LIFE AT A TRADING POST ON HUDSON’S BAY (David Thompson's narrative)
Orders to set out for York Factory — Packet Indians — Leave Churchill — West shore of Hudson's Bay — Meet several Polar Bears — Indian superstitions regarding Polar Bears — Cross Nelson River and arrive at Tork Factory — Great Marsh — Shooting wild Geese — Southward migration of Geese
Orders of the Manito — Cranes and Bitterns — Life at Tork Factory — Shif arrives and leaves — Winter sets in — Hunting parties — Depart for Factory — Unwelcome visitor — His death — Wrath of Indian Woman — Polar Bear in a trap — Speckled trout — Hares — White grouse or ptarmigan
Feeding ground — Netting grouse — Feathers of grouse — Pine Grouse — Pheasants — Snow Bunting — Fomtit — Cross beak — Whiskey jack — Raven — White Fox — Hawks and Foxes — Snow blindness.
EARLY in September the annual Ship arrived, and orders were sent for me to proceed directly to York Factory, a distance of one hundred and fifty miles to the southward.^ The Hudson’s Bay Company had established a very useful line of communication between their several Factories by means of what were called, Packet Indians, these were each of two Indian men, who left each Factory with letters to arrive at the next Factory about the expected time of the arrival of the Ship at such Factory, and thus the safe arrival of these annual Ships, and the state of the Factories
Thompson was at this time fifteen years of age became known to each other, and assistance was given where required. The Boat from Churchill Factory crossed the River with the two Packet Indians and myself to Cape Churchill, and landed us without any Provisions, and only one blanket to cover me at night ; for we had to carry every- thing : it was a very fine day ; but unfortunately a gallon of very strong Grog was given to these Indians, who as usual, as soon as they landed, began drinking, and were soon drunk and the day lost ; we slept on the ground each in his single blanket, the dew was heavy : Early in the morning we set off and continued our march to sunset, without breakfast or dinner ; the Indians now shot one Goose and three stock Ducks. We came to something like a dry spot, and stopped for the night with plenty of drift wood for fuel ; the three Ducks were soon picked, stuck on a stick to roast at the fire ; mean- time the Goose was picked, and put to roast. Each of us had a Duck, and the Goose among us three. Our march all day had been on the marshy beach of the Bay, which made it fatigueing ; and directly after supper, each wrapped himself in his blanket and slept soundly on the ground : the banks of the Brooks were the only kind of dry ground. The incidents of every day were so much the same that I shall make one story of the whole : on the evening of the sixth day we arrived at Kisiskatchewan River, a bold, deep, stream of two miles in width ; we put up on the bank of a Brook, where my companions had laid up a Canoe, but the wind blowing fresh we could not proceed. Our line of march had constantly been along the Bay side, at high water mark, always wet and muddy, tiresome walking and very dull ; on the left hand was the sea, which when the tide was in appeared deep, but the Ebb retired to such a distance, that the Sea was not visible and showed an immense surface of Mud with innumerable boulders of rock, from one to five or seven tons weight, the greatest part were lodged at about half tide, where the greatest part of the drift ice remains on the shore ; as Seal River, north of Churchill River, is the most southern place where the shore is of Rock, the whole of these boulders must have come with the ice from the northward of that River, for south of it, and of Churchill River all is alluvial ; this evidently shows a strong set of the north sea into Hudson’s Bay on it’s west side, returning by the east side into Hudson’s Straits ; for these boulders are found on the west side shores to the most southern part of the Bay. On our right hand was an immense extent of alluvial in marsh, morass, and numerous ponds of water, which furnished water to many small Brooks ; the woods, such as they are, were out of sight.
