H. M. (Henry Martin) Robinson.

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

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Of these the violin, on account probably of its portable nature,
is most ordinarily selected, and the votary, after a series of
years passed in sedulous practice, usually attains a certain
ghastly facility of execution. So common an accomplishment
indeed is fiddle-playing in the service, that violin-strings are
annually forwarded as a part of the regular outfit for sale in
the northern districts. Under the inspiration of this instru-
ment, it is scarcely to be wondered at that the few holidays of
the year, and frequently the long evenings also, should be en-
livened with dances, in which all the dusky maidens within
hailing-distance of the fort participate. It is in the enjoy-
ment of this pastime that the wearied clerk finds his chief de-
light ; and he jigs and reels the hours away to the measures
of monotonous and oft-repeated tunes. On such occasions
the company is cosmopolitan to a striking degree, and all
grades of employes mingle on terms of the most democratic

With such simple pleasures and in the discharge of such
duties, the life of the isolated community glides uneventfully
away. If its amusements are few, they are at least innocent
and improved to the utmost. Few temptations to wrong-
doing are presented to their solitary lives. Each succeeding
year adds to the accumulations of the last, until, ni the early
afternoon of life, the company's officer finds himself possessed
of abundant means to pass the remainder of his days under
more genial conditions. But, strange to say, it almost invari-
ably happens that his old life has so grown upon him, so en-
tirely possessed him, that the charms of a higher civilization
have no power to attract. We have seen many bid a final


farewell to the inhospitable regions where the best years of
their lives had been spent, with the purpose of returning to
their early homes to pass the decline of life ; but one after
another they drifted back again. The change was too abrupt.
They had outlived their former friends ; their ways of life
were radically different ; in short, the great busy world moved
all too fast for their quiet and placid lives.






INFINITELY picturesque was the starting of the boat-
brigade for the Mission of the White Dog and beyond. Far
down on the sandy beach, below the eyrie upon which was
perched a Hudson's Bay Company's post — a veritable medi-
aeval castle transplanted to the bluffs of the Northwest —
lay the eight boats composing it. Just then they were in holiday
apparel, and decorated for departure : small red flags, stream-
ing ribbons, gaudy ensigns, and the spreading antlers of
moose and elk, appeared everywhere above the square pack-
ages of freight. Congregated upon the beach, attired in their
bravest apparel, and accompanied by wives and sweethearts,
who had come to wish them a final ''''Bon voyage,'' were the
seventy or more half-breed and Indian voyageurs who consti-
tuted their crews.

The crowd ran the gamut of color from the deep copper
of the aboriginal to the pure white of the Caucasian. Many
of the women were clearly of unmingled Indian blood. Tall
and angular, long masses of straight black hair fell over their
backs ; blue-and-white cotton gowns, shapeless, stayless, un-
crinolined, displayed the flatness of their unprojecting figures.
Some wore a gaudy handkerchief on the head ; the married
also bound one across the bosom. The half castes were in
better form, many of them being quite handsome. It was


not, however, their comeliness of feature which impressed the
traveler : it was their grace ; that supple shapeliness, that
sveltesse, for which the English tongue has no word. Theirs
was the rich dark beauty of the Creole type. Smaller in
figure, they were at once better rounded, and more lithe and
willowy. A comely half-breed woman's figure impresses one
as a startling realization of the Greek ideal of grace — a statue
by Phidias animated and garbed — a living Venus of flushed
bronze. Beauty of feature with them is, perhaps, not a com-
mon gift ; but when one does find it, he straightway dreams
of Titian, and Veronese, and Tintoretto.

