"I, John Charles, in company with Mr. [Thomas] Lowe, in charge of the express as far as Fort Colvile, started from Fort Vancouver with two boats laden with the Fort Nez Perce Outfit and provisions, etc., per party, amounting in all to about 45 pieces and manned by five Iroquois, nine Indians, one Kanaka and 1 Canadian... Encamped at the Saw Mill. Wet weather."
So began the journal of John Charles, who set out from Fort Vancouver on Tuesday, March 20th, 1849, and who, tragically, would not return.
The party set out from the Saw Mill early the next morning, and camped a little below the Cascades after sailing all day up the Columbia River. On the 22nd, Tuesday, "Embarked in the boats at peep of day and put ashore at the lower end of the Cascade portage where we discharged the boat and breakfasted."
I think I like this young man; I certainly enjoy the way he keeps his journal and the words he uses -- ie. "Peep of day."
That day they found the weather wet and unpleasant and the river unusually low, and snow knee deep on the portage. But they camped that night to the Upper end of Cascade portage, though they left a few boats behind them.
On Saturday 24th they had beautiful weather and left the Cascades at 9am., sailing eastward all day to sset up camp five miles below the Mission at "Wascopar," or the Dalles.
On Sunday 25th they embarked a half an hour before sunrise and breakfasted on a rock immediately below the Grand Dalles, where Thomas Lowe, passenger Mr. Mentrez, and John Charles obtained horses and rode to the Chutes.
There they found upward of one hundred Natives with their horses waiting for the arrival of the boats.
They waited there to help the fur traders bring their boats and loads over the portage to the Upper end of the Chutes, as they did every year.
The journey up the Columbia River proceeded quickly after that, with John Charles noting their early departure every morning and their breakfast spot or camping place -- Riviere Finale; Riviere Quinal; and Grand Rapide just below Walla Walla.
On the evening of Wednesday 28th they reached Walla Walla, and next day sent Grand Joe back to Fort Vancouver in a single boat, carrying the Fort Nez Perces returns.
Interestingly enough, they also carried out the property belonging to Rev. Mr. Spalding, who must have abandoned it at Fort Nez Perce or elsewhere after the massacre at Waiilatpu in November 1847 -- but that is another story.
Which I will get to shortly, I think.
At Fort Nez Perce, Mr. William McBean had traded for twelve horses for them -- five were used as packhorses and seven ridden by the gentlemen and clerks who were heading to Fort Colvile.
They set up camp twenty miles away from Walla Walla at 7pm; on Saturday the 31st of the month they camped on the beach of the Nez Perces River, but regretted doing so because the wind whipped up and blew the sand around in such clouds that all the men crawled into their beds to avoid being blinded by it.
It's a strange country -- camping on beaches one night and the next day riding through a shower of hail towards evening.
But it is early April, after all, and two days later John Charles reported that "the horses being very poor and in a weakly condition we were under the necessity of camping early. Met with a great deal of snow on our route. Passed a good many small lakes and springs. Wild fowl, very numerous. Passed the night under a large red pine tree."
The next day they "left our encampment about two hours after sunrise, but were obliged to return to it almost immediately as the horses were utterly unable to proceed in the great depth of snow, which lay around us."
As they were unable to go further on horseback, four men travelled ahead of the rest of the party toward the Spokane River, on foot -- these were John Charles, Thomas Lowe, Michel and an unnamed Native man.
They walked all night and a greater part of the following day, and finally rested on a hill in sight of the Spokane River -- sending their guide ahead to the Spokane lodges to obtain snow shoes.
That evening, the Spokane men came to their camp and gave them snow shoes so they could travel to Fort Colvile.
Some Spokanes travelled back to help the other expressmen left behind to come through the snow to Fort Colvile; others guided Charles and Lowe toward Fort Colvile.
They reached Fort Colvile on foot after three or four days' walk, on Monday 9th April; after which they spent three or four days closing the accounts of the place and waiting for their expressmen, and those from New Caledonia, to ride in.
On Sunday April 15th, John Charles wrote in his journal: "Dull day. Divine service held by C.T. Anderson. No arrivals from New Caledonia or elsewhere."
And so, this is when Thomas Lowe and John Charles met Alexander Caulfield Anderson, who was then in charge of the post of Fort Colvile.
