The Leather Pass, by William Hind (1862).Leather pass was also known as Yellowhead pass. // Courtesy of the McCord Museum
THE ORIGINAL TRAIL BLAZERS: THE OVERLANDS OF 1862
in 1858, gold was discovered in British Columbia’s Cariboo region and thousands flocked to the territory in search of riches.
San Francisco practically emptied overnight as shiploads of hopeful prospectors sailed northwards. From the settlements in the East, the journey to the Cariboo was far more challenging, as it required travelling through a vast wilderness. However, in 1862, a large party of adventurers from eastern Canada set out to cross the continent in search of gold; they would forever be known as the Overlanders of ’62. It was a dangerous undertaking; they forged new paths through unknown territory and crossed the treacherous Continental Divide. Most importantly, their revival of the Yellowhead Pass as a travel corridor through the Rocky Mountains would have a lasting impact on the Jasper area and western Canada.
In 1862 the vast domain of British North America was a loose assemblage of colonies. The eastern settlements of Upper and Lower Canada were separated from the newly created colony of British Columbia by Rupert’s Land, a tract of land nominally owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). An Overland crossing involved travel through this sparsely populated territory, but this was perceived as more direct and cost effective than a lengthy sea voyage to the Pacific Coast.
Thomas McMicking led the largest Overlander Party; setting forth from Fort Garry (Winnipeg) with 150 individuals, 97 Red River carts and livestock, it was the largest documented single group of people to cross the Canadian Prairies prior to the construction of the railway. Enduring eight weeks of travel across open prairie, the group reached Fort Edmonton. After seeking advice from traders and returning prospectors, it was decided that the most direct route over the Rockies was the Yellowhead Pass. Named after the Iroquois fur trader Tête Juane, the pass had formerly been an important HBC corridor, but had fallen into disuse. Knowing the path ahead would be fraught with challenges, the party hired a Métis guide named André Cardinal. Born at the HBC post of Jasper House, he was familiar with the region and agreed to lead the Overlanders over the Continental Divide to Tête Jaune Cache. At Lac Ste. Anne, they divested themselves of unnecessary baggage, exchanging the oxen and carts for horses and packsaddles. As prairie gave way to forested terrain, the efficient pace of the previous weeks was drastically slowed.
Two weeks after leaving Fort Edmonton, the party had their first view of the Rocky Mountains. It was a sight unparalleled to anything they had seen before and the challenges of the arduous trail were momentarily forgotten, as they were captivated by the awe-inspiring view. As the group further penetrated the mountain valleys, André Cardinal presented the party with two alternate routes leading to the Yellowhead Pass. The first was to travel the south side of the Athabasca River, where they would ascend and descend a high and treacherous trail but cross only one river. The second option was to travel the north side of the Athabasca; the trail was less treacherous, but the party would have to ford two rivers. Faced with the prospect of fording two rivers, the party chose the perilous climb.
The trail climbed 1,700 feet over the shoulder of Roche Miette. At its narrowest point, the horses’ packs brushed against the uphill side of the trail, threatening to push the animals over the edge. One horse lost its footing and slid 140 feet, narrowly escaping a 900-foot drop by landing against a tree. After descending, they travelled along Talbot and Jasper Lakes, camping at the foot of the Colin Range on the banks of the Athabasca. The next day the company constructed rafts and crossed the river. They followed the Athabasca to its confluence with the Miette River and trailing the Miette, the Overlanders commenced their journey over the Yellowhead Pass. Progress was slow, as they had to cross the Miette seven times. By the afternoon of the following day, they summited the Yellowhead Pass, the Continental Divide and had arrived in the colony of British Columbia.
At Tête Jaune Cache, the Overlanders would embark on the final leg of their journey. Here they separated into two parties. One party travelled to Fort George (Prince George), choosing to navigate the unknown perils of the Fraser River. The other party chose to follow the Thompson River to Kamloops. Both groups made it to their destination despite the difficulties and dangers of navigating unfamiliar watercourses. However, their journeys would not be without tragedy; three men were lost on the Fraser and two men were lost on the Thompson.
The Overlanders’ epic adventure spanned over 3,500 miles; through great resilience and determination they crossed a continent and overcame the mountains that divided it. Prior to 1862, the majority of people utilizing the Yellowhead Pass were associated with the fur trade; the Overlanders’ expedition revived the pass as a travel corridor, generating new interest that facilitated the movement of newcomers and cemented travel links between British Columbia and the east. With the later expansion of the railway, the Yellowhead Pass served as a major transport corridor, later still to be paralleled by the modern-day highway. The next time you are travelling over the Yellowhead Pass, take a moment to consider the Overlanders and their remarkable journey.