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ERIC KRAUSE REPORTS
MY HISTORICAL REPORTS
PUBLISHED ON THE INTERNET
THE FISHERIES OF THE HUDSON BAY COMPANY AT FORT CHIPEWYAN, 1791 - 1871
BY ERIC KRAUSE (1976)
1 Map showing approximate location of places mentioned in the text.
The discovery of a collection of journals depicting the daily activities and frustrations of the inland fishermen who feed the great fur-trading concerns of North America would be invaluable. They would provide at long last an overdue insight into lives too long obscured by the lack of any historical record arid might even generate the same romantic picture now shared alone by the fur trader and explorer of that period. Like the traders and explorers the fisherman faced with as much courage an equally harsh climate, the same dangers of attack, the suffering diseases, the long voyages and death. But alas, they were not as conspicuous in the exciting chase for furs and new lands as others were: rather, they were engaged in the behind-the-scenes task of providing food, not the open pursuit of wealth or prestige.
It was at all times quite clear to the fisherman what his station was. Never asked to keep journals or send literary reports, he rarely volunteered even if the ability were there. At best he could count on being told to record the number of nets in use or the quantities of fish caught. At worst he was scolded for laziness when all knew that production was down because of the fish rather than the man.
Lack of recognition, however, did not mean that a fisherman's job was less important than that of the fur trader or explorer, for without him these men would often have been unable to carry on. Most exemplary were the Hudson's Bay Company fisheries on Lake Athabasca and its tributaries. Here fort hunters traditionally proved a sorry lot indeed, and the quantity of provisions supplied by them rarely exceeded starvation levels. Whenever the fisheries suffered their seasonal declines, the talk must have invariably turned to starvation - but always the fish returned in time. So while talked about, starvation never affected this area as it did some other inland posts.
In 1791, Malchom Ross, Philip Turnor and Peter Fidler arrived at the North West Company's establishment of Fort Chipewyan (Old Fort) on an Athabasca expedition for the Hudson's Bay Company. What they observed was the finest fur-trading post then to be found in the interior. Their description was extremely-sketchy, however. The post was built on a high sandy point on the west side of a bay, with few trees about (yet sheltered from the biting north wind), with the bays on its two sides nearly making it an island. About one-third of a mile away a lofty hill to the east drew their attention. l
Ross quickly decided that they should build a house near the Canadian one as everyone there seemed quite friendly. Picking a site only 600 to 700 yards southeast of Fort Chipewyan (south-southeast according to the surveyor Turnor), Ross pitched a leather tent to live in until the new house was completed. 2 On 22 August, the ground was cleared for the foundation; on the twenty-fourth, upright posts were squared, and by the twenty-fifth a foundation was in place standing east and west and measuring 24 by 15 feet. Except for Fidler, who was to winter, in the interior with the Indians, and Ross, all the men were to move into the house with Turnor occupying the west end, separated from the men by a partition 10 feet from the west wall. Ross was to live in another house standing north and south, with the doors facing to the west. The foundation for his building measured 18 by 15 feet and was to be partitioned 7 feet from the north wall so as to create a warehouse and trading room. Although Ross did not think that any goods or provisions would be procured that year, he planned to keep such with him, presumably for reasons of security. 3
During September construction continued: 12 September people building chimneys (Ross splitting sticks for doors); 15 September - one chimney finished, another started; 16 September - men putting earth in Ross's apartment, plastering the sides with mud; 17 September - plaster put inside the apartment; 19 September - two men getting boards for the doors and men laying the floor of Ross's apartment; 20 September - carpenter making door; 21 September - windows put in and Ross hung a door; 23 September - people mudding house; 26 September - man laying the floor of Turnor's apartment. On various other days, boards were split for beds and tables were made. 4
Turnor later described these buildings as "little houses or huts" built with logs laid one upon the other. Mud was then placed in the seams and also on the roof with a covering layer of sand. According to Turnor such buildings were normally warm, being usually built in the summer, allowing time for the mud to dry. Not surprisingly, then, he found these particular houses uncomfortable as they had been built late in the season. All too soon October arrived and the mud froze with the moisture still in it. Now even with the best of fires there was no way for the mud to dry that winter. 5
Although the company envisioned a wintering post for this place, Ross also saw the advantages of a permanent Hudson's Bay Company establishment on Lake Athabasca because of the abundance of furs in the area. But on 3 May 1792, the houses were abandoned after "shutting up the doors and windows." 6 Not until 1802 did the Hudson's Bay Company again make its presence known in the area, and what became of the houses is now a matter of conjecture.
The winter of 1791-72 was a hard one for Ross's little company of men. They constantly suffered from lack of fish because of a shortage of nets (only six) and because those they did have were of an insufficient size, each being 70 yards in length. The first of the two problems caused the greatest hardship as it bore more directly on the number of fish that could be caught. With just six nets on hand, Turnor was forced to fish with only four in the water at any one time. Each day he took one net out of the water and replaced it with another. He then washed the removed net in scalding water and dried it over a fire. The drying process normally took a whole day because of the coldness of the winter. Owing to the poor quality of the twine, the following day Turnor mended the net before preparing it that night for setting in the water the next morning. 7
Net lengths were, however, less critical even though they fell short of the recommended 125 yards each. 8 The four nets could be set in a gang if necessary so as to create one long barrier. Of course, if each individual net had been longer, the effectiveness of a long net would have been even that much greater. The advantage of a long net over four individual nets was that the added length would have made little difference both in time and difficulty for the fisherman in the setting and pulling of his nets. The disadvantage, however, was that the fisherman would now have committed all his nets to just one part of the lake.
In the winter, the fishermen of Lake Athabasca set their nets under the ice, employing a primitive jigger. First several holes were cut in the ice at a distance which allowed a long stick (the jigger) to be passed under the ice from one hole to the next by means of forked sticks. To the end of the jigger was attached a hauling line on which the set net was fastened. In place of leads and corks the fisherman used sticks and stones. He had to take great care to ensure that he did not twist the net when he passed it down under the ice to the next hole, and that the net hung straight up and down. Of course, when nets were set in gangs, where distance and water depth permitted, the necessary number of holes exceeded the number of nets by only one because the ends of two nets could stand at the same hole. 9 The North West Company employed the same methods in the winter, the difference being that they probably had more nets of the recommended size.
Apparently the Hudson's Bay Company set its nets only off Old Fort Point that winter. The following spring, Turnor concluded that a fine fishery could be made in the area off the fort for about three weeks in October after the appearance of first ice. Though not always true, as later proven, Turnor was convinced that anyone could catch enough fish in that short season in that place to last about four months. 10 After October, however, the fish would be found in smaller quantities as the water about the nets shallowed. Then it would be necessary to set farther out from land, "where the Canadian nets is." 11
Of course, the North West Company was fishing in the same waters about Old Fort Point, but its men also took advantage of good fishing grounds near several of the islands along the north shore of Lake Athabasca, east of present-day Fort Chipewyan. 12 It is unlikely, however, that Turnor also fished these grounds at this time, for he was short of nets and men. Later in the new year, Turnor may have thought about it as his fish stocks began to diminish rapidly, 13 but by then the fishing season must have been finished there, too.
He decided instead that his men should set fish hooks under the ice at night. They caught a few trout, some weighing as much as 24 pounds, but not all were palatable. 14 By spring, Turnor had ordered his men to angle at a place about 13 miles east of the houses where the Canadians were fishing. Once again he set nets about the houses. 15 The North West Company presumably was not as desperate since they had better knowledge of the fishing areas and had the advantage of a "winter" fishery at the islands. 16
The principal fish found in the Hudson's Bay Company nets that winter was whitefish, or "Tickameg" as the Indians called it. The nets also produced some "perch" and pike and even an occasional trout. Also that winter came the first and only complaint of fish as food. Turnor noted that whitefish and "perch" could turn very soft after the beginning of December, no doubt because the Company was not fishing in the best waters for that time of the year. On the other hand pike continued good, and was especially tasty "when made into a kind of forcemeat balls with the inside of the Moose or Buffalo." 17 Further he noted that fish "do not eat well after they have been froze a few days but have a strong oily flavour. "18 But he did concede that whitefish maintained its flavour while some others, like sturgeon, always tasted bad if frozen. 19
After the Hudson's Bay Company left Lake Athabasca the records became scattered. At an indeterminable date (probably between 1801 and 1803), Alexander Mackenzie gave an interesting description of Indian winter fishing methods with gill nets. l The mesh and lines on which the netting was hung were made of caribou skin. Although then technically similar to European methods, Indian landings were generally lower, a factor which Mackenzie attributed to the difference in the thickness of the mesh material. European twine and hence thinner mesh produced larger catches. As an aside, Mackenzie felt too that any net made of colours would attract more fish: red, yellow and bronze (?) seemed best. Then he went on to note that the Chipewyans frequently made their hoops from the knot of the pine tree. The nets were set under the ice, baited with a piece of "red carp" (sucker) and visited every morning for the trout which might have wandered in.
