Joe Burke


A York Boat under sail

This powerful image of a York Boat under sail is used with the permission of the Glenbow Archives. Its number is na-1847-5. The HBC men sailed these boats anytime the wind was blowing in right direction, both going downriver, and coming upriver.

In his outgoing York Factory Express journal of 1847, Thomas Lowe lists the passengers who are travelling up the Columbia River with him. A mysterious “Joe Burke” was among these passengers. This is what he wrote:

Wednesday, 14th March 1847 — Started from Vancouver at noon with two boats, under a salute from the Fort. Had 9 men in each Boat, and about 30 pieces principally Provisions for the voyage Passengers Mr. Lewes, who goes up as far as Colvile, and Mr. Joe Burke, who is on his way to England intending to go home by way of Hudson’s Bay.

Mr. Lewes is, of course, John Lee Lewes, who was at that time in charge of Fort Colvile. But I had no idea who Mr. Joe Burke was; although he appeared a number of times in Lowe’s journal, he was never identified, either as a retired fur trader or as a missionary who was travelling home to England. So, of course, I wrote the book without identifying who he was. That’s okay, because he is not important to the journey in any way. 

But interesting? Yes! I now know who he is. As I was browsing through the Champlain Society’s The Letters of John McLoughlin, from Fort Vancouver to the Governor and Committee, Third Series, 1844-46, p. 59, I discovered this letter, written by John McLoughlin on November 21, 1844:

 The wishes of the Governor and Committee, in regard to Mr. [Joseph] Burke, will meet with every attention, and his expenses will be charged, according to your directions, to the account of Sir W[illiam Jackson] Hooker [of Kew Gardens]. 

I am informed that Mr. Burke spent the last summer, making collections in the rocky Mountains, where he was found in the month of October last, by the people of our incoming express, who brought him onwards to the Fort of Walla Walla. 

From that post, taking advantage of the departure of a party of our people, he proceeded, under their protection, into the Snake Country, and will probably be down here [at Fort Vancouver] in course of the coming winter.

That woke me up! The footnote told me that Joseph Burke was a botanist and collector for the Royal Botanic Gardens. He sailed from London to York Factory in the Prince Rupert, in the summer of 1844. The footnotes continue:

According to Oregon Hist. Quart., XLI, p 186, Burke intended spending the winter of 1844-45 at Fort Hall and to “descend from thence … down towards the Sacramento River, into California.” We are indebted to the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for the information that prior to his journey to North America, Joseph Burke spent several years in the interior of South Africa collecting plants and animals for the Earl of Derby, and that his work was so satisfactory he was commissioned to undertake a similar errand in North American and California for the Earl of Derby and the Royal Botanic Gardens. 

Now that I have a copy of that article, I can tell you what it said in its entirety. The writer is another botanist, Charles A. Geyer, from Germany. “I met Mr. Burke at Fort Walla-walla, he was much disappointed at his summer expedition at Jasper’s House, the summer being cold, stormy and snowy. There was no time to write. He requested me to state to you his part ill luck, and also to his noble employer the Earl of Derby. He had just escaped wrecking, his boat struck at the rocks in the rapids where Messrs. Banks & Wallace (two more botanists) lost their lives. His papers and books got wet and during the two hours only which we spent together he was busily employed in getting horses and saddles ready to start next day for Fort Hall on the upper Louis River, his intended winter quarters, to descend from thence next spring, down towards the Sacramento River, into California. I took his place and arrived at Fort Vancouver the 29th of October…”

So, now we know who “Joe Burke” is  — that is, if my information checks out. On Twitter I asked how I could find out more, and someone who I did not follow told me about Ted Binnema’s book, Enlightened Zeal, the Hudson’s Bay Company and Scientific Networks, 1670-1970 [U of Toronto Press, 2014]. I couldn’t find the book in Victoria, and so I did the next best thing: I emailed Ted Binnema with my question. He responded almost immediately:

That must indeed be Joseph Burke. The timing is exactly right. I dealt with Burke briefly in my book, Enlightened Zeal. He was the first person to bring back to England viable seeds of the famed “golden chestnut,” which was so coveted for ornamental gardens in England. 

Joseph Burke spent a few years in California, and participated in the California Gold Rush, where he was successful in finding gold. But the gold rush began in 1848, so in March 1847 Burke was not carrying gold home with him, but seeds. And nuts — specifically the nuts of the golden chestnut, which (when I google it) appears to be what they call the American chestnut. Its a beautiful tree, which in the east, at least, was killed off by blight in the early 20th century. (The trees in the west and midwest were apparently protected from this fungus.) If you google “golden chestnut and Kew gardens,” you will see images of the trees (or its descendants) that Joseph Burke brought home to England. 

