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Chapter V

The Young Fur Trader

It was towards the end of July, 1838, that Donald Alexander Smith —to be known henceforth among his fellow clerks as Donald A—began work in the stuffy, ill-smelling storehouse of the Hudson's Bay Company's dépôt at Lachine. His first days were miserable ones; through the long summer days he spent his time counting musk-rat or musquash skins until his fingers were raw. This was the initial step in the making of a fur trader. But he was soon at pleasanter work; counting and sorting beaver, marten, mink, fox, and otter pelts. He rapidly learned the value of the different furs and under the direction of Chief Factor James Keith, who was in charge of the establishment, soon was able to tell from the weight and texture of a skin in what district it had been trapped. What interested him most were the fox skins—black, silver, cross, red, and blue—and he longed for the time when he would be able to judge the value of a silver fox pelt by the number of white hairs distributed through the glossy black surface.

He had other work to do that relieved the monotony of the fur room. There were thirty odd posts in the Montreal department, and much of the time of the clerks was taken up with examining, checking, and copying the statements sent in by the traders at these posts. Then the stock in the dépôt had to be accounted for. Simpson was a finical commander-in-chief and demanded that at all times he could have at a moment's notice a statement of the number of skins in store, and the quantities of trading articles in the dépôts, at the posts, and en route to the posts. He was a martinet, but much of his success was due to the pains he took to have in hand, to its most minute detail, the business of the Company of which he was the responsible head. He may not have made Donald A's life pleasant for him, but he was the means of giving him an invaluable business education.

The young fur trader found that he had joined an organization in which the discipline was as rigid as in an army. Chief Factor James Keith was one of the commissioned officers who joined the Hudson's Bay Company at the time of its amalgamation with the North West Company. He had a watchful eye over the young clerks, and as he was a close personal friend of John Stuart's must have taken somewhat more than ordinary interest in Donald A. But he granted him few favours, and the Highland lad found it difficult to obtain leave of absence even on the Sabbath. However, he sometimes visited Montreal, and one one occasion at least dined at the home of Edward Ellice. Among the guests were Peter Warren Dease, who had recently returned from a remarkable exploring expedition in the Arctic regions; Duncan Finlayson, who was about to leave for Fort Garry to take office as governor of Assiniboia, a man of marked integrity, superior intelligence, and a kindliness and even-handed justice that was to endear him to all men in the Red River settlement; and Peter McGill, the biggest business man of his day in Montreal, a Legislative councillor, a governor of McGill College, Chairman of the St. Lawrence and Champlain Railway, President of the Bank of Montreal, and soon to be Mayor of Montreal. These men little thought that the shy, somewhat awkward, fair-haired Scots lad in their midst, who, as a last resort, had bound himself body and soul to the Hudson's Bay Company, was a potential human force greater than the most successful among them. Dease had pioneered his way over rugged mountains and along difficult rivers; this lad in the fullness of time was to be the main force in driving a line of steel across the Rockies to the Pacific, fulfilling the dream of explorers from the times of Columbus—a North-West Passage to the South Sea, but a North-West Passage by land. He was to be President of the Bank of Montreal, a member of the Parliament of a united British North America, Chancellor of McGill University, and the builder of railways that make McGill's railway look like an ancient horse-car line. Finlayson was to be governor of Assiniboia, the second highest gift in the bestowal of the Hudson's Bay Company in America; but this apprentice clerk, sitting dumb at the board, was to attain the governorship of the Great Company and the High Commissionership of the Dominion of Canada, an office, and indeed a Dominion, which was still in the womb of the future.

There was much of interest and excitement during the first month of Donald A's sojourn at Lachine. Lord Durham on his return from Upper Canada, where he had been studying the political situation, stopped at Lachine and was entertained by Governor Simpson. He came believing that he had permanently put down rebellion, and had he been left to himself would probably have done so. He came in pomp and Simpson received him with lavish display—a thing he delighted in for himself and for any live lord or lordling that came his way. As the weeks flew by it was found that the rebellious attitude of a portion of the population of Lower Canada was far from being dead. Armed bands were gathering at different points in the province, and it was said that a body of rebels had planned an attack on Lachine. Young Smith was ready to do his bit at this critical time. On the eighth of November in a letter to his mother he wrote regarding the rebellion: "It is said that General Colborne and General McDonell will leave in people to-day, and this time it is certain that the rebels will be shown no mercy. If it is not crushed soon, the civil and loyal population will enlist en masse, and you may expect to hear of my going as a soldier." He was ready to give himself to help put down rebellion against constituted authority. Sixty years later, when no longer able to fight, he was to send a regiment to South Africa to help suppress what he considered a rebellion against British authority. From youth to old age Donald Smith was loyal to the Company in whose service he was employed, loyal to his adopted country, and loyal to the great British Empire.

