James Anderson’s Mountain Portage


Mountain Portage

James Anderson’s Map of the southern portion of the Mountain Portage,  from Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, E.37/29, and used with their permission.


The above map comes from the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, and it is a travelling map that shows James Anderson’s route over his Mountain Portage into the headwaters of the Great Fish River. It may not be easy for you to read and even if you could read it, it is hard to understand. Travelling maps often ignored the obvious north and south, and in this case, Anderson started at the top of the page and headed to the bottom. Therefore, South is at the top of the page, and north at the bottom.

Let’s have a little background before we continue with James Anderson’s journey across the Mountain Portage. There were three trails into the Great Fish, two of which were travelled by the British explorer, Captain George Back, and one which Back chose not to use. The Mountain Portage is the trail he rejected in 1833-4, as he said it was only practical for small Indian canoes, and Back’s party travelled in boats. But because it provided a quicker access into the headwaters of the Great Fish River, and because Anderson was travelling by canoe — and also because he had Dene guides who could show him the way — Anderson chose the more difficult Mountain Portage as his route into the Barren Grounds. Because, in case you did not realize it, we are heading into the Barren Grounds. Be prepared! (And, if you want to know more, see this: http://www.britannica.com/place/Barren-Grounds )

So Anderson’s party started their journey over the Mountain Portage on July 19, 1855. As you know they travelled across Great Slave Lake in three birchbark canoes, two of them (and perhaps all three) lined with tarred bale cloth which made them tremendously heavy to carry. The party is transporting their provisions: a number of ninety pound bags of pemmican. One other item of interest that remained unmentioned by Anderson until they reached the Arctic Ocean in early August — they transported a Halkett boat all the way from Fort Resolution to the Arctic Ocean. This rubber boat was the same boat that JohnRae had used the year before in his Arctic exploration, and it was a lightweight inflatable boat designed by Lt. Peter Halkett in the 1840s. The boat was too small to hold more than two people in safety, but nevertheless it plays a very important role in this story in later days.  So, on July 19 they reached the foot of the Mountain Portage at 8.30 am. “This Portage is an ugly business,” Anderson says.

It is about almost [sic] a continual ascent for over 1500 feet. In the first place a portage of about 1/2 miles is made to a pond of about a mile in length, which I have named [blank]. Another portage. is then made (over these mountains) of about 3 miles to a small lake now named [blank]. The whole of the ladings with the canoes were rendered at 10 pm. and the men are now laughing over their day’s work!! The general direction of our route today about N.N.W. Latitude at the head of the portage 63 degrees 46′ 19″ [by] Meridian observation of Mr. Stewart’s. Moostigula [?] and sand flies and Mosquitoes are awfully annoying. 

We all how annoying mosquitoes are. Sand flies are far worse than mosquitoes. As Augustus Peers said of sand flies, “But the mosquito is not, in my opinion, as bad as the sand fly. The former, albeit he makes you smart at first puncture with his proboscis, quietly sucks your blood and when full flies off with a sharp buzz. . . Not so the sand fly, which is so small that you can scarcely see it on your skin its bite is very poisonous and the part attacked is marked by a blood-red spot under the skin; the wound swells and exactly resembles in appearance and sensation the sting from a common nettle which, as everyone knows, is anything but pleasant. A single bit is nothing to complain of but when it comes to dozens at once it is another affair.” Moostigula? I don’t know what it is, but I have seen the word in other fur trade journals. Perhaps someone will let me know what fly it is.

On his above map, which you probably can’t easily read, Anderson called the first of the above lakes (left blank in his journal) “Sandy Portage Lake.” His journal continues:

Tuesday 3rd. The men only put to bed about 11 1/2 o’clock last night; I therefore allowed them to sleep till 6 1/2 a.m. We crossed a small lake (about 1/2 mile across) and made a portage to another lake about 3 miles in length [Clarke’s Lake]. From the top of one of the highest mountains, perhaps 1,000 feet feet above the level of [Great] Slave Lake, I had a fine view of that body of water (there seems till to be a good deal of ice in it), and counted no less than 15 small lakes or tarns. The interior is inconceivably rugged and desolate. The mountains are riven in every shape. Only a few dwarf spruce and such are to be seen, and scarcely even a bird to enliven the scene. Labrador Tea is in full flower and some [berries] are nearly full size. The first portage was about a mile in length, and, of course, from the steep ascents and the ruggedness of the country, very fatiguing. We then made 2 short portages and crossed 2 small tarns; we then made a portage of about 3/4 mile which tho’ it had some steep descents, was less rugged than the others. It is thickly carpeted with reindeer moss, and from their vestiges appears to be a favourite haunt of those animals. This brought us to a Lake where we encamped at 7 3/4 pm as the men tho’ in good spirits, seem pretty well done up with their last 2 days exertions. Set 2 nets as the Lake is said to abound in Trout.

