E 7 HUDSON BAY COMPANY, DUCKS, GEESE, AND SWAN SKINS, FEATHERS, AND QUILLS
In Autumn and Spring, in the olden days, one of the last great wildlife spectacles in America took place north of the U.S. Canadian border around Hudson Bay and Jamestown Bay, with the two bays acting as a funnel for migratory waterfowl as they traveled south in the fall to their winter homes and back north to their breeding grounds in the spring. This spectacle occurred centuries before there were two countries, and it continued for years afterwards.
The mass migration of waterfowl from the north, especially geese, to the Jamestown Bay area for fattening during a three week stay before their non-stop flight to Louisiana was comparable to the migration of the caribou in the Northwest Territories, the departed thunder of the buffalo on the western plains, and the flights of the passenger pigeon.
To reap this bounty, man exploited waterfowl for tens of thousands of years, with the methods and techniques for taking waterfowl remaining strikingly the same in widely differing societies and localities. Uniformly, the ancient ones depended upon a sophisticated understanding of specific avian haunts and behavior to create the simplest and most effective ways to harvest waterfowl by constructing devices for their capture.
The Paleo-Indians arrived first and the Native Americans followed, and before the time of European’s arrivals, they were subject to the whims of nature. They used mainly nets, snares, bolas, baits, birdlime, throwing sticks, the atlatl, and, later, bows and blunt-headed arrows to harvest waterfowl. However, the most productive was when flocks of ducks were molting in July and driven into nets installed above the water, probably supplemented by a fence, like a fish trap, on each side.
Birdlime made from Holly bark, hemlock, and different weeds were made into a paste and could be stored, if not used right away, until required. It was especially effective on geese, ducks, swans, and waders in the marshes. For a hunter-gatherer population on the move, it would have the advantage that supplies could be cached without deteriorating at sites where waterfowling was practiced on a seasonal basis and would be ready for use whenever the group seasonally returned.
Being a fowler—one whose quarry passed swiftly and beyond range of his primitive weapons—in order to advance from the above tools, he learned the calling of each waterfowl and invented a lure, an invitation for all waterfowl to gather at the hunter’s ambush, there to be taken—and were to decoy for every more.
In 1924, prehistoric lifelike waterfowl decoys were discovered in the Great Basin’s ancient Lovelock Cave, Nevada, located next to an ancient Pleistocene lake, named Lake Lahontan, a lush wetlands environment.
Lake Lahontan was used as a waterfowl-hunting site beginning about 4,600 years ago and was intensely visited about 3,500 years ago until 150 or so years ago. Their spring waterfowl hunts consisted of stringing nets made of sagebrush bark out on the marshy water and setting out decoys, which attracted migrating waterfowl going north. Attracted by the decoys and voice calling, waterfowl were caught in the nets sprung by the Native Americans hiding along the shores. And when the waterfowl had departed for the north, the old waterfowlers buried their basket of decoys in Lovelock Cave, there to reside hidden, much like they hid their birdlime, until they returned the next hunting season.
There were basically two types of styles that were discovered, dated to 2,160 years before present. In the painted style, the body was formed by bending a bundle of 25 or 30 large bulrush stems and binding them together. The ends were then sewn to the body to affect a realistic pose. Next, the bend of the rushes was smoothly bound over with split rush to form the breast; the bird’s head was then painted with black and reddish-brown pigments to represent a canvasback. Finally, feathers were applied, the quills of which were stuck under the breast wrappings and held in place with fine cords of Indian hemp. Only ducks seem to have been represented by the painted decoys.
Geese were imitated by the second style. The bodies were made in approximately the same way as the painted type, but the breast was not bound. Instead of a complete rush head, there was a rush stub, or nipple, that projected from the body to which a complete stuffed bird head (with skin, feathers and beak) was attached. Some of these ancient decoys still had a loop of cord on the breast and one under the tail, both of which likely served for the attachment of an anchor cord. Also, there were stick-mounted and dried heads of both canvasbacks and Canada geese.
Many hundreds of miles east of Lovelock Cave, ancient campsites confirm that the preferred foods were caribou, moose, sturgeon, jackfish and rabbit, along with migratory waterfowl, which had long been a source of food in the Hudson Bay area of Canada by Cree Indians, that were taken by snares, nets, and bows and blunt-faced arrows.
With the arrival of Europeans, the Cree Indians, however, quickly mastered the use of the flintlock, muzzleloading, fowling piece and was highly sought-after trade item along with powder and shot. The inventory of goods in 1672 shows how small an affair the Indian trade at first was. The three vessels of the first expedition sent to America by the HBC carried 200 fowling-pieces, with “proportional quantities of powder and shot along with 400 powder horns.”
Later in time, those dwelling near a fort were issued two guns. When waterfowling, as one was being fired, the other was being loaded, usually by a man’s wife or child. Here geese and swans were more hunted than ducks. The importance to the HBC of the Cree goose hunters during this period is evidenced in the military-style ranks accorded to Cree leaders, such as “Captain” or “Lieutenant of our Goose Hunters,” and other times referred to as “Boss.”
