Blog #5 Journey to York Factory (Part Two)

York Factory; Rail Travel Tours; Northern Manitoba; Gillam Island; seals; Fort Nelson;


I ended Part One of my account with our arrival at York Factory. Now I realize that I must back track a bit. The afternoon of the day we arrived at Gillam we stopped at Thompson for a couple of hours. There we hiked on the award-winning two-kilometre Spirit Way hiking and biking route through a wooded area of the city. The  highlight of the trail is a 10-storey high reproduction of wildlife painter Robert Bateman’s painting Wolf Sketch on the side of an apartment building.

Then early that evening, we were fortunate to have Karen Blackbourn talk to us. She is the new superintendent of both Wapusk National Park near Churchill and of the Northern Manitoba Historical Sites.    Part of her job will be to help determine the future of York Factory.  Some of the questions to which she said answers are needed are the following:  Do they try to improve tourist access? Do they maintain all buildings on site or just the main depot? Do they provide replica buildings? What should be done about soil erosion?

We arrived at York Factory in late morning and had a guided tour conducted by one of the two Parks Canada employees stationed there for the summer.  Until Nelson River Adventures began operations in 2011  to transport people by jet boat between Gillam and York Factory, the only ways to  travel here were by canoe or float plane. This meant not more than 25 to 30 visitors per year.  In 2016, more than 260 people visited. A black bear had been sighted the morning of the day we visited. Although we did not see the bear, our guide was armed with a shot gun and we were unable to go anywhere on the site without having him along.  He even waited with his gun outside the outhouse when it was in use. He explained that he did not wish to harm the bears. Only in an emergency would he actually shoot at one; otherwise he would merely fire into the air to make enough noise to scare away any which were sighted.

Nelson and Hayes
Nelson and Hayes Rivers

Due to the tide from Hudson Bay, boat trips between Limestone and York Factory must be timed to depart two hours before high tide and to begin the return trip two hours after high tide. As a result, we were only able to spend about three hours at the Factory. Had we stayed longer, we would have been forced to spend the night there.  One of the Parks Canada people told us that many visitors find three hours more than enough time to see everything; however, as avid history buffs, many of the people in our group would have loved to spend more time there.

This is despite the fact that there is relatively little left to see at York Factory except for the main depot building, ruins of the powder magazine and library, and the cemetery. In its hay day in the mid 19th century, however, there were more than 50 buildings on the site. The last residents of York Factory left in 1957, bringing 273 years of fur trading to an end. In 1968 the HBC transferred ownership of the site to the Government of Canada, and York Factory became one of Canada’s National Historic Sites.

York Factory air
York Factory aerial photo (ca. 1926, Archives Manitoba)
York Factory (2) 011
Main Depot 2016
York Factory 018
York Factory Cemetery 2016

On our return trip to Gillam, we travelled slowly past the ruins of Port Nelson. Before the First World War, the Canadian Government decided that a major harbour was required on Hudson Bay for shipping grain. In 1912 the mouth of the Nelson River was chosen over Churchill to become the terminus of the Hudson Bay Railway.  Work on the harbour began   immediately and continued until 1918 when it halted, leaving behind a small man-made island connected to the mainland by a 17-span truss bridge. One hundred years later, the bridge, the island and the wreck of 180-foot dredge remain. In 1927 Churchill was chosen as the northern port, and the Hudson Bay Railway to Churchill was completed in 1929.

Port Nelson bridge 2 044
Port Nelson Bridge 2016

We made a stop at Gillam Island on our trip back to Gillam. Both town and island are named after fur traders Captain Zachary Gillam and his son Benjamin who   arrived at Hudson Bay aboard the ship Nonsuch in 1668. The river around Gillam Island was teeming with seals when we arrived. On the island we also saw a monument to a Welsh naval captain named Thomas Button. In 1612, he commanded an expedition whose dual purpose was to find out what had happened to Henry Hudson and to discover the Northwest Passage. He was not successful in either project; however he did reach Hudson Bay where he spent the winter at the mouth of the Nelson River, which he named for one of his crew members.

We arrived back in Gillam in time for a group dinner.  While we enjoyed sharing some of our day‘s adventures, socializing after dinner was limited. Not only had we just completed a very long day, but we needed to be up next morning in time to catch our 5 a.m. train for the return trip to Winnipeg.