Every day we passed from twelve to fifteen Polar Bears, lying on the marsh, a short distance from the shore, they were from three to five together, their heads close to each other, and their bodies lying as radii from a centre. I enquired of the Indians if the Polar Bears always lay in that form, they said, it was the common manner in which they lie. As we passed them, one, or two would lift up their heads and look at us, but never rose to molest us. The indian rule is to walk past them with a steady step without seeming to notice them. On the sixth day we had a deep Brook to cross, and on the opposite side of the ford was a large Polar Bear feasting on a Beluga, we boldly took the ford thinking the bear would go away, but when [we were] about half way across, he lifted his head, placed his fore paws on the Beluga, and uttering a loud growl, showed to us such a set of teeth as made us turn up the stream, and for fifty yards wade up to our middle before we could cross ; during this time the Bear eyed us, growling like a Mastiff Dog. During the time we were waiting [for] the wind to calm, I had an opportunity of seeing the Indian superstition on the Polar Bear ; on one of these days we noticed a Polar Bear prowling about in the ebb tide, the Indians set off to kill it as the skin could be taken to the Factory in the Canoe ; when the Bear was shot, before they could skin him and cut off his head, the tide was coming in, which put them in danger, they left the skin to float ashore, and seizing the head, each man having hold of an ear, with their utmost speed in the mud brought the head to land, the tide was up to their knees when they reached the shore ; on the first grass they laid down the head, with the nose to the sea, which they made red with ochre ; then made a speech to the Manito of the Bears, that he would be kind to them as they had performed all his orders, had brought the head of the Bear ashore, and placed it with it’s nose to the sea, begging him to make the skin float ashore, which, at the Factory would sell for three pints of Brandy ; the Manito had no intention that they should get drunk, the skin did not float ashore and was lost. In the afternoon of the third day the wind calmed, the Indians told me at Noon that we had staid there too long, that they would now sing and calm the wind, for their song had great power ; they sung for about half an hour ; and then said to me, you see the wind is calming, such is the power of our song. I was hurt at their pretensions and replied ; you see the Ducks, the Plover and other Birds, follow the ebb tide, they know the wind is calming without your song : if you possess such power why did you not sing on the first day of our being here. They gave no answer, it is a sad weakness of the human character, and [one] which is constantly found, more, or less, in the lower orders of thinly populated countries ; they all possess, if we may credit them, some superhuman power. The Ebb tide had now retired about one and a half mile from us. Near sunset, each of us cut a bundle of small willows, and with the Canoe and paddles, carried them about a mile, when we laid the Canoe down, spread the willows on the mud, and laid down to await the return of the tide ; as soon as it reached us, we got into the canoe, and proceeded up the Kisiskatchewan River for several miles, then crossed to the south shore and landed at a path ^ of four miles in length through woods of small pines, on low, wet, marsh ground to York Factory, thank good Providence.
I now return to the great marsh along which we travelled.
The aquatic fowl in the seasons of spring and autumn are very numerous. They seem to confine themselves to a belt of these great marshes, of about two miles in width from the seashore, and this belt is mostly covered with small ponds ; and the intervals have much short tender grass, which serves for food, the interior of the marsh has too much moss. Of these fowls the wild geese are the most numerous and the most valuable, and of these the grey goose,^ of which there are four species, and the brent goose, a lesser species of the gray goose, it’s feathers are darker and it’s cry different. Of the Snow Geese there are three varieties, the least of which is of a blueish color,* they are all somewhat less than the gray geese, but of richer meat. It may be remarked that of wild fowl, the darker the feather, the lighter the color of the meat ; and the whiter the feather, the darker the meat, as the Snow Goose and the Swan &c. The shooting of the wild Geese, (or as it is called, the hunt) is of great importance to the Factories not only for present fresh meat, but also [because it] forms a supply of Provisions for a great part of the winter ; the gray geese are the first to arrive in the early part of May ; the Snow geese arrive about ten days after.
About ten of the best shots of the men of the Factory, with several Indians, are now sent to the marshes to shoot them.
For this purpose each man has always two guns, each makes what is called a Stand, this is composed of drift wood and pine branches, about three feet high, six feet in diameter, and half round in form, to shelter himself from the weather and the view of the geese ; each Stand is about 120 yards from the other, or more, and forms a line on the usual passage of the geese, [which is] always near the sea shore ; two, or three, parties are formed, as circumstances may direct ; each hunter has about ten mock geese, which are sticks made and painted to resemble the head and neck of the gray goose, to which is added a piece of canvas for a body. They are placed about twenty yards from the Stands, with their beaks to windward : the position in which the geese feed. When the geese first arrive, they readily answer to the call of the Hunter. The Indians imitate them so well that they would alight among the mock geese, if the shots of the hunter did not prevent them. The geese are all shot on the wing ; they are too shy, and the marsh too level, to be approached. Some good shots, in the spring hunt, kill from 70 to 90 geese, but the general average is from 40 to 50 geese p*^ man, as the season may be. The Snow Goose is very unsteady on the wing, now high, now low, they are hard to hit, they seldom answer to our call, but the Indians imitate them well ; for the spring, they answer the call, but do not notice it in autumn ; for the table, the Snow Goose is the richest bird that flies. The feathers of the geese are taken care of and sent to London, where they command a ready sale. The feathers of four grey geese, and of five Snow geese weigh one pound. The duration of their stay depends much on the