The Captain was responsible for managing the hunt in a specific area of the Cree territory. These captains decided where the hunt would be undertaken on any particular day, based upon the need to rotationally “rest” territories in order to avoid having the geese associate any particular area with danger and thus begin to avoid it. They also oversaw the use of decoys, goose calling, and blinds, and utilized such techniques as landscape arrangement to ensure that the geese did not realize that hunters were present and thus learned to associate certain signs and details with danger.
This management system was based upon Cree ideas about goose intelligence and capacity for communication and learning. To them, communication was indicated by the intelligent response of waterfowl to the efforts of their hunters. Similarly, Cree belief in animal intelligence had its roots in a long history of observation of behavior, that waterfowl need time and space for them to rest and feed without being harassed. Territorial rotation was also explained as a practice which respected the geese by leaving most of the lakes and marshes for unmolested rest and feeding.
For centuries, Canada geese being a favorite part of their diet, they mimicked their call and made use of ingenious decoys—bundled-stick decoy—made, of course, with willow twigs—while hunting about the rich shores and waters of the Hudson and James Bays. Basically, only pliable twigs and string were required to produce an effective lure for a monthlong spring goose season.
The bundled stick decoy of northern Canada evolved through several design stages. The earliest known were loosely bound shapes which generally resembled waterfowl. These could be set out in fields, along shorelines, or on snow or ice. A second-stage lure was made by forming a ball of twigs into a body core then covering them with an outer layer of longer twigs in the shape of a goose, with a large open “eye” in the head. When seen against the snow, the eye mimicked the white cheek patch of the Canada goose. Significantly tighter crafted bundles characterized a modern third phase.
In September 1687, Baron de Lahontan, Lord Lieutenant of the French Colony in Newfoundland, made his way down the Canadian rivers to the marshes of northern Lake Champlain. He recorded the first written record of decoy use in North America on his expedition in the northern part of Lake Champlain:
In the beginning of September, I set out in a canoe upon several rivers, marshes and pools that disembogue in the Champlain Lake, being accompanied by thirty or forty of the [Iroquois] savages that are very expert in shooting and hunting, and perfectly well acquainted with the proper places for finding waterfowl, deer and other fallow beasts. The first post we took up was upon the side of a marsh or fen of 4 or 5 leagues in circumference, and after we had fitted up our huts, the savages made huts [blinds] upon the water in several places. These water huts were made of the branches and leaves of trees and contained 3 or 4 men; for a decoy, they have the skins of geese, bustards, and ducks, dried and stuffed with hay, the 2 feet being made fast with 2 nails to a small piece of a light plank, which floats around the hut. The place being frequented by wonderful numbers of ducks, geese, bustards, teals and an infinity of other fowl, unknown to the Europeans. When these fowls see the stuffed skins swimming with heads erected as if they were alive, they repair to the same place, and so give the savages an opportunity of shooting them either flying or upon the water; after which the savages get into their canoes and gather them up. They have likewise a way of catching them with nets, stretched upon the surface of the water at the entries of the rivers . . .
So, what is a bustard? Was it a turkey as some have stated or a giant Canada and often times referred as the grey goose. We find the answer within the writings of the Jesuit Relations, where Father Gabriel Agard described turkeys and commented in 1624: “If the savages were willing to give themselves the trouble of feeding young ones, they would domesticate them as well as we do in France, and likewise bustards or wild geese, which they call ‘A hon que,’ for there are plenty of them in the country.”
Again, in June of 1637, the occurrence of a goose encounter is noteworthy enough to be included in these historical documents, as “four bustards were killed.” Bustard was the giant Canada goose; the smaller Canadas were referred to as “geese” or “goose” when mentioned alongside Bustard or grey.
For more proof, listen on. Cadillac, the founder of Detroit, wrote to France in 1701 noting the abundance of wildlife around the Detroit River. In the translation, he named the turkey among other land fowl such as partridge and pheasant. Then he lists the “bustard” with waterfowl. He said, “The goose, the duck, the teal, and the bustard are so common there they only move aside long enough to allow the boat to pass.” This lends itself more to the Canada goose idea.
And, finally, from two Frenchman Nicholas Perrot and Andre Penicaut, the former wrote about his experiences in the New World and said at the close of the seventeenth century, “The birds of fowls of the rivers and swamps are swans, bustards, wild geese, and ducks of all kinds.” Bustards comes from the French word “outarde” which is the great Canada goose. Penicaut at the Isle Surgere, which was an island off of Biloxi, Mississippi said just after the start of the eighteen century, “ We went ashore at Isle Surgere and killed a prodigious quantity of wild geese, locally called bustards, which are once again bigger than the geese we have in France.” In 1706, at Lake Ponchartrain, he recorded, “When winter came, we went out to the channel to kill bustards, ducks and wild geese,” with bustards being the giant Canada goose and in Penicaut’s French writing bustard is “outarde.” The Cree hunters referred to them as “long neck” geese.
