H. M. (Henry Martin) Robinson.

The great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory online

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Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Martin) RobinsonThe great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory → online text (page 1 of 24)
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182 Fifth Avenue


Copyright, 1S79, by G. P. Pi'tnam's SonSj





T N the preparation of this vohime the aim of the author
-'- has been to present some of the more picturesque phases
of life in the Hudson's Bay Territory, without wearying the
reader with the personal business of the traveler. To this
end he has shaped his material in the form of sketches, con-
nected only by their order, which represents the seasons of
the year in which the features treated periodically recur.

Wherever the personal knowledge of the author has been at
fault, the following works of orher travelers have formed
the basis of his descriptions : Hargrave's Red River., Butler's
Great Lone Land and Wild North Land., Ballantyne's Hud-
son Ba\\ Southesk's Saskatchezvan a?id the Rocky Mountains,
and ]\Iilton and Cheadle's Northioest Passage by Land.
Much of the material used in the composition of the vol-
ume has appeared heretofore in the shape of contributions
to Applctons Journal., Harper s and Lippincotf s Magazines.,
and the New York Evening Post.

H. M. R.




A Journey By Dog-Sledge. — A Reminiscence — The Passenger
Cariole — Sledge-Dogs— The Freight-Sledge— A Heathen Cree —
The Departure — Hybrid Mercuries— A New Sensation — Bibu-
lous Surnames — A Hudson's Bay Fort — The Night Bivouac — The
Hauling-dog's Day — Hie Jacet — A Dream — The Midnight Choir
— The Morning Start— Lake- Travel by Dog Sledge— The Storm
— Anathema Maranatha — Persuasion by the Whip — The Esqui-
maux Dog — An Invocation to the Manitou — Marche ! — The End
of the Journey I


Canoe-Life. — The Advent of Spring — The Birch-bark Canoe — Its
Uses— How it is Made — The Old Life of the Wilderness — Canotes
De Maitre — A North Canoe — The Voyageurs' Boat-song — Arrival
of a Canoe-brigade — Canoe-travel — A Summer Landscape — Ap-
proaching a Rapid — The Ascent — Patching a Leak — Poling —
Shooting a Rapid — Sic Transit 27

The IIalf-Breed Voyageur. — A Typical Half-Breed — His Mixed
Language — His Origin — Primitive Courtship in the Woods —
Number and Location of the Half-Breeds — The French Metis —
His Home and Surroundings — The Bed of Ware—Occupations of
our Half-Brother — His Improvidence— His Social Life — A Half-
Breed " Noce " — Spring Work and Summer Labor — Prolonged
Feasting with Famine to Follow — The Tastes of the Half-Breed
—His Mixed Theology 4°




The Hudson's Bay Company. — Its Relations to the Country — Or-
g.inization of the Company — The Fur Trade — The Company's
Servants — Life in the Service — The Rewards of Long Service —
Routine of Advancement — The Wintering Partner — Wives to
Order — The Aristocracy of the Wilderness — Change of Programme
— The Extent of the Fur Country — Its Divisions — Hudson's Bay
Forts — Their Garrisons — Fort Garry — Churchill Factory — Trad-
ing-Posts — The Trade-Room — A Trading Precaution — System of
Trading — Collection of Furs — The Life of the Servant 56

Life in a Hudson's Bay Company's Fort. — Business Routine —
How it is Acquired — The Real Life of the Fort — The Officers'
Mess — Subjects of Conversation — A Transient Guest — Meal-time
Sociality — The Stranger within the Gates — The Mess-table — A
Bill-of-Fare — Food Supplies — Starvation — The Comforts of Up-
holstery — Peculiarities of Individual Taste — Daily Routine of
Business — Indian Customers — Trade at Posts — The Monotonous
Hours — An Officer's Log-Book — Games, Literature, and Letter-
Writing — The Musical Instruments — A Dance — Life after Service 88

A Voyage \vith the Voyageurs. — The Boat-brigade — Indian and
Half-caste Women — The Aboriginal Voyageu)- — The Half-Breed
Voyageur — Some Characteristics of the Half-caste — His Personal
appearance and Habits — Buying a Wife — The System of Advances,
and how it Works — Meeting en route — Queer Scenes attending
the Departure of the Brigade — Scenery on the Lower Course of
the Red River of the North — The Transport .Service of the Com-
pany — The Freighting Season and its Routine — Inland Boats —
Their Crews — En Route — The Delta of the Red River — A Mid-
day Halt — Berry-Pemmican — Appearance of Pemmican — Its Sus-
taining Qualities and Flavor — Methods of Cooking it — Tea Drink-
ing — Making a Portage — Standard Weight of Packages in the Fur
Trade — How the Voyageur Portages the Cargo — Perils of Lake
Navigation — Far Niente — A Shore Camp — Bedding — A Camp
Scene — Mosquitoes and their Ways — A Tanley — Incidents of the
Voyage — The Winnipeg River — Breasting up a Fall — What Next?



