H. M. (Henry Martin) Robinson.

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

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have combined to render Fort Garry, in which are stored the
goods passing over the United States route, the centre of
business, and a large depot for the " plain districts." It is also
the residence of the Governor-in-chief, and the headquarters
of the civil service of the company, while York Factory, on
Hudson's Bay, is the headquarters of the accountants' depart-

These four departments are again divided into smaller por-
tions called districts, of which there are fifty-three, and each
of which is under the direction of a superintending officer.
These again are sub-divided into one hundred and fifty-two
minor establishments, forts, posts, and outposts. There is
connected with each district a depot to which all the supplies


for the district are forwarded periodically, and to which all the
furs and produce from the forts are sent to be shipped to
England. Some of the depot forts have a complement of
thirty or forty men, mechanics, laborers, servants, etc.; but
most of them have only ten, five, four, or even two, besides the
superintending officer. As in most instances a space of forest
or plain, varying from fifty to three hundred miles in length,
intervenes between each of these establishments, and the in-
habitants have only the society of each other, some idea may
be formed of the solitary lives led by many of the company's
servants. But every man knows his place and his work; the
laws regulating their duties are clearly defined and well under-
stood, and are enforced with a strictness and rigor truly mili-
tary or naval. Hence the harmonious working of the whole
extensive and complicated machinery, and the wonderful
financial results of its operations.

The term fort, as applied to the trading-posts of the Fur
Land, is strictly applicable to but two ; most of them do not
merit the name. The only two in the country that are real,
bona-fide forts, are Upper and Lower Fort Garry, in the
Province of Manitoba. The others are merely half-a-dozen
frame buildings defended by wooden pickets or stockades ;
and a few, where the Indians are quiet and harmless, are en-
tirely destitute of defence of any kind. Upper Fort Garry,
as the residence of the Governor, and the central post of
the Northern department, may be considered the most im-
portant fort of the company. Its business consists of trading
goods for cash, furs, or country produce ; of forwarding the


supplies for certain large districts to their destination in the
interior, and of banking and transacting a variety of business
with the inhabitants of the settlement round about. The
means by which these affairs are carried on consist of a bonded
warehouse, a sale-shop, a general office, and sundry stores for
pemmican and other articles of a special nature. Each of
these departments is furnished with its staff of clerks, ware-
house-men and laborers.

Lower Fort Garry, more commonly called the Stone
Fort, in allusion to the material of which its houses are
constructed, is perhaps a better sample of the larger
posts of the company than any within the ordinary range
of travel. It is situated on the west bank of the Red
River of the North, about twenty miles from the foot of
Lake Winnipeg. The banks in this locality are very high,
and, in consequence, the fort is favorably situated for the
avoidance of floods during periods of inundation, by no
means of infrequent occurrence. The business of the estab-
lishment, which is one of the subordinate posts of the Red
River district, consists of farming, retail dealing, and boat-
freighting. At this post, during the summer months, boat-
brigades are outfitted for the trip to York Factory and other
posts inland. The buildings consist of officers' and servants'
dwellings, shops and stores. These are all inclosed within a
stone wall, embracing an area of about one and a half acre,
and pierced through its entire circuit with a tier of loop-

Entering through the huge gateway pierced in the centre


of the east wall, facing the river, the first view is of the res-
idence of the chief trader in command, and also of the
clerks and upper class of employes under his charge. It is a
long two-story stone building, with a broad piazza encircling
it on three sides. A square plot of green sward surrounding
it is fenced in with neat railing, and kept in extremely good
order. A broad gravel walk leads from the gateway to the
piazza. Huge shade trees border it, and beds of waving and
fragrant flowers load the business air with their perfume. In
this building the mess of the chief and his subordinates is
held. Its hospitalities are extended in good old English
style. A room is set apart for the use of the transient guest,
who is free to come and go as he lists.

