The Winter Packet
MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 27, 1970-71 Season
The Winter Packet was the sole life-line tying together the servants in the fur trade in their lonely outposts from Fort Garry at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers to Fort McPherson in the MacKenzie River District.
The first week in December was one of lively activity as mail was sorted, price lists checked, orders for transfers written and general instructions prepared.
The morning the runners caught their dogs, hitched them to their toboggan-like sledges, cracked whips and shouted "Marche" was an exciting interlude in an otherwise long, hard winter in the settlement so far away from any other.
It isn't easy to imagine the fatigue, the dangers from blizzards and hunger as the runners and their dogs travelled by rivers and lakes nearly 3,000 miles, ending "just as the sunshine of mid-May is beginning to carry a faint whisper of spring to the valleys of the Upper Yukon, the dog train, the last of many, drags the packet, now but a tiny bundle into the enclosure of La Pierre's house." 
The term "packet" was used for the heavy leather case used to transport nail, reports and orders to and from Rupert's Land to the Governor and Council in London, England. It was the last item entrusted to the captain before he set sail from York Factory, because any omission was a serious matter with only one ship a year into the Bay.
The first white man to travel in winter like the Indians was Henry Kelsey. He first came to the notice of officials of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1687, when, after four Indians failed, he was sent with an Indian boy to deliver letters to Severn. He made the return journey in a month bringing back replies. Because of his ability to live off the land he was chosen to make the trip to the Coppermine in the winter of 1690-91. This had to be done while the muskegs were frozen. 
Samuel Hearne set out in December 1770 on a winter journey of which he provides detailed reports in his journal. He was slowed down because of desertions so his remaining porters found that the additional weight "made a deal of difference, as the Captain's sick wife is also obliged to be hauled on a sledge." 
The North West Company ran a winter express from Montreal sometime in the '80s. It was due to the competition of the North West Company that the decision was made to set up inland posts with "wintering partners" and Samuel Hearne built Cumberland House in 1774. 
Communications between these posts in winter were at first haphazard and runners were used. Robert Goodwin wrote from Brandon House near the junction of the Souris with the Assiniboine river, 6th February, 1795, to the Chief at York Factory by runner.  James Sutherland, Master of Brandon House, sent a letter "up the river" with a party of four men to his brother John Sutherland, on January 4th, 1797 to say "you may send down as many men with Wm. Taylor as you can spare from bringing down your craft in the spring."  A reply written at Indian Elbow Feb. 13, 1797 was carried by Wm. Taylor, accompanied by James Sinclair, and delivered at Brandon House February 26th.  They most likely snow shoed both ways.
In January 1811 Peter Fidler at Ile a la Crosse was asked by his archenemies Black and Ogden, if he wished to send letters to the Saskatchewan River. He sent his own man and sewed "the most secret letter" into his clothes so that the "Canadians" would not find it.  In his journal he noted "the packet containing our European letters for the last 2 years was brought safe here and received on Christmas eve from Mr. Pruden at Hudson House." 
This is the earliest reference to the mail packet that I have seen. It would be safe to infer that by the year 1810 the winter packet was well established. Fidler's man ran across the normal routes and returned from Edmonton House in February.
Captain John Franklin's party of three left from Cumberland House, on the Saskatchewan River, on the 18th January, 1820.  He was accompanied by Mr. McKenzie, of Hudson's Bay Company, who was going to lie a la Crosse with four sledges under his charge.
He described the use of snowshoes for his English readers and Mr. Hood wrote a clear description of the sledges and that "the Carioles used by the traders is merely a covering of leather for the lower part of the body, affixed to the common sledge, which is painted and ornamented to the taste of the proprietor. Besides snowshoes, each individual carries his blanket, hatches, steel, flint, and tinder, and generally fire-arms." 
Captain Franklin also provides an excellent description of the winter traveller's dress. "A capot having a hood to put up under the fur cap in windy weather, or in the woods, to keep the snow from his neck; leathern trousers and Indian Stockings which are closed at the ankles, round the upper part of his moccasins, or Indian shoes, to prevent the snow from getting into them. Over these he wears a blanket, or leathern coat, to which his fire-bag, knife and hatchet are suspended." 
George Simpson, Superintendent of Athabasca, later to be known as "The Little Emperor," wintered at Fort Wedderburn in 1820-21. In November he recorded that he was under pressure to complete correspondence and reports in time to go out with the winter packet and he describes the gay trappings of the sleigh dogs. 
Two authors provide detailed accounts of the scene at Fort Garry as the Winter Packet sets off. The one by J. J. Hargrave, "The starting of the Northern Packet from Red River is one of the great annual events of the Colony. It occurs generally about 10th December, when the ice having been thoroughly formed and the snow fallen, winter travelling is easy and uninterrupted. The packet arrangements are such that every post in the Northern Department is communicated with through its agency. The means of transit are sledges and snowshoes. The sledges are drawn by magnificent dogs, of which there are three or four to each vehicle, whose neatly fitting harness, though gaudy in appearance, is simple in design and perfectly adapted to its purposes, while the little bells attached thereto, bright looking and clearly ringing, cheer the flagging spirits of men and animals through the long run of a winter day." 
