Christmas Celebrations

Flintlock Guns, Fort Langley

Flintlock Guns

There is one set of Christmas celebrations that I have forgotten to include in my recent Christmas and New Years posts, and that is those of Thomas Lowe, at Fort Vancouver. Let’s see what he has to say of the various celebrations held at that fur trade post!

Lowe was at Fort Vancouver for a lot of years. He arrived on June 15, 1843, having come down from building Fort Victoria, on Vancouver’s Island. On his arrival at Vancouver he said,  “I have been given for my exclusive use one of the rooms in the Bachelor’s Hall building. There I am to sleep, taking my meals at the general Mess table in the Big House.”

The  journal for the last months of 1843 seems to be missing, and it begins again in June 1844. Here are Thomas Lowe’s journal entries for the end of December and early part of January, 1844-1845:

24th, Tuesday. Men got a regale in the afternoon. Father [John] Nobili celebrated midnight Mass in the Catholic Church. 

25th, Wednesday. Christmas. Showery, Holyday to all hands. Most of us went out shooting. Divine Service in the Church, forenoon and afternoon. Had a card party in Dr. [John] McLoughlin’s room in the evening, and a Supper afterwards. 

26th, Thursday. A Holyday also. another card party, and a dance in Bachelor’s Hall. Barge returned from Chenamus.

John McLoughlin was the Chief Factor in charge of Fort Vancouver, and his personal quarters were part of the Big House, where the general mess was also located. “Barge” was the word the HBC men at Fort Vancouver used for the Columbia boats; I’ve run across it on a number of occasions. Of course today the word in French means “barge” (and it also means crazy) — but in those days, and in the almost medieval Canadian French they spoke in the fur trade, it meant boat.

Christmas week continues: On Friday the Barque Cowlitz came into the Columbia River from Sitka, and on Saturday, her dispatches arrived at the fort. She had been sitting 18 days off the bar waiting for the seas to subside so she could cross the bar at the mouth of the river. On Sunday, Chief Trader James Douglas read Divine Service in the hall, with Lowe reading the lessons. “Father Nobili preached in the Catholic Chapel.” On December 31, (and this is interesting):

The people engaged erecting a new Belfry, the Bell being placed at the top of a spar 45 feet above ground, the butt end of which was placed in a large cask of Salt in order to preserve it from decay. It is placed behind the small Granary, near the North pickets. This being the last day of the year, the men got a regale of beef and flour, also a half pint of Rum. Heavy rain all day.

1845. January 1st, Wednesday. Raining in the forenoon. After dinner took a ride to the Lower Plain. We had a ball in the evening up stairs, which was kept up till 2 o’clock next morning. Men comparatively quiet. 

Whenever he referred to “the men,” that meant the voyageurs and employees, not the clerks and gentlemen. To continue: January 2nd was another “Holyday,” and the gentlemen from the fort went riding and enjoyed a card party in the evening. 

So that was 1844-1845. Let’s see what happened on the following Christmas season. The Modeste is now in the river, lying off the fort:. She was a British ship sent to the Columbia in support of keeping the region British rather than allowing it to become American — this was, of course, during the time that the boundary line between British Territory and the United States was being extended west of the Rocky Mountains. I am surprised to find she was in the area for so many years!

[December] 20th, Saturday. Had a ride on horseback in the afternoon. A number of sailors and marines from the Modeste had a foot ball match in the field immediately at the back of the Fort. An eruption of Mount St. Helens took place this afternoon, which was distinctly seen from the Lower Plain…

24th, Wednesday. Heavy rain. the men got a “regale” in the evening of rum and eatables. I dined with the gun-room officers on board of the Modeste. Midnight mass was celebrated by Pere de Vos in the Roman Catholic Church.

