West Coast Christmas

Fort Victoria

Fort Victoria in 1846, painted by Henry James Warre, Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

Even in the early days on the west coast of North America, the HBC men celebrated Christmas in much the same way as they had done at home, that is, in Scotland or in Canada. So let’s look at some of the journals I have, and see how familiar, or how unfamiliar, these Christmas celebrations might have been.

Fort Victoria was built in summer 1843, and its Chief-Trader-in-charge, Charles Ross, told his friend, Dr. William Fraser Tolmie of Fort Nisqually, a little about the fort’s first Christmas celebration. “We had rather a merry Xmas & New Year,” he said

and I tried hard to dance my complaint “down the wind.” But ale would not do — I rather made things worse. The Steamer & Cadboro being still with us, we had a splendid dinner on the 25th which went off with great eclat, as well as some of Scarborough’s Rockets to the bargain. On the 28th the vessels left for the North, having been detained hitherto, while a cargo of [illegible] was being brought us from Langley. [“Five Letters of Charles Ross,” BCHQ, Vol. VII, No. 2, April 1943].

The illegible word in above paragraph might be salmon, but it might also be wheat, as those two items are what the ships most often delivered to Fort Victoria from Fort Langley. The Steamer is, of course, the Beaver, and in 1843, its captain was likely Alexander Duncan, who had just taken over the charge of the steamer from William Brotchie [after whom Brotchie’s Ledge, off modern day Victoria, B.C. is named.] And that is confirmed: in his Fort Vancouver journal, Thomas Lowe tells us on September 5, 1843, the Barque Vancouver had just arrived at the anchorage off Fort Vancouver [from the northwest coast], with Captain Brotchie in charge, and that Captain Duncan is in charge of the Beaver.

And the schooner Cadboro? The schooner was captained by Captain James Allan Scarborough, and it was his ship’s rockets that were fired off for the entertainment of the fort’s celebrants. I can’t imagine what the effects may have been on the local First Nations who now lived on the shoreline just to the north of the fort. They would get used to the HBC’s exhibits of the power of their guns, as you will see — but this is not yet!

There is another Christmas story attached to early Fort Victoria, but no one knows if it was true or not. It is, however, a story that everyone who lives in modern-day Victoria is familiar with. I heard it years ago, and believed it was true. I am speaking of the story of the naming of Christmas Hill, which is just north of Swan Lake. [Swan Lake was on the old wagon road that led out to Saanich in the early 1860s, but I think that road did not yet exist]. The story goes: On Christmas Day [perhaps in 1855], an eagle snatched a First Nations child from the village across the harbour from Fort Victoria, and flew away with it clutched in its talons. The Songhees people followed the eagle on the ground, and the HBC men also — the eagle landed on the top of Christmas Hill, and everyone scrambled up the hill to find the child safe and unharmed. Here’s another version of the story here: http://swanlake.bc.ca/why-swan-lake-christmas-hill/   

Or so the story goes. But where does the story come from? It seems that no one knows. It was not written down anywhere and is apparently not to be found in the Archives. I wonder if it is a First Nations story? It may be. But right now, it is Fort Victoria’s first fable.

There is very little information about Fort Victoria during the years of 1844 and 1845. Certainly there are no reports on whatever kind of Christmas the men were able to celebrate! But in December 1846, Roderick Finlayson wrote in the post journal that the men were busy cutting oak boards for the Steamer to deliver, perhaps, to Fort Nisqually [but it was for a new ship]; he said that on Sunday 22nd Chief Factors James Douglas and John Work left in the steamer for Fort Nisqually; that the Songhees people were busy with their “medicine” ceremonies and as a result, none would come to work; that the sheep that had just been delivered from Fort Nisqually had no teeth, hence their leanness. “Ten of them [the sheep] were killed for the people… Tomorrow being Christmas the men were allowed 1 lb. flour, 6 lb. mutton, 1 [pt] molasses as extra rations.” 

Friday 25th. Fine pleasant weather with a little frost over night. Wind light from the Eastward. 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.

Coté settled in Victoria, apparently, and did not come back to the Fort. Perhaps he was Victoria’s first settler. 

So, what happened in 1847? On December 15th, Chief Factor John Work arrived at Fort Victoria in the Beaver, on his way to Sitka and Fort Simpson; he soon departed. The men were busy replacing the now four-year-old pickets that had surrounded the original fort. The weather was mild and pleasant until the 25th, when:

Weather overcast with drizzling rain. The week’s operations are as follows: 20 planks of 2 in. 22 ft. long sawn, 330 ft. of stockade put up, 60 ft. of trench dug to drain the water from the Fort yard, with a quantity of pease & wheat thrashed. The people were enjoying Christmas today. All passed away very quietly. Their allowance was as follows, over & above their usual rations, to each man: 1/2 lb. flour, 4 lb. fresh pork, 1 pt molasses & 1/2 pt. rum.

So, it was a quiet Christmas in 1847 — but not all Christmases at Fort Victoria were quiet and peaceful. In 1848, for example, they had heavy snow at the beginning of December, and a gale of wind with heavy rain on the 12th. Snow and cold descended on the fort in mid-December; and the people were employed cutting wood for the Steamer. It continued snowing and blowing until Christmas Day, when:

had some frost overnight. Weather alternately clear & cloudy during the day. This being Christmas 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. 