The two companies apparently did not use hoop nets on Lake Athabasca but rather the previously described gill nets. On the other hand, both they and the Indians angled for fish in the same way. Each used the stomach of the whitefish (which was to be kept very clean) as bait for trout. According to Mackenzie, the best month was March when 15 to 20 trout could be landed in just a few hours.
In 1802, the Hudson's Bay Company returned to Lake Athabasca and found the North West Company relocated on the present site of Fort Chipewyan, on the north shore of the lake. Like Ross, Fidler established his fort, Fort Nottingham, close to Fort Chipewyan II, probably to keep an eye on his rivals and to entice the Indians away from them. With him he had two nets used on the voyage to Lake Athabasca. l By 21 September he had decided on an island about three-quarters of a mile from Fort Chipewyan as his fall fishery. Each day the nets were lifted for fish or repairs. By 5 October two more nets had been made by the men, but by the thirteenth the danger of drift ice carrying away or ruining the nets prevented any from being set. 2 This yearly event characterized the change-over from fall to winter fishing - the delay occasioned by transferring the nets from open water to beneath the ice, the wait for the lake to freeze over and the hope that the fall fishery had produced enough fish to prevent hardships.
After freeze-up and when the ice finally could support the fisherman and his equipment, Fidler decided to set one net under the ice where his fall fishery had been located, and to send the other three nets over to the Old Fort (Fort Chipewyan I), "as that is the most plentiful place in the fall." 3 Fifteen men of the new XY Company were already there at the fort, fishing for themselves.
Fidler decided that two of his men should remain with some nets and winter at "Old Fort" at a shed (Ross's old dwellings?). There they were to build (another shed or but?) and fish for Nottingham House, where nets had also been set. Fidler noted too that most of the men of the other companies were engaged in fishing. 4 Apparently none of the companies had yet adopted the practice of designating only certain individuals as fishermen, although the Hudson's Bay Company came the closest to doing so.
By 24 November, most fish had vacated the area about Nottingham House because of shallow water (yet Fidler continued setting nets there until the new year), but this did not prove too severe a hardship because Fidler thought that the take at Old Fort would last at least until trout fishing season began in March. On 9 December, he ordered the fishermen at Old Fort back to the House with all their fishing equipment, leaving one man to guard the fish at Old Fort from the Indians camping nearby, until the fish could be removed to Nottingham House.5
Back at the House, the men were felling logs for a "shed" in which to store the fish. The work began on 20 December. On 11 January 1803, the men had procured roofing sticks; on the thirteenth they had the ridge pole in place and on the fourteenth they had part of the roof sticks on the shed. 6
The fish carters of old Fort made their last trip to Nottingham House on 26 January. Fidler had employed three men as haulers and one as guard at the fishery. In addition, the XY Company had been openly assisting them with men and dogs and sledges. Fidler now closed the fish shed at the House, presumably to protect the fish from animals and the greedy fingers of both his and his rivals' men. That winter his fishermen at the Old Fort had caught 825 whitefish, 221 jack fish, 150 "perch", 680 suckers (the worst kind of fish) and 15 "methy" (burbot). No estimate of the fish caught at Nottingham House was made. Fidler's major complaint was that the severe weather from across the open lake had made the hauling from Old Fort a "bad job.
After the addition of some men who had journeyed to the House from the Peace River settlement, Fidler decided on 25 January that nine should go to Big Island (10 miles distant) with nets to fish for themselves. They were to live off the catch still stored at Old Fort until they could place their nets under the ice, which by then was three feet thick. Three others he sent to a place not designated, to fish for themselves and Nottingham House. 8 According to Fidler's earlier policy, any man sent out to fish for himself should take along two nets, each of 60 fathoms. However, as this would have left him short of nets, Fidler decided instead to provide only two nets for all the Peace River men. To those men at Big Island he later sent hooks with which to angle for trout. 9
On 23 February, Fidler again had the men working on the fish shed at Nottingham House. By the twenty-fifth, they had all the roofing sticks in place and the shed was now ready for mudding, flooring and a door. The men finished plastering with earth on 15 March and on the sixteenth they layed the floor and put on the door. All the remaining fish were then transferred to storage. 10
Fidler realized that few provisions other than fish would be available for the men on the spring journey; thus he ordered that all trout possible be caught. He also sent a man to Old Fort to check on the amount of fish remaining at the fish house as he had had reports that wolves might have broken into it. He knew too that the fishermen camping on Fishing or Fishery Island (Big Island) would still have some fish on hand as at one time they had had eleven nets in the water. All the jack fish and trout found at these places were then to be split and dried for the spring journeys, even though he knew they would make poor hauling and an inconvenience in cooking. 11
Though the men on Lake Athabasca never described their method of splitting and drying, there is a modern version.
Herring and inconnu are dried in considerable numbers. The procedure is the same for all species, including the whitefish which predominate in Arctic Red River catches. The fish is split down the back, the two fillets remaining joined along the belly. The viscera are carefully removed, the roes being separated. The backbone is then detached from both sides, except at the tail. The clean fillets are scored crossways with the knife at intervals of 1 to 2 inches; similar incisions are cut long ways in the belly, and in the larger fish the knife is also thrust between the neural spines of the vertebrae in half a dozen places. The fish is then thrown over a stage of 4-inch poles, high enough to be out of reach of dogs and small children; the fillets hang down on one side, the backbone on the other. They are left here about three days, after which they are removed to similar racks in a smoke-tent or house, where a poplarwood fire smoulders on the floor. Smoking takes 48 hours, improves the flavour, and prevents the development of blowfly eggs. The cured fish are afterwards tied in bunches by the tail, and left on the outdoor stages until baled. About three-quarters of the weight is lost in the process. The roes and guts are frequently dried separately. Dogs enjoy meat, skin, scales, guts, bones and all. 12
To keep his dried fish "from moulding," Fidler spread them up the stairs at Nottingham House, including some whitefish which the men had provided. 13 Evidently, Fidler never ordered any smoked since he bemoaned the fact that his fish would need to be cooked on the voyage. 14 At any rate, when he left on his spring journey, he was able to provide 160 pounds of dry fish for each canoe. 15
The summer fishery that year was a failure as Fidler found out after his return to Nottingham in September 1803. He had left 12 nets, but the floating driftwood in the high water had destroyed any chance of a good fishery. 16 Little is known about where Fidler's men fished that first summer, though in May they had tried their luck about the house. By September they were fishing at Big Rock about four miles away. At that time of the season fish could never be caught any closer to the House. Since the fishermen were using a tent, they were apparently moving about a great deal in search of fish. 17
That fall and winter, Fidler ignored old Fort as a fishery entirely. No definite reason was given. Most certainly, it was not because the fishing was poor at that place; all the North West men were fishing there. 18 Instead, Fidler chose Goose Island. As the XY Company had fished there the previous fall, perhaps Fidler decided that more fish could be caught in open water than around Old Fort. 19 On the other hand, it is clear why a fishery was not started up at Old Fort once the ice had set in; the one at Goose Island had remained reasonably good and continued so until its waters began to shallow. At about this time too, the North West men abandoned Old Fort in favour of Fishing Island (according to Fidler, about 20 miles from Goose Island, later revised to 18 miles northeast). 20
On 30 November, Fidler ordered two men to assist the two fishermen at Goose Island in moving to deeper waters about Fishing Island, and to help set six nets under the ice. All the dogs and sledges at Nottingham House were employed in the move. The assistants were told to remain with the fishermen until they had fish to bring back for the House. Fidler later ordered an additional man to remain with the fishermen as an assistant. Daily fish carters were to haul back to the House all the fish that could be handled. 21
In January 1804, the fishermen on the island decided to build a small house as the tent did not provide enough warmth. Small wonder - on 5 January, the temperature plummeted to 51 degrees below zero. Two men were sent to assist in the construction. When finished the small house measured 13 by 11 feet. 22
