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Fate of a Fur Trader

by Alexander MacArthur

Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1972, Volume 18, 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.

Late on a July evening I was ascending the Winnipeg River in a canoe. I had just turned in from the lake and was making for the Hudson's Bay Company's trading place, Fort Alexander, a short distance from the mouth of the rivet.

The sun had disappeared beyond the high banks but, in those northern regions there was the long midsummer twilight, ending in day set, to follow. Besides the Fort, there is an Indian settlement along the river and missions of the Episcopal and Catholic churches.

I had but one Indian with me and as we quickly paddled along we noticed the absence of all the usual signs of life. The "houses" seemed deserted. Not a soul was to be seen on the banks and in a stretch of two miles ours was the only canoe visible.

Usually the scene is animated. Canoes and skiffs are out with men to overhaul nets or set them for the night. Squaws and young people are crossing the broad river to pay visits. Children by the score gather for play. Groups of old men squat on the grassy slopes smoking.

But now not even a dog greeted us. I knew that many families left their huts at this time of the year to camp on the islands in the lake and gather berries. The dogs, so useful in the cariole in winter are also sent out to the islands to be out of the way and to be near a plentiful supply of cheap fish for food. But then many families still remain at home and all the curs stay with them. There were no signs of them now. The air too was still and there was neither ripple on the water nor rustle in the trees. It seemed strange in the peculiar sunless light, this absolute silence.

As we turned the last point and the Fort came in sight, the same deserted appearance presented itself. The crowd of inquisitive gazers was absent from the bank. Not one even of the Company's people could be seen. This almost supernatural quiet created in me a strange feeling until it became a dread of some unknown catastrophe past or approaching. My guide experienced a somewhat similar feeling as I could see by his face.

After beaching the canoe, we ascended the steep bank and entered the Fort ... the gates for years past had not been used. Still no indication of human occupation. The interior of the place was as silent and deserted as if it had been abandoned long ago. I knocked at the door of the Chief Officer's house but there was no answer. Still the same uncanny quiet. A third knock, however, and there was a responsive movement inside; in a few minutes a voice from within asked who we were, and on replying, the bolts were withdrawn and the door opened.

A young man a few years under thirty, of slight build, and a little over the average height, with dark hair and sun-browned throughtful face invited us in with most cordial welcome. His manner indicated no anxiety and I was ashamed of the feeling which had taken possession of me.

The matter was soon explained, but the explanation showed the childishness of one side of the Indian character. These wood tribes are of a peaceable disposition and have a great dread of the warlike Indians of the plains. They call them "wild" Indians and make bugaboos of them to their children.

About a week before this some young men came home with a story that they had seen several Sioux Indians lurking in the woods behind the houses. Others were not wanting to corroborate this and a panic ensued. The utmost precautions were taken during the daytime to prevent a surprise. Before sunset every family retired to rest, not to move out again until the sun was up next morning.

My host was temporarily in charge of the fort and was not acquainted with the ways of these people yet but he knew well how utterly absurd was their panic, for the prairie Indians who are unaccustomed to canoes would never dream of trusting themselves to the water. Their warfare is conducted on horseback and it would be impossible to take horses through the pathless forest here. The people in the Fort, however, also finding the stillness oppressive, retired early, and hence our difficulty in getting them to hear us.

After a long chat and interchange of news we all went to bed. Next day I moved up river but as my camp was not far away I frequently visited the Fort and formed quite a friendship with the young trader. On Sunday we paddled upstream together to the English church and witnessed some of the difficulties of the missionary.

The responses were led by an elderly half-breed boat builder ... the Indians only following at a respectful interval. On this occasion, the old man had forgotten his spectacles and, for some time, he struggled with a magnifying glass, trying to find the place, but in vain. Neither my friend nor myself were provided with prayer books and it was not until the boat builder gave up all hope and handed us his book that we were able to relieve the minister from his embarrassment.

On our return, floating down with the stream, my friend related some of his fur-trade experience, and after dinner we sauntered out to the river bank where under the shade of a cluster of white birches, with the great river, nearly a mile wide flowing slowly past in front of us, he told me his whole story, up to this time. It was interesting to me and creditable to him but had it ended here I should never have thought of reducing it to writing.

His name was Robert Sinclair and he was born in one of the Orkney islands. His father occupied himself in various ways to earn a scanty living. He had a small piece of land, kept a few cattle and sheep, did a little work as a carpenter in winter, even worked at day labor ... anything to keep the kettle boiling. He died when Robert was seventeen, leaving besides him, a widow and a daughter — the latter 15 years of age.

After many anxious family consultations Robrt decided to try his fortune in the service of the great fur-trading company on Hudson Bay. He had neither the education nor the influence necessary to procure a clerkship, so young as he was he must go out as an ordinary laborer. His mother and sister could stay on the land and earn something towards their own support, and he could send them nearly all his wages, £20 — $100 — for in the Indian country money except for clothing and a few small wants is seldom required ... and of clothes he had enough to last him for two or three years.

