Paul Kane’s Journal

Tracking the York Boats upriver.

This tracking image is used with the permission of the Glenbow Archives, image na-949-115. The guide yells “Haul, Haul,” while the voyageurs pull the boats upriver and the gentlemen stand by, watching.

This is the second section of artist Paul Kane’s journal, written as he makes his way toward the Rocky Mountains and the Columbia District in 1846. He is travelling with the Saskatchewan Brigades and the incoming York Factory Express — now called the Columbia Express. His journal begins as he leaves the Mission at the Pas.

August 26th — We left the hospitable mansion of Mr. [James] Hunter [the missionary at the Pas] with many kind wishes for our safety and success, and continued our journey along the low and swampy banks of the river. On the 28th, we passed the mouth of the Cumberland River. Here the men had to harness themselves to the boats with their portage straps and drag the boats up the river for several days. We passed a large quantity of the bones of buffaloes which had been drowned in the preceding winter in attempting to cross the ice. The wolves had picked them all clean.

The men are tracking the boats up the Saskatchewan River toward Carlton House. No one has done this in the other journals I have, and no one else makes any mention of bison drowned in the river in any other journals I have. I wonder if this was a usual happening, or was the winter of 1845-46 especially mild — mild enough that the ice on the river could not support the weight of the bison. Kane’s journal continues here:

On the 29th I fired both barrels loaded with ball at a large buck moose, which was swimming across the river. He, however, arrived at the other side and trotted up the bank. Thinking I had missed him, I went on, but on my return the following year, two Indians, who had been attracted by the shots, told me that he had dropped 200 yards from the river. 

August 30th — We this day fell in with a small band of Crees, from whom we procured some buffalo meat, tongues, and beaver tails: the last is considered a great delicacy. It is a fat, gristly substance, but to me by no means palatable; the rest of our party, however,  seemed to enjoy it much. The tongues were decidedly delicious; they are cured by drying them in the smoke of the lodges.

The river as we ascended presented a more inviting appearance, the banks becoming bolder and covered principally with pine and poplar, the latter trees spring up wherever the former are burned off. The men suffered severely from the heat, which was very oppressive. 

The incoming 1846 Brigades are still on the Saskatchewan River, not heading up what Paul Kane calls the Cumberland River. In fact, if the brigades are approaching Carlton House they are already on the North Saskatchewan River. Paul Kane seems to have been very negligent in keeping up his journal; but this is a long, boring journey, and if he was not drawing First Nations people, there was no need for him to do so.  

By the way, you will have noticed that the brigades bypassed Cumberland House. It is probable they had picked up their goods at the Mission at the Pas. The rivers that led into Cumberland Lake were by this time completely silted in, and the Mission (which was a little downriver from Cumberland House) acted as the post office for the HBC men at Cumberland. As you can see, even the Saskatchewan River at this point is becoming silted up, so much so that the HBC men had to haul their boats upriver through the mud. Judging from later journals, I think this is a strong indication that the river water was very low in 1846. Until they reach Thoburn’s Rapids (now buried under Tobin Lake), they are in the estuary of the Saskatchewan River. This is where all the silt that is carried down the river drops as soon as the high water of the freshets slow.  Paul Kane’s journal continues:

September 6th — We were within about eighteen or twenty miles of Carlton [House], when about dark in the evening we heard a tremendous splashing in the water, but so far off that we could not see the cause. Mr. [John] Rowand at once conjectured it to be a large party of Blackfeet swimming their horses across the river, which they do by driving the horse into the water till he loses his footing, when the rider slips off and seizes the tail of the animal, and is thus towed to the opposite shore. We were somewhat alarmed, and immediately loaded our guns, the Blackfeet being the most hostile tribe on the continent; but on coming up to the spot, we found it was the horse-keeper at Fort Carlton [Carlton House], who was swimming his horses across to an island in the middle of the river to save them from the wolves, which had killed several of them, owing to the scarcity of buffaloes. As we had but a short distance to travel the next day we encamped for the night. 

It is amazing how many animals roamed these prairies, that are not here today. In the journals I found pronghorn antelope, grizzly and black bears, wolves, moose, red deer or elk, and more. I think no one has mentioned coyotes, though, and I suspect they would be called wolves by the HBC men. Paul Kane’s journal continues:

September 7th — When we arrived with a couple of miles of Carlton, we halted for the purpose of arranging our toilets previous to presenting ourselves at the establishment. This consisted chiefly of a thorough washing; some, indeed, put on clean shirts, but few, however, could boast of such a luxury. This compliment to the inhabitants was by no means unnecessary, as we were in a most ragged and dirty condition.