The voyageurs themselves, if Indian, were generally young
men, heavy-set, copper-colored, and highly ornamented ; their
black hair greased, and plaited into small braids, from which
depended bright-colored ribbons, and feathers. About their
thick necks were broad bands of wampum, from which hung,
suspended over the throat, huge silver medals. These medals,
were not the rewards of valuable service, however, but may
be purchased at any company's store. Their capotes were
open at the throat, and revealed broad, uncovered chests,,
corded with muscles. In place of the customary variegated
sash, they wore broad leather belts, in which were slung their
fire-bags, beaded and quilled, containing pipe and tobacco,
flint and steel, and serving also, upon occasion, as pocket-

If the voyageur were half-breed, however, he was a little
above the medium height, with lithe, active frame, enough of
the aboriginal to give suppleness, and sufficient of the white
to impart a certain solidity of frame lacking in the savage.
His features, too, were regular to a fault ; complexion nut-


brown ; eyes black, and long black hair hanging down in a
straight mass over his shoulders. He wore a tasseled cap,
and was also en capote^ but of fine blue cloth ornamented with
two rows of silver-gilt buttons ; variegated sash, corduroy
trousers, and moccasins, of course.

As a rule, the voyageiirs are of French origin, descendants
of the traders and trappers of the old fur-companies, though
by long intermarriage the blood of three or four nationali-
ties mingles in their veins. Their grandfathers have been
French-Canadian, their grandmothers Cree squaws ; English,
and Crow, and Ojibway, have contributed to their descent on
the mother's side. This mixture has produced, in most in-
stances, a genial, good-humored, and handsome fellow ;
although, as a class, with some cleverness and cheerfulness,
their faces generally betray a certain moodiness of temper,
and lack the frank and honest respectability stamped upon
countenances more purely Anglo-Saxon. Swarthy in com-
plexion, with dark hair and eyes, their features are generally
good and aquiline in character ; and, though sometimes
coarse, are invariably well-proportioned. Physically they are
a fine race ; tall, straight, and well-proportioned, lightly
formed but strong, and extremely active and enduring. Of
more supple build, as a rule, than the Indian, they combine
his endurance and readiness of resource with the greater
muscular strength and perseverance of the white man.

In disposition they are a merry, light-hearted and obliging
race, recklessly generous, hospitable and extravagant. When
idle, they spend much of their time in singing, dancing, and
gossiping from house to house, getting drunk upon the


slightest occasion ; and when the vogageur drinks, he does
it, as he says, com/ne il faut — that is, until he obtains the de-
sired happiness of complete intoxication. Vanity is his
besetting sin, and he will deprive himself and his family of
the common necessaries of life to become the envied pos-
sessor of any gewgaw that may attract his fancy. Intensely
superstitious, and a firm believer in dreams, omens and warn-
ings, he is an apt disciple of the Romish faith. Completely
under the influence of his priest, in most respects, and ob-
serving the outward forms of his religion with great regular-
ity, he is yet grossly immoral, often dishonest, and generally
untrustworthy. No sense of duty seems to actuate his daily
life ; for, though the word " devoir " is frequently on the lips
of this semi-Frenchman, the principle of '' devoir " is not so
strong in his heart as are the impulses of passion and caprice.
But little aptitude for continuous labor, moreover, belongs 'to
his constitution. No man will labor more cheerfully and
gallantly at the severe toil pertinent to his calling ; but these
efforts are of short duration, and when they are ended, his
chief desire is to do nothing but eat, drink, smoke and be
merry — all of them acts in which he greatly excels.

The ceremony of taking a wife, by which this mercurial
race sprang into existence in the old days of the fur-trade,
cannot be considered, in the light of the present day, as an
elaborate performance, or one much encumbered with social
and religious preliminaries. If it failed in literally fulfilling
the condition of force implied in the word " taking," it
usually degenerated into a mere question of barter. When


the French-Canadian wanted a wife, he took a horse, a gun,
some white cloth or beads, and, repairing to the lodge of his
red brother in the wilderness, purchased the heart and hand
of the squaw he desired from her stern parent. If she did
not love after " these presents," the lodge-poles were always
handy to enforce that obedience necessary to domestic tran-
quillity. This custom, we may say, has by no means fallen
into disuse, but is still in vogue along the border.