The annual ship came up from London in June and young Sinclair with a dozen others sailed for the icy shores of Hudson's Bay. He told me how bravely his mother kept up until the sails were set and the vessel well under way, when he saw her turn round on his sister's shoulder as if she were sinking to the ground. The two presently walked slowly homewards turning every few steps to take another look at the fast receding ship.

It is not my intention to repeat the oft-told tale of the fur-traders' hardy adventurous but lonely and unlovely life. Robert Sinclair went through the usual routine of a laborer's duties with a due share of privation and adventure being removed from one post to another, until the end of his term of engagement — five years.

On receiving promotion to £30, £40 and £50 he re-engaged for three years. He was then entrusted for the summer with a small post far inland, during the absence of the postmaster at York Factory. In this position, he gave every satisfaction, and when he returned he was assigned duties not requiring so much bodily exertion, thus enabling him at night not only time but the disposition to improve himself by reading and writing. He increased the allowance to his mother but she, poor woman, laid it by against his coming back for he always spoke of coming home soon. A serious barrier however stood in the way. There is no such thing as leave of absence for anyone under the rank of a clerk in the service and if Robert left he must re-enter at the same rate of wages as he did at first.

At last he made up his mind to sacrifice his position rather than delay longer and at the end of the three years he returned with a handsome balance at his credit in the Company's books in London. I asked him why he took such an unusual step ... why so anxious to go home? Well, first he wanted to see his mother again as she was getting old and see that she and his sister were comfortable; then he could attend a night school and perhaps if he went back to the service he might hope in time to escape the drudgery of the lower grades of employees, by qualifying himself for a higher position. On twitting him innocently as to any further reason he was rather pleased, although in a roundabout and bashful way, to admit that he had in his mind a fair school mate he would like to see, now she had grown up.

He then took out of his pocket three pictures, done on tin. The faces and parts of the dresses were colored as was then the fashion in remote country places. His sweetheart was little still as compared with his sister but bright and rosy with the healthy color which sea breezes no doubt helped to keep up.

His winter at home was passed pleasantly. He found his mother hale and hearty; his sister grown to womanhood and engaged to be married to a well-to-do tradesman in the town, and his love of old school days, his sister's bosom friend and constant visitor.

Part of the day and five evenings a week he devoted to his education. He already wrote a fair hand, having improved it during the long winter nights in the Indian country. He took lessons in arithmetic, navigation and French. But he also found plenty of time to spare for the inmates of the cottage, including his sister's friend. The most ordinary incidents of travel were listened to with rapt attention. The descriptions of Eskimos and Indians with accounts of their habits and mode of existence could not be too often repeated. Sometimes the little sitting room would be crowded with neighbours who had dropped in to see the returned traveller and hear his stories. Then visits would be paid to relations in other parts of the island — all glad to welcome their prosperous and travelled kinsman.

For some little while Robert had hopes of obtaining employment at home but nothing came of it and he had reluctantly to make up his mind to return to the snows and solitudes of Hudson's Bay. It was with bitter feelings he signed a new engagement for three years at the rate he received when he went out first. However, he felt confident that sooner or later the exigencies of trade would give him an opportunity to take ad-vantage of the fair education he now possessed.

In the meantime he entered into an engagement of quite a different character with much more readiness and pleasure. The little schoolmate to whom he lost his heart so long ago was now in the bloom of girlhood and at last he mustered courage to tell her how long he had in secret adored her. On her part it was strange that she from those old days had room in her heart only for him. In three years he would come home and take her out, if he obtained promotion.

The ship arrived at the usual time and once more there was a tender farewell of mother and sister and a fond parting between the lovers. Once more the North Atlantic was crossed, the ice-choked Straits of Hudson bored through and Robert safely landed at York Factory. He was sent on to an inland district and before he was assigned any work a brigade of boats arrived from a distant outpost. Among the passengers was the clerk who had been in charge there. The terrible solitude had affected his mind and he was at least for a time unfitted to discharge his duties.

This placed the officer of the district in quite a dilemma. He was going away by this same brigade on a year's furlough and as his successor had not arrived, the Senior Clerk was to take his place; another clerk had gone to York with the winter collection of furs while one of the superior men, styled a postmaster, was laid up with rheumatism. There was not one available man he could send to the vacant post.

Sinclair was a stranger to him, but on referring to the letters sent with him he saw that he had occupied in the previous engagement a higher position than he was in now and he also found that he was highly recommended as a capable faithful trader. Sinclair now spoke not only Indian but French — both necessary — and could keep accounts. On being sent for and asked if he thought he could manage the post he said he thought he could and so thought his Superior after the interview he had with him. It was out of the question sending him on his present remuneration and the officer undertook to recommend him for the position of postmaster at £50 a year. At the end of that time he gave so much satisfaction that he was appointed a Senior Clerk at L75. This was but two years before I met him at the very important fort of which he was in charge for the summer.

