Shoes in the fur trade

Furs at HBC replica fort at Fort Langley, B. C.

This selections of furs is displayed at Fort Langley, but the same furs would be found at any HBC fort in the territory.

It is often said that there were no shoes in the fur trade, but that is not exactly true.

My 3x-great grandfather, James Birnie, was descended from generations of leather workers and shoe-makers in Aberdeen, Scotland. Hides were an important export for Scotland, and many were the businesses that centered around leather — Birnie’s uncle was a saddler, for example. His father was a tanner, his grandfather a shoemaker. Birnie himself joined the fur trade, and I sometimes suspect that he was hired by the North West Company for his tanning skills.

But it is a shame James Birnie was not a shoemaker, and  that he didn’t use his skills with leather to make shoes, that would have been snapped up by every fur trader in the district. Every employee in the fur trade west of the Rocky Mountains wore leather moccasins that the women sewed whenever they had the time to spare, and that were sold by the dozen in the fort stores, where no shoes were sold. Some moccasins may have been simple beaded moccasins such as we are used to today, but for outdoor use,  moccasins were made of double layers of leather, with straps that tied the high tops around the ankles. Whenever a party set out on an expedition, they packed extra pairs of moccasins in their personal luggage to replace those they wore out. At every fort along their way the would refresh their stock of moccasins. Moccasins were essential, and that is why so much leather was imported every year over the Rocky mountains into New Caledonia, or brought up from the south through Fort Colvile.

When Alexander Caulfield Anderson arrived at Fort Vancouver in 1832, the American missionaries that had recently reached the place wore boots and shoes, while the fur traders wore moccasins. Even the gentlemen wore moccasins instead of shoes! Anderson may have come to Quebec wearing boots or shoes, but once they wore out he could not have replaced them. Nor would he have worn them in the birch-bark canoes he traveled west in — shoes would have gone through the delicate birch-bark skins far too easily! It is possible that he left his boots behind him in Lachine; perhaps he brought them west and wore them till they fell apart. We don’t know.

In spite of the fact that boots and shoes were supposedly unknown in the fur trade, they were here — at least after 1840. English shoes and, possibly, English boots were sold in the stores at Forts Vancouver and Nisqually, and perhaps in other places as well. At Fort Nisqually in 1843, employee John Bull stole 2 pairs of English shoes and 2 pairs of stockings from Toopanehee, a Kanaka [Hawaiian], according to a note from Angus McDonald, 1816-1889, A/B/90/M14, BCA.

That was my first discovery of shoes in the fur trade, and at the time I found this note I had been having a discussion about the availability of shoes with a historian or two, who both said they never existed here. Since that time I discovered that the naturalist David Douglas bought two pairs of English shoes at Fort Vancouver, and wore them when he traveled north to New Caledonia. In the 1850’s at Fort Colvile, Angus McDonald (not the same Angus McDonald as above) ordered hundreds of pairs of English shoes and boots to sell to American gold miners who were passing by the fort. So interestingly enough, there were shoes in the fur trade — and perhaps by the 1850’s they were being imported from London on the ships in larger quantities than the earlier years.

And why not, I said, with confidence! HBC Governor George Simpson and his representatives imported ostrich feathers and ribbons to please the French Canadian voyageurs who loved such frivolous decorations — why not import English shoes for the Orkney men, and for the gentlemen of the fur trade?

Well, Simpson might have imported shoes and boots to York Factory, but he did not bring them into the Columbia District — or at least not in the 1840’s. I have discovered where the shoes at Fort Vancouver came from, and its a most unexpected place.

They came from Russia!

From the book: James Douglas: Servant of Two Empires, by Derek Pethick [Vancouver: Mitchell Press, 1969], p. 35-37

Then in 1840 Douglas was again sent on his travels, this time into the mists of the North Pacific. It was thought desirable by the senior officials of the Company that various matters in dispute between the two great fur companies, British and Russian, should be amicably resolved, and to this end Douglas was ordered to proceed to Sitka, Alaska, and there hold discussions with his “opposite number.”

