Landmarks on the Echimamish River

Norway House

Just east of Norway House is the Echimamish River, which led the York Factory Express men to the Hayes River and eventually, Hudson Bay. This image of Norway House is used with the permission of Glenbow Archives, na-1041-5

This is the third post in a series on landmarks on the Hayes and Echimamish Rivers, with descriptions taken from John Franklin’s Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea in the years 1819, 20, 21, and 22 — a very interesting read I must say. To go back to the beginning of this short series, see

Franklin’s boat has just reached the Painted Stone, which he described as “a low rock, ten or twelve yards across, remarkable for the marshy streams which arise on each side of it, taking different courses.” In later journals these are the Echimamish, flowing to the Hayes, and the Blackwater, flowing toward Norway House. It is very true that these streams are very marshy streams — I have the journal of someone who travelled this stream in springtime, and got more than a little wet! (It is here: )

So, let’s continue with Franklin’s description of travel along the Echimamish River in 1819. It is now early in October.

Having launched the boats over the rock, we commenced the descent of the Echemamis [Echimamish]. This small stream has its course through a morass, and in dry seasons its channel contains, instead of water, merely a foot or two of thin mud. On these occasions it is customary to build dams, that it may be rendered navigable by the accumulation of its waters. As the beavers perform this operation very effectually, endeavours have been made to encourage them to breed in this place, but it has not hitherto been possible to restrain the Indians from killing that useful animal whenever they discover its’ retreats. On the present occasion there was no want of water, the principal impediment we experienced being from the narrowness of the channel, which permitted the willows of each bank to meet over our heads, and obstruct the men at the oars. After proceeding down the stream for some time, we came to a recently constructed beaver-dam through which an opening was made sufficient to admit the boat to pass. We were assured that the breach would be closed by the industrious creature in a single night.

There had been boats coming upriver just ahead of them, and it was probably they who had breeched the dam on the Echimamish River. His description continues: “In many parts the morass, by which the river is nourished, and through which it flows, is intersected by ridges of rock which cross the channel, and require the boat to be lifted over them.”

In the afternoon we passed through a shallow piece of water overgrown with bulrushes, and hence named Hairy Lake: and, in the evening, encamped on the banks of Blackwater Creek, by which this lake empties itself into Sea River: having come during the day twenty miles and three quarters.

So this is the true end of Echimamish River, which flowed out of Swampy Lake, and at this point we leave the Echimamish River behind (although my SEO will be very upset with me!). Though the lake that was the headwater for both the Echimamish River, and the Black Water, was called Swampy Lake in some journals, it was mostly known as Hairy Lake, even in later years. Franklin’s men continued on to Sea River, “one of the many branches of Nelson River. It is about four hundred yards wide, and its waters are of a muddy while colour.” It was not the Echimamish River they followed to the Nelson, but the Black Water River.

After ascending the stream for an hour or two, and passing through Carpenter’s Lake, which is merely an expansion of the river to about a mile in breadth, we came to the Sea River Portage, where the boat was launched across a smooth rock, to avoid a fall of four or five feet.

Every man who kept a journal of their York Factory Express journey mentioned the Sea River Portage, by this name or another. I had no description of it, however, and so it is nice to get Franklin’s description. I have learned and re-learned that if you want to find out what the places looked like, read a visitor’s description. The HBC men rarely if ever described these all-too-familiar streams and portages.

Franklin’s journal continues: “Re-embarking at the upper end of the portage, we ran before a fresh gale through the remainder of Sea [Nelson] River, the lower part of Play Green Lake, and entering Little Jack River, landed and pitched our tents. Here there is a small log-hut, the residence of a fisherman, who supplies Norway House with trout and sturgeon.” The current Norway House was on Mossy Point, which Franklin called Norway Point.

October 6 — Little Jack River is the name given to a channel that winds among several large islands which separate Upper and Lower Play Green Lakes. At the lower end of this channel, Big Jack River, a stream of considerable magnitude, falls into the lake. Play Green is a translation of the appellation given to that lake by two bands of Indians, who met and held a festival on an island situated near its centre. After leaving our encampment we sailed through Upper Play Green Lake, and arrived at Norway Point in the forenoon.

