The 'Adventurers of England' on Hudson Bay (Agnes Christina Laut) (Literary Thoughts Edition) - Agnes Christina Laut - ebook

The 'Adventurers of England' on Hudson Bay (Agnes Christina Laut) (Literary Thoughts Edition) ebook

Agnes Christina Laut

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Literary Thoughts edition presents The 'Adventurers of England' on Hudson Bay: A Chronicle of the Fur Trade in the North by Agnes Christina Laut ------ "The 'Adventurers of England' on Hudson Bay: A Chronicle of the Fur Trade in the North" was written by Agnes Christina Laut (1871–1936), a Canadian journalist, novelist, historian, and social worker. All books of the Literary Thoughts edition have been transscribed from original prints and edited for better reading experience. Please visit our homepage to see our other publications.

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The 'Adventurers of England' on Hudson Bay: A Chronicle of the Fur Trade in the Northby Agnes Christina Laut

Literary Thoughts Editionpresents

The 'Adventurers of England' on Hudson Bay: A Chronicle of the Fur Trade in the North by Agnes Christina Laut

Transscribed and Published by Jacson Keating (editor)

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Thirty or more years ago, one who stood at the foot of Main Street, Winnipeg, in front of the stone gate leading to the inner court of Fort Garry, and looked up across the river flats, would have seen a procession as picturesque as ever graced the streets of old Quebec—the dog brigades of the Hudson's Bay Company coming in from the winter's hunt.

Against the rolling snowdrifts appeared a line, at first grotesquely dwarfed under the mock suns of the eastern sky veiled in a soft frost fog. Then a husky-dog in bells and harness bounced up over the drifts, followed by another and yet another—eight or ten dogs to each long, low toboggan that slid along loaded and heaped with peltry. Beside each sleigh emerged out of the haze the form of the driver—a swarthy fellow, on snow-shoes, with hair bound back by a red scarf, and corduroy trousers belted in by another red scarf, and fur gauntlets to his elbows—flourishing his whip and yelling, in a high, snarling falsetto, 'marche! marche!'—the rallying-cry of the French wood-runner since first he set out from Quebec in the sixteen-hundreds to thread his way westward through the wilds of the continent.

Behind at a sort of dog-trot came women, clothed in skirts and shawls made of red and green blankets; papooses in moss bags on their mothers' backs, their little heads wobbling under the fur flaps and capotes. Then, as the dog teams sped from a trot to a gallop with whoops and jingling of bells, there whipped past a long, low, toboggan-shaped sleigh with the fastest dogs and the finest robes—the equipage of the chief factor or trader. Before the spectator could take in any more of the scene, dogs and sleighs, runners and women, had swept inside the gate.


At a still earlier period, say in the seventies, one who in summer chanced to be on Lake Winnipeg at the mouth of the great Saskatchewan river—which, by countless portages and interlinking lakes, is connected with all the vast water systems of the North—would have seen the fur traders sweeping down in huge flotillas of canoes and flat-bottomed Mackinaw boats—exultant after running the Grand Rapids, where the waters of the Great Plains converge to a width of some hundred rods and rush nine miles over rocks the size of a house in a furious cataract.

Summer or winter, it was a life of wild adventure and daily romance.

Here on the Saskatchewan every paddle-dip, every twist and turn of the supple canoes, revealed some new caprice of the river's moods. In places the current would be shallow and the canoes would lag. Then the paddlers must catch the veer of the flow or they would presently be out waist-deep shoving cargo and craft off sand bars. Again, as at Grand Rapids, where the banks were rock-faced and sheer, the canoes would run merrily in swift-flowing waters. No wonder the Indian voyageurs regarded all rivers as living personalities and made the River Goddess offerings of tobacco for fair wind and good voyage. And it is to be kept in mind that no river like the Saskatchewan can be permanently mapped. No map or chart of such a river could serve its purpose for more than a year. Chart it to-day, and perhaps to-morrow it jumps its river bed; and where was a current is now a swampy lake in which the paddlemen may lose their way.

When the waters chanced to be low at Grand Rapids, showing huge rocks through the white spray, cargoes would be unloaded and the peltry sent across the nine-mile portage by tramway; but when the river was high—as in June after the melting of the mountain snows—the voyageurs were always keen for the excitement of making the descent by canoe. Lestang, M'Kay, Mackenzie, a dozen famous guides, could boast two trips a day down the rapids, without so much as grazing a paddle on the rocks. Indeed, the different crews would race each other into the very vortex of the wildest water; and woe betide the old voyageur whose crew failed of the strong pull into the right current just when the craft took the plunge! Here, where the waters of the vast prairie region are descending over huge boulders and rocky islets between banks not a third of a mile apart, there is a wild river scene. Far ahead the paddlers can hear the roar of the swirl. Now the surface of the river rounds and rises in the eddies of an undertow, and the canoe leaps forward; then, a swifter plunge through the middle of a furious overfall. The steersman rises at the stern and leans forward like a runner.


'Pull!' shouts the steersman; and the canoe shoots past one rock to catch the current that will whirl it past the next, every man bending to his paddle and almost lifted to his feet. The canoe catches the right current and is catapulted past the roaring place where rocks make the water white. Instantly all but the steersman drop down, flat in the bottom of the canoe, paddles rigid athwart. No need to pull now! The waters do the work; and motion on the part of the men would be fatal. Here the strongest swimmer would be as a chip on a cataract. The task now is not to paddle, but to steer—to keep the craft away from the rocks. This is the part of the steersman, who stands braced to his paddle used rudder-wise astern; and the canoe rides the wildest plunge like a sea-gull. One after another the brigades disappear in a white trough of spray and roaring waters. They are gone! No human power can bring them out of that maelstrom! But look! like corks on a wave, mounting and climbing and riding the highest billows, there they are again, one after another, sidling and lifting and falling and finally gliding out to calm water, where the men fall to their paddles and strike up one of their lusty voyageur songs!

