"CONDUCTING A TRADING POST FARTHEST NORTH - A LIFE THAT GETS INTO THE BLOOD OF A MAN"
The following is a transcription of the final article Cleveland wrote (with writer Minna Littmann) for the New Bedford Sunday Times during his year’s leave of absence from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1923-4.
See my notes at the end.
[From the New Bedford Sunday Standard, May 18, 1924:]
CONDUCTING A TRADING POST FARTHEST NORTH - A LIFE THAT GETS INTO THE BLOOD OF A MAN
There’s always Activity About Station and Eskimos to Be Entertained - Polar Bear Cubs for Pets
Captain George G. Cleveland, Vineyard whaleman and Arctic trader, has told the story of his adventures in the far north to Minna Littmann of The Standard staff. The final story, presented herewith, is entitled:
Farthest North at Trading Post
Six years ago I established for the Hudson Bay Company the farthest north outpost of civilization between Greenland and Herschel Island, a trading post at Repulse Bay, 17 miles within the Arctic Circle, and have since been manager there. There is no traveled road between my northern home and white men’s country. During ten months the sea route to it is closed by ice, and the only approach is a journey of more than 2,000 miles overland from Montreal.
Seven wooden buildings clustered on the rocky shore of Repulse Bay make up the establishment. Plain to the point of homeliness, they are gilded palaces by comparison with my pioneer shack of 30 years ago at Wager Bay. They represent comfort, security and commercial organization undreamed of for the Arctic at that time.
In summer the little settlement, fringed by skin tents belonging to the Eskimos, may be seen for miles. It is the more conspicuous for the miniature trading fleet that enlivens the bay - a 107 ton power schooner, a large sailing vessel, and a number of smaller boats.
In winter only wreaths of smoke and vapor mark the spot from its surroundings. The boats are frozen fast and blanketed in white, scarcely distinguishable from the ice that piles up on shore. A bit of a ridge-pole here and there, a few exposed gable ends and chimneys thrust above high drifts of snow, reveal the whereabouts of the houses. Tunnels inside the drifts connect the buildings with each other and the outside world and admit light to the windows. Steps carved out of the snow lead up to the surrounding level. The rounded domes of snow huts are visible for a few days after they are built. Soon the wind whirls the snow against them and over them, until only the vapor rising from the ventilation hole in the top reveals their whereabouts.
The largest of the roofs jutting from the snow is my house, a six room dwelling. A smaller roof marks the house of my clerk, the only other white man at the post. Two chimneys close together rise from the separate quarters of my Eskimo assistants, Keedluk and Kayah, and their families. Beyond is the fur storehouse. The store, guaranteed to be the largest and most completely stocked emporium in Repulse Bay, houses a variety of articles from sewing machines to stick candy, that would put an old fashioned country store to shame. The “blubber shed” which holds the meat supplies for men and dogs, completes the outfit.
Doing Business in the Arctic
There is always activity about the post. The snow is criss-crossed by the marks of many sled runners, tracked by the feet of dogs and the prints of fur boots. Muffled figures crossing from one tunnel entrance to another, dogs crouching beside sleds, little boys, heavily hooded and mittened, shouting with laughter and excitement as they practice the use of their long dog whips, defy the bitter cold.
The activity outside is far outdone by the busy life within. The wheeze of accordions, the strains of popular songs, best sellers of five years ago, and dance music played by phonographs, mingled with shouts of hearty laughter, would greet the ear of anyone so reckless as to uncover the organ and listen at the door. Business is very largely combined with pleasure and hospitality at Repulse bay; the old whalers started the custom of feasting and entertaining the Eskimos to encourage trade, and this humane as well as practical course has never been abandoned. Although the Eskimos have developed a great liking for the things the white man sells them, and a dependence upon white man’s ammunition, the social incidentals of trading stimulated their zeal in hunting and trapping. The sounds that float from my kitchen, or out of the fur house on the three nights a week we hold our barn dances, tell the sky and stars that I am the most popular entertainer as well as the leading business man of Repulse Bay.