weather ; a month at the most, and seldom less than three weeks. The flight of the geese is from daylight to about 8 AM. And from 5 pm. To dusk. By the end of May, or the first week in June, the geese have all left us for their breeding places, much farther to the northward. In the spring several of the Geese are found with wild rice in their crops. ^ The wild rice grows in abundance to the south westward ; the nearest place to York Factory are the small Lakes at the mouth of the River Winipeg, distant about 420 miles. When M” Wales was at Fort Churchill in 1769 to observe the transit of Venus over the Sun,^ from curiosity he several times took angles of the swiftnes of the wild geese and found that in a steady gale of wind, their flight before it was sixty miles an hour. When shooting at them going before a gale of wind, at the distance of 40 to 50 yards, the aim is taken two or three inches before his beak. When going against the wind, at the insertion of the neck. In the middle of July several flocks of a very large species of grey goose arrived from the southward, they have a deep harsh note, and are called Gronkers, by others Barren Geese,^ from its being sup- posed they never lay eggs. If so, how is this species propagated, they very seldom alight in our marshes ; but as they fly low a few of them are shot. Their meat is like that of the common gray goose. I do not remember seeing these geese in autumn. In the spring all the geese, ducks and other fowls come from the southward ; in autumn they all come from the northward. Their first arrival is in the early part of September, and their stay about three weeks. They keep arriving, night and day, and our solitary marshes become covered with noisy, animated life. The same mode of shooting them, is now as in the spring, but they do not answer the call so well, and the average number each man may kill is from 25 to 30 geese for the season. The geese salted of the
In 1895, while exploring the country east of Lake Winnipeg, I found wild rice growing in some of the small streams as far north as latitude 53°, or only 350 miles south-west of York Factory spring hunt, are better than those of autumn ; they are fatter, and more firm, those salted in Autumn are only be- ginning to be fat, which, with young geese, in this state, make poor salted food. In autumn, the last three days of the geese appear to be wholly given in cleaning and adjusting every feather of every part, instead of feeding at pleasure every- where ; the Manito of the geese, ducks and other fowls had given his orders, they collect, and form flocks of, from 40 to 60, or more ; and seem to have leaders ; the Manito of the aquatic fowl has now given his orders for their departure to milder climates ; his presence sees the setting in of winter, and the freezing of the ponds &c. The leaders of the flock have now a deep note. The order is given, and flock after flock, in innumerable numbers, rise. Their flight is of a regular form, making an angle of about 25 degrees ; the two sides of the angle are unequal, that side next to the sea being more than twice the length of the side next to the land ; where I have counted 30 geese on one side, the short side has only ten to twelve, and so in proportion ; the point of the angle is a single goose, which leads the flock ; when tired of opening the air, [it] falls into the rear of the short line, and the goose next on the long, or sea, line, takes his place, and thus in succession. Thus in two, or three days, these extensive marshes, swarming with noisy life, become silent, and wholly deserted ; except when wounded, no instance has ever been known of geese, or ducks, being found in frozen ponds, or Lakes. The Svv^an is sometimes frozen in, and loses his life.
The different species of Geese on the east side of the [Rocky] Mountains pass the winter in the mild climate of the Floridas, the mouths of the Mississippe, and around the Gulph of Mexico, from these shores the wild Geese and Swans proceed to the northward as far as the Latitude of d’j to 69 north, where they have the benefit of the Sun’s light and heat for the twenty four hours for incubation, and rarely breed under twenty hours of Sunlight. These wild birds proceed, through the pathless air, from where they winter to where they breed, a distance of about two thousand seven hundred miles, in a straight line ; and from the place of breeding to the mouths of the Mississippe, and adjacent shores the same distance. The question arises, by what means do the wild geese make such long journeys with such precision of place ; the wise, and learned, civilized man answers, by Instinct, but what is Instinct : a property of mind that has never been defined. The Indian believes the geese are directed by the Manito, who has the care of them. Which of the two is right.
The Frogs now cease to croak ; for they must also prepare for winter. A few Cranes ^ frequent these marshes, as also a few Bitterns. They pass the whole of the open season in pairs, yet their eggs are never, or very rarely found, they are so well hid in the rushes of quagmires which cannot be approached. The Bittern arrives and departs in pairs mostly in the night, it is a bird of slow wing, easy to be killed. The Cranes arrive, and depart in flocks of thirty to fifty, their flight is an angle of full thirty degrees, both sides [of which] are nearly equal ; I have never seen the leader quit his place.
They are good eating, fleshy, but not fat. They make the best of broth : the ducks and lesser birds arrive and depart in flocks, but in no regular order.
The society and occupations of the Factories along the shores of Hudson’s Bay are so much alike, that the description of one Factory may serve for all the others. I shall describe York Factory, being the principal Factory and in point of commerce worth all the other Factories.* The establishment was composed of a Resident, an Assistant, with one, or two clerks, a Steward and about forty men, over whom there was a foreman. The Ship for the Factory arrives generally about the latter end of August, sometimes later, this depends on their passage through Hudson’s Straits, which in some years sufficiently deep for small ships or sloops of moderate draught, but at the mouth of the river are extensive flats over which it is difficult to pass, except at high tide, and over which the sea-going ships that bring the supplies from England to York Factory do not attempt to cross. At the present time the Factory consists of a series of buildings arranged around a quadrangle, some of which are large stores or warehouses, while others are residences for the masters and employees engaged there.
