Portage La Loche Brigade
During the fur trade brigades of canoes and boats were busy going up and down the rivers and lakes of North America. The Portage La Loche Brigade was one such brigade. This famous brigade traveled 4000 miles every year. Their trip from the Red River Settlement to Portage La Loche would begin around the 1st of June and end around the 8th of October. Only one other brigade had a longer route. The York Factory Express brigade travelled 4200 miles from York Factory to Fort Vancouver until 1846.
Men from the Red River Settlement recruited by the Hudson's Bay Company formed the first Portage La Loche brigade of 1826. The brigade consisted of 7 York boats with Laurent Cadotte as guide. The guide in 1833 was Alexis L'Esperance (Alexis Bonami)who retired in 1866. In 1848 two Portage La Loche Brigades were formed. Each brigade had seven boats, each with a guide. One brigade was still guided by Alexis L'Esperance (Alexis Bonami dit Lesperance), the other by Jean Baptiste Bruce. In 1866 the HBC increased the Portage La Loche Brigades to three with seventeen boats in total. The last Portage La Loche Brigade arrived at Norway House in the early 1870s.
In his book En route pour la mer Glaciale Father Emile Petitot recounts his 1862 trip with the Portage La Loche Brigade. He left Fort Garry on June 8 as a passenger with the Lesperance brigade. The other brigade guided by Jean Baptiste Bruce had left a week earlier. He arrived at the Portage 42 days later on July 20. In the following translation Petitot describes leaving Fort Garry.
"The distance from Fort Garry to Portage La Loche was 482 French leagues (1446 miles) which we would undertake in a small vessel called a York boat. York boats are flat bottomed, pointed at both ends and displace 8 to 9 tonnes, which give them a capacity of 4 to 5,000 kilos. The keel measures normally 30 to 36 feet. It is rowed or sailed and steered with a long ‘aviron’ called a sweep and a rudder. The York boat is crewed by nine to ten men, a helmsman called a 'gouvernail', a bossman or ‘devant de barge’, and eight rowers called the ‘milieux’. These milieux were also the porters. Our guide was an old French Canadian called Alexis Lesperance. At 80 years old his actions were slowed but not his voice. His boat, always the first, was guided by his son. A kind of guide, the Metis Michel Dumas, led our boat. Our cook and porter was another Metis called Baptiste Boucher, ‘mangeur de lard’ (greenhorn) like us who was forced to come out of need. Our brigade had seven boats, all crewed by French Metis with a few Swampy Cree and Chippewa Christians.
A great cry: “Aoh! Aoh!” Pousse au large!” came from the lungs of Lesperance, made me understand that the old guide, however white haired he may be, was nevertheless still green and full of energy. A savage cry: “Wi ! Wi !” uttered by the crews, answered this order, and the seven York boats took their leave on the ‘Miskwa-Kamaw Sipiy’. Twenty five years later I still seem to see the pitiful figures that Grouard and I made in our boat filled with sugar boxes, barrels of powder, bolts of cloth and cases of tobacco, with only a felt hat for shade, seated on the first piece of baggage we found."
At the Stone Fort, Petitot bought more provisions for his journey. His complete list of supplies included 125 kilos of flour, two bags of sea biscuits, 25 kilos of pemmican, 4 smoked and cooked hams, 6 large loaves of bread, a big bag of buffalo tongues and smoked meat, a small case of eggs, a little bag of onions, 3 pounds of Congo tea, a small barrel of maple syrup; some sugar, ground coffee, salt, pepper and butter. Two blankets rolled in an oil skin bag, a hatchet and a case of clothes completed his baggage.
The following are Joseph James Hargrave's estimates of the dates when the brigades arrived and left each section of the route. The dates are from his 1871 book, Red River, a history of the Red River Colony.
|June 1||The brigade left Fort Garry in early June, went up the Red River, travelled the length of Lake Winnipeg and|
|June 10||arrived at Norway House. There they picked up supplies that had been stored there the year before from York Factory|
|June 12||They left Norway House crossed Lake Winnipeg and entered the Saskatchewan River system at Grand Rapids|
|June 24||They passed Cumberland House then entered the Churchill River System by crossing over the Frog Portage via the Sturgeon-Weir River.|
|July 9||They passed Ile a la Crosse|
|July 17||arrived at Portage La Loche unloaded and portaged supplies and loaded furs brought there by the Athabasca and Mackenzie brigades.|
|August 1||They left Portage La Loche (Methye Portage)|
|August 5||passed Ile a la Crosse|
|August 15||passed Cumberland House and|
|August 21||arrived at Norway House and continued on to York Factory by the Oxford House/ Hayes River Route.|
|August 31||They arrived at York Factory unloaded furs and reloaded supplies bound for Norway House and Fort Garry.|
|September 10||They left York Factory and returned to|
|September 30||Norway House where supplies were unloaded to be picked up again next year.|
|October 8||They arrived at Fort Garry with supplies and mail.|
The first map shows Churchill Lake as Clear Lake (with its northern reaches not yet surveyed), Peter Pond Lake as Buffalo Lake and Lac La Loche as Methye Lake. The Clearwater River valley at the top left is reached by walking the Portage from the north end of Lac La Loche. The second map shows a Churchill River portion of the fur trade route from Frog Portage to Lac Ile a la Crosse.
- "Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online (Alexis Bonami)". Retrieved 2012-10-13.
- Pulscher, Francis. "Alexis L'Esperance - Leader of the Portage la Loche Brigade". Retrieved 2012-10-13.
- Émile Petitot (1887), En route pour la mer Glaciale (Page 203), Paris: Letouzey et Ané, ISBN 0665304463, 0665304463
- "History of La Loche (Portage La Loche 1862)". Retrieved 2012-10-12.
- Joseph James Hargrave (1871), Red River (page 160) (Red river. ed.), Montreal: Printed for the author by J. Lovell, OCLC 5035707
- Petitot's Journey 1862
- Alexis Lesperance biography
- Laurent Cadotte biography
- Jean Baptiste Bruce biography