Why A Hudson’s Bay Post Was Opened on Pog

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From time to time I will upload excerpts of the book to give on-line viewers an opportunity to read what’s in the book. This excerpt from Chapter Five describes the background of the Lake Huron District of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the reasons for opening a post on Lake Pogamasing.

In the early 1800s the major competitor of the North West Company was the well-established Hudson’s Bay Company. The HBC depended on their Aboriginal hunters to bring their furs to their coastal forts spread out across James and Hudson Bays. However, once the more entrepreneurial North West Company extended their trading territory into the North West, they encroached on the Bay’s trading territory. Consequently, the Bay had to become more aggressive and ordered their servants to establish inland trading posts. Destructive trapping in each other’s territory soon led to violence and war between the two rivals. Both realized continued competition would only mean financial disaster so the North West Company agreed to be taken over by Hudson’s Bay in 1821. As a result, the former North West post at La Cloche post on the North Shore of Georgian Bay now became the headquarters of the Lake Huron District of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

John McBean was appointed as the chief factor of the new district. McBean should be recognized for an important contribution to our understanding of the region. He drew a map of the area north of the HBC trading area and gave us an idea of the early names of the waterways. (see Old Maps)

 With the 1821 amalgamation, one would have assumed that business would improve. However, even before, the HBC was not doing well financially and had not paid a dividend to its shareholders between 1809 and 1815. The Manitoulin Treaty (1836) further threatened the Company’s livelihood as its goal was to settle all the Anishnabe on Manitoulin Island, depriving the Bay of their lifeblood, the Aboriginal hunters. Fortunately for the Company, only a few Natives chose to become farmers. In 1834, the Bay banned trading furs for alcohol, thus giving their competitors an advantage. By the middle of 1840’s the district appeared to be exhausted of fur-bearing animals and the returns of the district for one year were a mere 50 pounds. The headquarters were moved to various places (Little Current and Sault Ste. Marie) during this period, but returned to La Cloche in 1861. It wasn’t until an entrepreneurial new chief trader, Roderick McKenzie, arrived at La Cloche in 1866 that a more determined attempt to revive the fur trade was initiated.

Three of the six existing trading posts in his district were scattered across an east-west line from Lake Nipissing to the Sault. The headquarters of the district was located on the North Shore of Georgian Bay ten miles east of the Spanish River. To the east of La Cloche there were posts on Lake Nipissing and the French River. Two inland posts were situated on Whitefish Lake, 65 kilometres east of La Cloche, and on the Mississagi River, 80 kilometres west of La Cloche, and easily reachable from the North Shore up the wide, navigable river. The furthest inland post was on Green Lake, some 170 kilometres up river from the Mississagi post and reachable from the river through a few lakes. A few other posts had been operated for a short while but were now closed.

After taking over the Lake Huron District from Peter Bell in the summer of 1866, McKenzie had thought the district was running smoothly. By September, his opinion changed as troubles began to surface: Competition from petty traders and new types of businesses, inept employees, and an aloof and far-off head office that failed to support his suggestions for managing the district.

 The most obvious problem was competition from independent traders who were out maneuvering the Bay to obtain furs. These free or petty traders relied on entrepreneurship, dare and a lack of scruples to obtain furs. They operated near every post in the district. One example was Henry Sayer, a former HBC clerk for 15 years at Mississagi. He left the company and established his own trading business nearby his former post. By July of 1867, McKenzie reported new opposition at Whitefish Lake and Green Lake and that some new traders on Manitoulin Island were giving him concerns.

There was, however, a more troublesome aspect of the opposition’s business practices. McKenzie was bothered by the unscrupulous ways they obtained furs by using alcohol as their currency to lure the Natives to trade their furs. With free traders using whiskey, McKenzie felt it gave them a great advantage “as an Indian will give anything for liquor.” He was soon after Hopkins, his superior in Montreal, to get after “an influential member of government that would check the evil.” Later, when McKenzie learned that his competitors were going to Whitefish Lake he bitterly complained that government officials were not doing much about the alcohol problem and they might “as well shut up shop in this quarter as we have got no man or officer fit to contend with opposition.”

