Women in the Boats

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.

Here is a question I often get asked (especially by women): how many women and children travelled in the York Factory Express Boats going out of, or coming into, the Columbia District?

Well, its hard to know for sure. So, let’s see how many women I can find in the boats. [And Good luck on this project, because I already know how it will turn out!]

1826: I know that my g.g.grandfather James Birnie went out with this Express from Spokane House, leaving his wife, Charlot[te] Beaulieu, behind. Upon his return a not-so-friendly friend, William Kittson, told him that his wife had “run off with an Indian.” Well, not exactly true, as it turns out. 

So let’s find some women in the Boats — they must be there! The person who led the outgoing 1826 Express was John McLeod, Senior, then in charge of Kamloops. His journal is in the Library and Archives Canada collection, but it has also been in the British Columbia Archives for about a century. Its a real jumble, written in pencil and not in any special order, and often hard to read because of the constant rain and snow they travelled through. However, he mentions no women and children in the boats, and I know that he finds his wife (who he had sent out the previous fall) at Jasper’s House, where she had been snowed in, and where she had also given birth to a child. I don’t know her name, so if any reader does, let me know.

I also happen to know that James McDougall and his unnamed wife travelled out from New Caledonia by the Peace River in 1826. On the return journey, McDougall left his wife behind at one of the Saskatchewan River posts, as she was too pregnant to continue the journey west. I know this (and so do you, if you have my York Factory Express book) because in 1827, George McDougall was sent over the mountains to bring his brother James’s wife home to New Caledonia. So that’s one woman who we know was in the boats. Any more?

Aemilius Simpson kept the incoming York Factory Express (called the Columbia Express) journal for 1826, and while it is incredibly detailed, he mentions no women in the boats until he gets to Norway House from York Factory. Once there, he says: “There was also a comfortable population who had collected here from various parts of the Territory with the different Brigades, & who remained here until their [the boats] return from York Factory… I was informed the number, including Women and Children, was for a considerable time quite equal to about three hundred Souls, whose subsistence depended upon the fishing of this place…” Does he mention any women being assigned to the Saskatchewan boats? No, he doesn’t. However, Simpson does say that from Norway House, “Mr. Ferris proceeded for Montreal with retired servants & families, having three Canoes…” So women and children of retiring fur traders were given transportation to Lachine: or at least in 1826.

At Carlton House, Simpson does not mention James McDougall’s wife boarding the boats, nor does he mention the family of John Stuart (once of New Caledonia), who was being transferred to Carlton House. Women are invisible in his journal, as in most journals, so we will be adding no women in these boats. But in 1826, John Stuart’s wife (if he had one) was probably Mary Taylor, sister of Margaret Taylor, the cast off mistress of Governor Simpson. In about 1831, Mary Taylor and Frances Noel Annance had an affair at Fort St. James, which ended that relationship!

1827: Edward Ermatinger is very good at listing his passengers, but on his departure from Fort Vancouver he mentions only the men: John McLoughlin, Alexander Roderick McLeod, botanist David Douglas, Pierre Pambrun, and Francis Noel Annance. McLoughlin travelled as far as Fort Colvile; Pambrun, with his wife Catherine Humpherville, and his children, are going only as far as Fort Nez Perces, I suspect. David Douglas is going over the mountains but has no family with him. John Warren Dease appears at Fort Colvile, but he travelled out of the Columbia in the 1828 Express, and not this one.  

Once he is on the Athabasca River, Ermatinger mentions catching up to George McDougall, who with a small party of men is going to pick up his brother’s wife at Carlton House, and return with her to New Caledonia.

In Ermatinger’s return journal, Dr. William Todd is mentioned as being in the boats, and he did cross the Rocky Mountains into the Columbia district, but apparently did not have a wife at that time. However, at Edmonton House, Ermatinger states that two families were in the boats: James McDougall’s, and Alexander Roderick McLeod’s! So it is confirmed: no family for Dr. Todd. And from Fort Assiniboine Ermatinger travelled up the Athabasca River with Dr. Todd and one son of Michael Klyne in one canoe: in the second canoe, the families of A. Ogie [employee, who did not cross the Mountains as far as I can see], and of A.R. McLeod. In the third: George McDougall with James’s wife, with no child mentioned (but her child if it survived the birth would have still been an infant, and maybe infants were not counted as persons). In the 4th, Michael Klyne and his family of 4 children (the fifth child being in another canoe, as you see). Presumably his wife was also present: but I don’t know her name. Ditto with A.R. McLeod, whose wife’s name is not given. As always, if you happen to know these women’s names, please let me know — especially as this is a post about women! Let’s not make them any more invisible than they already are!