With the exception of the residence of the chief trader
in charge, the buildings of the fort follow the course of the
walls, and, facing inward, form a hollow square. Following
this order, immediately at the left of the gateway is the trad-
ing-store, devoted solely to the sale of goods. A large stone
structure of three stories, it has within its walls nearly every
article used in that climate. The sales-room is a square
apartment, with no attempt at ornament, no plaster, the ceil-
ing merely the joists and flooring of the second flat, thickly
studded with nails and hooks, from which are suspended
various articles of trade. Along the side walls are box
shelves, nearly two feet deep. On the floor within the
counter are piled bales of goods, bundles of prints, hardware,
etc. ; and this space within the counter comprises almost the
entire room. A small area is railed off near the door, sufii-




ciently large to hold twenty standing customers. When this
is filled, the remaining patrons must await their turn in the
courtyard; and it is not at all an unusual sight to see from
fifty to one hundred people standing quietly about outside
until their time comes to be served. The best goods of all
manufactures alone are sold here. No shoddy or inferior
goods are ever imported or sold by the company. Every-
thing is purchased direct from producers, and of a stipulated
quality. The principal articles of trade are tea, sugar, calico,
blankets, ammunition, fishing-gear, and a kind of cloth, very
thick and resembling blanketing, called duffle. Coffee is
rarely sold, and green tea is almost unknown, the black only
being used. Raw spirits are sold to a large extent in the
posts immediately contiguous to settlements. In former
times the sale of this latter article was permitted only upon
two days of the year. On Christmas and the Queen's birth-
day each head of a family was permitted to purchase from
the stores of the company, upon an order countersigned by
the Governor, one pint of spirits. In the event of spirits
being required for medicinal purposes, the signature of both
Governor and attending physician were necessary.

Amidst this stock of merchandise, composed in so great
a part of staple articles, may be found, nevertheless, an as-
sortment of dress goods and gewgaws over a century old —
old-time ruffs, stomachers, caps and what not ; garments of
antique cut and trim, articles of ve?-fie, and apparel long since
out of vogue are mixed up in a heterogeneous mass. What
a day of delights and surprises would it prove to the ladies


of the present age to toss and tumble all that collection of
decayed finery ! Yet, doubtless, much would be found apro-
pos to the reigning fashions ; for here, too, may be purchased
the latest styles of wear upon Cheapside and Regent's Park
— kid gloves at fabulously low prices; made-up silks, Paris-
ian bonnets, delicate foot gear, etc., with near neighbors of
huge iron pots, copper cauldrons, and iron implements of
grim aspect and indefinite weight, together with ships' cordage,
oakum, pitch, and other marine necessities. Over this dis-
pensary of needfuls and luxuries presides an accountant and
two clerks, none of them gotten up in the elaborate costumes
of the counter-waiters of civilization, but rather affecting
buckskin coats, corduroy trousers, and the loudest styles of
flannel shirts. Here all the multitudinous accounts of the
fort are kept, a statement forwarded quarterly to the chief
post of the district, and from thence sent to the company's
great house in Fenchurch street, London.

In the store there is no such thing known as exhibiting
goods with a view of increasing the purchases of a probable
customer. Whatever is asked for is produced, and, being
paid for, the customer is ignored at once ; his room is evidently
better than his company. There is, however, no need to urge
the majority of its patrons to purchase. The nomadic half-
breed or Indian brings his money, or whatever he may have
to exchange, wrapped carefully in a handkerchief, places it
upon the counter and begins to trade. First, he purchases
what he absolutely needs ; then, whatever he sees — candy,
chewing-gum, fancy ties — in short, anything that tastes sweet


or looks flashy. When all is spent, to the last half-penny, he
trudges oft" with his hajtpy wife — his invariable companion
when shopping — quite contentedly, although probably in
doubt where his next meal is to come from.*

The currency with which business was transacted, until
quite recently, consisted chiefly of promissory notes, issued
by the company, redeemable by bills of exchange granted at
sixty days' sight on the Governor, Deputy Governor and
Committee in London. The notes were, however, readily re-
deemed in coin at Fort Garry, without deduction for dis-
count, whenever presented ; and being more easily carried
than coin, bore a corresponding value in the eyes of the in-
habitants of the territory. It is reported that General Pope,
when resident on duty as an officer of engineers, many years
ago, at Pembina, having observed the preference evinced by
the settlers for the company's notes, more than for American
gold, actually instanced it to the Government as a symptom
of the degraded state of ignorance in which the unhappy
colonists were kept by the Hudson's Bay Company. The
notes are about the size of a half-sheet of letter paper, and
are of three denominations — one pound sterling, five shillings
sterling and one shilling sterling. Besides these, however,
there is a good deal of English and American gold and silver
coin in circulation in the country.

