Friday, December 28, 2012

The horse portage between Edmonton and Fort Assiniboine, Athabasca River

A few months ago, just after I posted the first crossing of the Assiniboine portage on the outgoing journey, I talked to some history students or outdoorsmen who were coming from Minnesota or someplace in the American east, to hike the Athabasca portage.
They're planning their journey a year or two ahead so there is plenty of time for them to locate more information, and I presume they are following the blog to see what new information I can post about the return journey.
However, I think this post will not add a lot to their information, unfortunately.
If you know of anyone who has located the trail and perhaps mapped it, or written about it, can you please post the information in the comment section at the bottom of the page, so these gentlemen have a chance of finding and accessing the new information?
Thanks. I am a believer in sharing information -- its surprising what you get from people when you give them something.

So, here we go, with Aemilius Simpson's journal of his voyage across the continent in 1826!

Journal of a voyage across the Continent of North America in 1826, by Aemilius Simpson, R.N.:
Thursday 14th [September] Commenced cold but fine weather. After breakfast Messrs. J. Stewart, McGillivray, [George] Barnston & myself mounted our horses & commenced our journey across the portage -- at noon we arrived at the Sturgeon River, which we crossed in [word] canoe, this stream is small but has a considerable dept. Mr. J. Stewart, having come up with his party at this river, he remained with them. We proceeded in search of the Columbia Brigade -- on arriving at a small creek Mr. Barnston followed a different track, to what I conceive our brigade has followed. I pursued what I thought the right one -- until I arrived at a deep swamp & stream. When I began to suspect I had followed the wrong road, I therefore began to retrace my steps, but found Mr. McGillivray coming by the same track. I returned again with him & crossing the swamp and stream (which obliged the horse to swim across) we came up with the Brigade a short distance beyond it. Encampt. While retracing my steps in the dusk I had a rather unwished-for meeting with a bear, but on taking a short survey of me, he turned into the woods. My track during the day was in a winding direction to the NW about 20 miles, the first 15 rather an open country & affording comparatively a good track.
Friday 15th. A very coarse night, rain, sleet, with thunder & lightning which prevented our [start] in the morning, until after breakfast when we continued our journey at 10 am & pursued our route, by a road almost impassible to man or beast. The horses & their loads frequently falling into swamps & ruts in which they almost disappeared & it requires extraordinary efforts at times to extricate the poor animals from these very uncomfortable situations, and calling down upon them the most awful imprecations from their Canadian guides. In the tracks [word] through the [woods] the loads which were slung over the sides of the horses progressed so far, that they were constantly coming in contact with the branches to the great injury of the loads. To add to the comforts of our journey it rained throughout the day. We traveled until 5 pm when we encampt for the night having come 14 miles by estimation, in a winding course to the NW over a broken & almost impassible [part] of the country interspersed by swamps and [woods] which afforded hardly a track sufficient for the horses to get through.
Saturday 16th. Constant rain during the night but cleared up at 6 am. At 8 am proceeded on our journey over a continuance of extremely bad road. Leaving the woods, the quagmires & marshes. At 2 pm we crossed the Pembina River, a considerable stream which the horses forded, but not without having wet some of their loads. We found a canoe on the So bank of the river which was launched for the purpose of transporting a few of the [loads] particularly my instruments & [word]. Messrs. MacMillan, MacDougal & Herriott came up with us here, they had remained behind at Edmonton after our departure. Having crossed the river we pursued our journey until 4 pm, after a severe days march for the horses. Our distance come today I estimate at about 18 miles tending to N.W. over the worst road I certainly ever saw traveled.
Sunday 17th. We had a very sharp frost during the night forming a thin coat of ice on the sheets of water. 6 am we continued our march. Our road not generally so bad as formerly. We passed some pretty spots of meadow bounded by woods [and] we found an Indian family encampt on one of these spots -- a hunter attached to the Fort Assinaboine establishment. We stopped to breakfast at 10 am & resumed our journey again at noon, which we continue until 3 pm, when we encampt in the skirt of a wood which formed a very comfortable encampt. We traveled 15 miles between North & West.
Monday 18th. A hoar frost during the night with clear weather. We commenced our March & traveled through a point of woods until 8.30, many parts of the track being very bad, the horses sinking under their loads up to the necks nearly. We breakfasted on the south side of the River [name], a small but deep stream. At 11 we resumed our journey passing several creeks, swamps & points of wood where the track is frequently almost impassible from the immense quantity of fallen burnt trees strewed over the path & which forms one of the worst obstacles on the [length] of the route, as every gale blows down a new covering of these burnt stumps, however often you clear the path. To make your way thro' this confused map is irksome & tedious. We forded a branch of the Athabasca which forms an island of a few miles extent -- at 3 pm we arrived at the Main branch opposite Assinaboine Post to which we crossed in a canoe. Thus completing our Journey from Edmonton, in a little less than six days at only a distance by estimation of 90 miles -- and in a direct line by my observation....
Assinaboine is a small post situated on the North bank of the Athabasca enclosed by a woody country but has intervals of meadow land which furnishes good pasture for horses. It is much used for that purpose, a number being always kept here belonging to the Edmonton establishment & to supply the brigades crossing the mountains & as it is safe from the depredations of the Blackfeet & the Indians who do not cross this woody country -- a considerable quantity of dried meat is procured at this post which is made into pemmican to supply the passing brigades to & from the Columbia &c.
Tuesday 19th. Weather with rain & sleet, bearing the appearance of winter. Thus it is nearly the [word] as a continuation of this weather would make our journey across the mountains a very difficult & disagreeable one. I examine my [packs] today, apprehensive that their contents got injured in crossing the portage from the number of thumps, tumbles, &c, but was pleased to find that the instruments had received no material injury. The Mountain barometer was not so fortunate, for on examining it I found its tube broken. [rest omitted]
The wet weather retards our arrangements, we are unable to gum and otherwise arrange our canoes.
Wednesday 20th. A continuance of coarse weather. Snow & rain.
Thursday 21st. A thin covering of snow on the ground & hoar frost in the morning with constant rain during the day. This bad weather has prevented Mr. Stewarts getting across the portage with his party and as he has the supplies for the Upper posts, were we otherwise ready we could not proceed until his arrival here with these. An Indian hunter brought us a very seasonable supply of venison, as we found no great abundance of provisions at this post. The [meals] the potatoes of its garden & dried meat, our table could not be called badly provided.
Friday 22nd. The weather having improved, enabled them to pitch the canoes &c. We are now ready to proceed on our journey but must wait the arrival of Mr. Stewart for which we are now becoming anxious.
Saturday 23rd. Commenced with heavy rain, still retarding the arrival of Mr. Stewarts party -- Messrs. [James] Birnie and Lin... sent off for Jasper's House this forenoon, with a loaded boat and strong crew, so as to enable her to get in advance as much as possible before we start in our birch canoes. Mr. Stewart with a few of his party arrived in the evening having had a most difficult task to transport his goods over the Portage owing to the continual bad weather rendering the road worse than we had [experienced]...
Sunday 24th. The weather has taken a favourable change & appears set in for a continuance of fair weather. The remainder of Mr. Stewart's party arrived in the morning. This day they have been employed examining & drying the goods which we have to bring up to Jasper's House. The clear weather enabled me to get a set of observations....

