H. M. (Henry Martin) Robinson.

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

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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 7 of 24)
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consist in the plain districts of pemmican — dried buffalo meat
mingled with fat — and flour; in the wood districts of fish and
dried moose and reindeer-meat. A winter very rarely passes
at the more isolated forts, however, without the little garrison
being reduced to very short allowance, often being obliged
to kill their horses to maintain life.

The life of the company's servants is a hard one in many
respects, yet it seems admirably suited to the daring men,
who have shown a patient endurance of every hardship and
privation in the fur-trade. Indeed, no other branch of com-
merce has tended more to bring out man's energy and cour-
age. To the pursuit of fur may be traced the sources from
which the knowledge of three-fourths of the continent of
North America has been derived.


LIFE IN A Hudson's bay company's fort.

" i "^HE people resident in a Hudson's Bay Company's post
-*- form a community of themselves, more or less gregari-
ous, as the establishment is designed for trading purposes, a
depot of supplies, or merely an isolated stockade for the ac-
cumulation of provisions for the use of the larger forts. But,
of whatever character the place may be a regular business-
routine, demanding certain times for the performance of
special duties, is strictly observed. This routine, which at
certain seasons of the year degenerates into the merest for-
mality, there being literally nothing to do, is the great pre-
ventive of physical and mental rust among the inhabitants,
and an antidote for that listless apathy which would certainly
obtain were no defined rules of action and employment fol-
lowed. Every member of the community, from the factor or
clerk in charge to the cook, is expected to be, and almost in-
variably is, at his post of duty at the times designated for its
especial performance. And wherever this rule of action is
followed, it is wonderful what a multitude of affairs con-
stantly develop to demand attention, and what an amount of
the smaller details of business may be thoroughly cared for.
From this system come the close economy with which the


affairs of the company are conducted, and the perfect under-
standing of the petty details of every branch of its business
on the part of its employes. This is augmented in a great
measure, of course, by the assignment of certain persons to
the performance of particular duties, and their retention in
that position for a term of years, enabling each incumbent to
gain a thorough knowledge of the requirements of his place.
For example, a clerk in the service, in the great majority of
instances, must remain a simple clerk for a term of fourteen
years before he is even considered as being in the line of pro-
motion. During these long years of service he must, per-
force, gain a thorough practical knowledge of the duties, and
even of the most trivial details, relating to his station. From
long custom he falls into the beaten channels of the trade,
its manner of executing business details, and identifies him-
self with its traditions. So, when he assumes charge of a
post or district, he carries with him, to assist in the discharge
of his new responsibilities, that punctuality, adherence to
routine, and careful regard for the little things of his position,
which he has so well learned in his apprenticeship. These
characteristics are of such a nature as to develop a sufficient
amount of employment for the chief officer of a post even in
the dullest times.

The real life of the fort, then, consisting for the most part
of mere routine, may be said to begin at the breakfast-hour,
which is as regularly appointed as those for the dispatch of
business. The breakfast-time with the lower class of em-
ployes, the nature of whose duties demands early rising, is


about six o'clock in the winter and five in the summer
seasons. These servants mess by themselves, drawing ra-
tions at regular intervals through a steward, much after the
fashion of army-life. A cook is appointed from their num-
ber, who performs that duty alone, and who is responsible for
the provisions, quantity and quality of food, etc. A short
season, generally devoted to pipe-smoking, is allowed after
each meal, when they separate to their various duties.

At the officers' mess, over which the trader or factor in
charge of the post presides, and which is located in the build-
ing he occupies, assemble the family of that official, the clerks
and apprentices of every grade who are entitled to the name
of "company's gentlemen," and the stranger temporarily
within the gates. In conformity with the system of early
hours prevalent in the country, breakfast with this mess takes
place at half-past seven or eight o'clock at different seasons,
dinner at two, and supper at six in the evening. It is at
these hours that the social life of the day may be said to trans-
pire. Here the limited budget of local and foreign news is
discussed. Whatever of wit and humor may have occurred
to the minds of its members during the day is carefully
treasured up to be gotten off with appropriate effect amid
the genial surroundings and mellowing influences of meal-
time sociality. Should the chance gleam of humor happen
to be upon some subject foreign to the discourse in hand, the
conversation is adroitly trained into the desired channel to
afford an occasion for its opportune delivery ; for a gleam oi
humor is too precious a thing to be lightly thrown away.


