H. M. (Henry Martin) Robinson.

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

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bare the simple narrative of these facts appears beside their
actual realization in a north canoe manned by dusky
rioyageurs !

But the old canoe-life of the Fur Land is rapidly passing
away. The unpicturesque Mackinaw boat has usurped the
place of the birch-bark canoe, and the forests no longer echo
the refrain of the voyageurs boat-song. The passage of three
or four canoes once or twice a year is all that breaks the
silence of the scene. In many a once well-beaten pathway,
nought save narrow trails over the portages, and rough
wooden crosses over the graves of travelers who perished by
the way, remain to mark the roll of the passing years.



T N a narrative of travel through the Hudson's Bay Terri-
-'- tory in 1S59, by Lord Southesk, is given the following
pen-portrait of James McKay, a half-breed Indian guide :

" A Scotchman, though with Indian blood on his mother's
side, he was born and bred in the Saskatchewan country, but
afterward became a resident of Fort Garry, and entered the
company's employ. Whether as guide or hunter, he was
universally reckoned one of their best men. Immensely
broad-chested and muscular, though not tall, he weighed
eighteen-stone ; yet, in spite of his stoutness, he was exceed-
ingly hardy and active, and a wonderful horseman.

" His face — somewhat Assyrian in type — is very hand-
some ; short, delicate, aquiline nose ; piercing, dark-grey
eyes ; long, dark brown hair, beard, and mustache ; small
white, regular teeth ; skin tanned to a regular bronze by ex-
posure to the weather. He was dressed in a blue-cloth
capote (hooded frock-coat), with brass buttons, red-and-black

* The term " half-breed " is applied indiscriminately in the Fur Land
to all persons having Indian blood in their veins, and bears no especial
reference to quantity. In very many instances it is difficult to tell exactly
v'.'here the half-l)reed ends and the white man begins.


flannel shirt, which served also for waist-coat ; buff-leather
moccasins on his feet, black belt around his waist ; trousers
of brown-and-white-striped home-made woolen stuff."

This etching of McKay will do duty, in all essential
points, as the correct portraiture of a large and distinct class
of people inhabiting the Fur Land, and scattered over our
own northern frontier, familiarly known as half-breeds, who,
neither Indian nor white, possess all the craft of one and
a fair degree of the intelligence of the other. Familiar with
the customs of both from infancy, they adopt many of the
habits of civilized life ; but, though existing under an im-
proved exterior, the romantic life, the custom, mode of
thought, and language of the Indians, retain their hold on the
affections of their descendants to successive generations.
Thus a man whose usual language is English, and one who
speaks French alone, are enabled to render themselves mutu-
ally intelligible by means of Cree, their Indian mother tongue,
though each is totally ignorant of the civilized language or-
dinarily used by the other.

At the beginning of the present century, when the rival
Canadian fur companies, known as the X. Y. and Northwest
Companies, were engaged in fierce competition with the Hud-
son's Bay Company for the possession of the Indian trade,
there sprung into existence, in the exigencies of this special
service, a class of men known as coiircurs des bois, or wood-
runners. They were French colonists, whose spirit of ad-
venture, stimulated by a desire of gain, and love for the free
roving Indian life, led them to pursue the calling of trappers


and traders, betaking themselves to the woods and hunting-
grounds of Canada, and spreading gradually over the whole
country east from the height of land west of Lake Superior.
As hunters and trappers they were even more skillful than
their Indian teachers. As traders they were outfitted by the
Canadian companies with the necessary goods to barter with
the Indians for furs ; and, after periods of absence extending
over twelve or fifteen months, spent in traveling in their
canoes, would return laden with furs of great value, their
share of which they regularly squandered during a short
residence in the towns or cities, previous to embarking on
their next voyage. After the coalition of the competing fur
companies, in the year 1821, and their consequent loss of
employment as traders, these coureiirs des bois gradually
spread farther into the interior, and penetrated the unsettled
districts of Dakota and Manitoba, and the nearer Lake Supe-
rior region. In place of traders, they became more especially
hunters and trappers, disposing of their furs and produce at
the trading-posts scattered throughout the country, and near
which they invariably settled. Rarely ever did they return
to their native land. The wild roving life in the wilderness had
too much of excitement in it to permit of a voluntary return to
the narrow limits of civilization. Moreover, the wood-runner
had taken to himself an Indian wife ; and although the mar-
riage ceremony had lacked the essentials of bell, book, and
candle, yet he got along pretty well with his squaw ; and
olive branches, jabbering a very few civilized tongues and
a great many heathen ones, began to multiply about him.