— The Portage Landing — Forcing a Rapid — Tracking and its
Difficulties — Onward Progress — Wash-day — An Al fresco Toilet —
White Dog io6

The Great Fali, Hunts. — Red River Settlement — The Plain-
Hunters' Ancestry — The Semi-Annual Hunts — Preparation — The
Start for the Plains — The Rendezvous — Occupations of the Camp
— Horse-Racing and Gambling — The Camp by Night — The Morn-
ing Headache — The Half-Breed Plain hunter — A Donnybrook
Fair — A Prairie Election — The Officers of the Hunt — The Code
Napoleon — Departure for the Plains — The Line of March — A
Burned Prairie — The Night Camp — Sunday Observances — Open-
air Devotions — The Challenge and Race — Snaring a Buffalo — The
Feast and the Famine — Approaching the Herds — The Buffalo
Runner — The Charge — How the Hunter Loads — Cutting Up —
Pemmican — How it is Made — How it is Used — Dried Meat — In-
creasing Scarcity of Buffalo — Prolonged Feasting — The Return —
Encroaching Civilization 136

The Fraternity of Medicine-Men. — Life at Trading- Post — A
Medicine-Feast — Spiritual Communion — Indian Medicines — Pe-
riodical Poisons and their Queer Effects — The Curious Contents of
a Medicine-bag — Totems — The Medicine- Men — The Cures they
Perform — Medical Students — A Queer Ceremon}- — Initiation by
Torture — Indian Spiritualism — A Total Wreck — An Aboriginal
Medical College — The Conjuror's Legerdemain — Old Prob —
Mysterious Power i63


The Blackkeet — A Plain-Indian "Trade."' — The Blackfeet
Country — Perpetual Warfare — Origin of the Blackfeet — Their Con-
federacy — The Sircies — Language and Location of the Tribes —
Dress and Appearance of the Blackfeet — Their Mental Character-
istics — Civil Organization of the Confederacy — Fondness for Liquor
— Funeral and Burial Ceremonies — Trade with the Blackfeet —
Rocky Mountain House — The Aboriginal Commercial Traveler —
His Purple and Fine Linen — " Drumming " — Preparations at the



Fort — The Trade-Room — How the Customer is Received — Ap-
proach of the Band— A Travaille — A Tepee — Blackfeet Ponies — A
Palaver — An Indian Present — How the Indian Trades — The Ins
and the Outs — The Rush to get In— Characteristic Objections — A
Horse Trade — The Current Coin of the Fur Land — A New Suit
and Its Fate — Liquor Trading — A New Legal Tender — Some
Queer Scenes. 1S5

Winter Travel. — Autumn in the Fur Land — Wheels vs. Runners —
The Red River Cart — The Carriage of Madame — Raw-hide Har-
ness — Shaganappi — The Cart- Pony — A Native Horseman — An
Indian Pony — The Careening Cariole and its Uses — Locomotion
on Snowshoes — Sledge-dogs — The Hudson's Bay Dog-sledge —
The Freight-Sledge — Dog Harness — The Dog as a Draught Ani-
mal — Intense Cold — How the Winter Traveler Dresses — How the
Half-Breed Dresses — Tents in Winter — The Yellow Dog — The
Morning Start — The Traveler's Irritation — A Fight in Harness —
A Winter Landscape — The Travelei's Sensations — Incidents of
the Journey — The Night Camp — An Open-air Bedroom — The
Daily Routine of Travel 213

The Fur Hunter. — Wood Indians — The System of Advances — The
Trapper's Dress — His Outfit — The Start into the Forest — Tlie
Trapper's Life — Reading Signs — How to malce a Marten-trap —
Lenten Feasts — Steel Traps for Wolves and Foxes — The Poisoned
Bait — A Beaver Colony — The Trapper comes — The Beaver Lodge
— Trapping Beaver in Summer — The Wolverine — The Way he gets
a Living — His Destructiveness and Persecution of the Trapper —
Pleasures and Pains of the Trapper's Life — The Vast Forests in
Winter — Short Commons — Sleeping Out 240

