I was invited to take part in a Voyageur celebration held at Michaud House, in Langley, on May 13, 2023. It was a hot, hot day — the first hot day of the year — but there was shade under the trees and cooling refreshments and food, and all was good. I had a table on which to display and sell my books, and time at the podium where I was able to tell everyone about the voyageurs who travelled in the York Factory Express. Well, briefly, anyway: most of my talk was devoted to the Columbia Boats that made it to the Fraser River, and the 1824 journey up the Nicomekl River to the Fraser. Michaud House is located near the banks of the Nicomekl River. When I first got to Portage Park (next to the house) I walked down to find the river — but when I came to give my talk, I discovered that the river had followed me back to Michaud House, and it was only about fifteen feet away from the place I stood.
So, here is the talk I gave. It is a much shortened version of the four recent blogposts that chronicled the journey north to the Nicomekl River, but I learned even more about the place and so there is some new information contained in this 20 minute talk. I began, of course, with a self introduction and a showing of the book, and continued with this:
“I am going to speak a little about voyageurs: if we are Métis, as I am, we are almost certainly in some way descended from the French voyageurs. One of my French ancestors is Pierre Hudon, son of a miller from Beaulieu, in the province of Anjou, France. Pierre came to Quebec in about 1660, as an eighteen-year-old boy after his father died in a plague. He was hired in France, to work at one of the earliest fur trading forts in Quebec: Tadoussac.
“Pierre was a clerk at the post and not a voyageur, but he did well, marrying the daughter of one of the French noblemen and setting up his home at Riviére Ouelle and Kamouraska, two rivers that flowed into the St. Lawrence River. The couple had many children and their sons had many children, and as a result there are now thousands of Hudon dit Beaulieu descendants in Canada and the United States today.
“I know in part how I am descended from Pierre. One of his sons worked in the fur trade, and left behind him a son or two [Joseph and Francois] who were Métis, and who lived and worked in the Red River District. Like many Hudons, they used the Beaulieu name. My great-great grandmother, Charlotte Beaulieu, was born in the Red River district in 1805, and there was a Joseph Beaulieu in that region for many years.
“Other than that, all I know about my three-times-great-grandfather is that he was Métis (I have not found him in the Hudon dit Beaulieu records); he had a Cree wife and a family of at least two daughters, and he crossed the Rocky Mountains with the North West Company’s geographer, David Thompson, in 1807. By 1810 he was a free-trader in the region around Bonner’s Ferry, Montana. He eventually turned up at David Thompson’s Spokane House, and he must have also worked at Donald McKenzie’s Boise River camp alongside the man that his daughter, Charlotte, wed — the Scotsman, James Birnie. [Some of his children married First Nations people in that region, and one First Nations family, the Gonzagas, appears in my Ancestry DNA].
“So, Joseph Beaulieu was one of the voyageurs in my family. Voyageurs were the backbone of the fur trade and did all the work of the voyaging and hunting that must be done in order to survive in this wild, sometimes empty territory. They portaged the boats or canoes from stream to stream, and they paddled them up and down the rivers. And the boats that they paddled up and down the Columbia River were special boats, called Columbia boats.
“And the three Columbia Boats that came to Fraser’s River in 1824 were likely the first and only Columbia boats that ever reached the banks of Fraser’s River.
“A lot of people get very excited about the Columbia boats! We don’t know exactly what they looked like, and none exist today. The first Columbia boat was built by David Thompson’s men at Boat Encampment over the winter and spring of 1811. There has always been a shortage of birch trees west of the Rocky Mountains, and anything but a shortage of cedar. So, naturally, the first Columbia boat was built in the shape of a round-bottomed birch bark canoe, but of cedar boards.
“Over the decades that followed, the basic design of the Columbia boat changed a little, but the boats remained on the rivers they were built for. These canoe-like boats were light enough to be carried over the many portages along their river routes, but heavy enough to carry a good-sized load of trade goods and men. [It took the crews of two boats to carry one boat any distance with ease, so they were not that light.] Another feature of these historic boats was that they were paddled, like canoes, and not rowed like boats.
