The York Factory River

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

The York Factory River? As far as I can tell, it is the lower Hayes River where it flows past York Factory into Hudson Bay. It’s a good name for the river, however, it is clear that not everyone used the name — in 1826 Aemilius Simpson called that section of the river “the Hay’s River.” So…

But here is where I first saw that name used — in Thomas Lowe’s private journal, 1844:

About 9 o’clock in the morning the Express from York Factory arrived in charge of Mr. D[ugald] McTavish [Mactavish], who went across in the Spring…Mr. McTavish got nearly drowned in going down the York Factory River, and received a severe fall from a horse in the Plains of the Saskatchewan.

Poor Dugald! He was later in charge of Fort Vancouver and there are a few good stories about him, which I will eventually tell. I know there is another mention of the York Factory River somewhere — and I found in Dr. John Birkbeck Nevins’s book, A Narrative of Two Voyages to Hudson’s Bay. He doesn’t quite call it the York Factory River, but says this:

York Factory or Fort is built upon the bank of the York River, about seven miles from its mouth, and is in Lat. 57 degrees North, which is very nearly the same as that of Stromness. The river is very broad, but so shallow, that the ship cannot go up to the Factory, but lies in the roads at its mouth…

York River is from two to three miles broad at its mouth; and as far as it retains this name, which it does for about forty or fifty miles, it continues it continues three or four times the breadth of the Thames at London Bridge, and in several parts it is much wider. There are many rapids, and it is generally shallow..

So, we also know the length of the York or York Factory River — forty or fifty miles! I always enjoy finding journals written by visitors to the places I write about, as they give us information that the HBC men don’t tell us in their letters and reports, because everything is so familiar to them.

In 1842, Nevins travelled up the Hayes River with Mr. —, “who was going to take charge of a house about six weeks’ journey from York. Our company consisted of Mr. –; Lawrence Basil, a Canadian, our steersman; and Bidòu, another Canadian, our bowsman. There were besides, ten of the labourers whom we had brought out from Orkney, and myself.” This is not the Saskatchewan brigades, but most likely the later boat that traveled up the Saskatchewan River to whatever post was six weeks away — bringing in the new men who had arrived on the London Ship after the York Factory Express had departed York Factory in early July. I have often found mention of one more boat going up the Saskatchewan River from York Factory.

This Lawrence Basil must be Bazil Larance, a Canadian born in Quebec who entered the service in 1816. He started his career in the HBC in the Athabasca District in 1816, and he spent all of his time, until 1826, in the north. After that he went to York Factory and was employed as a steersman in the Columbia and Saskatchewan Districts. From 1828 to 1847 he travelled as a steersman in the Saskatchewan District, and seemed to be posted at Carlton House. Certainly, he is mentioned in the Express journals, and in my book as well. His location in 1842 is not traced, but if it was six weeks upriver from York Factory, it would likely have been Carlton House once again. In June 1847, after a long career in the HBC, almost always as a steersman, Larance retired to Red River.

Dr. Nevin’s story continues:

Our travelling furniture was very simple. A large piece of oil-cloth, two blankets, and a buffalo’s hide tanned with hair on, furnished bed and bedding. Sheets are articles unknown in this country, for summer and winter the inhabitants lie between blankets, which is rather a luxury than a privation when you become accustomed to them.

I have to interrupt here to say that sheets were not unknown, because Governor George Simpson travelled with a set of bedsheets. I know this because my g.g.grandfather James Birnie accidentally dropped one of Simpson’s sheets in the water when the great man visited Fort Vancouver in, I believe, 1841. This incident did not make Simpson any fonder of Birnie than he already was, believe me!

As is generally the case, the guide, or steersman, and the bowsman were drunk before setting off. A small quantity of spirits is always given them the day before, to last them during the journey; but this is usually finished before starting.

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 the 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.”

I think you can see that in the image above. This is what I believe: in coming out to York Factory, the crews of the York Boats left the masts at Norway House, and picked them up again on their return. Masts are heavy and bulky and take up room and are not terribly useful on the Hayes River, so why carry them downriver, and up again, over all those portages?

Nevins’ story continues, below:

We soon came to a turn in the river which deprived us of any further assistance from the wind, when Mr. Laurence [Larance] lowered the sail, took it from the mast and oars, and, with the most perfect coolness, hove the former overboard. In this he showed more judgment than I, at first, imagined; the mast would have been heavy and inconvenient in the boat, we were travelling the whole time through woods; consequently, if we should ever again want one, we could pull to the bank, cut down a tree, strip off its branches, and in ten minutes have as good a one, at any rate, as that which we had lost.

We soon came to the first shallow place in the river, which is but a short distance from the factory, but even before arriving here our steersman began to sober himself. It is true his method, though efficacious, was not entirely voluntary. In coming down a rapid almost everything depends upon the skill of the steersman, and he cannot alter the course of the boat quickly enough to avoid the rocks and stones which lie in the way, by means of a common rudder. 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. Now, although Mr. Laurence [Larance] had a sort of notion that it was desirable to keep upon his legs, yet he was not entirely able to put it into practice; and, before we had been long on our journey, the sweep had the control of itself, whilst its master, having fallen overboard, was floundering about in the river trying to regain his balance. Fortunately, the water was not deep, and the only effect of this manoeuvre, which was repeated about twenty times in the course of the day, was to cool his skin, to damp his clothes, and restore him to some degree of sobriety. Whether Bidòu’s head was stronger or his allowance less, I cannot say but he did manage to keep his position in the bow of the boat.

York Boat being rowed
This image of a York Boat being rowed is used with the permission of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, and is image N9246. The image is of a York Boat being rowed on Split Lake, and the photograph was taken by R.A. Talbot.

In this image we show the boat being rowed, with the long sweep that the steersman uses. You can probably also see that he is standing on a platform that raises him above the packs so he can avoid tripping over them. In this image, the bowsman is not in position at the bow of the boat, with his iron shod pole ready to fend off rocks, as Split Lake, on the upper Nelson River, has no hazards to watch out for.

I think I will continue on this thread, as Dr. Nevins has lots of interesting informtion about his journey upriver, which is relevant to the York Factory Express. When I write a second post in this series, it will appear here:

If you wish to order my book, “The York Factory Express,” you can do so through my publisher, Ronsdale Press of Vancouver, B.C., using the link in my pinned post on my Home page. Thank you!

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

2 thoughts on “The York Factory River

  1. Tom Holloway

    On the topic of masts, the second image clearly shows a mast lashed to the side of the boat, ready when needed.