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Arrival at York Factory

I arrived at York Factory, the dépôt of the Northern department, early in July. This establishment presents a more respectable appearance than any other that I have seen in Rupert's Land, and reflects no small credit on the talents and taste of him who planned, and partly executed, the existing improvements, all which have been effected since the coalition. When Mr. McT. first assumed the command, the buildings were of the most wretched description—the apartments had more the appearance of cells for criminals, than of rooms for gentlemen.

The yielding nature of the swampy ground on which the buildings were to be erected rendering it necessary to lay a solid foundation, the object was accomplished in the face of every difficulty, and at a great expense; and the present commodious buildings were commenced, but not finished by the projector. Other improvements have been made since then, so that they afford every comfort and convenience that could be expected in so unfavorable a situation.

The dépôt is at present under the charge of a chief factor, assisted by a chief trader, a surgeon, and two clerks. Here there is always a sufficient supply of goods and provisions on hand to meet the demand of the trade for two years—a wise precaution, as in the event of any accident happening to prevent the vessel from reaching her destination, the trade would not be interrupted. The very emergency thus provided for occurred last autumn; the ship, after dropping anchor in her usual mooring ground, was compelled by stress of weather to bear away for England, after loosing her anchors, and sustaining other serious damages. Yet notwithstanding this untoward event, the gentlemen in charge of the different districts set off for the interior with their outfits complete.

The climate, although extremely disagreeable, is not considered unhealthy. In summer the extremes of heat and cold are experienced in the course of a few hours; in the morning you may be wearing nankeen, and before noon, duffle. Were the heat to continue for a sufficient length of time to thaw the ground thoroughly, the establishment could not be kept up save at a great sacrifice of life, through the mephitic exhalations from the surrounding swamps. The ground, however, seldom thaws more than eighteen inches, and the climate therefore is never affected by them to such a degree as to become unhealthy.

One of Mr. McT——'s most beneficial improvements was to clear the swamps surrounding the factory of the brushwood with which they were thickly covered; and the inmates are now in a great measure relieved from the torture to which they were formerly exposed from the mosquitoes. These vampires are not so troublesome in the cleared ground, but whoever dares to intrude on their domain pays dearly for his temerity. Every exposed part of the body is immediately covered with them; defense is out of the question; the death of one is avenged by the stings of a thousand equally bloodthirsty; and the unequal contest is soon ended by the flight of the tormented party to his quarters, whither he is pursued to his very door.

There seems to be no foundation for the opinion generally entertained that the natives do not suffer from the stings of these insects. The incrustation of filth with which their bodies are covered undoubtedly affords some protection, the skin not being so easily pierced; but no incrustation, however thick, can be a defense against the attacks of myriads; and in fact, the natives complain as loudly of the mosquitoes as the whites.

The Indians of this quarter are denominated Swampies, a tribe of the Cree nation, whose language they speak with but little variation, and in their manners and customs there is a great similarity. But the Swampies are a degenerate race, reduced by famine and disease to a few families; and these have been still farther reduced by an epidemic which raged among them this summer. They were attacked by it immediately on their return from the interior with the produce of their winter hunts, and remained in hopes of being benefited by medical advice and attendance. Their hopes, however, were not realized; they were left entirely in charge of a young man without experience and without humanity; and the disease was unchecked. Every day the death of some poor wretch was made known to us by the firing of guns, by which the survivors fancied the evil spirit was frightened away from the souls of their departed friends.

Not many years ago this part of the country was periodically visited by immense herds of rein-deer; at present there is scarcely one to be found. Whether their disappearance is owing to their having changed the course of their migrations, or to their destruction by the natives, who waylaid them on their passage, and killed them by hundreds, is a question not easily determined. It may be they have only forsaken this part of the country for a time, and may yet return in as great numbers as ever: be that as it may, the present want to which the Indians are subject, arises from the extreme scarcity of those animals, whose flesh and skins afforded them food and clothing. Their subsistence is now very precarious; derived principally from snaring rabbits and fishing; and rabbits also fail periodically.

