Salmon Processing at Fort George and elsewhere in the HBC

Fort George [Astoria]
Le Fort George, jadis fort Astoria, Fort George, Oregon. 1848. Henry James Warre. Mikan 2897241 at Library and Archives Canada, C-040856, and I have used it with their permission.

James Birnie continued his work at Fort George, and part of his work at that place was overseeing the processing of the salmon that they caught in the Columbia River, at Pillar Rock, upriver from his post. It is a very interesting part of the fur trade, that all these HBC men west of the Rocky Mountains were fishermen, or fish processors. The HBC men also fished on the east side of the mountains, so fishing was not so unusual in the fur trade. It was a part of gathering of provisions for the winter. 

In 1997, Richard Somerset Mackie published his book, Trading Beyond the Mountains: The British Fur Trade on the Pacific, 1793-1843 [UBC Press]. In this book he describes the work that the HBC men who lived west of the Rocky Mountains did. It was not trapping, or hunting, or chasing the buffalo! The HBC men worked in farming at Fort Nisqually, Fort Vancouver, Fort Colvile, Fort Alexandria, Fort Langley, and at the Kamloops post. At any post north of Fort Alexandria it was too cold for farming — excluding, of course, Fraser’s Lake, which was sheltered from the north winds and always had a fine farm. At Fort Nisqually they had an expensive threshing machine for their grain, which they then sent down to the Cowlitz Farm, or Fort Vancouver, to be milled. Fort Alexandria had a mill, as did Fort Colvile, but any flour produced at those posts stayed in the territory. But much of Fort Vancouver’s flour, and that of Fort Nisqually, was shipped to the Sandwich Islands to be sold.

The HBC men also milled lumber, especially at Fort Vancouver. James Douglas described the mill on the river bank east of the fort. He said that, soon after leaving Fort Vancouver:

We landed at the sawmill and remained there for nearly an hour. It works 12 saws and cuts about 3,500 feet of inch boards during the 24 hours. 

All this lumber was used at the fort, or sent to the Sandwich Islands to be sold there. The term used for lumber, by the HBC men, was “Deals.” I don’t really have much information on how much lumber was shipped to Hawaii, and I do know that the deals did not necessary make money for the HBC. But it is important to note that milling lumber for sale in the Sandwich Islands was part of work of the HBC men west of the Rocky Mountains.

In addition to farming and milling grains, and cutting lumber to make deals, they also sold salted salmon in the Sandwich Islands. Salmon were found at all posts in the territory, and the HBC traders lived off the salmon they traded from the First Nations, and the potatoes they grew outside of every fort. I am presuming, perhaps incorrectly, that the salmon stored in the storehouses at Fort Alexandria were salted in the same manner as those on the coast. But we do know that the salmon processed at Fort George or Pillar Rock, at Fort Nisqually, and at Fort Langley, were processed in the good old fashioned HBC manner. 

In 1824 a botanist named John Scoular saw the “magnificent salmon streams of the Pacific, which afforded the inhabitants their primary provision:

Several causes contribute to produce this remarkable difference between the tribes on the eastern and western sides of the mountains. The most abundant supply of game in N. America is that afforded by the buffalo, and this animal has never penetrated to the N.W. Coast; at the same time, the Columbia River, Fraser’s River, and the other streams on the W. side of the Mountains, abound in salmon almost to their source. The inland tribes of the N.W. regions reside chiefly on the margins of the rivers, where they live on salmon during the summer, and prepare greater quantities of the same fish for their winter supply. The produce of the chaw, is, therefore, with them a secondary condition. [Mackie, Trading Beyond the Mountains, p. 76].

