Old Fort William - As seen from the observation tower. (Photo by J. Gottfred)
(See the full sized version of this picture (496 Kb) here.)
See "A Year In The Life of a Canoe Brigade" for how to select a good site for a fur post, the type, size, and number of buildings constructed, &c.
Fur Post Construction - By J. Gottfred
When the fur trading companies created a new post, they needed to build some sort of lodging to provide comfort for the winter and to protect the goods and furs that they were trading. At first glance, the problem seems easy enough to solve, but the resulting buildings had to meet several important criteria:
When English settlers first arrived in North America, the typical style of building in England was the "half- timbered" house in which the frame of the house was constructed with timbers and the spaces between filled with bricks or masonry. This style of construction was quite complex, and the English, influenced by Swedish, German, and Dutch techniques, rapidly switched to what is called "Swedish" style construction in which notched round logs are interlaced one on top of the other in classic "log cabin" style.
"Swedish" construction - An example from Ft. Walsh, late 1800's
In finer construction of this type the timbers would be squared, the ends would not stick out at the corners, and the overlapping joins would be dovetailed. The French in Lower Canada called log construction in general "pièces de bois sur pièces de bois" or "wood pieces on wood pieces" construction. This was later shortened to "pièce sur pièce", or "piece on piece" construction. They called the finer style of construction using dovetailed corners "à queue d'aronde".
"Pièce sur pièce à queue d'aronde" construction - Note how the overlapped wood is cut at an angle. This makes the wall more secure, and, more importantly, helps water drain out of the join thus reducing rot. This style was generally not used by the fur traders probably due to the complexity of the joins and the problems with shrinkage.
The fur traders did build some fur post buildings in the "Swedish" style, but it seems that it was only used if manpower was short, the post was temporary, and only a small building was required. The major problem with this style of construction was that the green wood shrank as it dried. Wood only shrinks a tiny amount along the grain, with most shrinkage occurring across the grain. In other words, as a log or timber dries it does not get any shorter, it just gets thinner. As the walls and corners shrank at different rates, gaps would open at the roof line and between the logs. The traders who spent the winter in such constructions complained about the cold, drafty conditions. (See "Other styles").
"Pièce sur pièce poteaux et pièce coulissante" Construction - Most fur post buildings were built with "post and sliding piece" construction. In this example, the posts are resting upon sills ("poteaux sur sole"). Sometimes the posts were simply placed in post holes in the ground "poteaux en terre" (a bad idea if you want the place to last!)
Fortunately, in Canada there was another building tradition, which had developed along quite different lines. When the French colonized New France, they made sure to send along skilled joiners who were well versed in the techniques employed in the old country. In northern France they framed buildings with grooved uprights filled with planks, a technique known today in Europe as "plankwall framing". Given the severity of the Quebec weather combined with the abundance of timber, it was a simple matter to replace the planks with whole, squared and tenonned timbers for the fill. This technique solved the problem of wood shrinkage because the vertical uprights would keep the roof from moving while the horizontal timbered fill shrank. This method of pièce sur pièce construction was called poteaux et pièce coulissante or "posts and sliding piece". This style of construction is well adapted to making buildings of almost any size. Another nice advantage of this technique is that it lends itself well to making two story buildings, something which the fur traders required at the larger posts.
"Poteaux et pièce coulissante" Construction - The Indian trading house at Old Fort William
Montreal was the base for all the fur companies (except the Hudson’s Bay Company), so the men and carpenters that were hired by those companies were well versed in the French building tradition of grooved posts and sliding piece construction. It was these men, in the employ of the fur companies, that first took this method all across Canada and even down into the United States. This method became the standard technique for building fur posts, and became so widespread that in Canada today it is known by different names depending upon the region in which it is found. Across the county it is variously called "Red River", "Manitoba", "Rocky Mountain", "Hudson’s Bay" or simply "Canadian" frame construction. It is all "poteaux et pièce coulissante".
