Paul Kane reaches Edmonton

Bison hunt

This is image na-1406-189, Glenbow Archives, and used with their permission. While this is a later bison hunt, those York Factory Express men who took part in the bison hunts on their way down and upriver would have not differed from these men.

In our continuing York Factory Express journal, we are following Paul Kane across the continent, from Norway House to the Columbia District. At the moment he is just arriving at Fort Pitt, the tiny post some 200 miles east of Edmonton House, on the North Saskatchewan River. So far, little of what I have seen in this journal would have made it into my book The York Factory Express, so I am not too worried about not finding this book earlier.

By the way, I actually did find it and did use some quotes in my book. I followed him up the Athabasca River and down the Columbia. I just did not realize that he was travelling in the Express all the way from Norway House! 

So, here is what Paul Kane had to say of his arrival at Fort Pitt and is departure a few days later. “Mr. Rundell,” as I explained in my last post in this series, is Reverend Robert Terrill Rundle, the missionary at Edmonton House. John Rowand is, of course, Chief Factor John Rowand of Edmonton House.

September 19th — We reached Fort Pitt in the evening. It is a neat and compact little fort, and is, like all the rest of the forts, except those at Red River, constructed of wood. The country here abounds in buffalo; grain and other produce might be raised plentifully here if cultivated. We remained till the 23rd…

September 23rd — I left the fort on horseback, accompanied by Mr. [John] Rowand, Mr. Rundell, an Indian boy, and a fresh hunter; on reaching the river we crossed in a boat, and swam our horses by the bridle. We left this establishment in true voyageur style, unburthened with food of any kind, and, although contemplating a journey of 200 miles, trusting solely to our guns, having not even a grain of salt. After leaving the boat, we saddled our horses, and had not proceeded more than ten miles, when we fell in with immense numbers of buffaloes.

During the whole of the three days that it took us to reach Edmonton House, we saw nothing else but these animals covering the plains as far as the eye could reach, and so numerous were they, that at times they impeded our progress, filling the air with dust almost to suffocation. We killed one whenever we required a supply of food, selecting the fattest of the cows, taking only the tongues and boss, or hump, for our present meal, and not burdening ourselves unnecessarily with more. Mr. Rowand fired and wounded a cow, which made immediately for a clump of bushes; he followed it, when the animal turned upon him, and bore him and his horse to the ground, leaping over him and escaping among the rest. Fortunately, he received no hurt beyond the mortification of being thrown down and run over by an animal which he felt assured he should see roasting at our evening camp fire.

Don’t mess with bison! They can run at speeds up to thirty-five to forty miles an hour; they are very agile, and can turn on a dime. Finan McDonald learned this lesson well, as you will see in this post: 

Paul Kane’s journal continues, with more information about the journey to Edmonton House. This includes another “greenhorn” story:

September 24th — We passed through what is called the Long Grass Prairie. The bones of a whole camp of Indians, who were carried off by that fatal scourge of their race, the small-pox, were here bleaching on the plains, having fallen from the platforms and trees on which it is their custom to suspend their dead, covered with skins, — which latter, as well as the supports, time had destroyed. An immense grisly bear was drinking out of a pond, and our hunter went ahead of the party to try and get a shot at him. The bear quietly awaiting his attack, and the Indian, seeing him so cool, rather hesitated to advance, not deeming it prudent or safe to depend on the fleetness of his horse unless he had a good start of the bear. He fired, therefore, at too great a distance for his shot to tell. The bear rose up very composedly on his hind legs, and regarding the hunter for a moment, turned about and walked away. I then determined to try my luck. As I was very well mounted, I rode up to within forty or fifty yards of him, and as he turned to look at me, I discharged both barrels; one wounded him in the shoulder, and, with a savage growl, he turned and pursued me. I set off at full gallop towards Mr. Rowand, who waited till he came within shot, when he put another ball into him — but still the bear advanced.

In the meantime, the Indian and I had both managed to reload, and, as the bear came forward, the Indian fired, and must have hit, as the bear again rose on his hind legs; when, taking a deliberate aim, I lodged a ball in his heart, and the huge monster fell to the ground. The Indian now skinned him and cut off his paws, which we found most delicious picking when roasted in the evening. The claws, which I preserved, measured four and a half inches. There is no animal on the whole continent that the Indians hold in so much dread as the grisly bear, and few will attack one of them alone, unless with a very fleet horse under him. 

