Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas in the Fur Trade

Christmas and New Year celebrations were the most popular holidays at fur trade forts in the interior, and those two days were never ignored or forgotten.
But rarely did a gentleman or clerk ever jot down what occured on those days.
One exception is Daniel Harmon, who complained, "This being Christmas Day our people pay no further attention to worldly affairs than to drink all day...."
Harmon's idea of Christmas celebration was to read the Bible and meditate on the birth of Jesus.
The source for much of the material I will be giving you in this posting comes from Carolyn Podruchny's book, "Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade, (Toronto: UofT Press, 2006) -- a great read if you want to know more about your voyageur ancestors' lives.
Other information will come from the Fort Alexandria journals, and some will come from other sources, which I will tell you.

No matter what Daniel Harmon's feelings were about the voyageurs' celebrations, it is clear that they had no objection to the use of alcohol on Christmas day.
On Friday, November 18, 1842, clerk Donald McLean handed the charge of Fort Alexandria over to Alexander Caulfield Anderson, and left for his isolated Chilcotin post.
On December 24, Anderson wrote: "Fine. As Christmas Day falls tomorrow I gave the men this day for themselves, with a regale of pork and horse flesh for tomorrow...."
The voyageurs who were to celebrate this Christmas at Fort Alexandria were: Dubois, Pierre Le Fevre, "John Lennard," Lacourse, Marineau, Edouard Lolo, Jean-Baptiste Vautrin, Trudelle, Quebec, and Therioux.
Anderson did not mention what almost certainly happened on Christmas morning.
The day began orderly enough -- The voyageurs rose at dawn and lined up inside the post with their flintlock guns primed with gunpowder.
They fired their guns into the air, one shot following another in rotation -- BANG, BANG, BANG -- to tell the world they celebrated Christmas and to inviegle a drink of rum from the gentleman in charge of the post.
In return for having been startled from bed by the blast of gunpowder, the gentleman gave his voyageurs their real regale -- alcohol.
It seems that the morning ritual was often (if not always) followed by "chaotic parties, where wild abandon and heavy drinking predominated.
"Alexander Henry the Younger complained on New Year's Day in 1803 that he was plagued with ceremonies and men and women drinking and fighting pell mell." (Source: Podruchny, Making the Voyageur World.)

Voyageurs sometimes travelled great distances to join their friends at other forts, rather than spend their Christmases alone.
It was common for the gentlemen and the voyageurs to celebrate together on these days.
Sometimes all hands pitched in to prepare an enormous feast of fish soup, roast pork or swan or duck, and spirits.
Working together to produce a celebratory feast created a feeling of goodwill between the two classes of men -- gentlemen and voyageurs.
After the feast the wives of gentlemen and voyageurs might line up to be kissed by all the men in the fort.
Following the formal beginning of the party and exchanging gifts (if that happened), the men celebrated by drinking liberally; sometimes the celebrations lasted three of four days.
There was singing, dancing, and fiddle music, possibly accompanied by an aboriginal drum.
Sometimes aboriginal men came to the fort to join in the celebrations; and sometimes the voyageurs visited the Native men's tents.
Not only did the voyageurs have the regale of liquor the gentlemen handed out to them, they brewed their own beer:
In July 1884 Anderson noted in the Fort Alexandria journals, "Brewed some beer, from 3 bush. Malt."

It took a stranger to the fur trade to write a really good description of a fur trade Christmas.
Artist Paul Kane wrote about a Christmas celebration he enjoyed at Edmonton House, I believe in 1846..
"On Christmas Day the flag was hoisted, and all appeared in their best and gaudiest style, to do honour to the holiday.
"Towards noon every chimney gave evidence of being in full blast, whilst savoury steams of cooking pervaded the atmosphere in all directions.
"About two o'clock we sat down to dinner.....
"The dining hall in which we assembled was the largest room in the fort, probably about fifty by twenty-five feet, well warmed by large fires, which are scarcely ever allowed to go out.
"The walls and ceiling are boarded, as plastering is not used, there being no limestone within reach, but these boards are painted in a style of the most startling barbaric gaudiness, and the ceiling filled with centre-pieces of fantastic guilt [sic] scrolls, making altogether a saloon which no white man would enter for the first time without a start, and which the Indians always looked upon with awe and wonder...
"No tablecloth shed its snowy whiteness over the board; no silver candelabra or gaudy china interfered with its simple magnificence.
The bright tin plates and dishes reflected jolly faces, and burnished gold can give no truer zest to a feast....
"My pleasing duty was to help a dish of mouffle, or dried moose nose; the gentleman on my left distributed, with graceful impartiality, the white fish, delicately browned in buffalo marrow.
"The worthy priest helped the buffalo tongue, whilst Mr. Rundell cut up the beaver's tails.
"Nor was the other gentlemen left unemployed, as all his spare time was occupied in dissecting a roast wild goose...
"Such was our jolly Christmas dinner at Edmonton; and long will it remain in my memory....."

Next came the dance, and Kane continued in his description:
"In the evening the hall was prepared for the dance to which Mr. Harriett had invited all the inmates of the fort, and was early filled by the gaily dressed guests.
"Indians, whose chief ornament consisted in the paint on their faces, voyageurs with bright sashes and neatly ornamented mocassins, half-breeds glittering in every ornament they could lay their hands on; whether civilized or savage, all were laughing, and jabbering in as many different languages as there were styles of dress.
"English, however, was little used, as none could speak it....
"The dancing was most picturesque and almost all joined in it.
"Occasionally I, among the rest, led out a young Cree squaw, who sported enough beads around her neck to have made a pedlar's fortune, and having led her into the centre of the room, I danced round her with all the agility I was capable of exhibiting, to some highland reel tune which the fiddler played with great vigour, whilst my partner with grave face kept jumping up and down, both feet off the ground at once......"
I had this information somewhere, but could not find it.
I finally located it in a book I had on my shelves, Brock Silversides' "Fort de Prairies; The story of Fort Edmonton," (Heritage House, 2005), pp. 26-27.

At Fort Alexandria in 1842, the Christmas celebrations ended on Monday 26th, though Anderson did not list any of the work the voyageurs were involved in.
By the next day a few men set off for Kamloops, and on the 28th he wrote that the men were "employed as usual."
On the 31st he wrote: "The men had today as a holiday, the New Year falling on Sunday, set up a prize of a pair of leggings to be shot for by the Indians & Canadians.
"The shooting was very poor, owing a good deal to the cold & the soberness of the day.
"Grand Corps eventually carried off the prize, though by no superior shooting.
"Indeed upon the whole the Canadians surpassed the natives.
"Men regaled themselves with flour, horse flesh &c., & the Indians got 6 kegs potatoes & 1 yard tobacco by way of festive."
Even the Natives joined in the Christmas and New Year celebrations!
(source: Fort Alexandria Journal, 1842-1843, B.5/a/5, fo. 35, HBCA.)

Merry Christmas, everyone!

1 comment:

  1. This blogpost has been updated and is found at