The conversation, however, hinges for the most part, from
the very nature of their isolated position, upon local subjects,
connected more or less remotely with the trade. The suc-
cess of Pierre's last venture with an outfit of goods traded at
some Indian camp ; the quantity of fish or pemmican pro-
cured by Sandy at his provision-stockade ; the amount of
goods needed for the season's trade, etc., form staple and
interesting topics of discourse and comment. The habit
soon forms of making the most of these meagre subjects,
until quite a degree of enthusiasm can be readily excited
about really trivial matters. Not that the mental scope of
the mess-table is necessarily limited to trivialities, but that
subjects of discussion requiring any profundity of thought
present themselves infrequently. The habit, too, of close
attention to mere details tends to draw thought in that direc-
tion, to the exclusion of more general matters.

The comparative monotony of the mess-room, which ob-
tains from the meagreness of the conditions of its isolated
life, and from the long and perfect intimacy of those compos-
ing its social circle, is, nevertheless, often broken by the ad-
vent of a stranger at the board. This stranger may be a
passing official from another post in the service, or some
wanderer who braves the discomforts of travel through those
inhospitable regions from a traveler's curiosity. In either
case he is equally a stranger to the mess-room, from the fact
of the unusual budget of news he brings to add to the some-
what worn and threadbare stock of discourse already in hand.
The arrival of such a personage is a matter of much bustle


and congratulation ; and he receives a welcome which, while
it has many of the elements of selfishness on the part of his
entertainers, leaves nothing to be desired in its heartiness and
cordiality, indeed, he is likely to be wined and dined in
good earnest so long as his budget of news holds out.

If he be a passing officer from another fort, the mess-table
is made the occasion of a detailed and succinct account of
the latest news at the date of his departure from his own es-
tablishment, together with that accumulated at the various
mess-rooms at which he has halted on the way. As the in-
termarriages of the employes of the company have been pro-
ductive of ties of consanguinity of various degrees of remote-
ness permeating the entire service, questions as to the welfare
of a relative stationed, say, at an adjoining post, lead to a
reply pertinent to the health of a whole army of relations
scattered over a country reaching to the antipodes. The
following up of this chain of connections, their healths, em-
ployments, stations, etc., naturally occupies considerable time,
and keeps the new-comer in full tide of converse, and the
mess-table interested listeners for long hours. In addition
to news of this nature, he has his own autobiography since
the time of their last meeting to relate ; jokes to perpetrate
over the escapades of present company of which he has
heard ; and, if he dwell nearer the confines of civilization than
his hosts, the latest news from the outer world to communi-
cate. All these topics of conversation are religiously reserved
for discussion and revelation at the mess-table, that the en-
tire community may profit by their dispensation.


At such times a more lively air pervades the mess-room,
and a genial spirit of good-fellowship develops under the
unusual excitement. Small caches of wine and spirits, hoarded
away from the meagre annual allowance, make their appear-
ance upon the board, and add to the hilarity of the occasion.
Perhaps a few cigars, produced as a rare treat, find their way
mysteriously into the room from some unknown chest in
which they have laid buried for years. The genial glow of
fellowship deepens with each succeeding gathering about the
board, until the whole community feel its reviving influence.
The long evenings of social intercourse are protracted far
beyond their usual wont, and old memories are ruthlessly
dragged forth to feed the fires of conversation should they
show symptoms of abatement. Even long after the departure
of the transient visitor, his sayings, the news he imparted, and
the rollicking time of merriment he occasioned, furnish abund-
ant matter of comment.

