MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 35, 1978-79 season
The history of Prince of Wales's Fort might be construed as starting with the European discovery of Hudson Bay in 1610. Hudson, of course, gave both his life and his name to this huge body of water that for a time seemed to offer potential as a major part of the elusive North-West Passage. He was followed by a large number of explorers: Button, Fox, James and Munk, none of whom found a passage to anything overly interesting. Jens Munk, however, did winter at the mouth of the Churchill River in 1619-1620 with calamitous results. Over the winter 59 of his 61 men died of either scurvy or trichinosis or both, and in 1620 Munk and the two surviving crewmen somehow sailed back to Norway.
Munk's experience foreshadowed many of the problems Europeans had in settling the Churchill area. His party suffered disease, extreme discomfort from the cold, and near starvation; three recurring themes in the story of human habitation at Churchill. Apparently he did recognize the potential wealth of the area and suggested that fur might be the means of financing exploration in the area. His experiences, however, seem to have dissuaded other Europeans from following him into the Churchill River area, and for about fifty years the shores of Hudson Bay were ignored by Europeans.
Radisson and Groseilliers were chiefly responsible for seeing the commercial potential of the bay, which could provide a simple direct route between the furs of the North-West and the markets of Europe. About 1659 or 1660 they saw the connection between the discoveries of Hudson and James and the rich fur lands of the Indians with whom they were trading north of Lake Superior. Their idea of a Hudson Bay based trade languished for a variety of reasons until 1669 when a group of English merchants outfitted the famous Nonsuch ketch to trade on the shores of the bay. The financial returns from their early provisional venture were sufficient to attract investor attention, and in 1670 a royally-chartered company with the unwieldy corporate name of the "Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson Bay" was formed.
To begin with, the Company traded at the "bottom of the bay" in what is now known as James Bay. It was also engaged in a struggle for control of the coastal trade with New England merchants, and, more importantly, French interests. From 1670 to 1713 rival imperial and commercial interests contended for control of the Hudson Bay fur trade. It was only in 1713, with the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht that the Company gained undisputed possession of the bay-side posts.
The Company then began a period of trade expansion northwards along the eastern and western shores of Hudson Bay. An expedition was sent north from York Factory in 1715-1716 to make peace between the Cree and Chipewyans in the area, and the justly-famed Thanadelthur or Slave Woman managed to get the two hostile groups to agree. With the area more or less peaceful, three groups of native peoples could be drawn in to trade at a post on the Churchill River where their respective territories overlapped. The port of Churchill is situated in the transitional zone from taiga to tundra, yet is still close to the forest lands of the Canadian Shield. Lying amid three distinctive environments, it is not surprising that it also lay between the three native groups exploiting these different environments: the Inuit of the tundra zone, the Swampy Cree of the boreal forests and Hudson Bay Lowland regions, and the Chipewyans who drifted between the three environments in what is known as the northern transitional forest.
In addition to drawing these remote northerly natives into the fur trade, Governor Knight of HBC, the progenitor of the scheme to settle at Churchill, probably had in mind three main purposes for the new port. It would draw off extra trade from York and "leave the latter free to compete with the French in the lands of Saskatchewan, Moose, and Albany Rivers, it would serve as a point of departure for voyages of trade and discovery to the north as well as undertaking a white whale fishing, and finally it might provide access to great mineral wealth," particularly to the legendary mines of the Copper Indians.
With such great prospects in store, work began in 1717 on a Churchill River post, and 1719 it was officially named "Prince of Wales's Fort." From the start the post did not quite live up to its proponents' expectations. Even James Knight, its founder, was moved to remark that "York Fort is badd but this is Tenn times worse." Trade returns were mixed, and many observers felt that Prince of Wales's Fort would never fully pay the costs of its operation. This view was particularly strong among the Chief Factors at York, who almost to a man thought Prince of Wales's Fort only siphoned off furs that would have gone to York in any case. The company persevered with the post, however, and made it independent of York in 1725.
