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Kitty vanishes — Hudson Strait ice claims the ship as it heads to York Factory with goods for Red River
Aug 31, 2012

 

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
The ill-fated Sir John Franklin expedition is the best known of the Arctic tragedies that have claimed ships and crews. While Parks Canada continues its search for the ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror that carried Franklin and his 129 men to Canada’s Far North in search of the legendary Northwest Passage, there was another ship lost in the Arctic that had a direct effect on the people of the Red River Settlement. The loss of the vessel also contributed to a change in the course of Western Canadian history.
When the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) chartered ship, the Kitty, vanished en route to York factory in 1859, it took to the bottom of Hudson Strait valuable supplies destined for the community at The Forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers that couldn’t be replaced until the following year’s navigation season. Its fate also emphasized the extremely perilous passage from Great Britain to Hudson Bay through the Arctic icefields, and the need to find alternative methods to resupply the Red River Settlers. In fact, the very year that the Kitty vanished proved to be a transitional period in the history of the community established by Lord Selkirk in 1812. 
The sinking of the Kitty  merely confirmed what the people of Red River were already coming to realize: they had to look to the south for the goods they required to survive on the prairie. And if the settlement was to thrive, it had to be more closely linked with the rest of North America rather than the far-distant Old World.
The Nor’Wester, Red River’s first newspaper, on December 28, 1859, “tidings of the ‘merchants’ ship’” had failed to arrive, and that “there is too much reason to fear that she has been lost on her dangerous voyage to Hudson’s Bay (today, it’s simply Hudson Bay).
“The Kitty — for such was the name of the ill-fated vessel — was chartered by the Hudson’s Bay Company for conveying the goods of the merchants and the private property of other inhabitants of the Settlement ... The (York) boats went to York (Factory on the shore of Hudson Bay), as usual, for the expected cargo, but came home with the gloomy news of the non-arrival of the vessel.”
Dispatches were sent out from Red River asking for information about the ship and its crew under Captain Alexander Ellis, but no news came. The Kitty had vanished.
When the HBC ship Prince of Wales  put into York Factory, Captain David Herd said more ice that usual was blocking Hudson Strait, the passage between Ungava Peninsula and Baffin Island leading to Hudson Bay. 
According to Captain Herd, the Prince of Wales, which had took part in the relief expedition to determine the fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew in 1856, had only passed through the ice in the strait with great difficulty. Since the Prince of Wales was the flagship of the HBC fleet and its best equipped vessel for Arctic conditions, and was captained by a man with many years of experience navigating in the Far North, Herd’s statements emphasized the probability that the smaller three-masted barque, the Kitty, had met with disaster.
The Prince of Wales, a fully-rigged 1,200-ton ship, armed with eight 12-pounder guns, saw nothing of the Kitty during its passage to Hudson Bay and its return voyage to England.
“Should the worst apprehensions be realised,” reported the Nor’Wester, “this will have been the third chartered vessel which has been wrecked in three years in the ice-bound regions of Hudson’s Bay. In 1849 the Graham was lost while in the (Hudson) Straits, on her outward trip. The cargo shared the fate of the vessel, and the crew escaped with difficulty to the coasts of Labrador, where they were hospitably received by the Moravian missionaries. And the Baroness, which left York on the 6th March last year, has never been heard of.”
Editors William Coldwell and William Buckingham commented that the vessels were ill-adapted for the environment of the Arctic, “being too slimly made to withstand the pressure of the ice ... Indeed, Capt. Herd, an  experienced Arctic voyager, who has for more than twenty years safely navigated the Company’s ships over the frozen seas, has often expressed astonishment at the hardihood of attempting to reach the shores of Hudson’s Bay in vessels less strongly built.”
The Kitty was carrying in its hold the “greater portion of a year’s supply for the Settlement.”
The loss of the ship’s cargo was felt throughout the settlement. “Almost every settler who possesses the smallest amount of capital, is himself an importer,” according to the Nor’Wester, “and the custom has been to send on the money in advance. The loss of the goods left many families destitute of all their luxuries and of many of the necessities of life, and the result has been that they have been compelled to part with their produce (crops) at low rates to purchase the dear goods of such of their neighbors as had provided against the rainy day.”
The value of the lost cargo was £10,000 ($50,000; $1.8 million in today’s dollars). While most Red River merchants had insured their purchases, few private individuals had “taken that safe and necessary precaution.”
The merchants had been quite fortunate as the Lloyds of London underwriters had at first refused to insure the cargo aboard the Kitty, since the vessel was “ill-adapted” to the conditions it would encounter in the Arctic. Barques (American: bark) were the “workhorses” of the “Golden Age of Sailing,” but they were designed to ply less treacherous waters. It was only through necessity that the HBC chartered such vessels, as the ships they owned were unable to carry all the cargo required in Red River.
The first news of the fate of the Kitty was reported in the Nor’Wester on October 15, 1860. In the mail received from England via the United States was a dispatch from the England-based Northern Daily Express.
“A good deal of excitement” was caused in North Shields, a town on the north bank of the River Tyne located 13 kilometres east of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, when William Armstrong, the chief mate of the Kitty, disembarked at the harbour. Since Armstrong had been missing for so long, his family and friends believed he had died several months earlier. 
Armstrong related that when the ship left London on June 25, 1859, bound for York factory, all was well until they entered Hudson Straits on August 12. At 8 p.m., they passed Cape Resolution (the  southern tip of Resolution Island between Baffin Island and the northern tip of Labrador where the eastern entrance to the strait begins) and encountered strong south-east breezes and “very hazy weather.”