Leaving the trading-store, a succession of warehouses
containing stores and supplies, is next encountered. The last

* The aspect of Lower Fort Garry, as well as the character of the
business transacted there, has undergone considerable modification within
the last decade.


and most massive building, near the gateway, is the ware-
house of packages destined for posts inland. These are goods
imported from England and other countries, and to be used
\\\ the fur-trade exclusively. In this vast bulk of merchan-
dise there is not a single package of over one hundred pounds
weight. The greater portion weigh but eighty or ninety
pounds, strongly packed, the cases lined with zinc and bound
with iron. The packages are of this limited weight from the
necessity of " portaging " them from river to river, sometimes
a long distance, upon the shoulders of boatmen ; and they
must be strong in order to insure safe transport over a thou-
sand or more miles of rough travel. Twice annually this
warehouse is emptied by the departure of the boat-brigades
for the interior, and as often replenished by shipment from
England. Summer is the busy season, as then all the freight-
ing is carried on, and the accounts for the year closed. It is
also a time of much bustle, created by the constant arrivals
and departures which take place at so central a point as Fort
Garry, in a country where locomotion may be called the nor-
mal condition of the majority of the people during the sum-
mer months.

The wall surrounding the fort is about twelve feet high,
and flanked by two-story bastions or turrets at each corner.
In the centre of the inclosure rises an immense double flag-
staff, bearing the flag of the company, with its strange design,
and still stranger motto, ^'' Pro pelle cutcin" — skin for skin.
Near by stands the bell tower, at the signal of whose tones
work begins and ends. When it announces the dinner hour


the trading-store is closed, and the customers are turned out
to await the return of the clerks.

Outside the walls of the fort, but belonging to it, is situ-
ated a miniature village of many and varied industries. In
neat dwellings reside the heads of the different departments
of what may be termed the outdoor business of the company.
Here dwells the chief engineer of all the steam power in use
upon its ships, boats, mills, etc. Here also lives the farmer
who directs the cultivation of the immense agricultural farm
connected with the fort ; the herdsman, who superintends the
rearing and care of the droves of cattle, horses and other
stock of the corporation ; the miller in charge of the milling
interests; the shipwright, who directs the building, launch-
ing and refitting of the company's fleet. In the rear of these
dwellings are mess-rooms for the accommodation of the
workmen and the residences of the different overseers.
Separate a little stand the flouring-mills, brewery, ship-yards,
machine shops, etc., all supplied with the latest labor-saving
machinery. Scattered along the bank of the river lie moored
or drawn up on the beach the miniature navy of the company;
here a lake steamer, there river steamboats, then schooners,
yachts and a whole school of whale boats, with one mast, un-
stepped at will, and of three and a half tons burden, used in
the freighting service, and requiring nine men as crew\
Drawn upon the beach lie birch-bark canoes of all sizes and
conditions, from the little one of a single passenger capacity
to the long dispatch boat requiring thirteen navigators. The
steam vessels are mostly manned by Americans ; the sailing


craft by the Orkney servants of the company, and the whale-
boats by the native half-breeds. The birch-bark canoe is the
Indian's buggy. One or two steam-tugs whistle and puff
rapidly up and down the stream, towing rafts of lumber, boats
laden with limestone, fire-wood, etc. The remaining sur-
roundings of the fort are made up of a well kept vegetable
garden, extensive stock corrals and a large farm under j^er-
fect cultivation.

