What are York Boats?

Mary McMahon

York boats are boats which were used by the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) in the 18th and 19th centuries, before being replaced by steamboats. These boats allowed traders to penetrate inland waterways in Eastern Canada, and the design of the York boat inspired the boats used for trading in some regions of the Pacific Northwest. Replicas of York boats can be seen on display in several museums, and archaeologists periodically unearth whole or partial boats on digs of 18th and 19th century sites.

York boats have similarities to viking vessels.
York boats have similarities to viking vessels.

The design of the York boat was inspired by the boats made in Orkney, England. Orkneymen trace the lineage of their boats to the boats used by the Vikings, and York boats do bear a great deal of similarity to Viking boats, especially in their clinker construction, a technique which involves building up the sides of the boat with overlapping boards. The design was flat bottomed, increasing clearance and storage room, with a pointed bow and stern which made the boat easy to manipulate along inland waterways.

Some York boats were powered by a crew of oarsmen, while others utilized both sails and oars. Steering systems include crude steering poles such as those which have been used in inland waterways for thousands of years, along with more sophisticated rudders. The York boats were built to be durable and very tough, and they could work safely in waterways which were iced over because their heavy construction resisted punctures from the ice. This was critical in the often cold climate of Canada.

The heavy build of York boats was a problem at portages, as the boats could not be easily lifted and carried like canoes. Popular portages were sometimes equipped with rollers to make it easier for the crews of York boats to manhandle their boats across the landscape to get around waterfalls and other obstructions. The disadvantage at portages was believed to be outweighed by the stability and strength of the York boats, as well as their capacity.

These boats were named for York Factory, the settlement which served as the headquarters for the Hudson's Bay Company. They were constructed at the settlement by Orkneymen who were imported specifically as boat-building consultants, and they plied their way back and forth between York Factory with loads of goods which could be transferred to larger ships for trade elsewhere. Today, York Factory is maintained as a historical site by the Canadian government.

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