Building a York Boat

York Boat being rowed
This image of a York Boat being rowed is used with the permission of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, and is image N9246. The image is of a York Boat being rowed on Split Lake, and the photograph was taken by R.A. Talbot.

As I am reading through the Fort Selkirk post journals, I realized the HBC men at that post are building a York Boat. From scratch! Now, this is interesting!

So let’s go through the journal and see what they have to say of this process!

The first mention of a new boat is this, on Wednesday July 2, 1851: “Flett taking up knees for a small boat.” In another version of this journal he calls the “knees” the rests.

Now, “a small boat” is interesting — there were two sizes of York Boats. The ones I write of in The York Factory Express, were used on the shallower rivers and were 26 feet long. But on the Mackenzie River and the Peace, where the water was much deeper, they built York boats that were up to twenty feet longer than those used on the Saskatchewan. This explanation comes from the book, Arctic Trader, by Philip H. Godsell [Toronto: Macmillan Co, 1946], which I found a really good read!!

These York boats, which were modeled very much after the style of the old Norse galleys, were introduced by Governor Simpson in 1826 [this is inaccurate], and replaced the large bark “North canoes” in use before that. The larger ones were about forty feet long and ten feet wide, with stem and sternposts sloping at an angle of forty-five degrees to enable them to be easily pushed off any obstruction These craft would carry 110 “pieces,” as the ninety-pound bales or packages were called, though the smaller boats, used on the shallower streams, carried only eighty.

The crew of the larger boats comprised a steersman, eight middlemen, or rowers, and a bowsman whose duty it was to fend the boat off any rocks of obstructions in the rapids with the long pole with which he was usually armed. The head guide would be one of the senior and more experienced steersmen and have charge of the entire brigade, the steersmen of the other boats answering to his orders.

So I presume, in this case, they are building a 26 foot York Boat (and because I am able to read ahead of you, I understand this IS a York Boat.) On Thursday, July 3, James Green Stewart writes: “Brough & Flett taking up rests for timbers.” On July 4, the “Men sawing timbers.” On Saturday, July 5, “Men squared gunwales & keel for the boat.” On Monday July 7, “Flett & Brough put the stem & stern of the boat on the keel & it is now fairly begun but when it will be finished that is the question.”

They would have used a steam-box in some parts of this boat-building, I believe, so that they could bend the boards. When in 1843 A.C. Anderson took charge of Fort St. James for a few months while Peter Skene Ogden was on the brigade, he was in charge of building (or having built) six new batteaux for use on the Fraser River. The boat-builders bent the ribs with the aid of a steam-box, and within three days they had bent enough wood to complete the six boats. What would a steam-box look like? I am presuming a metal box on top of the fire, filled with water…But how would Robert Campbell get a metal box at Fort Selkirk? There was no blacksmith there, as far as I am aware.

On Tuesday July 8, “Men at the boat at work have had the two first planks on but unfortunately they were cut a little too short.” On Wednesday, “Got one plank in the boat & smashed another to my great exasperation, however we must be patient.” Then the coastal First Nations people these HBC men called the Chilcats visited the fort, and all work was put on hold for a while, and the tools put away to prevent theft. The so-called “Chilcats” were the Tlingit First Nations, and Campbell said that they were “civil only when they were the weaker party.” In other words, they were very troublesome visitors at all times!

These visitors were still at the fort a week later, on July 17, when “The men put the stern on the boat & floor timbers, but we cannot keep our eyes off them one moment or they are off with something.” On Friday July 18, Stewart says: “Men planing boards for the boat. ” On Monday July 21, “Men put a streak on the boat all round.” On Tuesday July 22, “Men put another streak on the boat & will now begin the upper timbers & crooks.” Yes, crooks is the word he used. On July 26 “the men put a streak on the boat.”

I think I am correct in saying that these “streaks” are layers of boards edge to edge, as they are in the carvel-built York Boats. On July 28, “Brough & Flett” — the two men who appear to be doing most of the work on this boat, are “planing boards, washing and sweeping the fort.” On the 29th, the “Men put another streak on the boat.” At last the Chilcats left the fort and Stewart “need not say that I was happy & thankful through they carried off a kettle & pan with them by way of finale to their other thefts…Men putting in & making timber, planing boards &c.”