In fact, west of the Rocky Mountains, salmon and potatoes were the common fare for the men. As Richard Mackie says, quoting Governor Simpson:

‘Their weekly rations,’ Simpson stated in 1841, ‘are usually twenty-one pounds of salted salmon and one bushel of potatoes for each man; and in addition to fish, there are also venison and wild fowl, with occasionally a little beef and pork.’ [Trading Beyond the Mountains, p. 189]

So, now to get back to James Birnie at Fort George [Astoria]:

Fort George stood at the mouth of the Columbia River, and so Birnie was Chief Factor John McLoughlin’s eyes and ears at the river mouth. He reported to McLoughlin on any incident in his part of the territory; he made purchases from ship captains, and collected debts from some who were attempting to escape the district by ship. Because of this, Birnie was the recipient of many of John McLoughlin’s terse letters. In one letter, McLoughlin gave Birnie instructions on how to make caviar, and told him to “make as much as you can.” Unfortunately I don’t have the recipe that must have been enclosed in that letter, and so I don’t know how they made it. 

James Birnie oversaw the salting and pickling of the hundreds of fine Columbia salmon caught at the HBC fishing station at Pillar Point, which were processed and put in barrels before being shipped to the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii] for sale. It is unlikely, however, that Birnie took an active role in the processing. His own son said that “Father was a good trader, a great reader and an expert at accounts, but when it came to shooting or rowing or other work of that nature he let his employees take care of it.”

The method of preserving salmon was an old HBC recipe, used everywhere in the northwest. 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. (I might be wrong about water being added to the mix.) After a few days the flesh firmed up and the women drained off the pickle and, boiling it in a large kettle, skimmed off the blood that rose to the surface.

The salmon were then packed in 42-gallon kegs which were sealed and laid on their side 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.

So, I told you that Birnie would probably not have pickled the salmon. But salting and preserving the salmon caught at Pillar Point was something that the women would have done. Even the children would have worked at this job. There’s a lovely little Fort Langley story which addresses this. For a while I thought this was written by James R. Anderson, but no: the author is Aurelia Manson, daughter of James Murray Yale of Fort Langley.

The blacksmith’s shop was a wonderful place for me. The smith made nails of different sizes, and iron hoops for the kegs, barrels and vats, that were being made by the Cooper, W. Cromarty, 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 Indian’s favorite stuffs such as vermillion for the women to give themselves rosy cheeks, and Tobacco for the men.

W. Cromarty at the big 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. The had to continue their running, this time with the cut salmon to the men in the beg shed where they were salting the salmon. And so they worked all the week, early in the morning till late at night till the salmon run was over.

This is found in the Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 20, at — probably a site you want to keep an eye on. The article is titled “The History of Fort Langley, 1827-96,” by Mary K. Cullen. I copied this years ago, and I presume it is still posted at above site. But if you can’t find it there, it is in the B.C. Archives, in James Robert Anderson’s papers, Mss 1912, vol. 176, file 13.

When the next James Birnie post is written (and this one will be about the murder that I told you of last week, I think: after all it was the salter at Pillar Rock fisheries who was murdered), it will appear here:

To go back to the beginning, see: 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2019. All rights reserved.




4 thoughts on “Salmon Processing at Fort George and elsewhere in the HBC

  1. Gordon MacIvor

    So Fort George was shipping salted salmon to Honolulu.
    Was Fort Yukon doing the same?
    Salting salmon then sailing it down the Yukon River to Nome where a real sailing ship would transfer the salmon onboard and sail to Honolulu? Or did it sail to Japan and China with the salmon and furs?

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      I doubt that Fort Yukon was doing the same. Certainly they were not sailing down the Yukon River for delivery to the Sandwich Islands. Nor were the furs shipped down the Yukon River to China, but were delivered up the Porcupine to Fort McPherson and then up the Mackenzie all the way to Fort Simpson, where they went out to Hudson Bay with the furs for the rest of the territory. Both the NWC and HBC had huge problems delivering furs to China, and both lost money on the various attempts they made.

  2. Nancy Anderson

    I have since learned that no water was added to the salt when the salmon were placed in the large hogshead. The juice from the fish mixed with the salt in the barrel to form the pickle, which was then processed. In his book, John Dunn explains this quite clearly, but I got the information from the book written by another visitor to the North west, who came to Fort Nisqually with the United States Exploring Expedition. So, now we know.