York Boat

The York Boat is an important part of Canadian history with a special connection to the Métis people. The boats were named after the Hudson's Bay Company's York Factory and became their main mode of freight transportation.

They were built with local wood and iron forged by local blacksmiths. The first York boats were crafted in the 1740s and used by Métis and Voyageurs during the fur trade because of their ability to carry two to three times more cargo than the birchbark canoe.

York boats were used to travel on the lakes and rivers from the Hudson's Bay Company's York Post to reach in land trading posts. It was stronger and safer than other boats and able to withstand ice and storms.

In the 1880s, the York boats were slowly replaced by the steamship on the larger lakes and rivers and the last year's boat was constructed in 1920. The York boat played an important role in expanding the trade industry within Manitoba.

The York Boat, named after York Factory, were built by Métis working for William Sinclair, a Métis Chief Factor at York Factory. Early versions of the York boat were operating as early as 1746, with the first official boat being built in 1749. Soon after 1821, the York boat replaced the canoe, or "canot du nord", for freight transport. The reason for this shift was its superior payload, as the York boat was able to carry more than triple the weight - roughly three tons (more than 2,700 kilograms or 6,000 pounds - while still only requiring a crew of eight men, six of whom were rowers. The remaining two crewmen included a helmsman, who called out the rowing instructions, and the steerer.

A modification of the fishing boats on the Orkney Islands, which itself was derived from the design of Viking longship, the York boat was constructed to be able to carry large loads of freight, while being small enough to navigate narrower waterways. York boats were also well suited to the northern climate, avoiding the damage a canoe or smaller vessel would suffer when encountering ice floes. Originally, the boats were 13 metres long (almost 43 ft) but the size of the York boat evolved to include three sizes based on the amount of cargo they could hold, the original "60 pieces" (2,700 kg), "100 pieces" (4,535 kg), and a staggering "120 pieces" (5,440 kg). For long voyages from the south, each boat would carry exclusively one item: flour, tobacco or ammunition, for example. The boats would then sail together as one large convoy as they made their way back to the Red River Settlement.

Although Clinker-built (or lapstrake), a Viking building technique that used heavy timber, the boats themselves had a lifespan of about three years before having to be replaced. Builders constructed the boats using local wood and imported iron forged by a local blacksmith. The York boat was long with a flat-bottom and a pointed bow and stern angled upwards at 45 degrees. This design made it much easier to beach or backwater off a sandbar compared to other watercraft at the time.

Clicker-built is a method of boat building where the edges of the hull planks overlap each other. This technique was developed in Nordic shipbuilding and influenced by the Romans. Clinker-built ships were a trademark of Nordic navigation throughout the Middle Ages, particularly of the Viking longships.]

Usually powered by rowing, the crew could travel up to 16 hours per day, though the boats would be poled when the rivers were shallow or "tracked" when the currents were swift. This meant that the boat was pulled by crew using rope along the banks. While not an easy feat, these boats could be portaged by using ropes to drag them or rollers along pre-cleared trails. York Boats frequently travelled in brigades, so there was always enough manpower to accomplish this arduous task. There were also established tramways along the route that could be used to move the boat, the remains of which are still visible today. The boats could also be sail-powered when the wind was favourable, and the sail could also double as a tent at night.

The last York boat brigade arrived at York Factory in the late 1800's. For over a century, the York boat was the main mode of transportation between the inland trading posts and York Factory, the major transshipment point at the mouth of the Hayes River on Hudson Bay. The advent of the Red River cart, which allowed more freedom and flexibility, and subsequently, the steamboat, led to the inevitable decline of the York boat.


[1] www.louisrielinstitute.com/metis-innovations
[2] www.hbcheritage.ca/things/technology/the-york-boat
[3] www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/york-boat
[4] www.nauticapedia.ca/Gallery/York_Boats.php

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