H. M. (Henry Martin) Robinson.

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

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point as can be reached, and as strong as can be made ;
though he will take it at anj'- temperature, and of any degree
of strength, rather than not get it at all. He drinks enormous
quantities of it at his meals, until, like Mr. Weller's girl, he
swells visibly before your very eyes ; gets up in the night,
time after time, and drinks it cold ; carries it with him in his
weary journeys over the plains, and halts at every available
pine thicket to build a fire and put his kettle on. Meet a
party of Wood- Indians anywhere, and after the handshake
and inevitable " How ! " comes the mystic word " the." A
very little suffices to make them happy, and wrapping it
carefully in their blankets, they run to the nearest timber and
start a fire. When the half-breed buys tea at the trading-
store, he never permits the officious clerk to wrap it in paper,


but purchases a new handkerchief, or a square of white cot-
ton, to put it in. He cherishes a vague and misty idea that
brown paper absorbs the aroma of his tea, and lessens its
strength. Besides, the cotton handkerchief becomes aromatic
from its savory contents, and consequently more valuable.

Nearly on a par with the consumption of tea in the country
ranks that of tobacco. The company's annual importation for
the Northern department alone amounts to over seventy-five
thousand pounds. It comes, for the most part, in the shape
of manufactured plugs — small black "tens," composed of
equal parts of molasses, tobacco, copperas, and other ingre-
dients — for the aboriginal and his blood relations, and the
large, flat, natural-leaf cavendish for the whites. The amount
of smoking going on seems at first incredible to the new-
comer. Everybody "puffs a cloud," and goes prepared
with all the paraphernalia of a smoker. The native carries a
fire-bag — a long leather bag, containing pipe, tobacco, knife,
flint and steel, and harougc, the inner bark of the grey willow.
He mixes an equal quantity of the Indian weed with the
willow-bark, and smokes it from choice and economy. The
compound has a rather pungent, aromatic odor, not unlike
that produced by smoking cascarilla bark. The Indians also
mingle with their tobacco an equal amount of a small species
of sage, common on the prairie, in lieu of the willow-bark. Its
continued use, however, is productive of certain irritable dis-
eases of the throat and cellular tissues of the lungs, and finally
of consumption. The dry, hacking cough, common among
Indians, is said to be one of the primary results of its use.



The purchase of such soothing solace terminates the trade
of the Indian trapper. After going in debt to the extent of
his ability, he wends his way to the forest again. The furs he
has traded are thrown carelessly behind the counter, to be
afterward carried to the fur-room.

In the early spring, when the snow is
gone from the plains, and the ice has left
the rivers, the workmen at the trading-
post begin to pack all the fur skins in
bales of from eighty to one hundred
pounds each, that being the usual weight
of each package — goods or furs — in the
company's trade. The outer covering is
buffalo-skin, or raw-hide ; loops are made
to each package in order to sling it on
the pack-saddles, if the pack is sent from
an inland post ; the pack-saddles are re-
paired and thongs cut to fasten the bales on to the horses.
The company's horses — of which each fort has its comple-
ment — that have wintered in some sheltered valley, under the
care of Indians, are now brought to the post; the packs are
tied on, and the train starts for the depot or chief fort of the
district, situated always on the banks of some navigable
stream. This is calling fitting out a brigade, and forms the
grand event of fort life — being looked forward to by the men
as a boy anticipates his holidays. Arrived at the depot, the
bales are handed over, and goods for the ensuing year re-
ceived in return.



It generally occurs that several brigades meet at the depot
simultaneously. In this event the spectacle presented is
quaint and singular : the wild looks, long unkempt hair, sun-
burnt faces and leather costumes of the traders being only
exceeded by the still wilder appearance and absence of cloth-
ing among their Indian attendants. So long as the brigades
remain the scene is one continuous festivity, eating, drinking
and quarreling. When the brigades depart, the furs are all
sorted and repacked, and pressed into bales by an enormous
lever — rum and tobacco being placed between the layers of
skins to keep out the insects and moths. They are then
shipped by slow stages to the nearest seaport, and eventually
sold at public auction in London. It is estimated that the
total worth of the furs collected by the Hudson's Bay Com-
pany alone since its organization represents a money value of
^120,000,000 in gold. Still, strange to say, owing to the care-
ful preservation of game by the company, the average yearly
catch is not sensibly decreasing.

