Friday, June 5, 2015

York Boats

Those acquainted with North American history and the fur trade have no doubt heard of the rivalry between the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) and the North West Company (Nor' Westers). But did you know that while the Nor' Wester French-Canadians were skilled canoe builders, the HBC was made up mostly of Orkney men and Scottish Highlanders who weren't familiar with the birch tree, let alone how to make a birch-bark canoe?

Voyageurs with Birch Bark Canoe Greeting First Nations man, ca 1891. Courtesy of Glenbow Archives.

Instead, the Orcadians working for the HBC built boats they were familiar with, ones that drew on their Norse heritage like this full-scale replica of a Viking long ship.

Full-scale replica of a Viking snekkja based in Morąg, Poland. Courtesy of and archiwum własne wikingów, Jarmeryk

Starting in 1749, the HBC built flat-bottomed York boats, 36-46 feet long, with pointed bows and angled sterns making beaching, launching and navigating the low inland waterways easier. The largest ones could carry up to 13,000 lbs of cargo. The boat was propelled by long, large oars which required the oarsmen to stand to push the oar forward and sit down to pull the stroke. When under sail, it was steered by a long steering pole or, when under sail, by a rudder. It had a crew of between six and eight men.

York Boats Under Sail, undated. Courtesy of Glenbow Archives.

The photo below shows the York boat being propelled by poling over shallow water areas like sand banks, etc. 

Klondikers poling a York boat up the Peace River, Alberta, ca 1899. Courtesy of Glenbow Archives.

With gold being discovered in the Klondike in 1896, and settlers wanting land for agricultural purposes, the Canadian government and the First Nations people signed Treaty No. 8 in 1899, with the last in the series being signed in 1914. In the following series of photographs, we see the interior of a York boat as shown by some of the participants of Treaty No. 8.

Mrs. C. West and Doctor Christopher H. West, some members of Treaty Party No. 8
 in a York Boat on the Peace River, 1903-1909. Courtesy of Glenbow Archives.

Daily ablutions were a necessary part of the journey and here in the next photograph you see how members carried out this task while still aboard the boat.

Doctor Christopher H. West having a wash on the side of a York boat on the Athabasca River, 
1903-1909. Courtesy of Glenbow Archives.

You can see the width of the York boat in this next photograph which also shows a steamer in action. I'm not sure who is pulling who, but it wasn't long after steamers started plying the same waterways that the era of York boats ended.

Treaty Party No. 8 crossing Great Slave Lake in a York Boat, 1903-1906.  Courtesy of Glenbow Archives.

Although a large boat, the angled bow and flat bottom enabled the York boat to be pulled onto shore with relative ease. 

Launching a York boat on to the Saskatchewan River at Prince Albert, ca 1907Courtesy of Glenbow Archives.

As well as the oars, each York boat was equipped with a mast and a tarpaulin. Placing the oars in a pyramid shape enabled the tarpaulin to be placed over them for ample shelter during bad weather. 

Hislop and Nagle Company York boat sheltering from heavy winds on Great Slave Lake between
Fort Resolution and Fort Rae, Northwest Territories. Courtesy of Glenbow Archives.

In 1920, the Hudson's Bay Company celebrated its 250th anniversary. In honour of the occasion, an HBC historical pageant was held in Winnipeg. Below you see the York boat re-enactment. The funny thing is, many are dressed in the costumes of the North West Company's voyageurs. Also, the Mountie looks out of place since the North West Mounted police weren't even formed until 1874 and it was many years before they adopted the Stetson as their head wear. But I'm sure it was a very lively and colourful event. 

York boat crew, Hudson's Bay Company historical pageant, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 3 May 1920. Courtesy of Glenbow Archives.

The York boat shown below in this 1932 photo was built in 1920. It was the last York boat ever constructed for transportation purposes.

Last York boat, built in 1920, shown at HBC post Norway House, Manitoba, 1932. 
Courtesy of Glenbow Archives.

Some historical societies like Fort Edmonton Park have built new York boats for educational purposes. Although Fort Edmonton Park's original York boat can no longer be put in the water, they are in the process of building a new York boat which, once constructed, will take to the waters all summer long like the old one did. 

The following York Boat Construction video from the Fort Edmonton Park website shows the pain-staking detail involved with adding that first steamed plank using original tools and means.

I'll leave you with this final image of a York boat brigade crossing a Manitoba lake enroute to the HBC post at Norway House, Manitoba. Square-rigged sails blowing across a Canadian lake on Orcadian York boats modeled after a Viking long ship. You gotta love history.

York boat brigade under sail on Split Lake en route to HBC fort Norway House, Manitoba, 1906-1909. Courtesy of Glenbow Archives.

Fort Edmonton Park was asking for volunteers to help with the York boat construction - costume not required, nor carpentry experience. 

Would you have volunteered if you lived close? 

Is there a similar construction project going on in your area that you can share with us?


Anita Mae Draper is retired from the Canadian Armed Forces and lives on the prairie of southeast Saskatchewan, Canada with her hubby of 30 plus years and the youngest of their four kids. Anita is pleased to announce that her short story, Here We Come A-Wassailing, published in A Cup of Christmas Cheer, Volume 4, Heartwarming Tales of Christmas Present, Guideposts Books, October 2014, is a finalist for the Word Guild's 2015 Word Awards. Anita is represented by Mary Keeley of Books & Such Literary Management. You can find Anita Mae at


  1. Thank you so much for your informative and interesting article, Anita Mae. My Christian historical romance WIP involves the HBC and Northwest Company, including boats. Your post is timely!

  2. Thank you so much for your informative and interesting article, Anita Mae. My Christian historical romance WIP involves the HBC and Northwest Company, including boats. Your post is timely!

  3. Really enjoyed the article....I love Canadian History...I wish I lived in the era of York Boats...the crewmen must have seen the real beauty of the land!!!