Category Archives: North America

Castaway Healers Without Borders, 1530s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 189-192:

As they traveled, the castaways continued to burnish their reputation as healers. Cabeza de Vaca in particular became more confident in his skills. He became bolder in his interventions; he was no longer content merely to pray and blow. The medical procedures he employed may go some way toward explaining his success. Not far from the Rio Nadadores, he treated a man who had been struck by an arrow below the shoulder. “I touched him and felt the point of the arrow, and I saw that it had passed through the cartilage,” Cabeza de Vaca writes with the precision of a surgeon, “and with a knife that I had, I opened his chest to that place. And I saw that the point had passed through and was very difficult to remove. I again cut deeper, and I inserted the knife point, and with great difficulty, at last I pulled it out. It was very long. And with a deer bone, plying my trade as a physician, I gave him two stitches, and after that he bled a great deal and with scraps of hide I stopped the bleeding.” After the surgery, the patient claimed that he no longer felt pain. The arrowhead was passed around throughout the land, and everyone was amazed by the miraculous cure that Cabeza de Vaca had bestowed. The travelers’ authority over the peoples of central Coahuila became great indeed.

They never traveled alone. Since crossing into northern Tamaulipas, they, and their string of indigenous hosts, had worked out a system that was part processional, part doctor’s visit, and part plunder. It must have been a marvel to behold. When the strangers arrived in each new Indian community, it set an elaborate series of rituals in motion. The natives would offer shelter, food, and gifts to the four men in exchange for access to their healing powers. Festivities would follow, sometimes for days. Then, reluctant to see the medicine men go, the Indian hosts would insist on traveling with them to the next settlement.

The four survivors had set ideas about where they wanted to go: first due south toward Pánuco, and then due west toward the metal-working peoples. They could not, however, simply dictate their route. Their Indian sponsors had their own notions and constantly tried to steer the drifters toward their friends and away from their enemies. The route actually taken by Cabeza de Vaca and his companions was often the result of complicated negotiations, and occasionally of deception. A native group by the Sierra de Pamoranes, for instance, tried to dissuade the four men from going inland by falsely claiming that there was neither food nor people in the direction the healers wished to travel. In that case the wanderers paid little attention and pursued their inland course. Yet in general they were not immune to such subtle manipulation, as they depended entirely upon their indigenous followers for information and knowledge about the terrain and geography of the region.

Each time the explorers approached the next indigenous settlement on their journey, a curious exchange would ensue. Those who had accompanied the medicine men would pillage the new hosts, entering their huts and plundering whatever possessions or food they could carry back to their own encampment. In return, they left the medicine men. A certain sense of reciprocity undergirded the entire transaction, yet the details were unsettling for the explorers. They were initially taken aback by this custom when they first witnessed it in northern Tamaulipas. They were distressed by how badly the new hosts were treated and feared that the widespread sacking would lead to serious altercations. Yet their fears turned out to be unfounded as the plundered Indians offered reassurance. “On seeing our sadness,” Cabeza de Vaca writes, “[they] consoled us by saying that we should not be grieved by that because they were so content to have seen us that they considered that their possessions had been well employed, and that farther ahead they would be compensated by others who were very rich.” And indeed, a few days later the erstwhile victims would plunder the villagers that followed, “and the ones always sacked the others, and thus those who lost, like those who gained, were very content.”

Precise instructions about how to deal with the healers were also passed down from group to group. The hosts were told to lead the foreigners onward, always treating them “with great respect and being careful not to anger us in anything,” Cabeza de Vaca writes, “and to give us everything they had, and to take us where there were many people, and that wherever we arrived to steal and loot what the others had because such was the custom.” Soon the “new custom” became so entrenched and so well known that native villages on the way began to take precautions like hiding their most valuable possessions in advance of the procession’s arrival. Reverence and intimidation were closely intertwined. An approaching band bent on plunder could easily cower villagers into surrendering their possessions and venerating the four outsiders.

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Spaniards Discover Hurricanes

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 65-68:

Unbeknownst to the expeditioners, somewhere in the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico, billowing clouds and localized thunderstorms began to clash and combine with each other, and this mass of clouds, rain, and wind started to rotate around a low-pressure center due to the earth’s spinning motion. In the course of two or three weeks the wind must have picked up steadily, until the system developed into a tropical storm and finally a hurricane. And it drifted toward Cuba.