I have also heard that Playgreen Lake was named for its shallow, weed-filled waters. I don’t know which story is true, but this is what Franklin said.

The waters of Lake Winipeg [Winnipeg], and of the rivers that run into it, the Saskatchewan in particular, are rendered turbid by the suspension of a large quantity of white clay. Play Green Lake and Nelson River, being the discharges of the Winipeg, are equally opaque, a circumstance that renders the sunken rocks, so frequent in these waters, very dangerous to boats in a fresh breeze. Owing to this, one of the boats that accompanied us, sailing at the rate of seven miles an hour, struck upon one of these rocks. Its mast was carried away by the shock, but fortunately no other damage sustained. The Indians ascribe the muddiness of these lakes to an adventure of one of their deities, a mischievous fellow, a sort of Robin Puck, whom they hold in very little esteem. This deity, who is named Weesakootchaht, possesses considerable power, but makes a capricious use of it, and delights in tormenting the poor Indians. He is not, however, invincible, and was foiled in one of his attempts by the artifice of an old woman, who succeeded in taking him captive. She called in all the women of the tribe to aid in his punishment, and he escaped from their hands in a condition so filthy that it required all the waters of the Great Lake to wash him clean; and ever since that period it has been entitled to the appellation of Winipeg, or Muddy Water.

Norway Point forms the extremity of a narrow peninsula which separates Play Green and Winipeg Lakes. Buildings were first erected here by a party of Norwegians, who were driven away from the colony at Red River by the commotions which took place some time ago. It is now a trading post belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company…

I am looking through my copy of Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America, Barbara Huck et al, and find they have no page on Norway House! For the Hudson’s Bay Company, this was the transportation centre of the fur trade. In 1826 and after, all the York boats heading for York Factory stopped here, and so, too, did the canoes from Lachine. The Athabasca boats also stopped there to pick up their goods. But I do find, in the book The Silver Chief, by Lucille H. Campey, that some settlers from the Red River Colony went to Norway House in late June 1815 following an attack on their community. They were not Norwegians, however, so I kept looking. A google search tells me that Norway House was constructed in 1816, by Norwegian convicts that had been sent out by Lord Selkirk, to build a road from York Factory to Lake Winnipeg, along with a series of supply posts. They built Norway House, on Mossy Point (or Norway Point), but the road to Hudson Bay was never constructed. And no wonder!

So at this point we can now go to James McKillip’s thesis, titled “Norway House: Economic Opportunity and The Rise of Community, 1825-1844.” In Chapter Two, he talks about the beginnings of the House, and its destruction. Obviously, as John Franklin is travelling through Norway House in 1819, he will be visiting the post that stood during these years.

But there were earlier posts here: In 1795 the North West Company established a post on Playgreen Lake, and a year later the HBC built a new post on the Jack River, on the east side of Little Playgreen Lake, directly opposite the North West Company post. The HBC post generated very little trade and was closed in 1799. (McKillip does not say what happened to the NWC post, but it does not seem it remained for long). In 1801, a new Jack River post was opened by the HBC, near the mouth of the Jack River but a few miles away from the original post and south of it. Fur bearing animals in the district had already been hunted almost to extinction, and so it also had very little trade.

In 1812 other factors were coming into play, and it was decided that the HBC’s Jack River post should become part of the support system for the new Colony that was being set up by the 5th Earl of Selkirk, at Red River. Selkirk also suggested that the HBC build a winter road between York Factory and Norway House, with posts strung along its route for the support and comfort of any who were travelling. (This road was never built). By 1815 the existing Jack River post had five houses, a kitchen, two storehouses and a trading room. Some who arrived at the place described it as a “miserable looking place,” that was little more than “a couple of huts stuck between two large rocks.” However shabby the post appeared to its visitors, it was already a trans-shipment centre for goods arriving from York Factory and destined for the Colony, or for other interior posts.