The arrival of a traveler from the outer world is, however,
the great episode in the every-day life of the post. The com-
munity find in him an inexhaustible fount of enjoyment ; and,
if he be of a communicative disposition, his store of news and
narrative will do service in payment of his weekly board-bill
for an indefinite period. To such a one the hospitalities of
the fort are extended in the most liberal manner. An apart-
ment is assigned him for his sole occupancy during the period
of his sojourn. He is free to come and go when and where
he listeth, means of locomotion being furnished upon demand.
The members of the community delight in explaining to him


any matters pertaining to their isolated life which may attract
his attention, thereby affording an opportunity of conversa-
tion. His companionship is eagerly sought by all, and the
fortunate individual who secures his preferred acquaintance
excites at once the envy of less favored ones. Nothing is left
undone to render his stay pleasant, and to prolong it to the
utmost. When he finally takes his departure, he is sent upon
his journey freighted with the good wishes of the isolated
post, and certain of the same cordial treatment at his next

The mess-table has, too, other attractions than those of
sociality, and of a more solidly substantial kind. The officers
of the forts are all good livers, and, although accustomed to
rough it on short allowances of food when necessity requires,
take particular care that the home-larder shall be well stocked
with all the delicacies and substantial afforded by the sur-
rounding country. The viands are of necessity composed, in
the greater part, of the wild game and fish with which the
prairies and waters abound. But they are of the choicest
kind, and selected from an abundant supply. One gets there
the buffalo-hump — tender and juicy ; the moose-nose — tremu-
lous and opaque as a vegetable conserve ; the finest and most
savory waterfowl, and the freshest of fish — all preserved by
the power of frost instead of salt. True, the supply of vege-
tables at many mess-tables is wofully deficient, and a continu-
ous diet of wild meats, like most other things of eternal same-
ness, is apt to pall upon the appetite. But the list of meats
is so extensive, and each requiring a particular mode of cook-


ing that a long time may elapse without a repetition of dishes.
Then, too, the climate favors the consumption of solid food,
and, after short residence, the appetite becomes seasoned to
the quality of the fare obtainable. Bread, as an imported
article, is in many instances regarded as quite in the charac-
ter of a luxury; the few sacks of flour which constitute the
annual allowance of each officer being hoarded away by the
prudent housewife as carefully as the jams and preserves of
her more fortunate sisters. In such cases it is batted into
small cakes, one of which is placed beside each plate at meal-
time ; the size of the cake being so regulated as to afford a
single one for each meal of the year. The more common
vegetables, such as potatoes and turnips, can be successfully
cultivated in some places, and, wherever this occurs, enter
largely into the daily menu. Fruits, either fresh or dried,
seldom make their appearance upon the table ; lack of trans-
portation, also, forbidding the importation of the canned

At many of the remote inland posts, however, the daily
bill of fare is limited enough, and a winter season seldom
passes without the garrison of some isolated station suffering
extreme privation. At Jasper and Henry Houses, for ex-
ample, the officers have been frequently forced to slaughter
their horses in order to supplement the meagre supply of
provisions. These posts are situated in the very heart of the
Rocky Mountains, with the vast region marked " swampy "
on the maps separating them from the depot forts. In many
of the extreme Arctic stations the supply of provisions is


limited the year round to reindeer-meat, and fish, and not
infrequently to the latter alone. Under these circumstances,
no wonder that the company's officer comes to regard the
possession of flour and sugar as among the most essential
requisites of lit"e.