The Company would not venture its peltry on the lower rapid where the river rushes down almost like a waterfall. Above this the cargoes were transferred to the portage, and prosaically sent over the hill on a tram-car pulled by a horse. The men, however, would not be robbed of the glee of running that last rapid, and, with just enough weight for ballast in their canoes and boats, they would make the furious descent.

At the head of the tramway on the Grand Rapids portage stands the Great House, facing old warehouses through which have passed millions of dollars' worth of furs. The Great House is gambrel-roofed and is built of heavily timbered logs whitewashed. Round it is a picket fence; below are wine cellars. It is dismantled and empty now; but here no doubt good wines abounded and big oaths rolled in the days when the lords of an unmapped empire held sway.


A glance at the map of the Hudson's Bay Company's posts will show the extent of the fur traders' empire. To the Athabaska warehouses at Fort Chipewyan came the furs of Mackenzie river and the Arctic; to Fort Edmonton came the furs of the Athabaska and of the Rockies; to Fort Pitt came the peltry of the Barren Lands; and all passed down the broad highway of the Saskatchewan to Lake Winnipeg, whence they were sent out to York Factory on Hudson Bay, there to be loaded on ships and taken to the Company's warehouses in London.

Incidentally, the fur hunters were explorers who had blazed a trail across a continent and penetrated to the uttermost reaches of a northern empire the size of Europe. But it was fur these explorers were seeking when they pushed their canoes up the Saskatchewan, crossed the Rocky Mountains, went down the Columbia. Fur, not glory, was the quest when the dog bells went ringing over the wintry wastes from Saskatchewan to Athabaska, across the Barren Lands, and north to the Arctic. Beaver, not empire, was the object in view when the horse brigades of one hundred and two hundred and three hundred hunters, led by Ogden, or Ross, or M'Kay or Ermatinger went winding south over the mountains from New Caledonia through the country that now comprises the states of Washington and Oregon and Idaho, across the deserts of Utah and Nevada, to the Spanish forts at San Francisco and Monterey. It is a question whether La Salle could have found his way to the Mississippi, or Radisson to the North Sea, or Mackenzie to the Pacific, if the little beaver had not inspired the search and paid the toll.


Though the adventurers to Hudson Bay turned to fur trading and won wealth, and discovered an empire while pursuing the little beaver across a continent, the beginning of all this was not the beaver, but a myth—the North-West Passage—a short way round the world to bring back the spices and silks and teas of India and Japan. It was this quest, not the lure of the beaver, that first brought men into the heart of New World wilds by way of Hudson Bay.

In this search Henry Hudson led the way when he sent his little high-decked oak craft, the Discovery, butting through the ice-drive of Hudson Strait in July of 1610; 'worming a way' through the floes by anchor out to the fore and a pull on the rope from behind. Smith, Wolstenholme, and Digges, the English merchant adventurers who had supplied him with money for his brig and crew, cared for nothing but the short route to those spices and silks of the orient. They thought, since Hudson's progress had been blocked the year before in the same search up the bay of Chesapeake and up the Hudson river, that the only remaining way must lie through these northern straits. So now thought Hudson, as the ice jams closed behind him and a clear way opened before him to the west on a great inland sea that rocked to an ocean tide.

Was that tide from the Pacific? How easily does a wish become father to the thought! Ice lay north, open water south and west; and so south-west steered Hudson, standing by the wheel, though Juet, the old mate, raged in open mutiny because not enough provisions remained to warrant further voyaging, much less the wintering of a crew of twenty in an ice-locked world. Henry Greene, a gutter-snipe picked off the streets of London, as the most of the sailors of that day were, went whispering from man to man of the crew that the master's commands to go on ought not to be obeyed. But we must not forget two things when we sit in judgment on Henry Hudson's crew. First, nearly all sailors of that period were unwilling men seized forcibly and put on board. Secondly, in those days nearly all seamen, masters as well as men, were apt to turn pirate at the sight of an alien sail. The ships of all foreign nations were considered lawful prey to the mariner with the stronger crew or fleeter sail.


The waters that we know to-day as the Pacific were known to Hudson as the South Sea. And now the tide rolled south over shelving, sandy shores, past countless islands yellowing to the touch of September frosts, and silent as death but for the cries of gull, tern, bittern, the hooting piebald loon, match-legged phalaropes, and geese and ducks of every hue, collected for the autumnal flight south. It was a yellowish sea under a sky blue as turquoise; and it may be that Hudson recalled sailor yarns of China's seas, lying yellow under skies blue as a robin's egg. At any rate he continued to steer south in spite of the old mate's mutterings. Men in unwilling service at a few shillings a month do not court death for the sake of glory. The shore line of rocks and pine turned westward. So did Hudson, sounding the ship's line as he crept forward one sail up, the others rattling against the bare masts in the autumn wind—doleful music to the thoughts of the coward crew. The shore line at the south end of Hudson Bay, as the world now knows, is cut sharply by a ridge of swampy land that shoals to muddy flats in what is known as Hannah Bay.