Historic York Factory along Hudson Bay — Ottawa taking steps to preserve site

by Bruce Cherney (part 1 of 2)

At one time,York Factory was the Hudson’s Bay Company’s primary administrative and commercial centre for its fur trading empire and was considered of such importance that it became of the object of armed conflict between the French and English.

As it grew in stature as a conduit for goods from Europe and the commercial distribution centre for the entire Northwest, including the Red River Settlement far to the south, the HBC post, located along Hayes River as it empties into Hudson Bay, became the focal point of a thriving mixed community of Europeans and aboriginal people. At its peak, York Factory possessed over 50 buildings and hundreds of residents.

The historic importance of York Factory to Manitoba and Canada was recently recognized when the federal government announced it would be spending $1.5 million to assemble a team of experts “to study the complex interplay of physical and historical elements that make up York Factory’s dynamic environment.”

Sadly, York Factory’s existence as a designated national historic site — the HBC turned the site over to Ottawa in 1968 which placed it under the administration of Parks Canada  — is on the brink of disappearing into the Hayes River, primarily due to riverbank erosion.

The project team will be studying the site’s soils, permafrost, vegetation, river erosion, drainage and past attempts to “save York Factory.”

The former HBC post has always had a precarious relationship with its environment, especially since it rests on a base of marine clay.

In 1821, Nicholas Garry wrote, “The fort is built on piles, but though drained on every side is still sinking.”

Prior to 1968, the federal government had been leery about taking over the site, claiming that York Factory was not important enough to be declared a national historic site, and partially justifying its position by declaring: “As it (York Factory) is situated in a ‘swamp’ its ultimate decay will only be a matter of time and its restoration, therefore, an impractical undertaking.”

York Factory’s location on swamp land, buffeted by Arctic winter gales and fronted by ice encasing Hudson Bay for nine months of the year, make it all the more remarkable that it could survive for so long as the main link between Europe and western and northern Canada.

Present-day York Factory is just one of a series of fur-trading posts that sprang up, starting in 1682, at the mouths of the Hayes and Nelson rivers which converge as they approach Hudson Bay. The mouths of the two rivers are separated by a long narrow bar jutting out into the bay.

In the latter years of the 17th century, New England, British and French traders set their sights on the vicinity as a means of controlling the interior fur trade. 

The HBC used the pretext of establishing a post in the vicinity of either the Hayes or Nelson rivers to protect its charter of incorporation signed by Charles II (May 2, 1670) that gave it title over all of Rupert’s Land — an area that encompassed most of present-day Western Canada, including Manitoba, and portions of the northern United States.  In 1681, the London committee of the “Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudsons Bay” gave instructions that the HBC’s system of posts be extended westward and cut off the competition by establishing a new post on the Nelson River. 

Since 1671, New France (present-day Quebec) had challenged the HBC’s claim to Rupert’s land. Intendant (Governor) Jean Talon sent expeditions northward to determine the advisability of setting up a warehouse on Hudson Bay to “replenish supplies for the ships, which subsequently will be able to use this route to discover the connecting passage between the Northern and Southern Seas (the fabled Northwest Passage).”

In the summer of 1682, the three rivals independently arrived at Fort (Port) Nelson, setting off years of intrigue and fighting. That year, John Bridgar was made governor of the HBC region surrounding Fort Nelson. The HBC assigned Zachariah Gillam to sail directly to Fort Nelson in the company of Bridgar and oversee the construction of a post at “Nelson River or Hayes River.” 

At the same time, Benjamin Gillam, the son of Zachariah, sailed from Boston to the Nelson River and at a point 26 miles upstream set up a post on Bachelor’s Island. 

In addition, Pierre Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart, Sieur des Groseillers, who both had originally led the English to Hudson Bay aboard the Nonsuch in 1670, now united against the Company, sailing from Quebec City to uphold New France’s claim to the region.

Radisson wrote that the two ships from New France arrived at the Ste. Therese (the French name for the Hayes) River on August 20, 1682, “a day or two before the New Englanders entered the Nelson River.” Radisson and Groseillers set up a post 10 miles up the Hayes River on its south bank.

Radisson told the New Englanders  he carried a commission from the French crown to build a post and “to forbid the Indian trade to aliens.”

When the English arrived, Radisson told them he had already established a post and with over 300 men under his command had taken possession of the region for France. He told HBC Governor Bridgar not to go ashore or suffer the consequences.

Bridgar and Gillam decided the less risky course was to sail up the Nelson River, but an off-shore gale swept their ship, the Rupert, out to sea where it floundered on a reef with the loss of Gillam and nine men. Bridgar and a few survivors were stranded with scant supplies and material salvaged from the ship. They set up a crude shelter and prepared to ride out the winter as best they could under their less-than-ideal circumstances. 

What they couldn't have known was they had a nearby saviour. Surprisingly, the men were able to survive the winter through the help of rival Radisson. On the other hand, Radisson captured and burned the New Englanders’ post and arrested Benjamin Gillam and his men.

Bridgar had not known of the New Englanders’ existence in the vicinity until one of the men escaped and told them of their plight. The HBC governor decided that the presence of three different claimants to the region meant it was time to inform Radisson that the HBC was the rightful holder of the land. It wasn’t a wise decision, since Radisson then held Bridgar and his men prisoner. In June 1683, Radisson destroyed the HBC’s fledgling post.

Radisson returned to Quebec with his New England prisoners and HBC Governor Bridgar, but New France Governor de la Barre released all the men. 