After boarding the train, we were able to retire to our compartments for a few more hours of sleep before breakfast. The first four days of our trip ran right on schedule, however we arrived back in Winnipeg on day five about  three hours late.  There were two reasons for our slow speed.  First, some construction on the tracks; second, the temperature rose considerably over the course of the day. As a result, a heat order was issued requiring the train to go up to 30 km per hour slower than normal.

We were rather amused to see a transfer of engineers take place some 25 km. from our destination of Winnipeg. The engineer who had begun his shift at The Pas had worked his allotted 12 hour shift; therefore he got off the train at a level crossing and some one arrived with a car to pick him up. At the same time, his replacement arrived by taxi to take over.

Print copies of all of my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website at:

or by e-mailing me at:

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.


Blog #4 Journey to York Factory (Part One)

York Factory; Rail Travel Tours; Northern Manitoba; Gillam, Manitoba; Thompson, Manitoba

A quick note before getting into this week’s Blog: I had a very successful launch for my book Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory on October 23 at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg.  Thirty people attended and I was asked numerous questions after my talk—usually a sign that the audience is interested in what the speaker has to say.  Sales of the book put me on the McNally bestseller list  for the past two weeks.

It had long been my ambition, as someone with a keen interest in the fur trade, to travel to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s historic main post of York Factory on Hudson Bay.  However, such a trip is easier said than done—to say nothing of being quite expensive—so I was unable to make the trip until late summer 2016.  It was definitely worth waiting for.

The easiest (and most expensive) way to make the trip is simply to fly; however I chose to go with Rail Travel Tours led by the affable and knowledgeable Daryl Adair. This trip involved travelling by Via rail from Winnipeg to Gillam, by road for about 54 km to the Limestone Hydroelectric Generating Station, and then transferring to a jet boat to travel down the Nelson River approximately 170 km to York Factory on the Hayes River. There has never been train service to York Factory.

York facctory to Red River
York Factory to Red River Settlement (Winnipeg)
Nelson and Hayes
Nelson and Hayes Rivers










Manitoba Map
Rail Travel Tours to York Factory

We left Winnipeg about noon and travelled by train for a day and a half before arriving in Gillam in late evening and checking into a hotel there.  The train travels from Winnipeg to Portage la Prairie on the CNR main line, then on a slow branch line to Canora, Saskatchewan, north to Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan, and back into Manitoba through The Pas to Gillam. Not really a direct or fast route, but an interesting trip.

York Factory 059
Via Rail Train at Thompson

This was not my first visit to Gillam. My husband and I spent almost a year there in 1973-74. Believe me, you haven’t lived until you spend a winter in the North in a small run-down trailer with a two-year old, an infant and a puppy while your husband has to work nights and try to sleep in the daytime!

After spending the night in a hotel in Gillam—a much more comfortable one than the motel made of trailers where we slept for several nights on our first stay in Gilliam–we were met at 6:45 next morning by a young man named Clint who operates a company called Nelson River Adventures. He transports people by van and boat to York Factory. Our day began with a 50-minute drive to Limestone where we boarded a 12-passenger jet boat to travel the Nelson River to its mouth on Hudson Bay. Our route then took us around the point formed by the mouths of the Nelson and Hayes Rivers to the Factory.  This 170 km trip took about three hours.

York Factory 061
Jet Boat at Limestone

The trip on the river was quite exciting due to numerous rapids, the largest being the Conawapa Rapids which appeared have about 2 meter waves.  We sighted several polar bears. Two of them were swimming in the Bay about 10 km from shore, off the point formed by the mouths of the Nelson and Hayes Rivers. They were close enough to our boat that we got quite a good view of them.

York Factory 010
Polar Bear in Hudson Bay

I will post part two of the account of our trip on my next Blog in two weeks time.  Thanks to my husband who helped write this Blog and offers the technological expertise to post all my Blogs.

Blog # 3 Book Launches and Signings

Book launches and signings; Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory; Marie-Anne Lagimodière: the Incredible Story of Louis Riel’s Grandmother; A People on the Move: the Métis of the Western Plains; The Laird of Fort William: William McGillivray and the North West Company

I will be officially launching my book Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory on October 23. Preparing for that event causes me to think back over launches and book signings for my previous books—some of which were memorable and successful, others decidedly not.

