RED RIVER SETTLERS
Gary Fuller Reese, "Red River Settlers," Documentary History of Fort Steilacoom.
The Puget's Sound Agricultural Company was founded in 1838 by the Hudson's Bay Company officials and others who were convinced that the original charter of the parent company did not include provision for agricultural activities. Demands for grain, hides, meat and tallow for Alaska, Hawaii, California and for other Hudson's Bay Company posts made possibilities for profit for an agricultural company seem attractive.
Founders of the Puget Sound Company thought that it was also possible that an agricultural company could strengthen British claims to the area north of the Columbia River. If permanent settlers loyal to the British Crown were attracted, much of the land would be taken so that Americans would not be able to find prime sites for settlements.
The Oregon County had been claimed at various times by the British, the Russians, the Spanish and the Americans. When the boundary between Russian Alaska and Oregon was drawn in 1824 and the boundary of Spanish claims to California was set at the Forty-second parallel in 1819, only British and American claims remained. To avoid a confrontation over the lightly settled territory, the two nations agreed to jointly occupy Oregon and await developments.
In an attempt to find potential settlers, the Hudson's Bay Company settlements in Canada were surveyed. The large population on the Red River in present Manitoba had the potential for yielding the largest number of recruits and it was there that major efforts were made.
Official records of the Hudson's Bay Company record: ...... we hope that so favorable a report may be given (that) ... will induce others to follow: this will not only relieve the Red River Settlement of its surplus population, but strengthen the claims of Great Britain to the territory, and increase of the British population in that quarter must operate to the benefit of this Nation whenever a division of the Country takes place."
A number of families and single men signed agreements with the Agricultural Company in June of 1841. One of them, John Flett, wrote many years later that the prospective settlers were promised "... houses, barns, and fenced fields, with fifteen cows, one bull, fifty ewes, one ram, and oxen or horses, with farming implements and seed."
When the group arrived at Fort Vancouver after their overland journey, however, they were told that the Company was not able to fulfill the terms of the agreement and that all were free to return to Canada or strike out on their own. Promises of assistance were given to several families for they did travel north to Fort Nisqually where they built homes and started farms on the plains above the fort and in the valley of the Nisqually River. An early map shows that nine farms were located, one of which was where Fort Steilacoom would one day be built.
By the end of 1843 all who came from Canada had gone, abandoning whatever improvements they had made. In assigning reasons for this failure Company officials wrote that:
"...the land at Nisqually being very indifferent, many settlers left in 1842 and the rest in 1843 ... unfortunately none were called upon to cancel the contract and the consequence is that ever since there has been much complaint and dissastisfaction expressed by many of them on the plea that the Company had not kept terms with them."
Gary Fuller Reese, "Red River Settlers," Documentary History of Fort Steilacoom.
ACCOUNT OF JOHN FLETT, A RED RIVER SETTLER
John Flett, "Interesting Local History,"
Tacoma Daily Ledger, February 18, 1885.
"As I am the only surviving member of the married men of the party of emigrants, which under the direction of the Hudson Bay Company left Selkirk's settlement, in the valley of the Red river of the north, and came to Puget Sound in 1841 and as I have often been requested by descendants of other members of that party to leave some account of our journey; and as I also wish to correct some misapprehensions that have arisen concerning that emigration, I have attempted to give a history of that expedition.
"An agreement was entered into by Duncan Fenelon, acting governor of the Hudson Bay Company, on the one side, and a party of emigrants on the other, to the following effect:
"That the company should furnish as captain. James Sinclair, Esq. should also furnish each head of a family 10 pound sterling in advance (which all accepted but A-Buxton and John Flett), also goods for the journey, and horses and provisions at the forts on the route as needed; and on the arrival at Puget Sound the company should furnish houses, barns, and fenced fields, with fifteen cows, one bull, fifty ewes, one ram, and oxen or horses, with farming implements and seed. On the other part it was agreed that the farmers should deliver to the company one-half the crops yearly for five years, and at the end of five years one-half the increase of the flocks ....
"We arrived at Fort Walla Walla on the 4th of October. On the next day the fort was burned. Our party assisted the men of the fort to save their goods. The Indians were so numerous that it was not deemed safe to camp there, but we traveled down the Columbia until midnight. In about four days we arrived at The Dalles, at the Methodist mission, then in charge of D. Lee and Perkins, On the 12th we crossed the river; here one horse was drowned. When we reached the Cascades we found some boats on which the families, with some of the oldest men, sailed down the river, while the horses and cattle at Colville were driven to Vancouver, at which all arrived on the 13th.
