When King Charles II granted the Hudson’s Bay Company a monopoly in 1670 over the trade and commerce of all lands that drained into Hudson and James bays (called Rupert’s Land), the English seemed poised to dominate the Canadian fur trade by securing direct access to the interior.
But instead of pursuing its advantage and venturing inland, the HBC established permanent posts or “factories” (as they were called) on the rim of the Bay.
The governing London Committee was obsessed with keeping company operations as contained and secretive as possible, while exercising a firm hand over its employees at controlled locations.
HBC’s success consequently depended on its ability to attract Indian trading parties to the Bay each spring.
In a sense, company posts were like downtown department stores, while the 20th-century advertising phrase, “Meet you at the Bay,” had deep historical meaning. But how much Indian trade was actually conducted by the HBC?
In the 1690s, as many as 420 Cree and Assiniboine canoes might have arrived annually at York Factory at the mouth of the Hayes River. But these numbers fell to the low 300s in the early 18th century.
It’s not a large number of canoes given the huge drainage basin area of the Nelson-Hayes rivers.
Four hundred canoes might represent no more than 800 men from the entire region west and southwest of Hudson Bay — even less when it is realized that women often accompanied these trading parties, in part because of their skill in steering and tracking canoes.
It could even be argued that interior Indians were actually under-represented during the early years of the Bay trade.
One reason that the Cree and Assiniboine were reluctant to make the trip to York Factory was the distance involved.
Indians travelling from Saskatchewan had the choice of three possible canoe routes, all starting in the east-central part of the province: the “Upper Track” from Cumberland Lake; the “Middle Track” from the Saskatchewan River just below The Pas; and the “Lower Track” near the mouth of the Saskatchewan River at Grand Rapids. All three routes avoided the dangerous Nelson River in favour of the canoe-friendly Hayes.
When HBC servant Henry Kelsey travelled inland with the Assiniboine in June 1690, it required almost a full month for the group to return upriver to the northern edge of their home territory near present-day The Pas. Even allowing for less time going down river because of the current, the trading trip probably required a minimum of eight to 10 weeks when the time spent trading at the post is also included.
Because of the need to move quickly, Indians were pushed to the edge of their survival abilities. They often arrived starving at York Factory.
The prolonged absence of the Cree and Assiniboine from their home territories also meant that subsistence activities were limited, and that too threatened their well-being and that of their families.
The common response by distant groups was to go every second or third year or never again, while those bands living closest to York Factory absorbed most of the trade items by default.
Another factor discouraging Indians from tackling the arduous trip to the Bay was a shortage of trade goods at the posts. HBC supply ships were delayed by ice conditions or simply failed to arrive.
Indian trading parties had to make do with the few trade items that were available or remain there until the early fall for the next supply ship. This delay proved deadly for some Indian traders who headed upriver too late in the season; others endured great suffering and usually did not come back the following season.
What also limited the number and size of trading parties was that the fur trade was only one aspect of Cree and Assiniboine life at the time.
Other activities and opportunities, such as raiding expeditions or communal bison hunts, generally took precedence over trading.
HBC servants arrogantly assumed that Indians would want to trade and chastised those who did not come to the bay for being “lazy.”
But when newcomers moved into the western interior in the mid-18th century, they quickly learned that the Cree and Assiniboine had their own interests and priorities, and that they were only able to operate inland because Indians accepted their presence.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: Major canoe routes between York Factory and central Saskatchewan.
Image courtesy: Articulate Eye Design
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