Shoes, again.

Flintlock Guns, Fort Langley
Flintlock Guns

I wrote about ‘shoes in the fur trade’ quite a while ago, when I discovered that there actually were some. But the question was, why were shoes not imported to all the headquarters east and west, for use in the fur trade?

I have the answer to that now. But let me go on a little preamble first.

My second book, on the York Factory Express, is being published in the late spring, and my third book, on the New Caledonia Brigades, is waiting while my editor is finishing other small chores. I have written a number of articles for various magazines in support of the York Factory Express book and am waiting for replies from them. I have a whole batch of blogposts ahead which I can post while I am being edited. I’ve had quite a good break from writing over the winter. So, now, when time sits so heavily on my hands and I have nothing to do, I began to write my fourth book.

Don’t laugh. I really did.

So, first chapter is going great, mostly because the research is all done. I am following a young HBC clerk who sails from London to Hudson Bay. He ends up at Fort McPherson, near the mouth of the Mackenzie River, and his story connects with those of earlier explorers like John Bell, Robert Campbell, and James Green Stewart — which is why I have written so many blogposts about the Liard, Pelly, Yukon, and Porcupine Rivers lately. It’s all research for this story.

This young clerk crossed the North Atlantic Ocean in the Prince Rupert, travelling with a Dr. Nevins. I looked to see who this Dr. Nevins was in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives Biographical Sheets — a wonderful resource for anyone writing about the HBC fur trade! All I wanted was Nevins’s first name. What I fell into was a wonderful history that I haven’t yet had time to go through!

So, who is Dr. Nevins, anyway? He was Surgeon aboard the Prince Rupert on voyage to York Factory and return in 1842, and in 1843 he sailed on the Prince Albert to Moose Factory and return. His biography tells me his name was John Birkbeck Nevins, and he was born at Leeds in 1818 — in 1842 he lived at 24 Wellington Street, Leeds. When he sailed on the Prince Rupert, he was 24 years old — close enough to the age of our young clerk for them to become friends on the voyage. His obituary in The British Medical Journal, 20 June 1903, gives an account of his personality and his long, distinguished medical career. But he was also a writer, and penned a book titled A Narrative of Two Voyages to Hudson’s Bay, with Traditions of The North American Indians (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1847).

Fine. It’s not likely I will be able to access this rare book, is it? In actual fact, it’s easy, and you, too, can access it. It is available online at Just google its title if you want to read it!

I haven’t read all of it yet (nowhere close to it, in fact). But I certainly will. I found some very interesting information on the very first page, when he described the sailing vessels that went to York Factory, on ice-bound Hudson Bay.

We sailed from London on the 4th of June 1842, in the “good ship Prince Rupert, bound,” — according to the reverential phrase, introduced when voyages were even more rare and dangerous than at present, and still retained in ships’ papers, — “by the Grace of God, to York Factory, Hudson’s Bay.

A summer voyage to this place is not quite so easy or pleasant as an excursion up the Rhine, or down the Danube. And not only must the crew be provided with an extra supply of winter clothing to guard against the cold, but the ship must also be protected against the violent blows she receives from the large masses of ice floating, even in summer, throughout the northern seas. This is done by making her sides double where they are most exposed, and by putting very thick, strong casings of wood, called ice-chocks, in front of her bows, which add to her strength, though it must be confessed, they diminish her beauty.

So the Prince Rupert and other ships that sailed to Hudson Bay were not pretty ships — that much is clear. Nevins describes his first sight of an iceberg, saying that “Everyone would probably be disappointed by the first sight of an iceberg,” which at a considerable distance does not look as large as it does when the ship approaches it. “It is only after having seen a good many, and perhaps played at foot-ball upon them, that he begins to entertain a proper respect for them. We sailed past one which was so high, that when I went about eighty feet up the mast, I could scarcely see over it.” He describes the green water of Hudson Bay, the butterflies that visited the ship when it came close to land. He describes York Factory as he first saw it (but so, too, did my clerk). And in 1843, he describes his excursion up the Hayes River to Oxford House, when he (hilariously) described the masts used in the York Boats:

When we set off the wind was fair for going up the river, so we fixed our mast, and set our sail. Any one who has been accustomed to boating at home, would share the dismay with which one of the Orkney lads, who had been a sailor, exclaimed — “And is that what you call a mast?” In truth, it required some degree of courtesy to give it this name. A small pine tree had been cut down, probably that morning, and the branches lopped off, but the bark remained; the thick end was thrust into a hole in the bottom of the boat, and the thin end was the top of mast. But though the entire tree, it was too short for our boat, so that the whole of the sail could not be hoisted. It is not the custom to use a sail much, and no provision is made for fastening the sail-ropes or “sheets.” To supply this deficiency, the oars were laid across the boat, and when the ropes were fastened, the men were desired to sit upon them, and keep them in their places.

Not exactly what you expected from these York Boats, is it? Yes, I know — I said I’d write about shoes! This was written when the men were tracking up the Hayes River:

In this journey they generally have to track for four days, and they are supplied with four pairs each of Indian shoes, which it is expected they will wear out in an equal number of days.

These shoes, or moccasins, are not made of hard tanned leather, like English shoes, but of soft buffalo or deer skin. They look like a large wash-leather sock, which ties round the ankle, and have no separate soles. The common ones are not ornamented; but the finer sort are made very pretty, with needle or quill work. The Indians and Canadians who make them, work devices of all manner of known and unknown, natural and unnatural flowers, in silk or with porcupine quills, which they dye of various bright colours. These shoes are admirably adapted to the country. They save the feet from being cut or pricked in travelling through the woods, and do not get hard and cracked from being wet. After being wet through, nothing is necessary but to wring them out, and when they are dry to rub them in the hands until they become soft again. In winter English shoes cannot be worn on account of the cold. The feet would be frost-bitten immediately, and besides this they must be of such an immense size, to allow of the stockings which are necessary, that they would be inconveniently heavy. In winter the best plan is, not to wear stockings, but to make duffle socks. This is a sort of very thick, warm woollen cloth, like a thick blanket. It is generally cut into pieces a foot or eighteen inches square, and the foot being placed in the middle, the corners are folded over it. Three thickness of duffle, and perhaps a larger stocking over them to keep them from dropping off, and an Indian shoe large enough to hold them all, are generally sufficient to keep the feet warm and comfortable.

Pages 49 and 50.

Do you know what duffle is? It is a heavy fabric manufactured in the Netherlands — think duffle-coat. Strouds was a similar fabric, manufactured in England, and used to make pea-coats. These two fabrics were the Duffle and Strouds of the HBC fur trade.

So that is a very informative piece of writing — I wonder what else I will find to interest me in this book? I hope you also enjoy reading it.

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