West to the Bay
In 1750, Thomas Gunn, along with three friends, join the Hudson’s Bay Company and sail from Stromness on the Orkney Islands of northern Scotland to York Factory fort on Hudson’s Bay. They believe they are starting a new and exciting life in what is called Rupert’s Land, but tragedy follows them, striking for the first time on the ship. At the fort Thomas finds his older brother, Edward, who had joined four years earlier. He also meets Little Bird, sister of Edward’s wife, and her family.
During the first year Thomas takes part in the goose and duck hunts, the fishing, the woodcutting, Guy Fawkes Day, the Christmas celebrations, and the burial of a friend. He also deals with the snowfall, the cold, the boredom, and a suicide, and learns how to survive in the lonely and sometimes inhospitable land.
It was still dark when fifteen-year-old Thomas Gunn jumped out of bed and donned his work clothes. His excitement had been building for the past few days and he had hardly slept. Today was the day of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s interviews in Stromness. He felt his way out of the bedroom, careful not to bump into the beds of his two brothers who shared the room with him, and went into the kitchen. Using the smoldering remains of the hearth fire to light his way he crossed the kitchen. He took the poker from where it leaned against the stone wall and stirred the embers. When they glowed brightly, he placed kindling on them then leaned over and blew watching as little flames licked at the wood. Soon the small pieces of wood caught fire and he placed some peat on top.
No one else in the household was up but he could hear his parents stirring in their bedroom. Usually, his mother had to call him twice before he crawled out of bed and dressed for chores, but today was different. Thomas grabbed the two wooden milk pails and went outside. It was near the end of April and the cool pre‑dawn air made him shiver. He ran to the barn where the cows waited, their breath misting around them. He opened the door and the animals automatically walked to their stalls. Thomas took the milk stool from its hook on the wall and set it beside the first cow. He sat, placed one pail between his knees and rhythmically swished the milk from the cow’s udder into the pail.
When he had finished milking the cows and the pails were brimming with frothy, warm milk he headed to the house. His mother, Mary Gunn, looked up when he walked in the kitchen.
“I thought it might have been you who started the fire,” she said, as she stirred the gruel. “Anxious to get into town, are you?”
Thomas nodded. He strained the milk through a cloth into a large bowl. He set the bowl aside to let the cream rise to the surface for skimming. Later the cream would be made into butter.
“Are you certain you want to do this? You can work here on the farm and I am sure Stuart will keep you on as help when he takes it over.”
Stuart was Thomas’ oldest brother and as such he inherited the farm once their father passed away. The rest of the children had to look after themselves, the boys finding work, the girls marrying. Thomas could not see himself working for Stuart. Like his older brother Edward, who had gone to the New World, he wanted his own life. And, hopefully, today was the beginning of that.
“I am certain,” he said.
Thomas returned to his bedroom where twenty‑two-year-old Stuart and twelve-year-old Bruce were waking up. In the bedroom beside theirs a blanket had been strung across the middle when his oldest sister, Molly, married. She and her husband shared one half while his sister, Isabel, had the other.
“What are you doing up so early?” Bruce asked, rubbing his eyes.
“I am going to my interview today,” Thomas said. Using the light that seeped through the small window, Thomas changed into his best breeches and ruffled shirt. He pulled his long stockings up over the hem of his breeches which ended just below his knees. He tied his shoulder length brown hair into a tail at the nape of his neck.
“Oh, yeah. I forgot.” Bruce jumped out of bed. “Can I come with you?”
“No, you have to stay and help me work the land for planting,” Stuart said. He was already dressed and on his way out the door.
Bruce made a face. “I do not want to,” he said to Stuart’s back. He turned to Thomas. “I want to go with you.”
“You cannot. You are too young,” Thomas replied.
“I will lie about my age.”
Thomas laughed and rumpled Bruce’s hair. “It is too late, the notices have been taken down. You will just have to be patient. You only have three years until you are fifteen. I have had to wait the four years since Edward left and he had to be sixteen before Father let him go.”