By 11 p.m., the ship was stuck in the ice. On August 21, “a little clear water was observed to windward, upon which they got the ship underway with set canvasses,” but the ship came astern and struck a heavy piece of ice which broke the rudder post and rudder, which they tried to secure with chains. It was the first of many calamities the ship and crew experienced.
At 10 a.m. on September 3, “there were strong breezes from the northwest, with rain. The ice drifting in all directions, the ship being then fast to a piece of ice with two ice anchors, a heavy piece of ice struck her on the stern-post, and broke the rudder short off. The ship then became so heavy (it had been leaking since August 21) that the pumps were resorted to, and kept constantly going until they were forced to abandon her.”
On the morning of September 4, water rushed in the aft section of the ship, and the crew “broke the cargo out of the after hold, and cut away several parts of the cieling (sic) in endeavoring to discover the leak, but did not succeed ...”
The next day at 2 a.m., the ship broke free of the ice. The main try-sail was set and the pumps were kept in action.
“At eight a.m., while hauling the chain-cable on deck, to put the ship down by the head, with a view to get at the leak aft, she was going with her head in for the land with all the fore and aft canvass set, when she struck a piece of ice forward and knocked her forefoot (lower part of the stern of a ship) off. She in consequence made a great deal more water, so much so that the pumps would not suck. The water gaining fast, they endeavored to stop the leak forward, but it was too far below the water-mark.”
It was at this time that the crew prepared to abandon ship, putting provisions in a skiff and long boat. While making their preparation, the water in the hold rose to three feet. Despite keeping the pumps going, the water increased to six feet by six p.m. By 10:30, the boats were ready and put overboard. By this time, the ship lay on her side, ready to eventually sink below the waves.
It took the men two days to reach Saddleback Island, the largest island of the Middle Savage Islands off Baffin Island in Hudson Strait. The crew’s intention was to prepare their boats to sail to York Factory.
They departed Saddleback Island on Saturday, September 19 at 4 p.m., with Captain Ellis and 10 men in the long boat and Armstrong and four others in the skiff.
The wind picked up in the evening. Armstrong hailed the long boat at midnight, “advising them not to sail too far off the land ... About an hour afterwards, during a snow squall, they lost sight of the long boat,” and never saw it or its occupants again.
Interestingly, after he returned safely to England, Armstrong could not name any of the crew members in the long boat other than Captain Ellis.
Faced with treacherous conditions in the strait, Armstrong decided to reverse tack and head for Labrador. The men were picked up by Inuit at Amitok on November 5 and on November 9 arrived at a settlement of Moravian missionaries “in a very weak and wretched condition, and more or less severely frost-bitten.”
The men had accomplished an incredible journey of 61 days. Their 70 pounds of bread and five pieces of pork lasted 53 days, and for eight days they had nothing to eat except seaweed.
From the Moravian missionary, Armstrong went to the Hudson’s Bay settlement at Kikokok, arriving on May 15, 1860, where he stayed until July 1. He then went to a station on the North-West River, staying until July 10, and finally caught the schooner Lottery for Newfoundland and from there the Harmony  to North Shields.
According to the newspaper account, in the skiff with Armstrong were the Dane Benjamin Groom, a Norwegian named Martin Monson, George Stewart of Greenock, Scotland, and Jacob Markham of Hamburg. Groom and Monson were so severely frost-bitten that they were left at the Moravian mission at Okok, Labrador, while Stewart and Markham volunteered to stay behind after they found jobs as fishermen. 
After they recovered, Groom and Monson returned to England that summer.
Since the skiff had been separated from the long boat early on in their ordeal, Armstrong could provide no information about the eventual fate of Ellis and the other 10 men. In fact, it would be years before anyone found out what had happened to the other crewmen of the Kitty.
In the meantime, dramatic changes had been taking place in the Red River Settlement.
James Wickes Taylor, the American representative in the settlement, wrote Howell Cobb, the U.S. secretary of the treasury, from St. Paul, Minnesota, on March 29, 1860, that the loss of the Kitty was the final blow to freight transportation from York Factory, and would lead to increased traffic from the U.S. Taylor predicted that it was “highly probable, that all the merchandize, ordered from Europe by the inhabitants of Selkirk, as well as by the Hudson(’s) Bay Company,” would be imported through Minnesota.
The evidence of his prediction was  the steamboat Anson Northup, named after its captain and owner, which had made its maiden voyage up the Red River to Fort Garry. It was such a momentous occasion, with ramifications for both Canada and the U.S., that even the New York Times noted its arrival in the community from Fort Abercrombie on June 10, 1859, at 1:30 p.m. “She took the people of Red River entirely by surprise,” reported the Times on July 12, 1859, “they knowing nothing of her approach till they heard the steam-whistle. She was greeted with the warmest demonstrations of joy; cannon were fired, and even the monopolizing fur traders (HBC) rejoiced at the approach of civilization.”
For his part, Northup had proven that navigation of the Red River to Fort Garry was possible, collected the $2,000 prize offered by St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, and soon after sold the 90-foot long and 22-foot wide vessel to the J.C. & H.C. Burbank & Company of St. Paul, who also had the contract to deliver mail from the U.S. to the Red River Settlement. It was by this route that any news from England about the fate of the Kitty would be received. While it took many months to receive letters from Europe via the Hudson Bay route, it took an average of six weeks in 1860 to receive letters from London when the mail went through the U.S.
“Every year witnesses a closer commercial relationship between this Settlement and the State of Minnesota,” commented the editors of the Nor’Wester on June 14, 1860. “From the day they first became alive to the real worth of the Red River trade, the Americans have been untiring in their endeavors to break down the barriers to commerce which they found dividing the two countries.”
(Next week: part 2)