Manitoba Historical Society
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Norway House

by Rev. Kenneth C. McLeod

Manitoba Pageant, April 1957

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Just two hundred years ago, in 1756, Hudson’s Bay Company sent two men (Joseph Smith and Joseph Waggoner) inland from the Bay. They camped at the site termed Jack River, Jackfish River, and later Norway House. This spot was useful as a campsite before making the crossing westward over the northern end of Lake Winnipeg, to the mouth of the Saskatchewan River at Grand Rapids, and so, eventually, down into the prairie country.

Large maps of Manitoba show Norway House as if it were perched on the north east tip of the Lake ... but this is not so. Norway House is twenty miles from Lake Winnipeg, on Little Playgreen Lake, near the Nelson River Channel. There have been several fur trade posts built in the area by both the independent traders, called the “Pedlars”, and the Hudson’s Bay Company.

But if you were to go north on the S.S. Keenora in the summertime to Norway House you would see what remains of the post built in the 1820s, as well as the present day Hudson Bay Company store and buildings, the Anglican and Roman Catholic Missions, an hotel called Playgreen Inn, a new sixty bed Indian Hospital, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Barracks, and, on nearby Forestry Island, the headquarters of the Forestry and Game Division.

The old parts of the post would probably intrigue you most. There’s “The Archway”, a massive log warehouse, with an archway in the center, which used to serve as the gateway to the fort. Back in the 1820s the trade goods brought from York Factory for the next year’s trade were kept in this building until the boat brigades from all over the north-west arrived, laden with furs, at this strategic depot. The chief factors in charge of Mackenzie River, Columbia, New Caledonia, and the Saskatchewan districts came with these brigades to discuss the business of their areas with the Governor-in-Chief of Rupert’s Land, at that time George Simpson, called the “Little Emperor” because be wielded such power in this vast domain. While these officers were meeting in the Council House, which stood until a very few years ago, the voyageurs who had paddled t:le hundreds and hundreds of miles, from dawn until dark for weeks, were allowed to take their ‘regales’ or rations of rum to celebrate their reunion with old friends and relatives. But, so that they would not disturb others, they were taken over to an island and left there until they had finished their revelries ... and that is how the island has come to be known as Drunken Island.

However, the men didn’t just sit and drink any more than their officers just kept strictly to fur trade business. The champion crewmen of each district’s brigade challenged the champions of the others to see which had the strongest wrestler, the finest fiddler, and the best dancer. Meanwhile their officers worked out the details of such extraordinary expeditions as the Deane-Simpson party, which stayed up in the Arctic three years (1837-39) and mapped 1,284 miles of Canada’s Arctic coast.

You, yourself, could walk around the hundred year old jail with its massive stone walls, and go a few hundred yards more to see what is probably the oldest stone building in Northern Manitoba - the Powder Magazine, built in 1838. Then, back at the “Archway”, if you looked up at the top of the roof, you would see a weather-vein, shaped like a Jackfish! - and under it, in its housing, the fort bell. If you were a good climber, and the roof would hold you, you could crawl up and read on the rim of that bell: “Ship Sea Horse, launched March 30th, 1782, Hudson’s Bay Company”... the year La Perouse stormed down into Hudson Bay and captured Fort Prince of Wales and York Factory.

The Jail at Norway House
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company.

Some of you may one day win an Isbister Scholarship to University. These prizes given annually, are only part of the gifts given Manitobans by Alexander Kennedy Isbister over 80 years ago. He was the son of Post Master (i.e. the manager of the post) Thomas Isbister of Norway House. Thomas one day was gored to death by a bull, so the bull was taken over to a nearby island, tied down, and burned to death in vengeance. That is why the island is still called Bull Island.

The natives at Norway House are mainly of the Cree tribe ... our good friends for almost three hundred years. There are also some Chipewyan and a few Oiibway. Most of the Indians have some Scottish or French blood. The children now seem to be having a better chance of getting an education than they had not many years ago, but the trapping and the fishing still claim many in their early teens.

Great developments along the Nelson River in the Sipiwesk area, known to most of us as the Moak-Mystery Lake finds, will soon bring more of the whiteman’s ways to the Norway House region. It would be wise to go on the S.S. Keenora’s summer cruises from Selkirk, to Berens River, Norway House, over to Grand Rapids and back to Selkirk soon, while there is still time to see a little of the old North.

Page revised: 29 March 2018

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