A Year in the Life of a Canoe Brigade
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Art. II. A Year in the Life of a Canoe Brigade, by J. Gottfred.

If you were asked to set up a trading post in the Northwest, how would you do it? What would you take with you? Who would you take with you? In this article I will provide the basics that any North West Company fur post proprietor would require for a successful year in the northwest.

The Setting

As a proprietor, you would begin your journey at the North West Company's inland headquarters on the west end of Lake Superior. From 1784 until 1802, this was Grand Portage on the Pigeon River. Jay's Treaty (1794) placed Grand Portage within the United States, so in 1802 the headquarters was moved to the Kaministiquia River. It was called Fort Kaministiquia until renamed Fort William in 1807.

During the height of summer, the wintering partners from the western posts met with the company's Montreal agents at Fort William to discuss business for the forthcoming year. It would be at such a meeting that you would be instructed to take a brigade to a suitable location on the Saskatchewan River and there conduct trade throughout the winter, returning with furs the next summer.

By the late 1700's, the fur posts had already moved so far west that fully laden brigades from the furthest posts could not make it all the way to Grand Portage in time to return before the winter. These brigades instead stopped at the company depot at Rainy Lake where they dropped their furs and took on new supplies of goods for the coming year.

After receiving your instructions at the partner's meeting in Grand Portage or Fort William, you would depart in a light canoe of just 14 or 15 feet in length, paddled by four or five men and carrying only yourself, your belongings, and possibly your family. You would catch up with your brigade, which has already started on their return journey, a few days outbound from Rainy Lake.

The North Canoes

Your brigade is a typical one consisting of five 'North canoes' (canots du nord). Each North canoe is about 25 feet long and can carry a total of about 3,500 pounds of cargo and crew. They are all of birchbark construction and are probably all brand new.

Each canoe is provided with standard equipment (agrets): a frying pan for every two canoes, a kettle and trammel hook, a tin pan, a hatchet, five cod lines for towing, a sail & halyards, oilcloth tarps for covering the goods, a sponge for bailing, a canoe awl, a dozen pounds of gum, a roll of birchbark, and half a dozen bundles of spruce root (wattap) for sewing the canoe's seams [1]. Several poles are placed in the bottom of each canoe to evenly distribute the weight of the goods.

The voyageurs supply their own paddles and also bring long iron-tipped setting poles (perches). When the river bottom is shallow and firm, the 8' to 10' long setting poles can be used to propel the canoe upstream.

The canoes of your brigade have names such as Pied de Loutre, St. Louis, and Endeavour [2].

The Men

The employees of the company fell into five major categories. From highest to lowest paid, these were: proprietors, clerks, guides, contre-maîtres (overseers), and voyageurs.

The proprietor is responsible for the whole outfit. He is often a wintering partner, but may be an experienced clerk. He is the boss and as such holds almost absolute power over the men in his charge, rather like the captain of a ship.

Clerks (commis) assist the proprietor. They are responsible for keeping track of the goods and managing the men.

Guides (conductors) are experienced voyageurs who know how to judge the water and safely direct the canoes along the voyage. They are held personally accountable for the safety of all the canoes and goods. They have the power to dock the men's wages [3].

Overseers are senior voyageurs who act as foremen.

Voyageurs are the paddlers for the canoes. They are paid based on skill. The bowman (avant, devant, ducent) and the steersman (gouvernail) are the highest paid voyageurs, followed by the middle men (milieux).

Every one except the proprietor and clerks are expected to paddle. Together they are referred to as 'the men'.

One special skill which is recognized is the interpreter, and positions such as clerk-interpreter, interpreter, and interpreter-overseer are paid more than guides.

For a long distance journey, each North canoe is usually crewed by five men. Only four men are needed to manage the canoe. The extra man helps to lighten the work and ensures that a canoe will not be undermanned should a voyageur be injured, fall sick– or worse!

