Full Circle: An Orkney family reunited after 200 years Separated by distance and culture (Part 1)

By Kim Twatt

[The author has given permission to The Orkney News to serialise her book]

Dedicated to the memory of Harold Kingfisher

This little book gives an insight into the lives Orkney men led while working for the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada and into the lives of their First Nations (Indian) descendants. It tells of one family who have come full circle to be re-united after 200 years of separation.

Founded in 1670 the London based Hudson’s Bay Company was formed to trade for fur with the natives of North America. Company ships called into Stromness, Orkney to take on supplies of food, water and labour – Orkney men – before crossing the Atlantic Ocean bound for Hudson Bay. A chance meeting with a Canadian tourist led me on a trail to discover my First Nations relations in Saskatchewan, relations I knew nothing about until that day in 1999. However, this relationship between Orkney and Canada is in no way unique, many Orkney surnames can be found in parts of Canada today. I was very fortunate in making contact with my cousins after such a long separation.

A Chance Encounter

Between stops on our walking tour of Kirkwall Mr Hulme explained that he was having difficulty finding an Orkney family with an awkward name. Visiting Orkney from Vancouver in 1999, he was researching several families for people back home with Orkney roots. Noticing the difficulty he was having with this surname I asked him if the name was Twatt. He winced slightly but was surprised to find he was talking to one. Twatt is my maiden name and I explained Twatt is a good old Orkney place name and surname and that the family appeared to stem from Twatt in Birsay. Then he told me a bit about Magnus Twatt from Orkney who joined the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1771 and his Métis descendants in Canada today. He asked if I could send him all I could find about this Magnus Twatt which I did. Once I had the details on the Orkney side of the family and discovered that Magnus was, indeed, part of the same family as me, I decided to contact the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives in Manitoba and trace Magnus’s life within the company.

Twatt map

That Worthy Servant – Magnus Twatt

Magnus was born in 1751. His father, John Twatt and his mother Ann Manson were married on 16th January, 1746. He had two sisters, Ellen (Helen) who was born on 15th January, 1747 and Jean (Jane). There is no record of her date of birth. Magnus grew up and was a farmer in the township of Kirbister, Orphir.

In 1771 Magnus entered the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company as a labourer and remained with the company for thirty years. At this time two thirds of the workforce of the company were Orkney men and I’m sure he would have known several men who had already signed up. Not only did the wages appeal to them but also the adventure which required their special character and particular skills in boatmanship, etc. Orkney men were recorded as being dependable, hardy, obedient and adaptable. Stromness was the last port of call for outward bound ships where food, water supplies and a keen young workforce were taken on board. The ships were heading for Hudson Bay during the few ice free months of the year when all traded furs and mail had to be shipped out and cargo for the next year shipped in. Isaac Cowie lists a typical outward bound cargo in his book, The Company of Adventurers, which follows. Although the ship was sailing around 1860, much later than Magnus’s years in Canada, it gives a good idea of the sorts of items which would have been needed each year, over many years.

The cargo of the ship consisted of sixty tons of gunpowder, necessitating great caution against fire, with bullets and shot in proportion for large and small game; hundreds of cases of flintlock Indian guns, with a few hundred flintlock single and double-barreled guns of better quality, and only a small number, comparatively, of percussion guns – all being muzzle loaders. The next most important article was twine for fishing nets, upon which the food supply of most of the people of the country depended; for no food for daily consumption was imported, such as flour, biscuit and salt meats, except for occasional use at the posts on the coast, and a small annual allowance of flour for those in the interior. The annual allowance of flour being three hundredweight for chief factors and traders, two hundredweight for clerks, one hundredweight for postmasters, one-half hundredweight for interpreters and mechanics, and one-quarter hundredweight for the other yearly servants. There was also a large quantity of tea and tobacco, but never enough of the former to supply all the natives would consume. Sugar was another limited luxury in the interior. Other luxuries of civilisation were a number of puncheons of rum, and smaller quantities of brandy and wines, forming altogether a considerable portion of the freight. In hardware, axes, files, traps, knives, needles and awles, frying-pans, pots and copper kettles, flints and fire-steels, were all essentials. Blankets and clothing came in huge bales, but while desirable, their place could be taken by furs and skins, and therefore could not be considered absolute necessities.

With everything now ready, the ship only waiting in Stromness for a fair wind to carry them through Hoy Sound and away, Magnus would surely have been struck by similar thoughts as Isaac Cowie: It was only then I seemed to feel the wrench of parting from home and friends in all its intensity, and realised I was bound for a long exile from all one holds most dear.

Magnus sailed from Stromness. I hope his journey was more comfortable than that of Robert M. Ballantine in 1841 who recalls in his book, Hudson Bay,

what took place during the next five or six days I know not. The deamon of sea-sickness had completely prostrated my faculties, bodily and mental. Some faint recollections I have of stormy weather, horrible noises, and hurried dinners; but the greater part of that period is a miserable blank in my memory.

