He was born in Penetanguishene, Ontario on August 2, 1835, his father an Englishman of the British Royal Navy. His mother was Marile Foch, of Polish ancestry, but more recently from Alsace-Lorraine in France. Far from being uneducated frontier people, the bicultural family was able to educate their numerous children, the boys particularly being outstanding engineers.
But young Henry was not a student by choice. His father allowed him to leave Upper Canada College at sixteen to take a position with an internationally known English insurance company which sent him to a branch office in St. Petersburg, Russia. The dull world of commerce became intolerable so he quit and came home to Canada. Doubtless his disciplined father and studious older brother considered him a “drop-out”, an irresponsible example of whatever the “hippie” type was called in those days. A few days later he was off, at age eighteen, to a Hudson’s Bay fur-trade post on the northern shores of Lake Huron, and the kind of life that he felt was suitable for him. As he says of himself, “As I had the happy knack of getting out of one scrape only to fall into another, my friends were of the same mind.”
His first trip happened to be in the brigade of the Bay’s Governor, the august Sir George Simpson himself. The youngster throws some light on some of the idiosyncrasies of that gentleman:
” … putting his canoe into the water at one-thirty in the morning, although he himself slept until seven, except that, still apparently asleep, he raised his arm now and again and slipped his fingers into the water”. Henry noticed that the oarsmen immediately put on a burst of speed. Sir George’s was an almost “stop-watched” routine — stop at seven for breakfast, off again at seven-thirty, whether the meal was finished or not–the practice of having dinner en route, the canoes drawing together while the outside oarsman (rowed) while the inside ones ate, then position reversed. He was the victim of some of Sir George’s practical jokes, one of which backfired by enabling young Henry to meet some of the officers of the Company with whom he might not have been in contact for years. It was on this journey that Moberly recorded the governor’s “extremely reprehensible habit” of a daily bath, taken at breakfast time, by plunging into the icy water, even on a day of mixed rain and snow.” Moberly was not to be outdone by an old man, although he could not help feeling that “(he) was a martyr to his chief’s pernicious habit”. However when he said in his memoirs, “so ended my travels in George Simpson’s company, never to be repeated”, it was not with malice. They remained good friends until Simpson died. At that time Henry temporarily quit the Company.
For forty years, on and off, Moberly stayed with the Bay as a chief trader, factor or other officer of a post, a brigade or a district, for he spent only one year as an apprentice-clerk “pretending to do some office work”, but hunting most of the time.
Moberly was a notable hunter, according to the autobiography, but he assures the reader that there are “no incidents…for the truth of which he cannot vouch”. One is inclined to believe him for he is not averse to telling some stories in which he did not figure with notable credit.
His adventures first carried him from Norway House on the northern end of Lake Winnipeg up the Saskatchewan River system out to Rocky Mountain House, west of Edmonton. Here he was put in charge with an old experienced ‘hand’ to teach him the ropes. All that summer he was in charge of the hunting party there, whose job was to secure provisions of dried meat for Fort Edmonton and the posts beyond. Moberly recounts a fact that may be a clue to the present position of Grande Cache on the railway, which runs south of Grande Prairie to the vicinity of Hinton on the C.N.R.
He says, “There is a valley on the Upper Smoky full of warm springs and covered with luxuriant grass. Snow never lies to any depth on the rich soil. At no distant day this spot doubtless will be a favorite resort, and if I am any prophet, a veritable garden. I have a theory that coal beds have been smoldering beneath it for ages and that smoke issuing from the banks of the Smoky and to which it owes its name, comes from fissures in the earth. The scenery all about is magnificent.”
The latter description fits Grande Cache. Round this area the Indians are Iroquois descendants of old Voyageurs.
Henry’s first venture into the Peace occurred in 1856. He was taking horses and men to Fort Dunvegan by rafting down the Athabasca River to the Smoky Junction at Peace River Landing. From there he went across the Lesser Slave Lake route — always bad — and then up the Peace to Dunvegan. In his book When Fur Was King, Moberly did not dwell on the hardships of the famous bad route. His memories are funny or exciting. On this occasion he recounts a foot race between an Indian and a bear (with a happy ending). Also his own experience while steering his canoe down a rapid, all with a characteristic economy of words that gives the reader’s imagination scope. Apparently the guides and voyageurs had adopted the conservative and cautious attitudes of the Bay Company whom they served. The Moberly party was proud of their success and someone advised the trader at Dunvegan, “Take care what you say, and their clerk is the worst!” Moberly’s sense of humour was always near the surface finding fun (not unkind) even in old post records like this: “On a certain day the wind was northwest; a band of Indians camped round; all hands chopping cordwood. Mrs. Bellrose was delivered of a fine girl.” For the next thirteen days only the dates were written, and the words added, “All the same as yesterday”. How he would have laughed to find that a modern researcher, who shall be unnamed, seriously interpreted this report as indicating that unfortunate Belrose had fourteen “wives” or his wife had fourteen consecutive babies!