In general there is about one clerk for every eight men, about one overseer for every nine men. Of the total number of clerks, guides, overseers and voyageurs, clerks make up 11% of the total, guides 2%, overseers 10%, and voyageurs the remaining 77%[4].

In your brigade, you will have two clerks, one guide, two overseers, and 22 men. Your overseer is also an interpreter.

The five canoes are crewed as follows:

Canoe #1: The guide plus four men.

Canoe #2: One overseer plus four men.

Canoe #3: One clerk plus one overseer-interpreter and four men.

Canoe #4: One clerk plus five men.

Canoe #5: The proprietor (you!) plus five men.

The Supplies & Baggage

Other supplies are taken, in addition to the canoe agrets. These typically include fishing line and nets, a keg of powder and a bag of shot and balls, and possibly a keg of high wines or shrub for the men.

Each canoe also contains a waterproof arms chest as well as a trunk (cassette) for carrying delicate merchandise. Cassettes are painted Spanish red (red oxide), and ration boxes are painted green (verdigris).

In addition to these items, each crew man is allowed to bring one 40-pound bag of personal effects. Clerks and proprietors are allowed to use cassettes for their belongings.

For food, each canoe is supplied with about three bushels of wild rice and ten pounds of grease to cook it in. These supplies will get the canoe from Rainy Lake to Bas de la Rivière Winipic [5].

The Goods

The goods consist of items for trade as well as other items needed to get the brigade through the year. Each canoe carries about 20 'pieces' of goods, each weighing 90 pounds. The five-canoe brigade is capable of transporting 9,700 pounds of goods alone. This does not include three 90-pound cassettes of clerks' and proprietor's goods, nor food, agrets, and sundry supplies, nor any of the men's baggage. It does, however, include the weight of packaging.

Goods are packed in various ways. Some, like tobacco and kettles are packed in bales. Gunpowder, wines and other liquids, sugar & salt, rice & barley, butter, grease, raisins & prunes, &c. are packed in casks or kegs. Iron works, hats, knives & guns, traps, soap &c. are packed in cassettes. Balls, shot, & corn are packed in sacks.

Determining the weight of the packaging materials is difficult. For goods packed in wood, let's assume that about 33% of the weight is packaging (based on my trials with replica cases). Bales and sacks are much more efficient. If you assume that the total weight of packaging overall was in the order of 30% then a five-canoe brigade can transport about 5,800 pounds of unpacked goods.

In your brigade, the 107 90-pound pieces (100 pieces plus four arms chests plus three cassettes of fineries) are :

4 bales of carrot tobacco.

7 rolls of twist tobacco (sold by the fathom).

4 bales of kettles.

4 cases of guns.

8 bags of lead balls.

4 bags of lead shot.

8 kegs of gunpowder.

4 bags flour.

4 kegs sugar.

38 nine gallon kegs of high wines (spirits)

4 cases of iron works

18 bales of merchandise [6].

The four cases of iron works contain awls, fire steels, hatchets, axes & knives, ice chisels, files, saws, nails, fish hooks, iron arrow heads, hasps & hinges, &c.

Three of the cassettes contain 'fineries' such as hats and clothing, trade silver & ribbon, gartering & orris lace, &c.

The 18 bales of merchandise (about 1,000 pounds unpacked) can contain anything that was traded or needed for the fur post which hasn't been already mentioned. Items such as blankets & capots, cloth, jackets, shirts & trousers, shoes, needles, beads, sashes, hawks bells, caps, tobacco boxes, rings, buttons, combs, twine, feathers, gun flints & worms, handkerchiefs, powder horns, medicines, playing cards, clay pipes, pencils, record books & blotting paper, ink powder, scissors, leggings, soap, stockings, tea, thimbles, vermilion, pins, razors, garden seeds, cutlery, waistcoats &c. (For more complete information on goods, see 'Compendium of Material Culture', Northwest Journal, vol. X. pp. 8-37.)

The Load

A typical canoe will therefore carry the following:

20 pieces weighing 90 lbs. each. Total: 1,800 lbs.

