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November 25 , 2009

South from Hudson Bay (Illustrated)


Before Walter Rossel was wholly awake, even before he opened his eyes, he realized that the ship was unusually quiet. There was only a slight rolling motion from side to side, a dead roll. Was she caught in the ice again, or had she reached Fort York at last? Could it be that the long voyage was really over? Walter hurried into the few clothes he had taken off, and ran up on deck, hoping to see land close by.

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He was disappointed. He could see nothing but gray water, a line of white where waves were breaking on a long bar, and the dim, shadowy forms of the other ships, hulls, masts, and spars veiled in dense fog. There was no ice in sight, yet all three vessels were riding at anchor.

Eagerly the boy turned to a sailor who was scrubbing the deck. Walter’s native tongue was French, but he had picked up a little English during the voyage, enough to ask why the ships were at anchor, and to understand part of the man’s reply. They had crossed the bar in the night, the sailor said, and were lying in the shallow water of York Flats. Over there to the south, hidden in the fog, was the shore.


The news that they had arrived off Fort York spread rapidly among the passengers on the Lord Wellington. Men, women, and children crowded on deck, gazed into the fog, questioned one another and the sailors in French, German, and broken English, and talked and laughed excitedly. A little boy of seven and his older sister, a bright-faced girl of thirteen with hazel eyes and heavy braids of brown hair, joined Walter and poured out eager questions.

“They say we are at the end of our voyage,” cried the girl, “but where is the land?”

Walter pointed to the south. “We’ll see it when the fog lifts. Does your father know we are almost at Fort York?”

“Yes, he is coming on deck. There he is now.”

A middle aged man, thin and somewhat stooped, was coming towards them, his pale face smiling and eager. “Well, my boy,” he greeted Walter, “this is good news indeed. We shall soon be settled on our own farm. Think of that, children, our own farm, a far larger one than we could ever dream of having in Switzerland.”

“Yes, Monsieur Perier,” replied Walter, “the voyage is almost over, and——”

“Look, Walter,” Elise interrupted. “The fog is thinner. See how red it is in the east. And look at that dark line, like a shadow. Can that be the shore?”


The fog was certainly thinning. A wider stretch of water had become visible, and the outlines of the other ships were clearer. Though steam power was coming into use for river navigation on both sides of the Atlantic, there were no ocean-going steamships in 1821. The Lord Wellington, the Prince of Wales, and the Eddystone were sailing vessels, sturdily built craft with extra heavy oak sheathing and iron-plated bows, suitable for cruising ice-strewn, northern waters. That all three had been in contact with the ice, their scraped and battered hulls betrayed. From each mizzen peak fluttered the British red ensign, and the mainmast head bore a flag with a red cross and the letters H. B. C., the flag of the Hudson Bay Company.

The immigrants aboard the Lord Wellington wasted scarcely a glance on the other ships. It was the land they were interested in. As the rising sun drank up the fog, and the shore line grew clearer, the eager faces of Elise and Walter sobered with disappointment. A most unattractive shore was revealed. It was low, swampy, sparsely clad with stunted trees, a desolate land without sign of human dwelling. Fort York could not be seen. It was fifteen or twenty miles in the interior, on the Hayes River.

Unpromising as the land appeared, it was land nevertheless, and everyone longed to set foot upon it. To the one hundred and sixty Swiss immigrants, the voyage had seemed endless. On May 30 they had sailed from Dordrecht in Holland. Now it was the last of August. For nearly three months they had been on shipboard. Delayed by stormy weather and crowding ice, they had spent a whole month navigating Hudson Straits and Bay. Luckily for them they did not realize what a long and toilsome way they had yet to travel before they reached their destination, the Selkirk Colony on the Red River of the North.


Though many of the new colonists looked thin, worn, and even ill from the hardships of the long voyage, they appeared to be neat, self-respecting folk, intelligent and fairly well to do. Some wore the peasant dress of their native cantons, but the majority were townspeople,—shopkeepers and skilled workmen. Mr. Perier was a chemist and apothecary.

Walter Rossel had not one blood relation in the whole company, but he considered himself one of the Perier family. For the past two years, as an apprentice in Mr. Perier’s shop, he had lived with them. When his master had decided to emigrate, he had offered to either release Walter from his apprenticeship or take the boy with him. Walter had decided quickly, and his father and stepmother had given their consent.

The Periers and Walter had breakfasted, packed their personal belongings, and were on deck again, when a small, open sailboat came in sight from the direction of the shore. It headed for the Eddystone and disappeared on the other side of that ship. Presently it reappeared, visited the Prince of Wales, and finally came on to the Lord Wellington.

As the little boat drew close, Elise, Walter, and Max looked curiously down on the crew of sun-tanned, bearded men, strangely dressed in hooded coats of bright blue or of white blanketing, bound about the waists with colorful silk or woolen sashes. The man in command came aboard, climbing the ladder up the side. He was broad shouldered and strongly built, with reddish hair, bristly beard, and skin burned red-brown. With his blue coat and bright red sash, he wore buckskin trousers fringed at the seams, and the queerest footgear Walter had ever seen, slipper-like, heel-less shoes of soft leather embroidered in colors. They were Indian moccasins ornamented with dyed porcupine quills.


After glancing about him and inclining his head slightly in a general greeting, the newcomer shook hands with the Master of the ship and with Captain Mai, the man in charge of the Swiss immigrants, who had hurried forward to greet him. He went below with them, but remained only a few minutes.

As soon as the red-haired man was overside again, the Swiss crowded around their conductor to ask when they were to go ashore. Captain Mai pointed to the other ships. Their sails were up and they were getting under way.

“A pilot has just gone aboard the Eddystone,” he said. “We are to follow her.”

Even before Captain Mai had finished speaking, the Lord Wellington was waking to activity. The anchors came up, the sails were set, and caught the breeze. In a few moments the immigrant vessel was following the supply ships towards the mouth of the Hayes River.


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