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Kitty vanishes — loss of ship forces Hudson’s Bay Company to import supplies from the U.S.
Sep 07, 2012

 

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)
In the same year that the Kitty was lost in Hudson Strait, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) ordered its first largescale freight consignment from St. Paul, which was the initial step in abandoning the overseas supply route from Great Britain to York Factory to the Red River Settlement. With the new arrangement made in 1959, the HBC became silent partners with J.C. & H.C. Burbank & Company of St. Paul, and provided the vast majority of funding for the expansion of the U.S.-based transportation firm. 
An agreement was reached between J.C. Burbank and Sir George Simpson, the governor of the HBC, to underwrite the $8,000 purchase of the Anson Northrup, as well as the refitting of the vessel, which was then renamed the Pioneer. The refit was necessary as the steamboat was hastily built by the vessel’s owner and captain of the same name. At the time, the Anson Northup was ill-suited to provide regularly scheduled transportation on the Red River.
Simpson also provided money to the Burbank brothers to improve their stagecoach road between St. Anthony and Fort Abercrombie, so that it could bearheavier wagons.
“A contract recently executed with the Hudson(s) Bay Company, for the transportation of five hundred tons annually for five years from St. Paul to Selkirk (Selkirk was one of the early names for the settlement at the The Forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, as was Fort Garry, until the name Winnipeg appeared on the masthead of the Nor’Wester), and at least one hundred tons annually from Selkirk to St. Paul, is the principal inducement for Mssrs. J.C. Burbank & Co. to become interested as above stated in Red River transportation,” wrote the American representative to the Red River Settlement, James Wickes Taylor, to Howell Cobb, the U.S. secretary of the treasury on Match 29, 1860. 
The HBC backed the Burbank brothers as the visible face of the company in order not to contravene an American law that barred foreign ownership of steamboats plying American waters.
Furthermore, the HBC provided another $20,000 to the Burbank brothers to buy the abandoned  Freighter. The St. Paul firm salvaged the steamboat’s two boilers and machinery, which were used to build the steamer International. The new vessel was launched in the spring of 1862. In effect, the HBC had seen the face of the future and was making transportation alternatives for their goods and supplies other than the Hudson Bay route. 
In return for its investment, the HBC received a 50 per cent reduction in the freight costs charged to other importers.
The Nor’Wester commented that the spring of 1860 would be the “busiest ever known at Red River” due to the advent of steam travel, “and the Hudson’s Bay route, with its dangers, delays, and high freight and insurance, has suddenly become hopelessly antiquated.”
The newspaper said Minnesota had been terra incognita (the unknown land) to the inhabitants in past years, while Canada (Canada’s western border was then Ontario) was for all practical purposes as far distant as Cape Town in South Africa.
“Darning needles and grindstones, bonnets and tobacco, Staffordshire pottery and Honiton lace — every commodity, in fact, in which a Red River merchant deals, save, perhaps pemican (sic) and sinews (from buffalo) — were all brought by way of Hudson’s Bay. This season, however, that route will be almost entirely abandoned, except for supplying the fur-traders and trappers of the interior.
“The loss of last year’s ship (the Kitty) has done much to hasten the change, and has left the shelves of our storekeepers almost entirely bare.”
J.C. Burbank wrote to the Nor’Wester on February 22, 1860, promising regular steamboat service to Fort Garry. He also built 100 wagons for the overland route between St. Cloud and Georgetown to transport freight for loading onto the Pioneer.
“The Minnesota Stage Co. will run four-horse coaches for the conveyance of passengers and mails,” promised Burbank, “expecting to make direct communication with the boat after June 1st.”
Furthermore, Burbank had made arrangements with the Grand Trunk Railway based in Canada (the nation was then only comprised of Ontario, Québec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) so that goods from England or Canada could be directed to the Burbank company warehouse in Georgetown, Minnesota, on the banks of the Red River. The warehouse was actually built for the HBC, and the community in which it was located was named in honour of HBC Governor Sir George Simpson.
“Your people can also order by mail, through our house or by clerk on board the boat, any description of foreign or domestic merchandise, agricultural implements, &c., &c.,” wrote Burbank.
