Women in the Boats 2

Arrow Lake from Shields Point

“View of [Lower] Arrow Lake from above Shields Point, looking east towards the narrows on the Arrow Lake, circa 1932 [cropped]. Source: George Morris “Bill” Wadds Collection, Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History, Valemount Historical Society & Kootenay Gallery of Art, History & Science, image 2360.0298

This is the second instalment of my blogpost of last week, and I am still telling the stories of the women who travelled in the York Factory Express boats and canoes across the continent and return. To visit the first post of this short series, go here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/women-in-the-boats/

We ended with the beginning of James Douglas’s 1835 journal, and we will continue on from there — because I know that there were women and children in the boats on the journey home from York Factory. So let’s go!

1835, continued: By July 16, 1835, Douglas had began his return journey from York Factory, on his way home to the Columbia River. There were two passengers in his boat, and at Norway House, 2 other gentlemen would join them. One more gentleman would join the Columbia Express on the Saskatchewan River [this turned out to be a Mr. John McLeod, Jr., who had been in the Athabasca District and is mentioned in my Journeys book]. There were to be 27 passengers and two families. Archibald McKinley is also travelling in this Express, heading across the mountains to New Caledonia. Travelling with this incoming Express is John McIntosh Jr., his wife Charlotte Robinson, and their 5 children. McIntosh and McKinlay would leave James Douglas’s boats at Jasper’s House and proceed across the mountains, via Tete Jaune Pass, following my great grandfather Alexander Caulfield Anderson into New Caledonia to Fort St. James. As we know from The Pathfinder, they did not have an easy time of it, and because of a heavy snowfall they turned back from the banks of the upper Fraser River. At Jasper’s House, McIntosh insisted that he should join Anderson and McKinlay on their journey down the frozen Athabasca River, wife, children and all! The reason for McIntosh’s insistence was entirely because he did not want to spend the rest of the winter at tiny Jasper’s House. The winter was cold; the weather horrible; and the snow deep; and the five children had to be carried the entire way. It was a journey this small group of men were very lucky to survive: but survive they did, and from Edmonton House Anderson and McKinlay made their way over the mountains to Fort St. James by dog-sled.

So, Charlotte Robinson is one of the women in the boats.

1841: George Traill Allan kept this journal from Fort Vancouver to Red River, and the people travelling with him were Francis Ermatinger, Archibald McKinlay, Payette, and Dr. William Fraser Tolmie. Only Tolmie went out with this Express, and as neither George Traill Allan nor Dr. Tolmie had wives and children at this time, there were no women travelling out in this Express.  

1842: In 1842, the York Factory Express was led out by Alexander Caulfield Anderson, and when he returned he would be travelling north to re-enter New Caledonia again. His wife, Betsy Birnie, and children travelled upriver with the outgoing Express, but spent the summer at Fort Colvile, in the company of Archibald McDonald’s wife, Jane Klyne. While she was there, she and Jane witnessed William Thew threatening Archibald McDonald with a table knife. McDonald wrote: “On the evening of Saturday last he [Thew] beset myself at the gate with exceeding violence which nothing could tolerate but a studied wish to to avoid an open rupture with him. Yesterday afternoon (Sunday) the scoundrel followed me to the fields with a table knife in his pocket, provoked me with the most insufferable language till we reached the fort gate when I was irresistably compelled to knock him down, after which he exhibited the knife & confessed to my wife & Mrs. Anderson [Betsy Birnie] that it was intended for me.” [This Blessed Wilderness: Archibald McDonald’s letters from the Columbia, 1822-44, edited by Jean Murray Cole].

1847: Thomas Lowe led out the 1847 Express, and returned to the Columbia District with the same Express. With him travelled John Lee Lewes as far as Fort Colvile, and Joseph Burke, a botanist from Kew Gardens. Jean Ballenden, daughter of John Ballenden and a First Nations woman, was Lewes’s wife, but I do not know if she travelled with him in these boats, or stayed at home. Beyond Fort Colvile, only Thomas Lowe, who is so far unmarried, and Joseph Burke, were passengers in the boats. So, no women in the boats, unless there were females travelling with the men who paddled the canoes.

On the return journey, there were more opportunities to have women aboard the boats — lets see if any made it. John O’Brien was in the boats heading for Edmonton House, but ….I think he did not have a wife at the time. Ferdinand McKenzie [later Red River McKenzie of Fort Alexandria] was also there, and both apparently had no wives or children. Nevertheless, there were women in the boats: or at least, one woman. As Thomas Lowe writes on September 11, 1847, “The brigade was detained for some time in the forenoon, as one of the men’s wives was delivered of a son. Beautiful weather.”

The Express reached Edmonton House and passed through both Fort Assiniboine and Jasper’s House without making mention of any women. When they reached Boat Encampment, they found there “Mr. [Paul] Kane, 2 sons of Dr. [Alexander] Kennedy’s, and 12 men…. Mr. Kane and the two boys are to cross the mountains with the horses, but I am afraid they will find much difficulty in getting across owing to the depth of snow.” There is no mention of either women or children in the rest of Thomas Lowe’s journal. 

1848: Interestingly, there are quite a few people travelling out with the 1848 York Factory Express, and among them are some women. Lowe tells us that: “Mrs [Francis] Ermatinger and daughter, Bishop [Modeste] Demers, and Mr. Robert Logan cross the Mountains, and Mr. [Henry Newsham] Peers accompanies us as far as Colvile from whence he is to proceed to New Caledonia.” Francis Ermatinger left the Columbia district in 1847, I presume, and his fourth wife, Catherine Sinclair, and their daughter Frances Marie, born in 1843, were now following him across the Rockies. Unfortunately, after seven years of marriage, Francis Ermatinger wanted to divorce Catherine because of her “indiscreet behaviour.” Did they divorce? I don’t know, but Catherine died at Red River many years later. 

