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Esquimaux Arrive from the North Shore of Hudson's Strait

Esquimaux Arrive from the North Shore of Hudson's Strait

We reached Fort Chimo on the 20th September. A greater number of Esquimaux were assembled about the post than I had yet seen; and among them I was astonished to find a family from the north side of the Strait, and still more astonished when I learned the way they had crossed—a raft formed of pieces of drift wood picked up along the shore, afforded the means of effecting the hazardous enterprise.

On questioning them what was their object in risking their lives in so extraordinary an adventure, they replied, that they wanted wood to make canoes, and visit the Esquimaux on the south side of the Strait.

"And what if you had been overtaken by a storm?" said I.

"We should all have gone to the bottom," was the cool reply.

In fact, they had made a very narrow escape, a storm having come on just as they landed on the first island.

The fact of these people having crossed Hudson's Strait on so rude and frail a conveyance, strongly corroborates, I think, the opinion that America was originally peopled from Asia. The Asiatic side of Behring's Strait affording timber sufficiently large for the purpose of building boats or canoes, there seems nothing improbable in supposing that, when once in possession of that wonderful and useful invention—a boat, they might be induced, even by curiosity—that powerful stimulus to adventure—to visit the nearest island, and from thence proceed to the continent of America; and finding it, perhaps, possessed of superior advantages to the shores they had left, settle there. My voyageur was evidently induced as much by curiosity as by the desire of procuring a canoe, to visit the south side of Hudson's Strait, where the passage is as wide as between the island in Behring's Strait and the two continents.

At an early period of the winter I was gratified by the arrival of despatches from the civilized world. The packet was found by the Indians at Esquimaux Bay, whither I had sent them, and forwarded to me by Mr. Erlandson's two men. By his letters I was grieved to learn that starvation stared him in the face; the fishing, that promised so well when I passed, having entirely failed, and no deer were to be found. He wrote me, however, that he would maintain his post while a piece of parchment remained to gnaw!

The Governor's letters conveyed the thanks of the Governor and Committee for my "laudable exertions;" while his Excellency intimated, in language not to be misunderstood, that my promotion depended on my successful management of the affairs of Ungava, "which he regretted to find were still in an unpromising state."

What effect this announcement had on my feelings need not be mentioned after a painful servitude of eighteen years thus to be compelled to make renewed, and even impossible exertions ere I obtained the reward of my toil, while many others had reached the goal in a much shorter time without experiencing either hardship or privation, the injustice I had suffered, or the deceit that had been practised on me. As a balm to my wounded feelings, my correspondents in the north informed me that seven clerks had been promoted since I left Norway House.

Many of the Esquimaux referred to in a preceding page passed the winter in this quarter, not daring to return in consequence of an hostile rencontre they had had with some of their own tribes on their way hither. The quarrel, like most Indian quarrels, originated in an attempt to carry off women: both parties had recourse to arms, and a desperate struggle ensued, in which our visitors were completely defeated, with the loss of several lives.

They remained about the post for a short time, admiring its wonderful novelties—wonderful to them—and then proceeded some distance up the river to waylay the deer that had already crossed unobserved by them. The poor creatures, unaware of this fact, remained on the ground until every article that afforded any kind of sustenance was consumed; when they started for the post, leaving the weaker of the party to follow as they best could. They all arrived the same day except two widows, who had lost their husbands in the fray. I sent off two young men with a supply of provisions to meet them, but the wretches, having devoured the food, returned without the women, although I had previously supplied their own wants. Next morning I sent off one of my own men, accompanied by an Esquimaux; but, as might have been expected, the women were found lying dead on the ice near each other.

Although Mr. Erlandson did not particularly request any assistance from me, the report he communicated as to the failure of provisions was sufficient to induce me to use my best endeavours to relieve his wants. With this view I hired an Indian lad to act as guide to a party whom I despatched overland with the necessary supplies. The guide assured me they would perform the journey, going and coming, in a month. The appointed period passed, and no accounts of them; and week after week, until I at last despaired of ever seeing them in life. At the end of about two months they made their appearance, but in so deplorable a state of emaciation that we could scarcely recognise them.

The roads proved so bad that they were nearly a month on their way going, and consequently they had consumed almost all the provisions they had for the whole trip. Mr. Erlandson's scanty supply not allowing him to afford them any assistance for their return, they commenced their journey homeward with one meal a day, which they continued until all was gone, when they fed on their dogs; and they finally arrived at the house without having tasted any kind of food for three days. Their spectre-like forms excited the greatest pity; the interpreter, who came to tell me of their arrival, was in tears. No time was lost in administering relief; but the greatest caution was necessary in administering it, or the consequences might have been fatal.

I was mortified to find, on the approach of spring, that my stock of goods did not admit of supplying the interior; and I was consequently compelled to relinquish the advantages that had cost us so much to acquire. Without goods we could not, of course, maintain our position in that quarter.

Notes of a Twenty-Five Years Service in the Hudson's Bay Territory, 1849

 

Notes on Hudson Bay Territory

 


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