Demographic influences at York Fort, 1714-1716
MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 26, 1969-70 Season
The occupancy of York Factory on Hayes River had been alternating between the French and English since its establishment in 1682. The French had seized the fort in 1694, but it was retaken by the English two years later, only to be lost again in the spring of 1697. William III of England had seemingly accepted the situation in Hudson Bay without protest, leaving the Hudson's Bay 'Company with but one fort at Albany. But the Treaty of Ryswick which had made this situation seem like a permanent arrangement proved to be transitory. The events of 1697 were reversed at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. 
The greatest concern of the Hudson's Bay Company was the fate of York Fort. It had long been a profitable post for both the English and the French. Both wanted to keep it. However, by the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht, it was restored to the English. 
The eleventh article of the treaty provided that the French should grant satisfaction to the Hudson's Bay Company for all the damages it had suffered during the war. 
Our view of York Fort in 1713 is seen through the journals which were written there. By looking through these records the whole environment is revealed and several models or archetypes appear. First of all there is the rapid breakdown of cultural isolation during a period of crisis and cultural inter-contact. Second is the fragile order involved in the cultural impact. Third is the influence that one culture has on another when it manipulates it to serve its own ends. Fourth is the speed with which the cultural impact takes place.
The situation on Hayes River in 1713 is by no means entirely clear. We must rely chiefly on two sources for information, the French and English. On the French side there is Jeremie's Account of Hudson Strait and Bay (subtitled Twenty Years of York Factory, 1694-1714). The English interpretation of events is supplied chiefly through the journals written by Governor James Knight, Chief Factor at York Fort and Governor-in-Chief in Hudson Bay. There are in addition a few letters dated 1703 and later which supply some information. These letters are, however, infrequent, and there are periods during which no letters whatsoever are available.  The rest of the story is filled in by later accounts by men such as Joseph Robson and Arthur Dobbs in the 1740s and 1750s. 
Jeremie's account illustrates some of the physical hardships endured by the French during their occupation of Fort Bourbon (York Fort) on the Ste. Therese (Hayes River). When Jeremie took command here in 1709 he found his comrades short of food and ammunition. The French trading company had been unable to send ships to Hudson Bay because of hostilities with the English. In 1712 about half of Jeremie's men were killed in an ambush by Indians. Only nine survived.  The French were in miserable circumstances, and one historian, paraphrasing Jeremie, points out the common fate of white man and Indian:
The French survived the winter of 1712 and finally found relief with the end of hostilities in Europe. Neret, Gayot, et co. sent out a supply ship in 1713, and they instructed Jeremie to trade all the goods that he could and make an inventory of the remainder.  Further instructions arrived in 1714 when the English ship with Governor James Knight aboard, reached York Fort. An order signed by the French King commanded Jeremie's attention:
Because of poor planning in London and mishaps in Hudson Bay, the English preparations for the takeover of the fort went awry. It is possible to stretch the consequences of these misfortunes (death, destruction and cultural disruption) too far, but the repercussions as seen rationally through the eyes of Governor Knight reveal an impact much greater at second glance. The preparations for 1713 were being held ready for the completion of the Treaty of Utrecht, but confirmation came too late. Besides, Knight was not ready to sail until 1714 because of illness and other complications. The two ships which left England for Hudson Bay in 1713 did not complete their journey. So there was no trade that year.  The French on the other hand made a profitable trading mission, albeit it was the first in four years and the last for a long time. Jeremie's report for that season notes his success at trading and his sorrow at the French losing the post:
The French, however, were forced to give up the fort, but Jeremie's description of it as one of the best in America revealed only its potential not its physical characteristics. When the English came they found a tumbled-down, rotting collection of shacks, hardly fit for accommodation of the Honourable Company. In the summer of 1714, Jeremie and his men were taken to Europe on the same English ship which had brought out Governor James Knight and his entourage. Jeremie's fate is somewhat mysterious but is partly revealed in his instructions from his employers under date of August 11, 1713:
