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Statements in the Edinburgh Cabinet Library

A volume of the Edinburgh Cabinet Library, in which the Company's territories are described, came lately into my hands. It is there remarked, that "the Company's posts serve as hospitals, to which the Indians resort during sickness, and are supplied with food and medicine; that when winter arrives, the diseased and infirm are frequently left there; that the Company have made the most laudable efforts to instruct and civilize them, employing, at a great expense, Missionaries and Teachers," &c.

I am well aware that the author of this valuable production took it for granted that the information he had obtained, relative to our treatment of the Indians, and other matters, was correct, or he would not have permitted it to go forth to the world under the authority and sanction of his name. But without intending any disrespect to the author, I take leave to state that the above quotations have not the slightest foundation in fact. Our posts serve as hospitals! I have now passed twenty-four years of my life-time in the country; I have served in every quarter of it; and I own that I have never yet known a single instance of an Indian being retained at any inland post for medical treatment. The knowledge the natives possess of the medicinal virtues of roots and herbs, is generally equal to the cure of all their ailments; and we are, in fact, more frequently indebted to them, than they to us, for medical advice. I may mention, however, by way of exception to the general rule, that the dépôts along the coast are well supplied with medicines, and that there are medical men there who administer them to the natives when they apply for them.

In the interior we are allowed to doctor ourselves as we best can. What with the salubrity of the climate, and our abstemious fare, we are enabled, with the aid of a little Turlington balsam, and a dose of salts, perhaps, to overcome all our ailments. Most of us also use the lancet, and can even "spread a plaster, or give a glister," when necessary; but the Indians seldom trouble us.

As to the instruction the natives receive from us, I am at a loss to know what it is, where imparted, and by whom given. "A tale I could, unfold!" But let it pass: certain it is, that neither our example nor our precept has had the effect of improving the morals or principles of the natives;—they are neither more enlightened, nor more civilized, by our endeavours, than if we had never appeared among them. The native interpreters even grow old in our service as ignorant of Christianity as the rudest savages who have never seen the face of a white man.

The Church Missionary Society has had two Missionaries stationed at Red River settlement for some years past, one of whom is designated the Company's Chaplain, and is allowed 100l. per annum; the Roman Catholic bishop, too, receives his 100l., and doubtless understands, without any inspiration, the Company's policy in granting the annuity. The gentleman who conducts the academy has also 100l. a-year; thus we have 300l., forming the sum total of the "great expenses" the Company are at. It is quite true there are thirteen schools at Red River; there are also eighteen windmills, and the Company furnishes just as much wind for the mills as funds for the support of the schools or teachers. Other teachers than those above specified I have neither seen nor heard of.

Some years ago five Missionaries were sent out to the Hudson's Bay territory by the Wesleyan Missionary Society. After having labored for some time in the territory, by a decision of the Council the rank of commissioned gentleman, together with the usual allowances attached to that rank, was conferred on them.

The Missionaries had every reason to be grateful for these acts of kindness, and they both felt and expressed their gratitude. Their object, however, in coming to the country was to serve God, not the Hudson's Bay Company; and they proceeded to discharge their duty in the manner their conscience approved, instructing and enlightening the natives with the zeal and perseverance for which their sect is so eminently distinguished. The good fruits were soon apparent; in some parts of the country successful attempts were made to collect the natives: they were taught to cultivate the soil, to husband their produce, so as to render them less dependent on fortuitous circumstances for a living; they were taught to read and write, and to worship God "in spirit and in truth," and numbers "were daily added to the Church;" when, lo! it was discovered that the time devoted to religious exercises, and other duties arising out of the altered circumstances of the converts, was so much time lost to the fur-hunt; and from the moment this discovery was made, no further encouragement was given to the innovators. Their labors were strictly confined to the stations they originally occupied, and every obstacle was thrown in the way of extending their missions. Even after some of them had traveled into the remotest parts, and opened up an amicable intercourse with the natives, they were told that collecting the Indians into villages was a measure not to be thought of, as the habitual indolence of the natives precluded the idea of their being induced to cultivate the soil; that even if they were so inclined, the country presented few localities fit for the purpose, &c.

Notwithstanding the high authority whence these allegations emanated, I think I can show the reader that they are in a great measure without foundation.

