Manitoba History: Fort Churchill, 1821-1900: An Outpost Community in the Fur Trade
The year 1870 is usually used as the great divide of Western Canadian history. On one side there are Indians, fur traders, and the occasional Red River Settler, and on the other farmers, immigrants, railways, and the forces of modernization. Historians may quibble about the chronology of the transformation and discuss who or what was responsible for the change, but few question E. E. Rich’s observation that by the mid-nineteenth century the fur trade and fur traders “had played their part.”  Despite an increasing interest in fur trade social history the belief that the end of the old North West in the 1860s was both rapid and inevitable remains largely unchallenged.  The future of Western Canada would belong to different enterprises and very different people.
But had fur traders played their part, and did the communities they established undergo a fundamental change in the period between 1850 and 1870? Did the social values and attitudes fostered by the fur trade disappear in the wake of 1870? The answer to these questions may well depend as much on historians’ regional perspectives and where they have looked for evidence of a distinctive “fur trade” way of life as on the actual historical record.
The association of the fur trade with early Western Canadian history is both close and long-standing,  but arguably the fur trade was always more a northern than a western phenomenon.  In the mid-nineteenth century the North-West may well have been becoming more west than north, but not equally so in all areas. Over half of the surface area of what we now call the prairie provinces is neither prairie nor parkland, but boreal forestand it was back into the northern forest that the fur trade retreated after the mid-nineteenth century.
Any “declension of fur trade society”  after 1865 was centred almost exclusively in a handful of southern, prairie or parkland areas like the Saskatchewan, Swan River and Red River districts of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Northern Department. In the northern districts only the work force stationed at York Factory dropped sharply, and more importantly northern posts increased their proportionate share of the company’s work force decisively after 1865.  Moreover if one compares the number of men hired on full-time contracts by the Hudson’s Bay Company with the number of posts the company maintained, it is clear that the vast majority of company employees served at tiny outposts like Churchill where the complement of men rarely exceeded ten at any one time. 
Service at small, isolated outposts was the norm in the fur trade, but fur trade historians have usually looked elsewhere for evidence of “fur trade society”however definedto the larger trade, transshipment, and administrative centres. This might seem a relatively minor historiographical debating point were it not for the fact that by ignoring or paying no more than passing attention to outpost communities historians provide only a partial picture of fur trade life.
If the focus of fur trade social history is turned away from York Factory, Fort Edmonton, Fort Vancouver, and above all Red River, to small northern outposts like Churchill the structure and patterns of the early history of the North-West take on a very different hue. For example the “declension of fur trade society” becomes much more difficult to discern and any notion of rapid or inevitable social change in the mid-nineteenth century harder to support. Similarly, the concept of “fur trade society” itself may well need more careful definition, if it is not to be taken as synonymous with Red River society or the society of company officers.
A pattern and rhythm of life had been set down by the early nineteenth century at Churchill that were not shaken by changes in the demand for beaver pelts, the arrival of missionaries, the presence of white women at the post, and even the sale of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s lands to the Canadian government. From the perspective of Churchill continuity, not change, and the persistence of what historians like Fernand Braudel describe as the “structures of everyday life”  were the dominant features of the nineteenth century life.
Churchill, or Fort Churchill as it was sometimes called, was one of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s oldest posts. The first attempt to establish a post at the mouth of the Churchill River on the north-western shore of Hudson Bay occurred in 1688, but the site was not permanently occupied until 1717. In 1731 the Hudson’s Bay Company began work on a large stone fortress, called Prince of Wales’s Fort, at Churchill, which was occupied until a French naval expedition under the Comte de la Perouse destroyed the fort in 1782. The company reoccupied the area in 1783, and built a new post about four kilometres up river. This new Fort Churchill remained the company’s main post in the area until the twentieth century.
George Simpson McTavish, who would later serve as the officer in charge of Churchill in the 1880s and early 1890s, has left a detailed description of the post in about 1879.
The actual buildings comprised a house for the officer in charge, a carpenter’s shed, a blacksmith’s shop, a packing room, a trading store, a provision shed, a powder magazine, two one-room cabins, and a larger house divided into three or four sections for married employees and their families. The buildings outside the stockade were limited to a small galvanized iron church owned by the Church Missionary Society, an oil or blubber house and a jetty.  With the exception of the church and a few differences in the number of cabins and workshops McTavish’s description would have fit Churchill as well in 1830 or 1850 as in 1879. 
The tiny scale of life at Churchill was quite typical of the nineteenth century fur trade, as was the size and layout of the post buildings. The dilapidation of the post was no evidence of any real decline in Churchill’s fortunes. Churchill had presented an unprepossessing face to the world ever since the destruction of Prince of Wales’s Fort in 1782, and it was really only at major posts like York Factory that much effort was made to keep up appearances.  Nor does the tiny population of the post undermine the value of studying Churchill. As Peter Laslett and Fernand Braudel have observed, the small community was one of the characteristic features of the pre-industrial world,  and by concentrating only on the largest and most economically advanced centres historians introduce a serious, but rarely acknowledged, bias into their studies of social history.
Perhaps the most obvious characteristic of Churchill’s population, aside from size, was its stability even during a period in which the fur trade is supposed to have been convulsed by internal and external change. The union of the Hudson’s Bay and North West companies in 1821 left the Hudson’s Bay Company with what George Simpson and other officials considered a bloated work force. Throughout the 1820s and early 1830s the company wrestled with the question of setting appropriate staffing levels for its posts, and the number of men stationed at Churchill did vary from a low of five in 1829-30 to a high of 13 in 1834-35 during this period. After 1835, however, the number of men stationed at Churchill varied only between seven and ten men, with an average annual complement of about nine men.  In the 1890s the permanent work force at Churchill was pared somewhat: in 1898 five men were stationed at Churchill, but at the same time the company was using more temporary labour drawn from the local population so there was probably little change even at the end of the period covered here in the core population of the community. 