5 crewmen at 160 lbs. each. Total: 800 lbs.

Crewman's baggage at 40 lbs. each. Total: 200 lbs.

1 cassette of 90 lbs.

1 arms chest of 90 lbs.

Agrets and supplies to a total of about 500 lbs.

For three canoes, substitute a clerk or proprietor for 160 pounds of supplies.

The complete brigade is able to transport 28 souls (4,500 pounds), 2,000 pounds of agrets and supplies, 10 arms chests and cassettes (900 pounds), 1,000 pounds of personal baggage, and 9,000 pounds of goods. All told, the capacity of the brigade is about 18,000 pounds.

It should be noted that the makeup of brigades varied. If you wished to maximize the goods transported, then a North canoe with only four men could pack up to 28 pieces. (A five canoe brigade could then transport 12,600 pounds of goods alone!) If you wish to transport people, each North canoe can hold eight or nine souls.

George Simpson described the canoes of the North West Company in 1820 as 'new and well built of good materials, ably manned, a water proof arm chest and cassette for fineries in each, and the baggage covered with new oil cloths, in short, well equipped in every respect…' [7]

The Voyage

Upon arriving at Bas de la Rivière Winipic each canoe will be resupplied with four 90-pound bags of pemmican to get it to Cumberland House. At Cumberland House, each canoe will receive two 90-pound bags of pemmican to serve until the canoes reach the plains, where the clerks and the proprietor will take waiting horses to hunt buffalo along the rest of the route.

The canoes travel for 16 hours every day. At night the canoes are unloaded, overturned and re-gummed. The canoe kettle is boiled up and between two and three pounds of pemmican thrown in. The clerks set up the proprietor's tent and their own, while the men crawl off to sleep under the overturned canoes.

Before dawn, the men pack away the tents and reload the canoes. They will stop for breakfast in the midmorning, once the sun is fully up and they've been going for a couple of hours.

The crews sail the canoes whenever possible. The canoes can only run before the wind, because canoes have no keel and so have little bite on the water to keep them from going sideways when tacking. It is dangerous for canoes if the waves get too high, because the entire length of the canoe must be supported by the water, or it will break apart [8]. When voyageurs can't travel due to bad weather, they call it being dégradé (degraded); this comes from the French sailors' expression meaning 'to be put off course by tides or weather'.

The crews paddle the canoes upstream as a general rule, but when the current or headwind becomes too strong, they resort to the setting poles, and ultimately use the cod lines to drag the canoes upstream.

The canoes themselves are delicate. Any flexing of the canoe, even in rough water, is enough to cause the cold, brittle gum to crack and fall off the seams, allowing the canoe to leak.

Fully laden, the canoes have about six inches of freeboard. This fact, combined with the nature of the gum, precludes running any fast water. It is the guide's responsibility to decide how to negotiate any patch of rough water that is encountered. In some instances a complete portage will be required, all the pieces will be removed from the canoes and carried around the rapids. Sometimes only a demi-charge will be required, where some pieces are removed to create more freeboard and the canoes are lined though the rough water.

The canoes are not paddled directly up onto the shore, as the scraping this entails is disastrous for the gum. Instead, the crews bring the canoes close to the shore, carry the proprietor to the bank, and unload the pieces. The empty canoe is then plucked out of the water and carried ashore.

Once the plains are reached, a few horses are acquired. This allows the proprietor and the clerks to hunt buffalo and other game. Since you have extra men in the canoes, you can also let some of the men join in hunting for fresh meat to feed the brigade.

One can only imagine the wonderful sense of freedom and adventure enjoyed by the proprietor of such a brigade. Up, out of the river valley, you are free to enjoy the magnificent landscape. Enjoying the thrill of the chase and the triumph of the kill, then turning the job of preparing the fresh buffalo meat over to the willing hands of the men. On other days, lounging in your canoe while the men toil, and when opportunity presents, bringing down ducks, geese, and swans with your trusty fowler. Heady days indeed.