Thomas led the way out to the kitchen. Isabel, Molly, and her husband, Harry, sat at the table where his mother had dished up the gruel. Molly had married Harry in the summer. He had been a sailor on a Hudson’s Bay Company supply ship and met Molly on one of the annual visits. Last year on his stop he proposed. Molly accepted and he jumped ship to stay with her. He agreed to work on the farm for a small wage in order to learn how to run a farm of his own.
“How is Father this morning?” Stuart asked.
“He had a bad night,” Mary said. “I am going to take him in a bowl of gruel and see if he can eat it.”
“Should I get the doctor while I am in Stromness?” Thomas asked. Stromness was the largest town on the Orkney Islands and the only one with a doctor.
“I do not think that is necessary, yet,” Mary said, heading for the bedroom.
The others looked at each other. Their father, Duncan, had been sick with consumption for almost two years. Some days he was his normal self while on others he could hardly get out of bed. Stuart had taken over the running of the farm.
Thomas gulped down his breakfast and stood. “Can I take Buddy into town?” He was the youngest and fastest of their horses.
“We have been through this before,” Stuart said. “I need Buddy today. You can take Nellie.”
“I can walk faster than she goes,” Thomas grumbled.
“Then walk, but you are not taking Buddy.”
“I’ll take Nellie, then.”
“How long will you be?” Stuart asked.
“I do not know. It depends on how long the interview takes.”
“Well, hurry back. There is lots of work to be done.”
Thomas went to the barn and saddled up Nellie. She was the oldest of their three horses. She had been a work horse for years but now was only used for trips into town. As much as Thomas would have liked to gallop her into Stromness, he cared for the old nag and a hard run would be too much for her. He kept the pace at a nice easy walk knowing he would still be early. The shops in Stromness didn’t open until nine and very few people were out before then.
He rode to the Kirke’s house and tied Nellie to a post. There was a light in the window so he knocked on the door. It was opened almost immediately by his best friend, James. Thomas could see the pent‑up excitement in his eyes that matched his own.
“Hello, Mrs. Kirke,” Thomas said, entering the flagstone house.
“You are here mighty early,” Martha Kirke said. She was already working at the laundry she took in to support her and James. “You must be as excited as James. He cannot sit long enough to eat.
“The boys grinned at each other.
“I just have to hang these sheets for Mother, then we can go,” James said.
“I will help.”
They each took the end of a sheet, careful not to let it drag on the floor, and carried it outside to a rope, fastened between the house and an old shed. There they hung it to dry. When they had four sheets on the line, James said. “We are going to walk down to the recruiting office.”
“It is not nine, yet,” Martha said, putting a shirt in the wash tub. “You will not find anyone there.”
“We know. We just have to go.”
Martha smiled at her only son. “Way you go, then.”
“Look at that line‑up,” James said, when they reached the office. “We do not have much of a chance of being picked now.”
“Yes, we do,” Thomas said, although not with as much confidence as he had felt when they signed up.
They took their place at the end of the long line of boys and as he waited Thomas thought back over the past weeks.
At the beginning of April he and James had stood in front of the Stromness church and read the notice posted on the door. Wanted: Boys between the ages of 14 and 18 to sign up with the Hudson’s Bay Company for duty in the New World. Names must be on this form before April 22, 1750. Interview date is April 25 at the recruiting office in Stromness.
Thomas had been the first to pick up the quill and dip it in the ink. He wrote his name on the top line, making sure it was legible. James quickly added his name below.
“At last,” Thomas said, looking with satisfaction at his name. “At last I can go.”
“We have not been picked yet,” James cautioned. “We still have to go through the interview and physical examination.”
“We will be picked,” Thomas said, with confidence. “The Company has been taking boys from these islands for years. There probably are few left to choose from.”
They watched as Henry Spence and Francis Isbister put their names on the paper, Francis adding that of his younger brother Richard. At sixteen Henry and Francis were a year older than Thomas and James and usually did not speak to the younger boys. However, they walked over to where the two stood.