“During the transportation season of 1860, the Pioneer ran on a fairly regular basis, and in addition to the merchant’s goods such as tobacco, sugar and tea, delivered 12 power threshers, 12 reapers, 14 fanning mills, and 61 ploughs to the Red River Settlement” (Steamboats on the Red: An Illustrated History of the Era of Cross-border Steamboat Transportation on the Red River of the North, 1859-1909, by Edward M. Ledohowski, Prairie Public Television, April 2011).
In the case of goods imported from Liverpool, the freight was transported to Montréal, from there by rail  to St. Paul, then by wagon to Georgetown and hence down the Red River aboard the steamer Pioneer to Fort Garry. The  Burbanks promised to deliver freight from England to Fort Garry within 50 days.
Joseph James Hargrave, who arrived at Fort Garry in 1861 aboard the Pioneer, wrote in his book, Red River, that: “Since the opening of the Minnesota route the traffic passing over it has annually increased.”
In the Nor’Wester, St. Paul and Toronto merchants peddling everything from dry goods to groceries to agricultural implements dominated the advertisements. Few Red River Settlement merchants advertised, as there were only a few in existence, and their selection of goods available to customers was limited in scope. It was only after steamboat traffic on the Red River improved that local merchants expanded in number and increased the variety of products found on their shelves.
A typical local merchant was Andrew McDermot, a former HBC employee who retired to the Red River Settlement in 1824, and was counted among the community’s more wealthy citizens. In his book, Winnipeg As It is in 1874: And As It was in 1860, George Babington Elliott  described McDermot’s store in 1860: “Upon entering, the eye searches in vain for counters, shelves, or the modern appurtenances of a store. A rusty pair of old balances supply the place of scales, and a larger pair of the same variety answers the place of a ‘platform.’ On the floor is a mowing machine recently imported, a lot of parchment skins (dressed buffalo hides), and moose skins for making moccasins. In a corner are a lot of these Indian shoes (moccasins); a box of tea and tobacco opened, with many untouched; a lot of various and sized beads in a box containing a lot of sundries; various other articles scattered about the rough table-shaped counter, or similarly constructed shelves; in a corner are a lot of barrels containing nails, sugar, and such commodities, to make up the balance.”
Bales of dried buffalo meat were stored overhead, and in another portion of the store was pemmican, the ubiquitous food of the plains. Elliott found the hide packets containing the pemmican to be “as hard and appropriately as heavy as a stone.”
“On the opposite of the river Mr. Kittson, an American, has a store that would come nearer to fulfilling what our estimate of one should be ...” Norman Kittson was actually born in Québec, but moved to Pembina in 1830 and became the head of operations for the American Fur Company in the region. He would later become a partner with James Jerome Hill in the Red River Transportation Company which operated five steamboats on the Red River.
Another victim of the changing mode of transportation were the Métis-dominated Red River cart brigades operating between the Red River Settlement and St. Paul. About 500 carts made the journey twice during the season, carrying furs to St. Paul and returning with manufactured goods and other supplies. By 1859, these brigades were effectively rendered as an ancillary form of freight transportation, since steamboats could carry more cargo on a regular basis, and took just 10 days instead of six weeks to two months to make a return trip from Fort Garry to St. Paul. Still, the Red River cart brigades continued for several more years, especially when the water level of the Red River was too low and steamboats could not operate.
The Nor’Wester on October 28, 1860, repeated the arguments made by detractors of steamboat travel, such as running aground during low water, but argued that it had significant advantages over time-consuming Red River carts and the lengthy Hudson Bay route. The newspaper claimed that steamboating was “revolutionising the old stand-still system of things,” and was “vastly benefitting this country.”
Meanwhile, the fate of the Kitty’s missing 11 crew members remained a mystery.
Mrs. Ellis, the wife of the Kitty’s captain, Alexander Ellis, wrote to the Moravian missionaries in Labrador, outlining the rescue of Chief Mate William Armstrong and the other men in the skiff he commanded. She wrote that Armstrong and his men arrived at North Shields on August 28, 1860, but “since then there has never been any tidings of the long-boat and her crew.”
On November 22, 1862, the Illustrated Times of London carried an article entitled, Murder of British Seamen. According to the article, a ship’s crew had been killed by “unfriendly Esquimaux” (Inuit).
