Oxford House

A York Boat under sail

This powerful image of a York Boat under sail is used with the permission of the Glenbow Archives. Its number is na-1847-5. The HBC men sailed these boats anytime the wind was blowing in right direction, both going downriver, and coming upriver.

In about 1843, a young gentleman arrived by dogsled at Oxford House. “About the middle of our third day” of travel from York Factory, “we left the woods and, descending a shelving bank we entered Oxford Lake. On the opposite side of this lake was Oxford House, a trading post of the company.” It was winter-time, and so the dog-sled traveled on the ice of the frozen lake.

We experienced a sharp cutting wind as we crossed the lake, but as the dogs winded the fort they increased their speed, occasionally, to a gallop. We soon entered the gate mid the howling of dogs and the screeching of children.

Mr. [William] McKay, the gentleman in charge, gave me a hearty welcome and ushered me and my baggage into the warm hall. He informed me that he had but recently arrived from his own post on Trout Lake, to take charge of Oxford pro tem during the absence of Mr. [George] Gladman, its regular manager, who had only a few days previous to my arrival set off to Norway House.

To my surprise, I find this George Gladman is Metis, son of another George Gladman and his First Nations wife! “Mr. McKay” is also Métis — he is listed as William ‘a’ McKay, with the apparent nick-name of “Pickerel Face!” His father was “Mad” Donald McKay and mother Hannah Sutherland, daughter of James Sutherland. Being of mixed-blood, of course, William is listed as ‘postmaster’ at Trout Lake, 1843-1856.

While my host busied himself about something for dinner, I strolled out to see what attractions there were in the neighbourhood. The reader must, however, remember that I arrived there in winter when the trees were leafless and the lake begirt with ice and snow. Under such disadvantages even the most picturesque scenery would lose its grandeur.

The fort is built of wood and according to the prevailing plan consists of the officer’s dwelling house with a store and mens’ house, the whole surrounded by a wooden stockade. The land on the right margin of the lake is high and somewhat imposing, so that when viewed under a more favourable aspect, there are no doubt many more unpicturesque localities than Oxford House.

I have several descriptions of Oxford House, and none were particularly flattering. The post was built before 1800 and for many years had contributed significantly to the HBC fur trade. More recently it had declined in importance, as the land around it had been trapped out and its Cree hunters had moved west to the Saskatchewan River. It stood, as always, on the shores of Oxford Lake. In 1819, artist Robert Hood described the post as being:

built like all the rest, of wood and inclosed by stockades. These lonely buildings are more widely scattered than the cities of Siberia. There is no difference in them; they were raised for the primitive object of shelter; and variety is only to be found in decoration and arrangement, here neither attempted nor desired. [Quoted in “Lt. Aemilius Simpson’s Survey from York Factory to Fort Vancouver, 1826,” The Journal of the Hakluyt Society, August 2014, 10 note]

Robert Hood may have scorned Oxford House as he found it, but he would have been darned glad of its shelter, and the food it was stocked with, before his death in the north a year or two later. His story has already been told in the book The Man Who Ate His Boots, by Anthony Brandt. Yep, it’s another cannibalism story! but I am not writing about it.

John Franklin (later Sir John Franklin), who saw Oxford House at the same time Hood saw it, said this:

At noon, arrived at Oxford House, on Holey Lake. This was formerly a post of some consequence to the Hudson’s Bay Company, but at present it exhibits unequivocal signs of decay… Holey Lake, viewed from an eminence behind Oxford House, exhibits a pleasing prospect, and its numerous islands, varying much in shape and elevation, contribute to break that uniformity of scenery which proves so palling to a traveller in this country. Trout of a great size, frequently exceeding forty pounds weight, abound in this lake.

So none of these Englishmen had much to say of Oxford House in 1819. Some of the York Factory Express gentlemen wrote of their arrival at the post in their journals but did not describe the post. In 1826, Aemelius Simpson recorded that: “At 3pm we arrived at Oxford House, a small Trading Post on Holey Lake.” Yes, that was the early name for Oxford Lake; it was named for the deep pool of water at the end of the lake. In 1847, Thomas Lowe said that his express coming upriver “reached Oxford House before noon, and only stopped there to take a supply of Pemican and Flour for the boats’ crews, as there was a fine breeze blowing which carried us to the end of the lake before night.” In 1848 he “arrived at Oxford House about 5 pm. Took supper there, and started at 6 1/2. Had a fine fair wind, and sailed all night.”

But in 1849, on his way down the Hayes River, John Charles “overtook the Oxford House boat and arrived at the Above place about half an hour before them, where we put ashore and had dinner given us by Mr. Robertson.” Charles had grown up here, when his father, Chief Factor John Charles, was in charge of the place. On his return journey Charles also stopped at Oxford House. “Put ashore at Oxford House where having procured some white fish, we breakfasted. Left it under full sail.” You will notice that all the York Factory express men sailed away from Oxford House. All the lakes along the Hayes River lay in a north-east/south-west, and the prevailing winds also blew in that direction. It might be hell-on-wheels coming downriver, but going upriver the wind often blew in the direction they wanted to travel.

The wind was no help to the clerk who was travelling by dog-sled, however. His journal continues as he returned to the warm interior of the post.

Having seen all outside worth seeing, I returned again to the hall where to my satisfaction, I beheld a comely Indian lass, “brown, fat, and forty-three,” and no mean rotundity at that, engaged in the very praiseworthy occupation of laying the cloth. In due time she appeared with a dish in one hand, in which reposed two magnificent white fish, and in the other a plate of eggs, for the reader must know, that besides a few head of cattle, the place boasted a few fowl.

There were cattle and chickens everywhere, at all these posts, but at Oxford House? It would have been quite a challenge to get them there, unless they were packed up in the York Boats as calves and chicks — and that is probably exactly what happened! After all, the outgoing York Factory Express of 1826 delivered calves and piglets to the Fort Colvile farms, as we know from John McLeod’s journal, found here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/birnie-three/ 

The clerk’s journal continues:

I had heard talk of the famous white fish of this lake, but if all in it were as delicious as these before me, I thought people had certainly not belied their qualities. A good white fish when well-roasted is second to none of the finny tribe of either salt or fresh water. Not having tasted fish nor milk for the last week, and having almost forgotten such things as eggs were on earth, it may be supposed that I did ample justice to Mr. McKay’s hospitality.

As it was necessary to send back Gilbeault with the dogs and cariole to York Factory, Mr. McKay kindly lent me his own equipage to carry me to Norway House and provided me with a servant, guide, and a set of dogs out of his establishment. Having seen to all this and several other trifling, though not less necessary etceteras, we seated ourselves before the warm stove and chatted the evening away with the help of a glass of toddy, till the lateness of the hour warned us that it was time to turn in. Spreading my robe in a corner, I drew a blanket over my head, while Mr. McKay withdrew to his sanctum sanctorum to sleep off the fumes of the brandy.

At a reasonable hour in the morning, the lass of the night before knocked me up by the rattling of cups and plates as she busied herself clothing the deal table with a couple of yards of diaper [cotton, or flannel]. The board was soon adorned with the repetition of the white fish, eggs, tea, etc., and as that was not a time to be particular about variety, I made a voyager’s breakfast. My baggage was transferred to the new “stage,” and taking a fond farewell of my kind host I jumped into my cariole, and the dogs having received a sound slashing we set off at a gallop and soon left Oxford House and its inhabitants to jog through the rest of the winter in their own quiet way.

When the next post in this series is written, it will appear here. https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/

To return to the first post in this series, go here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/dogsled-1/ 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2019. All rights reserved.