Warre and Vavasour

Columbia River

This is the Columbia River near Castlegar, close to the mouth of the Kootenay River, looking toward the Arrow Lakes. This image is from the Columbia Basin of Regional History, the Valemount Historical Society & Kootenay Gallery of Art, History & Science, image number 0131.0349.

Captain Henry James Warre, a British officer, and Lieutenant Mervin Vavasour, of the Royal Engineers, visited Forts Vancouver and Victoria in 1845 and 1846. Both Warre and Vavasour presented themselves as gentlemen-tourists. They were, however, actually British spies, here to assess whether or not the HBC men would be able to keep Oregon Territory British. In my last blogpost, found here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/captain-henry-warre/ I discussed how the two military men arrived in the Oregon Territory, and where they travelled. Oh, and by the way: a little research has identified the Rocky Mountain pass that the party probably travelled through, to get from the prairies to Fort Colvile — it is believed to be the pass we now call White Man Pass.

So in my above blogpost I ended the journal entries after their return from Fort Victoria, which date Thomas Lowe says was October 16, 1845. So, they were at Fort Victoria for eight days sometime in late September or early October, and, of course, on both their outgoing and return journeys they travelled through and visited Fort Nisqually. Volume I of the Journal of Occurrences at Fort Nisqually [published by the Fort Nisqually Association] ends in May 1839, and Volume II begins on January 20, 1846, and so there is no record of Warre and Vavasour passing through the post. 

After their long visit to the coast, Warre and Vavasour were ready to go home, it seems. But:

The passage of the Rocky Mountains was not considered practicable till the beginning of May, on account of the depth of the snow in the country lying at their base, which would render it impossible to transport the baggage, provisions, &c., sufficient for our party, for so great a distance over the frozen surface. We were, therefore, obliged to delay our departure on our homeward journey till the end of March, which would allow time for the ascent of the Columbia River, and enable us to reach the Boat Encampment, from whence we were to commence the ascent of the mountains at the proper season. 

Warre and Vavasour were, of course, planning to go out with the annual York Factory Express, which would depart Fort Vancouver sometime around March 20, and reach Fort Colvile in mid-to-late April. In early May, the York Factory Express party would begin their journey across the Rocky Mountains from Boat Encampment. Of course the two gentlemen-tourists had to get through the rest of the winter before they could set off. Let’s see what stories they will tell:

The festive seasons at Christmas and New Year was not unregarded in this distant land. The officers of the H.M.S. Modeste contributed largely to promote feelings of friendship between the settlers from the United States and the subjects of Great Britain; and they were ably supported by the agents of the Hudson’s Bay Company, whose families joined in the merry dance, and reciprocated the dinners which were given on board the ship. The deck was fitted up as a theatre, and many plays and farces were most inimitably performed by the sailors, among whom were come capital actors. 

Hunting with the “lasso” the wild cattle, which are very numerous on many of the adjoining plains was a constant amusement, and not unattended with personal danger; these animals are extremely fierce and often became the attacking party, in which case we were obliged to trust to the speed and activity of our horses.

These cattle had come north from Mexico or Texas Territory, via California, and were, I believe, the precursors of the Texas longhorns. There were no gentle and domesticated milk cows here! 

But at last, Warre and Vavasour were able to leave Fort Vancouver in the outgoing York Factory Express of 1846. (The date below is a little smudged: I hope I have it right): 

On the 25th March, we took leave of our many kind and hospitable friends, and commenced our homeward journey. Several of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s servants, whose term of servitude had expired, and who were desirous of returning to their native land, increased our party to about thirty: we were distributed in two large boats, laden with every variety of stores for the Indian trade of the interior country, which we deposited at the different forts or trading posts we passed in the ascent of the river.

The ascent of the rapid current of the Columbia was very tedious; we could seldom average more than 25 or 30 miles a day; and often where the river was more than usually impeded with falls and rapids, we could not even accomplish this distance. 