It may not be uninteresting in this connection to give a
brief sketch of the various furs traded by the company, and
the average number of each species annually exported from
its territories.*

The first in point of value is the pine marten, or Hudson's
Bay sable, of which about 120,000 skins, on an average, are
exported every year. The martens or sables from this region
are not considered so valuable furs as the sables of Russia,

* For many of the statistics which follow the author is indebted to an
article on " American Furs,'' by J. K. Lord, F. Z. S., in the Leisure Hour,


although there is no doubt that the varieties are in reality
one and the same species ; the difference in temperature, and
other local causes, readily accounting for the better quality
of the Russian fur. In fact the difference between the two is
not always discernible, the lighter-colored skins being usually
dyed and sold as Russian sable. The winter fur is the most
valuable, and the Indian trappers say the first fall of rain, after
the snow disappears, spoils the marten. When caught the
animal is skinned like a rabbit, the peltry being inverted as
it is removed, then drawn over a flat board, and dried in the
sun. The animals haunt the pine forests, especially where
fallen or dead timber abounds, and are mostly caught in the
style of trap known as the dead-fall. A good marten skin is
worth in trade from two and a half to three dollars. The
best skins come from the far North, being darker and finer
furred than others.

The fisher is much like the pine marten, but larger. Just
why he is called a fisher we cannot imagine, as he does not
catch fish, or go near the water except when compelled to
swim a stream. He climbs readily, but is trapped like the
marten. The tail is very long and bushy, and at one time a
large trade was carried on in them, only the tails being worn
by the Polish Jew merchants. About twelve thousand are
annually exported from the territory. The average trade
price is from two and a half to three dollars. The fisher in
full winter coat makes a finer suit of furs than the sable.

The mink is vastly inferior to either fisher or marten in
the quality of fur, and its habits are entirely different. It


frequents streams and water-courses, and feeds upon fish,
crabs, etc. The Indian hunter catches it with a steel trap,
baited generally with fish. The trade price is about fifty cents
a skin. About 250,000 skins are exported, the majority of
which ultimately go to thre continent of Europe.

The raccoon is widely scattered over the territories of the
company, about 520,000 skins being purchased and exported
every year. The raccoons are generally shot, but a few are
taken in steel traps. The fur is not very valuable, being prin-
cipally used in making carriage-rugs and in lining inferior
cloaks and coats.

The most valuable fur traded by the company is that of
the black and silver foxes. There are three species of fox
found in the territory — the black or cross, the silver and the
red fox. The two former are considered to be only varieties
of the latter ; as in any large collection of skins every inter-
mediate tint of color, changing by regular gradations from
the red into the cross and from the cross into the silver and
black, may be found, rendering it difficult even for the trader
to decide to which of the varieties a skin really belongs. The
Indians also assert that cubs of the three varieties are con-
stantly seen in the same litter. The silver and cross fox skins
bring from ^4° to $50 each ; the red fox is only worth about
five to eight shillings. About 50,000 red foxes, 4,500 cross,
and 1,000 silver are annually exported. The silver fox fur is
almost entirely sold to Chinese and Russian dealers.

To illustrate the difference in the trade in beaver now as
compared with what it was before the introduction of silk in


the napping of hats, we may mention that in 1743 the com-
pany sold in England 26,750 skins, and more than 127,000
were exported and sold at Rochelle, in France. In 1788
Canada alone supplied 176,000, and in 1808 again 126,927
skins. About 60,000 are now brought annually from the
company's territories. So much was this fur in demand be-
fore the introduction of silk and rabbits' fur that the poor little
rodent in some districts is entirely exterminated. The prin-
cipal use made of the fur now is in the manufacture of bon-
nets in France, and in making cloaks. The long hair is pulled
out, and the under fur shaved down close and even by a
machine ; some of it is still felted into a kind of cloth. The
beaver is a very difficult animal to trap, but is, nevertheless,
rapidly disappearing from the great fur preserves of the North.