All the fish held in store at Fishing Island were received at Nottingham in March and put in the snow about the House. On 6 April, Fidler noted, "Our fishery has been very fortunate this winter having already caught a sufficiency to serve till the spring when the river opens," that is, when the driving ice of spring disappeared and nets could be set again without danger of being swept away or ruined. Like the event in the fall, this characterized a change-over too - this time from winter to summer fishing when a delay occurred between the removal of the nets from beneath the ice to their safe placement in open water. The men were meanwhile splitting and drying trout for the spring journey, apparently since other provisions were again unavailable. 23
By 15 May, the Hudson's Bay Company was fishing in the waters about the House, "as our fish caught in the winter is now become bad by the hot weather of late." But their predicament was not nearly as bad as that of the other two companies for they were all - nearly to the man - once again fishing for themselves rather than building up a supply for the fort. 24
Before Fidler left Lake Athabasca on 21 May for his spring voyage to Cumberland, he ordered logs and roofing sticks be cut sufficient for a house 58 feet long, 17 feet wide and 14 feet high. 25 Upon his return in September he found that few fish had been caught by his two fishermen during the summer. They now returned from the Big Rock, about 4 miles distant, where they had been all summer, and put down a net at the House. Still they caught few fish as the season was not yet right at Nottingham. Fidler noted that good fishing could only be expected here in the fall and spring: - in the summer, the nets had to be about 4 miles away; in the winter, about 18.26
On 7 October, he established the fisheries at Goose Island while continuing that at Nottingham, assigning two fishermen to each. Three men also assisted the two at Goose Island to build a small house in which the fishermen would winter. A third fisherman later joined them on the island. The construction of this house signaled the end of Old Fort as a Hudson's Bay Company fishery for as long as Fidler remained in charge of the Lake Athabasca post (the other two companies may have continued fishing there, but Fidler makes no mention of it). By 9 November, the shallow water around Nottingham House obliged the fishermen there to move their nets farther out. By the thirteenth, Robert Flett, the principal fisherman at Goose Island, reported that he had 300 to 400 fish in store and intended to transport them to Nottingham House as soon as snow fell to cover the rough ice on the lake. At first Fidler felt that he could wait because he thought his fishery at the House had caught enough to last; but he did observe that the season at Nottingham had now ended since "as the cold weather increases they (the fish) go to the Lakes to the Deep water." Unfortunately not enough snow had fallen as late as the twenty-fourth and Fidler was finally forced to send the big dog sledge. He simply could not wait any longer until the fish carters could use their regular "flat sledges." Between then and 8 December, all the fish at the island were hauled to the House (including some jack fish weighing 20 to 40 pounds). On 9 December, Fidler then ordered the Goose Island fishery abandoned, and the men and equipment were removed to Fishing Island. Because it lay at least 9 miles off the nearest point of land, the men of the island had to stick small pines in the ice to guide the fish carters back to Nottingham House. By 17 January 1804, they were joined by the men of the North West Company who, with fishermen of the XY Company, had been fishing at Goose Island when the Bay men moved to Fishing Island. According to Fidler, their men seemed to be living from "hand to mouth," whereas the Hudson's Bay Company now had at least 3,000 fish in store. When the Fishing Island concern was finally ordered closed on 17 April, Fidler estimated that the North West Company had about 1,000 fish in store; the XY Company, about 150; the Hudson's Bay Company, 2,000.27
The next day, the Bay fishermen were making nets for the summer fishery. Of a mesh smaller than that used in winter, they reflected the tactics of fishermen throughout the world forced to fish in seasons when fish were few and far between. On 15 May, two nets were again set in the water about the House because the fish held in store were now going bad. But even earlier, by about a fortnight, the French had been fishing their waters as their smaller reserves had diminished sooner. 28
Before leaving, Fidler engaged a fisherman to carry on the summer fishery. When Fidler returned in September, this fisherman was about 5 miles off, apparently fishing on the lake, probably at Big Rock. The 1805-06 winter fisheries at Goose and Fishing islands were established at about the same times as the previous winter. By April, the men at Fishing Island were angling for trout because too few were being taken in the nets for splitting and drying, although enough whitefish had been caught and put in store to last until the summer fishery could begin. On 7 May, the men vacated Fishing Island and prepared for fishing in the open water. 29 Later that year, Fidler abandoned Nottingham House for good, and not until 1815 would the Hudson's Bay Company again return to Lake Athabasca.
During Fidler's tenure at Nottingham House, a Bay's equipment list might have included:
2 new nets
3 old nets
2 narrow chisels
1 skein fine twine
7 cut coarse twine
2 deer skin coats
1 tracking line
2 fren(?) coats for dog traces
1 moose skins - 1 each
1 old sail
1 piece old leather for sticks and stones
2 k user (?)
1 bundle small line for traces maks (?)
1 hank coarse twine
1 hausline twine the other men sent
The fishermen would have also used hauling lines and other items, so this list is far from complete. 30
In his "Account of the MacKenzie River Department," (1807, 1812) George Keith described the Indian net made of the fine, dried bark of willow, twisted and plaited until the size of Holland twine. Its advantage over net thread was readily apparent when prepared in the winter for it was much stronger. Net making was the task of the women who twisted the bark with a spindle until it was the required size. Keith also pointed out that the Indian used spears and seines for catching fish. l
White men also used willow nets, spears and seines, but particularly on Lake Athabasca, the set net was more popular because it could be used in winter as well as in summer. On the other hand, according to David Thompson, use of the seine was limited by its heaviness, its cost to make and its impracticality in winter. For a set net, Thompson thought a 50-fathom length best for an individual net, and 5 to 6 feet from top to bottom line its best depth. Holland twine should be used for the mesh which ranged in size from three to seven inches, depending on the size of fish desired: 5-1/2 inches seemed most popular. This netting was then hung from upper back lines of small cord to which floats of light pine or cedar wood were tied about two fathoms apart to keep the net evenly extended. Small stones were also tied to the bottom line opposite the floats for uniform downward distention. Both in summer and winter, the nets should be set in waters where depths ranged from three to five fathoms and anchored with stones on a sandy or fine gravel bottom for a steady fishery. 2
Some of Thompson's recommendations would have been impossible to follow on Lake Athabasca because of the location of the main posts. Fishermen could not venture too far out into the lake because of the problem in hauling both fish and equipment, and because of the severe storms that could suddenly spring up. Instead they were forced to fish in depths ranging from 10 feet near Fort Chipewyan II and Old Fort to 1-1/2 to 4 fathoms around Bustard Island, 3 or in shoal waters which Thompson considered poor. The shallow western end of Lake Athabasca was heavily silted and muddy and fish constantly moved to better feeding grounds. Perhaps this was why Lake Athabascan fishermen used for many years nets longer than those recommended by Thompson. 4
Thompson also felt that the quality and size of whitefish depended on the depth of water for in shallow waters were found the poorer grades. High grade, tasty fish were important to men who rarely had butter or sauces as garnish (although Lake Athabasca was fortunate in that there was a close, available source of salt that could have been used for seasoning). Nothing could improve a dead whitefish left in the nets for more than two nights. Quality also depended on when caught and how cooked. If a surplus were taken in the winter and put aside to freeze, the cook must not thaw them but throw them directly into a kettle of boiling water, unless he wished to destroy their flavour entirely. The best were still those fresh "from the hook or the net [put] directly into the kettle." 5
In 1865, H. Beaumont Small described how he would cook whitefish. He considered this fish remarkable in that there was little waste when dressed - "less than in any other fish." The flesh is thick, the head small and the fins and intestines minuscule. Small quoted a "Dr. Richardson" who recommended that after removal of scales and cleaning, the dressed pieces be put in a "thin copper kettle" over a slow fire. When the water is "on the point of boiling" take the kettle off the fire and shake it, and then place it back on the fire. But be vigilant. If the kettle is not shaken at just the right moment, the fish will coagulate too quickly and will become dry, producing a poor soup. 6
Keith and Thompson would have been amused by such a recipe since it is unlikely that company cooks were as dedicated to their art. Certainly the Indians were not. Keith was aghast to learn that some tribes did not even gut or scale their winter catch before cooking them. Instead, they either heated the frozen fish on the coals or boiled water, cut up the fish, scales and all, and threw everything into the kettle.
