If you give an Indian something, give him the best you have,
he will always give you his best!
— Jim Watt
Note: One of the most memorable events for Rod Cox and Dan Carpenter Sr.'s
1939 Keewaydin trip to Hudson Bay was their visit to Rupert's House, the first Hudson's Bay
Company (HBC) post site, located at the mouth of the Rupert River on James Bay.
They often reminded me about the extraordinary hospitality of the post's
factor, Jim Watt, and his wife, Maud. These were not run-of-the-mill
Company traders. They were legends.
The Scottish-born highlander, Jim Watt, held his first position as factor
for the HBC at Fort Chimo (today Kuujjuaq), a post on Ungava Bay near the mouth of the Koksoak River, in northern Quebec. That was 1915. The only contact or communication the Watts had with the rest of the world was the summer visit of the ocean-going supply ship Naskopie.
Maud, attractive and strong-willed, had an open-door policy, almost unheard of at HBC posts. No one who came to the door was turned away, aboriginal or not. In a land of scarcity and permafrost, tea and food and warmth were always available. In the lonely barrens, she offered companionship. Maud had a talent for drawing out the Cree, Montagnais, Inuit and Naskapi that found their way to Fort Chimo, and genuinely befriended people with whom she had little in common, including language. Her home became a busy place in a quiet corner of the Arctic.
Jim Watt, focusing on the fur trade, discovered upon arriving at Chimo that the Cree, Montagnais and Naskapi hunters were not coming down to the post from their hunting grounds in the boreal forest, 120 miles south of Fort Chimo. To reach these people he decided to create an inland post at the edge of the barrens.
This could not have been an easy decision. The remoteness that Chimo endured would be ratcheted up another couple of notches at the inland post. It would have to be entirely built from scratch. Besides small logs, whatever materials needed for construction and the provisions would have to come out of Chimo's stores and be moved to the site by dog sled in the winter and canoe in the summer. Like his wife, Watt did not shy away from a challenge. Watt established the new post near the confluence of the Caniapiscau and Swampy Bay rivers and named it Fort McKenzie. It succeeded in attracting hunters from the south and trade flourished.
1915 Watts arrive at Fort Chimo
1916 Fort McKenzie built
1918 First non-aboriginal overland crossing
between Ungava and St. Lawrence
1919 Jim Watt becomes factor at Rupert House
1922-29 Beaver almost disappear from Cree land and starvation rampant
1929 Watts purchase first live beaver
1930 First beaver preserve created
1938 Second preserve, Nottaway, created
1944 Jim Watt dies of influenza at Rupert House
In 1917, the Naskopie did not appear. This was not unexpected as the district manager had warned Watt the previous year that the war could disrupt its trips north. Unfortunately, with no communication, the Watts had no idea when there would be another ship. An alternative means of supply was desperately needed. Watt decided to explore for an overland route south to the St. Lawrence. This meant crossing over an area for which there were no settlements, no maps and little was known. Not to mention the high risk of starvation. Maud was determined to accompany him. "The difficulties of taking adequate supplies with us were so great that several times my husband talked of calling the trip off — on my account, of course — but I would not hear of such a thing," she wrote later. "I felt as good as any man."
Up to the last minute, the natives did not expect them to go. "They certainly gave us the impression they did not expect to see us again," Maud wrote. But these were not ordinary whites. In April 1918, they hitched several dogs to a tatilabinask — a sleigh used to carry a canoe — and loaded the canoe and supplies on top. They put on their snowshoes and headed south to Fort McKenzie. At the post they were met by several aboriginal families, also heading south, who had agreed to guide them. They too appeared not to have been expecting the Watts. From there the party of adults and children followed the Swampy Bay River. Frostbite threatened them daily, sometimes settling in.
They certainly gave us the impression they did not
expect to see us again.
On May 9, one month into their journey they reached Lake Petitsikapau in Labrador, the site of Fort Nascopi, an abandoned HBC post that had been supplied from Labrador. As their supplies ran lower, they found "country food" scarce. Hunger became a daily event. Remarkably, the aboriginals were more concerned with the Watt's starvation than they own, refusing food offered by the Watts but offering their own to them.
"Talk about the pathless forest!" Maud would writer later. "To us it did seem pathless, but to the Indians every hill and dale seemed to be as familiar as notable buildings are to city dwellers. Not once during the whole journey did we have to pause and consider which route we should take."
The party moved onto the Aswanipi River then crossed over into the St. Lawrence watershed. Several days before reaching the Moisie River the ice became thin and treacherous in the spring temperatures. Jim went through several times. Until the ice had sufficiently cleared they traveled on shore, tearing their clothes badly. Once the waters were open they abandoned the sleds and continued in their canoes. Travel went swiftly down the Moisie. After 55 days of walking and paddling they reached the St. Lawrence River, 800 miles from Fort Chimo.
of their remarkable journey spread quickly. Not only had they done the
seemingly impossible, but one of them was a woman, a shocking event at the
Decline of the Beaver
The Watts did not return to Chimo. Jim was appointed factor at Rupert House, the famed original HBC fort. When they arrived there in 1920, they continued to break the mold of a traditional factor and wife. Their door was open to everyone, native or white, Company people or visitors, workers or bosses. As with their home at Fort Chimo, this home became a stop for the natives during their seasonal visits to Rupert House.
Their arrival coincided with the decline of the beaver population and hence, the prosperity of the Cree and the profits of the Company from Rupert House. Prior to the arrival of the HBC in 1670, the Cree were completely self-reliant. Integrated into their hunter-gatherer way of life was a conservation ethic that protected the wildlife, their source of food and clothes. Once they were lured to trade furs with the HBC in return for European goods, the natives became part of a new economy and became interdependent with it. Trade became necessary to provide axes, guns, ammunition, blankets, flour, etc. all of which they came to rely on. For many Cree, working the canoe brigades in the summer brought them further into the HBC economy. The Cree no longer lived entirely from the land.
