Welcome back to our Letters from the Past series, in which we enliven the epigrams of Edmontonians!
This month we bring you a letter from John Rowand, The Chief Factor of Fort Edmonton and the Saskatchewan District from 1823 to 1854. This is the third of John Rowand’s letters to be featured in this series, including February and April.
In this letter, Mr. Rowand wrote to Sir George Simpson, inland Governor of Rupert’s Land and The HBC. The two were close business associates, having traveled the HBC’s trade empire in 1841 and 1842, This journey took both Simpson and Rowand all the way to Alaska, and even Hawaii.
The main purpose of this letter is for Rowand to address the current status of the HBC’s supply system. Forts and Trading Posts would rely on the river system not only to transport furs to market, but also to supply forts with trading goods and necessities. The backbone of this system was the York Boat and the men that rowed this boats in brigades (including the Saskatchewan Brigade and the Columbian Brigade). This resulted in a spring to fall journey in which men rowed down to the Hudson’s Bay and back, often staying at Norway House for a time (on the northeast end of Lake Winnipeg) while Chief Factors devoted themselves to administrative matters – such as letters to their superior.
9 August, 1846 – Norway House
John Rowand to Sir George Simpson, Private
My Dear Sir:
If the goods and men do not make Edmonton by water, I tremble at the result. The trade will suffer and not only a little. However, from what you wrote to me from this place, I am in hopes the Company business may get on. The Saskatchewan brigade was the worst manned in the North. A sight of miserable fellows. I do not know how I will be able to manage after leaving this without fit boat and as many raw hands. While I think of it, it may be as well to tell you once more that no less than 20 of our fellows have given in their notice of retirement, spring 1847.
I regret very much not seeing the Pas Indians make their appearance with pemmican etc. from Carlton. I am afraid the Indians in that quarter are suffering and dying as they do here. Is it not very hard that I could not get all the articles at York Factory to enable us to pay and keep our word with The Pas Indians. What will they think and say of us. It is distressing to one not to be able to fulfill our engagements with them.
I see nothing of (word indecipherable) with the six boats yet. The Columbians run a risk (indecipherable) I fear of starving all the way. Mr. Chief Factor Hargrave gave me a man of the name of (word indecipherable) who is blind (word indecipherable) and not able to do any work in a boat or upon land. Mr. Chief Factor Ross knows him well. He sent him down so that he might be sent home. I did not see the fellow at York Factory. It was on my way up I made the discovery. It is in my humble opinion better he should go, however, you are master. I will do my best to get all of your requests from the Saskatchewan when I have the means.
I think I get on as well as those who talk more than I do. I do not deny that there is a long list of (word indecipherable) out in (word indecipherable) on the Saskatchewan list but it is poor. Colin Robertson used to say, how that our new man Brazeau is not over-honest. If it is the case, I am sorry that I ever spoke about him. I find Mr. Kane here bound for Columbia, Mr. McGillivray also.
You may think that I complain but no I often, perhaps too often, address you upon matters I ought not though I beg pardon for it. It has never been my wish far to give you offense. Far from it. But why torment you with news and at a time you have so much work upon your hands. If you do not know me now, you never will. For my part I am aware once more I am not together thrown on one side. I feel as I ought, grateful for all you have done for me and for my sake. All I can do in return for the present is my best. But command me.
Sgnd. Etc. “John Rowand”
Postscript: I intend to write to Alexander from here something bout the Norway business. I will not spare him.
Sgned. “John Rowand.”
Rowand’s letter emphasizes some of the most unique aspects of the Canadian fur trade, as the letter covers both the economic reality of the fur trade and the human reality of the individuals employed within the trade.
The first of these is the issue of the provisioning system within Hudson Bay Company’s forts. Hudson Bay’s forts were not self-sufficient, and as the letter highlights, the forts relied on two systems for food and supplies. For a fort to function successfully, it required both the transportation of goods inland by York Boat, and prosperous trading with First Nations. Although entitled “The Fur Trade,” First Nations would trade would be welcomed to trade pemmican and even unprepared bison meat.
You can understand Mr. Rowand’s own anxiety as he “trembles at the result” of goods not arriving to Fort Edmonton by river. Similar anxiety is present in Mr. Rowand’s discussion of the absent Pas traders. Without a positive relationship with the First Nations, a fort could not survive, No doubt that Mr. Rowand is questioning the relations with the Pas Cree, searching for a reason as to why they have not come to trade and any possible way he could mend their relationship. The entire fur trading system relies on this positive mutually beneficial relationship, and without it, the HBC would surely fail.
The second unique portion of this letter is emphasized in Mr. Rowand’s mention of “this blind fellow”, an obvious burden on the profit of the HBC. However, the issue at hand is one of what to do with such an employee. As Mr. Rowand says, the man is “unable to do any work in a boat or on land.” Such an employee would have signed a contract with the HBC, and therefore be required to fill his position for the agreed upon time. He would also be paid in a lump sum for all his work at the end of the contract. As Mr. Rowand and the other factors believe this man should be released from work, which would cause discrepancies in what salary the man aught to be paid, and who can fill such a position. It is no surprise that the final decision in this matter falls on Mr. Simpson. As a manager, Rowand was increasingly concerned about the Company personnel: the number of good men retiring, the honesty and ability of new men, and the fact that other Factors seemed to be passing around ‘problem’ staff to avoid dealing with the issue.
The final unique point for discussion in this letter surrounds its overall tone. As was previously discussed, Mr. Rowand is both business colleagues and friends with his superior, Mr. Simpson. This would be quite the issue during the fur trade, as the only other Europeans that are in Rupert’s Land are HBC employees (or artists like Paul Kane, who are dependent on the Company). Not to mention the First Nations are regarded as a crucial part of the HBC system. As a result Mr.Rowand is in the inevitable position of having no friends who are not colleagues. Business therefore colours his every relationship with other men. It is perhaps as a result of this very context that Mr. Rowand discusses business, and his much more personal existence and sentiments within the fur trade.
A somewhat lonely life from our perspective.
Sources: “A Business History of Alberta”, Number 27 by Henry Klassen. “Fort de Prairies” by Brock Silverside. New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America by Colin Calloway. Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America by Barbara Huck. Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade by Carolyn Podruchny. HBC Heritage. Our History: Acquisitions, Fur Trade. Czar of the Prairies by J.G. MacGregor.