The reindeer are, of course, Barren Grounds Caribou. There is lots more on reindeer moss here, although it’s actually a lichen. Take a look! http://www.britannica.com/science/reindeer-moss

Now I am going to spend a little time talking about my transcript, which has an interesting history all on its own. There are plenty of places to find this interesting journal, and mine comes from the British Columbia Archives. I believe it is a transcript of James Anderson’s original journal, still in the possession of his son, James McKenzie Anderson, after 1890 — and that alone will explain why so many James Anderson documents are in the B.C. Archives. James McKenzie Anderson’s father died in 1855, and James Anderson’s brother, Alexander Caulfield Anderson, died in 1884. A.C. Anderson’s son, James Robert Anderson, and James’s son, James McKenzie Anderson, shared a lot of information and journals with each other in the years after their fathers died. James Robert Anderson’s transcripts were likely destroyed when James McKenzie Anderson’s house burned down, but James McKenzie Anderson’s transcripts survived and were placed, by James Robert Anderson, in the British Columbia Archives. Now, because I can’t always read the B.C. Archives version of James Anderson’s journal, I cross-check with the many other versions that are freely available. The best is, of course, the book, Searching for Franklin: The Land Arctic Searching Expedition. James Anderson’s and James Stewart’s expedition via the Back River, 1855, edited by William Barr, and published by The Halkluyt Society, London, 1999. You will find a copy of this book in a University archives, if nowhere else. What I have learned, though, is that James McKenzie Anderson’s version is very accurate.

So, on Wednesday July 4:

Began to load at 3 a.m. Our nets produced nothing. We made 8 portages today, most of them short, and about 35 miles of Lake route. The Lakes are getting longer and the height of the mountains is diminished. Wood is fast disappearing. The whole country is clothed in Reindeer Moss, and is evidently much frequented by those animals. It is now utterly lifeless with the exception of a very few birds such as robins, loons, and eagles. The water in the Lakes if of crystal purity; they are said to abound in fine trout and White Fish; we, however, have caught none. We passed through a lake about 7 miles in length, which empties itself into Slave Lake by a very rapid river (unnavigable). 

This is McFarlane’s Lake, according to Anderson’s map. His map saws that it is a “rapid shallow river falling into Great Slave lake North (I think) of the Mountains River.” Presumably it means north of the river that led him up the Mountain Portage, but I am not certain of that: it is very hard to read. But, according to William Barr’s map, this is the river that leads to Barnston Lake and then down the hill, with may rapids, into Great Slave Lake a few miles east of the mouth of the Mountain Portage.

So McFarlane’s Lake was named for Roderick McFarlane, who was at this time in charge of Fort Good Hope, down the Mackenzie River just north of the Ramparts, as you know. McFarlane’s Lake is a small but long lake, and its river leads up the hill to Campbell Lake, named by James Anderson for Robert Campbell, who was back in the territory and now looking after Fort Simpson in Anderson’s absence. (Oh, does this help explain James Green Stewart’s excitement in reaching Athabasca Lake, where Robert Campbell was now posted? I might have just found an answer to a puzzle here: unfortunately for Stewart, Campbell was up at Fort Simpson, caretaking the fort while Anderson was on this expedition.)

At the north end of McFarlane’s Lake, a rapid or falls leads Anderson’s men north into Campbell Lake. On Anderson’s map, the rapids is called “Mr. McTavish’s Falls. In the HBC, falls are always rapids (except when they are not, as you will see). There are many McTavish’s in the fur trade, let me see if I can figure out which one this is. There are no McTavish’s working in the north: This McTavish can only have been William McTavish, who was in charge at York Factory and definitely involved in organizing this expedition. So now we know. 