So, who were the men who were building this boat? “Brough” is John Brough, and he listed as a fisherman and I believe he is an Orkneyman — though as I can find nothing at all about him, he might be Métis. If you now, please let me know — Thanks.

“Flett” is Andrew Flett, born in Orkney, and the man who later married Mary Campbell, daughter of Robert Campbell and wife of Augustus Peers, after Peers’s death in 1852. And if I have talked about someone named Flett on Frances Lake, apparently this is a different Flett (though I will have to check that out, too).

“Forcier,” who later collects gum for the boat, is Baptiste Forcier, who is Métis and experienced enough in boats to be a steersman. Again, I can’t find out anything about him in the obvious sources, so if you know, let me know.

“Pierreau,” might be Francois Parisien, bowsman, as stated in a thesis I have stumbled on. This thesis was written by Victoria Elena Castillo, and titled: “Fort Selkirk: Early Contact Period Interaction Between the Northern Tutchone and the Hudson’s Bay Company in Yukon.” You can google the title to find it as it is online. However — and back to “Pierreau,” the name sounds more like Perrault — and there were people with that name in the HBC but none up in the Yukon. So, if you know who this person is, please let me know. Thanks.

On August 1, “Men put the last streak but one on the boat.” And, confirmation! This is a York Boat! The next day, “Men at the Clinker streak of the boat.” The top board on these York Boats was always clinker, which meant it overlapped the boards below — which were carvel, or edge to edge.

On August 4, “Men put one side of the clinker streak on [the boat] & made a stage for drying the salmon.” On August 5, “Brough finished the clinker streak & put in the head wood.” On August 6, “Men finished the timber & began the gunwales.” On August 7, “Men putting on the gunwales & sizing.” On Saturday August 9: “Men put in the ribbing, thwarts & Keelstem of the boat & square the knees for the thwarts.” On Monday, August 10, “Men nearly finished the woodwork of the boat. Forcier & Pierreau collecting gum as we have no pitch.” [Stewart’s 2nd version of this journal says “Two collecting gum to mix with the little pitch we have.”]

These boats were caulked with oakum, or old rope, shoved between the planks with a chisel. Gumming is the application of a waterproof pitch, or as Dr. Nevins says, grease.

On August 12: “Flett & Brough planed the boat, caulked & pitched one side of it.” The next day, “Brough & Flett caulked the other side, pitched it & burnt the boat & put the stem & stern plates on…We put the boat in the water and she goes well. I wonder what Mr. C[ampbell] will say to our work. He thought we could not manage it.”

James Robert Anderson has a description of “burning the boat:” he would be referring, however, to the batteaux used on the Fraser River. He was nine years old when he saw this happen, and as he says, he was alarmed:

During the afternoon I witnessed for the first time, the removing of all extraneous matter, splinters, etc. by fire much to my consternation, believing that our crews were veritably burning their boats behind them.

James Robert Anderson, Memoirs, copy in author’s possession but also available in BCA.

Of course the boat is in the water now, but it is still not finished. On August 19, “Brough & Flett made the oars & sweep for the “Trial” & other jobs around the Fort.” I wonder if Trial is the name of the boat? It does not matter: all the work of building this boat was done except, perhaps, for the painting of the oars and the upper boards — although I doubt they had the red paint that is usually used on these boats.

The boat was now finished enough for Campbell to use it to explore the Yukon River and ascend the Porcupine to Lapierre House, which he did in 1851. This was, of course, the second boat at the Fort, as one would be needed over the fall for provisioning, &c. while Campbell was away. Campbell returned to the fort on October 17. Winter was already approaching and on October 21 the boats were pulled up on the shore for the season.