Those of you who have read my book know that this had been a terrible winter, and cattle and horses died in large numbers at both Kamloops and Fort Colvile because of the deep snow that fell early in the year and remained all winter.
Interestingly, at Fort Colvile the men were commencing ploughing, and so the snow must already be retreating -- in fact, John Charles notes that the snow is disappearing from the hills that surrounded the fort.
He probably anticipated better weather north of Fort Colvile, but it was not to be so.
On Thursday 19th of April, Joachim Lafleur, from the Okanagan post, and "Marineau with five other men from New Caledonia arrived with the accounts."
The following day the horses arrived, brought in by the Spokane Indians who had helped the expressmen north to Fort Colvile.
In a letter to the Governor and Council, April 23, 1849, Anderson reported on their planned departure:
"The Columbia Accounts of Outfit 1849 being now closed, Mr. John Charles, appointed by the Board to conduct the Express to Edmonton, takes his departure. Nine men, with an adequate number of Indians to complete the crews of two boats, accompany him to the Mountain. Six of the former, including four retiring servants, cross to the East side; and as every precaution has been taken to secure an expeditious passage, I trust that Mr. Charles will reach Edmonton about the usual period."
It appears that Thomas Lowe travelled no further east than Fort Colvile this year; too bad, because he kept excellent journals of all his travels across the mountains.
The expressmen under John Charles departed Fort Colvile and headed upriver toward the Boat Encampment, beginning their journey on the same day that Anderson wrote his letter.
They made it through the Arrow Lakes with little trouble but some rain; but as they pushed their way through the "Little Dalles" north of the northernmost lake they found themselves travelling past great quantities of snow and ice along the shoreline.
On May 1st they pushed their way through the "Mauvais Rapide," normally called Dalles des Morts or, today, Death Rapids.
They arrived at Boat Encampment on 8am., and had one of the boats carried "up the bank above the high water mark," for their return journey -- the other returned to Fort Colvile as was usual.
On Wednesday the 9th of May the express reached Jasper's House; the Athabasca River was so low that Colin Fraser, who was in charge of Jasper's House, worried that they might meet ice going downriver.
On the 11th of the month John Charles found the water in the Athabasca River so low that his boat kept bumping the bottom of the river.
One day later his passage was blocked by ice floes and he pulled ashore until it floated downriver past them, leaving the river clear.
They pulled out of the river to wait for ice several times, and it was not until Saturday, May 19th, that they reached Fort Assiniboine, in a heavy rainfall.
Rain delayed them on the portage to Edmonton House, too, and they reached the place at 5pm. on Friday 25th May.
On Monday 28th they departed Edmonton House and floated downriver to Fort Pitt, reaching that place the next day; they were at Carlton House in early June; Lac Vaseur on the 12th; the Grand Rapide near the mouth of the Saskatchewan river on the 14th of June; on the 21st of June they reached Norway House.
On Thursday 28th of June, John Charles reported that: "Messrs. Rowand, Harriott, Christine and Simpson started at 2 o'clock this morning for [blank in mss., probably York Factory]. Messrs Lewes and Deschambeult left at 8am., immediately after breakfast, and Mr. Sinclair, Mr. Lockhart and myself embarked in a light canoe at 11 AM. We overtook and passed Mr. Lewis [Lewes] & Co., about sunset. We camped at the Damn." -- Of course, this the express that carried John Lee Lewes and his family away from Fort Colvile!
John Charles' group travelled fast and passed everyone on their way to York Factory, which they reached on Tuesday July 3rd, at 2pm.
They left the place on the 17th, and young Frederick Lewes was listed as a passenger in the outgoing Columbia express.
On August 1st they were at Oxford House; on Tuesday 7th they reached Norway House.
As they left Norway House John Charles listed the passengers as: "Messrs. Rowand and Harriott, Mr. and Mrs. Christie and Messrs Spencer, and Simpson for the Saskatchewan, Messrs. Young, Griffin, Gladman, Logan, young Fraser, Frederick Lewes and myself for Columbia and New Caledonia.
Thomas Lowe is not here, and so we do not have a good record of what happened at Moose Encampment.
They sailed across the top end of treacherous Lake Winnipeg and reached the Grand Rapide at half past twelve on Sunday, July 12th.
