Paul Kane goes Home

A York Boat under sail

This powerful image of a York Boat under sail is used with the permission of the Glenbow Archives. Its number is na-1847-5. The HBC men sailed these boats anytime the wind was blowing in right direction, both going downriver, and coming upriver.

So, in a continuation of this series, in Fall 1847, the artist Paul Kane has crossed the Rocky Mountains and made his way to the little post of Jasper’s House, from whence he will travel on to Fort Assiniboine and Edmonton House, where he will spend the winter. Generally, at least, that is what the HBC gentlemen did. Let’s see what Paul Kane decided to do, shall we??

First of all, he has to get away from Jasper’s House. “We were now obliged to set our men to work to make snowshoes, as our further journey had to be made over deep snow.” A storm had come through Jasper Valley while he was making his way toward Jasper House, and there had been a heavy snowfall and a deep, steady cold. On November 6th, Kane had written: “The wind blew intensely cold, and we had to pass along the margin of a frozen lake, seven or eight miles long, over which the snow drifted furiously in our faces. It became so cold that we could no longer sit on the horses, but were obliged to dismount and drive them on before us…Fortunately I fell in with an Indian lodge, and had an opportunity of thawing myself, so that I rode the remainder of the way to Jasper’s House with comparative comfort. There we soon forgot our trouble over a good piece of mountain sheep, which is really delicious, even when not seasoned by such hardships as we had undergone.”

Kane also describes the cold at Jasper’s House: “This place is completely surrounded by lofty mountains some of them close to the house, others many miles distant, and is subject to violent tornadoes, which sweep through the mountain gorges with terrific fury.” That was exactly the weather conditions that he and others at Jasper’s House were currently experiencing. The story of Paul Kane’s journey home goes on:

We were now obliged to set our men to work to make snowshoes, as our further journey had to be made over deep snow. The birch wood of which they are made does not grow near Jasper’s House, and the men had to go twenty miles off to get it. At last, by the 14th [November], our snowshoes and a sledge were completed, and with much difficulty I obtained two wretched dogs from the Indians, and one Mr. Colin Fraser lent me, to drag the sledge with my packs, provisions, and blankets. I had two men, one an Indian, the other a half-breed. They had come with Mr. [Thomas] Lowe from Edmonton, with seven others, and [who] ought to have waited for me, but we had been so long coming and the weather had got so cold, that the seven got afraid of waiting any longer, and departed without me.

So that would have been the normal way for him to go to Edmonton: being transported by the men who had come from Edmonton House with Thomas Lowe, to do exactly that job! Paul Kane’s journal of his journey home continues:

Had these two followed the example of their companions, I should have been obliged to spend a most dreary winter in the wretched accommodation which Jasper’s House afforded.

November 15th. Early in the morning we equipped ourselves for the journey, putting on snow shoes between five and six feet long… Owing to our having so few dogs, we could not carry many provisions, but trusted to our guns to provide more on the way. 

The first thing they did, of course, was trust to another man’s hunting. They stopped at an Indian lodge where they found the woman alone with her children and the man out hunting. When the man returned he carried one sheep, out of the four he had shot, and the HBC party, including the hunter himself, set down and ate it all! The First Nations hunter told many stories of hunting, and then made a bed of sheep skins for Kane, and the HBC men spent the night there in comfort. Paul Kane set out on his journey home the next morning:

November 16th. At an early hour before daylight we got our breakfast and harnessed our dogs, and made our way through some very thick woods. We entered on Jasper’s Lake, twelve miles long, the wind blowing a perfect hurricane, as it always does here when it blows at all. Fortunately the wind always comes from the mountains: had it been otherwise, we should not have been able to pass along the lake on the glare of ice against such a storm of wind and sleet; as it were, we were blown along by the wind, and could only stop ourselves by lying down; our sledge sometimes flying in front of the dogs, while we were enveloped in a cloud of snow that prevented our seeing more than a few yards before us…. After we had crossed the lake, we proceeded about five miles down the river and encamped.

