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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

Samuel Hearne—"The Mungo Park of Canada"—Perouse complains —The North-West Passage—Indian guides—Two failures—Third journey successful—Smokes the calumet—Discovers Arctic Ocean—Cruelty to the Eskimos—Error in latitude—Remarkable Indian woman—Capture of Prince of Wales Fort—Criticism by Umfreville.

Such an agitation as that so skilfully planned and shrewdly carried on by Arthur Dobbs, Esq., could not but affect the action of the Hudson's Bay Company. The most serious charge brought against the Company was that, while having a monopoly of the trade on Hudson Bay, it had taken no steps to penetrate the country and develop its resources. It is of course evident that the Company itself could have no reason for refusing to open up trade with the interior, for by this means it would be expanding its operations and increasing its profits. The real reason for its not doing so seems to have been the inertia, not to say fear, of Hudson's Bay Company agents on the Bay who failed to mingle with the bands of Indians in the interior.

Now the man was found who was to be equal to the occasion. This was Samuel Hearne. Except occasional reference to him in the minutes of the Company and works of the period, we know little of Samuel Hearne. He was one of the class of men to which belonged Norton, Kelsey, and others—men who had grown up in the service of the Company on the Bay, and had become, in the course of years, accustomed to the climate, condition of life, and haunts of the Indians, thus being fitted for active work for the Company.

Samuel Hearne became so celebrated in his inland expeditions, that the credit of the Hudson's Bay Company leaving the coast and venturing into the interior has always been attached to his name. So greatly, especially in the English mind, have his explorations bulked, that the author of a book of travels in Canada about the beginning of this century called him the "Mungo Park of Canada." In his "Journey," we have an account of his earlier voyages to the interior in search of the Coppermine River. This book has a somewhat notable history. In the four-volume work of La Perouse, the French navigator, it is stated that when he took Prince of Wales Fort on the Churchill River in 1782, Hearne, as governor of the fort, surrendered it to him, and that the manuscript of his "Journey" was seized by the French commander. It was returned to Hearne on condition that it should be published, but the publication did not take place until thirteen years afterwards. It is somewhat amusing to read in Perouse's preface (1791) the complaint that Hearne had not kept faith with him in regard to publishing the journal, and the hope is expressed that this public statement in reminding him of his promise would have the desired effect of the journal being published.

Four years afterwards Hearne's "Journey" appeared. A reference to this fine quarto work, which is well illustrated, brings us back in the introduction to all the controversies embodied in the work of Dobbs, Ellis, Robson, and the "American Traveller."

Hearne's orders were received from the Hudson's Bay Company, in 1769, to go on a land expedition to the interior of the continent, from the mouth of the Churchill as far as 70 deg. N. lat., to smoke the calumet of peace with the Indians, to take accurate astronomical observations, to go with guides to the Athabasca country, and thence northward to a river abounding with copper ore and "animals of the fur kind," &c.

It is very noticeable, also, that his instructions distinctly tell him" to clear up the point, if possible, in order to prevent further doubt from arising hereafter respecting a passage out of Hudson Bay into the Western Ocean, as hath lately been represented by the 'American Traveller.'" The instructions made it plain that it was the agitation still continuing from the days of Dobbs which led to the sending of Hearne to the north country.

Hearne's first expedition was made during the last months of the year 1769. It is peculiarly instructive in the fact that it failed to accomplish anything, as it gives us a glimpse of the difficulties which no doubt so long prevented the movement to the interior. In the first place, the bitterly severe months of November and December were badly chosen for the time of the expedition. On the sixth day of the former of these months Hearne left Prince of Wales Fort, taking leave of the Governor, and being sent off with a salute of seven guns. His guide was an Indian chief, Chawchinahaw. Hearne ascertained very soon, what others have found among the Indians, that his guide was not to be trusted; he "often painted the difficulties in the worst colours" and took every method to dishearten the explorer. Three weeks after starting, a number of the Indians deserted Hearne.

Shortly after this mishap, Chawchinahaw and his company ruthlessly deserted the expedition, and two hundred miles from the fort set out on another route, "making the woods ring with their laughter." Meeting other Indians, Hearne purchased venison, but was cheated, while his Indian guide was feasted. The explorer remarks:—"A sufficient proof of the singular advantage which a native of this country has over an Englishman, when at such a distance from the Company's factories as to depend entirely on them for subsistence."

Hearne arrived at the fort after an absence of thirty-seven days, as he says, "to my own mortification and the no small surprise of the Governor." Hearne was simply illustrating what has been shown a hundred times since, in all foreign regions, viz., native peoples are quick to see the inexperience of men raw to the country, and will heartlessly maltreat and deceive them. However, British officers and men in all parts of the world become at length accustomed to dealing with savage peoples, and after some experience, none have ever equalled British agents and explorers in the management and direction of such peoples.

