Michel Kaonassé

York Boats under sail

This image of York Boats sailing on Lesser Slave Lake is from the Glenbow Archives, na-2283-10, and I have used it with their permission. The HBCA has the same image, though they say it is taken on the Hayes River. They may be right, which will make for an interesting blogpost in the future.

I fell into Michel Kaonassé’s story long before I knew how important it would be in my York Factory Express book. Kaonassé worked at Fort Alexandria under my great-grandfather Alexander Caulfield Anderson in the early 1840s, where I found him sawing boards — likely to build the boats they used on the Fraser River. His wife died and was buried at Fort Alexandria, and Kaonessé moved on to Fort Colvile at about the same time that Anderson was put in charge of this Fort.

Kaonessé was Iroquois, probably from Sault St. Louis, Lower Canada, according to Bruce Watson in his Lives Lived West of the Divide. Born about 1815, he joined the HBC and is found at Fort Vancouver in 1834-1835. This probably means he came into the territory with the incoming 1834 York Factory Express (now travelling under the name of the Columbia Express). He was in New Caledonia in 1835-1837, when he likely travelled as steersman in the outgoing York Factory Express.

But his story is more complicated than that: Here is what Bruce Watson says of Michel Kaonassé, in his book Lives Lived West of the Divide

Michel Kaonassé joined the HBC in 1833 or 1834, and on his way to the Columbia served as a boute in the Athabasca. In March, 1837, he is recorded as returning east over the mountains and in outfit 1839-1840 he was paid a gratuity for an extra trip to the Columbia. While stationed at a post, he did carpentry and other work, and, in outfit 1840-41, he received a gratuity for services between Jasper House and Boat Encampment. The death of Michel’s wife in 1843 appears to have changed his pattern for he worked further south after that. On July 20, 1852, he signed a contract at Fort Vancouver to act as a guide for a return trip to York Factory. However, he became disabled and was replaced with Baptiste (?) Joseph Anawaronon and discharged on December 18, 1852. Kaonassé’s contract ended in 1854 at which point he retired.

Michel Kaonassé’s wife died April 19, 1843, having suffered from an undetermined illness for three months. She was “decently” interred the following day on the hill behind Fort Alexandria.

Serving as a Boute in the Athabasca means that he served as a Steersman in the Lesser Slave Lake (Athabasca) boat as it came up the Saskatchewan and North Saskatchewan River to Edmonton House — it does not mean he was assigned to the Athabasca River Department. Jame Birnie also travelled in the Athabasca, or Lesser Slave Lake, boat when he travelled out in the 1826 Express — but he never saw the Lesser Slave Lake post.

Anyway, Kaonessé may have signed a contract in 1852 to take out the York Factory Express to Hudson Bay, but I can tell you that he was Guide for those same expresses in 1848 and later — and I suggest that he continued to act as Guide for the Express every year until he retired. The Guide is an important man in the Express, as he is in charge of everything — all the boats and all the men who worked in the boats. The success of the Express always depended on the efficiency of the Guide.

I introduced Michel Kaonassé in the prologue of The York Factory Express, an an Iroquois, and like all the other Iroquois in the HBC, a tough guy, a “bully” of the York Factory Express, who maintained order with his fists. In 1848, after the death of the long-time Guide, Joe Tayentas (who Thomas Lowe called the most efficient man in the District), Michel Kaonassé took over Tayentas’s position. (Interestingly, Joe Onowanoron, who later took over for Kaonassé, is also on this 1848 journey). Michel is not mentioned in the journal until they reach Jasper’s Valley, when Lowe writes: “I then started ahead with Michel the Guide, and Jacques Tahetsaronsari…” to Jasper’s House. On the return journey, Michel was sent ahead from Edmonton House, to prepare the boats for their journey up the Athabasca River. Unfortunately when he arrived at Fort Assiniboine, Thomas Lowe “found that Michel had not yet begun to work at the boats, as he found the seams so open that he was obliged to leave them sunk in the water for two days, and had only hauled them ashore a short time before our arrival, so that we will have to wait here all day tomorrow.” Michel Kaonassé’s boat building skills were definitely important to the success of the journey.

