Traditional Metis employment West of the Rocky Mountains

Fur trade building at Fort Langley
Fur trade warehouse at Fort Langley, the same as found in any fur trade fort

I have had a most interesting interview that I am not going to tell you about, but it got me thinking about the careers that the Metis people may have followed once they left the HBC. Logging is, I believe, one of those careers.

But you might ask: Why should logging be a career path that the Metis men might have followed once they left the HBC? Well, part of their job was to build forts up and down the coast and through the interior of what later became British Columbia. Maintaining the posts was another constant job which also required finding trees, cutting them down, trimming them, removing the bark, and hauling them to the post. This, from the Fort Simpson post journals, should tell you how much logging they did when they were building the many posts in this territory. The pickets that they speak of where 25 foot long logs that formed the outside walls of the post, called the palisades. The buildings inside the pickets were also built of logs, but in this case they dismantled the houses that were at the old Fort Simpson and brought them by ship to the new post where they re-assembled them. James Birnie was here, and so was Alexander Caulfield Anderson and Peter Skene Ogden.

1834 Monday 14th July — at 4pm commenced clearing and forming an encampment — all the men slept onshore.

Tuesday 15th — Erected a temporary store with oilcloths. Men employed clearing — two cutting pickets on the island. Dryad sailed for Nass about 2pm…

Monday 21st — Employed as before. Finished cutting pickets on the island, having on ground there by account 333 pickets. Four men set to cut pickets on the right hand point…

Thursday 24th — John Auld injured by a piece of timber falling on him…

Tuesday 29th [July] — Finished cutting pickets, having in our opinion a sufficiency to surround the fort, say 1,050.

Excerpts from The Fort Simpson (Nass) Post Journal 1834-1838, B.201/a/3, HBCA

1,050 logs — That’s a lot of logs.

Fort Vancouver [Vancouver, WA] had a saw-mill run by water-power, which in 1835 worked twelve saws and cut about 3,500 feet of inch-wide boards every 24 hours. Every fort in the territory had a saw-pit for sawing the logs into planks to build the bateaux. All the houses inside the palisades of said forts were built of logs — the image above is of a log storehouse in Fort Langley that still stands. I could tell you I grew up in a log house with a wood stove, but would have also add that it was not built by my Metis ancestor.

Farming: It was probably my g.g.grandfather James Birnie, who told Governor Simpson that “farming is not a part of the fur trade.” But, yes it was, or it soon would be! Governor Simpson visited the territory west of the Rocky Mountains in 1824, and informed his employees that they must grow more of their own provisions, rather than importing them from the east, as the North West Company had done for years. Farming should definitely be considered part of the fur trade, and a career path that would be followed by many those who left the HBC and farmed in the Willamette Valley, outside Fort Alexandria and Kamloops, or anywhere else in the HBC territories West of the Rocky Mountains. In fact, my great-grandfather Alexander Caulfield Anderson was employed in farming for most his HBC career. In February 1836, Anderson was put in charge of Fraser’s Lake post, in New Caledonia. From my book, The Pathfinder:

The shortage of food in the Company forts was the first of many problems that [Peter Skene] Ogden addressed.. The soil at most New Caledonia forts was good enough to grow potatoes and root vegetables and little else, but there had long been a thriving garden at Fraser’s Lake, and the fertile soil here produced potatoes, turnips tomatoes, onions, carrots, beets, parsnips and Indian corn. Rich grasslands surrounded the fort, and cows provided milk and butter…

When in 1840-1841 the Puget Sound Agricultural Company was being formed, Anderson was sent down to Fort Nisqually to manage the farm at that place. In December 1842 he arrived at Fort Alexandria, New Caledonia, and took over the farm there. When in the late 1840s most of the Canadiens retired and left the territory, that farm was abandoned and a new farm and horse ranch set up at Kamloops, in the hands of Paul Fraser. Anderson went on to take over the charge of Fort Colvile, a farm formed shortly after George Simpson’s decree that the HBC men should grow more of their own food. In fact, the first outgoing York Factory Express of 1826 (in which my great-great-grandfather James Birnie travelled) delivered three pigs and three calves to Spokane House for the Fort Colvile farm that was going to be established nearby. In 1825, James Birnie planted the first potatoes on the Fort Colvile farmlands — a year before fort construction began.

When A.C. Anderson left the fur trade, he farmed at Cathlamet — Thomas Lowe mentioned in a letter that his crops looked dry. When he came to Fort Victoria in 1858, he farmed in North Saanich, and his crops were the traditional grain and vegetable crops of the fur trade. In spite of the fact that he saw the English farmers that surrounded him making money from their hops, grown for the brewery business, he did not adapt and eventually lost his farm.

Logging would also have been apart of the farming business in North Saanich, as Anderson’s sons logged trees to cut for firewood for the wood stoves and fireplaces in the house. So we are back to logging: My grandfather, Arthur — the youngest son of A. C. Anderson — went to the Kootenays when his brother died there, and he remained behind to log and mine. Mine what? I don’t know, but it wasn’t gold. When he returned to the coast twenty years later, he married, and purchased property near the church his father had helped to build in 1860 or so. He may have logged the property to clear it, as he sold off pieces of land to people who wanted to settle in the region. He was one of the road-builders on the Malahat Highway, which would have involved logging, and was paid in tools only — which his sons said plagued them for years after.

When Arthur sold the last piece of his property he moved his family to Valdez Island, where he raised sheep and logged. My uncles Elton and Harry grew up in the logging business on that island, and after the war Elton spent his life as a logger at Manson’s Landing, Cortes Island. He logged first with horses, and then bought a Caterpillar. With this machine he built many of the roads on the island, contributing to island life in many different ways — Potlatch Road was one of his properties and he built the road and sold the properties along it for very little money ($25.00 in some cases, I have been reliably informed).