In 1730 the prestige of Prince of Wales's Fort was further augmented, when it was decided to make it the lynch-pin in the company's military defenses on the Bay. The governing committee of the H.B.C. accepted a plan for an ambitious stone fort at Churchill drawn up by one of the Company's sea captains, Christopher Middleton. There has always been a great deal of speculation as to why a stone fort was ever built, and particularly at the mouth of the Churchill River. York Factory was obviously much more important in economic terms, its trade was normally two or three times that of Prince of Wales's Fort. On the other hand, the Churchill River did offer a large harbour, and stone could be quarried locally. Perhaps the best explanation of why the stone fort was built was recorded by historian A. S. Morton. He argued that Prince of Wales's Fort was built not solely to defend Company interests in the Churchill River area, but as a defensible place of refuge for all bay-side employees and Company possessions in the event of war. All ships and men were to converge on the Prince of Wales's Fort in the event of war, and anchor under the fort's guns in the river mouth. Crews and employees could then man the fort's guns which could at no time have been handled by the complement of men stationed at Prince of Wales's Fort itself.
Work began on the stone fort in 1731, and eventually a fort consisting of four bastions connected by curtain walls along which ran boarded runways for guns and a five foot high parapet wall was completed. Forty-two cannons were mounted on the walls, and across the river a battery with emplacements for six additional cannons was constructed to aid in closing off the mouth of the river to hostile shipping. The fort never was completed, for a variety of reasons. Construction lagged, and repairs and major alterations in the fort's construction continued right up to the time the fort was captured by LaPerouse.
From 1731 to 1782 Prince of Wales's Fort remained an important, but not crucial part of the Hudson's Bay Company's operations. It was a starting point for a variety of trading, whaling, and exploratory ventures, including the epic overland journey of Samuel Hearne to the mouth of the Coppermine River in 1770-1771. It experienced the various war-scares of the century, and saw its trade increasingly usurped by French and later Canadian traders, despite its northern site. In short, it shared the general experiences of all the Hudson's Bay Company bay-side posts during the eighteenth century. Finally in 1782 its military function in Hudson's Bay Company planning was put to the test by a French expedition under the command of LaPerouse. Samuel Hearne surrendered the fort without attempting any defence at all. LaPerouse effectively put an end to the fort's career as a trading post and as a military installation. He "spiked the cannon and burned the gun carriages, undermined the walls and blew great breaches in them, and set fire to the fort in five different places." When Churchill was returned to the company in 1783, a new post was built at the site of the original Prince of Wales's Fort. This new Prince of Wales's Fort never achieved the economic or strategic importance of its predecessor. It entered a long period of decline as the fur trade moved inland. Whereas York Factory remained important as the chief depot of the H.B.C.'s trade, by the mid-1850s Churchill was left with a single post-master to run the affairs. It had become a fur-trade "ghost town," and only the construction of a railroad line and port at the mouth of the Churchill River in the early twentieth century prevented its decline into oblivion.
Despite its somewhat inglorious record as a fort and a trading post, Prince of Wales's Fort in the eighteenth century was not an unpleasant place to live and work. For example, company employees were comparatively well-paid. Chief Factors earned 180 to £100 per annum in salary and usually at least as much again through personal trapping or illicit trade. Other company officers earned proportionally less, though most earned at least £40 a year. Tradesmen earned between £20 and £36 a year depending on their experience and the kinds of skills they possessed. Labourers generally started work at £6 per annum and, assuming a satisfactory work record, received increments of 40 shillings a year up to a maximum of about £14 per annum. By way of comparison, in the eighteenth century the most highly-skilled tradesman in London earned between 15 and 20 shillings a week. Less highly-esteemed tradesmen, such as cabinet-makers or glaziers, earned between 12 and 15 shillings a week, while labourers ordinarily earned less than 10 shillings a week. Since the company also provided room and board for its employees, they could save a large portion of their wages unlike their fellow workers in England.
