Sunday, September 6, 2015

Columbia Boats in the Fur Trade Era

Traveling overland in pre-railroad times was an arduous affair, moving freight was more so, and over mountainous terrain even worse. Compared to walking with a load on one's back or dealing with a string of semi-wild pack horses, transportation by water was usually more efficient both in energy expended and size of loads moved. Early explorers of western North America, including Lewis and Clark, McKenzie, Fraser, and Thompson, all looked for water routes, and used them wherever possible. They discovered that the many chains of ridges collectively known as the Rocky Mountains blocked river navigation from the east. The few rivers west of the Rockies where boats could travel were periodically punctured by impassible rapids and waterfalls. That meant that vessels moving passengers and freight had to be large enough for cargo but light enough to carry around obstacles. The result was the Columbia boat.

This painting by British Army officer Henry Warre shows a Columbia boat in use.
Hauling Up A Rapid (Les Dalles Des Morts) On The Columbia River.  Lt. Henry Warre, 1846
Image PDP00057 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives, Victoria, BC, Canada

Hudson's Bay Company carpenters, some of whom were specialized ship carpenters, built a variety of watercraft in the Columbia District. For example, this snippet from the Spring 1841 inventory of Fort Vancouver shows six Columbia boats (using that name), six batteaus, one ship's boat, and one scow:

(Source: HBC Archives, B.223/d/136, Fort Vancouver Inventory, 1841.)

In the Great Lakes and the extensive navigable river systems east of the Rockies, fur trade voyageurs famously used birch bark canoes in a range of sizes. Some bark canoes were used west of the Rocky Mountains in the early years of the fur trade, but they soon gave way to watercraft made entirely of wood, from canoes of wooden planks to larger batteaux, a French term sometimes used interchangeably with Columbia boat. (East of the Rockies, wooden craft called York boats came into general use in the 1800s. Named after York Factory, the HBC headquarters on Hudson Bay, York boats were larger than Columbia boats, and too heavy to be carried over the portage trails around the falls and rapids of the western rivers.)

Several descriptions of Columbia boats are scattered through accounts left by contemporary observers who lived in or visited the Pacific Northwest during the fur trade era. Details vary, but one common element was light weight to facilitate portaging. Boats ascending the Columbia from Fort Vancouver first had a four mile portage around the Cascades (present site of Cascade Locks, just above Bonneville Dam). Next there was a carry of 12 miles from the base of the Dalles to above Celillo falls (called the Chutes in early accounts). Some other rapids could be "run" coming down, and boats emptied of their cargo could be "lined" going up or down--left in the water and pulled by a crew walking on a path along the riverbank. But depending on water levels portaging was often necessary at other spots on the trip to Okanogan, terminus of the horse brigades bringing fur returns from Thompson River Post (modern Kamloops) and points north. Annual Express Brigades across the continent faced portages to pass Kettle Falls at Fort Colvile and other rapids on the way to Boat Encampment, the end of water transport at the base of the Rockies, nearly 900 miles upriver from Fort Vancouver.

Another detail frequently mentioned is the use of gum to seal the seams between sheathing planks. This sealant was made by heating the resin of evergreen trees and mixing it with tallow to make it soft enough to spread on the hull. A burning stick of firewood was then rubbed along the surface to melt the gum into the seams. Every boat carried a keg of gum, and journals of river trips often belabor the need to repair and replenish the gum on the hull seams, especially in warm weather.

Alexander Ross arrived with the Astorians in 1811, was posted to Okanogan that year, and worked for the Northwest Company then HBC over the next fifteen years. In his Fur Traders of the Far West, (p. 72) Ross noted that due to the "great partiality" of the Northwesters for bark canoes, "the country was ransacked for prime birchbark more frequently than for prime furs." Such preferences notwithstanding, they settled for plank boats:

"The description of craft used on the waters of Columbia by the Astor Company consisted of split or sawed cedar boats, strong, light and durable, and in every possible way better adapted to rough water than the birch-rind canoes in general use on the east side of the mountains. They carried a cargo or burden of about 3,000 lbs. weight, and yet, nimbly handled, were easily carried across the portages."

