The Lonesome Factory on Hudson’s Bay

J. B. Tyrrell,James Grant May 1 1911

The Lonesome Factory on Hudson’s Bay

J. B. Tyrrell,James Grant May 1 1911

The Lonesome Factory on Hudson’s Bay

J. B. Tyrrell

and James Grant

ALMOST any Hudson’s Bay post is a poor place to find company—unless it be the company of your own thoughts. But the Post at Fort Churchill is just a few degrees more unhappy, in this regard, than any other.

Scattered over thousands of miles of Canadian wilderness lie these grey, weather-beaten houses, some more pretentious than others, where a lone man, with a white wife, perhaps, or native wife, carries on trade with the Indians in the territory round about. Each of them is sufficiently removed from the outside world, although some have a rival of the Revillon Freres nearby, for company; some have Indians close in around them; some are on the trails used by engineers, surveyors, or geologists inland bound; and some are even within a few days of the railways. But others have no mitigating circumstances, and of these is Fort Churchill.

It lies on the West coast of Hudson’s Bay, as far north of the City of Toronto as Toronto is north of New Orleans. The settlement, as I knew it eighteen years ago and as it remains with only a few changes, consists of twenty-five half-breeds

the factor and his family, the missionary and his family, and the dogs. It lies on a little ledge of arid ground on the edge of the Churchill river just near where tue river, having widened into a great lagoon, flows into Hudson's Bay. The lagoon and the Bay lie in front of the post. Behind it is a ridge of rock, perhaps a hundred feet high, over which, in winter, the snow drifts until it buries the post above the eaves of its ugly buildings. It is not even in a wooded country, where the forest might lend a little interest to life by its presence there, or out of which might come animals or Indians that might create some diversion, that might even offer to destroy the post and so confer a little excitement. No such good fortune. For hundreds of miles round about is a swampy country dotted at intervals with a few trees that maintain a difficult footing in the uncertain soil. The Indians that, come to trade, are from, perhaps three hundred miles inland. They come but twice a year. The Esquimaux arrive from up the coast towards the Northern lights. Once a year—in August it used to be, and it may be yet, for all I know—the Company’s ship pays its visit,

renews the stores, takes off the furs and carries back the report of the Factor and perhaps a letter or two from the factor’s wife and the missionary’s wife, to the people “at home.” Once or twice a year there is a coasting trip up the shore among the Esquimaux. On Sundays and holidays the missionary in the Anglican Church prays for the King and the Queen and such as are in peril on the sea, but the most sincere part of the prayer is the simple little line about Daily Bread. Because Daily Bread in Churchill is not always a certainty for the half-breed congregation and it is just as well, when praying, to ask for it anyway.

It is eighteen years since first I was there. Mister Hawes was the trader then and Bishop Lofthouse, who is now at Kenora, was the “Church Missionary Society” Missionary in the place. Lofthouse was just a plain ordinary variety of hero, by which I mean that he did nothing sensational such as is now-a-days called heroism, but he LIVED for about fifteen years in that forsaken country because he believed it was his duty—it must have required a large faith in his duty. With him, lived his wife, just as heroic, who helped him in everything, from the

preaching to working in the garden to make the turnips grow, turnips being the only thing that they could raise in that soil.

But Mister Hawes was a different man. He is dead now and it will make no difference if I speak of him. Not that he ever did anything that was discreditable, nor that he ever said anything that he should not have said. But the Hudson’s Bay Company does not like traders that talk too much—nor does any good employer for that matter, I suppose—and it might not have approved Hawes, were he alive, in saying what he said.

He was a quiet little man who could smoke for hours at a time without speaking. He had been a sea-captain in the Company’s service and had learned the art of saying nothing in the course of sailing vessels in and out of the Hudson’s Bay. But it was more than mere quietness that possessed Hawes. There was a tinge of melancholy in it.

I began to think that the half-breeds had something to do with it. I dropped a piece of bacon on the “street” one day, just outside the general trading store. It was just a little piece but you would never have forgotten it had you been the one

that dropped it. It was pounced upon before it touched the ground, not by dogs but by three half-breed boys who had been watching me with terrible patience.

That night I talked to Hawes. His young wife was putting the children to bed, and singing a hymn about “Shall we gather at the river—” Old Hawes was in one of his moods and I knew that the hymn was worrying him.

“It must be a big responsibility to see that not only the men you employ get food enough, but that their wives and children are fed, too,” I said.

“Yes,” he answered.

“Your people seem pretty hungry,” I remarked, and told him about the bacon. “Well!”