In the meantime, Bridgar’s men, who had been left behind at Hudson Bay, sailed the badly crippled Ste. Anne (a ship abandoned by the French) to Rupert House. Ironically, John Abraham sailed the Albermarle from Rupert House, the first post of the HBC on the Rupert River along the eastern side of James Bay, Quebec, to Fort Nelson without encountering the beleaguered men as they struggled to bring the Ste. Anne to the HBC post along James Bay. Abraham found Fort Nelson abandoned and the French under Jean Baptiste Chouart, the son of des Groseillier, occupying a post on the Hayes River.

Abraham established his own post on the north shore of Sir Edward Dering’s Island in the Nelson River, calling the post Hayes Fort.

In 1684, the HBC decided it was in their best interests to build two posts in the area — one on the Nelson and another on the Hayes. Thirty-one labourers were sent to Fort Hayes and began construction of the posts, which were united in the purpose to seize and closely watch “interlopers, whether foreigners or subjects of the British Crown.”

The French crown in 1684 reversed its Hudson Bay policy, ordering the governor in New France to restore Fort Nelson to the English.

In another twist of fate, Radisson and des Groseillers were rehired by the HBC in 1684 and sent “to effectively clean up the French outpost on Hayes River and occupy it” on its behalf.

The English fort on the Hayes River was initially referred to as York, after the Duke of York, but a 1685 map commissioned by the HBC bore the name Hayes Fort. In 1687, the designation York again appeared. A year later HBC records indicated “the post was developing an identity as ‘York Fort in Hayes River.’”

It is unknown exactly when the use of York Factory came into being, although it became the common name for the HBC post on the Hayes River. 

The HBC’s use of “factory” does not imply a manufacturing centre as such, but simply “a station where resident factors (heads of the HBC posts) trade.”

Whatever its initial designation, York Factory became the site of the first European settlement in Western Canada. It was from this “factory” that HBC men such as David Thompson, Samuel Hearne and Henry Kelsey explored the great northwest, and where the Lord Selkirk Settlers arrived before heading to Red River.

In 1810, York Factory was designated the headquarters of the Northern Department of the HBC. When the HBC and rival Northwest Company merged in 1821, York Factory became “in effect the capital of the fur trade in Western Canada,” commanding the best route to the interior, according to historian Michael Payne.

Robert M. Ballantyne, a fur trader and author, in an 1848 autobiography of his time with the HBC, wrote that since York Factory was the principle depot of the Northern Department: “As may be supposed ... the establishment is a large one. There are always between thirty and forty men resident at the post, summer and winter; generally four or five clerks, a post-master, and a skipper for the small schooners. The whole is under the direction and supervision of a chief factor, or chief trader.

“The principle edifice is the general store where goods to the amount of two years outfit for the whole department are stored. On one side of this is a low whitewashed house with green edgings, where visitors and temporary residents during the summer are quartered. The other is the summer mess room. Four roomy fur-stores stand at right angles to these houses thus forming the three sides of the front square.”

Letitia Hargrave, who married chief trader James Hargrave, in a letter home to Scotland in 1840 referred to York Factory as “the most respectable place in the Territory.” This was a complete reversal of Hargrave’s first impression in 1840, when Letitia wrote she wanted “to turn my back to the company & cry myself sick.” 

During much of the time she remained at York Factory, Hargrave had the distinction of being the sole European woman at the post.

“I was much surprised at the ‘Great Swell’ the Factory is,” wrote Hargrave in another letter home. “The houses are all painted yellow. The windows in some particular parts white. Some have green gauze mosquito curtains and altogether the effect is good. One  house is a good size. One bedroom off each sittingroom and men servant’s rooms off the kitchen. A very large closet off the diningroom.”

Still, Hargrave described conditions at York Factory as being “nine months of winter varied by three of rain and mosquitoes.”

By necessity, orders from the Red River Settlement for goods from England took a year to be filled. 

Anna Ballenden, whose father John was in charge of Lower Fort Garry (commonly called the Stone Fort, now located off Hwy. 9 near Selkirk), sent a list of  items to London via the Prince Rupert in 1855 to be filled by the start of the navigation season to York Factory in 1856. Her list included dresses, a cape, a winter bonnet, six chemisettes, two corsets, boots, shoes, skirts, stockings, gloves, night caps, ribbons, velvet neckties and a drawing album.

Her father John wrote his sister in Edinburgh asking for a frock coat, a dress coat, two vests and two pairs of trousers, underwear and boots from the firm Turnbull-Cole. In addition, he ordered sheets, table napkins, towels and special foods such as salt ling, cured Loch Fyne herring and a small jar of marmalade made by his sister.

Besides the individual requests, the goods shipped to York Factory and then sorted for shipment south might include gunpowder, shot, fishing nets, tea, tobacco, bolts of cloth and other items that may be destined for use in the settlement or for the fur trade. Even pianos were imported to the Red River Settlement.

Furs were the main shipment to London from York Factory. The Nor’Wester, the Red River Settlement’s first newspaper founded in 1859, on June 14, 1860, reported between 1,500 and 1,600 bales of fur had been collected within the Red River district and sent to York Factory by York boat.

The Nor’Wester complained on Tuesday, February 28, 1860, about the cost of shipping goods from Europe: “The expense of freight from London to York Factory ... has varied at times. The Hudson’s Bay Company once professed to charge £5 stg (sterling) per ton; afterwards £8 per ton. There is, however, good reason to believe that instead of £8, the settlers have paid from £10 to £20 per ton. Once landed at York Factory, the goods are conveyed from thence to the settlement in boats or barges made expressly to suit the shallow and rapid rivers through which they pass. They carry from 75 to 85 pieces each, which in general cargo might be equal to 100 or 110 pieces of 90 lbs. each — this being the standard weight of a piece.”

(Next week: part 2)