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Alexander Henry's Hen

by Irene Craig

Manitoba Pageant, January 1957

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

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

As soon as she was old enough to lay, she startled the prairie with her cackle! Her's was the first to be heard here. Furthermore it was important enough to be recorded in Alexander Henry's diary. On March 29, 1808 he tells us, "I brought a cock and two hens last summer from Fort William. One of the hens died last fall and the other began to lay today."

She was a good hen, too. Even after that trying trip of thirty days when the time came, she laid regularly. On April 19th Henry records, "My hen having laid 12 eggs appeared inclined to hatch so I put them under her." Then, "May 8th - Out of 12 eggs, my hen hatched 11 chicks." As soon as her first brood was able to fend for themselves she began to lay again.

Food was plentiful. Life was gay. In January, Henry had noted, "Buffalo in great abundance. Filled the ice house with ice and fresh meat." Still, we gather, he felt thwarted about omelettes! When (bless her little heart) in June, when he was transplanting a few cabbages that had escaped the grasshoppers, he records, "On the 25th my hen began to lay again. All her chicks are now well grown." Any day now!! But - again, "July 9th - My hen having laid 12 eggs and appearing inclined to set I put them under her." Still no eggs for breakfast!

All this activity took place in the Red River Valley when Alexander Henry, the early fur trader and explorer, was at Pembina. He was the nephew of the earlier Alexander Henry who survived the massacre at Michilimackinac during Pontiac's uprising, 1763. July 28th the record saddens, "My hen hatched only 7 chicks out of 12 eggs. I now have a flock of 18 large and small." This boast must have been made after he'd pilfered a couple of cockerels from poor Biddy, for the stew pot.

Ten days later - "Monday, August 8, 1808 bid adieu to Panbian (Pembina) River. Set out for Fort Vermilion (on the Saskatchewan River). Terrible squall, thunder, lightning, heavy shower. My tent was blown down. Passed wretched night. Wet to the skin. Next day found abundance of excellent raspberries, just ripe." Small comfort to an hysterical mother hen with seven helpless chicks - to say nothing about the rest of the flock. They passed The Pas on the way to Fort Vermilion, where they wintered.

"October 6, 1809 - Gathered all my turnips. About 50 bushels, very large and of excellent quality." Busy, busy, busy! Then, on January 1, 1810 he gave a New Year's dance, and the very next day (it may have been the music), he records, "January 2 - One of my hens has begun to lay. I got the first egg this morning." Big girl now, this proud little pullet!

Never a dull moment! Spring in the air - again they are on the move. "April 25th 9 A.M. scouts set off for Terre Blanch (a new post)." On May 31st the whole outfit followed. "At ten we all mounted and abandoned Fort Vermilion, leaving our ice house open, containing about 400 limbs of buffalo still frozen. We formed a cavalcade of 44 horses, 60 dogs, 12 men, 6 women and 1 blind man." Poultry not even mentioned. Tut! Tut! Mr. Henry.

Flash! Cackle! "June 4th - One of my hens has laid an egg."

Page revised: 14 June 2009

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