Introduction: Ships, Sailors, and Routes in Western Canadian History

[under construction: writing in progress]

Sailors were fundamental to historical process in the Canadian context. Historians Kenneth Norrie and Douglas Owram, in A History of the Canadian Economy (1991), link maritime activity with landward development, suggesting that prior to 1867 Canadian history was essentially a maritime history.[1] Maritime history is human-activity driven. Yet, existing academic history writing about maritime history and development with respect to Western Canada presumes the presence and contribution of active sailors perfunctorily. Conceptually, historians have reduced sailors to an abstraction with the limited, albeit necessary, function of linking, via ship, a historically significant point on one side of the Atlantic to a historically significant point on the other — the sailors appearing ancillary to goods and information ferried. Texts about ocean-borne, commercial transport to Hudson Bay — which began in earnest some two hundred years before 1867 — do not test or elaborate upon the point that sailors of the region mattered to historical process. Even though it was their presence and their capacity for work that drove developments, there has been no historiographical debate on the relation of Hudson’s Bay Company [HBC] sailors to historical process at political-economic or socio-cultural levels. Instead, common sense appears to stand in the place of “any depth or subtlety of argument.”[2] Economic ‘progress’ or ‘stasis’ and the HBC as a landed corporate entity is taken as the primary topic. Because engaged in overseas trade, shipping is discussed, but mainly in terms of corporate profit and loss.

A typical example of a commonsensical acceptance of sailors as economically vital appears in “Ships of Three Centuries,” published in 1970 about maritime vessels of the HBC. Author Alan Cameron states,

Ships, the men to man them, and finding the best sea routes, were the fundamental prerequisites for any ambitious and adventurous merchant who aimed at overseas trade.[3]

At the time of publication, Cameron was editor of the Port of London Authority’s monthly magazine. Given his vantage point, the choice of subject — ships — and his stance regarding the nautical fundament of trade are understandable. Historians of Western Canada and the fur trade who discuss ocean-borne, commercial transport to Hudson Bay, though their vantage points differ from Cameron’s and vary among themselves, generally agree with his stance: they do not dispute that shipping mattered to overseas merchants, and they accept that merchants, as political-economic actors, mattered to historical development. Where such historians differ substantively from Cameron is on the amount of attention paid to describing the fundamental prerequisites to merchant activity that he sets out. While Cameron highlights seaward operations, those historians of Western Canada who acknowledge the maritime dimension of HBC trade (for example Harold A. Innis, A.S. Morton, and E.E. Rich) emphasize competitive activity on land: procuring furs, then selling them.[4] They only touch on activity at sea when corporate competition interrupts an ocean-going passage (probably largely a reflection of corporate record keeping). What a passage was like, when sailors were out of site of land and beyond the gaze of competitive corporate interests, is left unexamined.

At best, academic monographs devoted to describing Western Canadian development supply glimpses of Hudson Bay ships, sailors, and routes. Aspects of these ‘fundamental prerequisites’ are detailed, however, in articles, chapters, or annotations in a variety of popular and scholarly texts — a notable contributor to these being Alice M. Johnson.[5] Additionally, there are entries in equally varied reference works — such as those compiled by Clive Holland and Alan Cooke.[6] Such authors make it clear that ships were complicated transport machines, sailors were interesting characters, voyages took months to complete. Specialized texts such as those by Holland and Cooke, or Cameron and Johnson, might be numerous, informative, or scholarly. Nevertheless the problem remains that they do not constitute a synthesized argument or explanation that highlights the relation of HBC sailors to ships, to routes, and to Western Canadian history. They do not adequately describe what it was that those sailors were doing.

