In 1824, the HBC men from Fort George [Astoria] have made their way up Puget Sound, on their way to the mouth of the Fraser River. But instead of paddling across that wide expanse of open water and rounding Point Roberts, they decide to follow the path of the Nicomekl River from what they call Mud Bay. In his book, Fort Langley: Outpost of Empire, Bruce A. McKelvie tells us what they did next:
At last the party reached a shallow bay –known today as Semiahmoo Bay — on December 11. The weather was growing colder. The wind was blowing. Ahead of them was a wide open stretch of water and the rounding of Point Roberts. They waited. But let John Work tell the story as he set it down in his journal…
Fortunately we have two journals to read: Bruce McKelvie had only John Work’s. Here is what Francis Annance has to say on December 11: “Strong wind and fair, and we began the day with sails. Here we leave Bellinghams Bay and seemed to follow a large Channel stretching into the Sea. At the end of our Island the sea appeared to open before us; but we soon discovered very high mountains in the midst of the Ocean, which we take to be the mountains on Vancouver’s Island. To the mainland, we could not see the high mountains [it] not being sufficiently clear. Made about twenty six miles then encamped on a point, the entrance of a small creek. From this we have a traverse to make strong to our left to Roberts Point, about ten miles; which straight forward we can very distantly see the trees at the end of the Bay, a few yards from which our guides tell us, passes the famous river we [are] looking for. Here we must wait for [a] calm day to make the traverse.” The famous river they are looking for is, of course, the Fraser, not the Nicomekl River.
John Work says that on December 11: “Proceeded on our voyage at half past 7 o’clock and continued to 1/2 past 12 where we encamped in consequence of having a very wide traverse to make, which it was deemed unsafe to attempt as the weather appeared unsettled, and the sea appeared to be running high in the middle of the traverse.” A wise choice. On December 12 they stayed in camp, as the wind did not lull until the afternoon, and the traverse appeared just as dangerous as it had been the day before. Francis Annance wrote in his journal: “Rain, rain and storm.”
On Monday, however, the Fraser River expedition set out again. The date is now December 13, and Work’s journal continues:
“Embarked at half past 7 o’clock and set out with the intention of crossing the traverse, but had gone but a short way when it was thought too rough to proceed, though there was not much wind.” To reach Point Roberts, they would paddling west, from the southern part of Semiahmoo Bay.
A little geography here: Point Roberts juts a good distance south into Puget Sound, almost as far as Semiahmoo Bay, where these HBC men were now camped. To the north of Semiahmoo Bay lies Boundary Bay, a big, open bay tucked in behind Point Roberts and likely sheltered from the westerly winds. Mud Bay is a small bay at the north-eastern end of Boundary Bay. So there are three large and small bays more or less tucked in behind Point Roberts, with the southern-most Semiahmoo Bay being much more exposed to the westerly winds, and Boundary and Mud Bays more sheltered from them.
Work’s journal continues, with a marked change of plans which he does not explain: “The course was therefore changed and the boats crossed the entrance of the little bay [Semiahmoo Bay] in which we had been encamped and continued along the main shore to another bay [Mud Bay, the eastern part of Boundary Bay], down which they proceeded to the entrance of a small river [Nicomekl] up which they continued about 7 or 8 miles, in a very winding course which was in general N. Easterly. Encamped at half past 3 o’clock.” So, from Semiahmoo Bay they paddled north-north-west to the points of land south of Mud Bay, and then entering Mud Bay itself found the mouth of a little river on that bay’s south shore.
At last! The river up which these men are now paddling is the Nicomekl River! But here is what Francis Annance has to say of the choice of ascending the Nicomekl River, on December 13: “Made our attempt to cross, but the wind increasing we veered, meaning to go round the Bay [Boundary Bay]. Before reaching the bottom of the bay our [Skagit Indian] guides concurred in their heads that they guide us into a small creek, then make a short portage, and fall into Fraser River at once: We, anxious to feast our eyes with the sight of that far found stream, went immediately.” Annance seems to have re-discovered his good mood! “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 boat through willows, shrub, briars and beavers dams till we come to the portage and encamped. The evening we found two Indians, but could get no manner of information.”
Have they already come to the portage between the Nicomekl River and the Fraser? Surely not! Let’s see what John Work has to say in his journal, below:
On December 13, he writes of the Nicomekl River: “The reason for proceeding up the little river was the Indians representing that by making a portage there was a road this way into the Coweechin [Fraser] River, but they said it was very bad and seemed most desirous to go by the point. 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 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.”
This portage was called the T’Saikwakyan Portage, according to Bruce McKelvie, and it led from the Nicomekl River into the Salmon River, which emptied into the Fraser’s River behind the island that is now known as McMillan Island, for James McMillan, leader of this 1824 expedition to Fraser’s River. How interesting it is that neither of the journals I am reading even mention McMillan, to the point where I have almost forgotten he was on this journey!
So, to continue the journey up the Nicomekl River, in John Work’s words: “In the river nothing but thick willows are seen for some distance from the water, where the banks, though low, are well wooded with pine, cedar, alder, and some other trees. There are appearances of beaver being pretty numerous in this river. Where we are now encamped is a pretty little plain.”So the pretty little plain is their campsite of December 13.