The occupational profile of this work force underlines the basic stability of Churchill’s social and economic structures. The number of officers posted to Churchill in any given year varied between one and two individuals. The men listed in post records as tradesmen varied only between one and three, and just four different trades were represented: blacksmith, cooper, boat builder, and carpenter. A handful of men were trained in these trades as apprentices at Churchill, and in most years there were one or two men stationed at Churchill whose occupation might be described as skilled labourer for want of a better term. These men were frequently employees with long service who were paid slightly higher wages than ordinary labourers and were listed as interpreters, fishermen, harpooners, sailors or bow or steersmen. The rest of the work forcealmost exactly half the number of permanent employees in any given yearwere simply described as labourers.
Before proceeding to the wider population of Churchill which included the wives, children and other family members of the men who served at Churchill, two other features of the permanent work force at Churchill need to be noted. The first is the growing ethnic homogeneity of the community. Considerable attention has been paid by fur trade historians to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s policy of dispersed recruitment.  Carol Judd has described the composition of company service in aggregate as “mixt bands of many nations,” but dispersed recruitment is not the same thing as dispersed deployment.
Company personnel records usually listed a home parish for employees, and in the period between about 1824-25 and 1844-45, expatriate Britons, most of them Scots from the Orkneys and to a lesser extent the Hebrides and Shetland, provided the largest single pool of employees at Churchill. As early as the 1820s, however, a significant number of employees at Churchill were listed as “native” to Hudson’s Bay or Rupert’s Land.  Moreover at least one of these men, James Dunning, was the son of a slooper and later shallop master, also named James Dunning, who had served at Churchill in the 1790s.  From the 1840s on men listed as “native” in personnel records increased until by the 1870s and 80s there were scarcely any other men at Churchill.  Indeed Samuel Grey Senior was listed by the mid 1880s as “native” despite the fact that he was actually from Tingwall in the Shetland Islands.  He had, however, worked for so long at Churchill that any other possible origin had been forgotten. George Simpson McTavish somewhat crudely revealed the degree to which Samuel Grey and a fellow Shetlander, George McPherson, had become indistinguishable from the rest of Churchill’s non-officer population by commenting that McPherson was “white when he washed, which was only when he could not avoid it.” 
The second feature of the work force at Churchill in the nineteenth century was its persistence. Overall there was very little turnover in the personnel of the post at all ranks. For example, Robert Harding and John Spencer together served as the officers in charge of Churchill for thirty-nine of seventy-nine years between 1821 and 1900. If one were to include other officers like George Simpson McTavish and Charles Griffin who each served at Churchill for about a decade the slow rate of change among the post elite is even more striking.
It is, however, when one turns to the company servants at Churchill that the basic demographic structure of the post stands most clearly revealed. Company employees followed two basic career paths. In the period before about 1840 there was usually a significant cadre of men who might be termed “sojourners” stationed at Churchill. These men, who by and large had fewer than five years’ experience in the fur trade, used company service as a means of acquiring capital before returning home to Orkney or Shetland or Lewis.  In 1824-25, for example, five of ten men at Churchill had served five years or less, and by 1829-30 three of these men had left Churchill.  Similarly ten of thirteen men at Churchill in 1834-35 had served five years or less, and nine of them had left Churchill by 1839-40.  By comparison in 1854-55 only two of eight men at Churchill had fewer than five years’ experience, and three of the remaining men, James Dunning, William Oman, and Samuel Grey, had forty-three, thirty-four, and thirty-three years of service respectively. Moreover in all three of these cases almost all of these years in company service had been spent at Churchill.  A similar pattern prevailed throughout the rest of the century. Year after year the same names recur as residents of Churchill. Most new employees chose to stay on after five years’ service, especially since many of them were themselves the children of Churchill residents. Nor was this an entirely new phenomenon. As early as the 1820s two of the three paterfamilias of Churchill were already resident there: James Dunning and William Oman. 
Thus the kind of sojourner who had once formed a significant proportion of Churchill’s work force had begun to disappear by the 1840s and was a rarity by the mid-1850s. Instead sojourners were replaced by men who chose to spend most, if not all, of their working lives at Churchill. For example, in 1854-55 seven men were stationed at Churchill. The officer in charge, James Hackland, was a slight anomaly. Although he had twelve years’ experience in the fur trade, most of his career had been spent at York Factory where he had served as the schooner-master. Among the servants Dunning, Oman and Grey were joined by William Gibeault, a carpenter with thirteen years’ experience and much of that at Churchill.  Of the remaining two men only one had no obvious ties to Churchill. Donald Ross, a labourer from Lewis, does not seem to have set down any roots at Churchill, but John Reid, the other man, “married” James Dunning’s daughter Nancy and had a daughter, also called Nancy, in 1857. 
This change in career patterns was clearly connected to the parallel change in the ethnic mix of post personnel, and represents the one really fundamental social change that occurred at Churchill in the nineteenth century. It is worth pointing out that this change clearly strengthened rather than weakened a sense of community at Churchill.
The interconnections of Churchill’s families after about 1840 became truly labyrinthine as Dunning, Oman and Grey’s children became old enough to marry (see Figure 1). James Dunning, for example, had four children whose names appear in Churchill records. One daughter named Jane married a Chipewyan hunter in 1840, only to return to her family in 1842 claiming ill-treatment. In 1847 she married Finlay Munro, a cooper at Churchill, and at about the same time gave birth to a boy.  One son, John Dunning, worked as a “blind labourer” at York and Churchill in the 1880s, while a second son, Andrew, trained as a tinsmith at York.  A second daughter, Nancy, as mentioned above, had a child by John Reid, and after Reid left Churchill she married Adam Collin, a labourer at Churchill. They in turn had at least three children: Albert who died accidentally in 1881; Simpson Collin who worked at Churchill from the late 1870s up to 1900 and who in turn married Caroline, a daughter of William Gibeault; and Margaret who died in childbirth after becoming pregnant by Thomas Crowley, another Churchill employee.  The family connections of William Oman and Samuel Grey are no less complicated or interconnected. For example, William Oman’s son George married Nancy Grey and had twelve children.  After Nancy Grey’s death, George married Emily Dick, the widow of a local Cree hunter and herself the daughter of William Gibeault. 