The pages of this site take a closer look at HBC voyages to and from Hudson Bay to better describe what the physical act of moving commodities across oceans entailed. Unlike previous historical studies of Northern shipping, however, the emphasis here is on sailors, not HBC London Committee business. The order in which Cameron’s prerequisites are examined has been adjusted to accommodate this change in emphasis [note that the adjustment is not yet reflected on this site, though that will eventually happen]. Thus, studying HBC ships becomes a means of acknowledging the number of sailors afloat in the waters associated with Hudson Bay. Studying routes becomes a means of understanding HBC sailors’ place and pace of work within ocean space. Finally, studying sailors as interpersonal beings with personal histories fills a historiographical void in Western Canadian social and cultural history.

Part I, Sailors’ Ships:

The material compiled in these pages, comprised of tables with accompanying observations and analyses, contests the idea that the number of ships sailing to and from Hudson Bay was too limited to warrant a study of Northern sailors.

The first voyage to North America conducted by the HBC under its charter occurred in 1670. The timeline of my study extends back to 1508, however, to acknowledge that mariner activity that determined the nature of HBC voyaging took place prior to the Company’s advent. The HBC maintained a maritime component for a full three centuries, entitling the Company “to the claim of the world’s longest corporate history of oceanic shipping.”[7] The termination of my study at 1920, well before the end of HBC shipping, reflects logistical limits: principally an overabundance of material relating to shipping from 1508 to 1920, a lack of ready access to material after 1920, and the need to set limits on time expended on research and analyses for one project.[8]

[Part II] Sailors’ Routes:

I have imposed spatial limits to this study. The HBC might well lay claim to having one of the broadest corporate maritime histories in terms of geographical scope. By 1866 the Company’s transoceanic transportation network had expanded beyond Hudson Bay and Strait to include the east coast of North America accessing ports of Labrador, Newfoundland, the St. Lawrence Seaway, and the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.[10] By the 1860s the Company had also developed and continued to develop the “the greatest inland waterway the world has ever seen” with a variety of sail and steam technologies, integrating Western Canadian transportation networks with those of the Great Lakes through to the St. Lawrence.[11] A significant seaward expansion had occurred decades earlier, however. In 1821, through union with the North West Company [NWC], the HBC had inherited access to ports of call along the Pacific Slope of Oregon Territory, Washington Territory and/or British Columbia, and on Vancouver Island. Company ships voyaging around Cape Horn serviced agents stationed in Chile, California, and Hawaii.[12] Eventually Pacific routes extended farther north to ports in Alaska, Siberia, and Canada’s Western Arctic region. Likewise, North Atlantic routes expanded to include Baffin Island in the Eastern Arctic. During the Great War, the Company managed French shipping, including vessels servicing ports in Russia, Holland, Norway, and the Black Sea.[13] To manage the amount of detail that studying historical seafarers generates, my study is restricted to the ocean arc that extended from England to Hudson Bay and Strait, including the associated waters of James Bay, and to some extent, those of Ungava Bay and Foxe Basin.

[Part III] Sailors:

In assuming that HBC sailors were more than abstract “träger or vectors” of intercontinental, commercial transportation, these pages reveal that sailors were agents of complex communication.[9] Their occupational group was complex, made up of individuals of diverse backgrounds with varied personal paths. In addition they mixed intimately (meaning at very close quarters), if in a distinctly circumscribed manner, with other seafarers aboard their vessels.


The overall point made in these pages is that considering sailors as more complex agents of communication — acknowledging that the deep sea and coastal mariners conveyed, confronted, and expressed culture in effecting the transport of waterborne technology[14] — allows a fuller appreciation of how individual agency figured within the history of seafarers to and from Hudson Bay, and the broader significance of their collective history to Western Canadian development. Collectively and cumulatively, from 1508 to 1920, the actions of sailors — in a manner beyond their immediate comprehension — were necessary for implementing change compatible with realizing programs of resource extraction, appreciation in value, and promises of continuity in Western Canadian development.[15]