Lahontan spoke of the “immense numbers of wild Geese, Ducks and Teal, with an infinity of other fowl and stated that his party ate nothing but waterfowl there for 15 days, after which we resolved to declare war against Turtle Doves.
French Jesuit missionary Gabriel Marest noted from the mouth of the Nelson River in 1694 that “in spring and autumn, there are also found a prodigious number of wavies [snow geese], Canada geese, ducks, brants, and other river birds.” About this time, Bacqueville de la Potherie said that “wild geese and ducks are so plentiful in spring and autumn that the banks of the river Ste. Therese [Hayes River] are all covered with them.”
The bi-annual goose harvest during the fall and spring was among the most important subsistence activities and the one requiring the most social coordination to the Cree Indians. In the spring, 75 per cent of their annual kill of geese occurred, depending on the speed of the break-up of ice.
English traders found a way to the far northwestern lands of North America; it was by arriving through the Davis and Hudson Straits into Hudson Bay. They knew this since the days of Henry Hudson so that the earliest trading posts were established on its shores. The English not only knew of the easier route, they also understood that at the northern center of the continent a nation could tap into the riches found there. Trading depots were established at the mouth of rivers at Moose Factory, Rupert House, Churchill, Albany Fort, Severn, Henley House and York Factory.
Trade began immediately and Indians wanted guns but not the ones being offered. They said, knowing what kind they needed, “light guns, small in the hands, and well-shaped, with locks that will not freeze in winter.” So guns were forged at armament factories in Sheffield, England. The Indians had long had their own complex trading network, but now a new commercial relationship was established that would last almost two centuries.
In 1668, the first ships sailed for Hudson Bay where trading posts were established at York Factory on the main shore and at Moose Factory in James Bay, a southern extension of the Hudson Bay. From England, the Hudson Bay Company sent annually three or four ships laden with coarse woolen goods, guns, powder, shot, spirits, edge-tools, and various other utensils, in return for which the natives sold them all kinds of furs or peltry, goose quills, bed feathers, and whale-fins and oil.
HBC’s first inland explorer was Henry Kelsey (1667-1724), who entered the service of the HBC in 1684, at the age of 17. He spent 30 years with HBC. He was their chief trader and later became governor of all the trading posts.
He liked and respected the Indian life, and was, as the Company’s committee described, “. . . delighting much in Indians company, never better pleased than when he is travelling among them.” He spoke Cree, and possibly Assiniboin as well. Kelsey was the first European to travel from Hudson’s Bay to Canada’s Great Plains region of present-day Saskatchewan in 1690, having followed the Saskatchewan River, keeping a journal, written with goose quills. In it, he described his adventures as a trader and explorer in the northern woodlands and prairie. His two journals showed that “inhabitants of the post and neighboring Cree Indians hunted geese during both the spring and fall staging periods. To hunt the large concentrations of geese, Kelsey and other traders set up goose-hunting tents in the marshes surrounding the trading post and along the Nelson and Hayes Rivers. The tents served as base camps and storehouses where harvested geese were stockpiled before being transported to the fort. When the goose hunters returned to their camp at evening they built a huge fire, sometimes 30 feet in length, before whose blaze 20 geese were roasted at once to feed the Indian hunters and family.
From the last week of April to the end of May 1696, Kelsey recorded that “in nineteen trips more than 400 geese were brought to the fort from the marshes. In return, supplies such as flour, shot, powder and flints were shuttled from York Fort to HBC’s men in the marsh or traded to Cree Indians in exchange for geese.”
Andrew Graham, many years chief factor for the HBC at York, Severn, and Churchill, wrote his bird Observations in 1768-1769. Graham, like many employees of the HBC, was a Scotsman. He went to Hudson’s Bay in 1749, probably as a youth in his teens, and retired a quarter of a century later. He first went to the most northerly of its trading stations, Prince of Wales’s Fort, also known as Churchill in Manitoba. For many years, his Observations were attributed to a fellow HBC’s employee, the surgeon Thomas Hutchins who had communicated them to Thomas Pennant and other naturalists associated with the Royal Society. In his Observations, Graham remarked about the manner of taking geese by the Native people in 1768:
They make each a stand in the marsh a hundred yards distance from one another, of willows and brush quite round, about sixteen inches high, and just room for one person to sit in. The stands are always in a direct line, and commonly across the marsh. The oldest man takes his stand next to the high water mark, and so on, the youngest having the inside berth; and if any person does not like his birth he may shift along the marsh either way, but must not make another stand within two miles of the main body of hunters; the rules being to sit in a direct line, and not one before another, and by no means to stand upright. Each man has two or three fowling pieces, and they have [Indian] boys about ten years old that can call the same as the geese, and when a single goose is seen flying at a great distance. The boys immediately call out, and if it is within hearing round it comes and is killed; and if a flock, they call them round and round till the Men have discharged all their fowling pieces; even when the Men are reloading, at which they are very quick the boys by continuing the call keeps the geese playing about, when the men often discharges their pieces a second time killing from one to four at a shot. An expert Hunter will kill from seventy to one hundred per day. They are salted and pickled by us in casks, and will keep good for three years, but if kept longer they rust and rot. The feathers sell in England from twenty pence to two shillings per pound weight, and the quills from twenty to twenty-two shillings per thousands.