A second problem for a company like the Hudson’s Bay Company was logistics. The Bay was the largest commercial enterprise in Canada and was forced to maintain a large infrastructure (transportation, hundreds of trading posts, district HQ, etc) to support its continental operation. Imported goods from England and home products from Canada had to be transported to the outbound regions of the country as well as transport the furs to England. On the other hand, the independent trader had no such infrastructure issues. He could make his own whiskey, or purchase it from illegal suppliers, and run a one-man operation without the headaches of maintaining a colossal organization. Consequently, he Company lost much business to the ruthless independents.

Competition also came from non-fur trading sources related to the newly emerging industries of mining and lumbering. Saw mills on the French and Spanish Rivers opened stores for the sale of goods. McKenzie reported to Montreal that the Natives got “goods cheaper and (at) higher prices for furs than we are able to give.”

McKenzie had some serious concerns about both the quality and quantity of his employees to deal effectively with the competition. Shortly after arriving, he reported to the chief factor in Montreal that there were simply not good men in three of his posts while Joseph Boyer at the Mississagi outpost, reported to McKenzie that his helper was “useless for going after Indians. So far he only made one trip since he went there, and [on another trip], he threw away his snowshoes, half a day’s journey from the house … I beg that you send me a young hand that will make himself generally useful.”  In his midseason report of February 1, 1867, to Hopkins, McKenzie bemoaned, “The want of proper men cripples our efforts sadly.”

It is difficult to imagine what might have been the right type of employee who would thrive in such a remote posting. Think of living in an isolated wilderness, usually alone or with one or two others – most men were single – and with no communication with their peers other than a rare visit by the district officer. If you learned the Anishnabe language you might have some interaction with your hunters but mostly, it was a lonely life with low financial remuneration.

It was surprising that greater attempts were not made to develop Anishinabe or Metis talent.  Like the Scots, they were accustomed to the harsh environment and isolated social conditions. More importantly, this was their land and they were comfortable with the isolated way of life of a hunter. McKenzie considered the idea, but was not initially ready to hire them as he felt when “those half breeds see that the Company cannot do without them they get rather saucy.”

To deal with his difficulties in the field, McKenzie looked for support from the department head office in Montreal. Regardless of what McKenzie wanted to do in his district, his fortunes were determined by the decisions made in Montreal, and sometimes he found them seriously inadequte. In a letter of October, 1868 he complained, “I can’t abide by the regular tariff. I need to pay the price I can buy the furs at.” Or that his competitors were “giving a large quantity of flour and pork for the dollar than we were accustomed to here and in order to retain our hold on the Indians we must give a similar quantity of corn, flour and pork”. But constantly losing to his competitors led him to conclude “that I must rather increase it (tariff paid for furs) as there are now two of those petty traders established on the Spanish River.”

His deep frustration in dealing with his head office was revealed in his letter of February 15, 1867 in which he berated his Montreal superior: “you request me to let you know if I can secure the furs at the present rates … [but] there is little use in writing, as I have not got a reply to a single letter since Nov. 14th”.

Despite the discouraging problems McKenzie faced, he took the initiative to open new posts. In 1867 he established a new post on Birch Lake that could watch the Spanish River traffic. In June of 1869, he wrote of his intention to establish a post in the interior hoping this would make it more convenient for the Anishnabe to trade their furs with the Bay.

In October of 1869, McKenzie announced his bold initiative to Donald Smith, the new chief factor in Montreal. McKenzie’s plan was to open four new inland outposts at Wabokagaming, Misnanwaning (Vermilion Lake), Wahnapitae, and Pogamasing. Despite his previous reluctance to use Anishnabe as post managers, he appointed Parshegonebe to Wahnapitae and Louis Espagnol to Pogamasing.

