Rowing the York Boats

This image is from the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, and I am using it with their permission. Its number is HBCA 1987/363-Y-2/65, and the photograph was taken on Split Lake, northern Manitoba, in August 1928 by photographer R.A. Talbot.

We have recently spoken about York Boats under sail, and so I think it is time to now look at these same boats as they were rowed — often against the current of the river, for hours and days at a time. The first thing that I have to tell you is that when you are reading my York Factory Express book, you will have to ignore the rocky background of these images. These boats were used on the Nelson River for years after the Saskatchewan brigades took their last journey down the Hayes River in the 1920s.

So let’s start off with a lovely little story written by Dorothy Boggiss, who as a child traveled in one of the old York Boats. She has several lovely descriptions in this piece. First comes the description of the boats as they are loaded and made ready to leave.

Eagerly we watched as the crew loaded the last of the bales and boxes. The York boats waited with their white sails wound around the great masts, the masts lowered across the thwarts and the long, heavy oars lying inside the gunwales. They looked like giant birds resting with folded wings on the slowly lifting and lowering waters.

Dorothy L. Boggiss, “York Boat Coming,” Beaver Magazine, June 1954

Now, take a look at the image above and see if you can see what I can see. As Dorothy Boggiss wrote: “The rowers sat on the opposite side of the boat to that on which their blade dipped into the water, and they were seated alternately on the left and right sides of the boat facing the stern, one man to each oar.” Yes, I think the image shows clearly that is what is occurring in this boat. “They rose to their feet as they leaned on the huge sweep, pushing it forward and down to lift the blade out of the water, then sank to a sitting position on the thwart as it bit deeply into the water. ” In this image the oars are above the water and so they might have been resting, or in process of rising in the boat to push the oar forward and down to start the next stroke. I think the latter is likely — the bow-wave tells us the boat is in motion, and there is turbulence on the water where the oars have just been lifted.

The child that became Dorothy Boggiss described how the York Boat that followed the one they travelled in kept a good distance behind…

its eight oars lifting and lowering in unison gave the impression of a giant bug walking across the water, and the noise we made as we travelled woke the echoes along the shore and sent them rumbling from bank to bank. The oars left the water with a hollow, booming explosive sound like a clap of thunder which could be heard on land before the boats could be seen… This, combined with the screech and squeal of the heavy oars grinding against the thole pins and the chant of the rowers as they toiled, comprised the melody which always announced, “York Boat coming!”

The First Nations people along the rivers complained that the express-men drove the animals away from the river. The person who wrote that said it was the voyageurs’ songs (as perhaps it was), but I now believe it was the thunderous noise of their oars. On this subject, I have another description of rowing, from Augustus Peers’s journal:

Half-castes [Métis] and young Orkney lads just from their native land, composed the crews of our boats. I was much amused to see the particular mode adopted by the former in rowing. When going at an easy stroke they sit still as every one else would, but when they wish to pull a more vigorous stroke they rise on their feet, stretching back the oar with one hand, generally, and as it touches the water with a splash the other hand is applied and the oar is bent under the force of their bodies as they descend to their seats, to rise again for another stroke. Before taking the oar out of the water they give it a peculiar hoist and lift the water with it, making it boil and foam. This they term bouillon, and look upon it as the plus ultra of rowing.

Augustus Richard Peers, Journal 1842-52, E/B/P34, BCA

Now, look at the image, and see the thole pins that the oars pass through. (You might not see it in the smaller image above, but I can see it in the photograph I have). No oarlocks — just two stout wooden pins holding the oar in its place. The noise of the oar rubbing against the thole pins must have been horrendous — as she says above. She also says that the boat she rode in was what the HBC men called “a 120-piece boat” — so called for the number of eighty-pound pieces it could carry. And that brings me to one of the York Factory Express journals, in which I discovered that the boats carried an enormous load!

Shortly after breakfast the boats arrived [at Fort Pitt]. They were windbound the whole of yesterday. Had the Outfit taken out (more than 100 pieces). As the water is very low the whole of the 8 boats are to go up, although it is usual to leave one here. They start from here with 65 pieces per boat.

Thomas Lowe, Journal of a Trip from Vancouver to York Factory, 1848

So if eight boats removed 12 pieces from each boat to leave behind at Fort Pitt, and had 65 pieces still remaining in each boat, then they would have been carrying 77 eighty-pound packs, or more than 6,000 pounds per boat — plus the weight of the ten men (eight rowers and two boutes) and passengers. Obviously, these boats carried a tremendous weight, especially as we know they had already delivered goods and passengers to Cumberland House and to Carlton House downstream!

