Monday, June 14, 2010

Time and the Fur Trade in British Columbia

Fifteen years before the gold miners invaded Fort Victoria in 1858, a Hudson's Bay Company clerk threaded his way through mountain passes and down rapid-filled rivers in search of a route through the mountains that separated the HBC fort at Kamloops from Fort Langley, on the coast.
Alexander Caulfield Anderson knew that the North West Company explorers Alexander Mackenzie and Simon Fraser had already failed to find a route to the ocean for the export of furs.
But Anderson succeeded where they had failed, and opened four trails to Fort Langley -- though only one successfully served as the Company's brigade trail for the next fifteen years.
But in the years immediately after summer 1858, all four of Anderson's trails guided thousands of gold miners around the rapid-filled canyons of the Fraser River into the gold fields of the Cariboo.
Anderson's four cross-country expeditions helped to carve modern-day British Columbia from the wilds that surrounded Fort Langley, Kamloops, and Fort St. James.
Because Anderson was so interested in the early North West explorers whose trails he followed, his story begins in the years that Alexander Mackenzie ventured west to Rascal's Village and a view of the open North Pacific Ocean.
It includes the years when Simon Fraser followed a river later named for him to the open waters of today's Salish Sea (Georgia Strait).
The story continues as the Hudson's Bay Company abandons its old trails and opens new.
It swings through the 1858 gold rush and James Douglas' creation of the colony of Vancouver's Island.
Only a few years later, the Royal Engineers arrived to build roads through the canyons the fur traders had been unable to travel through in safety, and these roads carried British-born settlers into wilderness that the fur traders had occupied for only fifty years.

One of the discoveries that most surprised me as I researched and wrote this book was how quickly the fur trade changed.
North West Company explorer Alexander Mackenzie descended the Fraser River in search of a route to the west coast for the export of furs.
At about the place where the North Westers later built Fort Alexandria, Mackenzie was advised by the Natives to turn back and follow another river trail to the Pacific Ocean.
Mackenzie followed the Natives' advice and paddled down his West Road River, reaching his Rascal's Village and the salt waters of the Pacific Ocean in July.
He considered his exploration unsuccessful, and left the territory.
In 1833 -- forty years after Mackenzie's visit to the coast at Rascal's Village -- Anderson helped to built Fort McLoughlin in the estuary of the waters Mackenzie had visited, and read Mackenzie's newly published journals.
Fifty years after Mackenzie visited the place where Fort Alexandria was later built, Anderson took charge of the fort the North Westers had named for Alexander Mackenzie.
In 1844 Anderson set up a new fur trade post at Thleuz-cuz, a lake on Alexander Mackenzie's historic West Road River.
In 1881 -- ninety years after Mackenzie's visit to the coast and fifty after Anderson helped to build Fort McLoughlin -- Anderson visited Mackenzie's Rascal's Village, and listened while the Natives told him the story of Mackenzie's visit to their waters.

The North West Company fur traders, Simon Fraser and John Stuart, entered the territory they named New Caledonia in 1805, and set up their first fur trade fort.
In 1808 the two North Westers descended the Fraser River to its mouth and, considering their exploration unsuccessful, returned to Stuart's Lake.
In 1831 the apprentice-clerk Anderson met Simon Fraser at Lachine, and a few months later met John Stuart at the stone fort at Red River.
In 1836 Alexander Caulfield Anderson arrived at Stuart's Lake -- thirty years after Fraser and Stuart established their first posts in New Caledonia.
In 1847 -- forty years after Fraser's descent of the river named for him -- Anderson led his first expedition down the Fraser River through its canyons and rapids.

The old brigade trail over the Thompson plateau north of Kamloops was constructed about 1824, and used for about twenty years -- not a long stretch of time at all!
In 1843 this trail was replaced by a new brigade trail south of Fort Alexandria and passing through Loon Lake and Green Lakes.
Twenty five years after Anderson first led the first Fort Alexandria brigade over the new brigade trail to Kamloops, the new Cariboo wagon road replaced the company's brigade trail and ploughed past road-houses, cattle ranches, and settlements all the way to Barkerville.

The brigade trail through the Okanagan has a longer history; it was first used by John Stuart when he made his way south to the fur trade post at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1812.
When the fur traders of New Caledonia adopted a new trail to Fort Langley in 1848, the Okanagan trail was more or less abandoned and only used as a route to Fort Colvile on the Columbia River.
The various brigade trails through the Okanagan used several routes; the early trail followed the chain of rivers and lakes closely but a later trail was constructed in the hills to the west of the lakes.
But it did not matter what famous person rode the trails, nor does it matter which Okanagan trail we speak of -- their total life span as brigade trails was less than forty years!