Their fare during summer, however, soon obliterates the remembrance of the privations of winter: fish is then found in every lake, and wild-fowl during the moulting season become an easy prey; while young ducks and geese are approached in canoes, and are destroyed with arrows in great numbers, ere they have acquired the use of their wings. The white man similarly situated would undoubtedly think of the long winter he had passed in want, and would provide for the next while he could;—so much foresight, however, does not belong to the Indian character.

Fishing and hunting for the establishment affords employment to a few Indians during summer, and is an object of competition among them, on account of the incomparable gratification it affords—grog drinking—to which no earthly bliss can be compared in the Indian's estimation. To find the Company serving out rum to the natives as payment for their services in this remote quarter, created the utmost surprise in my mind: no excuse can be advanced which can justify the unhallowed practice, when the management of the native population is left entirely to themselves. Why then is it continued? Strange to say, while Indians were to be seen rolling drunk about the establishment, an order of Council appeared, prohibiting the sale of ardent spirits in any quantity exceeding two gallons to the Company's officers of whatever rank, with the view of preventing the demoralization of the natives!

Most of the natives have a smattering of English, and are said to be a quiet, harmless race, addicted to few bad habits. Their remote situation, and impoverished country protect them from the hostile inroads of neighboring tribes; hence the tame and pacific demeanor by which they are distinguished. The poor Swampy often retires to rest without a morsel to eat for himself or family, and that for days together; yet he is under no apprehension from his enemies, and enjoys his night's rest undisturbed; whereas, the warrior of the plain, while he revels in abundance, seldom retires to rest without apprehension; the hostile yell may, in fact, rouse him from his midnight slumber, either to be butchered himself, or to hear the dying groans of his family while he escapes. Thus chequered is the life of man with good and evil in every condition, whether civilized or savage.

Every preparation for our departure being now completed, I took leave of Fort York, its fogs, and bogs, and mosquitoes, with little regret. We embarked on the 22d of August, in a brig that had fortunately escaped the mishaps of the other vessels last autumn; and after being delayed in port by adverse winds till the 26th, we finally stood out to sea, having spoken the Prince Rupert just come in. The fields of ice, that had been observed a few days previously, having now entirely disappeared, the captain concluded that the passage was clear for him, and accordingly steered for the south. He had not proceeded far in this direction, however, when we fell in with such quantities of ice as to interrupt our passage; but we still continued to force our way through. Convinced at length of the futility of the attempt, we altered our course to a directly opposite point, standing to the north, until we came abreast of Churchill, and then bore away for the strait, making Mansfield Island on the 7th of September. We encountered much stream ice on our passage, from which no material injury was sustained; although the continual knocking of our rather frail vessel against the ice created a good deal of alarm, from the effect the collision produced, shaking her violently from stem to stern.

We were thus passing rapidly through the straits without experiencing any accident worthy of notice, when I inquired of our captain, one evening, how soon he expected to make the Island of Akpatok. He replied, "To-morrow morning about nine o'clock." We retired to rest about ten, P.M., and I had not yet fallen asleep, when I heard an unusual bustle on deck, and one of the men rushing down to the captain's room to call him up. I instantly dressed and went on deck, where I soon learned the cause;—a dark object, scarcely distinguishable through the fog and gloom of night, was pointed out to me on our lee beam, two cable-lengths distant, on which we had been rushing, propelled by wind and current, at the rate of thirteen knots an hour, when it was observed. A few moments more, and we had been launched into eternity. Had the vigilance of the look-out been relaxed for a minute, or had the slightest accident occurred to prevent the vessel from wearing at the very instant, our doom was certain.

