Manitoba History: A Trapper’s Diary from Northern Manitoba, 1928-1946
by Rosemary Malaher
To study daily life of earlier times, fur trade historians have gleaned a wealth of information from diaries, letters and post journals, many preserved today in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives. In more modern times, the task of keeping a diary is unusual but immeasurably valuable to the historian.
Fortunately, a set of diaries by a fur trapper, Harry Pienowski, has survived. These diaries, now deposited in the Fort Dauphin Museum, Manitoba, cover the years from 1925 to 1937, and 1942 to 1946 in northern Manitoba. The writing is very legible and the style is conversational. In reading them, you feel that they were written to be read. Many of the activities are explained carefully, so that a fairly complete picture of the trapper’s life emerges. However, some routine things were taken for granted, so they must be deduced, or left unexplained. As a resource for understanding the life of a trapper in the north, they are remarkable. The advantage of having multiple years is that, as the round of activity is repeated, more details emerge and the events are exposed, with their high drama and boredom, their virtues and vices. The reader is informed on the extremes of weather, the dangers of subsistence living, the food and the clothing, the summer plagues of flies and mosquitoes, the hunting and the fishing along with the price of fur.
Aside from work done by A. J. Ray, the 20th-century fur trade has not been much investigated by scholars.  When the records of the Northern Stores are scrutinized, and some of the first person accounts of these independent trappers come to light, the period will be fleshed out, just as personal correspondence and diaries have done for earlier fur trade business journals. Attention will be directed to the transition period after the sale of the Hudson’s Bay Company lands to the Dominion of Canada in 1870. The company continued to have some control over the north, their accustomed area of business, and they retained possession of their trading posts.
However, following the First World War, the period of adjustment for the returned men was difficult because the economy was not robust enough to absorb the numbers that flooded the employment market. Some white men took up trapping in the sparsely populated areas north of farming settlement, and were able to eke out a living. They also pressed through the waterway and rail links to more northerly areas hoping to find better quality and more plentiful furs.
By turning to the story revealed through this first person account, we begin to expand our view of this transition period. In March 1942, Harry Pienowski was 52 years old. He had lived at mile 445 on the Hudson’s Bay Railway for 14 years and had faithfully kept a diary for most of his life. Like the earliest French-Canadian bois brulé, he and his partner, Emil Buss, had escaped “the restrictive codes of civilization”  but they lived by a much more severe code of survival in the north. The fact that they were able to do so for so long was a tribute to their own discipline. They drank intemperately, in binges, and smoked, but they took good care of their dogs and their trap lines, because that was their livelihood.
Pienowski and Buss moved up to the end of track on the Hudson Bay Railway in 1928. They had been in the north, in other locations for at least three years, which are documented in the first three diaries. Neither of these men had much education. They had worked on the rodeo circuit and had tried other jobs with little permanent success.
The Hudson Bay Railway project had been revived in 1927 after having been shut down during the First World War. It had taken considerable political pressure from the prairie provinces to get the work started again. In a reminiscence by Major J. G. MacLachlan, the engineer building the Hudson Bay Railway, he says, “There was a large surplus of labour during these early years, and it was not unusual to have several hundred men at the office door looking for work. At one point, it was necessary for me to keep two C.N. police constables to protect my person. They threatened to burn up my house and blow up the Saskatchewan River Bridge [at The Pas]. We only paid 25 cents an hour in those days.” 
Three trappers, Pienowski, Buss and another partner, built their cabin near the end of track the first year and then later took over a camp which had been used by the railway surveyors, three and one quarter miles south of what became a railway section point at Mile 445, shown on the railway map as McClintock, a name Pienowski seldom uses. As far as he is concerned, his address is “Mile 445, H.B. Ry., Man. Via The Pas.” 
Joe Robertson, a retired employee of the Manitoba Wildlife Branch living in Dauphin, Manitoba, had encountered these trappers in the course of duty as a game guardian. Robertson kept a diary one winter when he trapped north of Churchill.  He said that he did it to keep track of the days. His writing is a bit more cryptic than Harry’s but, still, the adverse conditions often brought out the emotions of the moment. After one particularly hazardous trip, Robertson credits his dogs for getting him safely back to his camp.
Pienowski writes of a similarly hazardous trip, (in the quotations I have left Harry’s spelling and have usually given the whole day’s entry to provide the context):
About the cold, the following series of entries gives a good example:
Unlike Robertson, Pienowski and Buss had a veritable army of neighbours, other trappers and the workers on the railway. The section men at nearby stopping points formed a fairly large social group, with only one or two wives mentioned, and dropping by for meals and overnight was common. The workers had access to gas cars and hand cars and often took the trappers along the line to visit their friends. The diaries mention many of the names and jobs, bridge gangs, pump men, including vacation replacements. Less frequently, we hear of the game guardians and the RCMP. Often fur buyers were on the train and furs were sold between one stop and the next. Supplies and mail came by train and the trappers frequently went to Churchill, 65 miles north, to sell their catch.
