Sunday, June 21, 2009

The early fur-traders' Carp

In the long, quiet winter of 1844-45, Alexander Caulfield Anderson reported to Governor Simpson that, in spite of being short of food as the result of the poor salmon run of the previous summer, the natives traded more martens than they had in previous years. Fortunately the vegetable and grain crops at Fort Alexandria had been "copious; a circumstance which has once more placed us entirely beyond the reach of want." Fur traders and natives alike lived off the harvest of the fort until the ice came off the lakes in March and freshwater fish could be caught. At Fraser's Lake, the sturgeon and Rainbow Trout fed the natives in the early spring -- at Fort Alexandria it was a fish that Anderson called the carp.

Alexander Mackenzie had also reported spotting carp, "both red and white," in the Blackwater River in 1793 -- and David Thompson had also found carp in the rivers of his territory, according to biographer Jack Nisbet. But there were no carp in British Columbia (or Washington) waters at this time. The common carp, cyprinus carpio, was introduced into the Columbia River system in the 1880's, and by 1928 this member of the minnow family had expanded into the Fraser River system. However, the bone-filled and edible member of the minnow family, the Northern Pikeminnow (ptychocheilus orogonensis), had always lived in these northern rivers and lakes, as did another carp-like fish called the Largescaled Sucker (Catostomus macrocheilus). In his youth, Anderson had become familiar with the cultivated carp in the ponds of his uncle's estate at Mounie. It is possible that he identified that fish's close relatives -- the Northern Pikeminnow or the Largescaled Sucker -- as carp.

With thanks from Michael K, who pointed out that carp did not exist in the Fraser River at that time; Virginia who told me there had been carp in the Mounie ponds; Jack Nisbet for identifying David Thompson's carp; and Susan Pollard of the Ministry of the Environment for giving me so much information about the Pikeminnow and the Sucker. The quote above comes from a letter from A.C. Anderson to Gov. Simpson, Feb. 13, 1845, D.5/13, fo. 129, HBCA.

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