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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

Dashing French trader—"The country of fashion"—An air of great superiority—The road is that of heaven—Enough to intimidate a Caesar—"The Bear" and the "Little Branch"—Yet more rum—A great Irishman—"In the wigwam of Wabogish dwelt his beautiful daughter"—Wedge of gold—Johnston and Henry Schoolcraft—Duncan Cameron on Lake Superior—His views of trade—Peter Grant, the ready writer—Paddling the canoe— Indian folk-lore—Chippewa burials—Remarkable men and great financiers, marvellous explorers, facile traders.


A gay and intelligent French lad, taken with the desire of leading the life of the traders in the "upper country" (pays d'en haut), at the age of fifteen deserted school and entered the North-West Company. In 1796, at the age of twenty, he was promoted to a clerkship and sent to a post in the upper part of the Red River country. On account of his inferior education ho was never advanced to the charge of a post in the Company's service, but he was always noted for his courage and the great energy displayed by him in action. In 1804 Malhiot was sent to Wisconsin, where he carried on trade.

For the North-West Company there ho built a fort and waged a vigorous warfare with the other traders, strong drink being one of the most ready weapons in the contest. In 1801 the trader married after the "country fashion" (à la facon du pays), i.e. as we have explained, he had taken an Indian woman to be his wife, with the understanding that when he retired from the fur trade, she should be left provided for as to her living, but bo free to marry another.

Malhiot tired of the fur trade in 1807 and returned to Lower Canada, where he lived till his death. Malhiot's Indian wife was afterwards twice married, and one of her sons by the third marriage became a member of the Legislature in Lower Canada. A brother of Malhiot's became a colonel in the British army in India, and another brother was an influential man in his native province.

Few traders had more adventures than this French Canadian. Stationed west of Lake Superior, at Lac du Flambeau, Malhiot found himself surrounded by men of the X Y Company, and he assumed an air of great superiority in his dealings with the Indians. Two of his companions introduced him to the savages as the brother of William McGillivray, the head of the North-West Company. He says, "This thing has produced a very good effect up to the present, for they never name me otherwise than as their 'father.' I am glad to believe that they will respect me more than they otherwise would have done, and will do themselves the honour of trading with me this winter."

Speaking of the rough country through which he was passing, Malhiot says, "Of all the passages and places that I have been able to see during the thirteen years in which I travelled, this is the most frightful and unattractive. The road of the portage is truly that of heaven, for it is strait, full of obstacles, slippery places, thorns, and bogs. The men who pass it loaded, and who are obliged to carry over it bales, certainly deserve the name of 'men.'

"This villainous portage is only inhabited by owls, because no other animal could find its living there, and the cries of these solitary birds are enough to frighten an angel and to intimidate a Caesar."

Malhiot maintained his dignified attitude to the Indians and held great conferences with the chiefs, always with an eye to the improvement of trade. To one he says:—

"My Father,—It is with great Joy that I smoke in thy pipe of peace and that I receive thy word. Our chief trader at Kaministiquia will accept it, I trust, this spring, with satisfaction, and he will send thee a mark of his friendship, if thou dost continue to do well. So I take courage! Only be as one, and look at the fort of the X Y from a distance if thou dost wish to attain to what thou desirest."

In April, 1805, the trader says, "My people have finished building my fort, and it is the prettiest of any in the Indian country. Long live the North-West Company! Honour to Malhiot!"

Malhiot gives a very sad picture of the degeneracy of the trade at this time, produced by the use of strong drink in gaining the friendship of the Indians. A single example may suffice to show the state of affairs.

April 26th.—"The son of 'Whetstone,' brother-in-law of Chorette, came here this evening and made me a present of one otter, 15 rats, and 12 lbs. of sugar, for which I gave him 4 pots of rum. He made them drunk at Chorette's with the 'Indians,' the 'Bear,' and 'the Little Branch.' When they were well intoxicated, they cleared the house, very nearly killed Chorette, shot La Lancette, and broke open the store-house. They carried away two otters, for which I gave them more rum this morning, but without knowing they had been stolen. All this destruction occurred because Chorette had promised them more rum, and that he had not any more."

Malhiot's journal closes with the statement that after a long journey from the interior he and his party had camped in view of the island at Grand Portage.