Those employed on the bay were also able to enrich themselves through private or illicit trade. No one is really sure how much private trading went on, but there are indications that it was substantial. In 1769, for example, the Company itself seized furs worth £988 that had been brought back illegally from the New World. In order to reduce this trade, salaries were raised in 1770, and Chief Factors and Ships' Captains were paid a bounty on the number of skins traded. That year the Chief Factor at York, despite being paid £355, complained that his income was too small. Since previously he had never made more than £200 from salary and personal trappings, it suggests that he was doing a large volume of business with the Ship's Captain. Andrew Graham, in his Observations on Hudson Bay, suggests that not only did this illicit trade out of York Factory amount to more than 3,000 beaver skins a year, but that through the giving of "presents" to everyone employed in the post it involved even the bricklayers, coopers and labourers. At York Factory the Chief Factor and Ship's Captain shared 1,500 skins while labourers received the proceeds from the sale of one to five skins. While the total illicit trade out of Churchill was not as great as at York, it would have amounted to quite a bit of extra money for all who were employed there, and at least one of the Chief Factors at Churchill, Moses Norton, was famous around the bay for his trading activities.
Individual men also set themselves up in trade. James Moad died in 1759, and as was customary at the time, his trunk was opened in order to auction off his effects for his family. Ferdinand Jacobs, the Chief Factor, reported that in Moad's chest he found "Nine Buck Handle Clasp Knives, 5 Small Pair Sissors [sic], 20 Brass Thimbles, 7 Plain Brass Rings and 3 Small Horn Handle Knives." These goods had been sent to him by James Young, a merchant in Stromness in the Orkneys, for trade with the Indians. Others simply stole company property and sold it to the Indians, though some came to regret this kind of dishonesty. One post armourer named Anderson "blowed [sic] himself up with gunpowder which he had concealed in his briches [sic] in order to trade or deal with ye Indians." The result of his indiscretions was that he ended up "Skind ... all below ye wasteband of ye briches."
A great deal of this private trading was aimed not at self-enrichment, but at obtaining the goods necessary to trade for brandy and other alcohol. Sloop captains and surgeons seem to have been particularly active in a sort of early "bootleg" trade. Ten gallon lots of brandy sold for up to £3/10 to those who wished to drink more than the Company allotted them.
The men enjoyed numerous holidays including St. George's Day, Coronation Day, Easter, and the usual Christmas Holidays from December 24th to January 1st, when very little work took place. On these days the Chief Factor generally dispensed rum or brandy to make punch in order to drink the required four or five toasts in celebration of the occasion. As much as 200 gallons of brandy and rum might be dispensed at company expense over the year, and as much again or more purchased by the men, not to mention the illicit brandy imported and consumed. When the consumption of beer and wine is included with the consumption of spirits it is clear that the Prince of Wales's Fort harboured a hard-drinking community.
Alcohol consumption was the most popular recreational activity at the fort, and often it was associated with other activities. For example, Company employees and Indians were inveterate gamblers, and often the stakes were alcoholic. Games of skill, like shooting at a mark or football, were played on holidays, sometimes with alcoholic prizes to the victors. On Wednesdays and Saturdays the men were usually given a quart of brandy if they wanted it, which they could consume at their leisure, and on these days the Chief Factor often had his officers over to his quarters in the evening for a bowl of rum or brandy punch. Alcohol was also used as a reward for men who undertook hazardous or unpleasant work. Perhaps the best example of this is the 10 gallons of brandy given every year to Thomas Smith in return for blowing up the stones needed to construct the walls of the fort.
For all that it made dining on Wednesday and Saturday more pleasant, holidays more joyous, and dangerous work less terrifying, alcohol contributed greatly to social problems at the fort. It was the cause of numerous fights, thefts, and even attempted murder and death. On several occasions drunken men left the fort for one reason or another, lost their way and froze to death. One notorious drunkard, John Watson, was so angered by the attempt of Joseph Isbister, the Chief Factor at the time, to curb his drinking and to get him to do more work, that he attempted to stab Isbister with a sharpened file.