"Here we met Sir George Simpson, P. Ogden, John McLaughlin, James Douglas; and here Sir George informed us that the company could not keep its agreement. As I remember this was the substance of his speech: "Our agreement we cannot fulfill; we have neither horses, nor barns, nor fields for you, and you are at liberty to go where you please. You may go with the California trappers, we will give you a fitout as we give others.
If you go over the river to the American side we will help you none. If you go to the Cowlitz we will help you some. To those who will go to Nesqually we will fulfill our agreement." Of course we were all surprised and hurt at this speech. After some discussion the party divided; Joseph Cline went to California, Pierra LaRoque, St. Germain, Berney, Jacques, Geneau, La Blanc and Antoine La Roque went to Cowlitz.
The rest came to Nesqually where we arrived November 8,1841 having traveled nearly 2000 miles without the loss of a single person, while three children were born on the way...
As the company furnished no houses, each man had to build his own cabin. As no plows could be obtained, John Flett and Charles McKay went to Vancouver after iron to make some plows. They spent Christmas day at the fort, and on their return, turned the first furrows which were plowed this side of Cowlitz. Some seed wheat and some potatoes were furnished the farmers, but no teams nor cattle, although they were greatly needed. The writer tried hard to get a cow, either as per agreement or for money, but failed.
Some who removed got some wild cows but no sheep. There was much discontent and loud murmurings were heard. Baldrow and Spence at once left the Sound in disgust. The Flett brothers left in June, 1842, for the Willamette, more followed in the fall, and at the end of three years all had left, getting nothing for their labor or their improvements..."
John Flett, "Interesting local history," Tacoma Daily Ledger, February 18, 1885.
Joseph Schafer, "Letters of Sir George Simpson, 1841-1843," The American Historical Review. XIV (1909) p. 78-79.
George Simpson, "Letter to the Earl of Aberdeen," November 24, 1841.
"There is a large extent of fine pastoral land in the neighborhood of Nisqually, covered with a tufty nutricious grass peculiar to the country. The soil, however, being light and shingly, is not so well adapted for tillage, but by proper attention it may be improved.
"On my arrival from the N.W. Coast I found the emigrants from Red River safely arrived at Fort Vancouver, amounting in all to 116 souls. Of these 14 heads of families, amounting in all to 77 souls, principally English half breeds, have located at Nisqually and are to hold their farms under the Puget Sound Company on "halves" being provided with sheep, cattle, etc as per agreement entered into pursuant to the directions contained in a letter I wrote to C.F. (Chief Factor) Finlayson by your Honour's direction under date September 12, 1840.
"The remainder of the party being 7 families containing 38 souls are Canadians and half breeds, who being disinclined to crop the Cowlitz portage to the seaboard, have been placed near the Cowlitz Farm, where advances will be made to them by the Hudson's Bay Company in seed, agricultural implements, etc. instead of their being placed on farms under the Puget Sound Company, in like manner as the other people; as from their previous habits of life, having devoted more of their time and attention to the chase than to agricultural pursuits, it was not likely they would turn to good account any stock that might be placed in their hands.
"C.F. (Chief Factor) Douglas who accompanied some of the settlers in advance of the party for the purpose of examining the country speaks of it in such favorable terms that I have no doubt that there will be many applications from Red River, and likewise from our retiring servants."
Joseph Schafer, "Letters of Sir George Simpson, 1841-1843," The American Historical Review XIV (1909), 78-79.
In order to enhance its claims to the Puget Sound territory the Company attempted to lure British settlers into the area. In the
early 1840's, twenty-three families from the Canadian Red River Colony were encouraged to immigrate by promises of land, stock, and
agricultural supplies. After their arrival at the Nisqually and Cowlitz Farms, they waited unsuccessfully eight months for
the promised assistance.
When it failed to materialize the families headed south to Oregon and the Willamette Valley. Only one, John Flett, returned to Pierce County to settle permanently. It has not been determined how many claimed land parcels and began the construction of farms before leaving the area in disgust.
Below is a list of the heads of families who took part in the immigration. (Jackson, 1984. pg. 279. Jackson obtained this list from the HBC archives in Manitoba.)
Pierre St. Germain
Caroline Gallacci and Michael G. Avey, "Red River Settlers, " in "Preliminary research investigations of Hudson's Bay Company and Puget's Sound Agricultural Company sites located in Pierce and Thurston Counties," 1986.