At a distance of some twenty miles, at the foot of Lake
Winnipeg, among the marshes and lowlands, are the cattle
ranches of the company. There the stock is herded during
the summer and housed in winter, being only driven to the
uplands during the spring and fall freshets. The generally
high price of cattle makes stock-raising extremely profitable,
and the wandering life attendant upon their care is particu-
larly suited to the native herdsmen. The stock is collected
every spring and branded, and such a number selected as
may be required for work purposes during the summer
months. Oxen are used for freighting to a large extent ;
trains of several hundred, harnessed singly in carts, crossing
the prairies, being not an unusual sight. The majority of
the large forts in the Southern country have their stockyards
and farms, and the amount of wealth accumulated in this
way is enormous.

The business transacted at the Stone Fort, if we except
freighting and some minor details of the fur-trade, may be
presented as a fair sample of that carried on at the majority
of the large posts contiguous to settlements ; and its archi-


tecturc and surroundings, if wood be substituted for stone,
identically the same. But the great depot posts in the North
are of another character, and of one we wish to speak.

Churchill Factory is situated about five miles from Hud-
son's Bay, upon a small bay on the Churchill River, and
above it, extending a distance of seven miles, to the lower
rapids, is a large marsh. The factory receives its supplies
once a year from a vessel which arrives in the latter part of
August or early in September, and starts back upon her
homeward voyage after a delay of about ten days, the se-
verity of the climate rendering it imprudent to make a longer
stay. By the middle of November the Churchill is enchained
in ice, on which even the spring tides, though they rise ten
or twelve feet above the ordinary level, have no effect. Not
till the middle of June does the sun, getting the mastery of
the frost, compel it to release its hold and let the river flow
on its course. By the middle of October the marshes and
swamps are frozen over, and the earth covered with snow.
By the latter end of December snow covers the stockade
which surrounds the factory from six to ten feet deep.
Through this mass pathways about five feet in width are cut.
Late in April the snow begins to melt away. From the end
of October to the end of April, it is possible to walk only
upon snow-shoes.

In such a climate, much of what is done by the white
inhabitants has a direct reference to their self-preservation.
Before annual supplies of coal were forwarded from England,
all the fuel that could be collected in the neighborhood of the


factory was barely sufficient to supply a single fire in the
morning and evening. During the remainder of the day the
only recourse of the company's servants, when the weather
was bad, was to walk in the guard-room under the protection
of heavy coats of fur. By a stroke of ingenuity ice was turned
into a means of ])rotection against the piercing cold. The
interior walls of the house were covered with water, which
froze into solid ice. This lining was found to hold firm
until the general thaw of spring came. In the intensity of
frost, rocks, into the crevices of which water has run, split
with a report resembling that of a gun. Everywhere they are
punctured and riven from the effects of freezing water.

The return of spring and summer, after a long, gloomy
winter, in this region, is like an awakening to a new life.
The welcome change is thoroughly enjoyed. Summer treads
so closely upon the heels of winter as scarcely to leave any
standing ground for spring. One of the great drawbacks to
the enjoyment of the summer consists in the myriads of
mosquitoes that fill the air, and give the weary dwellers no
rest day or night. They crowd in such numbers at Churchill
Factory as to appear to crush one another to death ; and the
victims are sometimes in such piles that they have to be swept
out twice every day. Nothing but a northeast wind, carrying
the chill from the ice over which it has passed, gives relief
from these tormentors. As a cure for mosquito bites, the
natives anoint themselves with sturgeon oil — an effective
remedy, but one requiring to be often applied. Nor is man
alone the only victim of these insects. They prey equally


upon animals of various kinds ; even the feathered tribe, so
far from being safe, suffer about the neck and eyes. No per-
manent relief can be expected until the chilly nights of Sep-
tember set in. In this month the sandflies and midges are
innumerable, the latter insinuating themselves all over the
body, the clothes affording no adequate protection. These
insect plagues cease their torments at sunset, and they dis-
appear entirely in October. However the fact may be ac-
counted for, all these pests become more numerous the farther
one goes north. In the swamps, where they are most numer-
ous, they make the dogs howl, roll on the ground and rush
into the water. The fox shows his restlessness by barking
and snapping about, and when inclination would suggest his
going after birds' nests, he is compelled to seek shelter in his
burrow. If the chief business of the company's servants in
winter is to struggle for existence against the cold, in the
summer an equally fierce contest takes place against mosqui-
toes, sandflies and the overpowering heat.

