The North Saskatchewan River is a historic river, and in an article I discovered in the magazine, Canadian Geographic (November/December 2003), author Myrnah Kostash of Edmonton, writes of her experience of the river she grew up beside:
"In October 1795," she writes, "the Company of Adventurers Trading into Hudson Bay built Edmonton House on the banks of the river to trade for furs, ..." and she goes on to say that little remains of the fur trade in Edmonton itself.
"Yet the same water -- the current, the tow, the shoals -- that begins as a rivulet issuing from the massive Columbia Icefield on the eastern slope of the Rockies and, downstream from Edmonton, joins waters from our river's sister, the South Saskatchewan, still runs all the way to Hudson Bay.
"And the same water that once confounded the hide bumboats of the Indians, the crude cows and ferries of the homesteaders and the heavy mass of supply-loaded York boats still flows along undisturbed by anything more than the occasional canoe being paddled effortlessly downstream...
"It's the 21st century: what is a river for? Ask the writers, those who have sat beside it, paddled up and down it, risked life and limb getting across it, who have catalogued, painted, apostrophized, poeticized and theorized it. They have taken its measure."
This article is filled with paintings of the river, and stories -- a delightful read, in a beautiful magazine.
In my collection of books I have another Myrna Kostash item (and I had not realized until now that she authored both book and article) -- Reading the River: A Traveller's Companion to the North Saskatchewan River, by Myrna Kostash with Duane Burton [Coteau Books, 2005]
In her preface she begins with her reading of the European best-seller Danube, in which the writer travels this historic river to the Black Sea, and..."I began to wonder: could we talk about one of the great Canadian rivers this way?
"The North Saskatchewan River, say, along whose banks I have spent most of my life?
"The notion seemed ludicrous; after all, just how much history have we made here?
"And just how old is our poetry?
"But I soon recognized these questions as beside the point, or rather too "European" in their focus.
"Much of the very earliest history of the river -- the story of Aboriginal interactions with it -- remains unwritten, of course, or is at best inferred from European accounts and contexts, but there has been history along this river since the first human communities gathered along it; there's been poetry since the first story described its source, its power, and its gods."
She has written a fine book and done her river proud; the book is filled with fur trade and other stories and will teach you a lot about her mighty North Saskatchewan.
I read it years ago and kept it -- I will have to re-read it.
To continue our journey west from Carlton House to Edmonton House.
I am dividing this posting into two portions, because some of the journals are very long and I did not find a good place to "pause."
Journal of a Voyage across the Continent of North America in 1826 by Aemilius Simpson, R.N.:
Tuesday 22nd [August] On leaving Carlton House, we proceed to Iroquois Point about 6 miles above that place. The course of the River is much obstructed by land banks n this part of it. As the post cannot furnish a supply of provisions to our brigade, it will be necessary to send our hunter out before us to endeavour to kill buffalo which are seen to be in great abundance upon the banks of the river a short distance above here.
Wednesday 23rd -- Along our days track mud banks frequently [form] in the bed of the River which makes the channel very intricate. The immediate banks are muddy, but the [land] upon gaining the summit of a rise on bank of gentle ascent, is a vast surface of plains. Continue our ascent of the Saskatchewan, alternately tracking and rowing, at 9 we landed to breakfast, our horse party joining us but after breakfast they proceeded to the hunting ground, Messrs. Rowand and MacMillan accompanying the Hunters. Mr. [George] Barnston succeeded in killing one (a deer) this afternoon, which afforded us a venison supper -- these deer are small kind resembling the fallow deer and are called chevreuil by the Canadian. We had a heavy fall of rain in the evening.