Come Hundreds of Miles
Among the Eskimos who arrive daily at the post are some who have come hundreds of miles, like the Natilicks from King William’s land. They make the journey once a year, with wives and children and all their household goods, prepared to settle down anywhere on the way for a period of hunting, and they travel far without stopping to eat or drink. My first consideration is their inner man. As they troop into my gloriously warm kitchen, doffing their hoods politely as I have taught them, I ring for Towdlechuk, wife of Keedluk, and Fatty, Kayah’s wife, to serve food to my guests. Certainly we have electric bells and maids at Repulse Bay! My visitors take off their heavy outer furs. The children squabble happily on the floor over the toys I provide, interrupting to stroke my pet polar bear cubs which tag doglike at my heels, or to admire the antics of my Arctic squirrel, Sik-Sik. A great drinking festival ensues, with 100 per cent ice water and hot tea as the strongest beverages. Quart dippers and mugs are filled and refilled. Ordinary tea cups and glasses are tantalizingly small for a thirsty Eskimo, who makes up for long abstinence when he has a chance. Towdlechuk and Fatty pass around ship biscuit and salt meat until everyone is satisfied. Three meals are allowed by the company to every Eskimo family that comes in to trade.
When my guests announce that they are ready to do business we muffle ourselves in outdoor furs and travel the snow tunnel to the store, which is kept unheated lest freezing and thawing damage the goods. While wife and kiddies feast their eyes and exclaim over the articles exposed to view, the man opens his caribou skin bag and throws wads of skins on the counter, each pelt jammed tightly into the head of the animal. Some are frozen into solid balls, and I must take the word of the Eskimo as to the condition of the fur. There is no bargaining; the price of every sort of skin is set by the company. Their value is calculated in a unit called the skein, the equivalent of 50 cents. A prime blue fox would bring 30 skeins; ermine are two for a skein. Mica, walrus tusks, and new Eskimo boots, gloves, and clothing which the company buys for its employees at other posts, also have an exchange value. I tell my friend the total amount of his credit; Keedluk and Kayah take the skins away to the fur house to clean and stretch them before hanging them up to dry, and the trade begins.
Eskimo Bargain Sales
The first purchases are ammunition, tobacco for the whole family, and matches. After these necessities, the selection may be quite practical or most astonishing. I have known Eskimos to buy one of every kind of timepiece I had, from alarm clocks to watches. They prize them as decorations, and delight in their cheery ticking as each goes its own gait regardless of the hour on a board shelf jammed in the snow wall of the igloo. The women frequently buy one of every kind of pan I have in stock. Plaid shirts, musical instruments, dolls, talking machines, candy, molasses to be eaten on the spot with the fingers, are supplied on demand.
No matter how much an Eskimo might buy, he never exhausts his wants. His wandering life is very destructive to his household goods. If he has a far journey to make, he will cache his victrola, his clocks and pans, and the children’s toys beneath some rock pile, and as likely as not never pass that way again. The whole country is full of such abandoned caches.
Exceptionally good hunters have credit accounts, established by turning in more than they trade out. I even fill “mail orders” from Eskimos brought in by their friends on slips of paper in character writing devised years ago by a missionary. The Eskimos have taught the system to each other, and it is generally known that the Eskimo “No Smoking” signs which are posted in my store as a fire precaution get their message over without fail.
Then for a Concert
After a session at the store we adjourn to the kitchen for a talking machine concert. The Eskimos’ faces reflect every mood of the music. They reproduce on their accordions the melodies they have just heard. They sit wide-eyed while I give illustrated lectures in Eskimo, using stereopticon slides sent out by the agricultural department of the Canadian government, and they go off into roars of laughter when I come to slides I have made from photographs of themselves. On dance nights the women put dresses on over their furs, and everybody for miles around gathers in the drying room of the fur house. Gasoline lamps hung on the walls dispel the shadows, the drying furs are the decorations, music is furnished by phonographs, and the good old square dances of the United States, taught years ago by the whalers, go on endlessly. I used to call out the figures, but the Eskimos know them so well now that they don’t wait for me. They can never get enough of dancing.
A favorite outdoor amusement is the Eskimo version of football, which has only one rule: kick when you get a chance. When the bay is frozen we play baseball on the ice, according to rules - almost. The decisions of the umpire are never disputed. The Eskimos delight in coasting, but that is a sport I only watch. They sit on a seal hide, smooth side down, the front end turned up over their feet, and shoot over the slopes. On moonlight nights we play an Arctic version of hide-and-seek, called wolf, among the rocks and buildings at the post. I get additional exercise by going gunning and making a daily round of my traps, which is very profitable recreation when you can catch 42 white foxes and sell them at $3000, as I did last year.