BRITISH COMPANY SENDS RED RIVER COLONISTS
Twenty-three families left Manitoba, Red River Territory, on June 15, 1841, under the leadership of Capt. James Sinclair, a clerk in the Hudson's Bay Company, for the Puget Sound. These emigrants consisted mostly of young farmers, although a few were more advanced in years and one was an old lady of seventy-five years.
They started west by inducements of the company and the Puget Sound Agricultural Company in an effort to establish an agricultural colony on the sound aside from their regular servants.
The caravan reached Walla on October 4, and a few hours later the fort was destroyed by fire. Thirteen families reached Nisqually on November 8, where they remained during the winter. One family had returned to Fort Edmonton, one had switched off to California, and several had remained at the Cowlitz farm.
Difficulties over their contracts with the company followed, and but two or three families remained at Fort Nisqually. Thus the first scheme of the company to establish agricultural colonies upon the Puget Sound from the Red River proved somewhat of a failure. John Flett was the only known member of this train to settle permanently in the county, first near South Prairie and later near Lakeview, after first living in Oregon for a period following his first arrival.
JOHN FLETT'S STORY OF THE EMIGRANT TRAIN
On February 18, 1885, John Flett, at that time the only surviving married member of the party of emigrants which left Selkirk's settlement in the Red River Valley for the Puget Sound in 1841, wrote an account of the trip which was published in the Tacoma Ledger. The story bears repetition because of its historical importance, and is as follows:
"An agreement was entered into by Duncan Fenelon, acting governor of the Hudson's Bay Company on the one side, and a party of emigrants on the other, to the following effect: That the company should furnish as captain James Sinclair, Esq., and should also furnish each head of a family ten pounds sterling in advance (which all accepted but A. Buxton and John Flett), also goods for the journey, and horses and provisions at the forts on the route as needed; and on the arrival at Puget Sound the company should furnish houses, barns and fenced fields, with fifteen cows, one bull, fifty ewes, one ram, and oxen or horses, with farming implements and seed.
"On the other part it was agreed that the farmers should deliver to the company one-half of the crops yearly for five years, and at the end of five years one-half the increase of the flocks.
"To this agreement twenty-three heads of families appended their names as follows: Henry Buxton, H. 0. Calclron, English; A. Spence, John Spence, John Tate, James Berston, William Flett, James Flett, John Flett, David Flett, Alexander Berston, Orkney; John Coningham, Irish; Joseph Cline, German; Baptiste La Roque, a half-breed; Charles McKay, Scotch; Pierre La Roque, Pierre St. Germain, M. Berney, Francis Jacques, Joseph Geneau, Joseph Yell, Antoine La Blanc, Canadians; William Boldro, John Johnson and John Hudson, all English, joined the first party soon after on the same terms.
"White Horse Plain, about fifteen miles west of Fort Garry, at the junction of the Red and Assinaboine rivers, was appointed as the rendezvous, and on the fourth of June, 1841, twenty-three families, containing eighty persons all told, were assembled, with about fifty carts, seven oxen, two cows and sixty horses. On the morning of the fifth of June we broke camp, and turning our backs to the rising sun, plunged into the wilderness.
"Our route lay along the north bank of the Assinaboine. We crossed the Mouse and Qu'Appelle rivers, and then turning north past Fort, Pelly we started for the Saskatchewan. On this vast plain we met our first buffalo, immense herds -being seen feeding on the rich grasses of the valley. Here Mr. James Bird overtook us and became our guide.
"In this region 'we also met Doctor Tolmie and his party from the Columbia, and were passed by Sir George Simpson, on his tour around the world. In this section of country the land seemed excellent, although timber was very scarce.
"We reached the south branch a few miles above where it joins the Saskatchewan. The crossing was a difficult and dangerous work. The river was about a mile in width. A portion of the party crossed safely to a small island, in a small boat. The other portion, putting their carts and effects on a huge raft of dry logs, attempted to pole their raft across. The current was very swift, and they soon lost bottom and drifted down at a fearful rate toward the rapids, a short distance below.
"As they passed by the island on which the first party had landed, they passed so near that a rope was thrown to them, and, after a long struggle, the raft was secured to the bank.
"When a crossing was at last effected, we passed on through open country until we arrived, on the twenty-eighth of June, at Fort Charlton, on the banks of the great Saskatchewan. We secured some horses and replenished our stock of provisions, and on the thirtieth resumed our journey. Dangers were now thickening around us. On the ground over which we were passing a great battle had been fought between the Crees and Blackfeet, the Crees being worsted.
