'Voyage to the Interior', 1830
Champagne and mosquitos
(Hello, this is Histories, a free weekly email exploring first-hand accounts from the corners of history… Do please share this with fellow history fans and subscribe.)
I must here observe, that a Canoe voyage is not one which an English Lady would take for pleasure; and though I have gone through it very well, there are many little inconveniences to be met with, not altogether pleasing or congenial…
Last week I introduced Francis Ramsay Simpson, whom we followed from Britain to New York and Montreal in 1830 – she was the new, much younger wife of her cousin George Simpson, adventurous manager of the fur-trading Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). After her city sightseeing, Francis joined him in a “voyage to the Interior” of Canada, and this week we’ll dip into her journal of this trip – Francis herself claimed that she and her companion Catherine McTavish were the first British women to make this journey.
Their destination was the York Factory. This was a key fortified trading post of the HBC at the mouth of the Hayes River, first established in c.1670, and the cause of various skirmishes with the French, who captured it in the 1697 Battle of Hudson’s Bay. The British regained it in 1713 via the Treaty of Utrecht, which resolved various bellicose wrangles between multiple European nations, particularly over the throne of Spain. I’m summarising brutally here to avoid too much digression! At the time of Frances’ visit, the York Factory was thriving, though it declined later in the 19th century due to improved transportation and trading routes elsewhere. (It is now a National Historic Site.)
Frances’ journal takes up the story of her voyage from Lachine, now a borough of Montreal but only a village in 1830, to York Factory, in May.
Left La Chine at 4 A.M. in two Canoes manned by 15 hands each, all strong active, fine looking Canadians. The passengers consisting of Mr. & Mrs. McTavish , & Maid Servant in the one, & Mr. Simpson Myself & Servant in the other accompanied by Messrs. Keith & Gale who kindly volunteered to favor us with their company for a day or two.
Our Canoe, a most beautiful craft, airy and elegant beyond description, was 35 feet in length, the lading consisting of 2 Water proof Trunks (known by the name of Cassets) containing our clothes; 1 Basket for holding Cold Meat, Knives & Forks, Towels &c. 1 Egg Basket, a travelling Case (or Canteen) containing 6 Wine Bottles, Cups & Saucers, Tea Pot, Sugar Basin, Spoons, Cruets, Glasses & Tumblers, Fishing Apparatus, Tea, Sugar Salt &c. &c.—also a bag of Biscuits, a bale of Hams, a Keg of Butter &c. &c.
The provisions for the Crew were Pork & Biscuits: from which circumstance the young recruits are called “Pork Eaters” to distinguish them from the old Winterers, who feed chiefly on “Pemican,” a mixture of Buffalo Meat, Tallow, and a due proportion of hairs (but whether the last ingredient is intended to keep the composition together or not, I cannot say) this is not the most delicate, but it is very substantial food, and more portable than any other, as it is closely packed in a bag made of Buffalo hide. There is also a keg of liquor (called the Dutchman) from which the people are drammed three or four times a day, according to the state of the Weather.
[In her narrative, Frances refers to the voyageurs, hardy French Canadians who transported furs by canoe, a brutally tough job as it involved carrying huge bundles of furs (totalling as much as 180 lbs or 80 kg, or even more) across land portages which connected the labyrinth of waterways in this region.]
In this order we started, the voyageurs singing, and the Canoe almost flying thro’ the water—the motion is perfectly easy, & in fine weather it is the most delightful mode of travelling that can be imagined.
At 9 O’clock we put ashore for Breakfast, above the Rapids of St. Ann—the water being too shallow for the Canoes to touch the bank, Mrs. McTavish & myself were carried in the arms, and the Gentlemen on the backs of our sturdy Canadians, which (as may be supposed) caused a hearty laugh both at, and to, such of the company as were novices.
Immediately upon landing, the Guide “Bernard” (an Indian) kindled a fire with his Flint & Steel, and a small piece of Bark & Touchwood, with which the “Fire Bag” is furnished: two or three men with hatchets, provided wood—3 poles tied together were placed over the fire, with a large kettle suspended from them by a chain—the cloth was laid on the grass, & spread with Cold Meat, Fowls, Ham, Eggs, Bread & Butter everyone sat down in the position found most convenient, and each made the most of the time afforded.