“So, as we can see, the Columbia boat’s story began at Boat Encampment in 1811. Fort Langley’s history also began at Boat Encampment, a dozen or so years later. In 1824, the HBC Governor George Simpson crossed the Rocky Mountains with James McMillan, visiting the new territory west of the mountains for the first time. As the Columbia boats in which they travelled descended Death Rapids, Simpson broached the idea that McMillan should take a team of men and spend the winter exploring for a fur trading post on Fraser’s River. “In the course of the day, Simpson recorded, “I imparted to Mr. McMillan my views in regard to extending the trade to the Northwest of Fort George, and pointed out to him the importance of having an establishment at the mouth of Fraser’s River. This was done with the view that he should volunteer his services to explore the coast at length in the course of the winter, but he did not see my drift, or would not take the hint.”
“That evening McMillan volunteered, unwillingly, for the job. When the boats finally reached the then HBC headquarters of Fort George on November 7, they were prepared for the journey north. On November 18, James McMillan and his crew of thirty-nine men, including John Work and Francis Noel Annance, paddled across the Columbia River to the beginning of a portage that would take men and boats north, through Grey’s Harbour, to the mouth of the Chehalis River. In his personal journal, Annance took special delight in describing the winter storms that raged along the Pacific coast: “Again, a most fearful storm of thunder, rain and lightning. The ground groaned and wept; the trees shrieked with horror and bowed down with fear, while we awaited with painful anxiety the probable effects of these dreadful elements that raged over our heads!”
“The exploring party followed the Chehalis River eastward, portaging to the headwaters of another little river that flowed into the bottom of Puget Sound. By following these rivers, they crossed the base of the Olympic Peninsula from the Pacific to the waters of the Puget Sound. On December 6, the party began their journey up the east side of the Sound to Semiahmoo Bay, on the mainland just south east of the bottom of Point Roberts. From the south shore of this big bay, the HBC men must take a ten-mile-long traverse across an open stretch of water to the bottom of Point Roberts. They could see the mountains of Vancouver’s Island in the distance, and they also knew that just north of the jutting Point Roberts was the mouth of Fraser’s River.
“But they also saw the rough water in the middle of the long traverse, and knew their boats could not handle the large waves. It was December 11, and Annance wrote hopefully that, “Here we must wait for a calm day to make the traverse.”
“The calm day never came, and on December 13 they tried, once again, to make the sea-crossing to Point Roberts. Annance’s journal entry says: “We made our attempt to cross, but the wind increasing, we veered, meaning to go round the Bay. Before reaching the bottom of the bay our guides concurred in their heads that they guide us into a small creek, then make a short portage and fall into Fraser’s River at once.” The Snohomish guides confessed that this was a very bad route, but the HBC men were tired of waiting for the weather to clear. “We, anxious to feast our eyes with the sight of that far found stream, went immediately,” Annance wrote. “Our course has been north west; now we got into this little creek it is north east, and continues almost east. We find the little river very winding and full of brush, logs, etc. Towards evening we come to the worst place; dragging our boats through the willows, shrubs, briars and beaver dams till we come to the portage and encamped.”
“This little river was the Nicomekl River, on whose banks we stand today. It is only fifteen miles as the crow flies from modern-day town of White Rock, on Semiahmoo Bay, to Fort Langley, but the Nicomekl, though a short river, is not a very straight river. John Work recorded that “the navigation of the little river is very bad, after getting a short distance up it was often barred up with driftwood which impeded our progress. The Indians had cut roads through it for their canoes, yet they were too narrow for our boats. Farther up it is nearly closed up with willows so uncommonly thick that it was both laborious and tedious to get the boats dragged through them. It is yet some distance to the Portage,” he noted. (The portage to which he refers would lead them from the Nicomekl River into the Salmon River, which empties into the Fraser River behind the island now known as McMillan Island.)
“The HBC men reached the pretty little prairie that was the beginning of the portage to the Salmon River on the evening of December 13, and John Work writes, “There are appearances of beaver being pretty numerous in this river.” That was a very encouraging sign to John Work, the famous beaver-hunter: but the men at Fort Langley would quickly learn that the Sto:lo people on the Fraser would never be enticed or teased into trapping for beaver!
“On December 14, the HBC men left the Nicomekl River and began the portage, and Francis Annance tells us that they made two miles with boats being “partly dragged and partly carried.” John Work says that, “It being found that the boats could proceed no farther up the river, carrying was commenced in the morning, and the boats and baggage carried 3,970 yards which is a little more than half the portage.” It was raining again, and Work complained, “The road is very miry, and every hollow a pool of water.”
