Norway House fire

York Boat sailing

York Boat Sailing, image HBCA-N14645 used with the permission of the Hudson’s Bay Archives

I am proofing my York Factory Express manuscript, which is an interesting process. It is a chance to catch errors, and I found one. This is what I said in my manuscript:

Norway House was a younger post than Cumberland House. It stood at various places (when it stood at all) on the shores of Playgreen Lake, a weed-filled and shallow sheet of water that attached itself to Lake Winnipeg’s northeast shoreline. The older Norway House had once stood on the southern tip of Mossy Point and overlooked Lake Winnipeg. But this post was consumed by fire in 1828, and later express men pulled into the new Norway House on Little Playgreen Lake, where the fisheries were…

I got that information from a document I had on hand when I wrote the book, wherein Malcolm McLeod, son of John McLeod Sr., wrote:

The old Norway House, which was situated…at the head of Lake Winnipeg, had been burnt, as before stated, and a new Norway House with an extent of buildings adequate to its position…had just been built — a two year’s good job — at, or near “Jack River. My grandfather Chief Factor Pruden commenced it, and my father built the most of it, and finished it, when in charge of that district…” [Peace River: A Canoe Voyage from Hudson’s Bay to the Pacific].

I thought about the date, 1828, and knew that John McLeod Sr. came out in 1826 with the outgoing express, when he took charge of Norway House. I thought I’d check the story, and in doing so I discovered that Norway House was actually destroyed by fire on November 19, 1824. That makes a difference to the story, and so I have to dig up better information than I have.

So I turned to James McKillip’s thesis, “Norway House: Economic Opportunity and the Rise of Community, 1825-1844. Here, in sections, is what I discovered:

Chapter Two talks of the beginnings of Norway House in 1756, and its destruction in 1825. In October 1814, a group of Norwegians built the new depot of Norway House on Mossy Point — previous to this the house had stood at the Jack River location. The Norwegians were more than difficult to deal with, according to their manager, who said they were “stubborn and obstinate.” Nevertheless, they arrived at the new location and the fort was built over the winter, though with difficulty. In June 1817 when they moved in, the new fort was still unfinished. In 1820, when the to-be Governor Simpson was on his way to the Athabasca District, he noted that there was still a great deal of work to be done at Norway House. By summer 1820 it had become clear to both the Hudson’s Bay Co, and the NWC, that neither company could afford to continue the competition between them, and the first annual meeting, or council, of the merged companies was held at Norway House from the 11th to the 13th of August 1821. There were many changes over the years that resulted from that meeting, but most important was that Norway House became the primary transportation post in the interior, as all goods would pass through that fort.

It was after this merger that York boats became the primary method for transporting goods and people throughout the territory. They replaced canoes on almost all the main routes, and by 1825 carried the majority of goods between the fur trade posts in the interior. As James McKillip said: “For the next half-century, until the arrival of steamboats, York boats carried the bulk of the HBC’s waterborne trade.”

Colin Robertson was in charge of Norway House in the early years (am I correct in presuming that Robertson’s Lake and Portage were named for Colin Robertson?) Joseph McGillivray was next in charge, and by late 1824 “the bulk of the work was finished and McGillivray was able to report the the post would be ready to fully support the Company’s plans for 1825 and beyond.

After nearly eight years of hard work, conducted at considerable expense, and at times under the threat of attack, the building of Norway House was complete.

Then, on the night of 19 November 1824, disaster struck. A fire broke out in one of the post’s buildings and quickly spread to the other structures. Within a few hours the post was almost completely destroyed and the work of the last eight years was wiped out.

James McKillip, Norway House.

Governor Simpson surveyed the site in the late spring of 1825, and decided a new Norway House would be built at a location that was useful to the HBC’s inland water transportation system. He wanted a good harbour, with the fort on higher ground.

In 1825, Governor Simpson held the annual council meeting at the burned-out site of Norway House. One of his first jobs “was to decide what to do about the ruined post, and it was quickly decided that the new post would be relocated” about twenty miles away, on the east side of Mossy Point.

Until the new post was built, the annual council meetings were diverted to Red River or York Factory. Chief Trader John Peter Pruden, who was to build Norway House, arrived on June 25, 1825, though he could do little building until the brigades left the post. At times there were more than 200 men at Norway House, though by August 1825, most had departed for their home posts. The last brigades came through in September.

Little work had been done to build the new Norway House before the brigades arrived, and after they left Pruden had few hands to assist him, his winter staff consisting of only four men (though two more men arrived from York Factory). It would seem almost impossible that the new post could be built in winter with so few workers, and in fact the only work that had been done to that date was cleaning up the old Mossy Point site, and completing the store, and perhaps building the dwelling house at the new site. The men must also provide themselves with food from the fisheries, and so the the necessity of building always conflicted with the necessity of gathering food enough to survive. Not only that, the fish must be transported to the fort from the fisheries, another time consuming project.

So, in summer 1825 the HBC men were beginning to build the new Norway House on Mossy Point, north of the old burned-out location. In autumn 1825, five more men were sent to winter at Norway House, and they worked at the fisheries. “The magnitude of this fishing effort was staggering,” James McKillip said. “The fishery was expected to collect thousands of fish and freeze, salt, or dry them for storage.” In November, Pruden said that the fishery had only caught 8,300 white fish, not enough for the winter’s consumption. They needed thirty thousand fish! It also seems that much of this fishing work was done by the country wives of the men involved in the fishery.