Widely different from the great depot forts, however, are
the trading-posts of the company — quaint-looking places con-
structed according to a uniform type. Built generally upon
the second or lower bank of a river or lake, though some-
times perched upon the loftier outer banks, a trading-fort is
invariably a square or oblong, enclosed by immense trees or
pickets, one end sunk deeply in the ground, and placed close
together. In the prairie country this defence is stout and
lofty, but in the wooded region it is frequently dispensed with
altogether. A platform, about the ordinary height of a man.


is carried along inside the square, so as to enable any one to
peep over without being in danger from arrow or bullet. The
entrance is closed by two massive gates, an inner and an outer
one, and all the houses of the chief trader and his men, the
trading-store, fur-room and warehouses are within the square
— the former always standing in the middle, the latter ranged
about the walls, facing inward. At the four corners of the
palisade are bastions, generally two stories high, pierced with
embrasures, to delude the Indians into the belief that cannon
are there, and intended to strike terror into any red-skinned
rebel daring to dispute the supremacy of the company.

The trade-room, or, as it is more frequently called, the
Indian-shop, at an interior trading-post, bears a close resem-
blance to the store of civilization. It contains every imagina-
ble commodity likely to be required by the Indian. Upon
its shelves are piled bales of cloth of all colors, capotes,
blankets, etc.; in smaller divisions are placed balls of twine,
scalping-knives, gun flints, fire-steels, files, gun-screws, canoe-
awls, and glass beads of all colors, sizes and descriptions.
Drawers under the counter contain fish-hooks, needles, scis-
sors, thimbles, red and yellow ochre and vermilion for paint-
ing faces and canoes. Upon the floor is strewn an assort-
*ment of tin and copper kettles, ranging in capacity from a
pint to half a gallon. In the corners of the room stand trad-
ing-guns, kegs of powder and boxes of balls, while from the
ceiling depend other articles of trade.

In many of the forts the trade-room is cleverly contrived
to prevent a sudden rush of Indians, the approach from out-


side the pickets being through a long, narrow passage only
of sufficient width to admit a single Indian at a time, and
bent at an acute angle at the window where the trader stands.
This precaution is rendered necessary by the frantic desire
which sometimes seizes the Indian to shoot the trader.

Time moves slowly at many of these isolated trading-posts
and change is almost unknown. To-day they are the same
as they were one hundred years ago. The requisition for
the goods of this year contain precisely the same articles as
that of a century since. The Indian trapper still brings his
marten and musquash, and his wants are still strouds, cot-
tons, beads, and trading-guns. The sun-dial, placed in the
open courtyard three generations ago, has apparently
changed no more than the great luminary whose course it
marks. Only outside the walls, Avhere a rude cross or
wooden railing, blown over by the tempest, discolored by
rain and snow-drift, marks the lonely resting-place of the
dead, does the roll of the passing years leave its trace.

Until a comparatively recent date the system of trading
at all the company's posts was entirely one of barter, money
values being unknown. Latterly, however, the all-potent
dollar is becoming a recognized medium of exchange, espe-
cially at the forts nearest the borders of civilization ; but the
standard of values throughout all the territories of the com-
pany is still the beaver-skin, by which the prices of all other
furs are governed. Every service rendered, or purchase
made, is paid for in skins, the beaver being the unit of com-


The collection of fur skins throughout the company's
territory is made during the autumn and winter months at
the different trading-posts ; the summer season being occu-
pied in transporting goods to the various districts, the con-
centration of furs at the depots, and the collection of a suffi-
cient supply of provisions to last over winter. The latter

Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Martin) RobinsonThe great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory → online text (page 6 of 24)