“Henry and I are going for sure,” Francis said, with a grin.
“So are we,” James answered.
“You will not know that for weeks.”
“Then how do you know you are?” Thomas asked.
“Because my Father is a good friend of Anderson’s.”
“That does not mean anything,” James scorned.
“It will when the final list comes out.”
* * *
Thomas now studied the boys in the line ahead of him. The notice had been posted on the doors of all the churches on the Orkney Islands and many of the boys had come to Stromness from those villages. Some were dressed in torn and patched clothing, many seemed younger than the suggested age but all were looking for a chance to start a new and hopefully better life.
Interviewing took all day. Each boy entered the office while the others watched the door counting the minutes until he came out again. When he came out his face was carefully scrutinized for any sign of what happened behind the door. None of the boys showed any emotion when they came out. Each just walked down the street to their homes or where they were staying.
It was an unseasonably hot day and as the sun rose higher in the sky the boys sweated under its glare. Although he was scared right down to his toes, when it was his turn Thomas entered with his head held high. He wanted to make a good impression.
“Your name?” David Anderson, the recruiting officer, asked. He knew some of the boys but he had to go through the formality.
“Thomas Gunn, Sir.”
“Do your parents know you signed the notice?”
“Do you understand that if you are accepted you will not be allowed to return home until your servitude is over?”
“Do you want to sign for three or five years?”
“Five years, Sir.”
Anderson stood and walked around his desk. He looked Thomas up and down.
Nervous sweat, mixed with the sweat from the heat, ran down Thomas’ back and belly. He hoped the dampness would not show as Anderson continued questioning him.
“Do you have all your fingers and toes?”
“Yes, Sir.” Thomas held out his hands.
“How is your hearing?”
“Have you ever had any broken bones?”
“Do you have any pains?”
Anderson returned to his desk and wrote something beside Thomas’ name. Thomas craned to look at it.
“That will be all,” Anderson said, without looking up.
“When will the list be ready, Sir?” Thomas asked.
“In two days.”
“Two days?” How was he going to wait that long?”
“It takes me that long a time to go through the notes I have made,” Anderson said, as if reading his mind.
As Thomas closed the door, James whispered at him. “How did it go?”
“It is easy,” Thomas whispered back. Then he went and sat at the corner of the building and waited.
Soon James was beside him. “That was not as bad as I expected,” James said.
“Look,” Thomas pointed. “There is old man Isbister with poor Richard. He is going to make him join the Company along with Francis.”
“Yeah, my mother claims he believes the change will be good for Richard.”
“There are a lot of boys who will be picked before Richard.”
“Mother says Anderson owes Isbister a favor and he is going to collect.”
They watched as old man Isbister and Richard stepped in line. Richard had been a sickly child since birth and he was small for his age of fourteen. He did not look very happy.
The boys stood and walked down the cobbled street to James’ house.
“Now we have to wait two more days,” Thomas said.
“How do you know?” James asked. “He never told me anything.”
“Did he say how many the Company needed?”
“It is going to be tough waiting.”
Thomas mounted Nellie and headed to the farm. After the initial elation of the morning, he now felt discouraged. There had been more boys in line at the interview than he expected. His chances of being accepted were worse than he ever imagined.
* * *
It was again early morning when Thomas was back in Stromness. He was eager to find out if he had been chosen by the Hudson’s Bay Company to cross the ocean to one of their posts in Rupert’s Land.
“I have never washed and hung so many clothes in my life,” James said, as they walked to the recruiting office. “And even then the days passed slowly.”
“Yes, I did extra chores to make the time pass faster but they were the longest two days of my life.”
At the office there was no list on the door, yet. They sat on the bench in front, their elbows on their knees, chins resting on their palms. There was nothing for them to say to each other. They had discussed this day for months now and there were no words left. Francis and Henry joined them.
“Do we wait or do we knock on the door?” Henry asked.
The others shrugged.
“Is he in there?” Francis asked.
James tried to look in the window but it was curtained. “I cannot see.”
