Setting Lake has some fascinating stories. In 1988 archaeologist Brian J. Smith and his team spent the summer unearthing a few, investigating the area around the remains of an old chimney at Sandy Beach. Smith concluded, “The possibility is very good that this is indeed the Hudson Bay Company post: Wegg’s House”.
Smith’s archaeological investigations also confirmed what local people have long understood – Wegg’s House was not the first settlement in the region. Along with artifacts from the fur trade era, the team discovered stone and bone artifacts left by indigenous people who had camped at Sandy Beach for weeks or months at a time – for up to 4000 years. And no wonder – the popular summer recreation area is still one of the best fishing spots on the lake!
Distinguished ethnohistorian Jennifer Brown writes, “These [people] were probably ancestral to the Cree and their lifestyles would have been similar. They were river and shore people, never far away from fresh water and its resources.
Fast forward through the centuries to the first hundred years of the fur trade, from 1670-to 1774. Setting Lake was part of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Upper Track route running from York Fort, later called York Factory – the company’s manufacturing centre and trade depot on Hudson Bay – to the fur-rich interior.
In the early years of the fur trade, indigenous trappers and traders paddled light hand-crafted birch bark canoes laden with valuable furs down the Grass and Nelson Rivers to the coast.
At York they exchanged their furs for goods the annual supply ship brought from London each summer – Hudson Bay point blankets, flintlock guns, gunpowder, soap, cloth, sewing needles, tea, sugar, and flour. York Factory was a real factory and many items the trappers exchanged furs for were made on site by the blacksmiths and tinsmiths who worked there – axes, ice chisels, fish spears, nails, kettles, cups and bowls.
All that changed in the late 1700s when independent “pedlars” began to travel inland, delivering trade goods directly to trappers, exchanging them for furs, and choking off the HBC’s supply of furs at the source.
By 1784, a new competitor, the North West Company was eating even further into HBC’s profits. The Nor’Westers, as they were known, were led by shrewd, courageous, enterprising Scottish-Canadian traders from Montreal. The men lived, worked and wintered in the interior.
The traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company had been slow to recognize the advantages of “tripping”, the practice of travelling inland to trade with indigenous people. Now, in order to survive, the Company had no choice. It had to move inland, build posts, and trade directly with local people.
The earliest reference to a post on Setting Lake appear in 1794. Joseph Colen, Chief Factor at York Factory wrote to explorer and mapmaker David Thompson,
“When you have finished the business at Log Tent (Split Lake) you are to engage Pilots to conduct the men & canoes to the Nestoonyaus as well as to accompany you & party to the Grass River Settlement where Mr. Ross is stationed.”
The following summer William Sinclair was sent to Setting Lake to build a new Hudson’s Bay Company’s trading post. The post would be called Wegg’s House, named for Samuel Wegg, a well-to-do businessman and lawyer who served as Governor of the Company from 1774 to 1799.
Sinclair arrived with “two canoes loaded with trade goods, six (HBC) men and a few Indians…under dark and cloudy skies” with an east wind at his back.
The Chief Factor’s instructions to Sinclair were explicit.
“On your arrival at your intended Destination when you take up your winter Quarters you are to pursue necessary plan to promote the Honourable Company’s Interest Keep a watchful over Canadian Traders, & wherever they remove to build follow them and erect a house near.”
Three days later Sinclair and his men began clearing a site at Sandy Beach. Working long hours over the next two months they erected two buildings, “a small house, to keep the trading goods in” and “a house to live in”. Sinclair reported their progress in detail. “A Journal of Occurrences at Wegg’s House from August 17, 1795 to June 19, 1796” describes their efforts.
Construction on the trade goods storage house began on the August 21, four days after their arrival. By September 3rd the men were busy roofing the building. The same day, they began cutting timber to build the second and larger house that would serve as a store and living quarters. One September 17th they began hauling rocks from the beach for chimneys and by September 22 they had finished the fireplaces.
By the beginning of October, the crew was busy sawing boards for floors and doors. On the 14th they began planking and chinking the outside walls. They made small windows from panes of glass carefully transported by boat from York Factor. Wrapping up construction, they cut firewood for the winter. On October 17th – two months to the day after their arrival – Sinclair and his men packed up their tents and moved into the new post.
Over the winter the men carried on a small but active, trade with a dozen families or so Cree families in the Setting Lake area. Sinclair sent John and William Corrigal to live with local trappers to make sure they didn’t trade with Cross Lake Northwesters.
Supplying Wegg’s Post with food was a constant worry. Five days after their arrival, Sinclair sent hunters afield and assigned one of the men to make fishing nets. Over the winter they also relied on local hunters who came to the post to trade fresh and dried meat.
Between August 1795 and the following June Sinclair and his men went through 3400 pounds of moose meat, caribou and beaver. Pickerel, jack and other local fish were also on the menu. Snowshoe hare, birds’ eggs, ducks, geese, and a single swan round out the post’s larder. On Christmas Day, 1795 Sinclair wrote”
“At 3pm three Indians came to the house with 69 beaver skins 100 pounds of moose meat and 35 pounds of beaver flesh”.