As a class, the voyagcurs rank very low in the country.
Their priests profess to have a certain influence over them, but
admit that their flock is disreputable, and not to be relied upon
in the faithful performance of a contract. As a consequence,
it sometimes happens that the crews of a boat-brigade mutiny
during a voyage, and return home. This evil, it is true,
might be obviated were it not for the system of advancing
wages for the trip, necessary in dealing with the class of which,
for the most part, the crews are composed. But, unfortu-
nately, on the voyageurs return from the summer voyages
they do not betake themselves to any special modes of indus- ,
try, but vary seasons of hunting and fishing with longer in-
tervals of total idleness. Toward mid-winter, a steady per-
severance in this mode of life brings themselves, and their
equally improvident families, to a condition closely allied to
starvation. When, about the middle of December, the books
are opened at the company's offices for the enrollment of men
to serve in the trips of the ensuing season, a general rush of
the needy crowd takes place. Upon their acceptance and en-
rollment, a small advance is made; and afterward, at stated


intervals before the beginning of the voyage, further sums are
iKiid. Toward spring, however, when the difficulty of obtain-
ing food lessens in some degree, the men assume a higher
tone, and demand larger sums in advance ; threatening that,
if their demands are not complied with, they will not proceed
upon the voyage at all. Counter threats of imprisonment are
superciliously smiled away with the remark that the time will
be more easily passed in durance than in labor. The result
is, that when the day of embarkation arrives, some of the en-
rolled men do not appear, while those who do have already
received half their wages. Once on the voyage, their wives
and families draw as frequently as practicable upon the
amount " still coming to them," so that the sum forfeited by
mutiny and breach of contract is insufficient to restrain the
men from a premature return.

The continuance of this system has been caused by the
necessities of the men, whom it preserves from absolute star-
vation, and the undoubted fact that the laborious nature of
the service renders it difficult, if not impossible, to secure
men in the spring, when many other opportunities exist of
gaining a livelihood in other and less trying channels.

It is customary to distribute a small quantity of rum
among the men immediately before starting, and this, together
with the probably considerable amount previously surrepti-
tiously obtained, materially increased the hilarity and excite-
ment of our departure. The Pierres became gratuitously
profuse in their farewells, returning again and again to clasp
the hands of the entire assembly, and claiming every one as a


brother ; the Antoines, violently gesticulative, declaimed with
cheerful irrelevance some old chanson about the glory of their
ancestors ; while the Baptistes hung, limply lachrymose, upon
the necks of their best friends, murmuring maudlin sentiment
into their receptive ears. Here and there, sober, and with an
air of vast importance, stalked a sturdy steersman, getting his
men well in hand, and having an eye to the lading of his par-
ticular boat. Busy clerks and voluble porters vied with
chatting, laughing women in augmenting the Babel of sound.

All things being at last ready, the boat of the guide swung
into the stream, followed closely by the others in single file.
Vociferous cheers greeted us from the well-lined banks, and
the wild boat-songs of the voyagcurs, sung in full chorus, began
— a weird but pleasing melody. Steadily the oars were plied,
and regularly the beat and rhythm of oar-lock and song re-
sounded, until, sweeping round a projecting headland, fort
and friends were lost to view.

The lower course of the Red River of the North presents,
for the last thirty miles, a picture of grand simplicity, and, it
must be confessed, monotony, which, magnificent as it ap-
pears, wearies the eye and tires the mind at last. Flowing,
like all other prairie-streams, deep below the surface of the
plain, there is nothing to be seen but the dead calm of an un-
ruffled, mirror-like sheet of water glaring in the sun, and, as
far as the eye can reach, two walls of dark-green foliage with
the deep-blue firmament above them. In the foreground, slen-
der stems of cotton-wood and gigantic oaks, with long fes-
toons of moss hanging from their aged limbs, dip down into


the turbid flood. No hill breaks the finely-indented line of
foliage, which everywhere bounds the horizon ; only here and
there a half-breed's hut, or the tepee of some child of the prai-
rie and stream, peeps out of the green. Happily, the novelty
of a first voyage by boat-brigade was sufficient to engross the
attention of the traveler, and attract his thoughts from the
magnificent panorama offered by Nature, to the vignette of
northern boat-life embraced within the limits occupied by the
eight boats speeding their way down the centre of the broad