A brief comment on the economic role of the Hudson's Bay Company is probably appropriate at this point. In the 1750s hostilities against the Company arose partly because of their monopoly and partly because of the recent excitement over the possibilities of a Northwest Passage, the fictional Straits of Annian.  The failure of the Hudson's Bay Company to expand into the interior received special criticism. In the period under review, until 1718, it was mostly because of the difficulties in reestablishing the fort, but after 1718 and until 1782, the Company paid a dividend every year and relaxed in its prosperity. The lessons of the earlier travail, the French rivalries, and the upset because of the disruption in trade in the period 1713-1718, had taught them to respect the profit as the ultimate criterion, and, as K. G. Davies states:
The Hudson's Bay Company had, however, advertised its trade widely among the Indian tribes, and in doing so had perhaps failed to realize how effective its communication had been. The Company sent instructions to Fort Albany to broadcast its trade opportunities far in advance of its actual reoccupation of York Fort. On the 26th May 1708, the letter to John Fullerton at Albany states:
Thus begins another example of the Hudson's Bay Company's role in establishing a dependency factor among the Indians. Blamelessly they helped to establish a disruptive influence on the social patterns of Canadian Indians, which in many respects is evident to this day. Humanitarian interests often prove destructive when the bringing of civilization is accompanied by fatalism and demoralization in the inferior culture. The above letter illustrates how easily upset was the dependency factor. While the advertising of opportunities for trade stimulated the exchange of goods for furs, collateral developments could prove disastrous. The Indian had abandoned his technique of boiling water by placing hot stones in baskets and clay pottery. He now needed for survival iron and copper pots and utensils. The Indian had forsaken the bow and arrow; he now needed guns, ammunition, and powder. An accident in the care of his powder, a broken trigger pin or lost flint could mean starvation.
Governor Knight's interest in the Indian peoples trading into Hudson's Bay was essentially wise and well-founded. He had long sought to promote peace among the Indians and had done so not only at the Company's behest but also on his own desire for their welfare.  Nevertheless, he had been instructed as early as 1692 to keep relations with the Indians on beneficial terms for strictly circumspect reasons. The Crown had commissioned him to such duty on 15 June 1692:
When Knight arrived at York Factory in 1714 he found the prospects very disappointing. Accordingly, he reported to the Company:
He has a problem which must be solved immediately. If not, the winter at York Fort would prove disastrous. Because of the shortness of the summer season, the scantness of goods, poor habitations and little fuel left by the French the problem of survival was compounded. He also felt that the site of the fort should be moved from Fort Bourbon:
The difficulties of restoration begin to mount as several things become apparent. New construction is needed, fire wood and timber must be procured, often at very long distance, thus taking labourers away from the fort for extended periods of time. The situation involving the amount and supply of trading goods must be organized, relations with the neighboring Indians must be improved and the interior tribes must be informed that the English are again on the Bay. As regards trading goods, Knight informed the Company:
Then, concerning the future, Knight expressed his fears:
The shortness of the season and the isolation have created fears and disillusionment. These are traditionally compounded by strange emotional stresses involved by living in the north. Petty personal intrigues and rivalries sometimes overwhelm the rational individual. In some respects Governor Knight's outlook was made more practical by his difficulties. He had one final premonition about his problems:
Nevertheless, the English were to remain regardless of the Indians' wishes. Their accommodations of the winter of 1714-1715 would be poor, and Knight describes them as follows:
But any preparations for the harsh winter that would follow and any improvements on the desolate French camp had to be abandoned in the effort to see off the English and French passengers. The winter would be sufficiently severe without extra inhabitants at York Fort, and so Knight reported:
The situation soon settled down however and the establishment of an ordered society was one of Governor Knight's major concerns. On the 26th of September, 1714, he issued a general order of behavior and decorum to his men. They were commanded, at their peril, to attend prayer services, to avoid swearing, drunken behavior and other profanities. They were forbidden the privilege of contact and communication with the Indian women and were ordered to set a good example.  This order, or rather the disregard of it, provides one of the major examples of social disruption. A sizeable community of half-breed Indians arose around every fort.
