“The Brigades”

Packhorses on Athabasca Portage
This is image na-3934-16, from Glenbow Archives, and is used with their permission. The packhorses that the HBC men used were probably smaller than these horses, but the scene would be very similar to this.

This upcoming book will tell the story of the New Caledonia Brigades, which delivered the year’s catch of furs from the interior posts, to Fort Vancouver [WA], and brought in their trade goods every summer.

From early years, the brigades were an important transportation system in New Caledonia [Fort St. James] and the Columbia district, a thousand miles to the south. The furs that the traders took in at each of these far-flung posts had to be shipped to London in time for the fur sales: like any other business in the world, there were no profits made if no sales occurred. In order to get their furs out to sea-ports, each district developed its own brigade route. For the HBC, the brigades that ran down the North Saskatchewan and other rivers took out the furs by York Boat — as described in my book, “The York Factory Express.” For the first years after 1821, the HBC delivered their furs to York Factory, using the same route that the earlier Nor’Westers had always used: the Peace, the Athabasca, and Clearwater River to Methye Portage, and from there to Cumberland House and Norway House.

But it was an inefficient route, and Governor George Simpson demanded efficiency at all costs. The push for a new brigade trail began in 1824, when Simpson visited the Columbia and ordered that the New Caledonia furs come out to the new Columbia River headquarters, and the trade goods go into the territory the same way. At the same time, Simpson arranged that a ship would sail from London, reaching the Columbia River in time to deliver their trade goods and return with the furs. And so, in 1826, both the New Caledonia brigades, and the London Ships, were born.

This will be the story of the creation of the brigades, and of the many changes that occurred over the years before 1858. The story is written and is being edited as we speak, but it will be a year and a half or more before it is published.