The musk-rat is similar in many of its habits to the beaver.
Indeed, some of the species build their houses precisely as the
beaver does. The hunters generally spear them through the
walls and roofs of their dwellings. The annual destruction
of these little animals, though immense, many hundreds of
thousands being yearly exported, does not serve greatly to
diminish their numbers. The fur is of very little value, being
used in the coarsest manufactures. Large bundles of the tails
of the musk-rat are constantly exposed for sale in the bazaars
of Constantinople as articles for perfuming clothing.

The lynx or wildcat is found in considerable numbers
throughout the territory. Its fur, however, though prettily
marked, is not of much value. Of wolf skins about fifteen
thousand are annually exported, and of the land otter about


seventeen thousand skins are often procured. Thefur of the sea
otter, though the most vahiable fur traded, is very difficult to
obtain. The animal ranges along the seacoast between Cali-
fornia and Alaska, and appears to be a connecting link be-
tween the true seal and the land otter. It is generally caught
in nets or speared by the Indians in the sea. Nearly all the
sea-otter fur goes to China, and a good skin is worth about

The coarse fur of the wolverine or American glutton is
used mostly in the manufacture of muffs and linmgs, and is
of comparatively little value. Only a small exportation —
about twelve hundred skins yearly — is made by the company.
Some years ago the caprices of fashion introduced the fur of
the skunk into popular use, and for a few seasons the traffic
in that odorous peltry was enormous. Now, however, its use
is almost wholly abandoned, and only about a thousand skins
are yearly collected. The Indians generally shoot the skunk,
and always skin it under water.

The skin of the bear — black, brown, and grizzly — is always
in demand, and is used for innumerable purposes. The
number of bears killed annually is not easily determined, but,
at a safe average, it may be estimated at 9,000. The greater
part are killed in winter, during their period of hibernation.
An immense business is also carried on in rabbit fur. Besides
the hundreds of thousands of rabbit skins exported by the
company, there are sold annually in London about 1,300,000
skins whicli are used in the fur trade. The natives of the
territory manufacture large quantities of these skins into


bed-quilts, the pelts being cut into strips and braided into
thick braids, which are then sewed together and covered with
cloth, making a quilt unsurpassed for warmth.

An immense annual export, which cannot properly come
under the head of fur, is made by the company in the shape
•of buffalo robes. In the autumn of 1870 the line of forts
along the Saskatchewan River, in the Plain country, had
traded 30,000 robes before the first of January ; and for every
one traded fully as many more in the shape of skins of parch-
ment had been purchased, or consumed in the thousand
wants of savage life. The number of buffaloes annually
killed in the territory seems incredible; 12,000 are said to
fall by the Blackfeet alone. It is only during a part of the
winter that the coat is " prime," as the phrase is. Before the
first of November the hair is not long enough to make a
marketable robe. After the middle of January it gets ragged,
and its rich black-brown is bleached by the weather to the
color of dirty tow, especially along the animal's back. Dur-
ing the summer months the hair is very short, and frequently
rubbed entirely off in many places, from the animal's habit of
wallowing in the mud. The robe of commerce is generally
taken from cows, and sometimes from young bulls, but never
from old bulls, whose hides are much too thick and heavy.
In the winter months the latter are covered all over with
thick, long and curly fur ; a mane of light-brown hair and
fur, like that of a lion, only larger, envelopes his neck ; a long
glossy dewlap, hanging from his chin like a deep fringe,

sweeps the ground ; which, with his savage-looking muzzle,


and prominent black eyes flashing between the tangled locks
of his hair, give him altogether a most ferocious appearance.
In reality, however, he is a very timid animal, and it is only
when he imagines himself unable to escape that he becomes
desperate, and therefore dangerous from his immense

We have been struck more than once with the resemblance
of old bulls to lions, as we have seen them standing apart on
the low ridges and sandy knolls, eying one from afar with an
air of savage watchfulness — each neck crested with a luxu-
riant mane, swelled into greater largeness by the hump be-
neath it, each short, tufted tail held straight out from the
body in bold and lion-like defiance. The full grown bull is
immensely shaggy, especially about the head, which is covered
with so vast a quantity of fur, wool and long hair hanging
down over its eyes, and almost concealing the horns, as to
give it the appearance of being nearly one-third the size of
the whole body. Such an outline, seen relieved against the
night sky, as one lies in cheerless bivouac upon the plains, is
not calculated to inspire a feeling of safety.

