Two Canoes: Governor Simpson reaches the Fraser River

Location of HBC Fort Alexandria

This is the Fraser River above the “Atnah” Rapids at Soda Creek. Below this place, where Fort Alexandria stood over the years, the river narrowed and became less friendly for canoes and boats. Much less friendly! Nevertheless, in spite of warnings, some HBC men traveled down the Fraser to its mouth.

Governor Simpson has arrived at Fort St. James, and the first complaint he and his men have is about the provisions — or lack of them. As Archibald McDonald wrote in his journal, Peace River:

Thursday 13th [September, 1828]. The fresh salmon at this place is not yet in sufficient quantity to give all hands a good meal, and, of course, recourse is had to a little remaining of last year, and the dried carp of last summer: doleful fare to be sure!

Complain if you wish, but that was life at Fort St. James, and life all through New Caledonia. The Salmon runs have always had a regular cycle, with one year being very good, the next extremely poor with few fish. Over the following two years the salmon runs slowly recovered, until once again they had salmon in plenty in New Caledonia. Both HBC men and the Indigenous people depended on the salmon runs, and sometimes everyone in New Caledonia starved. In 1827, the HBC had endured a very poor year for salmon, so 1828 was the first year of recovery: there would be fish eventually.

McDonald’s journal continues, and in this paragraph we see the arrival of the other canoes in the Brigade returning from Fort Vancouver. At this period of time, they were still using canoes in New Caledonia, not the heavy, flat-bottomed boats they would use later. Here, we are also given a clue as to the real reason why Governor Simpson has come to Fort St. James:

In the course of the day, Mr. [James Murray] Yale, and the loaded canoes with the rest of the outfit, arrived, having left one behind which was broken to pieces in one of the rapids below this; the property will be sent for soon. Now that Mr. Yale is here, it is decided that as far as [Fort] Alexandria, he is to accompany Pierre La Course and three men that we send off to-morrow for Thompson’s River [Kamloops], to commence building a boat there immediately, to take us down to Fort Langley. Wrote to Mr. [Francis] Ermatinger [who was in charge at Kamloops].. on this head, and in like manner to Mr. [George] McDougall, that the men might be furnished with horses and pushed on without an hour’s delay.

Governor Simpson dealt with some problems at Fort St. James, and then started on his way to Kamloops by the old brigade trail over the “mountain.” Obviously we will not get as far as Kamloops in this blogpost.

Wednesday, 24th. Fine clear day. Roy and party arrived at noon, and in twenty-five minutes after we were off, with the usual compliments of the garrison. To the river took us fifteen minutes. Here the Carriers [Dakelh] of the Fort are settled, and have very extensive barriers [fish weirs] for taking the salmon in the entrance of the lake, but the quantity taken as yet is very limited indeed, and great apprehensions are entertained of a year of scarcity again in New Caledonia. Made eight leagues to-day.

Thursday, 25th. Started before daylight. In still water till five. Breakfasted at head of rapids eight miles above the Small Forks, which is formed by the junction of Fraser’s [Fraser Lake] River. On the very point formed by the two rivers, a chevreuil deer was about taking the water for the east shore. We bore down upon him immediately, and as he was retracing his steps up the bank, he received a general discharge of ball, buckshot, and beaver shot, which brought him down a few yards in the woods. We landed at a camp on the opposite shore for fresh salmon, which we got, and, to our surprise, the greater part of a moose buck just killed. Left Forks at twelve. Encamped about an hour’s march above the main Forks. Indians here and there along the river, with verveux [fish weirs] at each lodge. Fine navigation all day.

(This is the earliest mention I found of moose west of the Rocky Mountains. They were not common until many years later, when clear-cuts opened up the thick woods. The “chevreuil” deer would be a mule deer, or a whitetail.)

At this point in their journal, the men are descending the Stuart River from Stuart’s Lake, and the “Small Forks” mentioned are the forks of the Stuart and the Nechako River, which flowed out of Fraser’s Lake, (here it is incorrectly called Fraser’s River). The Main Forks was where the Nechako flowed into Fraser’s River at modern-day Prince George. You will see that the HBC men pass the ruins of Fort George, which has been abandoned.

Friday, 26th. Thick morning. At Forks by five. A few minutes before, left ruins of Fort George on our right. This branch, which properly speaking, is the continuation of the Fraser’s River, receives Salmon River about twenty-five or thirty miles above this. It [the Fraser] is navigable to Tete Jaune’s Cache, as our communication with the Saskatchewan with the Leather is this way. Breakfasted ten miles above West Road River, which we made at half-past eleven. This stream, though celebrated in the travels of Sir A. McKenzie… has hardly a drop of water in it. Passed Riviere de Liards (on left) at four, and a few minutes after, the “Clayey” Pyramids, on each side. Quesnel River half-past five, also on left. Encamped three miles lower down.

