My soon-to-be-published book, The York Factory Express, tells the stories of the York Factory Express, and of the Saskatchewan brigades. These stories are told in the words of the gentlemen, the educated, usually Scottish traders, clerks, and other Hudson’s Bay Company [HBC] administrators, who wrote the journals. However, the men who made the Express journey possible are the invisible, unnamed French Canadians (the “Canadiens”) and their Metis descendants who powered the boats across the continent every year between 1826 and 1854. The gentlemen were the passengers. The Canadiens, Orkneymen, and Iroquois, and their Metis children and grandchildren, did all the heavy work and were almost entirely responsible for the success of the 5,400-mile journey. But their history was oral. If the gentlemen had not preserved the stories the voyageurs told them, we would not know this history today.
The York Factory Express journey to Hudson Bay, and its return as the Columbia Express, was unique to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s fur trade west of the Rocky Mountains after 1825. The earlier North West Company [NWC] ran canoe brigades across the country from Lachine [Montreal, PQ] to the Columbia River, but the HBC’s York Factory Express was a different animal altogether. The NWC brigades carried heavy loads of furs or goods; the Express carried papers and passengers out of the territory, and papers and passengers in — very little more.
The thirty or so men who traveled out in the York Factory Express began their journey at Fort Vancouver [Vancouver, WA], the HBC’s Columbia River headquarters, 100 miles east of the rugged points of land where the Columbia River rumbled into the Pacific Ocean. The express-men paddled their clinker-built boats up the rock- and rapids-filled Columbia to the base of the Rocky Mountains at Boat Encampment, a thousand miles east and north of Fort Vancouver. The men literally pushed their boats upriver, for their camp at Boat Encampment was more than 1,500 feet above sea level. They then climbed over the Rocky Mountains on foot. At Jasper’s House [Jasper, Alberta], on the east side of the Rockies, they were 3,000 feet above sea level. Their river route eastward would return them to salt water once more, at York Factory on the shores of Hudson Bay. It was an amazing climb and an amazing descent, and they would do another climb and descent on their journey home. They left Fort Vancouver in March: they would return home in November, if all went well.
But the York Factory Express was more complicated than a simple climb over the Rocky Mountains, followed by an easy drift down the Athabasca and North Saskatchewan Rivers. It was also a carefully timed journey, as the gentlemen were to attend the annual meeting at Red River or Norway House, where they delivered their district accounts to the Governor and Council of the Hudson’s Bay Company. They left Fort Vancouver in time to cross Athabasca Pass in early spring, while the snow underfoot was solid and the weather generally good. They reached the Athabasca River when its ice was mostly melted. At the point where the Athabasca drifted as far south as it would go, they abandoned their canoes and boats and crossed the land portage to Edmonton House, on the North Saskatchewan River.
More transformations occurred as they reached Edmonton House. At that prairie headquarters the fast-travelling, lightly laden Express party joined the Saskatchewan District’s slow-moving brigades that lumbered down the North Saskatchewan River, passing through rolling grasslands. The express-men had feasted on sea-biscuits, potatoes, and salmon west of the Rockies; now they gorged on pemmican, bison steaks, and whitefish on the east side of the mountains. On the prairies they hunted “buffalo” (more accurately called bison), moose-deer (moose), and bear, and sometimes those creatures hunted them. They gave aid to tattered remnants of Indian bands who had battled their enemies and lost; at times they met the victors of those endless Native wars. As time passed, they met the missionaries who established missions among the Natives along the Saskatchewan River and at Norway House. On their return to the west side of the Rockies, they ran into the Americans who flooded west over the Oregon Trail to claim lands in the territory the fur traders had opened up.
Changes happened everywhere over these years, but for the Canadien voyageurs and their Metis descendants, life remained much the same as it had been for their seventeenth-century French ancestors, who came from Normandy, Perche, and Ile-de-France in the north of France, and Saintonge, Nantes, and La Rochelle to the south. These Canadiens had a long history of settlement in Quebec, and many had long histories of service in the fur trade of the Hudson’s Bay Company and its predecessor, the North West Company.
The Canadiens also had a long history of getting along with the Natives who lived in villages close to their own in Quebec. Many of their French ancestors had arrived in Quebec with Samuel de Champlain, and, like Champlain, they had a natural ability to get along with others. They were historically a warm, amiable people who called each other friends, brothers, and cousins. They got along with everyone they respected, and quietly resisted those who offended or mistreated them.
The Canadiens brought their French language into the fur trade, and all who worked with them had to speak their language. They brought their beloved birch-bark canoes to the fur trade as well, but traditions changed and over the years they gave up their canoes for the more practical wooden boats built by the Orkneymen. The Canadiens were adaptable people, always willing to adjust their traditions when it suited them. They sang their traditional songs from France and Quebec, and changed them. They celebrated variations of their Catholic-based ceremonies mixed with the traditions of their Native or Metis wives or mothers. When a companion died, as sometimes happened, they mourned his death with a song they called a “complainte.” In their world, they were all friends and companions, and they understood and supported each other.
Those who were chosen for the Express were strong young men whose overabundance of testosterone was the engine that powered their boats. They brought many and varied skills to the trade: their long-time familiarity with boats, canoes, and water travel gave them the ability to quickly repair the damaged boats and canoes. They were river smart, and when the wind blew in the right direction they put up their sails and relaxed. They taught newcomers to the trade how to paddle the canoe and carry the loads over the portages, with the tumpline perfectly adjusted to take the weight. These young man were proud of their vocation. Before they arrived at each post they paused to wash their faces and don fresh shirts and ribbons so they could paddle around the final corner in the river as energetically as if they had just started the voyage. Like all young men, they partied hard, and they drank their regales of rum, given to them by the gentlemen, with gusto. They consumed enormous amounts of meat when it was available, but starved if it was not. They scorned sleep and paddled long hours every day when the going was good and the river safe. They took many risks, knowing they might not survive them, but they also listened to the advice of their elders. They trusted their respected Guide, following his instructions through dangerous passages, and surviving. They teased each other out of bad moods, and made jokes of the unbelievable difficulties they endured. In this way they accomplished the impossible, and they were always careful to make the impossible appear to be only a few days’ casual journey.
This was their life, and they were happy in it. They were young men, and flaunting their manliness was a part of the voyageur culture, just as their ability to hunt for food was a part of their manliness. Like their ancestors, who had left France two centuries earlier and made their homes in the wilderness of Quebec, these men chose to live in a new wilderness. They spurned the gentlemen’s idea of civilization. They loved their freedoms and believed that they were free. Many times, Canadien and Metis men who arrived on the west side of the Rocky Mountains never returned home, but married and died in the west. Their many descendants are still here. We are still here.
This is the beginning of the story. If you want to learn more about the York Factory Express, click here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/first-leg/
Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2016. All rights reserved.
- Fort Vancouver
- Charlot Birnie