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Over the Plains in ‘59

Graphic Description of a Hazardous Transcontinental Trip

From Ontario to the Pacific Coast-by Canoe, Buckboard, Cayuse, and on Foot
– A Thrilling Experience.

By Mr. John Jessop

In the late fifties much was said and written in what was then Canada West about the plains of the Saskatchewan and the valley of the Athabasca, mixed up with far-away echoes of golden sands and almost fabulous wealth on the banks of the remote Fraser.  The Dawson and Hind exploring party had just returned from the Red River country with the report that vast areas of open prairie existed west of Lake of the Woods and Winnipeg, over which the H.B.C. had undisputed sway, and, which up to that date it was generally supposed could only be reached via Hudson Bay and Nelson river.

A Start

In the early spring of ’59 adventurers passed over the partly ballasted Northern Railroad from Toronto to Collingwood with knapsack, bowie knife and revolver (the latter of which had a knack of exploding two or three chambers at a time and was therefore soon condemned as somewhat unreliable, not to say dangerous), and took passage for Fort William on board a small iron steamster called the Rescue, on her first trip to the head of Lake Superior.  After the vessel had raised the blockade at Bruce Mines by ploughing through two feet more or less of rotten ice in the harbour, and leaving provisions for the half-starved population, he and five or six other passengers were landed on the ice not far from Thunder Cape, and from thence made their way with all their belongings to the mouth of the Kaministiqua.  Two or three of these young fellows hailed from Kensington, one from Belleville and one from Paris – all being bound for Fraser River, overland, which El Dorado some of the party believed to be only a few weeks travel westward.


At Fort William a large birch bark canoe and provisions were purchased, a half-breed guide and Indian steersman engaged, and when the ice left the river some three weeks after landing, a start was made over the H.B.C. canoe route to Fort Garry.  Ten days hard paddling, portaging and tracking, the latter work in the ice-cold and booming Kamistiqua, brought the party to what was then called Big Dog Lake.  A few days more comparatively easy going carried them over the divide between Lake Superior and Winnipeg, and, what was a very serious matter in those days, to the end, or nearly so, of the Fort William stock of bacon and flour.  Shortly afterwards, in making one of the numerous portages between Lac des Milles Lac and Rainy lake, a bag of peas was picked up which had eventually grown too heavy for some of the H.B.C. brigade that had gone ahead.  This provided a veritable godsend, and so long as bacon lasted made a by no means despicable bill of fare.  Afterwards, pea soup, straight, twice a day – a third meal could not be afforded – was a cuisine that can hardly be recommended as a permanency.  All things, however, are said to have an end, and so had the bag of peas by the time Fort Francis, at the outlet of Rainy Lake, was reached. 

This Hudson’s Bay Co.’s post was called

Hungry Hall.

And right well it deserved the name, for not a pound of fish or flour, or potatoes, or anything else eatable, could be obtained.  Down Rainy river, therefore, the party had to go, with an elongated visage and an “aching void” about the stomachic region of each anatomy.  Half way down to the Lake of the Woods, a supply of sturgeon was purchased at an Indian encampment, but it was soon voted unanimously that pea soup straight was far and away preferable to Rainy River sturgeon, with no etceteras.  The only one of the party who reached British Columbia till some years afterwards could not look at a Fraser sturgeon without loathing until the early seventies, whom, being at Langley with nothing else to eat, he found out that the Pacific coast sturgeon bears about the same resemblance to the Rainy or Red river article of that name as the delicious oulachan at it’s best does to an Eastern stickleback.

But to return.  Nothing more toothsome could be procured at Rat Portage for either love or money, so that the rapids of Winnipeg river were run and the numerous portages made with no better fare till camp was struck at Fort Alexander.  Here a little welcome flour was added to the commissariat and the canoe voyage ended a few days later, at Fort Garry, about the end of June. 

The First Steamboat.

A few miles down Red river the first steamboat to reach the fort was met(?) on an excursion trip to the Stone Fort, which the entire population of the Selkirk settlement from Kildonan north lined the banks and gasped with wonder and astonishment upon a steamboat for the first time in their uneventful and peaceful lives.  At Fort Garry, Fraser river seemed indefinitely further off than at the mouth of the Kaministiqua, and with one exception, all the party called a permanent halt.  The exceptional adventurer purchased an old gray horse and a Red river cart and horses.  Neither the cart nor the horses could boast of a particle of iron or other metal in their composition, yet this motley equipage traveled with sundry repairs to the harness with buffalo thong and rawhide, fully a thousand miles to the foothills of the Rockies, and then would have rolled back again, for that matter, had it not been broken up to make primitive pack saddles.


