York Factory Express

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Map of the route of the York Factory Express, 1820s to 1840s. Modern political boundaries shown.

The York Factory Express, usually called "the Express" and also called the Columbia Express and the Communication, was a fur brigade operated by the Hudson's Bay Company in the early 19th century connecting York Factory and Fort Vancouver. It was named "express" because it was not used only to transport furs and supplies but also to quickly move departmental reports and letters. It was the main overland connection between the Columbia Department and the Hudson's Bay Company's headquarters at York Factory (bulk cargo from England to the Columbia Department was shipped by sea around South America). The express brigade was known as the York Factory Express on its eastbound journey in the spring, and as the Columbia Express or Autumn Express on its westbound journey in the fall. The same route was used in both cases. Its length was about 4,200 kilometres (2,600 mi). To expedite messages the express messengers would often speed ahead of the main bodies carrying supplies and furs.


The York Factory Express evolved from an earlier express brigade used by the North West Company between Fort George (originally Fort Astoria founded in 1811 by John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company), at the mouth of the Columbia River, to Fort William on Lake Superior.[1]

In 1821 the North West Company was forcibly merged (at the behest of the British government) into the Hudson's Bay Company after armed conflict in the Red River Colony between the two companies.[2] George Simpson Governor of Hudson's Bay Company, visited the Columbia District in 1824-25, journeying from York Factory. With the help of John Rowand, the Chief Factor at Fort Edmonton, George Simpson investigated a quicker route than previously used, following the Saskatchewan River and crossing the mountains at Athabasca Pass. This route was well known by the North West Company and was being used in 1811 but after the forced merger with the Hudson's Bay Company many of the Northwester's were loyal to the North West Company and refused to share this route with the Hudson's Bay Company. It wasn't until John Rowand beat George Simpson to Fort Assiniboine by nearly a month and Simpson threatened to shut down Fort Edmonton that Rowand let Simpson know about this route.[3] This route was thereafter followed by the York Factory Express brigades.[4]

By 1825 there were usually two brigades, each setting out from opposite ends of the route, Fort Vancouver in the Columbia District on the lower Columbia River and the other from York Factory on Hudson Bay. The annual ship from Britain arrived at York Factory typically the first week in August, with the express canoe leaving for Canada by the second week in August. York Factory was in a turmoil unpacking and repacking trade goods, mail, and special orders to send out to Hudson Bay posts along the express route. Mail and furs from Red River, the Mackenzie and Columbia River Brigades then needed to be loaded on the ship returning to England by the second or third week of September.[5]

Each brigade consisted of about forty to seventy five men and two to five specially made boats and travelled at breakneck speed (for the time). Indians along the way were often paid in trade goods to help them portage around falls and unnavigable rapids. An 1839 report cites the travel time as three months and ten days—almost 26 miles (40 km) per day on average.[1] These men carried supplies in and furs out by boat, horseback and as back packs for the forts and trading posts along the route. They also carried status reports for supplies needed, furs traded etc. from Dr. John McLoughlin head of the Oregon Country HBC operations, and the other fort managers along the route. This continued until 1846, when the lower Columbia district was ceded to the United States by the Oregon Treaty.

The bulk of supplies and trade goods for the Columbia District were brought from Britain to Fort Vancouver every year by ship around South America, not overland via the York Factory Express route. They tried to maintain one year's extra supplies on hand in case a shipment might be lost at sea or attempting to cross the bar at the mouth of the Columbia River. The furs acquired by trading and trapping during the previous year were sent back on the supply ships and sold in London in an annual fur sale.

James Sinclair followed the southern portion of the route in 1841, when he brought nearly 200 HBC settlers from the Red River Colony (located near the junction of the Assiniboine River and Red River near present Winnipeg, Canada) into the Columbia District. This attempt at British settlement failed because HBC reneged on its promise to settle them. Some of the families did settle at Ft. Nisqually and other HBC sites; others eventually joined the American Oregon settlers for the promise of free land in the Willamette Valley south of the Columbia River.


