H. M. (Henry Martin) Robinson.

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pared to the vast collections of the Hudson's Bay Company.
It is only a vast corporation, possessed of unlimited means,
long experience, and immense facilities for transportation,
that can hope to compete with this last great monopoly.

It is, of course, to be expected that, as the wave of poj)u-
lation rolls westward, the agricultural and other latent re-
sources possessed by the immense territory will be developed,
and the fortunes of the dwellers in that remote region no
longer depend solely upon the success of the warfare main-
tained by the Indian against the wild beasts of the North ;
but it is undeniable that, until the present decade, the trade
which from a single department alone brings annually to the
English market an average value of ^150,000 in furs, and in
the aggregate furnishes the world with three-fourths of its pel-
tries, has presented the only means of commercially benefiting
the aboriginal tribes, or of turning to profitable account the
inaccessible regions over which its operations extend.

The Hudson's Bay Company is a wheel within a wheel,
consisting of the company proper, which furnishes the capital
stock, and the partnership of the Fur Trade, which is em-
ployed to carry out the actual workings of the business.
Under the charter, the supreme control of its affairs is vested


in a Board consisting of a Governor, Deputy Governor and
Committee of five Directors, all annually chosen by the
stockholders at a meeting held each November at the compa-
ny's house in London. These functionaries delegate their
authority to an officer resident in their American possessions,
called the Governor-in-chief of Rupert's Land, who acts as
their representative. His commission extends over all their
colonial possessions, and his tenure of office is unlimited as
regards time. Sir George Simpson, the Arctic explorer, in
company with Dease, was the first person appointed to fill
this high office, which was instituted immediately after the
coalition of the Hudson's Bay and Northwest Companies in
1 82 1. Previous to that date the various districts had been
ruled by numerous petty officers, subject to no efficient control,
and practically answerable to none for abuse of power.

The authority of the Governor-in-chief is supreme, except
during the session of his council, which is held once a year,
and continues its formal sittings for two or three days. The
Governor is president or chairman of this council, at which
he represents the interests of the Board of Directors in Eng-
land. It is called the " Council for the Northern Department
of Rupert's Land," yet it assumes a general authority over all
other departments, and, to quote the words of the preamble to
its official hiinutes, it convenes " for the purpose of establish-
ing rules and regulations for conducting the business of said
department, and in order to investigate the trade of the past

As before stated, a council for the Northern department


is held every year, and at it the Governor-in-chief is invaria-

bly present ; but he, also, from tmie to tune, has held coun-
cils for other departments, though his usual jjlan is to leave
the details to be managed by competent officials on the spot,
and, by correspondence, exercise a general jurisdiction over the
trade. His council is composed of the highest rank of olKicers
in the service, called Chief Factors, whose duty and right is to
sit at its meetings whenever their attendance is practicable.
Members of the second rank of commissioned officers, called
Chief Traders, when they can arrange to be present, are also
requested to sit in the council, which is held with closed doors,
and when so invited, the traders are permitted to debate and
vote equally with the factors. The chief factors and chief
traders together constitute the partnership in what is called
the " Fur Trade." From this the profits of the Hudson's
Bay Company may be said to be entirely derived ; it con-
stitutes the means by which the company avails itself of the
right to trade, which it possesses in its territories. Vacan-
cies in its ranks are immediately filled up as they occur
from the death or retirement of its members, the qualification
necessary to obtain the commission being a majority of the
votes of all the chief factors. The candidates for a factor-
ship are necessarily traders, while those for a vacant trader-
ship are from the ranks of salaried clerks, seldom of less than
fourteen years' standing in the service.

The members of the Fur Trade, also called " Wintering
Partners," furnish none of the capital stock, and receive their
commissions merely as the reward of long and faithful service.