In the conflict of the North-West, X Y, and Hudson's Bay Companies, it is interesting to come upon the life and writing of an Irishman, a man of means, who, out of love for the wilds of Lake Superior, settled down upon its shores and became a "free trader," as ho was called. This was John Johnston, who came to Montreal, enjoyed the friendship of Sir Guy Carleton, the Governor of Canada, and hearing of the romantic life of the fur traders, plunged into the interior, in 1792 settled at La Pointe, on the south side of Lake Superior, and established himself as an independent trader. A gentleman of birth and education, Johnston seems to have possessed a refined and even religious spirit. Filled with high thoughts inspired by a rocky and romantic island along the shore, he named it "Contemplation Island." Determined to pass his life on the rocky but picturesque shores of Lake Superior, Johnston became friendly with the Indian people. The old story of love and marriage comes in here also. The chief of the region was Wabogish, the "White Fisher," whose power extended as far west as the Mississippi. In the wigwam of Wabogish dwelt his beautiful daughter. Her hand had been sought by many young braves, but she had refused them all. The handsome, sprightly Irishman had, however, gained her affections, and proposed to her father for her. Writing long afterward he describes her as she was when he first saw her, a year after his arrival on the shores of Lake Superior. "Wabogish or the 'White Fisher,' the chief of La Pointe, made his sugar on the skirts of a high mountain, four days' march from the entrance of the river to the south-east. His eldest daughter, a girl of fourteen, exceedingly handsome, with a cousin of hers who was two or three years older, rambling one day up the eastern side of the mountain, came to a perpendicular cliff exactly fronting the rising sun. Near the base of the cliff they found a piece of yellow metal, as they called it, about eighteen inches long, a foot broad, four inches thick and perfectly smooth. It was so heavy that they could raise it only with great difficulty. After examining it for some time, it occurred to the eldest girl that it belonged to the 'Gitche Manitou,' 'The Great Spirit,' upon which they abandoned the place with precipitation.

"As the Chippewas are not idolaters, it occurs to me that some of the southern tribes must have emigrated thus far to the North, and that the piece either of copper or of gold is part of an altar dedicated to the sun. If my conjecture is right, the slab is more probably gold—as the Mexicans have more of that metal than they have of copper."

The advances of Johnston toward chief Wabogish for marriage to his daughter were for a time resisted by the forest magnate. Afraid of the marriages made after the country fashion, he advised Johnston to return to his native country for a time. If, after a sufficient absence, his affection for his daughter should still remain strong, he would consent to their marriage. Johnston returned to Ireland, disposed of his property, and came back to Lake Superior to claim his bride.

Johnston settled at Sault Ste. Marie, where he had a "very considerable establishment with extensive plantations of corn and vegetables, a beautiful garden, a comfortable house, a good library, and carried on an important trade."

During the war of 1814 he co-operated with the British commandant, Colonel McDonald, in taking the island of Michilimackinac from the Americans. While absent, the American expedition landed at Sault Ste. Marie, and set fire to Johnston's house, stables, and other buildings, and these were burnt to the ground, his wife and children viewing the destruction of their home from the neighbouring woods.

Masson says: "A few years afterwards, Mr. Johnston once more visited his native land, accompanied by his wife and his eldest daughter, a young lady of surpassing beauty. Every inducement was offered to them to remain in the old country, the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland having even offered to adopt their daughter. They preferred, however, returning to the shores of Lake Superior, where Miss Johnston was married to Mr. Henry Schoolcraft, the United States Indian agent at Sault Ste. Marie, and the distinguished author of the 'History of the Indian Tribes of the United States.'" Mr. Johnston wrote "An Account of Lake Superior" at the request of Roderick McKenzie. This we have, but it is chiefly a geographical description of the greatest of American lakes. Johnston died at Sault Ste. Mario in 1828."


A most daring and impulsive Celt was Duncan Cameron. He and his family were Scottish U. E. Loyalists from the Mohawk River in New York State. As a young man he entered the fur trade, and was despatched to the region on Lake Superior to serve under Mr. Shaw, the father of Angus Shaw, of whom we have already spoken. In 1786 Cameron became a clerk and was placed in charge of the Nepigon district, an important field for his energies. Though this region was a difficult one, yet by hard work he made it remunerative to his Company. Speaking of his illness, caused by exposure, he says, in writing a letter to his friend, "I can assure you it is with great difficulty I can hold my pen, but I must tell you that the X Y sends into the Nepigon this year ; therefore, should I leave my bones there, I shall go to winter."

In response to the application of Roderick McKenzie, Duncan Cameron sent a description of the Nepigon district and a journal of one of his Journeys to the interior. From these we may give a few extracts. Passing over his rather full and detailed account of Saulteaux Indians of this region, we find that he speaks in a journal which is in a very damaged condition, of his visit to Osnaburgh Fort, a Hudson's Bay Company fort built in 1786, and of his decision to send a party to trade in the interior. There is abundant evidence of the great part played by strong drink at this time in the fur country.