From Moberly’s accounts of the game he shot on his journeys one gets three impressions. First, that above everything else he loved hunting. Second, that the Peace River Country was a hunter’s paradise and third that any brigade of Moberly’s did not go short of food! Also, he had no difficulty getting the Indians to trade with him.
He left the service for the first time in the spring of 1861.
Setting out on his own, he and a young Iroquois went via Tete Jaune Cache, to Fort George (now Prince George) and Stuart Lake to join his brother. There he found that his brother Walter, the assistant surveyor general of British Columbia, had been sent to Peace River. Henry joined the Bay again for a period of three years, which he spent in the Nechako country, trapping and hunting bears.
His next venture was among the gold miners around Barkerville, but gold panning did not appeal to him. He took an office job with his brother who was building the road from Quesnel to Barkerville and then began his first venture as a free trader. He prospered.
The Peace River country attracted him. He made his way to present day Hudson’s Hope where two free traders, Cust and Carey, were operating. They persuaded him to invest in their enterprise, but he wanted no part of the bargaining. Hunting and trapping was more “his thing”. At the lake which bears his name, he built himself a home, and ran a trap line.
Moberly Lake appears in the folklore of the Indians as a “haunted” place. From tales told by old Charlie Yahey, the medicine man to today’s Beavers, one gathers that at some time there had been a group of cannibal Indians living there — probably insane. In any case, until a band of fish-eating Indians moved in, the Indians avoided the place except for some berry picking in the summer. Moberly had the place to himself except for a few Sikannis, who hunted along the Pine, and up the Liard Rivers.
Living was easy for an expert hunter. Moose, black bears, white fish and trout, abounded and ducks and geese came there in thousands in their season. Up one small stream in the summer he took one hundred and seventeen beavers and sixty more as they passed his camp. In summer on a “fine open flat, half a mile square” he raised a garden in the two-foot deep soil at the west end of the lake. Flour cost fifty dollars a sack, tea five dollars a pound, salt a dollar, other necessities in proportion. In the spring of 1868 the partnership sold out to the Bay.
Moberly then spent some time wandering all over our country. He said simply that from the mouth of the Peace River Canyon to Great Slave Lake he ” knew every inch of it”. In a three-week stay at Old Fort St. John on an expedition to get bears’ grease, a saleable commodity, he shot sixteen grizzlies. Incidentally, in case one wonders what bears’ grease is used for, let me explain. During a time when meat was scarce in Dawson Creek because of farmers’ strike, I personally used it in place of lard or shortening. I never made better pie crust.
Somewhere between Dunvegan and Battle River in 1869 he built a winter house, called Moberly House, the first on that stretch of the Peace. One his way to the mouth of the Mackenzie, his objective, he stopped at Fort Chipewyan.
The Bay was preparing to put steamboats on the Athabasca. Moberly was persuaded to postpone his trip, rejoin the service, and build Fort McMurray as a steamboat landing at the foot of the Grand Rapids. There had been a post there at the mouth of the Clearwater many years before but smallpox had killed almost all of the Indians. He worked from this base until 1886. This stretch of service is the basis of several good anecdotes and yarns. A pity that When Fur Was King is now out of print and hard to find.
In none of Moberly’s writing is there anything unkind, spiteful or petty. Neither is there anything boastful. A modest man, whose years bore lightly upon him until he died near Prince Albert at the age of ninety-seven.
He wrote his own story, and wrote it well. At ninety-three he still danced a jig, walked half a mile for his daily paper, loved to entertain friends and have a game of cards and talked knowledgeably of the events of the day. His friend said that he would then dance the Charleston (lively and acrobatic teenage dance of that day) as “a mild diversion suited to weak constitutions.”
Moberly looked forward to reaching the century mark, but he died July 9, 1931 in his ninety-seventh year. Just before that he wrote to Beaver Magazine, in his own hand, promising an article for the “Bay” publication when he reached his hundredth year.
Summarizing his own career he wrote.
“During the years I was in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Service, wherever there was opposition I was sent to cope with it. Wherever an Indian camp was likely to be found I went. Thus I became thoroughly acquainted with the country from York Factory on Hudson Bay to Bella Coola on the Pacific coast, and from beyond the banks of the Saskatchewan to Hay River and Great Slave Lake.”
Perhaps Moberly even more than Twelve-Foot Davis should be the symbol of the Peace River Country.