Knight also issued orders against hunting without permission or leaving the fort. Theft and wastage of powder and shots in hunting or in defence of the fort were strictly forbidden. The last item warned against fire:
The winter passed and York Fort recovered from the cold and isolation to look forward to the Spring of 1715. Ground had been made ready for gardens the previous autumn.  Plans for construction had been made and the site chosen for the new fort. On March 12 Knight reported progress on the collection of timber.
But the optimism of the Spring was to be short-lived, for an unexpected disaster struck the small and defenceless group at York Fort. With a feeling of disillusionment, Knight records the thwarting of his plans:
Knight's hopes were not to be granted however and the deluge which began as only a trickle ended in a flood:
The ice and water kept rising until it stood at the level of almost 20 feet deep in the area of the fort. The water rose above the top of even the highest building, before it finally receded, and by nightfall the water level was almost out of the grounds of the fort.  York Fort was not safe, however, for the next morning, May 8, the water began to rise again. Luckily some sort of flood had been expected as there had been so much snow on the ground and an old Indian had informed Knight that he had never seen so much before. Knight had therefore stored a great amount of his goods in the upper floors of his buildings and on high ground, minimizing the influence of the ice and water upon them. The deluge destroyed the garden plots which had taken up so much labour the previous autumn and tore up all the fencing around the fort. The nights were still cold and Knight and his men were to spend them in most miserable circumstances. 
On the 9th of May, the third day of the flood, the hogs, goats, and chickens were drowned. Most of the men were scattered on high ground in the woods.  On the 10th the water began falling. By this time Knight himself was weakening from prolonged exposure:
The following day the water level fell even more and the damage could be seen. The loss in stores and in the state of the buildings and pallisades was considerable.  Knight had lost contact with a large group of his men and this added to his concern. By the 13th the men were able to begin clearing the fort and salvaging the goods, but it wasn't until the 15th, eight days after the flood, that the weather was fine enough to allow them to dry out their goods and establishment.  Relief was slow in coming but the home Indians did help by supplying food from the hunt. On the 19th they gave the men 107 geese and the company men killed the same number themselves.
Governor Knight soon took command of the situation and the men were again busy gathering timber for building a new fort. The Smith had set up his forge, the hunters were bringing in game, and the garden was again being prepared for planting. At one instance, while talking about the construction of the pallisades, Knight dropped a hint about relations with the Indians:
Shortly afterwards, when the effects of the flood have passed and recovery is being achieved by the industry of Knight and his men, the first signs of what was to come appeared. On June 11th, while the men were "pressing beaver and cutting down the brush," Knight held a meeting for the Indians living near the fort:
But more important for the near future than these long-range plans was the fact that that same evening ten canoe loads of Interior Indians came down the Hayes River to trade. There were five canoes of Mishenipees (Missinippis) and five of Sturgeon Indians.  Perhaps the major relevance of this was the early beginning of Trade (June 11) and there-fore the length of time it would last. Nonetheless, Knight feared that trade would be poor that year, and in this vein wrote to Richard Staunton at Albany Fort:
Governor Knight's journal for the rest of 1714-1715 records hard work by the men and all seems to be progressing well. The house and palisades are being constructed on schedule and expectations for the trading season proceed without hindrance. On the 3rd September guns were heard in the distance, but there was "no such good news of the ships arrival, it being so late in the season for her coming.  These well-founded fears soon became apparent, and Knight continues:
There was little that could be done except to prepare for the winter and all were set to this task. The dwellings were made ready, the turnip crop harvested, and the men were sent out to shoot geese so as to stock a supply for the winter.  A moat was dug around the house and a chimney and furnace built in the new house.  The winter was spent preparing for the summer. Camps were set up in the woods for hunting, cutting timber and firewood. Knight worried, however, about the scarcity of provisions, knowing full well he would have to wait until the next fall for any sort of relief. On November 25th he wrote of his foresight in purchasing from the French all they had for sale.  A few days later he wrote:
The winter for the main part was suffered in silence. The men were kept hard at work. Thomas Butler was caught stealing and accused as well of "lyeing with a Woman of this Country to the Endanger of our Lives which several of the French was kill'd for so doing at another Time ..."  A few cases of frostbite were reported but remarkably few considering the low temperatures. The scarcity of goods began to reduce the industry of the men. On March 30, 1716, Knight was forced to stop the Smith forging ice chisels for lack of coal.  Luckily, a repeat of the previous spring's flood did not occur. Knight records that there was not much snow on the ground and the ice on the river was much thinner,  indicating that the winter of 1715-1716 was probably a mild one for York Factory.