The present buildings, or more probably smaller ones which preceded them, were erected by Joseph Colen in 1789 and the following years, the central “ depot “ having been built some time in the early part of last century. Old York Fort was situated about half a mile below the present fort on the same side of the river, and it was to this fort that Thompson came when he arrived from Churchill in 1785. Previous to that time it had been occupied by the English and French alternately for about a hundred years, until 1782, when it was taken by the French under Admiral de la Perouse, and was burned to the ground, and the English inhabitants were carried captive to France. In the following year it was rebuilt by the Hudson’s Bay Company, and from that time was occupied for several years ; but in the spring of 1788 the ground on which it stood was flooded to a depth of several feet, and Joseph Colen, who was in charge at the time, determined that he would move it to a higher situation. Accordingly, shortly afterwards, he commenced to build the fort on its present site, and by 1792 the moving was completed, and the men with their goods and supplies were all at the new fort. Until the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway across the continent in 1885, the trading goods for the whole of the interior of the western country from Hudson Bay to the Rocky Mountains, and even beyond these mountains, were brought here from England, whence they were distributed by canoes or boats throughout the interior country, and the same boats which took the supplies into the country brought back to York Factory loads of furs which were carried to England and were disposed of in the markets of London. Since the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, over which trading goods and furs can be easily carried in and out of the country, the importance of York Factory £is a centre of distribution has greatly decreased, until now it is merely a distributing point for a few small fur-trading stations within a radius of a few hundred miles that as yet have no easier and more rapid mode of access to the civilized world. is sadly blocked up with ice ; the Ship anchors in the mouth of the River, about five miles below the Factory, the whole attention of all hands is turned with unloading, and reloading of the Ship ; the time of doing which, depends on the weather, and takes from ten to fifteen days. The ship having sailed for London, this may be called the beginning of our year.
The regular occupations of the Factory now commence ; eight or ten of the best shots among us, among which are sure to be the clerks, with the few Indians that may be near, are sent off to the marshes to shoot geese, ducks, cranes &c for the present supply of the Factory, and to be salted for the winter. Axes are put in order. Boats got ready with Pro- visions, and about twenty men sent up the River to the nearest forests to cut down pine trees, branch them, lop off the heads, and carry them on their shoulders to the great wood pile, near the river bank ; the trees are so small that a man generally carries two, or three, to the wood pile. When the quantity required for fuel, is thus cut and piled, the wood is taken by a large sledge drawn by the men to a bay of the River, where rafts can be made and floated to the Factory, which is completed in April, but not floated to the Factory until June and July. Accounts, Books, grouse shooting &c employ the time of those at the Factory. Winter soon sets in ; the geese hunters return, and out of them are formed two parties of three or four men, each for grouse shooting, snareing hares &c. Each party has a canvas tent, like a soldier’s bell tent with the top cut off to let the smoke out. Fowling pieces, ammunition, fish hooks and lines, steel traps and three weeks of salted provisions, with our bedding of blankets &c completes our equipment. The shore ice of the River is now frozen to the width of half a mile, or more ; the current of the River has much drift ice, it is time for the hunters to be off, the boats are ready, and we are placed on the ice, with four flat sleds, and a fine large Newfoundland Dog ; the Boats return and we are left to our exertions. Our party consisted of four men and an Indian woman. We loaded the sleds with the tent, our baggage and some provisions, leaving the rest for another trip, each of us hauled about seventy pounds and the fine dog 100 pounds weight. We proceeded to a large Brook, called French Creek,^ up which we went about a mile to where the Pines of the forest were of some size and clean growth ; the tent poles were now cut, and placed to form a circular area of about 12 to 14 feet diameter and 12 feet in heighth ; the door poles are the strongest, about these poles we wrapped our tents, the fire place is in the centre, and our beds of pine branches, with a Log next to the fire. Our furniture [was] a three gallon brass kettle, with a lesser one for water, two, or three tin dishes, spoons &c.
A Hoard is next made of Logs well notched into each other of about eight feet in length, six feet wide at the bottom, five feet in height, and the top narrowed to two feet covered with Logs to secure our provisions and game from the carnivorous animals. Our occupations were angling of Trout,^ snareing of Hares, ^ shooting white Grouse,* trapping of Martens,^ Foxes ® and Wolverines.’’ Our enemy the Polar Bear, was prowling about, the sea not being sufficiently frozen to allow him to catch Seals.
