H. M. (Henry Martin) Robinson.

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

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proceeds to call off the measures of the dance, in a corrup-
tion of the musical language of la belle France. The dances
do not partake of the nature of the dreamy waltz, or the mild
mazourka, but rather of the wild eccentricities of the jig and
physical labor of the reel. The volatile half-breed requires
something vigorous and exciting in his amusements. The
disciples of Terpsichore, male and female, take positions upon

the floor, and, after a preliminary courtesy, start off in the


jig ; the remainder of the guests looking on with admiring
eyes. After a few minutes, a young man jigs across the floor,
and usurps the place of the first performer, and the female is
shortly relieved by another of her sex, who is soon superseded
by yet another. So it continues, until all the company have
taken turns upon the floor. I am matriculating for a stoic,
yet confess to irreverent laughter at the trembling forms of
the dancers, who perform with a nervous energy and excite-
ment that is indescribable.

At times there is an evident desire exhibited by the favor-
ite performers to test the capacity of their legs and the sound-
ness of their wind, by earnest efforts to dance each other down.
On these occasions the audience become intensely sympathetic,
and encourage their favorite champion by words of superla-
tive endearment. I hear my neighbor apostrophizing the lady
thus : " Oh, my little dear ! what legs you have got ! You are
entirely too much for that little frog ! When you are done,
you shall have a drink, my daughter ! Ah, holy Moses, what
power ! what endurance ! You could outrun the deer, luoii
migiion ! Well, will you win, lua bichctte ? Sacre ! you are
down, eh ! "

Then come the reels, performed by six or eight dancers,
who circle about in an energetic way, and, when exhausted,
retire and give place to others. There is no cessation, save
when the artist, wielding the instrument of Paganini, signifies
to the parched condition of his throat by becoming slower in
his touch.

As the dance continues, the excitement grows more in-


tense, and the civilized and heathen dialects are more inex-
tricably mixed up. The performers are unwearied in their
efforts, and, when forced to retire from the field, are covered
with perspiration. I am convinced of the democratic nature
of the assembly, by seeing my uncivilized driver of dogs em-
braced in the number of the dancers. But it is becoming

I am seized with a desire to join in the Terpsichorean
maze, and, finding Pauline, I plunge into the intricacies of a
reel. I am no match, however, for that matrimonially-
inclined young woman, and, after a few turns, find myself
swinging off at a tangent, like the loose finger of a compass.
I am alarmed at the complicated machinery I have set going,
but am, ere long, swung off to a wooden chest by the excited
Pauline, who exhibits some inclination to encamp on my
knees. That being a weak point in my anatomy, I forego
the pleasure by sliding quickly to the end of the box, upon
which the enthusiastic maiden sits down solidly.

I discover that the gyrations of the dance have produced
a dizziness about the head, and a nausea in the stomach, to
which I am unaccustomed. As it increases, I " swear off "
dancing, and devote my talents to observation and pleasant
chats with my friend Pierrette. Employed in this manner,
I fail for some time to note the greasy mouths and fingers of
many of the guests. When I do so, and the consciousness
dawns upon me that these are certain indications of supper,
I at once retire to the depths, registering a vow to partake of
every dish upon the table.


I am assured that the engaged Pauline, and her fair sis-
ters, do not feed alone upon ambrosia, from witnessing their
prowess with knife and fork at table. What the delicate sex
of civilization would think of such an exhibition of carnivo-
rous appetite, is beyond my penetration. The viands consist
wholly of meats, flanked by wheaten cakes, baked in the

My vis-a-vis announces the termination of his meal, by
asking the maiden whom he attends whether she is full (!)
She replies that she is full. Imitating their example, I return
to the ballroom in a gorged and semi-dormant condition.

