Puget Sound

The Columbia River, where the ships that stopped at Fort Vancouver anchored

The bank of the mighty Columbia River off Fort Vancouver, where the ships anchored. For the men who were on this 1824 journey to Fort Langley, however, the weather was always like this: rainy, overcast, and misty. 

In late 1824, a group of HBC men made a boat journey from Fort George [Astoria] to the Fraser River, via the Nicomekl River, a stream that seems to run southward from the Fraser River into Boundary Bay. It doesn’t, of course, but how it runs is one of the things I have to figure out. So let us continue our uncomfortable, although historic, journey to the Fraser River, moving on from this post here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/fraser-river/ 

We ended the last post with the HBC men approaching a First Nations village at the mouth of what they called the Chehalis River, on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. The date was November 26, 1824, and the Chehalis Indians (who were quite used to dealing with the HBC men) ran away on sighting them, threatening and shouting from behind trees and bushes. The puzzled HBC men soon figured it out, however, and by giving tobacco to a few of the chiefs learned that another First Nations man, “Cumcumilus’ Son Cassica” had spread stories that the HBC men were coming to attack them. 

That was November 26: It poured down rain all that night with the wind coming from the SE, John Work said, and on November 27, “it rained incessantly with very little wind till 2 o’clock in the afternoon, when it ceased and a fair evening succeeded. Every person and every thing was completely drenched, our means of keeping them dry being ineffective. In order to save time and avoid the difficulty of getting a fire, we breakfasted before we left our encampment, and embarked at 8 o’clock, and continued our course up the river to 4 o’clock in the afternoon where we encamped both wet and uncomfortable, but the evening being fine a good fire was soon made and all hands were soon employed warming themselves and drying their clothes.”

So things did get better, according to John Work. But Francis Annance, who is also on this journey, was not so pleased with the way the day turned out. His journal entry for November 27 reads: “Started early. The water rising fast, current strong.” Yes, it seems like they were paddling upriver, which agrees with Work’s journal. That means they are making their way eastward from the shores of the Pacific Ocean: they were following rivers that would take them across the base of the Olympic Peninsula toward Puget Sound! Annance’s journal continues. “The country about the same. Passed another village at the fork of our river. This fork is nearly as large as the main river, coming from the north. Rain does not cease. Made about twenty miles then we encamped.” 

It seems that Francis Annance is becoming discouraged and has lost his sense of humour. On November 28th, the team paddled through the rain and cold, “the river winding and the current very strong.” They came to another fork which led them eight miles towards the east when they “then encamped, having found much difficulty in lowness of the water. Our departure from Chehalis Bay to this fork by the general course of the river is, I think, rather to the south: now we go to the north.” They were paddling a steady course toward the bottom Puget Sound by a route that was familiar to the HBC men at Fort George [Astoria], as you will see.

On November 28, John Work writes: “Raining the most part of the night. Short intervals of fair weather in the morning and constant rain afterwards… Embarked a little after 8 o’clock and pursued our course up the river a distance of about 10 miles S.E. to where it receives a little river called the Black River from the Northward.” So his account agrees with Annance’s. “The Black River, so named from the colour of its water, is from 20 to 30 yards wide; towards its lower end the navigation is very good, the water is deep and the current not strong, but about 5 or 6 miles up it the navigation gets troublesome as the current becomes strong and in many places so shallow that the boats could scarcely be dragged through it.” At two places the river was also blocked up with driftwood. At one barrier a portage was made, but at the other they had to cut their way through the fallen trees. How can this journey get any worse?

It is now Monday 29, 1824. The First Nations people who resided in the portion of country they were now passing through were the “Halloweena” people, and an HBC man named Pierre Charles was known to live with these Natives. While John Work and the other HBC men set up camp early, Francis Annance was sent off to locate Pierre Charles, as they believed he would be a good addition to their party. On November 29, Annance tells us that: “This morning I went for Pierre Charles, a freeman living with Indians at the village: he being a good animal hunter, we thought he would be useful to our party.” Unfortunately, Annance could not locate him, and returned empty-handed to the HBC camp.

