Saturday, March 9, 2013

Fur Trade Farming, at Fort Alexandria

Farming was a very important part of the fur trade under Governor George Simpson, and every fort had a garden that grew its own food. Hungry fur traders did little work, of course, and shipping sacks of flour and other foodstuffs up the brigade trail from Fort Colvile or Fort Vancouver was not an option. So, whether they liked it or not, fur traders in New Caledonia (northern British Columbia) had to garden.
Some gardens were more successful than others, and while Alexander Anderson was in charge of Fort Alexandria, New Caledonia, his gardens and grain crops were for the most part, very successful.
He wrote about the harvesting schedule many years later in one of his manuscripts, and I have taken this from his son's Memoirs.
Anderson is writing this long after he left the fur trade and sometime after the colony of British Columbia was a fact:

"As the best criterion of the productive powers of British Columbia," he wrote, "I will cite some of the statistics of the Hudson's Bay Company's farm attached to the post of Alexandria, conducted under my own supervision for six years succeeding 1842.
"[In April] Wheat, Barley and Oats were sown in the order mentioned as fast as the ground was prepared; fall wheat having of course been sown the preceding autumn.
"Immediately following, potatoes were planted, generally about the beginning of May. Late in June or the beginning of July refreshing thunder showers, lasting sometimes at intervals for a week or ten days, afforded a favourable opportunity for sowing turnips which the heat afterwards brought on with great rapidity.
"The remainder of time till the commencement of harvest was occupied in attending to the gardens and green crops and laying in a stock of hay for the winter.
"Fall wheat was less to be depended upon than  the Spring variety, for the reason that, if frost came on before the fall of snow, the expansion of the surface soil was apt to unroot the growing grain.
"The crops securing during the years I have mentioned were invariably good. I have witnessed forty bushels of the finest spring wheat threshed from the produce of a measured acre (Canadian) of sixty yards square. The yield of barley was invariably heavy; that of oats good, considering the inferior variety we cultivated. All the culinary vegetables throve well....

"The amount of crop thus annually raised was generally about five hundred bushels of wheat, several hundred of barley and oats, and a thousand or twelve hundred of potatoes besides a large quantity of turnips and a sufficiency of the vegetables usually produced in the Kitchen garden. To grind our wheat we had a small portable mill with stones two feet in diameter. This mill of American manufacture was bought at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia [Vancouver, WA], taken up the Columbia by water to Okinagan and thence packed on horse back, piece meal, to its destination. The mill itself was well made and efficient, but the driving gear constructed at Alexandria was a marvellous piece of workmanship. In those days of make-shifts and dove-tailing, of means and appliances to turn a Canadian voyageur into a millwright was nothing. Hence our mill, of which by the way we were very proud, rumbled round in a most eccentric manner. It did its work though, but with a wondrous strain upon the poor horses who tugged the unwieldy machine around. The flour thus produced was of excellent quality and tasted all the sweeter, I doubt not, as being the result of our own exertions.

"I have talked however of a thing that was. All, I am informed, has since been suffered to fall into decay; and the little farm on what I used to pride myself has passed away, ...even the very cocks and hens have vanished, and if the mill remains, it must be as the mere ghost of its former imperfect self -- a sad memento of the past."

So, we will now go to the Fort Alexandria journals and see what Alexander Caulfield Anderson had to say about the farming and harvesting of crops under his care. For those of you who do not know where Fort Alexandria was -- it stood on the banks of the Fraser River north of Soda Creek and Williams Lake, and well south of Quesnel and Prince George.

Anderson arrived at Alexandria on Sunday November 13th, 1842, so there was little that he could have done for a few months. His first post in the journal said this:
"Monday 21st. Fair and mild. Despatched Mr. Donald McLean for Chilcotins on Saturday last, with Linneard & Marineau & sundry goods & prov[ision]s as per Blotter. Horses as per do. The men are to return immediately, as likewise the horses, except two which are to remain for the drouines to Thleuz-cuz, and a filly for the trade. Three men off for a raft of firewood, as the river is again free of ice. Dubois and another making a travail, hauling timber &c. Gendron, cook -- Trudelle lost the day looking for a horse. The men making a working utensil. Michel Ogden & an Indian boy securing the barley from the deprivation of the rats, and clearing out the accumulation of shavings from beneath the flooring of the carpenter shop. I'm out of breath with this long enumeration and shall in the future confine my remarks to general topics. Meanwhile, I may state that most of the natives about this place, after a little persuasion, are about to depart on a marten hunting excursion. Gave Whaletah his annual present." [B.5/a/5, fo. 33, HBCA]

For many months after this journal entry the only farming that went on was the hauling of hay the fields at Stonia Lake to the barns near the fort. In early 1843 they had 21 barn loads in all -- we don't know the size of the cart that was used to haul in the hay, but I doubt it was a large wagon. I do know they were short of hay that year. In short order there was none to feed the cattle, which were put out on the grasslands around the fort to feed.