Most buffalo robes are found to have been split down the
middle and sewed up again, the object of the process being to
lighten the labor of dressing the skin. The Indian women dress
all the robes, and few of them are able to prepare a complete
hide without assistance. Some Indians, when asked why they
have married more than one wife, will answer that each wife
requires another to help her in dressing robes ; and the more
wives one possesses the more skins he is able to bring to market.


The hides are brought in from the hunt just as they are
taken from the animals, and given to the women, who stretch
them upon a rude framework of poles and flesh them with
iron or bone scrapers. They are then slowly dried, and
during this process various things are applied to render
them pliable.

The final work is painting the inside with pigments, a
labor bestowed only upon unusually fine skins. We have
seen some robes thus ornamented that were beautiful speci-
mens of Indian decorative art. The designs used in most
instances are of the calendar style. The intention seems to be
to keep a record of certain years on the buffalo robe by some
symbol representing an event that took place in that year.
The events selected are not always the most important of the
year, but such as were, in some sense, the most striking, and
could be best represented by symbols. For example, stars
falling from the top to the bottom of the robe represent
the year 1833, an event from which the Indians frequently
count. The etching of an Indian with a broken leg and a
horn on his head stands for a year in which Mr. Hay-waujina,
One Horn, had his leg " killed," and so on. The symbols are
placed in a spiral form, beginning in the centre, and going a
little to the left ; the line then turns on itself to the right
and below, and so on, turning with the sun. These designs
are copied many times, of course, so that in a pack of painted
robes, nine-tenths of them will be decorated in exactly the
same manner.

The work of dressing a buffalo skin perfectly is a very


tedious process, and one squaw is only considered capable
of preparing ten robes for market during the year. To the
savage with any sort of an eye to business, this fact alone
would be a sufficient incentive to polygamy on the most
extended scale.

The best robes are always reserved by the Indians and
half-breeds for their own use, and some of them are marvels
of beauty and finish. We have seen buffalo skins tanned to
a degree of softness that would rival tiie finest cloths. The
trader, for the most part, gets only second-rate robes and
the refuse of the hunt. The Indian loves the buffalo, and
delights in ornamenting his beautiful skin. The animal is
his only friend, and small wonder he calls it so. It supplies
every want from infancy to old age ; wrapped in his buffalo
robe, the red man waits for the coming dawn.

The catalogue of quadrupeds in the company's territory
embraces ninety-four different animals ; but we have noticed
the principal ones to whose fur the corporation confines its
trade. There is a small traffic done in the robes of the musk-ox,
and the furs of the ermine, siffloe, fitch, squirrel and chinchilla,
but it is insignificant compared to the staples of the trade.



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Edited by Susan M. Carter, Superintendent of the Woman's
Art School, Cooper Union

I. Sketching from Nature. By Thomas Rowbotham. Reprinted
from the Thirty-eighth English Edition. 27 Illustrations. i6mo,
boards, .... ..... 50 cents.

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II. Landscape Painting in Oil Colors. By W. Williams. Re-
printed from the Thirty-fourth English Edition. l6mo, boards, 50 cents.

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III. Flower Painting. By Mrs. \Vm. Duffield. Reprinted from
the Twelfth English Edition. 12 Illustrations. i6mo, boards, 50 cents.

" It is a thoroughly scientific and practical treatise." — Boston Watchman.

" Its instructions are clear, condensed, and sufficiently minute." — Detroit Post and

" The instructions include everything that needs to be known regarding the art of
painting flowers in water colors." — Buffalo Express.

Of the Series the A'. F. Zr;^/

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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 23 of 24)