"These unpleasant side-effects of leisure time were, however, not very frequent, and most employees were reasonably well-behaved, and some were even inclined to gentle pursuits like reading, observing nature (especially birds and other wild-life) and concocting schemes for taming caribou so that they could be used to pull sleds. Most employees caused so little trouble when a "unsociable and untractable lunatick man" was hired, the event was noted in the post journal.
In addition to being well-paid and enjoying reasonable amounts of leisure and recreation, men working on the bay enjoyed an excellent diet (many became quite fat), and good clothing. Food at Prince of Wales's Fort came from two sources: local or country provisions and imported food stuffs. Most of the food the men ate came from local sources. Prince of Wales's Fort, despite its northern location, had a garden which produced turnips and cabbage, and some domestic animals were kept. Local plants provided fresh food, especially berries which were varied and plentiful. In fact, many men carefully collected cranberries which they packed in casks with sugar to send home to family and friends as gifts. "Wishapucka" or Labrador tea was a common drink, and prized for its supposed medicinal qualities. It was reputed to be particularly effective in treating nervous disorders.
Most country provisions, however, came from hunting and fishing. The fish most often eaten at Churchill are now considered delicacies: "tickameg" or whitefish, and "salmon" or what we now call arctic char. Unfortunately the men sometimes got "salmon" so often that they from time to time would fling salt char at each other as a protest. This of course illustrates the main problem with the diet at Prince of Wales's Fort; food was usually plentiful, but it could get monotonous.
Moose, deer and even buffalo meat reached the fort, but caribou venison was the most common meat. In one month at the fort as much as 9,651 pounds of "Deers flesh" might be brought in by local Indians to trade. This quantity of caribou flesh was by no means typical of the food supplies at Churchill, but meat was generally plentiful. Geese and ptarmigan or "partridge" were also eaten by the thousands. The spring goose hunt at Churchill might net over 5,000 geese and during the winter upwards of 6,000 ptarmigan could be killed and eaten.
All these supplies of country provisions were, however, somewhat erratic. Sometimes geese, ptarmigan, caribou and fish seemed simply to disappear. In 1748 the fall goose hunt produced only 185 birds. Fortunately it was rare for more than one of the food sources to fail in a given year, though when that happened the spectre of starvation and scurvy loomed large. At these times the men had to rely a great deal on imported provisions which consisted for the most part of flour, oatmeal, dried peas and beans and salt pork, beef and bacon. Not only was this food a little short on necessary vitamins, it was frequently less than appetizing. The salt meat was often worm-eaten or putrid, and barrels of flour, oatmeal, peas and so on were regularly underweight, and included large amounts of sand and dirt.
Even when large quantities of imported provisions had to be eaten, scurvy rarely broke out. Long before the British navy started dispensing antiscorbutics like lime juice to sailors, company employees had learned to keep scurvy at bay with a number of local remedies. One involved drinking large quantities of porter and port wine along with "crystallized salts of lemon, essence of malt and cranberries." The other more common cure was drinking spruce beer which was made according to the following recipe:
To brew this Beer, the Kettle being near full of Water, cram the Kettle with small Pine; from one Experiment you will judge the Quantity of Pine that will bear a Porportion to your Water, let the Tops of the Pine be boiled in the Water until the Pine turns yellow, and the Bark peels, or the Sprigs strip off readily on being pulled; then take off your Kettle, and the Pine out of the Water, and to about two Gallons of Liquor put a quarter of a Pint of Molosses [sic]; hang your Kettle on, giving the Liquor another Boil until a Scum arises; then take the Liquor off, put it into a Cask in which you have before put cold Water, the Quantity of about two Gallons, if it is a twelve Gallon Cask; when your Cask is full, then take a Gun with a small Quantity of Powder, and no Wad; fire into the Bunghole, it will set the Liquor a working; in about twenty-four Hours stop the Cask down, and the Liquor will be ready to drink.
