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Manitoba History: James Isham (c1716-1761): How an Eighteenth Century Fur Trader is Influencing Canada Today

by Scott Stephen
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 68, Spring 2012

James Isham was born around 1716 to Whitby Isham and Ann Skrimshire of St. Andrew’s parish, Holborn, in London, England. In 1732, he entered the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), and quickly rose to a position of command. He spent most of the rest of his life in what is now northern Manitoba, in charge of two of the HBC’s most important posts, York Fort (now known as York Factory) and Prince of Wales Fort (Churchill). During that time, he became known as a skilled trader, a keen natural historian and a keen observer of the world around him.

James Isham left behind him a tangible legacy of construction, which is influencing us some 250 years later. At Churchill, he built a fort—or, rather, he started rebuilding one—that is one of the most remarkable stone structures in Canada, and one in which Parks Canada has recently made considerable investment in studying and stabilising. And at York, he built a retaining wall along the banks of the Hayes River, where a multi-disciplinary team is now studying climate change in the northern environment, and trying to preserve what is left of one of Canada’s most valuable symbols of our fur trade heritage.

Joseph Robson was a mason and surveyor who worked at both Prince of Wales Fort and York Fort in the 1730s and 1740s. This map of the mouth of the Churchill River is from his 1752 book attacking his former employers, the HBC.
Source: J. Robson, An Account of Six Years Residence in Hudson’s Bay (London 1752)

Isham was given command of Prince of Wales Fort at the mouth of the Churchill River in 1741. He took charge of an establishment that looked more impressive than it really was. In the early 1730s, the HBC’s London Committee had instructed Isham’s predecessor, Richard Norton, to build a stone fortification to replace the wooden one previously built in 1717. The Committee was thinking more in terms of defence than of trade, remembering how easily French warships had captured HBC posts in the 1680s and 1690s. Prince of Wales Fort was the only stone fortification the HBC built on the shores of the Bay—indeed, it was one of only three stone forts the Company ever built anywhere (the other two were Lower and Upper Fort Garry).

Norton declared the construction complete before he retired in 1741, but it was soon apparent that there were serious problems. One of Norton’s subordinates, Robert Pilgrim, wrote a private letter to the Committee criticising Norton’s management of the project. The Committee followed up on this report by interviewing the masons who had arrived home in Britain from Prince of Wales Fort. In 1742, the board of directors vented their anger on Isham, who of course had only just taken charge: “We are very sorry to find by the informations we have received, it doth not answer our expectations, nor the Great charge we have been at.”

Besides errors in the original construction, the walls needed to be strengthened so they could support the installation of a stone parapet to replace the hastily-erected wooden one. Also, the ramparts needed to be widened to provide adequate space for the working of the cannon to be mounted there. Beginning with Isham, the fort was virtually rebuilt over the next thirty years.

Isham was given explicit instructions for correcting the problems. His first priority was to widen the walls from 24 to 32 feet by moving the interior walls eight feet farther in. The second priority was to provide for the mounting and working of cannon on the bastions. Norton had apparently left the interiors of the bastions open, leaving no room on the ramparts above for operating cannon: the recoil of the cannon would have dropped them into the open bastion! Finally, Isham was to replace the wooden parapet with one of stone.

The Committee seemed to be blaming Isham for some of these problems, but Isham curbed his usually acid tongue when responding. After reading the Committee’s letter, and quickly consulting with newly-arrived carpenter Richard Ford and supply-ship captain George Spurrell, Isham suggested some revisions to the Committee’s plan. He proposed widening the walls even more—by 12 ft at the top and 16 ft at the base—and enlarging the storage rooms inside the bastions. He also planned to build a wooden stockade around the fort to prevent snowdrifts, which in several places provided an easy ramp to the top of the walls from outside. Finally, he asked for more men and horses to get all the work done.

In fact, the work went reasonably well with the resources Isham already had at his disposal. He tackled the south bastion first: masons began working on it just four days after the Committee’s instructions had arrived. By October, the storeroom and passageway had been enlarged and completed, the rampart filled in above it, wooden platforms installed, and four cannon mounted. His men immediately began work on the east bastion, but two days later had to stop for the winter: they picked up where they had left off at the beginning of April, more than a month earlier than masonry work usually started at Churchill. Spring frosts did not slow them down, though: the east bastion was completed by late August, the powder magazine in the north bastion by the end of September, and the west bastion by July 1744.

Work on the walls began in the autumn of 1743, when the men started digging a shallow foundation for the new interior wall on the southeast side of the courtyard. The wall itself seems to have been completed by late June or early July 1744, when they began working on the rampart on that side of the fort. The new parapet was 6 ft wide at the base and 6 ft high on the exterior side (4 ½ ft tall on the interior side). The masons were still working on the parapet in June 1745, when the Committee’s annual letter redirected them to work on the powder magazine.

Despite being rebuilt, the bastions proved too damp for use as storage rooms year-round: dry provisions were regularly moved in and out of them throughout the fort’s history. The powder magazine suffered from the same problem: Isham admitted that it was neither rainproof nor bombproof. After another private letter from Churchill’s resident snitch, Robert Pilgrim, the Committee declared themselves “very much surprized that you have been so careless & neglectfull in Building the Powder Magazine” and ordered it rebuilt. In fact, it was Pilgrim who would rebuild it: he was given the command of Prince of Wales Fort and Isham was recalled to England.

Prince of Wales Fort was captured by the French in 1782: although the fort was taken without a shot, the French tried to blow it up anyway. As it turned out, the HBC never reoccupied the fort, which it had spent so much time and resources building. It lay in ruins until government work crews did some restoration work in the 1930s and 1950s.

