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Manitoba History: Review: Dennis F. Johnson, Inland Armada: The York Boats of the Hudson’s Bay Company

by S. C. Sharman
St. Andrew’s, Manitoba

Number 50, October 2005

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.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Dennis F. Johnson, Inland Armada: The York Boats of the Hudson’s Bay Company Selkirk, Lower Fort Garry Volunteer Association Inc., 2005 ISBN 0-9738356-0-5, $16.95

Dennis Johnson, in his book Inland Armada, sets out to tell the story of the York Boat, a distinctively Canadian means of transportation throughout western and northern Canada. He states his intentions for his study in these words:

Inland Armada is the story of the HBC York boats and their impact on the history of Canada. It examines their origins, their role in extending the fur trade and their role in settlement. It also portrays the military exploits and daring deeds of the boatmen, as they navigated the inland waterways of North America to lay the foundations of Canada’s western provinces and northern territories. (p. 3)

Johnson achieves this aim in his book and along the way provides a brief history of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The York boat was the Company’s solution to its transportation problems. It had to move trade goods and people inland from its depot of York Factory on the shores of Hudson’s Bay and furs from its posts in the interior back to the Bay for shipment to England and to the markets. It had to move goods and people throughout the extent of its fur-trading empire in north-western Canada. This needed to be done as economically as possible as the distances and the amounts of goods and furs increased. Canoes were not the answer. Their capacity was limited, they needed large crews in relation to their cargo capacity, and they could be alarmingly fragile. The York boat soon came to be seen as the answer. They carried large cargos, they needed only modest crews and they were very durable. They soon replaced canoes and became the work horse of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s transportation system.

Sir George Simpson retained canoes and highly trained crews for his journeys of inspection and occasionally loaned them to other highly favoured people for their journeys in his kingdom, such as Bishop Mountain’s journey to the Red River Settlement in 1844, but otherwise York boats ruled the rivers and portages and lakes of Rupert’s Land.

In the early chapters of his book, Johnson describes the beginnings of the York boat. While they were developed for the particular challenges on inland navigation in North America, they reflected the boat building heritage of the Orkney islanders who built and manned them. (p. 5). Various styles of boats were tried, some with keels and some without, until a standard style was developed (pp. 14-15 chapter 7; The Impossible Boat). This boat could be built, maintained and used throughout the transportation system.

Inland Armada is also a history of the Company’ transportation system. There are, accordingly, chapters about the York Main Line (chapter 13), Lake Winnipeg (chapter 15), the La Loche Brigade (chapter 17), the Northern Brigade (chapter 18) and the Mackenzie Brigade (chapter 19). Johnson traces the development of each of these routes and the employment of York Boats along them. It is also an account of the men who were the crews of the boats.

They were skilful sailors, resourceful and determined, tripmen, bowmen, steersmen and guides. He has much to say about their ethnic origins and their service. There were also the legendary guides such as Alexis L’Esperance and Bapriste Bruce. Johnson describes these men as “a breed apart” who were “of independent mind, proud and courageous, with iron constitutions” who “could row all day and party all night.” (page 48). These were men and boats who were fitted to the rigours of the country and to the requirements of the service.

Some chapters in this book describe special duties which the boats and their crews undertook. They brought the Selkirk settlers to the Red River, and the Icelandic settlers to Gimli (chapters 5 and 26) They brought Colonel Wolseley’s soldiers to the Red River in 1870 (chapter 29) and carried explorers around the uncharted territories of the North (chapter 27). Although Johnson cites a number of these types of examples of the use of York boats, this reviewer would liked to have seen a chapter describing the boats’ role in the travels of Christian missionaries such as the members of the Church Missionary Society and the Oblates of Mary the Immaculate. They too travelled by York boat and wrote accounts of their journeys for their publications in Great Britain and Europe.

Inland Armada, however, is a very good book. It has numerous black and white photographs and drawings, maps, an index and references for quotations. It has a useful appendix of details and drawings which might assist a carpenter in building his own York boat. Mr. Johnson has, in the opinion of this reviewer, made a valuable contribution to the study of transportation in Canada and given us a study of a distinctively Canadian means of shipping people and goods in the Canadian frontier. This book is well worth reading and highly recommended.

Portaging with packs, circa 1903-1910.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, HBC Archives 1981/39/138, C. C. Sinclair Collection, N11624.

Page revised: 23 April 2011

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