Thus, beginning in the 1840’s the tradesmen and labourers at Churchill were increasingly members of a large extended family, a process which reached its logical conclusion in the period after 1870 when, aside from the officer in charge at Churchill, virtually everyone at the post was a Collin, a Gibeault, a Grey, a McPherson, or an Oman.  In fact, Simpson Collin was a fourth generation Churchill employee.  Aside from forming a small, insular, and demographically self-sufficient community, the genealogical history of Churchill illustrates three other points.
The first is the continued strength of the old fur trade tradition of “country marriages.”  Far from being cowed by missionary or company insistence that marriage be sanctioned by the church or district officers, Churchill residents continued to arrange their domestic lives as they saw fit. Visiting missionaries might celebrate marriages at Churchill, but long after the union had been sanctioned by community custom and usage. When the Reverend William Mason visited Churchill in 1856, he married James Dunning, William Oman, and William Gibeault, and baptized their wives and over twenty of their children at the same time.  Even the establishment of a full-time mission at Churchill in 1886 did not change this custom.  Attempts by company officers to control who married or had children by whom were, if anything, even more ineffectual. In 1865, for example, Maria Oman had a daughter by George McPherson, at which point McPherson requested permission to marry. Permission was apparently refused, and a year later McPherson, who presumably had not ceased to live with Maria Oman and his daughter, requested permission to marry again. This time, however, he informed Charles Griffin that should his request be refused again he would simply retire. Permission was then granted.  This connection between marriage and continued residence at Churchill was even more starkly underlined in 1870. Norman Marten sought permission to marry the widow of John Groat. Griffin remarked that there really was little choice in the matter since “to all intents and purposes [they were] man & wife now, make them so legally, & we secure the Services of an Invaluable man in Norman, for a long time to come for Churchill.” 
Indeed the near total ineffectualness of officers’ attempts to interfere in the lives of their employees or their employees’ children is illustrated by a journal entry in 1859.
At Churchill “taking their own way” meant paying scant attention to the moral niceties of either religion or the company. “Marriage” usually, but not always, followed pregnancy, and was followed in turn sometime later by permission to wed from the company and a wedding service provided by the missionary. 
A second intriguing feature of Churchill’s domestic life was the way in which family members looked after each other and the community in general looked after the welfare of its members. For a time in the late 1860s George Oman supported his unmarried sisters Jane and Annie, Annie’s two children, and his younger brother James, until James was old enough to work at Churchill as well.  Similarly widows and their children and even women who had been left by “husbands” who returned to Britain or moved away from Churchill, almost always found someone to remarry within the post community. Jane and Nancy Dunning both married twice as did Mary Grey, the widow of John Groat, and John Oman. Similarly, orphaned children appear to have been simply added to the already bulging households of the post.
The final observation about marriage patterns at Churchill is that there was no obvious prejudice against marriage with the local native population. Both Jane Dunning and Emily Gibeault married Chipewyan or Creehunters, and in both cases these women later remarried company employees. There is little evidence in Churchill records of any hardening of racial attitudes over the course of the nineteenth century, at least among the tradesmen and labourers or their families. 
Churchill was somewhat unusual in that there was no native settlement on the fringe of the post as was the case at many other posts. Arguably, however, this native settlement had simply been moved inside the palisades. This was certainly the opinion of some nineteenth century observers, like Charles Tuttle, who estimated that about forty “half breeds” lived at Churchill in 1884.  George Simpson McTavish offered the same estimate of the total post population as of 1879.  Actually both these population estimates may be slightly low. In 1856, for example, the post journal suggests that seventy food rations were served out at Churchill on a weekly basissuggesting an equivalent population.  Similarly in 1889, the post population required seventy-seven rations a week.  Even in 1898, when the number of men stationed at Churchill had dropped to five, there were still twenty-five children, and a number of wives, still living at the post.  Thus overall the population of Churchill probably varied only from about thirty-five to forty persons at the low end to about seventy at the maximum.
While Charles Tuttle saw only “Chipewyanhalfbreeds” living in “dense ignorance of all things” at Churchill,  McTavish on the other hand described a lively and vibrant community, but one which was rooted in its own day to day concerns. McTavish certainly recognized the interesting genealogy of his fellow Churchill residents whose mixed genetic roots included “Cree, French, Orkney, Scotch ... and English.”  In fact one could also add Chipewyan, and Inuit to the list as well. The common language of the post was “an elementary language called English, with Orkney and Scotch words inter-larded, but the vocabulary was limited to local nomenclature of their visible and ordinary surroundings.”  Post residents were nonetheless linguists of a sort, and most could also “converse with Crees, Chippewvans, and Esquimaux.” The subjects which interested them and which they preferred to talk about were summarized by McTavish as “whales, foxes, Esquimaux, firewood, hunting, fishing, or anything pertaining to their daily life,” and they enjoyed gossiping and squabbling among themselves. 
McTavish’s description of Churchill’s residents underlines one of the most important features of outpost life at Churchill. The men and their families were almost entirely socially self-sufficient. They married each other, talked to each other, lived with each other in the rabbit warren of the men’s house or away from the post at hunting, fishing, and wood cutting camps, and they had very little to do with the officers who commanded them.
The Hudson’s Bay Company and its senior officers had always tried to encourage a sense of social distance between officers and men which at larger posts like York became a rather complex system of differential privilege and subtly graduated hierarchy.  At an outpost like Churchill these urges had some unexpected effects. Officers were housed separately and much more graciously, fed separately and on occasion more bountifully, and paid appreciably more than ordinary labourers or tradesmen.  However, as there was rarely more than one officer at Churchill at a time, this meant they ate and lived alone or with their families, and normally had no more than passing contact with other post residents. For lengthy periods of time officers lived at the main post alone, or virtually alone, when the men and their families were away working at the camps. During one such period Charles Griffin was moved to write that he had “never felt so miserable in all his life before” due to his isolation and loneliness.  Others, like John Spencer, chose to immerse themselves in their own interests, and looked to their own families for companionship and human contact. 