Thursday 24th -- [Illegible] We had a continuance of heavy rain during the night but cleared up at 5.30 when we pursued our journey favoured by a fair breeze from the NW until entering the Elbow. Having made the round of the Elbow & nearly opposite the Eagle Hill Creek, we fell in with our hunting party with a very seasonable and abundant supply of buffalo meat consisting of six of these animals, which were equally distributed to our canoes. Being anxious to witness the landing of the buffalo, I accompanied the hunting party and mounting our horses we [galloped] into the Plains in pursuit of that object. We had not yet arrived when a bull afforded the Hunter an opportunity of displaying his talents, but as he was not thought worthy of a chase upon horse, he was approached by the hunters crossing along the ground & when [at a short] distance he fired and mortally wounded the animal, but it did not prevent his retreating to a patch of wood in the neighbourhood, where we followed him & before he was finally dispatched he received six balls through his body. [Rest omitted]
Saturday 26th -- The bed of the river continues to have numerous shoals, and islands occasionally occur [heavily] cloaked in willows...
Thursday 31st -- Thick fog in am. but cleared up at sun rise. At 9.15 landed to breakfast and continue on shore until 2 pm. drying the cargo of the boat. It being no longer necessary for the horses to follow the circuit our route of the boats, they were dispatched for Edmonton, their place of destination, Messrs. Rowand, McMillan, McDougal & Birnie accompanying them & by crossing the plains, they expect to get to Edmonton in four days -- they follow the track south of the Saskatchewan.....
[part of journal omitted]
Saturday 9th [September] -- From our mornings encampment the course of the river is particularly winding, and branded by very high cliffs. Having come a distance of 19 miles, we arrived at Fort Edmonton, or Augustus, at 4 pm. The gentlemen of our party that had left us on the [31st of August] had made their journey to this in five days which took us nine and the time occupied in our journey from Carlton was eighteen days. In the cliffs bounding the river on our days track I observed great abundance of coals running in horizontal strata, [and] these coals are used by the blacksmith of the establishment, but as what he makes use of is merely the outer surface, they do not shew themselves of a very good quality. .. Fort Edmonton is the most important trading post on the Saskatchewan, it is situated on the north bank of the river & is in a good state of defense against Indian attack. A very necessary precaution, as the Indian tribes visiting it are formidable, viz. the Blackfeet, Blood & Crees.
There is a considerable extent of farm adjoining the fort, which is now rendering an abundant crop of wheat, barley, oats & potatoes -- and a garden producing excellent vegetables. There is an extensive range of pasture land, also along the bank of the river affording an abundant provision for horses. Deer are very numerous in this track of country -- of red deer -- principally. Bears both of the black & grizzly kind are also numerous.
Sunday 10th -- We had a sharp frost during the night. They have had a great deal of that weather north of here of late, which they are apprehensive will [freeze] in the road between here & Assiniboine, being wet and swampy, so that it will be difficult for our horses to haul it. Men were sent from here several days ago to that plain to bring a supply of horses to bring us across the portage. They are hourly expected here. This being Sunday, is observed as a Holy day.
Monday 11th -- Fine but cold weather. There are employees preparing the goods into packs for transportation across the portage. The horses arrived this afternoon from Assiniboine but they will require a rest before they are able to return again.
Tuesday 12th -- A continuation of cold weather but fine during the day. The day has been occupied with making preparations for our journey across the Portage. Mr. Rowand favoured us with a ball in the evening which appeared to diffuse a great deal of delight & pleasure amongst the numerous partakers of the Amusement. All appeared [willing] to decorate themselves in their best attire, and although among so many there were some grotesque figures, yet the general appearance of the group was very pleasing, and I was not a little amazed to see scotch reels, and [word] Country dances, danced with a spirit & grace that would not disgrace a far more refined society. Among the half breeds and Canadians particularly, I observed some excellent dancers, & the half breed girls, tho' evidently not so proficient in that act, made a very good appearance & seemed much pleased with the entertainment. We have a reason to be obliged to Mr. Rowand for his great kindness & hospitality since our arrival at his establishment.
Wednesday 13th -- The commencement of fine weather, a distribution of the horses & loads having been made among the men, the Columbia Brigade commenced the journey across the portage at 2 pm. The Athabasca & Upper Slave Lake took departure in the evening, the whole brigade consisting of about 50 men and 83 horses, 33 of the [horses] Columbia, and New Caledonia. As the loaded horses cannot travel very expeditiously, I with some of the gentlemen continued at the Fort for the night, with the intention of following in the morning.
