Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: January 2016

Fur trade casualties

One of the great myths of Saskatchewan history is that the two-century-old fur trade ended when Canada acquired the region from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1870.

It did not.

Ottawa was only interested in the agricultural settlement of the southern North-West Territories, the area south of a line from present-day Winnipeg northwest to Prince Albert and Edmonton.

The great remainder of what was sometimes called the unorganized territories — to the north, west, and east — continued to be the exclusive domain of the fur trade.

In fact, a HBC study concluded that large-scale agricultural settlement of the territories was still several years away without a transcontinental railway and that the company could still profit from its “monopoly” position.

There were changes, though.

The old way of moving goods and furs by cart, canoe, and York boat was too labour-intensive and thereby too inefficient.
In its place, the HBC decided to introduce steamboat service on the major lakes and rivers in the region — not only to ship its own freight but to capture any new business and passenger traffic.

These “fire canoes,” as they were called by the Indians because of their belching smoke stacks, certainly accelerated the movement of HBC freight.

But shipping schedules and length of season were dictated by fluctuating water levels, which not only grounded boats but increased the number of hazards, such as sandbars and boulders, that lay in wait.

Even deep, open water could be treacherous for the shallow-draft, flat-bottomed boats.  “A very little breeze,” one deck hand remembered, “and they would get going like a snake in the grass.”

The other major change was what was trapped and traded.

Beaver skins had once been the staple of the HBC trade.

But over-hunting of the animal and the switch to silk hats in the mid-nineteenth century greatly lessened its importance to the HBC balance sheet.

Muskrat consequently emerged as the dominant fur in the post-1870 period, representing as much as fifty per cent of the company returns in some years, followed by beaver (twenty per cent) and marten (ten per cent).

The best place to secure muskrat pelts was the Canadian subarctic, particularly in “muskrat country,” the marshy lowlands extending west from Hudson Bay to the Saskatchewan and Churchill rivers.

And even though muskrat was a low-value fur subject to extreme population swings, there was money to be made in the trade.

Fur enjoyed a fashion renaissance in Europe and North America in the late 19th century.

The garment industry not only drove prices steadily higher, but sent scores of itinerant traders into northern Saskatchewan.

Ironically, the reason that these new competitors could challenge the Indians and Métis on their home trapping ground was because of improvements the HBC had made to its transportation system.

Two brothers who tried their hand at trading were Donald and John Finlayson.

In late September 1888, after being outfitted with goods at Cumberland House, they arrived at Reindeer Lake and spent the fall building a cabin about 30 miles north of the south end of the lake.

On Dec. 8, the pair set off over the ice with a sled and two dogs to visit Lac du Brochet at the extreme northeast end of the lake.

But a little more than a week into the trip, they were out of food and had collected no furs.  Turning back in the face of a fierce snowstorm instead of continuing on to the HBC post, they lived on the few fish they were able to catch, but by Christmas, were reduced to eating fish tails and bones.

On Jan. 2, around midday, they stopped to make some tea.

One of the brothers passed out near the campfire — probably from hunger and exhaustion.  The other apparently collapsed in coming to his aid.

When their frozen bodies were found three weeks later, the brothers were only eight miles from their cabin.

The story of their brief career as traders, right up until the fateful tea break, was documented by Donald in a small diary he carried in his pocket.

A search of their belongings turned up ten cents.

Addendum: I was contacted by the Finlayson family in response to this column after it was published. They never knew what happened to the brothers in 1889 until they read the column.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: Dog teams in winter.
Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada
Questions or comments?
Email Bill Waiser at
Follow Bill @billwaiser

Swift Current Peel Postcard

Winter brought early settlers together

With the holiday break over, most people will hunker down for the last few months of winter.

It can be a long wait for the arrival of spring in Saskatchewan.

But at least people today can pass the winter evenings watching television, listening to the radio, or immersing themselves in the new social media.

That was not possible over a century ago, when immigrants faced the twin problems of distance and isolation.

Indeed, the homestead system, which attracted tens of thousands of prospective settlers to the province, made the pioneer struggle loom larger by dispersing families as widely as possible on the land.

Many people effectively found themselves alone, if not lonely, on their individual homesteads.

They could go for months without contact with the outside world.

This sense of isolation bore down on farm families, as if it was an extra burden they carried on their backs.

One child of pioneer homesteaders remembered the feeling when a railway branch line was finally built through their district: “With the coming of the railway, mother said and we all felt it, that the great distance that separated us from our family back home had shrunken considerably and that once more we were in the same world with them.”

Yet even with a rail link, distance and isolation remained very real challenges for Saskatchewan farm families.

As Geoffrey Blainey observed in his history of Australia, The Tyranny of Distance, “Distance [was] tamed more quickly on the map than in the mind.”

Or in the words of one veteran ranch manager, “there was ample room to get lost, freeze or starve.”

People responded by making their own entertainment.

Prince Albert, for example, had a flourishing choral society that performed Gilbert and Sullivan classics, such as “Iolanthe,” in the town’s magnificent opera house.

Not to be outdone, Captain Burton Dean of the NWMP built a stage in the quartermaster’s warehouse at the Regina barracks and cast officers and their wives in public productions. Similar cultural events were held at the Battleford barracks, where the mounties often gathered around an old piano — with the buffers repaired from an old felt hat — for an evening of song.

The North-West Territories council also passed legislation in 1890 to encourage the creation of mechanics’ institutes.

First developed in Scotland and then England, these bodies housed technical libraries and hosted lectures.

One of the first institutes to be established in present-day Saskatchewan was at Grenfell in 1892, where 67 inaugural members paid an annual fee of one dollar.

Homesteaders generally pursued simpler recreational pursuits.

Books and magazines — sometimes, even letters from back east — were shared among neighbours during the winter.

The Aberdeen Association, founded by the wife of Canada’s governor general in the 1890s, also sent monthly parcels of reading material by rail to pioneer areas.

Some districts organized literary societies where participation was more important than talent.

“Everyone had to do something,” reported Tom Perry of Watson, “even if they could only whistle or tell a story — strange to say those were very enjoyable evenings.”

Then, there were the social calls and dances.

To break the monotony of the open range, ranching families in southwestern Saskatchewan would visit one another for several days.

One of the more popular social centres was the Cutting ranch on Swift Current Creek, where several daughters attracted “cowboys for miles around.”

Another favourite home was that of Ben Rose, the postmaster for Eastend, who hosted dances “and the six or eight ladies, mostly all married, received plenty of attention and did not sit out any dances, for there would possibly be forty men present.”

People on the prairies never missed a dance, often staying up most of the night.

James Clinkskill, a Scottish immigrant and Saskatoon merchant, was among them.

He had vivid memories of winter social events, especially his first bachelors’ ball in Battleford in the early 1880s.

The largest storeroom in Battleford was cleared for the fiddler and people would dance reels and jigs until the next morning.

Everyone was welcome, regardless of race, creed, religion, or ability to dance.

That’s the way it should be. And that’s my wish for this new year.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: Early Swift Current in winter
Photo credit: University of Alberta Peel Library, postcard 13209
Questions or comments?
Email Bill Waiser at
Follow Bill @billwaiser.