Sir William Francis Butler adds to the detail: "Towards the middle of the month of December there is unusual bustle in the office of the Hudson's Bay Company in Fort Garry on the Red river. The Winter Packet is being made ready. Two oblong boxes are filled with letters and papers to nine different districts of the Northern Continent. The limited term district is an unappropriate  one: a single instance will suffice. From the post of the Forks of the Athabasca and Clear Water rivers to the Rocky Mountains is 900 miles as a man can travel, yet all that distance lies within the limits of the single Athabasca District and there are others larger still. 
"Just as the days are at their shortest, a dog sled bearing the winter packet starts from Fort Garry; a man walks behind it another man some distance in advance of the dogs. It holds its way down the Red River to Lake Winnipeg; in about nine days' travel it crosses that lake to the north 'bore at Norway House; from thence it is lessened of its packet of letters for the Bay of Hudson and the distant Churchill, it journeys twenty days travel up the great Saskatchewan river to Carlton House. Here it under goes a complete readjustment; the Saskatchewan and Lesser Slave Lake letters are detached from it, and about 1st of February it starts its long Tourney to the north. During the succeeding months it holds steadily along its northern way, sending of at long, long intervals branch dog packets to right and to left." 
"Carlton ..." wrote Sir Francis, "is the grand centre of the winter packet arrangements ... The great rendezvous of the winter packets between north and south. From North and West several of the leading agents of the fur company had assembled at Carlton to await the coming of the packet bearing news of the outer world. From Fort Simpson on the Athabasca, from Edmonton on the upper Saskatchewan, from Isle a la Crosse, dogs had drawn the masters of these remote establishments to the central station on the middle Saskatchewan." 
On the loading of the sledges Hargrave wrote about 1870: "In the course of the long distances traversed by the winter runners, every pound of weight laid on the sledges tells. So jealously was all excess guarded against in old times, before the institution of Red River mails, that the carriage of newspapers was disallowed, with the exception of an annual file of the "Montreal Gazette," forwarded to Headquarters for general perusal." 
This reference to the Montreal Gazette for Headquarters is significant because it would seem to indicate that with the union of the two companies in 1821 the Montreal Express was kept running. The Rev. D. T. Jones records in his journal Jan. 31, 1825, "The Winter Express has just arrived from the north of Lake Winnipeg, bringing the distressing intelligence of the destruction of the extensive Fort called Norway House ... by fire in the night of Nov. 10th last."  On January 31st., 1827 he Wrote: "I have the unexpected pleasure of dropping a hasty line to England by Capt. Franklin's Packet which has just reached this place and will leave for Montreal in a few hours." 
By the time of Hargrave's arrival on the Red River scene a change had taken place in contents of the winter packet. "The bulk of the contents of the company's inward bound packets consists of newspapers addressed to individuals." 
He gives a detailed description of the pair of boxes used: "measuring about three feet in length by eighteen inches deep and fourteen wide, when 'yell packed contain an astonishing amount of printed and written matter." 
An excellent description of how the runners lived is given by Sir John Franklin, whose first night on a winter trail was 18th January, 1820. "At the place of our encampment we could scarcely find sufficient pine branches to floor 'the hut' as the Orkneymen term the place where travellers rest. Its preparation, however, consists only in clearing away the snow to the ground, and covering that space with Pine branches, over which the party spread their blankets and coats, and sleep in warmth and comfort, by keeping a good fire at their feet, without any other canopy than the heaven, even though the thermometer should be far below zero." 
A change of dogs and drivers was made at Norway House and the first lot awaited the mail from Churchill and York Factory before returning to Red River.
A more recent account of the Winter Packet was related by Chris Harding and recorded for the Archives of the Hudson's Bay Company. When Fort McPherson was established in 1840, and for a long time following, "The 350 miles or 21 days travel was impossible for dogs because the snow was too powdery. Also sufficient dog food could not be carried for so long a journey. Around the second of February (the daylight being longer) the Mail Packet left Fort McPherson in charge of two hardy scots hauling a hand sled. Their equipment of 100 lbs. being mostly pemmican, dried venison, tea, kettle, axes and one heavy blanket each (the writer has equipped the winter packet the only change being a small quantity of bannock)." 
He describes how on one occasion the men came upon tracks unexpectedly. They followed these and found "two old Loucheaux Indian women abandoned by their tribe in an extreme state of starvation.  Out of their meagre supplies they fed them and went on their way for ten miles before camping for the night, during which the Indian Women did them in with an axe and took off with the small quantity of food they had.