After the Hudson's Bay Company left Lake Athabasca in 1806, the records again become scattered. When the Bay men returned in 1815, they found the North West Company still at Fort Chipewyan II. As in 1802, the Bay's post, now named Fort Wedderburn, was built close to Fort Chipewyan, this time on Coal Island. l
Fidler once stated that the North West Company seemed to be always living from "hand to mouth." 2 The winter months invariably found nearly all the men fishing for themselves and because most were not trained fishermen, sloppy and inefficient practices were inevitable. As a result catches were rarely high enough to lay a surplus aside for the growing numbers of men and as a reserve against leaner times. But in 1812, this situation changed. That year the North West Company procured a good supply of dogs and nets for use on the fisheries. As with the Hudson's Bay Company, certain individuals were designated as fishermen. For every two so appointed, 10 to 12 nets were issued and a quota set. Two other men served as carters to haul the take from the different fisheries to the fort before animals could get them. Following this task they were then to use their eight to ten fish traineaux to haul home the meat left hidden in caches in the immediate area. As a result, the improved fishing practices released more men for other essential services of the fur trade, or allowed others to go out and fish for themselves until their services were needed in the spring. 3 In this way the fort was always assured of a reasonable supply of fish, unless the fisheries failed miserably, and unessential men dipping into the fort's stores were not a burden.
The North West Company Athabasca River order for 1811 was 4 nets of 5-inch mesh, 4 nets of 5-1/2-inch mesh, 14 pounds net thread and 3 pounds of coloured thread. 4 In 1815, the spring inventory for Fort Chipewyan indicated that the fishermen had used 33 mounted nets, and that 2 others of 4-1/2-inch mesh were on hand for use (or still in the process of being made). John McGillivray's invoice for the entire 1816 Athabasca Outfit (not just for Fort Chipewyan) indicated 11 nets of 4-1/2-inch mesh 80 fathoms long; 30 nets of 5-inch mesh-80 fathoms long; 78 pounds of net thread, 20 pounds of coloured thread and various other sundries. The 1817 invoice showed 18 nets of 4-1/2-inch mesh, 33 nets of 5-inch mesh, 70 pounds of net thread, 17 pounds coloured and blue, 14 pounds of sturgeon twine and other assorted sundries. 5
Another North West Company record revealed the various kinds of nets that the company could employ (but not necessarily on Lake Athabasca). At Fort William, in 1816, Lord Selkirk purchased
nets, 80 fathoms, 5-1/2 inch. mesh, common thread
nets, 80 fathoms, 5 inch. mesh, common thread
nets, 80 fathoms, 4-1/2 inch. mesh, common thread
nets, 80 fathoms, 4 inch. mesh, common thread
nets, 70 fathoms, 5 inch. mesh, common thread
nets, 40 fathoms, 3-1/2~inch. mesh, common thread
nets, 80 fathoms, 6-1/2 inch. mesh, Holland thread
nets, 80 fathoms, 6-1/2 inch. mesh, Holland thread
nets, 80 fathoms, 4 inch.: mesh, Holland thread
nets, 80 fathoms, 3-1/2 inch. mesh, Holland thread
For the spring of 1821, an invoice of sundries was sent to Fort William as part of the entire Athabasca Outfit of 1821. It included 6 nets of 4-1/2 -inch mesh 80 fathoms in length; 2 nets of 5-inch mesh 80 fathoms long; 10 pounds of net thread and 10-pounds of coloured thread. The inventory for that spring indicated that, of articles in use at Athabasca, there were included 56-1/2 nets of 80 fathoms, 2 coloured thread nets, 2 sturgeon nets and 30 willow nets. On hand were 2 nets of 4-1/2-inch mesh 80 fathoms in length, and 2 coloured thread nets. 8
In 1815, as in 1802, the Hudson's Bay Company brought several nets used on the voyage. l On 9 October several men were sent to Bustard Island to try a fall fishery, but the fishing was so poor that the fishermen returned to Old Fort 10 days later. Here fishing proved equally bad with "carp" the principal catch. By 4 November, the fishermen were busily constructing a small house for the winter, but in January 1816, they decided to try their luck elsewhere. Whereas the Hudson's Bay Company had managed to store only 2,000 fish up to that time, the North West Company had an estimated stock of 24,000 on hand. So the Bay's fishermen took half the nets, eight men and three dog sledges and relocated 10 miles away (Bustard or Big Island). They brought along a leather lodge to use until they had built a small house. Three other men remained at Old Fort to set hooks, and probably to mind the other half of the nets. Still not much was caught at any of the fisheries, and as a result three men set up a fishery on a small island near Big Island. Again few fish materialized but the men did find an old house, without a door or window and with part of its roof missing. The fishing remained poor for the rest of that season, and the ensuing summer was most likely worse. 2
By 2 October 1816, the Hudson's Bay Company had fishermen on Bustard Island and had decided to send three others to Old Fort where another party had nearly completed a house measuring 30 feet long with two apartments. Shortly the North West Company took over these fisheries after dispute, but soon returned them. Changing their tactics they built a hut only "a few yards" from the Bay fishery at Old Fort, where "a clerk and one of their guides" were to stay "to be our guards." Besides this watch, the North West Company already had two fishing houses in the area, about 1/4 mile distant on either side of the Bay building. 3
The Hudson's Bay Company had a superintendent that year for the first time. Previously, it was the master or another appointed man who had to go out to the fisheries to make periodic checks and ensure that the fishermen were carrying out their duties, such as setting a sufficient number of nets. The new superintendent was to pass the winter at Old Fort, with jurisdiction over at least three fisheries that year - Big Island, Bustard Island and Old Fort. On 25 November the Bustard Island fishery was abandoned. 4
The relationship between the two companies remained strained. Whenever the Bay fish carters returned with a load of fish from the fisheries, North West Company men were hard on their heels. On 17 November, they even attempted to reduce the Bay catch by setting nets on either side of their rival's at a distance of about a hauling line. On one side they placed 20 nets, on the other 14, but without advantage. The Bay nets continued to catch nearly as many fish as before, most likely because of superior twine and closer attention. 5
Hostilities reached new proportions in February of 1817; when North West Company men broke open the door of the superintendent's dwelling at old Fort and took possession of the fish in store, ostensibly in retaliation for Lord Selkirk's actions at Fort William. They then began hauling the seized fish back to their own fish house at the foot of the bank, and ordered the Bay men to help. This took two days to accomplish and involved about 7,660 fish. 6
By mutual consent the fisheries were soon returned to Hudson's Bay Company hands. On 14 April, the Bay fishermen abandoned the fisheries at Big Island and Old Fort and brought back to Fort Wedderburn all but some nets which were seized by the North West Company two days later and were not returned until the following fall. 7
In October of 1817, the Hudson's Bay Company decided that a residence at Fort Wedderburn would not be feasible because dogs used in the hauling of fish from the fisheries were lacking. Old Fort was chosen as a better location. Immediately the fishermen set three nets there, and other men retrieved boards, doors and the like from Fort Wedderburn. Apparently the Company did not construct new buildings at Old Fort at that time, but rather repaired the houses already in existence. Not surprisingly, their rivals also began new work, first setting up pickets around the Hudson's Bay Company buildings with North West Company markings on them. This, of course, prompted the Bay men to set up their own pickets. In retaliation, the North West Company built new buildings on each side of the Bay houses within 50 yards to keep a close eye on trading activities. 8
Besides the Old Fort fishery, the Hudson's Bay Company had established one at Big Island about 9 miles away. At Pointe de Roche, the North West Company had one of its own. The Bay fishermen did not remain long at Old Fort and by February, the fishery at Big Island was the main producer. However, with the re-establishment of Fort Wedderburn as the centre for conducting the fur trade, a fishery was again in operation at Old Fort by 25 March. Soon, however, the men must have been wistfully recalling December when 5,200 fish had been counted in store at Big Island, for by May this stock had so dwindled that some men had to be sent to the fisheries to live. To help relieve this desperate situation the fishermen were now at English Island and Grand Point. 9
From September to October 1818, the Bay fishermen were at Old Fort and Bustard Island, but in November they abandoned the latter location in favour of a new one at Big Island. On the twenty-fourth, the North West Company set up one nearby at the little island 3 to 4 miles from Big Island. That left the North West Company only one other fishery at Old Fort. 10
The Hudson's Bay Company fishermen were storing their catch in a bastion on Big Island and had built another but for additional fishermen soon to be sent since the Old Fort establishment was now finding few fish. Around the new year it was also decided to send hooks and two nets to Pointe de Roche, about 4 leagues from Old Fort. Although these nets began to catch more fish than the 10 at Old Fort, the situation quickly changed and soon afterward even five nets barely produced enough to feed the fishermen themselves. In January, the Company therefore sent some men with hooks to Burnt Island to fish for trout. Later in February, a man returning from that place got lost and accidently stumbled on a North West Company fishery at Pointe à l'Abri. The fisheries were abandoned in April at Big Island and Pointe de Roche, and in May, the summer fishery was established in the waters about Fort Wedderburn. When the take declined here, the fishery was removed to an area most likely near or at Lake Mamawi - "Mamaivies." 11
The fishermen were still there, in October of 1819 sending their surplus to Fort Wedderburn. But on 29 October, they went to Bustard Island to supplement the fishery at Old Fort which had been set up earlier. With some despair now beginning to set in, a net was even tried at the north end of Coal Island on 18 November. 12
The fishermen reported in December that they had 5,000 fish in store at Old Fort and an additional 6,000 at Big Island. The fish house at Big Island could hold 4,000 when full. Of the two fisheries, Old Fort had so declined by now that it seemed wise to send the fishermen to Big Island. On 29 March, six men went to Pointe de Roche with hooks and lines to live off their own catch. 13
By May, catches were no longer being sent to Fort Wedderburn as even the fishermen were starving. At first sight of open water and the clearing out of drift ice, the summer fishery began on a note of hope. Two men started for Lake Mamawi. Soon, however, the master had scattered all his men about the fisheries as he was no longer able to furnish provisions for them. And a bad omen this was: that summer and the following winter the men of Lake Athabasca were to suffer greatly from hunger. 14
Until 1820, little information filtered out concerning the summer fisheries, despite the fact that both companies maintained summer residences at their main establishments. Clearly this was the hardest season to catch fish, but there was never the urgency nor the need of a large catch as from a fall or winter fishery because establishments had few personnel in the summer.