As to the comforts of upholstery and furniture in the
mess-room, and, indeed, throughout the entire establishment,
but little attention is paid to it. The constantly-recurring
changes of residence, occasioned by the necessities of their
condition, render the officers of the company, as a class, some-
what careless about the accommodations afforded by iheir
houses. At remote stations, the most simple articles of fur-
niture are held to be sufficient, and shifts are made to adapt
different objects to uses not contemplated by their makers.
The strong, compact wooden trunks or traveling-cases used
in the country, for example, often constitute the chief pieces
of furniture — if we except, perhaps, a bedstead — and do duty
as chairs, tables, and wardrobe. At the larger posts, how-
ever, and at the principal depot-stations, the residents are
furnished with more of the appliances of civilization, and
means exist whereby such as may be so inclined can render
themselves very comfortable ; more especially as changes of
appointments occur less frequently at headquarters than

While it must be confessed that the main body of officers
confine themselves in this regard to the practical and useful,
yet it not infrequently happens that a gentleman of independ-
ent taste turns up who, animated by the desire of giving an


artistic air to his chamber, graces the useful with more or less
of the ornamental. These peculiarities of individual taste be-
tray themselves most strikingly in the selection and disposal
of bedroom furniture. Brightly burnished arms, powder-flasks,
and shot-pouches, are arranged in fantastic figures upon the
walls. Objects of aboriginal handiwork in birch-bark, por-
cupine-quills, and beadwork, impart a certain barbaric splen-
dor to the apartment ; while in vivid contrast appear rude
frames enclosing highly-colored lithographs of deeds of daring
on the British turf, highways, and waters. Prize-fighters, sway-
ing in fierce conflict, and surrounded by excited and applaud-
ing hundreds, may be seen in round the last ; race-horses,
flecked with foam and dirt, stretch away in the dim perspec-
tive in a neck-and-neck race toward a winning-post where an
eager crowd of spectators stand with uplifted hands to wel-
come the favorite ; wild huntsmen, with impossible dogs, and
guns with crooked barrels, fire wildly toward the left and bring
down myriads of birds at the right ; and, to crown all, a red-
and-yellow picture of Queen Victoria in the character of a
female Neptune, seated on a solitary rock in mid-ocean and
holding a pitchfork in her hand, occupies the post of honor,
and is supposed to represent the omnipotent Britannia.

The business of the post, with the exception of the neces-
sary employments of the lower servants, is transacted between
the hours of nine in the morning and six in the evening, with
an interval of an hour between two and three o'clock for
dinner, when the offices and stores are closed. Generally
speaking, this division of time holds good all the year round


though slight modifications take pkice with the changing
seasons and periods when little work is done. During these
hours of business there is much to be looked after, especially
in the summer season. When the bell announces the open-
ing of the fort-gates, the inclosure soon fills with Indians and
traders, who besiege the counter of the trading-store, or
lounge idly about the yard — picturesque vagabonds in motley
attire. The itw clerks in charge are busily engaged in meas-
uring tea, sugar, ammunition, etc., into colored-cotton hand-
kerchiefs unwrapped from greasy aboriginal heads for their
reception ; in examining furs and paying for them in instal-
ments ; in measuring off the scanty yards of blue-cotton
prints that are to clothe the forms of dusky belles, or causing
howls of delight by the exhibition of gilt jewelry to be sold
at ten times its original cost.

Outside the stockade, the voyageurs are loading whale-
toats, in the adjacent stream with bales of fur for transporta-
tion to depot-forts, or discharging cargoes of merchandise
destined to wide-spread distribution. Over this process an
accountant keeps careful watch, as he does over everything
involving a representative value for which he will be held to
account. All is bustle and activity ; yet there is no haste.
The careful attention to details exhibits itself in eveiything,
and the minutest watch is kept over all.

As the day advances, the arrivals at the fort increase in
number and importance. Ofttimes a large band of Indians
ride rapidly up to the stockade, and, turning their ponies
loose upon the prairie, enter upon the barter of small quan-