They are none killed by us but what supplies the Factors tables daily fresh, but the Indians destroys numbers with their dogs and sticks, when in their molten [molting] state, and before their young brood can fly.
The English of Hudson’s Bay depend greatly on Geese, of these and other kinds, for their support; and, in favorable years, killed three or four thousand.
Graham also reported that “a great many” Canada Geese were taken by the Cree during the summer molt in the coastal plains, by simply knocking them on the head, and that Cree also used dogs to hunt molting geese and ducks. They molted for about a month and by August they had regain their flight feathers and the August moon was known as the “flight moon.”
Joseph Colen, who was in charge of York Factory in 1798, commented that “Our whole dependence at present for fresh victuals is on young ducks and molting water fowl killed by Indians with dogs.
From 1710 to 1750, instructions from the head office repeatedly enjoined upon their chief factors to see that their men learn from the Indians how to kill geese that flew over their forts in such immense flocks. The Canada goose, which was called by the Indians “wayways,” was so numerous as to supply much needed food which was salted and barreled in vast quantities. By so doing, the HBC hoped to diminish its trade with the Indians, who carried to York Factory large quantities of goose quills as an article of trade for the making of quill pens. The home authorities were at a loss to understand—and small wonder that they should be—how it was that their men could not shoot these birds.
After the fall migration of caribou in the HBC territory, the Cree went straight into fall Canada and snow goose hunting during their migration. On August 2, 1745, Thomas White said that “after caribou hunting that several families of Cree Indians near the coast of James Bay awaited the flying of the geese. And the fall goose hunting was preceded by the fall duck hunting. The fall goose hunting lasted three or four weeks.
In the spring when Canada geese returned to James Bay for nearly a month, the geese were hunted religiously, for the Indians supply of food had greatly been diminished during the winter time. Fresh and salted, the geese were taken to Albany Fort of the HBC each year. Later in time, that nearly a month of goose hunting was considered a national holiday with schools closing as the Indians left for their goose hunting camps where they hunted the entire two to three weeks.
Graham joined the Hudson’s Bay Company as a youth in 1749. His invaluable firsthand observations formed the basis for much of the second volume of Thomas Pennant’s celebrated Arctic Zoology, in which Pennant gave a little more information on goose hunting which Graham had reported earlier. Pennant was a Welsh naturalist, traveler, and antiquarian who visited Hudson’s Bay. His account on the mode of taking the Canada goose in Hudson’s Bay was published in Arctic Zoology, 1784:
The English of Hudson’s Bay depend greatly on Geese, of these and other kinds, for their support; and, in favorable years, killed three or four thousand, which they salt and barrel. Their arrival is impatiently attended; it is the harbinger of the spring, and the month named by the Indians the Goose moon. They appear usually at our settlements in numbers, about St. George’s day [April 23], and fly northward to nestle in security. They prefer islands to the continent, as further from the haunts of men. Thus Marble Island was found, in August, to swarm with Swans, Geese, and Ducks; the old ones molting, and the young at that time incapable of flying.
The English send out their servants, as well as Indians, to shoot these birds on their passage. It is in vain to pursue them; they therefore form a row of huts made of boughs, at musket-shot distance from each other, and place them in a line across the vast marshes of the country. Each hovel, or, as they are called, stand, is occupied by only a single person. These attend the flight of the birds, and, on their approach, mimic their cackle so well, that the Geese will answer, and wheel and come nearer the stand. The sportsman keeps motionless, and on his knees, with his gun cocked, the whole time; and never fires till he has seen the eyes of the Geese. He fires as they are going from him, then picks up another gun that lies by him, and discharges that. The Geese which he has killed, he sets up on sticks as if alive, to decoy others; he also makes artificial birds for the same purpose. In a good day, for they fly in very uncertain and unequal numbers, a single Indian will kill 200. Notwithstanding every species of Goose has a different call, yet the Indians are admirable in their imitation of everyone.
Many plans are resorted to by the shooters on our coast to decoy these wary fowl within gunshot, and none more successful than that of imitating their honking, which most of them can do to perfection.
Domestic geese are also used to decoy the wild ones flying overhead; and they not infrequently entice them from great heights in the air to alight among them supposing them to be some of their own companions feeding in safety below.
The vernal flight of Geese lasts from the middle of April until the middle of May. Their first appearance coincides with the thawing of the swamps, when they are very lean. The autumnal, or the season of their return with their young, is from the middle of August to the middle of October. Those which are taken in this latter season, when the frosts usually begin, are preserved in their feathers, and left to be frozen for the fresh provisions of the winter stock. The feathers constitute an article of commerce and are sent to England. After escaping this destructive fire, it is not to be wondered at that those who reach the United States are extremely shy.
