Art. IV. The Legend of the Pickled Factor, by J. Gottfred.
With The Pickled Factor, we begin a series of stories of people, places, and events of the Northwest. The stories are presented in a fictionalized form, and often contain commonly held beliefs about the events described, regardless of their accuracy. At the conclusion of each article a short explanatory note is provided listing what is known to be the facts in each story.
[Warning to the reader : this article contains graphic details which some readers may find offensive.—ed.]
This is the amazing story of the grisly and macabre end of John Rowand. It is a story that was recounted by George Simpson himself, and thus we know it to be the truth in every detail.
John Rowand was an energetic, short, corpulent man who had been a fur trader since the age of fourteen. Possessed with a fiery drive and temper, he rose quickly to the position of Chief Factor of Edmonton House.
Enroute to Montreal, his canoe party had stopped for the night at Fort Pitt. In the afternoon while loading the canoes, two of his voyageurs began to quarrel over some trifle. Never one to suffer such fools gladly, John Rowand strode down to the canoe landing and waded into the fight.
Fists and curses flew as Rowand began to handily beat his crewmen into submission when suddenly, clutching his chest, he collapsed stone cold dead upon the ground.
The voyageurs leapt back in anguish and amazement— now there'd be the devil to pay, and the devil himself was striding down upon them in the form of none other than George Simpson himself.
Simpson was the Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, and he traveled the waterways of the Northwest in a special express canoe, paddled by hand-picked Iroquois warriors. As fate would have it, he just happened to be at Fort Pitt that very day.
What happened to the feuding crewmen is not recorded. Perhaps it was little, as George Simpson must have been pre-occupied with a daunting problem, for only he knew of the last wishes of Mr. John Rowand.
One can only imagine the consternation in the little room at Fort Pitt where Simpson would have met with the other gentlemen of the company as he explained that John Rowand had expressly requested that upon his death, that his mortal remains be returned to Montreal, where they might lie side by side with those of his beloved wife. 'All well and good', they must have argued, 'but how is it to be done?' Save for a goodly supply of rum, Norway House had neither the supplies nor the expertise to undertake the preservation of so large a body. Finally, it was decided that John Rowand's bones would have to make the journey alone.
One can imagine the horror that must have slowly dawned on the assembled few when they realized that someone would have to strip the flesh from those bones. Rapidly concluding that such a task was beneath the office of any Christian man, they turned to one of the local natives.
Now the Cree have a strong taboo against the touching of a dead person— a taboo, it would appear, even stronger than your average Christian. And so the instigators of what was to come plied the unfortunate man with rum until, stupefied with drink, he agree to undertake the hideous task.
One can imagine the scene, reminiscent of the worst horrors of darkest Africa, as the reeling savage staggered about in the fire light, dismembering poor John Rowand, and boiling his joints in a large copper kettle.
The gorge must have risen in the throats of the 'young gentlemen' when the besotted native presented them with a bag of steaming bones. Simpson immediately ordered the remains placed into a large keg, and, filled with rum to prevent their putrefaction, the sealed casque was set aside to await the trip to Montreal. The men, exhausted with mental anguish, must have staggered off to bed feeling that they had been accomplices in some heinous crime against humanity.
But this was only the beginning of the horror, for next morning more gruesome details emerged from the night. The native women, chancing upon the fat-laden stew, and unaware of its gristly origin, had not only pronounced it delicious, but had made a copious quantity of excellent soap from the rendered tallow.
In the light of day, and with the bones safely stored away, the horror of the night must have slowly passed, to be replaced by reason— of a sort. Simpson, due to leave for Montreal that very day, and probably still laboring under the horror of what he had commanded the previous night, realized that he could not take the barrel himself. Arguing that if it's macabre contents were to become known to his superstitious Iroquois canoe men, they might very well abandon Simpson, the barrel, or both, in some God forsaken wilderness. Without further ado, he scuttled into his canoe and quit the place. The barrel remained behind.
The factor at Fort Pitt was eager to be shut of the cargo as fast as possible. As luck would have it, the next canoe to pass Fort Pitt was another of Simpson's Iroquois-manned express canoes. Without further ado, the barrel was placed aboard, and the canoe set off for Montreal.
A sense of unease crept upon the crew as the canoe descended the Saskatchewan. The weather began to turn foul, and every morning was greeted by a watery sun, shrouded in a gray mist of ragged cloud. Finally, the canoe arrived at the mouth of the river, and the crew faced the broad, lonely expanse of Lake Winnipeg. Bowing their heads against the chill wind, they paddled quietly into the gathering gloom.
The wind rose, and foam streaked the whitecaps. The heavens were split with the crack of thunder, and every detail of the canoe was illuminated in stark relief by blinding flashes of lightning. The canoe men tried to make for the shore, but the speed with which the storm had come upon them was un-worldly, and its fury was frightening to behold. Desperate to placate the spirit of the lake, the men cast the barrel over the side. The lightened canoe instantly began to ride easily over the rushing waves, and soon the storm abated.
For several weeks John Rowand's remains bobbed in the cold waters of the Lake of the Manitou, as though reluctant to part from the country where he had spent so much of his life. Finally, the barrel was spotted by a canoe brigade headed for the Hudson's Bay Company depot at York Factory and so, that autumn, John Rowand's remains arrived on the shores of Hudson's Bay.
The clerks at York Factory examined the markings on the barrel. They indicated only that the barrel was bound for Montreal and so it was duely placed aboard the stores ship. In those days, there was no direct connection by sea between York Factory and Montreal and so, after a stormy crossing of the Atlantic, the barrel finally arrived in London, England. It was subsequently sent on to Liverpool to be included in the cargo on the next Montreal-bound transport. Upon its arrival in Liverpool, what with all the to-ing and fro-ing, the barrel was placed in a warehouse to await shipment, and there it was promptly forgotten.
The following year, presumably as a result of an investigation as to the whereabouts of the good friend of the Governor, the dust-covered barrel was re-discovered, and finally began the last leg of it's remarkable journey.
At last, some four years after his death, the mortal remains of John Rowand arrived at the dockside in Montreal. George Simpson himself was on hand to meet his old friend for the last time. The barrel was transported to the undertakers, and no doubt Simpson was relieved to finally be shut of these awful proceedings. But the ghost of John Rowand was to haunt him again, for when the undertaker opened the casque to remove the rum-soaked bones, he discovered to his horror that they were floating in brine. Somewhere on the wind-tossed ocean, thirsty sailors, aware only of the fact that the barrel contained the object of their release from the tedium of the sea, had tapped into the spirit of poor John Rowand, and had had their fill of this colorful factor.
John Rowand was appointed Chief Factor of Edmonton House by George Simpson in 1823. He died breaking up a fight at Fort Pitt on the Saskatchewan River in the spring of 1854. George Simpson was not present at the time of his death. Rowand was interred for one year prior to his bones being exhumed and transported to Montreal. The bones were lost in Lake Winnipeg during a storm, and did complete the journey to Montreal via London, England. He was buried at Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal in 1858.
Newman, Peter C. Caesars of the Wilderness. Viking : Markham, Ontario, 1987. ISBN 0-670-80967-5. p. 241.
MacGregor, J. G. John Rowand : Czar of the Prairies. Western Producer Prairie Books : Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, 1978. ISBN 0-919306-933
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