Packing in British Columbia

The old Thompson's River post was built on the east bank of the North Thompson River, and the new post of Kamloops constructed on the river's west bank, in 1843.

Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s 1849 painting of the Kamloops post, courtesy the Kamloops Museum & Archives. In 1843 the larger post was built on the west back of the North Thompson River; but the post that Sam Black knew is the smaller post or building on the right hand or east back of the North Thompson River, which comes in from the top of the image.

With a little luck and a good deal of hard work, my book, The HBC Brigades: Culture, Conflict, and the Perilous Journeys of the Fur Trade, will be published by Ronsdale Press in May, 2024. You may order or pre-order the book here: 

I am going to tell you a story.

In 1859, when Royal Engineer Lieutenant Spencer Palmer rode across the Tulameen Plateau to Campement des Femmes with Angus McDonald of Fort Colvile, he wrote of how his horses shied at bones that were lying on the trail:

This is what he wrote:

Before closing my description of these mountains, I may mention  that the snow which in winter falls to a depth of from 25 to 30 feet on its summit, renders the route impracticable for at least seven months in the year, and dangerous before the 1st of June or after the 1st of October.

Mr. [Donald] McLean of the Hudson Bay Company, who crossed in 1857 or 1858, on the 16th of October, had a very disastrous trip, and lost 60 or 70 horses in the snow.

Traces of their deaths are still visible, and in riding over the mountain and more particularly on its eastern slope, my horse frequently shied at the whitened bones of some one of the poor animals who had broken down in the sharp struggle with fatigue and hunger, and been left to perish where they lay. [Lieutenant Palmer, R.E., “Report on the Country between Fort Hope on the Fraser and Fort Colvile on the Columbia River.” p. 80, Great Britain. Colonial Office. Papers Relative to British Columbia, No. 33.]

This story is in my manuscript for the book I am now writing, but until very recently I did not realize the importance of it. In 1857 and 1858, the Kamloops post had great difficulty in bringing in goods for the many gold-miners that were now in the Thompson’s River district, and McLean had built his new post near the place where the Thompson River flowed into the Fraser. At Fort Victoria, James Douglas had set up a river system to deliver goods to that post, and placed George Simpson, Jr., in charge of it. In December 1857, Douglas explained his plan to James Murray Yale, who was at Fort Langley:

We have now finally resolved on building a small trading Post near the point where the Thompson unites with Fraser’s River, and endeavouring to open a water communication to it by Fraser’s River for the transport of Goods, and though the difficulties be great, and the River dangerous, as well as being entirely impassible during the summer freshets, yet we hope and shall strive to succeed. [B.113/c/1, HBCA]

The first party of men set off from Fort Langley in mid-February 1858. According to Douglas, “Mr. Simpson’s party experienced some difficulty above the Falls, and lost two canoes which were dashed to pieces on the rocks, but the property was all saved and no lives were lost.” In March 1858, Douglas reported to the London Committee that: “Mr. Simpson has just returned from the Forks with the transport party, having delivered the property in his charge, about 70 pieces of Trade Goods, into the hands of Chief Trader McLean, who came to that point with horses to meet the transport party from Langley.” A month later Douglas reported that “the river is now on the rise, and we will in consequence have to abandon that route for the present and carry on the summer transport by the Fort Hope Road” over the Tulameen Plateau. The end result of this decision was the disastrous journey that Donald McLean made across the mountains in October 1858, that resulted in the deaths of so many horses.

As a result of this disaster, McLean hired Native men to pack the Kamloops goods across the mountains between Fort Hope and Kamloops — or at least I believe he did. They probably began their packing the next year, in 1859: they continued their work for many years afterwards. I ended my research for this book in spring 1858. Now I have to go back to the Archives to find primary sources, if they are available, to confirm what I have been told.

Packing is a very important part of British Columbia history, and it began in 1858. In reality, there were probably a few packers in the territory before that time. By 1855 the Pend-d’Oreille goldfields were in full swing, and the Mexican and South American packers were probably trading directly with the gold miners where they were digging for gold. As the gold finds moved northward, so too did the packers. Roderick Barman wrote about the Mexican and South American packers in “Packing in British Columbia: Transport on a resource frontier,” published in The Journal of Transport History, 21 (2).