John Dunn worked was an HBC clerk and postmaster in the Columbia District for eight years in the 1830s. In his History of the Oregon Territory, pp. 60-61, Dunn wrote:

"There are no birch canoes used in the Oregon country by the company's servants. They use only the batteaux, which are made of quarter-inch pine boards, 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. These boats are found to be better adapted to the lakes and rivers there, than the canoes of the north."

U.S. Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, an experienced mariner who conducted detailed reconnaissance in this area in 1841, provided this description of Columbia boats (Narrative, IV, p. 371):

"The boat was somewhat of the model of our whale-boats, only much larger, and of the kind built expressly to accommodate the trade: they are provided yearly at Okonagan, and are constructed in a few days: they are clinker-built, and all the timbers are flat. These boats are so light that they are easily carried across the portages. They use the gum of the pine to cover them instead of pitch."
Later (P. 378) Wilkes gave more detail:
"The shape of these boats has been before described: they have great strength and buoyancy, carry three tons weight, and have a crew of eight men, besides a padroon. they are thirty feet long and five and a half feet beam, sharp at both ends, clinker-built, and have no knees. In building them, flat timbers of oak are bent to the requisite shape by steaming; they are bolted to a flat keel, at distances of a foot from each other: the planks are of cedar, and generally extend the whole length of the boat. The gunwale is of the same kind of wood, but the rowlocks are of birch. The peculiarity in the construction of these boats is, that they are only riveted at each end with a strong rivet, and being well gummed, they have no occasion for nailing. They answer, and indeed are admirably adapted to, all the purposes for which they are intended; are so light as to be easily transported over the portages by their crews, and in case of accident are easily repaired."

This detailed description does not mention a sail, but later in his Narrative, (p. 379), telling of his trip from Ft Vancouver to Cowlitz, Wilkes wrote: "They are provided only with a square sail, as the wind blows generally either directly up or down the river." Then describing a trip up the Columbia between the Cascades and the Dalles (p. 381): "On the 30th of June, they had a favourable wind, but it blew so hard that they were obliged to reef their sail, and afterwards found the waves and wind too heavy for them to run without great danger." So these boats could be fitted with a mast and square sail, as seen in some illustrations of the larger and heavier York boats used east of the Rockies. The mast would have been removable to facilitate portaging, and mounted equidistant from each end, to be used going in either direction. Steering was with a paddle or oar at either end (or both ends when needed) rather than a fixed rudder, as Wilkes described (p. 391-2):

"Each boat has also its bowman, who is considered the first officer and responsible man; the safety of the boat, in descending rapids particularly, depends upon him and the padroon, who steers the boat. They both use long and large blade-paddles; and it is surprising how much power the two can exert over the direction of the boat."

Peter Burnett, an American pioneer who arrived in this area via the Oregon Trail in 1843, described the Columbia boat that took him from Walla Walla to Fort Vancouver (Recollections, p. 128):

"We procured from Mr. McKinley, at Walla Walla, an old Hudson's Bay Company's boat, constructed expressly for the navigation of the Columbia and its tributaries. These boats are very light, yet strong. They are open, about forty feet long, five feet wide, and three feet deep, made of light, tough materials, and clinker-built. They are made in this manner so that they may be carried around the falls of the Columbia, and let down over the Cascades. When taken out of the water and carried over the portage, it requires the united exertions of forty or fifty Indians, who take the vessel on their shoulders, amid shouts and hurras, and thus carry it sometimes three fourths of a mile, without once letting it down. At the Cascades it is let down by means of ropes in the hands of the Canadian boatmen."

Burnett's recollection of the number of Indians required for portage seems excessive, unless much of the cargo was left in the boat while it was carried around the rapids. Also, if fifty men tried to crowd under a boat of this size, they would likely be tripping over one another. Other accounts say that the standard crew of 8 men could carry an empty Columbia boat when necessary, or that the crews from two boats might be combined to portage one boat. W.H. Grey, who came west with the Whitman-Spalding party and made the trip down the Columbia from Walla Walla to Fort Vancouver in 1836, provided this description of the portage at The Dalles (History, p. 146):

"The boats were let down with lines as near the fall as was considered safe, hauled out of the water, turned bottom up, and as many Indians as could get under them, say some twenty-five to each boat, lifted them upon their shoulders and carried them to the water below. For this service they each received two dried leaves of tobacco, which would make about six common pipefuls."