“Well—is food so scarce?”

“Where do you think food comes from in this country?” he returned. “Don’t you know that pretty nearly every ounce of it has to be carried out here from England? When there were five half-breeds around the post that was not too bad. There was enough work for them to do to justify the company in feeding ’em. But when there’s twenty-five and work for only six, the company can’t afford to feed'the whole crew—though, Lord knows, it does what it can.”

“Can’t the men hunt?”

“Hunt!” he grumbled. “There’s nothing worth while hunting within a hundred miles of here, and besides—they have lost the knack. They couldn’t hunt well enough to keep alive.”

“So—”

“So they live around the post, doing chores ; feeding the dogs, taking a boat up the coast to trade with the Esquimaux, taking a dog-team up the river in winter for fire-wood. I don’t need so many. If I fed ’em all there’d be no sense in maintaining a post in this country at all. The company keeps me here to trade food for furs. If I feed all the food to the breeds where am I going to get furs?”

“Yes, but what’s to become of them?” “God knows. They love children, and it’s a good trait in ’em, I suppose. But this is no country for loving children. For if you do you can’t feed ’em. More brats, less food. I’ve told ’em often enough to quit this business of havin’ children. I’ve told the Bishop to tell^ ’em, and he promises he will, but never' does. It would be

inconsistent with his religion, I suppose. Well—it’s little use training for the life hereafter if they can’t get enough to train on. I’ve twenty-five. All I need is four. If they don’t soon quit bringing more children into the light of this damn country, or unless there’s a plague strike? us, or those people down in Canada builc one of their high-falutin’ railways inte this country so as to give my breeds work, there’s going to be another story like thé story at - Factory.”

And the next night, in little pieces, an¿

very slowly, I heard the story of-

Factory,,a post on Hudson’s Bay, which has since been dismantled. This is tlv story :

There was a Hudson’s Bay post onc; that began with a poor devil of a whit/ trader, who tried his best for eighteen, months to be faithful to the memory of a dead wife, when all he had was a photograph and some hair and a letter she had written him once. But indigestion from his own cooking “got him,” and to save himself he married a motherly little native who was clean and almost' Christian, except that she used to grunt as she grew old. He had a white helper, and he, after awhile, married another native

And that was the beginning.

In a few years, when other factors were appointed to that post, there was quite a little colony of half-breeds, and it was a tradition that went with the factorship that the breeds were to be looked after. In time the feeding of the half-breeds became a problem. The company raised the food allowance for the post and sent a letter by the boat, intimating that it was time the unwarranted staff of half-breeds justified its existence by bringing in more furs from the surrounding country. Presently, even the increased food allowance became inadequate. Factor wrote that they must send him more food. Company replied to cut down the staff. Factor knew that that meant the woods for the supernum aries, and that the woods meant death from starvation. He tried to stretch the rations, but failed. He put off the evil time as long as possible, and then, of a certain day, he announced his ultimatum: all but four of the men must be turned off; they must shift for themselves.

It was not easy. The fifty were eloquent. The factor was not a woman, but

lie locked himself in his house and would not listen. He knew it was useless. A few prayed. The others straightened up and prepared to depart.

In two days the post was peculiarly quiet. The fifty had melted away. In time, the factor forgot about them until the trading season came on, the time when the hunters come in with their furs. All the u«ual Indian hunters, except one or two, who had died of starvation because some little thing had caused the deer to avoid their usual grounds, came in. But there was no sign of the half-breeds that had been turned adrift, until one night, near the end of the trading time, the factor, walking in the edge of the bush, came across three huskies sniffing. He caused the thing at which they were sniffing to be given a decent burial, then he locked himself up in his house again and sulked. Two days afterward, three out of the fifty half-breeds crawled into camp. They had been successful; they brought furs with them. They were healthy and had established their families well—but of the others—. They did not know and the factor did not press the question.

“Yes,” said Hawes, slowly, without emo-

tion, “that happened in -’s Factory.

I hope it don’t happen here. The man over there,” pointing vaguely, “took to rum and religion both at once. They killed him.”

The Hudson’s Bay Company may deny this, and Hawes is dead, and there are no documents except a letter from the Bishop which I received years after leaving the post, in which he made an urgent plea that something be done to remove the superfluous half-breed population. He mentioned that the only apparent alternative was starvation. He was quite casual about it, as any one would be who had lived as long among the breeds, and had witnessed the problems of their existence. But you cannot say that the company is to blame. It has done what it could for the breeds. In other posts, except a few in sterile country, such as Churchill, they do very well. It cannot afford to support indefinite numbers of half-breeds forever, because, of course, it supports the usual number of widows and orphans, which justify the existence of all great companies.