Onowanoron, Kaonassé, Tahetsaronsari — these are all Iroquois names. The Iroquois were everywhere in the west, and they all played prominent parts in the York Factory Express journeys over the years. In her book, Iroquois in the West, Jean Barman mentions Kaonassé, but as I have loaned the book out I do not remember, and cannot tell you, what she had to say of him. But I do know, that both Bruce Watson and Jean Barman missed the most important story about Michel Kaonassé and his experience as Guide for the York Factory Express!

In the years after he took out Thomas Lowe’s express in 1848, he was Guide for another express that had a very tragic ending. An American boat-builder named Alexander Young had joined the returning York Factory Express in Norway House and travelled west with them as a paying passenger. 

At Moose Encampment, in the Jasper Valley, the Express men held a shooting competition, using as a target a raven that perched in a nearby tree. Englishman Edward Poore, who joined the party at Edmonton House, tells the story:

One evening after camp a raven came and lit on a tree close by. Franklin took his rifle and missed it…. “No, stop,” said Charles, “let us all have a shot for a shilling a piece, the best to win.” There was an oldish man of the name of Young who had an American rifle. I had warned him as being a very dangerous one and apt to go off. Charles said to him, come out and bring your old rifle.

As Young brought his gun from his tent, the trigger caught and the gun fired, and the ball grazed one man and buried itself in the leader’s right breast. He collapsed onto the edge of the campfire and his shocked men immediately extinguished the fire. But there was nothing they could do for the man, and he died two hours later in excruciating pain. Just before he died, he sat up and, looking wildly around, said clearly, “That was well done, Mr. Young.”

When I write his complete story, it will appear here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/john-charles/ 

The Express leader was buried in the woods near Moose Encampment, and the shocked party continued their journey through Athabasca Pass to Boat Encampment. But before they departed, Michel Kaonassé, the Guide, asked a young man who travelled with the party if he could give the orders to begin — such was the tradition of the Express that the Guide, who had complete control of everything that happened in the journey, had to ask the permission of a “gentleman-leader” to begin the day’s travel. And so, young Frederick Lewes, son of John Lee Lewes but not an employee of the Company, brought the express downriver to Fort Colvile where Alexander Caulfield Anderson was in charge. James, Anderson’s twelve year old son, wrote about this incident in his Memoirs, which I posted in my old blog. This led to a question, a conversation, and a whole lot of research done by another historian, who unravelled the entire story and shared it with me. It’s fascinating, and it’s very sad. 

But we are talking of Michel Kaonassé, the Guide, who had to continue to lead the Express on its way down the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver. He was upset and distracted — as everyone in the Express must have been after witnessing the accidental death of their own leader, a man well known to them. Kaonassé’s story continues in the Epilogue of The York Factory Express. One of the boats that he was in charge of…

rammed a rock, and its ten-man crew escaped drowning by clambering onto a tiny island in the middle of the river. The remaining men desperately made repairs to the second boat, which had also been damaged in the collision. It took them three full hours to rescue the stranded men from their precarious position.

They made it safely to Fort Vancouver, where a shocked Peter Skene Ogden reported that “the expression made use of [by the leader of the Express] after receiving the shot has not been satisfactorily explained to me and leaves an unpleasant impression on my mind, nor did Mr. Young in my presence evince any feeling of regret.” Alexander Young owed the HBC six months’ labour, but he disappeared from the records immediately. The Company gentlemen may have made it clear that they did not want him at Fort Vancouver. 

If you wish to purchase my book, “The York Factory Express,” you can do so through my publisher, here: http://ronsdalepress.com/york-factory-express-the/ Thank you!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2019. All rights reserved.