John Keist Lord

A section of a Larry Hunter mural in Summerland, B.C., showing the Brigades.

This is a section of a Larry Hunter mural in downtown Summerland, which shows the Brigades passing Okanagan Lake.

In this post we continue our explorations of John Keist Lord’s writings, from his published book, At Home in the Wilderness. Here he writes about his experiences as a mule packer in the Columbia district, packing goods in from Fort Langley to Fort Colvile after 1859. He was British, and a Royal Engineer member of the Boundary Commission who surveyed the border from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. while he worked for the Boundary Commission he had been in charge of their pack-trains, which consisted of mules, and so he knew a good deal about purchasing, caring for, and packing mules. John Keist Lord was quite critical of the HBC men who travelled in the Brigades, and criticized them, mostly, for not using mules — not realizing, I suppose, that mules were not yet in the territory. (That is not absolutely true, however. I did find mention of one mule at Fort Alexandria at the same time A.C. Anderson was in charge of the place.) John Keist Lord also writes:

In the choice of pack-saddles, opinions vary most materially. Some persons, for example the Hudson’s Bay Company’s traders, stick to, and swear by, the cross-tree pack-saddle, from which they hang their bales of fur-peltries by loops.” 

Bales of furs with loops for handles are called “pactons,” according to Edward Ermatinger’s York Factory Express journal. And now we come to John Keist Lord’s description of the packers at Fort Colvile. “It may prove interesting en passant,” he says, “to give a brief outline of the plan adopted by all the far inland fur trading posts, for the conveyance of the year’s furs to the place [Forts Hope and Langley], at which either a steamer or a ‘batteau’ unloads the annual supply of goods sent from England for the use of the traders, and in return takes the peltries traded back to the central depot [Fort Victoria].” Of course he has a lot to say of Fort Colvile as well, as you will see.

Behind the dwelling [gentleman’s house] is a large court enclosed by tall pickets, composed of trees sunk in the ground side by side, (the house itself was I believe once picketed in, but the Indians proved so friendly that any protection of that description was deemed unnecessary.)

That was not always the case, of course. In John Lee Lewes’s time, or perhaps even before his time, the palisade that was originally around Fort Colvile disappeared, because the American Indians that surrounded the post proved friendly. Then the Cayuse War of 1847-48 happened, and A.C. Anderson rebuilt the pickets around the fort and main buildings. Obviously, by 1859, part of that has now disappeared (pickets rot), and as there was no longer a threat from the Indians they were not rebuilt. As a matter of fact, the First Nations people of the region all worked in the Fort Colvile Brigades!

John Keist Lord’s story continues:

In this court, all the furs traded at the fort are baled for conveyance by the Brigade to Fort Hope. The trading shop, and store of goods employed in bartering with the savages adjoins the trader’s house, although not actually a part of it; and the fur trader stands therein behind a high counter, to make his bargains. The Indians have a curious custom in their barterings, which is, to demand payment for each skin separately, and if a savage had fifty marten skins to dispose of, he would only sell or barter one at a time, and insist on being paid for them one by one. Hence it often occupies the trader many days to purchase a large bale of peltries from an Indian trapper.

This has been true all the way through the history of the fur trade, both east and west of the Rocky Mountains: in this, the traders always accepted the First Nations’ traditions. John Keist Lord’s story continues:

The system of trading at all the posts of the Company is one entirely of barter. In early days, when I first wandered over the fur countries east of the Rocky Mountains, money was unknown; but this medium of exchange has since then gradually become familiar to most of the Indians.

The Métis, too, would have the same disregard for money: it meant nothing to them. Their journeys to the headquarters, whether York Factory or Fort Langley, were adventures, and in a way shopping trips: they bought new shirts and clothes and gifts for their sweethearts, on credit, and if anything at all was left over they saved it for future pleasure or trade. John Keist Lord’s story continues:

The standard of value throughout the territories of the Company is the skin of the beaver, by which the price of all other fur is regulated. Any service rendered, or labour executed by Indians, is paid for in skins; the beaver skin being the unit of computation. To explain this system, let us assume that four beavers are equivalent in value to a silver-fox skin, two martens to a beaver, twenty muskrats to a marten, and so on. For example’s sake, let us suppose an Indian wishes to purchase a blanket or a gun from the Hudson’s Bay Company; he would have to give, say, three silver-foxes, or twenty beaver skins, or two hundred muskrats, or other fur, in accordance with their proper relative positions of worth in the tariff….