"We kept men on guard, night and day. War parties were on every side. We now began to believe what others had told us, that we should never get through. Still we forded our way on, and, on the tenth of July, crossed the Saskatchewan River to Fort Pitt. Here we found many wounded Crees, who had fled to the fort for protection.
"Here we rested two days, and on the twelfth, again broke camp, traveling on the north side of the river until we reached Fort Edmonton, on the twentieth, where we crossed the river. We had traveled far out of our direct route for safety, but now must face the unknown dangers. The region through which we had to pass was a fine hunting ground, buffalo being very plentiful, and the different tribes-Blackfeet, Assinaboines, Piegans, Crees-were continually striving for it, and many bloody battles were fought.
"Moving southward through this region, keeping careful watch for hostiles, we again reached the waters of the south branch on the thirtieth of July. Here the writer and a younger brother had a narrow escape. While out hunting we were surrounded by hostile Indians. We concealed ourselves until dark, and in the twilight swam the cold, swift stream. Having stripped off our outer clothing, we fastened it upon our horses and plunged in.
"The water was cold, icy cold; the river was very swift and about two hundred yards wide. Twice we swam the river, and after wandering about for two days, we at last reached camp in safety. Of all the dangers I have seen in a pioneer's life of fifty years, the dangers of those two days were the worst.
"We overtook our party encamped at old Fort McLeod, an abandoned post of the H. B. Company, now known as British Pass, or Rocky Mountain. Here we were compelled to abandon our carts and pack our goods on the backs of the oxen and horses. After long debate about what should be left behind, we at last had our train in readiness and started on our way. The oxen, however, were unused to this mode of traveling, and were frightened, and a stampede ensued.
"Then what a sight, oxen bellowing, kicking, running; horses neighing, rearing, plunging; children crying and squalling; women crying; men swearing, shouting and laughing; while the air seemed full of blankets, kettles, sacks of pots, pans and jerked buffalo. At last the cattle were again secured, all our goods that could be found were gathered up and the remnants repacked and we started again.
"Crossing the south branch, we entered the timber, sometimes following an Indian trail and sometimes with no trail made. On the second day after we entered the mountains James Bird, our guide, bidding adieu to his friends and relatives, started on his return. Sir George Simpson's assertion that he deserted us is a mistake. On the fifth of August we reached the summit, and found ourselves on a small plateau.
"Here we saw the huge snow-drift (August 5) whose melted waters formed three little rills, one running east through a deep canyon, and finding its way through the Saskatchewan into Hudson's Bay; another running southeast into the Missouri, and at last in the gulf; while the third sent its waters through those continuous woods where rolls the Oregon.
"On the ninth day after we entered the Rocky Mountains we emerged on the western side, at the Kootenai Plain, then through a belt of timber, and then over the Tobacco Prairie.
"To avoid some marshy land which lay in our course we climbed the projecting point of a high mountain, said to be one of the Bitter Root Range. Then our route lay through a flat, marshy country until we came to a deep, sluggish river, called by the Indians Paddling River. Then our course lay to the southwest, through a rich country with plenty of grass, until we came to Lake Pend d'Oreille- While traveling along a rocky cliff jutting towards the lake a horse, ridden by one of our women, slipped, and horse and rider rolled into the lake and were rescued with some difficulty.
"We crossed the lake where it is about one mile in width. Here our first horse was stolen, while we were engaged in crossing. Here, also, Joseph Cline, in company with an Indian, went to Fort Colville for provisions. He rejoined the party at old Fort Spokane, bringing some moldy flour, some bran and some dried peas. Here we left two families, who on account of sickness were unable to proceed further.
"We arrived at Fort Walla on the fourth of October. On the next day the fort was burned. Our party assisted the men of the fort to save their goods. The Indians were so numerous that it was not deemed safe to camp there, but we traveled down the Columbia until midnight. In about four days we arrived at The Dalles, at the Methodist Mission, then in charge of D. Lee and Perkins.
"On the twelfth we crossed the river. Here one horse was drowned. When we reached the Cascades we found some boats on which the families, with some of the oldest men, sailed down the river, while the horses and cattle at Colville were driven to Vancouver, at which all arrived on the thirteenth,
"Here we met Sir George Simpson, P. Ogden, John McLaughlin, James Douglas; and here Sir George informed us that the company could not keep its agreement. As I remember, this was the substance of his speech: Our agreement we cannot fulfill; we have neither horses, nor barns, nor fields for you, and you are at liberty to go where you please.
