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Manitoba History: Using the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives for the Study of Social History: York Factory as a Case Study

by Michael Payne
University of Ottawa

Manitoba History, Number 8, Autumn 1984

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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Almost everyone interested in heritage knows that, for research in business and economic history, the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, located in Winnipeg since 1974, is one of the most important repositories in the world. Less well known is the fact that the documents in the HBC Archives represent important sources for the study of social history. This point is emphasized in the article that follows, written by Mr. Michael Payne, Ph.D. student at the University of Ottawa. The article is an edited version of a paper presented in the spring of 1984, at a colloquium held at the University of Winnipeg in connection with the opening of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives Research Centre, Dr. Tim Ball, Director.

The Hudson’s Bay Company Archives is of immense value for the study of an extraordinary range of subjects. Not the least of these subjects is fur trade social history, which in turn forms an important—though frequently overlooked—part of the social history of Canada.

The records in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives provide a detailed and fascinating account of the daily life and local economy of fur trade communities and a wealth of detail about individual members of those communities. I hesitate to suggest that as such they form a unique record of 18th and 19th century life in Canada, but few Canadian communities, indeed few communities anywhere, are so well documented. What makes this archival collection even more valuable for the study of social history is that these post records—journals, correspondence, and account books—were kept purposefully, and for many posts provide similar documentation over lengthy and continuous periods of time. At York Factory, for example, there is virtually a continuous run of post journals from 1717 to 1852, and post correspondence and account books are, if anything, even more comprehensive. Thus, for slightly less than a century and a half, there are daily entries in log books of the round of life and work at this fur trade post.

Men like Andrew Graham, James Isham, Daniel Harmon, and David Thompson were in a sense the first social historians of the fur trade, since they tried to describe their peculiar way of life in the North-West. But fur trade social history in a formal sense began with studies of broad social groups like the Métis, voyageurs, or Hudson’s Bay Company recruits, or with inquiries into subjects like the role of women in the fur trade or the impact of missionaries on fur trade life. Such studies required that material be gathered about the group or subject in question across long periods of time and throughout the vast geography of the West. There are, however, at least two alternative approaches which may be taken in the study of fur trade social history. The first requires that the time period under discussion be sharply limited—the approach taken by Eric Ross in Beyond the River and the Bay. The other is to write a form of local history: the social history of individual fur trade posts or, for the more ambitious, fur trade districts.

I would like to speak briefly about the latter approach for I believe that it offers the prospect of valuable new research, a means of testing many of the assumptions which have been made about the nature of fur trade society and the operations of fur trade companies in general, and a way of drawing connections between what might otherwise be treated as distinct phenomena or separate subjects of research. It also enables one to take advantage of the wealth of post material in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives.

For the most part these post records report the mundane details of post life—who was working at what, the weather, and how many ptarmigan the hunters had brought in—immediately putting paid to some of the more romantic views of fur trade life found in popular literature of the “Boy’s Own Annual” variety. Most fur trade employees never shot either rapids or polar bears; they did, however, spend a good deal of time cutting firewood and toting up ledgers. On occasion post records do contain more unusual material: descriptions of eclipses, accounts of epidemics and accidents, scandals, crimes, and the odd comic anecdote like Moses Norton’s description of his use of fishing gear to catch arctic foxes from his window at Prince of Wales’ Fort.

Among all of the vicissitudes of fur trade life reported on in post journals and correspondence, a number of subjects keep recurring which for my own research purposes I decided to concentrate upon. Not only were these the subjects on which I could generate a fair amount of material, but they also seemed to me to be matters about which the subjects of my research, Hudson’s Bay Company employees, were themselves most concerned, or at least most prone to discuss. The subjects I chose to emphasize by no means exhaust the list of topics on which Hudson’s Bay Company records provide information, but taken together they provide a reasonably full picture of the life of individual fur trade communities. My research concentrates on work, recreation and leisure, health and health care, material life and, in particular, the standard of living in the fur trade, the development of social institutions like libraries and schools and, perhaps most fundamental of all, social structure and social relations in the fur trade.

In studying York Factory one of the first things which became manifest was that it was not like other fur trade communities, and not just in obvious ways: its size, functions, and location. I was intrigued by Letitia Hargrave’s comment that it was “by far the most respectable place in the Territory.” In the course of trying to determine what the residents of the North-West in the late 18th and 19th centuries saw as respectable, I was drawn to questions of social structure and social relations in fur trade communities. What emerged was that York Factory differed from Hudson’s Bay Company posts as a whole in terms of the composition of its workforce and the background of its inhabitants.