In addition to hunting and trapping, the wood-runners
became canoe-men and freighters to the trading-companies,
or engaged in certain miniature agricultural pursuits tending
to increase their subsistence. To the half-breed children — a
numerous progeny — of these French and Indian parents,
descended the vocation of the father, and the nomadic instincts
of the mother, resulting in the production of a civilized nomad
who unites the industries of both civilized and savage life.
To this element may be added a considerable number of metis,
the offspring of the Scotch and English employes of the trad-
ing corporations, and the half-breeds of the old regime, resi-
dent on the Canadian coasts — for the most part the poorest
representatives of their class. Scattered over the vast country
from the Canadas to the Pacific coast, and from the Coteau of
the Missouri to the Saskatchewan, the half-breed forms the
advance-guard of civilization, ahead even of the white pioneer.
His paternity may be French, English, or Scotch — his mater-
nity Chippewa, Cree, or Sioux ; but his vocation will always
be the same, until, by admixture of lighter or darker blood, he
becomes resolved into one of his original elements.

As a rule, the French half-breed — by far the largest and
most representative class — is eminently social in disposition,
and gregarious in his habits. As a consequence, he lives in
communities, more or less miniature, during the winter months,
and trades and hunts in bands during the summer. He enjoys
company and is loath to be alone. Like his wealthier white
brethren, he affects two annual residences — a log-house for his
hibernal months, and a wigwam for the summer solstice. As


a rule, he may be addressed at tlie former. About it he has
some arable ground, which he culti\ates in a feeble and uncer-
tain manner. He scratches the surface of the ground, and ex-
pects it to be prolific. Not being fond of labor, the weeds are
allowed to choke the crop, the fences to fall into decay, and a
general air of wreck to take possession of his tiny farm. This
appearance of improvidence becomes perennial, not apparently
getting worse or better, but remaining at about the same state
year after year. The scanty crops, when gathered and stacked
in the open air, in irregular piles, contribute to the general
tumble-down aspect. Indian ponies, with their usual worn-out
and overworked look, wander about the premises, or stand
engaged in melancholy retrospection. About the door-yard
are a few wooden carts — whose antecedents date back to the
fields of Normandy — guiltless of iron, in a state of greater or
less fracture, bound up with rawhide, and ornamented with
rusty sets of harness. There may possibly be a cow on the
premises, though not likely to be, as she would be killed and
eaten the first time her improvident owner ran short of pro-
visions. There are dogs, however^ and in proportion as the
jiictis is poor, the number of canines increases.

The dwelling itself, except in the mid-winter months, pre-
sents an appearance of decay. The plaster placed in the in-
terstices of the logs crumbles under the action of the elements,
and falls about the foundation of the building in muddy heaps,
The thatch or clapboards of the roof are loosened in places,
and are certain not to be repaired until the next winter. In-
ternally the house is one single apartment ; occasionally, in


the better class, though rarely, two apartments. The floor is
of planks sawed or hewed by hand ; the ceiling, if there is
any, of the same material. In one corner is the only bed, a
narrow couch, painted, generally, an ultra-marine blue, or a
vivid sea-green. An open fire-place occupies one end of the
apartment, with the chimney within the walls. A table, one
or two chairs, a few wooden trunks or boxes — doing duty with
this people everywhere as table, chair, clothes-press, and cup-
board — and a dresser, constitute the furniture. About the
walls somewhere, more especially over the bed, hang colored
prints of the Virgin, the sacred heart, etc., together with a
rosary. It may be that the daughter of the house — and there
always is a daughter — has come under the influence of a con-
vent for a season, and can read ; perhaps w^rite. In that
event, there is a copy of the " Lives of the Saints " on a
bracket ; and, it may be, a few periodicals. For the rest, the
apartment is cheerless and uninviting. It may be clean, but
the chances are that it is not. That peculiar aroma, too, which
pervades all inhabited chambers, here becomes often aggres-
sive, and, as it were, wrestles with the visitor for the mastery.
In this apartment the family herd — a squaw mother often,
and children so numerous and dirty as to be a wonder to
behold. During the day its utter inefficiency to adequately
accommodate the numbers it shelters is partially concealed,
from the fact that they are seldom all in at one time. But on
the approach of night, when the dusky brood are all housed,
the question of where they are to sleep becomes startlingly


