How Jimmy Watt saved his Crees

How Jimmy Watt saved his Crees

Without beaver to hunt these starving Indians faced extinction. Yet this dour Scot trader preached conservation, kept them alive on his meagre salary and died as his fight was won

FRED BODSWORTH October 27 1956
How Jimmy Watt saved his Crees

How Jimmy Watt saved his Crees

Without beaver to hunt these starving Indians faced extinction. Yet this dour Scot trader preached conservation, kept them alive on his meagre salary and died as his fight was won

FRED BODSWORTH October 27 1956

How Jimmy Watt saved his Crees

Without beaver to hunt these starving Indians faced extinction. Yet this dour Scot trader preached conservation, kept them alive on his meagre salary and died as his fight was won


At the Hudson’s Bay Company post of Rupert House on the east coast of James Bay the Crees straggle in periodically during the winter with beaver pelts from their inland traplines. They come across the ice of the broad Rupert River, their dogs yapping and the snow tossing up in white puffs from beneath the pelt-laden sleds. They draw up in front of the new white frame home of Magella Bujold. Quebec game inspector. and carry their bundles of fur into Bujold’s office where each skin has to be tagged before it can be sold. Then, frequently, a strange rite takes place.

The Indian trapper stoops over his stack of beaver pelts, selects the largest and most valuable, and lays it aside, murmuring to Bujold, “That one. Mrs. Watt.”

Thus the Crees of Rupert House remember and still pay grateful homage to the widow of a man who, a quarter century ago. led them out of a purgatory of famine and disease, and brought their race back from the brink of extinction. It is one of the Canadian north's most moving stories, this drama of Jimmy Watt, the dour and determined Scot who brought back the vanishing beaver and became the savior of the James Bay Crees.

In 1930 Watt established on Janies Bay the first modern Canadian beaver preserve at a time when governments, the fur trade and the Indians themselves were skeptical and indifferent toward wildlife conservation. He lived to see his conservation ideas practiced throughout the continent.

Jimmy Watt died in 1944, but his widow, Maud Watt, a vivacious sixty with greying hair, still lives among the Crees at Rupert House because she's happiest there. Twelve years after her husband’s death, the Crees still support her with gifts of beaver skins. Last year she received about .1 hundred, averaging twenty dollars in value, but :he two thousand dollars from their sale was not all her own. Mrs. Watt has living quarters at the rear of a recreation hall erected by the Indians n her husband’s memory, and she pays for the hall's heating and maintenance, around five hundred dollars a year, from the beaver pelts the Crees lay aside for her.

The gift pelts at first given spontaneously and haphazardly, are now managed under a semiofficial government plan. Under the trapping system that Watt introduced, each trapper is given a beaver quota he may trap each winter, based on the beaver population in his trapping territory. A few years after Watt's death the Crees asked if each family could trap one or two beaver above quota for Mrs. Watt, and the practice was approved. But there is nothing in the plan that requires them to hand over to Mrs. Watt their largest pelts, or to fill her quota first when poor trapping conditions have prevented them from filling their own. These things they still do out of respect for Jimmy Watt, their Amish Oogemow, the "Beaver Chief.” who saved the beaver and thereby saved the Crees.

The Watt Memorial Hall, w hite clapboard with red trim, always freshly painted, stands out incongruously among the sagging tents and shanties of the Rupert House summer Indian encampment. But the firmest memorial of the w'ork of Jimmy Watt is the prosperity of the Indians themselves.

The Crees of James Bay are a hunting and trapping people w'ho still lead lives that follow a nomadic pattern little changed from that of their aboriginal ancestors. Most live in tents the year round, not because they can't afford better, but because that is what they prefer.

