TRAGEDY AT DEATH RAPIDS

When the west-bound Columbia Express left Edmonton House in September of 1838, Chief Factor John Rowand was uneasy. The party was larger than usual and included Father Francois Blanchet and Father Modeste Demers who had both left St. Boniface in July and were headed for the Oregon territory to minister to the native and white residents. Also traveling with the group were Pierre Leblanc, and wife Nancy ('Matooskie'), as well as a pair of English botanists, Robert Wallace and Peter Banks. It was Wallace that Rowand felt uneasy about. Recently the young man had fallen madly in love with Maria Simpson, a daughter of Governor George Simpson from a previous laison with Betty Sinclair. Rowand was one of the few Hudson's Bay Company employees who were on friendly terms with their boss and he had tried to dissuade the star-struck pair from being so hasty. Against his advice, the pair had married before the Express left Edmonton House. He wondered what the Governor would think.

Nancy 'Matooskie' Leblanc had her own reasons for reflection on that hasty marriage. It reminded her of Governor Simpson's affairs and it brought her face to face with her own past. She had also been a 'country wife' to a prominent officer of the company, J.G.McTavish. For fourteen years she had faithfully attended to his needs and during that time she had borne him seven children. Then came that sad day in 1830 when both Simpson and McTavish returned from England - with proper English wives. Simpson's former wife of ten years, Margaret Taylor, and Matooskie were unceremoniously dumped without even a face-to-face meeting. To his credit, Simpson made arrangements for the support of his children and for the re-marriage of the forsaken women by other Company servants. Thus Matooskie was formally wed to Pierre Leblanc, carpenter, in February 1831 at St. Boniface. Pierre turned out to be a loving husband. Now she could look back at seven years of a happy union which produced new children. Four were traveling with them.

The horse-back journey to Fort Assiniboine took six days. There the party once more took to canoes which were worked up the Athabasca River to Jasper House. Two days after leaving the fort, the oldest Leblanc child, Henrietta, died unexpectedly and was hastily buried on the left side of the Athabasca River. Matooskie's happiness was starting to unravel.

When he heard the news, John Rowand was heartbroken. He confided to a friend: "Poor M. Leblanc, when he left Fort Assiniboine, did not think that 2 days after his fine young Daughter would be a corps, yes, my friend, two days after he had left that place she was no more. What a change in that poor woman [Matooskie] since she has been put away by our friend."

At Jasper House the missionaries attended to numerous christenings and other religious duties. After a welcome respite, the party continued, with horses again, further up the Athabasca and then along the Whirlpool River until they found themselves struggling through the early snows of Athabasca Pass. In passing through this wilderness, did anyone reflect on the puzzling disappearance eight years previously of Chief Trader Herriot's troubled wife Margaret, who had purposefully - it seems - slipped away from the group and was swallowed up by the forbidding land. They searched for her in vain, and then were forced to resume the journey burdened now also by the constant needs of Margaret's recently-born infant daughter.

By mid-October the travelers were finally on the banks of the Columbia River at Boat Encampment. A few of the group collected express mail which had been sent up a month earlier by Archibald McDonald from Fort Colvile and hastened back over the pass with the horses before winter made the pass impassable. The remainder of the Express party started organizing the downriver run: first through the turbulent Upper Columbia, then the Arrow Lakes, and then the river again, all the way to Fort Vancouver where they were expected at the end of the month. Matters got complicated when John Tod, who was in charge of the Express, decided to split the party as the two canoes left for them at Boat Encampment were insufficient for such a large group. Twenty passengers were left behind when the two canoes set off and in a few days landed at the nearly completed Fort of the Lakes, a new post at the head of Upper Arrow Lake. From the fort, John Tod left with six men, and rushed on with the express mail. He reached Ft. Colvile on October 19 and immediately sent his boat back upstream with six men.

The second boat returned upstream from the Fort of the Lakes with six men to pick up the remaining passengers and gear. Andre Chalifoux was pilot; his wife and three children had been also left behind and were waiting with the others at Boat Encampment. When the canoe finally set off, it was heavily laden: in addition to 26 passengers and crew and their personal gear, it carried 22 pieces of cargo, each weighing 90 lbs. Late in the day on October 22 the canoe entered the treacherous Dalles des Morts (Rapids of the Dead, or Death Rapids). At the upper end of the run the canoe sustained some damage when it brushed against a rock. Andre managed to keep the boat under control until at the lower end things got worse as the boat took on a lot of water. At this critical point, Robert Wallace jumped up, shed his jacket, grabbed his new wife Maria in his arms, and shouting "Courage, my friends", plunged into the water. This act unbalanced the swamped canoe and it turned over, spilling the terrified inhabitants and gear into the rushing waters. It was everyone to himself; the struggle for many was brief as they succumbed to the towering waves. Twelve did not make it to shore: Wallace and Maria, Peter Banks, three Company men (Kenneth McDonald, Fabien Vital, Jean Baptiste Laliberte), two of Andre Chalifoux's children, and Pierre Leblanc and his remaining three children. Only three bodies were recovered; two were of the Leblanc children.

Who could fathom the depth of her despair when Matooskie wept unceasingly over the loss of her remaining children and husband as they were lowered to rest in a makeshift grave beside the new post? It was all gone now: her loving husband, the children he had fathered, and one whose father had been McTavish himself. Her progeny was being taken away and the remnants scattered in places she might never visit again, and if she did, could she ever find their resting places? Would the words offered by the Fathers have helped her to accept her terrible loss?

News of the disaster reached Factor McDonald at Ft. Colvile on October 27 when several Indians arrived with the shocking story. Immediately he sent a letter of instructions to John McLoughlin Jr., who was in charge of the remaining Express, as well as the only canoe he could scrape up, along with a boatbuilder and three assistants, and some provisions. He advised John to patch up the damaged boat and if "LaCourse is able to put it in a condition to drift down even this far perhaps by that means you could convey here as many of the bodies as are found, but in this you can use your own discretion." He may have felt some guilt as he had pulled one boat away from Boat Encampment at the end of September to help with the construction of the new post on Upper Arrow Lake.

Thus the wild river which was a key segment of the trans-continental pathway claimed yet another quota of victims. The tragedy represents the greatest loss of life on one occasion to the treacherous waters of the Columbia River. There were many other similar disasters, but none as costly in terms of loss of life or as poignant in terms of their circumstances.

The Fort of the Lakes did not last for long as the fur trade was by then (1838) already in a state of decline. It was most likely located in the vicinity of Arrowhead, and its site and the little graveyard are now submerged under the Arrow Reservoir.


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