The Athabasca River was already frozen over, and presented many difficulties to Paul Kane’s HBC party. “Where the river is rapid,” Kane said, “the ice becomes rough, craggy, and unsafe, and is raised in hillocks to a considerable height by the masses being forced by the current on the top of each other.” Other ice when smooth, had been “formed high above the usual level of the water,” which water flowed away when the ice-dam broke. This smooth ice, “having nothing to support them underneath, easily give way, and the traveller falls either into the torrent far below, or upon another layer of ice.” It was also impossible for them to leave the river and travel overland, “as the ground on both sides was so broken, and the forest was so dense and tangled, that we should have starved long before we could have made our way through it.” Obviously, this winter journey down the Athabasca River to Fort Assiniboine was not going to be smooth and easy! 

That evening Paul Kane fell into the river, though he saved themself, but was so cold that they had to stop and set up camp. That night the good dog chewed through his tie and ran off. They continued downriver, climbing over the pinnacles of ice that blocked the river at the Grand Rapids; on another occasion they found the ice overflowed by water and they had to detour through the woods on shore. Kane got a case of “mal de racquette” (snowshoe tendonitis), but continued to push on through that painful condition. Then it snowed, and it continued to snow, and the men pushed on anyway, stopping for the night at Baptiste’s River [Berland River]. There were no rabbits and the men were running out of provisions and they stopped feeding the dogs. On November 28th they camped, and considered whether or not they should dine on the two remaining dogs. “But their thinness saved them,” Kane said. “The two would not have furnished us with a sufficient meal; besides, they could draw the sledge still, and that was a great consideration to us.”

The men finally made Fort Assiniboine, arriving there at four o’clock pm on November 29th. The party had travelled an amazing 350 miles in fifteen days, through ice and snow and freezing temperatures. “No sooner had we arrived,” Kane said, “than all hands set to work cooking; luckily for us, this post is plentifully supplied with white fish — indeed, it is almost the only thing they ever had to eat here — which are caught in immense numbers in a small lake near the fort, called McLeod’s Lake. I never saw such large ones as those caught here. They average six and seven pounds; and one of them which I saw weighed had actually attained to the enormous weight of eighteen pounds.”

And this is interesting: he described exactly what I have written about when I write about the shoes the fur traders wore. “Having wrapped my feet in clean pieces of blanket (the only stockings worn in the interior), and put on a pair of clean dry moccasins, I bethought me of the poor dogs, and taking down some raw fish, went out to feed them…” 

So, Paul Kane has reached Fort Assiniboine, on his journey home. He rests here for two days, allowing his feet to heal and his body to recover. “On the evening of the 1st [December] we all felt so well that we prepared to proceed next morning to Edmonton, which we calculated to reach easily in four days.” His journal continues:

December 2nd. We started early in the morning on snow shoes, taking with us very little provisions, as we were assured that we should find plenty of rabbits on the road. Our route lay through the woods, which were very thick and encumbered with fallen trees; this rendered our progress slow and very fatiguing; but our renewed strength, and the certainty of a good supply when we stopped, kept up our spirits and enabled us to make a very good day’s journey. When we encamped for the night, we set to work cooking the rabbits which we had killed on the way, of which we had more than enough. The whole evening they were running across our path…

December 3rd, 4th, and 5th. Our route was mostly through woods, but the weather was pleasant, and we had abundance of rabbits, so that the journey seemed like a mere pleasure trip in comparison with what we had gone through.

On the evening of the 5th we arrived at Fort Edmonton, where I was most kindly received by Mr. [Joh Edward] Harriott, and provided with a comfortable room to myself — a luxury I had not known for many months. This was to be my headquarters for the winter; and certainly no place in the interior is at all equal to it, either in comfort or interest. All the company’s servants, with their wives and children, numbering about 130, live within the palings of the fort in comfortable log-houses, supplied with abundance of firewood.

So, Paul Kane intending to remain at Edmonton House for the winter. Presumably he would join the outgoing York Factory Express and travel down the river with them. But did he? It would be the 1848 Express led by Thomas Lowe, and I don’t believe Lowe mentioned Kane in his journal. Here is what Thomas Lowe had to say of his departure from Edmonton House, in 1848:

[May] 25. Thursday. Fine weather. Started this morning from Edmonton after an early breakfast to descend the Saskatchewan, with a brigade of 5 boats, in 3 of which were passengers. In one were Messrs. [John Edward] Harriott, [Paul] Kane, and [name] Clare, in another Mr. [Paul] Fraser, his son, myself, and Dr. [Alexander] Kennedy’s two boys; and in the third Bishop Demers and Robert Logan.

