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Wapusk National Park of Canada

Precious Cargo! Mail packets in the Hudson Bay region

Lorraine Brandson, Diocese of Churchill Hudson Bay Wapusk Management Board Member, Town of Churchill Representative

Wapusk News - Volume 5, Number 1, 2012

Churchill, MB 1930s. Inuk guide for Catholic missionaries’ northern mail run Churchill, MB 1930s. Inuk guide for Catholic missionaries’ northern mail run.
© John Oram Towns, Diocese of Churchill Hudson Bay, CHB 10 04557

In today’s world of e-mail, cell phones and express delivery post, it’s almost impossible to imagine waiting six months or a year for a message from distant loved ones or directions from one’s employer. Yet, that was the reality in the Hudson Bay area region until recent history.

In the North, ‘mail packet’ or mail run activities were communication lifelines for people working in remote fur trade posts, police detachments and missionary outposts. This article will focus on the lifelines between the west coast of Hudson Bay, Churchill, York Factory and the Red River Valley. Of course, this included travel in lands that now constitute Wapusk National Park.

Late 19th century Geographic Features known to Mail Packet Travellers based on the writings of George Simpson McTavish (HBC)   Late 19th century Geographic Features known to Mail Packet Travellers based on the writings of George Simpson McTavish (HBC)[Hand-labeled map by Richard Holt and Lorraine Brandson, 1979]
© Eskimo Museum

In the Hudson Bay region the words ‘mail packet’ bring to mind the historic activities of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). The use of the term ‘packet’ seems to have originated in the 17th century and refers to a heavy leather case used to transport mail, reports and orders to and from Rupert’s Land to the Governor and Council of the HBC in London, England. According to author Rupert Taylor, the packet “was the last item entrusted to the captain before he set sail from York Factory, because any omission was a serious matter with only one ship a year into the Bay.” The annual supply ship arrived in August at York Factory, the head of the Northern Department, for a 2-3 week stay. The vessel usually anchored in “Five Fathom Hole” in the Hayes River, seven miles from the fort. It fired its guns, and immediately a small boat was sent to meet it and convey the packet to the Chief Factor who broke its seal, and distributed the mail.

As the HBC fur trade empire expanded inland and a settlement was established to the south in the Red River Valley (1811), new communication and distribution systems were put in place. The York Boat era played a vital role in the transport of supplies and trade goods (including the packet) from York Factory on the Hayes River to Norway House, south through Lake Winnipeg to the Red River Settlement. Of course, transport of the mail packet and trade returns also moved in the opposite direction with a ‘winter packet’ brought by dog team basically taking the same route as the summer one, changing dogs and drivers at Norway House. In 1873 Sir William Francis Butler wrote “just as the days are at their shortest, a dog sled bearing the winter packet starts from Fort Garry; a man walks behind it; another man some distance in advance of the dogs. It holds it ways down the Red River to Lake Winnipeg; in about nine days’ travel it crosses that lake to the north ‘bore at Norway House; from thence it is lessened of its packet of letters for the Bay of Hudson and the distant Churchill.”

Churchill, MB 1930s. Freight team with large contigent of dogs Churchill, MB 1930s. Freight team with large contingent of dogs.
© John Oram Towns, Diocese of Churchill Hudson Bay, CHB 10 04620

Mail packets between York Factory and Churchill

The Churchill fur trade post was one of the few Bayside posts that received an annual ship from England (except during a 50 year period from 1815-1875). But this operation also received supplies and mail via York Factory. In the late summer/early fall mail from the summer packet was sorted at York Factory for the Bayside posts, and was then transferred to smaller vessels that ventured up and down the coast.

Winter packets were carried by both HBC men and/or Aboriginal employees overland by foot or dog team between Churchill and York Factory, in lands now part of Wapusk NP and the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. A study of the HBC records will probably determine that the Aboriginal involvement was mainly with Cree speaking people, but it also included Dene (in living memory - Artie Oman) and Inuit.