At York Factory the size of the work-force and the range of work carried out meant that, in general, the men stationed there were more experienced than most company servants, and more likely to be artisans of some description and thus better paid, better educated and better candidates for membership in “respectable” society. They were also far and away more likely to be Orkneymen than those at all but a handful of interior posts. With the sole exception of apprentices, Orkneymen dominated all ranks of company service at York until at least 1870, including, rather surprisingly, officers who are generally assumed to have been primarily English and Scots from the mainland. Natives of Rupert’s Land, who by the mid-19th century formed the largest single pool of company employees elsewhere, made up only a little over one-sixth of the workforce at York, and would not have been this prevalent had it not been that so many apprentices were stationed there. Indeed about 70% of the men stationed at York were British—Orkney and Lewismen, Shetlanders and other Scots, and Englishmen, which may explain why life at York Factory so frequently resembled village life in pre-industrial Britain and why it sometimes seems so unlike the frontier community it could have been. The composition of the workforce alone does not explain why York Factory seemed so respectable in Letitia Hargrave’s eyes, but it does illustrate that in very important respects York Factory was a distinctive community within the broader confines of what some historians have chosen to call “fur trade society.”

The composition of the York Factory work-force indicates, I hope, that general measures of fur trade life may hide significant local variations which in turn may affect our interpretations of fur trade society. Ever since the first histories of the fur trade appeared, a certain amount of attention has been paid to the effects of ethnicity on fur trade labour organization and behaviour. Much has been made, for example, of George Simpson’s policy of not hiring too many men from any one area so as to hinder the formations of “combinations.” Yet if Orkneymen were concentrated in one or two districts and formed the bulk of the work-force there, with the same being true for other groups in other areas, then the practical effect of Simpson’s policy is unclear—it may have amounted to no more than wishful thinking on his part. If the workforce of the Hudson’s Bay Company was not very radical, the reasons for its deferential behaviour may have to be sought elsewhere. Indeed post records for York Factory suggest that company servants were not as docile or as powerless as has sometimes been assumed. “Combinations” of one sort or another aimed at extracting wage and other material benefits from the company did develop, most notably in the early 1790s as part of an attempt to prevent the introduction of York boats in the company’s inland transport system, and on other occasions as well. In similar fashion many of the purported ethnic characteristics of the company’s workforce may need more careful analysis. The legendary frugality of Orkneymen may have had as much to do with where they were stationed as “national character.”

Chopper and Depot, York Factory.
Source: Parks Canada

The detailed study of individual posts need not simply lead researchers into an endless catalogue of the distinctions which may be drawn between life at York Factory and life at Fort Chipewyan, however valuable that may be from a purely empirical point of view. In addition to offering a useful means of testing some of the assumptions that have been made about the nature of social relations in the fur trade and illuminating some largely unsuspected features of fur trade life, such studies also reveal something of the complexity of the community life of fur trade posts. Social stratification in the fur trade has attracted a certain amount of scholarly interest in recent years. A good deal of debate has occurred on questions of whether or not there was a racist bias in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s recruitment of officers, especially commissioned officers, and on the relative openness or rigidity of the “class” system of the fur trade. Studies of individual posts do not provide general answers to such questions, for there is no assurance that conditions at one post were repeated at other posts; in fact there is considerable reason to believe the contrary. Nevertheless the wealth of post records, with their details on everyday life and extensive documentation of the activities of individual members of the post community, may allow for the broadening of the terms of these debates.