As I told you previously, when I downloaded the above journal I was following my great-great-grandfather, James Birnie, across the country.
As a result I omitted a lot of the journal -- and now, of course, I wish I hadn't!
Aemelius is a very interesting writer and tells some good stories.
Journal of a Voyage from York Factory to Fort Vancouver, Columbia River, 1827, by Edward Ermatinger:
26th, Sunday [August] Fine weather. Started with 6 Boats between 8 and 9 am. At 5 afternoon hoist sail with a fresh breeze which soon increased to a gale with thunder and lightening. Encamped about 7 o'clock.
27th -- Fine weather. Started about 5 am. Continued pulling and tracking until 7 and encamped about the Elbow. Found an Indian and some half breeds on the Island encamped also. On their way to Carlton.
28th -- Fine weather. Started at 1/2 past 4 am. Wind ahead -- rowed and tracked all day. Encamped a little after 7 pm.
29th -- Fine warm weather. Started at 5 am. Saw several Bulls (Buffalo) opposite to Basfond Guilbache about 1 pm. -- killed one. Encamped on a Sandy Island after having stopt on the main shore to cook and take supper.
30th -- Weather as yesterday. Hoisted sail about 4 am. with a moderate breeze and continued sailing till about 3 o'clock when the wind shifts ahead. Encamped on Island at 7 pm.
31st -- Fine weather. Started at 1/2 past 4 am. Passed the Battle River this morning. In the evening hoisted sail with a fair wind which scarcely favours us when we are driven ashore by a perfect storm of head wind about 6 o'clock. Encamped.
September 1st, Saturday -- Fine weather. Started at 4 am. Saw a Black Bear to-day at which several shots were fired, but missed. Continued rowing and tracking all day against a head wind. Encamped at 8 pm.
2nd -- Fine weather. Started at 4 am, travelled till 10 o'clock rowing and tracking, then having taken breakfast hoist sail with a fresh breeze. East[er]ly wind which pushes us forward till night and put ashore a few hours at the lower end of the long reach below Vermillion about 8 pm. Two men went off along shore to hunt this morning and killed a Cabris.
3rd -- Fine weather. Started this morning a little after midnight and sailed to the upper end of the long reach by 10 o'clock, Here we found 2 men with 8 horses from Edmonton -- from them we got a little deer's meat. At noon we resume our journey with a strong breeze -- 4 men proceed along ashore with the horses -- passed Vermillion Creek at 1/2 past 1 pm. Encamped 1/4 before 8 o'clock some distance above the Frog Rapid.
4th, Tuesday -- Fine weather. Started about 4 o'clock and took breakfast at 10 at the Old Fort [Old Fort George] below the Dog Rump Creek. Hence two men were dispatched on horseback for Edmonton in order that horses may be brought home in readiness by the time the boats arrive. Wind still continues to favour us and assists us in ascending many strong rapids. Continued sailing till 6 o'clock in the evening when it calmed and we proceeded tracking till 1/4 before 8 and encamped at 4 or 5 miles above the Island House.
5th -- Commenced raining last night and continued till 9 this morning -- afterwards fine weather but wind strong ahead. Started before 5 am. Afternoon hunters informed us they had killed 4 Red Deer and wounded another some distance off -- therefore we put ashore and wait while they bring it to the boats -- about 7 pm the hunters arrive with the meat which having embarked we continued our voyage and encamped at Craig's point at 1/4 past 8 o'clock.
6th -- Fine weather. Light shower of rain toward evening. Started at 4 am, got up the Rapids Croche by 1/2 past 3 pm, several lines broken at this rapid. Encamped at 1/2 past 8 o'clock.
7th -- Fine weather. Started 1/2 past 4 am. Continued tracking all day and encamped 1/4 before 9 pm.
8th -- Fair weather. Started at 4 am. Arrived at the Carp Creek at 11 o'clock and took breakfast. Found a party of Crees encamped at this place, from them traded some furs and provisions after which Messrs. Rowand set off on horseback. Encamped a little above the Painted Creek at 9 pm.