It is interesting to ponder the reasons why McKenzie chose Espagnol. He had been working for the Bay from 1866. Natives were typically employed to transport goods to outposts, accompany the officers on visits to their posts, and work where needed to maintain and operate the district headquarters. McKenzie was fed up with the servants of European origin who had been sent from Montreal and he decided to give Espagnol an opportunity, despite his earlier doubts about hiring Natives. As we know, Espagnol was the son of the chief of the Spanish River band and would become a chief. McKenzie may have wanted to choose a lake in the upper Spanish and would have known that Espagnol’s hunting ground was on Lake Pogamasing, an ideal location to reach the upper Spanish. As an employee for three years, Espagnol had established a respectable reputation and a man McKenzie could trust for the position.

It proved to be a wise decision.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Raven Plante October 2, 2013 at 10:53 am

Hello,
My name is Raven Plante. I came across your site while searching key words from my research on google.
I am wondering about the inland post at Wahnapitae. I am a member of the Wahnapitae First Nation. I conduct my own personal historic research pertaining to my ancestral history and that of my community. I am aware of a post existing in and around 1821 but, can find little or no reference to this post. Any help you could provide would be greatly appreciated. Thank you. Raven.

Reply

Andy Thomson October 2, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Hello Raven,
Thank you for your interest. I have read about the post on Lake Wahnapitae in my research. The post on your lake was opened the same year (1869) as the one on Pogamasing. I will check my notes that I made from the Hudson’s Bay Archives and will get back to you.
Regards,
Andy

Reply

Eric Hebert December 11, 2016 at 12:49 pm

Hi Andy;

I read this article with great interest.

I am doing a little research on the Trading Post at Killarney (Shebahonaning), run by Augustin de la Morandiere. Have you come across any reference to that in your research?

On a more general note, where does one access the Hudson’s Bay Archives?

Thank you,
Eric

Reply

Andy Thomson December 11, 2016 at 2:11 pm

Hi Eric,
Great to hear you’re doing research on Killarney. However, I can’t help you much as I don’t remember seeing much in my research. I don’t come across much on Killarney as it was only a small post and I don’t think it was open for many years. I don’t remember seeing much but it’s been a few years since I did my research and the book has been out for five years now. I will take a look through my records and see if I have anything. I compiled a list of sources, both written, such as Norman Anich’s book on “The Fur Trade in Eastern Canada until 1870″and other materials than I found on-line. I will have to look in my box of stuff to see if there is anything that be of help.

There are two ways to source HBC records: either go to Winnipeg which I did, or order microfiche from their library. You can find indexes on line or at a public library – HBC will send the microfiche to a library where you can use their readers.
Most of the material I found on Louis Espagnol was found in letters written by the factor at La Cloche to Montreal. I haven’t done any further research so I don’t know if the HBC Archives have opened things up. Go to their website and do some exploring.

Good luck. I’ll let you know if I find anything.

Andy

Reply

Andy Thomson December 11, 2016 at 2:54 pm

Hi Eric,
I had a few moments so I took a quick look through my box and the only reference to Killarney was in a book: The North Channel and St. Mary’s River. The first seven pages of the book are on Killarney and refer to the person you mentioned, who was an independent fur trader with his native wife. I looked at my notes from Anich book but saw nothing. I doubt there ever was a HBC post at Killarney but when I started my research on Pog there was no mention of it as an HBC post. However, I have been through enough of the HBC records to know that Killarney was never listed as a post in the Lake Huron District.

Andy

Reply

Eric Hebert April 22, 2017 at 3:33 pm

Hi Andy;

Thanks for that. I have not yet read that book, but it is on my list.

I just came across a written record (online) of some memories of Lewis Solomon, son of William Solomon. In 1829 he traveled south to Penetanguishene and says they camped at the Hudson’s Bay Company Fort at Killarney. Whether it was named Killarney when he camped there, or if it was named later and he just referred to it by that name when the record was made, I of course can’t tell. I am assuming the latter. Or if he stayed at the fort at La Cloche Island and referred to it as Killarney. All very puzzling.

I will follow up on your suggestion of the HBC library.

Thank you.

Eric

Reply

Andy Thomson April 26, 2017 at 10:20 pm

Thanks for your note Eric.
Please let me know if you find any information in your research.

All the best,

Andy

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