This is why it is always good to read the journals of the English explorers who followed the HBC river routes: their journals speak of occurrences that the HBC men hardly thought about.

We reached “Les Dalles” on the 29th, a distance of 80 miles from Fort Vancouver, having made the “portage” of the beautiful falls 49 miles below, call[ed] the “Cascades.” At the point called “Les Dalles,” the river has been obstructed in its approach to the sea, by a broad strata of basaltic rock, rising nearly 100 feet above the usual level of the ground, through which the water has forced a narrow passage of nearly a mile in length, and not more than 100 feet in breadth. During the Spring season, when the snow melting on the mountains increases the quantity of water, this magnificent river is kept back till it is said to rise above 60 feet, forming itself into a large lake above the barrier, and forcing itself through the narrow gorge with a terrific force. The view of Mount Hood from this point is very beautiful, rising to a height of nearly 18,000 feet, and covered with its dazzling mantle of perpetual snow. 

This image he speaks of is in my book, The York Factory Express, on about page 44. Warre and Vavasour’s journey continues:

We arrived at Fort Walla Walla, a distance 200 miles, on the 2nd April, and here obtained horses to ride across the country to Fort Colville [Colvile], leaving the boats to continue their more circuitous course by the river to the same point, about 450 miles. The direct route to Fort Colvile is about 250 miles, 200 of which is through a barren sandy desert, comparable only with the Great Sahara in Africa, during the passage of which we could hardly find sufficient wood or water to supply our most ordinary wants, or sufficient nourishment to afford a scanty meal to our half-famished horses. The country is intersected by deep ravines, scarped with perpendicular basaltic rock, which obliged us to make very long distances before we could find a point that afforded even a dangerous crossing. In many cases these ravines formed the bed of a rapid river, which only increased our desire for water, which, within view, was the more tempting, from being unattainable…

The York Factory Express party in which Warre and Vavasour travelled arrived at Fort Colvile sometime in mid-April, 1846. By that time, Archibald McDonald has left the post in the hands of Chief Factor John Lee Lewes, who (unlike Archibald McDonald) leaves no records behind him. From Fort Colvile, Warre and Vavasour continue their journey up the Columbia, without giving us a lot of information. I have the impression these two soldiers were happy to leave the Columbia District behind them!

 At Fort Colvile, we again embarked in boats to ascend the Columbia River to Boat Encampment, a distance of 250 miles. We abandoned the boats at this point, and commenced, on foot, the ascent of the Rocky Mountains.

We had for many days. been surrounded by magnificent mountains, and had passed through such a beautiful country, that the effect of this grand and solitary scene was partially destroyed, by the sublimity of that which had preceded it. The Mountains are about 10,000 feet in height, unequalled in any part of Switzerland for the ruggedness of their peaks and beauty of form, capped and dazzling in their white mantle of snow. 

You will remember that Boat Encampment lies at the junction of the Columbia River with the Canoe River, which flows in from the north, and the Wood River that flowed from the east or north east. Although Warre and Vavasour say they ascended the Canoe River, it was actually the Wood. 

Our pedestrian labours now commenced. For three days we continued the ascent of the valley of the Canoe river, wading twenty times in the course of each day through this mountain torrent, landing on the snow, which covered the whole country, and over the half thawed surface of which we dragged the heavy lumbering, but well adapted, shoe that prevented our being submerged at every step.

Warre and Vavasour are, of course, describing the bear paw snow shoes they wore.

At night we formed our couch on the snow, without an opportunity being afforded to us of drying our saturated garments, or being able to pitch our tent to guard against the cold. On the fourth day we ascended the Grande Cóte, to the height of land on which are situated two small lakes, from whence flow two rivers, the waters of which fall into different oceans–the Columbia [Wood] into the Pacific, and the Athabasca [Whirlpool] into the Frozen ocean. The fatigue of mounting nearly 5900 [unclear] feet the soft snow, which sank, even with the snow shoes, nearly to the knees at every step, can hardly be conceived. We were obliged to follow one another in file, and relieve the leading file every ten minutes, by which means the road was formed for the carriers, whose endurance, under their heavy burdens, was wonderful.

