Article 10: The “Civilization” of the North: Two Worldviews with the Same Goal

Andreas Jeske

White picket fences, neatly manicured lawns, and streets that run in straight lines:  wherever man seems to go, there is also an attempt to civilize the world that he is in.  Humanity seems to lust for order and seeks to impose its notion of this order on the world.  As people come together, they form their own ideas of what a civilized world might look like, from bonsais and the art of KonMari to neatly manicured gardens and straight, clean cobblestone streets.  Despite man’s desire to tame the natural world and impose order, the North has always had the image or identity of a harsh, wild, untameable space (Hyde).  The traditional Canadian idea of the North, complete with flannel, moose, beaver, snow, and ice, glorifies this harsh untameable image.  Robert Stanley Weir’s poem, “O Canada,” which has been adopted as the Canadian National anthem, states, “The True North, strong and free/ […] Where pines and maples grow/ Great prairies spread and lordly rivers flow” (Weir).  Many Canadians take pride in the long legacy that Turtle Island has as a strong, free, and wild land, yet this does not mean that significant historical figures have not attempted to tame this strong and free land.  Even though James Isham (1716–1761), the chief factor (master) at both York Factory and Fort Prince of Wales in Canada during the mid-1700s, and Pierre La Vérendrye (1685-1749), a French explorer and fur trader during the early 1700s, were from different European cultures, these influential explorers attempted to tame or civilize the North.  James Isham tried to civilize the land through the use of science, the manipulation of the physical environment around him and the use of diplomacy. In contrast, La Vérendrye tried to civilize the people of the land through the development of trade and building relationships with the indigenous peoples in the North.  No matter how the explorers attempted to civilize the land or the people, all they wanted to do was instil their ideology and ways of living into the North for their own purposes.

            James Isham was born c. 1716 in St Andrew’s parish, London, England and died in 1761 at York Fort, leaving behind a wife and daughter in England and a wife and son on Turtle Island (Rich).  He began his career with the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in 1732 when he was hired as a ‘writer’ for York Fort (Rich).  In 1737 he was appointed Chief Factor at York Fort when the previous Factor returned to England.  During his employment with the HBC, he served as the chief factor at York Fort and Fort Prince of Wales and began pressuring the HBC to move inland, even to the point of picking the future site of Cumberland House (Rich).  Isham did not himself go on an expedition but was instrumental as the chief factor in sending others out, such as Anthony Henday, another British explorer into the interior in search of the Siksika (Warkentin 98).

            Isham left behind a legacy in his attempts to civilize turtle island itself around York Fort and Prince of Wales Fort, which still influences Canadians 250 years later (Stephen 44).  Isham was given command of Prince of Wales fort in 1741, one of only three stone forts the company ever built and the only one on the shores of Hudson Bay (Stephen 44).  The fort had been deemed finished before Isham was assigned to it, yet a private letter was mailed to the commission in England who did their own investigation and found “it doth not answer [their] expectations, nor the great charge” (Stephen 44) that they gave.  Isham was given explicit instruction to correct the issues, and essentially the fort was completely rebuilt over the next thirty years (Stephen 44).  Isham was recalled to England in 1745 after overseeing the widening of the walls of the fort from 24 to 32 feet to be questioned about his relationship with Christopher Middleton, a British navigator with the Hudson’s Bay Company and Royal Navy officer (Rich, Stephen 44).  The French captured Prince of Wales fort in 1782 and then attempted to blow the fort up (Stephen 44).  The HBC never reoccupied the fort abandoning it to the forces of nature, “a most Surprizing thing and past belief to Imagine the force and Effects the Ice has” (Isham 101).  Despite the force and effect of the ice that Isham observed 250 years later, Isham’s work on establishing an HBC presence at Churchill still stands.

            The reconstruction of Prince of Wales Fort to establish European civilization on the coast of Hudson Bay was not the only structure that Isham built that attempted to tame the wild true north.  On his return to Turtle Island from England in 1750, he took over as Governor of York Fort (Rich).  When he was previously stationed at York Fort, he had informed the London Committee that the site was too marshy to stand the weight of a stone building (Rich).  Thus, when he took over as Governor on his return, he immediately turned his attention to the problems that had plagued the fort since its establishment (Stephen 45).  “Riverbank erosion, spring flooding, permafrost, poor surface drainage and other environmental factors” have consistently threatened the stability of the area and the buildings (Stephen 45).  Isham was in awe of the power that the river had as he had “been Eye witness, Large Rock stones the Ice has Lifted & Carry’d of the shores, stones of several [tons] weight, has been seen Lying upon Ice at the setting in of the Rivers, much more at the breaking up of the Rivers” (Isham 101).  Isham ordered his men to build a retaining wall seven feet wide, six feet high and with a four-foot slope to combat the marshy ground and erosion from the river (Stephen 45).  Isham’s use of a retaining wall on the banks of the Hayes River set a pattern of riverbank interventions within the HBC for the next 100 years (Stephen 46).  Today Parks Canada is studying Isham’s retaining wall designs to save the Hayes River’s north bank as they are dealing with the same forces of nature, such as permafrost, that Isham attempted to wrestle under his control as the governor of York Fort (Stephen 46).