The great majority of the Florida expeditioners had never experienced such a towering, rotating giant, shuffling erratically from place to place and smothering everything in its path. Because hurricanes require tropical heat and high humidity to form, they do not occur anywhere in the Mediterranean or the northeastern Atlantic. Columbus was the first to report one during his second voyage. European residents of Española and Cuba had some encounters with them in the early decades, adopting the Taíno word for them, hurakan, meaning “big wind.”

Cabeza de Vaca could not hide his astonishment:

At this time the sea and the storm began to swell so much that there was no less tempest in the town than at sea, because all the houses and churches blew down, and it was necessary for us to band together in groups of seven or eight men, our arms locked with one another, in order to save ourselves from being carried away by the wind. We were as fearful of being killed by walking under the trees as among the houses, since the storm was so great that even the trees, like the houses, fell. In this great storm and continual danger we walked all night without finding an area or place where we could be safe for even half an hour.

The following day, on Monday, Cabeza de Vaca and about thirty survivors of the expedition who had remained in Trinidad went to the shore to find out what had happened to the ships. There were only a few traces of them at the anchorage: some buoys but nothing more. Search parties moving along the coast found a rowboat atop a tree close to 1 mile away. At a distance of more than 25 miles, they recovered two bodies so bludgeoned that they were impossible to identify. They also found a cape and some blanket rags. All in all, that day the Florida expedition lost two ships, twenty horses, and sixty men to the strange ways of the New World. The God-fearing survivors could only interpret this violent storm as a divine warning, an unmistakable omen.

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Spanish Women Pioneers in the 1520s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 52-55:

ALONGSIDE THESE THREE caballeros [including Cabeza de Vaca], a microcosm of Spanish society was to travel to Florida. The expedition must have included a full complement of letrados, physicians, merchants, artisans, sailors, all the way down to lowly peasants seeking a fresh start. Five Franciscan brothers were to introduce the Indians to the mysteries of the Catholic faith.

The Florida expedition included women as well. Women were a fixture of early voyages of discovery and settlement. According to one estimate, they comprised around 10 percent of all licenses issued to departing passengers from Seville during much of the sixteenth century. In certain years they accounted for as much as 20 percent and even close to 30 percent of all European migrants to the New World. The majority of these pioneering women were married to members of the expeditions, but unmarried women traveled too, including the daughters of families, female servants, and prostitutes.

The lure of the Americas was all too evident for those women interested in marriage. In Spain there was an overabundance of women due to male migration and early death from war. According to the ambassador of the Republic of Venice, in the 1520s Seville appeared to be “very nearly under the control of women,” many of whom earned their living in manly occupations like peonage, masonry, and roofing. The situation was the exact opposite in the Indies, where European women were notoriously scarce and greatly appreciated by affluent but lonesome conquistadors.

Not surprisingly, most women traveled to parts of the New World already settled by Europeans; they were far less likely to risk voyages of exploration and conquest headed for unknown lands. Some expedition captains refused to take females altogether. But Narváez was not among them. The first European women in Mexico had traveled with Narváez in the imposing armada that was to confront Cortés. In the Florida expedition there were ten women, all of whom were married and traveling with their husbands.

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Seville as Port City in the 1520s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 39-41:

IN SIXTEENTH-CENTURY SPAIN, ALL NEW WORLD explorations originated in Seville, that marvel of a city-port on the Guadalquivir River. As Spain’s only port licensed to do business with the American colonies, Seville became a protagonist in the history of discovery, the starting and end point of all transatlantic voyages. As one contemporary so aptly put it, “Seville is the common homeland, the endless globe, the mother of orphans, and the cloak of sinners, where everything is a necessity and no one has it.” In the 1520s many sevillanos could still recall the stir caused by Columbus’s triumphant entrance in the spring of 1493. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea had paraded around town followed by ten natives and a few resilient parrots that he had brought from the newly discovered lands. The people of Seville had more recent memories of that cantankerous Portuguese commander, Ferdinand Magellan, who had departed in 1519 with five good ships. Three years later a lone vessel with tattered sails and twenty-one famished survivors pulled up into harbor after having circumnavigated the entire globe.

