The missionaries had a different problem. The churches did not attract the natives. It was necessary that the missionaries go to the Indians, whose camps were often far from a river that would float a canoe after dog-sled season. Many of the missionaries walked, and thousands of miles would have been logged if records had been kept. By the time the missionaries arrived here, the Indians had horses. These pack animals were necessary to carry the portable altar, vessels and vestments of the Catholic and Anglican ceremonies. Extra clothing and bedding, some simple medicines, and food went by traversing the huge “burns” left by forest fires that from time to time swept over the whole country, almost clearing it of food-supplying animals for years. The Indian “packer” and guide was the unrecorded companion of these lonely journeys. In the brief time after the Indians got horses, they had not time to learn the most efficient ways of handling horses or their loads. It was at this time that what became known as the “squaw hitch” was the method of keeping a burden on a horse. Almost any way of roping the pack on — except the later scientific diamond hitch — was called a “squaw hitch,” which was secure or not according to the skill of the Indian.
The Indians had learned, soon after the coming of the traders to hang around the posts at certain seasons, and to “pitch off” when the spirit moved them to roam. Certain areas offered foods and herbs they wanted. Pouce Coupe Prairie was noted for Saskatoons, the Clayhurst area for the wild onions and the Grande Prairie for buffalo. These added up to pemmican, the universal transportable food, along with buffalo meat cured by drying in long strips over a smoky fire. As the Crees moved in after the Peace of Unchagah [late 1700’s], fish was a food commodity. Sturgeon Lake, Lesser Slave Lake, Saskatoon Lake and later Moberly Lake became Cree settlements. Since Crees loved to visit, well-known “pitching trails” developed from the game trails. An Indian was no more apt to cut down a tree or move a rock out of the path than a moose was, but men and moose combined to deepen the travelled paths. There was even an ancient trail over from the MacLeod Lake. Another went around Mt. Hulcross from near Chetwynd to Moberly Lake, where the Beavers went to pick berries, in spite of a superstitious fear of the area. By the mid-1800’s nobody should have referred to any part of the Peace as a trackless wilderness. Quite the contrary — it was criss-crossed with trails!
The last quarter of the 1800’s saw the development of the true “pack trails”. Canada had promised British Columbia a railway as a bribe to get the Pacific Coast colony into Confederation. The problem of crossing the Rocky Mountains became a national issue. Railways generally follow river valleys, and over the lowest possible passes between such valleys to avoid steep grades. Suddenly it became desperately necessary to examine all possible routes in detail. Also, the overflow of the gold seekers in the Cariboo were feverishly searching for the “mother lodes” that sent their ores down to the river bars. It was to service these gold seekers that Twelve-Foot Davis’s transportation system began to reach out to them, from the Western approach. “Packing” as a science likely entered the country with him.
Davis had mined in California, a former Spanish colony. The history of “packing” goes far back in Spanish history, for the mountainous trails of most of Spain were passable only for donkeys, horses and mules. The art of lashing a burden on a beast goes still back into the mists of time, before Caesar’s armies penetrated from Rome to Britain. Nobody seems to know who first devised the kind of intricate series of loops that is known to us as the “diamond hitch”.
Soon after the rails reached Winnipeg, the Peace country was crawling with survey parties, not to lay out the land into “sections” and “quarters” for settlement nor to fix road allowances. Rather, their task was to take the altitudes for possible easy grades, and to find a pass to cross the formidable Rockies. They also had to note the places for bridges, and how high and long they would be and probable sites and sizes of “cuts” and “fills” to make a roadbed as level as possible. Not only the physical features of the country were important, but also more general surveys were necessary to find out whether there were mineral or agricultural possibilities to create pay load to meet operating expenses.
An Ottawa lawyer, born in the Northwest and the son of a fur trader set the ball rolling to have the Peace selected as a route for the main line of the C.P.R. He did this by publishing the journal of Chief Factor Archibald McDonald who had accompanied HBCo. Governor George Simpson in 1828. McLeod included tables to show that the climate at Dunvegan was at least as favourable as Toronto, Quebec or Halifax for agriculture. He also enclosed a map showing his proposed route from the Peace River over to the Prince George area, hence by the Skeena to Prince Rupert. Too bad his advice was ultimately thrown out, also that of famous surveyors who investigated and largely confirmed his claims.