Made Beaver: The gentleman who was trading would need to have a calculator for a brain, and perhaps, the traders did develop this ability to calculate quickly the value of the furs that were in front of them. But how would this work with the First Nations man trading his furs one at a time? Although John Keist Lord does not mention this, the HBC trader gave the Indian trader a token for each skin that was traded, and when trading was finished, the First Nations man added up his tokens to see if he had enough to trade them in on a blanket, or whatever it was he needed. At Fort Alexandria, I understand, the tokens were wood, but I have heard of metal tokens (although I think they came later). Does anyone have any specific information on this???

Anyway, John Keist Lord’s story continues:

In many of the Posts the trade room is cleverly contrived, so as to prevent a sudden rush of Indians, the approach from outside the pickets being through a long narrow passage, only of sufficient width to admit one Indian at a time, the passage being bent at an acute angle near the window, where the trader stands…. Over the fur shops are large lofts for storing and drying the furs in as they are collected. Beyond this a smith’s shop, a few small log shanties, and an immense ‘corral,’ for keeping the horses in whilst fitting out the brigades, make up all that is noteworthy as far as the buildings are concerned at Fort Colvile. The regular staff stationed at this Post consists of the chief trader, a clerk, and about four half-breeds, the remainder of the hands needed are selected from the Indians. 

John Keist Lord now describes the valley behind Fort Colvile, the Indian village at the Falls, and Kettle Falls itself. He also talks about the Salmon run on the Columbia River, where “more than five hundred Indians then assemble here, in order to trap this lordly fish, to them an absolute necessity… I have myself seen above 500 salmon landed in one day from the baskets into which the fish leap.”

The Kettle River flows into the Columbia about a mile north of Kettle Falls, and I notice that he calls it the “Na-hoi-la-pit-la.” When Royal Engineer Henry Spencer Palmer rode through the Kettle River valley with Angus McDonald in 1859, he learned that the First Nations name for the river was “N-whou-al-pit-kwu.” John Keist Lord’s story continues, as he begins to speak of the HBC Brigades:

 This journey from Covile to Hope occupies nearly three months for its accomplishment. About the beginning of June preparations commence at Fort Colvile for the brigade. The horses (the Hudson’s Bay Company never use mules), in number about 120 to 150, are brought by the Indian herders, who have had charge of them during the winter, to a spot called the Horse Guard, about three miles from the fort, where there is an abundance of succulent grass and a good stream of water. Here the animals are taken care of by the trustworthy Indians until their equipment or ‘rigging’ is ready, which process is at the same time going on at the fort. Here some thirty or forty savages may be seen squatting round the door of the fur-room; some of them are stitching pads and cushions into the wooden frames of the pack-saddles; others are mending the broken frames; a third group is cutting long thongs of raw hide to serve as girths or to act in lieu of ropes for lashing and tying; a fourth is making the peltries up into bales, by the aid of a powerful level press. Each bale is to weigh about sixty pounds, and the contents to be secured from wet by a wrapper of buffalo-hide, the skin side outermost. This package is then provided with two very strong loops, made from raw hides, for the purpose of suspending it from what are called the ‘horns’ of the pack-saddle. Two of these bales hung up each side of a horse is a load, and a horse so provided is said to be packed.

When all the preparations are completed, the horses are driven in from the guard to the fort, and the packing commences. They use no halters, but simply throw a lassoo round the animal’s neck, with which it is held whilst being packed; this finished, the lassoo is removed, and the horse is again turned loose into the corral, or on to the open plain, as it may be. 

When all the animals are packed, each of the hands who are to accompany this cavalcade mounts his steed; then waving their lassoos round their head, and vociferating like demons, they collect the band of packed animals and drive the lot before them as shepherds do a flock of sheep. The principal trader, as a general rule, takes command of the brigade, the journey being anticipated by both the master and his men as a kind of yearly recurring jubilee…

Now John Keist Lord begins his criticisms of the HB Company: firstly he calls himself a ‘professional packer,’ who packs for money and a living. “My own opinion,” he says, “is that the Hudson’s Bay Company’s system of packing is about the very worst means of conveying freight on the backs of animals which by any possibility could be adopted.” Harsh! He doesn’t stop there.