Unfortunately in spring 1843 Anderson went to Fort St. James to take charge of the place during Peter Skene Ogden's absence. He would return to Alexandria on April 26th, when Donald McLean, who was in charge in his absence, wrote, "Commenced sowing the wheat received from Colvile, 4 bushels sown at the lower field near the barn."
A day later he "set a Turkey hen on 13 eggs, and a domestic hen on 15. Evening cloudy with light showers. 9 1/2 bushels wheat sown."
On Friday: 'Men of the establishment are variously employed. Lenniard, LeFevre, Theriouax & Indian ploughing, harrowing & rolling wheat." On Saturday "a brood of chickens hatched, most of them lived but a short time."
On Monday May 1st, "The New Caledonia brigade of 24 men, under charge Mr. A.C. Anderson, started for the Columbia ...This post is now left with 4 man, including the cooks, for the summer. Men of the establishment busy getting seed into the ground, 30 bushels wheat." Tuesday: "Set 3 hen turkeys on 39 eggs, 20 also Domestic hens, our chickens I am sorry to say do not get on well. Men variously employed ploughing, harrowing, sowing &c."

On the 25th of May, 1843, Anderson returned to the fort and took charge of the post journal again. "Gendron, who is cook &c, at leisure intervals is employed planing boards. Theriouac wheels. The rest finished yesterday the fence on the way to the Barn.... Today Lefevre & Wentrel hauling pickets with 5 horses. Michel Ogden with Laframboise & Marten, two Indian lads engaged for the summer, digging out stumps in new ground contiguous to fort. Today was warm; but for two or three days preceding the weather was extremely boisterous & ungenial with wind at N."

In June, Michel Ogden planted turnip [seeds?] near the barn, about half an acre, and the rest was sown near the fort. In mid June the men were "hoeing earth round potatoes in garden, which are now long enough." On the 19th they "transplanted some cabbages, lettuces and Swede Turnips at garden at little river.... Our crops are thriving."
In early July Anderson noted that "our potatoes & turnips which have been duly thinned & hoed are thriving well. The barley is earing fast." By the 19th, "Wheat in ear and flowering, barley the same; but oats, except a little near the barn, yet closed." There is not yet any mention of corn, but I know it was sometimes planted at Fort Alexandria.

At the end of July, Anderson reported that: "Yesterday there was a heavy thunder shower, and again this afternoon -- a circumstance which will tend to retard our hay making; but I trust fine weather will soon reappear. Quebec and Gendron arranged (or I should rather say made) three cradles, which I intend to employ for harvesting our grain. The barley is ripening fast, and should the weather prove favorable, will be fit to cut in ten days or a fortnight. Lefevre and his companion having carted sufficient grass, as I suppose, for roofing the barn, now begin to transport a quantity for the purpose of re-roofing our boat-shed which was partially uncovered last winter as a last resort to save the lives of our starving cattle. Linneard, Tout Laid & an Indian lade making hay. M. Ogden taking care of calves &c about the fort." August 1st: "Gendron after milking cattle, having breakfast &c, set out with Thirouac to commence covering the barn."

On Wednesday Anderson describes the fields of grain: "Our wheat is thriving well, but the heavy rains of Sunday & Monday have crushed down some patches in those fields where the straw is longest. Some of the wheat, I should state, was six feet high & upwards; but this remark applies to that sown in good new soil only. That sown upon some patches of old worn out soil is feeble [as] might of course be expected. Generally, however, the [fields] present a most luxuriant & encouraging appearance."

On the 7th of August the men are still covering the boat shed with grass, and "Linneard came down from the hay this evening, the whole being now cut. Lefevre & the Indian lads remain today & stack what is still on the ground." On the 11th, "Two men cutting barley, of which a small load was housed today. Rain interrupted their harvesting for a few days, and the incoming brigade arrived at the fort which took everyone away from the farming duties.

By the 29th of August, Anderson wrote that: "... the weather has been favorable for our harvest & the men have been occupied at it without cessation (except of course, the Sabbath). Today, however, the foul weather interrupts our purpose. 800 sheaves of wheat are housed. The [remainder] cut is for the most part in stooks up on the fields. One half of our wheat is now reaped, but our limited [resources] do not admit of our carrying on operations as we might wish. Men variously occupied excavating a cavereau [an ice-box], preparing a thrashing floor &c."

In early September Anderson reported that: "[Montigny] & Marineau... carting barley of which 10 cart loads were brought home, of about 50 large sheaves each. The others tying wheat. Yesterday at noon the reapers finished the largest piece of wheat & continued at the barn. Today not reaping, being considerably in advance of the tyers [women & children who were tying the wheat?]. ...Threatening weather, with occasional drops of rain but nothing material." Two days later they "finished cutting our barley of which the crop is so copious as to fill our boatshed with the exception of ten feet vacant at each end, say about 40 good cart loads, of 50 sheaves each, more or less."

[The boatshed, by the way, sheltered the brigade boats over the summer and was emptied when the incoming brigade took the boats upriver to Fort St. James.]

Problems always occurred. Tuesday 5th: "Cutting wheat at barn. Unfortunately one of the wheels of Linneard's cart got broken, through the upsetting of the cart. This about noon, the vehicle was laid by & Marineau continued alone. Montigny & Indians shearing wheat & M. Ogden pulling up pease [vetch?]. Thirouiac & afterwards Linneard reaping. Having finished the barn patch of wheat, they began upon a piece of oats. The other piece of wheat, though well advanced and in parts perfectly ripe, may be suffered to wait a few days without injury."