The passage that follows is from the report of British Army Lt. Mervin Vavasour, who with Lt. Henry Warre made a reconnaissance mission to this region in 1845 ("Secret Mission," p. 145). The crew of 5 oarsmen, presumably plus a steersman and bowman, is similar to other accounts, and the description of the boat matches the more detailed version by American Charles Wilkes from 1841:

"I left Fort Colville on the 19th August, embarked below the [Kettle] Falls in a boat belonging to the H. B. Company expressly adapted to this dangerous river navigation, and descended the rapids. These boats are built of cedar after the model of a bark canoe, the planks being rivetted to the ribs, having no knees,and the seams filled with pitch and gum. They are propelled with oars by 5 men and steered with a paddle. . . . having passed several rapids, at one of which we found it necessary to carry the baggage, and the boat being let down by a line, we reached Okanogan, a small post on the right bank of the river 138 miles from Colville. This post is used as a provision station for the Brigade crossing the Mountains in the spring."

Other contemporary accounts, including those by HBC Governor George Simpson, use the term batteau (plural batteaux, which is simply the French word for boat, standard spelling bateau/bateaux) or the English word boat, with little further description and without making a distinction for Columbia boat.

The secondary literature also includes relevant commentary on Columbia boats. Whitman College professor William Denison Lyman wrote a comprehensive overview of The Columbia River. On p. 134 he gives this description:

"The bateaux were boats of peculiar shape, being built very high and broad so that in an unloaded condition they seemed to rest on the water almost like a paper shell. Both ends were high and pointed as prows. They were propelled with oars and steered with paddles. One of the usual size was about thirty feet long and five feet wide. Being of light-draft, double-enders, capable of holding large loads and yet easily conveyed around portages, more steady and roomy than canoes, these bateaux were the typical Columbia River medium of commerce during the era of the fur-traders."

Dennis F. Johnson has written a book on York boats, the larger and heavier river craft used east of the Rocky Mountains, and a summary article, in Wooden Boat magazine, In the article (P. 56) Johnson makes this brief mention of boats west of the mountains, different from York boats:

"West of the Rockies, the construction of craft on the Fraser and Columbia rivers was different from that of York boats. One type used on the Columbia was described by company employee John Work on his journey from York Factory to the Columbia District in 1825: 'These boats were about 30 feet long with a 5 foot beam, clinker-built and pointed at both ends . . .  Planks of cedar formed their outer skin, since nails were scarce they were only used to secure the planks to the stem and stern piece. The overlapping seams were gummed with pitch to render the craft watertight.'"

Geographer James R. Gibson's comprehensive study, The Lifeline of the Oregon Country includes this description of Columbia boats (p. 102):

"The vessels were made at Fort Colville (previously at Spokane House) from quarter-inch yellow pine or red cedar boards, 30-32 feet long and 5 1/2-6 1/2 feet at the beam, pointed at both ends, large enough to transport up to 50 pieces [of 90 lbs. each] (or up to 500 bushels of wheat), and light enough to be navigated and shouldered by a crew of 8-10 men. In the fall of 1825 at Spokane House, sawyers in fifteen days finished cutting enough boards for three boats: 73 boards 6 inches wide and 40 feet long for sideboards, 3 pieces 14 inches wide and 40 feet long for keels, and 6 pieces 2 inches wide and 40 feet long  for gunwales, so each vessel comprised twenty-four 40-foot boards, 12 per side, making each about 3 1/2 feet high (allowing 1 1/2 inches for overlap and 1 inch for curvature) and about 35 feet long (allowing 5 feet for curvature). Batteaux varied somewhat in their dimensions, depending on when and where they were made, perhaps as well as by whom."