Look carefully at the image. The steersman is the man standing on a platform in the rear of the boat, holding the long sweep oar. You will notice that the boat also has a tiller, but this is not used when the rowers are at work. Obviously it is deep water here as the bowsman seems to be taking a turn at the oars. But if there were hazards, such as rapids, he would be standing in the bow of the boat with his big paddle, and the steersman would be responding to his every move — as Dorothy Boggiss describes:

Always when travelling in our canoes we had had to portage around rapids, but because of their size and bulk the York boats could “shoot” many of the rapids which normally had to be portaged by smaller craft; yet how small our large craft seemed when caught and drawn deeply in the grip of the swirling, boiling water of the rapids. It churned around us, dragging greedily at the boat. We watched Mikhoman [the steersman]. His eagle eyes were fixed steadily ahead. They missed nothing. Even before the lookout in the bow called his warning he seemed to sense each hidden danger. His whole body was tense as wet sinew and the spray glistened on his bronzed arms and shoulders. With infinite skill he steered his course through the apparently invisible channel between the fanged rocks and whirling eddies, and guided us safely through the hungry breakers out into the peace and quiet of still waters again.

The steersman’s long sweep had a powerful effect on the track of the boat. Dr. Nevins says that “They always steer, therefore, with a long oar, or sweep, fastened to the boat’s stern, with a single stroke of which they can turn her almost half round. In order to use this, they must stand upon a raised platform instead of sitting.” [A Narrative of Two Voyages to Hudson’s Bay, by Dr. John Birkbeck Nevins]

The bowsman is supposed to have used a large paddle, which helped to change the boats course. But interestingly, I also found this in Nevins’s journal. This will help to explain those two poles that are projecting out from the prow of the York Boat in the image above:

The bowsman stands in the bow of the boat, with his long iron-shod pole, ready to push her head from any rock which may be above the water, and which the steersman, alone, might not be able entirely to avoid. He is also looking out sharply, to see if there are any hidden rocks, of which he judges by the swirling of the water above them.

Dr. John Birkbeck Nevins, A Narrative of Two Voyages to Hudson’s Bay [London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1847) Available online at

I know that from Augustus Peers’s journal, the steersman’s oar is held in place by a loop of rope attached to the stern of the boat. The images I didn’t think interesting enough to collect were those of men and boats shooting the rapids. The bowsman and steersman were always on duty on those occasions, but the oarsman appeared to sit in the bottom of the boat where they would not be swept overboard.

And on the subject of shooting the rapids: you already know how difficult the passage was coming up the Hayes River, and how many portages there were on the route. But according to Lieutenant Thomas Blakiston’s journal, it was a much faster journey going downriver than coming up. Why? Well…

The passage down stream from Norway House to York Factory being accomplished in nine days, making about half a dozen portages, at three of which the boat is carried over, one being the two-thirds of a mile portage, all the other rapids being “run,” not, however, without considerable risk, makes the passage from Red River to York Factory sixteen days.

online at accessed 5/1/2016

His record said that it took them three weeks to travel the 400 miles from York Factory to Norway House, and four weeks to Red River if the wind was right. In his journal Dr. Nevins said basically the same thing: that the “rapids which had given us so much trouble, were, if anything, in our favour. A rapid or fall, which had taken us half an hour or more to ascend, was passed in a few minutes; and, in each day’s work, we saw several places where we had previously remained for the night.” He also says that “the current carries the boat down; and the men have nothing to do but to lie by their oars, ready to strike out at the slightest notice from the steersman.”

Note that in this image that the mast is suspended outside the boat where it is out of the way of the crew. You can see the broad end or bottom of mast, which is cut down to fit into a hole in the bottom of the boat above the keel — obviously the hole doesn’t go through the bottom of the boat but it cut into the keel. I can’t see the boom and sail: usually the sail was wrapped around the boom and laid across the loads inside the gunwales. The two long poles projecting from the front of the boat are the bowsman’s iron-tipped poles, for fending off rocks

What more can I say about this image? Not a lot. If you find something I have missed, by all means let me know.

But if you want to learn a little about sailing the York Boats, there is information for you here:

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

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2 thoughts on “Rowing the York Boats

  1. Tom Holloway

    Excellent detail. I would love to see similar descriptions of rowing the Columbia boats used on the west side. They were somewhat smaller and much lighter than York boats, light enough to be picked up and carried on portages. But they often had a crew of eight, using oars or paddles. It’s amazing that some York boats carried more than 100 “pieces” of cargo, and still had room for the crew working the oars.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      I will try to do one, but I am also trying to not interfere with your work.
      I printed those images you sent me out onto good photo paper and they really are wonderful when photo-shopped properly. Clear as a bell! Thank you.