The next day was November 30, 1824, and it rained again. All day. These men are going to turn into frogs! Happily, however, Annance reported that “Pierre Charles came to us and consented to go with us.” John Work tells us that it rained “in the night and weighty rain the greater part of the day with strong gusts of wind from the SE. We did not decamp today.” One man had blood poisoning and was sent back to Fort George with the help of some of First Nations men. This man’s name was Vanditt Potvin or Patvin, and I have no information on whether or not he survived. 

Nor did John Work’s party move camp on December 1, as the interpreter Michel Laframboise was still making arrangements to send the sick man back to Fort George [Astoria]. But Francis Annance tells us another story, and he seems to be regaining his sense of humour! Here is what he has to say:

December 1st. Left our encampment of the prairies de Buttes. I and one of the men went by land to the lake about twelve miles ahead in the hopes of finding animals. No elk. Rain, rain!  The evening we came to the prairie of the lake and portage where we killed a deer, a goose, and a salmon. Good supper. We happened to make our fire on a spot where has been an old Indian lodge; in the course of the night, [we] are driven out by the proprietors of the soil (fleas). 

December 2nd. Went out again but found no elk or rather deer. Fine day. 

December 3rd. This morning the Boats arrived and began the portage immediately. The road is pretty good; but we are obliged to clean the bush and trees off farther back to pass. Made nearly two miles then we encamped.

So it seemed that Annance and another man set out ahead of the boats in order to hunt: and yes, John Work says that “Several of the people were sent off to hunt, they are to proceed to a portage a short way ahead and there meet us.” It has been quite noticeable how often John Work and Francis Annance say that they had little luck in hunting, partially because of the constant rain.

I am also very interested in this “Prairie de Buttes.” Buttes are mounds, or, most likely, kames. Kames are mounds left behind when glaciers retreat. And in 1824, these men are encamped on what is almost certainly the Mima Mounds, formed some time after the ice age glaciers began receding some 16,000 years ago. Whether they are kames or not, I do not know, and their origin has puzzled scientists since the mid-1800s. Modern day research has revealed some information about these mounds, however. To learn more, google the “mima mounds.” The Washington government has a good site tho’ hard to read. And please, ignore the page that says that Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, leader of the United States Exploring Expedition, was the first man to see these prairies: he was not, as you will learn from the Fort Nisqually thread when I get that far. Charles Wilkes and A.C. Anderson did visit this prairie, which was already well known to the HBC men at Fort Nisqually. And, as we can see above, John Work and Francis Annance visited this place long before Lieutenant Wilkes reached Fort Nisqually, and these two fur traders were certainly not the first people who saw this prairie! 

So, on December 1 John Work stayed behind a Prairie de Buttes. On December 2, he went five miles up the Black River, heading north until he found the river choked up with trees so that it was necessary to make a portage around the blockage. “The boats were brought up by water which was such a tedious business, a road having to be cut for them in many places through the bushes, that it was night when they reached the upper end of the portage. The part of the river through which we passed today is pretty deep and the current not strong except at some points till we reach the Portage…” meaning, on this occasion, the road they had to cut around the blockage in the river. 

On December 3, Work’s party embarked and continued up the Black River “nearly to the head of a lake where it had its source, a distance of about 8 miles N to a portage where boats and all have to be carried across land to Puget’s Sound.”  John Work described the lake at the head of Black River as being 3 to 4 miles long and from 1 to 1/2 miles wide, appearing on every side to be thickly wooded with pine. Beyond the lake, Work said that the overland part of “the portage is a fine road through a handsome plain. Saw several marks of beaver by their cuttings, they seem to be fonder of the ash than other trees.” The portage was good for the men who carried the loads, “but it is too narrow to carry the boats through, and requires a good deal of labour to widen it, as some of the trees to be removed are pretty large, six men were employed clearing it all day.”

Francis Annance and the other hunters joined them at the end of this portage, it seems, “arriving at the camp with one deer, the only success they had on their hunt,” according to Work. No one mentions being hungry, but it is clear that the hunting has been poor, and has been poor from the beginning of their journey from Fort George. 