On April 16, six Indians came to the fort to trade, bringing in a large supply of furs. Though they claimed to be in desperate need of gun-powder, Knight refused to trade with them. Therefore their only re-course was to leave the furs until some gunpowder came, yet they begged for aid claiming they would starve without it.  The dependency factor became more pronounced at this time and Knight himself de-scribed how widespread it was. He talked of the decline in the population of the Sinnepoets (Assiniboines):
Thenceforward Knight kept as a strictly held policy the preservation of goods which would have to last until the arrival of a ship in the fall. In addition, he took precautionary measures, such as doubling the guard when he noticed that the Indians were becoming uneasy for want of powder. He cautions:
Herein lies the cruelest tragedy of the early contact of white man and Indian. The establishment of an order of dependency on European trade goods was so easily brought about that it often destroyed the indigenous culture.
On the 8th of May there were other alarms. Governor Knight was forced to keep all his men within the house. He noted that the Indians were growing "saucy for want of goods" and that the new fortifications and palisades were not yet complete. Thus, to avoid raising the ire of the Indians at a time when the Company was defenceless, he called his men into the fort. 
It was becoming extremely difficult to secure either meat from hunting or timber to continue the construction work. A hostile incident on May 29 brought a hint of the mood which faced the men at York Fort:
Alarm increased that evening when seventeen more canoes arrived. The dilemma was complex. Some decided to wait for the next ship; others left their furs and returned home immediately. Governor Knight lamented: "... what I shall do with they being such a surly morons temper people."  The situation is complicated by the arrival at York Fort of rival tribes. Knight tried to resolve this problem by sending some of the Northern Indians, probably Chipewyans, across Nelson River to wait, but this was but a temporary solution.  The tribes coming from the south were more warlike than the northern tribes. So Knight's dilemma increased:
The crisis increased as more Indians came to trade. On May 30 fifteen canoes arrived, making a total of thirty-two canoes.  Knight was therefore forced by the weight of numbers against him to keep his men within the doors of the fort, for it was not yet enclosed by palisades.
Knight's decree on rationing began to weaken when eighteen more canoes arrived with the news that an additional ninety-two were on their way. News then came to York Fort of the approach of fifty canoes of Sturgeon Indians, and the realization that following them would be more Uskee and Meshinipee (Missinippi) Indians caused Governor Knight to lament:
On the 2nd of June more canoes arrived and Knight traded away the last of his English tobacco, all of his cloths, blankets and knives.  The prospects for a summer of accomplishments were dim, since a ship, even if it were sure to come, would not arrive for at least three months, and three months at York Factory seemed like a very long time indeed.
The long period during which there had been no trade made the Indians extremely anxious to trade, particularly those from the far interior and uplands. The season of 1715 brought more furs down to York Fort than ever before.  The natives had heard that the English were on the Bay and they came to trade with them. Yet all this had gone for naught. The men of the Company were forced to stay close to the fort and often within doors. On the 3rd of June some of the more troublesome Indians grew desperate:
Knight could not tell the Indians not to come to the fort because there were no goods there to trade. Such a disclosure would have invited trouble. Another complication was the expected arrival of the Northern Indians and the clash which might come to head between them and the southern Indians. Knight was so alarmed at this prospect that he sent a message to Albany Fort asking for aid and all the trade goods they could spare.  Relief came on the 6th of June when many of the Indians, beset with fear that they would die on the long homeward journey, left York Fort. News also arrived of many canoes which had turned back before reaching the fort.