25th, Thursday. Cloudy, but no rain. A holiday of course to all hands. I went out shooting in the forenoon to the Lower Plane. Dined at the Fort and rode out afterwards. We were all invited on board the Modeste to see the splendid manner in which the ships company had decorated her, and the Christmas feast that the table groaned under. Many of the ladies and gentlemen of the Fort went. I did not. We had no fun on shore but on board they kept it up in grand style, and many of our men joined them.

26th, Friday. Holiday. Raining, so no out of door enjoyment.

27th, Saturday. Holiday for the men but work going on as usual in the office. Chief Factor Douglas arrived before dinner from Victoria. He went in the Steamer Beaver from Nisqually to Vancouver’s Island, and thence to Fort Langley. Remained there a short time, returned to Victoria with the Schooner Cadboro in tow (laden with barrels of Salmon) Remained a week at Victoria, despatched the Barque Cowlitz for London on the 18th, and returned to Nisqually by Steamer. From thence across the Portage… Captain Baillie gave a dance in the New Office where he has lately taken up his shore quarters in the Fort. Most of the officers of the Modeste were present, and we kept it up until midnight. It was rather a noisy affair. I sprained my ankle in dancing.

On Wednesday 31, 1844, “Singing, dancing, and all kinds of fun carried on to a late or rather early hour in Bachelor’s Hall, ushering in the New Year. Several of the Junior Officers from the Modeste and a number of the other visitors were with us.”

1846. January 1st, Thursday. A holiday of course. More preaching in the Roman Catholic Church. Dull and cloudy, with a little rain in the evening. Visited all the ladies in the Fort to wish them a Happy New Year and many returns. A dance in the evening in the large Mess Hall, at which all the ladies were present. Everything went on pleasantly until about 10 when some of the Officers of the Modeste (who had been dining) began to drop in and there was then rather too much noise to be altogether pleasant. However it passed off well. 

There was another holiday on January 2nd, with “another ball this evening at which all the ladies of the Establishment and all the officers of the Modeste who could be spared were present. All went off pleasantly. Broke up dancing at midnight and sat down to supper. Adjourned afterwards to Bachelor’s Hall where we continued singing and enjoying ourselves until 4 in the morning.”

So that was 1845-1846: what happened in 1846-1847:

24th [December], Thursday. Pere De Vos performed midnight mass in the Roman Catholic Chapel, but as it rained very hard the attendance was not so numerous as was expected. The men had a Regale served out to them in the afternoon, of 3 quarts Flour, 1 quart Molasses, 3 1/2 lbs. Pork, and 1 lb. Grease, but no Rum.

25th, Friday. Christmas Day, and a holyday to all hands. As the weather was very wet, we were unable to have any out of door amusement, and passed in consequence rather a dull time of it. Sat down to an excellent dinner in the Hall at three o’clock, at which the wine was freely circulated. Some of the Gentlemen of the Fort afterwards dined on board the Modeste, and beguiled the time with songs. On shore we had nothing better to do than amuse ourselves at cards. Most of the ladies of the Fort visited the Modeste in the forenoon, to admire the ample preparations of the crew for a Christmas dinner. 

26th, Saturday. No work done. Raw disagreeable weather, and no fun.

The next day it snowed, and work was resumed on the Monday that followed. On Thursday December 31st, “a regale was served out to the men this afternoon, the same as on Christmas, but this time they had a pint of rum each to make themselves merry with. Mr. Lane had a party in his house consisting of the Miss Birnies and some of the other ladies of the Fort, where we spent a very agreeable evening, and [stayed] up to welcome in the New Year. (Thomas Lowe would wed one of the Birnie girls, by the way).

1847. January 1st, Friday. Rainy disagreeable weather, and although there was no work to be done, we could not enjoy ourselves outside. Had a very excellent dinner at the Fort, but none of the Officers of the Modeste were present, as they all dined on board. In the evening we had a splendid Ball up in the Hall, which went off remarkably well and was kept up until 3 o’clock in the morning, after which we sat down to supper. Most of the officers of the Modeste were at the Ball, and all the Ladies of the Fort. 

