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Manitoba History: Review: Michael Payne, The Most Respectable Place in the Territory: Everyday Life in Hudson’s Bay Company Service - York Factor, 1788 to 1870

by L. G. Thomas
Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta

Number 21, Spring 1991

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The Most Respectable Place in the Territory: Everyday Life in Hudson’s Bay Company Service - York Factory, 1788 to 1870. Michael Payne. Ottawa: Studies in Archaeology, Architecture and History. National Historic Parks and Sites, Canadian Parks Service, Environment Canada, Ottawa, 1989, 206 pp., ill. ISBN 0-660-12940-X.

As Eric Ross pointed out in 1979, York Factory is as old a community as Philadelphia. It remains today, fragile and infrequently visited as it is, one of the most important of Canada’s National Historic Sites, if also one of its most melancholy. But in 1849 Letitia Hargrave, that shrewd and acerbic observer of the British North American scene, pronounced it “the most Respectable Place in the Territory.” After 1821 and the union of the North West and Hudson’s Bay Companies, York Factory was, in Payne’s words, “in effect the capital of the fur trade in western Canada,” commanding as it did in the Hayes River the best route from the Bay to the interior. Though in the late 1850s primacy in the import and export trade shifted to the rail and river routes of the United States, and Red River became in the 1860s increasingly the Company’s centre for manufacturing and administration, through most of the regime of George Simpson York Factory played a major part in the careers of its officers and men. Michael Payne’s study of its social history is thus an invaluable prerequisite to an understanding of the process by which the earliest European presence in the West merged into the larger process of European settlement with all its consequences for the native population.

Classic studies of the fur trade like those of A. S. Morton and E. E. Rich had an imperial and a business orientation, based as they were on the close study of the rich documentation provided by the activities of a venerable and externally based commercial concern. The work of scholars like Glyndwr Williams and Alice M. Johnson pointed the way to major studies in the field of social history like those of Sylvia Van Kirk and Jennifer Brown, and there has been an impressive use of fur trade materials in relation to native studies in works like those of Arthur J. Ray. But there are not many, if any, scholarly studies of individual posts on the scale of Payne’s York Factory.

Because of York’s long preeminence in the administration and the communications of the Northwest, the patterns of its society had an influence that extended far beyond the shores of the Bay. They became part of the experience of a substantial number, even a preponderance, of those for whom the fur trade as conducted by the Hudson’s Bay Company was the means by which they and their descendants were woven or wove themselves into the fabric of a new society which they perceived as distinct from that which was developing—or had developed—to the south. Payne is careful to point out that the term “fur trade society” in one that must be used with caution—”Life at York was not exactly analogous to life at Lac La Pluie”—but his analysis of everyday life helps to explain why so many fur traders and their families were able to assimilate themselves so comfortably to a new order dedicated, ostensibly at least, to peace, order and good government and the suppression of the more unruly aspects of the frontier in its westward—and northward—movement.

Payne organizes his study in terms of categories like work and leisure, education and religion, discussing these in terms of his more abstract concepts of social structure and relations and standard of living. This refreshingly straightforward structure and the equally welcome lucidity of his writing make the fruits of his obviously very extensive research and his wide reading more than ordinarily accessible to the reader. Perhaps an index would have enhanced the volume’s utility. The dramatis personae of fur trade history is relatively small but the same names in the records all too often do not apply to the same actors. Even a name index would assist the student digging into the material monuments of what must be some of Canada’s most extended families.

Another regrettable omission is a list of maps and illustrations. As these are numbered in the order in which they appear in the text it seems probable that this was an accident in the course of production. Fortunately, it did not deprive us of several delightful fur trade primitives painted on wood and probably of the late eighteenth century.

These are only a few of the many treats along the way for the reader. Michael Payne has a strong sense of the ironies of Canadian history, which some may think invaluable if not indispensable equipment for the historian of the Canadian West. He also has a very sharp eye for the arresting detail in the documents, published and unpublished. My own favourite is the vision of Peter Fidler, surveyor and explorer, ordering and even more reading Mrs. Radcliffe’s Gothic thriller The Mysteries of Udolpho. This particular reference may owe something to the percipience of Alice M. Johnson but I feel sure that the greatest of fur trade editors would see Michael Payne as a promising young worker in the archival vineyard.

Every chapter, almost every paragraph, produces some arresting and often, to this reader at least, unfamiliar detail or inspires some novel way of viewing a particular situation. There could not be a better illustration of the value of archival research, where a lively, informed and well-stocked mind is brought into direct contact with a primary document. Payne not only sees the relevant detail for himself but has the gift of displaying it effectively in his synthesis, thus establishing the wholesome relationship between research and teaching so sadly lacking in much writing on historical and related themes intended for popular consumption. His account of the improvements in housing at York is much more than a sketch of the change from open fireplaces to Carron stoves, a catalogue of furniture, or a note on the introduction of “mosquito frames or blinds.” It not only serves to correct old misconceptions as to standards of living in the fur trade but goes far to provide a firm and defensible basis for a new view of the fur trader and his dependents as a force in the development of a Europeanized society in the Canadian West.

Payne also has a sense of fun, something even rarer than irony in Canadian scholars, which leads him into some judgements well removed from the pomposities of popular historians still in search of Canadian Davy Crocketts or the marvellous revelations of social scientists diligently quantifying slightly used American wine into new Canadian bottles. Thus he gently rallies the sports historians of The Canadian Encyclopedia for their confident assumption that “in the pioneer settlements of the Europeans, play was relatively unimportant” when at York Factory “company men retained their interest in familiar diversions and discovered new recreational activities to while away their substantial leisure hours” (p.65). He is equally gentle with Peter Newman’s assertion that traders had “to exist near the limits of human endurance.” The reality of life at York was more prosaic than exciting or adventurous but “hours of work were not particularly onerous ... Wage rates were generally quite attractive ... diet ... probably monotonous, but ... not normally inadequate ... The general standard of health ... was reasonably high” (pp. 155-156). Payne presents “the most Respectable Place in the Territory” as an unusual fur trade post, but because of its longstanding importance in the communications and administration of the Hudson’s Bay Company its influence went far beyond those who, as officers, men or auxiliary servants, spent a large part of their working life there or were at least fairly frequent visitors. It provided evidence that a tolerable level of amenity could be achieved by those who aspired to success in the fur trade in whatever aspect of its multifarious activities the individual found himself involved.
As another reviewer has observed, this study of York Factory is “a welcome return to the consideration of the European experience in the fur trade.”

Christmas Ball at Bachelor’s Hall, York Factory, circa 1840s, from R. M. Ballantyne, Hudson Bay or Everyday Life in the Wilds of North America (National Archives of Canada)

Page revised: 11 April 2010

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