Many proprietors seem to have their own personal firearms for just such adventures, fine guns brought from Montreal or even England. Perhaps the best known is Alexander Henry the Younger's double-barreled fowler.

Upon the way, the brigade will arrive at other posts. Prior to arriving, you must halt the brigade out of sight of the post to allow the men to freshen up, put on their finest clothing, break out the flags, &c. Your brigade should arrive singing lustily. At each post you will receive a hearty welcome and an eager exchange of news. The various posts are always in contact with each other, and a steady stream of letters, dispatches, and requested supplies and goods make their way between them. Your brigade now becomes an important part of this company mail system, and letters and perhaps some goods destined for posts farther upstream (or 'above' as they say) will no doubt be entrusted to your care.

In this way the long, hot days of summer will slowly unwind as your brigade creeps ever farther into the interior. The leaves begin to turn and nights grow colder. Soon, the aspen and poplar trees that you pass are ablaze with yellow leaves, and frost is on the kettle every morning. By late September your brigade has reached the upper reaches of the Saskatchewan River. It is time to settle in for the winter.

Preparing for Winter

The first task is to find a suitable site for constructing a post. You will need a flat area, preferably with good stands of spruce or hardwood in the immediate vicinity. It is also very important to find a spot with an abundant supply of white or blue clay nearby. This material is necessary for chinking the walls, sealing the roof, for mortar for the chimney stones, and in some cases, even for building the chimney itself. You will need meadows for grazing the horses, and easy access to fresh water. The post should not be right at the water's edge, for the Saskatchewan is notorious for flooding. You will need to find a spot at least one terrace level up from the river bottom. Most likely this will place you at least 100 yards from the water, and 50 feet higher than the river. Along the Saskatchewan, most posts are placed well up on the plains above the banks, resulting in grueling ascents with 90-pound pieces of perhaps 300 feet over a half a mile or more of trail to reach the post.

Remember, if you arrive late and the ground is frozen, try to imagine what it will be like once the ground thaws in the spring. Some posts have been built in bogs and have needed to be relocated!

In general, the next task to accomplish is to build the goods store. Timbers are cut and squared, and a saw pit is dug. The bottom sills are laid, and squared-tenoned timbers are stacked on top of them between two grooved, vertical posts, to a height of seven feet or so. Two squared timbers of about twelve feet in length are placed vertically at either end of the house upon which the roof beam rests. Half-split logs are then run from the roof beam to the edge. The gaps in the logs are chinked with clay, and the roof is covered with earth, straw, etc.– anything to help keep the roof from leaking, a common problem. For the goods house, only the outside walls are chinked with clay so that dirt does not contaminate the grease &c. stored inside.

Flooring planks are split or sawed out and a raised floor is placed in the building. A door is constructed. For hinges, an eye on a spike is hammered into the door at top and bottom, and two pintles on a spike are hammered into the door frame. The eyes then slip over the pintles and the door is hung. A hasp is attached, the goods moved inside, and the door is locked with a padlock.

Once the goods have been secured from both the men and the Natives, the next building is the proprietor's and clerks' house. This is followed by a house for the men.

Fireplaces are built in the rooms, often in the center along an interior wall dividing the space into two halves, each with a fireplace that shares a chimney.

Windows are covered by thin parchment skins, although sometimes one or two small pieces of glass might be placed in the proprietor's window.

The placement of the buildings varied ; sometimes all buildings were detached and arranged in the shape of a 'U', with the proprietor's and clerks' quarters at the base of the U, and the storehouse and men's quarters forming the two opposite arms [9]. Sometimes the buildings were arranged in the shape of an 'H' with the clerks' quarters and the men's quarters attached to the opposite ends of the goods house– this provides better security for the goods until a palisade can be built.

Palisades provide light defense, protect the garden from animals, and help keep out snow drifts ; they should be added as time permits. At older, more important posts, additional houses are usually added for tradesmen, cellars and cold storage pits are dug to hold ice until late spring, bastions are erected, shutters constructed, &c.