Their pay is a definite number of shares of stock, never ex-
ceeding a certain limit. Of these, a chief factor possesses two,
and a chief trader one, so that their emoluments are directly
affected by the fluctuations of the trade equally with those of
other stockholders. While the Fur Trade is recognized as a
partnership by the company, yet it is allowed no distinct or-
ganization. No annual election of officers forming anything
like the company's London Board takes place among the part-
ners of the Fur Trade, who, scattered over the vast territories
of the company, could not, under existing circumstances, take
united action in any matter, how nearly soever it might affect
their corporate interests. The only approximation to a com-
mon action which exists is afforded by the meeting of the
annual council, at which all factors within practicable distance
are entitled, and traders, under similar circumstances, invited
to attend. The partners in the Fur Trade are, moreover,
allowed no representative at the company's house in London.
An annual dispatch, bearing the signatures of the Board, and
treating of the different matters of interest then pending in
connection with the company's affairs, is addressed each year
to the council of the Northern Department, and is answered by
its president. But this constitutes the sole occasion in which
the company as a body approaches the Fur Trade as a body in
the whole course of their business. On the other hand, the
Board in London has a special representative in the Fur Trade
in the person of the Governor-in-chief. He is president of all
councils of officers held in the country, and there is no in-
stance of his being outvoted by any such body.


Under these circumstances it is scarcely to be wondered
at that an occasional murmur arises from the partners in the
Fur Trade, when a series of unfortunate years has brought
them but little remuneration. Still, upon the whole, the rela-
tions of the two bodies are harmonious, and the wintering
partner is well paid for his labor. With the exception of
personal clothing the company furnishes everything, even to
the paid clerk and the men under him.

The partners in the Fur Trade hold their rights as a body,
with respect to the stockholders of the company, in virtue of
a deed-poll, dated 1834, under which the commissions to in-
dividuals are issued. These commissions, held from the
company, entitle the officers holding them to their share in
the profits and all the other privileges they enjoy.*

The vast operations of the company, extending over so
great an extent of territory, with establishments remotely con-
nected, and at times only accessible by the accident of favor-
able stages of water, demand an army of employes, in each of
whom the prosecution of its peculiar business necessitates
certain well-defined mental and physical characteristics, and
a rigid training in the duties pertaining to his situation. No
mere neophyte assumes even a minor command in the com-
pany's affairs ; and the fortunate winner of a higher station
must invariably be well qualified for his place by long identi-
fication with its active duties as well as traditions. Although
itself an entirely English corporation, its officers in the fur

* For most of the information contained in the foregoing pages of
this chapter, the author is indebted to the vaUiable work on " Red River,"
by J. J. Hargrave, F. R. G. S.


country are nearly all natives of Scotland and the Orkneys.
More than one consideration, probably, contributed its
weight in the selection of this nationality as its working
representatives, viz., their proverbial shrewdness and propen-
sity for barter ; their generally vigorous physique and love of
adventurous life ; a steady perseverance in the attainment of
an end ; close economy, and the giving and receiving of the
last half-penny in trade ; and, above all, a certain Presbyte
rian honesty begotten of the Established Kirk.

Successful applicants for place in the company's service —
a service highly esteemed and much sought after in " pla-
cing," the youth of the well-to-do Scotch boiirgeoise — are en-
listed invariably at an early age — generally from sixteen to
eighteen — having first passed a rigid scrutiny as regards educa-
tional attainments, moral character, and, above all, physical
build ; and having, moreover, tendered such letters of recom-
mendation as could not well fail of success. The nominal
term of enlistment is five years, although the more direct un-
derstanding is that the applicant shall devote his life to the
trade — an event which happens in nearly every instance, the
style of living being calculated to unfit him for active duty in
any other vocation. With the arrival of the annual requisi-
tion for additional help from the fur country, the accepted
applicant is notified to hold himself in readiness, and sails for
York Factory, on the Bay coast, by return packet. With his
departure his salary begins. The magnificent sum of ;^2o
per annum is his, together with rations, quarters, etc., and
personal clothing from the com])any's shops at cost and ten



per cent. As this latter expenditure is the only one he is
obliged to make, or, indeed, can well be tempted to indulge
in, the bulk of his yearly stipend remains from year to year in
the hands of his employer at compound interest.

