This Canada

History defrosting

Peter Carlyle-Gordge September 22 1980
This Canada

History defrosting

Peter Carlyle-Gordge September 22 1980

History defrosting

This Canada

Peter Carlyle-Gordge

On the artifact-laden beach below the crumbling cliffs of York Factory, 250 km southeast of Churchill, Man., Parks Canada archeologist John Combes stares wistfully at the eddying Hayes River and beyond, to the mouth of Hudson Bay. “York has to be one of the five most important archeological sites in this country, yet few Canadians seem to care,” he says with a frustrated sigh. Melting along the exposed edge of permafrost is endangering the entire site, sending layer upon layer of Canadian history tumbling onto the beach and into the river. “All we can do is salvage work,” he says. “It would take 50 people to do a good job and one day it will be too late.” As Combes speaks, another clump of cliff crashes to the beach below. When high tide comes the long-buried treasures it may hold will be washed away forever.

Summer lasts just two months in icebound York Factory, but that is long enough to melt a little more of the cliffs, turning them to slush. In a century or less, nothing will remain of what once was a bustling community, commanding a trading empire of 1.5 million square miles. Founded in 1682, York Factory was the main northern depot for the Hudson’s Bay Company, manufacturing and importing trade goods to pay the Cree and Assiniboine Indians for their furs. It was also the scene of the French-English tug-of-war for mastery of the fur trade which ended in 1713 when the Treaty of Utrecht ceded York to the British. For 275 years it traded with the natives, its massive depot echoing with the shouts of com-

merce, its quays bustling with men, as small schooners ferried in their cargoes of wine, tobacco, food and goods from British ships anchored upstream at Five Fathom Hole.

At its zenith (around 1860), York boasted more than 30 buildings and a population of 150. Where grasses are now teased by a breeze from Ten Shilling Creek, there once stood a blacksmith’s, a cooper’s, a church, a school — a self-contained community. Today there remains only the lichen-encrusted churchyard and a massive wooden depot, constructed when Queen Victoria was a girl. The depot has a floor separated from the walls to accommodate the shifting permafrost. The satiny spruce walls are etched with centuryold graffiti —“It’s the 5th of May and it’s still snowing.” “There’s no ship yet.”

The churchyard, hidden in a tangle of twisted willows, contains well over 100 graves. Most have crude wooden crosses, green with age, with the names of their owners long since gone. Behind an iron railing lies Chief Factor William Sinclair, who could afford stone and marble, and did. The site is still solid here, the frost line only less than a metre below the surface. “What it means,” says John Combes with some awe, “is that probably all the bodies in this churchyard are perfectly preserved. The medical possibilities are astonishing.”

The importance of this section of the site has not gone unnoticed. Dr. William Ewart of Winnipeg has been fascinated for 30 years and has studied Hudson’s

Bay Company medical records stretching back 200 years. Though he refuses to discuss his work until it’s completed and published, the prospects are both bizarre and intriguing. If the frozen corpses were disinterred, might the microbes that killed them—some 150 years ago—still be virulent? And, if some died of diseases now gone, could extinct viruses be isolated, combined with others and used to catalyze some new wonder cure of benefit to mankind?

In its three centuries here, the Hudson’s Bay Company recorded everything: weather, tides, invoices, bills, births, deaths and social notes. Over half a million pages on York Factory alone lie in the Winnipeg library stacks housing the Hudson’s Bay Archives. Bruce Donaldson, a historian on contract to Parks Canada, has the job of sifting records and advising the handful of diggers how the site was used, what stood where, and when. In the churchyard, Donaldson pauses, lost for a moment in reverie: “History comes alive here. There lies the body of a man whose letters I was reading last night. He died 120 years ago, yet I feel I know him. You read what these people wrote and you know what the future held, how they would end. Sometimes you wish you could intercede and warn them not to do this or that because you knew the outcome. It’s a queer feeling.”

Much of Donaldson’s reading is dry stuff, but there is a splash of color here and there. Fights and scandals are hinted at; a suicide simply leaves a trail of clothes leading to an ice hole on the river; and a man with a coat full of fireworks is accidentally blown up. There were famous visitors: in 1811 the Selkirk settlers first set foot here on their way inland; a Franklin expedition passed in its tragic quest for a Northwest passage; and a member of the Palliser expedition also made a stop. At Christmas time, a lively dance was held in Bachelors’ Hall beside the depot, with Indians of the home guard invited. Before the evening ended each female had been kissed by well-fortified company employees and treated to gaudy “I love you” candies mixed, as one John George McTavish noted, “with a few muscated raisins.”