titles of peltries to supply their immediate necessities. Again,
the band will encamp about the stockade, trading the results
of a long and successful hunt, and making the days and nights
hideous with their heathenish festivities. Their camp-fires
light up the plain round about with a fitful glare ; their green-
and-yellow-painted visages and blanket-attired forms assume
at length a certain degree of individuality ; and the more im-
portunate beggars even become familiar objects to the sight ;
when suddenly they are gone, only to be replaced by others
of a like description ; for a company's fort is seldom free
from its complement of chronic hangers-on. There is, too,
much bustle created by the arrivals and departures of officials
from other forts of the service, en route in charge of boat-
brigades for distant points, who stop but for a few hours, and
are off again. Should the season be winter, however, the
business hours are, to a certain degree, merely formal, and
the time is occupied in those petty details to be found in any
occupation. True, a certain amount of trade prevails at the
larger posts throughout the year, which, at the remote estab-
lishments, takes the form of outfitting traders who visit Indian
camps, or small trading-stations at a distance, with dog-trains.
But there is always much time, even during the hours sup-
posed to be especially devoted to business, for which it is dif-
ficult to find full employment.

At six o'clock in the evening the labors of the day termi-
nate, and the members of the community are at liberty to pass
the remaining hours of the twenty-four as they list. And
these are the monotonous hours which drag most wearily upon
each individual member. In the summer season, recourse is
had to athletic exercises during the long twilights — rowing


upon the rivers, pitching quoits, equestrian excursions, etc.,
obtaining with the younger and more hardy clerks ; others
the pleasures of the chase attract, and prolonged forays with
dog and gun are made upon the waterfowl in the neighboring
water-courses. But this vernal season is brief, and the time
soon comes when the attractions of in-door life must supply
the mental pabulum. For this puri)ose numerous modes of
employment are resorted to.

With the officer in charge the long evenings are generally
passed in the society of his family, and in writing up the log-
book of the post. This latter work, if he be a man given to
composition, soon becomes a labor of love. In it he chroni-
cles all the petty incidents of the day : the arrivals and depart-
ures ; the principal receipts and exi)enditures ; the health of
the little community under his charge, etc. To this he ap-
pends a meteorological report with all the exactness of " Old
Prob." himself. There may be added, also, the general reflec-
tions of the writer on subjects pertaining to the service, and
such suggestions as seem to grow out of the events noted.
He may even wander to a limited extent outside the bounds
of strict business matters, and indulge in little flights of com-
position on subjects irrelevant to the trade. It happens not
infrequently that short poems of greater or less measures of
^excellence, and brief prose sketches of fair diction and vivid
imaginings, appear scattered among the dry bones of statistics.
But it must be said of the majority of log-books that they
smack only of weather-reports, the deficiencies of the frozen-
fish supply, or the accumulation of peltries.

With the younger portion of the community — the clerks,
apprentices, and post-masters — conversation and the peaceful


pipe occupy a prominent position in the passage of time.
Games, too, are in great demand, and every apartment pos-
sesses its well-thumbed pack of cards, its rude cribbage-
board, and sets of wooden dominoes. Reading men find
abundant leisure to pursue their favorite occupation during the
long winter evenings. Books, as the property of private indi-
viduals, from the difficulty i n transporting them, are, however,
more scarce than might be expected. To atone somewhat for
this, the company have established extensive libraries for the
use of the officers and servants in many of the larger stations
in the north, from which supplies for the adjacent smaller
posts may be drawn, so that the diligent reader may command
new books from time to time. Then, too, there comes once
or twice during the winter season a red-letter day, upon which
the mail arrives, bringing a long list of letters to be answered,
and periodicals from the outer world. As in the remote
northern posts the mail has been a year upon the way, the file
of newspapers is laid carefully away, each number being pro-
duced and read as its date, one year after publication, is
reached. In the answering of letters considerable difficulty
is experienced from the absence of anything new to write
about. To obviate this and produce the requisite novelty,
the writer generally succeeds in composing a single letter
having the desired degree of spiciness. This he copies and
sends to all those friends whom he is desirous of placing under
the obligation of an answer. Thus, for many days after the
arrival of a mail, occupation for the long evenings is easily
found, until the returning dog-train bears his correspondence
away, and with it that method of passing time.

Parties not studiously inclined often pass their spare hours


in exercising their skill upon one of the musical instruments.

Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Martin) RobinsonThe great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory → online text (page 7 of 24)