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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

Andrew Graham's "Memo."—Prince of Wales Fort—The garrison— Trade—York Factory—Furs—Albany—Subordinate forts—Moose —Moses Norton—Cumberland House—Upper Assiniboine—Rainy Lake—Brandon House—Red River—Conflict of the Companies.

Prince of Wales Fort

The new policy of the Company that for a hundred years had carried on its operations in Hudson Bay was now to be adopted. As soon as the plan could be developed, a long line of posts in the interior would serve to carry on the chief trade, and the forts and factories on Hudson Bay would become depots for storage and ports of departure for the Old World.

It is interesting at this point to have a view of the last days of the old system which had grown up during the operations of a century. We are fortunate in having an account of these forts in 1771 given by Andrew Graham, for many years a factor of the Hudson's Bay Company. This document is to be found in the Hudson's Bay Company house in London, and has been hitherto unpublished. The simplicity of description and curtness of detail gives the account its chief charm.

Prince of Wales Fort.—On a peninsula at the entrance of the Churchill River. Most northern settlement of the Company. A stone fort, mounting forty-two cannon, from six to twenty-four pounders. Opposite, on the south side of the river, Cape Merry Battery, mounting six twenty-four pounders with lodge-house and powder magazine. The river 1,006 yards wide. A ship can anchor six miles above the fort. Tides carry salt water twelve miles up the river. No springs near; drink snow water nine months of the year. In summer keep three draught horses to haul water and draw stones to finish building of forts.

Staff:—A chief factor and officers, with sixty servants and tradesmen. The council, with discretionary power, consists of chief factor, second factor, surgeon, sloop and brig masters, and captain of Company's ship when in port. These answer and sign the general letter, sent yearly to directors. The others are accountant, trader, steward, armourer, ship-wright, carpenter, cooper, blacksmith, mason, tailor, and labourers. These must not trade with natives, under penalties for so doing. Council mess together, also servants. Called by bell to duty, work from six to six in summer ; eight to four in winter. Two watch in winter, three in summer. In emergencies, tradesmen must work at anything. Killing of partridges the most pleasant duty.

Company signs contract with servants for three or five years, with the remarkable clause: "Company may recall them home at any time without satisfaction for the remaining time. Contract may be renewed, if servants or labourers wish, at expiry of term. Salary advanced forty shillings, if men have behaved well in first term. The land and sea officers' and tradesmen's salaries do not vary, but seamen's are raised in time of war."

A ship of 200 tons burden, bearing provisions, arrives yearly in August or early September. Sails again in ten days, wind permitting, with cargo and those returning. Sailors alone get pay when at home.

The annual trade sent home from this fort is from ten to four thousand made beaver, in furs, felts, castorum, goose feathers, and quills, and a small quantity of train oil and whalebone, part of which they receive from the Eskimos, and the rest from the white whale fishery. A black whale fishery is in hand, but it shows no progress.

York Factory.—On the north bank of Hayes River, three miles from the entrance. Famous River Nelson, three miles north, makes the land between an island. Well-built fort of wood, log on log. Four bastions with sheds between, and a breastwork with twelve small carriage guns. Good class of quarters, with double row of strong palisades. On the bank's edge, before the fort, is a half-moon battery, of turf and earth, with fifteen cannon, nine-pounders. Two miles below the fort, same side, is a battery of ten twelve-pounders, with lodge-house and powder magazine. These two batteries command the river, but the shoals and sand-banks across the mouth defend us more. No ship comes higher than five miles below the fort.

Governed like Prince of Wales Fort. Complement of men : forty-two. The natives come down Nelson River to trade. If weather calm, they paddle round the point. If not, they carry their furs across. This fort sends home from 7,000 to 33,000 made beaver in furs, &c, and a small quantity of white whale oil.

Severn Fort.—On the north bank of Severn River. Well-built square house, with four bastions. Men: eighteen. Commanded by a factor and sloop master. Eight small cannon and other warlike stores. Sloop carries furs in the fall to York Factory and delivers them to the ship, with the books and papers, receiving supply of trading goods, provisions, and stores. Severn full of shoals and sand banks. Sloop has difficulty in getting in and out. Has to wait spring tides inside the point. Trade sent home, 5,000 to 6,600 made beaver in furs, &c.

Albany Fort.—On south bank of Albany River, four miles from the entrance. Large well-built wood fort. Four bastions with shed between. Cannon and warlike stores. Men: thirty; factor and officers. River difficult. Ship rides five leagues out and is loaded and unloaded by large sloop. Trade, including two sub-houses of East Main and Henley, from 10,000 to 12,000 made beaver, &c. (This fort was the first Europeans had in Hudson Bay, and is where Hudson traded with natives.)

Henley House.—One hundred miles up the river from Albany. Eleven men, governed by master. First founded to prevent encroachments of the French, when masters of Canada, and present to check the English.

East Main House.—Entrance of Slude River. Small square house. Sloop master and eleven men. Trade: 1000 to 2000 made beaver in furs, &c. Depth of water just admits sloop.

Moose Factory.—South bank of Moose River, near entrance. Well-built wood fort—cannon and warlike stores. Twenty-five men. Factor and officers. River admits ship to good harbour, below fort. Trade, 3,000 to 4,000 made beavers in furs, &c. One ship supplies this fort, along with Albany and sub-forts.

These are the present Hudson's Bay Company's settlements in the Bay. "All under one discipline, and excepting the sub-houses, each factor receives a commission to act for benefit of Company, without being answerable to any person or persons in the Bay, more than to consult for good of Company in emergencies and to supply one another with trading goods, &c, if capable, the receiver giving credit for the same."