 The horses, as I saw them at Fort Hope, and as I have repeatedly observed them at Colvile on the return of the Brigade, were nearly every one of them galled badly on their backs, cut under the bellies in consequence of the sawing motion of the girth, as well as being terribly chafed with the cruppers [the line that runs under the horse’s tail to and from the saddle, to keep the saddle from riding up to the horse’s withers]…

Do you remember that John Keist Lord said, above, the HBC men used a cross-tree saddle? Well, he wrote: “The Company’s system of packing when considered in reference to the work to be done, is doubtless the very best that could be adopted under the peculiar circumstances in which they are placed. Their freight, being always made into packages of a definite shape and weight, it needs no skill, or even practice, to hang them on the saddles, any more than it would to hang a coat upon a peg. Hence, have no need of professional packers; more than this, the pack-saddles are only used once a year, and all their transport is performed on horses instead of mules. But if once the saddle-tree breaks, the cross-tree pack saddle is actually useless….”

Another major problem the HBC men had with their packhorses was the absolute lack of saddle-blankets of any sort. I notice that Fort Colvile had buffalo hides, and yes, they did use them over the years when they could get their hands on them. But the New Caledonia men were totally without saddle-blankets (which is partly why so many of their horses were damaged). Every year, Donald Manson would tell James Douglas about the shortage of leather for saddle blankets, and every year James Douglas tried to help. Governor Simpson, however, lost his temper at Manson’s constant complaints, and told him, rather sharply, that 

One way in which you may supply within the district a large proportion of common leather would be to skin the horses that are killed annually in such numbers in transport &c; the leather is very good & by making use of it, it will be turning even the dead horses to account…

That — the skinning of horses that had died on the trail — will upset a few of us! It surprised me when I found that. Nevertheless, its a good, practical suggestion, considering how many horses died on the trail. But it seems that only the New Caledonia horses perished, and not those from Fort Colvile.

As far as the availability of leather was concerned, Douglas provided a little more encouragement than Simpson had done: He had the Kamloops men cross the mountain without any coverings on their Bales, and it worked (no packs were damaged that year, at least). Later, Douglas forwarded sheep-skins to Fort Langley for use as saddle blankets, and even later he provided some tanned seal skins, and also deer skins. So some of those problems were solved, slowly, although it made little difference to the number of horses that continued to die on their way over the Mountain.

John Keist Lord had nothing to say of the horses arriving at Fort Hope, but Susan Allison, who lived at Hope in the early 1860s, described the arrival of the Fort Colvile Brigades, which she must have witnessed more than once: 

From the doorway of our shack we could see the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Post and watch the pack trains come in from Colvile, Keremeos, and other places. Sometimes there would be a grand stampede and the pack trains would disrupt. Horse and men could be seen through a misty cloud of dust, madly dashing all over the Hope flat, lassos flying, dogs barking, hens flying for safety anywhere. Suddenly the tempest would subside as fast as it had arisen, the pack boys would emerge from the clouds of dust leading the ring leaders in the stampede.

Excitement was always contagious, and I suspect that the arrival of the Fort Colvile Brigades at Fort Hope woke the little town up!

A little side story, from John Keist Lord’s book, At Home in the Wilderness. He described Fort Walla Walla, which by the time he was in the territory had been taken over by the Walla Walla Indians. “Old Walla-Walla was once a fort,” he wrote, “not as we are prone to picture a fort, battlemented and bristling with guns, but was simply a square enclosed by mud or adobe walls, containing a few miserable hovels, which were once tenanted by the fur-traders in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company.” The American settlement of New Walla Walla was down the road, and visitors travelled as best he can, by a four-horse machine called a stage.” He wasn’t impressed by the stage, either. “The distance is thirty miles straight over a treeless sandy plain on which nothing grows save stunted wild sage… and the wind always blows in one’s face.” Also, according to Lord, the name of the Walla Walla Indians, “translated into English, means ever-bright and sparkling.” I wonder if that is true?

To go back to the first post in this very short series, go here: 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2024. All rights reserved.




2 thoughts on “John Keist Lord

  1. Tom Holloway

    According to Washington State’s History Link, “Walla Walla was a Nez Perce name given to one of the indigenous groups who lived in what is now the Walla Walla Valley. The name means ‘running waters’ or, more specifically, the place where a small stream runs into a larger one. A number of rivers flow across the valley into the Walla Walla River and join the Columbia River.”
    On the use of horse vs. mules: Mules are created by breeding a jack donkey to a mare horse. Mares don’t do that voluntarily—it requires human intervention. Since mules are sterile, the use of a jack and a mare, with human intervention, has to be repeated to produce each mule. In the isolated PNW, with no donkeys available, it was much more practical to acquire horses from First Nations, for whom it was a lucrative trade.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      How interesting about mules! I knew they were a combination of horse and donkey — but I never gave a thought to how a donkey stallion could mate with a much larger horse mare. Mules came into the territory with the goldminers from California, I presume. California is a long long way from the Pacific Northwest!