Early in the following year Hearne plucked up courage for another expedition. On this occasion ho determined to take no Europeans, but to trust to Indians alone. On February 23rd, accompanied by five Indians, Hearne started on his second journey. Following the advice of the Governor, the party took no Indian women with them, though Hearne states that this was a mistake, as they were "needed for hauling the baggage as well as for dressing skins for clothing, pitching our tent, getting firing, &c." During the first part of the journey deer were plentiful, and the fish obtained by cutting holes in the ice of the lakes were excellent.

Hearne spent the time of the necessary delays caused by the obtaining of fish and game in taking observations, keeping his journal and chart, and doing his share of trapping. Meeting, as soon as the spring opened, bands of Indians going on various errands, the explorer started overland. He carried sixty pounds of burden, consisting of quadrant, books and papers, compass, wearing apparel, weapons and presents for the natives. The traveller often made twenty miles a day over the rugged country.

Meeting a chief of the Northern Indians going in July to Prince of Wales Fort, Hearne sent by him for ammunition and supplies. A canoe being now necessary, Hearne purchased this of the Indians. It was obtained by the exchange of a single knife, the full value of which did not exceed a penny. In the middle of this month the party saw bands of musk oxen. A number of these were killed and their flesh made into pemmican for future use. Finding it impossible to reach the Coppermine during the season, Hearne determined to live with the Indians for the winter.

The explorer was a good deal disturbed by having to give presents to Indians who met him. Some of them wanted guns, all wanted ammunition, iron-work, and tobacco; many were solicitous for medicine; and others pressed for different articles of clothing. He thought the Indians very inconsiderate in their demands.

On August 11th the explorer had the misfortune to lose his quadrant by its being blown open and broken by the wind. Shortly after this disaster, Hearne was plundered by a number of Indians who joined him.

He determined to return to the fort. Suffering from the want of food and clothing, Hearne was overtaken by a famous chief, Matonabbee, who was going eastward to Prince of Wales Fort. The chief had lived several years at the fort, and was one who knew the Coppermine. Matonabbee discussed the reasons of Hearne's failure in his two expeditions. The forest philosopher gave as the reason of these failures the misconduct of the guides and the failure to take any women on the journey. After maintaining that women were made for labour, and speaking of their assistance, said Matonabbee, "women, though they do everything, are maintained at a trifling expense, for as they always stand cook, the very licking of their fingers in scarce times is sufficient for their subsistence." Plainly, the northern chief had need of the ameliorating influence of modern reformers. In company with the chief, Hearne returned to the fort, reaching it after an absence of eight months and twenty-two days, having, as he says, had "a fruitless or at least an unsuccessful Journey."

Hearne, though beaten twice, was determined to try a third time and win. He recommended the employment of Matonabbee as a guide of intelligence and experience. Governor Norton wished to send some of the coast Indians with Hearne, but the latter refused them, and incurred the ill-will of the Governor. Hearne's instructions on this third Journey were "in quest of a North-West Passage, copper-mines, or any other thing that may be serviceable to the British nation in general, or the Hudson's Bay Company in particular." The explorer was now furnished with an Elton's quadrant.

This third Journey was begun on December 7th, 1770. Travelling sometimes for three or four days without food, they were annoyed, when supplies were secured, by the chief Matonabbee taking so ill from over-eating that he had to be drawn upon a sledge. Without more than the usual incidents of Indian travelling, the party pushed on till a point some 19 deg. west of Churchill was reached, according to the calculations of the explorer. It is to be noted, however, that Hearne's observations, measurements, and maps, do not seem to be at all accurate.

Turning northward, as far as can be now made out, about the spot whore the North-West traders first appeared on their way to the Churchill River, Hearne went north to his destination.1 His Indian guides now formed a large war party from the resident Indians, to meet the Eskimos of the river to which they were going and to conquer them.

The explorer announces that having left behind "all the women, children, dogs, heavy baggage, and other encumbrances," on June 1st, 1771, they pursued their journey northward with great speed. On June 21st the sun did not set at all, which Hearne took to be proof that they had reached the Arctic Circle. Next day they met the Copper Indians, who welcomed them on hearing the object of their visit.

Hearne, according to orders, smoked the calumet of peace with the Copper Indians. These Indians had never before seen a white man. Hearne was considered a great curiosity. Pushing on upon their long journey, the explorers reached the Coppermine River on July 13th. Hearne was the witness of a cruel massacre of the Eskimos by his Indian allies, and the seizure of their copper utensils and other provisions, and expresses disgust at the enormity of the affair. The mouth of the river, which flows into the Arctic Ocean, was soon reached on July 18th, and the tide found to rise about fourteen feet.