The dealers to whom they sold the furs are usually mentioned. Sometimes it was an agent of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Most frequently, it was J. R. Kerr of The Pas who personally travelled on the train and, on one occasion, bought fur on Christmas day. There was only one early mention of Revillon Freres, a rival to the HBC. Others were Horace Halcrow in The Pas, Thomas Riddock of Churchill, and later his widow who acted as an agent when she sent some fur to the Montreal fur auction. They also traded with O. Lindell at the White Fox Store in Gillam and Soudack’s Fur Auction in Winnipeg.
In 1934, one of the section men got a radio and the group spent evenings listening to the programs, boxing matches or music shows from stations in Chicago and Hollywood. Otherwise, they ate, drank and played bridge. They heard the abdication speech of Edward VIII and worried about trouble in Europe. By the 1940s, the radio was not mentioned. The continuity of the story was lost by the gap in the diaries between 1937 and 1942. By that time, the war was on and the Americans were building a military air base at Churchill, providing an added attraction to visits there.
During the summer, the men went south, visited relatives, binged in Winnipeg or perhaps worked on farms. Someone was left in charge of the dogs. Summer in the north is fly season. In the following excerpt, you can understand why they would want to get out:
In winter, there were a few celebrations, always Christmas and Easter, and birthdays when a gift of whisky would arrive for the party. In the fall, southerners would come up to hunt moose or caribou and the trappers would act as guides. The best Christmas is described as follows:
Besides the continual fight with the elements, health problems did occur. Harry had an operation in The Pas hospital, which, he says, was for a rupture, probably a hernia, and for some time after, he checked in with the doctor. He does mention mishaps with an axe, head colds and local infections. At one point, he put his back out on the trap line, but this was a tendency, which was caused by the physical work required in several of his earlier jobs.
The trapping season opened on the first of November and the first trip, referred to as his “maiden trip” involved soft dogs, some open water and a heavy load of supplies, as he set up his various camps for later trips around the line. The sites had often been damaged by summer conditions, in spite of his spring efforts, and he planned changes in route from the year before. There was a different pattern of trips between the thirties and the forties. Consistently, he started off his eastern trip by going to the 445 section house and then heading east into the bush country. There was at least one permanent cabin on this route, which he found a great relief from tenting. Alternately, going west into the barrens, he headed out directly from their camp. In the winter of 1933–1934, the average length of the eastern trips was a little more than 6 days while the average western trip was almost a day longer. Altogether, there were 15 trips from 7 November to 11 April. In the last set of diaries, in the forties, he had one line, which formed a large circle, which he started by going to 445 and staying overnight. He referred to the camp sites by number, from 1 to 8 with one of the central ones having a one-day “pitch out line.” In the winter of 1943–1944, from 15 November to 6 April, he made seven trips averaging 14 days. A short example will portray a day on the trap line.
Information on the care of the dogs and the development of a good team is scattered throughout the text. It takes some work to piece together a comprehensive story. Large quantities of dog food were ordered from the south in the fall, consisting of cornmeal, oatmeal and tallow. The men were always on the lookout for caribou, which they used for themselves and the dogs. With a plentiful supply, meat could be dried for use over the summer. After breakup and the spring flood, they put in fish weirs and nets and dried the fish. The dogs of their own team were bred or they bought a dog from another trapper or from someone in Churchill. One dog purchased from The Pas turned out to be too soft, being blamed for being a “southern dog.” Of course, the running conditions were often mentioned, with the last day of the trip, literally “the home run” done in record time.
Somehow, these men acquired manual skills, which made their life possible and limit the need for cash. The first requirement was a log cabin, which they construct in a few days and then set about building in cupboards and other fittings. They made and repaired snowshoes, and sometimes sewed their own caribou winter clothing. Certainly, they made gauntlet mitts and moccasins and decorated them with fur and feather-stitching. They also made these for others and presumably received something in trade although that is not mentioned. Perhaps this was a way of paying for the trips on the railway cars. They made themselves stoves out of stove piping for their tents and trapping cabins. Emil baked bread and several of the group made pies. Clothing is extremely important and Harry writes:
It would be nearly impossible to make any sensible accounting of the trappers’ finances. Pienowski and Buss have a partnership, based in Churchill with the Hudson’s Bay Company and mention paying off debts. The formal partnership agreement had originally included another trapper, but they “let him out” in the summer of 1933. Pienowski comments on the prices they received for their furs as good, fair, more or less than expected, and sometimes he gives actual figures. These might be of some use in a more detailed discussion of the economics of fur trapping. Only one year, 1932–1933 has a detailed accounting at the back of the diary. It includes furs caught in each month, and proceeds of each sale. The total amount made by three trappers was $1,208.40. It was better than having no job at all in those depressed times.