            Just as white picket fences and streets that run along a grid are attempts to civilize the natural world that surrounds Western middle-class humanity, so too, James Isham’s construction projects were a way in which he could civilize and place order into the wild, untameable Turtle Island.  These construction projects were not the only way that Isham undertook to civilize the world around him.  He considered himself something of a naturalist as a way to stave off “that too common Malady the Vapour’s, which is [frequently] the forerunner of other Distempers” (Isham 99).  When he was recalled to England by the committee to testify regarding his actions concerning Middleton, he brought with him quite a collection of stuffed birds, eight of which had never before been documented by the English, beasts and fishes as well several indigenous artifacts such as toys, clothes, and utensils (Rich).  His keen sense of observation helped him establish some semblance of understanding and order within his mind, although not without European bias.  This can be observed in his keen description of the Indigenous people’s canoes which he describes in some detail, even to the point of giving measurements.  However, these observations are made with a Eurocentric sentiment in that even with all of Isham’s praise for these canoes, they were “not of strength or Bulk to Venture far out of Rivers […] being very weak and thin” (Isham 99).  Isham solved this problem and civilized the waterways by overseeing the building of the York Boat, the primary mode of transportation for the HBC, with early versions recorded operating out of Fort Albany by 1746 (York Boat).

            Isham’s pursuit of establishing some order and civility to life on Turtle Island extended not only to the natural world but also to the people that called Turtle Island home.  The Hudson Bay Company during the 17th and 18th centuries “was far more than just a fur-trade syndicate, it was, […] a ‘company-state’ – an independent, multi-institutional construction from which a certain type of sovereignty emanated in Rupert’s Land” (Cavanagh 48).  This means it was up to the HBC to “civilize” the people of Turtle Island.  As Governor of both Prince of Wales and York forts throughout his life, Isham made sure that he would oversee the process of civilizing.  The HBC cemented its power as an overarching authority and attained the allegiance of both the home guard and some of the Indigenous nations that traded with it (Cavanagh 44).  Isham recorded a conversation with an Ukemaw, the chief in charge of trade, who came to trade with the HBC. The Ukemaw stated, “We come a Long way to See you, the [French] sends for us but we will not here, we Love the English […]” (Isham 105).  During these trade negotiations, the nations this chief represented pledged their allegiance to the HBC by stating that they could have gone to the French to trade but chose to travel out of their way to trade specifically with the English.  Once again, one can see the sovereignty that the HBC held over the nations of the Hudson Bay as the Chief seeks approval from the chief factor to go to war.  The chief factor “[persuades] them from it as much as possible, and Desires them to make peace […]” (Isham 108).  Isham details for the London Committee how to deal with the indigenous population if they become obstinate with “a Little correction, then [sweetening] makes them pliant” (103).  In his dealings with the local peoples on Turtle Island, Isham distinguished between Indigenous peoples belonging to the HBC and those who came yearly (Cavanagh 45).  Written accounts of how to get the nations around Hudson Bay to adhere to the will of the HBC and distinguishing between peoples who belong to the HBC and those who do not are explicit declarations by Isham of civilizing the Hudson Bay area to a more English way of understanding and interaction.

            Around the same time when James Isham was asserting English civility on Turtle Island, a man named Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye was asserting French civility in the Hudson Bay watershed area.  Isham was very concerned with the French, hoping that establishing trading posts in the interior “might with god’s will, be able to roat [root] the French out of that small Settlement they have at the [G]reat Lake [Lake Winnipeg]” (Isham 100).  These French settlements west of Lake Superior that concerned Isham so much were established in the area by La Vérendrye and his sons.  Pierre Gaultier de La Vérendrye was a first-generation Canadien born in 1685 at Trois-Rivières to René Gaultier and Marie Boucher (Zoltvany).  Pierre was the youngest of thirteen siblings.  He received a little formal education at a seminary in Quebec and a cadet’s commission in the colonial regular troops in 1696 (Zoltvany).  In 1709 La Vérendrye was seriously wounded and taken prisoner in battle.  The subsequent year he was promoted to lieutenant, which was a costly promotion, prompting him to request to be sent back to Quebec (Zoltvany).  In 1728 La Vérendrye succeeded his brother as commandant of the fur-trading area north of Lake Superior, taking up the career of an explorer seeking a passage to the western sea (Warkentin 80).