So, the HBC gentlemen travelling in this outgoing 1847 York Factory Express would have heard some interesting stories, if Joe Burke was the type of man who would share his stories. Joe Burke would also have some interesting stories to tell after he reached England: stories of his adventures in the York Factory Express! As I told you above, they left Fort Vancouver on March 24, and reached Fort Nez Perce on April 1. On April 2, “the two Boats started this afternoon for Colvile, in charge of Mr. Lewes, Mr. Burke also a passenger.” So Burke travelled up the Columbia River in the boats, while Lowe and some of the other gentlemen crossed the scablands on horseback to Fort Colvile. Lowe arrived at the fort sometime after the boats arrived, it seems, but both the horsemen and the boats experienced quite a fall of snow!

The express left Fort Colvile on April 22, with Thomas Lowe writing in his journal: 

Beautiful weather. Started from Colvile with the two Boats about 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and reached Dease’s Encampment, 6 miles from the Fort. Mr. Burke & myself are the only passengers. 

They reached Boat Encampment on Sunday May 2, after what seems to be an easy journey up the Columbia River. It snowed as they climbed the Grand Cote (Big Hill), and was very cold on the next day, May 4. They passed the height of land on May 5, finding only two and a half feet of snow on the Committee’s Punch Bowl. The only was in Lowe’s journal: he expected more snow on the lakes, I guess. It seems to have been a drought year, both on the west side of the Rockies, and on the east.

On May 6:

Started very early and breakfasted at the Grande Batture, where we found the horses that had been sent from Jasper’s House for us. There were 14, enough for all hands, so that all were mounted. Sent Michel and Bte. McKay ahead to Jasper’s House to have the boat gummed. Mr. Burke also accompanied them. I then went on with the remainder of the party…

When Lowe arrived at Jasper’s House on Saturday, he discovered that “Mr Burke had arrived yesterday forenoon.” On the 9th they departed Jasper’s House and travelled down the Athabasca river in cold, disagreeable, and snowy weather. It rained as the horses crossed the Athabasca Portage, which delayed them a little, although they made Edmonton House in good time. On Saturday, May 22nd, Lowe and Mr. Burke departed Edmonton House, travelling downriver in the same boat. The river was very low, and they were bumping on battures [gravel bars] the entire distance to Carlton House. It was definitely a drought year on the North Saskatchewan. At Cole’s Rapids:

Came to Cole’s Rapids before breakfast, but having broken two boats, put ashore to breakfast and get them repaired. In course of the day 5 more boats were broken, one of them having gone to pieces, the crew saving themselves by springing into a boat which was passing…

In the end they broke 8 boats, with one boat lost entirely. But the South Saskatchewan River was full of water, and they made good time down the Saskatchewan to Cumberland House. The water must still have been lower than usual, however: they broke three boats in the Red Stone Rapid, and had another accident at the Grand Rapids. “Laplante’s Boat struck on the rocks and blocked up the channel, when the Columbia boat, which was close behind, ran foul of it and cut it down to the keel. The crew immediately jumped into the Columbia boat…”

The Saskatchewan Brigade reached Norway House on June 20, and Thomas Lowe was delayed there while O’Brien, Pelly, and Burke “started this morning to overtake the Saskatchewan Brigade in a loaded boat.” But Thomas Lowe’s boat passed the Saskatchewan brigade boats on the Hayes River and made York Factory on June 29 — Burke finally arrived on June 6th:

Very close and oppressive. In the afternoon Messrs Pelly & Burke arrived with one boat, the rest [of the Saskatchewan brigade boats] will be here tomorrow.

That is the last mention of Mr. Burke in Lowe’s journals. Lowe left York Factory in mid-July. Burke would leave York Factory by the London Ship later in the summer (likely August), shortly after the Portage la Loche Brigades arrived at York Factory with the Mackenzie’s River District furs.

But apparently, when he reached London, he had some difference of opinion with Sir William Hooker, and their relationship was severed. Burke moved to the United States with his wife and three children, and successfully found gold in the California gold rush in 1849, as mentioned above. He later served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and died in 1873, at the age of 61 years.

Born in 1812, Burke was about thirty five years old when he crossed the continent in Thomas Lowe’s York Factory Express — still a young man, though more than ten years older than Thomas Lowe. Nevertheless, Joe Burke would have been a very interesting travelling companion to have on that long journey, with his stories of South Africa, Fort Hall, and California.

So here you can purchase the book in which Mr. Joe [Joseph] Burke appears: 

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

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One thought on “Joe Burke

  1. Gordon MacIvor

    Thank you.
    As always, again, a fine job, well done.
    I do look forward to every Saturday post and pick up things I never new.
    Fascinating history.
    I wonder what it would have been like if the British government had not given up the Oregon Territory to the Americans in 1846.
    Then we would truly be British ‘Columbia’.