About this time he received a letter from his uncle, John Stuart. Donald had evidently written home giving his reasons for joining the Hudson's Bay Company the deplorable political and social situation in the Canadas. Stuart was not altogether pleased that he had "finally elected to take service with the old Company." "I confess," he wrote, "I was at first filled with surprise." He had made up his mind that his nephew would settle in Upper Canada, no doubt in the employment of the Canada Company. However, Donald had burnt his ships behind him and the uncle had to accept the situation. He could win success with the gentlemen adventurers. "The only, or at least the chief, drawback," he said, "is that you are dependent upon the goodwill and caprice of one man, who is a little too much addicted to prejudices for speedy advancement." He hastened to modify this statement. Simpson could appreciate "downright hard work coupled with intelligence but was intolerant of 'puppyism,' by which I mean carelessness and presumption." "It is his foible," he added, "to exact not only strict obedience, but deference to the point of humility." Donald A. was never a favourite with Simpson and his lot might have been made harder, if that were possible, had this letter to the apprentice clerk at Lachine been censored. His uncle closed his letter with kindly advice: "Life is all before you; keep a stout heart and lay in a stock of that desirable commodity, patience, and all will be well."

For nearly three years Donald Smith was at either Lachine or at the posts in the immediate vicinity. He was taught field work by occasional trips to the trading centres on the Ottawa and spent a part of his time at the post on the Lake of Two Mountains and no doubt visited the posts at Fort Coulonge and Lac des Allumettes. During these years he had his heart set on the Northern or the Columbia departments. Each year as he saw Simpson make ready canoes with which he was to set out on his tour of inspection to the far west he hoped that he would be ordered to join the expedition. Each year as he watched the occasional canoes sweeping down the Ottawa from Fort William he longed to return with them to the country where his uncles had achieved distinction. But Simpson had another fate in store for him. In the early spring of 1841, the little governor, small in soul as he was in person, returned from England where he had been knighted for his achievements in exploration; shining in borrowed plumage, for the work for which he was honoured, although under his direction, was done by men like Peter Warren Dease, and his own cousin, Thomas Simpson. He was now to set out in state on a journey worthy of a knight, a trip around the world. He was an ill-doer, and therefore as the Scots say, an ill-dreader, and before leaving Lachine he decided to settle the future of young Smith, the nephew of John Stuart who had left the service of the Hudson's Bay Company contrary to his wish. There were no harder posts in the wide stretch of country occupied by the Company than the King's Posts, situated on the northern shore of the St. Lawrence, and extending from Murray Bay (Malbaie) to Mingan, a stretch of about three hundred miles. The region was rapidly being denuded of furs and now that silk had been substituted for beaver in the manufacture of hats these posts were proving unprofitable and might soon be abandoned. Simpson callously, at a moment's notice, to make ready for a journey for Tadousac, the chief of the King's Posts. This was a cruel blow; Donald A. had evidently, with boyish enthusiasm, been telling his fellow clerks that he expected to be sent to the western country. There was much mirth at his expense when it was known that he had been ordered to Tadousac. The joke must have been bitter enough to young Smith. Neither he nor the other apprentice clerks could see that the King's Posts and afterwards Labrador were to be a case of reculer pour mieux sauter, to prove the best springboard for Rupert's Land. He was the sort of people, as it happened, whom not even Simpson with all his wealth of graveyards could successfully bury. But there were before the young trader years of the barest kind of life, and he was not made of iron to begin with. He had to harden himself by a painful process, to work up the iron out of flesh like other people. On one occasion his heart was to grow faint and he wrote home suggesting that he would leave the service. But his Spartan mother kept him at his post. Gradually he was to become inured to the life. He bent his back to the yoke and learnt well the first lessons to be mastered by anyone who wishes to succeed—to obey, to endure, to occupy himself with his business, and to hold his tongue.