Journal of a Voyage from York Factory to Fort Vancouver, Columbia River, 1827, by Edward Ermatinger:
13th [September] Fine weather. Left Edmonton this afternoon with 29 loaded and 6 saddle horses. Passengers, pieces of baggage being as follows: Messrs. Todd, McDougal, Ermatinger, Louis Leblanc, the ladies of Messrs. McLeod and McDougal and 2 children.
[Long list of supplies omitted]
14th, Thursday. Started at sunrise and made our first stage to the Grand Echaffaud by 11. Resumed 2, and at 5 encamped at Riviere que Basse near Lac a Berland. Light rain.
15th. Fine weather. Proceeded this day as far as Lac La Nan, having made one half. Two men sent ahead to repair the canoes at Fort Assiniboine. Picard arrives at our encampment with letters from John Rowand, Esq.
16th. Fine weather. The party went as far as Jolie Prairie and encamped having made one stop near Paddle River. Messrs. Klyne and Ermatinger went off ahead this morning for the fort.
17th, Sunday. Fine weather. Starting from Jolie Prairie our party reached Les Deux Rivieres and encamped.
18th. Fine weather. The whole Brigade reached Fort Assiniboine before noon all safe, except that Leblanc's horse got astray the night before last and was left. Messrs. Klyne and Ermatinger with the 2 men arrived yesterday morning. Shortly after arrival the people set about making their poles and paddles while the Boutes are repairing the canoes. We only found here two good canoes and 3 much broken and as we require 4, we have chose the two best of the latter and the 2 former.
19th. Fine weather. People employed as yesterday. The 2 old canoes have had half their bottoms renewed.

