Life at Prince of Wales Fort
So, life at Fort Churchill and later Prince of Wales Fort was not all sunshine and lollipops in the 18th century.
The stone fort was started on August 23, 1731, around 1pm (so they say…) by Thomas Bird with a crew of stonemasons. There were definite challenges, aside the obvious difficulties in moving some stones that weigh thousands of pounds and making stones out of some of the hardest rock on the Planet.
One often overlooked Problem was that the lime mortar utilized in the building process needs a few months of warm weather to set. Once set, it will last many hundreds of years, as demonstrated by several castles in Europe. Unfortunately, there is at best frost-free for ninety days in Churchill and ultimately, the lime mortar never ctually set.
‘We all drank with discharge to three pieces of cannon and volley of small arms to Church and Kin, Prince of Wales, Royal Family, Hudson’s Bay Company, Success of the fort, to all Enemies, to all Servants in General and then various healths seperately.’ – Richard Norton, Governor, Prince of Wales Fort
That’s a lot of toasts. The fort formally opened on August 12, 1741. Given that work continued for another thirty years, it could be said that the ‘completion’ of the fort was in part driven by Norton’s desire to retire and return to England.
Actually, work continues today by Everett Olson and a crew of Parks Canada stonemasons. In fact, I’m kind of excited when my disembodied head in a jar can return to work on the fort in 2337.
‘The wine with which the officers drank the aforesaid’s health (King George II), and which was good part wine, froze in the glass as soon as poured out of the bottle’ – Cpt. Chris Middleton, overwintering with his crew at Sloop’s Cove just upriver from the fort
This is a classic quote not so much for the cold but that most liquor was watered down, either intentionally or covertly at HBC trading posts. Hence, the large number of toasts, one would assume. That winter, 1741, the HBC men at prince of Wales Fort would bury kegs of wine in 8’ deep pits and cover them with horse dung to keep them from freezing.
‘Rich as the trade to these parts have been or may be, the way of living is such that we can not reckon any man happy whose lot is cast upon this bay.
– John Oldmixon, HBC mid-1700s
Typical winter wear consisted of an indoor and outdoor apparel. When lounging indoors, HBC men would wear mooseskin jacket with cuffs or cape of marten or beaver, deerskin (caribou) pants lined with flannel blankets (usually three layers), shoes made of shaped pieces of leather. Time to head out? Well, add a beaverskin over the neck and shoulders, a scarf of arctic fox (usually two tails) and tanned mooseskin shoes with 4-1/2’ snowshoes.
Winter wood for prince of Wales Fort consisted of two large piles each 43 yards round, providing firewood usually took at least nine months out of the year. Eventually coal was brought as ship’s ballast and supplied the post. Still pretty cold, though…
‘A patch of ground near the Fort which though exposed to the north and north-east winds, produc good radishes, coleworts, turnips, small carrots and lettices and other sallading.’
- Joseph Robson, stonemason
Unfortunately, dandelion ended up being the most consistent and reliable crop at Prince of wales. It was used for salad, wine and an anti-scorbutic. Today, it still makes a nice meal, battered and deep-fried.
‘War still continuing with France and Spain, we renew our former Order, of being always on your Guard and to keep a good watch, and you Men near Home… we recommend Sobriety.’
- 1747 annual orders from England
In 1782, prince of Wales Fort surrendered without firing a shot to three French warships under the command of Comte de LaPerouse. It is rumoured that many of the men were out goose hunting at the time.
A Bit More of Life at Prince of Wales Fort
Yes, Churchill even has its own giant fort complete with cannons – so what if the French wrecked them in 1782. This article by Stacey Jack of Parks Canada features some of the wild and wacky adventures of the good (if somewhat disgruntled) folk that manned the fort in the 18th century.
The great task of building Prince of Wales was fraught with argument, injury and incident. Between the years of 1731 and 1782, the journal records which exist for Prince of Wales Fort demonstrate how daily life was anything but monotonous for the Hudson Bay Company men.
Many of the arguments which occurred were between the factor or officers and the labourers. Most of these arguments were over pay, or rather not enough pay (at least in the eyes of the labourers). Arguments often resulted in beatings, and at least two of these arguments resulted in men being put in irons for several days and given lashes. However, being as wise as they were, the men soon realized that collective action was most effective. The men were sometimes known to circulate petitions and stop work so that their demands for better work conditions were met. One of the interesting demands which was met was for ‘hazard pay’. Those men that had the most dangerous jobs, such as blasting rock for the Fort walls, were given both an annual salary and extra rations of rum.
That extra rum may have resulted in the endless accidents and illness at the Fort. Broken bones, frozen body parts, cuts, blisters, bites, fevers and delirium were all status quo. In 1770 alone, one man slipped on the ice and broke his collar bone, another misfired while shooting at a polar bear, one man fell out of a tree (?!), one fell through the ice, while another man nearly lost his life while merely walking past a wall and it tumbled down. Luckily, the Fort had a surgeon, well, at least most of the time, or sometimes, when he wasn’t sick, or drunk or making plans to get back to England…
And of course, there were the usual little incidents which one would expect. These included socializing with the local women, stealing from the stores at the Fort, abandonment of jobs, blackmail, drunkenness, gambling and superstitious events. One incident, which surely would have rose suspicion amongst the men, took place at a funeral. To show respect for the deceased, a cannon was fired in his honour. The spark from the cannon lit up a pile of dry firewood, scaring the men enough that nobody really wanted to put it out. After being told that the entire Fort would burn to the ground and they wouldn’t get paid, the men obliged and the Fort was saved!
Given all of these accounts from the 1700s, Prince of Wales Fort may not sound like a place where you would want to work or even visit. Truth is, company men signed up to go to the Churchill River – it was (and still is) a desirable location. The wages were not bad, room and board were provided, and most men figured that winter in Churchill couldn’t be much different than winter in England. And as demonstrated, there was never a dull moment.
- prepared by Stacey Jack, Parks Canada