We are very pleased to offer our second edition of Letters from the Past this February. Today you will be able to read a letter sent from Chief Factor John Rowand of Fort Edmonton to his employer, Sir George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company written over 160 years ago.
Come down to Fort Edmonton Park this summer and breathe in the atmosphere of the almost mythical fur trade era. You can meet John Rowand’s contemporaries and see his grand home. The post inhabitants will describe their Chief Factor as a larger than life figure, born in Montreal but having spent most of his life on the western plains. By the year he wrote the letter, his career was at its height: the master of the Saskatchewan District posts, so that any white man between the Rocky Mountains (Jasper House) to the edge of the Canadian Shield (Fort Carlton) answered to him.
He spoke fluent Cree, French, and Blackfoot (though his English was sometimes less skilled), enabling him to trade with the mighty nations of the plains (the Blackfoot Confederacy in particular, referred to below as the ‘Slave’ tribes) for pemmican and buffalo tongues. His home, Fort Edmonton, was the lynchpin of a trading network that spanned a continent, from the Columbia District on the Pacific, the Athabaska and Mackenzie Districts of the far north, and the trading centres of Red River and York Factory. Lightning fast express parties passed through frequently and delays were not to be taken lightly.
The neighbouring Columbia District had recently been the subject of some contention between the venerable British Empire, represented by the HBC, and the upstart United States of America. The Oregon Boundary dispute progressed to the point where a detachment of British soldiers were stationed temporarily at Red River (now Winnipeg) and two British spies were sent through the west on reconnaissance.
The reader should remember that while Rowand and Simpson considered themselves friends, all opinions and subject matter are from a business manager’s point of view and take the form of a report to his superior.
A glossary of terms will follow and many of the names within the text contain links to other resources.
25 February, 1847 – Edmonton,
John Rowand to Sir George Simpson
My Dear Sir George :
The express from below reached this place on the 19th instant. The Columbia party passed Jasper’s House who ought to have been there in November last. I received the other day Mr. Colin Fraser who was asked by Alex Hamilton to bring them horses and the fellow kept it too long. His excuse was that he felt sick. Mr. Lean reached Jasper’s House on 5th November. Not the boat, it was left below God knows how long he took to get to Boat Encampment with the guide he had and himself no commander. I am not surprised at what has taken place (Words indecipherable) would have got on with the otter packs or else he is changed. Young Charles with the two shepherds left this place with two more men from here for Jasper’s House together. I hear nothing of the oldDoctor being deranged in minds. David McLaughlin went to the (word indecipherable) to get an outfit of goods to open a shop at the falls. I hear the Americans have several shops there already, men who understand business I fear better than David. Columbia has got to be a gay place if we can judge from what we hear and see in the Oregon papers so the British have given up the whole of the Columbia to the Americans. What will it be next?
If we can get pounded meat, furs and grease, we shall do. We did not get half the quantity of salt we require so you must not expect more than 4 or 5000 tongues. We have no saltpetre. John is getting robes made such as you ask. The snow is very deep and horses poor. Mares big with foal are not fat who have to scrape with their feet for something to eat under the snow and the country (word indecipherable). Many plain hunters say the grass ____. The 100 mares cannot get to Red River before July. It would be a pity to lose so many colts. If we get another heavy fall of snow I fear we shall not have many horses left in the spring. In one letter you tell me to take 50 horses besides the mares to Red River after you say six only to be the best I can get. I would like to know of there is 50 horses or only 6 besides the mares I have to supply. None of the men will engage. They dislike that double trip to Norway House. A large party of halfbreeds with families are to be off to Red River in the spring. (Indecipherable) got horses and they think they are able to get things for nothing from him.
(Indicipherable sentence) I am sorry to say that expect very poor returns from Carlton. Hardly anything at all. All we have there now is 60 bags of pemmican of last year. Nothing of that previous article traded this year. However, buffalo is seen all about the post. Perhaps the Indians may do something yet before the embarkation. Brazeau who was here not long ago brought poor accounts with regard to trade at Rocky Mountain House. Unless the Slave tribes work and bring something towards spring the returns from there will not amount to much. Those Indians expect to see Harriott make his appearance any day now. I fear the latter has taken a fancy to Red River, surrounded as he is to be a set of poor relations (word indecipherable) I am sorry he cannot get down to Canada to judge for himself. I must not forget the men do not at all (word indecipherable) here. All the good things is to be kept for the troops. They are all discontented and are at a loss how to find fault with the Company.
I forward the letters I received here not long ago from Columbia. I am sorry Harriott was not well last summer. I would have asked you to go down by way of Fort Pitt and Fort (word indecipherable) places I should like to see. (the rest is indecipherable – about 4 lines).
The ‘Express’ or ‘Columbia Party’ Rowand refers to is the York Factory Express of the Hudson’s Bay Company. It was this lightning-fast brigade that connected the HBC’s two main shipping ports: York Factory on Hudson’s Bay and Fort Vancouver (part of the ‘Columbia District’).
Men, departmental reports, and letters would set out from the West Coast and travel up the Columbia River to Boat Encampment where they would transfer to horses for the trip over the Athabaska Pass to Jasper House. From there they would descend the Athabaska River, to Fort Assiniboine and travel overland by horse to Fort Edmonton before setting out down the Saskatchewan River to Lake Winnipeg, and then down the Hayes River to York Factory. Another brigade would do the same route in reverse, the two meeting somewhere in the middle!
This was a key communication and administration tool, so Rowand’s exasperation at its delays is understandable.
John Rowand oversaw or communicated with a number of fascinating figures. George Simpson, the ‘Birchbark Emperor’ was his superior and personal friend. Another friend, John Edward Harriott was known as one of the kindest and ablest men in the Company, very close friends with many of the leading men of the Plains nations and had worked for Rowand for over twenty years. Joseph Brazeau was newer to the Saskatchewan District, but brought with him a knowledge of the American trade and over six native languages. Rowand’s métis son, John Rowand Jr. (here refererd to as ‘John’) was a Postmaster in charge of Fort Pitt and Rowand often found a chance to praise him in his letters to Simpson. Edmonton’s herds of horses, referred to here, at least partly belonged to John Jr’s mother, Louise Umphreville. Neither Rowand nor Simpson got along with Dr. John Mcloughlin, Chief Factor of the Columbia District, whom Rowand refers to here simply as ‘The Doctor.’
While Rowand often described the Nitsitapii (Blackfoot Confederacy or ‘Slave’ tribes), Nehiyawak (Cree Nation or ‘South’ tribes), and Métis (Here ‘Halfbreeds’) with whom he dealt with regularly in somewhat harsh terms to Simpson, it should be noted here that Fort Edmonton did not exist in a vacuum. At this point in the west the Company traders were still very much tolerated outsiders who depended on the indigenous inhabitants’ good will and trade goods. While Rowand might privately balk and complain (in fact, it’s what he did best), he nonetheless met them as an equal when it came time to trade.
Experience this fascinating fur trade world, and more, down at Fort Edmonton Park in 2012!
Photo: Jesse Wiebe