For the purpose of food distribution the men were divided into groups of four. Each of these groups would be given the following daily rations of food: 14 pounds of venison, fresh or salted, 12 ptarmigans with one quart of oatmeal, 12 pounds of fish with a half-pound of butter, eight ducks with one quart of oatmeal, four fresh geese or four pounds salt beef, with two pounds plums and two pounds of flour. Plums and flour were turned into puddings, and oatmeal was turned into gruel. When this oatmeal was "boiled to a thickness" and sweetened with molasses it made the popular fur trade dish called grout.
There was a great deal of protein in the men's diet, and it compares favorably with what they would have eaten at home. Company employees from the Orkneys rarely ate anything but salt codfish and cabbage with pease porridge or oatmeal bread. English tradesmen were better fed back in England than the Orcadians, but it is hard to believe, based on European figures, that they consumed much more than 100 to 150 pounds of meat a year: about one half to one-third of a pound of meat per day. The lowliest of company servants would have been shocked at such a meager allowance from post stores.
For clothing company employees purchased "slops" or cheap ready-made clothing for sailors from the captains of the supply ships. This "common European dress" was normal attire during the summer months from about June to October. Winter dress owed much in terms of design to Indian models though European materials were often used along with fur and hide. Andrew Graham describes the winter attire of the well-dressed fur trader as follows:
the outer garment is an open coat or banian made of moose skin, with cuffs and a cape of beaver or other; but in very cold weather this is not sufficient. It is therefore changed for a beaver toggy with the fur inwards. It is in the same form as the other. The waistcoat is of cloth with sleeves and lined with flannel. The breeches are made of deer, or elk skin, lined with flannel. The legs are covered with a pair of worsted or yarn stockings without feet; and over them, a pair of cloth stockings Indian fashion, reaching from the ankle to the groin, and tied below the knee with strings or Indian garters. The feet are defended from the cold by three pairs of socks made of duffel, or blanketing, and reaching half way up the leg. The shoes are the same as the natives', with a piece of leather or cloth sewed round the quarters which wrap round the instep and excludes the cold and snow in travelling. In mild weather an other skin wig or cap is worn, having a broad piece of the above skin round it, the crown of cloth lined with linen; but when the cold is great or snow drifting much another kind of cap is used, the crown also of cloth but lined with flannel, and has a large flap or cape which comes down over the shoulders, and ties under the chin. The face is defended by a chin-cloth made of beaver, duffel, flannel or blanketing. It comes under the chin, over the cheeks and ties with strings on the crown of the head under the cap, so that little more than the eyes, nose and mouth is exposed to the air. On warm days we use only large leather mittens lined with duffel or blanketing, and fastened together with a string like the natives. But in sharp weather, beaver mittens with the fur outwards, for defending the face on occasions; these are lined and fastened like the others.
While the men's clothing certainly seems appropriate for the climate, and a judicious mixture of European and Indian materials and designs, accommodation at the fort was less appealing. At the fort men were lodged in the Men's House. This was a large two-storey structure attached to a warehouse and the governor's residence which ran along the north-west wall of the fort's courtyard. It probably had a large stove in the centre of each floor with small cubicles or "cabins" ranged along the walls. Officers and skilled tradesmen were given small rooms of their own, each with a bed place and space for tools, books, supplies and the like. The rest of the men bunked two together in small bed-places. In winter the Men's House was bitterly cold. The central stoves did not cast much warmth into the corners of the building, and beer regularly froze within the Men's House. In order to get some heat in the "cabins" shot was placed in the fireplaces until red-hot and then hung in the windows of the building. Rime would build up on interior walls to the depth of several inches. In order to cut down on the amount of wood burned, since firewood was not plentiful at Churchill, when the fire-bed burned down to embers the chimneys were stopped with iron covers. While this kept heat in, it also kept the smoke in too, and many of the men complained of eye trouble.
