By Bruce Wilson
Hudson's Bay Brigade Trail
By Bruce Wilson
Beside him might be another company official or perhaps a missionary, given safe passage by the inviolate brigade. Sometimes a bagpiper rode next in line, "for no Hudson's Bay Company Brigade was complete without the bagpipes, and many a tune echoed back from the rocks and hills of the old brigade trail."
Them came a long line of two or three hundred pack horses, each carrying two "pieces" or bales of beaver pelts weighing nearly 85 pounds apiece. Between and among them, mounted packers shouted and prodded to keep things moving. At the rear rode the packers' women with bundles of bedding and kitchen utensils. "A beautiful sight was that horse brigade," a fur trader wrote. "With no broken hacks in the train, but every animal in his full beauty of form and color, and all so tractable." But so large a caravan had to be unwieldy, and few brigades laden with cargo could count on more than 18-20 miles a day. Each morning there were fires to light, breakfasts to cook (usually dried salmon), horses to round up and packs to load. Normally it was 9a.m. before most of the brigade was underway, and by 4p.m. it was going into camp.
As the brigade approached Fort Okanogan, outriders might be expected and probably a firing of guns and much excited shouting. The Chief Trader would acknowledge his formal reception. Then the horses would be turned loose to graze across the lush grasses of the south half. For a day or two, the men would be busy repacking furs and loading them aboard boats for their voyage down the Columbia River to Fort Vancover. But the flotilla could not depart until all three brigades had arrived, the Thompson River brigade, the New Caledonia (from farther north), and the Colville brigade. During the week or so of waiting, Fort Okanogan became the scene of memorable parties in which drinking, feasting, gambling, dancing, horse racing, and drinking played paramount roles.
The trail followed by fur brigades through Okanogan County was hardly a new one. With various deviations, Indians had used it for centuries. It was a natural north-south passageway created by the maundering flow of the Okanogan River. John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company had barely completed its original Fort Okanogan in the early fall of 1811 before David Stuart and three other men headed north, the first white party to travel through the Okanogan Valley. They passed Osoyoos and Okanogan Lakes and continued through Thompson River country to the land of the Shu-swap Indians, returning to Fort Okanogan after 188 days. The following year Stuart built a post at Kamloops. Shortly after, Astor's western forts were taken over by his Canadian competitors, the Northwest Company.
Nor'westers had built their own post at Kamloops on the Thompson River. They had long since been operating three posts much farther north. Simon Fraser had built all three, Fort McLeod in 1805 and Fort's St. James and Fraser in 1806. These forts drew furs from a vast area Fraser named New Caledonia, the northern interior of present-day British Columbia. Later, in 1821, Fort Alexandria was constructed as a storage depot on the Fraser River, about midway between the northern forts and Kamloops.
By the usual brigade route it was 491 miles from Fort Okanogan to Fort Alexandria, all of it overland, and 236 miles from Alexandria to Fort St. James, by way of canoe up the Fraser, Nechako and Stuart Rivers. This made a total journey of 727 miles from Fort St. James, the Nor'westers' New Caledonia headquarters, to Fort Okanogan.
As soon as the Northwest Company gained possession of Fort Okanogan, in 1813, the Okanogan Valley route was employed to supply the post at Kamloops and to receive furs from the Thompson River district. But the northern posts in New Caledonia remained linked to Montreal by an east-west route pioneered by Northwest Company explorers. From 1816 until 1821, New Caledonia remained linked to Columbia River. The Hudson's Bay Company, taking over in 1821, continued this practice for two more years, and then switched back to receiving supplies from the east. Finally Governor George Simpson concluded the east-west route was too long and costly. Also, he temporarily abandoned hopes of forcing a more direct route down the Fraser River to the Pacific. This left him only the Okanogan Valley. In 1825 he ordered the New Caledonia posts to begin, the following year, regular use of the north-south trail to Fort Okanogan and the Columbia River.
This decision marked the real institution of what is now referred to as the Hudson's Bay Brigade Trail. After 1826, the Overland Trail through the Okanogan Valley was regularly and constantly used for a period of 20 years. Each winter the furs traded at the posts in the northern interior were brought to Fort St. James, the headquarters of New Caledonia, with dog sledges. As soon as the ice broke up, generally about April 20, boats loaded with cargoes of furs started from Stuart Lake to pick up the furs from Fort Fraser, Fort McLeod and Fort George (now Prince George.) At Alexandria, the horse brigade started out for Fort Okanogan, sometimes accompanying and sometimes following the Thompson's River brigade, which was taking out the furs of the Kamloops district.
There was a general rendezvous of the Thompson, New Caledonia and Colville traders at Fort Okanogan, and then a senior officer took charge of the united brigade for the boat run to Fort Vancover. There were many dangers to be passed before that place was reached around June 15.
About a month was a spent there collecting supplies, then the return trip to Fort Okanogan took 20 days. At Fort Okanogan the Colville brigade branched off to the east and the Thompson and New Caledonia outfits started overland. In all, it usually took two months to make the trip from Fort Vancover to Fort St. James, the navigation of the upper Fraser from Alexandria to Fort St. James taking 19 days.
Leaving Fort Okanogan, the Hudson's Bay brigade trail started up the East Side of the Okanogan River, seldom straying far from the shoreline except when the watercourse itself looped away. Probably the trial passed through what is now East Omak, as there would have been no reason for it to wander farther eastward into higher hills. Blocked by a rocky spur north of Riverside, the trail detoured inland to pass through McLoughlin Canyon before rejoining the river just below the mouth of Bonaparte Creek, near present-day Tonasket.