My indoors affairs help fill the days to bursting. Inside my snug house - the walls are ten layers thick, alternately wood and felt, and the windows have three sashes of glass hung six inches apart to keep out the cold - my clerk and I consume three square meals a day and as many lesser ones, for it takes much white man’s food to supply the energy needed in that 65 below zero country. I do the cooking, preferring my own standards of cleanliness to those of the most well-intentioned Eskimo. Saturday morning is likely to find me, like my New England mother and grandmother, turning out great batches of bread and pie, which are kept frozen until wanted, and for two weeks before Christmas I stand over the range steaming plum puddings for the annual feast at which 70 to 80 families are entertained.
Easy to Escape Loneliness
For ourselves, my larder supplies almost everything civilized stores afford except fresh vegetables and fruit. True, we eat caribou and seal instead of lamb and chicken, but we have fresh roast pig at Christmas imported all the way from Montreal on the hoof and fed at the post for months. We have potatoes and oranges every fall after my ship comes in. We have fresh and storage eggs - laid by Arctic eider ducks - and I even make ice cream.
Keeping accounts, making out reports, and investigating to discover cases of want among the Eskimos which require relief are part of my regular routine. Eskimos would starve to death rather than ask aid for themselves. I give lessons daily to Keedluk’s youngest son, Wanalack, who is as bright a seven year old as one could wish to find anywhere. He already reads and speaks English nicely. Some day he will be an invaluable assistant and interpreter at the post. On Sunday trading and work not absolutely necessary cease, and my clerk and I do our devotional reading silently. We never talk religion to the Eskimos. They are faithful to their own fine moral code, and too elementary minded to be intelligently converted to any other. I believe in letting well enough alone.
My pets are endless diversion to me when I tire of reading. The three polar bears are as playful and well-behaved as dogs. So were the foolish little foxes who preceded them and ate themselves to death on a bucket of paste I left exposed. But I rarely tire of reading. At nine I send all my visitors out of the house and go to bed for five uninterrupted hours of reading. I take from my file of newspapers - a year old, of course, for I get my mail but once a year - the copies corresponding to the day of the month and post myself on what happened 12 months ago in the world I’ve left behind. Then I plunge into my books on navigation, or my library of novels. We have a circulating library among the fifteen Hudson Bay posts. The company sends me new books each year, including such as I have selected from the annual catalogs, and I return them when I go south in the summer.
Entertains House Guests
Occasionally I entertain house guests. The famous Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen, and his assistant Dr. Smith, were with me the last two winters, making my place headquarters for their ethnological expedition. My two guest rooms are at the disposal of the Canadian Mounted Police on their brief twice-yearly visits, made to see that all is well with His Majesty’s subjects, the Eskimos, and that no one is violating the strict Canadian prohibition laws, which have saved the Eskimos from the ruin that overtook the Canadian Indians as the result of white men’s firewater. I was able to entertain two airmen who lost their way flying over the Mackenzie River and flopped down with their planes at Repulse Bay to the astonishment of us all. In honor of the Danes the Company sent me in real china, silver and table linen. My guests, who had been living in igloos with the Greenland Eskimos, shook with mirth when I offer to get the stuff out of them, and voted in favor of the linoleum-covered kitchen and the heavy everyday dishes and bone and steel cutlery. There are really no facilities for laundering Irish linen at Repulse Bay, even though Keedluk and Kayah and their wives do my personal laundry and the other chores of the place.
I am absent from my comfortable post three to four months of every year, for I journey in January “to the mail box” at Chesterfield Inlet, 600 miles south overland, and in July 1200 miles south by power schooner to Churchill, where I meet the district manager of the Company. The Company requires quarterly reports from its other posts, but in deference to the distance I have to travel they are satisfied with only two a year from me.
On my winter trip I take to Chesterfield letters and small packages destined for the States, together with my reports and my yearly order for goods and supplies. Keedluk and another Eskimo accompany me, with two sleds and 20 dogs carrying a month’s supplies for the three of us. Depending on weather conditions, it requires two to four weeks to cover the distance one way.
Travels 600 Miles for Mail
Though money and enterprise have transformed living conditions at Repulse Bay to approximately the comfort of civilization, that annual January trip, made on foot in the bitterest part of the winter, is as vigorous and primitive as any adventure of the old whaling days. The country is trackless. Compasses are without value because of the nearness of the magnetic pole. Our only guide is the piled up ice which marks the edge of the inlets and tells us that to the left is frozen water, to the right land, as we journey south. Innumerable hills break the bleak waste. They lengthen our journey. The dogs cannot draw the sleds over the summits, swept bare by the constant winds. We must skirt them and keep to the snow filled levels. When blizzards overtake us, as they often do, we have no choice but to halt where we are and wait until the storm is over. If luck is with us and we have had sufficient warning, we may have a snow dugout or igloo in which to weather the blizzard. If not, we huddle together in our tracks, moving no more than a step or two in any direction, lest we wander blindly inland or seaward and lose our bearings irretrievably.
