Oars or Paddles

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Canoe on Moose Lake, BC, image 0098.0005, Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History

Did the HBC men use oars or paddles in their boats? I would have thought paddles, but I think I am not correct in every instance. So, let’s find out!

In 1823, as John Work came downriver from Boat Encampment in the Columbia boats of the time, on his way to Spokane House, he described the boats he travelled in:

Embarked at 9 o’clock, and proceeded down the Columbia River in three boats or kind of wooden canoes, worked by 8 Men each, who row with paddles and not oars. These boats will carry about 55 pieces and are made of a light construction so that 12 men can carry them across the portages.

I thought that the Columbia boats, that is: the canoe-like boats used on the Columbia River, would always be managed with paddles. I was wrong, of course, and it is again John Work who has told me whether the HBC men used oars or paddles. In 1828, he came down the Columbia River once more, this time with the Fort Colvile brigades and travelling in the Columbia boats they always used on the river. As he left Fort Colvile, he wrote that “instead of paddles the people use oars by which they do more work with less labour.” On leaving Fort Okanagan, he reiterated his statement, saying “the men used oars in preference to paddles and had as many as could be worked in each boat.” (And of course, as always, it is one man to each oar. The man would sit on, say, the port side of the boat, and his oar would hit the water on the starboard side.) 

So, Oars or paddles? It seems that on the Columbia River, south of Fort Colvile at least, they used oars. But discovering that made me curious! What about the upper Columbia River north of Fort Colvile? Did they use oars or paddles on that turbulent river? The way to discover the answer to that question is to look at the various journals of the York Factory Express, of which I have a few.  

In 1826, Aemilius Simpson tells us that there is both a bowsman and a steersman in his boat, but does not tell us whether or not the men are using oars or paddles. (They are, however, almost certainly using paddles). In 1827, Edward Ermatinger described the men paddling their boats in the lower river below Cape Horn. And on his incoming journey, when the party reached Boat Encampment, the men spent the rest of the day carving paddles. South of Fort Colvile? Unclear, but he does not mention switching from paddles to oars. So, oars or paddles? It seems that paddles is still the answer, in the early years at least.

David Douglas’s 1827 journal is no help at all, nor is there mention of paddles or oars in Ermatinger’s 1828 journal. In 1831, George Traill Allan is equally as silent on the subject, and in 1835, James Douglas makes no mention of oars or paddles. Sigh: do these men have no sense of history? 

However, in 1848, Thomas Lowe tells us that on coming down the river from Boat Encampment, “it began to rain, and rained until past midnight when it cleared up, and the moon rose. We then pushed off and pulled until daylight, when we found ourselves near the end of the Lake.” He says later at Fort Colvile: “We still have 9 men per boat, which is just a full crew, as the boats pull 8 oars.” And if we use the word, “pulled,” as a guide as to whether they used oars or paddles, then they also used oars going up the river north of Fort Colvile, according to Thomas Lowe’s record. So oars or paddles? Oars!

So we have settled the Columbia River argument. What about oars or paddles on the Fraser River, where the HBC men used Bateaux? We must also consider that there are two parts to the Fraser River, where the boats did not mix. The first section of the river is between Fort St James and Fort Alexandria, and until Peter Skene Ogden introduced bateaux to the upper Fraser in 1835, they used birchbark canoes in preference to bateau, it seems. The second section of the Fraser River was the lower river below, say, Fort Yale. No one took boats or canoes through the canyons and falls of the river…

Or did they? In 1831, Peter Warren Dease started his journey from Stuart’s Lake in three or more canoes and one Bateau from Fraser’s Lake. (Through the rest of the journey to Fort Alexandria, Dease also but not always calls this bateau a boat.) At the Big rapid the Guide went down the rapid first, and as he was turning around to warn the canoes that followed, the sweep oar threw him over the boat and into the water. No one could save him, and he disappeared under the murky water of the Fraser.