“It is one of the north’s most moving stories, this drama of a determined Scot. . . and the Crees of Rupert House pay grateful homage”

A good Cree trapper now' earns about two thousand dollars a year from winter trapping, summer fishing and guiding. In his tattered and smoke-grimed rent there is often a white-enamel woodburning kitchen range, a chesterfield, sewing machine and battery radio. He can afford an outboard motor for his canoe and guitars and accordions for his children. He smokes tailor-made cigarettes bought at the Hudson’s Bay post and his aldest daughters proudly flaunt home permanents. When it is time to head lor the trapping grounds, many Crees charter a plane, jam kids, dogs and supplies aboard, and fly in.

continued on page 49

How Jimmy Watt saved his Crees Continued from page 31

He’d seen privation — but nothing like this

The James Bay Crees didn’t always have it so good. In the late 1920s when Vlaud and Jimmy Watt began the crusade hat laid the foundation for their modern prosperity, the Crees were destitute, starving and ravaged by disease, a people literally facing extinction.

Watt, a Scot like so many other stalwarts of the Hudson's Bay Company, was born in 1884 near Aberdeen. Six feet tall but with a slim body of under a hundred and seventy pounds, he came to Canada in 1906 and joined the Hudson’s Bay Company. He was twenty-two. His first job was managing the post at Mingan on the Gulf of St. Lawrence where he met Maud Maloney, a tall and spindly FrenchCanadian youngster not yet in her teens. He was shifted around among several trading posts in Labrador, then returned to Mingan in 1913 where he found that Maud had grown into a dark and beautiful young woman. They were married in 1915, spent their honeymoon going north on the HBC supply ship Nascopie and took charge of the Fort Chimo post on Ungava Bay, then the ultima Thule of the Arctic fur trade.

Jimmy Watt was a studious and sensitive man with two deeply ingrained loves — books and boats; his wife was a gay sophisticate. They had a tiff once when Jimmy, brought up to regard cards as the devil’s picture books, found his bride soundly drubbing fellow passengers on a boat trip in a poker game. In 1918 the Watts were entitled to a furlough in the south, but wartime Arctic shipping was uncertain and the Nascopie might not reach Fort Chimo that summer. The nearest settlements were on the Gulf ol St. Lawrence, eight hundred mountainous wilderness miles away, but the Watts decided to walk out. They started on April 9, 1918, pulling a sled loaded with supplies. There were no trails but they followed the frozen rivers and fifty-four days later reached the Gulf. This trip in winter and on foot down practically the full length of the province of Quebec still ranks as one of the north’s great sagas of pluck and endurance.

So the Watts, when they came to Rupert House in 1920, were no strangers to the rigors of life in the sub-Arctic. But the misery and privation they were to see among the James Bay Crees surpassed anything the Watts, or indeed the entire north, had ever experienced.

When the Watts arrived the beaver decline had begun. Fur prices were high, and white trappers were encroaching on Cree trapping areas. The Indian no longer had any incentive to protect beaver in order to ensure future production on his trapline, because if he didn't trap them someone else would. The beaver population fell rapidly and in less than ten years pelt production at Rupert House dropped from a thousand to around fifty beaver skins a year. The same thing was happening at all the other James Bay trading posts.

Starvation, sickness and death settled like the shadow of Armageddon over the squalid little James Bay encampments, for the Crees were dependent on beaver. Not only was the beaver their main fur; it was their main food too. And when the beaver went, many other forest animals went with it, for beaver ponds supported fish, muskrat and moose, and fish and muskrat in turn supported mink and otter.

The situation became critical about 1925 and the Rupert House band was hardest hit. Around this time a couple of families went inland to traplines, located no beaver or food of any kind, and searchers found only emaciated bodies in the spring. After this many of the Indians were afraid to go inland and huddled in haggard groups around the trading posts. Families survived for weeks at a time on tea thickened with flour. The men smoked the dried bark of red willow as a substitute for tobacco.

The Rupert House post was losing twenty thousand dollars a year but Jimmy Watt continued handing out advances of food and tearing up the bills when he knew a family’s debt was more than it could ever repay. Chief Malcolm Diamin told me of one such advance that snatched his own and the family of Sam Shakibo from the brink of starvation.