1828: So we are lucky with Edward Ermatinger’s journals, as he lists female passengers and children while others do not mention them at all. In 1828, he will not return to Fort Vancouver but will retire to Montreal. I should mention, too, that as he has no wife or children they are not travelling, invisibly, in the boats. In 1828, Donald Manson and Michel Laframboise travel with him as far as the Chutes and then will return to Fort Vancouver. John Randal , boat-builder, will go out to York Factory, and Thomas Dears goes to New Caledonia and will leave the boats at Fort Okanagan. Also at Fort Okanagan, the boats took on Joseph McGillivray, of New Caledonia, and Archibald McDonald. From Fort Colvile, the outgoing passengers were: John Warren Dease (this is when he left Fort Colvile for Norway House); Joseph McGillivray; Archibald McDonald; John Randal, and two boys.

But who did the boys belong to? John Warren Dease had children (mostly girls), although his second wife, Jenny Beignote, had recently died: certainly they were not his children. (As you see below, there is no need to list Archibald McDonald’s children, they also weren’t his). Joseph McGillivray had 3 boys [dates of birth unknown], and as he was leaving the territory he would have taken them, and his wife Francoise Bouché, with him. Randal had no wife and no children at this time. So, by process of elimination, they were Joseph McGillivray’s boys.

And of course Finan McDonald, who crossed the mountains with the Fall Express in 1827, shows up at Edmonton House and beyond. Did he go out with the Fall Express, or did he go out with this express, and not Archibald McDonald? What confusion this caused me: but I have finally figured it out! Archibald McDonald went upriver with the boats as far as Boat Encampment, and then returned to Fort Colvile. Finan McDonald joined the Express at Edmonton House, where he had spent the winter after going out with the Fall Express! Keeping track of these men can be very very confusing!

1831: George Traill Allen’s 1831 incoming journal tells us nothing about the female passengers from Norway House to the Columbia District. The men were: James Douglas, who did not travel with wife and children; Chief Factor McIntosh, who did not cross the Mountains; Duncan Finlayson, who as far as I know did not travel west with his wife Isobel Graham Simpson, an English woman (but he might have); Richard Grant, whose then wife was Mary Ann Berland (three children); Pierre C. Pambrun of Fort Nez Perces. He does not mention wives or women, and so who knows. But I happen to know there was a child or young man on this incoming Express: ten years later, in 1841, George Traill Allen says this: 

 After a ride of four days we reached Fort Spokane, an old establishment, abandoned some years ago situated upon the banks of the River of that name, in a beautiful spot. On crossing the River, which we did by the assistance of two Indians in a small Canoe, I was very much surprised, when gaining the opposite bank, to hear my name distinctly pronounced by one of a band of Indians assembled there to greet our arrival, but on looking in the direction from whence the voice came I immediately recognized my old friend, a young Indian Chief called Garry, who had entered the Columbia with me ten years before. He had. been educated at Red River, at the expense of the Company, and when I had known him was well clothed and could both read and write now, however, the march of improvement had apparently retrograded, as he made his appearance wrapped up in a Buffalo Robe a la Savage.

Spokane Garry. What a story!

1835: James Douglas led the Express out for the third time in 1835. He went out in 1831 for the first time, and I don’t have the date for the second Express in my Timeline, although I know that I know when it was (if that makes sense). I know that two of Pierre Pambrun’s boys went upriver in the after Express: that is the boat that followed the express boats upriver and carried the most recent batch of correspondence. Doctor McLoughlin had decided that “no women should have a passage in these boats,” and James Douglas tried to enforce that rule but without success. Everyone in the district knew what Douglas was like, and so they all outsmarted him, and he absolutely knew it and it made him mad!

Anyway, the two Pambrun boys were in the Express boats, heading off to Red River to be educated, but travelling without family. At Fort Colvile Douglas embarked with 4 passengers and 23 working men. The two Pambrun boys, and who else? Francis Heron, of Fort Colvile, travelled in the boats so he was one of the two unlisted passengers: he apparently had no wife and children. No mention is made of the fourth passenger, and I don’t know (yet) who it was.