2nd, Saturday. Beautiful day, no rain. Rode out in the afternoon to the Lower Plain. This of course was a holyday, and the men had another allowance of rum served out to them, 1/2 pint each. Had a pleasant card party in the evening at Mr. Lane’s.

I am surprised at how long the H.M.S. Modeste stayed on the river. She was a British ship assigned to the Pacific Coast in 1843 and made two trips here, to report on the British settlements in Oregon Territory. She was 568 tons, carried 18 guns and 90 men, and she fitted in well at Fort Vancouver. Anyway, here is what happened Christmas 1847 and New Years 1848, according to Thomas Lowe — this year the Measles epidemic is causing havoc at Fort Vancouver.

[December] 24th, Friday. Fine weather. The men only worked in the forenoon. In the afternoon the Rations were served out and a Regale, no Rum however.

25th, Saturday. This is Christmas, and a holiday of course. Rained heavy last night and has been a damp disagreeable day. As the weather is so very unpropitious, and so much sickness in the Fort, we had no amusement during the day, and in the evening had only a wearisome card party.

26th, Sunday. Damp foggy weather. Divine service performed as usual…

31st, Friday. Fine weather. Dropped work at dinner time, and in the afternoon the rations were served out and also a Regale, with the addition of a pint of rum to all the men who have not been laid up with the measles…Had a very pleasant party at Mr. Lane’s and saw the New Year in before we broke up. 

1848. January 1st, Saturday. Being New Year’s Day this was of course a holyday, and as luck would have it the weather kept fair, but the only way we could enjoy ourselves was taking our guns and pistols and firing at a target. In the evening Mr. [Archibald] McKinlay and Mr. Thomas McKay arrived from Oregon City. Card party at Mr. Lane’s. 

This was a very unhappy and unlucky year for those who lived at Fort Vancouver, and many Indigenous people died in the epidemic of measles and dysentery that swept through the fort. In addition to that, many of the men were away from Fort Vancouver, on a rescue mission that would bring the women captured by the Cayuse Indians after the Waiilatpu Massacre home to the Willamette Valley. It’s an interesting time, but we will not be speaking of that in this post. 

So, Christmas 1849 and New Year 1850, here we come. By this time, the U.S. Army has set up their own military base on the hill above the HBC post of Fort Vancouver:

[December] 24th, Monday. Fine weather. A regale served out to the men in the afternoon. No rum. 

25th, Tuesday. Christmas. Beautiful day. Went the rounds wishing my friends a “Merry Christmas and many returns of the day.” Dined at the Fort at 3 o’clock and afterwards dined at the Mess of the Artillery Officers at 5 o’clock with some others from the Fort. They gave us a temperance or rather total abstinence dinner, which none of us relished much. Made up for it, however, on our return home. 

26th, Wednesday. Having received an invitation from Mr. Lane to go up to Oregon City to a Ball he was to give there, a large party of us stated this morning at 10 o’clock in a well-manned boat for that place…

This was the year of the flood on the Willamette River (or at least a year when it flooded), yet they managed to reach Oregon City and enjoyed a very pleasant party. They returned to Fort Vancouver at 7 pm in the evening of December 31st. 

1850. January 1st, Tuesday. Fine weather. Made several calls in course of the day, wishing my friends the compliments of the season. Dined at 3 o’clock, and several of the Artillery Officers were present. The dinner was kept up until rather an unusual hour for this place, and one or two of the officers indulged pretty freely. Had a whist party in Dr. Barclay’s room in the evening. 

And this is the last of Thomas Lowe’s journal, as he leaves the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company the following summer. Already he is looking toward his future as a shop-owner, and will eventually end up in San Francisco. But that is not yet.

So this is the last of my Christmas and New Years posts for this year: it will be back to work in January. Happy New Year, everyone.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021. All rights reserved.

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