Building Columbia boats:

The following account of on-the-spot construction of five boats for use on the rivers on the western side of the Rockies at Fort St. James, on the east shore of Stuart Lake in the HBC District of New Caledonia, now north-central British Columbia. It covers a period of 42 days from March 9 to April 19, 1843, and is from the journal of HBC clerk Alexander Caulfield Anderson (Fort St. James Post Journal, 1840-46, HBCA, B.188/a/19), transcribed by Anderson's descendant Nancy Marguerite Anderson and posted in her blog,  <>

These journal notes show that boats could be built by a few men, several of whom were on the sick list, working often in the open rather than in a fully equipped shop. The timbers or cross ribs of the boat's frame (called by the French term "verangues" in this account) were bent by heating in a steam box, and the thin planks for the hull were sawn. The sheathing planks, or strakes, overlapped at the edge, a technique known as clinker-built or lapstrake.

[Begin transcription:]
Thurs. 9th [March 1843] Cold weather. Nothing new occurring. Commenced preparations for making the boats, … serres, &c. The cold weather & Bourgeau’s sore leg, have caused us to delay this necessary labour.
Mon. 13th. Clear & cold. The weather being too severe to bend the varangues, the three men who were occupied about the boat wood are preparing the keels &c … [Pierre] Gouin preparing rivets for boats, assisted by the lathe. Others at fire wood.
Tues. 14th. .. Still too cold for bending the varangues, but always preparing for the boats.
Wed. 15th. Weather gradually moderating. Commenced today bending varangues. [Joseph] Bourgeau, [Supplie] Larance & [Pierre] Roi, bending and preparing. [Jacques] Coutureau [Couturier] who is still lame, attending the steam box.
Thurs. 16th. Fine mild weather. Continued as yest[erda]y & bent the varangues of 1 1/2 boats — say 2 1/2 now bent.
Sat. 18th. The snow vanishing fast. Finished the varangues of 6 boats, wood cutters employed cleaning the fort.
Mon. 20th. Men arranged as below. Bourgeau, Larance, Roi, [Edouard] Crete, [Charles] Touin, Ignace Calument — Boats…. Bourgeau laid the keel of a boat.
Wed. 22nd. .. Turned a boat, ready for putting on the boards in the evening. Courturier for the last two days making wedges for the [fur] press.
Mon. 27th. Touin laid up with boils. Laid down another boat. Nothing new occurring.
Wed. 29th. Couturier working at boats in place of Touin, who is still laid up.
Saty. 1 April. .. Bourgeau turned his third boat ready for planking.
Tues. 4th. Afternoon finished another [the third] boat… I omitted to mention that on Sunday Roi [drove] a long splinter into his wrist, which incapacitates him from working. The men employed as under: Bourgeau, Larance, Crete, Ignace, [Amable] Lacourse, Courturier at boats
Wed. 5th. We began pressing packs in the morning, but after several interruptions at length gave it up & the men wrought in salmon store…  Began 4th boat. Two men are obliged to begin sawing as far from being sufficient for six boats as Mr. [Peter Skene] Ogden had anticipated, there is found not to be sufficient for the completion of five, which I am very sorry for, as it is now too late to think of attempting to remedy the evil.
Mon. 10th. Fine, but chilly, with Westerly winds. Bourgeau finished 4th boat & laid the keel of another.
Thurs. 13th. .. Bourgeau finished his fifth boat today. Mr. Ogden directed me to get six made, and were the wood ready, there would yet be time to finish another. But there are no materials, one of the keels having been found useless, and there being no more boards. I am thus reluctantly constrained to leave the sixth unattempted.
Fri. 14th. Fine. Bourgeau arranging apichimons &c for two boats. Larance working at sheels[?]. Crete, Leonard, Couturier, Louis Thibeault, & rest cutting wood, except Brunel & Roi who are laid up.
Saty. 15th. Larance as before. The other men employed till noon cleaning out boat shed, storing boats for the summer, piling the timber lately dragged by Gouin and other necessary jobs, preparatory to beginning to gum on Monday.
Monday 17th. Rained at intervals yesterday — today fine. Named crews of boats & all hands are preparing oars, caulking boats &c.
Wed. [April] 19th. Snowed a little in the morning. Afterwards fine. Finished gumming. Preparing for a start tomorrow. This is rather earlier than was intended; but the season is very forward, and everything being ready, I have decided on moving. It was my intention to go off the day after tomorrow; but the Canadians have a superstitious reluctance to starting on a Friday, which it is customary and prudent to humour, where there is no probability of eradicating it.
[End of transcription.]