There was Sir Sanford Fleming, Chief Engineer of the C.P.R., who sent Charles Horetzky and Professor John Macoun from Edmonton in 1872 to the Peace Country to investigate. Professor Macoun was a botanist whose report gave glowing praise for the area. His name is perpetuated in the scientific names of many of our species of plants. Later his son struck a bad year and took exactly the opposite view. In 1875, A.R.C. Selwyn, Director of the Geological Survey, came through the district from the West by way of the Peace River, stopping briefly at Hudson’s Hope.
His journal gives one of the first accounts of packhorses in this area. “While we were satisfying our hunger … the children had gone into the woods and rounded up four horses … The “rigging”, a curious combination of wood, raw moose leather, buffalo skins and an old blanket together making up the pack saddles was hunted up and placed in the canoe.” A few days later he records that Twelve-Foot Davis had arrived at the top of the canyon with 35,000 pounds of goods for trade with the Indians. At some earlier time Davis had sent in a train, from which comes our word “pack train”, of fourteen mules and a bell-horse which was always used to lead them. Selwyn says that these were the “first horses or mules that had ever travelled along these shores of Peace River”.
In 1877 Joseph Hunter was sent out by Selwyn to explore the Pine Pass which had been talked about by the Indians but never traversed by white men. It sounded like the answer to the railroader’s dream of an easy way across the mountains. Packhorses were in common use in the Cariboo by this time. Hunter sent his men, animals and supplies ahead from Quesnel, then caught up with them. The story of his finding of the valley of the Pine after hearing the cry of a loon is told in his biography. Although the season was late he pressed on past Azouzetta Lake, to East Pine, keeping to the bars and channel of the river to save cutting brush. The pack train crossed the river 137 times before they left it and got over nearly to the Kiskatinaw River where they got bogged down in muskeg and turned north to Fort St. John.
The most notable pack train in Peace Country history was that of Dr. George Dawson, who passed through with a train of ninety horses and mules in 1879. He was not a railway surveyor, but he was“making a survey”. Being the highest qualified Canadian geologist, mineralogist and anthropologist of his day, he had been sent out by Selwyn to survey and record all the facts he could gather about the physical features of the country. His report would influence the selection of a route.
Having Hunter’s journal as a guide and travelling earlier in the season he avoided Hunter’s pitfalls, and reached Pouce Coupe’s Prairie on August 12. The pack train must have left a well-marked trail around the north side of the present city of Dawson Creek. They had a little trouble finding a suitable crossing of the Pouce Coupe River, after which they found an Indian guide who knew a trail over to Spirit River area. A CPR survey crew had been working in the area south of Dawson Creek all summer. The two parties met on August 15. In the other party was Mr. H.A.F. McLeod, engineer, who was assisted by a Mr. Cambie. They were selecting a course for the railway line and estimating heights and lengths of necessary bridges and cuts.
After leaving the Pouce Coupe River trail the parties headed toward Dunvegan but the trails they found were “very indistinct and not much used.” The next day they needed a guide because of the “many indistinct Indian trails” but one eventually led to Dunvegan by a “well beaten path”. When the “Report of Progress” came out in 1879-80 from Mr. Selwyn’s department a map showing all the main Indian trails accompanied it.
In 1879 a famous old-timer, Tom Kerr, was cutting a trail from Lesser Slave Lake to Peace River Town. There was already a well-cut trail from Lac St. Ann near Edmonton north and west to Sturgeon Lake before 1879. It may surprise people to know that there was a village of Sturgeon Lake before 1879. Except Dunvegan, this is the only village in Dr. Dawson’s notes, for the very simple reason that there were no others — no Pouce Coupe, Dawson Creek or Grande Prairie because they did not exist then. Dr. Dawson took this old trail on his way out of the country. It was the forerunner of the old Edson Trail – which was used by people yet living.
Until 1898 we can imagine that nothing changed very much with these trails. There was an old pack trail from Dunvegan to the Pine [Beatton] River, dating back to fur trading days. There was a great bend in the trail north of Dunvegan to the Fort St. John area. A District Land Surveyor cut a wagon road straight across in 1899. The great canyon of the Beatton probably put an end to the project, but what was at the end of that road? Fort St. John had moved long since. The Klondikers followed the known trails, and made new ones when they got lost or attempted shortcuts to the gold fields.
When Hector Tremblay settled on the Pouce Coupe Prairie a few years later he widened the old pack trails as Alex Monkman did around the Grande Prairie. There are people yet living who “packed” over them.
One old trail became the forerunner of the Fort Nelson Trail, which largely became the Alaska Highway. Parts of the road between Pouce Coupe and Grande Prairie follow Hector Tremblay’s pack trail. Until the 1960’s many pack trails were still in use by hunting parties, and forestry crews. Forestry roads now follow them in many places.