Hearne seems in the narrative rather uncertain about the latitude of the mouth of the Coppermine River, but states that after some consultation with the Indians, he erected a mark, and took possession of the coast on behalf of the Hudson's Bay Company.

In Hearne's map, dated July, 1771, and purporting to be a plan of the Coppermine, the mouth of the river is about 71 deg. 54' N. This was a great mistake, as the mouth of the river is somewhere near 68 deg. N. So great a mistake was certainly unpardonable. Hearne's apology was that after the breaking of his quadrant on the second expedition, the instrument which he used was an old Elton's quadrant, which had been knocking about the Prince of Wales Fort for nearly thirty years.

Having examined the resources of the river and heard of the mines from which the Copper Indians obtained all the metal for the manufacture of hatchets, chisels, knives, &c, Hearne started southward on his return journey on July 18th. Instead of coming by the direct route, he went with the Indians of his party to the north side of Lake Athabasca on December 24th. Having crossed the lake, as illustrating the loneliness of the region, the party found a woman who had escaped from an Indian band which had taken her prisoner, and who had not seen a human face for seven months, and had lived by snaring partridges, rabbits, and squirrels. Her skill in maintaining herself in lonely wilds was truly wonderful. She became the wife of one of the Indians of Hearne's party. In the middle of March, 1772, Hearne was delivered a letter, brought to him from Prince of Wales Fort and dated in the preceding June. Pushing eastward, after a number of adventures, Hearne reached Prince of Wales Fort on June 30th, 1772, having been absent on his third voyage eighteen months and twenty-three days. Hearne rejoices that he had at length put an end to the disputes concerning a North-West Passage through Hudson Bay. The fact, however, that during the nineteenth century this became again a living question shows that in this he was mistaken.

The perseverance and pluck of Hearne have impressed all those who have read his narrative. He was plainly one of the men possessing the subtle power of impressing the Indian mind. His disasters would have deterred many men from following up so difficult and extensive a route. To him the Hudson's Bay Company owes a debt of gratitude. That debt consists not in the discovery of the Coppermine, but in the attitude presented to the Northern Indians from the Bay all the way to Lake Athabasca, Hearne does not mention the Montreal fur traders, who, in the very year of his return, reached the Saskatchewan and were stationed at the Churchill River down which ho passed.

First of white men to reach Athapuscow, now thought to have been Great Slave Lake, Samuel Hearne claimed for his Company priority of trade, and answered the calumnies that his Company was lacking in energy and enterprise. Ho took what may be called "seizen" of the soil for the English traders. We shall speak again of his part in leading the movement inland to oppose the Nor'-Westers in the interior. His services to the Hudson's Bay Company received recognition in his promotion, three years after his return home from his third voyage, to the governorship of the Prince of Wales Fort. To Hearne has been largely given the credit of the new and adventurous policy of the Hudson's Bay Company, - Hearne does not, however, disappear from public notice on his promotion to the command of Prince of Wales Fort. When war broke out a few years later between England and France, the latter country, remembering her old successes under D'lber-ville on Hudson Bay, sent a naval expedition to attack the forts on the Bay. Umfreville gives an account of the attack on Prince of Wales Fort on August 8th and 9th, 1772. Admiral de la Perouse was in command of these war vessels, his flagship being Le Sceptre, of seventy-four guns. The garrison was thought to be well provided for a siege, and La Perouse evidently expected to have a severe contest. However, as he approached the fort, there seemed to be no preparations made for defence, and, on the summons to surrender, the gates were immediately thrown open.

Umfreville, who was in the garrison and was taken prisoner on this occasion, speaks of the conduct of the Governor as being very reprehensible, but severely criticizes the Company for its neglect. He says:—"The strength of the fort itself was such as would have resisted the attack of a more considerable force; it was built of the strongest materials, the walls were of great thickness and very durable (it was planned by the ingenious Mr. Robson, who went out in 1742 for that purpose), it having been forty years in building and attended with great expense to the Company. In short, it was the opinion of every intelligent person that it might have made an obstinate resistance when attacked, had it been as well provided in other respects; but through the impolitic conduct of the Company, every courageous exertion of their servants must have been considered as imprudent temerity; for this place, which would have required four hundred men for its defence, the Company, in its consummate wisdom, had garrisoned with only thirty-nine."

In this matter, Umfreville very plainly shows his animus to the Company, but incidentally he exonerates Hearne from the charge of cowardice, inasmuch as it would have been madness to make defence against so large a body of men. As has been before pointed out, we can hardly charge with cowardice the man who had shown his courage and determination in the three toilsome and dangerous journeys spoken of; rather would we see in this a proof of his wisdom under unfortunate circumstances. The surrender of York Factory to La Perouse twelve days afterwards, without resistance, was an event of an equally discouraging kind. The Company suffered great loss by the surrender of these forts, which had been unmolested since the Treaty of Utrecht.

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