It is small wonder that most of the men preferred to live outside of the fort in winter. While working outside the fort the men lived in log or skin tents. The "skin" tent, as its name implies, was the basic Indian tent. The men found them cold and smoky, and preferred living in log tents. Log tents varied in size, though one 14 feet long, seven feet wide, and about nine feet high could accommodate 14 men. They were constructed by placing a long pole of about 14 to 16 feet between two trees at a height of about nine feet. Logs were then laid up against this cross-piece on either side sloping outwards towards the ground. A small space was left for a doorway on the south side of the structure and a crosspiece placed above it. Shorter logs were placed on this crosspiece to create a chimney above a central hearth. The ends of the building were also filled in with logs and moss was used as chinking throughout. A layer of mud over the whole structure made it wind and waterproof as soon as it froze. The overall shape of the log tent was like the "eaves" of a house. About the hearth large squared logs were arranged as seats, and around the outside of these logs the men slept with their feet toward the fire and their heads toward the outside walls. Their beds were never laid on the ground, but rather on piles of pine boughs that raised the bedding at least one foot off the ground. This kind of housing was a very effective adaptation of Indian technique since it provided warm and not very smoky accommodation.
Workers on the bay on the whole were well paid, well fed, well clothed, and reasonably housed. If anything, the kind of life they enjoyed on the bay was superior in many respects to what they would have experienced at home. However, loneliness and frequent idleness encouraged melancholy and drunkenness. Work at the fort was dangerous. Several men froze to death, and many were injured or killed in work-related accidents. Moreover, while scurvy was largely under control the men did suffer from frequent attacks of dysentery and the "country distemper" or what we would now call pneumonia or perhaps pleurisy. Samuel Hearne may have expressed the advantages of life on the bay better than anyone else: "Myself and People are as usual all in good health, but that is no wonder since the pureness of the air and the wholesomeness of the Diet makes it the healthiest part in the known world and what is very extraordinary at this place some of us think we never grow any older ..."
European employees were, of course, not the only people affected by the construction of Prince of Wales's Fort. Situated by design at the intersection of the territories of three native groups, the fort brought Cree, Chipewyan and the Caribou Inuit into at least intermittent contact with Europeans and European goods.
By far the greatest impact of white contact was felt by the Cree, particularly the Swampy Cree of the Hudson Bay Lowlands. These Swampy Crees were often called the "Homeguard" Indians by the traders and should be distinguished from the Cree of the interior: the Woodland and Plains Cree. The Cree, or "Kristineaux" as they were sometimes referred to, were an Algonkian-speaking people who occupied the territory that stretches in a huge arc around Hudson and James bays from Northern Quebec to the Churchill River. Occupying a huge territory, they were not a particularly homogeneous cultural group. In fact, they had a tendency to take "on the colour of the tribes with whom they had most contact," in the words of Diamond Jenness. This pattern repeated itself among the "Homeguard" Cree.
Originally they were migratory, surviving by hunting the large mammals of the boreal forest. Woodland caribou, moose, bear, beaver, deer and some small game like hares and birds provided most of their food. Fishing was not traditionally considered an important food-gathering activity, and was largely scorned as a pursuit unworthy of hunters. Based as it was on large mammals, their food supply dictated that the Swampy or Homeguard Cree lived in small hunting bands usually based on some kind of family ties. They had none of the formal tribal structures of West Coast and Eastern Agricultural Indian groups.
The Company tried to impose a system of chieftainship on these scattered bands. The earliest of the Homeguard Cree at Churchill was the aptly named "Factory," who hired himself out to the Company as a goose hunter. Company officers bestowed on him, the title of "Captain" or "Chief" of the river, the first of these largely honorific titles so dispensed. At the trading ceremonies these captains were the centre of all gift-giving, bargaining, and ritual, though most observers point out that their positions of prominence were only temporary.
