Fishing in the Fur Trade


Squa-zown to Fort Langley

CM/F9 Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum, BC Archives. Detail from original map.

Everywhere, in the territory West of the Rocky Mountains, the salmon were important to the Natives, and to the fur traders as well. In his unpublished essay, “British Columbia,” Anderson explained this very clearly:

The Salmon has been since time immemorial the Chief, and frequently the sole, dependence of the aboriginal races bordering on the interior of the Coast range, for the sustenance of life. For many years, too, the European traders and their employees had this resource alone to trust to as the staple article of food — eked out, it is true, by various other products in both cases; the beasts of the chase, the minor fisheries, the wild-fowl, and the hare — but still, for their winter dependence, the Salmon was the chief and most valued. The one was the main support, the others composed the luxuries of life, though at times, in years of scarcity of salmon occupying a more important position.

For the most part Anderson is speaking of the Interior tribes, but the same is true of those on the coast. Everyone, whether fur trader or Native, depended on the salmon for their food supply. But the ways of getting their supply of salmon differed, as did the ways of preserving the fresh fish. We know that, for the most part, the Natives hung fillets of salmon over fires to dry — but what did the fur traders do?

In the early years, they fished for their own salmon. At Spokane House, for example, on April 17, 1822, Finan McDonald reported that the “Indians about the place making a barrier to be ready for catching salmon by the time they set into the River.” Two days later they caught 126 fish in their barrier, and brought him “two of the largest trout. The old man who takes care of our barrier lost both his wives this morning, they having run away with a young man of the Ear Ring tribe.”

So the Spokane House men had their own barriere or weir, looked after by a Native man. There is little information on how many fish were captured in this weir, but I presume some were, as otherwise why would they keep it up? In May, the men were cutting wood for another fish weir. On the 22nd of the month he wrote: “People employed as usual at the Barrier which is a long job but which when finished will I hope pay us for our trouble as we are making it strong in hopes it will last some time.” It was finally finished on June 6th. On June 10 they “killed a salmon in the barrier.” One week later there was a good many. Then the numbers seemed to decline again, but McDonald reported that the Indians “can catch nothing in their barrier it being so badly fixed the fish pass through it as fast as they come in.”

After that they sometimes caught two fish in their barrier, and sometimes 26. “Got 1 salmon from our barrier. The Indian got 17 from theirs. The Chief brought me two salmon..” This kind of imbalanced catch continued for some time, with the Natives catching as many as 230 in their inferior barrier, while the fur traders caught as few as 3. There is no sign they suspected that anything was going on.

Then, on August 28, John Lee Lewes and Finan McDonald “went down to see our barrier, there happened to be some of the Indians there spearing the salmon coming up the river. Mr. McD spoke to them but they being in a canoe put all his threats at defiance. He lost no time in springing into the water & broke the canoe. The Chief of the place was much displeased and went and brock [sic] down nine of the palisades of the garden. He then wished to come to the fort for to dispute with us. He was prevented by the Indians. We not knowing all their intentions got our cannon loaded but one of the [Natives] informed us, it was only him who was displeased with what we had done. We killed 80 salmon in our barrier. There was a guard kept up all night in case some of the Indians were badly disposed…”

That is the only place in the fur trade records where I found the fur traders erecting their own weirs and fishing for their own salmon — with one exception. I have to re-find it, of course, but somewhere in his writings Anderson mentioned that he purchased a fish weir and employed a Native man to work it. As far as I can tell, in later years (the 1840’s at least) the HBC traded with the Natives for all the salmon they wanted. James Robert Anderson (A.C.Anderson’s eldest son) described this very well. This information is found in Mss. 1912, vol. 17, file 13, BCA. It will wander around a bit before it gets to the salmon trade, so be patient.

Dear Brenda; You asked me on day to write you some of my recollections of old Fort Langley. You have read Jason Allard’s account of the finding of the site and building of the Fort where his father was post master — that is, he had charge of the Indian shop, and the keys of the Fort. Many a time I have heard him calling out the time for the people to go out, and of course all strangers would hurry out. I used to visit him when he was trading with the natives for their cranberries and hazel nuts. The blacksmith’s shop was a wonderful place to me. The smith made nails of different sizes and iron hoops for the kegs, barrels and vats that were being made by the Cooper with his three or four assistants, getting ready for the salmon run. Ovid Allard did all the trading with the natives for their salmon.  He used to stand at the wharf with two or three trunks full of the Indians’ favorite stuffs such as vermilion for the women to give themselves rosy cheeks, and tobacco for the men. Cromarty [was] at the cauldron making brine, and ever so many boys and a man or two would be running from the wharf with the salmon which they piled before the women of the fort and others who were seated in a circle in the shed where they cut the salmon. No rest for the boys — they had to continue their running this time with the cut salmon to the… men in the big shed where they were salting the salmon. And so they worked for the week — early in the morning till late at night, till the salmon run was over.

A historian once criticized Mrs. John Manson for stating that Allard “had boxes filled with things to please [the Natives], beads, vermilion and other knick-knacks.” The man said that the Natives were shrewd bargainers and knew the value of their labour. But young James, who was also at Fort Langley during salmon season, has listed the same articles of trade that Mrs. Manson listed. Historians, listen to the fur trade descendants. They were there. You were not!