The comparatively limited season during which water
tranportation is available in the Fur Land ; the nature of the
cargoes to be transported, and the channels through which
they must pass, render the strictly summer months a season
of much bustle and activity. The loss of a few days in the
departure of boats, destined for the interior, may deprive
some important district of the means of traffic for the ensuing
year, and necessitate the holding over of immense stocks of
goods, to the serious derangement of trade, and a heavy cur-
tailment of the annual profits. The matter of transportation,
then, is one of vital importance to the fur-company, and is
conducted with a care and system devoted, perhaps, to no
other branch of a trade in which close attention to details
and routine are distinguishing characteristics. Though the ac-
tual duties of freighting occupy but about four months in the
year, yet the preparation pertinent to its perfect performance
engrosses to a great extent the remaining eight. The result is
a system so perfect that over the long courses traversed by


the boat-brigades their arrival may be calculated upon almost
to the hour ; and the anxious trader may ascend his lookout
post with the certainty of seeing, sweeping round the nearest
point, the well-laden boats, with swarthy crews bending low
to their oars, and singing their weird chansons in time to the
measured oar-stroke.

The freighting season begins about the first week in June,
•when the ice has disappeared from the rivers, and the spring
supplies of merchandise, destined for the interior, have
reached the depot-forts. At that period, the advance brigade
of seven or eight boats leaves Fort Garry — now the principal
point of forwarding in the service — followed a week later by
yet another. This interval is allowed in order to prevent the
meeting of the boats at any post, thereby creating undue
bustle and confusion. These boats tend north and northwest,
toward Methy Portage and York Factory, there to meet other
brigades from the remote arctic regions, to whom they deliver
their cargoes, receiving in exchange the furs brought down
from the interior posts — the proceeds of the year's trade.
When this exchange is effected, each brigade retraces its
course. The time occupied by the longest trip — that of
Methy Portage, the height of land from which the waters
flow into Hudson's Bay and the Arctic Ocean — is about four
months. Numerous shorter trips are also made, and the
whole country is alive during this season with advancing and
returning boats.

The peculiar nature of the transportation service of the
company necessitates certain conditions in freight, boats and


boatmen pertaining to it, not elsewhere to be found. The
entire water-carriage of the country is performed by means of
what are technically called " inland boats," of three and a half
tons' burden, and requiring nine men as crew. Of the shape
of the ordinary whale-boat, they carry a small mast, unstepped
at will, ui)on which in crossing lakes, should the wind prove
favorable, a square sail is set. A small i)latform, or deck,
covers the stern of the vessel, upon which is seated the steers-
man, using at times the ordinary rudder-lever; again, a long
sweep, with one stroke of which the direction of the craft is
radically changed. The steersman is captain of the vessel,
the eight men under him being ranged as middle-men, or
rowers. A number of these boats constitute a brigade, over
which a guide, skilled in the intricacies of current and coast,
is placed, and who may be regarded as the commodore of the
fleet. His duty is to guide the brigade through dangerous
waters, to support the authority of the steersmen, and to
transact the business of the brigade at the stations touched
en route. The position is an important one when properly
filled, and is generally held by the same person until advanc-
ing years necessitate his relinquishment.

Rapidly we sped down the waters of the turbid stream,
and monotonously echoed the loud " ough " of the boatmen,
as they rose from their seats with each stroke of the oar, only
to sink back again with a sudden jar as the broad blades left
the water. Stately swans looking thoughtfully into the stream,
tall cranes standing motionless on one leg, and ducks of every
hue disappearing behind the foliage screening the mouth of


some creek or coolie, were the only living things to be seen.
The landscape was monotonously splendid, and the hours
passed in unvarying succession. Ten minutes in every hour
were allowed the hardy voyageurs for rest ; the long oars
were lifted from the flood, from every fire-bag came pipes and
tobacco, and the bark of the grey willow, mingled with equal
proportions of the Indian weed, lent its fragrance to the morn-
ing air. After such pleasant interlude, the paddles were
plied with renewed vigor, and soon the woods disappeared
and the banks, which gradually sank to a lower level, became
covered with the long reedy grass marking the delta of the
stream. Further on, even the semblance of vegetation af-
forded by the reeds ceased abruptly, leaving naught but a
sandy bar, submerged at high tide, and the waters of an im-
mense lake extending northward out of sight — a lake which
stretched away into unseen places, and on whose waters a
fervid June sun was playing strange freaks of mirage and
inverted shore-land.