I don't know who is keeping this journal but it is apparently not Edward Ermatinger.
Certainly they had a very easy journey over the portage, unlike that enjoyed by Aemilius Simpson a few years earlier.
There were many complaints about this crossing over the years, and John Rowand was ordered to make it into a good road.
But ease of travel over this muddy and wooded plain might, every year, have depended on the season's unpredictable weather.
Let's see what George Traill Allen has to say of his experience in his first crossing of the Athabasca portage in 1831.

Journal of a Voyage from Norway House to Fort Vancouver, Columbia River, in 1831, by George Traill Allen:
We remained two days at Edmonton, and on Wednesday the 9th [September], we started out for Fort Assinaboine with about 40 horses and as many men. Messrs. [Duncan?] Finlayson, [James] Douglas, [Pierre] Pambrun and I being mounted on excellent horses set out at full speed in order to overtake the men with loaded horses, who had already set out. Our kind host, Mr. [John] Rowand, with two other gentlemen accompanied us a short distance and then bade us adieu. After a ride of about three hours over a rather barren country we arrived at the banks of a small river, called Sturgeon River, where we rafted the goods and forced the horses to swim across. During the evening we established a watch at which I in conjunction with two other gentlemen took my turn of three hours in walking about to see that the men did their duty. We were apprehensive that the Assiniboine Indians might attempt to carry off our horses, but we were agreeably disappointed as we neither heard or saw anything of them.
During the first part of my journey over the Assiniboine Portage, as it is called, our route lay through extensive plains, but during the latter part we found considerable difficulty in passing through thick woods covered with fallen trees and in some spots morasses out of which our horses could scarcely extricate themselves.
Monday 12th. We arrived at Fort Assiniboine in time to sup with Mr. Grant. Fort Assiniboine is a small establishment situated on the banks of the River Athabasca and the surrounding country is chiefly composed of thick woods. The river takes its rise in the Rocky Mountains.
Tuesday 13th. We prepared three canoes for the River Athabasca up which we were now to steer our course.

That was short and sweet!
In the journal that follows I should mention that one of the passengers was John McIntosh and his wife and family of five children, who were met by Alexander Caulfield Anderson at Jasper's House, and taken across the Leather Pass into New Caledonia.
Another passenger would have been a young Archibald McKinlay, who spent many years in Anderson's fur trade west of the Rockies.
The Leather Pass story is a long one and is covered by Chapter 5 in my book, The Pathfinder: A.C. Anderson's Journeys in the West.
For more information on this journey you can go way back in my blog -- on Sunday November 15, 2009, I wrote about the "Hudson's Bay Company's Leather Pass." You can probably find it by googling the words in the above quote exactly as written.
Aweek or so later, on November 28th, 2009, I wrote John McIntosh's story in full. You can probably find it easily by googling "John McIntosh, HBC."
John McIntosh's son -- one of the boys on this cross-country voyage with James Douglas -- later joined the US cavalry from Montreal, and was one of the first soldiers killed at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876.
These little stories can lead you anywhere, and this story led me quite a distance, as you can see!