Examples are the best way to get a feel for what you can likely accomplish in the first year at a new post.

Duncan Cameron described how on October 5th, 1804, he & his men began construction of a new post: 'We all set to work : four men to build, one to square boards for the doors timber for the floors and shelves for the shop, the two others, to attend the net.' [10]

Twenty-two days later he notes, 'We got in our building, which is now weather proof, but not finished in the inside ; it is 40 feet long and 20 wide, divided into a room and bed room for myself, a shop and a room for my men, 10 feet long on the whole breadth of the house. The only good material I found here to build is excellent loam, very white, which enabled us to make the house very warm and make two good chimneys. I had, and have still, to do my share of the labour, as the men are very unhandy about building, but, still, we shall have a tolerably neat house for this part of the world.' [11]

When the North West Company built the Pembina River post in 1797, construction began on September 28th and ended on November 8th. In this time the brigade constructed a combined house, shop, and large house 70 feet long, plus two small houses. The proprietor and eight men lived in the large house, and the rest in the two smaller ones [12].

One of the best accounts of the construction of a post is given by Alexander Henry the Younger. On September 10, 1800, Alexander Henry's 13 men began construction of Park River post. They began by making wooden shovels (to dig a trench to place the stockade timbers in), cutting down timbers, and mowing hay for covering the roof. The first building to be completed was the warehouse, which they finished the next afternoon. They moved in the goods, and Henry padlocked the door. Expecting trouble with the Sioux, he then dispatched his men to each cut 50 posts 12 feet long with which to make a stockade. (Note that all the men we employed in constructing the post, as Henry hired Natives to hunt for them.) On the 14th, the men began to plant the posts for the stockade. They finished hanging the gates on the 21st. While work continued on two bastions, they began felling trees for a dwelling house and a shop. The men then moved their tents into the stockade, and Henry pitched his on the floor of one of the bastions (about nine feet off of the ground) so he could get a better view of the whole affair.

On September 27, they experienced their first hard frost, and the ice was 1/4" thick on the water in their kettles.. The next day the men began building chimneys out of clay. The entire fort, consisting of stockade, two bastions, a warehouse, dwelling house and shop (complete with small cellar), was completed after 36 days of labour on October 15th. Henry provides an amazing list of all the materials used to build the fort, cataloging 3,113 pieces of timber and wood plus one 55-foot long stick for a flag pole [13].

Once the post was complete, Henry dispatched his men to cut 120 cords of firewood in preparation for the winter.

Relations with the Natives

This is perhaps the most important aspect of fur post life for a proprietor to understand.

In general, relations with the Natives are good. It is necessary to exercise this relationship to the utmost. Natives not only provide the furs that you are seeking to obtain, but they also provide food in the form of dried meat and grease. They provide hunters and interpreters, labour for construction of snowshoes, moccasins, &c., leather for making pemmican bags &c., as well as horses. Some also provide billets for some of the men over the winter. Close ties with the local Natives are also critical to post defense. You need informants to let you know how the people are receiving you, to tell you about wars happening amongst the different tribes, &c.

Upon arrival at the new post site, you must immediately hire local Natives to hunt, and to bring the local people to the post. When the people arrive, you have to try to convince them to do two things: first, to hunt for beaver and properly prepare the skins ; and second, to bring those skins to you in the spring, and not to a rival post.

There are two things that you can do to help you achieve your goals. First, try to identify the leaders of each group. Find those men who seem to be able to sway the opinions of the others. Then ‘promote’ that man to be a ‘Chief’ or 'Trading Captain'. Give him a fine red coat with gold braid to single him out as your special friend. Give him some gifts, praise and flatter him so that he is more inclined to encourage the others to do what you want. Tell him that the people have to hunt beaver, and that they have to bring the beaver to you. Tell him that if he does this the people will be able to trade the skins for all the good things that you've brought, also tell him that you will give him an extra reward if he brings all the people back with furs in the spring.