In the early part of the summer of 1820, the Hudson's Bay Company used three fishermen, but in June it had settled on two. They soon found out that the fish were not at their normal feeding grounds and by June, the fort people were reduced to eating grass. Even the regular supply of other types of provisions had slowed to a trickle. 15
In June the fishermen were joined at the Grassy River by several other men who were to catch and dry fish for the men at Colvile House and for a man going on a journey to Slave Lake. Other places tried by the middle of the summer were Big Point, Hayes River, Lac Vassieu (five miles from the fort), and Quatre Fourches. When Captain Franklin's party asked for rations of fish in July from the fort's fishermen, he was understandably refused. Instead he was told to fish at Lake Claire so as not to interfere with the fishermen. Ironically, all the fort people were later sent to the same place to fish for themselves when the fisheries continued to fail. 16
Even in these bad times, there were occasional surpluses. When this happened the Indian women split and dried the fish to supply the fall canoes for their various destinations, and if there were still some left these were stored at the fish house at Fort Wedderburn. l7
On 3 August, still another place was tried, somewhere about Lake Mamawi. The fishery at Quatre Fourches was continued. 18
The poor summer fishery had a disastrous effect on the planned fall and winter fisheries. Several dogs had died from starvation, and many others were left in such a weakened state that they were unable to walk. Because of this shortage in available healthy dogs for the fish carters as well as a bad season that persisted right through the fall and winter, the men continued to suffer, only more so than in the summer because of added numbers of men and the protracted trickle of other provisions. Besides a catch which was one-third less than normally taken after the ice had set in, only half the usual fresh provisions and nine-tenths the normal cured arrived. Some seemed to feel that the cause for these shortages was the abnormally low water levels and the fact that the Indians had to travel a greater distance that winter in search of furs. 19
In September, the men were told to construct a fish house at Fort Wedderburn, and although probably this structure was never built, the proposal gives some insight into others that were. The plan called for a building 20 by 12 feet with walls standing 8 feet high so as to allow a large ice cellar underneath. The following logs were in fact cut: 32 of 12 feet, 64 of 10 feet, 6 corner posts of 11 feet and 2 door posts of 7 feet. 20
When the fall fishery began on 1 October, two men went to Big Island to remain there to repair the houses, to collect firewood and to fish for the fort until the ice set in. Another fisherman later put nets down at English Island. The fishery at Quatre Fourches meanwhile continued operating, and was abandoned only after the ice set in on the river. The fishermen then moved to Big Island to establish another fishery. Old Fort had gone into operation too, but was abandoned on 28 December. Apparently in all there were six fishermen scattered about the different fisheries. 21
As had been practiced since 1816, one man acted as supervisor of all the fisheries (he later was entitled Master Fisherman). His working regulations were those as set at Fort Wedderburn. He was ordered to have the different fishermen keep an exact record of their catch, their expenditures and the amount sent to the fort. The fish house(s) was to be kept locked at all times. Each fisherman was to have a ration of four fish per day; each dog two. No man (fish carter) was to remain at a fishery unless the weather prevented his return, or unless the fishermen granted him permission to stay. That way the fort would be assured of a regular supply of fish.
When the two fishermen abandoned old Fort, they left the bastion filled with approximately 6,700 fish inside and more piled on top of the building. But since the seasonal decline had now set in, they went to Big Island to join other fishermen. Depending on the nationality of the men there, these Bay fisheries were referred to as either French (Canadian) or English (Orkney). This year all were faced with a problem over and above the usual one of fewer fish than normal. At Big Island the ice was already four feet thick and getting thicker. At that time of the year 3 to 3-1/2 feet was normal and in fact the fishermen had found ice only 2 feet 10 inches thick at Old Fort just a short time before. In February it proved necessary to send some of the men with hooks and nets to Pointe de Roche. Others with just hooks were sent to Pointe Buile (Brule?). Apparently the nets were being used mainly for catching the bait needed in angling for trout. 23
More men left the fort in April to fish for themselves, presumably so as not to be a drain on the fish reserve then being sent in from the stores held on Big Island. At that place, the fishermen had been ordered to remove the fish from the top of the completely filled bastion and bury it beneath the snow about the buildings as the sun was now nearly hot enough to cause spoilage. 24
The men who were sent out to Pointe de Roche to fend for themselves likewise
moved that month, to a river near Lac du Brochet, and later to Big Island and
Old Fort, joining others also providing for themselves. The plight of the men at
Old Fort had reduced some to eating their dogs by now and the added numbers of
men no doubt only increased the suffering.25
On 9 May, the fisheries at Big Island - where 33 nets had at one time been in constant use - were finally abandoned and the three fishermen returned to Fort Wedderburn to set nets about the establishment and at Quatre Fourches. To the latter place went one additional man to fish for the dogs which he had removed as a drain on the fort's reserves. 26
As already noted, the entire season had been poor with the catch one-third below what might have been expected. On a month-to-month basis, the count was:
NO. OF FISH RECEIVED AT FORT
June 1, 1820 1,405
August 2,4 37
May 31, 1821 301
An additional 28,264 fish would have been used by the fishermen, the assistants, the fish carters and the dogs. 27
That season also drew comments from both George Simpson and William Brown. Because Brown saw that the houses and fish sheds at Big Island and Old Fort had dilapidated beyond simple repair, he thought they should be entirely rebuilt, preferably that summer, and that the holding buildings should be constructed so as to contain from 10,000 to 12,000 fish. They should also be built strong enough to prevent illegal entry by the fish carters and their dogs, because they could destroy "amazing numbers" if allowed to enter at their own discretion.
Brown also noted that because of the abnormally low supply of dogs, more than the usual number of fish carters had been appointed. The increased number of men had proven to be a severe drain on the stores at and for Fort Wedderburn. If the fort had had a sufficient supply of dogs, only two fish carters would have been needed, and men would have been released to obtain the other vital provisions for the establishment.
