2017 Vol. 24, Special Issue 7
Thinking with James Bay: Crees, English, and Cold
Peter C. Mancall*
Abstract - This article considers a clash of 2 historic ways of understanding human relations
with the environment in James Bay, Canada, which stretches from 52° to 55° north
latitude: Cree traditional knowledge and the writings of early 17th-century English explorers.
The observations and practices of both Natives and newcomers reflected the enduring
power of cold and the particular systems of information that emerged in a region where winter
posed myriad threats. These different kinds of historical knowledge survive in different
media, one oral and the other written. By considering them together, it becomes clear that
the most radical environmental shift in the region occurred not with the signing of the James
Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975, but instead over 300 years earlier. This conclusion
suggests reconsideration of the environmental historian Alfred Crosby’s notion of
“ecological imperialism”, a process understood as the result of the movement of biota, with
quick and far-reaching results across temperate zones in the Western Hemisphere (and in
select other parts of the Earth). In and around James Bay, the arrival of Europeans—and
their recognition that they could survive and extract resources from the region despite the
dangers of its winters—initiated long-term environmental changes well before the transference
In 1973, Robert Bourassa, then the Premier of Québec, declared that the “territory
of Quebec remains to a large extent unexplored”. He understood that there
had been humans in the north for centuries, and that some aspects of the region’s
environment had been described by earlier observers, but whatever had happened
before was to him a prelude. The time, as he saw it, had come for a quest—“the conquest
of Quebec’s North, with its tumultuous waters that form so many grandiose
rivers, its immense lakes that resemble so many seas, its evergreen forests that hide
unimaginable resources in mining deposits of all kinds”. Flora and fauna remained
to be discovered, “inventoried and protected”. There had been explorers earlier, but
their work remained undone. “[W]e must occupy our territory”, as he put it, “we
must conquer James Bay” (quoted in Desbiens 2013:26).
In one of the most perceptive books ever written about the ecology of modern
northern Canada, the historical geographer Caroline Desbiens described in intricate
detail the many changes that resulted in the wake of the historic James Bay and Northern
Quebec Agreement of 1975. That pact was supposed to have protected the interests
of Inuit and Crees, the region’s indigenous peoples. Yet the effects, as she reveals
them, are not surprising to anyone aware of what the environmental historian Alfred
Crosby (1972) labeled the “Columbian Exchange”. According to that model, which
*Department of History, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, 90007;
Manuscript Editor: James Rice
Winter Ecology: Insights from Biology and History
2017 Northeastern Naturalist 24(Special Issue 7):H115–H132
Vol. 24, Special Issue 7
focused on the generations immediately following Christopher Columbus’s historic
journeys, Europeans quickly began harvesting resources in the Western Hemisphere.
Their frequent contact with indigenous peoples facilitated the spread of Old World
infectious diseases, plants, and animals, which together devastated Native American
communities, though for reasons that were perhaps more complicated than Crosby had
argued (Jones 2003). In northern and western Canada, as the historians Liza Piper and
John Sandlos recognized, the transference of Old World biota took longer than in other
parts of the hemisphere, but the movement of animals, plants, and diseases still shaped
the region’s demography and environment (Piper and Sandlos 2003).
Unlike in more-temperate regions, what mattered here was seasonality—namely,
the ability to survive the long winters of James Bay. Over generations, Cree
inhabitants of the region had found ways to shape their daily activities so they could
manage the challenges of living in this particular environment, which had subfreezing
temperatures and bitter wintry winds from late autumn deep into spring.
They did so through a series of cultural responses designed to align human communities
with non-human nature. English explorers and those who followed ignored
such practices but they, too, needed to find a way to survive the winter. After all, the
region had virtually no appeal for them unless they could determine how they could
extract its resources. The earliest narrative sources did not quite explain how success
could be found, but the return to Europe of those observers and their texts sent
crucial messages. The English grasped that James Bay could be colonized, even if
very differently from settlements in the Atlantic coastal temperate zones stretching
from Carolina to New England.
The explorers’ writings did not exist in a vacuum. Over the centuries that followed
the initial arrival of Europeans, colonizers created one argument after another
to justify their acquisition of American resources, at times claiming, as the Puritan
governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop declared in 1629, that Native peoples
did not use resources as the Bible had suggested (Winthrop 1864–1865) and that,
as a result, American territory was a vacuum domicilium (empty land) available
to those who could extract wealth from this terra nullius with an economic model
derived from Scripture (Cronon 1983).
Seen in this context, the construction of dams for hydroelectric power plants after
1975 represented a continuation of an economic logic that had taken hold in the
16th century: American natural resources could be claimed by those Europeans or
their descendants who could make the investment to bring resources to the market,
even if—as was the case with James Bay—indigenous people remained in the area.
Fortunately, in a departure from Crosby’s model, there was no similar demographic
catastrophe in the latter decades of the 20th century, presumably because the earlier
infectious diseases had already run their course or had taken more substantial tolls
in other regions (Piper and Sandlos 2003:764–770).