The second, and probably more effective, thing that you can do is to give credit to the people. Sell them goods in advance. Give them guns, kettles, traps & some Native rum and then tell them how many beaver they owe for those goods. As a whole, the people are honest, and they will do their best to repay the debt with furs in the spring. (It doesn't hurt to have your ‘chief’ reminding them of their obligations too!)

Never forget that the Natives are tough customers in every sense of the term. On the one hand, they are skilled bargainers, and with a rival HBC post sometimes within yards of yours, deals can be lost over trifles. (Alexander Henry rails about a deal he lost for want of a feather, which the Bay men next door could provide!) Also, the folks you are dealing with are not London ladies, they are strong people who have thrived in an unforgiving land. You have to treat them right. Don't be afraid to give away a few fathoms of tobacco, it's pretty much expected, and the goodwill it generates will help encourage the people to repay their debts.

Although most of the Natives are trustworthy, there can be a few bad characters who wish to take your goods by force. You must make sure that you always have enough men in the post so that you do not seem vulnerable. If you seem weak, you are sure to have trouble eventually ; if you look strong, both in numbers and in determination, then you will prevent a great many difficulties. More than once, a proprietor has held off Indians intent on pillage with little more than a defiant speech, but you will not wish to be in that position.

If you are short of provisions and space, you can pay the Natives to take some of your men and look after them during the winter. The men will appreciate this, and it helps provide a diversion during the long winter. Many of the men who you send to live with the Natives will take wives, and you can harness this new pool of skilled labour throughout the year to fulfil many useful requirements.

Surviving the Winter

The winter now sets in, and you retire to the comforts of your new house, to live with the smoky chimneys, the cramped rooms, and the long dark nights. Depending upon where you are, Natives may arrive from time to time to do a little business, or to obtain credit. You will have to pay the hunters, and your men can set nets under the ice to catch fish. You can always chop more wood for the fires, and idle hands can make tables, chairs, shelves &c.

When Christmas approaches, you may wish to travel to a nearby post to meet with the other proprietors. (This also gives you a chance to speak to someone else in English, as your French is probably adequate for instructing the men, but not as good so as to enjoy conversation.) A Christmas dinner is always an occasion, especially at the more established posts. They will have no shortage of luxuries for the evening, including several types of wine, plus brandy & shrub, a fine meal with plum pudding and perhaps chocolate. The proprietor will do his best to be as civilized as possible, and china plates and real glasses will almost certainly be used by the gentlemen. The big event for the evening is the dance. All the men from the nearest post (rival or not) will be invited, and a fine time will no doubt be had by all.

Do not forget to give the voyageurs some rum and a holiday at Christmas and New Year's, or you will cause many hard feelings. (Don't expect to get any work out of them for about three days afterwards!)

The Spring Trade

When spring comes, trading will begin in earnest. The Natives will begin to collect together again after splitting up into smaller groups for the winter. These larger groups will then head for the post to repay their debts and buy what extras they can afford.

You will no doubt be made aware of the imminent arrival of one of these groups by a few men sent on ahead. It is important that you give these messengers a dram, and several fathoms of tobacco to take to back as a gift to the main body. You must then put on as good a show as possible. You must wear your best clothes. Even if it is not Sunday, you must run up the flag, and it is best if you have an extra flag or two to put on poles and let your men carry them, rather like an honour guard.

When you see the main body approaching, you must open the gates in welcome and go out to meet them. The farther you go out to meet them, the greater the honour that you are bestowing. You will be greeted by the head men of the group. You must give them some gifts to show your generosity and how great you are. You should part with more tobacco, some blankets, &c. The head man will then show you how great he is, he will probably give you a horse and some furs. Don't be concerned about the relative value of these 'gifts', as you will discover that by end of the trading session that their respective values have been accounted for, and it balances out.

You must now invite the Natives into the fort. As they arrive, have your men fire a salute with their guns. If you have had time to build a shop, then invite your Native guests into the 'Indian hall' within the shop. An Indian hall is extremely useful, especially amongst troublesome Natives. It keeps them all under control so that they don't wander around the post getting into mischief, and it provides a spot for them to sit out of the weather while you distribute the goods once the trading is complete.

