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York Factory Saved

by Frank Hall

Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1968, Volume 14, Number 1

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.

The recent transfer of title to York Factory to the Government of Canada by the Hudson’s Bay Company suggests that the restoration and preservation of this historic site on Hayes River, Manitoba, is at last in the offing. The federal government has now accepted a responsibility which it refused to accept some years ago when a proposal for restoration and preservation was put forward by the provincial government.

The original proposal was rejected on the grounds that the site was too remote from centres of population and routes of travel to warrant its restoration and preservation. It was also stated that York Factory was not important enough historically to justify its development as a National Historic Site. A final excuse for rejecting the proposal read in part: “As it (York Factory) is situated in a ‘swamp’ (it is set in a base of marine clay) its ultimate decay will be only a matter of time and its restoration, therefore, an impractical undertaking.”

Following this turn down the provincial government declared York Factory to be a provincial historic site under authority of the Manitoba Historic Sites Preservation Act. Then a sign was posted at the site declaring it to be a provincial historic site. In addition, the penalties for vandalism and for removing artifacts were posted in English and in Cree syllabics. It was beyond expectation, of course, that such a warning would stop all acts of vandalism and pilferage, but it did denote, nonetheless, an honest intent to save this major historic site from spoliation by human predators.

Now that the buildings and the surrounding property have been deeded to Canada, it is to be hoped that something will be done to restore and maintain them. Why? What is the point of preserving York Factory?

In the summer of 1682, three parties of rival traders sought to establish trading posts on Nelson River from which they could control the fur trade in the western hinterland of Hudson Bay. The three parties, the first from New England, the second from New France, and the third from England, arrived at ‘Port Nelson’ unknown to one another. When, however, they discovered each other’s whereabouts, their initial surprise and civility were quickly swept aside in a flurry of spying, brigandage, capture - and death.

A year before this confrontation, the London Committee of the Hudson’s Bay Company issued instructions that the Company’s claim to Rupert’s Land should be extended westward beyond their posts on James Bay - Rupert, Moose, and Albany - by the establishment of a post at Nelson River. The Company was well aware that rival interests would seek to set up habitation in Button’s New Wales, develop a fur trade there, and, by prior right of occupancy, lay claim to the territory. They were, anxious to forestall this eventuality by getting there first and setting up shop, as it were, in support of their own claim to the territory - a claim which had been granted to them by King Charles II in the charter of 1670.

Throughout the course of some 200 years the legality of this charter would be challenged several times in the high courts of England and in the Parliament of Westminster itself, but it had been well drawn up and thus would hold firm against all assaults at law. However, all this lay in the future, and the charter under which the English traders sought to establish their habitation and their trade at Nelson in 1682 did not help them fix their legal claim nor deter their rivals from pressing their spurious claims.

It was about this time that Sir James Hayes, private secretary to Prince Rupert, first Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, began to bring direction and purpose to that loose organization of London Merchants which had become in 1670 “The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson Bay.” Under Hayes firm prodding the instructions of 1681 were consolidated in those of 1682, and John Bridgar, “a very ingenious and knowing man in the business of our trade,” was appointed Governor at Nelson. The importance of the new operation in the mind of the Company was fully expressed in Bridgar’s appointment and in the restriction of responsibility which was imposed on Governor John Nixon, who was to command from Albany and later from Moose the three posts at the Bottom of the Bay, leaving to Bridgar the sole responsibility for exploiting the western trade at Nelson.

For the establishment at “Nelson River or Hayes River,” the HBC committed three vessels of its own - Rupert, Albermarle and Craven, and chartered two more - Friendship and Lucy. John Bridgar was given a regular commission as governor; he was also given an independent command, and a new seal was cut for his use at Nelson. From the point-of-view of the Company’s internal policy, the way was now clear for Bridgar’s command in the western lowland of Hudson Bay, for it had already been tactfully suggested to Governor Nixon “that we can expect but small assistance from you in the making of a settlement there, by reason of the great distance thence.”

Zachariah Gillam, a former captain in the service of the HBC, who had been discharged ten years before for private trading in furs, was employed once again, this time as captain of the Rupert. Gillam was instructed to sail direct to ‘Port Nelson’ and to oversee the building of a post there be-fore he sailed to Rupert House where he would winter. Governor Bridgar would sail with Gillam. The Deputy Governor, Esbon Sandford, was given command of the Albermarle, and he was to stay at ‘Port Nelson’ with some half-dozen “honest and able Fellow bachelors” who had been recruited from the trade guilds to erect a post.

While these things were underway the Company heard rumors of two rival expeditions which were being mounted against them. One was commanded by Benjamin Gillam, son of Zachariah Gillam, now a merchant of Boston. Earlier in the year young Gillam had been in London and had learned about the HBC’s plans for Nelson. He then returned to New England on board a fast packet, raised financial support for an expedition against the English, secured the commissariat and supplies, mustered a crew, and sailed from Boston on 21 June.