To us it did seem pathless, but to the Indians every hill and dale seemed to be as familiar as notable buildings are to city dwellers.
This new cycle of life continued for 250 years, until the boom in fur prices in the 1920s. In 1920, 2,000 beavers skins came into the post. White trappers moved north in search of the lucrative beaver fur, competing with the Cree on their own land, compelling the natives to increase their own trapping efforts. The near obliteration of the beaver resulted. In the winter of 1928 to 1929, only 4 beaver were brought in. Without beaver to trade, the Crees economy collapsed. Without beaver to hunt, people starved. That year Simon and Mary Katapaituks lost their 13 children to starvation and malnutrition.
Jim Watt had to overextend credit to the Cree so they could provide for themselves. Rupert House lost money for the Company. Watt risked losing his job for extending credit, so he sent pleas to his immediate superiors for help. They ignored him. He went over their heads to the Fur Trade Commissioner in Winnipeg. When this failed, he took what took the extraordinary step of sending a plea directly to the Governor in London. When word came back to the Commissioner in Winnipeg that he had gone over his head, the Commissioner reduced Watt's annual salary to $1,500!
The Watts did what they could to feed the Cree from their own food. They could not save everyone and Jim realized that the real solution was to save the beaver. In 1929, he decided to buy live beavers from the Cree with his and Maud's savings. He realized that for each pair of beaver he saved, there would ten in three years and 26 in five years.
For this conservation program to work, he needed the Cree support. They had to be willing to locate the beaver, sell them to him and protect them. When he talked to them they understood what he was doing. And he trusted them. But, the Cree pointed out, others would come in and trap the beaver. Jim needed control of the trapping.
The Watts, determined and naive, decided to ask the Quebec government for control of the beaver for the protection of the Cree. Creating a wildlife sanctuary for Native-Canadians had never been done, but this did not deter them. In the winter of 1930, it was decided that Maud as the French speaker of the two of them, she should be the one to go to Quebec City. She set out across the frozen Bay by dog sled with her two children, ages three and six, for Moose Factory with the temperature 50 degree F below zero. The fact that she was risking her own life and that of her children did not deter her. There were Cree dying. That was all there was to it. From there they continued south to the T&NO railway construction camp, then continued by train to Quebec.
She started with a prominent citizen whom she had met after the Watts' Ungava-St. Lawrence crossing. He knew the Deputy Minister of Colonization, Game and Fisheries and arranged a meeting. She convinced the deputy minister that a preserve was necessary for the protection of the Cree and that the Watts and the Cree could bring back the beaver. He in turn convinced the premier of Quebec to turn over control of all the beaver in the Rupert area for the protection of a group of Indians the province barely acknowledged, using an unproven concept of management. An administrator described Maud as having "the persuasiveness of the Angel Gabriel!"
That year Simon and Mary Katapaituks lost their 13 children to starvation and malnutrition.
The province created a 7,000-square-miles beaver preserve, containing all the land between the Eastmain and Rupert rivers, and between the Bay and Nemiscau.
Of course, the Company was furious with Jim Watt. They saw it as theft of their monopoly. They came to the edge of firing him but pulled back for fear that he would move to the competition. They did demand he turn over the preserve to the Company. Suspecting this reaction, the preserve had been set up in Maud's name, and out of the Company's reach, further infuriating the bureaucrats. However, later the Watts would turn over partial control when it became apparent that their savings would run out. By 1938, the beaver count reached 3,300. In 1940, the preserve was opened to controlled trapping.
A shock came in 1944 when Jim died of influenza at Rupert House. Fortunately, he had seen his dream come true.
And the Cree never forgot Jim. Under Maud's guidance a memorial recreation hall was constructed with their donations.
The Rupert House preserve was so successful that the federal government, Quebec government and HBC jointly set up ten more preserves by 1951. In total, all the Quebec preserves covered 187,000 square miles — an area larger than California. The situation for the Cree and the beaver was similar on the west side of the Bay and preserves were created there under the same model. In the 15,000-square-mile Attawapiskat preserve, only one beaver lodge was found so beaver had to be transplanted from other areas. The preserves on both sides of the Bay were managed by the local HBC post manager and maintained by local Cree. Traditional hunting territories and patterns were respected. In every case, the beaver came back and trapping was restored. In Ontario where the Cree had signed treaties, the results were mixed given the different political and cultural situation. For the Quebec Cree, the Watts had given them back their lives.
"Still in residence, still operating her bakery, and still enthusiastic about her Indians, the small ageless, white-haired woman represented a link with the past for compared to her tenure at the post, others were merely transients."
Heb Evans speaking of Maud during Keewaydin's visit in 1964.
Anderson, J. W., "Beaver Sanctuary," The Beaver. June, 1937, pp. 8-11.
Anderson, William Ashley, Angel of Hudson Bay: The True Story of Maud Watt. Toronto: Clarke Irwin, 1961.
Cummins, Bryan, Only God Can Own the Land: The Attawapiskat Cree, the land and the state in the 20th century. Cobalt, Ontario: Highway Book Shop, 1999.
Denmark, D. E., "James Bay Beaver Conservation," The Beaver. September, 1948, pp. 38-43.
Evans, G. Heberton, The Rupert That Was. Cobalt, Ontario: Highway Book Shop, 1978.
Watt, Maud, "Rupert's March of Time," The Beaver, June, 1938, pp. 22-26.
Watt, Mrs. J. S. C., "The Long Trail," The Beaver, March, 1943, pp. 46-50.
Watt, Mrs. J. S. C., "The Long Trail-II," The Beaver, June, 1943, pp. 16-20.
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