            La Vérendrye had a very different impact on the North.  He was an excellent Frenchman and very dedicated to the French crown, and this has come out in the way that La Vérendrye placed his mark on the civilization of Turtle Island.  In the spring of 1732, La Vérendrye built and established Fort Saint-Charles, on Lake of the Woods, as his base of operations (Zoltvany).  Nevertheless, it is not this fort that he was most noteworthy.  Instead, it was for establishing a fort at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers (Sapoznik 22).  La Vérendrye’s legacy is of being a bold, heroic symbol of the early French presence in North America which has had a significant impact on what is known today as the Province of Manitoba (Sapoznik 30-31). 

            In his interactions with the Indigenous nations, La Vérendrye continually sought to unite them underneath the French crown.  He continually told them, “[T]here was only one great chief among them, whose mouthpiece [he] was and whom all the others obeyed” (La Vérendrye 85).  He would give the chiefs French flags as gifts claiming “that the flags were for all to rally under and declare themselves henceforth children of the French and not the English” (La Vérendrye 86).  In La Vérendrye’s mind, the French occupied a significant position of importance in the Indigenous political sphere (Berthelette, “Frères” 176).  It is through the establishment of trading posts attempting to take possession of massive swaths of Turtle Island in the name of the French Crown that La Vérendrye began his campaign of civilizing the North into a French nation (Berthelette, “Frères” 180).

            This form of civilizing has had a significant impact on Turtle Island, and by establishing trading posts around the Lake Winnipeg basin, La Vérendrye opened the area to the employment of the Voyageur and the Coureurs de Bois.  “While La Vérendrye and his sons searched in vain for the western sea and struggled to prevent the Native peoples from trading with the HBC, [these] Canadiens laid a foundation for a culturally hybrid French-Indigenous social world” (Berthelette, “Ambivalent” 153- 154).  This culturally hybrid French-Indigenous social world has given birth to what is known today as the Métis Nation, with strong ties to both the French-Catholic and the Indigenous worldviews.

            La Vérendrye was not the perfect Frenchman that history had made him out to be.  He was struggling financially even though his trading posts diverted a significant amount of trade from the HBC to the French, producing over half of the total fur trade crop (Zoltvany).  This financial need, driven by the dislike of La Vérendrye by Maurepas, the minister of Marine, caused La Vérendrye to seek his fortunes in the slave trade (Zoltvany).  The exchange of enslaved people and war captives by the Cree-Monsoni-Assiniboine confederacy played an essential part in Native culture.  These exchanges were a symbolically powerful gesture used to define the parameters of alliances (Berthelette, “Frères” 195).  La Vérendrye, in establishing these alliances, dived into the slave trade, which was legal within New France (Berthelette, “Frères” 195).  For impoverished La Vérendrye, the slave trade provided a very lucrative alternative. However, it also threatened the tenuous stability of the region as many of the enslaved people being sold were Dakotas, France’s indigenous allies (Berthelette, “Frères” 196-197). 

            La Vérendrye’s obsession with finding the western sea opened the Lake Winnipeg water basin to French trade.  La Vérendrye and his sons established many trading posts throughout the region, attempting to tie the peoples of the area to the French crown, pushing French worldviews and sovereignty on the Indigenous nations of the area.  In many cases, these strings to the “great father” (La Vérendrye 85) were nothing more than ideologies held by La Vérendrye and those sitting in Montréal.  The greed of Maurepas wanting ties to the lucrative fur trade in the region drove La Vérendrye to seek his fortunes in the slave trade, asserting a European view of slavery on an Indigenous spiritually significant act, changing symbols of life and alliance into rituals of humiliation and torture (Berthelette, “Frères” 196).

            Pierre Gaultier de La Vérendrye and James Isham both endeavoured to “civilize” the North around the same time and in similar geographical areas.  La Vérendrye undertook to establish sovereignty for the French crown on the Indigenous Nations of The North.  James Isham established his control over the land, attempting to bend the untameable land to his and essentially to the HBC’s will.  Through the domination of the land James Isham extended the sovereignty of the HBC, not the English Crown, to all those who also resided on the land, people, flora, and fauna.  La Vérendrye, on the other hand, focused not on the land itself but the people who called Turtle Island home, declaring that they had “Frenchmen among them and that the French would never abandon them” (La Vérendrye 94).  The relationships that La Vérendrye sought to establish between the Indigenous and the French peoples that moved into the area due to the establishment of trading posts have had lasting impacts on the ‘enlightenment’ of the North.  In the same way, Isham’s pursuit of taming the untameable land of the North has had lasting impacts through the development of the York Boat and the retaining wall that stopped the erosion of York Fort.  Both men attempted to “civilize” the North in the 18th century which has had lasting impacts on Turtle Island to this day.