The enormity of the problems of that short summer can only be guessed at. First of all there was the Indians' own communication system through which they knew of the arrival of the English on the Bay. Once the word was out, the English had no control over the spread of news inland. In consequence many Indians came to York from far in the interior, often from a distance of four months travelling time. Second is the strength of the compulsion on the part of the Indians for obtaining European trade goods. The long hazardous journey would be made without any kind of weapon, often at the loss of a complete season's hunting, and often in anticipation of obtaining European firearms at York. Knight estimated that some of the Indians had come over 1200 miles to trade, but being unable to trade would never come again.  His only concession was to trade limited quantities, only enough to keep the Indians satisfied or enough to provide a large group with food on the journey home. He would usually trade only one gun to every five or ten canoes and enough shot and powder to last them homeward. 
On the 10th of June most of the Assiniboines were gone. Only a few remained to watch over the furs which they would trade when a ship finally arrived.  On the 11th Knight began to send his men back into the woods to work. He wanted the stockade finished as soon as possible, for he had already had a taste of Indian trouble without it. There had been no gardening that summer; there were no turnips to take up,  and the arrival of a ship was therefore a necessity from two points of view - trade and sustenance. Indians kept arriving however and on the 14th of June a typical case is recorded:
On the following day another group arrived. Knight called them Mountain Indians. They were the most remote tribe to come that summer. Their story is pathetic in that they had not come to trade for 15 or 16 years for fear of being disappointed, only to meet the same frustration. Of them Knight wrote:
Knight's concern for the Indians was sincere, but he was unable to help them because of his lack of trade goods. He was disappointed at the loss of trade. On the other hand he could not advise the Indians to wait for the ship's arrival, and he could not trade with them. He was also concerned for his own survival and that of his men. It was a quandary which lesser men might have resolved less successfully.
The necessity of penetrating the interior became increasingly apparent during the crisis of the summer of 1715. Some of the tribes were so disappointed that they vowed never to come to the Bay again or to do so only when they were sure the English would have goods to trade.  Before these Indians left Knight urged them towards peace and his efforts at securing tranquility among them are well noted.  However, the failure of a ship to arrive in 1714 had destroyed his most ambitious project. He had intended to negotiate peace with the Slave and Chipewyan Indians and establish a post at Churchill.
More Indians arrived during the summer of 1715, and as the season advanced many decided to wait for the ship's arrival. Some who heard that there were no trading goods available came anyway. They could not turn back without rifles and ammunition. Knight wrote: "I pity there Condition thats all I can do for them." 
Knight's own condition was desperate as well. While trying to maintain the normal industry of the post, he had the added task of completing the palisades. The necessity of some sort of defensive stockade became more apparent daily as the number of Indians surrounding the fort began to increase. On the 29th of June. over two months before a ship could be expected Knight estimated that there were more than 300 Indians within two days of the fort.  They had stored their furs in the company's warehouse and sat impatiently waiting for the ship while the men at the post worked desperately on the Flankers (side palisades).
There was no improvement in July 1715. Everyone knew that a ship could not reach York before September at the earliest. Little respite could be offered either the Indians or the company's men, but occasionally Knight risked easing his rationing to give guns and powder to the Indians to keep them from starvation.
The problems at York Fort that summer were compounded by the presence of many enemy tribes. It was surprising that no Indian war broke out around the fort. As Knight records:
The fact that a large group of Indians turned back saved York Fort from disaster that summer. One hundred canoes of Upland Indians returned to their homes when they heard no goods were available for trade. The Company's advertising of its trade and the broadcasting of this news by the Indians themselves had come to naught.  This was a severe check to trade, but one consolation was that a glut on the fur market was avoided.
