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
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