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The Commercial Capital of Rupert's Land

Manitoba Pageant, April 1964, Volume 9, Number 3

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.

An excerpt from The Company of Adventurers by Isaac Cowie.

Although Fort Garry was the residence of the Governor-in-Chief of Rupert's Land (if an official whose duties demanded constant travel through the length and breadth of the vast Hudson Bay territories could be said to have any fixed abode), and also the headquarters of the government of the district of Assiniboia, commonly known as "The Red River Settlement," yet in the year 1867 and for four or five years afterwards the ancient York Factory still retained its pre-eminence as the seaport and storehouse for the imports and exports of the northern department of the territories, excepting only supplies brought from St. Paul, Minnesota, chiefly for the Red River Settlement, and the buffalo robes which were also sent via St. Paul to Montreal for the American market.

To guard against shipwreck and other accidents by flood, field and fire, two years' full supplies for the whole Northern Department (now Keewatin, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta and North-West and Yukon Territories) were stored in the ample warehouses of York. There also were received and repacked for shipment to London, the only exportable products of the country - furs and skins from the interior, and feathers, goose quills and whale oil from the coast.

The business accounts of every district in the Department were kept at York, and the personal accounts of every officer and man, excepting freemen and Indians therein. Copies of these accounts were sent each district and person by the winter packet annually.

Photo: York Factory in 1853. The central building in the form of an open square is the only one that remains.

But by far the most important duty devolving upon the officer in charge and the accountant of the depot at York was that of making out in advance the lists of supplies required and likely to be required by the various districts and posts for several years to come. To facilitate and make reference accurate these lists were all made out in alphabetical order under the general headings of "general goods," "provisions," "medicines," and "stationery," for imported articles; and "country produce" for the manufactures and products of the country. In the inventories taken at every post in the country on the 31st day of May, annually, being the close of the Company's business year, known by them as an "outfit" (for instance, "outfit 1867"), to the headings above given there were added "articles in use" and "live stock," and "area in cultivation." To the number of each article on the inventory were added the numbers received in invoices from York and transfers from other posts. These added together showed the receipts, from which the transfers to other posts and the inventory for the following spring were deducted to show the expenditure, upon which the indents or requisitions for the supplies for the coming year or years were based. Allowance for all kinds of contingencies had also to be made, such as good or bad years for furs, and possible competition, involving increased expense in procuring and purchasing the furs.

The work of preparing these requisitions, upon which depended the well being of the trade and the lives of the employees and the Indians frequenting the posts, which could only be supplied once a year and afterwards had to be as self-sufficient as a ship at sea for a whole year, was one requiring great experience and good judgment, and it was generally performed with almost prophetic foresight.

The "country-made articles" consisted chiefly of articles made at the Factory, such as small and large "Indian axes," ice-chisels, fish and muskrat spears, ironwork for boats, and even nails and tacks, which when they reached the far interior were worth more than their weight in gold. Everything made of tin for service and trade was turned out by the tinsmith at York, such as half and one pint drinking pots (known as "porringers"), round and oval pans, open and covered kettles of various sizes, all so made that the smaller sizes "nested" within those larger, to economize space. The few earthen-ware cups and bowls taken into the interior were also without handles and "nested." There was also a cooper who made the kegs for the allowances of liquor, rice, raisins, currants, etc., and also firkins for butter. So York was really a factory in these senses of the term.

Only some of the merchandise was packed in London in packages of convenient size and weight to be carried on men's backs over the portages. These were called "whole pieces," and consisted principally of bales of blankets and cloth with tarred inside wrappers and tin-lined cases of small hardware; kegs of gunpowder (sixty-six and two-third pounds net) and sugar, chests of tea (of one hundredweight and a half a hundredweight net) ; rolls and "serons" of tobacco, done up in red-painted canvas, and weighing one hundredweight; double can-vas bags of ball and shot, each one hundredweight; cases of yellow soap and long cases of Indian flintlock guns.

Most other articles which came in larger packages from England were unpacked at the depot and made up in mixed and assorted bales and cases of the proper kind for inland transport. The chief danger being damage by water, wreck and weather, to provide against the whole supply of one article being so lost or damaged the articles would be divided among a number of packages, so that an outfit for a post, which might be fifty white blankets, fifty capotes and one hundred shirts, etc., would be made up into, say, five bales, each containing the fifth part of the total supply, and including other articles, similarly assorted, to make up the required bulk or weight. Hardware and breakable things were, of course, packed in cases or casks, and, no paper or other waste weight or bulk being allowable, these were wrapped up or separated by "dry" goods - a bottle of castor oil (one of the few medicines supplied) was generally enfolded in the coil of a woollen sash, and so on.

Photo: An exterior view of York Factory Depot, taken in 1959.

The same precautions against having all the eggs in one basket were taken in packing the furs in the interior. If a post had, for example, ten silver foxes, one hundred red foxes, thirty common (unprime) bears, five hundred martens, etc., then in ten "packs" of ninety or one hundred pounds each, there would be in each pack, wrapped up in three bundles protected by the common bearskins, one silver fox, ten red foxes, and fifty martens, etc. Likewise in loading a "brigade" (a number) of boats the cargoes would be assorted, for it would have been fatal to have the whole supply of gunpowder sunk in one boat, nor would unassorted ladings be fair to the crews, or some "pieces" could be stowed and handled with far greater ease than others, and the trim and capacity of the craft had also to be considered.

Tinware was largely used about the stations, but the strong and less easily damaged copper kettles, open and covered, were preferred for travelling. These were of different sizes, the smaller fitting in-side the larger, and, as cargo, were generally put up in casks.

The unpacking and repacking employed a large number of the people of the establishment, and the clerks had plenty employment making out packing accounts and invoices of the "outfits," the clerical work being done with the greatest neatness and accuracy and checked and rechecked to avoid error, which would be irremediable in the interior.

Page revised: 1 July 2009

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