Hudson Bay and James Bay, like much of Northern Canada, remained largely
beyond the reach of large numbers of Europeans for centuries after 1492. It is possible
that Norse migrants, who established a settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows on
Newfoundland as early as the 11th century, had reached Hudson Bay, although the
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evidence is inconclusive (Schledermann 2000, Wallace 2000). Hence, the meetings
between the Crees and the English in and around the shores of James Bay in the
17th century set the stage for clashes in the late 20th century. There, far from the
active arenas of colonization that stretched from Brazil to the St. Lawrence Valley,
a cultural contest over the region began when different ways of thinking about the
environment came into contact.
These two 17th-century ways of thinking about James Bay existed, first, as a
cultural product of specific historical contexts. Cree stories passed orally from one
generation to another, from an ancient past forward. Observers—usually outsiders—
recorded some of these stories, preserving them for an audience incapable of
understanding Cree spoken language. They still remain alive in oral transmission,
told in English and in Cree (see http://ourvoices.ca). Early 17th-century European
tales of James Bay, including the report of the English explorer Thomas James
(published first in 1633), circulated in travel narratives, a European literary genre
that had its own rules and agenda. During the period when English travelers first described
Hudson and James Bays, printers helped spread travelers’ stories in books
and pamphlets (see Mancall 2006:3–55).
Cree ideas about nature and its processes differed from those of the English,
who arrived in James Bay in the 17th century. Examining them together reveals that
the conflict over resources in the era of hydroelectric power, however dramatic and
life-changing they were to those involved, stemmed from divergent views of the
environment that had been present for centuries. Taken together, these ways of understanding
the region reveal how comprehending winter, with its deep snows, biting
winds, and bitter cold, lay at the heart of all human efforts to live near James Bay.
James Bay lies at the southeastern corner of Hudson Bay. Together, the 2 bays
form the largest inland polar sea on Earth. James Bay is shallower than the large
sea to the north, which means that its waters freeze more quickly during winter
and the ice remains much longer, usually into July. Sea ice on Hudson Bay chills
the area to the south, giving James Bay a more Arctic climate than might be expected
for a body of water whose southern coast is at approximately the same
latitude as London, a geographic detail of much interest to 17th-century European
observers (Keller et al 2014, Mancall 2009:9–11). As historic records reveal, ice
typically remained in Hudson and James Bays for much of the year (Houston et
The retreat of the Laurentian Ice Sheet that had once covered the region left
behind numerous rivers and lakes. In recent years, the region, which is part of the
Hudson Bay Lowlands, has yielded gold, copper, nickel, uranium, and silver. The
forests consist primarily of Larix laricina (Du Roi) K. Koch (Tamarack) and Picea
mariana (Mill.) Britton (Black Spruce), with Picea glauca (Moench) Voss (White
Spruce) present in smaller numbers along the coast. Carex paleacea Schreb. ex
Wahlenb. (Chaffy Sedge) is dominant on the shore, and Zostera marina L. (Eelgrass)
is common in the subtidal zone. There are also multiple berry species, at least
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in the southern reaches of the region. Moving north from the southern part of the
bay, the trees get smaller and the landscape eventually becomes tundra (Royer and
Herrmann 2013:446–447). The climate and poor soils around James Bay limit agriculture,
although abundant nutrients available in the water that flow to and through
the flat tundra have contributed to the accumulation of nutrient-rich soils in some
areas (Bider 1976).
Although the winters were historically formidable for humans, the region
has long supported diverse terrestrial and marine animals. Among the mammals
present are Ursus americanus Pallas (Black Bear), Alces alces L. (Moose), Castor
canadensis Kuhl (Beaver), Lynx canadensis Kerr (Lynx), Ondatra zibethicus
L. (Muskrat) Erethizon dorsatum (L.) (Porcupine), Lepus americanus Erxleben
(Snowshoe Hare), and Lontra canadensis (Schreber) (Otter). The bay is also the
home of the southernmost population of Ursus maritimus Phipps (Polar Bear). Marine
animals include Phoca hispida (Schreber) (Ringed Seal), Eringathus barbatus
Erxleben (Bearded Seal), Delphinapterus leucas (Pallas) (Beluga Whale), Salvelinu
fontinalis (Mitchill) (Brook Trout), Coregonus clupeaformis (Mitchill) (Whitefish),
Sander vitreus (Mitchill) (Walleye), and Esox lucius L. (Pike). The avian population
includes ducks and 2 kinds of geese— Branta canadensis (L.) (Canada Goose) and
Chen caerulescens (L.) (Snow Goose)—as well as Lagopus muta (Montin) (Ptarmigan)
(Keller et al. 2014:2, Lytwyn 2002:81–114, Preston 1981:197, Royer and
Herrmann 2013:446–447). In the James Bay region, Rangifer tarandus (L.) (Caribou)
do not spend the winter or the summer in any particular area, but instead, range
from place to place, with the least movement during the winter and the calving
seasons (Hazell and Taylor 2011). Histrionicus histrionicus (L.) (Harlequin Duck)
constituted a large percentage of migratory-bird population in James and Hudson
bays (Morneau et al. 2008).