To get back from another digression, a new start for the West was made on August 1st, when the Belleville young man decided to share the fate of the overlander and this made a party of two for the trip over plains and mountains.  To add to the foolhardiness of this undertaking the Sioux Indian disaffection, which culminated in a terrible massacre of settlers in Northern Minnesota the following year, was creating not a little uneasiness among the Red River people.  However, none of these red men of the plains were encountered, and Fort Ellice was made in ten days with but the following episode worth recording.

Just after starting out the senior member of the firm turned aside from the trail to visit a ranchman who had settled on White Horse Plains with the understanding that the cart would be caught up with early next morning.  By some means the trail was struck up ahead of the camping ground, and expecting to catch up with his companion at every turn, who was supposed to be ahead, the lonely pedestrian tramped on and on till the shades of Saturday night closed in upon him.  To add to the discomfort of the situation rain poured down in torrents, and minus food, blankets, a fire, or the means of procuring one had fuel been within reach, the myriads of mosquitoes had what might be called a good time of it.  Sunday morning came at length and the hot sun soon repaired damages to the outer man at least.  On and on with nothing to eat till near noon, when a strawberry patch afforded some relief to the thirty hour fast.  South of this point, but two or three miles on the other side of a narrow lake, along which the traveller had been trudging for some time and which seemed to stretch far to the west, was a settler’s house.  A committee of one decided that the house must be reached by fording and swimming this lake.  The kind settler soon corrected the efforts of long fasting and then conducted his guest back to the Portage la Prairie trail without again crossing water.  Soon a spec appeared on the eastern horizon which developed speedily into a “white horse” and cart and a satisfactory reunion.  Each had thought the other behind and both had concluded to go back to White Horse Plains on the following morning.


 then consisted of a small mission house, with a few Salteau Indians camping occasionally close by.  The above-mentioned settler was the only one from White Horse Plains to this point now, some forty-five miles.  None of the numerous cities, towns and settlements of Manitoba had an existence till more than a decade later.  At Fort Ellice half a dozen Americans were met with, who started from St. Paul for the Pacific Coast, but found themselves eventually on the Assinaboine instead of the Yellowstone.  Thus a company of eight was formed, and instead of the original programme being carried out of making for Fort Edmonton it was decided to strike west to the South Saskatchewan, then follow up Bow and Belly rivers to the Rockies and cross by what was called by an old H.B.Co. factor named Herriot, the Boundary Pass.  Thus unexpectedly reinforced, another start was made, and in about eight days travel buffalo were sighted tavelling in the same direction.  From this time on for five or six weeks, and over an area of probably six hundred miles, not a clear day passed without seeing from ten or a dozen to as many thousands or more of these noble animals.  It was not then within the range of human probability that in less than a quarter of a century later scarcely one of these teeming millions would be found either north or south of the international boundary line. 

In these buffalo ranges then extending from 100 miles east of the Saskatchewan Elbow to beneath the shadow of the Rockies the question of commissariat was never discussed.  Buffalo heifer found the staple, with now and then a calf, varied with plenty of antelope.  Vegetables were only a memory, and the little Red River flour in stock was carefully stowed away with all that was left of pemmican for mountain provender.  For a few weeks both man and beast lived literally and figuratively on the fat of the land.  All had to walk from 15 to 30 miles, more or less, per day, and ocassionally before buffalo were sighted the guns among the party would bring down as many ducks, mud hens and prairie chickens as would make a stew for all hands sufficient for supper, breakfast and sometimes a snack taken while on route next day. 

Vicious looking prairie wolves were close companions, and a dozen or more of them would take possession of a camp ground before the rear cart could get 100 yards away.  On one occasion two buffalos were killed about half a mile from camp in the dusk of the evening and left with the intention of taking what was needed of them next morning.  The dead animals, however, brought hundreds of these prairie scavengers from all points of the compass, and the pandemonium thus created can scarcely be imagined.  At daylight not an ounceof flesh was to be found, while thoroughly picked bones were scattered over an acre or two of ground.  Among these bones were half devoured remains of several wolves that were killed in the frightful scramble for buffalo meat.


from attacks by the buffalo, either wounded or in defence of their calves, with one exception, when a bull charged down on one of the men near the edge of a deep ravine.  He saved himself by a tremendous jump of ever so many feet to a ledge on the opposite side.  After looking over the precipice the animal concluded not to follow and at once started after the herd.  The hero of this adventure found it no joke to get back to the camp side of the gulch. 