On the 21st of the month they passed the Cumberland Portage; on September the 1st they were at Carlton House, where "Messrs. Rowand, Young and James Simpson started on horseback for Edmonton a few minutes before our arrival." -- John Rowand had received notice of his wife's death at Edmonton, and was not waiting for the rest of the crew to join him, as was normal.
The last part of his journal is brief and to the point, and it ends abruptly.
"12th, Wednesday. Mr. Harriott, Mr. Griffin, Lewes, Logan and myself went ahead of the brigade after breakfast and arrived at Fort Pitt about 3pm., the boats about an hour afterwards.
"13th, Thursday. the Brigade consisting of nine boats left Fort Pitt this morning about half past eleven. Messrs. Harriott, Young, Griffin and Frederick Lewes are to proceed on horseback across land to Edmonton House.
"14th, Friday. After breakfast all the boats hoisted sail and the wind being light aft we were enabled to come a great distance to day.
"15th, Saturday. Tracking commenced this morning. Beautiful weather.
"16th, Sunday. Fine clear weather.
"17th, 18th, 19th, 20th. We had beautiful dry weather during these four days. Men tracking from morning until night. Passed two camps of Freemen who were camped near the River side. No animals of any sort to be seen."
They must have reached Edmonton House shortly after John Charles made his last entry in the journal.
The expressmen would then have travelled over the portage to Fort Assiniboine, and taken to boats upriver to Jasper's House, which they would have reached in a few weeks.
Obviously, eager to reach home and not interested in keeping up his journal, John Charles continued his journey towards the Columbia River and Fort Vancouver.
But at Moose Encampment, in Athabasca Pass, he was killed -- supposedly by the accidental firing of a gun.
The story continues in various official and personal reports, below:
The opening shot in this part of the story comes from Anderson's son, James, when many years after the event he refers to a letter written by John Lee Lewes to Anderson in July 1850:
"The reference Mr. Lewis [sic] makes to the tragic death of young Charles happened in this way. John Charles, a brother of the late William Charles, was in 1849 coming over with a party to join the Company at Fort Vancouver, and one evening in camp on the Rocky Mountains a certain Mr. Young, an American, who had obtained permission to accompany the party, whilst displaying his gun, of which he was rather proud and it is said which he handled in quite an inexperienced manner, accidentally discharged it, the full charge entering John Charles' body killing him instantly."
Young James was at Fort Colvile with his father, and he would have been one of the first persons to have heard the story of Charles' death.
John Lee Lewes' son, Frederick, travelled as a passenger in the returning 1849 brigade [but not working for the fur trade] and so was in Moose Encampment when Young shot Charles.
The adult Lewes had travelled with John Charles in the outgoing express to York Factory, and wrote to Anderson after hearing the news of Charles' death: "I am very glad to hear that Frederick, after the sad and melancholy fate of young Charles, so conducted himself as to meet with your approval. Pity it was that that stupid fellow, Young, had not got the shot in his own head. The jackass has destroyed a fine young man worth a shipload of unfeeling and careless Yankees...." (Mss. 559, vol. 1, folder 6, BCA).
In March 1850 Peter Skene Ogden wrote to Governor Simpson on the accident: "It is with much regret I have to communicate to you the melancholy end of Mr. John Charles when in charge of the Express at Moose Encampment in the Rocky Mountain Portage. Every particular connected with his tragical end is now forwarded (see no. 2). Permit me however to remark that the expression made use of by the unfortunate Mr. Charles after receiving the shot has not been satisfactorily explained to me and leaves an unpleasant impression on my mind nor did Mr. Young in my presence evince any feeling of regret. In the death of Mr. John Charles the fur trade has lost a most promising young man -- this sad catastrophe occasioned some delay and it was not until the 19th November that the express reached this."
Whatever really happened in that Rocky Mountain camp is written down in that enclosure to Peter Skene Ogden's letter, now separated from the letter itself.
What did young John Charles say as he lay dying?
Why did the American, Mr. Young, express no regret at this so-called "accidental" shooting?
Ogden knew something we do not -- I wonder what it was.
Whatever we do or do not uncover about this story, it does leave behind the suspicion that there was more to the "accident" than we know.