Works Cited

Berthelette, Scott “Frères et Enfants Du Même Père.” Early American Studies, An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 14, no. 1, Jan. 2016, pp. 174–98. EBSCOhost, discovery.ebsco.com/linkprocessor/plink?id=52a8f686-ee2b-3333-b85d-e8a233a3cd8c.

Heirs of an Ambivalent Empire: French- Indigenous Relations and the Rise of the Métis in the Hudson Bay Watershed.  McGill-Queens University Press, 2022.

Cavanagh, Edward. “A Company with Sovereignty and Subjects of Its Own? The Case of the Hudson’s Bay Company, 1670-1763.” Canadian Journal of Law & Society/Revue Canadienne Droit et Societe (University of Toronto Press), vol. 26, no. 1, June 2011, pp. 25–50. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.3138/cjls.26.1.025.

Hyde, Keith. ENG 2300: Images of The North. 6 Jan. 2023, University of the North. Class lecture.

Rich, E. E. “Isham, James,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 1974, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/isham_james_3E.html. Accessed March 1, 2023

Sapoznik, Karlee. “Where the Historiography Falls Short: La Vérendrye through the Lens of Gender, Race and Slavery in Early French Canada, 1731-1749.” Manitoba History, no. 62, Dec. 2009, pp. 22–32. EBSCOhost, discovery.ebsco.com/linkprocessor/plink?id=cfdecb0d-0bc0-3d3f-a92e-edfca3bdbb60.

Stephen, Scott. “James Isham (C1716-1761): How an Eighteenth-Century Fur Trader Is Influencing Canada Today.” Manitoba History, no. 67, Feb. 2012, pp. 44–46. EBSCOhost, discovery.ebsco.com/linkprocessor/plink?id=6aaef714-3fcd-335e-ae51-02dea6b94eee.

Warkentin, Germaine, editor. Canadian Exploration Literature: An Anthology. Dundurn Press, 2006

Weir, Robert Stanley. “O Canada.”  Representative Poetry Online, 2006, https://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/content/o-canada

“York Boat.” Hudson’s Bay Company History Foundation, 2016, https://www.hbcheritage.ca/things/technology/the-york-boat

Zoltvany, Yves F. “Gaultier de Varennes et de la Vérendrye, Pierre (Boumois).” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 1974,  http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gaultier_de_varennes_et_de_la_verendrye_pierre_3E.html. Accessed March 1, 2023.

Author Bio:

Andy Jeske graduated from Briercrest College in 2006 with a BA of Intercultural Studies and TESOL.  He has traveled around the world teaching English as a Second Language before landing in The Pas MB in 2016 where his wife was practicing Occupational Therapy.  After spending some time on the east coast of Africa where both he and his wife worked for a non-governmental organization (NGO), they came back to Canada at the beginning of COVIDIt was in 2021 that Andy decided to enroll at UCN and work towards a Bachelor of Education.

Photo taken at The Leaf, Winnipeg MB April 2023

Instructor’s Remarks:

Images of the North 1 (ANS/ENG/HIS 2300) traces the unfolding impressions and understanding of the North in what is now Canada through letters and journals written by famous explorers and fur trade employees such as Jacques Cartier, Henry Kelsey, and David Thompson.  While traditional Indigenous perspectives view the northland in terms of fullness—the presence of life, beauty, people, ceremony, animals, etc.— many European colonists regarded the north in terms of emptiness— the absence of familiar Western technologies, religion, knowledge, and cultures.   In this essay, Andy examines the Western drive to ‘civilize’ the northern wilderness and her people as reflected in the 18th-century journals of Hudson’s Bay Company employee James Isham and French explorer Pierre Gaultier de la Varennes de la Vérendrye.  In my feedback to Andy, I pointed out how both men’s approaches to ‘civilizing’ the North hinged on their geographical proximity to their home base.  Isham was better positioned to rely on the knowledge and resources of carpenters and tradesmen while living on Hudson Bay—the headquarters of the HBC.  By contrast, La Vérendrye laboured thousands of km west of the French colony of New France, requiring him to rely more on cultivating relationships and new political allegiances with Indigenous allies.  By presenting his main points in the order listed in his clear thesis statement, Andy’s well-researched argument comes across more clearly to the reader.  When creating a ‘thought trail’ for the reader through a dense research ‘forest’, I advised him to clear the pathway of extraneous yet fascinating background details that may block the view of this superb research paper. (Dr. Keith Hyde) 

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