When Simpson commanded there was nothing for it but to obey, and Donald Smith made hasty preparations for his journey to Tadousac. Two days after receiving his order he was on his way to Quebec along the north shore of the St. Lawrence by stage-sleigh. It was the end of March, but the season was a backward one and full winter still reigned in the land. Near Murray Bay the road ended, so Smith and his guide donned snow-shoes and tramped the rest of the way to the Saguenay, at whose mouth Tadousac is situated. They halted for a brief space while a boat was being secured to carry them across to the Hudson's Bay Company's post, which nestled at the river side in a setting of sand and rock, with a background of rugged hills crowned by stunted pine trees. At this point, about three hundred miles below Montreal, and at more isolated posts still further to the east, Donald Smith was to spend the next six years of his life.

Tadousac was not without its interest. It was the oldest known trading point in North America. Since Jacques Cartier first visited this shore in 1535 and from its rugged sterile appearance looked upon it as the region bestowed on Cain after the murder of his brother, traders and fishermen had been visiting it. There is a sheltered harbour at the mouth of the swift black river—or rather estuary of the sea—which only on two or three occasions in the memory of man has been known to be bridged with ice at its mouth. Here in the early days came the cockle-shell craft of adventurous mariners from St. Malo, Dieppe, Honfleur, Havre de Grace, and La Rochelle and an occasional Spanish or Dutch vessel after whales, walruses and seals, but rarely returning home without a goodly load of furs under their hatches.

After the founding of Quebec by Champlain in 1608 there was some attempt to organize the trade of the Tadousac region, but the freebooters ever gave trouble. At first the companies in charger of the affairs of New France held the trading rights. Here the Kirkes came in 1628 and for four years held the place. When the Company of New France (often called the Company of the Hundred Associates) secured a monopoly of the trade of New France the privileges of the Tadousac trade were sold at auction. For a time they were held by the West Indian Company and finally when Royal government was established in New France the trade of the region below Quebec was taken back by the King of France and the trading centres along the north shore became known as the King's Domain (Domaine du Roi), whence the name "King's Posts." Under British rule the trading privileges were leased out to different individuals or companies until finally they were taken over by the Hudson's Bay Company. Here in the early days an enormous trade in furs had been carried on, but about the time of Donald Smith's arrival the trade was negligible, and but for the seals and salmon the posts would in all probability have been closed.

The snow was beginning to disappear when Donald Smith reached Tadousac and with the bourgeois who was in charge of the post and an employee or two he was kept busy making preparations for the spring trade. The Indians were coming: "not men only, but women and children and dogs, of all ages and conditions, each dragging sleds, or hand-toboggans, bearing the precious freight of fur to the trading-post. The braves marched in front, too proud and too lazy to carry anything but their guns, and not always doing even that. After them came the squaws, bending under loads, driving dogs, or hauling hand-sleds laden with meat, furs, tanned deer-skins, and infants."1 When the post was reached trade at once began. Although the beaver trade had recently declined, the beaver skin was still the standard of exchange. The following is a concise and accurate account of the trade methods obtaining not only at Tadousac but at every post of the Hudson's Bay Company:

"The trader, having separated the furs, and valued each at the standard valuation, now adds the amount together and informs the Indian—who has been a deeply interested spectator of all this strange procedure—that he has got sixty or seventy 'skins.' At the same time he hands his customer sixty or seventy little bits of wood, to represent the number of skins; so that the latter may know, by returning these in payment of the goods for which he really barters his furs, how fast his funds decrease.

"The first act of the Indian is to cancel the debt of last year. This is for advances made him at the beginning of the season; for the company generally issue to the Indians such goods as they need, up to a certain amount, when the summer supplies arrive at the forts, such advances to be returned in furs at the end of the season.

"After that he looks round upon the bales of cloth, guns, blankets, knives, beads, ribbons, etc., which constitute the staples of the trade, and after a long while, concludes to have a small white capote. The trader tells him the price, but he has a great deal of difficulty in understanding that eight or ten skins only equal one capote. If an Indian were to bring in a hundred skins of different sorts, or all alike, he would trade off every one separately, and insist on payment for each, as he sold it. It is a curious and interesting sight to watch him selecting from the stores articles that he may require, as he disposes of skin after skin. If he has only a small number he walks into the shop with his blanket about him, and not a skin visible. After some preliminary skirmishing he produces one from under his blanket, trades it, taking in exchange what he absolutely needs; then he stops. Just as one thinks the trading is over, he produces another peltry from beneath his blanket, and buys something else. Thus he goes on until, having bought all the necessities he requires, he branches off into the purchase of luxuries—candy, fancy neckties, etc. Under so slow a process an Indian trader needs to possess more than average patience.