Indeed throughout much of the nineteenth century Churchill residents did not even bother to come in to the main post to celebrate Christmas or New Year’s, preferring to stay out in the camps among family and friends, and leaving the officer and his family to celebrate as best they could. On occasion a dance or party was held and old Samuel Grey might dress up as Santa,  but it was as least as common for the officer and his family to spend Christmas alone. Those who were used to Christmas at larger posts where conviviality was the order of the day often sounded a mournful note in their Christmas and New Year’s journal entries. In 1872 for example Charles Griffin remarked that a lone wolf had wandered through the post on New Year’s Eve while he and his wife sat up playing cards: a rather symbolic journal entry in its way.  William Christie described the Christmas season at Churchill in 1847-48 as “the dullest that I never ever seen.”  Perhaps the most poignant of these stories of social isolation however, belongs to George Simpson McTavish, who claims to have toasted himself in the mirror on Christmas day to avoid the ignominy of drinking alone. 
According to McTavish the social isolation which separated officers from men proceeded in part from company policy, in part from the predilections of officers, and at least equally from the preferences of the men. On the one hand he indicated that it was the “Company’s unwritten law” that officers not visit “the men’s quarters except on business,” and the fear of causing jealousy or gossip kept officers circumspect in their dealings with the men. Post discipline required that no obvious signs of familiarity or partiality on the part of officers be noted by their subordinates. As a result both officers and men felt compelled to maintain their social distances. 
Although McTavish seems to have been acutely aware of this problemhe was warned on joining the company by his father, also George S. McTavish and a former chief factor, that he should “on no account be familiar with the men as they soon lose respect for an officer who forgets his position” his views were by no means unusual. In fact earlier in the nineteenth century William Auld, then the officer in charge at Churchill, advised one of his junior officers to “keep yourself as much as possible from their [the men’s] society.” Auld also suggested that it would reflect better on a young officer’s talents if he were known to be disliked by the men in his charge, since to be liked implied one was overly indulgent. As Auld put it: “It is of no moment whether the people be dissatisfied at you.”  As a result, officers’ letters from Churchill and other posts frequently complain of their solitude and the lack of even the simple pleasures of conversation. 
This kind of bifurcation in post life has been noted again and again by fur trade historians, but its implication for social relations at outposts has almost never been considered. As George Simpson McTavish noted, the number of officers stationed at larger posts like York Factory meant keeping one’s social distance from the men did not necessarily mean near total solitude, but the “sociability the Bachelor’s Hall provided” junior officers at York was impossible to replicate at Churchill.  A kind of collective mentality may have developed among officers at York or Red River or Fort Vancouver, but at posts like Churchill such social emulation had little purpose. Fragmentary evidence would tend to confirm the somewhat obvious observation that no one either knew or much cared how officers at Churchill lived or comported themselvesexcept perhaps fellow Churchill residents.  George Simpson McTavish suggested that John Spencer’s long association with Churchill had habituated him to its routines and conditions until Spencer had become “One of Them,” content like his men “to vegetate under [a] pleasant enough material existence, [and] unused to any other.”  If McTavish is to be believed, officers at Churchill were at least as likely to emulate the behaviour and adopt the attitudes of the men as those of fellow officers at major posts.
While it is quite possible to make too much of this sort of observation, it does suggest that the dynamics of social change in the fur trade may be more complex than is generally suspected. Recent fur trade historians have usually emphasized the leading role played in undermining the social and marital traditions of the fur trade by Sir George Simpson and the coterie of officers who surrounded him, along with certain missionaries and their wives. The evidence from Churchill, however, would suggest that senior company officers and other members of Rupert’s Land’s elite had minimal influence on outpost life, even among the officers.
For their part the tradesmen and labourers at Churchill and their families appear to have had almost no interest in aping the behaviour or values of local officerslet alone George Simpson or John West. Indeed they seem to have treated the opinion of officers on most matters with nearly total indifference. For example, officers could fulminate about the filthy conditions of post housing, but almost without effect. In 1871 Charles Griffin described the men’s house as the most “disgracefully dirty” place he had ever seen, and he ordered it whitewashed and the walls cleaned with scalding water.  Less than two years later he ordered the building cleaned again, and commented “Such filth as I have seen cleared out this day must be Seen to be believed.”  In point of fact cleanliness, like premarital sex and a host of other issues, was simply not a matter of much concern for the men at Churchill or their families. That it was a concern to officers was an intermittent annoyance but no cause for altering behaviour.
The gulf between officers and men on one hand and between Churchill residents and outsiders on the other not only pervaded social relations but spilled over into work patterns and work relations as well. When one examines the actual work of a post like Churchill the discrepancy between formal company policy and actual fur trade practise is thrown into sharp relief.
The basic economy of Churchill was founded on the fur trade and a white whale fishery. Neither was consistently successful but together they provided a fairly stable economic “raison d’etre” for maintaining a post at Churchillalbeit a small post.  In the early nineteenth century most of the trade at Churchill was carried on with the Cree and Chipewyan. Neither group was numerous in Churchill’s trading hinterlandin 1857 George Simpson estimated that no more than 400 Indians traded at Churchill and some were only infrequent visitors but other posts were maintained for even fewer clients.