Winter passed slowly, as it always does. On May 4, 1852, the men were making oars: on May 6 two men were working at the boat. The ice cleared out of the Pelly River but some of it did not move off the beach. On May 12, the men “put the boat in the water & sunk it.” This they did to swell the wood and fill up the seams, and it was a common practice, both with boats and canoes. Two days later, Campbell started down the river for the outfit, which he would pick up at Lapierre House. But the men worked on the other boat, burning or charring the boat to clean and harden the boards, as well as to seal in the pitch between those boards. When this was done — and it was probably done every spring — the boat was ready for use.

Dr. John Birkbeck Nevins has written a little bit on how the men maintained a boat that was broken — and this is very relevant to The York Factory Express. It was certainly not uncommon to break a board in a boat, and I suspect that while they were at York Factory, all the boats were properly repaired:

Notwithstanding all their care, the boat does occasionally strike a stone and make a hole through its bottom. We had passed two or three rapids in safety one morning, when, just as we reached the bottom of another, we felt a slight blow and saw the water rising through the side. We immediately pulled to the bank and threw out all the goods as quickly as possible. As soon as it was emptied, the boat was hauled out of the water and turned bottom upward, when we found that a plank had been split, and that there was a hole early a foot long. Every boat is provided with a saw, a hammer, a chisel, a few nails, and some oakum. In a few minutes the damaged plank was removed; a piece of wood was found which, by a little chopping, was made to fill its place. it was nailed in; the seams were stuffed with oakum which was driven tightly in by the edge of the chisel; the outside was rubbed with a little grease; and before we had finished our breakfast, which we began to prepare as soon as we landed, the boat was in the water again and ready for starting.

Most of the voyageurs, as the men are termed who come with the boats, are Canadians, we are admirably adapted to this kind of life. Their spirits are excellent, and scarcely ever cast down. If the work is very hard or some rapid is unusually difficult to pass, or anything goes wrong, they grumble most heartily; but as soon as they are free from trouble they forget all about it and never anticipate difficulties. If anything has to be done quickly — such as mending a boat or making an oar, a pole, or a spoon — they set about it and get it finished whilst another person would be considering how it should be done. This is an invaluable talent in a country and under circumstances where rapidity of action is important. It is true that their work does not last long; but it is better that a man should be able to mend a boat in half an hour, in such a way that it will carry him the remainder of his journey, at the end of which he can get it thoroughly repaired, than that he should occupy so much time in doing it completely, that the river my be frozen up, or the ship have sailed for which the goods were intended.

So there you are — that is how the HBC men built and maintained a York Boat.

If you want to order my book, “The York Factory Express” (which tells the story of the York Boats on the Saskatchewan River), you can order direct rom my publisher, Ronsdale Press of Vancouver, B.C., using the link in my pinned post on my home page. Thank you!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.

5 thoughts on “Building a York Boat

  1. Tom Holloway

    These are very interesting construction details. I believe the “streak” in your source might be a phonetic spelling of “strake,” the planks of a boat hull. Clinker built boats, where each plank overlaps the one below it, are sometimes called “lapstrake.” It seems that the “trial” mentioned might refer to a test run, or trial, to see if it was in working order. On a related topic, the webpage for your book indicates it is available in ebook format. How does one go about ordering the ebook?

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Oh, very good! You might be right. And it is transcribed and its possible the transcriber didn’t know the word.
      The e-book is or will be available through Amazon, but I don’t know when. I’ll let you know if I happen to notice.

  2. G.D.Cooper

    Always a pleasure reading you blogs, I’m taken aback as my greatgrandmother Elizabeth Gullion-Linklater-Henderson spoke proudly of her grandfather and his brother (James & George Gullion from the Orkneys) hired on by H.B.Co to build York boats and scows, on both the North Saskatchewan and the Athabasca Rivers. Great work, I’m an avid collector of fur trade history and looking forward to getting you new book soon! Thank-you!. Gail

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Thank you. Scows: I found reference to the HBC using 100 foot boats up the Hayes River and elsewhere. I presume those would have been the scows! How they managed to drag those things up the Hayes I have no idea!
      When were the Gullions building the York Boats (what years)?

  3. G.D.Cooper

    Sorry…that should read her Father and his brother NOT grandfather. Sorry for the haste.