He also observed that there had been a great difference between what the Orkney fishermen at Big Island had caught and what the Canadians at the same place had procured. He concluded that the former had netted twice as many as the latter simply because they paid closer attention to the proper use of their nets. Further, once the Orkney fishermen had caught their fish, they took better care of them, thus reducing their losses. 28
George Simpson felt the same, and suggested that one Orkney fisherman would do the job of four Canadians in any given situation. For that reason he recommended that 12 of the 68 people which he proposed for Fort Wedderburn be Orkney fishermen and that they always be provided with enough twine to make the number of nets deemed necessary. As he saw it, there had never been enough twine in the past, and what nets had been made were set by fishermen who lacked knowledge of their correct use. Further, while the lack of dogs that winter had caused a one-third increase in the number of Bay people used to haul fish, the North West Company had not faced that problem because their supply had remained plentiful. Finally, Simpson also noted the advantage that horses could provide in hauling fish. At that time, Wedderburn had only one horse. 29
The spring inventory of 1821 indicates that the Hudson's Bay Company had 36 nets probably 80 fathoms long of 4-1/2-inch mesh in use. 30
In the month of June 1821, the Company moved its fisheries about back and forth to Quatre Fourches, English Island, Rivière des Enfans, Rivière des Rochers, and to Lake Mamawi, and perhaps also to Lake Cl.aire. But from July to October the main fishing ground was at Quatre Fourches. Most likely the North West Company was also fishing close by at all these spots, and each company may have followed the other depending on who made a find first. During this time, too, the Indian women attached to Fort Wedderburn were drying the surplus in a lodge especially constructed for this purpose near the fort at the water's edge. The dried fish lasted until 28 July. 31
In early October fisheries were located at Big Island, Old Fort and Pointe de Roche. Additional fishermen were also in the waters about English Island and Fort Wedderburn. Twenty others were sent away to fish for themselves at a place called Grant's Fort (presumably Port à Pierre). 32 Soon it was only a matter of time until the lake froze over and the fish carters could cross to the fort. No doubt the failure of the previous year's fisheries had not been forgotten.
Although the Big Island fishery proved an immediate failure, the other two gave hope for better times: consequently the men at Big Island were ordered back to Old Fort. At this time the fisheries had 50 nets in use yielding from 500 to 600 fish per day. 33
In a new experiment, nets were set under the ice at Quatre Fourches, but the catch was sparse. 34
By now the terms for the amalgamation of the two companies became known. For the first time they joined forces on Lake Athabasca. 35
At Gros Cap a half-net was set under the ice, but probably failed as no further mention of it is made. The fisheries at Old Fort and Pointe de Roche ended in December, but surprisingly the nets at English Island continued to produce. Fishermen had been unaware before that year that a winter fishery could be a success here. However, by January 1822, the water had finally become too shallow, and the nets were sticking to the ice above. Finally even this fishery was abandoned. Shortly before, however, new fisheries had been established at Little Island near Big Island, and at Pointe à l'Abri where a "long net" was in use. Then in February the Pointe de Roche fishery was re-established, and its fishermen began making nets in their spare moments to be sent back to the fort. Throughout February fish were transferred from the reserve store at old Fort to Fort Wedderburn. 36
On 18 March the men at the fort cleared the powder house of its goods, made it into an ice house and began storing fish there by laying them in layers with snow packed in between. The men later put the remaining fish in the snow about the fort for spring consumption once the house was filled. 37 Only when that outside supply was consumed would the fish in the ice house be touched.
The fisheries at Big Island and Pointe à l'Abri were abandoned on 9 May and preparations for the summer fishery began. Four men went to English Island, two to Lake Mamawi and two to Quatre Fourches. An additional three were appointed to haul the fish in a "Jauniteux" (?) canoe and two others went to Lake Mamawi to dry fish for the spring consumption. 38
The inventory of 1 June 1822 indicated that the Company had 66 4-1/2- and 5-inch mesh nets of 80 fathoms in use. Other records noted that the fall fishery at Old Fort (31 October-10 January) had produced 33,863 fish. Of this, the fishery itself had consumed 9,412, had sent on to the fort 12,033 and had remaining yet in store 12,741. This was the production of four fishermen. 39
Clearly the location of the fisheries depended on where the fishermen normally expected to find a reasonable catch. By 1822, these prime locations had been determined and after amalgamation fishermen sought new ones only when fishing was poor. Similarly when quotas were met early, some would not have been attempted in that year. This pattern is quite obvious in Appendix A.
Fort Chipewyan received hung fish from both the summer and fall fisheries. Sometimes, supplemented occasionally by dry pounded meat, fish became its main ration until the fort could receive its normal supply from the fall fishery. The hung fish used by the fort in early October normally came from the summer fishery at Quatre Fourches. In addition, the fall fisheries at Goose Island and Old Fort occasionally produced some for consumption at Fort Chipewyan later in the month of October until these fisheries could send their catches to the fort once the ice had set in. At Fort Chipewyan the dried fish might then be hung upon a stage. Once they were destroyed by maggots because the men had forgotten to leave a sufficient space between the stage and the store, cutting off the free passage of air. In 1868 the men from Quatre Fourches put the hung fish in the little yard near the fort's store. l
Fort Chipewyan apparently did not smoke any of the fish taken at the fisheries although in 1842 the fort did receive some from a certain Indian fishing at a lake back of the Rocky River. But this was an exceptional case. The Indian had come to the fort from his fishing shed at the lake to offer his catch to the fort. But as the fort men were busy, and it was a "good days journey" away, the master was forced to decline the offer. Undaunted, the Indian returned to his hut, where he smoked eight whitefish and brought them back. Not surprisingly the fort accepted. In 1901, the commanding officer of the Mounted Police at Fort Saskatchewan mentioned that "the system of catching and storing them [the fish at Fort Chipewyan] is very much behind the times, little attention is paid to the laying in of a supply of smoked or otherwise cured fish, although salt in abundance can easily be procured."2
Instead the catch was normally laid aside in fish bastions at the fisheries and allowed to freeze. During one mild spell, the men were also ordered to spread the fish out so they would harden better. If left in the heap that they were in, they would most certainly have spoiled. Another time a man was sent out to ensure that the fish were being stored properly. Once there, he "corded" the fish to "secure them," presumably so the carters could handle them easier. 3 The carters later came to take as many as possible for immediate consumption at the fort. Any not used were most likely put in the snow about the fort until the new year when plans were made to prepare a place to store the stock presently held at the fisheries. Always there was hope that the fisheries now had or would soon catch enough so as to last the fort until nets could be set in the open water in the spring.
After the fish carters had removed all the fish from the bastions at the fisheries, they put them in ice houses or ice cellars that were about the fort. Even the powder house of the summer could become the fish house of the winter; once an adjoining liquor store, an underground storeroom, was used. This storage was a long job "as every bed of fish is covered over with snow and so alternately until completed. 4
Dogs were essential for transporting the catch in the early days as the fish were hauled in traineaux. Apparently the fish carrioles differed from the meat sleds as it was once necessary to "turn" the meat sleds into fish sleds, although the change may have been minor. Because fish sleds were built with runners they needed a snow-covered lake in order to operate. If there was no snow only "our iron shod sledges can stand the fish carting." Another time men were making "sledges for carting fish with Skin Sewed round them" and using moose skin for the dog traces. 5
In November of 1834, a fish carter made an incredibly fast journey to the fishery at old Fort and back again. Some of the fish were in fact still alive upon his arrival. The distance travelled was about 42 miles in all. As he had been absent 10 hours, the master estimated his speed at better than 4 miles an hour, one-half of the trip with a loaded sled. Only three dogs had accompanied him on the journey.
Until 1837, the dogs' dominance in hauling the catch went unchallenged, at which time horses were introduced. For some time the fort had used them but in the main for moving timber. Yet even now dogs still proved their worth as only they could make the trip easily when a horse found the going tough. On return trips fish carter and horse often spent the night on Bustard Island. Yet as methods were improved and time went on, the daily trip by horse became more and more routine. Once, and most likely only once, hauling by oxen was attempted because the dogs were employed elsewhere. 7
The fishermen sometimes went to their fall fisheries across the open water by
batteaux or by boat under sail. In 1824, it was also decided to construct as
many boats of 12 feet in the keel as possible as a replacement for the canoe in rough
water, presumably for carting fish from the summer fishery. Later in the 1850s
and 1860s, fishing skiffs were often mentioned. 8
The fort was also busily keeping the fisheries operating; the blacksmith, for instance, was often called upon to make chisels, axes, tubs, trenchers and the like for the fishermen, and the articles sent to him for repair were endless. 9
The journal for 1823-24 has an excellent sketch of how the fort then appeared to the observer. What can not be seen is the ice house constructed under the main store that year - it measured 12 feet square by 10 feet deep. Still, the layout must have been drastically altered in just a few years. The men were constantly tearing down old buildings and putting up new ones. An interesting feature in the drawing is the two ovens - the depot summer house fish oven and the winter fish oven - widely separated from each other and set off from the buildings. 10
As the fort changed its appearance, so too did the fishing buildings scattered among the different fisheries. New construction and repairs continued throughout the years that followed amalgamation. Dwelling houses were built at Pointe à l'Abri in 1837; at Big Island (the old ones now uninhabitable) in 1839 and again in 1859; at Quatre Fourches in 1846 (the horses being used to haul the timber); at Bustard Island in 1859 (the old house now decayed), and at Goose Island in 1860. The one at Quatre Fourches took four days to build besides the day used in cutting timber and the three days needed in hauling it. Construction at Bustard Island continued over a period between 27 September and 24 October. In addition to these dwellings, a fish bastion was built at Big Island in 1867. 11 Other bastions similar to the one at Old Fort were of course scattered among the different fisheries.
