Early Fur Trade History in Churchill
(Six Degrees of Prince of Wales Fort)
1689 – First attempt to establish Fort Churchill. James Knight, Governor of York Factory sends a group north to build a post along the Churchill River. Everyone is so impressed by Churchill that the fort ‘mysteriously’ burns down during construction and they all head back to York.
1713 – Thanadelthur, a Dene woman captured by the Cree, escapes and begins journey to Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, York Factory.
1714 – James Knight returns to York Factory once again. The ‘Slave Woman’, Thanadelthur, convinces him to send an emissary to contact the Caribou Dene. Through her efforts, peace is brokered between her people and the Cree.
1716 – Thanadelthur and several Dene overwinter at York Factory. She spends the winter telling Knight stories of the ‘Far-Off Metal River’. Knight once again makes plans to establish trade along the Churchill River.
1717- In February, Thanadelthur falls ill and dies. Soon after, James Knight sends another group north, including an un-named Dene ‘slave woman’ and HBC apprentice Richard Norton under the protection of Thanadelthur’s brother, to establish Fort Churchill, this time successfully. A wooden trading post is established 8km up the Churchill River. Knight supervises construction and glowingly reports, ‘York Fort is badd but this is tenn times worse.’
1718 – Fort Churchill is renamed Prince of Wales Fort in honour of the heir to the British Throne, George II.
1719 – At the tender age of 79, James Knight, fulfils a long-time dream, commanding an expedition to find the northwest passage out of Hudson Bay.
1720s – No reports of the Knight expedition, it is assumed that they have found the northwest passage and are well on their way to Cathay.
1730 – Hudson’s Bay Company decides to build a new Prince of Wales Fort, this time out of stone, a military installation on Eskimo Point, at the mouth of the Churchill River.
1732 – On June 3, the first stone is laid for Prince of Wales’ Fort. Chief Factor Richard Norton predicts ‘six or seven years to complete using four team of oxen and 84 men’. His estimate is slightly off.
1733 – Joseph Robson hired as stonemason at Prince of Wales Fort.
1736(ish) – Matonabee is born at Prince of Wales Fort to a former slave woman and Dene father. Orphaned at a young age, he is adopted and raised by Governor Richard Norton until the age six. Richard’s real son, Moses, has been sent for schooling in England.
1740 – Governor Richard Norton declares the fort construction completed. There is much rejoicing.
1741 – Norton transferred to York Factory, Matonabbee rejoins Dene.
1741 – Cpt. Chris Middleton and two ships arrive unannounced at Prince of Wales Fort. After accidentally firing a cannon at them, the fort ‘welcomes’ them for a winter despite concerns over provisioning the additional men. Middleton and men winter at Sloop Cove and spend the winter drinking and hunting, but mostly drinking.
1742 – Middleton explores northwestern Hudson Bay, ‘discovers’ Repulse Bay, maps Wager Bay and narrowly misses discovering Knight expeditions’ remains on Marble Island. He concludes that there is no navigable northwest passage. In England, armchair explorer Arthur Dobbs is unimpressed. Middleton’s career is doomed, spends remaining years defending his findings.
1744 – PWF Governor James Isham instructed to build a cannon battery across the Churchill River at Cape Merry.
1746 – Joseph Robson returns, now Supervisor and Surveyor, and promptly declares the fort a disgrace to the good name of the Prince of Wales. The walls are to be dismantled and rebuilt. There is less rejoicing.
1747 – Joseph Robson leaves but not before bringing Prince of Wales Fort to near mutiny. He also orders Cape Merry dismantled and rebuilt.
1752 – Matonabee returns to Prince of Wales Fort, employed as a ‘hunter’. In England, Robson publishes first hand, critical account of Hudson’s Bay Company, concluding HBC ’slept for eighty years at the edge of a frozen sea’. Armchair explorers are ecstatic.
1754(ish) – Fluent in Dene, Cree and English (somewhat) Matonabee brokers peace between Caribou Dene and Athabaskan Cree on behalf of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
1762 – Moses Norton, an individual of ‘uncommon energy and perception’, is sent in search of northwest passage, ‘discovers’ Chesterfield Inlet but still no northwest passage.
1765 – Norton, now Governor of Prince of Wales Fort, takes the post in new directions. He sends his step-brother, Matonabee, to map the route to Thanadelthur & Knight’s ‘Far-Off-Metal River’, today known as the Coppermine River. Norton also starts the ‘Black Whale Fishery’ and the search for Bowhead whales begins. Norton celebrates his success with friends (and selected Cree ‘wives’…)
1767 – On July 1, Samuel Hearne carves his name in the rocks at Sloop Cove, one year after arriving in Hudson Bay. Moses Norton for his part sends two moose to England and then celebrates his brilliance with friends (and selected Cree ‘wives’…)
1768 – Annual supply boat arrives with instructions that Norton is not to send any more ‘livestock’ to England. Matonabee returns with pieces of copper and a map scribbled on a piece of moosehide.
1769 – During another fruitless ‘black whale’ expedition, Inuit relate their version of the fate of James Knight’s expedition starvation on Marble Island to Samuel Hearne. That winter, Hearne begins journey to the Coppermine River.
1770 – After two failed attempts, Matonabbee is hired to guide Samuel Hearne to find the mouth of the Coppermine River. Samuel Hearne offends Moses Norton by his refusal to consider any more Cree guides. Matonabbee’s demands that women come along, pretty much to do all the work and carry everything. Hey, it’s tradition.
1771 – Fort completed! (sort of…) Everyone gets raises! (mostly to reduce private trading…) Norton celebrat… you get the picture.
1772 – Annual supply ship arrives with instructions to halt Norton’s black whale fishery after a ₤20,000 loss over seven years (the modern equivalent of this loss is about $2.5 million Canadian).
1773 – Norton dies, reportedly using his ‘uncommon energy’ in his last living moments cursing one of his six ‘wives’.
1775 – Samuel Hearne is promoted to Chief Factor (Governor) of Prince of Wales Fort while Matonabee is now considered the most influential Trading Captain amongst the Dene.
1782 – On August 8th, LaPerouse arrives at the mouth of the Churchill River with three warships and three hundred men. Governor Samuel Hearne looks at his men (the ones not out hunting at North River), none of whom have fired a cannon in battle before and opts to surrender without firing a shot. LaPerouse looks at his crew, most of whom are sick with scurvy and is relieved. Prince of Wales Fort’s horse is the only recorded casualty.
1783 – The HBC sues the British Government for not defending their military interests in Hudson Bay.Consequently, the Treaty of Paris is signed ending the American Revolution. As part of the truce, France agrees to pay for the damages to Prince of Wales Fort. Yes, France pays for the fort it destroyed.
1783 – A draft of Hearne’ s journal circulates through England, mentioning that there is no navigable northwest passage. Armchair explorer Alexander Dalrymple is unimpressed. Samuel Hearne spends remaining years defending his findings.
1784 – Hearne is posted to Hudson Bay to re-establish Fort Churchill. The stone fort is left in ruins and the post is built at the original site 8km up river. Finding that both his friend, Matonabee and country wife, Mary Norton, died in the first winter, he spends the winer drinking and running the trading post, but mostly drinking.
1785 – Samuel Hearne returns to England, a symbol of the end of Fort Churchill as a significant factor in the Canadian fur trade.