However timeless James Bay might have seemed to those who traveled there, the
region has of changed and continues to evolve. A new study revealed historical variations
in the region’s flora over time, demonstrating a shifting array of tree species
rather than a static landscape (Gao et al. 2012). Permafrost, which has always been
a reliable indicator of the depth of winter, has in recent years become degraded in
bogs in James Bay (Thibault and Payette 2009). Sea-ice cover in Hudson and James
Bays has also decreased (Kowal et al. 2015). As a corollary, a decline in the seaice
sheets has contributed to the rise of accidents and deaths because once-reliable
places have become treacherous and people have fallen through the ice (Downing
and Cuerrier 2011:64–65).
Cree Interpretations of Nature
The area around James Bay has always been sparsely populated, a reflection of the
fact that the resource base is fairly limited and hard winters make survival difficult.
The primary indigenous population along the shores of the bay consists of various
bands of Cree that have lived in the region for at least 1500 and possibly more than
5000 years (Lytwyn 2002:36–39, Whiteman 2004:426). Two primary groups of the
East Main Cree, a name first used by the English Hudson Bay Company in the 18th
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century, live along the eastern shore and the adjacent inland area. These groups are
also known as the wionipe.ku.wi’yiyu.č or “Coasters”, and the nu.hyimi/iwiwiyu.č
or “Bush People”. The other shore is the traditional homeland of communities now
referred to as West Main Cree, omaške.ko’w or Omushkego, meaning swamp or
muskeg people (Honigmann 1981:227, Ohmagari and Berkes 1997:202). Crees
are not the only indigenous peoples in northern Canada, nor were they in the 17th
century. Inuit constitute the overwhelming population of Nunavut, and Naskapi
(or Innu or Montagnais) live in eastern Quebec. The Grand Council of the Crees
and the Northern Quebec Inuit Association are the 2 primary indigenous signatories
to the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975. Crees remain the
dominant indigenous group around James Bay, as is evident in the 2002 agreement
between the Cree Nation and the government of Quebec known as “La Paix des
Braves” (Desbiens 2013:51–52).
Not surprisingly, winter and snow were (and remain) central to the Cree understanding
of the environment. Cree dictionaries identify over 50 words relating
to particular experiences of snow, with terms for the bare ground after snow has
melted, snow packed hard enough to bear weight, and a term for when it is difficult
to walk because there is too much snow on the ground. There are words that refer to
being tired from fleeing snow, falling down because the snow is too deep, making
tracks in the snow, and a variant, which refers to the specific kind of tracks made in
new snow. By comparison, in one Cree dictionary, there is only a single word for
being involved in agriculture, 1 noun for a farm, and a limited number of others
for variants such as farming, and 2 forms of the verb to farm (Wolvengrey 2001;
see also Nehiyaw Masinahikan, no date;Watkins 1865; Waugh et al. 1998).
The cultural significance of weather, and especially the advance and retreat of
the cold, figured centrally in Cree understanding of the annual calendar well before
Europeans arrived. The year began in March, when the first Haliaeetus leucocephalus
(L.) (Bald Eagle) returned, so the Cree called the month Mekisseu-Apehem
or Eagle Moon. There followed months named after other animal appearances or
behavior—Goose Moon (Niscock-Apeshem) in April because the Anser anser L.
(Greylag Goose) came then; Frog Moon (Atheak-Apeshem) in May when those
amphibians started to call, and so on. The names of months commemorated goose
egg-laying time (May), young geese taking wing (August), the time when Caribou
lost their antlers (September), and the arrival of winter—from rivers freezing in
November to severe cold in January (Lytwyn 2002:82). Omushkego placenames
also reflected an awareness of the physical world. Ki-chi-na-me-kos-ka-hi-gan
means “the lake that has the largest lake trout”, and is known as Big Trout Lake.
Moo-zoo-ni-mi-nis-tic, also known as Moose Factory, translates as “a location
plentiful in moose”. One outcropping was called Peawanuk, or flint, because of the
presence of the stone there. These Cree called Hudson Bay “Win-ni-Peg,” which
translates as dirty or salty water (Bird 2005:26–29).
Crees have inhabited the shores of James Bay since the tribes’s origins. That is,
their cosmology does not a contain record of an ancestral migration, as is the case
in some North American native cultures (e.g., Momaday 1976). Instead, at least
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among the Omushkego, the belief persists that humans had descended to the earth
on the web of a supernatural spider named Ehep, who instructed the original man
and woman to be content where they landed. The story persists through the metaphor
of birth, with a baby coming into the world attached to an umbilical cord (Bird
2007:15–17). In some versions, mammals also play a role, establishing a relationship
between humans and animals that became embedded in ritual and culture. Cree
oral historian Louis Bird reported that animals “have to contribute for the sake of
the humans’ existence. All animals have agreed. And for that reason the human can
only be alive in the world by using the animals’ help—their body, their furs, their
feathers, and everything—which gives the human a living condition to survive”
Seventeenth-century missionaries and 20th-century anthropologists tried to fit
Cree animism into a cultural explanation that made sense to them. In some instances,
this meant they described a local religious system that included belief in
a single powerful Manitou or god. As one missionary reported, Crees living near
James Bay understood that in order to prosper or even survive in their harsh environment
they had to pay homage to this deity. The Natives maintained an elaborate
set of specific rituals designed to maintain their place in the world, according to
surviving oral history recorded in the 20th century. “They respect everything that
they kill,” a 55-year-old Cree man named Frank Richard told the anthropologist
John Cooper in 1933. “The Manitu will not give to us … if we do wrong, they think”
(Cooper 1933:46). As a result, Crees never wasted any part of the animals that they
hunted. Local knowledge dictated that, if they did, their hunt would fail and they
might starve. According to Richard, this is what happened to a family he once knew
that had discarded a Caribou’s carcass to rot (Cooper 1933:56–57). Those who
paid proper homage to Manitou, reported an 80-year-old woman named Charlotte
Sutherland to Cooper, would learn the location of Caribou in their dreams, which
would bring a successful hunt (Cooper 1933:60–61). Modern anthropologists have
offered a different interpretation, emphasizing not a single over-riding spiritual
force, but instead the relationship between a person and his (or presumably her)
“attending spirit” known as “Mistabeo”. The relationship is most evident during efforts
to conjure the Mistabeo, which existed in a spiritual dialog with an individual,
at times providing specific directions about how to act (Preston 2002:78–173).