At other times men were sent along with the fishermen setting up the fall and winter fisheries to help in the repair of their buildings. 12
During the 1820-21 season the men were told to make some nets for New Caledonia. They were one-third of an inch smaller in mesh size than those used on Lake Athabasca and apparently it took from 12 to 19 skeins of twine to make two Athabasca nets. The lines were made from dressed leather and the floats and stones were attached with the same material. For the summer of 1832 a few nets were made of jack twine. Sturgeon twine was used in some others but clearly these were not whitefish nets as the twine would have been too large to be effective. Holland twine would have been chosen instead.13
By 1870 if 20 nets were placed in the water only 10 would be visited daily. This routine seemed to produce the maximum time that gill nets could safety be left in the water without fish spoilage. 14
In the 1820s there was a change of policy concerning the wives and children of fishermen. Before then, the view was that if families were allowed to reside at the fisheries, they would take the choicest fish for themselves and affect the quality sent to the fort. But now families were encouraged to live at the fisheries. Even in the summer, when fishing was traditionally poor, families were often sent. Of course an added benefit was that the women could also be employed in carting or in drying fish. 15
The 1824 Outfit engaged some Indians, from November to the beginning of April, to supply the fishermen with provisions from the hunt.16
Although the horses may have been allowed to run free during the summer to find food for themselves, dogs would never have been allowed that privilege. It soon became policy to send them along with the fishermen who were to provide them with food from the summer catch. Besides reducing the number of fish that the carters had to haul, such an arrangement ended a needless drain on the fort's reserves. Yet one summer, added mouths were encouraged to draw upon that very stock; some geese were fed fish all that season. 17 The return is obvious.
1 Map showing approximate location of places mentioned in the text.
THE FISHERIES OF FORT CHIPEWYAN
1822 - 1871
RECEIPTS AND EXPENDITURES OF FISH
1822 - 1870
THE OPERATION OF THE FISHERIES
1823 - 1839
FISH NETS AT FORT CHIPEWYAN
1824 - 1866
1 Hudson's Bay Company Archives (hereafter cited as HBCA), B9/a/1, 28 June 1791; B9/a/3, 30 August 1791.
2 HBCA, B9/a/1, 20 Aug. 1791; B9/a/3, 30 Aug. 1791.
3 HBCA, B9/a/1, 22, 24, 25 August 1791.
4 Ibid., 12, 15-17, 19-21, 23, 26, 30 September and 12 October 1791.
5 HBCA, B9/a/3, 1 October 1791.
6 HBCA, B9/a/l, 4 May 1792.
7 HBCA, B9/a/3, 4 May 1792.
11 HBCA, B9/a/1, 14, 15 October, 2 November 1791. Lake Athabasca has an interesting water regulation mechanism which is presumably responsible for the variation in depth: see Peace-Athabasca Delta Project Group, The Peace-Athabasca Delta, a Canadian Resource, Summary Report, 1972 (Ottawa, 1973).
12 HBCA, B9/a/3, 30 August 1791.
13 HBCA, B9/a/1, 9 February 1792.
14 HBCA, B9/a/3, 4 May 1792; 30 August 1791.
15 HBCA, B9/a/1, 2, 9 April 1792.
16 HBCA, B9/a/3, 30 August 1791.
17 Ibid., 4 May 1792.
18 Ibid., 30 August 1791.
19 Ibid., 4 May 1792.
1 Sir Alexander Mackenzie, The Journals and Letters of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, ed. W. Kay Lamb (Toronto: Macmillan, 1870), pp. 130, 169-70.
1 HBCA, B39/a/1, 31 August 1802.
2 Ibid., 21-22, 24, 27-28 September, 4-5, 13 October 1802.
3 Ibid., 15 October 1802.
4 Ibid., 19 October 1802.
5 Ibid., 24 November, 9, 14, 16 December 1802.
6 Ibid., 20 December 1802, 10-11, 13-14 January 1803.
7 Ibid., 27 December 1802, 3, 5, 8, 26 January 1803.
8 Ibid., 23-26 January 1803.
9 Ibid., 15 October 1802, 25 January, 11 February 1803.
10 Ibid., 23-25, 28 February, 15-16 March 1803.
11 Ibid., 1, 7-8, 11, 23, 31 March, 13 April 1803.
12 Fisheries Research Board of Canada, North West Canadian Fisheries Surveys in 1944-1945 (Ottawa 1947), pp. 26-27. Bulletin No. 72.
13 HBCA, B39/a/1, 23, 27 April 1803.
14 HBCA, B39/a/1, 11 March 1803.
15 HBCA, B39/a/l, 18 May 1803.
16 HBCA, B39/a/3, 13 September 1803.
17 HBCA, B39/a/l, 16 May 1803; B39/a/3, 14, 25 September 1803.
18 HBCA, B39/a/3, 27 November 1803.
19 Ibid., 26, 28 September 1803; HBCA, B39/a/1, 9 November 1802.
20 HBCA, B39/a/3, 30 September, 6, 10, 27 November 1803.
21 Ibid., 30 November, 9 December 1803, 8 February 1804.
22 Ibid., 2, 5, 12 January 1804.
23 Ibid., 5-6 March, 6-7, 16, 18, 21 April 1804.
24 Ibid., 15, 9 May 1804.
25 Ibid., 5, 10, 21 May 1804.
26 HBCA, B39/a/4, 12, 14, 19 September, 5 October 1804.
27 Ibid., 7, 10, 19 October, 9, 14, 24-30 November, 1-9,
22 December 1804, 12-13, 17 January, 17 April 1805.
28 Ibid., 18 April, 15 May 1805.
29 Ibid., 23 May 1805; B39/a/5a, 16 September, 3, 21 December 1805, 29, 30 March, 7, 28 May 1805.
30 HBCA, B39/a/5b, ca. 1804.
1 PAC, MG19, C1, Vol. 51, "An Account of the Mackenzie's River Department by George Keith of the North West Company," pp. 4-5, 62.
2 David Thompson, David Thompson's Narrative of his Explorations in Western America, 1784-1812 (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1916), pp. 60, 111-12.
3 Fisheries Research Board of Canada, op. cit., p. 70.
4 See "The North West Company Changes its Ways," n. 5-8.
5 David Thompson, op. cit; HBCA, B39/e/4, folio 3, report of 20 April 1822.
6 H. Baumont Small, The Animals of North America. Series II. Fresh-Water Fish (Montreal: n.p., 1865), p. 59.
7 PAC, MG19, C1, Vol. 51, "An Account of Mackenzie's River, Department By George Keith Esq. of the North West Company," pp. 78, 86-87.
1 HBCA, B39/a/15, 18 November 1819.
2 HBCA, B39/a/4, 13 January 1805.
3 HBCA, B39/e/4, "Report of the Athabasca Lake District" by William Brown, 12 May 1821, fols. 5v-6.
4 PAC, MG19, A30, Charles Napier Bell Collection, Athabasca River Order for 1811, for 13 July 1811.
5 PAC, MG24, 13, McGilliwray Papers, Vol. 1, Athabasca scheme, 1816, pp. 69-71; ibid., 1817, pp. 80, 82 and passim, under name of article.
6 PAC, MG19, E1, Selkirk papers, Vol. 24, p. 9502, recapitulation, 18 Sept. 1816; see also, ibid., p. 9402.
7 PAC, MG19, A7, Vol. 6, pp. 44, 46, invoice of sundries forwarded by the Grand River to Fort William (Spring 1821) intended as part of the Athabasca Outfit 1821.