The trappers order goods from Eaton’s and HBC catalogues and use the telephone from time to time, but this is seldom mentioned in the later years.
Harry was a handsome ladies’ man. In my conversations with Joe Robertson, his opening comment was that Pienowski was “as conceited as Hell.” Harry got letters from many of his female friends and Christmas presents, too. During his stay in hospital in The Pas, he certainly charmed the nurses. In August 1942, a young woman scientist accompanied her professor and his wife on an expedition to study bacteria in permafrost and a romance developed. She and Harry corresponded during the winter and then the next summer Harry proudly announced that he was going to Toronto to visit her. He had a great visit. He proposed during the next winter but she did not reply for quite a while. Later, letters come from her, but he does not mention her actual refusal.
In Pienowski’s diary, there are mentions of local Indians in the early years. Robertson said that the Indians could not keep dogs over the summer until they got gill nets for fish. It is likely that Pienowski and Buss were included in the Registered Trap Line process, which took place in the forties sometime after the end of these diaries. They did have licences as fur trappers. There is some mention of an issue regarding trappers who caught fur before the opening of the season but when Dan Austin visits in July 1942 he has come “about Indians trapping beaver on our trap line.”  When the diaries were returned to Manitoba, Gerald Malaher, a former director of the Wildlife Branch, recognized the two men as trappers who had been prosecuted for over-harvesting caribou. 
In discussions with Joe Robertson comparing Pienowski and Buss, there were some similarities. Robertson was also a farm boy with only an elementary education. He was younger and was still with his family when the depression hit. He went north to trap fox for one winter (1936) because he had heard that foxes had been very plentiful the year before.  Moving into a remote area north of Churchill, he found the barren grounds unproductive and returned to Churchill as soon as he could. He served in the Air Force in the Second World War and then worked for the Province of Manitoba in Wildlife Management.
It would be interesting to compare Pienowski’s diary with those of other frontiersmen and fur trappers. One example might be Osborne Russell who was with Nathaniel Wyeth’s party in 1834 in the American west. H. M. Crittenden recommends Russell’s published journals as an excellent account of daily life in that earlier era.  The differences in climate and the presence of some modern conveniences would be apparent but the difficulties of survival are no less apparent.
Buss and Pienowski were older than Robertson, and more entrenched in the trappers’ life. They stayed in the north, but when they and their contemporaries passed away, they were not replaced by any younger men.  Harry never moved away from the camp. His partner Emil finally left the camp and trapping in 1966 at the age of seventy-three to live in Gillam, a town on the Nelson River. It had been 39 years since they first ventured up the rail line. Emil mailed the diaries to Robert McCabe in Madison, Wisconsin. McCabe returned them to Manitoba in 1981.
1. Arthur J. Ray, Canadian Fur Trade in the Industrial Age, 1990.
2. Peter C. Newman, “Hudson’s Bay, USA”, Globe and Mail, 18 February 2006, p. F5.
3. www.zambonista.com/hbr. I would like to thank Dean Berezanski of the Wildlife Branch, Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship, for this reference.
5. Joe Robertson, Resource Management: A History of the Successes and Failures of Wildlife and Fishery Resource Management in Manitoba, Dauphin, Manitoba, self-published, 2004. Appendix II, pp. 167-204.
6. Because of serious depletion of the beaver in the north, trapping of them was banned in the late 1930s and early ‘40s. Gerald Malaher, The North I Love, Winnipeg, Hyperion Press, 1984, pp. 91 & 92.
7. For a discussion of the situation in the Province of Manitoba see Malaher, 1984, pp. 133 to 137.
8. Robertson’s diary covers 3 August 1936 to 21 March 1937. He went trapping on the Seal River because of the exceptional catch of foxes the year before. This is corroborated by Pienowski’s diary note for 29 March 1936, “Heard that our old partner Gordon Moffatt on the upper Seal river got over 200 foxes with his pardner.” FDM, p. 11, p. 42.
9. Journal of a Trapper was prepared for publication in 1848 but not actually published until 1914. See Chittenden, The American Fur Trade of the Far West, Vol. 1, University of Nebraska Press, 1986, p. 198.
10. Robertson stated that before 1918, most of the trappers worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Then independent white men started going into the bush on their own. Before the use of gill nets, Indians could not keep dogs, because the fish were needed for dog feed during the summer. The peak of this wave of trappers was during the 1930s.
Page revised: 7 January 2017