9th, Sunday -- Fine weather. Started at 5 am and encamped 9 pm about 3 miles above Pointe a Perogin.
10th -- Fine weather. Embarked 1/2 past 4 am. and arrived at Edmonton about 1 o'clock.
11th & 12th -- Remained at Edmonton arranging our baggage and waiting till the Saskatchewan were ready, as Mr. [Michael] Klyne has to accompany us to the mountains with an outfit for Jasper's.
Journal of a Voyage from Norway House to Fort Vancouver, Columbia River, 1831, by George Traill Allan:
Saturday 20th [August] We set out after breakfast. the face of the country is now entirely changed, large plains instead of woods now surround us.
Monday 22nd -- Mr. Rowand having brought six horses from Carlton Mr. Douglas and I went on shore today to take a ride, accompanied by an Indian and Canadian as guides, we rode from 2 pm to half past eight when we joined the other gentlemen at the encampment. The horses in this part of the country are small but swift and hardy. During our ride across the plains we fell in with a large company of Cree Indians. The Cree when on horseback and with all their warlike accoutrements have a formidable and fine appearance, most of the present company were mounted and accompanied by an immense number of dogs. Some of them, the dogs, I mean, dragging sleighs, others loaded with parcels of furs etc. We remained nearly an hour talking to them by means of the guide, and then set out to overtake the boats. We now lived in style having taken as much fresh meat from Carlton as the boats could carry.
Tuesday 23rd -- The weather very sultry. Mr. Grant and I went on shore to pick up some berries, but were soon driven from the bushes by mosquitoes who pursued us in myriads. The heat was very oppressive at this part of our voyage, and indeed for long distances the banks of the Saskatchewan are lined with bushes heavily loaded with stone cherries, but on ascending the banks a view is to be obtained as far as the eye can reach of vast plains dotted over here and there with, as it were, small islands of wood and occasionally of small lakes.
Wednesday 24th. Mr. Rowand accompanied by Messrs. Finlayson, Douglas & I went out on horseback to hunt buffalo. After a ride of about two hours, we suddenly perceived on emerging from a kind of gully, a very large bull, who no sooner discovered us, than he set off at his utmost speed in another direction. We lost no time in giving him chase, nor did our horses require either whip or spur to induce them to follow, for being broke into hunting they seemed to enjoy it as much as their riders, at least if I may judge from my charger, who was so unwilling to be restrained that in attempting to do so, the saddle which had not been sufficiently tightened, came under his belly and as might have been expected, down came I full tilt upon the ground, but fortunately without injury. Having set my saddle to rights, I was soon in full pursuit again, but Mr. Rowand, being an old hunter and better mounted than the rest of us, soon came up with and wounded the buffalo who took refuge in a small thicket of wood, where he soon expired. As he proved to be very lean, we only carved off his tongue and left the rest of his body a prey to the wolves who are very numerous in the plains of the Saskatchewan.
Thursday 25th -- We fell in today with about thirty tents of Assinaboine or Stone Indians. They are a nation of rogues who think it no crime to steal, rob, and even murder their warriors. It is said, are a fine looking race of men, but we had not now an opportunity of seeing them as they were absent on a War party, nor did we much regret that circumstance, as had they been present it would have been necessary for us to keep a sharp look out, we only saw the old men, women and children.
Saturday 27th -- I went on shore today and walked to Fort Pit, a small establishment under the charge of Mr. Small who received us kindly. We found at the Fort about two hundred tents of Cree Indians. They are in general a quiet people, except when they get liquor, when they become very troublesome. I reached Fort Pit about an hour before the boats, where I waited their arrival.
Sunday 28th -- We started after breakfast, Messrs. Rowand, Finlayson and Grant now left us in order to ride across the plains to Fort Edmonton, the winter quarters of Mr. Rowand.
Monday 29th -- One of the men having gone out hunting, killed a fine moose deer which proved very acceptable, we having some time ago expended the fresh meat with which Mr. Pruden had supplied us on leaving Carlton.
