Two Canoes: North from Cumberland House

The Flintlock gun

The Voyageur and his flintlock gun

Here is the first of this pair of journals, as two sets of canoes are making their way west to the Columbia, by the old canoe route followed by the North West Company for so many years. The first of these journeys takes place in 1823, before the York Factory Express existed. The second covers Governor George Simpson’s journey across the continent in 1828. By this time, the York Factory Express had been in existence for two years already. But Simpson had a specific exploration in mind, which you will find out when we reach the Columbia District. This is a journey that is very relevant to the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, and to my great-grandfather, Alexander Caulfield Anderson — as you will understand if you have read my book, The Pathfinder: A.C. Anderson’s Journeys in the West.

In this post, we will go as far as the waters of the Churchill River, on the north side of Frog Portage. This is John Work, Journal July 19 to October 25, 1823, York Factory to Spokane House.

Wednesday 6 [August]. Overcast lowering weather forenoon. Wind N.W. Very weighty rain in the afternoon, and blowing fresh towards evening. Having received our supplies we left Cumberland [House] about 10 o’clock & had a weak sail wind for a short time but were soon obliged to have recourse to the paddles. The rain was so weighty in the afternoon that we were obliged to encamp at 3 o’clock. It blew strong in the evening. We were nearly devoured with Muchitoes [sic] last night at Cumberland.

August 1823. Thursday 7. Cloudy. Wind N.W. Blew a storm in the night and the fore part of the day with a heavy sea. The wind abated towards the afternoon, and the swell subsiding, we embarked at 4 o’clock and proceeded on our voyage. At night we encamped at the first portage in River Malign.

“River Malign” is the “Riviere Maligne” or Sturgeon Weir River, north of Cumberland Lake and House. The following quote is from the essential book, Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America, by Barbara Huck et al, [Winnipeg: Heartland, 2002], page 168:

Today, this route north from Cumberland Lake in the Saskatchewan River delta, up the Sturgeon-weir and Churchill River, across Methye Portage and down the Clearwater River to the Athabasca, seems off the beaten track. But in the 1800s it might have been the centre of the continent for all the famous faces that passed this way….

John Work’s 1823 journal continues, below. I really enjoy the words he uses: his writing is quite different from that of other fur traders. It is, in its way, very descriptive:

Friday 8. Blowing fresh from the N.W. with some weighty rain. Embarked early this morning and proceeded up the river and reached the Beaver Lake [Amisk Lake], which we crossed in the afternoon, and continued on up the river. We were greatly kept back by a strong head wind. Each canoe got 1 1/2 bags of Pemmican at Cumberland. One of the bags on being opened today was found quite mouldy, nearly rotten and not fit for use, so that the greater part of it had to be cast away. We saw a young moose passing from an island to the shore, but it reached the land before we could get to it.

Saturday 9. Rained weighty in the night, and disagreeable showry [sic] weather. Wind Northerly all day & blowing fresh. Embarked early from a little above the Portage and encamped late on the Pine Portage, which is a very short days work. It was blowing a strong head Wind which greatly retarded our progress, though the men were working as hard as if they had been getting well on. During this day the shores were in some places high and almost bare rocks. Other places they were low and covered with poplar, birch and some pine mostly of a small size. We came to an Indian’s encampment in the evening. Mr. [Peter Skene] Ogden traded some half dried meat from them, the most of which he gave the men. We saw two black bears, but they made off before a shot could be got at them.

August 1823. Sunday 10. Light clouds. Mild weather. Wind Southerly. We embarked early and got well on we encamped when it was getting dark at the grand rapid Portage which is the first Portage after the Frog Portage. The distance which we came today is not less than 66 miles according to MacKenzie [Donald MacKenzie, Jr]. We sailed a small piece in the evening but as much would have been made out with the paddles. The shores during this days work had the same appearance as those we passed yesterday. Another of the bags of Pemican which the men got at Cumberland on being examined was found mouldy and unfit for use, so that the greater part of it had to be cast away. So much of the Pemican being damaged will make the people very short of provisions as there is little prospect of any supply being got before we reach Isle a la cross.