The dance still continues with unabated vigor, although
now well toward morning. I note, however, the mysterious
disappearance, from time to time, of the dancers, who reap-
pear at unexpected intervals with a certain frouzy air, which,
nevertheless, quickly disappears under the excitement of the
dance. Impelled by curiosity, I pursue a retreating form,
and am led to a distant part of the mansion, where I find,
stretched out upon the floor, the recumbent forms of the miss-
ing guests. From time to time, as many as are requisite to
keep up the festivities, are awakened ; and, being forthwith
revived with raw spirits, join in the dance with renewed vigor.
Passing another apartment, I catch a glimpse of the female
guests enjoying a similar siesta, and thus learn how the affair
is continued for so long a period.

On arising in the morning, I am astonished to find the
dancers of the previous night replaced by an entirely new set,


of more mature age and aspect, who have dropped in to bear
the burden of the festivities during the day. On the approach
of night again, however, the former set resume their places,
and thus it continues for a number of days.

After three days, I make my adieus to the pleasant family,
and am whirled back to civilization by my demoralized driver
of dogs, fully satisfied with my experience of a half-breed
Indian ball.



I "'ROM the latter part of October, when the hunters and
■*- trappers take advances for the winter's hunt, to the
latter part of March, when the season's catch of fur begins
slowly to come in, but few indications of life are visible about
the isolated trading-posts of the company scattered through-
out the Fur Land. Through the deep snow, drifted within
the stockades in fantastic outlines, narrow paths are cut.
Occasionally a shivering figure hurries from one building to
another, but for the most part they are deserted ; and, except
for the light smoke curling from the chimney-tops, one might
fancy the small collection of houses but a series of snow-
drifts, shaped by the shifting winds into a weird but transient
likeness to human habitation. As the spring approaches,
however, the hibernal torpor which has influenced a large
portion of the trading population, gives way to the active life
generated by the vigorous prosecution of the fur-trade.

Toward the latter end of March, or the beginning of April,
the Indian trappers leave their hunting-grounds, and make a
journey to the fort with the produce of their winter's toil.
Here they come, marching through the forest, a motley
throng ; not men only, but women and children and dogs, of


all ages and condition ; each dragging sleds, or hand-tobo-
gans, bearing the precious freight of fur to the trading-post.
The braves march in front, too proud and too lazy to carry
anything but their guns, and not always doing even that.
After them come the squaws, bending under loads, driving
dogs, or hauling hand-sleds laden with meat, furs, tanned
deer-skins, and infants. The puppy dog and the inevitable
baby never fail in Indian lodge or cortege. The cheering
spectacle of the two, packed together on the back of a wo-
man, is not of infrequent occurrence ; for in the Fur Land
wretched woman often bears man's burden of toil as well
as her own. The unwilling dog also becomes a victim, and
degenerates into a beast of burden, either drawing a sledge, or
a loaded travaille.

Fifty or one hundred miles away from the nearest fort the
minks and martens of the Indian trappers have been cap-
tured. Half-a-dozen families have, perhaps, wintered to-
gether, and they all set out for the fort in company. The
dogs and women are heavily laden, and the march through
the melting snow is slow and toilsome. All the household
goods have to be taken along. The black and battered
kettles, the leather lodge, the axe, the papoose strapped in
its moss-bag, the two puppy dogs not yet able to care for
themselves, the snowshoes for hunting, the rush mats, the
dried meat ; all together it makes a big load, and squaw and
dog toil along with difficulty under it. Day after day the
mongrel party journeys on, until the j^ost is reached. Then
comes the trade.


The trapping or wood-Indian not being considered a dan-
gerous customer, the gates of the post are freely thrown open
to him. Accompanied by his female following, bearing the
burden of fur, he marches boldly into the trading-room. Here
the trader receives him, and proceeds at once to separate his
furs into lots, placing the standard valuation upon each pile.

The company has one fixed, invariable price for all goods
in each district, and there is no deviation from the schedule.
Any Indian to whom particular favor is meant receives a
suitable present, but neither gets more for his furs, nor pays
less for his supplies, than the tariff directs. In the southern
portion of the territory, which forms the great battle-ground
between the company and free-traders, the Indians receive
many presents to keep them true to their allegiance. Espe-
cially is this true with the most expert trappers, who often
get articles to the value of fifty or sixty skins (upwards of
$35 in value), and the ordinary hunters receive large presents
also. In the North, however, where the company is all-pow-
erful, and rules its subjects with a mild and equitable sway,
presents are only made in exceptional cases. The company
reserve a very narrow margin of profit, so narrow, indeed,
that on certain staple articles there is an absolute loss. In
the Missouri country, some years ago, when several rival
companies existed, the selling price of goods, as compared to
their cost price, was about six times greater than that fixed
by the Hudson's Bay Company's general tariff.

