2-018: THE LIFE OF A FACTOR IN THE EARLY FUR TRADE

By Dorthea H. Calverley

Hundreds of stories have been written about the lonely trapper tramping his line to bring in the pelts on which the fur trade flourished. But what of the lonely fur-trader in the posts or forts? An exile from his homeland in most cases, he also had problems.

The Hudson’s Bay or Northwest Company determined the conditions under which an employee worked. The Nor’westers were a co-operative company in the sense that anyone might become a shareholder by bringing in enough furs to accumulate enough money to buy one or more shares. In the Hudson’s Bay Company only a very few employees could ever hope to become shareholders since the headquarters were in London, and the shareholders were of the nobility or aristocracy and the occasional very wealthy merchant. Since the Northwester had the advantage of hope of making a fortune, any hardships he endured could be for his own benefit. On the other hand the Bay employee could hope only for a better paying job, in a day when wages by our standards were incredibly low. In spite of this, most Bay employees had an intense loyalty to the Company that was comparable only to a religion and made their opposition quip irreverently that the letters H.B.C. meant "Here before Christ."

There were sometimes reasons for such bitter comment. A story is told about one factor’s rebuke to an employee when the arrival of a company official was announced. The usual Sunday observance of "Divine Service" was being conducted when the factor ordered all hands to line up for the official welcome. The acting clergyman finished reading the prayers, before obeying. The factor exploded, "Mon! Mon! Could ye no show some respect"! The Hudson’s Bay Company directed that holding a religious Observance every Sabbath Day was a factor’s or chief trader’s job.

In a Bay Fort or "factory" not even the "factor" was a part -owner. The meaning of the word "factor" gives a clue to the place names like, York Factory or Moose Factory which puzzle modern people who associate the word "factory" with a place where something is "manufactured" or made. A "factor", according to the dictionary, means an "agent" or deputy, and "factory" has the primary meaning of "a merchant company’s foreign trading station." In other words, a factory was the domain of a factor, or hired agent -- the highest-paid employee in the area. The Nor'Westers did not use the terms "factory" or "factor" because they were a Canadian company and obviously did not have foreign agents.

While the shareholders of the Hudson’s Bay called themselves "Gentlemen Adventurers", none of them were venturous enough to come to Canada. They sat in London, at the far end of a long and hazardous sea-journey out of Hudson’s Bay, making decisions that affected the lives of their employees. If any suggestions were made by knowledgeable men on the spot, it might take two or more years before an answer would come back with orders, or permission, to carry out a reform or change in policy.

The worst sin a Bay employee could commit was to do some trapping or trading for himself, because it would cut into the profits of the gentlemen in London. Until 1821 there was a great difference in the attitude of the men who lived in a Bay post compared to those at a Northwest Company post. After the two companies were joined in 1821 one of the greatest difficulties was to "break in" the old Nor’westers to being bossed by the London Board of Directors. Their Canadian representative, Governor George Simpson, demanded absolute obedience and twenty-four hour devotion to the interests of the company. Many of the independent-minded old Nor'Westers wouldn’t accept the new regime and retired to set themselves up in businesses of their own in Montreal.

Aside from the different effects on a man’s spirit of being a boss, or being bossed, there was a difference in the posts themselves as far as the Peace River Country was concerned. The Hudson’s Bay "Houses" were poor by comparison. Since the Nor'westers, for various reasons had cornered the Indian trade, the Bay’s proceeds did not rate first-class accommodations for their agents. The Nor'westers had the better housing, stronger rum and much more fun!

As late as 1955 the Bay was still advertising in Glasgow for fur traders. Duncan Pryde, one of the last among the few remaining in real trading posts, reports it this way in his excellent book, Nunaga.

 

He signed up as a clerk. In 1966 in one of the toughest situations in Canada -- the Arctic around Bathhurst Inlet -- he was being paid $6000 a year. A good trapper would make more than the trader!

To most men who became traders, the money was not the prime object. With very few exceptions the isolated life was what they wanted. Even when they retired, they signed up again and again. For three hundred years there have been many, mostly Scots, who prefer to live among native people. They are a special breed of men.

 

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