It is Christmas Day at the end of this week, and for the fun of it I am reporting on as many fur trade Christmases as I can find. We already know what many of the fur trade traditions are, so let’s see how many of them are written up in the various post journals. This, for example, is from Daniel Williams Harmon’s Christmas of 1801, at Swan River Post. (Swan River flows northeast into Swan Lake, which is just west of Lake Winnipegosis, Manitoba). He writes:
December 25, Friday. This being Christmas Day, and agreeable to the custom of the Country I gave our People a Dram and a pint of Rum each.
In 1847, artist Paul Kane celebrated Christmas at Edmonton House, dining with the gentlemen of the fort and the missionaries who lived nearby. (Interestingly, Chief Factor John Rowand does not seem to be here.) I edited some lines out of Paul Kane’s report, taken from his book, Wanderings of an Artist:
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. Our party consisted of Mr. [John Edward] Harriott, the chief, and three clerks; Mr. [unknown] Thebo, the Roman Catholic missionary from Manitou Lake, about thirty miles off; Mr. [Robert Terrell] Rundell, the Wesleyan missionary, who resided within the pickets; and myself, the wanderer, who though returning from the shores of the Pacific was still the latest importation from civilized life.
The dining-hall 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 never allowed to go out. The walls and ceilings are boarded, as plastering is not used, there being no limestone within reach, but these boards are painted in a style of the most startling barbaric gaudiness, and ceiling filled with centre pieces of fantastic gilt 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 feast. . . At the head, before Mr. Harriott, was a large dish of boiled buffalo hump; at the foot smoked a boiled buffalo calf. Start not, gentle reader, the calf is very small, and is taken from the cow by the Caesarian operation, long before it attains its full growth. This, boiled whole, is one of the most esteemed dishes amongst the epicures of the interior. My pleasant duty was to help a dish of mouffle, or dried moose nose; the gentlemen on my left distributed, with graceful impartiality, the white fish, delicately browned in buffalo marrow. The worthy priest helped the buffalo tongue, the other gentleman left unemployed, as all his spare time was occupied in dissecting a roast wild goose. The centre of the table was graced with piles of potatoes, turnips, and bread conveniently places, so that each could help himself with interrupting the labours of his companions. Such was our jolly Christmas dinner at Edmonton; and long will it remain in my memory, although no pies, or puddings, or blanc manges, shed their fragrance over the scene.
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 pain 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. English, however, was little used, as none could speak it but those who sat at the dinner-table. 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 round 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, as only an Indian can dance.
Looking at the Fort Selkirk post journals, I find they did not seem to celebrate Christmas at all. In 1849, James Green Stewart wrote, “Passed the day as we best could but melancholy thoughts of bygone days lengthened it considerably.” There was no alcohol at this post and so, no alcoholic celebrations. In 1850 both Campbell and Stewart seem to be at Fort Selkirk, and one of them wrote: “Weather the same. Saw a Wolf today, the first this year.” In 1851, Stewart was alone, and wrote:
The men arrived today with fish and some fine trout from Le Gauche’s Lake. But what is the use of this with My dear C[ampbell], who I thought would have been here to shake hands with me on Christmas Day. Beautiful weather. Brough also arrived, the Fishery being closed.
So let’s see what happened at Fort Nisqually over the years. This fort was situated in what is now Tacoma, Washington, and its journals for the years 1833 to 1859 have been published by the Fort Nisqually Association. Here goes:
In December 1833, when the fort was newly built: “This being Christmas day I gave the men a liberal Regale of eatables and drinkables to make up in some measure for the bad living they have had all year here, and they enjoyed the feast as might be expected men do who lived solely on soup since they came here.” In 1834: “Christmas. All hands were allowed the best I had in the fort, say, ducks, venison and each half pint of Rum. All quiet and no Indians. Mild weather but cloudy.” Things were getting better every year, it seems. In 1836:
Gave the men a couple of drams in my sitting room with a couple of cakes after which they got each a half pint to finish away the day. No Indians about the place except towards evening…”
In 1836: “Christmas. I gave the men the rest of rations, say pork, flour and Venison exclusive of their allowance of potatoes. They got a couple of drams in my room along with cakes, and after having Rum they received each a half pint of rum.” In 1837: “Gave men a couple of drams in my house with the best rations the place could afford and half pint of Rum each. Several Indians paid us a visit and some got a glass each.” At Fort Nisqually, as at other posts in the territory, the men got extra food and drink, but did not celebrate wildly. I think we will find that those celebrations were reserved for New Years Day!
They sometimes had a more difficult Christmas at Fort Victoria than at other places: at least the men seemed to celebrate a little harder there. As you may know, the Fort Victoria journals have been published online by University of Victoria, and you can read them for yourself — see http://www.fortvictoriajournal.ca/ to begin.
On December 25, 1846, the Fort Victoria journal reads: “Fine pleasant weather with a little frost over night. . .The men were enjoying Christmas but were rather riotous at night, especially [Francois Xavier] Coté whom I had to check repeatedly. He has this evening left this Establishment with the intention of taking up his abode with the Natives in defiance of my orders and the Rules of the Service.” The following year, 1847, was quieter, but in 1848:
This being Xmas it was kept accordingly & the following rations above what they usually receive were served out to the people viz 1 pt. molasses, 1/2 pt. rum, 6 lb. fresh beef, 4 lb. fresh pork & 1 lb. flour. The day passed away quietly enough except that I received a severe cut on the left hand in attempting to get a knife from Thomas the interpreter, who took hold of it with the intention of stabbing some of the men in a drunken row. No other occurrence worthy of notice.
At Fort Alexandria, on the Fraser River, in 1844, Alexander Caulfield Anderson writes: “Being Christmas day the men got a regale of pork &c and do not labour.” In 1845, “the people kept holiday & had a treat of beef, flour &.” In December 1847, everyone at the fort was sick with the measles and no journal entries were written. Even Anderson was sick, and two people inside the fort walls died. This was not a Pandemic Christmas of course, but close enough — this was the great measles epidemic that spread through the entire Pacific region, from California all the way to the Yukon.
The Spokane House post journals likely explain the Christmas ceremony the best of all. On December 25, 1822, James Birnie wrote:
This morning the men came into the hall for the purpose of paying their respects to Mr. [Alexander] Kennedy and Mr. [James] McMillan after receiving a few drams. They had the following allowance over & above their rations — 1/2 lb. flour, 1/2 pint spirits, 1 lb. Indian meal, 1/2 lb. grease. They passed the day very favourably together. The weather frosty & overcast.
On New Years Day, however, James Birnie wrote:
This being the commencement of a new year our men had the following allowance over and above their rations — to each man viz. 1 lb. flour, 1 lb. grease, 1 lb. Indian meal, 1/2 lb. sugar, 1 pint berries, 1 oz. pepper, 1 oz. salt & 1 pint spirits. The women had half a man’s allowance except the spirits. The men came in and paid their respects to Messrs Kennedy & McMillan this morning after firing three rounds with the great & small arms. They came into the hall and were received by the above gentlemen very politely, after receiving a few drams they give us another salute from the cannon & then went to enjoy their grogs.
So, in the fur trade Christmas was a day off with treats of food and rum, and New Years Day was the real celebration!
Merry Christmas anyway. This year it is a pandemic Christmas, but I will have my usual chocolate breakfast, and a roast chicken in the evening, I think. I may even plan to sleep in! I hope that you will enjoy your Christmas as much as I will enjoy the absolute peace and quiet of mine.
Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.
- Thomas Lowe sails the Southern Atlantic
- Happy New Year