Joseph Bourgeau, the boatbuilder in charge of this project, was born in L'Assomption/St. Paul District of Montreal, Lower Canada about 1807. He started his career with HBC as a middleman (HBC's term for boat paddlers, also used for common laborers employed in a variety of tasks) at Fort Colvile, where he worked from 1829 to 1835. Colvile was a center for the construction of Columbia boats, as it was close to a good supply of the necessary timber and just upstream from Fort Okanogan, where boats were needed for the brigade route linking the Thompson River and points north (via Kamloops) to the Columbia and points downstream. Bourgeau probably learned the boatbuilding trade during his years at Colvile. By 1839 he was listed in Company personnel rolls as "Boatbuilder," and held that position until 1844, when he retired to farm in the Willamette Valley. He died in California in 1849.

Supplie Larance, also mentioned above, was probably born in Lavaltrie, Lower Canada around 1808. He worked for HBC as a middleman in the New Caledonia (HBC's term for what's now northern British Columbia) from 1831 to 1845, as a boatbuilder in New Caledonia from 1845 to 1850, and in the same capacity at Fort Colvile in 1850-51. (Bio details from Watson, Lives Lived, pp. 221, 568.)

References cited:

Burnett, Peter H. Recollections and Opinions of an Old Pioneer. New York: Appleton, 1880. (Available for free download from Google Books.)

Dunn, John. History of the Oregon Territory and British North-American Fur Trade. London: Edwards and Hughes, 1844. (Available for free download from Google Books.)

Gibson, James R. The Lifeline of the Oregon Country: The Fraser-Columbia Brigade System, 1811-47. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997.

Gray, W.H. A History of Oregon, 1792-1849, Drawn from Personal Observation and Authentic Information. Portland, OR: Harris and Holman, 1870. (Available for free download from Google Books.)

Johnson, Dennis F. York Boats of the Hudson's Bay Company: Canada's Inland Armada. Markham, ON: Fifth House, 2006.

Johnson, Dennis F. "The York Boats of the Hudson's Bay Company" Wooden Boat magazine, #144, (Oct.-Dec. 1998), pp. 50-58.

Ross, Alexander. Fur Traders of the Far West: a Narrative of Adventures in the Oregon and Rocky Mountains. (Vol. 1) London: Smith & Elder, 1855. (Available for free download from Google Books.)

"Secret Mission of Warre and Vavasour" The Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 2 (April, 1912), pp. 131-153.

Watson, Bruce M. Lives Lived West of the Divide: A Biographical Dictionary of Fur Traders Working West of the Rockies, 1793-1858. Okanagen, B.C.: The Centre for Social, Spatial and Economic Justice, 2010. (Available for inexpensive download from

Wilkes, Charles. Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition During the Years 1838-1842 (Vol. IV). London: Wiley and Putnam, 1845. (Available for free download from Google Books.)

Comments welcome (email: tomholloway62(at)gmail(dot)com).


  1. Impressive bit of work, Tom. And as a latter day boat and sailing enthusiast, very interesting to me. Does any of your research reveal how many portages were necessary from, say FVC to Okanogan? And was there not freighting or travel by boat down, or up, the Snake during that time?

    1. Besides the Cascades the Dalles, and Celillo, there were repids at Umatilla and above Ft. Nez Perce (Walla Walla). These boats were not used on the Snake, which was blocked by rapids and falls above the site of modern Lewiston. HBC's Snake Country Brigades were annual trapping expeditions into the southern Rockies. They started from Walla Walla, and involved around 200 people and several hundred head of horses, for riding and packing.


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