Sunday, 4th September -- We set out as usual at 4 am. Messrs. Douglas, Pambrun and I left the boats in order to walk to Fort Edmonton which we reached at 5 o'clock pm and found that Mr. Rowand and his party had arrived there three days ago. I found Edmonton a very complete and handsome Fort. It is built upon a very high bank of the River Saskatchewan and is surrounded by plains and woods. As the Indians who frequent it are dangerous some pains have been taken to make it efficient. A high well contrived balcony is built all the way round, from whence in times of danger an enemy's approach can be seen from a great distance. The value of a balcony is duly appreciated in the Saskatchewan country owing to a melancholy circumstance which took place only a few years ago. A man from a small fort had gone out hunting when he was suddenly pursued by a band of Indians who came up with him and killed him in sight of the fort into which they rushed and murdered every soul. Nor did the inside of Fort Edmonton belie its outward appearance as we found ourselves very comfortably lodged and entertained by Mr. Rowand with the greatest hospitality, fed upon excellent moose deer and buffalo meat we might well have challenged all the tables in London to produce us something better. I had here an opportunity of seeing a couple of Blackfoot Indians. They are a fierce looking race and such treacherous villains that they have been know[n] whilst smoking the pipe of peace in one end of a camp of other Indians, to have committed murder in the other, nor do they pay any respect to the Whites but on the contrary, cut them off whenever they find themselves the strongest.
I just did a quick check through Jack Nisbet's book, The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest, to discover if it was David Douglas who crossed the plains with George Traill Allen in 1831.
It was not -- unless there is another man carrying the surname of Douglas in the fur trade, it must have been James Douglas.
Imagine stuffy old Governor James Douglas -- who the settlers later called "Old Square Toes" -- climbing on a horse and galloping wildly across the prairies after buffalo!
I would never have thought it possible.
This is a two part post.
I put three of the journals in this section, and the rest will go in to the next post.
But just to finish it off, I will tell you a little about Edmonton House, or Fort Edmonton.
Artist Paul Kane wintered at Edmonton in 1845-1846, and had plenty to say about the place.
At the time he was there, a chief factor and clerk were stationed there, along with about fifty men who lived with their half-breed or Native wives and mixed breed children.
The number of dogs that were around Edmonton House always amazed visitors, and Paul Kane tells the story of how the fur traders harnessed the dogs, using them to bring in buffalo meat.
"Early next morning I was aroused by a yelling and screaming that made me rush from my room, thinking that we were all being murdered; and there I saw the women harnessing the dogs.
"Such a scene!
"The women were like so many furies with big sticks, threshing away at the poor animals, who rolled and yelled in agony and terror, until each team was yoked up and started up."
And Kane also tells the story of the Christmas he celebrated at Edmonton House:
"On Christmas day .. about two o'clock we sat down to dinner.
"Our party consisted of Mr. Harriett, the chief, and three clerks, Mr. Thebo, the Roman Catholic missionary from Manitou Lake [St. Anne] about thirty miles off, Mr. Rundell, the Wesleyan missionary, who resided within the picket, and myself...
"The dining-hall in which we assembled was the largest room in the fort, probably about fifty by twenty-five feet, well warmed by large fires, which are scarcely ever allowed to go out.
"The walls and ceilings are boarded, as plastering is not used, their being no line-stone within reach; but these boards are painted in a style of the most startling barbaric gaudiness, and the ceiling filled with centre-pieces of fantastic gilt scrolls, making altogether a saloon which no white man would enter for the first time without a start, and which the Indians always looked upon with awe and wonder...
"No tablecloth shed its snowy whiteness over the board; no silver candalabra or gaudy china interfered with its simple magnificence.
"The bright tin plates and dishes reflected jolly faces and burnished gold can give no truer zest to a feast.
"At the head, before Mr. Harriett was a large dish of boiled buffalo-hump; at the foot smoked a boiled buffalo calf.
"Start not, gentle reader, the calf is very small, and is taken from the cow by the Caesarean operation long before it attains its full growth.
"This, boiled whole, is one of the most esteemed dishes amongst the epicures of the interior.