Whatever the ultimate source of spiritual power, Manitou or Mistabeo, some
ancient ways survived for centuries. Still, Omushkego oral culture reveals one
decisive break. “The way it was then, before the appearance of the European, the
teachings were about how to respect animals and all nature”, the historian Bird reported
in the early 21st century. “There were rules about respecting nature and the
environment—the animals and the birds.” Violating those rules—by disrespecting
the physical remains of a kill (for example when a woman walked over the animal’s
remains) or taking too many animals in a hunt—brought direct punishment: the inability
to hunt that species. Crees have a specific word for this concept: maahchihew
“It means that”, Bird wrote, “when you do something wrong or out of the ordinary
to an animal, it will be stop being [sic] available to you”. Then the Europeans
2017 Vol. 24, Special Issue 7
came to James Bay. “[A]ll these things changed when the European religion arrived
amongst the Omushkegowak”, Bird announced, “because all this activity
was considered a superstition and, therefore, was not practiced any more” (Bird
Despite missionaries’ efforts to obliterate indigenous belief systems, Cree oral
history and interviews with ethnographers reveal persistence. According to these
sources, Native peoples near James Bay enacted rituals at the first hunt of a season
long after the arrival of the English, including throwing grease or a piece of meat
into a fire or smoking the calumet because an offering of tobacco signaled obeisance
to supernatural forces (Cooper 1933:77–78, 89). Animal species could still
cross species boundaries—for instance, shifting shape, as a Cree named Jeannette
Sagàbà’kiskàm informed Cooper. “The people believed in Atihweàtcak”, she explained,
“a human being who had turned into a Caribou and who had become a sort
of master of the Caribou” (Cooper 1933:47–48).
For some, survival, even in a world with a growing non-indigenous presence,
depended on maintaining amicable communication with the spiritual forces at work
in the region. “The putting of grease or meat in the fire was done very reverently”,
Sagàbà’kiskàm continued. “Everybody remained silent, and when the smoke had
gone up, all was over. They looked at the smoke going up in hopes that Manitou
would receiving the offering, because the smoke was going up above where Manitou
was” (Cooper 1933:49). A 65-year-old male informant told Cooper that Crees
understood the necessity of paying respect to an animal’s bones; they did not wish
to offend Manitou, who would make the animals angry, with dire consequences for
locals (Cooper 1933:52–53).
The rules for maintaining good relations between Cree hunters and their prey
were elaborate. It was crucial to understand where animals could be located on
the vast landscape around James Bay; thus, Crees developed rituals to predict
what would happen. Practices involved what the Crees called mitunsaawaakan or
scapulimancy, the burning of the bones—often a shoulder blade—of some animal
to read the resulting cracks and determine what course to follow. This knowledge
supplemented environmental understanding of a place gathered over years of
hunting there (Tanner 1979:108–135). In addition, those in pursuit of game often
wore charms that had been fashioned from the species of animal being pursued or,
alternatively, a human-created object inspired by a dream. In earlier times, but less
common more recently, hunters wore the skin of an animal in an attempt to gain
that creature’s powers. Yet even though that practice faded in the 1970s, according
to one anthropologist’s report, the Mistassini Cree still often fashioned children’s
coats from animal skins so that they would be better hunters when they grew up
Indigenous people followed strict rules during preparation for and throughout
the hunt. They believed that if hunters left blood on the snow, they would offend
Ciiwetinsuu, the North Wind spirit, who was believed to have control of the movements
of animals hunted in the winter; thus, hunters brushed clean snow on top of
the blood. Further, female animals killed in winter were often pregnant, and Cree
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hunters developed specific rules for handling the remains of the victim’s fetus.
Hunters peeled off the fat of the intestine and placed it in the mouth of the fetus in
the belief that the ritual would please the supernatural deities controlling the movement
of game, which would, in turn, provide fat, healthy animals in subsequent
hunts (Tanner 1979:146–147).
