York Factory Complaint

Fur Trade Utensils

Fur Trade Utensils and Storage displayed at HBC replica Fort Langley. Utensils and storage units such as these might have been the cause of what was called the York Factory Complaint.

In 1835, Chief Trader James Douglas took out the York Factory Express to Hudson Bay and return. He and his men arrived at the HBC headquarters in the midst of a historic disorder, called “The York Factory Complaint.” He must have seen the effects of this illness on the employees of the HBC headquarters, and he certainly heard about it. Unfortunately, he did not mention it in his journals, though he wrote a little about the condition of his own men:

The boats are manned with crews of 7 men, and a few of 8 men, but many of them are suffering from the effects of severe colds contracted at York or in the journey downwards, which in several cases has rendered the sufferer unfit for duty. and in many instances, particularly with the Natives terminated by inflammatory diseases of the lungs, generally proving fatal.

Nevertheless, James Douglas is the only man whose journal I have, that arrived at York Factory in the midst of what was called its Complaint. No one knew what caused the peculiar illness that inflicted York Factory in the years between 1833 and 1836. It was, however, serious, and many were sickened by the illness. A few died.

How did I hear about this illness? I am active on Twitter, as are many others. Someone who has fur trade ancestry asked what the “York Factory Complaint” was, and she was referred to me. Of course I knew nothing, and presumed that it might have been malaria, as I knew York Factory was surrounded by marshes and subject to hordes of flies and, perhaps, mosquitoes. Still, I had not heard of York Factory being subject to malaria, and I understood it was generally considered to be a healthful place.

But I was curious, and so I googled it. This is what came up first of all. Read it carefully! http://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2014/07/10/330122175/all-the-rage

After I stopped laughing at the unlikeliness of the source, I answered the twitter question and continued the research. I found an article by Charles G. Roland, called “Saturnism at Hudson’s Bay: The York Factory complaint of 1833-1836.” It was a really interesting find, and may be quite important to the descendants of the fur traders west of the Rocky Mountains and elsewhere. The ancestor of the person who actually asked the question died in Red River in 1851, and was the last known person to have succumbed to the York Factory Complaint.

So here’s what happened!

For three seasons, the winters of 1833-4, 1834-5, and 1835-6, a strange, epidemic, sometimes fatal, disease ravaged the Hudson’s Bay Company post at York Factory, on Hudson Bay. Over these three seasons, a total of 32 individuals have been identified by name as suffering from the York Factory Complaint. The peak year was 1834-35, when 18 new patients were identified and 2 who were ill the year before had relapses; three of these 20 died. The total establishment consisted of about 30 employees of the Company plus an undetermined but smaller number of wives and children. Both the medical practitioners sent to the post suffered from the disorder, which was characterized by abdominal colic, weight loss, nervousness, a marked tendency to relapse, loss of function of the arms or legs, and, in the most severe cases, convulsions, stupor, and death. After 1836 the disease seems to have disappeared, although some of its victims were affected permanently. No firm diagnoses was made at this time. [Charles G. Roland, “Saturnism at Hudson’s Bay: The York Factory Complaint of 1833-1836,” p. 61]

The first doctor to arrive at York Factory to treat this illness was Dr. Smith, surgeon on the HBC ship Prince Rupert. In summer 1834, Smith found the place gloomy, inhabited by persons who looked more like ghosts than men. Within a month he was sick enough that he thought he would not make it back to Churchill, where his ship was. He had spent seven weeks at York Factory and probably did not have the Complaint, but his reports were very clear on the dangers of the disease. Some of the people affected by the disease in the first year were Chief Factor John Ballenden, Chief Trader Robert Miles, and Chief Trader John Hargrave. Ballenden is connected to many fur trade families: John Lee Lewes’s for example, and Dr. William Todd’s. Ballenden himself came west of the Rockies in the early 1850’s and worked with Alexander Caulfield Anderson, and Dr. Todd’s son, William, worked under Anderson at Fort Alexandria in the mid-1840’s.

Dr. E.H. Whiffen was the next doctor to arrive at York Factory, in July 1834. He was there for two years, and he too suffered from the disease. In January 1835, the Complaint returned, and ran rampant until July, when the York Factory Express under James Douglas was at the Fort. Almost certainly, some of the men who traveled in that express had a touch of the York Factory Complaint, as many of them had spent the winter at that place.

In January 1835, John Ballenden and James Hargrave had their second attacks. A young man named Joseph Charles became ill, as did William Thew. This is almost certainly the same William Thew who worked west of the Rockies in the 1840’s, and who threatened to kill Chief Factor Archibald McDonald at Fort Colvile — the York Factory Complaint might explain his strange behaviour. But even more interesting to me is that Joseph Charles turns out to be the nephew of Chief Factor John Charles, and was first cousin of young John Charles who led out the York Factory Express from Fort Vancouver in 1849! There are many west of the Rocky Mountains connections in this story!

It appears the illness ended every Autumn, and nothing happened in October and November in most years. It returned in January, 1836. Joseph Charles died in May of that year. A McTavish was at York Factory and sickened by the disease — this may have been Dugald Mactavish, later Chief Factor in charge of Fort Vancouver! Hargrave was extremely sick, and John Ballenden was trying to manage the post while Hargrave was bed-ridden. Chief Factor John Charles arrived from Oxford House to take charge of York Factory — he was uncle to young Joseph Charles who had died a month or two previously, and father of John Charles, about whom I write. Charles wrote that the disease was rather worse than Doctor Whiffin had indicated.

No one had any idea what caused the illness. Dr. Whiffin was invalided to Red River, where he continued to suffer from the illness. Doctor William Todd was the next doctor to arrive at York Factory. Todd was the last man at York Factory to suffer from the illness, which disappeared almost immediately on his contracting the illness. No cases were reported in later years, and no one knew what had caused it and where it came from. Three or more people had died. The HBC sent an investigator to find the source of the problem: he found no copper or lead in the water supply, and no copper utensils in the kitchen except for a pot used for boiling water. As a result, he blamed the illness on the preserved foods the men ate, and the unhealthy conditions at the post.

Much research has been done on this type of poisoning in the years after 1836, and scientists now believe this Complaint was caused by lead poisoning. To Charles Roland, the author of the article I am reading, the cause of the Complaint was “saturnism or plumbism — lead poisoning.” Relapses are common, even when the men were apparently no longer exposed to lead. But it is interesting to know there were many possible sources of lead at that time: lead paint, for example. Lead lined containers for food. Lead was also used in glazing pottery, which was certainly at York Factory and probably used more by the gentlemen, who tended to become sick, than by the employees, who tended to remain in better health.

There are other questions, too: Did they consume canned food at York Factory? I don’t know, but the soldering of cans has been guilty of many a poisoning. They used tin plates at times: were they in some years made of lead — is this possible? We don’t know. But if you are interested in reading Charles G. Roland’s article, it is found here: http://www.cbmh.ca/index.php/cbmh/article/viewFile/54/53

I was curious who CBMH was. It is the Canadian Bulletin for Medical History. That’s impressive! Those of you who are interested in Medical History probably know this, but if you do not, you may like to search http://www.cbmh.ca/index.php/cbmh to see what they have to say about the disease you are interested in.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2016. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “York Factory Complaint

  1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

    Thank you; I thought the years were a little early for canned food, but perhaps this was the first experiment. Especially interesting in the case of William Thew, who really did seem to lose his mind, poor man. Thanks for your information: this has been a fascinating subject to explore and write about, and its nice to have some confirmation of the details.