Once the group has settled down in the hall, you will discover that they have sorted themselves out, with the most important men sitting next to you. At this point you must provide more tobacco, and everyone will have a smoke. Natives have many beliefs and superstitions relating to pipes and smoking. You must treat these beliefs with respect, no matter how ridiculous or strange they seem to you. It would be foolish to offend them, for they can easily take their furs to your rival. You should also provide a dram for each man present.

You will now be required to make a long speech (the so-called 'harangue'). You must talk about how glad you are that they have come to honour their debts, how you know that they have lots of good furs, &c. The important men will then make long harangues in return pledging friendship, complaining about the quality of the gunpowder, &c.

Trading now begins in earnest. The first task is to collect each man's furs and determine their value in good beaver skins (what the Hudson's Bay Company calls 'made beaver'). To qualify as a made beaver, a beaver skin must be large, properly stretched and dried, and properly de-fleshed. Most of the beaver skins brought in will fall short of the standard, especially in the first year. Fox, martin, wolf, buffalo robes, leather, dried meat, &c. all have a corresponding value in MB according to the standard of trade that is in effect at the time. Your clerks record the name of each man, and the value in MB of furs that they have brought. For those that have been given credit, the value is then recovered.

You then go through the process of allowing each man to decide what he wants in return for the value in MB. You should ensure that the shop has examples of all of the goods that you carry so that the Natives can inspect them. This process is also governed by the standard of trade that is in effect. It is important to know that the value of the goods does not vary by much, and it only varies slowly. From one year to the next there is little difference in the standard of trade. It is important not to change the standard or it will cause problems for those with credit, or who are saving up for a specific item- a fast track to trouble!

One example of some items from an HBC standard of trade lists 1-gallon kettles at 18 MB, 3-quart kettles at 16 MB, 2 quarts at 9 MB, and one pint at 1 MB. Guns of all lengths were 14 MB, gunpowder at 1 MB per pound, and shot of all types at four pounds for 1 MB. Tobacco averaged 1 MB per pound, beads at 4 MB per pound, hatchets, ice chisels and files all at 1 MB each, fire steels at 4 per MB, blankets at 7 MB each, cloth varied between 2 and 5 MB per yard, liquor at 4 MB per gallon, and knives were 4 per MB [14].

As each man decides what he wants, your clerks should record it next to his name. As in the fall, it is a good idea to extend some credit to those who have shown that they can be trusted.

Once all of the men have decided what they will trade for, each man in turn can be taken to the warehouse, where his goods are handed over under watchful supervision. (The clerks must record these transactions as they occur). It is best if the others remain in the shop smoking, and having another dram, until this process is complete.

The best course of action at this point is to then ensure that they all exit the post, as when the drinking matches begin they are likely to get unruly.

Preparations for the Return Journey

By early spring, all of your men should have returned to the post. Many who were billeted with the Natives will bring their country wives, a well as furs that they trapped themselves during the winter. They can sell these furs to the company in return for items from the stores. They may also purchase items against the value owed them in wages. Your clerks must keep track of all of these transactions.

You may have to renew one or two of the men's employment contracts. If such a man is in debt to the company, they must pay off that debt before they can be released. You will find that most will be in debt to the company, and are unable to pay, and so will renew their contract as their only means of clearing their debt. (You will forgive the old debt in return for the new contract.) It is possible that one of your men will be up for renewal, have no debt to the company, and not wish to renew. In this case, you must decide whether you will return him to Montreal, or allow him to remain in the Northwest as a 'freeman', trading with you much as the Natives do.

You must not forget to provide the men with their yearly 'equipments'. As part of each man's contract they will be entitled to certain goods (clothing, tobacco, etc.) from your store. Those men who have taken Native wives will also be entitled to some supplies for their family. (In fact, this eventually became such a drain on the North West Company that marriages to Native women were severely restricted after 1806.) Again, the clerks must record all of these transactions.