From Exploring the Fur Trade Routes, here is a fuller description of the part of the route up the Sturgeon Weir River to Amisk Lake and beyond:

For fur traders heading upstream 200 years ago, loaded with goods for the Athabasca region, the [Sturgeon-Weir] river was less than delightful. The voyageurs called it Riviere Maligne, the “Wicked River,” for, as Alexander Mackenzie said, it was “an almost continual rapid”.

The book also tells us that Amisk Lake is cold and deep and full of fish. Also, from the Sturgeon-Weir River, “the Athabasca bound brigades cross Frog Portage to the Upper Churchill.” So, in the above journal, John Work and Peter Skene Ogden have already reached the waters of the Churchill River. This is where I said I would pause, and our next post will continue in the Upper Churchill, probably passing over the Methye Portage.

But let us clarify: Rat Portage’s name refers to Muskrats, and not to rats. Muskrats are a cousin of sorts to beaver, and they were always a valuable fur. This historic portage is somewhere on the Sturgeon-Weir River and is mentioned by both Archibald McDonald, below, and John Work above.

In 1828, Governor George Simpson made his journey across the continent, and his journal is published under the title: Peace River: A Canoe Voyage from Hudson’s Bay to the Pacific. It is not his journal, but that of Archibald McDonald [later of Forts Langley and Colvile] who accompanied him. At some point it will split away from John Work’s journal, but right now both canoe expeditions are following the same river route.

Sunday 27th [July]. Here [at Cumberland House] took in, for the trip, each canoe a bag of common pemican, and for the mess, a bag of dried meat (50 lbs.) and 80 buffalo tongues, besides old and new potatoes, eggs, candles, and 4 gallons of spirits for the men. Got under weigh at half-past three, with fair weather, and a touch up of a favorite song chorused by both canoes. Breakfasted on one of the islands. Here the guide expressed a desire to have a better division of the men in favor of his own canoe, upon which, the Governor, in fairness to both, directed that they should be called out one by one by the two former, which was done, but ultimately placed both canoes nearly as they stood before the change made on the 17th. Entered Riviere Maligne about noon. On Rat Portage passed two Indian lodges from Rat country; offered us a little dried meat which we declined, but gave them a dram and a little tobacco. Encamped on Sturgeon Rock below Beaver Lake. Water tolerably good in this river.

Monday, 28th. Did not start before three [am]. Entered Beaver Lake at five. Fine clear weather. Breakfasted on one of the islands. Commenced Portage de Pins at half-past ten. Reached Carp Portage at five o’clock; made the Birch Portage and several strong rapids before we got to another stretch of still water, where we put up a little before eight. Had much thunder, and, now and then, tremendous heavy showers of rain. Saw a few Indians along the banks of the river, to whom we spoke en passant.

Tuesday, 29th. Made an early start, being in good water, and before six got over the Island and Pine Portages, Lake Heron, which took us two hours. Breakfasted in the Detroit at eight. In two hours more we crossed Pelican Lake. From eleven to twelve made the three short portages, and after making Portage des Bois in a very heavy shower of rain, we dined while gumming at the upper end. Encamped late, near bye [sic] Portage.

Wednesday, 30th — Being close to the first portage, we did not start before daylight. Breakfasted at the head of the first grand rapid in English River or Churchill waters, into which we fell after making the portage this morning….

I have found it difficult to determine where Frog Portage was in this journal, as they seemed to cross it without mentioning it. They may already be well down the Churchill, though none of the place names are familiar. The book, Exploring Fur Trade Routes, tells me that Trade Lake, Rapid River, Otter Rapids and other places like this are on the Churchill River. Hopefully we will find them in the next section of this set of journals.

To go back to the beginning of this series, go here:

The next section is published, and found here:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2016. All rights reserved.