"You may go with the California trappers; we will give you a fit out as we give others. If you go over the river to the American side we will help you none-very sickly. If you go to the Cowlitz we will help you some. To those who will go to Nesqually we will fulfill our agreement. Of course we were all surprised and hurt at the speech.
"After Some discussion the party divided. Joseph Cline went to California; Pierre La Roque, St. Germain, Berney, Jacques, Geneau, La Blanc and Antoine La Roque went to Cowlitz. The rest came to Nesqually, where we arrived November 8, 1841, having traveled nearly two thousand miles without the loss of a single person, while three children were born on the way.
"Although we had arrived safely, our troubles were by no means ended. A part of the company, with Captain Sinclair, embarked on the steamer Beaver and examined the coast as far as Whidby's Island. The Indians were found so numerous and warlike that it was not deemed safe to settle in that region, so we returned and settled in what is now Pierce County.
"Our Indian guide was much astonished at the big canoe, pushed by fire, and at the big water, and asked Captain Sinclair to write an account of it for him, as he said he would not be believed if he told such things at home. This guide and Sinclair soon started to return, but Sinclair was taken sick at Fort Colville, where he remained until spring. This Sinclair was killed by the Indians at the Cascades, Washington Territory, in 1855.
"As the company furnished no houses, each man had to build his own cabin. As no plows could be obtained, John Flett and Charles McKay went to Vancouver after iron to make some plows. They spent Christmas day at the fort and on their return, turned the first furrows which were plowed this side of the Cowlitz. Some seed wheat and some potatoes were furnished the farmers, but no teams nor cattle, although they were greatly needed.
"The writer tried hard to get, a cow, either as per agreement or for money, but failed. Some who removed got some wild cows but no sheep. There was much discontent and loud murmurings were heard. Baldrow and Spence at once left the sound in disgust. The Flett brothers left in June, 1842, for the Willamette; more followed in the fall, and at the end of three years all had left, getting nothing for their labor or their improvements."
Such is the story of a member of the first large party to enter Pierce County as a colony of emigrants after the establishment of Fort Nisqually. It ended in disaster for the participants, not because of unfavorable natural conditions found here, but because of the deception practiced upon those who were induced to come.
How many of us today, living in ease and luxury, would undergo the dangers and hardships of that 2,000-mile journey under the same circumstances and conditions and terms, and then merely express the mild disappointment which Flett speaks of? His words, in telling of Sir George Simpson's speech at Vancouver informing those brave men and women that the contract would not be carried out, that "we were all surprised and hurt" are profoundly expressive of the character of the men and women of the time.
They bore their disappointments befitting the hardy souls they were. They braved elements, wild beasts and Indians, and suffered unremembered hardships and disappointments uncomplainingly that we, today, might enjoy the comforts and ease so profusely bestowed upon us. Out of respect and admiration and reverence, may we preserve their deeds and memories in an effort to keep alive for future generations something of the same spirit which they so amply possessed an lived.
William P. Bonney, "The Red River Settlers," History of Pierce County, Volume I. p. 31-38.
William J. Betts, "The Man from Red River," True West. October 1990. p. 40-45.
There are many stories of families leaving their homes in the eastern United States for the West. We seldom read, however, of Canadian families leaving their homes to seek out a new life in the West, the Pacific Northwest or California. For the most part it was the fur trappers and traders who went west, those in the employ of the Hudson's Bay Company. One migration of Canadian families from the Red River Valley of the North did take place in 1841.
Among the men who would be leaving the valley. for a new life in the West was John Flett. Flett was born August 5, 1815, to George and Peggy Flett in Rupert's Land, where his father was employed by the Hudson's Bay Company in the Cumberland District. In 1822 the Fletts moved to the Selkirk Settlement on the Red River of the North.
When he was twenty-one years old John Flett sought other places and a new way of life. He moved south to the tiny village that was to become St. Paul, Minnesota. Still restless, the youthful Canadian moved again, this time to Chicago. He worked about a year as a bricklayer. In 1837 he returned to Rupert's Land, working as a blacksmith interspersed with hunting and trapping.
The Red River area was overcrowded, while the Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest lacked settlers. The Hudson's Bay Company controlled both the Red River and what was known as the Oregon Country. Through it Great Britain claimed the vast territory of Oregon. So did the United States. By the 1840s it was evident that if the Company were to hold the region it would need settlers, regular farmers as well as town builders. Already it was losing the region south of the Columbia to the Americans, who were settling there by the thousands.
