John Work’s Journey to the Columbia District, 1823

birchbark canoe

John Work travelled west in one of these canoes, from York Factory to Spokane House, in 1823. Image of a birchbark canoe on a Canadian River, from Glenbow Archive, image na-843-14, used with their permission

Three years before the York Factory Express existed, John Work travelled over much of their route, on his way from York Factory to Spokane House, on the Spokane River. He began his interesting journal with with these words.

July 1823, Friday 18. Having received orders to that effect I embarked with Mr. [Peter Skene] Ogden for the Columbia with two light canoes, four men in each. Mr. Lewis [John Lee Lewes, hereafter Lewes] also embarked with us for Cumberland House. It was one o’clock when we embarked. The day was fine and we got on well. We stopped near Penny-cutaway [Pennygataway River]. Mr. Lewes killed a deer near York. [John Work’s entire journal is in the BC Archives, Manuscript, A/B/40/W89.1A, Transcript].

This canoe journey was made two years after the tumultuous merging of the North West Company [NWC] with the Hudson’s Bay Company in Summer, 1821. In this merger, both Peter Skene Ogden, and his good friend, Sam Black, had been prevented from joining the HBC. Ogden, however, traveled to England to regain their jobs, and two years later, they were allowed into the Hudson’s Bay Company. But these two strong friends were separated for many years. Sam Black [who is not in this journal as far as I can see] was sent north to explore Finlay River, and his fascinating journal was published by the Hudson’s Bay Record Society under the title: A Journal of A Voyage From Rocky Mountain Portage in Peace River To the Sources of Finlays Branch And North West Ward In Summer 1824. Peter Skene Ogden was sent to Spokane House, and his journals of exploration from that place into the Snake River district were also published by HBRS.

John Work was always a Hudson’s Bay man, having joined that company in 1814. After his arrival at Spokane House he built Fort Colvile, and accompanied another man to the mouth of the Fraser River to find a location for the new Fort Langley. But he, too, spent many years in the Snake River district that was opened by Ogden. In 1834 he was sent to the Northwest Coast [Fort Simpson] where he spent many of the years that followed. He met Alexander Caulfield Anderson at Fort Nisqually in 1851 or thereabouts, and it was John Work’s later letter that tempted Anderson north to Fort Victoria in 1858.

John Lee Lewes is also on this journey, and his story is written here:

So let us continue, with the reminder that John Work is traveling in the canoe brigades that existed before the York Factory Express was created in 1826 — hence his journey is much quicker than that of the heavily laden York Factory Express [Columbia Express]. However, at this point, he is journeying up the same river that the express men would follow three years later. I am including this bit of journal in this thread because John Work’s writing is so interesting, and his journal adds details that I would otherwise not have known about from the other journals I have.

Saturday 19. Very warm weather though blowing fresh from the Southard. Embarked early this morning and got on very well. Passed some Indians from whom we got a little fresh venison. Muscatoes [mosquitos] very plentiful and very troublesome both last night and today. Stopped for the night a good way up Hill River.

John Work is traveling up the Hayes River, like the York Factory express men in later years. For more information on Hayes River and the various names it carries, see this post:

Sunday 20. Wind Southerly. Sultry very warm weather. Set out early this morning and made a long days work. Stopped for the night a little above Halfway Creek in Hill River. Passed Mr. Hutchison and six loaded canoes in the evening. Heavy thunder and lightening and very weighty rain in the night. (“Weighty rain.” Do you see why I like John Work’s writing?)

Monday 21. Cloudy, cold in the morning, but warm & sultry. Showers in the evening. Embarked early this morning and came to below the Swampy Portage, which is a long days work. Met Messrs [John] Spencer and McVicar at noon at the Rock Portage. It was an immense pour of rain in the night with thunder and lightening.

Tuesday 22. Cloudy, Wind variable. Set out early this morning and reached the old Depot in the Knee Lake [which no later express man mentioned], which is a good day’s work. In the morning we met six canoes loaded with furs from the Athabasca.

Wedy 23. Cloudy warm weather. Wind S.W. Embarked early this morning and arrived at Oxford House a little before sunset. Our progress was considerably retarded by strong head winds.

So John Work is now at Oxford House, which is the same place that the express men arrived at in my blogpost above-mentioned. In the journals I have collected, it took the York Factory Express men from ten to fourteen days to cover that leg of the journey — John Work took six days. That was because he was traveling in canoes. Did you notice how many portages he mentioned?

None. Portaging past rapids and falls is relatively easy, when you are traveling in a light canoe. But I have done my research, and these are the rapids and falls that I discovered on the journey up the Hayes River to the top of the Canadian Shield. There are quite a few landmarks and a lot of different portages in this stretch of river!

York Factory to Shamattawa River: Hayes River, 6 Miles Island, and Eighteen Miles Island, Pennygataway River.