I will be darned! There is Paul Kane, and I never even noticed him in Thomas Lowe’s Express boats! I was probably more interested in Paul Fraser, who was going on furlough this year. I don’t think Lowe mentioned Kane often, and I have a feeling they did not get along. (And an aside: I have never identified the “Mr. Clare” in these boats. If anyone knows who he is and where he served, please let me know. He is not in the HBCA Biographical Sheets, and I have run across him nowhere else.) 

So what does Paul Kane say about the outgoing York Factory Express of 1848? 

May 22nd. Mr Low [Thomas Lowe] arrived from the east [west] side of the Rocky Mountains, in company with Mr. de Merse [Demers], the Roman Catholic Bishop of [Fort] Vancouver, and Mr. Paul Frazer. The boats and their cargoes had been long prepared, and we only waited for a favourable break in the weather to commence our journey home.

May 25th. The weather having cleared up, we embarked with the before-mentioned gentlemen for Norway House. We had twenty-three boats, and 130 men, with Mr. Harriott as our chief. We saw great numbers of dead buffaloes along the shore of the river, which from the long continuance of the snow covering the herbage had become so exhausted that they were drowned in attempting to swim across the river, in their accustomed migration to the south every spring, and now lay in thousands along the banks.

Thomas Lowe also mentioned the drowned bison, without any explanation at all for their drowning. How interesting!

May 27th. What with the strong current, the men pulling all day, and our drifting all night, we… arrived at Fort Pitt, where we got an addition to our party of two more boats. These boats are all loaded with the furs and pemmican of the Saskatchewan district. The furs are taken down to York Factory, in the Hudson’s Bay, where they are shipped to Europe; the pemmican is intended for those posts where provisions are difficult to be procured. We remained at Fort Pitt for two days whilst the other boats were got ready….

The boats arrived at Carlton House on June 14th, according to Paul Kane’s journal, and Bishop Modeste Demers rode across the prairies to the Red River Settlement. So says Kane’s journal, but the actual date was June 4th. They reached Cumberland House on June 10th, and two days later were at “the Paw,” or the Pas.  On June 17th they arrived at the Grand Rapids, “and the whole brigade shot down them, a distance of three and a half miles…” 

No rapid in the whole course of the navigation on the eastern side of the mountains is at all to be compared to this in point of velocity, grandeur, or danger to the navigator. The brigade flies down as if impelled by a hurricane, many shipping a good deal of water in the perpendicular leaps which they often have to take in the descent. The whole course is one white sheet of foam, from one end to the other…. Having run the rapids in safety, we arrived in a few minutes more at Lake Winnipeg, and encamped on the shore, where we cooked and ate our supper. From this point we had to make a traverse of seventy miles as the crow flies to Mossy Point, the entrance to Jack Fish River [Norway House]; but as the wind was against us, we lay down to sleep.

About 1 o’clock in the morning we were all aroused, and found the wind blowing fresh and fair, so that we put off immediately to take advantage of the fortunate occurrence. I was soon asleep again in the boat, and did not awake until after sunrise, when I found we were far out of sight of land and the wind blowing a heavy gale. About 2 o’clock pm we rounded Mossy Point, and at 5 o’clock arrived at Norway House, where the brigade left me, they going on to York Factory, and I remaining to meet Major McKenzie, who was expected soon, to pass on his way to Fort Frances.

Fort Frances was the new name for the old Rainy Lake post, I believe, and this Major McKenzie, whoever he might be, would be taking Paul Kane up the Winnipeg River toward Lake Superior and home. I checked and ensured that this was not “Old Man” Mckenzie, whose proper name was Roderick McKenzie — he was James Anderson’s father-in-law, and of course James Anderson is in my family tree.

Paul Kane did travel with Major McKenzie to Rainy Lake, and other canoes took him southward to Lake Superior. Kane would arrive in Toronto in October 1848, his long and adventurous journey home completed. And as always, I appreciate that some of these men who were not fur traders gave us stories that the HBC men did not include in their journals. Every little bit helps one understand the culture of the fur trade. 

So if you want to go back a bit in this series, here is the story of Paul Kane’s departure from Fort Vancouver, on his long journey home. 

This is the end of Paul Kane’s stories: there will be no more. 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2023. All rights reserved.