A Winter Camp. — A Social Photograph— The Winter Hunters—
Half-Breed Houses — The Wife's Relations — Work of the Women
— Treatment of Infants — Half-Breed Ho.spitality — Forest Gour-
mands — Prolonged Feasting with Famine to J"ollow — A Bill of
Fare — The Hudson's Bay Ration — Some Phases of Matiiraony



— The Inconvenience of having but one Room — Wooing in Com-
pany — Gabriel Dines — Seclusion by Courtesy — How the Half-
Breed Lover Courts his Sweetheart — Half-Breed Pet Names —
Love's Whippers-in — The Worth of Sisters and a Father to a
Maiden whose Lover is Shy — The Wedding Gifts — Later Progress
of the Wooing — The Groom's Leggins — The Wedding — The In-
dian Hanger-on — Communism in the Woods — How the Indian
Begs — The Indian in his Cups — Home of the Hanger-on — The
Indian I^anguages— Home Costume of the Red Man — The Mis-
sionary Priests and their Curious Flocks — The Merchant of the
Plains — His Store and Customers — The Free-trader's Station in
Camp — Liquor Trade — March to the Settlements — Disposition of
the Furs — Sojourn of the Trader in Civilization — The Winter
Hunt — Departure for the ButTalo Grounds — Strategy of the Hunt
— Stalking — Cutting up the Buffaloes — A Forest Meat-house — End
of the Expedition — The White Stranger — The Poetry of Wild
Life 254


TliE FliOST King. — The Prairie Ocean — Its Antiquity — .Some Curious
Features — Sun Guidance — Lost upon the Prairie — The Plains in
Winter — The Mirage — The Guideboards of the Plain-dweller —
A Winter Scene — Frozen Noses — Some Phenomena of Arctic
Weather — A Poudre Day — Incidents of Winter Travel — The
Melancholy Still Days — Night on the Prairies — Clothing for Cold
Weather — .\ Winter Landscape — The Terrors of a Blizzard — A
Freezing E.xperience 289

A Half-Breed Ball. — The Invitation — Mental Pictures — Consular
Archives — The Habiliments of Rejoicing — An Upset — Peculiari-
ties of my Attendant — Discharged from the Sledge — My Host and
his Guests — A General Introduction — Pauline — French Osculation
— The Groom Expectant — My Hostess and her Cuisine — A Time to
Dance — A Half-Breed Terpsichore — I Dance — Then Swear Off
— The Ball Supper — A Satisfied Appetite — Disposal of Wearied
Guests — Morning and Departure 315

A Wood-Indian "Trade." — How the Hudson's Bay Company
gathers Furs — The Extent and Methods of Business — Winter



in the Forts — Indian Trappers' Spring Visit — The Company's
Prices and Profits — High Prices paid for Muskets and Blankets —
The Cost of Goods — The Liquor Traffic — A Fair Standard of Vahie
— An Indian's Queer Ways of Shopping — The White Medicine-
Man — The Luxuries of Life — The Trappers' Relations to the Com-
pany — The Preservation of Game — The System of Advances — Tea
and Tobacco — Spring Work — The Wealth of Furs — The Pine Mar-
ten — The Fisher — The Mink — The Raccoon — Costly P'ox-fur —
The Decline in demand for Beaver-skins — Muskrats — The Lynx
and Sea Otter — Bear and Rabbit Skins — The Robe of Commerce
— The Buffalo's Coat — Likeness to Lions — Women's Work —
Painting the Robes — The Indian's Friend — Finis 326



One of the Team 5

The Line of March 9

The Night Camp. . . 17

A Half-Breed's Cabin 43

A Hudson's Bay Company's Post 55

A Hudson's Bay Company's Outpost 75

A Portage Landing 99

A Northern River 105

Making a Portage 119

A Portage Camp 133

Tracking 134

A Blackfeet Grave 193

The Trading Store . 201

Cart-Wheel Scow 215

A Cariole 221

Hudson's Bay Dogs ... 223

A Freight-Sledge 226

A Fight in Harness 233

Steel Traps 245

A Winter Camp 253

Half-Breed Leggins 267

Indian Costume ... 273

A Fire-Bag 339




A MEMORY which refuses to associate with ordinary
remembrances, and has an odd preference for the
company of sportive and incongruous dreams, is that of a cer-
tain charming gentleman, of extremely punctilious bearing,
careering wildly over a frozen Northern prairie in a dog-
sledge. He was the proprietor and determined wearer of the
only silk hat within a radius of four hundred miles, and still
adhered to the use of a shawl as an outer covering long years
after it had ceased to be employed as an article of wear.
Added to this was an irreproachable suit of black broadcloth,
the like of which was not to be encountered within the same
radius, and a pair of tight boots, that would have frozen the
feet of a half-breed runner. In this civilized apparel he was
essaying his first ride in a dog-sledge, and a more incongruous
spectacle it has never been my lot to behold.