But far from being a backdrop or a silent witness, Seville was a beehive of activity, its workforce specializing in the procurement, outfitting, and manning of fleets bound for the New World, activities that drew men and women from all over Europe and North Africa. The main action centered on a stretch of beach that joined the left bank of the river to the city. Measuring 800 yards long and 350 yards wide, this area, commonly referred to as El Arenal (the Sandy Beach), functioned much like a surgeon’s operating table. On any given day, one could see dozens of ships crowding each other, all floating perpendicularly to the waterline to make the most of the work space. Many of these vessels were surrounded by swarms of carpenters, caulkers, riggers, stevedores, boatmen, pilots, accountants, royal officials, aspiring passengers, and the many other characters that populated this vibrant maritime community. Since the average lifespan of sixteenth-century ships that plied the transatlantic routes was a mere four years, repair crews were ubiquitous. Caulkers skillfully laid ships on one side by shifting the ballast and taking advantage of low tides to expose parts of the hull. They had a few frantic hours to scrub the bottom and add tarred oakum between the planks before the tide turned again. Loading a vessel required less skill but far more stamina. There were no piers or wharves at El Arenal, so the entire cargo—fifty, seventy, 120, or more tons—had to be taken by smaller boats and lifted up with ropes onto the deck, or carried on the backs of stevedores who staggered from shore to the ships over narrow planks.

It took about ten minutes to walk from El Arenal to the city center, where the imperial and ecclesiastical powers resided and expedition leaders wrestled with the overwhelming logistics of raising armadas. Human rivers flowed between the rowdy port scene and the august downtown through two main streets. The principal thoroughfare, a cobblestone street flanked by high stucco walls and wrought-iron grilles, began in the heart of El Arenal and ended at the steps of the Cathedral of Seville. Shipmasters recruited crew members and volunteers from these steps, and in the cool shade of the surrounding archways. Fittingly, the street was named La Calle de la Mar (“The Street of the Sea”), as it was here that crews bid their last farewells and caught their last glimpses of the city before boarding the ships.

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First American Mountain Men, 1820s

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 358-359:

WILLIAM ASHLEY, AN ASTUTE ENTREPRENEUR, gunpowder salesman and later politician based out of St. Louis, changed the fur trade forever in the Pacific Northwest and set in motion events that would change its politics as well. In the spring of 1823, Ashley and his partner Andrew Henry organized a band of one hundred ragged and unruly ramblers—some wastrels, some thugs, some adventurous youths from the east, and quite a few former Nor’Westers disgruntled after the amalgamation with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821. Ashley’s small band, based out of the ramshackle tavern town of St. Louis, poled their unwieldy flat-bottomed barges upriver along the mud-coloured Missouri River and into the mountains. From there they filtered into the valleys and gulches of western Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado to set traps for unwary beaver. They were the first American “Mountain Men,” and during the 1820s and 1830s they expanded their operations westward toward the Pacific, nibbling at the fringes of McLoughlin’s domain and encroaching on the traditional lands of the Indigenous peoples.

Ashley’s “One Hundred Men” were not hauling into the wilderness back-breaking burdens of trade goods to exchange with the Indians for their furs. Instead they were laden with beaver traps and personal supplies. They had no intention of constructing a trading fort in the mountains. Ashley’s scheme was to have his men do the actual trapping—a role in the fur trade that had previously been the exclusive domain of Indigenous peoples, particularly in the north.