In Quebec, buildings constructed in this fashion were set on stone foundation walls and their roofs were supported by complex truss systems. Also the horizontal fill timbers were pegged through the post and tenon to keep them from moving as the wood shrank. The fur traders generally did not bother with any foundation, they greatly simplified the roof to use a simple ridgepole design, and they didn’t bother to peg the horizontal fill except where required for structural integrity. When gaps opened up in the fill it was a simple matter to drive in a few wedges to re-space the timbers, and then re-chink.
The timbers themselves are much easier to make than you might imagine. The process of converting a round log into a squared timber is called "hewing". Once a tree has been felled and the ends squared off with a saw, the carpenter can then draw the shape of the timber that he wants on the ends, and a chalk line can be snapped along the log to show what material needs to be removed. The first step is to stand on the log and, using a common axe, score the waste wood down close to the chalk line every foot or so along the length of the log. The scoring allows the waste material to fall away easily once the hewing begins.
Scoring - The carpenter at Old Fort William demonstrates how to score a log prior to hewing.
The hewing is done with a special tool called a hewing axe. A hewing axe differs from a regular axe in two important ways. First, the blade is beveled on only one side. The other side is perfectly flat. On a right-handed hewing axe, the left side of the blade is the flat one. The edge is put on by beveling the right edge only. The second difference is that the handle of the hewing axe is offset in order to keep the users hands clear of the log. On a right-handed hewing axe, the handle angles out to the right.
To use the hewing axe, the hewer stands next to the log and cuts into the waste material with the blade parallel to the chalk line. The technique is to slap the flat blade against the work already done, and let the blade slide downwards. The flat blade does not dive into the wood, instead it shaves away the waste material. The resulting finish is as smooth as if the log had been planed. In fact, that is what you are doing, planing the log with the hewing axe. It’s a bit tricky to get the feel of the offset handle, but after a while you just get going along at an amazing rate of speed. When I took my hewing lesson at Old Fort William, we finished off one side of a twelve foot long hardwood log in fifteen minutes. The entire timber, perfectly squared, was hewed out in less than an hour using the right tools.
Hewing - The specialized hewing axe shaves away the waste material. Note the shape of the final timber drawn on the end of the log. By using a chalked line to match up the corner points with the drawing at the other end of the log, the hewer has a guideline as to what material should be removed.
Proper chinking, used at posts supplied by ships, consisted of oakum and clay pounded into the cracks. Oakum is a curious substance that is made from old rope. In the days of the fur trade, rope was made from hemp, an extremely durable and strong fibre. The problem with hemp is that it rots if left wet. To help prevent this, rope was impregnated with tar to help preserve it from the elements. Once a rope had run its useful life, it would be picked apart into a fuzzy, tarry mass called oakum, which makes ideal chinking material. In the Northwest, oakum was not available and so buildings were chinked with clay and grass instead. It is important that the chinking material have some springiness. If the chinking is rock hard, then when the wood swells during the humid summers the wood fibres are compressed against the immovable chinking, and when the moisture leaves the wood again in the dry winter, a small gap begins to open. Repeated cycles ultimately result in the chinking becoming loose and falling out.
Roofs were a special problem. At the large, permanent posts the buildings would be properly shingled over an English style rafter system built by experienced carpenters and joiners. However, the smaller, temporary posts usually did not have the skills (or time) at hand for such a complex job. As a result, the roofs most commonly described consist of a simple ridgepole with boards or split logs running down to the top of the wall, with the gables filled in with planks or timbers. The roofs were then covered with almost anything you can imagine to try to keep them from leaking. Bark, sod, thatch, mown grass & earth, clay, even tent leather was used. The journals give a strong impression that anything other than proper shingles would inevitably leak.
The attic space was sometimes used for storage, or as a loft (warm air rises, so the upper floor would be the warmest). At the larger posts, some buildings were constructed with two stories.
Even the rudest buildings would have a floor because a raised floor is the only way to ensure things stay dry. Again, the quality of construction varied from simple split logs (round side down) to tongue-in-grooved boards. Planking was common.
Planks were made using a saw pit. A hole is dug in the ground and the log placed above. One man stands in the hole and another stands on top of the log. The plank is sawn out along the length of the log with the cut occurring on the down stroke. One can imagine what a miserable job this would have been for the poor fellow on the bottom!