Gillam’s ship was manned by a crew of fourteen - all bachelors, hence her name “Bachelor’s Delight.” This light-hearted name, apt as it seemed, was, nonetheless, a misnomer. Bachelor’s Delight carried five cannon to port and five to starboard. She was a ship of war, not an armed merchant-man, and her fire-power to broadside, equal to that of any armed sloop of the day, suggests that young Gillam expected trouble and was well pre-pared to meet it.

After Gillam and his crew left Boston it is not clear what course they took or when they arrived at Nelson. The sequence of events following their arrival is also obscure. The records of the HBC credit the New Englanders with arriving on either 18 or 19 August - ahead of the other parties. Gillam then sailed up Nelson River and at a point twenty-six miles upstream went ashore on “Bachelor’s Island” and built a post.

In the meantime, Radisson and Groseilliers, former super-cargos in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company, but now united in opposition to it, sailed from Quebec in two small ships, St. Pierre and Ste. Anne. These two intrepid traders had made the first overtures to Charles II for a trading expedition into Hudson Bay, proposals which led the King to grant the charter to the Hudson’s Bay Company and to retain the two Frenchmen as guests at the English court until such time as their services would be required for overseas exploration and trade.

Radisson’s own original account indicated that they had arrived at the Ste. Therese (Hayes) River on 20 August, “a day or two before the New Englanders entered Nelson River.” The two rivers were separated by a long narrow bar; their outlet into Hudson Bay was through the same broad estuary, and their courses ran parallel for many miles. This factor of geographic proximity accounts for the landfall of Radisson and Groseillier and that of Benjamin Gillam being close to each other though on separate rivers. It also accounts for the original wording of the HBC’s instructions being phrased “for the establishment of a post at Nelson River or Hayes River.”

In respect to the date of their arrival, the French were later to argue that they were at Hayes River on 19 August. Radisson himself, when once again in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company (1684), held that his vessels arrived after the New Englanders. In any event, the French sailed ten miles up Hayes River and built a post on the south bank. Radisson then went out to visit the Indians. It was while returning from this trip that he heard gunfire and while following the sound to its source, found Benjamin Gillam and his crew burying one of their company.

The various accounts of this meeting differ according to the loyalties (and whims) of the narrators, but all carry a note of naivete which leads one to suspect that the two parties of interlopers were surprised to see each other. It is more than likely, however, that the French and the New Englanders knew of each other’s intentions to venture into the Nelson-Hayes country long before they left their home ports.

After Radisson had identified Gillam and his new Englanders, he was quick to assure them that he commanded a large party, that he carried a commission from the French crown to build a post, and that he was empowered “to forbid the Indian trade to aliens.” The bluff was a prelude to piracy. Later on, when Radisson was returning from another visit to “Bachelor’s Island,” to spy out the post and sum up its defences, he caught sight of the English ship Rupert tacking slowly to shore. He immediately went down to meet her and challenged her captain to go ashore, saying that he and Groseilliers had already built a fort, that they had over three hundred men, and that they had been in residence a year and had already taken possession of the land for France. Then he went boldly aboard, reckoned the strength of the ship’s company, and tucked away what other information he could gather from a quick glance about the decks. Repeating his ultimatum to Governor Bridgar and Captain Gillam, he forbade them to go ashore or face the consequences. Then congratulating himself on so easily thwarting the English, he bade them a terse good-bye and arrogantly went ashore.

General view of buildings at York Factory in 1910; the centre one, originally built in the form of an open square, still stands. Compare buildings and environs with Ford & West lithograph here, which was done in 1853.

The notation beneath this somewhat nondescript building at York Factory in the A. V. Thomas album reads: “The house at York where the Selkirk Settlers tarried in 1812.”

It was getting late in the season, the northern winter was already setting in, and the risks of running the Rupert through the ice floes in James Bay to winter anchorage at Rupert House (after the letter of their original instructions) was too great to warrant the venture. It was also too risky to try a run up the coast to seek an inlet beyond the territory which Radisson said he had claimed for France. Bridgar and Gillam therefore decided to turn again into Nelson River and build a post upstream. This seemed to be the lesser risk of the two; it was consistent with the original purpose of their mission, and so they took it. But it was a disastrous decision. An off-shore gale, driving loose ice before it, swept the Rupert out to sea and onto a tidal reef. There she foundered with the loss of her captain and nine men.

In the meantime, the Albermarle, which also had been commissioned to go to Nelson in 1682, sailed instead for Rupert House when her captain died at sea. These two unfortunate events - the change in the course of the Albermarle and the loss of the Rupert - left Governor Bridgar and a few survivors stranded at Nelson without a ship or cargo.