Upriver from Fort Colvile, Douglas’s boats came up to another boat which was being paddled by a Fort Colvile miller named Hypolite Brissotte, who was retiring and taking along his wife [Archangé L’Hirondelle] and children. The First Nations paddlers were apparently unwilling to take the family further upriver, and so “Mr. Heron proposed that himself and family should be embarked in one of the boats,” Douglas said. “Now it being Dr. McLoughlin’s express orders that no women should have a passage in these boats, I felt the impropriety of complying with this proposal; but not being fully authorized to act, and Mr. H. being my senior and superior in rank, out of delicacy to him I assented and the man & family were accordingly permitted to embark. Called on Mr. Heron this evening and mentioned Dr. McL’s orders against the embarkation of families in the express boats, I at the same time explained the motives which induced me to comply with his wishes, and I requested him to state explicitly whether in the event of my being called to account for this disregard of orders, he was willing to bear the whole responsibility. He replied that in every case he would stand between me & the consequences.” 

You can see, I am sure, why no one much liked James Douglas. 

We have five or six more journals to extract information from, and I have spent five hours already writing this one blogpost — enough is enough. I will continue with James Douglas’s journal, especially as I know that there is a large family travelling west with him. I think I will leave that story, and others, until next week, as this post will otherwise be far too long and I will be too tired after a whole days’ writing! When the next post is published, it will appear here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/whatever-i-call-it/ — Probably women in the Boats two.

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

And if you know or can identify any of the people in this post, who I have been unable to identify, let us all know by entering the information in the comments below. Thanks. 





14 thoughts on “Women in the Boats

  1. Judith Kane

    Charlotte Beaulieu was a sister of my great- great Grandmother Josette Beaulieu Rondeau (Joseph Rondeau) Do you know when they left Fort Garry and possibly where & when they married? Thanks for any info.
    Judith Kane
    Minneapolis Mn.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Yes, I know. I don’t know why they left Red River, but wasn’t it because of a grasshopper invasion? She and Rondeau met on the Athabasca River somewhere. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were both in the Jasper Valley with Rondeau working at Jasper House. Beaulieu (her father) probably ran around with Jaco Finlay, and several of Finlay’s children remained in Jasper Valley. Remember these girls wed when they were 14 or so years old.
      I can probably put you in touch with another descendant who knows a lot about the family, if you wish, and if he agrees.

  2. Tom Holloway

    It’s good to remember the women—and children—who made those trips. Just one detail: In 1827 Pierre and Kitty Pambrun were heading back to New Caledonia, so they would have left the Express at Fort Okanagan. He wasn’t posted to Fort Nez Percés until 1831. A minor point, to be sure.

  3. John Hansen

    The lack of documented evidence of women in these dangerous river passages is annoying. Ho Hum, the days where no one had mobile phones and “selfies” :-0

    The amount of data is sadly tilted towards official memoranda:

    If only a woman’s personal diary could be found ! what a treasure that would be ?

    This was “Frontier Territory” if that is a suitable term to use, so I imagine many back here in the UK would shudder at the thought of navigation in these waters in so remote areas. Only a tiny percentage of men would go and work in such roles, so the women would also be a rare and very hardy minority ?

      1. John Hansen

        I wondered about the level of access to any methods or recording events for the female members of the travelling teams.

        Any responses to your invites to add detail regarding wives and relatives would add detail, but can anything else be acquired ?

        Any paintings or etchings to zoom in on and analyse for facial details of people onboard ? Any inventories of goods taken out for everyday living, baby goods, children feeding items, cots & toys, or maybe lightweight sewing machines (used for clothing and repairs, as opposed to canvas work ?).

        If the women could not record their accounts they could have left an audit trail of female living and ingenuity ?

        1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

          Cameras did not exist in the time I write about, or they were not yet here in BC. But painters were. Perhaps the best image of the work the First Nations women did was Paul Kane’s painting of the weavers of the Salish blankets — which includes one of the only images of a Salish Wool Dog. But once again, the painters did not often paint portraits of the women, tho’ there are portraits of Peter Skene Ogden and others like him.

    1. Tom Holloway

      Narcissa Whitman, an American missionary, wrote about travel in HBC boats on the stretch from Fort Vancouver to Fort Nez Percés, in 1836. After walking past the Long Narrows at the Dalles, she agreed to stay in the boat as it was hauled up te Short Narrows. It scared her half to death.


