Impossible Journey

Packhorses on Athabasca Portage

This is image na-3934-16, from Glenbow Archives, and is used with their permission. The packhorses that the HBC men used were probably smaller than these horses, but the scene would be very similar to this.

My book, The HBC Brigades: Culture, Conflict, and Perilous Journeys of the Fur Trade, was published by Ronsdale Press in July, 2024. You can order the book through your favorite bookstore, or via Amazon. For American booksellers, the distributor for Ronsdale Press in the United States is Independent Publishers Group. Thank you! 

When I was doing research some time ago for another book (“The Brigades”), I ran across one man who made an impossible journey through New Caledonia, heading north to the Peace River District. I had no idea why he was making this journey, and I never did follow up on it — but now I will. In one of the Fort Vancouver Correspondence volumes I’ve read recently, I stumbled across the name of the man who was instructed to leave his post and travel north, more than a thousand miles, to the Peace River via New Caledonia. It was Chief Trader Richard Grant. 

Here is the letter that started the man’s journey. Governor George Simpson addressed his letter to Chief Factor Peter Skene Ogden at Fort Vancouver. It is dated January 11, 1851, and reads: 

In my letter to the Board of Management of 29 October last [1850], I entered upon the subject of the charge of the Snake Country, directing that Richard Grant should be removed to some other part of the Country, to be succeeded by some officer who appeared better qualified for that situation. I trust your arrangement on this subject by the time this reaches you, will have been made so that Grant may be disposable, as I find his services are required in the Peace River, to succeed Francis Butcher, who is to leave the post of Dunvegan in Spring in consequence of ill health. It will be too late to send Grant across the Mountains with the spring Express & if he took that route he would only reach his destination late in the fall; I have, therefore, to beg he may be forwarded to Peace River by way of New Caledonia District. In my letter to Governor Colvile on the arrangement of next season, I have informed him that he need make no provision for relieving Butcher from the East side, as Grant would be forwarded to Dunvegan from the Columbia, so that unless Grant be prevented by extreme sickness or other cause equally valid, we must count on his services in Peace River next Outfit (1851/2)

So that is Governor Simpson’s plan: that Richard Grant leave Fort Hall, and travel north and west to Fort Colvile or Okanogan, and then north over the old Brigade Trail to Kamloops and Fort Alexandria. After that, Grant would travel by boat or canoe north up the Fraser River to Fort George [Prince George]; up the Nechako River to Fort St. James; and finally overland, to McLeod Lake. From McLeod Lake Grant would then have to travel down the Pack River to the Peace, through the ferocious Peace River Canyon, and downriver to Dunvegan. A heck of a long journey, and a dangerous one, too, considering that Fort Hall was in what we now call Idaho, north of the modern-day town of Pocatell and nine miles from the junction of the Snake River with the Portneuf River.   

The real question is, of course, why would Governor Simpson want to remove Chief Trader Richard Grant from Fort Hall and send him all the way north to the Peace River post of Dunvegan? Grant was the perfect man for Fort Hall: he’d been there for ten years and always did a good job. Why on earth would he be removed from this important post by Governor Simpson? 

To understand that, we may need to know something more about Fort Hall. It was set up by the American businessman and ice-merchant Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth, who had come west to compete with the Hudson’s Bay Company for furs in about 1831. Of course, Wyeth didn’t have a hope of success, and he sold his company and fort to the HBC in 1837. Like the re-built Fort Nez Perces (a wooden fort that was consumed by fire), Fort Hall was built of adobe, and was in an excellent location: even though it was off the main Oregon Trail for Oregon Territory and California, many American immigrants still visited Fort Hall. 

Richard Grant served at Fort Hall for ten years, having replaced Francis Ermatinger in the mid-1840s. The Americans bought provisions from him. He was a good trader, and smart. He would trade flour for exhausted and lamed short-horn cattle that the American immigrants had driven west, and then fatten up the lean cattle and sell them off to the next batch of immigrants who passed through the place. However, by 1851, Richard Grant was about fifty-seven years old. He suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, and took a year’s furlough before retiring.  

So it’s quite clear that it wasn’t Richard Grant who make this impossible journey north from Fort Hall to the Peace River. Who was it, then? Let’s find out.