Here (in lat. 61° north)2 we raise crops of barley and potatoes—the former in abundance every year,—the latter, however, are sometimes cut off by the frosts; but this is no more than happens in Canada, and many parts of the United States. The fact is, that there are many favorable situations for agriculture to be found in every district of the Company's territories, except perhaps one or two on the shores of Hudson's Bay. The banks of the Athabasca, Peace, Slave, and McKenzie rivers present many localities fit for farming operations; and in the more southern districts they are, of course, far more frequent.

Had the Protestant ministers been allowed a free scope, and the encouragement they at first received been continued, they would ere now have had Missions established in many districts; and there can hardly be a doubt that they would have succeeded here, as elsewhere, in overcoming the natural sloth of the natives. Their good intentions, however, have been frustrated, and they have now the additional mortification of finding themselves supplanted by Romish priests, who, no later than last year, were allowed a free passage in the Company's craft, even to a district where a Protestant Missionary had been settled for several years previously, and had made considerable progress in converting the natives. Not only was he allowed a passage to the district, but he was lodged and entertained in the Company's establishment.

The consequences of this strange procedure are obvious: the poor ignorant natives, hearing such conflicting doctrines, are at a loss what to think or what to believe; and, naturally enough, conclude that both are alike impostors, and therefore in many cases decline their instructions. It must be acknowledged, however, that the Romish priest is often more successful than the Protestant missionary, and that for obvious reasons. With the former, the Indian needs only profess a desire to become a Christian, and he is forthwith baptized; whereas with the latter, a probationary course a trial of the proselyte's sincerity is deemed indispensable. The peculiar dress, moreover, of the Romish ministers, and their imposing ritual, make a great impression on the senses of a barbarous people.

"He indeed," say the Indians, when speaking of the priest, "he indeed looks like a great 'man of medicine;' but these others are just like our traders; we can see no difference."

The fact, too, need not be disguised, that we ourselves find the priests far more accommodating than these meddling parsons. The priests, for instance, allow us to amuse ourselves in any manner we think fit, week-day or Sunday; and far from finding fault, ten to one if they don't join in the sport; the Protestant minister, on the contrary, never allows a violation of the sacred day to pass unnoticed, nor fails to warn the delinquent of the consequences. The priest connives at the Indian's hunting on Sunday—the minister strictly forbids it: the priests are single the ministers are generally married, and their maintenance of course involves a far heavier expense. Considering these things, no reasonable person can surely find fault with us for preferring those who allow us to put what construction we please on the moral law, and at the same time oppose no obstacles to the advancement of our temporal interests.

And here I cannot but express my regret that our Protestant churches should have so long neglected the cultivation of a field that promised such rich harvests as the interior of America. The superstitions of the aborigines scattered through the Hudson's Bay Company's territories are so gross, and so inconsistent with unsophisticated common sense; and their prejudices in favor of them have been so much shaken by their intercourse with the gentlemen of the trading posts and the other Europeans, whom they are accustomed to look up to as beings of a superior race, that there could be but little difficulty in removing what remains of these prejudices; and thus one of the greatest obstacles to the success of a Missionary in other parts of the heathen world, can scarcely be said to exist among them.

The Church of England, it is true, has done a little, but she might have done more—much more. Had the Missionaries at Red River exerted themselves, from the time of their first arrival in the country, in educating natives as Missionaries, and sent them forth to preach the Word, the pure doctrines of Christianity would, ere now, have been widely disseminated through the land. But nothing of this kind has been attempted: nor could it be attempted now that I think of it the laying on of "the hands of a Bishop" being indispensable.

As to the diseased and infirm being frequently left at our posts in winter, all I can say is, that I have never seen any such at any of the posts I wintered at, or at any of the posts I visited; nor is it likely that, when we ourselves depend on the natives for a considerable part of our subsistence, we can do much to support them. We support neither old nor young, diseased nor infirm—that is the truth.

In the work above quoted I find the following paragraph relating to the North-West Company.

"Although the rivalry of the North-West Company had the effect of inspiriting and extending the trade; it was carried by them in many respects beyond the legitimate limits, not scrupling at open violence and bloodshed, in which Europeans and natives were alike sufferers."