So far the company had discouraged settlement north of the Columbia River. So it was that Sir George Simpson decided to induce settlers, British subjects, to come to the Puget Sound country.
That was a wise decision; Sir George could kill two birds with one stone. He would relieve the overcrowding of the Red River Valley of the North, which the company also controlled, and settle the Puget Sound region with British subjects. By doing so Britain would have a more valid claim to the region when the Joint Occupation Treaty would be terminated. Thus it was that the Red River people came west.
Each head of a family would receive ten pounds sterling in advance of the trip, a goodly sum for those days. Horses and carts, as well as provisions, would be furnished by the company. As the party moved west their provisions would be resupplied at company stations.
When the party arrived on the Puget Sound they would be furnished with houses, barns, and fenced fields. Farm implements and seed for planting also would be furnished. They would be given fifteen cows, one bull, fifty ewes, one ram, and oxen and/or horses to use in farming. In return the farmers would be required to deliver to the Hudson's Bay Company one-half of their crops for the next five years.
At the end of five years they would be required to give the company one-half of the increase in livestock.
In 1841 John Flett and his younger brothers William and James joined the twenty-three families who had signed up to migrate to the Puget Sound country. The company furnished a captain, James Sinclair, to head the party of emigrants. They were to rendezvous at White Horse Plain, at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers.
On June 4, 1841, the twenty-three families, which consisted of 110 persons all told, were ready to begin their great adventure. All were excited about the long trek west, but no one was more excited than the Flett brothers. Young and vigorous, they looked forward to hunting buffalo on the vast plains that they would be traversing soon.
Instead of the familiar covered wagon that their counterparts south of the border used in their migrations, the Sinclair party would utilize the peculiar Red River cart indigenous to the area. The rafts were made entirely of wood including the axles, except, of course, the iron tires. The hubs were greaseless, as dust adhering to the axles would otherwise soon wear them out. The rubbing of wood against wood produced a high, piercing shriek that could be heard for miles.
The constant shriek surely got on the nerves of the emigrants and certainly warned Indians of their approach, as well as spooking the herds of buffalo they would encounter. On the other hand, since the carts were constructed entirely of wood, breakdowns could be repaired along the way.
Fifty of the Red River carts were to be used. There were sixty horses, fifty for pulling the carts and ten for the hunters of the party to ride when securing meat to augment their provisions. There were also seven oxen as well as two cows to furnish fresh milk.
On the vast plains they encountered their first buffalo, so numerous that it seemed the herds stretched from horizon to horizon. Indians would hunt the buffalo and that meant the party must be constantly alert for hostile Indians who resented the whites invading their hunting grounds.
"On the morning of the 5th of June we broke camp, and, turning our backs on the rising sun, plunged into the wilderness," John Flett was to write later. Their route lay along the north bank of the Assiniboine. The emigrants crossed the House and the Qu'appeRe rivers and then turned north past Fort Pelly and headed for Saskatchewan.
On the vast plains they encountered their first buffalo, so numerous that it seemed the herds stretched from horizon to horizon. Indians would hunt the buffalo, and that meant the party must be constantly alert for hostile Indians who resented the whites invading their hunting grounds.
When they arrived at Fort Garry, James Bird, who was supposed to be their guide, finally caught up with them. Odd that he was not with them from the start of the trek.
Here, too, they met Dr. William F. Tolmie, the chief factor of Nisqually House, the destination of the Sinclair party. He had breakfast with them and was delighted to have bread, butter, and "milk fresh from the cow. " He described the immigrants in his diary that day. "They were of course inquisitive about the Columbia & we satisfied them on most points-their women & children looked cleanly & all either spoke French or English.
"Judging from what I saw they will be quite an acquisition to the Walamet [sic] for they must inevitably go, altho' their agreement or contract with the Coy [Company] states the Cowlitz to be their destination."
Did Dr. Tolmie tell the Sinclair party that the Hudson's Bay Company might not honor their contract with the Red River farmers? Certainly he must have known that the company had a change of heart. If he did mention it to the Red River people, they decided to push on to the Columbia anyway.
When the party reached the south branch of the Saskatchewan, they ran into trouble that would certainly have caused death and injury among the people, especially the children. The river was about a mile wide, which meant the horses and cattle would have to swim across. But to get the carts and supplies across was another matter. They decided to construct a large raft of logs and float the carts and supplies across.