Arrived at York Factory,'he is generally sent to pass the
first five or ten years of his apprenticeship in the extreme
northern districts of Mackenzie River and Athabaska. This
is 'done that he may at once be cut off from anything having
a tendency to distract him from his duties ; in order, also, to
be drilled in the practical working of the Indian trade ; and
because of an established rule in the service which starts the
apprentice at isolated posts in remote districts, bringing him
up finally in the great depot forts on the borders of civiliza-
tion, thus acquainting him with every duty pertinent to the
trade. The occupations of his first years are those of sales-
man behind the counter in the trading-shop, and an occa-
sional trip with the half-breed traders attached to the post to
the various Indian camps in the vicinity for the barter of
goods for peltries. The cultivation of the Spartan virtue of
truth also obtains, no misrepresentations being permitted in
order to effect sales in that service. In the discharge of such
minor duties a few years glide uneventfully away, and the
next advancement brings him to the accountant's office.

Upon the assumption of this position he passes in the race
for promotion another class of apprentices, probably enlisted
at the same date as himself, known as " postmasters." These
are generally natives of the country, half-breeds of the better
class for the most part, yet lacking the requisite education to


successfully compete with the Scotch importations. They are
older men, as a rule, and are assigned the duty of superintend-
ing the laboring men, of whom each post has its complement,
and have, in fact, a general supervision of the rougher details
of the trade ; but are entitled, ne\'isrtheless, to the title of com-
pany's gentlemen, as distinguishing them from the lower
order of employes entirely outside the line of promotion.
The advancement of a postmaster is necessarily slow, and
they seldom attain a position higher than that of clerk in
charge of a small post, although instances are on record where
high place has been reached, and filled with much credit and
pecuniary profit.

At the accountant's desk the apprentice — now known as a
clerk — remains generally until fourteen years of service have
elapsed, unless placed in charge of a fort, other than a depot,
as chief clerk. During this period he has been, in most in-
stances, gradually nearing the great forts forming the depots
of supplies and forwarding, or the headquarters of a district,
by a series of transfers from the unimportant and remote
posts whence he started to those still larger and more con-
tiguous to the desired centre. His salary, too, has increased
from ;^2o to ^loo. He has lived entirely in the mess-rooms
of the posts at which he resided ; his associations have been
with his elders and superiors in the ranks of the service ; his
conversation for years has been for the most part upon sub-
jects relative to the trade ; its traditions have become familiar
to him, its routine almost a second nature ; his habits of life
are fixed, and sit so easily upon him as to suggest no desire


for change ; in short, he has fallen so completely into the
groove, become so much a part of the machinery of the trade,
and so totally unacquainted with the requirements of any
other business, as to render a change both impolitic and im-
possible. His ambition points but one way — to a higher rank
in the service he has chosen. He pictures to himself, doubt-
less, in a vague and misty way, a certain far-off day when,
with the accumulations of years, he will return to the world ;
never thinking that the world he will find will prove so
strange and bizarre that a cursory glance will frighten him
back to his solitudes again.

At the expjration of fourteen years of service, if a vacancy
occur, the clerk steps from the ranks of salaried employes into
the partnership of the Fur Trade, and assumes the title of chief
trader. Upon the assumption of this dignity, in place of a
yearly stipend, his emoluments take the form of rata of
the annual profits of the trade, and he is appointed to the
command of some important post. Here his duties are a gen-
eral oversight of the business immediately connected with the
establishment and vicinity. The thorough practical knowledge
of all the petty details of the business, acquired in the years
of his previous service, enable him to iudge of their correct
performance by those now under him. He has now, also, an
opportunity of devising new methods of increasing the trade,
of developing pet projects previously conceived, and of adding
proportionately to his own share of profit. The field opened
before him is sufficiently wide for the employment of all his
energies, and the desire to rival his compeers is necessarily