They had winter camps about ten miles apart on the Nottaway River, a hundred and twenty miles from Rupert House. Diamin had seen nothing of the Shakibos all winter and went to investigate. As he approached their crude shelter of boughs and canvas there was only silence. No trail led from it. He dug down with a snowshoe through drifted snow that covered the door, and crawled inside. In the darkness he heard breathing and someone murmured a greeting. Seven Shakibos had lived on a fish or two a day all winter until they became too weak to keep a hole opened through the river ice. For more than a week they had eaten nothing. Weak and hungry himself, Diamin set out alone that night for Rupert House. The food Watt gave him saved all their lives.

“It was a heart-breaking time,” Mrs. Watt recalled recently. “They were always ragged, always hungry, barely staying alive. They are hunters, they hate vegetables, and we couldn’t get them to plant gardens. When an Indian would trap a fox near the post he would bring the pelt in immediately to trade for food. Then, starving himself, he would take his flour and tea back to his tent and call in all his neighbors to share it.”

Weakened by malnutrition, the Crees were an easy prey to the white man’s diseases, especially tuberculosis. Babies suffered most, for starving mothers couldn't nurse them and the only infant food was the water in which fish was boiled. In those grim and disastrous late 1920s virtually no babies were surviving and today the age group twenty-five to thirty has hardly a representative among the James Bay Crees.

Jimmy Watt was certain that if the remaining beaver were not protected and given a chance to make a comeback it would mean the end of the Crees and of the fur trade on James Bay. But he found it impossible to interest the Indians in beaver conservation. They had become fatalists and were certain that the beaver must vanish. Every one they found they trapped, fearing if they didn't it too would be gone by next year.

In the winter of 1928-29 only four beaver pelts were brought to Rupert House from the huge ten-thousandsquare-mile area the post controlled. Watt was sure now that this was the last. He was angry and despondent at not having made a greater effort to save the beaver when there was still time.

Then one day in March 1929 Watt noticed that the usually silent and languid Indian settlement adjoining the post was astir. He learned that two Crees, Robert Stephens and Andrew Whiskeychan, had found an occupied beaver lodge on the Pontax River thirty miles from the post and had come in for beaver traps.

Watt saw it as a reprieve in the Crees' sentence of death. He sent word to Stephens and Wiskcychan, asking them and all the men to come to the store for a meeting. Indians love a powwow but this time the ragged gaunt Crees filed silently and moodily into the store. Watt passed out free tobacco and began to talk. This time he tried a new approach. With pencil and paper he began figuring out how rapidly this Pontax River pair of beaver could reproduce if left unmolested.

"They have two kittens a year?” he asked. "The young begin producing kittens when they're two years old?” The Indians nodded silently.

Watt wrote figures hurriedly. “If you leave that pair alive there could be two hundred and eighty-eight beaver on the Pontax in ten years.”

A few of the Indians nodded understandingly, but most of them stared.

He tried again. This time he called Stephens and Whiskeychan to the counter and handed them a box of matches. He told them to put down two matches.

“There are your two old beaver,” he said. “They'll have two kits in June, so put down two half matches for the kits.”

The two trappers followed his instructions.

"Next year those kits will be yearlings and the old pair will have two kits again.” To represent the yearlings Watt gave them matches with the heads broken off.

“Two years from now the yearlings will be old beaver and having kits too. so then you'll have four old beaver, two yearlings and four kits.”

Stephens and Whiskeychan kept laying out matches on the counter as Watt told them to. By the tenth year they had matches spread across six feet of counter. Watt counted them up.

“One hundred and ten old beaver,” he said, “sixty-eight yearlings, one hundred and ten kits.”

This time the Indians moved in close, stared at the long rows of matches and talked excitedly. But Stephens and Whiskeychan were silent and Watt knew he had failed again. They had at least two. perhaps four or five beaver, worth thirty dollars or so each, and by Cree standards of that day they were wealthy. The food those pelts would buy would be shared willingly, but this idea of sharing their beaver by leaving them alive in the bush was too abstract to seem convincing.

Watt waited, but there was only embarrassing silence.

“All right,” he said to Stephens and Whiskeychan, “I'll buy your beaver now before you trap them. I’ll pay for two. Sixty dollars. Okay?”