After the trade was completed, the next stage was, of course, the preservation of the salmon. We are fortunate in that we have a record of the way the fur traders preserved their salmon. The women cut off the head of the fish and removed the backbone, and the “salter” placed the salmon in a large hogshead and covered them with coarse salt [and, presumably, water]. After a few days the flesh firmed up. The women drained off the pickle and boiled it in a large kettle, skimming off the blood as it rose to the surface. The salmon was then packed in 42-gallon kegs, which were sealed and laid on their sides with the bunghole left open. The boiled pickle was poured in until the keg was filled; when no more fish-oil rose to the surface of the pickle, the keg was sealed and stored. [Source: Murray C Morgan, Puget’s Sound, a Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound (Seattle: U of W Press, 1979) p. 59].

The ways the fish were caught by the Natives were many and varied. Twelve-year old James described the fisheries that he saw at Kettle Falls, just south Fort Colvile, in 1849 or so. He found it very exciting:

Fort Colvile was a pleasant post, the country in the vicinity was clear of timber up to the foot-hills one or two miles distant. The fort was situated about a mile from the Columbia River on the left hand bank, and about the same distance from the Roman Catholic mission down the river, presided over by Pere de Vos, a Jesuit priest. Quite near the mission which was situated on higher ground than the Fort, were the Kettle or Chaudiere Falls which stretch clean across the Columbia. Here the Indians used to congregate when the salmon were running. The manner of capturing the fish was accomplished in two ways — one was by baskets, so called, made of withes some ten feet long, closed at the sides and lower end. This was suspended so that the upper end touched the water of the falls, the other end being lower. The salmon, in attempting to leap the falls, often missed and fell struggling into the basket when he was hooked out. The other way was by spearing the salmon whilst in mid air, from a frail looking staging sticking out over the seething torrents, a most exciting pursuit..

Alexander Caulfield Anderson was surprised to learn that the Natives in New Caledonia had an ingenious method for killing fish. His son describes the method. The title of his piece should wake you up!

Killing Fish By Explosion: My father who was for many years situated in the Upper Country in great part of which was then known as New Caledonia in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company relates how he found the Indians obtaining fish by exploding their guns in the water.

This was done by submerging the barrel of the gun up to the breach otherwise the gun would certainly burst! How the Indians discovered that fish would be stunned by the explosion or that the gun would certainly burst if only the muzzle were immersed, could not be discovered. [Source: Mss 1912, vol. 13, file 6, BCA]

There are many different ways for the Natives to catch fish in the fur trade district. To discover what method of fishing the Natives in your territory might have employed, this section of Anderson’s “British Columbia,” might be of interest to you. As I have said many times over: if you want to know about the district now called British Columbia before it became British Columbia, you need to avoid his later manuscripts, and read this one.

It will thus be seen that the laws which govern the ascent of these fish are fixed and undeviating. The knowledge of their habits, therefore, which long experience has taught them, enables the Indians to prepare devices for their capture, in the full certainty that, when the fish do arrive, their preparations will not have been made in vain. In these various devices much ingenuity is displayed, but in different portions of the river, and by different tribes, various methods are practiced.

Before the salmon enter the river they are readily caught in the adjacent straits and inlets with baited hooks, frequently affixed to long lines fastened to a canoe, which is then paddled briskly through the water. The bait used in this system of trolling is a small fish, or some other substance or even a piece of old cloth.

The lower Indians of the Fraser use small drift nets, which are plied from their canoes. Higher up they erect scaffolds on rocky projections, where the current is strong. From these scaffolds bag-nets distended by light frames, nearly similar to the drift-nets, are plied by the fishermen. This system continues as far as the borders of the Ta-cully [Dakelh] tribes near [Fort] Alexandria. The Ta-cully, who are peculiarly expert in preparing various devices for fishing and the snaring of the beasts of the chase, construct weirs for catching the salmon. A close fence of light hurdles, supported by strong stakes driven into the bottom, is projected some forty or fifty feet into the stream, where the current is swift, and the bottom gradually shelving. Another fence is run downstream; then at a right angle six feet or so towards the bank, and again upwards nearly to the first transverse fence. The ascending fish thus intercepted in their progress by the upper fence seek in vain to round the obstacle, and after a while enter a large cylindrical basket which is sunk at the angle where the descending fence is formed with slender rods converging inwards, like the entrance of a wire mouse-trap. Great numbers are thus caught. This is the plan adopted on the main stream, where, as before stated, the water is turbid. In the clear tributaries the submerged basket is not found to answer, except where the stream can be fenced from side to side. Elsewhere, the Natives substitute an open basket, in the same position as the other, but sunk only a few inches below the surface, above which the top of the basket projects. An opening is left in the top of the fence opposite to the basket, through which the water rushes. The salmon leap this tiny fall, and drop unsuspectingly into the trap prepared for them. At the discharge of Fraser’s and Stuart’s Lake the stream is fenced across, and the sunken basket is used; immense numbers are thus caught in ordinary years. The fence, however, is rarely so secure but that the main portion of the shoal contrives to force a passage, and even admitting it were perfectly close, the natives have a conventional understanding that the fish shall be allowed to pass towards their neighbours further inland, who in turn do not seek to intercept the main body from the spawning grounds.

The spear cannot be used save in the tributaries when the water is clear. At Alexandria I used to amuse myself at times with the scoop net and have thus secured fifty or sixty fish in an evening. The Seine, too, can be effectually employed.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2015. All rights reserved.