Diary of a Journey from Fort Vancouver in 1835, by James Douglas:
[Monday?] 21st [September] Left Edmonton this morning at 8 o'clock with our party for the Columbia consisting altogether of 24 servants, 6 gentlemen besides 2 families, with their attendants. Our property is now conveyed by horses and will be thus forwarded as far as Assiniboine from whence we once more betake ourselves to the water. We have in all 51 horses, of which number 39 carry burthens, and 11 are for the passengers. Encamped opposite the Little Scaffold.
Tues. 22. Stopped 2 1/2 hours at Bridge River to refresh the horses, and encamped at Mr. Shaw's encampment.
Wedy. 23. Breakfast Eagle Lake, Camp on West side Pembrina [Pembina] River.
Thurs. 24. Jolie Prairie; Two Rivers.
Frid. 25. Grand Cote. Fort Assiniboine.
Sat. 26. On arrival here yesterday afternoon we found the man who had preceded us from Edmonton busily occupied in repairing & strengthening the canoes, a work which was nearly completed this morning. Two of the canoes are old, and two of them were made at Slave Lake about the commencement of the present summer. Though they were made at different times and by different persons they bear a close resemblance to each other in many respects, but chiefly in being made of the most wretched materials, and the new ones of the very worst possible construction being very narrow, deep, and consequently of a great draft of water. Three built here last summer of 24 & 22 feet keel, and 8 & 9 1/2 middle shaft; being light and well proportioned, offer strong inducements to abandon the canoes and adopt the boats as the safest mode of conveyance up the river. Advantages of canoes: lightness of fabric, swiftness. Boats: strength, durability, insusceptibility of injury. Disadvantages of canoes: susceptibility of injury. Boats: Weight, difficulty of propelling against a powerful current. A trial was made this morning to ascertain the speed of the two crafts which did not terminate so unfavourably to the Boat as I anticipated, and I am now of opinion that with the same cargo a boat will reach the mountains nearly as expeditiously as a canoe. The one is certainly more easily propelled than the other, but the canoe frequently stands in need of repairs, and much time is invariably lost in that way, wherever the boat moves on rather slowly, it is true, but without detention of any kind.

It is interesting how your story changes when  you get additional information from other sources.
I did not know before I copied out James Douglas' journal that 1835 was the first year the Columbia expressmen had used boats to carry their loads upriver to Jasper's House, rather than canoes.
So now I know why Anderson and his men waited so long at Jasper's House, and why they they were then caught in that tremendous snow storm!
However, while Douglas' journal adds a little to Anderson's story, it makes no major changes overall -- it's just a little additional information we did not have before.

Journal of a Trip from Vancouver to York Factory, Spring 1847, by Thomas Lowe, in charge of party:
Saturday 25th [September] Beautiful weather. In the morning the horses were saddled, and after breakfast we started across the Assinaboine Portage. There are 37 loaded horses in the Columbia brigade, and Mr. Brazeau who goes across to Assinaboine has 13, making in all 50 loaded horses besides 10 saddle horses. Went as far as Sturgeon River, got everything across, and encamped on the other side. Had to leave one of our men, William Gray, at Edmonton, as he was unable to walk, and too worthless to be exchanged for another man.
Sunday 26th. The weather kept fine during the day, but came on to rain and blow in the evening so that we had to camp rather earlier than usual, at a small creek a short distance on this side of Berland's Lake. The Portage is unusually dry this season, so that we have less trouble than usual.
Monday 27th. Very cold last night, but it has been exceedingly hot during the day. Came a good distance. Encamped near Lac le ......
Tuesday 28th. Another very warm day. Two of our horses could not be found this morning & we had to start without them, after having passed a long time in search of them. Passed the Pembina River in the afternoon, & [as] the water was low, walked the horses across without unloading. Camped at Paddle River. Before coming to the campment, the men who had been left behind overtook us with the two horses of which they had been in search. We also found another on the march, which had been left by Mr. McDon[ell?].
Wednesday 29th. Fine clear weather. Started earlier than usual this morning, and came to the Deep Creek. The men are too awkward, and the proper places too few to rest in the middle of the day, so that we carry on without stopping, but generally encamp when the sun is about 2 hours high.
Thursday 30th. Very cloudy, but fortunately no rain. Arrived at Fort Assinaboine about noon, and found that the Guide had got our three boats repaired, and in the water. Had the different cargoes divided tonight. There are 35 pieces per boat, exclusive of 3 bags pemmican each boat, for provisions of the men in the Athabasca. Besides the 40 packs Otters and 10 pieces sundries for Jasper's House, which we brought with us, we likewise take with us from Assinaboine the 40 packs otters left last season. With the 4 men lent by Mr. Harriott, there will be 8 men per boat, including the steersman. Having brought a keg of rum from Edmonton to be given to the men, I served out a dram to all hands, after which they had a dance at the Fort before beginning their hardships in the Athabasca.