“On December 15 they made the rest of the portage and slept at the other end, presumably across the Salmon River from what is now McMillan Park. On December 15th the party descended the Salmon River an estimated 8 miles, to the banks of Fraser’s River. “At this place it is a fine looking river,” Work said of the Fraser, “at least as wide as the Columbia at Oak Point.” They camped that night about two miles up the Fraser River. The next day they paddled across the Fraser to the Stave, where Annance tells us he saw a loom where one of the women was weaving a traditional blanket made of the hair of the now-extinct Salish Wool Dogs. I believe this is the first time that these blankets were seen by white or Métis men, unless, of course, Simon Fraser and John Stuart described them.
“From the Stave, they travelled upriver as far as the mouth of Harrison River, where they met First Nations men who wore garments that were English made. That is as far east as they travelled: but they gained an amazing amount of information on the Fraser River as they talked to the First Nations people. It is clear that the Sto:lo men did not remain on the lower river, but that they travelled upriver, through or around the canyons, and James McMillan reported that they were even familiar with the fort at Kamloops!
“For the HBC men, it was time to explore the lower river before heading for home. Naturally, they all hoped they would not have to return to Fort George via the Nicomekl River, and fortunately, they did not have to travel down that brush-filled stream. Instead, on December 19, they paddled west past McMillan Island, Barnston Island, and the mouth of Pitt River, with Douglas Island at its entrance. As they passed Annacis Island they pulled shore, and found a place on the south bank of the Fraser that looked as if it would work as the location of a future fur trading post. They marked two trees with a blaze, into which they probably carved the initials of their company — HBC.
“For the men of this 1824 expedition, making their way home from Fraser’s River was a far easier journey than making their way to the river via the clogged Nicomekl River. On the overcast morning of December 20th, the three Columbia boats left the mouth of Fraser’s River, and headed south west to round Point Roberts. John Work tells us the weather was foggy in the morning, but that it “Cleared up afterwards and became a fine sunshining day.” They made the traverse across open water without any trouble, and camped for the night in Birch Bay – just south of Semiahmoo Bay.
“They were now well on their way home. On December 25th they reached the bottom of Puget Sound and headed west, toward the entrance of the portage that crossed the bottom of the Olympic Peninsula. On the 26th they were on the Chehalis River heading toward Grey’s Harbour. They were delayed by wind once more, but by the 31st of December, everyone had returned to Fort George.
“And so the HBC men, in their Columbia Boats, completed their historic journey to Fraser’s River, reaching it by the Nicomekl River and leaving it by the canoe channel of Fraser’s River. A year later, the ship, William and Ann, was sent on an unsuccessful expedition to explore the mouth of the Fraser River: the sea captain was too frightened to enter the river. Two years later, in June 1827, James McMillan, Francis Annance, and others, returned to set up the new fort, sailing in the ship Cadboro, which was captained by Lieutenant Aemilius Simpson — whose journal is in my book. They did not build the fort where they had marked the trees. In the end they erected the first Fort Langley four miles or so below McMillan’s Island. In 1839 it was relocated to the river bank just below the present location of the replica Fort Langley.
“Fort Langley has stood for many years on the banks of the Fraser River. It survived all the way through until the 1858 gold rush, and beyond, and is as a result very much a part of British Columbia’s history. But it is also part of Langley’s history — as is the little brush-clogged Nicomekl River that brought the first HBC gentlemen, and their voyageurs, in their Columbia boats, to the banks of the Fraser. It is wonderful to see that Langley is preserving its own history, whether it be the fur trade history, or the history of its first settlers, the Michaud family. Long may that continue: in other parts of the province, historical sites such as this are not well protected.
“Thank you very much. I hope you enjoyed this. If you have any questions, I might be able to answer them….”
So this was the talk I gave at Michaud House on May 13, 2023. I got lost several times on the way to Langley, but that meant I was able to drive along the river bank where McMillan’s party had been, and look at the modern city. I was travelling a little faster than these paddlers travelled, but I felt as though I was part of that exploring party for a while. It must have been a beautiful river in 1824!
Tomorrow I will begin work on an enormous project: or at least I think it will be an enormous project. In other words I might not have a blogpost finished for the weekend that follows this. But we will see.
Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2023. All rights reserved.
- Anderson at the First Fort Nisqually