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Reflections

The history of my career may serve as a warning to those who may be disposed to enter the Hudson's Bay Company's service. They may learn that, from the moment they embark in the Company's canoes at Lachine, or in their ships at Gravesend, they bid adieu to all that civilized man most values on earth. They bid adieu to their family and friends, probably for ever; for if they should remain long enough to attain the promotion that allows them the privilege of revisiting their native land—a period of from twenty to twenty-five years—what changes does not this life exhibit in a much shorter time? They bid adieu to all the comforts and conveniences of civilized life, to vegetate at some desolate, solitary post, hundreds of miles, perhaps, from any other human habitation, save the wig-wam of the savage; without any other society than that of their own thoughts, or of the two or three humble individuals who share their exile. They bid adieu to all the refinement and cultivation of civilized life, not unfrequently becoming semi-barbarians, so altered in habits and sentiments, that they not only become attached to savage life, but eventually lose all relish for any other.

I can give good authority for this. The Governor, writing me last year regarding some of my acquaintances who had recently retired, observes. "They are comfortably settled, but apparently at a loss what to do with themselves; and sigh for the Indian country, the squaws, and skins, and savages."

Such are the rewards the Indian trader may expect;—add to these, in a few cases, the acquisition of some thousands, which, after forty years exile, he has neither health, nor strength, nor taste to enjoy. Few instances have occurred of gentlemen retiring with a competency under thirty-five or forty years' servitude, even in the best days of the trade; what period may be required to attain that object in these times, is a question not easily solved. Up to 1840, one eighty-fifth share had averaged 400l. per annum; since then, however, the dividends have been on the decline, nor are they ever likely to reach the same amount, for several reasons,—the chief of which is the destruction of the fur-bearing animals.

In certain parts of the country, it is the Company's policy to destroy them along the whole frontier; and our general instructions recommend that every effort be made to lay waste the country, so as to offer no inducement to petty traders to encroach on the Company's limits. Those instructions have indeed had the effect of ruining the country, but not of protecting the Company's domains. Along the Canadian frontier, the Indians, finding no more game on their own lands, push beyond the boundary, and not only hunt on the Company's territory, but carry a supply of goods with them, which they trade with the natives. Their Honors' fiat has also nearly swept away the fur animals on the west side of the Rocky Mountains; yet I doubt whether all this precaution will ensure the integrity of their domains. The Americans have taken possession of the Columbia, and will speedily multiply and increase: ere many years their trappers will be found scouring the interior, from the banks of the Columbia to New Caledonia, and probably penetrating to the east side of the Rocky Mountains. Should they do so, that valuable part of the country embraced by the Peace and McKenzie Rivers would soon be ruined; for the white trapper makes a clean sweep wherever he goes. Taking all these circumstances into consideration, I do not see any great probability—to say the least—that the trade will ever attain the prosperity of days bygone.

Even in such parts of the country as the Company endeavor to preserve, both the fur-bearing and larger animals have of late become so scarce, that some tribes are under the necessity of quitting their usual hunting-grounds. A certain gentleman, in charge of a district to which some of those Indians withdrew, on being censured for harboring them in his vicinity, writes thus: "Pray, is it surprising, that poor Indians, whose lives are in jeopardy, should relish a taste of buffalo meat? It is not the Chippewayans alone that leave their lands to go in search of food to preserve their lives; the Strongwood Crees and Assineboines are all out in the plains, because, as they affirm, their usual hunting-grounds are so exhausted that they cannot live upon them. It is no wish of mine that those Indians should visit us—we have trouble enough with our own, but to turn a poor Indian out of doors, who arrives at the Company's establishment nearly dead with hunger, is what I am not able to do."

In the work already quoted I find it stated "that the Company have carefully nursed the various animals, removing their stations from the various districts where they had become scarce, and taking particular care to preserve the female while pregnant! instead, therefore, of being in a state of diminution, as generally supposed, the produce is increasing throughout their domains." Fudge! It is unnecessary to say, that if this statement were correct, we should not hear such distressing accounts of starvation throughout the country. No people can be more attached to their native soil than the Indians; and it is only the most pressing necessity that ever compels them to remove.

In 1842 the Governor and Committee issued positive orders that the beavers should be preserved, and every effort made to prevent the Indians from killing them for a period of three years. This was, in a great measure, "shutting the stable door after the steed was stolen." The beavers had already been exterminated in many parts of the country; and even where some were yet to be found, our injunctions to the natives to preserve them had but little weight. To appease their hunger they killed whatever game came in their way, and as we were not permitted to buy the beaver skins, they either converted them into articles of clothing for themselves or threw them away. Now (1845) the restriction is removed, and the beavers have sensibly increased; but mark the result: the natives are not only encouraged but strenuously urged to hunt, in order that the parties interested may indemnify themselves for their lost time; and ere three years more shall have elapsed, the beaver will be found scarcer than ever.