News continued to arrive at the fort of Indians being in a miserable condition. Many Indians had stationed themselves up river to hunt. Still their chances of survival were slim without the weapons to which they had grown accustomed. The Indians were slowly starving. Knight could not even take up his nets from the river for fear of inflaming the hungry Indians.  Moreover, when the migrations began, the Company men could not take advantage of them for fear of raising the discontent of the Indians. 
On August 5th Knight began looking for the ship:
Thus the long wait was continued. Construction on the fort went ahead and various developments eased the temper of the men. The taking of a large herd of deer while they were crossing the river eased the food problem. Some of the Indians finally decided to leave for home rather than wait for the ship. They were forced to trade all their furs for a little food which they obtained from the Home Indians, but in spite of this their chances of returning home safely were slim.  A week later news arrived that the Upland Indians had found many of their families massacred.  Other Indians about the fort simply gave up hope of a ship arriving and gave their furs away and left for home.
Governor Knight began to fear that the trade relationship with the interior tribes would be completely severed. This dire prospect, coupled with the need to ease the temper of the Indians about the fort, prompted him to make promises that the ship would soon arrive:
Knight began to fear that no ship would arrive, and when he thought of enduring another winter without a fresh supply of goods, he wrote: wee might make a pretty good Shift but what wee have left I fear will not be Sufficient to keep us alive if the Ship does not come. 
Two days later news arrived from Nelson River that York Fort was in danger of an Indian attack. One of the Home Indians told Knight that his people were in "very badd humour" and, as Knight put it:
By this time Knight and his men had two sides of the palisades built and they expected to be finished by the middle of next week. Knight noted the hostility among the Indians and made an ironic report about their concern for trade goods:
To allay the impatience of the Indians who were lying at every reach and portage along the river for 100 miles upstream, Knight began his risky strategy of saying that a ship would arrive within ten days. This kept the Indians quiet for the time being. In the meantime the men at the fort could enclose themselves in their stockade.  On the 24th of August Knight noted that the Indians are "stark Madd for Powder."  On the 28th a large number of Indians came to the fort to wait for the ship's arrival, thus calling Knight's bluff. 
The situation grew more tense each day. On the 29th false alarms of gun shots in the distance circulated among the Indians. The Governor then sent men to Beacon Point to build a fire as a signal for any ship within sight of it.  In the meantime the palisade was completed. Trouble developed on September 1st when some of the Home Indians attempted to kill two of the Northern Indians. 
On the 3rd of September Knight reported that seven gun shots had been heard from the Bay. He feared nonetheless that the ship might not be able to find the mouth of the river. Many of the Indians, fearing that the ship would not arrive, begged to be allowed to trade right away. Luckily the cannons were heard again, this time closer to shore, and so excitement rose among the Indians and the Company people. Knight reported on the reaction of the Indians as follows:
Until the ship actually arrived doubts prevailed. Fears were rampant that it had left on the ebb tide. Fog on the morning of September 4 increased the apprehension. On the rising of the morning fog, however, a ship was spied in the anchorage. Delirium broke loose among the Indians, but some said it was a French ship, and doubters they remained.
But when Knight confirmed that it was an English ship, excitement broke out again, and the English walked with new confidence. The ship's arrival:
The ship's arrival solved the immediate problems of York Fort, but the mishaps of the previous year and a half had far-reaching consequences. The flood in the spring of 1715 and the failure of Captain Davis to pilot his ship to York Fort in the autumn  destroyed Knight's plans for the establishment of a fort at Churchill, and his efforts for promoting peace among the Indians of the north had to be postponed. The fragile balance of trade was upset and the faith of the natives in the Honourable Company was shaken. Much suffering was caused among Europeans and Indians. But the most significant outcome of the troubles at York in 1714-1716 was the revelation of the complete dependence of the Indians on European trade goods for survival. A revolution had taken place amongst the indigenous population; social change and cultural disruption had been introduced; the metamorphosis was irreversible.
Page revised: 22 May 2010