Johann R. Forster, a naturalist, reported in his “Animals of Hudson’s Bay,” a paper first read before the Royal Society, 1772. He stated:
The Indians have a peculiar method of killing all these species of geese, and likewise swans. As these geese fly regularly along the marshes, the Indians range themselves in a line across the marsh, from the wood to high-water mark, about musket shot from each other, so as to be sure of intercepting any geese which fly that way. Each person conceals himself, by putting round him some brushwood; they likewise make artificial geese of sticks and mud, placing them at a short distance from themselves, in order to decoy the real geese within shot; thus prepared they sit down, and keep a good lookout; and as soon as the flock appears they all lie down, imitating the call or note of geese, which these birds no sooner hear, and perceive the decoys, than they go straight down toward them; then the Indians rise on their knees, and discharge one, two, or three guns each, killing two or even three geese at each shot, for they are very expert. Mr. Graham says he has seen a row of Indians, by calling, round a flock of geese, keep them hovering among them, till every one of the geese was killed. They are usually shot whilst on the wing, the Indians being very expert at that exercise, which they learn from their youth.
Samuel Hearne, a fur trader and naturalist, who founded the Cumberland House in 1774, the first inland trading post of the HBC, said of Canada geese:
At the end of April they arrive, but more commonly from the eleventh to the sixteenth of May; and in one year it was the twenty-sixth of May before any Geese made their appearance. At their first arrival, they generally come in pairs, and are so fond of society, that they fly straight to the call that imitates their note; by which means they are easily shot. They breed in great numbers in the plains and marshes near Churchill River; and in some years the young ones can be taken in considerable numbers and are easily tamed; but will never learn to eat corn, unless some of the old ones are taken with them, which is easily done when in a molting state. On August 9, when I resided at Prince of Wales’s Fort, I sent some Indians up Churchill River in canoes to procure some Geese, and in the afternoon they were seen coming down the river with a large flock before them; the young ones not more than half-grown, and the old ones so far in a molting state as not to be capable of flying; so that, with the assistance of the English and the Indians then residing on the plantation, the whole flock, to the amount of 41, was drove within the stockade which encloses the Fort, where they were fed and fattened for Winter use. Wild Geese taken and fattened in this manner are much preferable to any tame Geese in the world.
Hearne also reported that Indians killed swans “in such numbers that the down and quills might have been procured in considerable quantities at a trifling expense; but since the depopulation of the natives by the small-pox no advantage can be made of those articles, though of considerable value in England.”
He reported that swan skins, “of which the Company have lately made an article of trade,” became a trade item only near the end of the eighteenth century. He also noted that one Trumpeter Swan egg was “a sufficient meal for a moderate man, without bread, or any other addition.”
Henry Ellis was an explorer, author, and colonial governor of Georgia, who wrote “Voyage made to Hudson’s Bay in 1746–1747” that provided a good description of the Lowland Cree’s goose hunt. Pennant’s and Graham’s descriptions of goose hunting is very similar to Ellis’. One passage worth noting is where Graham stated: “The Geese he has killed he sets up on sticks as if alive, to decoy others; he also makes artificial birds for the same purpose,” while Ellis stated it “What Geese he kills, he usually puts up on Sticks in such a Manner as to represent them like alive, for a Decoy to others” and added “they also make sometimes sham Decoys, about their Stands. . . . They also decoy the Ducks to shoot them, but that is done by whistling.”
James Isham was a HBC York Factory governor, first employed in 1732 as a writer, and was described as a man who really knew the country and was Canada’s pioneer collector of important natural specimens from Hudson’s Bay from 1732-1761. He hosted Henry Ellis when the latter made his visit to the HBC. Isham provided a detailed account of the Lowland Cree goose hunt, and he, more so than Ellis, may very well have been the originator of the goose hunt as written by so many that followed. Here are a few excerpts from 1746–1747 about the York Factory area:
These Servants stay out from the factories all the Season and are provided with Salt and Casks. The hunter is stationed in what is called a stand–a space from four to five feet square, enclosed by willow twigs and long grass stalks–from which he fires, with forms of geese or decoys set up a short distance in his front . . . at the same time keep calling and loading that if the flock consists of 20 Geese he be sure to have them all–they will often Kill a Great many at a Shott Rising, Creeping along with their gun at their Shoulder, through woods and Swamp’s, till they think they are near enough then start forward which occasions the Geese to Rise upon the wing, when he watches the time, takes them as they rise killing 20 or 30 at a shot and Sometimes more.
Another mode by which the Swan was enticed within gun shot was given by David Thompson in 1784:
The Indian lies down in some long grass rushes, or willows near the edge of the Lake, with a piece of very white birch rind in his hand, or fastened to a short stick; this is made to show like a Swan, and the call made; then drawn back; then again shown; thus it attracts the Swans who gently approach, to within shot; this requires great patience, perhaps three or four hours. It is more successful with a single swan, than with a pair, or more.