It is thus evident that whatever steps their Honours may take to preserve the game, the attainment of that object, in the present exhausted state of the country, is no longer practicable.

As to the Company's having ever issued orders, or recommended any particular measures for the preservation of the larger animals, male or female, the statement is positively untrue. The minutes of the Council are considered the statutes of the land, and in them the provision districts are directed to furnish so many bags of pemmican, so many bales of dry meat, and so many cwt. of grease, every year; and no reference whatever is made to restrictions of any kind in killing the animals. The fact is, the provisions must be forthcoming whatever be the consequence; our business cannot be carried on without them.

That the natives wantonly destroy the game in years of deep snow is true enough; but the snow fell to as great a depth before the advent of the whites as after, and the Indians were as prone to slaughter the animals then as now; yet game of every description abounded and want was unknown. To what cause then are we to ascribe the present scarcity? There can be but one answer—to the destruction of the animals which the prosecution of the fur-trade involves.

As the country becomes impoverished, the Company reduce their outfits so as to ensure the same amount of profit, an object utterly beyond their reach, although economy is pushed to the extreme of parsimony; and thus, while the game becomes scarcer, and the poor natives require more ammunition to procure their living, their means of obtaining it, instead of being increased, are lessened. As an instance of the effects of this policy, I shall mention what recently occurred in the Athabasca district.

Up to 1842 the transport of the outfit required four boats, when it was reduced to three. The reduction in the article of ammunition was felt so severely by the Chippewayans, that the poor creatures, in absolute despair, planned a conspiracy to carry off the gentleman at the head of affairs, and retain him until the Company should restore the usual outfit.

Despair alone could have suggested such an idea to the Chippewayans, for they have ever been the friends of the white man. Mr. Campbell, however, who had passed his life among them, conducted himself with so much firmness and judgment, that, although the natives had assembled in his hall with the intention of carrying their design into execution, the affair passed over without any violence being attempted.

The general outfit for the whole northern department amounted in 1835, to 31,000l.; now (1845) it is reduced to 15,000l., of which one-third at least is absorbed by the stores at Red River settlement, and a considerable portion of the remainder by the officers and servants of the Company throughout the country. I do not believe that more than one half of the outfit goes to the Indians.

While the resources of the country are thus becoming yearly more and more exhausted, the question naturally suggests itself, What is to become of the natives when their lands can no longer furnish the means of subsistence? This is indeed a serious question, and well worthy of the earnest attention of the philanthropist. While Britain makes such strenuous exertions in favour of the sable bondsmen of Africa, and lavishes her millions to free them from the yoke, can nothing be done for the once noble, but now degraded, aborigines of America? Are they to be left to the tender mercies of the trader until famine and disease sweep them from the earth? People of Britain! the Red Men of America thus appeal to you;—from the depths of their forest they send forth their cry—

"Brethren! beyond the Great Salt Lake, we, the Red Men of America salute you:—

"Brethren!

"We hear that you are a great and a generous people; that you are as valiant as generous; and that you freely shed your blood and scatter your gold in defense of the weak and oppressed; if it be so, you will open your ears to our plaints.

"Brethren! Our ancients still remember when the Red Men were numerous and happy; they remember the time when our lands abounded with game; when the young men went forth to the chase with glad hearts and vigorous limbs, and never returned empty; in those days our camps resounded with mirth and merriment; our youth danced and enjoyed themselves; they anointed their bodies with fat; the sun never set on a foodless wigwam, and want was unknown.

"Brethren! When your kinsmen came first to us with guns, and ammunition, and other good things the work of your hands, we were glad and received them joyfully; our lands were then rich, and yielded with little toil both furs and provisions to exchange for the good things they brought us.

"Brethren! Your kinsmen are still amongst us; they still bring us goods, and now we cannot want them; without guns and ammunition we must die. Brethren! our fathers were urged by the white men to hunt; our fathers listened to them; they ranged wood and plain to gratify their wishes; and now our lands are ruined, our children perish with hunger.

"Brethren! We hear that you have another Great Chief who rules over you, to whom even our great trading Chief must bow; we hear that this great and good Chief desires the welfare of all his children; we hear that to him the white man and the red are alike, and, wonderful to be told! that he asks neither furs nor game in return for his bounty. Brethren! we feel that we can no longer exist as once we did; we implore your Great Chief to shield us in our present distress; we desire to be placed under his immediate care, and to be delivered from the rule of the trading Chief who only wants our furs, and cares nothing for our welfare.

"Brethren! Some of your kinsmen visited us lately; they asked neither our furs nor our flesh; their sojourn was short; but we could see they were good men; they advised us for our good, and we listened to them. Brethren! We humbly beseech your Great Chief that he would send some of those good men to live amongst us: we desire to be taught to worship the Great Spirit in the way most pleasing to him: without teachers among us we cannot learn. We wish to be taught to till the ground, to sow and plant, and to perform whatever the good white people counsel us to do to preserve the lives of our children.