The Flett brothers, along with several other young men, made it to an island ahead of the main party. There they were to wait for the others who would cross on the raft. The raft was loaded and the crossing was started. The poles they used to push the raft through the water were not long enough, and it began to drift swiftly downstream toward rapids and disaster.
John Flett watched in horror as the raft took on speed. Something would have to be done quickly if the raft were to be saved. He grabbed a rope and threw it toward the raft, praying that someone would catch it. It missed its mark and fell into the water. John ran along the bank, swiftly recoiling the rope and throwing once more toward the men on the raft. This time it was caught and swiftly tied to one of the logs. The men on the island pulled the rope with all their strength.
Despite their heroic efforts they seemed to be losing the struggle. John yelled for the men to dig in their feet and really pull. Gradually the raft with its load of carts and people was pulled into the breach of the island. A cheer went up while exhausted men fell in the sand, gasping for breath.
The raft was used repeatedly to ferry all the people and the provisions across; however, a line was strung from island to shore and used as an anchor of sorts to keep the raft from racing downstream in the swift current. The rest of the river, from the island to the opposite bank, was negotiated with little danger to the party and their possessions.
On June 28 they arrived at Fort Charlton on the banks of the great Saskatchewan River. There they secured fresh horses and replenished their provisions. So far the Hudson's Bay Company had not reneged on their promise. On June 30, the party resumed their journey.
The Sinclair party was now in dangerous country. Not long before their arrival there had been a great battle between the Cree and Blackfeet Indians. The Crows had been badly beaten. There were war parties all around the immigrants. Day and night guard duty had to be mounted, and the fear of attack was always present. John Flett began to think the advice he had been given back at the Red River settlement would come true. "You'll never make it through the Indian country, " he had been told. Well, they certainly wouldn't be turning tail and going back to their old settlement.
Perhaps the high squeal of the carts made the Indians more curious than hostile. After all the party would not be staying in their hunting territory, and besides, many of the Red River people were of mixed Indian and white blood. In a way they, too, were Indians traveling to the far Columbia. Whatever the reasons, the party met no hostile Indians.
On July 10, they arrived at Fort Pitt, where they rested a couple of days. The fort was full of wounded Cree warriors who had fled from the Blackfeet and sought the safety of the Company.
On the twelfth, the long journey to the Columbia River was resumed. The route took the immigrants on the south side of the river until they reached Fort Edmonton. They had traveled far outside of a direct route due to the many Indian bands in the area. The region through which they were now traveling was fine hunting territory, and buffalo were plentiful. The Blackfeet, Assiniboines, Piegan, and Crees were on the prairie hunting buffalo for the coming winter months.
It was extremely dangerous for the Sinclair party. Open warfare between the various tribes often erupted. The party traveled through that country with silent prayers and spoken admonitions for the children to be quiet. Noise certainly would not be a factor in their safety, as the squeak of the axle hubs could be heard far and wide.
By July 30, the party was on the south branch of the Saskatchewan River. They needed meat. Two Flett brothers, John and James, being experienced hunters, volunteered to go after buffalo. They planned to make a kill and catch up with the party later.
Buffalo had been plentiful in the past, but in this area they were scarce, perhaps depleted by the numerous Indian hunting parties in the area. Before the brothers could make a kill they were surrounded by a Piegan war party traveling in the opposite direction. The Fletts concealed themselves in a small ravine.
Their biggest fear was that their horses would make a sound alerting the passing warriors to their presence. The frightened hunters managed to keep the horses quiet, and the Indians passed without discovering them.
The Fletts hid until late afternoon. Then in the twilight, they stripped off their clothes, tied them in a bundle, and secured them on their horses to swim the river. At that point, the river was about two hundred yards wide, swift and cold. They wandered for two days and had to swim the river twice before they located the main party. They overtook their party encamped at old Fort McLeod, an abandoned post of the Hudson's Bay Company about eighty miles from what is today the border of Montana.
From there on, the carts could not be used, as the immigrants would be crossing the Rocky Mountains. Families held long debates about what they should take and what should be left behind. Finally the animals were packed and ready to begin the dangerous mountain crossing.
The oxen were not used to having packs on their backs and immediately began to protest. They bellowed and kicked, then broke into a run which started the horses to stampede as well. The early morning was a din of bellowing oxen, neighing horses, screaming women, crying children, some of the men cursing and others laughing. Everyone scrambled to stop the stampede.