Robert Logan is in the boats, but I can’t identify him in Lives Lived West of the Divide. He was, however, senior enough in the Company to be placed in charge of the boats north of Fort Nez Perces. Was this man Robert Logan Jr.’s father? He might have been. At Fort Colvile, Lowe discovered that Chief Trader Paul Fraser was present, and the Missionaries Reverend Elkanah Walker [wife Mary], and Reverend Cushing Eels [wife Myra], and their families, were also at the fort, having been chased out of their Catholic mission at Tshimakain “on account of the Indians who were threatening to murder them, as they had done Dr. [Marcus] Whitman & his people.” This is, of course, in the middle of the Cayuse War, and travel up the Columbia River was very dangerous.

None of the men who arrived at Fort Colvile were going out over the Mountains, and so there were no additional women in the boats. And I should say, there were no women in the boats once they passed Fort Colvile, as Mrs. Ermatinger decided to remain at the post, going out with John Lee Lewes and his wife and children in the Fall Express. John Lee Lewes’s wife was a Métis woman named Jean Ballenden, as I stated above. So even if she had not travelled in Thomas Lowe’s 1847 Express with her husband [and I think it unlikely she had done so], she would be a women going out in the boats in the 1848 Fall Express. They would spend the winter at Edmonton House, where they would join the Saskatchewan Brigades and travel down the North Saskatchewan and Saskatchewan Rivers on their way to Canada. Interestingly, Lewes travelled to England and New Zealand, then returned to England, leaving behind some of his children, whose descendants are still there today.  

Oh, and I think it is possible that Paul Fraser did cross the Mountains with the express! Thomas Lowe arrived at Jasper’s House where Colin Fraser was in charge, and a day or two later Lowe wrote that “In the forenoon Mr. Fraser and the others arrived, having come on very well indeed.” Which Mr. Fraser? It is Paul Fraser, of course, who as we know would return to the territory in 1849. In fact, in 1849 we find him travelling west with Deputy Governor Eden Colvile from York Factory to Peace River and then south through New Caledonia, and over the new trail to Fort Hope. Fraser’s wife was named Angelique Harnois, and she, and the three children, did not travel out with Paul Fraser in 1848. One reason we know that is because Thomas Lowe says that only Paul Fraser and his son were in the boats — Fraser’s wife and children must have remained behind in New Caledonia, or at either Fort Vancouver or Fort Colvile. 

(More on Paul Fraser’s family: Two of the children later attended the Fort Victoria school, and James Anderson (A.C. Anderson’s son) said that when they returned to their family, the children could not communicate with their mother because they now spoke different languages — she French, and the children English, I presume.)

On the return journey to the Columbia District from York Factory, there seem to be few women passengers. However, when they reached Jasper’s House they celebrated their journey with a dance. “Had a dance tonight at the House and there was no want of women as there are about a dozen lodges of Freemen here.” However, none of these women travelled in the boats. However, when he arrives at Boat Encampment, Lowe finds a bunch of women there, who had all travelled upriver in the boats from Fort Colvile. Who were they? “Found C.F. [John Lee] Lewes & family; Mrs. [Francis] Ermatinger & daughter, Mrs. [Paul] Fraser & family; and Mr. Angus McDonald waiting for us there, to cross the Mountains with the Horses which we have brought. Mr. Fraser’s family return with Thomas Lowe to Fort Vancouver, and I presume that she thought that her husband would be coming in with this Express. So that explains why Paul Fraser travelled all the way to Fort Vancouver with Eden Colvile in 1849: to retrieve his wife and children and bring them home, wherever his new home was going to be.

1849: John Charles does not mention any women and children in the boats on the journey to York Factory, until he reaches Fort Pitt. On May 31st, he writes “The Saskatchewan Brigade of twenty-five boats laden with the returns of the Upper establishments left Fort Pitt about 8 am. Sailed towards evening. Passengers, Messrs. [John] Rowand, Christie, Simpson, McDonald, and Mr. Lewes and family, with Mrs Ermatinger & child. Encamped at sunset.” So with some delays, the Lewes family and the Ermatinger family made it out of the Columbia District at last!

Frederick Lewes crossed the Rocky Mountains with the incoming Express of 1849. I know this because he was present when John Charles was murdered in Athabasca Pass – a story you will read if you purchased a copy of my book, The York Factory Express. Lewes was not at this time employed by the HBC, and so he must have left his father and mother behind at, say, Norway House or York Factory, and returned to the west.

As to the other men above: Christie was not west of the Rockies; Archibald McDonald retired in 1848 so this McDonald was not him. Nor was it his nephew, Angus McDonald. Simpson? None of our west of the Rockies Simpson’s travelled in the 1849 Express so far as I know. These men may well have had wives and children, but some men I can’t identify, and others I do not know if they travelled with wives and children.

Some women also travelled with the Brigades, and that might be a fun post to write: but it would take a lot of researching, I think. So, for now, this is the end of this small series, chronicling the stories of the women who travelled in the boats of the York Factory Express. 

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












One thought on “Women in the Boats 2

  1. Peter Russell

    As far as my research has found, John and his wife, Charlotte (not ‘Robinson’ but ‘Robertson’). Her father was almost certainly John Robertson (a Metis) a clerk/postmaster with the HBC, who served under Donald McIntosh, father of John. Also, the Mcintoshes only had three children, which is confirmed in the entry regarding reaching Jasper’s House.