[1] Kenneth Norrie and Douglas Owram, A History of the Canadian Economy (Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Canada, 1991), 2425, 2834, 38, 5161, 6768, 86, 9092, 10429, 13335, 13839, 14143, 14550, 15356, 160, 174, 176, 185, 19698, 20203, 207, 214, 21617, in outlining the significance to transatlantic commerce of past maritime practice on the part of Spain, Portugal, France, and particularly England, imply the significance of maritime activity to Canadian development generally. See also Marcus Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700–1750 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987),10, who asserts “The seaman was central to the changing history and political economy of the North Atlantic world” of the eighteenth century; Daniel Vickers and Vince Walsh, Young Men and the Sea: Yankee Seafarers in the Age of Sail (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 8; also Matthew Raffety, “Recent Currents in the Nineteenth-Century American Maritime History,” History Compass 6, no. 2 (2008): 608, who observes of American maritime historiography that “there is broad agreement at the most basic level that seamen and the maritime world are essential to understanding the developing nation … and that seafarers should play a prominent role in any accurate history of … development,” because at multiple levels, “seafarers were central actors in the national story”; and

[2] “commonsensical,” Oxford English Dictionary Online [OED]> (accessed 2004–2009).

[3] Alan Cameron, “Ships of Three Centuries,” The Beaver 50, no. 1 (summer 1970): 5.

[4] Harold A. Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History (1930; revised ed. 1956; reprint, with a revised foreword, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970). Arthur S. Morton, A History of the Canadian West to 187071, Being a History of Rupert’s Land (The Hudson’s Bay Company Territory) and of the North-West Territory (Including the Pacific Slope) (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1939). E.E. Rich, The History of the Hudson’s Bay Company, 16701870 vols. I and II (New York, Macmillan, c. 1958–1960). A third volume (1960) contains the endnote references for the first two.

[5] Alice M. Johnson, formerly a Hudson’s Bay Company archivist in London, began her career as a contributor to the historiography about voyaging in the North with an article entitled “The Mythical Land of Buss,” The Beaver 22, no. 3 (December 1942): 43–47. See also Alice M. Johnson, “Early Ships in Hudson’s Bay,” The Beaver 26, no. 1 (June 1946): 10–13; Alice M. Johnson, “Life on the Hayes,” The Beaver 37, no. 3 (winter 1957): 38–43; E. E. Rich ed., with A.M. Johnson, Copy-book of letters outward &c: Begins 29th May, 1680, ends 5 July, 1687 (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1948); E.E. Rich ed., with A.M. Johnson, James Isham’s observations on Hudson’s Bay, 1743: and notes and observations on a book entitled A voyage to Hudson’s Bay in the Dobbs Galley, 1749 (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1949); E. E. Rich ed., with A.M. Johnson. Hudson’s Bay copy book of letters, commissions, instructions outward, 1688–1696 (London: Hudson’s Bay Record Society, 1957); K.G. Davies ed., with A. M. Johnson, Northern Quebec and Labrador Journals and Correspondence, 181935 (London: Hudson’s Bay Record Society, 1963); and Alice M. Johnson,  entries for John Abraham, Alexander Apthorp, Charles Bayly, Anthony Beale, William Bevan, Thomas Bird, William Bond, Erland Erlandson, Robert Evinson, Nicol Finlayson, John Fletcher (d. 1697), John Fullartine, George Geyer, Michael Grimington Senior, Michael Grimington Junior, Thomas Gorst, Andrew Hamilton, Thomas McCliesh, Richard Norton, Thomas Shepard, Thomas Render, Hugh Verner, Nehemiah Walker, and Richard White, Dictionary of Canadian Biography, online  [DCB], http://www. (accessed 2004–2009).

[6] Clive Holland, Arctic Exploration and Development c. 500 B.C. to 1915: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1994). Alan Cooke and Clive Holland, The Exploration of Northern Canada: 500 to 1920, A Chronology (Toronto: Arctic History Press, 1978).

[7] A.J.W. Catchpole and Marcia-Anne Faurer, “Ships’ Log-Books, Sea Ice and the Cold Summer of 1816 in Hudson Bay and Its Approaches,” Arctic 38, no. 2 (June 1985): 126. See also Cameron, “Ships of Three Centuries,” 5, who notes that the Company owned “the Pierre Radisson, and a small tug and barge fleet,” that were still in operation as of 1970, and as well transported goods aboard the chartered vessel, Twillingate.

