Saturday, April 3, 2010

Shoes in the Fur Trade

Alexander Anderson's father-in-law, James Birnie, was descended from generations of leather workers and shoe-makers in Aberdeen City, Scotland.
But when he came to Spokane House and the Snake River district in 1818, James Birnie worked as a fur trader in the North West Company (though I suspect he used his tanning skills for preparing the trappers' skins for transportation across the mountains.)
Why didn't he use his skills to make shoes?
There were, after all, no shoes in the fur trade.
Every man, woman and child wore the leather mocassins that every woman and girl child in the forts sewed whenever they had time.
For outdoors, the mocassins were probably made of double layers of leather, with straps that tied the high tops around the ankles.
Whenever a party set out on an expedition or brigade, each member packed a dozen or so pairs of mocassins in their luggage, to replace the mocassins that they wore out.
But English shoes were not unknown in the fur trade, by any means.
English shoes and, possibly, English boots were sold in the stores at Fort Vancouver and York Factory.
But when Anderson arrived at Fort Vancouver in 1832, the American missionaries wore boots and shoes, while the fur traders wore mocassins.
At Fort Nisqually in 1843, employee John Bull stole 2 pairs English shoes and 2 prs stockings from Toopanehee, a Hawaiian man, according to a note from Angus McDonald, 1816-1889, A/B/90/M14, PABC.
That was my first discovery of shoes in the fur trade -- I had been having a discussion re: 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 when he travelled north to New Caledonia (these were probably the first shoes in New Caledonia???)
In later years at Fort Colvile, Angus McDonald (not the same Angus McDonald as above) ordered hundreds of pairs of English shoes and boots to sell to the American gold miners who were passing by the fort.
So interestingly enough, there were shoes in the fur trade.
And why not! George Simpson imported ostrich feathers and ribbons to pleasure the French Canadian voyageurs who loved such frivolous items -- why not import English shoes for the Orkneymen, and the gentlemen.
There were no cobblers though. Once the shoes were worn out, they were tossed out.
Isn't it a shame that James Birnie did not have the imagination, or the skills, to repair the shoes the men wore out so quickly.
His father was a tanner -- his grandfather the shoemaker.
Probably James Birnie never learned how to make shoes.


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