The trail continued along the eastern banks of the Okanogan to the mouth of Osoyoos Lake, where it crossed over. Then it climbed into the hills on the western side of Osoyoos Lake and continued northward, following the western shores of Okanogan Lake. At the head of Okanogan Lake, the trail turned more or less westerly to Kamloops, the great halfway house of the British Columbia interior.
At Kamloops the horses that had come from Fort Okanogan were turned out and fresh horses loaded for the long northwesterly trek to Fort Alexandria. There the supplies and trade goods were transferred to boats. These were paddled up the Fraser River to the posts in New Caledonia.
Except where geographic features offered only narrow passageways, as at McLoughlin Canyon, the trail was more of a route than a roadway and the brigades at one time or another might deviate considerably from the medium of their courses. Some brigades apparently passed Okanogan Lake on the east rather than the west.
It was a relatively easy trail with ample water, unlimited bunchgrass, and generally soft ground. Unlike Hudson's Bay brigades in other parts of the West, the New Caledonia and Thompson River outfits had no rival brigades to outwit and no reason to believe they would be attacked by Indians. However, it was a roundabout way to deliver supplies from British vessels at Fort Vancover to Fort St, James, some 1,500 miles altogether. Simpson in his 1829 dispatch to the governor and committee of the Hudson's Bay Company reported: "the mode of transport being from Fort Vancover to Okanogan by boats. They left Okanogan to Alexandria by horses, from Alexandria to Stewarts Lake by canoes and from Stewarts Lake to the outposts by a variety of conveyances. Large and small canoes, horses, dog sleds and men's backs; in short, there is not a district in the country, where the servants have such harassing duties or where they undergo so many privations."
Simpson also objected to the "very unprofitable establishment" at Kamloops, where the beaver harvest had been declining steadily since 1822. But Kamloops showed profits of 1000 British pounds in 1825, 1100 pounds in 1826, and 1300 pounds in 1827 and also served as an inland fishery, supplying dried salmon to other posts and the brigades.
Increasingly, however, most of the furs came from north of Alexandria. The trapping grounds of New Caledonia seem to have been fabulous. The extent of Hudson's Bay Company profits, which passed through Fort Okanogan, cannot be determined without an exhaustive study of company records. The late William Compton Brown of Okanogan once told the author as much as $300,000 worth of pelts.
At first, horses needed for the brigades were obtained by trade with the Indians. Horses apparently reached the Columbia River at some time before 1800. In 1808 Simon Fraser, while exploring down the Fraser River, came across bands of horses a large Indian village near the present site of Lytton. John Work, at Fort Nez Perce (near the present site of Walla Walla), recorded in his journal of July 17, 1826, "I am directed if possible to purchase at least 60 or 70 horses, more if possible." On August 3, "Mr. Douglas proceeded on his journey to Okanogan with the 59 horses allotted for that place and Caledonia. We pursued our route with 20 horses for Fort Colville." Simpson reported that the Hudson's Bay Company depended principally on Indians at Fort Nez Perce for an annual supply of about 250 horses. Later the company raised horses at Kamloops and probably at Fort Alexandria. Cattle as well as horses were grazed at Fort Okanogan.
Francis Ermatinger, Connolly, Dease, these were the names of some of the New Caledonia brigade leaders who came down the Okanogan Valley. Young James Douglas, who had served as an apprentice in New Caledonia, accompanied Connolly one year. He later became a Chief Factor and then governor of Vancover Island and British Columbia. The distinguished botanist, David Douglas, also accompanied a brigade up the Okanogan Valley. Peter Skene Ogden, a former Nor' wester and a veteran of the Snake River brigades, led the New Caledonia outfit for a year or two. He was one of the most famous of all Hudson's Bay Company brigade leaders.
The last Hudson's Bay brigade passed through the Okanogan Valley in 1847. Then the route was abandoned. The Treaty of 1846 had established the 49th parallel as the international boundary and Fort Okanogan now lay in U.S. territory. Moreover, an outbreak of Indian wars in eastern Washington had rendered the Columbia unsafe for valuable cargoes. In 1848 the Hudson's Bay Company finally opened a pack train from Kamloops through the Coquihalla Valley to Hope and thence down the Fraser to its mouth. Thereafter, even the company's dwindling operations at Colville and Fort Okanogan were supplied through Hope until they, too, were abandoned.
In the late 1850s and early 1860s, the old brigade trail attracted a fair amount of traffic again as prospectors came through the Okanogan Valley heading for gold fields in the Caribou country. Cattle drives aimed at supplying the mining camps also, more or less, followed the brigade trail, known variously by then as the "Okanogan Trail" or the "Caribou Trail." In the summer of 1858, Joel Palmer brought the first wagons up the Okanogan Trail. They were pulled by oxen and traveled from Wallula to Kamloops.
While it lasted, the Hudson's Bay brigades trail through Okanogan County and north to New Caledonia was one of the great arterial of commerce of the Pacific Northwest. It marked the only instance in which a part of present-day Canada was developed from what is now the United States. Yet, the Hudson's Bay Company never really regarded this route as indispensable, for its leaders recognized that some day the lower reaches of the trail might fall within the United States. Eventually, an all-Canadian route to the Pacific would be needed. Had it been impossible to locate such a route, the company might well have established more posts between Fort Okanogan and Kamloops. If some of these had matured into settlements, the ties between Okanogan County and New Caledonia could have grown so strong as to render the two areas politically inseparable, and both might have fallen to one nation or the other.