Sir John Richardson (1787–1865) led an impressive triple-life as a physician, Arctic explorer, and naturalist. He said in his Fauna Boreali Americana, published in four volumes, 1829–1837:
The arrival of this well-known bird in the Fur Countries of the Hudson’s Bay area is anxiously looked for and hailed with great joy by the natives of the woody and swampy districts, who depend upon it principally for subsistence during the summer. It makes its first appearance in flocks of twenty or thirty, which are readily decoyed within gunshot of the hunters, who set up stales, and imitate its call. Two or three, or more, are so frequently killed at a shot that the usual price of a goose is a single charge of ammunition. One goose, when fat weighs about nine pounds, is the daily ration of one of the Company’s servants during the season and is reckon equivalent to two snow geese or three ducks, or eight pounds of buffalo and moose meats, or two pounds of pemmican, or a pint of maize and four ounces of suet.
The HBC’s residents depended heavily upon the Canada goose for winter sustenance. In favorable years, as many as 4,000 were taken and salted down in barrels. It was remarked that without “this aid, numbers must be in forlorn condition.” On a good waterfowling day, “a single native from the ambush of his bough hut will kill as many as 200. They are preserved in the frost with their feathers on, and the flesh is juicy and nutritious, though not equal to that of the snow-goose. The feathers are also of commercial value.”
In 1716, James Knight, who oversaw the York Factory, observed that “there is no man that knows how to use guns better than the Indians.” Edward Umfreville came to work as a writer for the Hudson’s Bay Company; first at the York Factory, but almost immediately he was transferred to Fort Severn. There he met Andrew Graham. Umfreville noted that “They shoot them flying, and are so very expert at this sport, that a good hunter will kill, in times of plenty, fifty or sixty in a day.” Graham said that “the goose hunts also generated other products that were traded to the HBC, such as feathers and quills that were traded by the women.
Graham underscored the skill of the “Lowland Cree” in hunting with European firearms about Hudson’s Bay by saying, “They surpass us in the use of the gun, which is a European accomplishment.” In time, some HBC men became proficient goose hunters.
Duck hunting usually preceded the fall goose hunting, as it usually began in early August while goose hunting started in late August or early September and lasted three to four weeks, before they departed southward. Geese killed in the fall were needed more than the spring to provision the HBC during the long winter period when other food sources, especially caribou, were less reliable. It must be remembered that the arrival of swans, geese, ducks and other waterfowl was a crucial event, of great subsistence significance.
Three species and subspecies of geese made up over 99 percent of the geese taken in the region of Hudson’s Bay: blue and lesser snow, Canada geese, and Richardson’s geese, with the lesser snow goose often referred to as a “wavy”. In 1862, George Barnston’s early estimates of the annual kills for both the eastern and western coasts of the Hudson and James Bays totaled 74,000.
The HBC provided all of the essential hardware to the Indian duck and goose hunters. The “fowling pieces” were loaned to the Crees or traded to those who agreed to hunt for the Company. The Company’s gunsmiths were kept busy cleaning and repairing these guns before, during, and after each hunt. They also supplied them with other necessary items such as gunpowder, powder horns, shot, gunflints, and gun wads. The smoothbore flintlock fowling pieces were mostly a 28 gauge, shooting BB or larger shot for geese and swans.
All the trading was done under what was called the “Made-Beaver” system or MB. An MB was a large beaver skin that was cleaned, dried, and stretched and usually weighed about one pound. By 1742, beaver pelts were valued at one MB for one pound of shot or three flints; four MBs for one pound of powder and twenty for a trade gun. It took ten muskrat skins to make one MB, 4 minks to make 1 MB, or 2 sables or 2 deerskins to make 1 MB. One otter skin was worth 2 MB and 10 BM made 1 silver gray or black fox. 10 to 12 MBs bought one flintlock. Beaver hats were wanted by everybody who was anybody in England and everyone had to have a beaver fur hat.
The HBC expected a certain number of geese for every measure of powder and shot that was given to the goose hunter but accepted less if geese were scarce. According to Andrew Graham, the HBC gave one pound of gunpowder and one pound of shot for 20 geese.
In 1727–1728, 3,023 salted and fresh geese were consumed by 24 men stationed at York Factory, an average of 126 geese per man. At Albany Fort in 1717–1718, a total of 3,066 geese were consumed by 27 HBC men, an average of 114 geese per individual. At Albany, the blue goose was more prevalent than the snows.
The native Cree Indians, who were employed as goose hunters for the HBC, were responsible for salting the geese and packing them into wooden casks or barrels. To make the salted geese more palatable, they were sometimes “freshened” by suspending them in a river or bay through a hole cut in the ice. Then they were boiled and brought to the table cold.
The quantities of geese required to provision the factory were enormous. The eighteen men at the Moose Fort on the west side of James Bay in the 1730s received for four-men, three salted geese per day. Although this was supplemented in the summer with fresh garden produce, for over eighty per cent of the year, the diet of salted geese was invariable and monotonous. Only in September and May were fresh geese available.
A bad goose hunting season is illustrated at Moose Fort during the fall goose hunt in 1873 when it was reported that from the geese that the “goose hunting Indians” had brought in produced only 7 hogshead of salted geese, with a hogshead holding approximately 130 salted geese. Compare that to an average goose hunting fall hunt when the fort would salt 12 hogshead or 1,560 salted geese. Meanwhile a cask held about 80 Canada geese or about one hundred for snows and blues, whereas a large cask or hogshead held about 130.