The controversy between those rival companies has long since been forgotten; but the subject being again obtruded on the public notice, evidently in the spirit of prejudice, there can be nothing improper, I presume, in representing matters in their true and proper light. Many of the individuals thus calumniated are still alive and settled in the civilized world, where they are esteemed for qualities diametrically opposite to those ascribed to them by their slanderer.

It is well known that the chief advantages the Hudson's Bay Company now possess, they owe to the adventurous North-West traders; by these traders the whole interior of the savage wilds was first explored; by them the water communications were first discovered and opened up to commercial enterprise; by them the first trading posts were established in the interior; by them the natives were first reconciled to the whites; and by them the trade was first reduced to the regular system which the Hudson's Bay Company still follows. When all this had been done by the North-West Company, and they had begun to reap the reward of their toils, and hardships, and dangers, and expenditure—then did the Honorable Hudson's Bay Company, led on by a British peer, step forward and claim, as British subjects, an equal right to share the trade.

Their noble leader appeared first in Montreal in the guise of a traveler, where he was received by the North-Westers with open arms, was kindly and hospitably entertained by them, his minutest inquiries regarding their system of trade were candidly and freely answered; and the information thus obtained in the character of a traveler, a guest, and a friend, he forthwith proceeded to use to effect their ruin. Had, however, the North-West Company continued true to themselves, all his arts and attempts would have failed. Had not dissension arisen in the ranks, it is clear that they not the Hudson's Bay Company—would have granted the capitulation. Unfortunately for themselves, however, the partners in the interior, seeing the contest continue so long, and the expenses swallow up all the profits, despaired of the success that was almost within their grasp, and commencing a correspondence among themselves, finally determined on opening a negotiation with their rivals. Two of their number were accordingly sent home, invested with full powers to act for the general interest. Those gentlemen arrived just as the Directors of the North-West Company in London were about to conclude a most advantageous treaty—a few days more, and the articles had been ratified by the signatures of both parties. At this conjuncture the Delegates arrived, and instead of first communicating with their own Directors, went straight to the Hudson's Bay House, and presented their credentials. The Hudson's Bay Company saw their advantage, and instead of receiving, now dictated the terms; and thus the name of the North West Company was merged in that of its rival, and the Canadian people were deprived of all interest in that trade which owed its origin to the courage and enterprise of their forefathers.

Such were the relative circumstances of the Hudson's Bay and North-West Companies. From 1674 to 1813 the Hudson's Bay Company slumbered at its posts along the shores of Hudson's Bay, never attempting to penetrate beyond the banks of the Saskatchewan, until the North-Westers had led and cleared the way; and in this manner began their rivalry. That collisions should follow, marked by violence and outrage, need not be wondered at. But violence and outrage were not confined to one side; both parties exceeded the limits prescribed by law. Yet while stern justice alike condemns both, which is the more guilty party? or which has the greater claims on our sympathy?

As to the North-West Company being guilty of the blood of innocent Indians,—the charge is as false as it is invidious. When the blood of their servants was shed without cause or provocation, as frequently happened when they first encountered the fierce savage, they punished the aggressors as the law of God allows, demanding "blood for blood." But while the author (or rather his informant, whose ribbon I can plainly distinguish, although he strikes in the dark) so freely censures the North-West Company for avenging the murder of their people, does he mean to insinuate that nothing of the kind is done under the humane and gentle rule of the Hudson's Bay Company? What became of the Hannah Bay murderers? They were conveyed to Moose Factory, bound hand and foot, and there shot down by the orders of the Chief Factor. Did the murders committed by the natives at New Caledonia, Thompson's River, and the Columbia, pass unavenged? No! the penalty was fully paid in blood for blood.

But since the author's informant seems disposed to "rake up the smoldering embers" of days bygone, I shall take the liberty of telling him of a tragedy that was enacted at the ancient date of 1836-7. In that winter, a party of men, led by two clerks, was sent to look for some horses that were grazing at a considerable distance from the post. As they approached the spot they perceived a band of Assineboine Indians, eight in number (if I remember aright), on an adjacent hill, who immediately joined them, and, delivering up their arms, encamped with them for the night. Next morning a court martial was held by the two clerks and some of the men, to determine the punishment due to the Indians for having been found near the company's horses, with the supposed intention of carrying them off. What was the decision of this mock court martial? I shudder to relate, that the whole band, after having given up their arms, and partaken of their hospitality, were condemned to death, and the sentence carried into execution on the spot,—all were butchered in cold blood!