In 1849, James Douglas removed his family from Fort Vancouver and took charge of Fort Victoria. Another major change was that the Reverend Mr. Staines arrived at Fort Victoria — his story is here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/reverend-staines/  The post journal tells us that the weather in mid-December was rainy and snowy, and the wind was blowing from the east — no surprise there! On the 20th there was heavy rain, and snow was washed away. “About 3 pm Governor Colvile & [James] Douglas arrived from Nisqually in the Cadboro, two other gentlemen accompanied them, vis. Sir Edward Poore & Mr. Franklin, who are on their travels. 24 carcasses of mutton & 2 quarters beef was received from Nisqually.” Poore and Franklin had come in as tourists with the incoming 1849 York Factory Express, and had witnessed the shooting of John Charles in Athabasca Pass. This story is in my book, The York Factory Express, which you can purchase either from me, or from the publisher, here: http://ronsdalepress.com/york-factory-express-the/

The other man was HBC Deputy Governor Eden Colvile, who had arrived in the district in late 1849 via the Peace River and Fort St. James. He came over the brigade trail to Fort Langley, and then visited Forts Victoria, Nisqually, and Vancouver, before going out in the 1850 York Factory Express which left Fort Vancouver in March. Other visitors to the Fort that year were the captain and crew of the Orbit, from San Francisco on its way to Oregon [they seem a little lost], and the captain and crew of the HBC schooner, Cadboro. It would, presumably, be a busy Christmas at Fort Victoria!

Tuesday 25th. Generally overcast with heavy rain in the afternoon. Wind blowing strong from the Southward and Westward. The Brig Orbit was taken to the entrance of the harbour & there anchored, the Captain & some of the passengers landed in course of the afternoon. The Reverend Mr. Staines read divine service & in the evening the people were enjoying themselves as usual on this day.

And so, Christmas seemed to be quiet in 1849. The presence of James Douglas and Eden Colvile would definitely dampen any trouble that the employees might want to cause, if there were any troublesome employees left at the place. The journal goes on to record that, on December 28, “People employed at various occupations as per labour book. The Brig Orbit left the offing this forenoon for Nisqually. Very little traded from the Natives.” On the 29th, Roderick Finlayson (I presume) recorded that in December 1849, “The result of the week’s work as follows: various alterations effected in Mr. Staines’ house, cathead & cap made for the Cadboro, a quantity of wood carted home & cut, several axels & other iron work made by the blacksmith, a quantity of pease thrashed and winnowed. This morning Gov. Colvile with Sir Edward Poore & Mr. Franklin started for Captain Grant’s place.”

I wonder what a cathead and cap were: does anyone know?

This “Captain Grant” was Captain Walter Colquhoun Grant, formerly of the Royal Scots Greys. He was Vancouver Island’s first independent settler, and he took up 40 hectares of land after his arrival at Fort Victoria. If you want to know where his land was in modern-day Sooke, B.C., it fronted on Sooke Harbour, and was bordered by today’s Maple Avenue on the west, Gatewood on the east, and Grant Road at the rear. After a residence of four years, he gave up and returned to England in November 1853. 

So there are a few Christmas stories for you, and I hope you enjoy them. As you can see, over the years a few interesting people passed through Fort Victoria, and some of them left their names behind them. Captain Grant also has a cairn in Sooke, put up by the provincial government in 1958. It was moved around a little, and for a while was found at the town-centre, at the corner of Sheilds and Highway 14. Then the cairn was mysteriously moved to land that had once been owned by Grant [now a park]– and no one knew who had moved it! [It seems it was Marvin Olson’s front-end loader that did the work!] 

So, Merry Christmas, everyone, and I hope you’ve enjoyed these nonsensical stories! I certainly enjoyed collecting, sorting, and writing them [and I hope I have all the Capt. Grant’s story more or less correct. Feel free to either correct me, or add more to the story if you feel like it.]

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2022. All rights reserved. 

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5 thoughts on “West Coast Christmas

  1. Stan Copp

    Cathead … bow beams allow anchor(s) to be raised, lowered, stored when not deployed. Also term used on oil derricks.

  2. Pepper Gaudio

    Nancy, here something I wrote as creative non-fiction about Christmas 1848 at Fort Victoria.
    Early that evening, the festive mood changed when Thomas, an interpreter in a drunken rage, started yelling and wielding a knife around men enjoying their regale in the fort yard. Hearing the ruckus, Roderick excused himself to deal with the incident and stepped outside. When Roderick approached Thomas to confiscate the knife, Thomas attacked him. Wrestling the knife from him, Roderick received a severe cut to his left hand.

    Returning to his office, Sarah’s face turned as white as a sheet when she saw blood pouring from his hand. Terrified, she thought Roderick would lose the use of his fingers and asked what happened.

    After wrapping his hand in a cloth, he explained the incident, saying, ‘Don’t worry, my darling Sarah, I’ll be fine. I’ve had much worse injuries than this.” Sarah responded by kissing him on his cheek, “let me help you. I’ll cleanse and bandage the wound the way Mama taught me, and you’ll be good as new.”