Provisioning the York Factory Express

The Flintlock gun

The Hunter and his flintlock gun. This is the gun with which these men hunted the Bison!

I am writing about the York Factory Express — the annual journey the traders from the West side of the Rocky Mountains made to the HBC headquarters on Hudson Bay and return. It was seven month long journey. They left Fort Vancouver [Vancouver, WA] about March 20, and they generally returned home in early November of the same year.

The journals are fascinating, and differ as every man tells his own story. Thomas Lowe’s and Edward Ermatinger’s are most professional-appearing journals. Others are personal journals that tell stories that other gentlemen would never write down — George Traill Allan’s journal is an example of this kind of journal. Still others recount battles between Natives and fur traders that happened years before, as James Douglas’ journal does. Ermatinger’s 1827 journal tells of a battle between man and beast — its link will be at the bottom of the page. Because the men of this York Factory Express were hunting for food, it becomes an important part of my provisioning post.

The country food called Pemmican was always a major part of the provisions of the fur trade. John Work, who came up the Saskatchewan River in canoes [not York Boats], in the years before the York Factory Express existed, had this to say about the supply of pemmican, or “pemican,” that he and his men consumed on their upriver journey to Ile-a-la-Crosse, from York Factory. Remember, that each of these bags of pemmican was approximately ninety pounds!

The men’s provisions were just finished. On leaving York the canoes had 2 bags of Pemmican (one of them turned out to be a bag of grease given in a mistake) and a bag of flour. At Oxford House a supply of two bags more was got. Then at Norway House a further supply of four bags of Pemican and at Cumberland [House] five bags more. Two of the bags got at Cumberland was unfit for use and had to be cast away, which leaves eleven bags that have been used in thirty days from York Factory, besides 1/2 bag from McDougald. The men certainly worked hard but they eat as well.

That is the important line — the men worked hard, but they ate a lot of food! For the voyageur, food was their pleasure, and their reward for the hard work they endured. In addition to this, the men who powered the York Boats needed calories to keep themselves going, and the Gentlemen knew this. Starving men do not work as efficiently as those who are well fed.

In Aemilius Simpson’s 1826 journal, we have some excellent descriptions of the men hunting for bison, and preparing the meat for long-term storage when the fresh meat ran out. The enormous herds of Bison were generally along the Saskatchewan and North Saskatchewan Rivers between Carlton House and Fort Pitt — but in 1826 [and for a few years after that], the provisioning post of Fort Pitt did not yet exist!

The Hunt: This, from Aemilius Simpson’s journal [B.223/a/3, HBCA], shows the Hunters willing to show off for the Gentlemen!

Being anxious to Witness the Hunting of the Buffaloe, I accompanied the Hunting Party, and Mounting our Horses we struck into the Plains in pursuit of that object… Our Hunter Mounted one of the fleetest Horses & went in pursuit of a band of Animals, & was soon out of sight, except occasionally on his showing along the rising ridges in the distant horizon, we could discover him in close pursuit of a band of Cows, out of which he succeeded in killing 2. Our other Hunters went in pursuit of a Herd of Animals also, but adopted a different method, they approached them with great Caution, by Creeping along the ground, until in the Midst of them, when they commence their attack & frequently succeed in killing two or three before the Animals make their escape. This is by no means so amusing a mode of Hunting as by Horse tho’ I believe equally Destructive to the Animal…

The Horses: The horses came from Carlton House and crossed the Saskatchewan River at La Monte, a shallow piece of the river west of the fort. George Traill Allan describes them [A/B/40/Al5.2, BCA]:

Monday 22nd [August] Mr. [John] Rowand having brought six horses from Carlton Mr. [George McDougall] and I went on shore today to take a ride, accompanied by an Indian and Canadian as guides, we rode to half past eight when we joined the other gentlemen at the encampment. The horses in this part of the country are small but swift and hardy….

Wednesday 24th. Mr Rowand accompanied by Messrs [Duncan] Finlayson, McDougall & I went out on horseback to hunt buffalo. After a ride of about two hours, we suddenly perceived immerging [sic] from a kind of gully, a very large bull, who no sooner discovered us, than he set off at his utmost speed in another direction. We lost no time in giving him chase, nor did our horses require either whip or spur to induce them to follow, for being broke into hunting they seemed to enjoy it as much as their riders, at least if I may judge from my own charger, who was so unwilling to be restrained that in attempting to do so, the saddle which had not been sufficiently tightened, came under his belly and as might have been expected, down came I full tilt upon the ground, but fortunately without injury….

The Encampment: Aemilius Simpson, again. He may not have realized, or at least did not say, that the various groups in the York Factory Express separated off into their own party — While various crews might have enjoyed their own fire if they got along, it is also likely that the Metis shared their meals at one or two campfires, the Canadiens at another. The Iroquois probably had their own fire, and the Gentlemen, of course, had theirs.

