When an Emperor Ruled in Canada
GEORGE FISHER CHIPMAN
NORWAY HOUSE—Once it was a name to conjure with, the seat of an Empire where a man of Napoleonic bearing dictated to an army of servants in every part of Canada. When Lord Selkirk conceived and partially carried out his scheme of colonizing the Red River country in 1811 and the succeeding years all his emigrants passed through Norway House on their heartbreaking trip of seven hundred miles from York Factory to what is now Winnipeg. During all the days of the glorious rule of the fur traders in Canada Norway House was a place of importance. Now it is merely an ordinary trading post of the Hudson’s Bay Company, situated at the northern extremity of Lake Winnipeg, three hundred miles distant from the Prairie City.
Never will the interesting history surrounding Norway House be faithfully recorded, for the actors on the stage of that day have gone and have carried with them the romance. All that is left is a brief report of the commercial enterprise in which the fortress was but a depot, albeit an important one.
Canadian history records the long and bloody struggle between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Northwest Fur Company. In the second decade of last century the scene of that warfare covered the fur-producing territory of western Canada. The death of the Earl of Selkirk in 1820 removed the last obstacle to the union of the two companies and brought about the end of the struggle. But the head of the company was gone and there was needed a supreme genius who not only must heal the wounds and unite factions who had been taught to hate and distrust each other, but who must direct the destinies of the fur trade to success. Not among the active traders in Canada could the man of destiny be found. He was discovered in the person of a young clerk in London, England, who knew naught of fur trading other than what he had learned in one winter spent at Lake Athabasca. But his business sagacity commended itself to the directors of the company and George Simpson was appointed governor of all the united interests of the Hudson's Bay Comapny in 1821.
Prior to the amalgamation of the two companies the headquarters of the Nor’Westers had been at Grand Portage (Fort William) on the western end of Lake Superior, but Simpson chose the fort at the north of Lake Winnipeg as most central and easiest of access from all parts of the country. Here his residence and his council chamber were built and thev still stand. At Norway House were held the annual gatherings of the traders, i.e., the wintering partners from the wilds and the senior partners from Montreal, met with the governor to hear the reports of the year's business and to organize for more aggressive work in the future. One of the first meetings was held on June 23, 1823. At the head of the council table sat the clean-shaven young governor. surrounded by grey-headed and be whiskered veterans who had spent their lives in a struggle with nature. To them hardship was but an incident and a thousand-mile journey by snowshoe and dog-train in the depth of the cold northern winter but a pastime. Naturally they had not the kindliest feelings towards the “youngster” who was sent across the water to command them. But the diplomatic though firm manner of the governor soon won the admiration and respect—if not the immediate affection—of the grevheads, and thev returned to the forest. Their blood was cooled and where once they thought of war, they now bent their energies to the success of their company. The old Scotchmen, who pioneered the Canadian northlands for the Hudson’s Bay Company, were very devoted to their employers.
The governor of the company was a great man among the traders, but to the Indians he was the “Kitche Okema”—the greatest mortal they would ever see. To maintain this standing it was necessary that the governor should travel with much pomp and ceremony, and that his presence should be made impressive. Sir George Simpson—for he was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1840 —had a weakness for ceremony and it fitted his imperial manner splendidly. He was always known as the Emperor of the Fur Trade. When the season of the annual council approached, the chief factors from every quarter of the compass in a radius of thousands of miles, started with their retinues for Norway House. Each factor was an emperor in his own domain. Lords they were of the lake and the forest and they traveled as such. In canoes or York boats thev came down the waterways to Lake Winnipeg and pointed straight for the fortress where the governor awaited them. As they swung into view of the fort, over the walls of which pointed the frowning cannon, they made an imposing spectacle. The hardy French-Canadian voyageurs with richly colored handkerchiefs around their necks and with wonderful L’Assomption belts wound twice around their waists, felt like heroes. Long distances are rough on dress, and the travelers must never enter the august presence without proper attire. Accordingly a stop was made a few miles from the fort and a general toilet was made by these children of the wilds. Then with evervthing in place and the dust and dirt removed they fared fortli with their old assurance. The French-Canadian voyageurs were musical and as they bent their backs to the paddles and rounded the point before the fort they with one accord broke forth in that splendid old song, “A la Claire Fontaine.”