Not surprisingly, the invasion of traditional territories did not help relations between the two peoples. The various tribes didn’t appreciate hundreds of foreigners wandering around their territory trapping all the beaver. Within a few years, a more or less constant low-level war existed between the new trappers and the natives. Both the Mountain Men and the Indigenous warriors proudly displayed the scalps of their vanquished foes, sometimes wearing strings of the shrivelled flesh and hair as accoutrements to their outfits. The American senator Thomas Benton suggested that nearly five hundred American trappers perished in combat with the Rocky Mountain peoples by the close of the 1820s. He made no estimate of the Indigenous peoples that they had killed. The life expectancy of a “free trapper” could be short, and so for mutual protection as they invaded the traditional lands of proud and sometimes militant nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy and the Snake (Shoshoni) or Nez Perce, the free trappers travelled in brigades, or companies, of twenty men or more. Two of the greatest of these brigades were the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and the Missouri Fur Company, although both were later absorbed by the American Fur Company as John Jacob Astor tightened his grip on the American fur trade in the 1830s. Astor rapidly increased the trade along the upper Missouri River with the use of steam-powered ships. By the time the demand for fur had petered out by the 1840s, Astor had sold his interests in the fur trade, and the industry slipped into decline—the age of the Mountain Men was between 1822 and 1840. But the American Fur Company continued to flourish in the decades to follow, beginning the lucrative trade in bison hides that eventually drove the thundering herds to near extinction later in the century.

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Shifting Fur Trade Alliances & Enmities

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 263-264:

THOMPSON QUICKLY LEARNED THAT THE PIEGAN, or Piikani, were in a general state of conflict with the people farther west on the other side of the mountains, the Kutenai, a Plains tribe that had only two generations earlier been pushed west by the Piegan and other tribes of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Siksika (Blackfoot) and the Kainai (Blood). Since Henday’s time nearly a half-century earlier, the confederacy of linguistically and culturally similar peoples had banded together to become the most powerful military force in the region. They were surrounded by many enemies, however, and consequently they were fierce warriors. The political situation was always in flux, with an ever-shifting series of alliances and enmities. There were the Crow, Cheyenne and Sioux (Dakota, Lakota and Nakota) on the Great Plains. There were the Shoshone, Flathead, Kalispell, Kootenai and Nez Perce to the west and southwest in the mountainous regions. For a time, the Blackfoot Confederacy’s greatest challengers were the occasionally allied Plains Cree, the Nakoda or Stony (Assiniboine) and the Saulteaux or Plains Ojibwa of the loosely affiliated Iron Confederacy to the north and east. (The Iron Confederacy also traded European manufactured goods to the Mandan for beans, maize and tobacco.) Later in the nineteenth century the Blackfoot Confederacy’s adversaries included the Métis. The Piegan occupied the westernmost fringe of the Confederacy’s territory and were a fierce people tasked with guarding the frontier from enemies coming over the mountains.

The Piegan, like the Blackfoot and the Blood, never used canoes but rode horses, of which they were masters, and kept dogs to haul their goods. They tended to dwell in concentrated semi-permanent communities of at least one hundred lodges and lived by hunting bison herds and migrating with them, enlivening their diet with trout from the many cold streams that rushed down through the grassy foothills from the mountains. In the late summer and fall, after the chokecherries ripened and bison wandered west in search of better grasses, bands would congregate to drive vast numbers of bison over cliffs at places such as Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southwestern Alberta.

The Piegan for a time occupied the position as middlemen in the trade with the Kootenay (also spelled Kootenai and Kutenai) and other culturally similar peoples to their immediate west, and were in direct opposition to the North West Company’s plan to expand the trade over the mountains. In particular they sought to maintain a monopoly on guns to preserve their military superiority. In one instance, a band of mounted Piegan warriors followed Thompson when he travelled from Rocky Mountain House into the mountains to meet a band of Kootenay and escort them back to the fort. The intimidation wasn’t entirely successful, and the Kootenay were able to trade pelts of wolverines, fishers, bears and over a hundred beaver. The Piegan did everything short of all-out war to prevent the commerce. Thompson persuaded the Kootenay to send a guide over the pass the following year to help him lead a pack train over the mountains, but the man was killed within a few miles of the fort.

