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Rupert Canoe Brigade 

Map: Rupert River canoe brigade routes

Canoe Brigade  The legendary brigades of French-Canadian voyageurs, traveling the mainline from Montreal to Grand Portage or Fort William, come to mind first when we think of the fur trade supply routes. But every inland post had its own brigade or re-outfit routine, carrying out the previous winter's furs and bringing back in merchandise and supplies for the following winter.

Rupert Brigades The Rupert brigades are among the most well-known because they supplied so many posts, lasted until quite recently, 1925, and were based out of the HBC's original post, Rupert House. Rupert House itself was supplied by ship from England (then in the 1900s from Montreal) and it in turn administered, provided supplies and collected furs from inland posts at Nemiscau, Mistassini, Neoskweskau, Nichikun, Waswanipi and Senneterre. These posts had sporadic histories and records are not complete, but we can estimate that there were Rupert brigades to various posts for most of the period from 1812 to 1925. Unlike the mainline brigades out of Montreal, which were largely based on non-natives, the Rupert brigades were operated by Cree, led by a Cree head guide, and used 30-foot canoes built at the Rupert House canoe factory by Cree builders.

The main brigades brought furs into Rupert House in June from the inland posts and returned with supplies for the year.

Main Brigades   "With the coming of the inland brigades, the rush season began in earnest. The Mistassini brigade and the Woswonaby [today Waswanipi] brigade had special camping places. Feasting and dancing were the order of the day. Although local people were supposed to stay out while the brigades were at the post, the store would be very crowded. In four or five days the brigades were ready to leave. Then the beach came alive again. What loads they stowed in those 30-foot canoes. Old Solomon Voyager, chief of the Mistassini brigade, prided himself on the biggest loads of all. How the Mistassini canoes ever made the long 300-mile trip loaded as they were, I never could understand. Leave-taking took a long time. The voyagers commenced with the manager, his wife and staff, and then shook hands with everyone else, but at last they got off."

Maud Watt, wife of the factor, writing about the early 1920s at Rupert House in Beaver magazine, June, 1938.

Secondary Freighting   "Rupert's House also helped the inland posts by keeping its own able-bodied Indians employed on canoe freighting during the summer months. This was done not by having brigades but by keeping individual canoes shuttling back and forth between Rupert's House and Nemaska post, a distance of one hundred miles inland; each 30-foot canoe carrying a minimum load of 4,000 pounds. Such cargoes, taken by the Rupert's House Indians as far as Nemaska, could be used to help out in various ways. They could be used either for the direct benefit of Nemaska post, or relayed inland to one or other of the remaining three posts in the Rupert's House sub-district. Waswanipi, Mistassini and Nitchequon all sent down to Rupert's House each summer one brigade of four or five canoes. With food rations in addition to cargoes, such canoes would be heavily laden when they left Rupert's House. But by the time they reached Nemaska, 13 portages and eight or nine days later, the crew's food supplies would be considerably diminished, so that it was very convenient for them to be able to take on additional cargo staged for them as far as Nemaska."

J.W. Anderson, Rupert House apprentice, 1912

Winter Road Experiment   Around 1904-05 the HBC constructed a winter road, running parallel to the Rupert River, between Rupert House and Nemiscau. Using oxen they attempted to supply Nemiscau. Revillon Frères, a competing trading company, re-opened the road in the winter of 1912-13 and tried to transport supplies using horses. They constructed stables and bunkhouses every 20 miles. The heavy snowfall of the area made the road  a failure.

Longest Brigade    Nitchequon (aka Nichikun) post was located far east beyond the headwaters of the Eastmain River in an area once considered Labrador. Spring breakup was so late and fall freezeup so early and the journey so long that the brigade could barely make the round trip to Rupert's House. This contributed to the marginable economics of the post to the HBC, hence it had the shortest lifespan of any administered by Rupert House.

End of the Rupert Brigades    Inland posts were supplied by brigades until roads, rail or airplanes took over. The end of the Rupert brigades may not have ended an inland post's dependence on a canoe brigade, but simply changed the route of the brigade to a more economical supply post. Mistassini's brigades, for example, simply switched from Rupert House to Oskelaneo after construction of the National Transcontinental Railway in 1910.

Sources: Beaver magazine, Bill Seeley, Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Keewaydin Archives, The History of the Chibougamau Crees by Jacques Frenette, Fur Trader's Story by J.W. Anderson 

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