Keepers of Cree traditional knowledge maintained religious explanations for
familiar natural phenomena. In the middle of the 20th century, a New Zealandborn
journalist named Boyce Richardson traveled among the East Main Cree to
explore their views on threats to the environment. During discussions with locals,
he learned about continuities in traditional knowledge relating to rituals and about
how the Crees draw on long-held observations about nature, such as the migratory
patterns of geese and ducks. Despite modern changes in the region’s ecology, Richardson
wrote, James Bay and its tributaries had “one of the rare remaining examples
of a food chain which reaches locally uninterrupted up from the lowliest microorganism
in the river to man himself”. Migrating birds, Richardson observed,
“have a primordial importance” for Crees who lived along the shores of James Bay.
Natives knew the annual migration patterns of the creatures that paused near the
bay for the annual sprouting of Eelgrass. Crees included annual bird-hunts in their
yearly calendars. Crees also performed rituals related to the proper disposal of bird
remains in order to demonstrate respect for the spiritual forces that controlled the
birds’ movement. It was not only the hunt that demanded spiritual practices. Rituals
for appeasing nature remained powerful as late as 1967 when, as Richardson
(1991:33–34, 59, 96, 101, 102, 106) reported, 2 elderly men sprinkled tobacco in
the path of an oncoming tornado in order to halt it.
Inherited ways survive because of their perceived utility. Rhododendron
groenlandicum (Oeder) Kron & Judd (Labrador tea) is part of the local flora and
has long been incorporated into indigenous healing practices; it offers effective
treatment for type 2 diabetes (Nachar et al. 2013, Rapinski et al. 2015). Despite
widespread environmental change, traditional practices relating to fishing, trapping,
and hunting persist, revealing the durability of oral transmission and deep,
local knowledge of a region based on hundreds of years of continuing occupancy
Inherited knowledge of the lands near James Bay has helped Crees adapt to
changing environmental situations, at times prompting modifications of changing
terrain to preserve traditional practices (Peloquin and Berkes 2009, Sayles and
Mulrennan 2010). Contemporary Crees have integrated modern technologies into
traditional uses of the surrounding environment without departing entirely from
ideas about nature that existed at the time of first contact with Europeans. “The
use of a modern shot-gun”, Ohmagari and Berkes (1997:203) noted, “does not
change the fact, in the Cree mind, that the goose hunt is defined as a traditional
activity”. Crees have always transferred crucial knowledge about James Bay and
its surrounding lands via community participation—by women and girls as well as
boys and men—in seasonal economic and ritual tasks. Ancient indigenous attitudes
about how to survive and, arguably, prosper in the region remain strong (Ohmagari
and Berkes 1997:206, 216–217; see also Brightman 1973).
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Nonetheless, both the effects of global modernity, such as an increasingly sedentary
lifestyle and the easy availability of food all year, and environmental change
have eroded some traditional practices. Caribou and Canada Geese populations
have declined, diminishing availability of customary foods, and possibly decreasing
the efficacy of indigenous hunting rituals and practices (Royer and Hermann
2012). The changes experienced by Crees echo the consequences of climate change
and habitat destruction for other indigenous peoples, and the effects of change in
their part of northern Canada can also be seen in more locally specific alterations,
such as shorter seasons for moving across ice to arrive at traditional hunting locales.
In some places, the ice forms later in the autumn and thaws earlier in the spring
(Downing and Cuerrier 2011:60).
It is not surprising that industrial changes following the signing of the James
Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975 have made it more difficult for the
continuation of historic economic practices despite protests by indigenous Crees
and Inuit (Peters 1999). Interviews with Cree trappers and hunters, known as tallymen,
point to changes resulting from the construction of dams and clear-cutting of
forests, which reduced Moose habitat. Runoff from mines has also caused problems
for the Crees. “The mining I say will be a big problem because I can see the damage
it causes”, one talleyman reported, adding that he feared that pollution would
make local fish inedible (Whiteman 2004:435–437). Even something as seemingly
benign as cutting a road could produce dire consequences for particular places. The
same tallyman reported that he had once been able to take many birds in one area,
including 46 geese during a single hunting session. The new road “erases off everything.
Where the road is, everything has been erased” (Whiteman 2004:435–437).
This situation is not unique. Northern peoples across Canada have witnessed a decline
in the number of animals as well as in the health of Polar Bears, Caribou, and
seals (Downing and Cuerrier 2011:60–61).
English Understanding of the Region
There is no record of any European appearing in James Bay until the winter
of 1610–1611, when the crew of Henry Hudson’s Discovery arrived in November.
They were looking for a harbor where they could spend the Arctic winter.
Other English had appeared elsewhere in northern American waters much earlier.
John Cabot had visited the northern Atlantic coast in 1497, and Martin Frobisher
mounted 3 expeditions to modern-day Nunavut in the mid-1570s in order to find the
fabled Northwest Passage. Frobisher also sought gold after an assayer had claimed
to find a sample in the rocks that the English had brought home from their first expedition
in 1576. Although Frobisher’s journeys had their share of drama, his ships
never made it into the inland sea. They never passed a winter in northern waters,
nor did they find gold (Mancall 2013). The arrival of these explorers constituted a
defining moment in the region because their reports introduced Europeans to the
potential of the area. The circulation of that information propelled other Europeans
to Hudson Bay and James Bay in the decades that followed. News of each successive
arrival, no matter how trivial an exploration’s rewards might have seemed to
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those who invested in it, signaled the power of a new way to understand and exploit
the resources of the Canadian interior.