These “Clayey” Pyramids sound interesting: this is the first time I have heard of these! A.C. Anderson described the “Clayey” Rapids, known as the Grande Rapids, in Cottonwood Canyon, and so these “Pyramids” are likely the canyon’s steep sides. “Riviere de Liards” translates as Cottonwood River, and flows into the Fraser just south of Cottonwood Canyon.

Saturday, 27th. Breakfasted at second point above the house. At House [Fort Alexandria] by ten. The two McDougall’s are here [both James and George], besides Mr. Yale, who with his party, arrived on the 22nd. They started in a few hours after, with each a horse, and must be at Kamloops to-morrow. Had everything prepared by four, and made a start shortly after. There are four of ourselves, five men besides Indians, and five loaded horses. Came about four miles, and encamped on the second little stream from Fort. Mr Yale and fourteen men leave this to-morrow in two bark canoes to the Forks of Thompson’s River, where we trust to meet them in twelve days. Salmon again appear scarce in this part of the country.

Not having written about Fort Alexandria in 1828, I don’t know where it stood at this time. It appears by this that it was on the east bank of the river, “two streams” above the “Atnah” Rapids at Soda Creek. Interestingly, this rough canyon and the rapids in it do not seem to have a name: even Stephen Hume, who wrote Simon Fraser: In search of Modern British Columbia, does not name them. But the HBC men called them the Atnah Rapids, which was the name given them by the Dakelh tribes who lived around Fort Alexandria. To the Dakelh, the Secwepemc were the “Atnah,” or “others.”

But it is now clear what is happening here, is it not? Governor Simpson will proceed to Kamloops, where he is having a boat built for him. James Murray Yale is canoeing downriver from the “Atnah” Rapids, and will meet Governor Simpson at the junction of the Thompson River and the Fraser, “in twelve days” time, on October 8th. From that place they are planning to continue their journey down the Fraser River, delivering Archibald McDonald to Fort Langley. Governor Simpson wanted to see for himself if the Fraser River could be used to deliver the furs to the coast, and bring the HBC trade goods inland.

This is the whole point of Governor Simpson’s journey via the Peace River to Fort St. James!

Stories like this are what make history interesting, and sometimes downright scary! When we get a little further downriver, I will explain to you just how much water goes through these narrow canyons, and what happens to it!

But let’s talk a bit about the hazards that James Murray Yale would have to face as he made his way down the Fraser River to the mouth of Thompson’s River. First, Iron Canyon and its unpredictable rapids and whirlpools, where the river is forced through a dog leg and squeezed between high canyon walls until its only thirty meters wide. I believe that the force of the waves here ripped the tail off one of Simon Fraser’s canoes! Iron Rapids may have been the worst of them, but there were many rapids near the mouth of Dog Creek, and at French Bar Creek to the south there was another canyon with fierce rapids. Even further south there were rapids at the mouth of Bridge River, and in the narrow trench where the Fraser is forced around the end of Pavilion Ridge. This is the season of low water, but on the Fraser, as on the Columbia, lower water levels made the rapids more intense!

They made it, however, though we have no record of what happened in these unfriendly canyons and rapids. Eventually Yale and his men reached the place the HBC men called the Grand Forks, or Thlikum-cheen [with the weight on “cheen”]. The Indigenous people who live here today call their home Kum-sheen, or Camshin, and this was, I believe, one of the largest Indigenous settlements on the Fraser River.

So we leave Yale sitting at the mouth of the Thompson River, waiting for Simpson and recovering from the shock of the downriver journey. When the next post is written, it will appear here: although it will probably be a John Work post.

To see the next Governor Simpson post, when published, go here:

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

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2018. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Two Canoes: Governor Simpson reaches the Fraser River

  1. Gail D. Cooper

    Enjoy the your blog, my 3rd gr-grandfather Colin Fraser the Piper did this trip with George Simpson. Enjoy the fur trade history. A great uncle of mine, Joseph McGillivray was also posted at Ft. Alexandria. Thank-you for keeping it alive.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Happy to hear from you. Colin Fraser seems to have been very likeable. The gentlemen who traveled with the York Factory Express through Jasper’s House always seemed to enjoy the visit. He played the bagpipes for them.