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Home >> From 1600 to 1867 >> Identity, Culture & Communities >> Audio/Video

Daily life and challenges for the various groups involved in the fur trade.

Image 1
Speaker(s): Louis Bird
Year Recorded: March 5, 2003
Transcribers: Jennifer Orr; editing by Tanja Hutter. This audio clip originally appears on OurVoices.ca under the title 0138 - Fish Nets.

L'audio en français n'est pas disponible.
Location: Recorded in English, in Peawanuck, Ontario
Copyright Holder: Louis Bird & University of Winnipeg (OurVoices.ca).
Photo: George Fulford

Listen To Audio File: Part I
Listen To Audio File: Part II
Listen To Audio File: Part III
Listen To Audio File: Part IV
Listen To Audio File: Part V
Listen To Audio File: Part VI

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  (L1) Tale of an HBC Captain (Part 1): Kahkechewish - Black as Coal

[audio 1]
"There was a long time ago not so long ago. This was after the European arrive in the Hudson Bay area. After the fur trade have begun already. When, according to the history, the European history in Canada, we hear about the Hudson Bay starting off somewhere Hudson Bay Company. Fur trade officially started, 1682. It may have been a trade before that, but not as intense as it became later. And it was in from that period on, that the Native people begin to actually work for the Hudson Bay Company. Gathering furs for them and trapping, because the fur was demanded.

It was very hard on the animals. That we considered fur pelts especially the beavers, otter, mink, martin, and fisher, lynx, and muskrat even the squirrels, weasels. And all these were considered fur-bearing animals, which was a commodity or a demand, for the fur trade between the First Nations and the Hudson Bay Company. And later on, other fur trading, fur harvesting.

It was in those days that the Hudson Bay Company established its business in the Bay area, and needed many kinds of help. Different skills, local skills and also other kinds, besides trapping. It was somewhere between the year of eighteen hundred, especially seventeen hundred and eighteen hundred, before the Europeans manufactured the steamboats. [end of audio 1]

[audio 2]
They may have manufactured already, because it is mentioned by the Native people, when the oversea ship was expected in the month of August or September, there was a story about the local people in York Factory, or in that area. Or Kaaskatamaakan - that they used to see a black smoke sticking out in the water from towards north. And which means the steamship must have approaching the land. It was these little stories that we heard about from our ancestors, the Omushkego people who live around that area.

And, it was also that time, that most of the west coast and James Bay, west coast of James Bay and the Southwest coast of James Bay, the Omushkego people who mobilize. What I mean to say is, when the fur trade act was actually started in the full swing, these people used to do their fur trade first at the York Factory, and people live in major rivers, and upland, where fur trading at the York Factory. And by doing that, there were lots of those who traveled back and forth from west coast of James Bay and up to the Fort Severn, and onto York Factory. The evidence of this activity was and can still be seen on the southwest coast of Hudson Bay.

Where the people used to walk with moccasin feet. And those trails are still there. Some places if you ever follow these things, if you can find them, it’s been so long that some of the trees that grow inside the trail will be about eighteen inches diameter. Those trees that we call I think they are called pine trees, I’m not so sure if it’s a pine. Some of them were black spruce, or spruce, whatever you call them, and then tamarack. And the oldest sign of the trail that was ever used on the Hudson Bay coast is about within five to eight miles inland from the shore of the Hudson Bay. And it was say that one time, those trails were on the ridges of the old seashores that were just barely covered with grass and willows. But today it’s trees are so high, and long. And in some of the trees that grew in those areas are about twenty-five feet high, probably about eighteen inches diameter at the bottom. And those are the trees that were there before, in further inland, they do not show, because they’re already decayed and fall down but instead, the smaller trees are grew there which we call in our name, sesekaatahot.

Now, to get back to the human activities during the fur trade, what I wanted to mention was here, about the story of a man, as the Hudson Bay Company begin to do its fur swing, full swing of its fur trade. They needed some transportation along the shores of the Hudson Bay, to deliver their goods to the major rivers. Mainly the Fort Severn from York Factory as a main depot. And, they wanted to distribute their goods along, around the Hudson Bay and James Bay. [end of audio 2]

[audio 3]
So they have created some kind of a transportation system locally. And this was when they made the boats, that would sail around the bay, a small boat, maybe thirty-five feet long. Whatever width they were, perhaps about ten, twelve feet. It’s not long for sure. And, they were open deck, they were not a floor, they were just open deck but have the latches close with some material, so it won’t leak or it won’t fill up with water. And these little boats have one mast, most of them one mast, to be able to hoist the sail for a day or two, for their motion, their...power. The windpower boats. Sail boat, we sailed. And some of those boats were two masts. And these were a bit longer than most.