By the latter end of November we had procured sufficient game to load three flat sleds, for the Factory, hauled by two of us and our Dog. To arrive at the Factory took us the whole of the day The same evening W”” Budge, a fine handsome man, John Alellam, and the Indian woman were frying pork and grouse for supper, [when] the smell attracted a Polar Bear, who marched to the Tent, and around it, his heavy tread was heard, and no more cooking thought of. As usual in the evening, the fowling pieces were being washed and cleaned, and were then not lit for use, but there was a loaded musquet. At length Bruin found the door, and thrust in his head and neck, the Tent Poles prevented further entrance.
Budge climbed up the tent poles and left Mellam and his indian woman to fight the Bear, the former snatched up the Musket, it snapped ; seizing it by the muzzle he broke off the stock on the head of the Bear, and then with hearty blows applied the barrel and lock to his head ; the indian woman caught up her axe on the other side of the door, and in like manner struck Bruin on the head, such an incessant storm of blows, [as] made him withdraw himself ; he went to the Hoard and began to tear it in pieces, for the game ; a fowling piece was quickly dried, loaded with two balls, and fired into him, the wound was mortal, he went a few paces and fell, with a dreadful growl. Budge now wanted to descend from the smoky top of the Tent, but the Woman with her axe in her hand (a-J- lbs) heaped wood on the fire, and threatened to brain him if he came down. he begged hard for his life, she was determined, fortunately Mellam snatched the axe from her, but she never forgave him, for the indian woman pardons Man for everything but want of courage, this is her sole support and protection, there are no laws to defend her.
The next morning on examining the head of the Bear, the skin was much bruised and cut, but the bone had not a mark on it. We had two steel traps of double springs, with strong iron teeth, weighing each seventy pounds, and five feet in length, for Wolves ^ and Wolverines : one of these was baited with a Grouse, and placed on the ice at the mouth of the brook, a Polar Bear took the bait, the iron teeth closed on his head, he went about half [a] mile and then laid down ; the next morning we traced the Bear, he rose up, a curious looking figure with a trap of five feet across his nose, he went directly for the sea, and we respectfully followed ; our guns had only small shot ; when arrived at the edge of the ice. Bruin made a halt, and no doubt thought such a trap across his nose would be an impediment to swimming, and catching Seals, wisely determined to get rid of it, turning round and looking at us, he bent his head and the trap on the ice, and placing his heavy fore paws on each of the springs, he loosened himself from the trap, and looking at us with an air of contempt, dashed into the sea, and swam away. We got the trap, but his heavy paws had broken one of the springs and rendered the trap useless. The other hunting party about three miles to the eastward of us had also the visit of a Polar Bear ; one evening from the smell of fried pork and grouse, he came to the tent, marched round, and round it, but found no entrance, his heavy tread warned the inmates to be on their guard.
The bear reared himself up on the tent, he placed the claws of his fore paws through the canvas, the man opposite ready with his gun, guided by his paws, fired and mortally wounded him ; but in falling the Bear brought down the tent and tent poles, under which, with the bear were three men and one woman, whom, the Bear in the agonies of death, sadly kicked about, until relieved by the man who had shot the Bear, the tent was drawn over his head, and he was free. cut away at the path ; a long pole is tied to a tree, in such a manner that the butt end shall overbalance the upper end and the weight of a hare ; to this end the snare of brass wire is tied by a piece of strong twine, this end of the pole is tied to the tree laid across the path, by a slip knot, and the snare suspended at four inches above the snow. The Hare comes bounding along, enters the snare, the slip knot is undone, the top of the pole is free, the butt end by it’s weight descends, and Puss is suspended by the snare about six to eight feet above the surface of the snow. This height is required to prevent them being taken by Foxes and Martens. The other Hares that follow this path, have for the night a free passage ; but the next day the snare is reset, until no more can be caught ; where the Hares are plenty, hedges of pine trees, with their branches extend 200 yards, or more, in length ; on a fine Moonlight night the Hares move about freely, and from eighteen to twenty [are] caught in a night, but in bad weather, three, or four, or none ; the average may be six to eight p”^ night : of all furrs the furr of the hare is the warmest, we place pieces of it in our mittens, the skin is too thin for any other purpose. When the cold becomes very severe, we leave off snareing until February or March, as the Hares lie still.