His story so far was at an end, but he had visions of a bright and happy future. He could now hope to rise to the higher ranks of the service. In the meantime he had applied for leave to marry, for a man may not marry just when he chooses in the fur trade. There may be no suitable house at the pest; the wife's board too is supplied by the company; her transportation across the Atlantic and maybe hundreds of miles through the interior up streams, over portages and across vast lakes, is undertaken by the Company. They have therefore something to say as to the marriage of all below the rank of Commissioned Officers.

Being assured of the governor's consent he was looking forward to the time when he would again leave to return with his bride: but alas his high hopes! He never reached his bridal bed. The mail which would have taken home news of the probable date of his departure told in a different hand, of a much longer journey!

In the early autumn of the same year in which I first met him, Robert Sinclair was appointed to the charge of a post at the outlet of the Lake of the Woods. The Winnipeg River draining that sheet of water and Rainy Lake here rushes between precipitous granite rocks. The post is but a short distance away, now on the mainland, bordered in front by the water and by the rocks behind and around. There is no large clearing and no road. The water in summer and the ice in winter are the highways. The woods, however, afford good pasturage and a small herd of cattle was kept at the post.

Sinclair had enjoyed several weeks of prolonged "Indian Summer" until one afternoon in the middle of November the herdsman came and told him the cattle were nowhere to be found. It was now four o'clock and the wind was blowing a blizzard. The setting sun was obscured with the driving snow and day was fast drawing to a close. Should the night prove very cold as well as stormy, the animals might perish even in the sheltered woods.

Throwing on his hooded coat and tying a sash around his body, Sinclair at once went in search of them, thinking he knew their haunts, and would soon find them. He was seen in a few minutes rapidly ascending the high rocks behind the post when the blinding snow hid him from sight. I have since seen the rocks and often pictured his figure already white with snow ascending amid the whirlwind into the very clouds, as one may think. What leave-taking of earth could be more grand or striking!

The night was a fearful one. Masses of blinding snow were now by the furious hurricane scattered in showers of powder. On the unsheltered plains of Manitoba, Minnesota and Dakota hundreds of travellers were caught in the storm and many frozen to death — some almost at their own doors — ignorant of their whereabouts.

After a reasonable lapse of time finding that the "master" did not return a search was made but the storm was so frightful that no certain course could be followed and the party returned thoroughly exhausted. At daylight in the morning (the storm having abated) the search was renewed but without finding a trace of the missing man, although the cattle were met floundering through the deep drifts, all worn out, trying to make their way home. Their tracks were followed but after some distance the drifting snow had filled them up. For some days the search was renewed until at last all hope was abandoned and it was concluded that he must in the darkness and pitiless storm have fallen over the steep rocks into the cataract of the river.

The long winter passed away at last. The snow except in sheltered sun-less spots had dissolved and pools of water lay in most undrained hollows. A new "master" had come to take charge of the post and Robert Sinclair's story was already getting old when an Indian came in great agitation to say that he had seen an object in the woods like the body of a man.

A party led by the Indian was sent out to bring the body in. When they came up to it there was the calm face of Robert Sinclair fresh as if in sleep, looking up to the heavens, one arm by his side and the other underneath his coat on his breast. The surrounding snow had preserved the body as the deep shade of the evergreen trees had prevented the sun from striking it — indeed they found his coat underneath frozen to the ice formed from the melting snow, for it was still spring and freezing during the night.

The right hand was found resting on some birch bark placed underneath his coat and in his pocket was found matches which he had taken from the house before leaving. The bark he had torn from some tree in passing. In a high wind it is not easily put out and lasts until the fire has fairly taken; it is therefore usual to collect some for this purpose and Sinclair no doubt intended to make a fire, but he overestimated his powers of endurance and had deferred it until his fingers were powerless to light a match.

As usual in such cases his faculties would get benumbed as well as the body. Had the storm not filled up his tracks, they might have been found in irregular circles for such is generally the case when there is nothing to guide the wanderer. The initiative action of the right leg is said to be the cause of this peculiarity as in the circles the track of the left foot is always found toward the centre of the circle.

But Sinclair went through no suffering. No death is so painless as by freezing. The mind becomes feeble and the reasoning faculties confused. A sense of weariness and drowsiness steals over the traveller and there is an intense desire to rest. This is at last gratified by lying down. In a moment sleep ensues. Then follows the freezing (for that does not often set in before) so painless as not to rouse the sleeper — and then the sleep that knows no waking. So slept Robert Sinclair.

"One midst the forests of the west
By a dark stream is laid.
The Indian knows his place of rest
Far in the cedar shade."

Page revised: 20 July 2009

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