When Governor Simpson approached the fort he led the fleet in a gaudily-decorated canoe, and behind him came the pipers in another canoe, and still behind followed the retinue. Within sound of the fort the pipers pealed forth on the bagpipes and a cheery salute came in reply from the chief factor’s bugle. From the rocks and hills surrounding the fortress the bugle notes echoed and re-echoed and the guns volleyed forth a royal salute.
When all were gathered, the feast time arrived, and the tables groaned under the loads of the best the world afforded. From the east came the delicate viands which vied with the fish and game from the wonderful land to the west. The lakes and forests had been scoured to produce the best they afforded in abundance. No man went hungry and the lithe Indian gorged himself on culinary products that were splendid to the taste, but to him were a mystery. The feast was a time of joy, and all went merry, the remainder of the day being spent in rest and comfort. But there was never any dallying when Simpson was around, and the next day was one of business, when each factor had to give an account of his stewardship. Of course, much dependence was put in chief factors, as their posts were so far away that they must of a necessity rely upon their own discretion at all times.
Under the governorship of Simpson there was new impetus given to the trade in the west, and one of the points which he emphasized was that liquor must not be given to the Indians. If for no other reason, it was bad for business. Then, again, he determined to put an end to giving presents to the Indians. He preferred giving them liberal prices for their furs. 1 he number of servants was increased in the land and new forts were opened and in general the trade considerably increased in volume.
Governor Simpson was not a man to be satisfied with second-hand information as to the condition of his empire and his subjects. He visited the forts at Red River, along the shore of Hudson’s Bay, and even as far inland as the Mackenzie River, where he went into the minutest details of the trade. In 1828 Simpson determined to see Canada from ocean to ocean. He left York Factory on July 12. 1828. and came southward by water to Norway House, and from thence westward, and in a month they were in the vast Peace River countrv. At each post of the company Simpson went through all the books and did a great deal of writing. He had the reputation of being able to do three men's work. The same energv, which spurred him ou in his work, animated him when on board the canoe, and he continuallv urged his canoemen to greater exertions. A story is told of the governor when crossing the Lake of the Woods on one of his expeditions. He was urging one of his favorite French-Canadian voyageurs to greater speed and finally exhausted that individual’s patience. The big voyageur turned upon the little governor, and, seizing him by the shoulders, lifted him over the side and dipped him into the lake, at the same time expressing his feeling in the particular brand of oaths in which the French-Canadians indulged. Simpson took the hint, and it is even siaid that he did not punish the man who had insulted his dignity. Passing through the Peace River country Simpson and his party crossed the mountains and followed down the Fraser river and thence made their way via all the forts to Fort Vancouver, the headquarters of the company on the Pacific coast.
To-day Norway House has lost much of its prestige, as it is not the headquarters of the company, but it is still a trading post, and is kept in better condition than most of the depots of the company in the north. Simpson’s place still stands. Built of logs in 1837, it is now weather-boarded and sealed within, so that it has the appearance of a nice country resi-
dence. The house is 30 by 45 feet, and has a wide piazza running around three sides, which not only adds greatly to the appearance, but also to the comfort. The old council chamber, where Simpson directed the affairs of the company, no longer is the scene of such gatherings, but is now used as a store-house—its glory has departed. There âre but a handful of white settlers around Norway House, and a population of about 500 treaty Indians living on the reserves surrounding it. Though Norway House is commonly spoken of as being on Lake Winnipeg, it is really situated on the Nelson River, just 24 miles from where it empties into Little Play Green Lake, which is only an enlargement of the upper portion of Lake Winnipeg. The day is coming when Norway House will again be a familiar name. The army of visitors will not be engaged in commercial pursuits, but will be busy forgetting business. It is admirably adapted for a summer resort. The lake is filled with little rocky islets suitable for camping and the water and beach are splendid fgr bathing. There is good fishing and good shooting to be had at all times, and in summer there is a bi-Weekly mail service. Soon the time may come when the former fortified fortress in the wilds will be the Mecca of tired business men and their families during the hot days of summer. A prompt steamboat service can easily be arranged from Winnipeg and Selkirk, and every requirement for perfect rest will be easy of access.