Two or three times south of the Bow or Belly, for the junction of these rivers was not observed, sand dunes were struck, which necessitated an immediate return to the river for water.  On one of these occasions night overtook the party after fourteen or fifteen hours travel without a drop of water.  One of the men, a stalwart Missourian, in arranging his cart took hold of the muzzle of a rifle, which eventually exploded, carrying away all the fleshy part of the right thumb inside.  The ball then went through the neck almost grazing the jugular vein and passed out near the collar bone.  His companions thought that he was certainly killed, but the neck wound proved only a slight one, that of the hand being much more serious.  Both were bound up as quickly as possible but not before bleeding and thirst had rendered the poor fellow delirious.  A little rain water caught in blankets not of the cleanest, partly quenched his thirst.  It goes without saying that there was little or no sleep in camp that night. 

Before break of day a start was made for the river with the wounded man, still delirious, strapped down to a cart.  Mid-afternoon men and horses were in the river and maddening thirst was alleviated.  In two or three days the man got better, but in the meantime his sufferings were excruciating by having to ride in an absolutely springless cart diagonally over deep buffalo tracks.  After getting on his feet again he rapidly recovered strength and before mountain travelling commenced was nearly well, but with a hand much weakened for life.

By the middle of September the party was anxiously on the lookout for a


For a couple of days the weather had been thick and foggy, with occasional rain, and travelling had to be done by compass.  On turning out one fine morning with a bright sunrise such a view as lasts a lifetime met the gaze.  For an immense distance the great continental backbone was plainly visible.  The loftier peaks were obscured by fleecy clouds, but the entire range almost down to the foothills presented an aspect of dazzling white.  Although still 100 miles or more, as the sequel proved, from this mountain barrier, yet the surpassing loveliness of the morning and the peculiar state of the atmosphere gave the impression that a good day’s march would reach the limit of prairie travelling.  In ten days more, often obscured by mist, but occasionally presenting grander and grander aspects that frowning and seemingly impassable wall confronted these, by the time, weary adventurers.  Progress westward was now slow in consequence of meeting with deep ravines and water courses necessitating long detours to the south in order to overcome them.  The last days of the month found the party camped near the foothills of “Old Man Mountain,” where four men were deputed to find an entrance to some pass.  One of these, after swimming the river had not proceeded more than two or three miles along the steep side of the foothill before a couple of Blackfeet Indians, splendidly mounted came riding up.  Very willing to be taken prisoner he went forward to meet his persuers (sic).  A word or two of Blackfeet and conciliating signs that more white men were encamped below and the captive was soon behind one of the Indians and back to camp.  During the day several more Blackfeet with their women and children came along, and among them was a Kootenay, who was crossing to his own camp on Tobacco plains.  This most providential event no doubt saved the lives of the small party of whites, as they would have got into the mountains with no possible chance of getting through them beforewinter and starvation would have confronted them.  A present of blankets, clothing, ammunition, a rifle, some tobacco or other ictas secured the services of this Indian as


Pack saddles, such as they were, being made, and the remains of the carts abandoned, the journey was again resumed.  This cavalcade of tattered and dilapidated whites, and well-dressed, splendidly mounted and stalwart Blackfeet went in a north-west direction and at the end of the day’s march met a much larger band with their winter’s supply of buffalo meat, consisting in all of some 14 or 15 lodges.  Next morning the white men’s horses could nowhere be found.  After several hours unsuccessful hunt a reward of clothing, etc., that were very much needed in view of approaching winter, secured the animals in short order.  They had simply been cached with this object by a few of the young bucks.

It is difficult to imagine that the sons and daughters of the noble specimens of aborigines who roamed the prairies 30 years ago have become such a degenerated, indolent and dependent race of beings such as the Blackfeet of to-day are found to be.  Their chief means of subsistence cut off by the extermination of the buffalo, it is only a question of time for these children of the plains to succumb to the same fate as has befallen the splendid and valuable animals that held undisputed possession of the country in common with their tribal ancestors.