"When the little white capote has been handed the Indian, the trader tells him the price is ten skins. The purchaser hands back ten little pieces of wood, then looks about for something else; his squaw standing at his elbow, and suggesting such things as they need. Everything is carefully examined, and with each purchase the contest over the apparent inequality between the amount received for that given is renewed. With him, one skin should pay for one article of merchandise, no matter what the value of the latter. And he insists also upon selecting the skin."

In such surroundings and at work such as this the future Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal was to spend over twenty years of his life. From Tadousac he was sent to still more remote King's Posts—Ile Jérémie, Godbout, Bersimis, Seven Islands, and Mingan. During the summer season life was bearable, his time was then fully occupied with trading and his clerical duties, but the long winters were most trying. However, he managed to keep his mind active and always had by him some standard work of history or literature. Among the books provided for its posts by the Company were some of those now almost forgotten but almost always admirably written volumes by its own traders, and in the long solitary hours of the northern winter the young fur trader read and reflected until he had thoroughly made the past history of the fur-trade as well as its present practice into stuff of his own mind and could look with clear eyes into the future. Occasional newspapers from Montreal and Quebec reached the post at which he was stationed. These he eagerly devoured and thus became as intimate with the public questions agitating the Canadas as the dwellers in the centres of population. While on the Ottawa he had begun the study of French, a knowledge of which was essential to anyone engaged in the fur trade in Canada. At the King's Posts he became, as he himself wrote in a letter home, "very friendly with the Catholic missionaries." They assisted him in his efforts to acquire a knowledge of the French language. He was particularly indebted in this regard to the priest at L'Anse St. Jean whom he spoke of as "a kindly young man, who has suffered many hardships and is ready to suffer more without complaint. I owe a good deal of my proficiency in French and many hours of companionship to him." His life at this time was not without its dangers. He had frequently to make lengthy journeys in the depth of winter, but he never went abroad without the most careful preparations against all accidents. He had always with him an extra supply of clothing and never failed to carry a heavy Scotch plaid, the parting gift of his other.

In 1847 Donald Smith was at Mingan, the Hudson's Bay Company's Post directly opposite North Point, Anticosti Island. With dogged determination he was plodding at his dreary duties, the outlook as gloomy as when he first began work at Tadousac. One summer day he returned from a trading trip to find the house in which he lived a blazing ruin. It is said that he "at once proceeded to fling into the flames his own clothing, books, and other effects" which had been rescued. For the moment he was in despair, the pent up feelings of years had got the better of him and he no doubt felt like leaping after his treasured belongings. This was a year of calamity. His eyes had been troubling him and in the early autumn he was threatened with snow-blindness. He was told that in all probability he would become totally blind. He had thrice written to Sir George Simpson asking leave of absence to consult a physician, but his letters had remained unanswered. In November the Company's schooner Marten was leaving Mingan for Montreal. If he let this chance pass by another opportunity of getting to a place where he could obtain proper medical advice might not occur for a year, and so with the consent of the bourgeois in charge he took passage on the Marten. When he reached Lachine he at once waited on Sir George. He was received in a most brutal manner and asked why he had dared leave his post without leave of absence. However, Sir George called in his physician who at once examined the patient's eyes and administered a remedy. He told Sir George that there was nothing seriously the matter, and that there was no danger of total blindness, as young Smith had feared. On hearing which, the Governor turned to the sufferer and ordered him to leave for "his new post" in thirty minutes. His new post was in Esquimaux Bay (Hamilton Inlet) district on the bleak coast of Labrador. The snows of winter now covered the land; there was no stage farther east than Quebec, and to reach Esquimaux Bay he would have to travel on snow-shoes or on sleds for fully one thousand miles. A crueller, more heartless command was never given by a tyrant. But promotion was in sight; to refuse to obey would mean dismissal from the Company and the labour and hardships and training of the last nine years would be wasted. For a moment the rebellious blood surged to his brain, but the next moment he decided to obey; and bowing courteously to Sir George he walked from the little autocrat's cosy library and began his preparations for one of the more trying journeys ever taken by traveller or trader in the wilds of North America.

1 Robinson, H. M.: "The Great Fur Land," p. 326.

1 Robinson, H. M.: "The Great Fur Land," p. 331-333.

[Public Domain] Copyright/Licence: The author or authors of this work died in 1964 or earlier, and this work was first published no later than 1964. Therefore, this work is in the public domain in Canada per sections 6 and 7 of the Copyright Act. See disclaimers.