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Nor’Westers vs. Hudson’s Bay Company

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 205-207:

EACH OF THE TWO COMPANIES HAD competitive advantages and disadvantages. Working against the North West Company was the fact that the Hudson’s Bay Company could get its goods by ship right into the heart of the continent, while the Nor’Westers had to transport their goods from Montreal, far to the south and east. But the Company suffered from a lack of manpower. The near-continuous wars that occupied Britain (the American War of Independence between 1775 and 1783 and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars between 1792 and 1815) deprived the Company of easy access to young male workers when they were desperately needed to staff the new inland posts. The Napoleonic Wars in particular made it difficult for the Company to recruit young men into the overseas fur trade, and it increasingly hired the mixed-blood descendants of earlier employees to take on roles within the Company hierarchy. The Company still adhered to its policy of rarely employing Indigenous people for full-time careers because it wanted them out in the bush capturing beaver, fulfilling the supply side of the business equation, for which they were uniquely suited. Over time the connotation of “mixed-blood” or “Indian” denoted economic roles and placement in the hierarchy rather than purely genetic or racial background. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Company still had barely five hundred employees in North America, although it relied heavily upon the contract services of countless Indigenous hunters, guides and labourers.

The Nor’Westers, on the other hand, drew on Quebec’s seventy-thousand-strong local population, whether French or Mohawk-Iroquois. They fielded approximately twelve hundred people along their vast supply line. It was a more expensive and labour-intensive business model, but, as would be seen, the larger numbers would be useful in a fight. The Iroquois were particularly suitable for aggressive conflict, and even the Company began hiring them decades later when the two companies were at war. “I have frequently heard the Canadian and Iroquois voyagers disputed as regards their merits,” wrote Company agent Colin Robertson in 1819, “perhaps the former may be more hardy or undergo more fatigue, but in either rapid or traverse, give me the latter, for their calmness and presence of mind which never forsakes them in the greatest danger.” If you were in a scrape, you’d want a Mohawk-Iroquois companion, and these men were in great demand in the early nineteenth century.

The life of a voyageur could be harsh and often short, full of danger and extreme living, but many would never trade it for any other, signing on for the next season’s work each year for decades and only retiring when they were no longer capable of the rigours of the life. One old man, astonishingly over seventy, reminisced on his life travelling the land as a fur trader. “I have been 24 years a canoeman and 41 years in service; no portage was ever too long for me. Fifty songs I could sing. I have saved the lives of 10 voyageurs. Have had 12 wives and six running dogs. I spent all my money in pleasure. Were I young again, I should spend my life the same way over. There is no life so happy as a voyageur life.”

The two companies’ different corporate structures also manifested in their interactions with local peoples. While the Company men were ordered to adhere to basic discipline and to respect various Indigenous customs and ceremony, the more chaotic arrangements of the Nor’Westers allowed for more individual discretion, which meant in some cases developing a greater facility with Indigenous languages and a deeper understanding of local customs. But the “pedlars,” as the Company men derisively called them in the early days before they became a dangerous and organized threat, also earned a reputation for bad living and poor relations with Indigenous peoples, the result of the behaviour of a minority tarnishing the reputation of many. As a consequence, they seldom stayed in the same place from year to year for fear of repercussions and kept building new outposts. It wasn’t a stable business plan.

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Hudson’s Bay Company Policies vs. Realities

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 118-121:

Spirits were in great demand as payment for hunting, in ceremonial exchanges and in payment for furs. Throughout the eighteenth century the Company made frequent attempts to restrict or regulate the dispensation of liquor, but these efforts were never uniform. The main obstacle to instituting a more consistent prohibition was that it was impossible to regulate alcohol completely within the factories for their own employees, and they feared that if denied alcohol completely the Indigenous traders would take their business to the French, in spite of the greater travelling distance and inferior trade goods. Potent alcohol was a recurring problem for all who congregated at the Company’s posts; this was a society struggling to develop the social infrastructure and accepted behaviours needed to regulate and control the actions of people under the influence of the new intoxicants. Isham later observed that a custom had evolved whereby men who planned on drinking would send away the women and children along with all the guns and knives. Most of the problems between the employees and officers at the factories also had to do with the abuse of or smuggling of liquor.

The most striking thing is that none of the decision makers on the London Committee ever visited the bay, apart from James Knight, and the yawning gap between reality and theory was also part of life at the outpost. Whether it be admonitions to grow more vegetables, to get more work done during each season, to trade for more furs by exhorting the Cree to work harder, or to get their employees to urge Indigenous peoples from farther inland to breach the Cree hegemony and trade directly at the fort, many directives had to be politely ignored. Life at the factories along the bay revolved around its own unique set of customs and activities, borrowing from Indigenous practices whenever convenient, accommodating Indigenous customs whenever possible and generally creating its own society that was derived from cultural and geographical necessity rather than rigid London imperatives.