For example, at York Factory there was almost always at least one officer who had been promoted from the ranks. Some of these individuals even went on to achieve the status of senior clerks and in one instance a Chief Tradership. This would suggest that at York Factory the gulf between officer and servant status was more easily bridged than has usually been assumed the case, especially in the 19th century when, many writers feel, “class” lines were hardening in the fur trade. On the other hand Letitia Hargrave, who had some talent for discerning the nuances of rank, revealed that one of the men so raised in formal status, Robert Wilson or “Old Panum,” suffered as the butt of most of the jokes in the officers’ mess precisely because he lacked the education and other social attributes of an officer. This in turn suggests that an officer’s status was not simply a matter of formal title and wages but was more complex, based on education, connections, future prospects, and social skills like table manners and conversational abilities. Wages at York Factory were a good rough guide of social status, but not a certain one. Surgeons, for example, often commanded high wages but, with few exceptions, little respect for either their trade or medical skills. Robert Wilson might command £60 per annum, twice the wages of an apprentice clerk in his first years, and still be “Old Panum.” Probably the surest test of real status in the post hierarchy—could one but determine it with any degree of certainty—was the informal order by which one individual was accorded the right to physically discipline another. In many respects hierarchy at York Factory was less a pecking order than a “thrashing order,” by which an older experienced postmaster might discipline an apprentice clerk though the latter in a formal sense enjoyed a higher rank.

Indeed social stratification at York Factory appears to have operated at several different levels. The prerogatives of rank were not limited to wages and responsibility, but also included distinctions in diet, housing, recreation, and work hours—and not always to the favour of the officers. Fat, for example, was a relatively scarce but highly valued portion of the diet. According to George Simpson McTavish those doing outdoor work, the unskilled and semi-skilled labourers at the post, got the fat first with the officers only getting what was left over. No one at York Factory suffered much from a lack of time off work but junior officers probably had more leisure than anyone else and senior clerks and commissioned officers the least leisure. Senior officers were also the most likely to come down with the rather obscure complaint known as the “York Factory Disease,” though they were the least likely to get scurvy. Thus the subtleties of social distinctions and the complexities of social relations at a post like York Factory can only be understood if research proceeds along a variety of lines ranging from the study of recreation and leisure patterns to material culture and medical history; one cannot just concentrate on wage distinctions and recruitment patterns among’ the commissioned officers. When one looks closely at a single fur trade post it is easier to see the interconnectedness of such seemingly disparate aspects of fur trade life as sports and recreations and social stratification.

Another subject which has generated increasing academic interest in recent years, and to which the study of individual fur trade posts lends itself, is cultural transference in the fur trade. Initially, interest in this subject was centred on the impact of contact on native cultures, but increasingly attention is being paid to the ways in which native groups affected their European trading partners. One of the distinguishing features of fur trade society is now felt to be the substantial debt it owed to native practises in the areas of housing, clothing, diet, and even sexual and marriage customs. It now appears to be somewhat of a moot point as to who influenced whom more—at least in the fur trade up until the mid-19th century.

At York Factory company employees borrowed extensively from native cultures in some areas of their lives, and not at all or very little in others. Thus the study of the everyday life of fur trade posts offers a great opportunity to conduct research into the mechanics of cultural interaction and change. Why was it that fur trade employees were willing to adjust their diets to eat new foodstuffs like caribou and ptarmigan but persisted in calling them deer and partridges and in preparing them in familiar ways as pies, stews, and roasts? Why did fur trade wives wear leggings but feel impelled to wear merino gowns over the top of them? And why did fur traders accept marriage in the custom of the country but cling tenaciously to their British holidays, games, and pastimes? Once again, it is not without value to catalogue all the elements of material culture which fur traders and their native trading partners borrowed from each other, and from this to attempt to assess the degree of change that contact wrought in the inherited ways of doing things on both sides. Nevertheless the study of individual fur trade posts may allow us to broaden the question somewhat—for if all manifestations of culture are a result of innovation, imitation or inheritance, why did fur trade communities innovate in some areas of life, imitate native cultures in others, and simply retain European ways of doing things in so many other instances?

Concentrating on life in a single fur trade community or district has its drawbacks, but it does offer the prospect of enabling researchers to address a different range of questions—about the nature of fur trade society and the changes it underwent over the 18th and 19th centuries—than those which have dominated writing in the field to date. It may also help to build up a greater understanding of the variety of experiences undergone by fur trade employees, and reveal something of the complexity of the communities they established in the North-West.

The study of fur trade social history presents us with the unusual problem not of finding sources for research, but of finding a sufficient number of researchers to do justice to the wealth of material in collections like the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives. The main limit on the study of fur trade social history is the imagination we show in the questions we pose about it and our diligence in seeking answers to those questions. I hope that more researchers will be attracted to the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives to do research on the social history of Western and Northern Canada in order to ensure that these areas’ histories are recognized as an important part of Canada’s social history. And I’m confident that concentrated study of individual fur trade posts or districts will prove fruitful in writing the social history of the fur trade.

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