In October 1814, a group of Norwegians were sent out to build a new depot on Mossy Point. Though they are often described as convicts or prisoners of war (and they had been prisoners of war in Europe), the Norwegians were actually paid labourers, hired by the HBC and working on a three year contract. These men were a little difficult, being “stubborn and obstinate,” according to their Swedish supervisor Enner Holte. They arrived at Jack River on the 10th of October, but by the end of the month had done little work, and at the end of November had built only one house. Though winter had set in and snow was falling, the men refused to collect firewood for their fire, and at Christmas they demanded a week’s holiday. Provisioning was always a problem, but the Jack River post sent food for their sustenance. In May the Norwegians went on strike demanding better food, but as there was nothing other than fish to eat, they had to give up their negotiations on that point.

These stubborn men had begun work on Norway House at the end of 1814. In summer 1815 the Colonists were driven away from the Red River Colony, and sixty colonists made their way north, establishing themselves in an encampment opposite the post under construction at Mossy Point. They returned to the Colony when it was safe to do so, but in 1816 they were again scared away by the violence at Seven Oaks, where twenty-one colonists, including the Governor Robert Semple, were killed. For the second time they took shelter at Norway House, returning when it was safe in spring 1817. Some of the Colonists stayed at Norway House to help complete the buildings. Nevertheless, the post was still unfinished in June 1817, when the Jack River post was closed and its responsibilities transferred to the new Norway House on Mossy Point.

At the same time all this was happening, there were difficulties in the Athabasca District caused by the war between the North West Company and the HBC. The future Governor of the Company, George Simpson, arrived in Canada and was put in charge of the Athabasca district. His 1820 campaign was mounted from Norway House, and included twelve canoes, sixty-eight men, and eleven tons of goods and provisions. But even by this time it was becoming clear that the competition between the two companies could not be sustained, and both companies were losing money. That fall and winter negotiations began, and by January of 1821 the outline of the agreement to merge the companies had been drawn up. The first council of the new company was held at Norway House in August 1821.

From that time onward, almost all the goods intended for the various posts in the interior passed through Norway House. York Boats replaced canoes on almost all major routes. McKillip says this of the York Boats:

First of all, unlike canoes, a York Boat did not need a highly-trained crew. All that was required was a good steersman and bowman; the remainder of the crew needed no special skills. Second, European carpenters could build the boats, theoretically reducing both the cost of the boats and the company’s dependence on Aboriginal canoe-builders. Most important, York Boats with a crew of eight could carry much more cargo than a similarly-manned canoe. Simpson’s notebook included a rough calculation that estimated a one-third savings of transport costs wherever York Boats could be used. As it turned out, the savings were even more than this on most routes.

Although the replacement of canoes with York boats was not universally welcomed — many of the crews hated York Boat work — the efficiencies were irresistible. Canoes still served some of the smaller and more remote trading posts and they continued to be employed in circumstances where high speed was required. Nevertheless, by 1825, the vast majority of the HBC’s inland riverine and lake transport was by York Boat. For the next half-century, until the arrival of steamboats, York Boats carried the bulk of the HBC’s waterbourne trade. [James McKillip, “Norway House: Economic Opportunity and The Rise of Community,” p. 54. You can find this thesis online by googling its title or author’s name.]

So now we have reached Norway House via the Echimamish River, and know a little more about both the river and the fort. But this older post caught fire on November 19, 1824, and within a few hours was almost completely destroyed. The new Norway House was built on a piece of high ground next to a good harbour that connected directly to the trade routes. It stood “about four miles below the old Fort of Jack River, and twenty miles below the late establishment of Norway House.” The map shows that it was built north of the first old fort (1796-1799) on Jack River, and some distance north of the second Jack River post (1801-1817). Another journal has good description of the new Norway House and of life in the post, and it will eventually be posted here.

If you wish to purchase my book, “The York Factory Express,” you can do so through my publisher, here: Thank you!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2018. All rights reserved.