There are two species of white Grouse, the Rock ^ and the Willow, the former is a lesser species with a black stripe round the upper eyelid, and feeds among the rocks. The willow Grouse^ has a red stripe round the upper eyelid, is a finer bird than the rock grouse, and one fifth larger : they are both well feathered to the very toe nails ; all their feathers are double. He close on each other, two in one quill, or socket, and appear as one feather ; the under side of the foot have hard, rough, elastic feathers like bristles. The white Grouse, in the very early part of winter, arrive in small flocks of ten to twenty, but as the winter advances and the cold increases, they become more plentiful, and form flocks of fifty to one hundred ; they live on the buds of the willows, which cover the ground between the sea shore and the pine forests ; on the south side of Hayes’s River, there is a strip of alluvial formed by a few bold Brooks of half, to one mile in width, and about ten miles in length, next to impassable in summer for marsh and water, where they feed ; they are shot on the ground as they feed : at first each man may average ten grouse p’ day ; but by the beginning of December they become numerous, and the average of each man may be about twenty p” day. Each grouse weighs two pounds, forming a good load to walk with in snow shoes ; and at length to carry to the tent ; when the feathers are taken off, the bowels taken out, and in this state [they are] put into the hoard to freeze, and thus taken to the Factory ; they now average one pound each, and the feathers of twenty grouse weigh one pound. At night the Grouse, each singly, burrows in the snow, and when the cold is intense, do the same in the middle of the day. However intense the cold, even to 85 degrees below the freezing point, I never knew any to perish with cold, when not wounded ; the same of all other birds, kind Providence has admirably adapted them to the climate.
After the bitter cold of December and January is passed, they congregate in large flocks. Each man now bags from thirty to forty grouse p’ day, but as this is a Load too heavy to hunt with, part is buried in the Snow and only taken up when going to the Tent. The weather now allowing us to load our guns ; for in the intense cold, the shot is no sooner fired than our hands are in our large mittens ; we walk and pick up the bird, then get the powder in, and walk again, at length [put in] the shot, and the gun is loaded ; it is needless to say, exposed to such bitter cold, with no shelter, we cannot fire many shots in a short day. Gloves are found to be worse than useless.
In the latter end of February, the month of March, and to the end of the season, the Grouse are netted, during which [time] not a shot is fired, except at Hawks : ^ They are a great plague to us, as the flocks were going before us, by short flights, a Hawk appearing, they dived down under the Snow, and for some time staid there. For this purpose a large snow drift is chosen, level on the top, or made so, on which is placed a square net of strong twine of twenty feet each side, well tied to four strong poles, the front side is supported by two uprights, four feet in height ; to which is tied a strong line of about fifty feet in length, conducted to a bush of willows, the side poles being about four feet longer than the other, the back of the net is also lifted up about two feet above the snow, so as to leave room for the grouse to pass ; two, or three bags of fine gravel are brought, and laid under the centre of the net, mixed with willow buds taken out of the crops of the Grouse we have shot, these are gently dried over the fire to make them look like fresh buds : at first we have no great difficulty in starting and guiding the flocks towards the net, and so soon as we can bring them within view of the gravel and buds, they eagerly run to them, and crowd one on another, the man at the end of the line pulls away the two uprights, the net falls, we directly run and throw ourselves on the net, as the strong efforts of forty or fifty of these active birds might make an opening in the net. We have now to take the neck of each grouse between our teeth, and crack the neck bone, without breaking the skin, and drawing blood, which if done, the foxes destroy the part of the net on which is blood and around it, which sometimes happens to our vexation, and we have to mend the net. Although for the first few days we may net 120 Grouse p’ day, yet in about a fortnight they become so tame, they no longer form a large flock, and at length we are obliged to drive them before us like barn door fowls, by eight or ten at a time, for every haul of the net, and thus in the course of a long day, we do not net more than forty to sixty grouse. In these months they have a pleasing cheerful call, in the early and latter parts of the day, of Kabow, Kabow, Kow a e. The hens have the same call, but in a low note. In bad weather the willow grouse shelters itself under the snow, but the Rock grouse run about, as if enjoying the Storm. During the winter whatever may be the number of the flock, and however near to each other, each burrows singly in the snow, their feathers are of a brilliant white, if possible whiter than the snow. In the months of March and April, part of the feathers, particularly about the neck, and the fore part of the body, change color to a glossy brown, or deep chocolate, upon a ground of brilliant white, very beautiful, and in this state are often stuffed and sent to London. No dove is more meek than the white grouse, I have often taken them from under the net, and provoked them all I could without injuring them, but all was submissive meekness. Rough beings as we were, sometimes of an evening we could not help enquiring why such an angehc bird should be doomed to be the prey of carnivorous animals and birds, the ways of Providence are unknown to us. They pair in May, and retire to the Pine Forests, make their nests on the ground, under the low spreading branches of the dwarf Pine, they lay from eleven to thirteen eggs, the young, from the shell, are very active and follow their dam. There is a third species called the Pine, or Swamp, grouse,^ of dark brown feathers, it feeds on the leaves of the white pine, and it’s flesh tastes of the pine on which it feeds ; it is found sitting on the branches of the tree, ten, or twelve, feet above the snow, or ground ; it is a stupid bird, a snare is tied to the end of a stick put round it’s neck and pulled to the