We remember well our first experience in the solution of
this difficulty. Caught one stormy winter's evening, on the
banks of a northern river, without preparations for camping,
our uncivilized guide halted before the door of a small cabin,
and asked permission to remain over-night. Hospitality being
one of the savage virtues, the request was readily granted.
After a meagre supper of fish without salt, and a post-prandial
smoke, we began to look about for a couch for the night.
Nothing was visible save one narrow bed, in which our
host and his swarthy consort soon retired. Now, in ad-
dition to ourselves and guide, there were thirteen of the
family, composed of children, male and female, from infancy
to mature age. Where were they all to sleep ? We thought
of a possible loft ; but there was no ceiling. Finally, we were
about making preparations to sit before the fire all night
when, from trunks and boxes were produced blankets and
robes, and a shake-down made on the floor, into which we
were directed to crawl. Scarcely had we done so, when our
bed began to widen, and in a few minutes extended from wall
to wall. Soon we found ourselves the central figure in a
closely-packed bed of thirteen, filled promiscuously with males
and females. We thought involuntarily of the great bed of
Ware and its thirty occupants.

The occupations of the half-breed, when not engaged as
voyageur * or agriculturist, are limited to fishing in the stream

The term " voyageicr" as used in the North, is not necessarily restricted
to boatmen or canoe-men, but is also applied to all persons connected with
the fur trade as freighters, guides, hunters, trappers, etc.


near his residence, hunting for small game, the care of his
ponies, and a round of social visits to his neighbors. The
two former are followed only to the extent of furnishing a
supply of food for the day, to-morrow being left to care for
itself. The idea of accumulating supplies of provisions in
advance, save in the late fall, never apparently enters the
half-breed mind. If he fails to secure sufficient game or fish
for the day's provision, he simply goes without his dinner ;
nor do frequent privations of this sort seem to impress upon
his volatile mind the policy of reserving of present excess for
future scarcity. But, should he by some fortuitous circum-
stance become possessed of a surplus of salable provision, its
ownership becomes a consuming flame to him until disposed
of. The idea of keeping any thing which he can sell is an
absurdity which his intellect cannot grasp.

It is in the winter season, when the cold has put an end to
their labors for the most part, and the cares of existence are
lightened by reason of advances made them upon the work of
the approaching season, or the fair supply of provisions laid
by from the last, that the social life of the half-breeds may be
said to be at its highest. It is then that they marry and are
given in marriage ; that feasting, dancing, and merry-makings
of all descriptions, do much abound. Every log-house then
echoes to the violin of some ngoccasined and straight-haired
Paganini, who after years of sedulous practice has attained a
certain ghastly facility of execution.

It is rumored weekly that, at the residence of Baptiste, or
Pascal, or Antoine, there will be given a dance, and the rumor