For comparison, geese procured from a spring goose hunts, during May of 1784, for example, Moose Fort received 1317 geese in total, with the Fort receiving more than 300 geese in a single day on at least two separate occasions. For the spring hunt, a Cree was given 3 pounds of powder and “scatter” shot with flints.
All the HBC’s forts were dependent upon the indigenous peoples for providing their forts with geese both during the fall and spring goose hunt in order to avoid a food crisis. From November to mid-April no geese were killed due to James Bay and Hudson Bay being froze up. From mid-April to the first week of June was when the duck and goose hunts took place with an occasion swan taken. To the Cree Indians, April meant feasting under the goose moon on the most welcome of the returning fliers, the fat-rich spring Canada geese called grey geese by HBC men.
Spring was followed by two and one-half months of summer when the geese were not there. However, during this time, small game birds such as grouse, plovers, ptarmigans, wild pigeons were taken along with a few molting ducks, geese, or cranes, all this augmented by fishing. Ptarmigan were the single most important source of food during most winters. Then the fall goose and duck season lasted for two and one-half months, from mid-August to the end of October, and then with the freeze up another six months without geese. September issued in the “blue goose moon” bringing in the snows and blues and ducks to their staging grounds. October was the migrating month. The fall hunt although productive was not as good as the spring hunt.
The later day Cree Indians had another way of setting out snow and blue geese decoys when hunting around James Bay. With a shovel, the Cree goose hunter turned over a large shovel full of marsh mud or clay, which he arranged in the shapes of birds’ wings before his just built blind of leafy willow wands. At the very end of sticks placed between the sods, he placed tufts of white feather which simulated the heads and necks of blue geese. If hunting snow geese, he filled a triangular-shaped sack—which looked like it used to be a pillow case—with a willow bough and stuck it in the ground. For the killed birds, they propped them up on sticks and used them also for decoys while hunting. Another method soon followed when goose decoys were fashioned from the mud or clay with a painted wooden head and neck stuck in one end of the clay oval, while this evolved into decoys being made from black spruce or cedar wood with also a painted head and neck of wood nailed to one end. For the James Bay, the geese stayed nearly a month while they fattened on roots and grasses for their 2,000 mile-long haul from the Baffin and Southampton Island to the Louisiana Gulf Coast, many not hatched much more than two months previously.
Thus, from the air, the goose saw a reasonable facsimile of geese feeding. If the Cree hunter had been hunting earlier, he simply brought sets of wings and arranged them before the blind. His call is the epitome of mimicry practiced since childhood. It’s as vibrant as a radar signal to a flock of a dozen birds moving on a diagonal course half a mile distant. He calls and they call back until enticed into gunshot range. He fills his larder with geese, both in the spring and fall.
Alexander Wilson, who wrote the first American ornithology in the early 1800s, described Native American decoy practices in some detail: ” The Geese, which he has killed, he sets upon sticks, as if alive, to decoy others; he also makes artificial birds for the same purpose. In a good day, for they fly in very uncertain and unequal numbers, a single Indian will kill two hundred. In some ponds frequented by these birds (mallards), five or six wooden figures are painted so as to represent ducks, and sunk by pieces of lead nailed to their bottoms, so as to float at the usual depth on the surface.”
With the settling up of the countryside, early settlers became well acquainted with the Native American decoy, which they adapted and improved upon. Wooden decoys were made and used about the first decade of the nineteenth century or a few years before. Its development took place in workshops in remote locations along the eastern seaboard and gradually grew into a small coastal cottage industry.
By 1840, the wooden decoy was firmly established in American hunting traditions. After the Civil War, the technique of carving, sanding, priming, and painting decoys had evolved into an American art form and spread from the east coast to the Gulf and into the interior on inland lakes and rivers and on to the west coast.
Who was the first maker of wooden decoys and on what particular bay or estuary it first saw the light of day is not known and probably never will be known.
Now we turn to the goose and swan skin and quill trade of the Hudson Bay Company. The Company, formed in 1670 and known for their fur trade in western North America, began shipping swan skins–feathers attached–to England about 1769.
An item in the Minutes of a May 24, 1680 London meeting of HBC shareholders read: “Sr. James Hayes is desired to provide some Additional Instructions to Governor Nixon, to encourage the Trade of … Feathers of Fowl.” Thereafter, the Company actively traded in feathers. The Company’s eagerness to pursue this trade was reiterated in a June 17, 1693, communiqué to George Gyer, Governor of the HBC’s Northern Department, stating that “We now recommend again to you the sending home of what feathers you can get such as are fit for beds, they being a very good commodity in England.”
Hearne, who we mentioned earlier, reported that Cree Indians killed swans “in such numbers that the down and quills might have been procured in considerable quantities at a trifling expense.” He reported that swan skins, “of which the Company have lately made an article of trade,” became a trade item only near the end of the eighteenth century.
The French raided HBC’s Fort Prince of Wales in 1784, then under Hearne’s command, and there found 329 pounds of goose feathers and 17,500 goose quills.