Strong. He still retains in his new position the usual allow-
ances of food, quarters, etc., from the company, as in the days
of his clerkship ; but the feeling that his pecuniary emolu-
ments in a measure depend upon his own energies, adds new
life and vigor to his movements. He becomes alert, restless,
active, and indulges in much speculation relative to the in-
crease of trade, until death or retirement opens the way for
entrance into the ranks of chief factors — the highest class of
officials known to the service.

In the exercise of the functions of this office he assumes
control of a district — in many instances as large as a European
kingdom — with headquarters at the largest fort within its limits,
and a general supervision over all other posts. He directs the
course of trade, erects new establishments, orders the necessary
outfits for the year, suggests needed reforms to the council,
and in his capacity as chief magistrate of his principality,
rules supreme. He has attained the summit of the ladder, with
the exception perhaps of governorship, and can rest secure.
The accumulations of many years, which he has had little op-
portunity of spending, have by this time placed him beyond
the reach of pecuniary care, and he finally resigns upon half
pay, to visit the scenes of his youth for a season, then to return
and pass the remainder of his days in the far settlements of
the isolated country where his life has been spent.

As a man, the wintering partner is eminently social, and
given to a generous hospitality. His years of isolation have
only served to render him the more gregarious when opportu-
nity presents. He throws his doors open to the congenial


stranger, setting apart a room for his use, ordering an addi-
tional cover at table, giving instructions to the groom relative
to the free use of the favorite cob by his temporary guest, and
considering all the honor as done to himself. Physically ro-
bust, he delights in athletic sports, in pedestrian excursions,
in boating, in equestrian feats, and, when occasion presents, in
prolonged convivialities Avith his old associates. As a family
man, he is exemplary. It has happened that, rendered lone-
some by his isolated position and cut off from society, in the
days of his clerkship he has petitioned the Governor for the
privilege of marriage ; and, gaining consent, has taken to wife
a daughter of the land. If matrimonial desire has overtaken
him further on, however, and when more advanced in rank and
means, he has probably ordered a wife from the House in Lon-
don, and having received her by return packet, married out of
hand. And to the credit of the wintering partner be it said,
that he generally becomes a model Benedict, although, in some
instances, had he been personally present, his selection would
have been different. We recall a case of this kind, where the
party having received and married his wife, receipted to the
House for her something in this style : " Received one wife in
fair condition. Hope she will prove good, though she is cer-
tainly a very rum one to look at ! "

Generally speaking, Manitoba is selected as a place of resi-
dence by servants of the company who have passed their lives
in the service. Many of the officers, whose desire to return
to their native country has withered through lapse of time and
the influence of family ties formed in the country, have bought


land and settled down on it for life, forming among themselves
the aristocracy of the wilderness. Owning the handsomest
residences in the province, social by nature, and supplied with
abundant means, they are given to a generous hospitality.
The latch-string is always out to the stranger, and they delight
in meeting upon each other's hearthstones and recounting the
wild life of the past.

Such are the relations of master and man in the company's
serv'ice, and the routine order of advancement which obtains
in every instance. And had the territories of the company
continued as isolated and inaccessible as they have been
hitherto regarded, there is no reason to doubt that the statu
quo of employed and employer would have remained un-
changed till the end of the chapter. It has happened, how-
ever, that the transfer of the country to Canada, at the begin-
ning of the present decade, has attracted a considerable tide
of immigration to the new Province of Manitoba, and on up
the fertile belt of the Saskatchewan. And while the northern
part of North America is still as much in the possession of the
company as ever, yet the rapid settlement and development of
the southern borders of the territory, and the consequent oppor-
tunities for speculation and high wages, have served to dissi-
pate the quiet content of the company's officers. Within the
last decade some of them have left the service and engaged
with free fur-trading firms, prosecuting business in opposition
to the company, or have carried on the fur-trade on their
own account. Especially has this been the case with the
salaried clerks, upon whom the company rely to fill the


