Beth Camp Historical Fiction

Friday, April 29, 2016

Y is for York Factory

Full circle. York Factory, the fur trading headquarters of the Hudson's Bay Company's Northern Department is where my novel, Rivers of Stone, began.

Catriona, disguised as a boy, and Dougal, her husband, landed here when the annual ship arrived from Britain late in the summer of 1842. 

They met an interesting array of historical personages, including James Hargrave, the Chief Factor, and his wife, Letitia, a gossipy letter-writer some 15 years younger than her husband, who has given us pretty clear pictures of what life was like at that isolated fur trading post.

Situated in the middle of Cree country, York Factory was near enough to Hudson's Bay to be affected by every storm that rose over its waters. In the winter, Polar bears and wolves scampered on the ice, hunting for unsuspecting sea otters. In the summer, this main supply depot was pretty much surrounded by marshland. Workers sank to their ankles in mud and had to walk five miles to gather firewood. Everyone dreaded the black flies and mosquitoes.

Letitia Hargrave described York Factory as surrounded by ". . . a desolate waste of green swamp grass and small scrub as far as the eye could see" (McGoogan 52).

York Factory in 1853 (Wikipedia)
By the 1840s, York Factory was an fenced outpost of some 30 buildings built of wood, with the main depot and guest houses in the center. Along each side, a hospital, doctor's house, bakehouse, cooperage, library, various fur and provisions stores, and quarters for officers and servants. In the center, the Company flag flapped from a tall pine (Newman 50).  

But the lives of those who lived there year round were complicated by boundaries of class and race. In the winter, Letitia Hargrave might dine with the 'gentlemen' and officers, but through the summer, when the men ate outside, she dined alone. 

James Hargrave had a piano brought for his new wife; she was rare, a European wife with a servant from the Orkney Islands in a land of country wives. In the earlier years of the fur trade era, such wives, both Metis and tribal, were prized. The marriages were arranged by the father of the young woman and the husband to be. Property was exchanged (typically horses), and the husband promised to honor his wife all his life (Brown 76). But gradually, such marriages were seen as an impediment to promotion by ambitious clerks far from home. 

Letitia befriended such a country wife and wrote of Mrs. Gladman that she had been 'married' when she was 12 to a Mr. Stewart: ". . . She was dragged out of her mother's room and sent away with him & he beat & maltreated her til life was a burden" (MacInnes). After nine years, Mr. Stewart left her, and she 'went with' Mr. Gladman. Letitia continues,  ". . . from what she says, the ladies here have a custom of smothering their babies" (MacInnes).  I've read elsewhere that some tribal families hid their daughters and/or their children when the traders visited.

Tomorrow marks the last day of the April A to Z Blogging Challenge, with an entry for the letter Z. I wonder what zat will be?

Some references: Peter C. Newman, An Illustrated History of the Hudson's Bay CompanyJennifer S. H. Brown, Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country; and Morag MacInnes, "Letitia Hargrave in the Nor'Wast," Frontiers Magazine

Another helpful read is Michael Payne's The Most Respectable Place in the Territory: Everyday Life in Hudson's Bay Company Service, York Factory, 1788 to 1870 (found at a used book store!).