"Cotton Shirt, a haughty Indian chief, has always been very faithful to me these several years past. He is, without exception, the best hunter in the whole department, and passes as having in consequence great influence over me. One of his elder brothers spoke next and said that he was now grown up to a man; that 'his fort,' as he calls Osnaburgh, was too far off for the winter trade ; that if I left anyone here, he would come to them with winter skins; ho could not live without getting drunk three or four times at least, but that I must leave a clerk to deal with him, as he was above trading with any young under-strappers. I told him that if I consented to leave a person here, I would leave one that had both sense and knowledge enough to know how to use him well, as also any other great man. This Indian had been spoiled by the H. B. people at Osnaburgh Fort, where we may consider him master. He had been invited to dine there last spring."

"This great English partisan, a few weeks ago, had his nose bit off by his son-in-law at the door of what he calls 'his fort.' He is not yet cured, and says that a great man like him must not get angry or take any revenge, especially when he stands in awe of the one who ill-used him, for there is nothing an Indian will not do rather than admit himself to be a coward."

"My canoe was very much hampered; I put a man and his wife in the small canoe and embarked in the other small canoe with my guides, after giving some liquor to the old man and his sons, who must remain here to-day to try and pack all their three canoes. We went on as well as we could against a cold head wind till the big canoe got on a stone which nearly upset her and tore a piece two feet square out of her bottom. She filled immediately and the men and goods were all in danger of going to the bottom before they reached the shore; notwithstanding their efforts, she sank in three feet of water. We hastened to get everything out of her, but my sugar and their molasses were damaged, but worse than all, my powder, which I immediately examined, was considerably damaged."

"Having decided to establish a fort, we all set to work ; four men to build, one to square boards for the doors, timber for the floors, and shelves for the shops, the two others to attend the rest. . . . There are now eight Indians here, all drunk and very troublesome to my neighbour, who, I believe, is as drunk as themselves; they are all very civil to me, and so they may, for I am giving them plenty to drink, without getting anything from them as yet."

"This man (an Indian from Red Lake) tells me that the English (H. B. Co.), the X Y, and Mr. Adhemar (a free trader) were striving who would squander the most and thereby please the Indians best, but the consequence will be that the Indians will get all they want for half the value and laugh at them all, in the end. He told me that an Indian, who I know very well to have no influence on anyone but himself, got five kegs of mixt high wines to himself alone between the three houses and took 200 skins credit; that all the Indians were fifteen days without getting sober. I leave it to any rational being to judge what that Indian's skins will cost."

"Another circumstance which will tend to injure the trade very much, so long as we have the Hudson's Bay Company against us, is the premium they allow every factor or master on whatever number of skins they obtain. Those people do not care at what price they buy or whether their employes gain by them, so long as they have their premium, which sets them in opposition to one another almost as much as they are to us. The honourable Hudson's Bay Company proprietors very little knew their own interest when they first allowed this interest to their 'officers,' as they call them, as it certainly had not the desired effect, for, if it added some to their exertions, it led in a great degree to the squandering of their goods, as they are in general both needy and selfish."


While many journals and sketches were forwarded to Mr. Roderick McKenzie, none of them were of so high a character in completeness and style as that of Mr. Peter Grant on the Saulteaux Indians. Peter Grant, as quite a young man at the age of twenty, joined the North-West Company in 1784. Seven years afterward he had become a partner, had charge of Rainy Lake district, and afterward that of the Red River department. His sketch of the Indians marks him as a keen observer and a facile writer. Some of his descriptions are excellent:—

"The fruits found in this country are the wild plum, a small sort of wild cherry, wild currants of different kinds, gooseberries, strawberries, raspberries, brambleberries, blackberries, choke cherries, wild grapes, sand cherries, a delicious fruit which grows on a small shrub near sandy shores, and another blueberry, a fine fruit not larger than a currant, tasting much like a pear and growing on a small tree about the size of a willow. (No doubt the Saskatoon berry.—Ed,) In the swamp you find two kinds of cranberries. Hazel nuts, but of very inferior quality, grow near the banks of the rivers and lakes. A kind of wild rice grows spontaneously in the small muddy creeks and bays."