is accepted as a general invitation. The young bucks of the
neighborhood array themselves in the bewildering apparel
which obtains upon occasions of this nature : a blue-cloth
capote, with brass buttons ; black or drab corduroy trousers,
the aesthetic effect of which is destroyed by a variegated sash,
with fringed ends pendent about the knees ; moccasins, and a
fur cap with gaudy tassel. The young maidens apparel them-
selves in sombre prints or woolen stuffs, but with bright-
colored shawls about their shoulders. This, with a false lustre
upon their black locks, from copious applications of grease, is
all that is showy about them. The dances are reels and
square-dances. When they begin, however, they continue for
days at a time ; the younger people occupying the night, and
the older ones the day, repairing home to rest, and then re-
turning. Custom makes it obligatory upon the entertainers
to furnish food and liquor for the dancers, and there is a vast
consumption of both. It frequently happens that, from the
number of participants, and the long continuance of the
dance, the amount of supplies demanded reduces the host to
poverty. We have known repeated instances where at one
ball, continuing three or four days, the entire winter's provis-
ion for a family was consumed, and ponies were sold to pay
for the liquor. Yet, the improvident half-breed thinks noth-
ing of it, and gives the ball, well knowing the result. He
wants either a feast or a famine. If he spends his substance
for others, however, he retaliates by haunting all the festivities
of his neighbors during the entire winter.

At home, when not engaged in dancing and feasting, or


taken up with the sordid and petty cares of his existence, the
half-breed smokes and drinks tea. His consumption of tobacco
is ceaseless, and his libations of tea would do no discredit to
John Chinaman. If he hires out by the day to labor, he
spends ten minutes of each hour in filling and lighting his
pipe ; if he is voyaging, he halts at every headland or wooded
promontory to put his kettle on and drink tea. Of a winter's
day he curls up by his neighbor's fire, and smokes and relates
his adventures. His life has run in a limited channel, but he
knows every point in its course. Virtues may have abounded
in it, but cakes and ale have much more abounded. But we
may learn from it that many admirable things are consonant
with an entire ignorance of books.

When the ploughing is done in the spring-time, and the
seed in the ground, the half-breed agriculturist experiences a
yearning for the chase, or goes to fulfill his engagement as
voyagetir. If the former, the fractured wooden carts are bound
up with rawhide thongs, the broken-spirited ponies coaxed into
a semblance of life and vigor, the dusky progeny packed in
with boxes and blankets, the house locked up, and the migra-
tory family set forth for the prairie or stream. With the first
pitching of the wigwam the manners and customs of civilized
life cease, and the half-breed assumes the habits of a savage.
He hunts for the pot ; for this spring-time chase is simply to
obtain daily subsistence while his meagre crops mature. His
tent is encountered in the usual Indian haunts — by the side of
a stream or lake, or half hidden in some timber-bluff on the
prairie. He has become a nomad pure and simple. But,


when the harvest-time approaches, he returns again to his
miniature farm. In a negligent manner his crop is gathered
and thrashed. Reserving barely sufficient for the winter's
needs, the remainder is sold, and with the proceeds an outfit
for the long fall hunt is purchased. Perhaps, if they can be
obtained on credit, a few goods are selected for trade with his
savage brethren. Again, with his family, he seeks the prairie
and stream, and hunts for his winter's food, trading betimes
for such furs as may yield a profit. Later in the fall he returns
to his winter's residence, adds a few repairs to its leaky roof,
plasters up the interstices in its log walls, and settles down to
hibernal monotony and the dance.

If the half-breed is a voyageur or guide, the task of culti-
vating the garden-plot is left to the members of his family, if
he have one, the season of his service being the summer and
fall months. For the most part, however, little or no planting
is done by this class. They rely for support on a system of
advances, which obtains with the trading corporations of the
wilderness. Engagements are generally made in the month of
December for a certain trip or amount of service, either boat-
ing or land freighting, to be performed during the ensuing
season. A small advance is made the voyageur at that time,
to bind the bargain, as it were. When the meal becomes low
in the measure and the wine gone from the jar, he repairs to
his employers, and at times receives small advances. If he is
economical — which he seldom or never is — these advances may
eke him out a scanty subsistence until spring and labor arrive.
The probabilities are, however, that he is prodigal, has his


feast, and then lives, in want and squalor, upon any refuse
that may come to hand. Nevertheless, he accepts the situation
as a matter of course, and is light-hearted through it all. At
the opening of navigation he receives another advance, which
is quickly spent ; then takes his place on the benches of an
inland boat or canoe, pulls an oar hundreds of miles into the
interior, and crosses long portages with the huge packages of
the cargo strapped to his back. Over vast and trackless wil-
dernesses echoes his monotonous boat-song ; on many a bleak
promontory shine his camp-fires ; and isolated posts waken
into life and joy for one day in the year at his coming. His
journey made, and the cargoes exchanged with boats from yet
farther inland, or distributed at the numerous forts on the way,
the voyageiir returns home again, receives the remnant of his
wages, to be dissipated in the shortest possible time ; then
relapses into a condition of uncertain sparring with destiny
for diurnal sustenance.

