What Are York Ships? Definition, Meaning and Concept

York ships are ships that were used by the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) in the 18th and 19th centuries, before being replaced by steamboats. These ships enabled traders to penetrate inland waterways in eastern Canada, and York's ship design inspired ships used for trade in some regions of the Pacific Northwest. Replicas of York ships can be seen on display in various museums, and archaeologists periodically unearth whole or partial ships in excavations of 18th- and 19th-century sites.

York's ship design was inspired by ships made in Orkney, England. The Orkneymen trace the lineage of their ships back to the ships used by the Vikings, and the York ships bear a strong resemblance to Viking ships, especially in their clinker construction, a technique of building the sides of the ship with overlapping boards. . The design was flat-bottomed, increasing clearance and storage space, with a pointed bow and stern that made it easy to maneuver the ship along inland waterways.

Some York ships were propelled by a crew of oarsmen, while others used sails and oars. Steering systems include crude steering poles, such as have been used on inland waterways for thousands of years, along with more sophisticated rudders. York ships were built to be durable and very strong, and could work safely on icy waterways because their heavy construction resisted ice punctures. This was critical in Canada's often cold climate.

The heavy construction of the York ships was a problem in the portages, as the ships could not be easily lifted and carried like canoes. Popular portals were sometimes fitted with rollers to make it easier for York ship crews to manipulate their ships across the landscape to avoid waterfalls and other obstructions. The handicap in portability was believed to outweigh the stability and strength of York's ships, as well as their capacity.

These ships were named for the York Factory, the settlement that served as the headquarters of the Hudson's Bay Company. They were built in the settlement by Orkneymen, who were imported specifically as shipbuilding consultants, and made their way through the York Factory with loads of goods that could be transferred to larger ships for trade elsewhere. Today, York Factory is maintained as a historic site by the Canadian government.