Next morning the large company of Blackfeet started south, and the B.C. overlanders west into the mountains.  The trail lay on the north side of a rippling stream with park-like, grass terraces on either side.  A great relief was experienced in the change from almost interminable prairie with weeks of travelling without trees or shrubs and into the open timber and plenty of fuel for camp fires.  On the morning of the third or fourth day in the mountains the party left a large-sized millstream and commenced some steep zig zag climbing.  Unfortunately the day was cloudy so that the summits were obscured.  The height attained, however, was a long way short of the snow line, as none was visible for thousands of feet above the highest point reached.  In about four hours the divide was passed, and a slight snow storm coming on camp was made on a stream equally as large, with the water


 as the one left in the morning which was hurrying away on it’s 2000 mile trip to Hudson’s Bay.  Six days of charming weather and the guide’s contract ended nearly seven miles south of the lines as fixed by observation a few weeks previously.  A canny Scotchman here greeted the travellers with hearty good will and negotiated a purchase of grizzly bear meat and berries which were all that could be obtained at the H.B.Co. log cabin trading post in his charge in the shape of provisions.

An indistinct and seldom used Indian trail led away in the direction of Colville on the Columbia, and this was the objective point to the expedition.  Nothing worth recording occurred for some days, till the first crossings of the Kootenay had to be made by swimming the animals and rafting the packs.  This work, after a couple of unsuccessful attempts at different places, was accomplished during a snowstorm, by one of the party finding the remains of a spruce bark canoe and getting across in it to an island with a rope.  One horse was hauled over and the others were compelled to follow.  Mounting the one with the largest legs the wider but shallower part of the river was soon crossed, but the balance of the day devoted to drying out preparatory to a fresh start next morning.  The second crossing at an Indian camp was made without difficulty by the aid of an Indian and canoe. 

At the Pen d’Oreille the party divided, four crossing the river for the Coeur d’Alene valley, and the other four following the river to its junction with the Columbia at Fort Sheppard.  These poor fellows after five or six weeks fearful hardships, suffering of privation, managed to get through by the aid of friendly Indians, but in a terrible exhausted condition.  The other four met with no special difficulty through the Coeur d’Alene mountain and valley to Spokane river, except through scarcity of food.  An Indian or two were found at the Roman Catholic mission, but the father was away and nothing could be obtained.


 were met on the Spokane, and the stream was struck only a dozen or so small boney fish were left.  Without the means now of killing game or catching fish the conditions of this small company was by no means enviable at a distance still of 75 or 100 miles from the Columbia and civilization.  A day spent not far from where the city of Spokane Falls is now located a day spent hunting the two ponies that were left did not improve the situation.  Next evening at dark the newly made military road to Colville was reached and the party camped on very short commons.  One of them while out in the early morning found a bonanza in a handful or two of dried salmon skins in a recent Indian campground, and with these he continued on through the night to Colville.  On the afternoon the next day (Sunday) he reached a settler’s house more dead than alive, but a hearty meal of newly baked bread and rashers of bacon soon resucitated him. 

Being informed that a pack train was preparing to leave at Fort Colville for the Similkameen mines on the following day, an effort had to be made to reach this post, some twenty miles distant, in time to avail himself of this chance of getting to Victoria, Kamloops and the Fraser.  Going through the “garrison town,” as it was then called, made up of a company of United States troops under canvas, he was the “observed of all observers.”  One of the “boys in blue” wanted to know who the overlander’s hatter was, for nothing was left but the rim of what was a decent piece of head gear six months previously.  Another was anxious to ascertain where his boots were made, as his only pedal protections were rawhide and mocassins of his own manufacture.  A third was interested in the garment that had once been a pair of tweed pantaloons, but of which nothing was left below the knee, and indeed not very much above.  A couple of shirts doing duty (all his stock) were minus sleeves.  The front and back of vest were fastened together with buffalo thong.  Coat wanting, having been long since traded off to an Indian for something to eat.  An old Scotch plaid overall did yoeman’s service as a protection against almost zero weather.  Thus clothed, or partly so, the overlander reached Fort Colville that Guy Fawkes Day in ’59.

Weather set in too severe for the Similkameen route, and the rest of the trip had to be made by land, as the Columbia was frozen down to Vancouver, Wash.  Crossing the Cascades in those days with zero weather or below, with few settlers en route, and bad roads, or no roads at all, was anything but agreeable work.  It was finally accomplished, however, and the overland journey ended, having occupied nearly eight months of which more than five were spent in actual travel.


Reprinted from The Colonist, January 1, 1890.
John Jessop died in Victoria on March 30, 1901, at the age of 72.