Upon the sand-bar at the outlet of the main channel our
boats were run along-shore, and preparations ensued for the
mid-day meal. Generally speaking, while voyaging it is only
allowable to put ashore for breakfast, a cold dinner being
taken in the boats ; but as no voyageur could be expected to
labor in his holiday-apparel, a halt was necessary before set-
ting out upon the lake.

The low beach yielded ample store of driftwood, the relics
of many a northern gale, and of this a fire was lighted, and
the dinner apparatus arranged in the stern-sheets of the boat.


The functions of the chef, limited to the preparation of pem-
mican in some palatable form, and the invariable dish of black
tea, were simple enough. For boatmen pemmican is the un-
alterable bill-of-fare, and is the favorite food of the half-breed
and Indian voyageur. The best form of pemmican, made
for table use, generally has added to it ten pounds of sugar
per bag, and saskootoom or service berries — the latter acting
much as currant jelly does with venison, correcting the greasi-
ness of the fat by a slightly acid sweetness. Sometimes wild
cherries are used instead of the saskootoom. This berry-pem-
mican is considered the best of its kind, and is very palatable.

As to the appearance of the commoner form of pemmican,
take the scrapings from the driest outside corner of a very
stale piece of cold roast-beef, add to it lumps of tallowy, ran-
cid fat, then garnish all with long human hairs, on which
string pieces, like beads upon a necklace, and short hairs of
dogs or oxen, or both, and you have a fair imitation of com-
mon pemmican. Indeed, the presence of hairs in the food
has suggested the inquiry whether the hair on the buffaloes
from which the pemmican is made does not grow on the in-
side of the skin. The abundance of small stones or pebbles
in pemmican also indicates the discovery of a new buffalo diet
heretofore unknown to naturalists.

Carefully made pemmican, flavored with berries and sugar,
is nearly good ; but of most persons new to the diet it may
be said that, in two senses, a little of it goes a long way.
Nothing can exceed its sufficing quality ; it is equal or supe-
rior to the famous Prussian sausage, judging of it as we must.


Two pounds' weight, with bread and tea, is enough for the
dinner of eight hungry men. A bag weighing one hundred
pounds, then, would supply three good meals for one hundred
and thirty men. A sledge-dog that will eat from four to six
pounds of fish per day, when at work, will only consume two
pounds of pemmican, if fed upon that food alone. Hungry
men are often seen to laugh incredulously at a small handful
of pemmican placed before them as sufficient for a meal ; yet
they go away satisfied, leaving half of it. On the other hand,
half-breeds and Indians Avill eat four pounds of it in a single
day ; appetites like that, however, do not count in ordinary
food estimates.

The flavor of pemmican depends much on the fancy of
the person eating it. There is no other article of food that
bears the slightest resemblance to it, and as a consequence it
is difficult to define its peculiar flavor by comparison. It may
be prepared for the table in many different ways, the con-
sumer being at full liberty to decide which is the least objec-
tionable. The method largely in vogue among the voyageurs
is that known as " pemmican straight," that is, uncooked.
But there are several ways of cooking which improve its
flavor to the civilized palate. There is nibciboo, which is a
composition of potatoes, onions, or other esculents, and pem-
mican, boiled up together, and, when properly seasoned, very
palatable. In the form of richot, however, pemmican is best
liked by persons who use it, and by the voyageurs. Mixed
with a little flour and fried in a pan, pemmican in this form
can be eaten, provided the appetite be sharp, and there is




nothing else to be had. This last consideration is, however,
of importance.

As to the consumption of tea by the voyagciirs, it is sim-
ply enormous. The delay which would be occasioned were
the demands of the men with reference to tea-drinking to be
indulged, renders guides and steersmen peremptory in oppos-
ing the ever-renewed proposition that the boat should be
hauled-to, and the kettle put on the fire, wherever an inviting
promontory presents itself along the route.

After dinner the voyageurs doffed the holiday-apparel in
which the start had been made, appearing thereafter in trav-

Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Martin) RobinsonThe great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory → online text (page 8 of 24)