Packing was an occupation that rewarded innate qualities and paid little regard to status or civility. In the early years most of those in the pack crews were Mexicans, with some Chileans and other Spanish Americans. In June 1859 the secretary of the British boundary commission commented in his diary, ‘You must first of all understand that all of our muleteers & packers are Mexicans.’ A year later, in June 1860, the Anglican Bishop of Victoria, the Rev. George Hills, travelling from Yale to Lillooet, recorded talking ‘to Mexicans who are the muleteers of the country.’ The make-up of the work force is in no way surprising. These nationalities had dominated packing in both California and the Oregon Territory during the gold rush. Many men simply moved north when the British Columbia boom began. The size of the new finds attracted packers directly from Spanish America. Pancho Gutierrez and his two brothers arrived at Victoria by steamer from Mexico. Some of these men did not stay long or did not survive. Others contracted a union with Aboriginal women and put down roots in British Columbia. The descendants of Manuel Alvarez, Jesus Garcia, Pancho Gutierrez and Jose Maria Tresierra — to name but four of these early packers — can be found across the province to this day. [Roderick Barman, “Packing in British Columbia,” p. 147, The Journal of Transport History]

The first pack road into the interior goldfields was by the Harrison Lillooet road, over the route first explored by Alexander Caulfield Anderson in 1846. In fact, Anderson was in Fort Victoria by summer 1858, when the road was built. He was responsible for its construction. This is a little of what I wrote in my biography of Anderson, in The Pathfinder:

On August 5 [1858] “Mr. Collector Anderson” and the first detachment of 250 men sailed out of Victoria; the fort fired a salute on their departure. The next morning the men cooked their breakfast outside the walls of Fort Langley, and by the evening of the next day the boat had paddled the length of Harrison’s Lake and reached the cove at its north end. The first men off the boat dropped some trees into the lake as a wharf, and the remainder offloaded their supplies. After firing a salute to Anderson, Captain Ainsworth sailed away to pick up the second batch of miners. The road-builders pitched their tents on the narrow skirt of land a little above the water’s edge, and the commissary served out rations of beans, flour, pork and coffee. After dinner, some men constructed a log storehouse for provisions, while others prospected in the creek and found a few particles of gold in every pan.

Work on the trail began early the next morning, and soon two or three miles of road stretched into the bush….

The place where the trail began was named Port Douglas, for Governor James Douglas. The Hudson’s Bay Company imported mules to transport provisions over this trail, so they could carry in provisions to feed the men who had volunteered to build the road. The mules never returned to Fort Victoria as far as I know, and so they probably were sold or given to men who planned to become packers in the interior. The Hudson’s Bay Company men never used mules for packing before 1860 or so. John Keast Lord was an Englishman who came to British Columbia with the British Boundary Commission. He was sent to California to purchase mules for the Commission, and later became a packer himself. When he returned home, he wrote a book about his experiences as a packer, and was sharply critical of the HBC method of packing. Here is part of his description of the men who worked at Fort Colvile, who prepared for the brigade journey from Fort Colvile to Fort Hope:

Here some thirty or forty savages may be seen squatting round the door of the fur-room, some of them are stitching pads and cushions into the wooden frames of the pack-saddles; others are mending the broken frames; a third group is cutting long thongs of raw hide to serve as girths, or to act in lieu of ropes for lashing and tying; and a fourth is making the peltries up into bales, by the aid of a powerful lever press. Each bale is to weigh about sixty pounds, and the contents to be secured from wet by a wrapper of buffalo-hide, the skin side outermost. This package is then provided with two very strong loops, made from raw hides, for the purpose of suspending it from what are called the ‘horns’ of the pack-saddle. Two of these bales hung up each side of a horse is a load, and a horse so provided is said to be packed. When all the preparations are completed the horses are driven in from the ‘guard’ to the fort, and the packing commences. They use no halters, but simply throw a lassoo round the animal’s neck, with which it is held whilst being packed; this finished, the lassoo is removed, and the horse is again turned loose into the ‘corral,’ or on to the open plain, as it may be. Let us imagine a horse lassooed up awaiting the operation of packing.

As I said, he was very critical of the HBC method of packing their horses:

I have been rather tedious, perhaps, in thus minutely describing the system of packing in use by the Hudson’s Bay Company, but I plead as an excuse that it will help my reader to the clearer comprehension of the systems adopted by ‘professional packers,’ who pack for money and a living. My own opinion, deduced from practical experience, is that the Hudson’s Bay Company’s system of packing is about the very worst means of conveying freight on the backs of animals which by any possibility could be adopted. The horses, as I saw them at Fort Hope, and as I have repeatedly observed them at Colville on the return of the Brigade, were nearly every one of them galled badly on their backs, cut under the bellies in consequence of the sawing motion of the girth, as well as being terribly chafed with the cruppers… [John Keast Lord, At Home in the Wilderness: What to do there and how to do it, p.61-64 [London, Harwicke & Bogue, 1876]

If you want to learn more about the Mexican and other packers, Lord’s book is a good read and easily downloadable from the internet. Many HBC men retired from the Company and some of them became packers: George Shuttleworth is one of these men. I wonder if he used the old HBC method of packing, or did he adopt the better equipment that the Mexicans used?