Today Campbell Lake is called McLellan Lake. On the next few days journey the men will pass through lakes that Anderson named Ross Lake, Hardisty Lake, and MacKenzie Lake. It is now getting confusing, and I have just realized that I am confused because the modern map I am reading has, as it should, north at the top of the map, while Anderson’s map, to which I also refer, has north of the bottom of the map! This little *quirk,* I guess I could call it, has made writing this post unbelievably difficult. Nevertheless, I can tell you about some of the lakes he has already passed through, before he reached Campbell/McLellan Lake. 

Clarke’s lake [see above] he named for Lawrence Clarke, who at that time was employed at Fort Resolution. The lake where Anderson and his men encamped on the night of July 3, when the men were so tired, was called They-gee-yeh-too-ey by his Dene guides. He recorded that name, but called the lake Miles Lake, for a partially-unnamed clerk at Fort Simpson who would forward Anderson’s supplies to him. We don’t have his first name: isn’t that a shame?

Pruden’s Lake came next, and it was named for James P. Pruden, a longtime clerk in the district and almost certainly a son of the John Peter Pruden who appears so often in the York Factory Express journals. North of Pruden’s Lake was Harrison’s Lake, named for an Englishman named Daniel Alfred Harrison, who in 1855 was an apprentice-clerk in the Mackenzie River District, and was temporarily in charge of Fort Good Hope while Roderick McFarlane was away. He didn’t last long, but returned to England after only a few years service in the Company. 

Anyway, James’s journal continues. According to his map, the snowbanks he mentions below were at the north end of Harrison’s Lake, and the south end of McFarlane’s Lake.

A little to the N.W. of the mountain, at the head of this Lake, we found banks of snow still 10 feet thick. A little before encamping we passed through a large body of water, broad and 10 miles in length. Another lake empties itself into it by a fine fall of about 50 feet in height; it passes through a door-like cut in the rocks.

Anderson named this falls Rae’s Falls, for John Rae. Interestingly enough, Rae’s Falls is at the end of what he called Barnston Lake, which adjoins McFarlane’s Lake with a small rapids he called Mr. McTavish’s Falls! So his party paddled all the way through McFarlane’s Lake and then through Barnston Lake, to reach Rae’s Falls at the bottom of Barnston Lake. And as you will have noticed, Rae’s Falls was a falls that was a falls and not a rapid!

Today the lake that Anderson called Barnston Lake is McLellan Lake, and the name, Barnston, has been moved to another lake in the immediate neighbourhood. (Part of my confusion today has also been confusion between McFarlane Lake and McLallen Lake.) Beyond modern-day McLellan Lake are lakes that Anderson named Ross, Hardisty’s, and Mackenzie, and all of them have different names today. But Anderson’s party has now crossed the height of land, and all the rivers are now flowing toward Lake Aylmer, which they will soon reach. The height of land was where the snowbanks lay, between Harrison’s Lake and McFarlane’s Lake.

So, back to the door-like cut in the rocks, called Rae’s Falls, at the end of Anderson’s Barnston Lake…

We encamped a little beyond this at 7 3/4 pm. Set the nets. Weather is very warm and mosquitoes and sand flies dreadful; a slight breeze today gave us some relief. I shall for the sake of reference name all the Lakes we pass through, but not those I see from high on mountains; they are innumerable, of all sizes and at every elevation. Saw some old Indian encampments (last years, of 11 Lodges). Latitude of the Portage where snow was seen by a.m. observation of Mr. Stewart’s, 64 degrees 4′ 52″. The general direction of our route is (compass) a little to the W of North.

Now, should I tell you about James Anderson’s second in command, James Green Stewart? I don’t need to tell you much. He is the same man who worked under Robert Campbell at Fort Selkirk, and so you know plenty about him and his long and almost impossible cross-country journeys to Fort Simpson and return. On taking over this territory, Anderson sent him out to York Factory. A few years later he was sent back in: because of his experience in travelling in the North he was assigned to be second-in-command of this expedition, under James Anderson. I am not going to tell you much more, but I regret that I do not have his journal. Because of the pandemic, it has so far been unavailable to me, and no one I know has a copy of it, nor is it much mentioned in William Barr’s Searching for Franklin. I know that his journal does not add a lot of value to the story, but there are time that it would be interesting to know what he had to say. 

To return to the beginning of this series, go here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/james-andersons-journey/

When the next is published, it will appear here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/james-andersons-journey-5/

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