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The Rennie Party

A map of the Overlander Trail of 1862.

In 1862, a party of five hopeful prospectors set out from London, Ontario, on a difficult land route that would take them to Barkerville, British Columbia, the epicenter of the Cariboo Gold Rush. But near the end of their journey, as they canoed west on the Fraser River, tragedy struck the group. Their boat was destroyed just downstream of where the Huble Homestead would later be built, and two of them left the others in an unsuccessful attempt to get help from Fort George. The three remaining travelers suffered a gruesome death in the harsh winter, the full details of which were only discovered several months later. Two newspaper articles from the time recount the story. The first is one survivor’s account of the journey west; the other reports John Robert Giscome’s findings on the fates of the three deceased Overlanders.  

The first story, “A Melancholy Diary”, by Gilbert Rennie, appeared in the July 11, 1863 edition of The British Colonist. According to the article, Gilbert and his brothers, William and Thomas, along with Englishmen John Helstone and John R. Wright, left London on May 15th, 1862. This was an unusually late departure date; most of the other Overlanders had left a month earlier.

Upon their arrival to North America, the men travelled west to Saint Cloud, Minnesota, and through the Dakotas, arriving at Fort Garry in Manitoba on July 7th. The group then passed through Fort Carlton and Fort Pitt in Saskatchewan before reaching Fort Edmonton on August 27th. They made good time in their trek across Alberta, going by St. Albert and then St. Anne, crossing the Pembina River in mid- September.

A map of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers.

Next, the Rennie party forded the swampy region of the McLeod, rafted over Athabasca Lake, and crossed the Rockies into British Columbia via the Yellowhead Pass, then known as the Leather Pass, which the previous group of Overlanders had gone through just a month earlier. Finally, on October 4th, 1862, they reached Tête Jaune Cache, a British Columbian town near the source of the Fraser River that was then an outpost of the Hudson Bay Company.

The weather there was quite fine, as it had been for most of their journey. Indeed, Gilbert said it was so mild that some of the meat they were drying spoiled, and blood-sucking black flies caused great annoyance. They spent 11 days there drying meat and building two canoes, which guides recommended they lash together to avoid having an upset. The river, which would later be blasted with dynamite by the Grand Trunk Pacific railway to clear some of the rapids, was quite dangerous. On the 15th of October they set out on the Fraser River in their canoes, continually running rapids for two weeks. Once they reached the Fraser River's 'Grand Canyon,' a treacherous gorge approximately 140 kilometres upstream of present-day Prince George, they spent three days portaging. This meant the men got out of the water and carried their canoes, on land, to a calmer point in the river. However, the worst was yet to come. The delayed departure on their journey would prove to be a source of great suffering for them when, on October 29th, the weather caught up to the season and their misfortune began.

View of the Fraser River in November at Huble Homestead

On that fateful day their larger canoe got stuck on a sunken rock in the middle of boiling rapids—now referred to as the Giscome Rapids—just downstream of present-day Huble Homestead. Despite their best efforts, the five travelers were unable to free themselves, and they remained stuck there overnight amid heavy snowfall. The next day, John Helstone, John Wright, and William Rennie tried to take the small canoe ashore. It capsized almost immediately; Helstone and Rennie made it back to the large canoe, but Wright was carried a mile and a half downstream.


Wright knew that if he did not dry himself off, he might very well freeze to death. The others threw him some matches so that he could start a fire, but he was too cold and wet to light them. Snow was still falling heavily; he had no choice but to walk to keep his blood circulating. Despite his efforts, over the night he was seriously frostbitten, and his fingers were too frozen the next morning to light the matches. Finally, the group in the canoe made a rope out of moose skin and tossed it ashore, after which Wright secured it to a tree. The four remaining men used the rope to pull themselves through the river to the bank where Wright waited, bringing their remaining supplies with them.


It was now October 31st and their situation was dire. Having spent two nights in a canoe with only dried meat to eat, the rest of the party was now just as wet and cold as Wright. None of them were able to light a fire that day. In addition, when the small canoe sank, they lost nearly all of their money, much of their clothing and bedding, and most of their food. They spent the night huddled together in a nook in the rocks, covered in their blankets and buffalo skins. John Helstone and Thomas Rennie both had their feet badly frozen.

William Rennie in Barkerville (from the BC Archives).

They eventually managed to kindle a fire via gunpowder in a dry handkerchief, which allowed them to dry their clothes and cook some provisions. The party made a brush heap for shelter and built a kind of bridge to get their canoe off the rock. On November 4th they attempted to continue down the river in the canoe, but were unable to because of the ice. Provisions were running low, and Wright, Helstone, and Thomas Rennie were in a desperate state. Believing that they would all perish if they remained there, the three men persuaded the reluctant Gilbert and William Rennie to seek aid from Fort George.


