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 the Columbia Express and the Communication, was a 19th-century fur brigade operated by the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). Roughly 4,200 kilometres (2,600 mi) in length, it was the main overland connection between HBC headquarters at York Factory and the principal station of Columbia Department, 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. 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. To expedite messages the express messengers would often speed ahead of the main bodies carrying supplies and furs.

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. Management at Fort Vancouver 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.



The York Factory Express evolved from an earlier route used by the North West Company (NWC). During the War of 1812 the NWC and their American competitors, the Pacific Fur Company (PFC), struggled commercially over the Columbia River basin. Established at the mouth of the Columbia was the principal station of the PFC, Fort Astoria, named after its principal financial patron, John Jacob Astor. The PFC was peaceably liquidated in 1813, with its stations and some of its employees joining the NWC. Renaming Fort Astoria to Fort George, the NWC developed an overland supply route from there to its headquarters at Fort William on Lake Superior.[1] In the ensuing years, the NWC would continue to expand its operations in the Pacific Northwest. Skirmishes with its major competitor, the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), had already flared into the Pemmican War. The end of the conflict in 1821 saw the NWC mandated by the British Government to merge into the HBC. [2]


Fort Vancouver, near the mouth of the Columbia River, in 1825.

George Simpson, the 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 many Northwester's, but after the merger they refused to share knowledge of it with the HBC. 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]

James Sinclair was appointed in 1841 by Duncan Finlayson to guide over twenty settler families from the Red River Colony to the Pacific Northwest. Upon arriving at Fort Vancouver, fourteen of them were relocated to Fort Nisqually, while the remaining seven families were sent to Fort Cowlitz.[5] Despite this, arrangements with the Pugets Sound Agricultural Company, a HBC subsidiary, proved to be unsatisfactory for the settlers, who all gradually moved to the Willamette Valley.


By 1825 there were usually two brigades, each setting out from opposite ends of the route, Fort Vancouver 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 would be 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 Britain by the second or third week of September.[6]

Each brigade consisted of about forty to seventy five men and two to five specially made boats and traveled at breakneck speed. Indians along the way were often paid in trade goods to help them portage around falls and navigable 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, Chief Factor of Columbia Department operations, and the other fort managers along the route. This continued until 1846 when the Oregon Treaty was signed with the United States. Lands south of the 49th parallel north were in this partition of the Pacific Northwest awarded to the United States. This placed Fort Vancouver and several other important HBC stations within American territory.


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 1840s, John Dunn, a former HBC employee 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."[7]


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.[8][9]


  1. ^ a b Mackie 1997, pp. 16-17, 61.
  2. ^ Lass 1980, p. 72.
  3. ^ Allen 1970.
  4. ^ Mackie 1997, p. 46.
  5. ^ Galbraith 1954, pp. 254-255.
  6. ^ Angel 1981, p. 1981.
  7. ^ Dunn 1844, pp. 61-62.
  8. ^ Mackie 1997, p. 97.
  9. ^ Meining 1995, p. 69.


  • Allen, W.G.P. (1970), A Trail through the Pembina Valley, 1790-1909
  • Galbraith, John S. (1954), "The Early History of the Puget's Sound Agricultural Company, 1838-43", Oregon Historical Quarterly, Portland, OR: Oregon Historical Society, 55 (3): 234–259

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