Journal from Vancouver to York Factory with Express, Spring 1848, by Thomas Lowe:
There is a blank in the journal after his arrival in Edmonton; the journal resumes to report a little excitement on September 24th.
However by that time his party is already a good distance up the Athabasca River, so the excitement will await the next post.
Thomas Lowe must have enjoyed an easy crossing that year -- but it was not so in later years, as you will see below...
John Charles' journal also does not continue past Edmonton House, and so we do not know what occurred on his crossing of the portage in 1849.
It's too bad. If he had kept his journal up to date, we might have a clue as to why he was killed in the Athabasca Pass that year.
For further information, see the posting, John Charles, HBC, written on June 16, 2012.
Quite a few people have contacted me re: that story, and we are keeping our eyes open for the answers to our questions.

Chief Factor John Ballenden crossed the Athabasca portage in 1851, and this is what he had to say of the portage, in a letter to the Governor and Council, March 22nd, 1852 [B.223/b/39, fo.110, HBCA]:
"The Columbia party left Edmonton last Autumn later than in former years.
"Their detention was caused by the height of the waters in the Saskatchewan River retarding the progress of the boats, and preventing them reaching their destination until 10 or 12 days later than the usual period.
"We started on the afternoon of the 30th Sept.; crossed the Assiniboine portage; and ascended the Athabasca River without much difficulty.
"Indeed the only difficulties we met with were at several portions of the portage which, in consequence of heavy rains and want of the usual repairs retarded us considerably.
"I would beg to draw the attention of the Council to this subject; and hope they will afford Mr. Rowand the necessary aid to enable him in some measure to repair and alter the road.
"It will render easy the communication between these posts & facilitate much the passage of the Columbia part outgoing and incoming, and much reduce the expense.
"In my opinion, a cart road might easily be made."

John Ballenden goes to immediately after to describe the rest of his journey into the Columbia district:
"At Jasper's House I separated the party, as I was instructed, and sent Mr. Manson with one portion, via Tete Jaune's Cache, to New Caledonia, while Messrs. [William] Sinclair, Carter [?], and I started with the other for the Columbia River.
"On the 5th November having experienced no difficulty either in the mountain, or in descending the river, we reached Fort Colvile.
"There I found Mr. [Alexander Caulfield] Anderson and most of the members of his family invalids, & the greater number of the servants unwell, but recovering from an Influenza which had been prevalent there during the Autumn.
"The affairs of that district were in their usual prosperous condition.
"The Returns of Ot. 1850 were taken to Fort Langley by Mr. Anderson, and the supplies for Ot. 1851 brought back, without any damage.
"The party on their return reached Colvile about the 15th August; and about the middle of September Messrs. [Angus] McDonald & Michel Ogden started for the Flathead post, & Edouard Berland sometime previously for the Kootanais post, with the supplies for their respective establishments...

The letter continues, with more information about Anderson in later folios: "Mr. Anderson was much disappointed at not having been relieved by an officer from the East side; and was so anxious that he and his family should have the benefit of medical advice that I decided on his accompanying me to Fort Vancouver, & leaving Mr. Sinclair in the temporary charge of Colvile, as I felt confident the latter gentleman would do it every justice....
"We reached Fort Vancouver on the 2nd Nov. & found all there well.
"Mr. [Peter Skene] Ogden was anxiously expecting our arrival, & so desirous of getting away himself, that he started for New York, via Panama, by the mail steamer, early in December."
From The Pathfinder: A.C. Anderson's journeys in the West, "Anderson had arranged with Ballenden that if Ogden disapproved of his leaving Fort Colvile, he would take his wife to her father's residence [at Cathlamet] and return to his post.
"But Ogden was pleased to see Anderson as it meant he was free to depart on his furlough.
"Chief Factor John Work was coming to Fort Vancouver to train Ballenden, but Ogden left Ballenden's immediate training in Anderson's hands and boarded a ship for the east coast."

No comments:

Post a Comment