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1828 - 1829: Employed as Fishermen on the Winter Road

The following records provide information on the Nabaise Family.
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5 October 1828, The men fishing for the Hudson’s Bay Company, “Thomson & Muddy [Moody?] for Deers River, Joe Collen & woman to Hay River wire, Bernier & woman to Chiefs wire, Rondeau & woman for Trout River, Napis & Whiskejacko for Winepegusis.” (PAM, HBCA, B.156/a/11, fo. 8, Oxford House Journal, 1828-1829, mf. 1M115) The Hudson’s Bay Company was constructing a winter road at the time along the Hayes River Route, in order to speed up the transport of goods inland from York Factory to Norway House. Although the road never developed into a permanent venture, it did employ considerable labour at the time, necessitating large quantities of fish to feed them all. Napis and Whiskejacko were assigned “Winepegusis” [Molson Lake], which was along the route between Oxford House and Norway House.

10 Dec 1828, Wednesday. About 11 a.m. Napis & B [Boy] of his arrived from the Rabbit ground lake – they have a report from other Indians that Amable Braconier[?] has left his fishing station at Robertsons Lake, and had Set out on the first Ice to join Laverdure[?] at the winipegusis; 11 Dec 1828, Thursday: Napis mentions the Ice on the lake, and in many places a Considerable quantity of water. (PAM, HBCA, B.156/a/11, fo. 10d, Oxford House Journal, 1828-1829, mf. 1M115) Evidently, Napis, with a son old enough to be a helper, was considered responsible enough to be hired as one of the fishermen hired to supply the labourers on the winter road. Men of mixed European-Cree background were often selected as labourers by the HBC, in part because they had become somewhat acculturated to European work habits.

2 March 1829, Monday, Eight Sleds with four Carters left this about 8 A.M. for the upper Section, their loads were only 23 Pieces, having the road to beat but goods is not so much the object in this trip, as to bring down a Supply of fish from the winipegucies to Leiths Portage. McKay accompanies them, to take charge of the principal cache. (PAM, HBCA, B.156/a/11, fo. 17, Oxford House Journal, 1828-1829, mf. 1M115) Napis had been fishing in the vicinity of “winipegucies” [Molson Lake].

8 March 1829, Sent off Isbister with my letters for Red River with directions to hand them over to the Indians who occupy the first Stages,[1] who was to start immediately and proceed to his next neighbour, and So on until it reached Norway House; 12 March 1829, Poor Isbister having but an imperfect Knowledge of the Indian language, handed the Packet of the 8th to Wakich at the 28th and this Indian not comprehending the object in view, gave it to the Indian [probably Napis] at Leiths Portage and the man overtaking the McNabbs at the 53 Mile Post handed them the letters, this is Somewhat vexatious; (PAM, HBCA, B.156/a/11, fo. 18, Oxford House Journal, 1828-1829, mf. 1M115)

Napis was stationed at Leith’s Falls. In March 1829, Colin Robertson, who was in charge of the construction of the winter road between Norway House and “Foxes River [part of the Hayes above York Factory], made a trip along the route to Norway House, a trip he described in detail when he returned to Oxford House. (See his account below) A good research project might be done to identify this route and the locations of each of the stages!

2 April 1829, I yesterday returned from Norway House, after an absence of ten days, the voyage to and from that place only occupied Six making two Stages pr day with ease – The transport along the route was conducted with much regularity and System, owing in Some measure to the Goodness of the road (the best I ever travelled over in this country) as well as an abundance of Provisions to be found at every Stage – Indeed our English carters four of whom, were Stationed on that portion of the road were making their Stages with ease and full loads – and I presume their [sic] cannot be a stronger proof, of the favourable State of the winter Road, when two lads their first year in the country, drives their four trains of three dogs pr train Occupying no more time than the most experienced carters along the route.

The first opening from this place is that neck of land laying between the Rabbit Ground lake and that of Oxford House (which I have named after Our Governor, measures Eight miles and passes through a fine level well wooded country –

The Second opening is Leiths Portage enters the wood on the South Side of the Rabbit ground lake and comes out on the Small White fall Lake, measuring five miles. This Portage is level and covered with Small pines. Except towards the white fall lake where the wood is of a larger growth, the Stage on the neck of land is but indifferently Situated as regards wood and Water it is therefore My intention to have a new line run in order to pass the Portage through a better country – indeed from a Sudden curve as it enters the woods from the Rabbit ground lake I think Some thing may be joined in distance.

The third opening from the White fall lake to a Lake which Post Master Cunningham has attached my name,[2] and the opening [fo. 20] Robertson Portage, measuring Six miles. – This portage is covered with fine timber, and is (with the exception of one piece of rising ground very level – although my Canadian Carters positively assure me, that a Horse with a full load would find no difficulty in ascending this acclivity – I am of opinion if it cannot be avoided, it ought to be levelled so far as to allow the Sled to ascend without too great exertion. For when two men come to conduct six[?] Sleds, either of Horses Oxen or dogs, they cannot perform such duty until the road is free from obstacles of this nature –

McTavish Portage is the next opening, and considering the rugged country through which this part of the road runs, it is not So uneven, as one might be laid [sic] to Expect to avoid the High Ridges, with which this neck of land is intersected, the windings of the track are frequent and the elevations rather Sudden, and although My Carters, have brought forward the Same argument, as they used in regard to Robertsons Portage, I must for the Same reason I their [sic] Stated endeavour to run a new line, which one of My Indians Seems to think will give us three or four Sticks in the distance and pass the road over a track, better adapted to business.

