Happy New Year

Walter Birnie Anderson's painting

This painting was done by Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s son, Walter Birnie Anderson, who was a member of the B.C. Police in the Comox area.

We have learned from my last post that Christmas Day in the HBC fur trade tended to be quiet and restful, with little trouble from anyone. So let’s see what these HBC men did at New Years, which is a more Scottish celebration than Christmas ever was.

From the Fort Selkirk Post Journals we have these New Years Day celebrations: In 1848 James Green Stewart was alone at the Fort, and feeling melancholy. “Here ends the year 1848. A year replete with incidents (to us at least) which ought to call our wandering sinful thoughts to bless our Creator for his manifold mercies…” That was written December 31: on January 1, 1849, “All hands were entertained with the best our means would afford and the day passed pleasantly enough. . . good humour reigned supreme; and after dancing until our boys were tired, we separated.” There was no alcohol at Fort Selkirk: A temperance policy was in force at this time in the Mackenzie River district, and no one had spirits on hand.

There are no Fort Selkirk journal entries for January 1850, but in 1851: “The first day of the year passed very quickly, for our means would not admit of much display. We finished the day with a dance. Mild, snow at night.”  In 1852 James Green Stewart wrote: “This being the first day of the year notwithstanding the absence of Mr. Campbell, the men were regaled with the best we had & finished off with a dance at 4 1/2 a.m. Beautiful weather. The people seemed to enjoy themselves & so would I had Mr. C. been with us.” As you know, there is no 1853 journal, for reasons you will all understand if you have followed the Fort Selkirk story.

I find that in the Spokane House post journals, the Spokane chief is called into the fort on December 31. He is given tobacco, and told not to come to the fort on January 1. As you know, I finished off my Christmas post with Spokane House’s New Years celebration, and so you all know what happened. But if you missed it and need to catch up, see this: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/merry-christmas/

In 1835, the men at Fort Simpson, on the Nass River, celebrated New Year on a Thursday. “Fine frosty weather, wind north. Gave 4 lbs. of deer’s meat to all, 1 pint of rice, 1 pint of flour to each man as a regale, it being the first day of the New Year. They also got a pint of rum each besides their glass in the morning.” In 1836 they celebrated on a Friday. “The men received a few glasses of rum each in the morning and a pint at night, 2 lbs. salt deers meat and [regale?] last evening for today to each man.” So I am not finding any great parties or dances, but perhaps the gentlemen just do not mention these.

At Fort Alexandria, they had a contest on December 31, 1842, a Saturday. “The men had today as a holiday,” Alexander Caulfield Anderson said, “the New Year falling on Sunday” [which would have been the mens’ normal day off].

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 & soberness of the day; Grand Corps [a First Nations man] 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.

The Fort Alexandria journals are missing for early 1844, but in 1845, “Men got a regale of meat &c with a few glasses of liquor in course of the day. Indians assembled to smoke & got a meal of potatoes &c &c. Montigny arrived from [horse] guard last night — all well there.” At Fort Alexandria they also always had a holiday on the 2nd of January, which I have not spotted anywhere else.

On January 1, 1846, Anderson wrote:

Fine mild weather. The men got a couple of drams in the morning and had a regale of pork & flour. The Indians too got a treat of potatoes &c, with a good smoke. I availed myself of the opportunity to speak a few words of incitement in regard to their marten hunts, which have been neglected lately.

And then, in January 1847, Anderson wrote, “Men got a regale of meat, flour, & potatoes &c &c, and as usual enjoy their far niente.” “Far niente” is an Italian phrase, meaning “doing nothing,” or “pleasant relaxing in pleasing circumstances.”  You don’t expect to find an Italian phrase in an HBC fur trade journal, especially one written by a Scotsman. But Anderson could speak Latin and he learned Italian while at Fort Alexandria. His teacher was Pere John Nobili, the Italian missionary that spent the years between 1845 and 1847 in New Caledonia and often spent time at Fort Alexandria. If you want to learn more about him, read my really, really, really, old blogpost here: http://furtradefamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2010/06/pere-john-nobili-james-birnie-and.html 

OK, so from the Fort Nisqually Journal of Occurrences, we will find a few incidents, I believe. In 1834: 

Wednesday 1st: Gave the men a blowout similar to that which they had on Christmas day, which afforded them ample enjoyment. The frosty weather continues.

Thursday 2nd: The men were not required to work today as they are rather indisposed after yesterday’s debauch. Weather still frosty.

