Celebrating Christmas in a Fur Trade fort

Flintlock Guns, Fort Langley

Flintlock Guns

 

You will presume from the above photo that the firing of guns was a part of the celebration at Christmas — in the fur trade, the firing of guns was a major part of every celebration!

Of course Christmas and New Year were the most popular holidays, enjoyed by everyone. Rarely did the clerk or gentleman in charge of the fort jot down what occurred on those days. One exception to that rule was Daniel Harmon, who wrote, “This being Christmas Day our people pay no further attention to worldly affairs than to drink all day…” (But Harmon’s idea of a Christmas celebration was to read his Bible and meditate on the birth of Jesus).

The source for much of the material in this post comes from Carolyn Podruchny’s book, Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade (Toronto: UT Press, 2006) — a great read if you want to know more about your voyageur-ancestors’ lives.

No matter what Daniel Harmon’s feeling were about the voyageurs’ celebrations, it is clear that they had no objection to the use of alcohol on Christmas Day. On December 24, 1842, Anderson made his daily entry in the Fort Alexandria post journal: “Fine. As Christmas Day falls tomorrow I gave the men this day for themselves, with a regale of pork and horse flesh for tomorrow…”

Christmas Day began quietly enough — the voyageurs rose at dawn and lined up inside the post with their flintlock guns primed with gunpowder. They fired their guns into the air, one shot following the other in rotation — BANG, BANG, BANG! The voyageurs were telling the world they were celebrating Christmas, and inveigling a drink of rum from the gentleman in charge. In return for having been startled from bed by the blast of gunpowder, Anderson gave his men their alcoholic regale. This morning ritual was normally followed by “chaotic parties, where wild abandon and heavy drinking predominated. Alexander Henry the younger complained on New Year’s Day in 1803 that he was plagued with ceremonies and men and women drinking and fighting pell mell.” [Source: Podruchny, Making the Voyageur World].

Not only did the voyageurs travel great distances to celebrate Christmas with their friends, so too did the gentlemen. Sometimes all hands pitched in to prepare an enormous feast of fish soup, roast pork or swan or duck, and spirits. Working together to produce their feast created a feeling of good-will between  the two classes of men (employees and gentlemen). After the feast, the wives of gentlemen and voyageurs lined up to be kissed by all the men in the fort. That was the formal beginning of the party, and sometimes the celebrations that followed lasted for days.

It took a stranger to the fur trade to describe a fur trade Christmas at Edmonton House. In 1846 (I think) Paul Kane wrote: “On Christmas Day the flag was hoisted, and all appeared in their best and gaudiest style, to do honour to the holiday. Towards noon every chimney gave evidence of being in full blast, whilst savoury steams of cooking pervaded the atmosphere in all directions. About two o’clock we sat down to dinner…

“The dining room in which we assembled was the largest room in the fort, probably about fifty by twenty-five feet, well warmed by large fires, which are scarcely ever allowed to go out. The walls and ceilings are boarded… but these boards are painted in a style of the most startling barbaric gaudiness, and the ceiling filled with centre-pieces of fantastic guilt [sic] scrolls, making altogether a saloon which no white man would enter for the first time without a start, and which the Indians always looked upon with awe and wonder….

“No tablecloth shed its snowy whiteness over the board; no silver candelabra or gaudy china interfered with its simple magnificence. The bright tin plates and dishes reflected jolly faces, and burnished gold can give no truer zest to a fest… My pleasing duty was to help a dish of mouffle, or dried moose nose; the gentleman on my left distributed, with grave impartiality, the white fish, delicately browned in buffalo marrow. The worthy priest helped the buffalo tongue, whilst Mr. Rundell cut up the beaver’s tails. Nor was the other gentlemen left unemployed, as all his spare time was occupied in dissecting a roast wild goose… Such was our jolly Christmas dinner at Edmonton; and long will it remain in my memory.”

The dinner was followed by a dance, and Kane continued his description: “In the evening the hall was prepared for the dance to which Mr. Harriott had invited all the inmates of the fort, and was early filled by the gaily dressed guests. Indians, whose chief ornament consisted in the paint on their faces, voyageurs with bright sashes and neatly ornamented moccasins, half-breeds glittering in every ornament they could lay their hands on; whether civilized or savage, all were laughing, and jabbering in as many different languages as there were styles of dress…

“The dancing was most picturesque and almost all joined in it. Occasionally I, among the rest, led out a young Cree squaw, who sported enough beads around her neck to have made a pedlar’s fortune, and having led her into the centre of the room, I danced round her with all the agility I was capable of exhibiting, to some highland reel tune which the fiddler played with great vigour, whilst my partner with grave face kept jumping up and down, both feet off the ground at once…” [This from Brock Silversides’ Fort de Prairies: the story of Fort Edmonton.]

So why the guns? At Fort Alexandria, the Christmas celebrations ended on Monday the 26th. By the next day a few of the men set off for Kamloops; on the 28th the men were “employed as usual.” On the 31st of December, however, Anderson noted that: “The men today had today as a holiday… [I] set up a prize of a pair of leggings to be shot for by the Indians & Canadians. The shooting was very poor, owing a good deal to the cold & the soberness of the day. Grand Corps [ Native] eventually carried off the prize, though by no superior shooting. Indeed upon the whole the Canadians surpassed the natives. Men regaled themselves with flour, horse flesh &c., & the Indians got 6 kegs potatoes & 1 yard tobacco by way of festive.” [Source: Fort Alexandria Journal, 1842-43, B.5/a/5, fo. 35, HBCA]

Copyright Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2013/2014. All rights reserved.