The Moravian missionaries wrote a letter to Mrs. Ellis on August 23, 1862, that related the fate of her husband and 10 other men who set out in the long boat when the Kitty began to sink.
The letter from the Okok mission along  the coast of Labrador was as follows: “It is with grief, madam, we must inform you that it is, alas, only too true that the long boat, wither her master and crew, arrived at Ungava Bay, but that none of the men survived. Last winter Esquimaux from Ungava Bay visited our northernmost settlement (Hebron), who related that in the winter of 1859-60 several Europeans in a boat landed at the island called Akpatok in Ungava Bay. They lived with the Esquimaux until about January upon what the latter could provide for them; but then, most likely, when their provisions became short, the Esquimaux attacked them when they were asleep and killed them, stabbing them with their knives. There is no doubt these being the men from the Kitty, because the Esquimaux knew there had been another boat with five men belonging to them (Armstrong and the four crewmen aboard the skiff), whom they deemed lost.”
The Inuit told the missionaries that one of the men had badly frostbitten feet, and the Inuit refused to kill him with their knives, “but instead showed him a kind of heathen mercy, as they put him into the open air until he was dead by severe cold.”
According to the letter, the men were killed for the sake of their blankets.
One of the Inuit tried to protect the three men he was lodging, but they met the same fate as their companions.
“The tribe who have committed this murder do not appear to have been brought in contact with the European missions; and the friendly tribe who brought the information into Hebron further informed the Moravian missionaries ... that a little further north from Ungava Bay, a whole crew, consisting in all of forty men, were enticed on shore and then killed by the Esquimaux.”
In the latter instance, it is unknown what ship carried the 40 white men, although it certainly wasn’t the Kitty. Was it a party of Arctic whalers? Americans and British ships had been hunting in Arctic waters for decades, killing whales to obtain blubber that was converted into valuable oil. 
Was it possibly some remembrance of Sir John Franklin and his crew? It is known that all 129 men of the Franklin expedition perished, but there is no Inuit tradition which claims some of the party were murdered. But oral accounts of expedition survivors being left to starve to death were related by the Inuit to Charles Francis Hall, an American who set out to the Canadian Arctic to discover what happened to Franklin and his men. While Hall criticized the actions of the Inuit, he failed to recognize they lacked the resources to feed such a large group without themselves perishing in the harsh and unforgiving climate of the Far North.
Inuit lore did provide an inkling of the fate of the Kitty’s 11 men. Charles Francis Hall in his book, Arctic Researchs, and Like Among the Esquimaux: Being the Narrative to an Expedition in Search for Sir John Franklin (1865), told of meeting Inuit who related a story about two boats heading for the “Big Sea ... one day when the weather was very bad, wind blowing very hard and snowing fast.” The Inuit said the white men sailed away in their boats and were never seen by them again.
It was only when he returned to New York that Hall realized that the Inuit account bore a remarkable resemblance to what Armstrong had related about the two boats from the Kitty  being subjected to high winds and a snowstorm that caused them to separate and lose contact with each other.
Hall died during an 1871 Arctic expedition, either from self-induced arsenic poisoning (a common ingredient of quack medicine during the period) or was murdered.
Daniel Francis and Toby Morantz in their book, Partners in the Fur Trade: A History of the Fur Trade in Eastern Hudson Bay, 1600-1870 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1983), relate an account by an Inuit man who said the 11 men of the Kitty had lived peacefully with the Inuit until another party from the north arrived that had never before seen white men. “Either through fear of the whites or from a desire of possessing their property,” this group of Inuit murdered Captain Ellis and his crew.
According to the Inuit man, “All the men and women engaged in the murder are said to have a line tattooed across their nose to commemorate the exploit.”
When the Arctic claimed the Kitty and 11 members of the ship’s crew, the tragedy also led to the demise of York Factory as a transit depot for supplies bound for the Red River Settlement. Arctic waters were simply too risky to be relied upon to supply the needs of the settlement when a less perilous and more convenient route to the U.S. opened up in 1859. The Hudson Bay route would still be used to bring goods for inland trade in the north, but even this aspect of the fur trade would soon pass into the annals of history.