The Homeguard Cree soon discovered that bayside posts like Prince of Wales's Fort needed them even more than they needed labour-saving European technology. The fur traders needed skilled hunters and trappers, not to mention people to make clothing, snow-shoes and other goods. By hiring themselves out to the company in this local service industry they could acquire all the European goods they needed, and avoid some of the risks of a subsistence hunting economy. In times of scarcity when the caribou did not migrate, or the geese disappeared, regular access to the port could provide them with flour, preserved foods and other necessities to avert starvation. It is small wonder that many Swampy Cree attached their fortunes firmly to those of the fur-traders.
Later on, especially after the area around Churchill became trapped out (as the Hudson Bay Lowland region was never rich in large mammal life this did not take long) the Cree, Homeguard and Woodland, became middlemen in the fur trade. They traded for furs with more distant tribes and then brought these furs into the bayside posts. They became the "courier-de-bois" of the Hudson's Bay Company. They also showed themselves to be quite astute at business. They were able to demand a very stable standard of trade and supply of goods. Moreover, they used their strategic position astride the river routes to the bay to prevent any encroachment on their trade monopoly. Chief Factors at York and Churchill were well aware of the existence of the tribes of the interior and often tried to engage them directly in trade to no avail. At Churchill one is hard pressed to find anything more than occasional reference to any but Cree or Chipewyan groups coming in to trade, and then the references are usually to Assiniboines, allies of the Cree.
The Cree also turned out to be cagey consumers, much more sensible customers than all the stories about trading for beads would have us believe. Andrew Graham stated that few Indians would bring in furs worth more than about 100 made beaver. Once they had trapped or traded for furs worth this amount they simply stopped. Of this 100 made beaver worth of fur, about 70 went on necessities: guns, shot, powder, knives, and hatchets. The other 30 made beaver were frittered away on drinking, gambling and "baubles." Sometimes Indians would ask the Factor what extra to buy, but no one was very successful at creating additional demand. The Company tried to introduce frivolous trade items, like toys or "Musical Chirmers," but without success. Factors often tried to encourage purchases of excess tobacco or powder, but according to Andrew Graham the answer they usually received was: "I have traded sufficient to serve me and my family until I see you again next summer." One of the ironies of the trade was that giving Indians more for their furs only meant fewer furs were brought in.
The whole trade rested on a rather narrow margin of need, and when Homeguard or Woodland Cree did not require any European goods they also stayed well away from the posts. Even the Homeguards were not there at the traders' beck and call, and Company employees often had to fend for themselves, especially hunting, when the local bands decided they had enough supplies to forego visiting the post. In fact, in the eighteenth century even the Homeguard Cree were not nearly as dependent on European goods as the traders were on the Indian produce and technology.
A carefully arranged truce between the Cree and the Chipewyans enabled the latter to come down to trade at Prince of Wales's Fort after 1715, though complete peace was not achieved until about 1730. Thereafter Chipewyans formed an important part of the fur trade at Churchill. The volume of their trade never reached the levels that men like Richard Norton or James Knight thought it might. The Chipewyans did not have long navigable rivers in their lands and therefore they never developed the canoe as a means of transport like the Cree. Instead their canoes were small, easily portable, and designed for ferrying people and goods across rivers, not travelling along them. The basic means of transporting furs to Churchill by the Chipewyans was the pack on the back. As a result most Chipewyans found that they could get along without making the long and dangerous trek to Prince of Wales's Fort themselves. Instead, small bands of Chipewyans set themselves up as middlemen or traders themselves, and acted as the means of exchanging European products for Chipewyan furs.