Every writer’s worst nightmare regarding a book launch would be to have no one attend. One writer, who later became quite successful, told the sad tale of her first book signing held in a book store in Toronto. The only person in attendance was her boy friend’s mother.

I have also been part of several book signings which were not particularly well attended; however they were group signings so at least I had the comfort of sitting with fellow writers rather than being alone. As for launches, a couple of my least successful only had 12 to 15 people in attendance.

Three of my launches stand out in a good way. The one for my first book, Marie-Anne Lagimodière: the Incredible Story of Louis Riel’s Grandmother obviously was memorable because it was my first launch; however it was also my largest with 120 people in attendance. It helps to write about someone like Marie-Anne who was matriarch of an extremely large family. Within 10 years of her death at the age of 95, she had over 600 direct descendents; and many of her current descendents still live in Winnipeg and in nearby communities.

Cover Mare-Anne

My launch for A People on the Move: the Métis of the Western Plains held at the North Battleford Public Library in Saskatchewan near where I had grown up and attended high school was very enjoyable because it was a homecoming for me. I dedicated A People on the Move to the descendents of five of the families I wrote about—people with whom I attended school and church during my childhood and teenage years. In addition to the usual means of advertising launches, I personally mailed invitations to 30 or 40 families that I had known all my life. The result was a large gathering of enthusiastic people who bought quite a lot of books. Wouldn’t you buy a book that mentioned your family or other families that you knew?

Cover People on the move

The final launch I would like to make mention of is that for The Laird of Fort William: William McGillivray and the North West Company held in a Thunder Bay library. Although there was not a particularly large crowd, the launch was memorable because of some of the people who were there:

  1. Three soldiers of the Lake Superior Scottish Regiment who attended in full-dress uniforms, which include McGillivray tartan kilts.

  2. Jean Morrison, retired historian of the Fort William Historical Park and highly regarded author of a number of books on Fort William and the North West Company.

  3. Rodney Brown singer and composer of songs about the North West Company and the fur trade.

               1 McG color           Irene Gordon launch signing

#2 Blog Racism in Fur Trade Society

Hargrave, Letitia; Hargrave, James; racism; residential schools; country-born women; Métis women; education

I told you about my book Letitia Hargrave: the Mistress of York Factory in my first Blog. Today I want to write more about one aspect of the book, which is of particular interest in view of current discussions on racism and residential schools. That is discrimination based on race or class in the context of the fur trade society of the 1840s.

By the standards of today, Letitia and most of her contemporaries were both snobbish and racist. As the granddaughter of a Highland clan chieftain, Letitia felt that she was socially superior to the majority of people in both her homeland and in fur trade country.  The Hudson Bay Company was run on a system of ranks similar to the military; thus, as James Hargrave moved up the ranks he felt himself superior to everyone (regardless of race) who was in a lower position than he was within the Company.

James and Letitia Hargrave

As more white women arrived in the country, the First Nations and Métis wives of traders tended to lose status and become subject to increasing racism. Since wives took on the status of their husbands, in the earlier years the Aboriginal wife of a chief factor would automatically have the highest status of all the women in the community where he served.  As more white women moved into the Red River Settlement, however, they assumed that they automatically were entitled to a higher status by virtue of their race.

One example of how the increasing racism played out is illustrated by the marriage of Anne Clouston to HBC employee Augustus Pelly.  Anne, daughter of the HBC agent at Stromness in the Orkney Islands, expected that she would be a “great lady” at the Red River when she moved there following her marriage. She was upset when she found that not to be the case.  Sarah Ballenden, mixed-race wife of Chief Factor John Ballenden, had a higher social status than Anne did because John Ballenden had a higher status within the HBC than Augustus Pelly did. Anne Clouston, assisted by other white women and even some of mixed race wives, did her best to discredit Sarah Ballenden by accusing her of having improper relations with one of the British military men who was serving at the Red River at that time.

Another issue is that of the education of First Nations and Métis children. Today, there is overwhelming agreement that   residential schools had harmful effects on these children, their families, and on Aboriginal society in general. People might be interested to know the views of the Hargraves and their contemporaries at the time that the schools were coming into existence.

Hargrave felt that people of European origin were superior to the Indigenous peoples of North America.  In a letter to Letitia before their marriage, he wrote regarding Indigenous people, “Know that when they may chance to see you, you will be regarded as a superior order of being throughout the kingdom of York.”