And yet their total profits are so enormous that it has been
deemed advisable, from time to time, to hide the truth by


nominal additions to the capital stock. Of two hundred and
sixty-eight proprietors there were, in July, 1858, one hundred
and ninety-six who had purchased at two hundred and twenty
to two hundred and forty per cent. In the hostilities between
the French and English from 1682 to 1688 they lost ^^i 18,014,
yet in 1864 a dividend of fifty per centum, and in 1869 one
of twenty-five per centum, were paid. The capture of for-
tresses by the French at intervals between 1662 and 1697 cost
them ^97,000. Yet soon after the peace of Utrecht they
had trebled their capital, with a call of only ten per centum
on the stockholders. No wonder that in those days, and for
long after, a Hudson's Bay share was never long in the

For a very evident reason — that of the goose and golden
eggs — the price paid for furs is not in strict accordance with
their intrinsic value. If it was, all the valuable fur-bearing
animals would soon become extinct, as no Indian would bother
himself to trap a cheap fur when a high-priced one remained
alive. The hunter may possibly, in the remote northern
regions, have to pay five silver-fox skins for his pair of three-
point blankets, worth there about fifteen dollars, the value of
the skins paid representing two hundred dollars ; but he can,
if he likes, buy the same article by paying for it in muskrat
red-fox, or skunk-skins of inferior worth. In the early days
of the trade, before the facilities for transportation were as
perfect as now, the price of merchandise far exceeded that of
the present time.

We have been credibly informed that when Fort Dunve-


gan, on Peace River, near the Rocky Mountains, was first
established, the reguhar price of a trade-musket was Rocky
]\Iountain sables piled up on each side of it until they were
level with the muzzle. The sables were worth in England at
least fifteen dollars apiece, and the musket cost in all not more
than five dollars. The price of a six-shilling blanket was in
a like manner thirteen beavers of the best quality, and twenty
of a less excellent description. At that time beaver were worth
eight dollars a pound, and a good beaver would weigh from
one to one and three-quarter pounds. Gradually the Indians
began to know better the value of a musket and of their furs,
and to object most decidedly to the one being piled along-
side the other, which, report goes, was lengthened every year
by two inches. Finally a pestilent fellow discovered silk as a
substitute for the napping of beaver hats, and that branch of
the trade declined.

Lest an erroneous impression of the profit made on the
trade-musket by the company may be gained, however, it may
be well to state that because the flint-gun and the sable pos-
sess so widely different values in the world's markets, it does
not necessarily follow that they should also possess the same
relative values in the Fur Land. Seven years often elapse
after the trade-musket leaves the company's warehouses in
London before it returns to the same place in the shape of
sable. It leaves England in the company's ship in June, and
for one year lies within the walls of York Factory, on Hudson's
Bay ; one year later it reaches Red River ; twelve months
later again it reaches Fort Simpson, on the Mackenzie River;


there it is turned into sable within the year, and returns to
London in three years, following the same route over which
it came. That old rough flint-gun, whose bent barrel the In-
dian hunter will often straighten between the limbs of a tree
or in the cleft of a rock, has been made precious by the long
labor of many men ; by the trackless wastes Arough which it
has been carried ; by the winter famine of those persons who
have to sell it ; and by the years which elapse between its de-
parture from the workshop, and the return of the skin of sable
or silver-fox for which it was bartered.

It is a mistake also to suppose that spirits are supplied in
large quantities from the company's stores. In the Northern
districts spirits are not allowed to enter the country ; and in
no case are they a medium of traffic for furs ; though in the
Southern districts rum is sometimes exchanged for provisions
when they cannot be got on other terms. It is only when
the Ifidian is in communication with free-traders that he be-
comes a regular drunkard ; those who deal with the company
confining themselves, or rather being confined, to a small
quantity twice a year; the first when they receive their sup-
plies before the hunting season, the second when they return
with the product of the chase. Even this custom obtains only
with the Plain-Indians, and is being gradually abolished.