Then, out across the Atlantic he writes:

All was dreary and monotonous; the same unvarying expanse of sky and water met our gaze each morning as we ascended to the deck, to walk for half an hour before breakfast, except when the topsails of the other two vessels fluttered for a moment on the distant horizon. Occasionally we approached closer to each other, and once or twice hailed with the trumpet; but these breaks in the solitude of our existence were few and far between

Off Cape Farewell, Greenland a lookout for icebergs would have been maintained. Steering North West across Davis Straits fenders and long spiked poles to protect the ship’s hull would have been prepared, as well as ice anchors to moor it to the ice if necessary. After approximately one month at sea Magnus would have sailed through lanes of melting ice, dodging heavier flows as he sailed past Cape Resolution. He would have seen seals and walrus. Having rounded Cape Wolstenholme the brown heath clad hills of Labrador may have reminded Magnus of the Hoy hills. In Hudson Bay the sea should have been summer smooth with bright balmy weather. Off Churchill a cannon would have been fired intimating the ship’s safe arrival. The ship would finally have weighed anchor in York Roads and once again fired a cannon to alert York Factory of its arrival. The factory is situated on a peninsula between the mouths of the Hayes and Nelson rivers. Here Magnus would have been treated to the unfamiliar aroma of spruce and had his first introduction to the dreaded mosquito.

York Factory was the administrative, warehouse and transshipment centre, and most important fur trade post belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company. During his first four years Magnus received £6 per annum. At that time an average Orcadian farm labourer’s pay would have been £2:10:0 (£2.50) per year.

Described as a labourer, he would have been expected to turn his hand to anything; to become a trapper, hunter, fisherman or rough carpenter. During the summer he would have transported furs and goods between his post and the nearest depot. Throughout winter he would have cut firewood, carried out repairs, shovelled snow from the doors and gone hunting for food.

To give you an idea of life at York Factory during the harsh winter months I have included the following from Hudson Bay by Robert M. Ballantine:

The manner of dressing ourselves to resist the cold was curious. I will describe Crusty, as a type of the rest. After donning a pair of deer-skin trousers, he proceeded to put on three pair of blanket socks, and over these a pair of moose-skin moccasins. Then a pair of blue cloth leggings were hauled over his trousers, partly to keep the snow from sticking to them, and partly for warmth. After this he put on a leather capote edged with fur. This coat was very warm, being lined with flannel, and overlapped very much at front. It was fastened with a scarlet worsted belt round the waist, and with a loop at the throat. A pair of thick mittens made of deer-skin hung round his shoulders by worsted cord; and his neck was wrapped in a huge shawl. A fur cap with ear pieces completed his costume. …he tucked a pair of snow shoes, five feet long, under one arm, and a double-barrelled fouling piece under the other…… In this guise, then, we departed on our ramble. The sun shone brightly in the cold blue sky, giving a warm appearance to the scene, although no sensible warmth proceeded from it, so cold was the air. Countless millions of icy particles covered every bush and tree, glittering tremendously in its rays like diamonds… The air was biting cold, obliging us to walk briskly along to keep our blood in circulation: and the breath flew thick and white from our mouths and nostrils, like clouds of steam, and , condensing on our hair and breasts of our coats, gave us the appearance of being powdered with fine snow… During the whole day we wandered about the woods, sometimes killing a few ptarmigan, and occasionally a kind of grouse… During our walk the day had darkened, and the sky insensibly become overcast… Dark leaden clouds rose on the northern horizon, and the distant howling of the cold, cold wind struck mournfully in our ears, as it rushed fresh and bitterly piercing from the Arctic seas, tearing madly over the frozen plains, and driving clouds of hail and snow before it… Oh! it was bitterly, bitterly cold. Notwithstanding our thick wrappings, we felt as if clothed in gause… availing ourselves of the partial shelter of the trees we made the best of our way back to the fort… It was curious to observe the change that took place in the appearance of our guns after we entered the warm room. The barrels, and every bit of metal upon them, instantly became white, like ground glass!

Trading Store R Foden

Photo Credit: R Foden

On the following morning a small party of indians arrived with furs… The trading room – or, as it is frequently called, the Indian-shop – contained every imaginable commodity likely to be needed by Indians. On various shelves were piled bales of cloth of all colours, capotes, blankets, caps, etc.; and in smaller divisions were placed files, scalping-knives, gun-screws, flints, balls of twine, fire-steels, canoe-awls, and glass beads of all colours, sizes, and descriptions. Drawers in the counter contained needles, pins, scissors, thimbles, fish-hooks, and vermillion for painting canoes and faces. The floor was strewn with a variety of copper kettles, from half a pint to a gallon; and on a stand in the furthest corner of the room stood about a dozen trading guns, and beside them a keg of powder and a box of shot.

1774 records state Magnus Twatt, whose contract expires next year agrees to stay four years longer at £10 per annum, or return home. Then the minutes of council at York Factory, June 1775 tell us that Magnus refused to go inland without an increase in wages. In the Journals of Hearne and Turnor, 1776, he is described by Humphry Marten, Chief at York Factory, as a brisk young handy man who could do many little jobs in the carpenter’s way. From the Hudson’s Bay Journals we can read that on 8th May,1777 he was sent with William Tomison, Grey, Loutit and Omand up the Saskatchewan River to take native people down to Fort York to trade. The Hudson’s Bay Company was compelled to establish posts in the interior where their men were encouraged to adopt a friendly approach towards the natives in order to trade. They had also to keep ahead of their French rivals for this fur trade. The party reached the Upper French House (Sturgeon River Fort) and put up a little above it on the opposite side of the river.

To be continued……

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