In the Evening our Hunter brought us an additional supply of five Buffaloe. It is pleasing & amusing to see our Encampment, on first view you might suppose from the immense quantity of Meat set roasting on the different fires that some special feast called for these preparations, as you would suppose it impossible that our men could devour so much at a meal, but on seeing a single man very deliberately attacking Six pounds of Meat for his supper, you are soon conscious of the real cause.

Preserving the Meat: According to Aemilius Simpson (Note, that it was typical that the voyageurs never worked on a Sunday, except when in the York Factory Express):

Sunday 27th [August]. Altho’ Sunday our Hunters proceeded to their occupation as usual, & soon killed seven Buffaloe. The quantity of Meat already on hand with the addition of this supply suggested the necessity of preserving a quantity of it according to the Indian Mode, viz Smoking it over fires. We therefore Encampt at 2pm for that purpose. Was salt & other necessarys on the spot, the Animals are so abundant, that any quantity of Meat might be cured, and that of an excellent quality, for the beef of these Animals appears to me as good as our English beef…

Wednesday 30th. Our Hunters having already supplied us with more Meat than is likely to Keep, they no longer destroy Animals, which is quite proper, as it is cruelty to kill Animals that you do not require.

The Waste of Meat: Aemilius Simpson is once more my source: Near White Mud Creek, which is at the very northern bend of the North Saskatchewan River, his incoming express….

At 8 we fell in with a party of Cree Indians Encampt upon the North Bank of the River, consisting of three lodges. They trade a supply of Deers meat which was very acceptable, as not withstanding our late abundance, our Provisions was falling short, and most of the Meat that had been cured having spoilt, caused perhaps by the heat of the Weather, but I suspect it was not well cured.

At the end of this, these were my questions: 1. Why did they, for the most part, leave the Bulls and take the Cows? 2. How many animals did they kill and how much meat did they carry in their boats until it was consumed, or wasted?

According to Aemilius Simpson’s incoming York Factory Express, they had killed and cured the meat of some 37 bison, and left behind the carcasses of three more. These animals weighed between 1,000 to 2,000 pounds, but for the most part the meat of the cows was preferred over that of the Bulls. Had the meat of an entire bison carcass been preserved, at 400 pounds of meat per cow, these three dozen animals would have provided something in the neighbourhood of 1,500 pounds of meat!

Note: The information came from an article titled “The Northern Great Plains: Pantry of the Northwestern Fur Trade, 1774-1885 (1984),” and is written by Arthur J. Ray. It is published in a book [that happened to be sitting on my own bookshelf] called The Early Northwest, part of the Prairie West Series published by University of Regina in 2008, and edited by Gregory P Marchildon.

I also have the information that modern farmed bison bulls weigh 660 pounds, and heifers 560. The traders always described the bison on the prairies as “lean,” however. Oh, and by the way, I got this information easily, by asking people, who I follow on Twitter, for the answer! It was Elk Island NPS, I believe, who gave me the answer so readily.

To continue: Quite possibly because of Aemilius Simpson’s report to his cousin, the HBC’s Governor George Simpson, it was decided that a provisioning post be constructed at a point halfway between Fort Carlton and Edmonton House. In 1829, fledgling Fort Pitt stood on the top of a high bluff on the north side of the river, and for the first winter the traders lived in tents. Work began on the buildings in 1830, and when George Traill Allan arrived at Fort Pitt the next summer, the main part of the fort was finished. In later years, the post was fully capable of defending itself against the ever-battling Crees, Assiniboine and Blackfoot warriors whose territories merged near its location.

The hunting of the Bison continued, however, mostly for the Gentlemen’s entertainment. In 1832 Alexander Caulfield Anderson came across the prairies in the incoming express, and on his arrival at Fort Vancouver he wrote to his uncle, Alex Seton, that:

I have killed only one Buffalo & one deer since I have been in this country and a great many ducks, geese, partridges, etc.

Bloodthirsty young man!

The story of the Battle between man and beast, told in Edward Ermatinger’s 1827 journal: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/seventh-leg/

For George McDougall’s story, go here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/george-mcdougall/

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2015. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Provisioning the York Factory Express

  1. Tom Holloway

    Ask and get an answer:
    Arthur J. Ray (1984), “The Northern Great Plains: Pantry of the Northwestern Fur Trade, 1774–1885 ,” Prairie Forum, 9(2):264–265.
    I am not familiar with “Prairie Forum,” and I could not find this article in JSTOR. I found it by searching for it in Google Books–it is cited in several of the books that came up, including “Pemmican Empire” by George Colpitts (2014).

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      I am embarrassed to say that I have the book sitting on my bookshelf, partially read. It is Chapter 4 of The Early Northwest, edited by Gregory P Marchildon, U of Regina Press, 2008, History of the Prairie West Series, volume 1. This is so funny! I bought the book a few years ago and never read it all the way through! And even if I had, I would probably not have remembered this chapter was in there, considering at the time I bought it I was not working on anything that was east of the Rocky Mountains. Thanks, Tom.