Feathers sought in trade were plucked from geese taken primarily during spring and fall waterfowl migrations. On average, a goose yielded only four ounces of useable feathers. In peak years, upwards of 50,000 geese would have to have been taken to supply the volume of feathers sold at Company auctions in London.
In London, swan quills, which were the flight feathers, were in great demand for pens and sold in bundles of 25 or 100. Beginning in 1744, goose quills were also taken in trade and exported for sale to English pen manufacturers Therefore, swan and goose quills from the HBC sold in increasing numbers to the London Fur Market, from 58,000 in 1799 to 655,030 in 1817. At a maximum of ten useable quills per bird, 1837 saw the sacrifice of over 100,000 swans and geese.
The earliest period at which the use of quill feathers for writing is recorded is the 6th century.
Only the five outer wing feathers of the goose were useful for writing, and of these the second and third were the best, while left-wing quills were more esteemed than those of the right as they curved outward and away from the writer.
For writing, a swan quill was considered better than goose, because “a single swan outlasting as many as fifty made from goose quills.” Moreover, John James Audubon, ornithologist and artist, treasured trumpeter quills because they were “so hard, and yet so elastic . . .”
As late as 1822, about the time when the metal pen nib was introduced, there were 27 quill pen manufacturers in London alone. Between 1850 and 1877, HBC sales of goose quills to these and other manufacturers ranged from 300,000 to 500,000 per annum. Given that a goose yields ten quills suitable for pen manufacture, somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 geese were taken each year to supply this trade alone.
The peak year for quill sales was 1834, when the Company recorded sales of more than one million. Upwards of 100,000 geese may have been taken to yield such a quantity. Although the sale of 1 million quills may seem large, according to Charles Dickens, English manufacturers imported more than 33 million quills in 1832 to supplement their domestic supply.
However, quill sales dropped off dramatically in the early 1890s, the quill having been largely replaced by the then perfected metal nib.
Swan skins were also used in the manufacture of powder puffs for women, vests, ceremonial robes, and for ornaments such as epaulets on uniforms, wallets, jackets and caps. In addition, they were much sought after for their flesh, feathers, and their down.
From 1804 to 1819, HBC listed for sale 26,089 swan skins from six different trading posts, with 97 percent coming through the York Factory , which had a direct link with the plains and parkland areas of what are now the prairie provinces. In 1806, the HBC exported just 396 trumpeter skins. By 1818, the number had risen to 2,463. From 1821 to 1842, 71,329 skins were sold. It was to the Trumpeter that the bulk of the Swan-skins imported by the Company belonged.
Oliver Goldsmith in 1840 wrote: “The swans and geese are much sought after … for their flesh, their quill-feathers, and their down.”
From 1853 to 1877, the HBC took almost as much interest in feathers as in furs, as the firm handled 17,671 swan skins of both species, with most being trumpeters. The overall supply of swan items came from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the heart of the breeding grounds.
HBC records for the period 1762 to 1841 recorded the sale of more than 200,000 swan skins, an average of about 2,500 per annum. They were the skins of trumpeter swans and it was this trade, some argue, that was in large measure responsible for their near extinction. The trade in swan skins peaked in the 1820s and ’30s, when an average of 3,000 to 3,500 were sold annually.
Hence, the numbers of swan skins shipped by the HBC plummeted in the closing decades of 1800’s, with annual sales dwindling to an average of about 140 skins. In 1881, 122 were sold, while only 57 were sold to London during the period from 1888-1897. This decline was due to the improvement of the steel pen nibs that had become popular by this time.
Nevertheless, quill numbers did not fall off as quickly as did swan skins and remained relatively high through 1891.
Both trumpeter and tundra swans suffered from more drastic declines than other large birds such as the Sandhill and Whooping Cranes. They began their decline a century earlier than the cranes.
The effects of such exploitation for meat, eggs, skins, down, and feathers on the far-flung breeding populations of the trumpeter and tundra swan species for more than 125 years was devastating and largely responsible for its extermination over vast regions, particularly in the heart of its Canadian breeding range.
Few of us realize what prodigious quantities of these two items were shipped from Hudson Bay back to Britain, as an additional item of trade along with valuable furs. Such overharvesting, superimposed on subsistence use, no doubt contributed to the Trumpeter Swan’s decline in numbers and range, and to some decline in the Tundra Swan as well.
The Tundra Swan disappeared as a breeding species from the general area of Hudson Bay for over 150 years, from before 1800 through 1969; they have since returned to breed in northern portions of Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec.
Being a valuable economic commodity in colonist’s times, Trumpeter swans were hunted to the point of extirpation in the eastern half of the continent. George Barnston, a fur trader and naturalist, wrote in 1860: “Swans, except in a few localities, are scarce, rather than plentiful birds on the shores of Hudson’s Bay.” By the 1940’s, trumpeter swans were almost extinct with less than 50 birds known to exist in North America. However, unrecorded flocks also inhabited parts of Alaska and the Grande Prairie region of Alberta.