The western extremity of the Island of Akpatok, terminating in a high promontory seemingly cut down perpendicular to the water's edge, formed the danger we had so providentially escaped. Next day we saw the dismal spot in all its horrors. The island was still partially covered with snow, and no traces of vegetation were discernible; but a fresh breeze springing up we soon lost sight of this desolate spot, and made the mouth of the Ungava, or South River, about an hour after sunset. The captain was a perfect stranger on the coast, and had but a very imperfect chart to guide him; he nevertheless stood boldly in for the land, and fortunately discovered the mouth of the river, which we entered as darkness closed in upon us.

By this time the breeze, that had carried us on so rapidly, increased to a gale, so that if we had not entered the river so opportunely, the consequences might have been serious. We were utterly unacquainted with the coast, which presented a thousand dangers in the shape of rocks and breakers, that were observable in every direction, as far as the eye could reach to seaward; we therefore congratulated ourselves on our fancied security—for it was only fancied, as will presently appear. We kept firing as we approached the land, with the view of apprizing the people of the post, who were directed to await us at the mouth of the river. No sound was heard in reply until we had advanced a few miles up the river, when we were gratified with hearing the report of muskets, and presently several torches were visible blazing a little ahead.

The night was uncommonly dark, the banks of the river being scarcely perceptible; and although it appeared to me we were much nearer then than prudence would warrant, we still drew nearer, when our progress was suddenly arrested. The vessel struck violently on a sunken rock, and heeled over so much that she was nearly thrown on her beam-ends. Swinging round, however, with the force of the current, she soon got off again; and our captain, taking the hint, instantly dropped anchor. Soon after a couple of Esquimaux came alongside in their canoes, who gave us to understand by signs that they were sent to pilot us to the post.

Next day, as soon as the tide proved favorable, our Esquimaux made signs to weigh anchor, which being done, one of them took his station by the side of the helmsman, and never moved a moment from the spot, pointing out the deep channel, with which he appeared well acquainted; although the utmost anxiety appeared depicted in his countenance, lest any accident should happen. Once or twice we touched slightly, when he expressed his dissatisfaction by a deep groan; he managed so well, however, that he brought us to good anchoring ground ere nightfall. From 10 A.M. until late in the evening we had only advanced twenty-five miles, although we pressed against the current with top-gallant sails set and a strong wind in our favor.

Immediately we anchored, Captain Humphrey and myself determined on rowing up to the post, where we arrived about four, P.M. I need scarcely say with what joy our arrival was hailed by people so seldom visited by strangers, in a situation which had no regular communication as yet with any other part of the world.

I was much gratified by the appearance of every thing about the establishment. The buildings had just been finished with materials sent out from England, through the considerate and kindly feeling of the Committee, whose compassion had been excited by the accounts they had heard of the miserable hovels in which the people were lodged when the place was first settled. After passing an hour or two examining the fort, (as it is called par excellence,) we returned to the ship, and weighing anchor at an early hour the next morning, (11th September,) we were soon brought up to the establishment, and landed without loss of time amid a violent snow-storm. It afforded us no small consolation, however, to reflect that we had no further cause to apprehend danger from icebergs or rocks, and that the post afforded us greater comfort as to living and accommodation than we had been led to expect.

The vessel, having discharged cargo, dropped down with the stream on the 15th, leaving us to reflect in undisturbed solitude on the dreary prospects before us. The clank of the capstan, while the operation of weighing was being executed, echoing from the surrounding hills, suggested the question, "When shall that sound be heard again?" From the melancholy reverie which this idea suggested I was roused by the voice of my fellow exile, "the companion of my joys and sorrows," in whose society such gloomy thoughts could not long dwell.

This post is situated in lat. 59° 28', standing on the east bank of South River, about thirty miles distant from the sea, surrounded by a country that presents as complete a picture of desolation as can be imagined; moss-covered rocks without vegetation and without verdure, constitute the cheerless landscape that greets the eye in every direction. A few stunted pines growing in the villages form the only exception; and at this season of the year, when they shed their leaves, contribute but little to the improvement of the scene.

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


Notes on Hudson Bay Territory


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