There were less spectacular dangers to face. My grand-Uncles Robbie and Sam Dennison were runners of the winter packet sometime in the early '80s with a French Canadian. They were held up by a three day blizzard and ran out of food. Unable to hunt they got so hungry that the Frenchman killed one of his dogs. Uncle Robbie managed his dog-meat meal, but Sam forced because of hunger to try it, was unable to keep it down. 
If the runners and their dogs were too exhausted by the time they reached Fort Carlton new outfits would be engaged for the return journey. These were sent overland through the Swan River District posts with matter consigned to these delivered and the post mail picked up and added to that from North and West outward bound. "This outward bound express usually reaches Fort Garry in the last week of February. Its arrival forms one of the chief events of the winter. For some days the Company's office is a scene of comparative bustle, maintained by a succession of enquiries for letters from friends inland." 
The excitement created by the arrival of the winter packet was known to R. M. Ballentyne who wrote: "The Winter Packet! the Winter Packet! echoed around York Factory's log buildings. Letters from home. What a burst of sudden emotion - what a riot of conflicting feelings - of dread and joy, expectation and anxiety ... what stirring up of almost forgotten associations these three words create in the hearts of those who dwell in the distant regions of the earth, far away from kith and kin ... from home.
"Letters from home," shouted Mr. Wilson, and the doctor, and the skipper simultaneously, "as the sportsmen, after dashing through the wild storm, at last reached the fort, and stumbled into Bachelor's Hall." 
The description of the Winter Packet at Fort Ellice, roughly 180 miles west of Fort Garry, or the junction of the Red and Assiniboine, in 1878, by N. M. W. J. McKenzie, a former servant of the Company, is much more subdued. It also establishes that the run was from Montreal, Quebec.
The following excerpt is from the book he wrote in 1920 to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the founding of the Company. The title, "The Men of the Hudson's Bay Company 1670-1920", suggests that the author relied greatly on his memory.
He wrote: "Four dogs were the usual team on the prairies and 400 pounds was the regulation load for a freight trip, blanket and feed for self and dogs extra.
The greatest of all trips was the winter mail packet from Montreal to the mouth of the MacKenzie river in the Arctic Ocean, by dogs. The packet had to go through on time at all cost. Each Post had to rush it along to the next Post without any delay, except taking his Post letters out, changing the dog trains and flat sleds, lashing the loads and rations, etc., signing the way bill, then Marche. For instance, Fort Garry would send it to Riding Mountain House, R. M. H. to Ellice, Ellice to Qu'Appelle, Qu'Appelle to Touchwood Hills, Touchwood Hills to Carlton in Saskatchewan District, and so on. Three men and two dog trains generally ran it through, the extra man always ahead on snowshoes when the snow was either too deep or too soft for the dogs to make time.
This was the trip that proved who the best man and best dogs were for that winter, and their fame would be all over the country before next winter. So history was being made and written down in the diary of every Post, recording all these events, as they came on and retired from the stage, record being kept of all the actors as the men passed along with the years." 
Charles Camsell, child of the north who grew up there knew this thrill and he wrote in appreciation of the endurance and the hardship of the runners on the trail. "The much publicized Pony Express that ran from St. Louis to San Francisco during the gold boom in California was a remarkable undertaking, but was no more remarkable as a feat of human endurance or organization ... neither was it comparable in length of run nor in the severity of climatic conditions that had to be faced. The chief difference was that the MacKenzie river packet had no bandits to contend with." 
The unsung men of the winter trails like their counterparts of the water ways (many worked both) did not think of themselves as being any different from their fellows, but there is no doubt that their heroic efforts were greatly appreciated by the lonely servants in the northern hinterland.
1. The Wild Northland, William Francis Butler, p. 80.
2. The Honourable Company, Douglas Mackay.
5. Brandon House Journal, 1794-1795, Robert Goodwin.
6. Brandon House Journal, 1796-1797, James Sutherland.
8. Peter Fidler, Canada's Forgotten Surveyor, J. G. MacGregor, p. 177.
9. Ille a la Crosse Journal, 1810-1811, Peter Fidler.
10. Narrative of a Journey to the Polar Sea, Sir John Franklin, vol. 1, p. 146.
13. Athabasca Journal, 1820, George Simpson.
14. Red River, J. J. Hargrave, p. 155.
19. Hargrave, op. cit., p. 155.
20. Reverend D. T. Jones's Journal 1825 and 1827.
22. Hargrave, op. cit., p. 155.
24. Franklin, op. cit., vol. 1., p. 150.
25. Tragic Fate of Winter Packet Men, Chris Harding, HBC Archives.
27. Narrative of Christina Dennison, Samuel's widow.
28. Hargrave, op. cit.
29. Young Fur Traders, R. M. Ballantyne, p. 255.
30. The Men of the Hudson's Bay Company, 1670-1920, N. M. W. J. McKenzie, p. 38.
31. Son of the North, Charles Camsell, p. 8.
Page revised: 4 March 2011