"Brethren! We could say much more, but we have said enough, we wish not to weary you.

"Brethren! We are all the children of the Great Spirit; the red man and the white man were formed by him. And although we are still in darkness and misery, we know that all good flows from him. May he turn your hearts to pity the distress of your Red Brethren! Thus have we spoken to you."

Such are the groans of the Indians. Would to Heaven they were heard by my countrymen as I have heard them! Would to Heaven that the misery I have witnessed were seen by them! The poor Indians then would not appeal to them in vain. I can scarcely hope that the voice of a humble, unknown individual, can reach the ears, or make any impression on the minds of those who have the supreme rule in Britain; but if there are there men of rank, and fortune, and influence, whose hearts sympathize with the misery and distress of their fellow-men, whatever be their country or hue and, thank God! there are not a few it is to those true Britons that I would appeal in behalf of the much-wronged Indians; the true and rightful owners of the American soil.

If I am asked what I would suggest as the most effective means for saving the Indians, I answer: Let the Company's charter be abolished, and the portals of the territory be thrown wide open to every individual of capital and enterprise, under certain restrictions; let the British Government take into its hands the executive power of the territory, and appoint a governor, judges, and magistrates; let Missionaries be sent forth among the Indians;—already the whole of the Chippewayan tribes, from English River to New Caledonia, are disposed to adopt our religion as well as our customs, so that the Missionaries' work is half done. Let those of them who manifest a disposition to steady industry be encouraged to cultivate the ground: let such as evince any aptitude for mechanics be taught some handicraft, and congregated in villages, wherever favorable situations can be found—and there is no want of them. Let schools be established and supported by Government—not mere common schools, where reading, writing, arithmetic, and perhaps some of the higher branches may be taught; but training and industrial schools. Where the soil or climate is unfit for husbandry, other means of improving their condition might be resorted to. In the barren grounds, bordering on the Arctic regions, rein-deer still abound. Why should not the Indians succeed in domesticating these animals, and rendering them subservient to their wants, as the Laplanders do? I have been informed that the Yellow Knives, and some of the other tribes inhabiting these desert tracts, have the art of taming the fawns, which they take in great numbers while swimming after their dams, so that they follow them like dogs till they see fit to kill them.

Such, in brief, are the measures which, after much experience, and long and serious consideration, I would venture to propose in behalf of the Indians; and most happy shall I be if anything I have said shall have the effect of awakening the public interest to their condition; or form the groundwork of any plan which, by the blessing of God, may have the effect of preserving and Christianizing the remnants of these unhappy tribes.

It may be objected, that the Company have had their charter renewed for a period of twenty-one years, which does not expire till 1863; and that Government is bound in honor to sustain the validity of the deed. But if Government is bound to protect the interests of the Hudson's Bay Company, is it less bound to protect the property and lives of their weak, ignorant, and wronged subjects? The validity of the original charter, the foundation of the present, is, however, more than questioned: nay, it has been declared by high authority to be null and void. Admitting its validity, and admitting that the dictates of honor call for the fulfillment of the charter in guarding the profits of the few individuals (and their dependants) who assemble weekly in the old house in Fenchurch Street; are we to turn a deaf ear to the still small voice of justice and humanity pleading in behalf of the numerous tribes of perishing Indians? Now, now is the time to apply the remedy; in 1863, where will the Indian be?

If it is urged that the measures I propose violate the charter, deprive the Company of their sovereignty, and reduce them to the situation of subjects; still, I say, they will have vast advantages over every other competitor. Their ample resources, their long exclusive possession of the trade, their experience, the skill and activity of their agents, will long, perhaps permanently, secure to them the greatest portion of the trade; while the Indians will be greatly benefited by a free competition.

If it be urged that the profits will be so much reduced by competition, that the trade will not be worth pursuing; I answer, that competition has certainly a natural tendency to reduce profits; but experience proves that it has also a tendency to reduce costs. A monopolist company never goes very economically to work; and, although much economy, or rather parsimony, of a very questionable and impolitic kind, has been of late years attempted to be introduced into the management of the Hudson's Bay Company's affairs, a free and fair competition will suggest economy of a sounder kind the facilitating of transport, the improvement of portages, and the saving of labor. Where are the evils which interested alarmists predicted would follow the modification of the East India Company's charter?

I have spoken of restrictions to be imposed on those who engage in the trade. These are;—that no one be allowed to engage in it without a license from Government; that these licensed traders should be confined to a certain locality, beyond which they should not move, on any pretext; and that no spirituous liquors should be sold or given to the Indians under the severest penalties such as the forfeiture of the offender's license, and of their right to participate in the trade in all time coming.

Notes of a Twenty-Five Years Service in the Hudson's Bay Territory, 1849

 

Notes on Hudson Bay Territory

 


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