The animals were finally retrieved, and the task of gathering up their loads was started. Everywhere there were pots and pans and bags of provisions, as well as clothing and household articles. Then once more the supplies were repacked and the party ready to go on.
On August 5 the party reached the summit of the mountains. Later John Flett was to write, "...on a small plateau we saw a huge snowdrift whose melted waters formed three little rills, one running east through a deep canyon, and finding its way through Saskatchewan into the Hudson's Bay; another running southeast into the Missouri, and at last to the Gulf; while the third sent its waters through those 'continuous woods where rolls the Oregon."
The peak that John Flett recalled is the Triple Divide Peak (8,100 feet) in the Glacier National Park. Indeed, the snow melt does find its way into three oceans.
It took the Sinclair party nine days to cross the Rocky Mountains to the flatter country on the west. It must have been a little easier to negotiate the mountains without the two-wheeled carts. Some rode the horses that were not used for packing, but most had to walk, a seemingly endless journey to the children in the party.
It was ideal country for the horses, however, as there was plenty of grass and the going was good after the mountains were left behind. There were no problems until they came to Lake Pend Orielle. There they had to travel along the rocky cliff jutting toward the lake. One of the horses, and the woman riding it, slipped and fell into the lake. The woman was rescued, and with some difficulty the horse was also saved.
The company decided to cross the lake at a point where it is about a mile wide. Whether that was the best route to take can only be guessed; certainly it must have been very difficult. It was while crossing the lake that their first horse was stolen by Indians. It was also there that two members of the party were left due to illness.
The Sinclair party arrived at Fort Walla Walla on October 4. The next day the fort caught fire and burned. The immigrants helped the garrison save what goods that they could. They did not camp at the fort, however, as the Indians were numerous and Captain Sinclair felt it would be wiser to continue on their journey.
Four days later they arrived at The Dalles and the Methodist mission where they could rest and decide on their next move. On October 12 they decided to push on and crossed the Columbia River. The crossing was made without injury or loss of life to the members of the company, but a horse was swept to its death in the treacherous water.
When they reached the Cascades they were able to rent boats that would take them on down the Columbia to Fort Vancouver, the western headquarters of the Hudson's Bay Company. The horses and cattle were driven downriver and arrived on the thirteenth.
There was a welcoming committee, indeed, to greet the weary travelers. It included Sir George Simpson, Peter Skene Ogden, John McLoughlin, and James Douglas, all men who figured prominently in the history of the Far West. At the meeting the Red River farmers were given the bad news that Dr. Tolmie evidently had known when he met them weeks before.
When all the members were gathered together, Sir George told them that the company could not fulfill its contract with the Red River farmers. "You are at liberty to go where you please," he told them. "You may go with the California trappers and we will give you an outfit as we give others. If you go over to the river [Columbia] to the American side we very likely will not help you. If you go to the Cowlitz we will help you some. To those who will go to the Nisqually we will fulfill our agreement."
One can readily imagine the disappointment among the families as now they would have to make a decision that could change their future completely. For the most part they were farmers who did not wish to go into trapping, and they did not know which area of Oregon would be best for farming.
There was much talk among the immigrants as to just what was best for them. Some decided to try trapping in California, and others chose to go to the Willamette Valley, where they had heard there was good farming land. There, however, they would be among Americans from the United States, and not Canadians, a prospect that some decided against. Several families, along with the Flett brothers, decided to go to the Nisqually and accept the Company's offer.
"As the Company furnished no houses," John was to write later, "each man had to build his own cabin. As no plows could be obtained I and John McKay went to Vancouver after some iron to make some plows. We spent Christmas Day at the fort and on our return turned the first furrows which were plowed this side of the Cowlitz. "
The settlers were furnished some seed wheat as well as potatoes, but no horses or cattle. John tried without success to purchase a cow. Sir George Simpson's promise was broken; the settlers began to leave the area near Fort Nisqually. In June 1842, the Flett brothers also left. More families followed in the fall, and within three years all had left.
After all the hardship of traveling across half the continent, the Red River families were denied the glowing promises that the Hudson's Bay Company had extended to them. Were they any better off coming west? Perhaps, for many of the Red River families eventually moved back to farm in the Fort Nisqually area.
In 1859 John Flett returned to the very area where he had tried to farm years before. That time he became a successful farmer near what is now Tacoma. There he died, in the house he had built, on December 12, 1892, a grand old man liked by all who knew him.
William J. Betts, "The Man from Red River Valley," True West. (October, 1990) p. 40-45.