Accordingly on April 22, 1840 he set out in the now indispensable Beaver…. Fort Simpson [Nass River] was reached on May 14, Stikine on the 20th, and finally on May 25 he arrived at Sitka.

Here, in his own words, “I held daily conference with the Governor, in a frank and open manner, so as to dissipate all semblance of reserve and establish our intercourse on a basis of mutual confidence”. Douglas also recorded that, “We settled the question of boundary in a manner that will prevent any future misunderstand”, and that, “We conversed on a great variety of business subjects and several exchanges of furs were proposed, which would be a mutual benefit…”

Some indication that the present world-wide network of trade was already taking shap may be found in Douglas’ account. He noted for example, of the Russian company, that “… for instance they get remarkably cheap shoes and can give us 200 pairs of boots next autumn at 5/- each, procured on contract from Finland…”

My original blogpost ended here, with a comment that “It’s always fun to learn something new — there are so many good stories in this fur trade!”

I immediately heard from another fur trade researcher who works out of Fort Vancouver, and who proves to be a source of much new information for me. He wrote:

Your posting on shoes in the fur trade prompts this effort to expand the available base of information… I attach below the list of shoes in stock at Ft. Vancouver from the Spring 1845 inventory. This stock would have been ordered in 1842 or earlier… After the children’s shoes were 101 pair of men’s common unbound shoes, at Company prime cost of 6s2p per pair, and 333 pair of best calf bound shoes at 7 shillings per pair, 7 pair of blucher [sic] shoes, 9 pairs galoshes, 6 pairs of Wellingtons, 8 pairs of gentleman’s light shoes, and 37 pairs of women’s welt shoes. I could probably come up with similar lists from other inventories and shipping manifests in this period.

So moccasins were surely the mainstay, but there were lots of shoes imported from England and available for Company employees to purchase, usually at cost plus 50% markup over prime cost. As for “unbound” vs. “bound,” I think it has to do with the way the seams or edges of the leather were finished off…”

And so perhaps James Douglas did order the first batch of shoes from the Russians, or maybe he did not. We don’t know what happened. It is possible that when he returned to Fort Vancouver he and the other gentlemen decided to order shoes from England, and did so. Perhaps the Russian shoes (if they arrived) were disappointing; perhaps the demand for shoes at Fort Vancouver outstripped the supply of Russian footwear. However these fur traders made their decision on how and from whom to order their supply of boots and shoes, it seems clear at the moment that James Douglas’ journey to Sitka was the kick-off for the decision to ensure these items were available in the Fort Vancouver stores.

By 1849-1850, James Douglas was attempting to order shoes from London. Archibald Barclay, secretary at Hudson’s Bay House in London, wrote to Douglas in 1850 :

With reference to Mr. Ogden’s remarks about shoes, I am to observe that any quantity of ready made shoes could have been sent had it been considered desirable to do so, but you have so repeatedly requested to have shoes made by Flint, who can make but a very limited quantity without very long notice, that it was judged better to delay the shipment of that article than to send an inferior quality particularly as the shoes in question formed part of Outfit 1852 which you had no reason to expect would be forwarded util the fall of the present year… There was therefore no reasonable ground of complaint. [B.226/c/1, fo. 82, HBCA]

I don’t know who “Flint” was, but as the HBC tended to order very good British products for their stores, I suspect that he made very fine shoes! The quality, I think, would have been a little better than the American products that might be found in the Oregon Territory, and competition with the American suppliers than in the territory would have been the reason for the HBC Traders to order well-made British shoes.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2014 [updated 2015]. All rights reserved.


4 thoughts on “Shoes in the fur trade

  1. Ron Czachowski


    Recived the copy of your Book from Amazon. The reference to the northwestjournal in a previous article was informative. I thought you were going to update your list of books on the Fur-Trade. Did I miss it or has it een delayed. I love the detail of your articles the most.