When the Rupert went down, Bridgar and a few other survivors were able to salvage a few rations, supplies, tools, and boards. They were unable to save the cannon and shot, and the few fowling pieces which they took with them would be almost useless as weapons of defence. Besides, they would not have sufficient powder to charge them through a winter’s shooting of wildfowl and big game, let alone to raise fusilades if their post were attacked. They had put together a crude shelter from salvaged boards and native spruce, but it stood pitifully alone without defensive works. Firewood was cut and stacked nearby, rations and supplies were stashed in a rough-hewn cellar, and hunting parties went out hopefully each day to replenish the meagre larder. In spite of these prudent measures, they knew, nonetheless, that their survival through the winter would depend on outside help.

Cannon at York face Hayes River (pointing south).

This came from a most unlikely source. Radisson himself gave them food and supplies. On the other hand, he was not so generous with the New Englanders. He captured their post, burned their house, took away their cannon, and put Benjamin Gillam and his men under close arrest. At this time, Bridgar, who was living off the benevolence of Radisson, did not know that the New Englanders were at Nelson until one of them escaped and told him of their capture. At this turn of events (there was now more than one spurious claim to the territory) Bridgar felt compelled to visit the French post and declare incontestable the English claim. During this visit of protestation, which apparently lasted about three weeks, Bridgar and his men were treated well enough to allay any fears of harm. When they were ready to leave, however, the mood changed, and Radisson held them prisoners. Later he destroyed their post, the date of its destruction being put by Bridgar as sometime in June 1683.

In the following spring, when ice ran free in the rivers, Radisson and Groseilliers prepared to leave the scene of their conquests and return to New France. First of all, they turned to their ships to see how they had come through the winter. Both had taken a severe pounding. The St. Pierre had been so badly damaged during the spring break-up that she was fit only to yield parts with which to restore the Ste. Anne, which also had been badly damaged. The original plan on breaking camp had been to get rid of Governor Bridgar and his men by sending them to Rupert House in the Ste. Anne. The French, with the New Englanders as their prisoners, would sail the St. Pierre to Quebec. This plan had now to be changed. Radisson would take the New England ship, “Bachelor’s Delight,” and run her home to New France. Although this ship had come through the winter without damage to hull or decks, his plan at first was to pull her seacocks and leave her to rot. Now forced to get her ready for sea, he removed the cannon from her decks, took the ball and powder from her magazine, stripped down the lockers holding her landing nets and grappling irons, and built quarters below decks for his prisoners - the New Englanders. He also enlarged the cabins on the fore and aft decks in order to accommodate his own men. Having done all these things, he decided, on second thought, to reduce the ship’s company by leaving seven of his own men at Nelson in charge of Groseillier’s son - Jean Baptiste Chouart. This somewhat fortuitous turn of events would secure the French occupancy at Nelson, at least for another year, and during this time Jean Baptiste would consolidate his position by trading with the Indians and exploring the country.

In the meantime, while preparations for departure were going ahead, Radisson became fearful that a conspiracy to attack him at sea might come to head if he let Governor Bridgar and his men leave together in the Ste. Anne. He therefore took Bridgar as a prisoner on board the “Bachelor’s Delight” and set sail for Quebec. When they reached there on 20 October 1683, Governor de la Barre released the New Englanders and restored the “Bachelor’s Delight” to Benjamin Gillam. He also freed Governor Bridgar.

Interior of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s trading store at York Factory (1910).

The Reverend R. Faries is seen in the famous library at York Factory. Many travellers wrote about the splendid books and “literary riches” it contained.

While the “Bachelor’s Delight” was beating up Hudson Bay on her way to Quebec, Bridgar’s men sailed the badly crippled Ste. Anne to Rupert House, but it was all they could do to get her there. If at any time they had harbored vagrant hopes of mounting a seaborne attack against Radisson, it must have been quickly dissipated by the press of their undivided labors to keep the ship afloat.

So ended in frustration the first attempt of the English to establish a settlement at Nelson since the original occupancy of Captain Thomas Button seventy years before.

Early in the summer of 1683, John Abraham sailed the Albermarle from Rupert House to ‘Port Nelson,’ thereby carrying forward the instructions which had originally been issued to Esbon Sandford, her late captain, in the previous year. On the voyage across James Bay, Abraham missed the crippled Ste. Anne slowly plodding southeasterly to Rupert House, and he did not cross the path of the “Bachelor’s Delight” running full sail up The Bay. When he arrived at Nelson he found the place deserted by the English, a circumstance about which he could have had no foreknowledge. He was also surprised to find the Frenchman, Jean Baptiste Chouart, in possession of a post on Hayes River.

In spite of these things, Abraham stayed at Nelson and built a post. The first report of the HBC said this post was on the south bank of Nelson River; later they said it was on the north shore of Sir Edward Dering’s Island in Nelson River. The confusion was confounded when this post was called Hayes Fort, and a letter written by James Walker, warehousekeeper, bearing the dateline Fort Hayes, Hayes River, does nothing to clear the issue.