Where we strike a stretch of smooth and level ice we may ride a few miles, but at least 500 of the 600 miles are made on foot. We have no breath to waste in speech. Silent except for a cry now and then to the dogs, we thud along at a steady trot hour after hour. Two of us on the opposite sides of the forward sled cling to the steering bar, guiding the sled as it approaches an obstacle and receiving a support from it which enables us to keep our pace. The man behind follows closely, able to steer his sled unaided because our course shows him how to hold the levels.
Daylight is so short and so precious that we do not stop to eat or prepare food until darkness falls and we have made camp for the night. It is a long job to start a fire going and heat anything in the open at 65 below. When the one meal of the day is finally ready we do ample justice to it. Filled, we strip and climb into our sleeping bags in the shelter of a tiny snow hut, if snow is available to build one. If there is no snow, we nestle under the lee of a cliff or a rock where we sleep like the dead, snug in our furs and caribou bags with thickly fringed hoods.
At Chesterfield, the goal of that midwinter journey, is a Hudson Bay post like the one we have left behind, on a larger scale. In summer a company ship from Montreal stores its great warehouse with goods, and lands supplies there for the Baker Lake post at the western extremity of Chesterfield Inlet and for Repulse Bay. A physician arrives to look over anyone of the company’s employees who wishes it. From Chesterfield, Eskimos relay mail to Fort Churchill by dog team; other Eskimos take it the next lap from Churchill to York. Cree Indian runners carry it on to La Pas, Manitoba, the nearest post office.
We stop at Chesterfield in winter just long enough to warm ourselves through and snatch a little rest, two or three days at most. We load on our sleds besides supplies for the return journey only articles urgently needed, such as spare parts for boats which will be required at the beginning of the open water season. Having dropped our mail in the box, as it were, we foot it back as we came.
Cleveland to Return Soon
The real freight trip is made in July and August. The year’s catch of furs are taken from the storehouse, where they have been carefully guarded against smoke or dust which might mar their snowy whiteness and stowed aboard the schooner. The collections of walrus ivory, mica, and Eskimo garments are packed in beside them. With a sizeable Eskimo crew aboard, the boat ploughs south at a speed that mocks our slow pace on the inter trip. Built to breast the lee, it makes the journey in two days and a night if the channel is reasonably clear. Under adverse conditions it has taken us three weeks to crawl the distance through thick floes. We unload at Chesterfield and await the arrival of the ship from Montreal. When it comes, we draw up alongside and take on the year’s supplies for Baker Lake, working with a will, for the summer is short and we have much to do before we can go home. The Baker Lake manager returns with us, at Chesterfield we pick up the post manager there, and hurry south as a passenger boat to Churchill to transact our business. In a week, if we have luck, we are back again to drop the two managers at Chesterfield and take on my precious load, the Christmas pig, new readers for Wanalack, endless bags of coal that cost $40 a ton by the time they reach Repulse Bay, bright plaid woolens for the Eskimos’ summer wear, paint and ropes and tar, barrels and cases of every sort of commodity, and the bundles weighing like lead which contain my chief link with the world, the year’s newspapers.
My boat will be waiting at Chesterfield for just such a load when the company ship from Montreal takes me north again as its passenger this summer. I will take over the command from my clerk and direct our course back to Repulse Bay, to bury myself for eight or ten years longer in the Arctic, a more than willing exile.
Questions and Comments:
Who was Cleveland’s clerk during 1919-1923, the “only other white man at the post“?
Does anyone know anything about Cleveland’s assistant, Kayah? And what is the Inuit name for Kayah’s wife “Fatty” who has been identified in other books as one of Cleveland’s wives?
Who was Keedluk’s youngest son, Wanalack (born about 1916), of whom Cleveland was so proud?
The “prime blue fox” skins which Cleveland would pay an Inuit hunter $15 for, and which he boasted getting $71 for in 1923 (on average; he said he sold forty-two for $3000), were selling at auction in New York City for up to $350 each in 1919, an enormous sum to the average American working family at that time.
Which vessel was his annual supply ship?
The airplanes may have been the two owned by Imperial Oil Company of Canada, sent out on “wildcat” oil expeditions in 1921, flying from Edmonton with drilling equipment to search for new oil fields, following up on the discovery of a major oil deposit in the MacKenzie River valley the year before.