These bands of "trading" Chipewyans wandered over vast distances trading here and there with their less adventurous and probably more sensible fellows, returning to Prince of Wales's Fort after two or often more years with further loads of furs. The life of the trading Chipewyan was hard and dangerous since travel back and forth to Churchill often required that they ignore the migration patterns of the caribou, their best food source. While some trading captains like Matonabbee acquired a certain amount of prestige and even fame, Samuel Hearne was not afraid to admit that those Chipewyans who stayed largely aloof from the trade were better off. With remarkable insight for a European of the period Hearne noted that:
The real wants of these people are few [Hearne estimated about three or four made beaver worth of goods a year] and easily supplied ... those who endeavour to possess more, are always the most unhappy, and may, in fact, be said to be only slaves and carriers to the rest, whose ambition never leads them to anything beyond the means of procuring food and clothing. It is true, the carriers pride themselves much on the respect which is shewn to them at the Factory; to obtain which they frequently run great risques of being starved to death in their way thither and back; and all they procure after a year's toil, seldom amounts to more than is sufficient to yield a bare subsistence.... while those whom they call indolent and mean-sprited live generally in a state of plenty, without trouble or risque; and consequently must be the most happy, and, in truth, the most independent also.
Even more remote were the Caribou Eskimo of the present Keewatin District. They were figures of mystery and fear for Europeans until well into the eighteenth century. As late as 1755 a letter in the country correspondence book for Churchill suggests that an attack was made by Eskimo on Henley House, which was inland even from James Bay. The Caribou Eskimo did little to allay European nervousness with them. Attempts to train Eskimo interpreters were failures: Eskimo boys brought back to Churchill from northern sloop voyages, remained homesick and uncommunicative throughout their stays there. Moreover, violence flared several times on their sloop voyage especially when the sloop master lacked discretion and diplomacy. In 1753, James Walker drew his cutlass and pistol on an Eskimo hunter before cooler heads prevailed, and then later had to flee south after the local Eskimo armed themselves and ringed the sloop with kayaks.
While sloop voyages northward for trade and to some extent exploration continued, the Caribou Eskimo remained of little importance to the trade at Churchill. They were to European eyes strange, periodically hostile, and worse still had little of value to trade: some whalebone and oil only. As a result contact between the Caribou Eskimo and fur traders was minimal throughout the eighteenth century.
The pattern of white-native contact around Prince of Wales's Fort is reasonably clear. Proximity to the post increased contact, and the process of cultural change or adaptation. Thus white influence was strongest on near neighbours, the Homeguard Cree, and least on the Caribou Eskimo who remained distant from the Europeans in more than just a geographical sense. However, other factors beyond mere proximity played a role in the kind of interaction that took place. Material and psychological cultural traits also played a role in the nature of white-native contact. The fact that the Cree used large canoes made contact easier and more profitable for both sides. The Chipewyans, lack of navigable rivers and trustworthy canoes made contact, however much each side desired it, relatively less easy and profitable. Moreover, as several commentators have pointed out, the Cree were a very adaptable group and they showed a tendency, not nearly so apparent among most other tribal groupings, to take some of the cultural baggage of other groups that surrounded them. Thus the Plains Cree borrowed from the Assiniboine, southern Cree from the Ojibway, and the Homeguard from the fur traders. In all of this, however, it must be remembered that the fur traders relied on the Indians a great deal; in fact, without native assistance and technology, eighteenth century fur traders could not have survived on the shores of Hudson's Bay, let alone have prospered. For the eighteenth century, at least, the fur traders were, if anything, dependent on their Indian allies rather than the reverse.
Prince of Wales's Fort in the eighteenth century was a fascinating place. It was in many ways a failure as a trading post and a centre for exploration, and was definitely a failure in a military sense. However, the human element of the post's story-the trading, hunting, building, drinking, eating and playing-is most significant. Too often the common man is forgotten in stories of great explorers, battles or the complexities of trade and imperial expansion. Prince of Wales's Fort had a part of all those things, but it also was home for hundreds of men over the century, and an important part of the economic life of thousands.
Editor's note: This paper is a shortened version of a study done for Parks Canada, Prairie Region, entitled Prince of Wales's Fort: A Social History, 1717-1782. All quotations are from materials relating to the fort in the collection of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives of Winnipeg.
Page revised: 22 May 2010