Mr. Simpson (after looking at his watch) gave the call of “Take away”—the breakfast party were on their feet in a moment, the things washed, packed, and the Canoe off again, within the 45 Minutes usually allowed for this Meal.
At 11 A.M. we landed at the beautiful Indian village of the “Lake of the Two Mountains,” (where the Company have an Establishment under the charge of Mr. Cameron from whence, on approaching the shore, we were saluted with a discharge of Artillery, by the Chiefs of the Iroquay, Algonquin , and Nepisang tribes.
The Indians decked out in all their finery of Ribbons, Beads, & Silver works, placed themselves in rows, on either side of the path leading to the house, and smiled, and appeared much pleased, when spoken to. The daughter of one of the principal Chiefs (a little Girl about 8 years of age) came forward, and saying a few words in her native language, presented me with a Bouquet of Cherry Blossom very prettily arranged, as a mark of friendly greeting.
We remained here about ½ an hour, during which time we paid a visit to the Catholic Priests, who appear to possess great influence over the minds of the people. They pressed us to stay Dinner with them, were very lively & communicative, and one in particular (a Frenchman) who had but lately arrived, wished it was in his power to accompany us to the Interior.
At 2 O’clock we put ashore, off the village of St. Andrews, when the seats were arranged so as to accommodate the whole party in our Canoe for dinner, which was nearly a repetition of our Morning’s Meal, with the addition of Port & Madeira; and in honor of the Ladies a bottle of sparkling Champaign was uncorked, not very usual as may be supposed in Canoe travelling. [We] travelled till 9 p.m. when we encamped, above the Chute of Blondeau. The Tents were immediately pitched, and supper prepared, soon after which, we retired to Bed, which consisted of our Cloaks, and a few Blankets laid upon the Ground.
Arose at 2 A.M. with aching bones, occasioned by the dampness, and hardness of my couch:—the people were roused by Mr. Simpson’s well known call of: “Lève Lève Lève,” when they all started up, covered with their Blankets in which they wrap themselves, sleeping all weathers in the open air on the ground. The Canoes were then laden and we embarked at 3 O’clock.
Soon after daylight, we came to some heavy Rapids where we were obliged to land, and walk 7 Miles up the banks of the Grenville Canal, till we came to the small village of Grenville , where there is a detachment of Soldiers stationed. The Canoes here joined us, we then travelled till 9 O’clock, and breakfasted at “Point Orignal.”…
The Establishment at which we encamped last night, may be considered the boundary between the Civilized and Savage Worlds, as beyond this point, the country is uninhabited by Whites, except where a Trading Post of the Honble. Hudson’s Bay Compy. occasionally presents itself.
At 3 A.M. the signal for starting was given, & in a few minutes after, the paddle kept time to the lively song. Our progress however, was soon interrupted by the Portage of the Chats Falls, which we passed before day light; altho’ the path which lay across rocks & precipices, was very rugged, and intersected by a small Channel of the River over which I was carried in the arms of one of the men who waded thro’ it, nearly breast-high…
We were in the Canoe before 2 this morning, but on pushing off from the Shore, discovered that one of our Crew was missing: a few shots were fired by way of signal, and the people re-landed in order to search for the Deserter, but to no purpose, as he had got clear off into the Woods, where it would be in vain to look for him…
The morning was cold & disagreeable after the incessant rain of yesterday, but neither that, nor the fatigue of the forced march we were making, served to depress the Spirits of our voyageurs; who paddled, sung, laughed & joked, as if on an excursion of pleasure, until one of them who seemed to feel the force of a joke, which his neighbour indulged in, at his expense, returned it upon him in a still more forcible manner by a blow, which gave rise to a battle in the Canoe. Mr. Simpson was asleep at the time, but the noise awoke him, and put him into nearly as great a passion as the combatants, upon whom, be bestowed a shower of blows with a paddle which lay at hand, and brought about an immediate cessation of hostilities.