So, from the Kamloops journals in B.C. Archives, kept by Paul Fraser:

Monday 18th June. Weather fine  arrived Mr. Maxwell and family from Fort Vancouver on his way to Athabasca

Wed 20th Supplied Mr. Maxwell with 12 horses to assist him on to Alexa [Alexandria]

It is not clear by this entry which route Maxwell used: Fort Colvile or Fort Langley. The incoming Brigades were just arriving at Fort Kamloops from Fort Langley, and so it occurs to me that Maxwell may have come via Forts Victoria and Langley. But I can find nothing current in the HBRS book, Fort Victoria Letters (except for his biography which I will add below). I also have nothing in my collection of letters from the HBCA’s Fort Vancouver Correspondence, and nothing from Fort Victoria (which may mean that when I copied the information out I did not think Maxwell was an important character — and really, he isn’t. It’s just that this little story is interesting).

So, in June 1851, Maxwell reached Kamloops, and left it again, riding over the new Brigade Trail north to Fort Alexandria. On September 12, 1851, Donald McLean reported in the Fort Alexandria post journal that, on that day, 

We reached here this Evening accompanied by Messrs.[Peter] Ogden and [Thomas] Charles, found Mr. Maxwell and family at the Fort. Mr. M. is appointed to the charge of Dunvegan and has reached thus far en route. Marrineau [Marineau], whom I had sent to Thompson’s River for flour, &c &c., has not yet arrived but may be expected shortly….

Monday 15th. Mr. Ogden, Charles, and Maxwell started with Boats, one of the Boats will (on arrival at Fort George) be dispatched to Tete Jaune’s Cache in order to meet the new hands expected in by that route (via the incoming York Factory Express).

Peter Ogden is the son of Peter Skene Ogden, and Thomas Charles is the older brother of John Charles, a major character in The York Factory Express. Louis Marineau [Martineau dit Destasten] is also a character in The York Factory Express, being one of the persons who kept the Express running smoothly in the enormous territory of New Caledonia.  

Next, in the Fort St. James post journal, I find this:

October, Wednesday 1st. Fine. about 9 am Mr. [Peter] Ogden with two boats arrived from [Fort] Alexandria with the remainder of the Outfit with this Party and …. Mr. Henry Maxwell, on his way to Peace River, being appointed to the charge of Dunvegan.

So the man who made this impossible journey is a Mr. Maxwell — his full name is Henry Maxwell. He is Canadian and English, born in Montreal in about 1817, and so is about 35 years old. He started his career in the HBC fur trade west of the Rocky Mountains at Fort Chilcotin in 1840, and worked at Kamloops, McLeod Lake, and in 1842 to 1845 was clerk in charge at Fort Connolly, north of Fort St. James. So he knew this northern District reasonably well. In 1845 he had leave to go down to Fort Vancouver because of illness, and clerked at Fort Hall where he was assistant to Chief Trader Richard Grant: the same Richard Grant who was expected to go north to Dunvegan. 

In his 3-volume book Lives Lived West of the Divide, Bruce McIntyre Watson tells us that Henry Maxwell was at Champoeg, where Peter Skene Ogden writes that “I do indeed regret to say I cannot say one word in favour of Maxwell, his want of popularity at Champoeg and also want of regular habits, so it was commonly reported, obliged me to remove him to the cape [Fort George/Astoria] and then his vanity led him to believe he was an experienced Merchant…” Then, according to Watson, he left the Pacific Northwest coast and served in four departments in the East.

This is what the HBRS biography in Fort Victoria Letters says of Maxwell: “Henry Maxwell of Montreal joined the Company as a clerk in 1840. He served in New Caledonia, in the Snake River Country and the Districts of Athabasca, Mackenzie River and Moose Factory. He was promoted to Chief Trader in 1857. He retired in 1863 and in 1870 was living in North Dauro, Ontario.” 

It works! He made it all the way to Dunvegan. This is how he left the Pacific Northwest, riding north along the Brigade Trail to Fort Alexandria, and travelling through the McLeod’s Lake post and up the Pack River to the Peace (at the junction of the Finlay). Then he travelled east, through the Rocky Mountain Portage [Peace River Canyon] to Dunvegan House. And Peter Skene Ogden sent him on this impossible journey. It is likely that Ogden played on his vanity, telling him he was the only man for the job!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021. All rights reserved.