After about 1860 the numbers of Cree and Chipewyan trading at Churchill began to decline. Charles Griffin estimated that only about 130 Chipewyan traded regularlythere in the early 1860s, and in 1870-71 this number had dropped to thirty-seven.  By 1886-87 George Simpson McTavish calculated that only fifty-four Indians still traded regularly at Churchill, though from his comments it is not clear if this figure represented Indians in total or simply incorporated heads of small family bands.  At the same time, however, trade with the Inuit was increasing, and in the 1880s and 90s a small schooner sailed north to Marble Island to trade along the coast every summer.  Moreover in the 1880s and 90s declining trade figures were balanced by a more productive white whale fishery. In the early nineteenth century whales had been hunted from boats and an annual kill of thirty to thirty-five whales was considered a good return.  In the 1880s, however, a large net was used at Churchill to trap unwary whales in the Churchill River, and this net regularly produced seasonal kills of 150 or more whales.  Thus while the business of the post fluctuated from year to year, overall the economic base of the community remained fairly stable.
Neither of these two enterprises, however, absorbed more than a small proportion of the labour of post residents. In 1882, for example, John Spencer, was actually only required to trade on thirty-four days out of the entire year, and most of the Inuit and Indians who visited Churchill brought in little more than a few deer and a load of furs or some blubber and seal skins.  Even if one includes officers’ administrative and record-keeping responsibilities, it is clear that at posts like Churchill the formal work of officers was far from onerous. As the journal at Churchill noted early in the nineteenth century, when officers hunted in winter it at least provided the company with some return “during the 6 or 7 months [when] there is nothing to do to employ us,” and which would otherwise have been spent “dosing over the Stove.” 
The whale fishery did require greater labour: three men per boat and in later years a crew of men to raise and lower the whale net, and men to cut and boil the blubber. The whaling season, however, lasted only from mid-June to September at the maximum, and by mid-September most of the oil had usually been boiled and tunned.
Taken all together, trade and trade-related activities along with whaling probably absorbed no more than half the manpower of the post for one-quarter of the year at most. Maintenance and construction of post buildings and the production and repair of post equipment added marginally to this total, but overall the single biggest, indeed the overwhelming, labour requirement at Churchill was subsistence. This was true of the fur trade in the eighteenth century,  and it remained true throughout the nineteenth. Any attempt to understand the rhythms and patterns of work at a post like Churchill must begin with the seasonal cycles of subsistence.
As Adrian Tanner has observed, in the north the year is best understood as comprising two seasons, not the traditional four of the south. There is one long season between freeze-up and break-up, and a second shorter summer season of open water.  Northern fur trade posts oriented their work cycles around this basic geographic fact as well. At Churchill most of the business of the post took place during the summer season. It was during this time that whaling and most of the trade occurred,  and it was in this season that repairs to buildings and new construction could be carried out. This was also the shipping season when supplies arrived from York by schooner. Yet even in the months between about May and September subsistence absorbed much of the energy of Churchill residents. Open water meant the spring and fall goose and caribou hunts, cutting hay for post livestock, and at Churchill much of the fishing.  During the longer period between freeze-up and break-up one occupation alone absorbed most of the labour of the post: cutting and transporting firewood and lumber. Men not stationed at the wooder’s camps usually were sent out to hunt ptarmigan, the only significant source of fresh provisions avail-able at Churchill between November and April aside from post livestock.  For this reason it was by no means uncommon at Churchill in the period between the end of September and April for the officer in charge of the post to be the only man living at the main post site.
Thus, not only did subsistence dominate the work of the post in all seasons, but most of this subsistence labour took place far away from the palisaded post. As early as 1739 Churchill’s woodcutting camps were located about fifty kilometres away at the Knife River,  and there is little evidence to suggest matters improved much over the next century and a half.  Similarly the most popular goose and ptarmigan hunting areas were scattered within a radius of about fifteen to twenty kilometres from the main postusually about one day’s walk away.  This meant that the officers at Churchill were physically isolated from the men, and often the families of these men as well, throughout most of the year.
This meant in turn that work relations at Churchill were marked by the substantial independence of company employees whose hours of work, productivity, even work techniques were subject to little or no scrutiny or supervision. On rare occasions an officer might pay a surprise visit to hunter’s or wood-cutter’s campsin 1852 for example William Anderson, the officer in charge at Churchill, surprised his wood-cutters in bed at 8:00 a.m. and commented that he had “every reason to believe that it is always the case” but most officers made no serious effort to check upon their men. Yet at Churchill the officers believed their tradesmen and labourers were habitually idle. James Hackland, for example, complained that his men purposely built their firewood piles one-third smaller than was normal at other postsa method he dubbed “Churchill cutting.”  In general officers took the view that work was done as quickly as possible without regard for quality so that the men could retire “to the house or tent for a spell ... if a half days work is done it is thought good work.”  Some also suspected that the men spent most of their time while out at the camps hunting and trapping on their own account and leaving their assigned work to their wives and children. 
In defence of Churchill’s tradesmen and labourers it should be noted that no one ever starved nor did the post ever run completely out of firewood, and Churchill’s residents pursued subsistence with enough vigour that the post was almost completely self-sufficient. Some necessary goods, like powder and shot, and some food supplies were imported  but whatever could be made or acquired at Churchill was. As George Simpson McTavish noted, most of Churchill’s residents were forced to be jacks of all trades and rather adaptable.  In one interesting passage he enumerated all the talents of Ouligbuck, an Inuit hunter who worked at various times at Churchill in the 1870s and 80s.
Yet despite McTavish’s obvious respect for Ouligbuck as a “man of intelligence” and William Gibeault as an “entertaining character,”  most of his fellow officers preferred to write of the men at Churchill as “trash” or “too stupid to send any where [else]” or “miserable imbecile wretches.”  Given such attitudes it is not surprising that most of Churchill’s officers spent little time directing or supervising the men: they “knew” in advance that the work would be substandard, the effort minimal, and the results disappointing.