The country in the vicinity of Carlton, which is situated between the wooded country and the other plains, varies much from that through which we had been travelling. Instead of dense masses of unbroken forest, it presents more the appearance of a park, the gently undulating plains being dotted here and there with clumps of small trees. The banks of the river rise to the height of 150 or 200 feet in smooth rolling hills covered with verdure. The fort, which is situated about a quarter of a mile back from the river, is enclosed with wooden pickets, and is fortified with blunderbusses on swivels mounted in the bastion. This fort is in greater danger from the Blackfeet than any of the Company’s establishments, being feebly manned and not capable of offering much resistance to an attack. Their horses have frequently been driven off without the inmates of the fort daring to leave it for their rescue. The buffaloes are here abundant, as is evident from the immense accumulation of their bones which strew the plains in every direction. 

When he arrived at Carlton House in 1841, George Traill Allan noted: “this fort is just a duplicate of Edmonton, upon a smaller scale.” It stood at a shallow ford on the North Saskatchewan River, at a place where the plains began and the boreal forests of the lower river faded away. It had been constructed at this spot in 1810, and its most important role in the HBC was as a provisioning fort for the Saskatchewan Brigades. They were on the edge of the bison range, as you can see from Paul Kane’s comment above.

If, however, the Saskatchewan Brigades are arriving at Carlton House in September, they are running very late. Other brigades left Cumberland House in early August and came to Carlton House in mid-to-late August — John Charles’s 1849 brigade ran late but arrived at Carlton House on the first day of September. For Charles, there were no delays there. But for the 1846 Express, there were. They are literally running a month late! Kane’s journal continues, below, with alarming news:

The whole of the boats not having yet arrived, we remained here for several days. On the second evening after our arrival we were rather alarmed by the rapid approach of fire, which had originated far off to the west on the prairies. Fortunately, when within about half a mile of the fort, the wind changed, and it turned to the south. We, however, remained up nearly all night for fear of accidents. There were some Cree Indians about the fort, which is one of the trading ports of that nation who extend along the Saskatchewan to the Rocky Mountains, and is one of the largest tribes of Indians in the Hudson’s Bay Company domains. This tribe has been from time immemorial at war with the Blackfeet, whom they at one time conquered and held in subjection; even now the Crees call the Blackfeet slaves, although they have gained their independence, and are a fierce and warlike tribe. These wars are kept up with unremitting perseverance from year to year; and were they as destructive in proportion to the numbers engaged as the wars of civilized nations, the continent would soon be depopulated of the whole Indian race; but, luckily, Indians are satisfied with small victories, and a few scalps and horses taken from the enemy are quite sufficient to entitle the warriors to return to their friends in triumph and glory.

So we have reached Carlton House, and from here the gentlemen will mount horses and ride all the way to Edmonton House. Mr. Robert Terrill Rundle, a missionary from Edmonton House, joins them at Carlton. “He had with him a favourite cat,” Paul Kane said, “which he had brought with him in the canoes from Edmonton, being afraid to leave her behind him, as there was some danger of her being eaten during his absence. This cat was the object of a good deal of amusement amongst the party, of great curiosity amongst the Indians, and of a good deal of anxiety and trouble to its kind master.”

Just in case you didn’t think that there were cats in these fur trade posts — there were! I will end this section here, and when the next section is published, it will appear here:

For me, I am happy to know that there is nothing in this journal, so far, that is important to the book, The York Factory Express. I will admit that his description of Carlton House is very good, and I might have used it over other descriptions that I had, from other journals. I would have been especially happy  to have been able to mention the bison bones lying on the ground outside Carlton House. And it is also interesting that in two places in his journal, he mentions grass fires on the prairies — a hazard that no one else in the journals I have collected has made mention of.

By the way, if you want to order the soon-to-be-published book, The York Factory Express, you can do so through the publisher, here:

If you want to go back to the beginning of this journal, go here:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved. 



4 thoughts on “Paul Kane’s Journal

  1. Tom Holloway

    As I went over many reports of fur returns in the Columbia District, I wondered why wolves often appear, but never coyotes. Eventually the answer became clear: when the pelts are laid on the counter of a trading post, wolves and coyotes are indistinguishable. In the fur trade era, coyotes were often called prairie wolves (on average smaller, and hunt alone or in pairs), as distinct from timber wolves (on average larger, and hunt in packs).

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      I follow a Wolf Conservation Group on Facebook and on Twitter, and I sure know that I cannot tell the difference between coyotes and wolves. They also interbred, so there is a kind of wolf, I believe, that is part coyote.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      I’ve read the Edmonton House reels in HBCA and no, they did not have a census — which is basically what you are asking. I am not aware of any listing or census anywhere else. You can look at Reverend Rundle’s register if it is available, but that will only cover the people who are of his belief. The Catholics? I don’t know how you find them.
      If you look at the York Factory register of employment, you will only find the men — not wives and children. I don’t know if there is any place that pays any attention to the families of its employees.