The trader, having separated the furs, and valued each at
the standard valuation, now adds the amount together and
informs the Indian — who has been a deeply interested specta-
tor of all this strange procedure — that he has got sixty or
seventy "skins." At the same time he hands his customer


sixty or seventy little bits of wood, to represent the number
of skins ; so that the latter may know, by returning these in
payment of the goods for which he really barters his furs,
how fast his funds decrease.

The first act of the Indian is to cancel the debt of last
year. This is for advances made him at the beginning of
the season ; for the company generally issue to the Indians
such goods as they need, up to a certain amount, when the
summer supplies arrive at the forts, such advances to be re-
turned in furs at the end of the season.

After that he looks round upon the bales of cloth, guns,
blankets, knives, beads, ribbons, etc., which constitute the
staples of the trade, and after a long while, concludes to have
a small white capote. The trader tells him the price, but he
has a great deal of difficulty in understanding that eight or
ten skins only equal one capote. He believes in the single
standard of values — one skin for one capote. If an Indian
were to bring in a hundred skins of different sorts, or all alike,
he would trade off every one separately, and insist on payment
for each, as he sold it. It is a curious and interesting
sight to watch him selecting from the stores articles that he
may require, as he disposes of skin after skin. If he has only
a small number, he walks into the shop with his blanket about
him, and not a skin visible. After some preliminary skir-
mishing he produces one from under his blanket, trades it, tak-
ing in exchange what he absolutely needs ; then he stops.
Just as one thinks the trading is over, he produces another
peltry from beneath his blanket, and buys something else.


Thus he goes on until, having bought all the necessaries he
requires, he branches off into the purchase of luxuries —
candy, fancy neckties, etc. Under so slow a process an
Indian trader needs to possess more than average patience.

When the little white capote has been handed the Indian,
the trader tells him the price is ten skins. The purchaser
hands back ten little pieces of wood, then looks about for
something else; his squaw standing at his elbow, and suggest-
ing such things as they need. Everything is carefully exam-
ined, and with each purchase the contest over the apparent
inequality between the amount received for that given is
renewed. With him, one skin should pay for one article of
merchandise, no matter what the value of the latter. And he
insists also upon selecting the skin. Like his savage brethren
of the prairies, too, he has never solved the conundrum of the
steelyard and weighing-balance — he does not understand
what " medicine " that is. That his tea and sugar should be
balanced against a bit of iron conveys no idea of the relative
values of peltries and merchandise to him. He insists upon
making the balance swing even between the trader's goods
and his own furs, until a new light is thrown upon the ques-
tion of steelyards and scales by the acceptance of his proposi-
tion. Then, when he finds his fine furs balanced against
heavy blankets and balls, he concludes to abide by the old
method of letting the white trader decide the weight in his
own Avay ; for it is clear that the steelyard is a very great
medicine, which no brave can understand, and which can
only be manipulated by a white medicine-man.


The white medicine-man was, in the fur-trade of fifty
years ago, a terrible demon in the eyes of the Indian. His
power was unlimited, and reached far out upon the plains.
He possessed medicines of the very highest order : his heart
could sing, demons sprang from the light of his candle, and
he had a little box stronger than the strongest Indian. When
the savage Plain tribes proved refractory around the com-
pany's trading-posts, the trader in charge Avould wind up his
music-box, get his magic lantern ready, and take out his
galvanic battery. Placing the handle of the latter instrument
in the grasp of some stalwart chief, he Avould administer a
terrific shock to his person, and warn him that far out upon
the plains he could inflict the same medicine upon him. If
the doughty chieftain proved penitent and tractable thereafter,
the spring of the music-box, concealed under his coat, would
be touched, and, lo ! the heart of the white trader would sing
with the strength of his love for the Indian. " Look," he
would say, " how my heart beats for you ! " and the bewil-
dered savage would stalk away in doubt of his own identity.
If the red- man made medicine to his Manitou, and danced
before all his gods, the white medicine-man would paint gib-
bering demons on the skins of his lodge, and send fiery goblins
riding through the midnight air, until, in sheer 'terror, the
superstitious savage hid his painted face in the dank grasses
of the prairie.