There is no evidence, however, that such opinions poisoned work relations at Churchill in the nineteenth century. On the contrary officers report almost no disciplinary action against the men, and unlike during the eighteenth century or in larger posts like York Factory, disputes between officers and men and even disputes among men were almost never reported.  It seems fair to say that so long as post employees gathered enough firewood and provisions to maintain themselves and the post, most officers were indifferent about the manner in which they completed these minimal responsibilities. For their part the tradesmen and labourers and their families seem to have been content to orient their lives around subsistence production and work at the camps. For them the opinion of their commanding officer about how they organized their domestic and working lives was largely irrelevant. Officers had almost no patronage to dispense since salaries and staffing levels were set elsewhere, and in the absence of any number of people eager to move to Churchill in order to take up work there officers did not even have the sanction of dismissing incompetent employees.
To borrow a phrase from another Canadian context, life at Churchill in the nineteenth century was marked by “two solitudes.” Increasingly self-sufficient in terms of population and economy, the post community was largely immune from the kind of social changes and disruption which fur trade historians have noted at larger posts especially in southern districts. Far from experiencing either declension or the disappearance of its distinctive social mores and values the community at Churchill remained in 1890 much as it had been in 1830 or 1860. The work of its residents and their social interactions changed marginally at most, and in most cases in response to internal rather than external forces. Traditions like country marriage and intermarriage within the post community and between post residents and the local native population do not seem to have been undermined by either missionaries, or the advent of white women, or even changes in formal company policy regarding the support of employees’ dependents at the post. Similarly, most of the work of the post remained rooted in subsistence and located outside the palisades of the main post at nearby camps. Because of this, employees continued to exercise considerable independence in their working lives and to organize their work according to seasonal rhythms and patterns that dated back to the early eighteenth century.
Moreover, within the community itself, a second sort of solitude also prevailed. Despite Churchill’s tiny size, officers at the post were not only isolated from fellow officers at other posts, they were socially and often physically isolated even from the rest of the Churchill community. The men and their families were if anything even more self-sufficient than was the post itself. Certainly by the mid-nineteenth century they were to all intents and purposes demographically self-sufficient, and they managed with their families to maintain a way of life based on production almost exclusively for their own consumption. The remarkable persistence of a few inter-connected families at Churchill suggests further that they were generally content with a way of life limited by “their visible and ordinary surroundings.” It was post officers who suffered most from the isolation and marginality of Churchill’s position in the fur trade, and it was officers like George Simpson McTavish who complained that the “little world” of work camps and family had no real place for him.” 
If the fur trade is examined from the “bottom up” as well as from the “top down,” and if we shift our focus from the senior officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the main trade, transshipment, and administrative centres of the trade to the numerically more insignificant outposts and to tradesmen and labourers, a very different fur trade emerges. The social customs and work behaviour exhibited at Churchill derived as much or more from the tradesmen and labourers and their families as from company directives or even post officers. The enduring features of this northern and fur trade way of life seem at least as remarkable and as worthy of the social historian’s attention as the retreat of the fur trade from the plains and parklands.
Few post records for Churchill survive in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives for the period after 1900. The final surviving post journal, for example, dates from 1906. The kind of detailed community records that had been kept at Churchill since 1717 are just not available for the early twentieth century. As a result it is impossible to document exactly when the old fur trade Churchill gave way to the modern community.
The completion of the Hudson’s Bay Railway, as part of the Canadian National Railway, to Churchill in 1929 probably marks the watershed in Churchill’s history. Even so there is some reason to question how profound the changes this railway brought actually were. For example, James Smith and Earnest Burch Junior suggest that the railway “had relatively little impact except on the summer population of the [Churchill] area.”  Similarly, comments in works by Sydney Augustus Keighley and Angus and Bernice Maclvor suggest that some economic, social, and demographic vestiges of the old Churchill survived into the 1930s and even beyond.  Even when population movements occurred in this period, as in the 1920s and 1930s when a number of Cree moved north into the Churchill area from York Factory, they merely repeated the old demographic links of the fur trade. According to Smith and Burch it was not until the construction of the American Army base at Fort Churchill in 1942 that “the whole tenor of life” at Churchill finally changedbecause at long last the population and the economy changed.  If true, this observation reinforces how badly we have underestimated the importance of continuity in fur trade social history and how misleading is the traditional view that the fur trade and fur traders had “played their part” by 1870.
2. See for example Frits Pannekoek, The Fur Trade and Western Canadian Society 1670-1870, Canadian Historical Association Pamphlet No. 43, (Ottawa, Canadian Historical Association, 1987), pp. 14-23, and Sylvia Van Kirk, “Many Tender Ties”: Women in Fur-Trade Society in Western Canada, 1670-1870 (Winnipeg: Watson and Dwyer, 1980), esp. pp. 231-42.
3. The first serious attempt to outline the development of fur trade historiography by L. G. Thomas makes this connection between a Western Canadian regional perspective and the study of fur trade subjects clear. See L. G. Thomas, “Historiography of the Fur Trade Era”, in Richard Allen (ed.), A Region of the Mind: Interpreting the Western Canadian Plains (Regina: Canadian Plains Studies Centre, 1873), pp. 73-85.
4. As Louis-Edmond Hamelin has noted “northerness” is not simply a function of latitude or isotherm, and the area which may be defined as “the North” has changed over time. See Louis-Edmond Hamelin, Canadian Nordicity: It’s Your North Too (Montreal: Harvest House, 1979), pp. 33-37.
6. See Philip Goldring, Papers on the Labour System of the Hudson’s Bay Company: Volume I (Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1979) Manuscript report Series, no. 362, pp. 71-72. The decline at York Factory was not really a result of any decline in trading activity there. York was supplanted as the company’s main depot and administrative centre by Winnipeg.
7. In 1850 the Northern Department hired 492 full-time employees, and maintained 54 separate posts: an average complement of 9.1 men per post. In 1860, 564 men served at 65 posts, about 8.7 men per post. By 1870, 617 men served at 100 posts, about 6.2 men per post. Median post size was probably even smaller since at a handful of posts twenty or more men might be stationed. The number of men at York Factory alone could be fifty or more in this period. See Michael Payne, “By Far the Most Respected Place in the Territory: Everyday Life in Hudson’s Bay Company Service York Factory, 1788 to 1870 (Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1989), pp. 44-45 and Goldring, Papers: volume 1, p. 71, and Philip Goldring, Papers on the Labour System of the Hudson’s Bay Company: Volume II, (Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1980), Manuscript Report series no. 412, p. 76.
8. Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century Volumel:: The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible, revised translation by Sian Reynolds (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), pp. 23-29.
10. Anyone interested in the location and functions of buildings at Churchill, including when they were built and some notion of their appearance, should consult Martha McCarthy, Churchill: A Land-Use History 1782-1930, (Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1985), Microfiche Report Series No. 219.
12. And the post-industrial world too for that matter. See Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost: England Before the Industrial Age, (New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1971), p. 10, and Braudel, Structures, pp. 51-53.
13. See Table 1. The sources for Tables 1 and 2 are the company’s personnel records found in HBCA:B.239/g/4-46, Northern Department Accounts 1824-70, and B.235/g/2-8, Northern Department Accounts 1874-1885, and B.235/g/27, Northern Department Ac-counts 1888-89. Unfortunately these compilations of officers and servants accounts end c. 1890, and it is impossible to use them to trace who was stationed at Churchill and in what capacity thereafter.
15. Most notable Carol Judd, “‘Mixt Bands of Many Nations’: 1821-70”, in Carol Judd and Arthur J. Ray (eds.), Old Trails and New Directions: Papers of the Third North American Fur Trade Conference (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980), pp. 127-46, and Goldring, Papers: Volumes I and 11.
16. The term “native” here was not entirely racial in its connotation. It appears to have been used to mean “native to” Rupert’s Land. These men were, however, clearly of mixed European and native ancestry.
18. See Table 2.
19. See for example, HBCA:B.235/g/8. However, genealogical research (June 2012) indicates there were two Samuel Greys: father born circa 1813 in the UK and son born in Ruperts Land circa 1834. The editors thank Patricia Watt for bringing this information to their attention.
24. See HBCA:B.239/g/34, Northern Department Accounts 1854-55. Not surprisingly in later years virtually every one of the company’s servants at Churchill was related by blood or marriage to one or more of these three men.
25. Much has been made of the persistence of the Red River Métis, but the persistence of Churchill’s families is scarcely less remarkable. See P. R. Mailhot and D. N. Sprague, “Persistent Settlers: The Dispersal and Resettlement of the Red River Métis, 1870-1885,” Canadian Ethnic Studies vol. 17 no. 2 (1985), pp. 1-30. In his recently published autobiography Sydney Augustus Keighly indicates that members of the Oman family still lived and worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company in the Churchill area into the 1930s: well over a century of family history. By the 1930s, however, the Omans had become “Churchill Indians,” thus completing a kind of reverse voyage of ethnic identity from European to “mixed blood” to Indian. Sydney Augustus Keighley, Trader, Tripper, Trapper: The Life of a Bay Man (Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer for the Rupert’s Land Research Centre, 1989), pp. 136-37.
26. Gibeault is also interesting in that he was the son of Belonie Gibeault, who had served as a mason and then later as the Hargrave’s cook and butler at York Factory. Belonie Gibeault was originally from Montreal and joined the company’s service circa 1820. He figures prominently in many of Letitia Hargrave’s letters.
27. The marriage between Reid and Nancy Dunning does not seem to have been solemnized by any missionary. Their daughter Nancy also seems to have been married, in the eyes of Churchill’s residents at least, in 1871 after being made pregnant by Peter Coutts. She died giving birth in October 1871. Charles Griffin suspected the problem was largely her age as she was just 14 years old. Coutts in turn was quite distraught, and left Churchill soon after. See HBCA:B.42/a/ 192, fo.34d., 15 October 1871 and passim, and B.42/b/62, fo.24d, Charles Griffin to S.K. Parson, 19 July 1871.
33. In 1905, for example, James Oman’s daughter, Alice, had a child by Sandy Oman. Sandy Oman was probably one of George Oman and Nancy Grey’s twelve children and thus Alice Oman’s first cousin. HBCA:B.42/a/198, fo. 35d, 5 February 1905.
34. His great grandfather was James Dunning the shallop master at Churchill in 1796, his grandfather was James Dunning Junior, and his mother Nancy Dunning. The similarity in names also raises the intriguing possibility of some family relationship with Joseph Colen, the officer in charge at York Factory in the late eighteenth century.
35. Although this term was not used at Churchill in the later nineteenth century, the similarities between community-sanctioned marriage and the country marriage are striking. For a discussion of the forms taken by “country marriage” in the pre-missionary period see, Van Kirk, Tender Ties, pp. 28-52.
41. The company had abandoned any attempt to enforce celibacy in the mid-eighteenth century, but it always claimed some right to control who lived at its posts and who was fed at company expense. Permission to wed in effect meant only permission to receive rations for one’s wife and children, and to live in post housing.
43. This may not be entirely true for officers. George Simpson McTavish, for example, actually produced a list of every white woman he met at York and Churchill, and on occasion mentioned some fear of “going native.” See McTavish, Behind the Palisades, p. 51 and p. 167. The impact of white women on fur trade society and mores is explored at some length in Van Kirk, “Many Tender Ties.” McTavish’s list of white women, fourteen in all, whom he encountered at York and Churchill suggests that at northern posts this influence can only have been marginal. Most of these women would never have even met each other they were so few in number and widely dispersed. At Churchill there were only two “white women” in the nineteenth century the wives of John Spencer and the Reverend John Lofthouse. Neither seems to have had much influence on post life, and like their husbands they apparently kept their distance from the rest of the post community. White women, however, seem to have had considerable effect on subsequent writers. Like McTavish, the Churchill historians Angus and Bernice Maclvor in Churchill on Hudson Bay (Churchill: Churchill Ladies Club, 1982), pp. 161-62, take some pains to note the arrival of the first white woman there.