The movement to the interior was begun from the Prince of Wales Fort up the Churchill River. Next year, after his return from the discovery of the Coppermine, Samuel Hearne undertook the aggressive work of going to meet the Indians, now threatened from the Saskatchewan by the seductive influences of the Messrs. Frobisher, of the Montreal fur traders. The Governor at Prince of Wales Fort, for a good many years, had been Moses Norton. He was really an Indian born at the fort, who had received some education during a nine years' residence in England. Of uncultivated manners, and leading far from a pure life, he was yet a man of considerable force, with a power to command and the ability to ingratiate himself with the Indians. He was possessed of undoubted energy, and no doubt to his advice is very much due the movement to leave the forts in the Bay and penetrate to the interior of the country. In December of the very year (1773) in which Hearne went on his trading expedition inland, Norton died.

In the following year, as we have seen, Hearne erected Cumberland House, only five hundred yards from Frobisher's new post on Sturgeon Lake. It was the intention of the Hudson's Bay Company also to make an effort to control the trade to the south of Lake Winnipeg. Hastily called away after building Cumberland House, Hearne was compelled to leave a colleague, Mr. Cockings, in charge of the newly-erected fort, and returned to the bay to take charge of Prince of Wales Fort, the post left vacant by the death of Governor Norton.

The Hudson's Bay Company, now regularly embarked in the inland trade, undertook to push their posts to different parts of the country, especially to the portion of the fur country in the direction from which the Montreal traders approached it. The English traders, as we learn from Umfreville, who was certainly not prejudiced in their favour, had the advantage of a higher reputation in character and trade among the Indians than had their Canadian opponents. From their greater nearness to northern waters, the old Company could reach a point in the Saskatchewan with their goods nearly a month earlier in the spring than their Montreal rivals were able to do. We find that in 1790 the Hudson's Bay Company crossed south from the northern waters and erected a trading post at the mouth of the Swan River, near Lake Winnipegoosis. This they soon deserted and built a fort on the upper waters of the Assiniboine River, a few miles above the present Hudson's Bay Company post of Fort Pelly.

A period of surprising energy was now seen in the English Company's affairs. "Carrying the war into Africa," they in the same year met their antagonists in the heart of their own territory, by building a trading post on Rainy Lake and another in the neighbouring Red Lake district, now included in North-Eastern Minnesota. Having seized the chief points southward, the aroused Company, in the next year (1791), pushed north-westward from Cumberland House and built an establishment at Ile à la Crosse, well up toward Lake Athabasca.

Crossing from Lake Winnipeg in early spring to the head waters of the Assiniboine River, the spring brigade of the Hudson's Bay Company quite outdid their rivals, and in 1794 built the historic Brandon House, at a very important point on the Assiniboine River. This post was for upwards of twenty years a chief Hudson's Bay Company centre until it was burnt. On the grassy bank of the Assiniboine, the writer some years ago found the remains of the old fort, and from the well-preserved character of the sod, was able to make out the line of the palisades, the exact size of all the buildings, and thus to obtain the ground plan.

Brandon House was on the south side of the Assiniboine, about seventeen miles below the present city of Brandon, Its remains are situated on the homestead of Mr. George Mair, a Canadian settler from Beauharnois, Quebec, who settled here on July 20th, 1879. The site was well chosen at a bend of the river, having the Assiniboine in front of it on the east and partially so also on the north. The front of the palisade faced to the east, and midway in the wall was a gate ten feet wide, with inside of it a look-out tower (guérite) seven feet square. On the south side was the long store-house. In the centre had stood a building said by some to have been the blacksmith's shop. Along the north wall were the buildings for residences and other purposes. The remains of other forts, belonging to rival companies, are not far away, but of these we shall speak again.

The same activity continued to exist in the following year, for in points so far apart as the Upper Saskatchewan and Lake Winnipeg new forts were built. The former of these was Edmonton House, built on the north branch of the Saskatchewan. The fort erected on Lake Winnipeg was probably that at the mouth of the Winnipeg River, near where Fort Alexander now stands.

In 1796, another post was begun on the Assiniboine River, not unlikely near the old site of Fort de la Reine, while in the following year, as a half-way house to Edmonton on the Saskatchewan, Carlton House was erected. The Red River proper was taken possession of by the Company in 1799. Alexander Henry, junr., tells us that very near the boundary line (49 degrees N.) on the east side of the Red River, there were in 1800 the remains of a fort.

Such was the condition of things, so far as the Hudson's Bay Company was concerned, at the end of the century.

In twenty-five years they had extended their trade from Edmonton House, near the Rockies, as far as Rainy Lake; they had made Cumberland House the centre of their operations in the interior, and had taken a strong hold of the fertile region on the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, of which to-day the city of Winnipeg is the centre.

Undoubtedly the severe competition between the Montreal merchants and the Hudson's Bay Company greatly diminished the profits of both. According to Umfreville, the Hudson's Bay Company business was conducted much more economically than that of the merchants of Montreal. The Company upon the Bay chiefly employed men obtained in the Orkney Islands, who were a steady, plodding, and reliable class. The employes of the Montreal merchants were a wild, free, reckless people, much addicted to drink, and consequently less to be depended upon.

The same writer states that the competition between the two rival bodies of traders resulted badly for the Indians. He says: "So that the Canadians from Canada and the Europeans from Hudson Bay met together, not at all to the ulterior advantage of the natives, who by this means became degenerated and debauched, through the excessive use of spirituous liquors imported by these rivals in commerce."

One thing at any rate had been clearly demonstrated, that the inglorious sleeping by the side of the Bay, charged by Dobbs and others against the old Company, had been overcome, and that the first quarter of the second century of the history of the Hudson's Bay Company showed that the Company's motto, "Pro Pelle Cutem," "Skin for Skin," had not been inappropriately chosen.

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