With the exception of the massacre of the Indians in McKenzie's River district in 1835, no such deed of blood had been heard of in the country. Yet our author's impartial informant, perfectly acquainted as he was with all the circumstances of the case, and ready enough as he is to trumpet to the world the alleged crimes of the North-West Company, takes no notice of it! It may be said that the Company are not answerable for crimes committed by their servants without their knowledge. True; but when they are made fully acquainted with those misdeeds, and allow the perpetrators to escape with impunity, the guilt is transferred to their own head; "invitat culpam qui peccatum præterit." The proceedings of this court-martial were reported at head-quarters, and the punishment awarded to these murderers was—a reprimand! After this, what protection, or generosity, or justice, can the Indians he said to receive from the Hudson's Bay Company?

The Indians to this day talk of their Northwest "fathers" with regret. "Our old traders, our fathers, did not serve us so," is a remark I have frequently heard in every part of the country where the North-West Company had established posts. Had their rule been distinguished by oppression or injustice, the natives would rather have expressed their satisfaction at its suppression; had it been tyrannical or oppressive, it would not have been long tolerated. The natives in those times were numerous and warlike; the trading-posts were isolated and far apart; and in the summer season, when the managers proceeded to the dépôts, with the greater part of their people, were entirely at the mercy of the natives, who would not have failed to take advantage of such opportunities to avenge their wrongs, had they suffered any. The posts, in fact, were left entirely to their protection, and depended on them for support during the absence of the traders, who, on their return in autumn, found themselves surrounded by hundreds of rejoicing Indians, greeting their "fathers" with every manifestation of delight;—he who had not a gun to fire strained his lungs with shouting.

The native population has decreased at an extraordinary rate since those times. I do not mean to affirm that this decrease arises from the Hudson's Bay Company's treatment of them; but, from whatever cause arising, it is quite certain they have greatly decreased. Neither can it be denied, that the natives are no longer the manly, independent race they formerly were. On the contrary, we now find them gloomy and dispirited, unhappy and discontented.

As to our vaunted "generosity" to the natives, I am at a loss to know in what it consists. When a band of Indians arrive at a trading post, each individual is presented with a few inches of tobacco; here (at Fort Simpson) in winter we add a fish to each. After their furs are traded, a few flints, awls, and hooks, and a trifle of ammunition is given them, in proportion to their hunts, and then—"Va-t-en." This is about the average amount of "generosity" they receive throughout the country; varied, however, by the differences of disposition observable in the Hudson's Bay Company's traders, as among all other mortals. Some of us would even withhold the awls and hooks, if we could; others, at the risk of being "hauled up" for extravagance, would add another hook to the number.

Were the Company's standing rules and regulations acted upon, we might perhaps have some title to the generosity we boast of. In these rules we are directed to supply poor Indians with ammunition and fishing tackle, gratis. This looks very well on paper; but are we allowed the means of bestowing these gratuities? Certainly not.3 Our outfits, in many cases, are barely sufficient to meet the exigencies of the trade; they are continually reduced in proportion to the decrease in the returns; and the strictest economy is not only recommended, but enforced. On the due fulfillment of these commands our prospects in the service depend; and few indeed will think of violating them, or of sacrificing their own interests to benefit Indians. I repeat that, far from having it in our power to bestow anything gratuitously, we are happy when allowed sufficient means to barter for the furs the Indians bring us.

The Company also make it appear by their standing rules, that we are directed to instruct the children, to teach the servants, &c.; but where are the means of doing so? A few books, I have been told, were sent out for this purpose, after the coalition; what became of them I know not. I never saw any. The history of commercial rule is well known to the world; the object of that rule, wherever established, or by whomsoever exercised, is gain. In our intercourse with the natives of America no other object is discernible, no other object is thought of, no other object is allowed.

Footnote 2:
On the banks of the McKenzie River.

Footnote 3:
When the Israelites were ordered to provide straw for their bricks, the material could be procured in Egypt, although at the expense of great additional toil;—not so the supplies for the Indian trade; in the event of a deficiency, neither money nor labor can procure them.

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


Notes on Hudson Bay Territory


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