The beaver were plentiful on the Nicomekl River because the Sto:lo people who lived here never really hunted them. In fact, in his book titled Before We Lost the Lake: A Natural and Human History of Sumas Valley [Caitlin Press, 2018], Chad Reimer wrote that “Fort Langley never became the fur trade centre it was intended to be. Certainly, the wetlands along the lower Fraser were ideal habitats for the water-loving mammals so coveted by the company. But the Sto:lo could not be coaxed, cajoled or bribed into changing their fundamental way of life, with its reliance on fish and waterfowl. There was little to gain in devoting more time and effort to hunting and trapping little furry mammals, and much to lose.”
But that is in Fort Langley’s future: On December 14, 1824, Francis Annance writes this in his journal: “Made mainly two miles in the portage; our boats were partly dragged and partly carried. The portage is handsome prairies. The fish most excellent.” John Work reported that it was overcast on December 14, with “very weighty rain in the after part of the day.” His journal continues:
“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 of the portage. This portage, which is to another little river [Salmon River] which falls into Coweechin [Fraser] River, lies through a plain [Langley Prairie] which with the weighty rain is become so soft and miry, that in several places it resembles a swamp. The road is very miry and every hollow a pool of water. The soil here appears to be very rich, is a black mould, the remains of a luxurious crop of fern and grass lies on the ground. [It is December, after all.] The country about here seems low, the trees are of different kinds, pine, birch, poplar, alder, etc., some of the pine of very large size. Some of the men who were hunting visited the upper part of the little river and report that they saw the appearance of plenty of beaver. Elk have been very numerous here some time ago but the hunters suppose that since this rainy season they have gone to the high ground.”
Well, apparently not so! Francis Annance has this to say of December 15: “Today finished the portage and slept at the other end. This evening saw a herd of red deer feeding on the plain, and we killed one.” John Work writes in his journal on December 15: “Raining all day with the exception of some short intervals of fair weather. The people resumed their labour at an early hour and by evening had the boats and baggage at the end of the portage, a distance of 3,930 yards, which makes the whole length of the portage 7,910 yards N.N.E. The appearance of the country the same as described yesterday.
“In the evening as we got to the end of the portage a herd of elk was seen on the edge of the plain. Several of the people set after them but only one was killed, which was by Mr. [Thomas] McKay. There were too many hunters, and though the elk were not wild they were not approached with sufficient caution. They were followed into the woods by some of the people who have not yet returned.” Work also noted that the weapons carried by the Sto:lo men who lived here were bows and arrows. There is a good reason why the elk were not too alarmed by the presence of the HBC men: they were not used to being hunted with guns.
On December 16, Francis Annance says: “Embarked and went down a small river [Salmon River]. No language can adequately express the signs and ravages of beaver and red deer we saw going down this little river. Made about ten miles, then fell into Fraser River opposite to an Island [now McMillan Island]. Feeling inadequate to give a full description of the river, can only convey it is a noble and majestic stream: and the surrounding country marks thousands of beaver that exist throughout its environs. Made two miles then encamped. Here it is about six or eight hundred yards wide. The tide rises about five feet perpendicular. The course is east.”
Let’s find out what John Work has to say. “Rain in the night,” John Work writes on December 16, “and except some short intervals, raining all day. Calm.” He is still at the Salmon River, and his party was detained in waiting for the men who had gone after the elk the day before, and who had not yet returned. The men finally emerged from the woods, however, and at 11 o’clock John Work and his party set off down the Salmon River, in search of the Fraser. “Embarked, and proceeded down the little river from the portage through a very winding course, generally North, for a distance of about 8 miles to its discharge into the Coweechin [Fraser] River, up which we proceeded about 2 miles E and encamped at 2 o’clock.”
Work’s journal continues, describing his descent of the Salmon River: “The navigation of the little river is petty good; in some places, it is rather shallow, the tide runs a little way up it. The country through which it runs is flat and clayey. In some parts near the portage the woods approach to the water’s edge, but farther down the woods are at some distance and the river runs through a fine meadow which is covered with the withered remains of a fine crop of hay. The marks of a great many beaver and numerous tracks of elk, some quite fresh, are to be seen all the way along the river.
“We entered the Coweeshin [Fraser] River at 1 o’clock. At this place it is a fine looking river, at least as wide as the Columbia at Oak Point, 1,000 yards wide. Where we come into it is opposite to an Island [McMillan Island], we are uncertain what distance it may be to its entrance. The banks of the North shore are low and those on the South shore are pretty high, both well wooded to the water’s edge. The trees are pine, cedar, alder, birch and some others. Some high hills appear to the eastward at no great distance, topped with snow.” That is the Coquihalla [see image above], and these “hills” would in the future prove to be a very important part of Fort Langley’s history!
And so, we have arrived on the banks of the Fraser River, having reached its banks by the Nicomekl River and the Salmon, via the muddy T’Saikwakyan Portage that runs up the meadowlands that surround the Nicomekl River.
In the next blogpost of this series the men will explore the Fraser River. When it is posted it will appear here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/exploring-frasers-river/
To return to the first post of this series, go here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/fraser-river/
Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, all rights reserved.
- Puget Sound
- Exploring Fraser’s River