The Voyageur’s Fire-Bag

The Flintlock gun
The Voyageur and his flintlock gun. One of the leather bags that this man might be wearing would be his essential fire-bag. This was almost more important than any other accessory he might have worn.

The fire-bag was an important piece of equipment to the Canadien voyageur, and to anyone else who travelled in the wilderness. Why? you might ask. Here is the answer, written by a visitor to York Factory — a young and intelligent man who travelled up the Hayes River with the voyageurs. Dr. John Birkbeck Nevins made two separate ship journeys to York Factory, in 1842 and 1843, and he returned home to write his book, titled: A Narrative of Two Voyages to Hudson’s Bay, with Traditions of the North American Indians. He’s not only a good writer, but the information he includes in this book, whether information about the voyageur’s fire-bag, or anything else that he mentions, is information that people who worked in the HBC boats would have omitted from their stories and journals as being too-every-day. And that is the importance of looking at the writing of visitors to the fur trade!

Dr. Nevins took a journey with the York Boats from York Factory, and got as far as Knee Lake before he transferred to the Athabasca boats, which would bring him back to the Factory. He learned a lot on this journey, and wrote about the fire-bag after he and the gentleman who was in charge of this Express built a fire for their voyageurs. Nevins was travelling with a Mr. B—, who had apparently worked west of the Rockies and who might have been there when Sam Black was killed, as he told Nevins that story!

Anywhere, here is Nevins’s fire-bag story:

We [Nevins and Mr. B—] were walking a-head of the boat the second day of our journey, when we came to a place which was suitable for stopping at, and as the evening was advanced we determined to go no further. The men were about a mile behind us, trying to get the boat up a rapid, and were hid from our sight by a bend in the river. We thought we would get the fire ready for them, that they might have no delay when they came up, and accordingly collected a number of burnt trees, and cut down some others, and had a magnificent blazing fire just as they turned the point of land, and saw what we were doing. We found that this gave them so much spirit, that we often adopted the same plan and walked on before, so as to be ready for them when they came up.

So in this case, the gentleman he travelled with provided the fire-bag and built the fire that warmed the voyageurs. I wonder if fire-bags also might have held flint and steel? That is a possibility, I suppose.

In dry weather and with dry wood this is easily managed, but it requires a little more skill during heavy rain. An Indian or Canadian would lose almost anything rather than his fire-bag, or its substitute. He could live for some time without food, and even if he had lost his bow and arrows, or his gun, he would still contrive to snare some sort of game, or to kill partridges with a stick. But if he cannot get a fire he cannot cook his game when he has caught it, for he does not eat his meat raw like the Esquimaux, and he would soon be killed, at any rate in winter, by the cold.

The best material for kindling a fire is birch bark. It contains a large quantity of turpentine, or some highly inflammable juice, and blazes strongly. It is a common thing to carry a small piece of this bark in some part of the dress where it will be kept dry. But there must be some dry wood, or the blaze will be of no use even when obtained. Now the outside of a tree or a log will be wet enough in rainy weather, but if it is of any tolerable thickness the rain does not soak through it. Accordingly he cuts the log down to the centre with his hatchet, and holds himself over it so as to protect it from the rain. He then cuts out a number of thin chips like matches, and having struck a spark upon a piece of fungus, which grows from the pine trees and is used as touchwood, or upon a piece of birch bark, or dry grass if he can obtain any, he covers this up in his hand and blows upon it till he sees a small flame. Then he has his dry chips ready; he lays his burning bark or moss upon some of them, covers it very lightly with others, and puts on pieces gradually increasing in size, until the fire will bear logs or branches of trees; and he has a good fire in almost less time than it has taken to describe it.

Yes, I think the fire-bag may sometimes have carried the flint and steel, as well as some dried pieces of wood or grass. Birkbeck’s comments continue, below:

But suppose he has lost his flint and steel, how is he to manage then? Why, truly, he may be badly off. Whilst the bow and arrow were in use, he would supply his want in the following way. He would find two pieces of wood (a hard and a soft piece answer the best, but it is not of much consequence), and would twist his bowstring round one piece, and holding his bow in the hand would rub it very rapidly against the other until they took fire. Now that the use of the bow is almost lost, the gunpowder which is employed instead serves well in any case. He would mix up a little gunpowder with some dry moss or grass, and rub them well together in his hands, and would then put some more powder into the pan of his gun, and holding this close over the mixed moss would fire it off. Some of the sparks falling upon it would set it on fire, and he has all that he wants.

I love this kind of information, but it seems a little dangerous to start a fire with the flintlock gun — however, there is no ball in the gun so it might be a little safer. Still… I’d be nervous, I think!

But a fire-bag is not the only way to light a fire, as you see above. Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s flint and steel is in the Royal British Columbia Museum — it is a very ordinary object in appearance, but not something we see nowadays. Everyone in the HBC carried one with them: how else would you set a fire in the evening? James Robert Anderson, A.C.’s son, had something to say of the use of the flint and steel, and of matches, too:

In June 1850 the Hudson’s Bay Company’s brigade in charge of my father conveying the season’s outfit of furs, started from Fort Colvile for Fort Langley. Accompanying our father were my eldest sister and myself… The finding of a suitable camp where water and fodder were obtainable often entailed a long wearisome day’s journey over arid plains; on the other hand it sometimes happened that in order to reach suitable locations, a short day’s march compensated for the possibly long day preceding or following. On dismounting, the first duty was to light a fire and for this purpose the flint and steel were altogether used, as matches were non-obtainable in those days; the few that I had seen were looked upon as curiosities and only used on very rare occasions as an exhibition of the white man’s power amongst the natives…

James Robert Anderson, Notes and Comments on Early Days and Events in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, p. 134-135. Two copies are in the B.C. Archives and the third is owned by myself.

So that is the end of the fire-bag story, for now. I sometimes feel sorry for the First Nations men who were (supposedly) impressed by the HBC’s power when a fur trader struck a match. However, I also have stories of a medicine man at Fort Colvile who produced a live rattlesnake from inside his shirt, an act which sent the children screaming out of the room! (James fails to tell us whether or not his father was startled by this snake. I expect he was surprised, but remained calm.) Like the flint and steel story above, this story is in James’s memoirs: these are easily accessed in the archives, but not available online. However, Dr. Nevins’s book is online, and full of fascinating information that you might not find anywhere else — some as simple as the fire-bag story; others more complicated. Just google its title, it is on Canadiana — which has tons of online historical material. There is apparently an index to Canadiana, although it is not available online as far as I can see. I am hoping to dig it out from the B.C. Archives, and when I manage to do that, I will list some of the West of the Rocky Mountain resources, if I am lucky enough to find any.

Until then, enjoy this little fire-bag story. There are lots more interesting stories in this book that apply to the York Factory Express mens’ experiences, and I will add them to this blog as I find a place and time to do so. And of course, if you wish to order my book, “The York Factory Express,” you can do so through my publisher, Ronsdale Press, here: Thank you!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “The Voyageur’s Fire-Bag

  1. Tom Holloway

    Excellent information. I have seen several mentions in fur trade era literatura of using the flint and steel in a gun lock to start a fire. The gun is held on its side, with the pan close to the kindling, where a little gunpowder has been placed to catch the spark. I can also confirm that birchbark is good fire starter. The curly pieces on the surface burn like a candle, but briefly.