We were now in the very heart of the mountains, which rose several thousand feet on every side of us. “Avalanches” of snow and rock were detached under the influence of the mid-day sun, and rolled across the path into the valley beneath, threatening to engulf us in their overwhelming course.

At the Boat Encampment, the provision of dried meat had been divided; each man carried his own share in addition to his regular burden. From want of forethought, and dislike to additional weight, they had not taken sufficient, and their provisions began to fail. We were not fortunate enough to kill a mountain sheep or goat, or even an elk, whose traces were very apparent in the snow, and some of which usually fell victims to the skill of the hunters. On this the men relied, and we found ourselves in the unenviable position of being obliged to share our last meal with the sundry men, whose strength also began to fail under the excessive exertion, without sufficient nourishment. 

I think I am not fond of these two British gentlemen-tourists: they seem stingy. After all, it is the men who are carrying the loads across the mountains!

On the 7th day our provisions were completely exhausted; having divided our last mouthful, I started onward with two men to make our way to Jasper’s House, a small station of the Hudson’s Bay Company on the Athabasca River, and distant about 50 miles. We had, however, scarcely walked 10 miles, when the joyful sound of human voices assured us of more immediate relief, and we soon encountered a party of men who had been sent to meet us, with provisions, accompanied by Le Pere de Smet, a Jesuit priest from Belgium, and chief of the Roman Catholic missionaries in the Columbia District, who was on his return to that part of Oregon…

According to the information I have on White Man Pass, Warre and Vavasour were supposed to have met Pere de Smet at the height of that pass, as they were coming into the Oregon Territory and de Smet was leaving. And now, they meet de Smet at the height of land of Athabasca Pass, as Warre and Vavasour are leaving the territory, and de Smet is coming in? It seems too much of a coincidence to be true, but perhaps a little extra research (which I am not going to do right now) will give us the answer. The journal continues, and we learn something that has not been mentioned in any of the journals I have — they sometimes used dog sledges. I wonder if this was a particularly snowy winter?

The horses had been left some distance below, not being able to get through the snow; but several sledges drawn by dogs were laden with pemican and other provisions on which our men made a most abundant meal….

In four days we reached Jasper’s House, and left the horses, to embark in boats to descend the Athabasca River, the current of which was so rapid that in two days and a half we reached Fort Assiniboine, a distance of nearly 400 miles. Here we again took horses to travel overland to Fort Edmonton, on the [North] Saskatchewan River (about 100 miles), which we accomplished in less than three days. Many of the men were becoming knocked up by such constant exposure and hard work; we therefore obtained a fresh crew at Fort Edmonton, and embarked on the [North] Saskatchewan River, which we descended to Fort Carlton…

We will leave the two gentlemen-tourists here, and let them make their own way from Carlton House to Red River and, eventually, to Upper Canada and home. It is unclear whether or not Vavasour returned to England, as Warre indicated that “On the 30th July I left Montreal” for Boston. He embarked in the Royal Mail Company’s steamer, Cambria, and sailed for England on August 1, arriving in Liverpool on August 18, 1846.

And that is the end of Warre and Vavasour’s 1845-46 journey to Oregon Territory. It has left us with a few unimportant questions — or at least questions that are not important to the story I am researching. It has, however, clarified a few of the questions I had about their journey west. It is an interesting visit, but perhaps not as important as I first considered it might be. 

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






2 thoughts on “Warre and Vavasour

  1. Tom Holloway

    Excellent, as usual. One possible followup: While the authorities who sent Warre and Vavasour could not have predicted it, and the two reconnaissance agents could not have known it, their efforts came to naught. The treaty extending the international boundary along the 49th parallel was signed on June 15, 1846, before their report could have any effect on the outcome.