On November 5th the Rennie brothers set out with one meal, a rifle, and some ammunition, leaving the others with 10 days worth of food. They made a long and arduous journey south through deep snow, spending three days making a bridge to cross the Salmon River, shooting birds and squirrels to eat. Waist-deep snow hindered their progress, and by the time they arrived at Fort George, William’s feet were so frozen that he had to be lifted into a canoe by an Indigenous man to cross the Nechako River.


When they left to seek help, the Rennie party had believed it would only take them five days to get to Fort George and back. However, it had taken Gilbert and William over five times that long to event reach their destination; it was now December 3rd. The next day, two Indigenous men were sent to search for the rest of the party. They returned in a few hours, saying the snow was too deep and the river not frozen enough to walk on. Thus, the Rennies were forced to abandon all hope. Mr. Charles, the manager of the station, urged them to leave quickly as provisions were getting short. However, William’s frostbitten feet prevented him from moving outside for 40 days.

On New Year’s Day the Rennie brothers visited John Giscome’s cabin. While there, four Indigenous men arrived, and one of the Rennies asked if they had seen the missing men. The Indigenous men said they had not come by that route, and that the next day they would return to the lake they came from. On January 30th, 1863, the Rennies traded their rifle to Mr. Charles for provisions and they departed for Quesnel; after meeting the Hudson Bay Company’s Express en route, and procuring more food, they reached Quesnelle on February 9th. They went to Williams Lake, stayed there for a month, then preceded to their original destination, Williams Creek (present-day Barkerville), the epicenter of the Cariboo Gold Rush. The Rennies remained there until June 17th, when they set out for Lillooet.

Barkerville in 1865, rebuilt after the Great Fire.

The fate of John Helstone, John Wright, and Thomas Rennie is reported by John Giscome in The British Colonist article, titled “A Fearful Tragedy,” on December 15, 1863. It seems that after the four Indgenous men spoke to the Rennie brothers in Giscome’s cabin on January 1st, two of them went upriver seeking the unlucky travelers. And they found them — or at least two of them. Helstone and Wright were still alive, but in order to remain so, they had murdered Thomas Rennie and eaten most of his upper body. They were tearing raw flesh from his legs when the two came upon them; they fled when Helstone and Wright drew their pistols. Fort George only learned of this from another group of Indigenous men in March, at which point Gilbert and William were already long gone. Mr. Charles, fearing for the safety of the survivors, asked Giscome to examine the camp when he went on his prospecting tour in April.


Giscome, his partner, Henry McDame, and an Indigenous guide headed up the Fraser River to the camp; it was there they found the remains of two men. Thomas Rennie’s skull was found in a corner of the camp in a neat pile of bloody, half-chewed bones. Another man’s skull was found - this one had been chopped open with an axe. Outside the camp, they found some of Rennie’s hair, still attached to a hunk of skin. Giscome and his party collected the remains, buried them, and left a written notice of what happened. After the guide took them through Lhdesti, the trail that would later be popularized as the Giscome Portage, they arrived at Summit Lake.


While Giscome was writing to Mr. Charles about his findings, the men who had helped him pack over the portage became upset, thinking that he was accusing them in his letter. After he assured them that this was not the case, one of them told Giscome where the third man’s body could be found. He was lying over a rise, more than 300 yards from the camp. He was stripped of his clothes and had several hatchet wounds on his head and body.

The men at Summit Lake had most of the travellers’ belongings, including two axes, some camp utensils, a spyglass, Thomas Rennie’s coat, which had almost a dozen knife holes in it, and a small Bible with a photo of a young woman inside, though there was nothing to indicate which man the last item belonged to. They said another group of Indigenous men four days away had the blankets, clothing, pocketbooks, etc. of the deceased, but they refused to say anything regarding the murder of survivor. Giscome concluded that, freezing and starving, the three men had eaten one another and the last of them potentially killed for the sake of plunder. Giscome guessed the last man had died in early to mid-January, some weeks before the Rennies left Fort George for Quesnel.

It is not known when William and Gilbert Rennie learned what happened to their brother and friends. Giscome did have some items he intended to deliver to the two should he ever meet them, including a letter from Gilbert’s wife and two from the mother of the deceased Rennie. Giscome seemed to have confused which Rennie that actually was: throughout his article, he refers to Thomas as William and vice-versa. Assuming he ever read Giscome’s story, poor William was undoubtedly quite perplexed to hear he had been cannibalized.

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