But when all is said and done concerning the Hudson’s Bay Railway Company,

when everybody has pointed out the obvious auvantages which that railway gives the country and the bread-eaters of London, and the company which is to operate it, it is the half-breed who shall be most vitally affected by it. It may give him work and food.

I said before, that I thought it was the half-breed problem that caused Hawes his fits of melancholia. But I was mistaken. He was sorry for them, that was all. He gave them as much food as he could. But the thing that worried him was, I found, a shipwreck, one of those wrecks that never gets into print, unless by accident, but which is written gravely against the profit and loss account of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Hawes had lost his ship in the Bay. He had made some slight error in his calculations and the rocks and tides of the Bay, resenting her intrusion into parts of the Bay where she was not supposed to go, wrecked the vessel. Hawes was saved. That was what worried him.

“You were lucky to escape,” I said.

“Lucky!” he turned and studied my face intently for several moments. His pipe he held suspended near his lips. “Lucky!” he echoed, gruffly. “Hmph! Next time I’m aboard a ship and she gets hurt—I stay aboard. That’s where a captain should stay. That’s where I should have stayed.”

He was quite calm about it. He had merely made up his mind that he should have gone down with the boat, instead of having been rescued and given this post by the company.

A few years ago I read in a Montreal paper that a passenger steamer was wrecked on Lake Winnipeg. All but two women and the captain were saved. They refused to leave the vessel. When I was in Winnipeg again I looked up the reports of the wreck there and found what I had suspected. The captain was Hawes. He had left the company’s service and had satisfied his grudge against himself.

* * *

This that I have written is a little of the story of Churchill. The Bishop, who is now at Kenora, could tell much more much better. But even he could not tell it all. Churchill has been a marked place

on the map for almost three hundred years. In 1619, Jens Munck, a noblehearted Dane, who wanted to find the road to China, wintered there. One of his vessels was lost. All of his men, save two, died of scurvy. He and the two returned ed to Denmark in the sloop which had accompanied the larger vessel.

An hundred years after Jens Munck, the Hudson’s Bay Company founded a trading station there, and a few years later, in carrying out a clause in its agreement with the British Government, it fortified the country by the construction of what is now the most remarkable military ruin on the continent of North America. Its walls were forty feet thick, with ordnance to match. Nevertheless, when, a few years later, a gentleman-trader named Samuel Hearne was in charge of the factory and the fort, and when a dapper French admiral sailed up and demanded admittance, the courteous Hearne threw open his gates, handed over the keys, and surrendered with as much grace as though the French admiral had been offering to cheat himself in a bargain in furs. Hearne was made prisoner, returned to England at the conclusion of the war, and sent out by the company again to take charge of the post, without even a reprimand, so far as can be learned, which throws some light on the Hudson’s Bay Company’s ideals in those days.

Since then Churchill has been a mere trading station. The French destroyed portions of the great fort and left it as it now lies, crumbling. To-day, nobody pays any attention to it. The post exists to trade with the Indians and the Esquimaux, as said before. The Indians are paid one price for their furs and receive in return so much supplies. The Esquimaux are paid half the price for the same thing, and when they buy their supplies receive half as much as the Indian receives. That is the usage of that country. The company started it, and therefore, it is law. The Esquimaux acknowledge it and the Indians approve. What does it matter if an Esquimaux receives only one-quarter as much supplies for a fur as an Indian receives for the same thing?

This is not to blame anybody. The company would not care, and, anyway, it

is a matter for philanthropists and Governments—what becomes of the people in that country. But it is always interesting —no, it is terrible, to recall the story of Churchill. It is the lonesome post. Heaven, in the eyes of a Churchill halfbreed, will be a hole scooped in the lee side of a loaf of bread—an inexhaustible loaf.

Churchill may become a great port if the Hudson’s Bay Railway should happen to go there, but it will be a bad place in summer on account of the flies and the mosquitoes, and there will always remain,

carved in the rock which lies behind the post, the picture of the man who was hanged for stealing a salted goose from the company. That carving was probably made by one of the masons employed in the building of the great fort in 1742. In those days there was a little more food in Churchill than to-day, because all the wild geese had not been killed off by the “game hogs” of more southern latitudes. But even then, they hanged a man for stealing one, so precious was food; and when I was there, they had given up the goose hunt. Because there were no more geese.