By the end of October the new house was nearly finished, and Pruden gave the men of the post some time off for arranging their own house. By November 8th, winter had set in at Norway House and work changed from building to cutting and hauling firewood. By Christmas 1825, there were thirty people living at the fort, which number may have included the women.

In early 1826 they had some trouble chopping wood for building and for firewood, as all the trees froze, the axes broke, and so did the saws. (Coming from the coast and having a logger as a father, one never thinks that this sort of thing happens). Another problem: though 9,000 fish were brought to the fort in February 1826, another 2,000 had been consumed by the men while catching the fish, and another 2,000 consumed while transporting the fish to the fort! Dogs ate an enormous amount of fish, and as the dogs did the transporting, it was of course necessary to feed them. Almost half the fish caught were consumed by the men and dogs, while fishing or while transporting.

In March 1826 the Norway House men began to build the Governor’s House, “the dimensions of which were to be 30 feet by 24 feet.” On the 30th of March the weather was warm and a light rain fell. The ice on the lake continued to thaw to the point where they were able to set nets for fishing near the shore. The trees thawed out and were cut down and they soon had enough wood cut to build the Governor’s house (though they had to wait until the ice melted before they could transport it). On April 23, 1826, the temperature did not drop below zero as was usual, and on April 29 the waters of Playgreen Lake were finally open to transportation. On May 1st, almost all of men were busily transporting logs from “the pines,” where they had been cut, to the fort. At last, Pruden was able to begin construction on the new Norway House!

Then the post was buried in snow, with the busy season less than a month away. They were short of food and living on dried provisions. In spite of all that, by May 20 they had rebuilt the storehouse they had taken apart, and started work on the Governor’s House. On June 1st, Pruden checked out the goods stored here, and on June 11, the Saskatchewan Brigades arrived at the fort, carrying John McLeod, Sr., who would soon be put in charge of building the new Norway House. (He probably went on to York Factory, where he would receive his orders to return). Within a few days, Norway House was overwhelmed by its visitors and no more building was accomplished that summer.

The annual meeting was held at York Factory that year, so all the gentlemen who attended that meeting passed through Norway House, and many of them spent a few days there. There was also a gathering of people who were to be transported by canoe to Lachine [Montreal], and they remained at Norway House awaiting the arrival of the canoes. “In the 20 days from the 11th to the 30th of June there were, on average, 204 people at Norway House with a peak population of 180 reached on the 17th and 18th of the month,” McKillip informs us. Feeding all these people was an enormous problem!

Lieutenant Aemilius Simpson arrived at Norway House on his journey from York Factory to Fort Vancouver on July 29. This is what he said:

We found several of the Partners and other gentleman of the Company at this Post, waiting the return of their Boats with the outfits from York Factory. There was also a considerable for their respective destinations, and I was informed the number including Women and children, was for a considerable time quite equal to about three hundred Souls, whose sole subsistence depended upon the fishing of this place, which fortunately proved very abundant this season. The supply having now failed provision has become a scarce article, which renders it desirable that people leave as early as possible, our stay will therefore be very short.

Sunday 30th. During the night we had a heavy fall of rain & Thunder Storm against which our Tents proved but a very indifferent shelter, many coming down & exposing their inmates to a compete wetting. The scanty supply of Provisions has reduced our Crews to the alternative of Eating Dogs, which however is considered a choice article of food by some of the old Voyageurs. The Gentlemen participate in the general Scarcity, and are reduced to a very scanty diet…Our arrangements at this place being completed, we resumed our Journey at 5 pm and proceeded to an Encampment on Norway Point.

Aemilius Simpson, Journal from York Factory to Fort Vancouver, 1826, B.223/a/3/, HBCA

Isn’t that interesting — now his journal entries for Norway House make more sense to me.

John McLeod Sr. took over the running of Norway House on July 26th — just days before Aemilius Simpson arrived there. James McKillip spells McLeod’s name “MacLeod,” and may not have realized who he was. But here’s another interesting find: “With the addition of the fishing party, MacLeod had a total available work force of 11 men. Included in this group was Mr. Dease, a junior officer who could be used to provide some much needed supervision for the group operating independently at Jack River.” This was NOT John Warren Dease (brother of Peter Warren Dease), who met Governor Simpson at Norway House in 1828 — as you see in this post: I wonder who it was, and is this why John Warren Dease visited Norway House in 1828? A son? A nephew? Who?

Anyway it does not matter, except to those who are tracking down the Deases. I was determined to find out more about the Norway House fire, and now I have done so. I hope you enjoy this story, and if you want to order the book, “The York Factory Express,” you can do so through my publisher: It should be out in the fall.

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

One thought on “Norway House fire

  1. Hugh Stephens

    James Raffan’s “Emperor of the North: Sir George Simpson and the Remarkable Story of the Hudson’s Bay Company” (2007) clearly indicates that Norway House burned down prior to April 1825. This was when Simpson learned of the fire while crossing Athabasca Pass on his way back from the Columbia District. See pp. 198-199 et seq.