When the Indian trapper has paid his debt and purchased
all needful supplies, if he has any skins remaining, he turns
his attention to the luxuries of life. The luxuries of life with


this painted child of the forest and stream consist of fancy
neckties, colored beads, cotton handkerchiefs, red and yellow
ochre, and cheap and tawdry jewelry. For articles such as
these he hands over his remaining chips, amid childlike
manifestations of delight on the part of his expectant squaw.
Then he turns his attention to the last, and, to him, most im-
portant feature of the trade — that of getting into debt again ;
for a great majority of the Indian and half-breed trappers and
hunters really live in a state of serfdom, or peonage, to the
company. Indeed, it may be said that every man, woman
and child living in the Fur Land contributes to the revenue
of that corporation ; and also that the company feeds, clothes,
and wholly maintains nine-tenths of the entire population ;
nearly all classes being more or less engaged in the fur-trade,
and bartering their produce at the many posts scattered over
the country. Like the Mexican or Brazilian peon, the In-
dian trapper is so constantlv, and, for him, largely in debt
to the fur-trade, as to be practically its servant. Twice
during the year, perhaps, he is free from debt and his own
master ; but such freedom is only of momentary duration,
continuing but for such time as he can get into debt again.
In fact, the trapper seems ill at ease when free from pecu-
niary obligation, and plunges into it with a facility and to an
extent only limited by his ability to contract it. By this
system of advances the company rules its vast territories, and
is as much a monarch of the frozen latitudes as Crusoe was
monarch of his island. The continuance of this system has
been caused by the necessities of the hunters and trappers ;
and by the fact that the company, like the wise corporation


that it is, does not kill the goose that lays the golden eggs,
but carefully cares for the game and the hunters on its vast

Contrary to the general rule in civilized life, a debt is
seldom lost, except in the event of the death of the trapper.
He may change his place of abode hundreds of miles, but
he still has only a company's post at which to trade ; and it
is impossible for him so to conceal his identity as not to be
found out sooner or later. But the trapper seldom attempts
to evade the payment of his debts ; he is not yet civilized to
that degree which practices rehypothecation. The company
has always been a good friend to him and his, supplied his
necessities, ministered to his wants, and he pays when he
can. He knows that when he liquidates his old debt, he
can contract a new one just as big. He knows, too, that
when the company promise him anything he will get it ; and
that he will always pay just so much for his goods and no
more. No attempt was ever made to cheat him, and there
never will be. When he is ill, he goes to the nearest fort
and is cared for and attended until he recovers. When he
does his duty well, he gets a present ; and he never performs
any labor for his employers without receiving a fair compen-
sation. Such humane treatment binds the Indian and half-
breed to the company in a bond that is not easily broken.
So, when he has spent all his little pieces of wood, and asks
for further advances, he is allowed to draw any reasonable
amount. Carefully looking over the purchases already made,
counting up his supply of ammunition, clothing, gew-gaws,


etc., he concludes to take more tea and tobacco; for the
trapper is a very Asiatic in his love of soothing stimulants.

The consumption of tea in the Fur Land is enormous, the
annual importation for one department alone (the Northern)
amounting to over one hundred and fifty thousand pounds.
The tea used is nearly all of the black varieties, and com-
mands a price ranging from two to three shillings sterling per
pound. In every half-breed's hut and Indian lodge the tea-
kettle is always boiling. Unlike the Asiatic, who drinks his
tea from a glass tumbler, with sugar and a slice of lemon to
give it flavor, the native of the Fur Land takes his Confu-
cian beverage undiluted from any vessel that may come hand-
iest ; though preferring the black and battered cup in which
it has been brewed. He likes it, too, as near the boiling

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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 22 of 24)