Interestingly I have been looking at photos of bateaux on this part of the Fraser River, and they look carvel-built (boards butting against each other), not clinker built, with the boards overlapping. So in the northern part of the Fraser, the bateaux do seem to be built in the style of the York Boats, with smooth sides. Does that make a difference? It does if the boats on the lower river are clinker built: that would make them variations of the Columbia boat. But I don’t now if we will discover the truth of this in this blogpost.

As we know, Governor George Simpson also travelled the Fraser River south from Fort St. James to Fort Alexandria in 1828. At that place the party was split in two, with one group of men descending the Fraser to the mouth of the Thompson River in a birchbark canoe, and the other riding the brigade trail to Kamloops, where a bateau or boat would be built for them. From the junction of the Thompson with the Fraser, both of these vessels would make their way through the Fraser River canyons to Fort Langley.

So, let’s see how their journey went. To do this, we look at the published journal of the expedition, titled Peace River, A Canoe Voyage from Hudson’s Bay to Pacific, by the late Sir George Simpson in 1828, edited by Malcolm McLeod and published by J. Durie & Sons, in 1872. (I found a copy of this book in my local library).

Simpson and his crew arrived at Fort St. James on September 17, 1828, and travelled by canoe to Fort Alexandria. But boats were not unknown here: Governor Simpson had requested that a boat be built for him at Kamloops, and someone knew how to build it. The governor’s party arrived at Kamloops on October 4, and departed “in full puff” on October 5. There is no description of this vessel other than it carried sixteen men in total, and had two “boutes,” or a bowsman and steersman. Making their way down the length of Kamloops Lake toward the Fraser River was slow work, “notwithstanding that it was a perfect calm, and that we had twelve paddles in the boat.” And even later in his journal, Archibald McDonald (the actual author of the journal), noted that on coming out of one of the swells in the river, that “the utmost power of twelve paddles could not keep it.” So, oars or paddles? In 1828 at least, paddles and not oars were used on this middle section of the river. 

So let’s take another look at the northern section of the river: that is, north of Fort Alexandria. In 1859, a packer named Frank Sylvestre stood across the river from Fort Alexandria, and watched as the Fort St. James brigades came downriver to the fort: 

The Fraser is very wide at the Fort but not turbulent. Late in the afternoon I heard great noise and shouting. Running down to [the] river bank I saw a fine sight, one seldom seen — Several large heavy Batteaux pulling long oars coming in and among the ice cakes, all filled with Canadien voyageurs and half Breeds, in their wild mountain dress, and in the first Batteaux was seated one of whom many of you have read, but very few have seen…

So, this tells us that in 1859 the bateaux coming downriver from Fort St. James used oars, and not paddles. I wonder if there was a change-over from paddles to oars, and if so, when did it occur? This might be difficult for me to uncover, as there are no journals for the period between 1835 and 1859, and I will have to uncover this information from bits and pieces of letters and reports: and this will take some time!

 But we have a beginning already! In the Fort St. James Post Journals of 1850, on Monday May 29, “the men intended for the outgoing Brigade employed arranging and making poles and oars. In the evening launched out the four Boats that are intended for the trip to Alexandria.” So, oars or paddles? It seems that by 1850, the Fort St. James men were using oars and not paddles. They were even using oars as early as 1843, when in A.C. Anderson’s section of the Fort St. James post journal, he writes: “Rained at intervals yesterday — today fine. Named crews of boats & all hands are preparing oars, caulking boats, &c.” 

So on the upper Fraser River, a number of bateaux were built in 1835, and by 1843 they were using oars, not paddles. Maybe they never used paddles at all on the upper Fraser? A lot of the journals that cover this time are missing or lost, and even if they had existed I would not have transcribed them, as I was not interested in that period of time at that particular location. 