ground. It is only eaten for want of better ; they are not numerous, [are] solitary and never in flocks. A few Pheasants ^ are shot, they are something larger than the white grouse, of fine dark plumage, but not to be compared to the English Pheasant. Their habits are much the same as the white grouse except [that] when they are started, they fly to, and settle on the Trees, and not on the snow, or ground. Late in Autumn and early in the Spring the delicate Snow Bunting ^ appear in small flocks, they are shot, and also taken by small nets, they are a delicacy for the table. They fly from place to place, feed on the seeds of grass, but do not stay more than three weeks each time. The Tomtits ^ stay all winter, and feed on grass seeds. The hand- some, little curious bird, the Cross Beak,* leave us late in Autumn and arrive early in March. They are always in small flocks, and their whole employment seems to be, cutting off the cones of the Pines, which their cross beaks perform as with a pair of scissors. The flock takes one tree, if large, at a time and shower down the Cones like hail, I never saw them feed on them : they remain and breed in the summer. At all seasons the Butcher bird is with us, and called Whisky] ack,^ from the Indian name “ Weeskaijohn.” It is a noisy, familiar bird, always close about the tents, and will alight at the very doors, to pick up what is thrown out ; he lives by plunder, and on berries, and what he cannot eat he hides ; it is easily taken by a snare, and brought into the room, seems directly quite at home ; when spirits is offered, it directly drinks, is soon drunk and fastens itself anywhere till sober. A Hunter marching through the forest may see a chance one, but if an animal is killed, in a few minutes there are twenty of them.
They are a nuisance, picking and dirtying the meat, and nothing frightens them which the hunter can hang up. When the cold is intense, the feathers are ruffled out to twice it’s size ; all carnivorous birds appear, as it were, to loosen their feathers, whereas the Grouse seem to tighten their feathers around them. The Raven ^ is the same bird here, as over all the world, stealing and plundering whatever he can, early and late on the wing, and sometimes taken in the traps not intended for him. In winter, when taken to shelter, he ruffles his feathers, and chooses a snug place in the pines exposed to the sun. The Indians do not like the Raven, as in hunting he often follows them, and by cawing noise, startles the animals, so as to make them look about, and be on their guard ; when in their power he is sure to die. Other Birds and Animals I shall notice when writing on the interior countries, except the White Fox ‘ which is found only along the sea shore (and not in the interior) and near the mouths of Rivers ; he is the least in size of all the Foxes, and the least in value ; it’s skin is worth only, about six to ten shillings ; like all his species by nature a thief, following the Hunters to pick up wounded birds, they are readily caught in traps and killed by set guns. By a well laid line of traps and guns, the produce of the early part of the winter is about six of these Foxes p”^ night. With all their cunning they are a stupid animal. On meeting one of them on the ice, I have often made a trap of pieces of ice, baited it, while he was looking at me, then retired some forty yards, he would then run to the trap, look at me as if asking permission to take the bait, run his head into the trap and be caught ; in this respect he differs very much from all the other species. Speaking so often of traps and set guns, I may as well describe them : For a Marten, a throat log, of about 4 feet in length, of a small pine is first laid on the snow, frequently some branches under it to keep it from sinking in the snow, two stakes are then driven, one on each side into the snow and moss near the middle ; about eight inches from these, other two are driven, to form a doorway. The sides and back are also of small stakes ; the neck log is about six feet in length, and passes thro’ between the four stakes a few inches, the other end rests on some branches on the snow, a small stick of about six inches, on one end baited with the head of a grouse, the other end is half round, and rests on the throat log, on which a post of four inches in height is placed and supports the neck log, to give free entrance to the animal, the top of the trap, and above the neck log is well covered with pine branches to prevent any access to the bait ; other logs are laid on the neck log for wait to detain the animal, which commonly is soon dead. These traps are made large, and strong, in pro- portion to the animal they are intended for. Set guns and steel traps are well known to the civilized world.
The month of April, from the thawing of the snow, and the grouse leaving to make their nests, obliges us to give up the winter hunting, and we return to the Factory to pass a dull time until the arrival of the geese, for which we get ready. In our Tents we had a comfortable fire, and the chances of the day in shooting, trapping and netting, with a few hearty curses on the hawks and foxes for the grouse they took from us, at which they were very clever, frequently keeping near us, though out of shot, and as soon as we killed a bird, before we could load the gun, one, or the other, would pounce on a grouse and carry it off : We had some- times the satisfaction of seeing these two rogues worry each other ; the Hawks ^ were mostly of the short wing and could not carry much, and a grouse weighing about two pounds, at about two or three hundred yards they had to alight and tear out the bowels, their favourite food, the fox was upon them, and made them take another flight. Sometimes the fox seized the bird, in this case the hawk was continually attacking him with blows of his claws on his neck, near to his head, the fox sprang at the hawk, to no purpose, and the moment he put down his head to seize the bird, the hawk again struck him, and thus the fox made his meal. The long winged hawks carry a grouse with ease to the Trees, where they are secure from the foxes. The summer months pass away without regret, the myriads of tormenting flies allow no re- spite, and we see the cold months advance with something like pleasure, for we can now enjoy a book, or a walk. October and November produce their ice and snow, the Rivers freeze over and form a solid bridge to cross where we please, our winter clothing is ready, and gloomy December is on us.