Another packer in early British Columbia was Frank Sylvester, and his manuscript is found in the University of Victoria archives, under the title of “The Old Brigade Trail in ’59,” in Frank and Cecilia Sylvester family fonds, AR 281. In this manuscript he described his journey from Lillooet to the Fountain, and then across country to what he called “the old brigade trail.” Its well written, quite descriptive, and very enjoyable. Here’s a little piece of it:

 From here [Reynold’s Ranch, near Pavilion] we pass, heading I think about north east, by Marble Canon and Hat Creek and then on to the Bonaparte River. We were now on the Old Brigade Trail. This was so called because each year the Hudson’s Bay Co brought down their collection of the seasons furs from all their interior northern Fort, by Big Batteaux to Fort Alexander [Alexandria], and from there they were brought down packed on the backs of Cayuse Horses to Fort Hope from whence they were brought by steamer to Victoria. Their large assemblage of horses and employees, bringing down the furs, was called the Hudson Bay Co. “Brigade,” and so the trail was called the Brigade Trail. The country we had been travelling along up to here was very rough and broken, but the scenery changed greatly at the Bonaparte. Here we came into nice rolling [prairie] land with lots of fine bunch grass, although of course most of it, as yet, was covered with snow. We crossed and recrossed the Bonaparte 3 times, once at the Round Mound and once each at the First and second Crossing Ford, always fording the stream, but the fords were well known. We continued on, by Green Lake, a fine sheet of water, on which we ran lots of wild geese and ducks, past the Deep Cowell [?] and then on the Bridge or Bridge Creek, as it was called…

But none of these men mention the Natives who packed between Fort Hope and Kamloops, and that is the most interesting story of all. It is a history that has been forgotten, perhaps because, as Natives, they were invisible. Perhaps, too, because they didn’t trade with the gold-miners. They just did their job, travelling over the brigade trail from Fort Hope to Kamloops several times a year.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2017. All rights reserved.

10 thoughts on “Packing in British Columbia

  1. Sharon Syrette

    Another interesting article! thanks. In the last paragraph, you note “none of these men mention the First Nations packers ….” .. Seems a bit of lip service, given your omission of the presence of indigenous people who were already living in the territory you are discussing.

    I noted earlier in the article that you did not mention that trails and trading routes used by local indigenous people were the basis for “The first pack road into the interior goldfields was by the Harrison Lillooet road, over the route first explored by Alexander Caulfield Anderson in 1846.” He may have been the first white man, but definitely was not the first to explore that route.

    You didn’t mention that there were hundreds of indigenous people living at the head of Harrison Lake when the road builders arrived. Also “the place where the trail began was named Port Douglas, for Governor James Douglas” true, but leaves out the fact that local people already had a name for this place, which had been used for thousands of years.

    Despite these omissions, I continue to read and enjoy your posts.

  2. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

    For anyone who wants to know: the name of the Native man who guided Anderson and his party through Anderson and Seton Lakes [named later, by Anderson] in 1846 was N’Poomsk. He was an “Indian of the Lakes,” which probably means he came from Anderson and Seton Lake. I think he left the expedition at Little Lillooet Lake and I am afraid I don’t have the names of the Natives who guided (paddled) Anderson and his men down the Lillooet River to Fort Langley. But this is not the subject of this particular blogpost.
    Blackeye’s Son and Tsilaxitsa guided Anderson up the new “Similkameen Trail” to the Coldwater River in 1847. The went all the way downriver with him to Fort Lanngley, and returned with him, too. Pahallak, a Sto:Lo man waited for Anderson in 1846 and missed him; in 1847 he met Anderson at the junction of the Thompson with the Fraser and guided him down Fraser River to Fort Langley. This is covered in another blogpost, and also in my first book, The Pathfinder.
    The chief of the Spuzzum band (1847) helped to build the brigade trail up to Coldwater River. I also say this in The Pathfinder. I have his name somewhere but I didn’t have it at the time I wrote my first book. It will make it into my third.
    I have the many names of Natives who carried the mail over the Tulameen Plateau to Fort Hope, and sometimes all the way to Fort Langley. Spintlum was one of these men. Tsilaxitsa also appears in this Kamloops journal.
    In the letters of the time, there is actually no mention of Natives who lived at what later became Port Douglas, although they certainly lived along the trail and they killed a few goldminers, too). But I am not writing about that in this post.
    And I am not telling you the name of the man who I discovered packed for the HBC at Kamloops. But he is Native, and perhaps he is not the only Native that packed. But this book ends in early 1858, so there is no need for me to talk about Native packers, is there, except as they apply to this book.
    I have started a Facebook Group Page for the descendants of packers, titled “Packing in British Columbia.” If you are descended from George Shuttleworth or any other packer, whether mixed-blood, Native, Chinese, European, South American, Mexican, or Englishman (such as John K. Lord) you may join. Everyone is on holidays right now, so it will be a little slow starting.

  3. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

    Oh, and by the way, in 1847, Tsilaxitsa and Blackeye’s Son went on the meet the incoming brigades at Fort Okanogan, and to help bring them home. So, too, did Laronteum, the interpreter for Tsilaxitsa and Blackeye’s Son.

  4. Sharon Syrette

    Thank you! I really appreciate that the names of the Native guides and packers are being included.

      1. Sharon Syrette

        OK, will look for the blog. The Aboriginal Genealogy Network, of which I’m a volunteer, may have info on some of the names and families, and are always on the look-out for more details.