Though not so pretentious as Simpson’s palace, the old council chamber at the post was by far the most important structure, as therein were held the famous meetings of the fur traders. This chamber is the oldest building at the post, being carefully built of logs in 1830, and is still in good repair. It is fifty feet 'long and twenty-eight feet wide, being one and one-half storeys in height. Imagine such a building, in such a place, with such a history, now reduced to the humble condition of a storehouse. There are a number of other large buildings at the post and all are kept neatly whitewashed and the whole present the appearance of a nice little settlement when viewed from a distance from the deck of a steamer.
There is a two and one-half storey building known in company parlance as the “big house’’ wherein are the general offices, mess room, kitchen and men’s quarters. “Bachelor’s hall" is and has been for a long time the abode of the unmarried men at the post and has often resounded to the echoes of mirthful tunes in days agone. Half a mile from the fort is what was the old powTder magazine in the days when cannon pointed over the bastions to guard the post from the approach of the enemy. It was a very secure building constructed of sione but has now fallen into disuse and decay. The old jail also a stone structure which held many an irrepressible spirit in halcyon days, and which could a story tell has now nothing more strenuous to confine than coal oil. There is also a provision store, trading store and a depot where the unbroken packages of freight are kept for shipment to the inland posts. Two buildings called the “Athabasca” and the “Mackenzie River" stores retain names applied years ago. In them was kept the freight for these two districts far to the north when all the freight passed through Norway House, being brought up over the lake in the summer. The heavy stockade which surrounded the post twenty years ago has been replaced by a neat wire and picket fence enclosing space about one hundred and fifty yards long by one hundred wide. Plank walks run all about the post and down through a large archway between the main buildings to the dock in the front where the York boats load and unload freight.
The York boat—so-called because it was first used in carrying freight on the York Factory route—is still the chief vehicle for freight to the inland posts from Lake Winnipeg. Formerly they were made twenty-seven feet long and carried seventy packages of freight each weighing ninety pounds in order that they could easily be handled at the portages on the route. At present the boats are made larger and better adapted to the work they are designed for, being thirty-five feet long and ten feet wide. They are manned by a crew of nine and carry a large sail so that with favorable breezes thev make good speed. The crews shoot the dangerous rapids of the north with the greatest unconcern.
A feature of interest at Norway House is a leaden sun-dial in the garden, which was erected by Sir John Franklin, the famous explorer, on his fatal trip to the Arctics. The dial is not dated but has on it the initials “J. B. F.” and the latitude and longitude of the post. Surveyors, who have seen the dial in recent years, state that it is only three minutes from correct even now. Near the dial a tall flagstaff floats aloft the Union Jack upon which is emblazoned the arms of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The garden itself is no insignificant feature to the inhabitants of the fort and its products would open the eyes of many a dweller in other parts of Canada. There are currant bushes, rhubarb, celery, peas, beans, cabbage, brussels sprouts and all kinds of vegetables and many other delicacies which are raised in civilized lands.
Strange it is how a little spot could have figured so prominently in the history of Canada and yet the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company is replete with the strange, romantic, impossible and unknown. When the official history of the company is published with all the little side lights thrown into the secluded lives of the servants it will prove the most interesting volume ever written.
MIISDOM is only knowing what one ought to do next. Virtue and enjoyment have never been far apart from each other. To know and to do is the basis of the highest service. —David Starr Jordan.