Seated in a cariole resembling in shape a heelless shoe,
the unfortunate gentleman was whirling over the drifted plain
in rapid but tortuous course. Having, in the confidence of
perfect ignorance, refused the proffered services of a driver


lest he should excite ridicule by being guarded and guided
like an infant in a baby-cab, he was now reaping the fruits of
his rashness in a series of the most remarkable gyrations of
which the human body is capable. The dogs being unac-
quainted with the language of their freight, and evidently
animated by the spirit of evil, wandered at their own sweet
will over the snow-covered plain ; their will generally prompt-
ing them to plunge headlong into every drift, or to skirt the
steep sides of the long ridges. Under these depressing cir-
cumstances, it behooved the neophyte to use his utmost en-
deavor to retain an upright position, in order to avoid a
sledge-ride in which his own body would be used as the run-
ners, and the cariole assume the place of passenger.

Being limited by the construction of the sledge to the use
of his hands alone, hitherto employed in holding his shawl, he
-vvas forced to drop that favorite covering in order that, by
swaying rapidly from side to side and plunging his hands in
the snow, he might right the sledge. This continuous seesaw,
and the crowning incongruity of the silk hat, gave him at
length the appearance of a jumping-jack, or "the gentleman
in black," as he starts suddenly from the box and swings
pendulous from side to side. His frantic shouts of " Whoa ! "
availed nothing ; the dogs, having been sent out to give their
passenger a ride, were evidently bent upon doing it, and
wandered vaguely about on the drifting snow. At length, a
more than usually vertical drift being reached, the tired arms
gave out, and the cariole, left without support, poised a
moment in mid-air, then turned over, leaving the recumbent
voyager with his legs still fastened to the sledge, but with
arms thrust deep into the snow and head calmly pillowed in


the depths of his hat. From this position he was powerless
to move, except at the will of the dogs, who had now faced
about in their harness, and seated themselves to gaze imper-
turbably upon the wreck. The spectacle of this representa-
tive of a higher civilization lying stranded upon a thin board
in a limitless ocean of snow, proved too much for half-breed
courtesy ; and there he lay until the owner of the cariole had
sufficiently recovered from successive convulsions of laughter
to run to his assistance.

A determination to avoid a like experience led the writer,
some time afterward, before undertaking a winter's journey
across the frozen expanse of Lake Winnipeg, to pursue a little
judicious training, surreptitiously undergone upon an unfre-
quented by-road, before even attempting to decide upon the
merits of the various teams presented for that service.

To begin my journey, I purchased a board about nine feet
long and sixteen inches wide, which was duly steamed and
turned up at one end. To it wooden bows were fastened,
while over it was stretched a stout covering of raw-hide.
This accomplished, the board resembled the front of a slipper.
To complete the likeness, a heel-top was made by attach-
ing an upright back about two feet from the rear end, and ex-
tending the raw-hide covering to it. Then the shoe was sub-
mitted to an Indian friend, who decorated its outer surface
with mystical emblems in red and yellow pigments, covering
the whole with a coating of oil. When the motive power was
furnished, the ship would be ready to sail.

The selection of the propelling force was more difficult of
accomplishment. Dogs of high and low degree were brought
for inspection ; for dogs in the North have but one occupa-


tion — to haul. From the Esquimaux down through all the
stages of canine life to the Indian mongrel, all are alike doomed
to labor before a sledge of some kind during the winter months ;
all are destined to howl under the beatings of a brutal driver ;
to tug wildly at the moose-skin collar ; to haul until they can
haul no longer, and then to die. When I look back at the
long line of seared and whip-marked heads, whose owners
were put through their best paces in demonstration of their
perfect fitness for the work, what a host of sadly-resigned
faces rises up before me ! There were heads lacking an ear,,
an eye ; heads bearing the marks of blows with sticks, whips,
the heels of boots ; heads that had been held down and beaten
out of all semblance of life ; and heads yet all bleeding and
torn with the brutal lashings thought necessary to impart an
air of liveliness before a probable purchaser ! The same
retrospect brings up the hybrid drivers of those dogs, upon
the majority of whose countenances a painful indifference to
suffering and an inherent brutality were plainly visible —
dusky, athletic fellows, whose only method of dealing with the
poor dog, who gave up everything in life for them, was by
blows and fierce invective.