49. Tuttle spends some time discussing the supposed ignorance and dullness of Churchill’s residents. For example he makes rather heavy-handed fun of their failure to understand what a “locomoty” was, or to grasp the principles of how a steam engine worked. One can only speculate about what they thought of him. See Tuttle, Our North Land, pp. 136-37.
54. The scale of differential privilege at Churchill, however, was much less than at York or other large posts. Typically the officer in charge at Churchill might earn four to five times the average wage of his subordinates. At York, James Hargrave in 1844-45 earned almost as much as all thirty-four tradesmen and labourers at the post put together. See Michael Payne, “Daily Life on Western Hudson Bay 1714 to 1870: A Social History of York Factory and Churchill” (Ph.D. thesis, Carleton University, 1989), p. 82.
56. Spencer apparently spent much of his time gardening and rarely went out of his way to entertain any other officer who might be stationed at Churchill, let alone socialize with the men. McTavish, Behind the Palisades, pp. 113-15.
66. Robert Harding’s half-hearted attempts to furnish his house with luxury items like crystal tobacco boxes spring to mind. The carpets and piano and framed prints which adorned the Hargrave’s residence at York would have been simply out of place at Churchill. See Payne, “Daily Life,” pp. 395-96.
70. The most complete economic analysis of the fur trade at Churchill in the later nineteenth century finds no significant trends in the period between 1860 and 1895 except for a declining trade in beaver and parchment caribou skins. Annual fluctuations in the numbers of marten, muskrat, fox and other skins traded are attributed to cyclical changes in animal populations and a tendency for distant Indians to trade only every second year. See Frank Tough, “Native People and the Regional Economy of Northern Manitoba: 1870s” (Ph.D. thesis, York University, 1987), pp. 111-21.
72. HBCA:B.42/b/162, fo.21d-22, Charles Griffin to Governor and Council, Northern Department, 4 May 1871. Griffin blamed most of this decline on the construction of an inland post at Deer’s [Reindeer] Lake.
74. A good description of these trading voyages may be found in McTavish, Behind the Palisades, pp. 122-32. These voyages repeated the eighteenth century practice at Churchill of using sloops to expand trade northwards.
75. William Auld described the method used to hunt whales from boats at Churchill. The bottoms of the whale boats were painted white in the hope that the “silly fish ... [would] mistake the boat for a companion.” The boat’s crew consisted of “any worst two hands in the factory and the Harpooner who also acts as Steersman” until a whale was sighted. The harpooner then stationed himself at the bow and directed his replacement at the helm with hand signals. No talking was allowed for fear of frightening the whale off. If a whale was struck and killed, it was towed to a mooring buoy and the hunt continued. According to Auld it took about 9.5 beluga whales to produce a ton of oil. HBCA:B.42/a/136a, fos.1111d, William Auld Memorandum Book.
76. The largest reported catch of whales occurred in 1883, when 186 whales were taken using the net. See HBCA:B.42/a/193, fo. 40d, 11 August 1883. This technique of capturing whales is described in some detail in McTavish, Behind the Palisades, pp. 210-13.
77. See HBCA:B.42/a/193, fo.4d, and passim. This was not a new phenomenon. The actual business of trade had never been a major drain on post labour at bayside posts. See Payne, “Daily Life,” pp.138-39. At Churchill William Sinclair observed that “The Indians here are not troublesome to deal with, and only come here at stated Period Fall and Spring, and then only remain for a few days at the Fort, so that several Months passes [sic.] without seeing a single Indian.” HBCA:D.5/16, fo.17, William Sinclair to George Simpson, 1 January 1846.
79. See for example Tim Ball, “Timber!: an Adventurer’s Life on the Bay was an Endless Search for Wood,” The Beaver, 67:2 (April/ May 1987) pp. 45-56. Fur trade authors like Samuel Hearne, James Isham, Andrew Graham, even R. M. Ballantyne all can be used to make much the same point, if one looks at their discussion of the actual work of their posts.
81. The major exception to this rule was trade with the Chipewyan who did not use canoes much for transport, and who found travel easier in the winter months when lakes, rivers and ground water were frozen. The local Cree population at Churchill also visited the post on occasion in winter especially if food was in short supply in order to trade for flour and biscuit.
85. At York Factory Joseph Fortescue estimated that a combination of fire and wood-cutting for a large post over two centuries had denuded the banks of the Nelson River of usable lumber for eight miles on either side as much as 140 miles inland. See Arthur Ray, “York Factory: The Crises of Transition, 1870-1880,” The Beaver, 313:2 (Autumn 1982), p. 26. Actually this was nothing new. A century earlier the wood was transported 50 or more miles. See HBCA:B.239/a /90, fos.145-146d, 2 December 1789.
86. A reasonably full account of the company’s occupation of the Churchill area and some description of favoured hunting, fishing, and woodcutting sites may be found in McCarthy, Churchill: Land-Use, esp. pp. 61-69.
91. George Simpson McTavish estimated that about 1200 pounds of salt pork, one tierce of salt beef, 100 pounds of bacon, and a case of corned beef, along with a supply of flour, oatmeal and biscuit constituted all of Churchill’s annual food imports c.1880. See McTavish, Behind the Palisades, p. 15.
92. This necessity extended to officers as well who frequently reported that they did carpentry and other repair work around the post. At a large post like York Factory such manual labour by an officer would have been unthinkable.
96. McTavish does suggest that the post was sometimes the setting for squabbles, and James Hackland suggested that William Oman and his wife were not above “humbuggin” some of the local Indians with stories. See HBCA:B.42/a/188, fo.29, 23 February 1856.
98. James G. E. Smith and Edward S. Burch, Jr., “Chipewyan and Inuit in the Central Canadian Subarctic, 1613-1977,” in Kenneth S. Coates and William R. Morrison (eds.), Interpreting Canada’s North: Selected Readings (Toronto: Copp Clark Pittman, 1989), p. 219.
Page revised: 13 December 2020