8 HBCA, F4/39, fols. 4-8, 56-7, inventory of goods, etc., at Lac Nipigon, spring, 1821.
1 HBCA, B39/a/6, 2 October 1815.
2 Ibid., 9, 19 October, 3, 13 November, 15 December 1815, 3, 14, 17, 28 January, 6 February 1816.
3 HBCA, B39/a/8, 2 October 1816; B39/a/7, 12 October 1816.
4 HBCA, B39/a/8, 12, 15 October, 25 November 1816.
5 Ibid., 28 November 1816; B39/a/7, 17 November 1816.
6 HBCA, B39/a/8, 3 February 1817; B39/a/7, 6, 7 February 1817.
7 HBCA, B/39/a/8, 14, 16 April 1817; B39/a/13, 13 October 1817.
8 HBCA, B39/a/13, 9, 15, 16, 17, 23 October 1817.
9 Ibid., 17, 25, 29, 31 October, 8, 10, 13 November, 9, 19, 21, 26 December 1817, 12, 14 February 1818, 25 March, 23 April, 11, 19 May 1818.
10 HBCA, B39/a/14, September-October, 7, 21, 24 November 1818.
11 Ibid., 16 December 1818, 3, 19, 25, 29, 30 January 1819, 4 February, 7-27 April, 15, 22 May 1819.
12 HBCA, B39/a/15, 22, 29 October, 18 November 1819.
13 Ibid., 18 December 1819, 17 January, 29 March 1820.
14 Ibid., 1, 19, 27 May 1820.
15 HBCA, B39/a/16, 18, 7, 8 June 1820.
16 Ibid., 8, 10, 22 June, 10, 18, 23, 24, 25, 30 July 1820.
17 Ibid., 1 July 1820.
18 Ibid., 3, 17 August 1820.
19 Ibid., 5 August 1820; B39/e/3, report of 12 May 1821; B39/e/l, report of 18 May 1821.
20 HBCA, B39/a/16, 20 July, 15 September, 12 October 1820.
21 Ibid., 1, 7, 15, 16 October, 23, 28 December 1820; B39/e/3, report of 12 May 1821.
22 HBCA, B39/a/16, 9, 10 November 1820.
23 Ibid., 23, 28 December 1820; B39/e/3, report of 12 May 1821; B39/3/1, report of 18 May 1821; B39/a/16, 6 February 1821; B39/a/17, 15, 24 February, 6 March 1821.
24 HBCA, B39/a/17, 6, 9 April 1821.
25 Ibid., 14, 15, 18 April 1821.
26 Ibid., 2, 9, 16, 17 May 1821; B39/a/18, 5 March 1821.
27 HBCA, B39/e/3, report of 12 May 1821.
28 Ibid., report of 12 May 1821.
29 HBCA, B39/e/l, report of 18 May 1821; B39/a/16, 14 July 1820.
30 HBCA, B39/d/11 .
31 HBCA, B39/a/20, 11, 13, 16, 18, 23 June, 18 July, 6 October, 2 July, 12, 13 June, 28 July 1821.
32 Ibid., 7, 9, 12 October 1821.,
33 ibid., 19, 24 November 1821.
34 Ibid., 3, 5 November 1821.
35 Ibid., 6 September 1821.
36 Ibid., 24 November, 28 December 1821, 5, 30, 11, 14, 16 January, 19 February, 2 March, 9-17 February 1822.
37 Ibid., 18, 21, 22, 27 March 1822.
38 Ibid., 9, 12, 14 May 1822.
39 HBCA, B39/d/11, ; B39/a/20, [10 January 1822].
1 HBCA, B39/a/23, 22, 30 October, 1 November 1824; B39/a/24, 21 October 1825; B39/a/25, 23 October 1826; B39/a/40, 4, 13 October 1840; B39/a/44b, 24 October, 20 November 1858; B39/a/46, 9, 20 October, 1 November 1868.
2 HBCA, B39/a/41, 7 October, 13 December 1842; PAC, MG30, E2, Vol. 3, North-West Mounted Police, Fort Saskatchewan, 16 April 1901, Supt. commanding "G" Division and District to the Commissioner, Regina.
3 HBCA, B39/a/28, 17, 10 November 1831; B39/a/30, 9 December 1834.
4 HBCA, B39/a/24, 23, 24 February, 10 April 1826; B39/a/28, 5 May 1832; B39/a/30, 3, 5 February 1835; B39/a/46, 27 January 1869; B39/a/22, 23, 27 February 1824.
5 HBCA, B39/a/44b, June 1839; B39/a/16, 26 November 1820; B39/a/46, [about fol. 49]; B39/a/30, 3 April, 14 October, November 1834; B39/e/4, report of 20 April 1822; B39/a/21b, 31 October 1822; B39/a/16, 19 December 1820.
6 HBCA, B39/a/30, 17 November 1834.
7 HBCA, B39/a/34, December 1837; B39/e/10, report of 1860; B39/a/42, February 1846; B39/a/40, 4 December 1839.
8 HBCA, B39/a/41, October 1845; B39/a/23, 18, 20 October 1824; B39/a/22, 8 February, 19 March 1824; B39/a/44a, 30 September 1857; B39/a/44b, 16 September 1858; B39/d/118 ; B39/a/46, 29 January 1869.
9 HBCA, B39/a/30, 11 October, 22 December 1834; B39/d/72 ; B39/a/41, October 1842; B39/a/20, 4 January 1822.
10 HBCA, B39/a/22, [1823-24].
11 HBCA, B39/a/33, 17 March 1837; B39/a/40, 5 October 1839; B39/a/44b, 30 September 1859; B39/a/42, 12, 14, 23, 26, 30 March, 2 April 1846; B39/a/44b, 27 September 1859; B39/a/44b, 2 October 1860; B39/a/46, 10 December 1867.
12 HBCA, B39/a/44a, 30 September 1856; B39/a/44b, 10 December 18-59; B39/a/45, 19 October 1865, 1, 2 October 1866; B39/a/46, 20 October, 15 December 1868; B39/a/47, 15 October 1869, 17 October 1870.
13 B39/a/16, 7 Feb. 1821; 27 October 1820; B39/a/17, 3 March 1821; B39/a/16, 27, 29 October, 18 November 1820; B39/a/29, 31 May, 9, 13 July 1832.
14 HBCA, B39/a/47, 12 February 1870.
15 HBCA, B39/e/6, ; B39/a/23, 16, 18 October 1844; B39/a/41, 9 October 1844; B39/a/42, 11 October 1847; B39/a/44a, 22 June 1857; B39/a/46, 2 May, 18 November 1868; B39/a/29, 17 July 1832.
16 HBCA, B39/e/6, .
17 HBCA, B39/a/42, 12 May, 3 July 1851; B39/a/46, 23 May 1868; B39/a/40, 14 October 1839.
Appendix A. The Fisheries of Fort Chipewyan, 1822-1871
1 HBCA, B39/a/21b-47.
Appendix B. Receipts and Expenditures of Fish, 1822-1870
1 HBCA, B39/a/22-47; B39/d/54, 68; B39/e/4, 6.
1 HBCA, B39/a/22, 25-26, 35; B39/e/6, 8-9.
1 HBCA, B39/e/8; B39/d/17b-136.
MG19, A7, Vol. 6
MG19, A30, Charles Napier Bell Collection, Athabasca River Order for 1811
MG19, C1, Vol. 51, "An Account of Mackenzie's River, Department By George Keith Esq. of the North West Company"
MG19, E1, Selkirk Papers, Vol. 24
MG24, 13, McGillivray Papers, Vol. 1, Athabasca Scheme, 1816, 1817
MG30, E2, Vol. 3, North-West Mounted Police, Fort Saskatchewan, 16 April 1901
North West Canadian Fisheries Surveys in 1944-1945. Ottawa, 1947. Bulletin No. 72.
The Journals and Letters of Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Ed. W. Kaye Lamb. Macmillan, Toronto, 1970.
Section B: Post Records
B39/a/1-47, Fort Chipewyan Post Journals, 1804-71
B39/d/1-136, Fort Chipewyan Account Books, 1817-73
B39/e/1-10, Fort Chipewyan Reports on Districts, 1820-60
The Peace-Athabasca Delta, A Canadian Resource, Summary Report, 1972. Ottawa, 1973.
The Animals of North America. Series II. Fresh Water Fish. N.p., Montreal, 1865.
David Thompson's Narrative of his Explorations in Western America, 1784-1812.The Champlain Society, Toronto, 1916.
[Source: Eric Krause, "The Fisheries of the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Chipewyan, 1791-1871 in Manuscript Report Number 208, (Parks Canada, 1976), pp. 1-77 - © Parks Canada - Note: This report was originally written between 1968 and 1972 while the author worked for Parks Canada in Ottawa - Report Assembly/Rapport de l'assemblée © Krause House Info-Research Solutions]