They nodded quickly.

"Remember,” said Watt, “they’re my beaver now, and I don’t want their skins, 1 want them left there alive. In a couple of years there'll be more beaver lodges on the Pontax, and they'll be mine too because they’ll be the kits of the beaver I’ve paid for. Then when there are lots of beaver on the Pontax I'll give them back to you. but next time you must not trap them all as you almost have this time.”

Watt preached beaver conservation to the Indians at every opportunity. The demonstration with matches was repeated dozens of times. But by fall at least half of the Crees were still indifferent or opposed. A beaver skin would supply a family with food for a month, and for many a hungry Cree this was the only argument that mattered.

Later that fall Stephens and Whiskeychan reported that there was a new beaver lodge and dam on the Pontax River, built obviously by offspring of the pair Watt had paid for that spring. With this evidence ot increase, a few more of the Crees came over to Watt's side.

That winter a thin and wasted Cree came to Watt and reported he had an occupied beaver lodge up the Rupert River. Watt bought that too. paying the value of two pelts.

I he Indians began complaining that, it beaver did increase, white trappers would move in as before and clean them out. Watt knew the answer to this was a government preserve that would keep whites outside. But Watt couldn't leave the post in midwinter and go to Quebec to obtain legislation. Furthermore he spoke little French and began to fear the prospect of long drawn-out arguments with French-speaking officials of Quebec City. Mrs. Watt, a French Canadian, said it w'as her job to go.

No railway reached James Bay then, as now, and the transcontinental line was three hundred and fifty miles away. But Maud Watt was a seasoned bush traveler and in mid-January 1930 she scl off with two Indian guides and a small dog team to help haul supplies. A month after leaving Rupert House she was in Quebec City.

Maud Watt, so perfectly at home in the bush, now faced entirely new and unfamiliar problems. Her mission, so vital and pressing in the disheveled little James Bay Indian camps, seemed hard to portray realistically here in the well-fed com fort and bustle of city life where Rupert House was only a speck on the map. She passed before a succession of minor officials in the game and fisheries department. Everyone listened politely, quickly found some fault with the beaver preserve plan, and passed her on to someone else. Finally she came before I . A. Richard, deputy minister.

Her lips dry with nervousness, she told Richard that the Crees were starving because they had lost the beaver. She talked about Simon and Mary Kapaituk who had had thirteen babies and had lost every one to disease and malnutrition, of Charles and Dinah Blackned who had had twelve babies and lost ten. She told of the families that had gone inland to trap and then starved because they could find no beaver and were too weak to return. She described her husband’s educational campaign among the Crees, his success in inducing them to leave breeding stock that was now increasing. She didn’t reveal that so far he had accomplished this only by paying the Crees to leave the beaver alive. She said the Indians now needed assurance that they were protecting beaver for themselves and this could be done by designating the area a preserve in which trapping, when it could be resumed, would be controlled.

Richard was impressed. Maud Watt went back to Rupert House carrying a lease that set aside seventy-two hundred square miles as the Rupert House Beaver Preserve. The lease was in her name because she alone was present to sign it. It gave her authority to prohibit beaver trapping until the beaver population had increased and trapping could be safely resumed.

Now the Watts had to make the preserve a fact. Without the understanding and co-operation of the Crees the lease would be a meaningless scrap of paper. And the Crees still had no way of maintaining themselves. Periodically a new beaver lodge would turn up and Watt would have to pay for it. usually in the form of food, to keep the hungry Indians from trapping.

Hudson’s Bay inspectors, on their rounds that summer, learned of what the Watts had been doing, and the news went back quickly to the head office in Winnipeg. Watt hoped the company would support him. at least to the extent of turning a blind eye as the Rupert House accounts went further into the red. But at this stage company officials were skeptical.

So Jimmy Watt began drawing on his own salary to cover food payments he was making to the Crees to protect the beaver. He knew this couldn’t go on for long on his salary of fifteen hundred dollars a year.