So they did celebrate a little too much! In 1833, “This day according to custom I gave the best rations I had in store with each one pint of rum after getting a few drams and cakes in my sitting room. They behaved well…” In 1836: “According to custom the men paid me their morning visit, they were received kindly. Gave them three rounds of rum and Cakes and the best food the place could afford.. . thank be to God the day is past without much bustle and hope their drinking fit is over.” 

I should remind you all that the men woke up the gentlemen on these celebratory mornings, by shooting guns in the air, in what is called a feu de joie, or “fire of joy.”

“Our thoughtless men enjoyed themselves with the best the place could afford,” the gentleman recorded in 1837, again from Fort Nisqually. But in 1838: “From the bad conduct of my men [illegible] last, I did not treat them as usual. They fell [illegible] hurt, and all excused themselves for disobeying my orders. No work was done this day.” And looking back, he did have a little trouble with his men, who he literally tied up with ropes! I am presuming that the gentleman in charge was William Kittson, as it is he who A.C. Anderson replaced at Fort Nisqually  in 1840. 

There is a long gap in the Fort Nisqually records, and it is not until January 1847 that William Fraser Tolmie reports: “People enjoying themselves throughout the day in different ways, and a dance in the evening.” Tolmie was there for a number of years, and he did not often report on the regales he gave to his men, or the celebrations they had. Interestingly, Tolmie was a tee-totaller: he was probably not overly interested in his mens’ partying and dancing. He also had too many troubles to worry about at Fort Nisqually in those years. 

I’m afraid I didn’t easily find a New Years post in Paul Kane’s book, but I am sure there is one in there somewhere. But Daniel Williams Harmon celebrated the New Year with his men in January 1802: 

This being the first Day of the year, in the morning I gave the People a Dram or two & a pint of Rum each to drink in the course of the Day, which enabled them to pass it merrily, although little or nothing to eat, for our Hunters say they cannot kill.

It seems to me that Daniel Harmon is another tee-totaller in the fur trade. Nevertheless, he allowed his men to celebrate their Christmases and New Year. In 1801: “Yesterday being the first Day of another year and agreeable to the Canadian custom, either in Canada or in this Country, they on that Day always get drunk if possible, therefore yesterday they drank from morning till night, and in the evening danced in the Hall, but no scratching nor fighting!” So, there you have the reason for the New Years Party — it wasn’t only the Scots, but the Canadiens, who celebrated on that day! 

Daniel Harmon ended up in New Caledonia, at the Fraser’s Lake post. On New Years Day, 1811, he must have been amused by the reactions of the First Nations men as they watched the Canadiens get drunk! Here’s the story:

This being the first Day of the year our People have past it as is customary for them — Drinking & fighting. Some of the principal Indians of the place desired us to allow them to remain at the Fort to see our People drunk, but as soon as they began to be intoxicated and quarrel among themselves, the Natives were apprehensive that something unpleasant might befall them also, therefore they hid themselves under beds & elsewhere, and said they thought the White People had become mad. But those who were in the fore part of the Day the most Beastly, became in the afternoon to be the quietest, they therefore observed that their senses had returned to them again, at which change they appeared to be not a little surprised.

Harmon’s journals are really good, and I think I need to read them again, as I am enjoying the little bits I read today. Here is another interesting New Year Day from his journal. The year is 1812:

This being the first Day of the year, Mr. [James] McDougall & I Dined with all of our People in the Hall, and after our repast was over I invited several of the Sicanny [Sekani] and Carrier [Dakehl] Chiefs & most respectable Men among them, to come and partake of what we had remaining — and I must acknowledge that I was surprised to see them behave with so much decency & even propriety as they did in drinking off a Flaggon or two of rum, and after their repast was over they smoaked their Pipes and conversed rationally on the great difference there is between the manners & Customs of the Civilized People and those of Savages. [The printed text adds: “They readily conceded, that ours are superior to theirs.”]

So, have a Happy New Year, everyone — a New Year that is as good as these old voyageurs and gentlemen enjoyed.

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

2 thoughts on “Happy New Year

  1. Mary Lester

    It is interesting that you comment on the holiday on January 2 at Fort Alexandria. Williams Lake still has a civic holiday on that date called Wrestling Day. They claim that it started in the 1930’s by merchants whose stores were empty on that day. Perhaps there is an older reason for the holiday!

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Wrestling was very much a part of voyageur tradition and celebrations. And perhaps, there were Metis descendants of voyageurs living at Williams Lake or nearby (the brigade trail ran close to Williams Lake) at that time! So, mark it possible! Certainly the Metis lived at Lac la Hache, which is close enough to Williams Lake…