On December 4, Francis Annance reported that they “came to the other end with our baggage; the canoes still behind. The road is muddy, full of trees. Some little rivers to cross. The length, about four miles. Our course here is north west. Pierre Charles killed two red deer.” Red deer are normally elk, but were there elk here at this time? Yes, there were: one day later, John Work reported that Pierre Charles returned to the camp, having killed two elk.

In his journal, John Work wrote on December 4: “At daylight the people resumed their labour on the portage, part to clear a road for the boats and part to carry the baggage. The property was carried to the end of the portage, a distance of 4,950 yards NW, by 11 o’clock, after which all hands were employed carrying the boats a part of the way. This labour is attended with a great deal of difficulty, as we advance the road gets worse, it is in many places wet and miry, the trees are of a very large size, many of them fallen, and the ground among them so thickly covered with underwood, particularly an evergreen shrub called by the Chenooks Lallal [Salal], that cutting a road through them for the boats is a tedious and laborious task. The track is also intersected by thin little rivers or creeks.”

Oh, I do feel for them, if they had to fight their way through Salal!!

On December 5, John Work sent men off to collect the meat of the two elk Pierre Charles had killed: they would eat well tonight! His men “continued their labour at the boats which are yet a considerable distance from the end of the portage, though the people wrought at the road and carrying them all day. A good allowance of the fresh meat was served out to all hands which is a very acceptable change to them after the pease on which they have been living chiefly for some time.” And so we now know that the supply of provisions was not good, and that the men would appreciate the supply of fresh meat provided by Pierre Charles, the hunter who they had picked up at the Halloweena villages. (It is also interesting to know where he lived, because in later years the Fort Nisqually men also sent for him, and they had to go some distance to find him.)

On December 6, Francis Annance’s journal tells us that “the boats were early here and we had the satisfaction to see them put on the waters of the famous Puget Sound.” John Work’s journal says that “At daylight the people went off to the boats which they brought to the end of the portage, and at 9 o’clock we embarked and proceeded down the bay about 25 miles… In the evening passed the Nisqually River which falls in from the East into a pretty large bay. The shores are steep and bold compounded of clay,…” This is south of where the future Fort Nisqually would be built. Frances Annance tells us that they camped opposite the mouth of the Nisqually River, where beaver had been but were no longer.

The party paddled northward up Puget Sound, until finally, on December 11, they could see the mountains of Vancouver’s Island. Francis Annance says: “Strong wind and fair, and we began the day with sails. Here we leave Bellingham Bay and seemed to follow a large Channel stretching into the sea. At the end of our Island the sea appeared to open before us; but we soon discovered very high mountains in the midst of the Ocean, which we take to be the mountains on Vancouver’s Island. To the mainland, we could not see the high mountains not being sufficiently clear. Made about twenty six miles then encamped on a point, the entrance of a small creek. From this we have a traverse to make strong on our left to Roberts Point [Point Roberts], about ten miles…” So they were planning to paddle north to the mouth of the Fraser River from where they were encamped, which, according to Bruce A. McKelvie in his book, Fort Langley: Outpost of Empire, was on the shores of Semiamu Bay. They are still in what is called today Washington State. 

On the same date [December 11] John Work writes:

Proceeded on our voyage at 1/2 past 7 o’clock and continued to 1/2 past 12 where we encamped in consequence of having a very wide traverse to make, which it was deemed unsafe to attempt as the weather appeared unsettled and the sea appeared to be running high in the middle of the traverse…Immediately when we put ashore Pierre Charles went to hunt and shortly returned having killed 3 elk and a deer.

The men were not going to starve tonight, at least!

This is a good place to stop for now. The journey will continue in the next post, which when published will probably be labeled:  https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/nicomekl-river/

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

I am on Mastodon, for the York Factory Express, at @MargueriteHBC@mastodon.social  It is working well. 

I am also on Mastodon.ca, for the HBC Brigades. You will find me at @marguerite_hbc@mstdn.ca It is not as lively as Mastodon social is, but it is getting there. It takes more time to build followers on this instance, I think.  

I look at Twitter but no longer use it. It’s habit, now and a habit that will break by itself, as Twitter becomes less interesting or more abusive. Both are likely to happen, I am afraid.