The cold increases continually, with very little relaxation, the snow is now as dry as dust, about two feet in depth, it adheres to nothing, we may throw a gun into it and take it up as free of snow, as if in the air, and no snow adheres to our Snow Shoes. The Aurora Borealis is seen only to the northward, sometimes with a tremulous motion, but seldom bright ; halos of the sun also appear. The month of January comes, and continues with intense cold ; from the density of the air, the halos, or mock suns, at times appear as bright as the real Sun ; but when in this state, betokens bad weather. The halos of the Moon are also very pleasing.
A curious formation now takes place called Rime, of extreme thinness, adhering to the trees, willows and every- thing it can fasten on, it’s beautiful, clear, spangles forming flowers of every shape, of a most brilliant appearance, and the sun shining on them makes them too dazzling to the sight.
The lower the ground, the larger is the leaf, and the flower ; this brilliant Rime can only be formed in calm clear weather and a gale of wind sweeps away all this magic scenery, to be reformed on calm days ; it appears to be formed of frozen dew. The actual quantity of snow on the ground is not more than 2i feet in depth in the woods, clear of drift, very high and dry ; almost every fall of snow is attended with a gale of NE. wind. The falling snow with the moveable snow on
52 DAVID THOMPSON’S NARRATIVE
the ground, causes a drift and darkness in which the traveller is bewildered, and sometimes perishes. The months of February and March have many pleasant clear days, the gaudy, spangled Rime is most brilliant, and requires a strong eye to look upon it. The climate is more moderate, there are a few fine days, the sun is bright with a little warmth, the snow lower, but does not thaw. In the months of March and April, the Snow too often causes snow blindness, of a most painful nature. As I never had it, I can only describe the sensations of my companions. Accustomed to march in all weathers, I had acquired a power over my eyelids to open, or contract them as circumstances required, and to admit only the requisite quantity of light to guide me, and thus [I] prevented the painful effects of snow blindness. In the case of those affected the blue eye suffers first and most, the gray eye next, and the black eye the least ; but none are exempt from snow blindness ; the sensations of my companions, and others, were all the same ; they all complained of their eyes, being, as it were, full of burning sand ; I have seen hardy men crying like children, after a hard march of four months in winter. Three men and myself made for a trading post in the latter part of March. They all became snow blind, and for the last four days I had to lead them with a string tied to my belt, and [they] were so completely blind that when they wished to drink of the little pools of melted snow, I had to put their hands in the water. They could not sleep at night.
On arriving at the trading Post, they were soon relieved by the application of the steam of boiling water as hot as they could bear it, this is the Indian mode of cure, and the only efficient cure yet known, but all complained of weakness of sight for several months after. Black crape is sometimes used to protect the eyes from the dazzling light of the snow, but the Hunter cannot long make use of it, the chase demands the whole power of his eyesight. When thirsty a mouthful of snow wets the mouth but does not relieve thirst : the water of snow melted by the sun has a good taste, but snow melted in a kettle over a fire, has a smoky taste, until made to boil for a few minutes, this takes away the smoky taste, and snow being put in, makes good water.
Of the native Indians along the shore of Hudson’s Bay I wish to say as little as possible. The Company has the Bay in full possession, and can enforce the strictest temperance of spirituous liquors, by their orders to their chief Factors, but the ships at the same time bringing out several hundred gallons of vile spirits called Eng. Brandy,^ no such morality is thought of. No matter what service the Indian performs, or does he come to trade his furrs, strong grog is given to him, and sometimes for two or three days Men and Women are all drunk, and become the most degraded of human beings.^
1 In 1785 the Hudson’s Bay Company imported to York Factory, over and above what it had imported to Churchill and Moose Factories, 2,028 gallons of brandy. In 1794, under Colen’s regime, the importation of brandy to the same place rose to 7,900 gallons. In addition to this, the Company operated a small distillery at York Factory at the same time.
In Thompson’s note-books some pages are taken up by what he calls “ Index of his Journals as Extended,” in which he gives the contents of a number of pages which were not in the original manuscript as I obtained it, and of which I have been able to find no trace among any of his papers .
It is possible that the pages were never written, though he may have out- lined their contents. These pages come in at this point in his Journal, and the following is the extension of the index as he gives it
Copyright Jacob Romeyn March 2008