With a well-grounded fear of the dangers posed by encroaching ice, Frobisher
made sure to leave Nunavut by late summer so that he could guide his ships back
to England. On one voyage, though, he left 5 men behind because he could not find
them when it was time to depart. He and other English concluded, using European
logic, that Inuit had slaughtered and eaten these castaways; they believed that
northern Americans were cannibals incapable of civilization and prone to eating
visitors. Local knowledge of the event differed substantially, however, from this
outsiders’ view. In the 19th century, one Inuk told an American whaling captain that
5 English men had long ago arrived among them. The locals did not kill sailors
but, instead, they sang songs to the gods of the sea to protect these English men,
who tried to sail home in a makeshift craft before the winter ice had receded. The
indigenous would not have been so foolhardy. They knew how to survive a northern
winter using strategies that eluded the English, and did not venture out into open
water with an inadequate vessel (Mancall 2013).
It was 35 years later, in the winter of 1610–1611, that Hudson guided his crew
southward into James Bay, pushing beyond Frobisher’s destination at Baffin Island.
According to 17th-century European geographical theory, the climate should have
become warmer as one traveled southward in the northern hemisphere. Hudson did
not know how far he could sail in Hudson Bay, because there was no record of Europeans
having been there before, but he hoped to reach a temperate climate before
his ship became encased in ice. He could not have known that the shallow waters
of James Bay often froze solid, as they did that winter, surrounding Discovery with
enough ice that it could not break free until the following June. By the time the
ship started sailing north in June 1611, ill will among the crew sparked a mutiny.
Somewhere along the shores of either James Bay or southern Hudson Bay, the rebels
put Hudson and 8 others, including his 17-year-old son, on a small shallop and
cut them loose. No European ever saw them again. They may have been the first
Europeans to succumb to the ravages of winter in James Bay. As it turned out, the
alleged mutineers also died before they got home; according to survivors, an attack
by Inuit felled 4 of them and starvation killed another. Late in the summer of 1611,
the few remaining men and one boy sailed back into the Thames, telling tales of
woe about the horrors of winter, the ubiquitous presence of the ice, and the sad fate
of Hudson and his companions (Mancall 2009).
When narratives relating to Hudson’s voyage were published by Samuel Purchas
(1625[III]:567–610), English readers learned more about the dangers of American
winters than any could have previously imagined. These reports and others
forced a reconsideration of the scholarly assumption that the polar icecap melted
in the summer and opened a way to sail from Europe to the Pacific Ocean (Wright
1953). Europeans hoped that similar warming would make it possible to find the
Northwest Passage during the summer, though all efforts to that point had failed.
A contemporary map provided Europeans with their first visual representation of
the area, with the southernmost body of water labeled “The bay where Hudson did
winter” (Gerritsz 1612).
2017 Vol. 24, Special Issue 7
The Hudson narratives set the intellectual framework for English travels to
James Bay for the next 60 years and, arguably, well beyond. English explorers
understood that their best chance for finding the Northwest Passage lay farther
north than James Bay, though the voyages of Thomas James—for whom the bay is
named—and Luke Fox in 1631, reveal that English interest in the region remained
intense. James set sail on 3 May with financial support from Bristol investors. Fox
left 2 days later, funded by patrons in the London mercantile class. Both captains
eventually published narratives of their journeys (Fox 1635; James 1893–1894;
Each of the authors sought to provide new details about James Bay. As James
explained on the title page of his book, he promised to reveal what he had learned
about the difficulty of finding the Northwest Passage as well as “the miseries indured,
both Going, Wintering, Returning”. James detailed the sufferings of his crew
during the next winter, much of it spent on or near a location they named Charlton
Island, in honor of the English King Charles I—presumably unaware of or indifferent
to the fact that Crees had already named much of the region. Soon after their
arrival, ice held the ship fast, and James understood that they would not be able
to raise their anchors for months. It was so cold that the captain ordered the ship’s
surgeon to cut his hair close to his head and shave off his beard before the hairs
on his head would be frozen with icicles (James 1893–1894[II]:523–525). During
the first weeks of December, the crew decided to camp on an island, where they
thought the weather conditions would be the most favorable for the approaching
winter. They built 3 houses on the island—2 for themselves and the other for their
stores. Despite the fact that they kept fires lit in the first 2, snow reached almost
to the rooflines within a few weeks, and the storehouse, absent any heating, was
buried (James 1893–1894[II]:531).
James filled his diary with news of the unending cold that he and his crewmates
endured each day. In late January, they discovered that the earth was frozen down
to 3.05 m (10 ft) below ground (James 1893–1894[II]:534). February was worse.