The next morning Linneard repaired the wheel. By this time the boathouse held "..38 1/2 loads contained in one side of barn, being full to the summit... 49 loads now housed of 70 sheaves or more per load. Continued cutting the evening, Oats, &c." On Friday, 8th of September, Marineau took in the remainder of the large field of wheat. "This, with one half of the patch near the barn, fills the barn -- say 72 loads in all. Afterwards all hands at the other wheat fields. The oats are sheaved and stooked."

The Fort Alexandria men sheaved the last of the wheat in mid September, and on the 18th, "Linneard & others making a stack of white wheat opposite back door of barn, it having been lodged temporarily under cover in the thrashing space of barn. The stack, which is unfinished, is covered with oil cloths in case of foul weather during the night." Anderson's attention then turned to the trading for fish which also brought in food that would feed the men over the winter.

At the end of August he inventoried the harvest for that year:
"Total of wheat &c Harvest 1843 -- 40 cartloads Barley (50 large sheaves each)
93 loads white, 6 loads red -- 104 cartloads Wheat (50 large sheaves each)
12 loads Oats (with still more to come. They housed the last of their oats on the last day of September).
60 Bushels Potatoes (660)

There was a long break in his journal at this time. Anderson's journal began on about the 20th of April, 1844, when he wrote:
"Want of ink has interrupted my journal for a time but now by the arrival of Marineau from Colvile, I have received a supply.... The men have been busily occupied for the last week at the farm & today, 19th, we harrowed in and rolled the last of our wheat, say 23 1/4 bushels ... occupying all our disposable land. There were 30 bushels last year; but as the seed was very poor it was sown considerably thicker. The extent of land [remains] the same, but the crops were shifted."

And so the cycle of farming begins again in April, 1844. On the 22nd they are sowing oats at the barn. A day later they finished harrowing & rolling all the grain, having sown 24 1/2 bushels of wheat. By the 30th of April they finished planting their potatoes. On the 1st of May Lenniard is working in the garden, while others are grinding wheat.

But 1844 would prove to be a cold and backward season, at least for a few weeks. On the 9th of May, 1844, Anderson noted that: "Our oats in the lower fields sown about a month ago, have been so much inured by the inclemency of the weather" including hard overnight frosts, "that much of the grain will, I fear, not recover. Accordingly I today got part of the two fields resown with the remainder of our oats -- say 5 1/2 bushels, leaving those parts least injured by the frost to take their chance."

One of the difficulties of farming in the fur trade was that most of the Fort Alexandria men went out with the brigade every summer to Fort Vancouver [Vancouver, WA.], and returned home about the middle of August. Though it was always a necessary task, keeping up with the farming was almost impossible to do when only four men remained at the fort. The women and children were put to work, and everyone at the fort did their share of the farm work. Still, it was heavy and hard work, and often interrupted by other work that also had to be done. In September 1844, Anderson noted in his journal that "with this scanty complement [of men] I can, it is true, manage to scramble through; but it cannot be expected that I shall be able to prosecute the farm with that spirit which can alone ensure success." A more telling complaint is, perhaps, this one:

"With our multifarious operations at this place it is a difficult matter to go on regularly with any particular job. Like drunken men, we make one step forward & then a half-halt in arrears. I cannot help it."

I think that says it all.

I get a lot of questions through this blog sometimes, and some of them are very interesting questions. One reader told me about potatoes, and so I researched the kinds of potatoes that were grown at the fur trade forts: specifically Fort Vancouver.
If you want more information on that subject, find my blog posting, "Potatoes at Fort Alexandria." You might find the post by goggling that name exactly. However, if that does not work, then go to Fur Trade Family History (this blog) and find the posting for the date Sunday, August 14, 2011 -- "Potatoes at Fort Alexandria."
Or try this link: (live link below)
Potatoes at Fort Alexandria

As I told you a while ago I was also asked about Indian corn being planted at Fort Alexandria, and I did finally find it mentioned. Father Nobili, who passed through the fort on various occasions, wrote that he saw fields of many kinds of Indian corn.
Here, now, is the Fort Alexandria journal posting that is relevant to that occasion:
Because of missing pages, it is hard to tell the exact date this was written. It is probably Monday 4th May, 1845:
"Finishing putting in our seed grain, say in all as under:
29 wheat, 15 Barley, 10 Oats -- Some Pease & Indian corn (for summer use only)."

And so, by the skin of my teeth I was able to confirm that, Yes, Pere Nobili saw Indian corn at Fort Alexandria. It was planted every spring and eaten over the summer months and, so, never mentioned in the harvests of Fort Alexandria.

1 comment:

  1. Great posting, Nancy! Everyone has to eat. It's interesting to confirm corn that far north, but to be consumed as a fresh vegetable over the summer. The season is too short for corn to mature for harvest as grain. There will be more on fur fort farming (at Ft. Vancouver) soon on