“Should we leave and come back later?” Thomas wondered.
No one wanted to answer that question so they waited. Soon the street in front of the office was filled with the boys who had been interviewed. They shuffled their feet. They glanced up and down the street then back at the closed door. They looked at each other, then away, the butterflies in their stomachs threatening to make them sick. No one spoke; each knew his hopes and dreams would either be dashed or fulfilled in a few minutes.
Finally, the door opened and Anderson tacked the list to the outside of it. “Pretty eager, are you boys.” He grinned at them as he closed the door.
The crowd of boys rushed to the list and each quickly searched for their names.
“I have been picked,” James yelled.
“Me, too.” Thomas and Henry said, in unison.
“I see my name,” Francis said. “And Richard’s.”
They stepped away as the other boys pressed forward. There were others yells of happiness and some sighs of disappointment.
“We all made it,” James said in wonder. “The five of us are going to the New World together.”
“Officially known as Rupert’s Land,” Thomas reminded him, with a relieved grin.
“Officially known as Rupert’s Land,” James repeated. “And we are sailing on Master Given’s ship.”
They yelped and laughed and hit each other on the back, giddy with excitement, forgetting the age difference.
“Let us make a pact,” Francis said suddenly, a grave expression on his face.
The others stopped and looked at him.
“What kind of pact?” Thomas asked.
“Well, we are the only ones from town who are going to York Factory so let us agree to look out for each other and help each other.”
“Agreed.” And the four solemnly shook hands to seal the deal.
“What about Richard?” Thomas asked.
“I will look after him,” Francis said.
“I had better go tell my parents,” Henry said.
“Yes,” James said. “My mother made me promise to hurry home and let her know.”
Thomas and James ran back to James’ house. They burst in the door.
“We made it, Mother,” James cried. “We have been chosen.”
Martha Kirke smiled though there were tears in her eyes. “I am glad for you, my son.”
* * *
The ride back to the farm seemed slow, but once there instead of going straight to the house Thomas headed for the sheep pasture. The wind whipped at his hair and billowed out the front of his shirt as he strode through the short grass. He still was in a state of wonder at being accepted as a servant of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In a few weeks he would be heading to York Factory on Hudson’s Bay in the New World. His dream had finally come true.
When Edward had sailed away four years ago, Thomas was eleven and he climbed the harbor tower for a better view over the heads of the townspeople. He watched as Edward and the other boys who were leaving Stromness boarded the departing ship. He waved until the sails of the ship were out of sight and, as he clung to the tower, he decided he was going to join the Company when he was old enough. And now it had happened.
Thomas picked up a rock and threw it as far as he could, watching as it hit the ground and bounced before rolling to a stop. He then walked over to the stone fence he and Stuart had built around the pasture. He sat, not caring if he dirtied his best breeches. He looked out over the land which would be Stuart’s when their father died. That was why his oldest brother had never joined the Company and left the island. Stuart’s future was assured.
And now so was his. Thomas smiled to himself. His life was just beginning and it was going to be a great one, if he could believe even half the stories told by the men who had returned home after years with the Company. Certainly a lot more thrilling than if he stayed here on the island.
Thomas stood and walked towards his home. The flagstone farmhouse had been built years ago by their father and the spaces between the stones had been chinked with peat and later with lime mortar. He walked into the kitchen where his mother was preparing their noon meal. She looked up at him, her eyebrows raised.
“Yes, I have been accepted,” Thomas said, grinning.
Mary nodded. “Your father will be happy.” She bent her head as she rolled out dough for biscuits.
“Now, Mother,” Thomas said, walking around the table and giving her cheek a kiss. “You know I really want to go.”
Mary wiped a tear from her eye. “First Edward and now you.”
“You still have Stuart and Molly and Isabel and little Bruce to keep you busy. You will not even miss me.”
“Yes, I will. A mother always misses a child.”
“But I am not a child. I am fifteen, a man.”
Mary smiled and patted his cheek. “You will always be a child to me.