One directive from the London Committee to John Nixon must have made his eyes roll when he read it at Fort Albany in 1680. A helpful suggestion on how to save money on food rations, it revealed just how little was appreciated in London of life along the bay: “Upon Hayes Island where our grand Factory is, you may propagate Swine without much difficulty, wch. is an excellent flesh, and the Creature is hardy and will live where some other Creatures cannot.” These types of directives were written by well-meaning dandies, upper-class financiers and aristocrats who had never been to Hudson Bay and experienced its primitive outposts, harsh climate and poor soil, but also had never worked outside the rarefied palatial offices and manors of upper-class English society—people, in short, who ought not be telling servants how to procure their food on a remote distant continent, where they were visitors in a bewildering and deadly land, perched precariously along the rim of a geographical and cultural terra incognita.

On the one hand, there was the London Committee, with its directors planning grand strategy and issuing orders that occasionally indulged in the penchant for micromanagement, and then there were the people who worked for the Company in the outposts with the geographical and climatic constraints of the Subarctic and who worked with, or were friends with or even married to, the Indigenous people of that land. The Company had official policies, but the people bayside interpreted those policies and adjusted them to reality.

RELATIONSHIPS WITH THE HOSTS OF THAT foreign land were at the heart of life and business at the posts. Not only were the local, or Home Guard, Cree often hired for jobs as labourers, hunters, guides, seamstresses, cooks and interpreters, but sexual and romantic relations between Indigenous women and Company men were common. In the earliest days of its operations in the late seventeenth century, the Company’s directors issued proclamations to its officers to prevent or obstruct these relationships. “We are very sensible that the Indian Weoman resorting to our Factories are very prejudiciall to the Companies affaires,” the committee wrote to John Nixon in 1682, “not only by being a meanes of our Servants often debauching themselves, but likewise by embeazling our goods and very much exhausting our Provisions, It is therefore our positive order that you lay your strict Commands on every Cheife of each Factory upon forfiture of Wages not to Suffer any wooman to come within any of our factories.” For obvious reasons, this directive from aristocratic directors, comfortable in their estates in London and surrounded by their families, was not only foolish but unenforceable, human nature and social needs being what they are.

There was always a difference between what London directors wrote in their letters as official policy and what chief factors enforced for themselves and their men. Money was usually at the crux of it. Workers who spent many years of their lives in what amounted to remote work camps wanted to improve their lot as much as possible, while the managers didn’t want responsibility for families. But, as Graham noted, “the Company permit no European women to be brought within their territories; and forbid any natives to be harboured in the settlements. This latter has never been obeyed.”

But the Company soon appreciated the benefit of having close ties with their Indigenous trading partners and quietly began supporting intimate liaisons. The shift in opinion was based on the realization that these relationships were not a financial drain but rather an asset. Unofficial diplomatic marriages between Indigenous women and Company employees became common, with Indigenous women seeking kinship ties for more favourable trading privileges, while single Company men sought female companionship and an introduction to the life and customs of the land. In a practical sense these were alliances for mutual aid, companionship and support, both social and economic, much like marriages today.

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Culinary Delights of Canada’s Northwest

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle p. 195:

Hearne’s posthumously published A Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort, in Hudson’s Bay, to the Northern Ocean is a charming and lively account of his years of adventure with Matonabbee, a classic of northern exploration literature and an unvarnished window into eighteenth-century life in the northern interior, a region on the cusp of great change. Hearne was a keen observer of the natural world, such as the seasonal behaviour of animals, the types of vegetation and the climate. He had a particular interest in Chipewyan customs and lifestyle. Food was another favourite topic, perhaps because the cuisine on the Barren Lands was so different from the food at the fort, and perhaps because on his adventures he often didn’t have enough of it. He detailed the many different methods of hunting and of preparing food, which animal parts were the tastiest or most coveted when herbed, boiled or roasted. He described with relish a common hearty caribou stew, and a venison dish called beeatee that was “a most delicious morsel.” Similar to the Scottish haggis, it was made using the animal’s stomach as a vessel, stuffed with blood, chopped fat, tenderized meat, kidneys and heart mixed with seasonal herbs. The beeatee was steamed and smoked over a fire into an aromatic pâté. Hearne found buffalo tripe to be “exceedingly good,” while warm caribou blood sucked directly from the bullet hole was “very nourishing.” Moose stomach, on the other hand, was “rather bitter.” Hearne also savoured raw fish of various types and cuts, which was a common meal of the Chipewyan and remained a mainstay of Hearne’s palate for the rest of his life, a fondly remembered delicacy that he would specially request when dining out in London, perhaps to unobtrusively raised eyebrows acknowledging the culinary peccadilloes of the eccentric traveller.