    On October 22, 1838, an HBC brigade of canoes called the Columbia Express met with disaster at the “Dalles des Morts”. A carpenter named Pierre Le Blanc, not to be confused with the man of the same name who was among the first white men to cross over the Rockies into the Columbia Valley in 1800, and his wife Nancy McTavish Le Blanc (“Matooskie”) with their six children, along with sixteen other persons, pushed off from Boat Encampment in an overloaded canoe. Andre Chalifoux was piloting the craft, with his wife and three children aboard. While attempting to descend Death Rapids, their canoe struck some rocks and began taking on water. One man named Robert Wallace, who had eloped with Governor George Simpson’s beloved daughter Maria, suddenly panicked. He stood up, pulled off his coat and grabbed his new wife. He uttered his final words, “Courage, my friends.” and jumped out of the canoe with Maria. This overturned the canoe, and twelve people were lost in the swirling maelstrom. Drowned on this day were Wallace and his bride, Pierre Le Blanc and three of his children, a British Botanist named Peter Banks, three Hivernants named Kenneth McDonald, Fabien Vital, Jean Baptiste Laliberte, and two of the Chalifoux children.” – From my novel soon to be published, “The Story of Dick Fry”.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Yes, thank you! We know about this disaster (for the women as well: and perhaps especially for the women), and it is especially bad. And that is what the incoming Express is called — the Columbia Express. John Tod, later of Kamloops, was leader of this Express, and he had left this group behind at Boat Encampment, to await a boat that would pick them up — the boat was sent back from Maison de Lacs, the new under-construction house on the banks of Arrow Lake. This according to Robert C. Belyk, who wrote John Tod: Rebel in the Wilderness.
      Who is Dick Fry??? a fictional character in your novel?


        Dick Fry, a real person, was born in Indiana in 1838, and travelled the Oregon Trail in 1849 to grow up in the Willamette Valley where he and his brothers enlisted in the Oregon Mounted Volunteers. He fought the Yakimas in the Battle of Two Buttes and was present when old Yellow Bird, Piu Piu Mox Mox was killed, a rifle barrel bent over his head, even if it was under a flag of truce and he had willingly surrendered. After the Indian War of 1855/1856, Dick and his brother Alfred headed north, up the Columbia River where Dick fell in love with and married a Sinixt woman named Justine Soqu’stik’en. Alfred was later killed by an arrow in his chest while trying to resolve a conflict between the Sinixt and some unruly American miners. Dick and Justine spent their time hiding from the Sinixt while they hunted, fished and prospected the tributaries of the Columbia, Kootenay and Pend d’ Oreille rivers in the West Kootenay. Dick struck gold at the mouth of 49 Creek just south of Nelson and ended up buying the ferry at Bonners Ferry where he operated his ranch for the rest of his life. My novel tells his story as he and his brother in law Adam Boyd canoed the Columbia River from Marcus Washington, up stream through the Arrow Lakes past the locations now known as Revelstoke, the Big Bend, Golden and Canal Flats. They crossed to the Kootenay River and spent time at Fisherville before canoeing to Bonners Ferry and hiking back to Colville. As they walk, paddle and ride across the pages of my novel, I reminisce about colonial history on these same routes; the adventures of Peter Fidler and David Thompson, David McLoughlin, Adolph Bailey Grohman, Edgar Dewdney and Robert Sproule, and many others. I capture the travels of the Palliser Expedition and talk about the monopoly that the Piegans held over the Ktunaxa and Sinixt Indians and how the natives fared against such impossible odds. In the end, Dick Fry, who participated in the attempted genocide of Indians in the American west, ended up loving, respecting and protecting them. He had 15 children with his indefatigable wife Justine Fry and protected camps of Ktunaxa Indians who gathered on his ranch. Look for my novel later this year, “The Story of Dick Fry”.

    2. Tom Holloway

      Kevin, we need to “talk”! I recently published an article in the Pacific Northwest Quarterly, “Columbia Boats, Voyageurs, and the River They Ran: Transporting Freight and Passengers on the Columbia River in the Fur Trade Era.” Please email me at tomholloway62(at)gmail(dot)com, and I’ll send you a PDF. I recount the story of the disaster in October 1838, from primary sources. One detail: it did not happen in or at the Dalles des Morts. They passed that safely, but not much further on, Wallace panicked, with disastrous consequences.