[8] Archives of Manitoba, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives [HBCA], C.1/663, Ship’s Log, Pelican, 1920, was the last readily available ship’s log at time of writing. More recent HBC documents have some restrictions on access.

[9] Louis Althusser quoted in E.P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 2. See also Sager, Seafaring Labour, 11, who notes that sailors, as well as their ships “were vehicles of technology and culture as well as cargo”; and Harold A. Innis, The Bias of Communication (1951; reprint with an introduction by Marshall McLuhan, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964), 140–41, who abstracts the communication of culture to the point that human beings as carriers can only be inferred.

[10] See, for examples, Cooke and Holland, Exploration of Northern Canada, 222, 226; Appendix A, this thesis, years 1838, 1840, 1843, 1857; Appendix B, this thesis, nos. 624, 629, 641, 688, vessels Tadussac, Marten [II], and Great Britain.

[11] Heart of the Continent. See also, HBCA, “Abell, Edmund Richard (1826–1895) (fl. 1865–1885)”, “Aymond, Frank (fl. 1869–1876)”, “Bell, John (fl. 1887–1895)”, “Berens, Johnny (1871–1954) (fl. 1886–1947)”, “Emerson, Samuel (b. ca. 1853) (fl. 1884–1897),” and “Johnson, William (1852–1933) (fl. 1878–1918),” Biographical Sheets, online index < html> (accessed 2004–2008), for references to steamships on the Mackenzie River and the Red River; and “Chisholm, Hugh (ca. 1804–1876) (fl. 1819–1836),” Biographical Sheet, whose position is described as “skipper” at Mingan, 1834–1836. G.A. Cuthbertson, “Fur Traders on Fresh Water,” The Beaver 14, no. 3 (December 1934): 26–30, 41, indicates that although the Company’s use of sailing vessels on the Great Lakes may be said, in retrospect, to have originated with the NWC, after amalgamation in 1821 vessels carrying Company shipments on the lakes were chartered.

[12] See Alfred L. Lomax, “Dr McLoughlin’s Tropical Trade Route,” The Beaver 43, no. 4 (spring 1964): 10-15. HBCA, “Hildred, George (fl. 1849–1850),” Biographical Sheet, indicates that in 1849–1850 the HBC ship Albion sailed from London to Sydney, Australia, then to the northwest coast of America.

[13] See William Schooling, The Hudson’s Bay Company, 16701920 (London: The Hudson’s Bay Company, 1920), 120–127; “Close of French Government Transport Work: A.M. Irvine and Staff Leave Service With Shutting of Montreal Agency; Great War Work of the H.B.C. Recalled,” The Beaver 1, no. 8 (May 1921): 20–21; also HBCA, “Ships’ Logs – by Area of Service,” Online Finding Aid, Section C: Ships’ Records Finding Aid (accessed 25 April 2008); Cameron, “Ships of Three Centuries,” 5, 15–17; and Judith Hudson Beattie and Helen M. Buss, eds., Undelivered Letters to Hudson’s Bay Company Men on the Northwest Coast of America, 183057 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2003), 3, 5.

[14] John Alwin, “Mode, Pattern and Pulse: Hudson’s Bay Company Transport, 1670–1821,” Ph.D. diss. (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, 1978), 8, is notable for a ‘cultural historical human geography’ that sets out to examine “marine transport, including transatlantic linkage and coastal carriage,” in Hudson Bay. Like Morton and Rich, however, Alwin’s inclusion of transatlantic activity in his discussion terminates with the HBC’s shift inland during the mid-1770s. Further, while he supplies fresh insight into waterborne technology as a cultural factor of human geography and the HBC, he barely considers the working sailors.

[15] See Pred, “Social Reproduction,” 7, 8, and his reference to Baskar, Lukáks, and Bourdieu on human actors and the limits of awareness and conscious intention.






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