Academic journal article Early American Literature

"Now Reader Read": Literary Ambitions of Henry Kelsey, Hudson's Bay Company Clerk

Academic journal article Early American Literature

"Now Reader Read": Literary Ambitions of Henry Kelsey, Hudson's Bay Company Clerk

Article excerpt

Henry Kelsey (C.1667-1724) is chiefly remembered for a journey into the Canadian prairies he began on June 12, 1690, and from which he returned during the summer of 1692 (Davies, "Henry Kelsey"). He was the first European to set out from the shores of Hudson's Bay and journey inland far enough to see bison, grizzly bears, forests of poplar and birch, and grassy plains (J. Warkentin 9). (1) Kelsey's known career with the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) spanned the years 1684 through 1722. Initially an apprentice clerk, hired because he could read and write, Kelsey rose through the ranks, receiving commissions as captain and chief trader and eventually becoming governor of York Fort. Kelsey is thought to have been seventeen years old when he began his first clearly documented HBC apprenticeship in 1684, and twenty-two years old when he penned his first surviving journal in 1689. According to E. E. Rich, "Kelsey was to grow into one of the greatest figures of the Hudson's Bay fur trade, distinguished alike by character, achievements and the expression of a clear-cut sense of purpose" (History 1: 296). (2)

In addition to the reports and correspondence that Kelsey produced throughout his HBC career, which are preserved in the HBC Archives, (3) he was also the author of writings that survive in a bound volume, described by his modern editors as consisting of "128 pages, in a coarse paper cover," which seems to have been presented to Kelsey as a "blank copy-book." As his editors note, "At the top of the first page ... is the title 'Henry Kelsey his Book being ye Gift of James Hubbud in the year of our Lord 1693'" (J. Warkentin xxvii). Written throughout mostly in the same hand, (4) this book includes travel journals of the 1690-92 journey, the journal of another land expedition, two diaries of voyages from England to Hudson's Bay, two letters, two journals of periods at York Fort, and a memorandum summarizing Kelsey's activities from 1684 to 1722, his years of service in the Hudson's Bay Company. This manuscript book came to light in 1926 and its contents were first published in 1929 as The Kelsey Papers. (5)

The most interesting and most studied documents in Kelsey's "book" are his accounts of his 1690-92 journey into the Canadian prairies. Departing from York Fort on the coast of Hudson's Bay, Kelsey traveled up the Nelson and Saskatchewan Rivers, wintering near what is now The Pas, Manitoba; during the following summer, 1691, he continued southwest into the plains, possibly as far as south-central Saskatchewan, though his exact route is a matter of speculation and debate (J. Warkentin xvi-xvii). George Geyer, the governor of York Fort during this period, records that in the summer of 1690 he

"sent up Henry Kelsey (who cheerfully undertook the Journey) up into the Country of the Assinae Poets, with the Captain of that Nation, to call, encourage, and invite, the remoter Indians to a Trade with us." In 1691, [Geyer says,] came "a Letter from Henry Kelsey, the young Man I sent up last Year with the Assinae Poets." The Governor had sent Kelsey "a Supply of those Things he wrote for," and had ordered him "to return the next Year, with as many Indians as he can." (J. Warkentin xxxiii)

According to Michael Payne, "Kelsey traveled inland with a group of Assiniboines who had visited York Factory to trade. He was charged with trying to convince the Naywatamee Poets--an unidentified people who may have been either the Hidatsa or the Gros Ventre/Atsina--to make that long journey to York Factory to trade directly with the English" (32). In their letter to Governor Geyer, June 17, 1693, the governor and committee of the HBC communicate that they "are glad that Henery Kelsey is safe returned & brought a good fleet of Indians downe with him." And later in the same letter they instruct Governor Geyer: "As for the Service Henery Kelsey has done us in travelling up into the Countery You being imediate Judges of his demerits [desert in a good sense] we leave it to your discretion to gratifie him for the same" (Rich, Hudson's Bay 187 and 194). …

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