For a time all teams submitted for inspection seemed
wanting in some essential quality. At length, however, my
prospective driver informed me of a half-breed acquaintance
who was the possessor of a team which he thought would
answer the purpose. His mongrel friend resided sixty miles
away ; but distance and time go for naught in the North — in
fact, are about the only possessions with which the inhabitants
are plentifully endowed ; so we compassed the space and pur-
chased the dogs. There were four of them — long-haired.



clean-legged, fox-headed animals, with more the appearance
of wolves than of dogs. With them came four sets of har-


ness, each set having a tinkling row of bells in its back-band
which, being of different tones, rang a merry chime as their
wearers trotted briskly along. This completed the passenger
accommodation ; now for the baggage-van.

Another board, ten feet in length and fourteen inches
wide, was purchased, steamed, and turned up at one end.
But, instead of the raw-hide covering, shoe-latchets were in-
serted in the outer edges of the board, which would tie down
tightly to its surface the load of provision, bedding, and
camp-equipage, necessary for the journey. For this sledge
the motive power was selected less critically ; strength was the
requisite, not symmetry ; so dogs of strong sinew and large
bone were chosen, regardless of looks. For provision, we had
pemmican — the pounded dried meat of the buffalo mingled
with fat — and black tea : the doss had frozen whitefish.


My driver was a heathen Cree. He was, moreover, a lin-
guist, speaking several aboriginal dialects and a kind of
mongrel French. Five golden sovereigns constituted the
bond of union between us. He was a lank, muscular man,
the bones of whose huge frame stood out conspicuously at the
joints and angles, and the muscles showed distinctly in his
gaunt meagreness. He had yellow paint on his face, and was
arrayed in rather bewildering apparel. His headgear was the
luxuriant chevelure with which Nature had endowed him.
On his feet he wore moccasins ; on his limbs he wore leggins,
which extended only a certain way above the knee, leaving
that Providence which "tempers the wind to the shorn lamb "
a dreary waste of yellow-mottled skin upon which to experi-
ment ; on his body he wore a cotton shirt perennially innocent
of soap. Attached to this shirt, and stretched straight and
taut across the pit of his stomach, he wore a brass watch-
chain. Over all, like the mantle of Charity, was strapped a
green blanket. Thus attired, he resembled a settled melan-
choly, or a god of bile from a dyspeptic's inferno. Neverthe-
less, he could travel from forty to sixty miles a day, running
alongside the sledge.

It was the loth of December when we left Fort Garry,
bound down the Red River of the North, across the frozen
length of Lake Winnipeg, to Norway House, at its northern
extremity. There started with us the four dog-trains and two
drivers which constitute the Great Northern Packet of the
Hudson's Bay Company, and which, with its connecting links,
scatters news over all that vast region lying between the forty-
ninth and sixty-seventh parallels of latitude, in North


America, and reaching east and west from Labrador to Alaska.
Our route being the same, we joined company with the hybrid
Mercuries, and began our journey amid much cracking of
whips, howling of dogs, and profanity discreetly veiled by de-
livery in the heathen tongues.

To the novice the spectacle presented by a number of
gayly-accoutered dog-trains gliding merrily by is a cheerful
one. The tiny bells keeping time to the foot-falls of the
shaggy train ; the cariole fantastically decorated in bright,
Avarm colors ; the passenger cozily wrapped in furs and
woolens of shades suggestive of warmth and comfort ; the
active driver trotting unweariedly alongside, until the sledge
with all its belongings becomes a mere speck of black upon
the limitless expanse of snow — all conspire to commend dog-
sledging to the transient spectator as the ideal of winter travel,
the veritable poetry of motion. The swan-like motion of the
sledge as its thin bottom yields in graceful curves and undu-
lations, to adapt itself to inequalities of surface beneath it, is
strangely suggestive of the progress of a canoe over waters
faintly ruffled by a passing breeze. To lie in such a cradle,
and be gently rocked over a varying landscape hour after
hour, would seem an idyllic life in which satiety could never
come. But, suppose the cold to be of that intensity which
it is neither possible to picture nor describe ; of that degree
in which, after having spoken of the whip-handle which burns
the hand that touches it, the tea that freezes while it is being
drunk ; in which an instant's exposure of the face leaves the
cheek or the classical nose upon which one prides himself
white and rigid as a piece of marble ; in which the traveler,
with head bowed to meet the crushing blast, goes wearily on,


as silent as the river and forests through which he rides, and
from whose rigid bosom no sound ever comes, no ripple ever
breaks, no bird, no beast, no human face appears — a cold of
which, having said all this, there is a sense of utter inability
to convey any adequate idea, except that it means sure and

Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Martin) RobinsonThe great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory → online text (page 1 of 24)