vacancies in the Fur Trade. The factors and traders still re-
tain their positions from the fact of receiving their pay from
the profits of the whole trade, which, in the aggregate, make
up a higher salary than they could hope to obtain elsewhere.
The average income of the two ranks of officers in the Fur
Trade is, for a trader $2,500, and for a factor $5,000, always
including in addition the support of himself and family.
Place this sum at compound interest annually, and the rapid-
ity with which it accumulates will be readily seen. Half pay
is only given for a term of five years after leaving the service.

With the clerk of five or ten years' standing, however, it is
different. He could expect for years only a nominal annual
salary, the equal of which he can command for one or two
months' labor under the new order of things, if once free
from the service. His prospects of accumulating a com-
petency for the future, outside the ranks of the company,
though not so absolutely certain as within, are yet sufficiently
promising ; so he leaves. Under this condition of things,
the company find themselves driven to alter, in some measure,
their time-honored programme, and increase the annual sti-
pends of clerks and apprentices to a nearer approximation
with salaries paid that class in civilized life. Clerks who have
•withdrawn from the service are invited to return under new
rates, the regular line of promotion being preserved as before.

The extent of territory over which the Hudson's Bay Com-
pany carries on its trade, and throughout which depots and
forts are established, is very great. As the crow flies, the
distance between Fort Vancouver, on the Oregon, and Fort


Confidence, on Bear Lake, exceeds 1350 geographical miles,
and the space between the company's posts on the Labrador
coast, or their station at Sault Ste. Marie, and Fort Simpson,
on the Pacific, measures more than 2500 miles. The area of
country under its immediate influence is about four and a half
million square miles, or more than one-third greater than the
whole extent of Europe. This vast hunting country is every-
where sprinkled over with lakes, and in all directions inter-
sected by rivers and lesser streams, abounding with edible
fish. East of the Rocky Mountains are vast prairies over
which roams the bison, lord of the plains ; while west of these
mountains the land in densely timbered. The most northerly
station, east of the Rocky Mountains, is on the Mackenzie
River, within the Arctic circle ; so terribly intense is the cold
at this point that axes tempered specially can alone be used
for cutting and splitting wood, ordinary hatchets breaking as
though made of glass. West of the Rockies, the most north-
ernly station is Fort Simpson, situated near the Sitka River,
the boundary between Alaska and British Columbia.
Throughout this vast extent of territory, a regular com-
munication is kept up between the Governor and the numer-
ous scattered posts, and supplies are forwarded to all the dis-
tricts with a regularity and exactness truly wonderful.

The chartered territories and circuit of commercial rela-
tions of the Hudson's Bay Company are divided into vast sec-
tions, named the Northern, Southern, Montreal and Western
departments. Of these the Northern department is situated
between Hudson's Bay and the Rocky Mountains ; the South-


em, between James' Bay and Canada, comprehending, also,
East Main, on the eastern coast of Hudson's Bay. The Mon-
treal department comprehends the extent of the business in
the Canadas, while the Western comprises the regions west
from the Rocky Mountains. The depots to which supplies
from the civilized world are periodically sent, and which form
the keys of these various sections, are York Factory, in the
Northern department ; Moose Factory, in the Southern ; Mon-
treal, in the Canadas, and Victoria, Vancouver's Island, in the
West. In the Northern department, which includes the grand
bulk of the chartered territories, in which alone, until recently,
the burden of government fell upon the company, the most
important interests of the business are concentrated. Its vast
extent necessitates a depot for the " inland districts," which
exists at Norway House, on Lake Winnipeg ; and many causes

Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Martin) RobinsonThe great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory → online text (page 5 of 24)