So grizzly bears seem to be able to outrun a horse? Yes, indeed, they can: for 50 to 100 yards, a grizzly can run even faster than a horse. Grizzlies run up to up to 35 mph, and the fastest human speed has been clocked in at 27 mph. In other words, grizzlies can also outrun you! The lesson here is: Don’t mess with a bison, and don’t mess with a grizzly either! Paul Kane’s story continues:

We had much difficulty that evening in finding a place to encamp away from the immense number of buffaloes that surrounded us, and we found it necessary to fire off our guns during the night to keep them away. We passed through a spot covered with great quantities of shed antlers of the deer. [Likely red deer or elk]. We had ridden so fast as to knock up Mr. Rowand’s horse, but having driven several loose horses with us to provide against such emergencies, we were not inconvenienced, leaving the poor brute a prey to the wolves, which were constantly hovering about us.

I am a farmer’s daughter, and not unacquainted with butchering animals for food. But it seems unmerciful to leave a horse, that has served you well, to be stalked and killed by wolves. John Rowand was said to have loved his horses, but I guess it was only his own horses he loved.

We encamped this evening on the borders of a very beautiful fresh water lake…

September 26th — Mr. Rundell remained at the encampment this morning with the Indian boy, being completely knocked up by the hard riding of the preceding days. We were reluctant to leave him, but were under the necessity of going on as fast as possible, as I had still a long journey before me, and the season was drawing to a close. Mr. Rowand and myself, therefore, left the camp at half past 3 a.m., and pursued our journey almost at a gallop the whole way, having stopped only once for about an hour, for breakfast and to breathe our horses. 

About 5 o’clock in the afternoon, when about eight or ten miles from Fort Edmonton, we were met by a party of gentlemen from the fort, who were out shooting wild geese, in which they had been very successful, and on seeing the jaded condition of our horses, they were kind enough to exchange with us, so that we started off for the remaining distance at a round gallop.

On getting to the edge of the river, which it was necessary to cross to reach the fort, Mr. Rowand, having a fine large horse under him, plunged in. Though my horse was very small, I did not hesitate in following him. Mr. Rowand’s horse carried him over in fine style, but mine, not being equal to the task, sank under me; still, however, I held firmly on to him, till, drifting into a rapid, he struck a sunken rock in striving to obtain a footing, on which he nearly brought me under him; but on drifting a little further down, he fortunately found footing in a more shallow part, and was able to ford across, Mr. Rowand appearing greatly to enjoy the scene from his safe position on the shore.We were greeted by the occupants of the fort in their gayest attire, the day being Sunday.

Edmonton is a large establishment: as it has to furnish many other districts with provisions, a large supply is always kept on hand, consisting entirely of dried meat, tongues, and pemmican. There are usually here a chief factor and a clerk, with forty or fifty men with their wives and children, amounting altogether to about 180, who all live within the pickets of the fort. Their employment consists chiefly of building boats for the trade, sawing timber, most of which they raft down the river from ninety miles further up, cutting up the small poplar which abounds on the margin of the river for fire-wood, 800 cords of which are consumed every winter, to supply the numerous fires in the establishment. The employment of the women, who are all, without a single exception, either squaws or half-breeds, consists of making moccasins and clothing for the men, and converting the dried meat into pemmican…

We remained at Edmonton till the morning of the 6th [October], preparing for the arduous journey which now lay before us.

If the incoming York Factory Express is leaving Edmonton House in early October, it is running at least two weeks late. All the other expresses arrived at Edmonton in mid-September, and by early October were almost at Jasper’s House! How are they going to avoid the winter snow and cold in Athabasca Pass? Hint: they won’t.

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

When the next post is up, it will be found here:  It has an interesting story in it — at least it is a story that is of interest to me.

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



One thought on “Paul Kane reaches Edmonton

  1. Paula Johanson

    Paul Kane is not 100% right when he states the employment of all the women. At least one appears to have been a laundress. In today’s Fort Edmonton Park there is a historic artifact — a washboard made of pine.