Wegg’s Post had a profitable winter, bringing in over the equivalent of 1650 prime beaver pelts, which Sinclair took down river to York Factory in two large canoes the following June.
Two hundred twenty-five years later, little remains of the York Factory outpost. The Chief Factor instructed Sinclair to “relinquish” the house and move to a new location. The instructions may have been an implicit order for Sinclair to burn down the building so it could not be used by competing traders. It is not clear whether he did that.
Various stories of the destruction of the post have been passed down through generations. There are common threads to these oral histories: a) a dispute between some local Cree and Northwest Company or independent traders who occupied the post after Sinclair left; b) the Cree killed the traders; and c) the fur trade post was burned to the ground. While it is true that small skirmishes erupted between traders and indigenous people from time to time, there is no record of any conflict in the Setting Lake area. Such an event would have undoubtedly been mentioned in the correspondence at York Factory.
At first glance, it seems surprising that Sinclair would abandon a post that he and his men worked so hard to build just months earlier, a post strategically located to incept traffic moving up and down the Grass River, a route that had served indigenous people and the Hudson’s Bay Company so well for over a hundred years. What was behind the decision?
In a word – “competition”. Two fur trade giants engaged in a head-to-head battle for pelts and profits – moving into each other’s territories; burning each other’s boats and forts; bribing each other’s traders; raising the prices they paid for furs, forcing their opposition to increase prices or lose business – each trying to claim the advantage.
In 1774 the Hudson’s Bay Company sent Samuel Hearne to the North Saskatchewan River to build Cumberland House to compete directly North West traders. Cumberland House changed the fur trade forever.
Twenty years later, when Wegg’s House was built, few indigenous trappers paddled the Grass River route to York Factory to trade; most furs were delivered by Bay men themselves, first in large freighter canoes, later in York boats. Both required deeper water than birch bark canoes and so a more southerly deep-water route was chosen. The new Middle Track route ran through Lake Winnipeg to Norway House and down the Hayes River was chosen.
Intense competition between rival trading companies also had an impact on trading patterns. It raised the value of furs, drawing northern trappers who had traditionally traded at Prince of Wales’s Fort to inland trading posts. As a result of complaints from traders at Prince of Wales’s Fort, the construction of large inland posts like Cumberland House, the need for large boats and new transportation routes, the HBC largely abandoned the Upper Track and shut down Wegg’s House after a single year of operation.
William Sinclair was buried at York Factory. His gravesite is inscribed “Sacred to the memory of William Sinclair, Esquire, chief factor, honourable Hudson’s Bay Company’s service, who died 20th April, 1818, aged 52 years. Behold Thou hast made mine years as an handbreath, and my age as nothing before thee, every man at his best estate is altogether vanity. Erected as a token of affection by his son [William Sinclair II]”.
Artifacts recovered from the Setting Lake Chimney Site are housed in the Wabowden Historical Museum.
The author, Donna Henry, is the former Parks Canada Superintendent of York Factory and Fort Prince of Wales National Historic Parks, a founding Director of the Grass River Corridor Tourism Association and a research associate with Sinora International.
Historic content editor, Vicki Fleming, was one of the founding directors of the Wabowden Historical Museum. She served on the museum’s board from 1990 to 1997, overseeing construction of the new log building. As curator, she acquired, organized and catalogued the museum’s growing collection of artifacts and documents.
Vicki directed the Setting Lake Chimney Site archaeology project from 1986 to 1991, securing and managing funding, working closely with the project archaeologist and the Historic Resources Branch. In the 1990s Vicki was involved in archaeological investigations along the Grass River, one at Chatham House on Wintering Lake, the other near Cranberry Portage.
As a founding director of the Grass River Corridor Tourism Association and Treasurer, Vicki worked with elected officials of towns, First Nations, and Northern Affairs communities, and with industry leaders to develop tourism products based on the region’s rich heritage. In partnership with museum curators in Thompson, Snow Lake, The Pas, Flin Flon and Cranberry Portage, Vicki has played a key role in preserving and protecting the region’s historic and cultural resources.
Brown, Jennifer H. “ An Ethnohistorian in Rupert’s Land: Wnfinished Conversations”.University of Athabaska Press. Edmonton, AB (2017)
Hems, David. “Test Excavations at the Setting Lake Chimney Site – GgLp-1”. Manuscript on file with MB Culture, Heritage and Recreation – Historic Resources Branch. (1986)
Holm, Gerald F. Geographical Names of Manitoba. Manitoba Conservation (2000)
McCarthy, M. “Setting Lake Chimney”. Manuscript on file with Historic Resources Branch, Winnipeg, MB. 1986
McInnis, William. “The Basins of the Nelson and Churchill Rivers”. Canada Department of Mines – Geologic Survey. Government Printing. Ottawa, ON. (1913)
Shirritt-Beaumont, Raymond. “Wabowden: Mile 137”. Frontier School Division. (2004)
Smith, Brian. “Archaeological Investigations: The Setting Lake Chimney Site Chimney Site GgLp-1”. Setting Lake. Manitoba. Edmonton, Alberta (1988)
Smith, Brian. Personal communication on site during several years of field work along the Grass River.