York boat replica at Fort Edmonton Park, Edmonton, Alberta
York boat under construction showing use of heavy materials.

An inland boat, the York boat, was used to carry furs, trade goods along inland waterways in Rupert's Land east of the Rocky Mountains. The express brigades also used these boats, although they did not carry bulk cargo. The boats were named after their destination: York Factory, headquarters of the HBC, and were modeled after Orkney Islands fishing boats (themselves a descendant of the Viking long boat). York Boats were preferable to the canoes, used by North West Company Voyageurs as a cargo carriers, because of its larger size, greater capacity, and improved stability in rough water. The boat's heavy wood construction also gave it an advantage in travelling through rocks or ice; it was more resistant to tears and punctures. That advantage became a disadvantage, though, when portaging was necessary. The boat was far too heavy to carry, and it was necessary instead to cut a path through the brush, lay poplar rollers, and laboriously drag the boat overland. The mountainous terrain of the Pacific Northwest necessitated the regular use of pack horses over significant portions of the fur brigade routes.

Boats similar to the York but lighter and somewhat smaller were made specifically for use in the Columbia District and constructed on the Columbia River, especially at Fort Colvile. In 1811 David Thompson of the North West Company introduced the use of batteaux (French for boat, modern spelling "bateaux") on the Columbia River, made of split or sawn cedar planks. The NWC and the HBC continued the practice of using batteaux, as bark canoes proved too fragile for use on the rivers of the Pacific Northwest and birch bark was in short supply west of the Rockies. In the 1830s John Dunn of the HBC described the Columbia boat as "made from quarter-inch pine board, and are thirty-two feet long, and six and a half feet wide in midships, with both ends sharp, and without a keel—worked, according to the circumstances of the navigation, with paddles, or with oars."[1]


From west to east, Fort Vancouver to York Factory, the express route ran as follows. Up the Columbia River past the posts of Fort Nez Perces, Fort Okanogan, and Fort Colvile to Boat Encampment (today under Kinbasket Lake), then over Athabasca Pass to Jasper House, down the Athabasca River to Fort Assiniboine, then overland 80 miles (129 km) along the Athabasca Landing Trail to Fort Edmonton. Thence down the North Saskatchewan River and Saskatchewan River to Lake Winnipeg and via Norway House on the Nelson River. Finally the brigade would travel down the Hayes River to York Factory on Hudson Bay.[6][7]


  1. ^ a b c Mackie, Richard Somerset (1997). Trading Beyond the Mountains: The British Fur Trade on the Pacific 1793-1843. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. pp. 16–17, 61. ISBN 0-7748-0613-3. OCLC 82135549. 
  2. ^ Lass, William E. (1980). Minnesota's boundary with Canada: its evolution since 1783. Minnesota Historical Society. p. 72. ISBN 978-0-87351-153-7. 
  3. ^ Allen, W.G.P. (1970). A Trail through the Pembina Valley, 1790-1909. 
  4. ^ Mackie, Richard Somerset (1997). Trading Beyond the Mountains: The British Fur Trade on the Pacific 1793-1843. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. p. 46. ISBN 0-7748-0613-3. OCLC 82135549. 
  5. ^ Angel, Barbara and Michael (1981). Letitia Hargrave and Life in the Fur Trade. Toronto Public Library: The Book Society of Canada Limited, Agincourt, Canada. p. 46. ISBN 9780772550804 – via Interlibrary loan. 
  6. ^ Mackie, Richard Somerset (1997). Trading Beyond the Mountains: The British Fur Trade on the Pacific 1793-1843. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. p. 97. ISBN 0-7748-0613-3. OCLC 82135549. 
  7. ^ Meinig, D.W. (1995) [1968]. The Great Columbia Plain: a historical geography, 1805-1910 (Weyerhaeuser Environmental Classic ed.). Seattle: University of Washington Press. p. 69. ISBN 978-0-295-97485-9. OCLC 32968510.