In 1848 the fur traders came out over a new brigade trail down Anderson's River to Fort Yale.
Within a year or two they replaced this difficult trail with another that went over the Coquihalla mountain range to Fort Hope.
The Anderson's River trail had a life span as a brigade trail of only two years.
But in the years after 1858, thousands of gold miners trudged over the trail into the gold fields on the Thompson and Fraser river.
When in the 1860's, the Royal Engineers carved a good road out of the cliff faces between Yale and Boston Bar, above the rapids and falls that had so troubled the brigaders of the HBC in 1848 and 1849, the Anderson's River trail was no longer needed.
Probably the only people who used this trail after the construction of the Cariboo Road were the Nlaka'pamux people who occupied the banks of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers and the Nicola Valley.

The trail over the Coquihalla Mountains was first explored by Alexander Caulfield Anderson in 1846.
In all of his other expeditions he was guided by Natives across Native trails.
On this occasion he and his men travelled with Native men who supposedly were to guide them, but none of them had travelled over the mountain range from the west.
Anderson met a Thompson's River Native trapper who showed him the beginnings of his pathway up the mountainside, but that man did not guide him across the mountain.
The fur traders stumbled across the mountaintop on the frozen snow, and followed the narrow Tulameen River valley in a curving route down the north side of the mountain.
Anderson knew that this could never be a brigade route, and thought he had failed.
But the fur traders met a Similkameen Native named Blackeye, who told them there was a good Native road up the north side of the mountains.
In 1847 Blackeye's son (or son-in-law) guided a HBC clerk across the mountains by a different route than the one Anderson had followed.
In 1849 the fur traders followed this new route on their return from Fort Hope, and though no work had been done to make this trail a brigade trail, they had no difficulties in making their way over the mountains.
By 1851 the fur traders had completed the trail, building bridges over boggy land, falling trees to widen the trail, and carving long switch-backs up steep slopes.
But this trail also had a short shelf life -- only ten or so years.
In 1858 the Fraser River gold rush brought miners northward up the Okanagan brigade trail into the Similkameen; in 1859 they discovered gold at Rock Creek; by 1860 hordes of Americans mined there.
Governor James Douglas moved quickly to ensure that this territory remained British, and hired civil engineer Edgar Dewdney to build a wagon road across the Coquihalla to Rock Creek.
The trail passed through modern-day Princeton and followed the north bank of the Similkameen River east toward Osoyoos Lake (along the path of the brigade trail from Fort Colvile to Tulameen).
Beyond Osoyoos Lake it climbed Anarchist Mountain and crossed that plateau to Rock Creek, on the mountain's east side.
By the end of 1861 the trail was complete, replacing the brigade trail.
But by the time, even the fur traders no longer used their old brigade trail.

After he left the fur trade in 1854, Anderson never again rode over the trails that he had known as a fur trader.
But in 1877 he was carried to Kamloops by stage-coach over the roads that replaced those trails; he travelled by steamboats up rivers he had formerly followed on horseback; he might have followed the remnants of the new brigade trail to the Bonaparte River Native reserve.
The one brigade trail he did ride in 1877 was the Okanagan brigade trail, which still served as the colonists' route up and down the Okanagan valley.
When he took to horseback at Osoyoos to visit the Native chief who lived at Avona, on the old brigade trail between Fort Colvile to the Coquihalla, he might also have followed the old Kettle Valley brigade trail (I will speak of this trail in a later posting).
He was sixty three years old when he revisited this part of the world; he had last ridden these trails twenty five years earlier.

In writing Alexander Caulfield Anderson's story I find I am writing the entire history of the fur trade in British Columbia, from Alexander Mackenzie's time to its end.
Anderson's story covers most of the history of early British Columbia, from the time the first fur traders entered the territory they called New Caledonia; through the many changes that occurred when the HBC took over the NWC and as they replaced old brigade trails with new.
Time moved even more quickly once the gold miners entered the territory, and the Royal Engineers built roads that enabled British settlers to claim and settle on lands that, in the past, only the Natives had lived in.
The fur traders occupied the Natives' territory for only fifty years, yet the fur trade is so important to British Columbia's history.
I cannot think of another man, other than Alexander Caulfield Anderson, whose story encompasses so much of the early history of British Columbia.

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