If he be freighter, the life is essentially the same : merely
exchanging the boat for the wooden carts, creaking their way
in long lines over the plains, like a caravan in the desert. His
days are spent in toil, his nights in fighting stinging insects, or
shivering in the cold and wet. But his good-nature never
tires ; his pipe is smoked in quiet satisfaction under all cir-
cumstances, and no occasion is too serious to prevent the per-
petration of his practical joke.

The tastes of the half-breed are of a decided sort, and
essentially like those of other mixed races. In apparel, he is
fond of color, and, in most instances, exhibits good taste in


the combinations he effects. Ornaments, too, are held in great
favor, quality not being so much sought for as quantity. In
this regard, however, there is a marked decadence from the
extravagant ornamentation of former days. We remember
when the arrival of the plain-hunters at our border-posts was
the signal of a dress-parade which, if lacking in artistic merit,
amply atoned by its rainbow hues and constellations of tawdry
jewelry. Ofttimes the entire profits of a season's trade would
be invested in highly-colored wearing-apparel and cheap
jewelry, in which the hunter decked his tawny family and him-
self, and paraded the adjoining camps, with all the pride of a
Hottentot chief. It was a brave and pleasant show, neverthe-
less, to see these athletic men and supple and graceful women,
arrayed in holiday attire, galloping swiftly and lightly over
the green prairies. Unfortunately, after this parade of bravery,
the demon of thirst would seize them, and, if liquor was
attainable, the rivalry of dress was succeeded by a rivalry of
drink, ending in a low debauch ; for, in his tastes and appe-
tites, our half-brother follows the maternal root.

The religion of the half-breed is the creed of superstition.
Roman Catholic in the main, he adds to its formulas a shadowy
belief in the Great Spirit. He acknowledges a purgatory, yet
fondly hopes that in the next world human shades will hunt
the shades of buffalo and other animals which have lived here.
When he dies, he hopes to be carried to the bosom of the
saints ; yet he feels that his shade will linger four nights round
the place of his decease ere taking its flight to the village of
the dead. He believes in signs and omens to some extent, and


ties a certain numl)er of feathers to his horse's tail, or paints
rude emblems on his bark canoe, to increase their speed.
Nevertheless, he yields implicit obedience to his priest, and
obeys, in his volatile way, the traditions of his Church ; but,
over all, cherishes a dim faith in the shades of shadow-land.




I 7* OR more than two centuries British North America has
-■- been occupied by the Hudson's Bay Company, which has
turned the country to the best account possible by utilizing the
sole portion of its wealth which, on account of the barbarous
nature of the region and its almost unparalleled completeness
of isolation, could be profitably exported. This is its furs.
At various periods attempts have been made to give an im-
petus to the pursuit of other branches of industry by the
formation of subordinate companies ; but, like the dwellings
of the region, such institutions have hitherto held their exist-
ence by a frail tenure, amounting almost to an artificial life.
The fur-trade alone possesses strong vitality. And although
this branch of industry, in its relations to the few small settle-
ments of the country, has been much and most ignorantly
abused by one-sided reasoners, of late years, as the all-de-
vouring monster which monopolizes the resources of the terri-
tory, yet the fairer course would be to describe it as the motive
spring which gives life to anything in the way of business
existing there. Furs compose the only species of merchandise
in the country the export of which is remunerative, and, with-
out them, even what market exists for other commodities


would Speedily disappear. In fact, the influence of the trade
permeates all classes ; everybody talks fur, and every avail-
able position in the accessible parts of the territory is seized
upon by free-traders for the collection of peltries. But while
many are gathered in this way, and traders speedily grow
rich, their furs form scarcely a drop in the bucket when com-

Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Martin) RobinsonThe great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory → online text (page 4 of 24)