James Isham did not return to Churchill, but was given command of York Fort in 1750 (his second spell in charge there). He immediately turned his attention to problems that had plagued York since it was first built—and which continue to plague it today. The land there is generally low-lying and marshy, the soil light and sandy and the riverbanks all too easily breached by spring floods and river ice. Riverbank erosion, spring flooding, permafrost, poor surface drainage and other environmental factors have consistently threatened the stability and even the safety of the buildings.

Tidal action, particularly in the spring and autumn, combined with dramatic breaking-up of river ice to scour the banks of the Hayes River. Isham marvelled at the damage caused by “such Deluges or floods,—I have Known the Ice when going out of the Rivers, to appear Like a wood or grove of trees with the perdigious Quantity of wood, which has been Brought of[f] the shores by the water and Ice.” Erosion of the riverbank was also connected with the permafrost: frozen soil on the shore inhibited proper drainage, while layers of permafrost exposed at the riverbank were subject to the melting warmth of the summer sun.

In the autumn of 1750, a “most unacountable raging tide” swept away the launch, slips, and fencing along the bank. Although this event was unusual in its severity, Isham observed that the riverbank was “continually falling” due to “the force of the Ice, Tides or Rains.” The following year, Isham put his masons and labourers to work “Building a Stone wall under the Banks, to keep the Bank from falling, finding nothing Else will uphold it.” The retaining wall was 7 ft wide, 6 ft high, and had a 4 ft slope; at the base of the wall were wooden stakes 2 ft long, wattled with willows, and later reinforced with stones. Without such intervention, Isham feared that “…in 20 Years the Water would be near our gates.” He reported some early success with the wall: in the spring of 1752, “…the Ice had very little effect on it (tho’ at the same time tore away all our Wooden Launches, the Ice being 16 feet above the top of our banks).”

Work on the wall continued through the summer of 1753. The area between the bank and the wall was backfilled, though with what material is unknown. Isham declared himself satisfied with the experiment, observing to the Committee that “Our Riv’r broke up Ruff Last Spring [1753] by wch we had a Trial of Our wall the Damage Sustained Notwith Standing bodies of Ice 6 & 8 feet thick Drove Against it Only loosned Some of the top Stones wch cost two Day’s Repair, a Trifle Considering where no wall is Some Scores load of Dirt goes of in a tide.” Having completed 428 ft of wall, he announced his intention to wall and stake another 150 ft of bank during the coming year.

The retaining wall appeared to serve its purpose well: Isham observed “Little, or no damage” from the spring breakup in 1760. His successor, Ferdinand Jacobs, had the men collecting stones for “the repairs of the Banks” in 1764. However, such maintenance may not have been kept up, and the wall may have been undermined by erosion from the rear, caused by melting permafrost and poor surface drainage. By 1767, it was apparently unable to withstand a September storm: “The Sea was so great & It wash’d so high against the banks of the River as to beat down most of the Banks of the River.”

Isham’s retaining wall set the pattern of riverbank interventions for the next hundred years and more. Subsequent managers assigned to York invested a fairly large proportion of their human and material resources into trying to slow the rate at which the riverbank eroded. Until the late 19th century, these efforts invariably involved the use of piles, slabs, and (especially) stones to physically protect the riverbank from the effects of tide and current: Joseph Colen in the 1780s and James Hargrave in the 1840s described their endeavours in terms so similar to Isham that they might as well have been describing the same wall.

These interventions succeeded in slowing the normal erosion, and at least partially mitigating the impact of fifteen-year or twenty-year events like floods. However, the HBC’s willingness to invest heavily in riverbank retention declined significantly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As York Factory lost its formerly central point in the HBC’s continental trade and supply network, from the mid-1880s onward only occasional minor repairs were made.

Today, Parks Canada is struggling with the same issues that Isham struggled with. Melting permafrost and eroding riverbanks are seriously threatening York Factory National Historic Site. A multi-disciplinary team is studying the permafrost, the buildings, the hydrology, the botany, and the geology of the site, as well as tapping into the documentary records preserved in the HBC Archives and into the traditional knowledge of local Cree people. Shrewd observers from the past—like James Isham—still have much to tell us about the environment of western Hudson Bay and how best to adapt to it.

As a young man, James Isham’s superiors described him as sober, honest and diligent. Isham grew into the role of senior statesman of Hudson Bay, mentoring a generation of young clerks who looked up to him as a father and who carried the lessons he taught them to the end of the century. Isham also has many lessons to teach us.

His work beginning to rebuild the unique stone fortification of Prince of Wales Fort provides a window onto an 18th-century construction site, detailing the tools, materials, and methods more carefully than most sources from elsewhere in Canada or in Britain in that period. For archaeologists, masons and engineers working to stabilise the ruin of Prince of Wales Fort, these details provide an intimate knowledge of the structure they are trying to save. Isham was a proud man, and would have been quite pleased to know that his work has survived French bombs and the ravages of time still largely intact. And at York Factory, Parks Canada engineers are designing pilot projects for protecting the north bank of the Hayes River from erosion due to water and ice: one of those projects is a wood-and-stone retaining wall modelled partly on Isham’s.

James Isham demands respect for his intimate knowledge of the human and natural environment in which he lived and worked for most of his life. When he was alive, nothing infuriated him more than strangers who thought they understood that world better than he did. He would be supremely satisfied if he knew that—so many years after his death—we’re still looking to him for guidance.

In this plate from Robson’s 1752 book, note the similarities in design of the two forts, even though one was built of wood and the other of stone.
Source: J. Robson, An Account of Six Years Residence in Hudson’s Bay (London 1752)

Page revised: 7 January 2017

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