Hargrave, like most people of European background at that time, believed that Indigenous peoples should be converted to Christianity; however he did grant that their belief systems had some good qualities.  “They all however have a belief in a future state; have distinct ideas of right and wrong…A good man…must be honest and charitable, a kind father, a dutiful son, a skilled  hunter and a brave warrior,” he wrote to his father.

On another occasion, Hargrave admitted that some Aboriginal people led more innocent lives and better fulfilled their duties as family members “than many who in the civilized world call themselves Christians.”

Hargrave had a high opinion of Native intelligence and shrewdness “relating to matters they comprehend”. However, he believed they had “a general inaptitude to comprehend abstract truths of religion.”  Evidently he did not consider the possibility that they may have understood very well what the missionaries were saying but that they disagreed with the message. Hargrave believed that the only way to convert First Nations people to Christianity was for missionaries to educate children from a young age because the adults, lacking a Christian background, could never adequately comprehend Christian doctrines.

While Hargrave said nothing specifically about sending the Indigenous children away to school, he almost certainly believed this was necessary. Modern parents cannot imagine sending young children away to boarding school and not seeing them for months on end; however, the Hargraves sent their own children to school in Scotland when they were only six years old and did not see them for four years or more. Thus they would not have considered it unreasonable for Native children to go to boarding school and to only see their parents once or twice a year.

People like the Hargraves, however, did not consider the fundamental difference between sending white children away to school versus sending First Nations or Métis children away.  Parents born in Scotland or England chose to send their children away in order to have said children educated to take their place in the society of their parents and to train the sons for careers in the fur trade.  On the other hand, Indigenous parents were usually not given a choice on whether or not send their children away to school, and they likely realized that the schools would certainly not prepare their children to become successful people within their own society.

#1 Blog Letitia Hargrave



Most books about the North American fur trade are based on the journals of men who worked in the trade and on the yearly reports that the factors were expected to send to the Hudson’s Bay Company head office in London. While these men sometimes briefly acknowledged the important role that Aboriginal women played in trade, little is known about the lives of these women and how they felt about their circumstances. As for women of European background, almost none of them lived anywhere in fur trade country except at the Red River until after the middle of the 19th Century and even fewer wrote about their lives.

One exception is a woman named Letitia MacTavish. Letitia, granddaughter of the nineteenth chief of Clan MacTavish, met HBC fur trader James Hargrave in 1838 when he arrived in the Highlands of Scotland to seek a wife. Within two weeks of their meeting, Hargrave had decided that the intelligent, outspoken Letitia was the woman for him.

No shrinking Victorian maiden, Letitia made the following comments about her cousin Robert in a letter to Hargrave early in their courtship:

[Robert] is flirting with all his might with an heiress…I have heard that she is the most obnoxious of women…I hope she will marry Bob as it will be a good thing for his sisters if the principals should kill one another. [It] will be on either side merely justifiable homicide.

Hargrave–obviously not put off by the violent comments about her cousin–married Letitia in January 1840. Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory describes the life that the Hargrave family led at the remote northern fur trade post of York Factory on Hudson Bay from 1840 to 1852. During that time, Letitia wrote lengthy letters to her family in Scotland, describing her life in great detail—including a heart-rending description of the death of her second son shortly after his birth. Letitia also commented on public matters and passed on juicy bits of gossip. Courtship and sex scandals, the operations of the Hudson’s Bay Company, race relations, education and religion, medical care and murders—all were subjected to Letitia’s tart tongue and incisive observations.

Fortunately for us, Letitia’s family saved her letters and somehow a Manitoba historian named Margaret MacLeod acquired these letters in the 1940s. She edited and annotated the letters and published them in 1947. I used these letters plus others written by James Hargrave and various friends of the couple to write the biography of Letitia.

Readers who live in the Winnipeg area are invited to attend a launch of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg on October 23 at 7:30 p.m.

I also will be in attendance at the North American Voyageur Council fall gathering at Fort Gibraultar in Winnipeg over the first weekend of November. I hope to meet many of you there and would love to talk to you about Letitia or any of my other books. I will also have all my books available for sale.

For those who are not presently NAVC members and would like to know more about the organization, check it out at

Copies of my books can be purchased through my website at E-book versions of most of them are also available from Amazon.