If you go to the Cortes Island Museum, you will see the “cookie” of the old dead snag that stood at the entrance of our family property — a familiar reminder of Cortes Island for me, and apparently for all the Cortes Island residents who remember Elton.

Did Elton trap? No. He was a naturalist, like all of the Andersons before him. A.C. Anderson described the flowers, plants, trees, and animals he knew in the fur trade (but he certainly hunted them, too). Elton took pictures of them, as you can see in this post about trapping: My sister and I were there when we saw the lynx, and we watched it for ten or so minutes — all of us were quite comfortable, and as you can see, Elton took photographs! He would also take us out to see the beaver ponds, if he discovered one. He also protected them, by not logging near them. Most un-Metis-like, I suppose. but the Metis also loved their wilderness.

Trapping: So my uncle Elton certainly never trapped. But I know who in my family might have. It would be the Metis women — Charlot Birnie, and Betsy Anderson. Both might have maintained a trap line or at least have gone out to trap “small furs,” ie. martin. It is reported that Archibald McDonald, of Fort Colvile, was embarrassed that his wife, Jane Klyne, trapped small furs for herself, which she would trade at the post. In 1842 Betsy Anderson spent six months at Fort Colvile and would almost certainly have gone out trapping with Jane. It is quite possible that she, and her mother Charlot, trapped for themselves. But women’s stories are not told, and so we do not know.

Packing: Many of the men who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company west of the Rocky Mountains left the company to set up packing businesses when the gold miners invaded the territory in 1858. Packing was a very important part of the fur trade, as the brigades were little more than pack-trains that carried the years supply of furs out to Fort Vancouver or Fort Langley, and carried the trade goods in. Henry Hardinge Digby Shuttleworth was one of the men who quit the HBC and his pack-train delivered mail and goods throughout the Kootenays and Similkameen Valley. It is likely the goods were delivered to Fort Hope and he followed the brigade trail, or the later Dewdney Trail, over the Coquihalla to Princeton and east to Wild Horse Creek, in the Kootenays. Even the First Nations people got into the packing business: Blackeye (or his Son) packed for the Kamloops post for a number of years after 1858. So, too, did a Upper Similkameen woman named Nora Yakumtikum.

Gold-panning: Yes. Definitely. In 1849 the news of the California gold rush had drawn almost all the workers away from Fort Vancouver. A year or two later the California gold rush had died, but new gold fields were being discovered in northern California and in Oregon territory. When the New Caledonia brigades arrived at Fort Langley, the men were so excited by the news of the gold rushes that some abandoned, or attempted to abandon, the brigades for the gold fields. They caused chaos at Fort Langley, and A. C. Anderson, who was then in charge at Fort Colvile, wrote about the excitement of the gold news that arrived at his post in 1851:

This, sir, may be dry details to you. I must confess there is something almost ludicrous in this constant playing in the word GOLD, as is now the case in the Columbia… I suppose all this gold now flung about since the discovery in California will help with the dividends, but really I am sometimes tempted to wish that the good old times were back again. If profits were less, they were more secure; and we had the benefit of tranquility into the bargain which is out of the question nowadays.

Anderson had delivered $800 in cash as well as furs to Fort Langley that year. That indicates that the American gold miners were already trading in Eastern Washington as early as 1850-51. Both the HBC men, and the First Nations people, were testing their rivers for gold, and finding it. In 1855, Angus McDonald said one his his men had found gold on the beach at Fort Colvile, and that each miner on the now-active goldfields on the Pend-d’Oreille River, in British Territory north of Fort Colvile, were making 2 to 8 pounds sterling per day. All the men at Fort Nez Perces [Walla Walla] abandoned their jobs for the gold rush, and James Sinclair had only one employee left. The Similkameen and Okanagan First Nations blockaded the Americans, but allowed those of British ancestry, and the Metis, into their gold-rich territory. The Metis not only panned for gold, but they taught the First Nations men how to find gold as well. In 1856, gold was carried over the brigade trail to Fort Langley, and James Douglas sent it to London to be assayed. By return mail he learned the gold was valuable. In 1857 he wrote to London:

I have heard… that the number of persons engaged in gold digging is yet extremely limited in consequence of the threatening attitude of the Native tribes, who being hostile to the Americans have uniformly opposed the entrance of American citizens into their country. The people from American Oregon are therefore excluded from the Gold District, except such, as resorting to the artifice of denying their country, succeed in passing for British subjects. The persons at present engaged in the search of Gold are chiefly of British origin, and retired servants of the Hudson’s Bay Company [from Fort Colvile], who being well acquainted with the natives, and connected by old acquaintanceship and the ties of friendship, are more disposed to aid and assist each other in their common pursuits…

That changed with the final outbreak of the Yakima War, when the Americans came north by the hundreds and overwhelmed the Walla Walla and Spokane First Nations, and gained access to the Okanagan, and to the Fraser River goldfields. They also came to the Fraser River, causing what we call today the Fraser Canyon War. See this:

I understand that the Candiens and Metis made their way to the Fraser River by the old trails, and many went up Bridge River, where they found gold. Their descendants might still be there. Pavilion was another place they were found, but many may have gone all the way up to Quesnel and Barkerville. It would be interesting to locate these gold miners, but this is not where my research leads me, unfortunately. But its a good question, and I might enjoy whatever answers you are able to give me.

4 thoughts on “Traditional Metis employment West of the Rocky Mountains

  1. Tom Holloway

    Nice overview. Good background and context on fur trade era farming is in James Gibson, Farming the Frontier: The Agricultural Opening of the Oregon Country, 1788-1848 (UBC Press, 1997).