James Isham’s Observations on Hudsons Bay, 1743 and Notes and Observations on a Book Entitled

James Isham was employed by the HBC from 1732 and as chief of Fort York from 1737, According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography (Volume III) “Isham was at once a skilled and understanding trader, a perceptive planner and strategist, and a conscientious and observant natural historian.” He was not an expert on the fur trading business, but he did develop expertise in the subject of Indian vocabularies

His candid Observationswere sent to the London office concerning the HBC and Dobbs’s dogmatic view that there must be an inland waterway to the Pacific [soon disproved]. Although received “with ease and affability, there is no evidence that Isham’s work was either read or acted upon.

p. lxvi, by the Editor: The document bears no marginal comments such as often denote that a document has been worked through for the benefit of the Committee, there is no mention in the Minutes of its receipt, and no action can be clearly ascribed to it.

p. lxvii: The Indian vocabularies were first in importance in Isham’s mind. Here he suffered in the defect, common to all his contemporaries, that the scientific study of alien tongues was unthought of, and that any use of a phonetic script was undreamed of. Although Isham hoped that his work would be of advantage to anyone residing in North America, his Cree vocabulary is even yet of little value for the purpose for which he designed it. Abut if the Indian equivalents claim little attention, the English words and phrases give a picture which is nor the less clear for being unintentional. Here is set out the small talk of the weather and the seasons, the familiar gossip of health and the body and the family; then serious business—goods, fiid, furniture and beasts, fishes, insects and birds. Trees, berries and herbs take a small section and then comes a vocabulary for gathering information about a mine, followed by the numerals necessary for trade, and the colours, with adjectives in close attendance. There is also a short item on games, and a rather miscellaneous assortment of verbs concludes the main vocabulary. The whole pieces together without art, and probably without intention, to give a lively picture of the trader at his task, and the “Discourses” which follow complete the presentation of the trader and the Indians, complete and vivid from the first greeting of “Watcheer Coshock’ to the farewell of “make haste itt will be night & you’l be drunk in the morning & not trade”.

p. 75-76: I have observd The Indians or natives in these Northr’n parts have no Regard or Distinction of Days! Sundays being all alike to them,—observes the Christians Keeping the Sabbath day, which they stile a Reading Day, by Reason of the men’s not being at their weekly work on that Day, as also Christmass Day, New years Day, & St. G. day, Which they stile the Englishmans feast, 7c.