“We always eat—they don't”

Today no one knows how deeply Watt became involved financially during that first year or two of the beaver preserve’s infancy. Maud Watt began to worry. "I told him he was going too far, tying up too much money, that he'd lose his job." she recalled.

Watt always replied. ‘‘We always have something to eat, don’t we?” Then he would nod toward the Indian tents and add, "There's many a day they don’t.”

That winter of 1930-31 was a hard one for the Crees, because there were few foxes and muskrat to trap and fishing was poor. Many of the older Indians at Rupert House today believe that Watt kept them alive that winter with food advances he was paying for himself. No one knows because Watt even stopped telling his wife what he was doing.

That winter Watt sent several Indians on beaver survey trips inland. They returned with enthusiastic reports. The preserve still had only a dozen or so beaver lodges, but in areas where there had been one lodge before there were now usually two. It was less than two years since Watt had paid for the Pontax beaver lodge and the results were still very small, but they were results that the Crees were beginning to see. Watt hung a large map in the store with a red sticker marking the location of each beaver lodge.

Company officials on inspection tours that summer found that the Indians of Rupert House had changed. Physically they were still the same gaunt ill-fed people, but they were looking optimistically to the future. And now they looked upon Jimmy Watt as a demigod and were willing to do anything he told them to.

The reports that went back to the Hudson’s Bay office in Winnipeg that summer were glowing and enthusiastic. But Watt couldn't maintain the preserve much longer by himself because the Indians were going to continue to need assistance for a few years before they became selfsupporting again.

The company agreed to take over the preserve, leaving Watt in charge. Watt recommended that no beaver trapping be permitted until the population reached four thousand; he estimated that this would take about ten years. After that, he urged, trapping should be controlled with quotas set each year that would leave • the breeding stock intact. In the meantime a beaver census would have to be taken each year and the Indians reimbursed to some extent for the beaver they were not being allowed to trap. To accomplish this he recommended that twenty family heads be appointed “beaver guardians” to conduct an annual count of beaver lodges, and that they be paid a hundred dollars a year each. This would make the Indians a part of the project, and the company payment of two thousand dollars a year added to income from the steadily improving muskrat, mink and otter trapping would support the Crees until beaver trapping resumed.

The Hudson’s Bay Company signed an agreement with the Quebec government embodying all of Watt’s recommendations. The first official beaver count in 1933 revealed 38 lodges, an estimated 162 beaver. By 1938 the count was 3,300 beaver. A year later it went over 4,000. and in 1940, right on the schedule that Jimmy Watt had predicted, the Rupert House preserve was re-opened to beaver trapping.

About that time the Indian Affairs Branch in Ottawa asked the Rupert House band of Crees to elect a chief to represent them in government matters. A meeting was called, the Crees talked it over and sent their decision to Ottawa: “The Crees of Rupert House don’t need a chief because we have Mr. Watt."

The Hudson's Bay. the Quebec and Ontario governments and the Indian Affairs Branch took up the idea that Watt pioneered. and James Bay was eventually surrounded by ten beaver preserves totaling a hundred thousand square miles. Several hundred beaver, live-trapped on Watt's Rupert preserve, were used to restock these later preserves. Since 1948 the Quebec government has extended this method of beaver management across three hundred and fifty thousand square miles of its north. Watt’s system of setting a trapping quota each year based on a beaver-lodge count is now practiced throughout the continent.

But most of this Watt didn’t live to see. In June 1944 he caught'pneumonia and had only partly recovered on July 3 when he went back to work. There had now been four years of beaver trapping and the beaver increase had made it possible to raise trapping quotas from four hundred and fifty in 1940 to more than two thousand the winter of 1943-44. Final figures on the fur sales had just arrived at Rupert House and Watt was anxious to complete each trapper’s account. He worked late in his office adjoining the store and went home very tired. That night the pneumonia struck again and early next day Jimmy Watt died.

But his last day’s work had been a thrilling revelation. For the first time since his arrival there in 1920 every Indian family at Rupert House had a credit balance with the Hudson's Bay Company. ★