You will need to construct a fur press, and the collected furs need to be tightly packed into 90-pound pieces, wrapped with Russia sheeting and bound with rawhide cords. The pieces are marked by clerks and recorded on a bill of lading, and then placed back in the warehouse to await loading.

As proprietor, you may also have a significant number of 'private trappings', furs that you personally have collected during the long winter. Under the rule of your employment with the company, you are allowed to transport these private trappings at the company's expense, and to sell them independently. It is one of the perquisites allowed to wintering partners to compensate them for having to spend their days in the wilds.

Your men can now begin the task of preparing the canoes. You had good returns from your trading, and you've had the men build an extra canoe. (If birch bark is not available, you can always make a clinker-built boat with local wood, or a bateau).

Finally, the ice is off the river. It is time for your brigade to depart. The canoes are placed in the water, and the furs loaded and covered with oilcloths. Most small posts are left empty during the summer. Leftover hard goods should be cached somewhere in or near your post ; take care in hiding your cache, for the Natives have been known to come into posts and lift the floorboards as soon as the canoes leave.

Your brigade now consists of six canoes. Some of the men's new country wives now travel as paddlers with their men. This extra manpower allows you to properly crew all six canoes.

The Return Journey

The return journey is much like the ascent, only somewhat faster as you are usually traveling with the current. By early summer you have arrived back at Rainy Lake, where your men deliver their furs and pick up a new load of goods for the return journey. Once again, you switch to a fast express canoe and swiftly travel to Grand Portage or Fort William to meet with the other wintering partners. There you report on your trade at the new post, and plan for the upcoming year. You take the opportunity to stock up on more luxuries, collect some newspapers, books, fashion magazines, &c., and after a short stay, you are once again on your way to meet your brigade.


[1] Simpson, 166-167; Hannon, 82.

[2] Masson 1:291; Masson 2:286, Back, 133

[3] Henry (the Elder), 14

[4] From data supplied in Masson for 1804. Masson, I:395-413

[5] Henry (the Younger), II:395.

[6] From an example in Henry (the Younger), I:5-6

[7] Simpson, 19

[8] Hood, 112

[9] Burley, Hamilton, & Fladmark, 54

[10] Masson, II:293

[11] Masson, II:297

[12] Chaboillez, 280, 286

[13] Henry (the Younger), I:42-75

[14] Ray, 66-67



Back, Admiral Sir George. Arctic Artist : The Journal and Paintings of George Back, Midshipman with Franklin, 1819-1822. C. Stuart Houston, ed. Commentary by I. S. McLaren. McGill-Queen's University Press : Montreal, 1994. ISBN 0-7735-1181-4

Burley, David K.; J. Scott Hamilton; Knut R. Fladmark. Prophecy of the Swan: The Upper Peace River Fur Trade of 1794-1823. UBC Press: Vancouver, 1996. ISBN 0-7748-0544-7.

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Henry, Alexander (the Elder) Travels and Adventures in Canada and the Indian Territories Between the Years 1760 and 1776. James Bain, ed. Hurtig : Edmonton, 1969.

Henry, Alexander (the Younger). The Journal of Alexander Henry The Younger 1799-1814. Barry Gough, ed. The Champlain Society/University of Toronto Press : Toronto, 1988. ISBN 0-9693425-0-0.

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Masson, L. R. Les Bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest, 2 vols. Reprint– Antiquarian Press : New York, 1960. Originally published 1889-90.

Ray, Arthur J. Indians in the Fur Trade : their role as trappers, hunters, and middlemen in the lands southwest of Hudson Bay 1660-1870. University of Toronto : Toronto, 1974. ISBN 0-8020-2118-2.

Simpson, George. Journal of Occurrences in the Athabasca Department by George Simpson, 1820 and 1821, and Report. E. E. Rich, ed. Hudson's Bay Record Society/Champlain Society : London, 1938.



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