on the snow, without an opportunity being afforded to us of drying our saturated garments, or being able to pitch our tent to guard against the cold. On the fourth day, we ascended the “Grande Cote” to the height of land on which are situated two small lakes from whence flow two rivers, the waters of which fall into different oceans — the Columbia [Pacific Creek and Wood River] into the Pacific, and the Athabasca into the Frozen ocean. The fatigue of mounting nearly 5,000 feet on the soft snow which sank, even with the snow shoes, nearly to the knees at every step, can hardly be conceived. We were obliged to follow one another in file, and relieve the leading file every ten minutes, by which means the road was formed for the carriers, whose endurance under their heavy burdens was wonderful.
So the gentlemen always led the way, breaking the trail for the voyageurs who carried the heavy loads (including the gentlemen’s cassettes and personal possessions) up the mountain side. It is lovely to see that the HBC gentlemen here made both Henry James Warre and Mervin Vavasour take their turn in breaking trail through the fresh snow. Warre, obviously, was not pleased! His journal continues:
We were now in the very heart of the mountains, which rose several thousand feet on every side of us. “Avalanches” of snow and rock were detached under the influence of the mid-day sun, and rolled across our path into the valley beneath, threatening to engulf us in their overwhelming course.
At the Boat Encampment the provisions of dried meat had been divided; each man carried his own share in addition to his regular burden. From want of forethought, and dislike to additional weight, they had not taken sufficient, and their provisions began to fail. We were not fortunate enough to kill a mountain sheep or goat, or even an elk, whose traces were very apparent in the snow, and some of which usually fall victims to the skill of the hunters. On this the men relied, and we found ourselves in the unenviable position of being obliged to share our last meal with the hungry men, whose strength also began to fail under the excessive exertion without sufficient nourishment. On the 7th day our provisions were completely exhausted… I started forward with two men to make our way to Jasper’s house, a small station of the Hudson’s Bay Company on the Athabasca river, and distant about 60 miles. We had, however, scarcely walked 10 miles, when the joyful sound of human voices assured us of more immediate relief, and we soon encountered a party of men who had been sent to meet us with provisions, accompanied by Le Pere de Smet, a Jesuit priest from Belgium…
In four days they reached Jasper’s House, “and left the horses, to embark in boats to descend the Athabasca River, the current of which was so rapid that in two days and a half we reached Fort Assiniboine, a distance of nearly 400 miles.” His journal continues as he makes his way toward Red River, where we will leave him.
Here we again took horses to travel overland to fort Edmonton, on the [North] Saskatchewan river (about 100 miles), which we accomplished in less than three days; many of the men were becoming knocked up by such constant exposure and hard work; we therefore obtained a fresh crew at fort Edmonton, and embarked on the Saskatchewan river, which we descended to fort Carlton, a distance of about 500 miles. Here we again took horses to ride across the prairies for Red River (about 450 miles), which we accomplished in ten days, the weather being wet, cold, and disagreeable. We arrived at fort Garry on the 7th June, in seventy-three days from the time we left Vancouver. We here in this time completed a journey of 2500 miles, notwithstanding the various means of conveyance and innumerable obstacles we had to encounter.
And so, Mervin Vavasour and Henry James Warre left Fort Vancouver on their way home to England, to report to the British government on what they had discovered in Oregon Territory. Henry James Warre left behind a valuable collection of images, which though exaggerated, give us a clear idea of how the west side of the Rocky Mountains appeared to him.
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Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson. 2021. All rights reserved.
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- Clerk James Douglas
- Bits and Pieces