This Portage including Several Small lakes is Eleven Miles in length, entering the woods from Robertsons Lakes, and coming out at the winipegusies, within two miles of the River of that name –

The Stage on this opening is very Awkwardly Situated in regards to wood being built under a Shelter of rocks, where the Soil does not exceed 200 yards in circumference. The winter road on leaving McTavish Portage follow the Winipegucies for 19 miles and on an Island in this lake our fifth Stage is Built, and where we have an excellent fishery, which if required could yield us from 20 to 30000 annually –

The road after traversing the Winipegucies in a westerly direction – enters into a low marshy country, between two Ridges of Rocks, leading along the banks of the Meadow River, until the waters of that River are lost in a Number of Small Creeks, when it again enters into a fine level track of land two miles in width which Separates the waters of the Winipegucies from those of the great winipeg [sic], the whole of this Isthmus I have termed Selkirk’s Hope.

[20d] This ridge of land is covered with very fine timber for the purpose of Building, as well as fuel, being composed of the Pine, the Birch and the poplar, the last qualities of wood, almost invariably denote a Soil capable of raising every Kind of Seed adapted to those latitudes and Should the transport business be carried on to any extent Selkirks Hope is one of the best Situations that could be found on the waters of the winipic. Here an extensive farm could be opened and as to Summer pasturing, and Winder provender they have both Sides of the meadow River for the ridge of land forming Selkirks Hope to the winipegucies, a distance of nearly 16 Miles in length and from three to four in width – The lower part of this River is according to Indian report is covered with fine grass, Such as we are in the Habit of cutting for our cattle, but they seem to be of opinion as we approach the Portage the grass becomes too much interwoven with Willows for the Scythe, and is only fit for grazing.. (PAM, HBCA, B.156/a/11, fo. 19d-20d, Oxford House Journal, 1828-1829, mf. 1M115)

In a letter dated July 1828 at the “Entrance of Foxes River” Colin Robertson wrote the following to Pat Cunningham, “It is not my desire that any part of the 10 Skins, to be allowed each Indian, Should be paid in rum, for notwithstanding the Great attachment which these people have for Spiritous liquors – In their Sober moments, they never consider rum a Sufficient payment for Hard labour – McKay will therefore pay them the amount in dry Goods.”(PAM, HBCA, B.156/a/11, fo. 32d, Oxford House Journal, 1828-1829, mf. 1M115) Payment was made in “skins” or “made beaver” which was a monetary unit in the HBC. Goods at the posts were priced in “Made Beaver”. Robertson, a sensible man, knew the harm that rum did to families and therefore ensured that its distribution was strictly controlled.

In a letter dated March 1829 at Oxford House, concerning his trip to Norway House via the winter road, Colin Robertson wrote John Isbister the following, “Napis must be given to understand that his Station is to be at Leiths Portage, otherways he will forfeit the Number of Skins Stipulated by our agreement last fall.” (PAM, HBCA, B.156/a/11, fo. 46, Oxford House Journal, 1828-1829, mf. 1M115)

In his report on the winter road, Colin Robertson wrote, “I Shall now Say afew words in favour of a Set of men to whom I am under many obligations, the Indians of Oxford House and Manittoo Lake who have acted avery prominent part in this business, So much So that if we Except 5 of the companys Servants attached to my district, the whole of the openings were effected by these industrious and inoffensive people; I do not Say but engaged Servants would have performed the Same duty, But not without regular rations and of the best quality; Whereas the Indian enters the woods with his Gun, Rabbit Snares and Hatchet and for want of Shoes cuts up his old capot [coat] to cover his feet, and in this manner Not Knowing to day where they will find a breakfast to Morrow – Was more than one half of the winter Road opened, including the old and new lines, and at an Expense Not Exceeding 4£ Sterl[in]g. per man. (PAM, HBCA, B.156/a/11, fo. 62, Oxford House Journal, 1828-1829, mf. 1M115) This was a real tribute to the local hunters, whose role as hunters had always been extremely important to the HBC, but who had rarely been hired as company servants in the past. There were at least two reasons why. Firstly, hunting would have suffered, if the hunters were diverted to other occupations. Secondly, the Company had found them unreliable as paid servants as they did not like taking orders or being confined to one place. However, after a hundred years of contact, the people of Oxford House and Manitou Lake had been acculturated to some degree through intermarriage and long association with European habits and customs, and this evidently included some acceptance of the restrictions implied by wage labour.


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[1] The “stages” were points along the road, where shelters were built for the men transporting goods inland. At a few of the stages, where oxen were used in the transport, stables were also constructed.

[2] This was probably “Robinson Lake,” which is northeast of Molson Lake. According to Manitoba Conservation’s Geographical Names of Manitoba, the origin of the name is unknown, but in fact if Colin Robertson’s 1829 explanation is correct, the lake was named after him by Patrick Cunningham. Maybe someone would like to inform the provincial toponymist!