Art. V. Muskettoes Mad by A. Gottfred.
The author finds that even two hundred years ago people were made of flesh and blood.
Sometimes it can be hard to feel close to the early fur traders. Fur trade journals were public documents, so they rarely let us know how the writers think and feel. I have, however, found a common bond that can unite 20th century people with the fur traders : mosquitoes!
In some journals, mosquitoes are just mentioned in passing. In 1775, the Hudson's Bay Company's Samuel Hearne blamed construction delays at Cumberland House on mosquitoes: 'The reason of our not geting a sufficient quantity of Plank cut emediatly on our arival ware oweing to the Meskittas being so thick that the People could not work in the woods' (Tyrrell, 178). That same year, independent trader Alexander Henry the Elder says mosquitoes interfered with his hunting. 'The mosquitoes were here in such clouds as to prevent us from taking aim at the ducks, of which we might else have shot many' (Henry the Elder, 245). Alexander Henry the Younger often mentions mosquitoes that 'plague' and 'trouble' him and his men (Henry, 42, 44, 48, passim).
Mosquitoes put two of Philip Turnor's men in absolute agony as they carried a canoe over a portage. 'Upon this carrying place the Musketoes are intirely mad the two men that went over the carrying place first had their legs, thighs, hands & face intirely covered with them and no sign of their skins was to be seen and both their hands are confined in the care of the Canoe.' They couldn't even slap at the mosquitoes! (Tyrrell, 489). Gabriel Franchère complains that 'We had the misfortune...to dislodge these [mosquitoes] from under the leaves where they had taken refuge from the rain of the night before; they attached themselves to us, followed us into the canoes, and tormented us all the remainder of the day' (Franchère, 261). By comparison, Alexander Mackenzie seems almost fond of mosquitoes He wrote in his 1789 journal that 'Towards noon our old Companions (the Muskettoes) visit us in greater Numbers than we would wish as they are very troublesome Guests' (Mackenzie, 168).
How did the fur traders deal with the mosquitoes? The most popular way to try and discourage the winged bloodsuckers was with smoke : smoke inside the tents, smoke at the portages, smoke in the canoes (Henry, 287; Henry the Elder, 29; Henry, 281). But smoke was not always effective. David Thompson was familiar with using smoke to fight off mosquitoes, but felt that 'they can stand more smoke than we can'. He recommended oil, especially sturgeon oil, to treat the bites (Thompson, 18). Thompson also notes that Bay men in 1786 wore 'wide loose caps of cotton with a piece of green bunting [a loosely woven worsted cloth] in the front' to keep mosquitoes from biting them at night; it was too hot to wear the caps in the daytime (Thompson, 38). Henry the Younger tried a similar solution in 1806 : he made 'a kind of mask of thin dressed caribou skin' to keep mosquitoes from his face (Henry, 285). David Thompson wrote a wonderful description of a sailor at York Factory in 1786 who tried an entirely different approach : '...finding swearing of no use, [he] tried what tar could do, and covered his face with it, but the musketoes stuck to it in such numbers as to blind him, and the tickling of their wings was worse than their bites' (Thompson, 19).
Notably missing from the list of irritating biting insects is the blackfly, but it is not clear that everything the traders called 'mosquitoes' would be considered mosquitoes today. It is quite possible that some or many of these 'meskittas' were blackflies. Some traders did draw distinctions. In 1761, Henry the Elder was troubled by 'mosquitoes, and a minute species of black fly...the latter of which are still more troublesome than the former'. And Philip Turnor describes 'bull dogs', which were 'a kind of fly about the size of a bee and not much unlike thim in color but flat and resemble the gad fly of England' (Tyrrell, 488). But no matter what was doing the biting, all the traders would have agreed that they could be much happier without them.
Franchère, Gabriel. A Voyage to the Northwest Coast of America. Milo Milton Quaife (ed). Lakeside Classics : Chicago, 1954.
Henry, Alexander (the Elder) Travels and Adventures in Canada and the Indian Territories Between the Years 1760 and 1776. James Bain (ed.) Hurtig : Edmonton, 1969.
Mackenzie, Alexander. The Journals and Letters of Sir Alexander Mackenzie. W. Kaye Lamb (ed.) Cambridge University Press : London, 1970.
Thompson, David. David Thompson's Narrative, 1784-1812. Glover, Richard (ed.) Champlain Society : Toronto, 1962.
Tyrrell, J. B. (ed.) Journals of Samuel Hearne and Philip Turnor. Reprint : Greenwood Press : New York, 1968. Originally published 1934.
Copyright 1994-2002 Northwest Journal . May I copy this article for my class?