Local people were trained and hired to sail those boats around the bay. Recently, as recently as eighteen hundred to nineteen hundred, the last story that we heard about people sailing and the local people. There was a guy, a man named, I don’t know what we call it in English but he was called Kahkechewish, that is all they called him. And this was not necessarily a bad thing. He was known as that and I assume he knew that he was called that, but Kahkechewish means something “black.” A person who is black, that’s about all it says.

But another word, it can be translated as a piece or chunk of junk of coal, black coal. So that is what it is understood to have meant, because at that time, the Hudson Bay Company were using black coal for their steamship, and they must have understand this thing, those people. So they call him that because he has very dark skin on his face, and his hands.

And they say this man was not very big, but small. One of the smallest kinds of men, but not a midget, a small man. And, in spite of this small size, this man was considered to be one of the most trusted persons, and also courageous to do the job. So he was assigned to be one of the captains of these York boats, those boats, sailboats that were created in York Factory, the ones that sail in Hudson Bay.

He was assigned to be a captain in one of them. And as he gained the knowledge of the bay, and the skills to do sail, he begin to be well known, and we admired his ability. There is a certain story about him, at times that he didn’t actually use the compass to sail, even during the night. To navigate without compass, he was able to do that.

And there is a great story about this guy. He was really admired by many people. He was found to be the most courageous man that ever sailed the Hudson Bay at that time. There is a place in the Hudson Bay and James Bay, where many dangers can be experienced by the sailors, amongst the white people and also those later, the Native people who sail around the coast, around the bay. [end of audio 3]

Apparently the first depot was York Factory, and all the things will have to be delivered around the shore to the south, right to the tip of James Bay.

It was this load that this man used to take, making several voyages to Fort Severn from York Factory, and down to the James Bay, right down to the tip of the Moosonee. And the distance between about eight hundred miles maybe so. And, the danger lies in the middle, halfway through, right at the Cape Henrietta Maria. It was the most dangerous place for these sailors at that time because the peninsula is so far out into the bay, and it can be very deceiving if you see the land barely towards to your right or to left. You would think, one would think it’s safe to sail around, but it’s not.

Many times they have found that they nearly collided into the bottom, because of the shallow waters and the protruding limestone rocks — and that was very dangerous. So therefore, this man was beginning to be aware of dangers, he had a custom of avoiding it and sailing away out there into the peninsula, past way out. Perhaps fifteen miles out to make sure that he doesn’t hit anything. And it was said several times that he sailed from York Factory directly to Moosonee, without stopping.

Regardless of the wind, no matter how strong the wind was, he would sail. And, the safer he wants to be, the farther out into the bay he sails. In daytime, it’s no problem, because he knows how far out he should be. It was at least once that people have talked about him; they were so amazed about his ability and courage that no one else would have tried to do what he did.

What he did was, at one point when he was sailing nicely around the southwest coast of Hudson Bay, when he was coming near Cape Henrietta Maria, it so happen the high tide was coming. And it was one of those days that the high tide would occur when there’s a full moon. And usually at that time in September, when that happens, the north wind will be very strong. And which also brings the water very very high. And also the pulling of the moon. And it was one of those times, that he encountered such a sudden storm, just when he was about another thirty-five miles to the tip of Cape Henrietta Maria.

And one way the people used to do, the sails used to do, is to turn back and either go back to Winisk to shelter themselves there on the river, or to go into one of those smaller creeks located between Cape Henrietta Maria and Winisk. There is a shelter there where they could go back in and wait out the storm. But this man, there is to his knowledge about this situation. He knows he will have a problem trying to find shelter, and it was late in the night, very late in the evening. It was already getting dark, so he told his deck hands, that he says it’s too dangerous to try to find a shelter near shore. The wind is so strong.

The safest way to be is out there in the bay, where there is rolling waves, not breaking. And then he said, he decided that he should go around the cape with that condition, rather than stay at the mercy of the huge waves. [end of audio 4]

[audio 5]
He set out that evening and told his deck hands to stay under. Sent them under, below. He tied himself into the steering gear; and at that time it was not the wheel, it was just simply a wooden rudder that you have to hold in one place. At least he had some kind of mechanical ropes that he could sort of use to hold the rudder in place with very little movement, that it will not just swing. This created a belt for his body to hold him down, before he sent the others down. It was getting late, getting dark, when he sailed off by himself on deck. He knew that it would take maybe two to three hours to go around the cape, and it was dark with storm and everything.