"The North-West Company's canoes, manned with five men, carry about 3,000 lbs.; they seldom draw more than eighteen inches of water and go generally at the rate of six miles an hour in calm weather. When arrived at a portage, the bowman instantly jumps in the water to prevent the canoe from touching the bottom, while the others tie their slings to the packages in the canoe and swing them on their backs to carry over the portage. The bowman and the steersman carry their canoe, a duty from which the middle men are exempt. The whole is conducted with astonishing expedition, a necessary consequence of the enthusiasm which always attends their long and perilous voyages. It is pleasing to see them, when the weather is calm and serene, paddling in their canoes, singing in chorus their simple, melodious strains, and keeping exact time with their paddles, which effectually beguiles their labours. When they arrive at a rapid, the guide or foreman's business is to explore the waters previous to their running down with their canoes, and, according to the height of the water, they either lighten the canoe by taking out part of the cargo and carry it overland, or run down the whole load."

Speaking of the Saulteaux, Grant says, "The Saulteaux are, in general, of the common stature, well proportioned, though inclining to a slender make, which would indicate more agility than strength. Their complexion is a whitish cast of the copper colour, their hair black, long, straight, and of a very strong texture, the point of the nose rather flat, and a certain fulness in the lips, but not sufficient to spoil the appearance of the mouth. The teeth, of a beautiful ivory white, are regular, well set, and seldom fail them even in the most advanced period of life; their cheeks are high and rather prominent, their eyes black and lively, their countenance is generally pleasant, and the symmetry of their features is such as to constitute what can be called handsome faces.

"Their passions, whether of a benevolent or mischievous tendency, are always more violent than ours. I believe this has been found to be the case with all barbarous nations who never cultivate the mind; hence the cruelties imputed to savages, in general, towards their enemies. Though these people cannot be acquitted from some degree of that ferocious barbarity which characterizes the savages, they are, however, free from that deliberate cruelty which has been so often imputed to other barbarous natives. They are content to kill and scalp their enemy, and never reserve a prisoner for the refined tortures of a lingering and cruel death."

"The Saulteaux have, properly speaking, no regular system of government and but a very imperfect idea of the different ranks of society so absolutely necessary in all civilized countries. Their loading men or chief magistrates are petty chiefs, whoso dignity is hereditary, but whoso authority is confined within the narrow circle of their own particular tribe or relatives. There are no established laws to enforce obedience; all is voluntary, and yet, such is their confidence and respect for their chiefs, that instances of mutiny or disobedience to orders are very rare among them.

"As to religion, Gitche Manitou, or the 'Master of Life,' claims the first rank in their devotion. To him they attribute the creation of the heavens, of the waters, and of that portion of the earth beyond the sea from which white people come. He is also the author of life and death, taking pleasure in promoting the happiness of the virtuous, and having, likewise, the power of punishing the wicked. Wiskendjac is next in power. He is said to be the creator of all the Indian tribes, the country they inhabit and all it contains. The last of their deities is called Matchi-Manitou, or the 'Bad Spirit.' He is the author of evil, but subject to the control of the Gitche Manitou. Though he is Justly held in great detestation, it is thought good policy to smooth his anger by singing and beating the drum.

"When life is gone, the body of the dead is addressed by some friend of the deceased in a long speech, in which he begs of him to take courage, and pursue his Journey to the Great Meadow, observing that all his departed friends and relations are anxiously waiting to receive him, and that his surviving friends will soon follow.

"The body is then decently dressed and wrapped in a new blanket, with new shoes, garnished and painted with vermilion, on the feet. It is kept one night in the lodge, and is next day buried in the earth. After burial they either raise a pole of wood over the grave, or enclose it with a fence. At the head of the grave a small post is erected, on which they carve the particular mark of the tribe to whom the deceased belonged. The bodies of some of their most celebrated chiefs are raised upon a high scaffold, with flags flying, and the scalps of their enemies. It is customary with their warriors, at the funeral of their great men, to strike the post and relate all their martial achievements, as they do in the war dance, and their funeral ceremonies generally conclude by a feast round the grave."

Grant, in 1794, built the post on the Assiniboine at the mouth of Shell River, and five years afterward was in charge of the fort on the Rainy Lake. About the same time he erected a post, probably the first on the Red River, in the neighbourhood of the present village of St. Vincent, near 49° N. Lat., opposite Pembina. He seems to have been in the Indian country in 1804, and, settling in Lower Canada, died at Lachine in 1848, at the grand old age of eighty-four.

Thus have we sought to sketch, from their own writings, pictures of the lords of the fur trade. They were a remarkable body of men. Great as financiers, marvellous as explorers, facile as traders, bravo in their spirits, firm and yet tactful in their management of the Indians, and, except during the short period from 1800-1804, anxious for the welfare of the Red men. Looking back, we wonder at their daring and loyalty, and can well say with Washington Irving, "The feudal state of Fort William is at an end ; its council chamber is silent and desolate; its banquet-hall no longer echoes to the auld world ditty ; the lords of the lakes and forests have passed away."

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