Shamattawa [now Gods] River to “the Rock,” where an old post once stood: The Hayes is now called the Steel River, but when it reaches the mouth of the Fox River its name changes to Hills [sometimes Hill] River. Thomas Lowe mentioned a place called Dancing Point along this section of the river. Just before the location of the old fort is Rock Portage! Remember that they are traveling upriver.

From the Rock to Knee Lake the distance is 80 km or 50 miles, and the river bed rises sharply and is full of rocks and islands. Brassy Hill loomed high above this section of the river, and was the highest point of land between Hudson Bay and Lake Winnipeg. Here is the list of rapids and portages in this part of the river:

Rocky or Rock Portage and the old Rock Fort; Borwicks [Berwick] Falls [surrounded by hills]; White Mud Portage; Rocky Point Discharge, or Point of Rocks Rapid;  1st Brass or Brassey Portage & rapids called the Lower Flats; Low Burnt Wood Portage or Lower Burning Wood.

Then came the South Handling Place, or South Side Hauling/Handling Place, through some bad rapids according to Thomas Lowe. After which was:

Morgans Rocks, Upper Burnt Wood or Little Burntwood, Rocky Launcher, Swampy Portage, Smooth Stone Portage or Smooth Rocky portage, Mossy Portage.

Then came the Upper Flats, which I think was a bit of level ground with a rapid filled river.

After that followed the 2nd Portage or 2nd Carrying place in Hills River; Upper Rapids, or Upper Portage at the top of Hill River; Devil’s Handling Place, Groundwater Creek, or Greenwaters Island, which is the last portage in Hill River. Then there were strong rapids all the way to Bird’s Lake.

Logan’s Lake follows after Birds’ Lake. These two lakes might be what used to be called Swampy Lake as they are not mentioned after 1827. So presuming Logan’s Lake and Birds’ Lake are what was then called Swampy Lake, here is what comes next:

The Hayes is now called the Jack Tent River, or Lower Jack River, to Knee Lake. Here are the portages in this part of the river — Lower Carrying Place [Possible 2nd carrying place], Long Portage, 2nd Portage in Little Jack River, Upper Portage [just before Knee Lake].

West of Knee Lake the Hayes River is called the Trout River. In this section of the Hayes is Trout Falls [very dangerous]; Decharge de Bouleau, Lower and upper Knife portage or Upper Knife Handling Place, and more rapids.

Oxford House came next, and sat on the shores of Holey Lake, now Oxford Lake. Both Oxford Lake and Knee Lake were aligned with the prevailing westerlies and could be very difficult to travel.

Beyond Oxford Lake was the Wipinapanis River and its clusters of islands; Lower portage or Lower Waipinapanis; John More’s Island; Crooked Rapid or Rapide de Croche; possibly one more rapid in here; Windy Lake; the Rabbit Ground [a river they ascended, apparently]; Lac de Bois Blanc.

Beyond White Falls Lake came the Lower Portage of Hills Gates [some called it Hell’s Gates]. There were some very dangerous rapids here.

Then followed Hills’ River with a succession of rapids, including: 2nd Hauling Place, upper Portage of Hills’ Gates, followed by comparatively still water for a while. Then the express men faced White Fall, or Robertson’s Portage, a hill of considerable elevation with a portage distance of three-quarters of a mile. There was a chain of rapids to their right as they ascended. This was a serious obstacle on the Hayes River.

Beyond this the river was quite level, and their journey much easier. They paddled through a chain of swampy lakes which is now called Swampy Lake. Painted Stone portage came next and they entered the Echimamish River, with its Half Way Creek. Hairy Lake was next, a five mile wide, bullrush-overgrown lake that stood on the height of land between Hayes River and the Nelson. Blackwater River led them to the Sea [Nelson] River and Carpenters Lake. A last crossing of rapids led them into Playgreen Lake and they made their way south through its intricate channels to Little Jack River, where the new Norway House stood.

The Hayes River, complicated as it is, is an immensely important river in Canada’s history. It was an important river long before the Hudson’s Bay men arrived: there are many ancient campsites and pictographs along the river banks — the Painted Stone portage was only one of the many. Later, the Hayes was the main route into the interior for the men of the Hudson’s Bay Company, as the Nelson River was too turbulent to travel with safety! And fortunately for all of us, the Hayes River is virtually unchanged from the early days. It is one if Canada’s historic rivers, and is designated as one of the Canadian Heritage Rivers System.

If you want to purchase my book, “The York Factory Express,” you can do so through my publisher, here: Thank you! John Work is mentioned in it, as he gives an excellent description of the Columbia Boats in which he travelled down the Columbia. He also describes how he and his party walked up the Whirlpool River toward Athabasca Pass, and the words he used are quite delightful — very old fashioned, but very descriptive. For the most part, however, John Work’s journal is not terribly useful, as he travelled a different route than the York Factory Express men did. Nevertheless, he is a pleasurable addition to the York Factory Express.

The next post is now published, and you will find it here:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2015. All rights reserved.