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The James McMillan Expedition

After George Vancouver's small boats sailed out of Semiahmoo and Boundary Bays, thirty-two years were to pass before the next expedition ventured into the bays.


James McMillan, in the winter of 1824, led a party from Fort Vancouver to choose a site for a new Hudson Bay Company fort(Fort Langley) near the mouth of the Fraser River. Traveling north through Puget Sound the party reached Semiahmoo Bay on December 11, 1824. The weather was growing cold, the wind was blowing, and ahead of them was the wide open stretch of water and the rounding of Point Roberts. They decided to wait for the weather to clear and camped near the present site of White Rock.


Fraser Valley Map

The Fraser Valley at the time of the McMillan expedition was home to many native groups. The Semiahmoo's route to the Fraser was a canoe passage up the Nicomekl River and across a short portage, that later became known as Langley Prairie, to the Salmon River and then to the Fraser River. The first Hudson's Bay Fort was located at the present site of Derby and was later relocated to the present site of Fort Langley.

On Monday December 13 the party set out to cross Boundary Bay and round Point Roberts. The following is the story as set down in the journal of John Work.


Embarked at half past 7 o'clock and set out with the intention of crossing the traverse, but had gone but a short way when it was thought too rough. The course was therefore changed and the boats crossed the entrance of the little bay in which we had been encamped (Semiahmoo Bay), and continued along the main shore to another bay (Boundary Bay), down which they proceeded to the entrance of a small river,(Nicomekl) up which they continued about 7 or 8 miles, in a very winding course which was in general N. Easterly. Encamped at half past 3 o'clock.

The reason for the expedition's entering the Nicomekl river was the Indians' description of a portage at its head leading into the Coweechin River (the Fraser River). The guides said it was a very bad route and they wanted to go by way of Point Roberts.


The navigation of the little river is very bad, after getting a short distance up it was often barred up with driftwood which impeded our progress, the Indians had cut roads through it for their canoes yet they were too narrow for our boats. Father up it is nearly closed up with willows so uncommonly thick that it was both laborious and tedious to get the boats dragged through them.

Map of early trails

This map, drawn by the United States Boundary Commission in 1858, and shows the route taken by the McMillan Expedition in 1824 from Mud Bay to the site of Fort Langley. The Expedition paddled up the Nicomekl River and crossed a portage to the Salmon River, and moved downstream to the Fraser River. An alternate, route to Fort Langley built during the BC Gold Rush, is also shown.


The first description of the landscape of South Surrey is provided in Work's Journal.


The appearance of the country round the bay(Semiahmoo Bay) from which we started this morning round to the point, appears low and flat, the bay appears to be shallow. In the river nothing but thick willows are seen for some distance from the water, where the banks though low are well wooded with pine, cedar, alder and some other trees. There is the appearance of beaver being pretty numerous in this river. Where we are now encamped is a pretty little plain.

The distance traveled would have taken them into the flats south of the present Cloverdale and probably east of the Pacific Highway near the Surrey-Langley boundary. Here they began a portage of 7910 yards or nearly four and one-half miles through Langley Prairie and the Salmon River. The character of the plains and soils was noted.


This portage, lies through a plain(Langley Prairie) which with the weighty rain is become so soft and miry, that in several places it resembles a swamp. The road is very miry and every hollow is a pool of water. The soil here appears to be very rich, is a black mould, the remains of luxurious crop of fern and grass lies on the ground. The country about here seems low, the trees are of different kinds, pine, birch, popular alder, etc., some of the pine are of a very large size. Some of the men who were hunting visited the upper part of the little river and report that they saw the appearance of plenty of beaver. Elk have been very numerous here some time ago but the hunters suppose that since this rainy season they have gone to high ground.

The McMillan Expedition continued north over Langley Prairie and down the Salmon River to the Fraser River. It was a this location that the site of the first Fort Langley was designated.



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