“The cold was as extreme this moneth as at any time we had felt it this yeere”,
James wrote, “and many of our men complained of infirmities”. Their sufferings
fit the symptoms of scurvy: sore mouths, loose teeth, “gums swolne, with blacke
rotten flesh, which must every day be cut away. The paine was so sore on them that
they could not eate their ordinary meat”. Some complained of headaches, others
of weakness in their backs, pains in their knees and thighs, or swollen legs. That
month alone 2/3 of the men needed the care of the ship’s surgeon (James 1893–
Information spread widely through the circulation of handwritten materials—a
process known as scribal publication (Love 1993)—and James knew that publication
of his account would bring wide notice of the region. Perhaps that awareness
led him to emphasize the hardships that he and his crew had endured, which would
make their feat seem even more heroic than just getting to interior Canada and
back. “Wee made three differences of the cold, all according to the places”, he
began, before describing the sensations felt in the house, in the woods where the
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men needed to find supplies, and out in the open when venturing back to their ship
for supplies. Being out in the open was “not indurable”, he wrote, adding that their
clothing offered insufficient protection from the cold. Even their eyelashes froze,
leading James to opine that “I verily believe that it would have stifled [i.e., killed]
a man in a very few hours”. Gathering supplies was almost impossible in such
circumstances. The house was the best place to be, but it was still cold enough for
icicles to form inside, where hoarfrost covered their clothes and the cook’s pots,
used for supper, would freeze by the morning. The surgeon hung his liquid syrups,
and they froze too, as did sack, vinegar, and oil. The ice still covered the sea into
June and the ground remained so frozen that it was almost impossible to bury the
unfortunates who perished (James 1893–1894[II]:535–537).
Spring brought some respite, but conditions in the bay remained difficult for
James and his crew for several more months. He reported that the greatest amount
of snow arrived on 6 April and that it was heavier and wetter than the small, dry
flakes that had fallen during the winter. By the middle of that month, the ground
was “harder frozen then it had beene all the yeere before”. The crew tried to chip ice
off the ship, but it remained an almost impossible task (James 1893–1894[II]:540–
541). On 19 April, James had his men dig through the ice to find the ship’s rudder.
They eventually hit water, but did not see the rudder and feared that the previous
winter’s ice had perhaps “carried it away”. Still, not all was lost. When the crew had
put the ship in place for the winter they had, as Hudson had before them, punched
holes in the hull so that the expanding ice would not make irreparable breaches in
the vessel, and, as they searched for the rudder, they found a cask of still potable
beer, though James noted that “it did taste a little of bulge-water” (James 1893–
Rain finally arrived in late April, “a sure signe to us that winter was broken up”,
James wrote (James 1893–1894[II]:543). His calculation proved premature. Snow
came again on 2 May, with such intensity that the men had to remain inside and
away from their main task of clearing ice from the ship. Fortunately, it did not last
long, and the crew returned to their job. Still, the psychological blow hit hard. “This
unexpected cold at this time of the yeere did so vexe our sicke men that they grew
worse and worse”, James wrote, adding that they could not rise from their beds and
he feared they would die. Then cranes and geese landed nearby, but they were so
skittish that they took flight at the slightest movement, and the English were unable
to shoot any of them (James 1893–1894[II]:546).
A not very subtle sense of doom permeated the narrative from this point. One
man died on 6 May and another on the 18th. After the second man was laid to rest
near the first, one of the men returned to the ship to find “some part of our Gunner
under the Gun-roome ports”. This was a shocking discovery because they had
buried the gunner at sea 6 months earlier in deep water. They managed to extract
his body from the ice, where he had been frozen with his head pointing down and
his only surviving leg pointing up. The alterations of ice and cold water had preserved
and loosened his skin so that “his flesh would slip up and downe upon his
bones like a glove on a man’s hand”. They buried him near the other 2 men (James
2017 Vol. 24, Special Issue 7
The last of the cold finally ebbed in late May. Fast-growing vetches sprouted,
which James ordered his able-bodied mates to pick. They boiled the greens, mixed
them with the now-thawed vinegar and oil, and ate them. “It was an excellent sustenance
and refreshing”, James wrote, adding that this dish was the only thing that
most of them ate (James 1893–1894[II]:552, 554–555). During June, the men surveyed
the ship, repaired breaches, fixed the rigging, and prepared to sail for home.
Unfortunately, they had not escaped the Bay before the arrival of mosquitoes. They
tore an old flag into bits and covered their faces but the tiny aggressors “would finde
ways and meanes to sting us, that our faces were swolne hard out in pumples, which
would so itch and smart that we must needs rubbe and teare them”. The mosquitoes,
James concluded, “were more tormenting to us then all the cold we had heretofore
indured” (James 1893–1894[II]:562–563).
Before they departed, the English erected a cross to which James attached an
account of the journey, along with pictures of King Charles I and Queen Henrietta
Maria as well as the coat of arms of the city of Bristol. He wrapped the text and
the pictures in lead, then set sail for home. It had been 14 months since they had
embarked on a journey that took them not only into the heart of North America but
into the soul of winter itself (James 1893–1894[II]:565, 594–603).
A generation after James returned to England, the experimental philosopher
Robert Boyle, an inaugural fellow of the Royal Society, wrote a magisterial book
on the nature of cold. He drew extensively on published travel narratives including
both James’ and Hudson’s accounts. In a chapter entitled “Of the Strange Effects
of Cold,” Boyle used James’ narrative to make specific points about how the cold
shaped physical responses. James had observed that his men’s feet were so frozen
and insensitive that they held them close to the fire until their socks caught fire.