The cliffs drip crazily like a Dali painting and the scratch of trowels goes on, under the keen eye of Gary Adams, an archeologist with a flaming beard and a frustration to match. At the present rate no more than two per cent of this site will be unearthed by 1985. One single square metre has yielded 1,200 artifacts. Adams is busy now with the dogmeat house and would like to construct a complete socioeconomic map of the site. But the priorities, it seems, are elsewhere. Hundreds of thousands of

dollars are being spent on non-endangered sites, millions more on National Park development. York Factory has a budget of $300,000 to last five years. It is not enough.

Already, in two years of serious digging, a handful of students have unearthed fully preserved medicines, clothing and trade goods—more than 30,000 artifacts in all. If the project had the funding it needs and the manpower, no one doubts that more than 100,000 could be recovered every year. Last year Professor Arthur Ray of York University applied to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for a $5-million grant to cover a five-year interdisciplinary excavation and research project involving up to 70 people. It would include ecological, agricultural, labor, manufacturing, medical and nutritional studies, but the funding was not forthcoming. Ray will apply again next July. “It’s frustrating because York Factory has to be the single most important site of the entire fur trade period,” he says. “It has a wealth of perfectly preserved information and we have a detailed record of three centuries of European civilization in Canada’s North. Larger sums are being spent on other sites, yet they’re in no danger and their yield of artifacts is often small.”

It seems, for now, that no one cares. Such neglect is nothing new. As recently as 1936, 700 natives gathered at York to trade their furs, but by 1956 the number had dwindled to 70 and the massive depot, 30 metres by 32 metres and built round a quadrangle, closed its doors forever the following year. From 1957 to 1968 the site was totally neglected. Buildings collapsed, were torn down or burned. Visitors in canoes stopped and marvelled at such indiffer-

ence and paddled on with souvenirs— even the depot’s elaborate door handles were taken by American visitors. Ironically, it was the Americans—members of the Minnesota Historical Society— who finally wrote to the federal government and shamed it into declaring York Factory a protected and national historic site in 1968.

Parks Canada appointed Doug MacLachlan as site caretaker. The appointment was appropriate, since MacLachlan worked at York as a 15-year-old apprentice fur buyer in 1938 and even shares the same birthday—May 2—as the Hudson’s Bay Company. Although not a trained archeologist, MacLachlan did what he thought best, gathering artifacts and storing them in the depot. Candies became his own trade goods, as he paid native children for their finds

on the beach —muskets, cannon balls and all the bric-a-bac of two centuries. Last year, in an economy move, he was fired, or “made redundant” in bureaucratese.

MacLachlan hangs on still at York, living in what used to be a boathouse. He is fighting his dismissal with lawyers and letters. In winter he traps. In summer he welcomes paddlers and mows the grass on the cliffs. In his decade of caretaking and salvaging he has met thousands of visitors and kept the Hudson’s Bay Company traditions alive, writing a daily journal of tides, weather and general happenings. “I’ve even entertained a lieutenant-governor,” he says with pride.

In its summery garb, York Factory’s faded beauty whispers of the past. About it, drowsy dragonflies light on golden buttercups and dandelions from England. The inhabitants used the latter in salads, turning the flowers into wine. Here too grow English gooseberries run wild, wine-tipped anemones, bluebells, crimson fireweed and Queen Anne’s lace. To walk around York Factory is to walk back in time. Above the depot, in the hexagonal lookout tower, the ages mingle. Visiting scribes, including three Manitoba premiers, have etched their names on the dark woodwork. Here sentinels stood and watched the Hayes, scanning the mouthof the bay for ships, the lifelines to the Old World. In the rafters, the wind howled as it does today, and to the West, across the marsh and scrub, ancient eyes beheld the Nelson River, two hours’ travel away. Just 198 years ago, La Pérouse crept that way and took York Factory fort for the French, in the seesaw battles of yore.... Does it matter?