… Made several Portages in the course of the forenoon, in this turbulent little river [the Matowa], and at 2 O’clock got to one called the “Talon” Portage , the most wild & romantic place I ever beheld: it reminded me of the description I have read (in some of Sir Walter Scott’s beautiful tales) of Scottish Scenery. The approach to this Portage is truly picturesque: the river from being a considerable width, here branches into a variety of Channels, one of which we entered, so narrow as scarcely to leave a passage for the Canoe—on either side are stupendous rocks of the most fantastic forms: some bear the appearance of Gothic Castles, others exhibit rows of the most regular, and beautifully carved Corinthian Pillars: deep Caverns are formed in some; while others present a smooth level surface, crowned with tufts of Pines, and Cedars. From the upper end of the Portage is seen a beautiful Waterfall, which dashes over immense masses of rocks thro’ which it had worn itself many a channel foaming & roaring to a considerable distance, the spray glittering in the Sun with all the varied hues of the Rainbow.
[Frances’ full journal is a fascinating account, if too long to reproduce here, so I’ll jump now to the end of her trip, which passed through Fort William, Fort Garry and Norway House, where they arrived on 14th June and spent over a week.]
The business of this place [i.e. Norway House] being now transacted all were again in motion on their way toYork Factory , there to await the arrival of the annual Ships from England. We started at 1 A.M. … we encamped amongst myriads of Musquitos which were not idle with their stings, and were so numerous inside, as well as outside the Tent, that we were under the necessity of smoking them out by placing smouldering logs within the Tent, and fastening it on all sides, till our tormentors dropped down dead by the Thousand.
The Voyageurs agreed among themselves to cut a “May Pole,” or “Lopped Stock” for me; which is a tall Pine Tree, lopped of all its branches excepting those at the top, which are cut in a round bunch: it is then barked: and mine (being a memorable one) was honored with a red feather, and streamers of purple ribband tied to a poll, and fastened to the top of the Tree, so as to be seen above every other object: the surrounding trees were then cut down, in order to leave it open to the Lake. Bernard (the Guide) then presented me with a Gun, the contents of which I discharged against the Tree, and Mr. Miles engraved my name, and the date, on the trunk, so that my “Lopped Stick” will be conspicuous as long as it stands, among the number of those to be seen along the banks of different Lakes and Rivers.
Travelled today with great rapidity; the People being told they must reach York Factory before they slept. They accordingly lost no time, and by applying frequently to the Liquor Keg, contrived to keep up both their strength & spirits.
We arrived at the Factory at Midnight, and retired immediately to rest, Mr. Simpson having ordered that none of the Gentlemen should be disturbed.
Fond as I am of travelling, I own, I felt pleased at the idea of remaining quiet for two months: having traversed in various ways (since the 8th of March) a distance of 8000 Miles, which for a Novice, is no small undertaking.
I must here observe, that a Canoe voyage is not one which an English Lady would take for pleasure; and though I have gone through it very well, there are many little inconveniences to be met with, not altogether pleasing or congenial to the taste of a Stranger: viz. rising between 1 & 2 A.M. sleeping sometimes on swampy ground, sometimes on hard rocks, and at others on sand, (the worst of all materials for a couch) with no other bedding than a couple of Blankets & Cloaks:—living the greater part of the time on salted provisions without vegetables:—exposed to a scorching sun, cold winds, and heavy rain-putting up late some evenings drenched to the skin, and finding the Encampment so wet, as to render it impossible to dry any of our wet clothes, when it became necessary to wear them the following day in the same state.
Many of these difficulties may be in some measure overcome, by persons accustomed to travel thro’ the Country in this manner, so that I possessed the greatest advantage, as Mr. Simpson from frequent experience, knew how to appreciate every comfort that could be obtained, and kindly provided me with many things he had never before thought of—viz. Indian Rubber Shoes, Umbrellas, a thin Oil Cloth as a covering from the rain &c. &c.
Since my arrival here, I have experienced the greatest kindness from all the Gentlemen: who (tho’ perhaps not exactly calculated to shine in polished Society,) are warmhearted, kindly dispositioned people; who offer to a stranger, the most cordial, and unaffected welcome, and endeavour to make every thing pleasing & agreeable.
Frances made quite a name for herself at York Factory with her elegant ways and piano playing, although alas this had the consequence that native women (with whom many of the men, including George Simpson, had had liaisons) became ostracised. Frances herself was homesick, and had a difficult pregnancy followed by the loss of her child. She returned to England in 1833 and had four further children, but her health was failing; the Simpsons did return to Canada and settled in Lachine from 1845, but Frances died there in 1853 aged only 40. She is buried in Montreal.