"My pleasing duty was to help a dish of mouffle, or dried moose nose; the gentleman on my left distributed, with graceful impartiality, the white fish, delicately browned in buffalo marrow.
"The worthy priest helped the buffalo tongue, whilst Mr. Rundell cut up the beavers' tails.
"Nor was the other gentleman left unemployed, as all his spare time was occupied in dissecting a roast wild goose.
"The centre piece of the table was graced with piles of potatoes, turnips, and bread conveniently placed, so that each could help himself without interrupting the labours of his companions.
"Such was our jolly Christmas dinner at Edmonton; and long will it remain in my memory, although no pies, or puddings, or blanc manges shed their fragrance over the scene.
"In the evening the hall was prepared for the dance...." and this would be a dance very similar to the dance all the fur traders enjoyed as they passed through Edmonton House on their way to the Columbia.
"The dancing was most picturesque, and almost all joined in it.
"Occasionally I, among the rest, led out a young Cree squaw, who sported enough beads round her neck to have made a pedlar's fortune, and having led her into the centre of the room, I danced round her will all the agility I was capable of exhibiting, to some highland-reel tune which the fiddler played with great vigour, whilst my partner with grave face kept jumping up and down, both feet off the ground at once, as only an Indian can dance."
This description, and many more, come from a James G. MacGregor book, Blankets and Beads: A History of the Saskatchewan River .
It is packed with information about all the forts along the Saskatchewan River, and contains, of course, a lot of information about Edmonton House.
Of course, if you want it, you will have to look for it in a second-hand book store or find it in your local or University Library.
Another more recently published book is Brock Silversides' Fort de Prairies: The Story of Fort Edmonton.
This book contains more stories about the six hundred dogs that lived at Edmonton House!
"Dogs were used on toboggans by the Company and in case of failure of buffalo meat, dogs were used as food.
"In fact, they often were used in place of horses, taking in provisions from the plains, when the snow was too crusted or unfit for horses to travel.
"Such a howling and barking as these dogs indulged in was terrifying and disagreeable."
Between the howling dogs and the constant Indian drums -- a story which I told you on the outgoing voyage to York Factory -- Edmonton must have been an enormously noisy place!
The adventurer James Carnegie, Earl of Southesk, visited the fort in 1860, and also took note of those dogs:
"There are more dogs here than at any other place I know.
"They are mostly of the ordinary Indian kind, large and long-legged and wolfish, with sharp muzzles, pricked ears, and thick, straight, wiry hair.
"White is one of the most usual colours, but brown, blue-grey, red, yellow and white marked with spots .. are also common.
"Most of them are very wolfish in appearance, many being half or partly, or all but entirely, wolves in blood..."
And as you know, Alexander Caulfield Anderson had reason to appreciate the usefulness of these same dogs.
From The Pathfinder: A. C. Anderson's Journeys in the West, when an early winter caught his party on the upper Fraser River and forced them to walk across the Rocky Mountains to Edmonton House!
"Anderson and some of his men crossed the frozen portage to reach Edmonton House in late November, in deplorable condition. Chief Factor John Rowand greeted them and arranged that the [John] McIntosh family remain at Edmonton House until spring. In early December, Anderson and a few men retraced their steps toward Fort Assiniboine and Jasper's House, this time with seven sledges, drawn by three dogs apiece, that carried 300 pounds of pemmican. Anderson described their journey:
Three of us passed in advance in order to trace the road, while the sledge drivers followed in the rear upon the track thus beaten. Of course, all were provided with large snowshoes ... On such occasions we usually started about two o'clock in the morning, and continued till near sunset, with the solid delay of an hour for breakfast. The dogs used for transport in this part of the country are ordinary curs; the sole requisites being that they combine hardiness under severe cold with a certain degree of strength, activity, and endurance. The sledges used are merely flat planks of Birch half an inch thick, turned up in front, about sixteen inches broad and nine feet of length for load. The load is protected by a parchment envelope which is laced over all with a stout cord passing through a succession of loops fastened along either side of the sledge.