He went, so they said. The deck hands, they can hear on top, the water was just simply washed away over the deck. Many times they wondered if the person’s still alive or maybe washed over the deck. But they can feel the little schooner [York boat]. It was still heading, was maintaining its course, and they can feel the control of the person that was steering. That the boat was not just bob bob on the wave, but it was simply steered direct with control. This was the most admiration they have for him, because he was able to steer the ship. Such a small man, and actually not quite trusting the compass. Only his things [instincts] and courage. He was the most highly praised man, that ever worked for the Hudson Bay [Company], amongst the First Nation.

Many sailors in that time have always said, stated, after he resigned, that whenever the storm is approaching they would say, “Now, if we would only have Kahkechewish… now, if we could only have him.” That’s their wish, that they could be as powerful and courageous as he was. So they consider him as one of the powerful men.

It has been said that he was a powerful shaman also. So they say that, you know, he accomplished those things by being a shaman only, not because he is strong and powerful. But he is.

So one time, at that time, when those deck hands were told to stay below, they listened, they listened. They could not rest, they couldn’t sleep, they just listened all the time, and to feel the ship if it will lose control because if it’s lost control they will just roll over with the waves. But the man, the captain maintained sail, not with the waves, but in angles, so that the ship is not going to get over the waves, but to ride at an angle all the time. It was either onto the right angle or to the left angle because he’s exact, not straight to the wind. Not straight into the wind, because if he does that, he would be plunged into the high waves. And, this would cause him to either slip sideways or plunge into the water. That was the skill he had. That one time that he took over the rudder, and steering all that time.

He sailed all around the Cape Henrietta Maria during the night, maintained the course through the night with the very strong wind. And it was late. It was not yet morning that he went in to the Moosonee River. [end of audio 5]

[audio 6]
So that’s the courageous man, went to set sail with the Hudson Bay Company York boats, in the James Bay — in Hudson Bay and James Bay. So this is one story that I wanted to tell, because many men have talked about that. One man that I knew myself, is my grandfather — he was the one who tell the story.

My grandfather has worked with those York boats with other people as captain. But he was, shall we say, a pilot at times, as a day captain. And he knew the dangers about these things. And, to have such person to accomplish such deeds was far beyond one person’s capability. So the reason why I’m telling this, this is a man who literally would do anything for the Hudson Bay Company. Or was it because he has a pride that he has to prove himself that he’s a stronger man than he looks. Or, to show that his power is not just a strength, but the wisdom and the knowledge of the elements.

It was said, it has been said, that he would even wish the weather to happen the way he wants. That was an exaggeration. Some people say, he would summon the favorable wind, whenever he wants. If he wants to move fast, he would just summon the right direction wind so he can travel fast. There were such things in the past. There were such people who have such power, really. Like shamans, the older people. If you ever want to go somewhere by the bay or by water and you want the favorable wind for you to go where you want to go, around the Hudson Bay or James Bay, all you have to do supposedly is to approach an elder, a respected elder who is very wise. Offer him some gift and say: “may the wind be in favor for my journey.” And the man would, the old man would say: “may the wind be in favor for you.” That’s a thanks, and he promises the wish to happen.

Most of the time, our First Nation people believed in this practice. And it was those times that people sailed these wooden schooners or, or boats, they were not schooners. They were not shaped like schooners. They were the flat bottoms and maybe at least six inches keel anyway and to keep it, go straight, with the rudder. And, they did not; I cannot say exactly what the measurement they use to measure them.

I understand in the modern world, scientific meaning there is a tonnage that displaces the water. But these were the very small boats. They could carry perhaps maybe one, two ton, maybe three ton. And, maybe one hundred ton, I’m not so sure. Anyway, they were not big. They were about thirty-five feet long and, probably about ten feet wide and, six feet maybe four feet, maybe three feet deep in the water. Some were a bit large than the other.

So anyway this was a man. To include a link in this story, I like to mention also other people who have done the same thing..." [end of audio 6]

Other Related Material
Where is Cape Henrietta Maria? - Hint: click on 'Explore the maps' and enter Cape Henrietta Maria in the search box.

What does a York boat look like?

Learn more about the aboriginal people who helped establish the HBC - enter "Louis Bird" in the search box to your left.

Who is Louis Bird?

Visit OurVoices.ca - for more stories (beyond the fur trade) by Louis Bird, available in Cree and English.

Did You Know?
Louis Bird is from Peawanuck, Ontario and has shared his stories with audiences throughout Canada, the United States, and Europe. In addition to performing traditional Cree legends, mystery stories, and oral history, Bird has devoted three decades to documenting Cree oral traditions.

He began making audiotape recordings of the stories told by his elders in 1965. Today, his collection comprises more than 340 hours of material - the largest extant collection of such recordings.