The attempt to develop a trade with the Indians at Nelson during 1683 was a failure. In contrast, the posts at the Bottom of the Bay continued to produce a large volume of furs. Twenty-four thousand beaver came from these posts in 1681. In the following year the catch was 18,600 beaver. In 1683 it was 21,000 beaver and a “proportionate” catch of otter, musquash, foxes, fisher, and elk. Despite the failure at Nelson, the Company held high hopes that this country would prove to be rich in furs. With their minds so fixed, they were prepared to give ample support to the undertaking there, and to this end their allotment of cargo for Nelson in 1684 was sixty-three tons compared with sixty-four tons for both Albany and Moose, the posts at the Bottom of The Bay.

At this time, in an endeavor to advance still further their enterprise in the Nelson country, the Company decided to build two posts, one on North River (Nelson), the other on South River (Hayes). Substance was given to this policy in the summer of 1684 when the vanguard of the builders - thirty-one laborers - arrived at Fort Hayes. The building of the two posts, their occupancy and defence, and the development of the fur trade by the two rivers on which they were situated were thus united for the first time in an aggressive policy of trade and settlement in which “interlopers, whether foreigners or subjects of the British Crown, were to be seized and ‘unfaithful servants’ of the Company, with their incorrigible lapses into private trade, were to be closely watched.”

Following the declaration of this assertive policy, there came an indication from Paris and Quebec that the French had turned against the Nelson venture. Word reached London in April 1684 that the French Governor of Canada had been ordered to restore ‘Port Nelson’ to the English. When this about-face had been confirmed through official channels, the English turned once again to Radisson and Groseilliers to lead their renewed activity at Nelson. Radisson was sent out “to effectively clean up the French outpost on Hayes River and occupy it.” This he did. Radisson thereby fixed the location of the HBC’s post at being on Hayes River. There for a period of sixteen years, from 1689 to 1713, it was held by the French, the fort being known as Bourbon and the river as Ste. Therese. After that it stood as a trading post of the Hudson’s Bay Company for 244 years under several different names.

The bell in the Tower at York was wrung for work to start and cease. See the location in relation to other buildings in lithograph here.

The history of the name under the English seems to run as follows. When James, Duke of York, became Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1683, the fort on Hayes River was being referred to in Court and Company circles simply as “York.” Two years later, however, John Thornton’s map, which was commissioned by the HBC, bears the notation “Hayes Fort.” It is designated “York” in state papers in 1687, and in the following year, according to HBC records, “the post was developing an identity as ‘York Fort in Hayes River’.”

It is impossible to pinpoint the first use of the name York Factory, but it is reasonable to assume that it developed as an outcome of the manufacturing there - the building of York Boats in particular. Isaac Cowie’s report of 1867 indicates that “many different articles were made at York - axes, ice chisels, fish and muskrat spears, ironwork for boats, and even nails and tacks ... Everything made of tin for the service and the trade was turned out by the tinsmith at York - half-pint and one-pint drinking pots (known as porringers), round and oval pans, open and covered kettles of various sizes, all made so that the smaller ones ‘nested’ inside the larger ones to conserve space. There was also a cooper there who made kegs for the allowance of liquor, rice, raisins, currants etc., also firkins for butter. So York was really a factory ...”

In 1824, when George Simpson was Governor of the Northern Department of Rupert’s Land, he referred in his journal to “the factory on Hayes River.” Twenty years later, when he was Governor-in-Chief of Rupert’s Land, he wrote to the Chief Factor at York concerning a visit of the first Church of England Bishop and said: “Pray take care that there are no drunken scenes at York at any time, more especially when the bishop passes ...”

It is a matter of speculation whether or not factory was applied to York in its root sense - “a station where resident factors trade.” This definition is still given as the primary one in current dictionaries, and it is surely in this sense that Anthony Henday used the word at The Pas in 1754 when he wrote: “We came to the french factory on my arrival, two frenchmen came out, when followed a great deal of Bowing and Scraping between us, and then we Entered their fort, (or more properly a Hogstye) for in Short it is no Better ...

The names York and York Fort have run full pace into the 20th century, both being used extensively by historians, but the name currently in general use, York Factory, is the one which calls to mind the site of the first white habitation in Western Canada and the point from which a great portion of the west and the northwest was explored and settled. Hence the justification for saving this historic place.

Editor’s Notes

Most of the foregoing article is based on material from the Hudson’s Bay Company 1670 - 1870, by E. E. Rich, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1960. The Cowie extract is from The Company of Adventurers, Isaac Cowie; William Briggs, Toronto, 1913, pp. 105-106.

Page revised: 4 September 2014

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