So, let’s look at the lower Fraser River between Fort Yale and Fort Langley.They also used bateaux on this section of the river, and this is what Henry Newsham Peers has to say of the 1848 Brigade as it left Fort Langley for the passage north to Fort Yale.

Started from Fort Langley on the 17th July with 5 batteaux and two river Boats manned by Indians, all deeply laden (4 Batteaux loads having been taken up before in charge of Mr. Anderson). The water was low for the season but still we had much trouble in warping up along steep and bushy banks, precluding the possibility of poling, and the current to swift to use the oar.

So, oars or paddles on the lower Fraser River? Oars! I don’t have any other files on Fort Langley that will help me discover what means they used to propel their boats before 1848. In fact, I can’t even tell you for sure when the first bateaux arrived on the Fraser River. Was it in 1848, when Samuel Robertson, the boat-builder at Fort Vancouver, arrived at Fort Langley to build bateaux and other boats to carry the brigades up to Fort Yale? 

But once again, I am wrong. I checked the book, Fort Langley Journals, 1827-1830, and discovered theat the men of the fort were building a boat or boats as early as September, 1828. As they were putting varangues [ribs] in the boat[s], I think this was a Batteaux they were building,  not a Columbia boat! By early October one boat was almost finished, except for gumming, and Donald Manson and eight or ten men planned to head upriver to check the navigation. In October 1828, the Governor arrived at the fort, and of course his boat was left behind, as he had no further use for it. Also in October, the men began to build a second boat, which was probably finished in January of 1829. There is, however, no information in this book that tells us whether or not these boats used oars or paddles, and so we do not know. 

And yes, some may argue that ribs are ribs in a boat: but the Columbia boats had flat ribs, and the bateaux on the upper Fraser had thick ribs which were bent in a steam-box. Or at least, the batteau that used to be at Fort Langley represented a boat that was much heavier than a Columbia boat, with heavy ribs and oars. That boat is gone: it has rotted away, but I have used its image often enough, and you will find it again, below:

Clinker built boat used on the Fraser River

Boats similar to this Fort Langley, Fraser River, clinker built boat were used all through the fur trade both east and west of the Rocky Mountains

And I also see by the information I have on the image — the boat is clinker built! (And I also notice its flat ribs). From the images I have seen, I am pretty sure that the batteaux on the upper river are carvel built — like the York Boats. So perhaps this IS a Columbia Boat, and not a bateau! But who knows! I think we could argue about this forever. 

But I also do not see the men carrying this heavy boat over he portages, as you can do with the Columbia boats. Of course it took two crews to carry one boat…

Well, this was an interesting question, and I am surprised by some of the answers I got. I was prepared to find the bateaux powered by paddles, not oars, and I already thought (in spite of what I knew from the journals) that the Express boats were powered by paddles. Its always fun to find out you are wrong.

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

4 thoughts on “Oars or Paddles

  1. Judy Kane

    Hard to believe these men worked so hard and yet lived to old age. My great great grandfather, Joseph Rondeau lived to 88. His wife, Josette lived into her 80,s after bearing 11 children. I would not have made it thru those hard times. I’m 86 and spend most my time on the couch or in the Lazyboy

  2. Tom Holloway

    For one more bit of information, Chief Factor Alexander Kennedy wrote in 1825:
    “The means of transport from Fort George [Astoria] to the posts in the interior has hitherto been by boats of a peculiar construction. They are made in imitation of bark canoes, and have been much improved upon since the first invention by Mr. David Thompson. The boats now carry from 40 to 50 pieces and are navigated by 8 men each. They are wrought by paddles instead of oars, and are carried over the portages on men’s shoulders, but it requires the crews of two boats to carry one. The reason assigned for using paddles instead of oars is that the current is very strong in some parts of the River where these craft by the means of paddles are enabled to keep close to the shore where the current is less felt than they could if oars were used instead of paddles.”
    I think there was a transition from paddles to oars in the late 1820s, as John Work described in the passage you quoted.

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