The first recorded mail packet from York Factory (York Fort) to Churchill was sent by Governor Henry Kelsey on 31 January 1719. His instructions to his (two) men were to “sett out for Churchill River along with those Indians I send thither & you are to take care that you do not affront nor Quarrel with them…” The return packet left Churchill 23 February 1719 and arrived back at York Fort 7 March. On the return trip they were required to bring back 363 pounds (Troy) of Brazil Tobacco with them. The packeters were allowed to bring one dog to help haul the supplies.

George Simpson McTavish, a late 19th century HBC factor at Fort Churchill described these trips in his book Behind the Palisades (1964). According to Simpson, food for the dog teams consisted of frozen blubber and whale skins, wrapped into separate duck cloth “parchments” for each night. Mail sent to “friends” added 15 to 20 packages to the load. Geographic place names commonly used at that time included: Egg Hill (Knight’s Hill), Eastern Creeks (creeks associated with the Mast River), Snowshoe Muskeg (marshy area south of Norton Lake), Snowshoe Plain (area south of La Pèrouse Bay), White Whale Lake (Hannah Lake), White Partridge Creek (Wapinayo Creek), Salmon Creek (Salmon Creek), Broad River (Broad River), Five Mile Scrubs (between Broad and Owl Rivers), and Owl River (Owl Creek). Parks Canada archaeologists are still unclear as to the exact route but perhaps some recently discovered old military aerial maps combined with HBC records and traditional Aboriginal knowledge could solve this mystery.

A trip from York Factory to Churchill (1893)

Rev. Joseph Lofthouse, the Anglican minister at Fort Churchill resided in the Hudson Bay region at around the same time as George Simpson McTavish. He describes a trip between Churchill and York Factory that departed Churchill on March 13, 1893.

“I left home on the morning of the 13th of March 6:30 a.m. in company with Dr Milne, the Hudson’s Bay Co’s officer in charge at York Factory, who had been staying a few days at Churchill; we had a sledge drawn by five dogs with our provisions, blanket etc. but no comfortable “Pulman car” in which we could rest, the whole distance, about 170 miles had to be covered on foot with snowshoes. I had been far from well for some time, and did not know how I should manage, but duty called strongly to YF the missionary there having left, and felt sure God would enable me to get there.

The first day being beautifully fine, tho’ cold, we walked some thirty three miles before camping for the night, this camping in the woods is the worst part of tripping in [the] north… where there is plenty of dry wood for fires it is not so bad, but between here and York Factory there are very few good woods and it is often difficult to get wood for a fire. I was quite tired out but got very little sleep, it was bitterly cold lying under a tree with only a blanket around you, however we were up and off again at 6 am and walked fully thirty five miles; by this time my feet had begun to blister and walking was very painful indeed. The only thing to do was to keep on and let will conquer pain.

On our third day we had an exciting adventure in crossing a large plain of some twenty miles, just like a sea of ice, we saw a large polar bear and two cubs...

Our fifth day was a long and trying one, we started at 5 am and walked until 8 pm only stopping two hours for meals, when we reached York Factory. Dr Milne and I were both quite done up having walked the 170 miles, in five days, the last of which we covered fully fifty miles. To add to our discomfort and pains we were both snowblind. This is a most painful affliction caused by the intense glare of the sun on the snow. I have known several cases where total blindness has been caused by it. We could not see for several days, but gradually recovered, tho’ it always leaves a weakness in the eyes.”

Up the Coast – more recent history

One cannot refer to mail packet activities in northern Manitoba without commenting on the communication needs of people from even further North. For instance, on the west coast of Hudson Bay, missionaries and the Royal Northwest Mounted Police at Cape Fullerton (near Chesterfield Inlet) needed to undertake regular winter dog team patrols that included carrying the mail. This resulted in travel to Churchill and in the case of the police on to Port Nelson (est. 1914), and south to Split Lake.

When I first came to work at the museum in Churchill, the Curator, Brother Jacques Volant, told me how the missionaries travelled back and forth from Churchill to the North with mail, supplies, and the latest news. Imagining the dog teams tied up at the Bishop’s residence in town and their cabin at Goose Creek made me wish I had lived “in the old days.” Mail would certainly have been more precious!