Hearne wrote in detail about the annual life cycle of the Dene-speaking peoples of the Barren Lands, and the difference between the sexes and their respective roles in society. Narrative examples give poignancy to his anthropological generalizations, and his fascinating insights are written in clear, descriptive and vibrant language.

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The Era of Beaver Pelts and Mad Hatters

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 46-48:

IT WAS A SEEMINGLY RANDOM flight of fashion that began the dramatic expansion in commerce between the English, French and many of the Indigenous peoples of North America. Furs have always had value in winter for warmth, and to a lesser extent had value for their water-resistant properties, but it was their use in the manufacture of felt that drove the demand in Europe. Felt was developed originally in central Asia as an excellent insulating and waterproofing material for tents and tarps; it was also used in ancient times by Roman legionaries as padding under their armour. In seventeenth-century Europe, felt was primarily used in the manufacture of hats, an ever-changing fashion accoutrement that became an indispensable signifier of prestige and social identity first for gentlemen and ladies and then, as the century progressed, for nearly every status of person. The style of hat signalled the level of prestige and the profession of the wearer. Picture the distinctive tricorne or Continental hat; or the cocked hat of the navy; the dignified stovepipe Regent, or top hat, of the financiers; and the somewhat amusing Paris Beau beloved of the young urban rake. Ladies’ hats had their own hierarchy of frivolity, complexity and expense—and attendant etiquette and social flourishes that governed how a hat was worn and with which accessories, how it was donned and with which distinctive and noble gesture it was removed.

In general, the waterproof and durable beaver felt hat, which could be dyed and moulded into a bewildering variety of shapes, was perfectly suited to symbolize and reflect the desires of an increasingly stratified and mercenary society. People were marked by their hats, the prices of which were well known and appreciated. Since it took about three to four worn beaver pelts to make enough felt for a single hat, some hats were so pricey that they were carefully tended and repaired for years and then passed down as inheritances. Even wealthy people kept inferior spares to be worn in inclement weather, saving their best beaver for notable occasions—or at least occasions when others might note the quality and make of their hat.

Felt was made using heat, moisture, pressure and mercury nitrate to shrink the fur fibres so that they matted together. Hatters spent long hours toiling away in their poorly ventilated tenements, inhaling clouds of mercury fumes as they bent over their felt-making apparatus, combing, pressing and steaming the pelts into the desired consistency and shape. Mercury was eventually discovered to have debilitating effects on the hatter, causing a type of poisoning called erethism, or mad hatter disease, which was characterized by tremors, depression, delirium, memory loss and hallucinations. Hatter wasn’t a profession or trade conducive to a long and healthy life, but nor were many other occupations of the era, and the dangers were poorly understood while the pay could be high.

By the early eighteenth century, London was not only the principal depot for the wholesale warehouses of prime beaver pelts from the best beaver preserve in the world, but by a coincidence of history it was also becoming the global centre for hat manufacture, which for centuries had been based in northern France. Seventeenth-century Europe was riven with religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Many of the felt and hat manufacturing trades were dominated by French Protestant Huguenots. In the mid-1680s, they began to flee their homes and cross the English Channel to escape religious persecution. They settled in the vicinity of London and brought with them the secrets of their trade, so that soon the best hats in Europe made from the best beaver pelts from North America originated in London. The most distinguished French nobility, and even Catholic cardinals, ordered their distinctive hats from Protestant hat makers in London.

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