Beth Camp Historical Fiction

Saturday, April 09, 2016

H is for Letitia Hargrave of York Factory

Why do people marry? Looking back to the 19th Century's fur trade era, many marriages (sometimes called liaisons) were made in the fashion of the country. Fur traders contracted with Native wives, honoring their wives and large families. Sometimes, like today, the marriage was a shambles, and the wife and children were abandoned. 

In the earliest days of the Hudson's Bay Company, such marriages were discouraged. But the benefits of having complex family relationships -- not only for companionship at isolated posts -- but connections to power brokers, the cousin of my cousin, were highly valued in the competitive fur trade. 

Around the 1840s, those Company officers and gentlemen began to import European wives, women with little experience of the wilderness that would surround them. 

Letitia Hargrave was an exception, for her uncle and three brothers were active in the fur trade. In 1837, She met James Hargrave, Chief Factor of York Factory, when he came to Scotland on a home visit. Their courtship was by mail. On his return, they married in 1840 and traveled to the hub of Hudson's Bay Company operations in Canada.

When Letitia Hargrave arrived at York Factory after nearly 3-1/2 months on the sailing vessel, Prince Rupert, she broke down in tears. Some think this may have been due to the isolation and wilderness at York Factory, but I found an article that suggests the rigors of the voyage led her to cry out of sheer joy the voyage had ended! 

I cannot imagine spending nearly 3 months being seasick on a rolling ship through storms and ice, and sharing a small cabin with three other women and several unnamed servants.  

George Back, watercolour, “An Iceberg, a Ship and Some Walrus near the Entrance of Hudson Strait,” dated c. 1840. Source: N. Jean Hall, Doing Canadian History.

York Factory was to be her home. She brought her maid and a piano. And she wrote letters to her family back home. Long, gossipy letters that captured the reality of living at York Factory that today offer a unique resource for understanding what life was like. In April 1841, her first child caused a sensation in the small community. In December 1842, she lost her second son. 

Truly, I don't know how I feel about Letitia. I admire her tenacity and deplore her strict social codes that ostracized some. Her insights about the people who were a part of York Factory are invaluable and help me answer what it must have been like to have lived then. Of course, most likely, I would have been one of the maids.

For further reading: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, article on sea travel, "Opportunities in Transit: HBC Ships as Sites of Social Process," and Norma J. Hall's encyclopedic resources on Doing Canadian History.  Letitia Hargrave's letters are available online through the Champlain Library (individual pages) HERE.

Writing historical fiction relies on research. Sometimes I get sidetracked by fascinating stories. This month, for the April 2016 A to Z Blogging Challenge, I'm writing a bit on the history behind my novel, Rivers of Stone (forthcoming 2016). The novel began when I discovered Hawaiian workers at Fort Vancouver in Washington and then read of a young girl who disguised herself as a man to work for the Hudson's Bay Company in the 19th Century.

Check out more than 1,800 CONTRIBUTORS for the A2Z Challenge HERE.

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