Boyle added these details to information about the cook’s pot freezing, James’ fear
that human eyes would freeze, the need to shave heads and beards, and the fact that
their bedclothes became covered in frost even though they slept near the fire (Boyle
1665:522–524, 532–537). Boyle was drawn to James’ account because it contained
a particularly surprising piece of news: James Bay was far colder than prevailing
theories might have predicted. “Though Captain James wintred in a Countrey many
degrees remoter from the Pole, then Nova Zembla”, he wrote, “yet in one place he
gives us this account of the colds power to restrain or oppose the action of fire”
Yet, despite the hardships, the English who visited James Bay in the 1630s
claimed possession of the region—notably by naming places that were new to them.
They were apparently unaware of existing place names, perhaps because these early
explorers rarely if ever saw any Crees—though there can be little doubt that the locals
knew about the arrival of the English. To the English, the region was available
to be theirs: Hudson Bay, James Bay, Cape Henrietta Maria. They did not report
finding many valuable resources.
By getting there and laying their claim, these explorers set the model for what
was to come a generation later—the arrival of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC),
which would further reshape northern Canada for generations. The HBC erected
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its first post, Fort Charles, on the eastern shores of James Bay, in 1670. They soon
abandoned it, but before the end of the decade, they had built 2 more centers,
Moose Factory, near the south shore of the bay in 1672, and Fort Albany, built on
the western coastline in 1679. The HBC organized a fur trade from these initial
stations that reached far into the west in the 18th century. HBC records reveal the
extent of the trade. At Fort Albany alone, 15,605 Beaver skins arrived in 1700.
Over the next half-century, the number of furs arriving there ranged from a high of
29,645 in 1712 to a low of 9223 in 1751. Other forts brought in similar yields, with
a high point of 61,361 Beaver skins brought to York Factory, on the southwestern
shores of Hudson Bay, in 1731 (Carlos and Lewis 2010:40–41, 189–191).
Scholars who have studied the record books from the HBC concluded that it is
impossible to tell if the yield of Beaver remained high at first because of indigenous
practices protecting faunal populations or the possibility that the number of Beaver
was so great that such precautions were not necessary. However, the trade could not
be sustained at such levels. By the 19th century, the regional supply of Beaver had
been depleted, along with the population of Moose and Caribou (Carlos and Lewis
2010:156–157, 187). From the vantage point of the English, it was extraordinary
human effort against unimaginable odds that had earned them the right to take what
they could from James Bay. They had no need to propitiate any divinity and no need
to learn from the Crees. All they had to do was establish reliable trading stations
and shipping routes.
Cree oral history and folklore reveal that the region’s original inhabitants believed
that they survived by paying homage to the divine forces that controlled the
land, water, creatures, and ceaseless cold. Hunters had faith that they would find
Caribou and geese if they were vigilant and performed the proper rituals. Each generation
passed its long-held understanding of the region and techniques for survival
to the next. English explorers, by contrast, initially thought James Bay was simply
too cold to support civilized life as they understood it. Despite this assumption, 2
generations after Henry Hudson had presumably died there in 1611, the HBC set
up its inland factory along the shores of the bay. Over the following decades, the
HBC’s ventures allowed the British to profit from the resurces in northern Canada.
The James Bay winter prevented this region, which was rich in minerals and furs,
from becoming the home of bustling colonial communities like Jamestown, VA,
which was founded only 3 years before Hudson guided the Discovery to its winter
anchorage in 1610. However, the decisive shift had occurred: James Bay had become
defined as a place to which Europeans could travel and return home. Though
it took longer for the English to find profits here than in the Caribbean, where a different
type of difficult environment also presented grave threats to colonists’ lives
(see Dunn 1972, McNeill 2010), the ideas that later prompted a prime minister of
Québec to justify even more radical shifts to the environment than those produced
by the fur trade had taken root.
2017 Vol. 24, Special Issue 7
Numerous modern studies have revealed the magnitude of historic change that
followed the establishment of European economic interests around James Bay. Cree
hunters relied on rituals for success—offering tobacco to their deities or throwing
fat in a fire so that they could find Caribou and geese. The arrival of the English in
the region produced another way of thinking about resources around James Bay.
While it took generations for the effects of this market-driven mentality to reshape
the regional environment—evident most clearly in the decline of fur-bearing mammals—
the creation of modern dams and mines continued to reflect the notion of
“ecological imperialism” (Crosby 1986). Northern climates initially stymied expansion-
minded colonists, but as in other places around the globe, exploitation of a
given environment for profit as it was defined by Europeans in the age of discovery
redefined James Bay as well. It seems that no place was cold enough to distract
Europeans from their pursuit of wealth, even when that quest for riches overrode
existing religious and cultural norms that had existed for centuries before English
Support for this project was provided by the Undergraduate Research Assistant Program
at the University of Southern California. I thank Lisa Bitel for her guidance; Will Orr,
Megan Hansford, Emily Hodgkins, Rachel McIntyre, and Maddie Adams for their research
assistance; and Josh Piker, Jim Rice, Tom Wickman, and the editors of this special issue for
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