As a rule, windows were covered with parchment (rawhide), with or without shutters. Or they were simply left as openings with shutters. (In mosquito country, I’d opt for the parchment, but the journals never mention a reason for choosing one method over another). The posts supplied by ship (e.g. the North West Company headquarters on Lake Superior) had luxuries such as many glass windows. Inland, glass was rarer, but out of six archaeological reports that we have for posts occupied prior to 1830, three of them positively identified window glass fragments, while at the three other sites other possible window glass fragments were not definitively classified as such, apparently because the authors couldn't quite believe it. We know from journals that Cumberland House had two glass windows in 1777. It stands to reason that the proprietor of a post may very well have had one or two small panes of glass in one of his windows so that he could keep an eye on things. (If they could successfully transport china plates to the northwest, a couple of small squares of glass does not seem impossible.)
Doors were always made for the buildings, even for interior partitions. By all accounts they were made of planks and constructed with nails. Iron hinges were used to hang the doors, and the goods storage in particular could be locked with an iron hasp and lock, or a proper door lock. Other buildings might only have a wooden latch.
Fireplaces were made of various materials depending upon labour and availability of stone. The big posts had fireboxes and chimneys made of stone. Small posts, especially those without enough men to gather stone, built both the firebox and chimney out of mud brick. The brick was made by mixing grass with the local clay and letting it dry in the sun. The most common construction appears to have been a firebox made with stone, and the chimney made of mud and grass. This option certainly sounds the safest if you are lacking concrete and kiln dried brickwork. I don’t think that I would want a heavy stone and clay chimney towering over my head. Even the mud versions were dangerous enough – Alexander Henry the Younger had a narrow escape from a mud chimney that collapsed near him in the middle of the night. The fireboxes and chimneys were often placed between two rooms so that each room might share in the chimney.
Once the building was completed, the outside was usually finished with a whitewash. Most posts simply used white clay, but a few actually built lime kilns and produced true whitewash!
The interior space of buildings would be divided with partitions depending upon their intended use. A private room for the proprietor, trading rooms and clerks rooms were all the norm. Additional houses might be made for the men. Some houses had cook rooms.
The number of buildings would vary depending upon the size of the post and its importance. The inland headquarters of the North West Company had around forty! Most of the posts that would be occupied for several years would have a locked ware house and/or trading room, a main house for the proprietor and the clerks, and one or more houses for the men. Additional buildings would be added as required. Examples specifically mentioned in journals include powder magazines, canoe sheds, and stables. Archaeological evidence for a blacksmith workshop exists at Fort George (N. Saskatchewan River) and Fort Augustus.
Every post of any size would also have an ice house. These were the refrigerators of the day, and if built properly, worked extremely well. George Simpson, the Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, sent these instructions to all the posts detailing the proper way to build an ice house: "Ice houses should be formed by digging large and deep excavations in the ground, the sides of which must be supported by log walls and the top, above ground, well covered over with a double roof set 2 or 3 feet apart, both composed of thick thatch." (Simpson, 316)
Most of the posts were also surrounded by a stockade. These constructions varied in robustness from flimsy gap-toothed things that blew down in strong winds to 12’ high solid oak edifices complete with bastions with loop-holes. J. Mackenzie described the palisade walls of Ft. Chipewyan in 1799: "We are every moment in imminent danger of being squeezed to death by the fort pickets, which seem to have long ago been at war with one another. Several ‘pagées’ of them are at present flat on the ground and several more are in doubt whether they should fall or not." (Masson 2:387)
The typical method of construction for stockades was to dig a trench, plant the poles (usually left round, but sometimes squared), and then fill the trench up again. The poles would be held together by fixing them to cross pieces with trenails-- wooden pegs driven into auger holes.
If there was no stockade around the buildings, there definitely was one around the garden. Most posts had gardens where potatoes etc. could be grown, and these needed to be protected from animals. Usually, however, the garden was enclosed within the stockade along with the buildings.
The final touch was to raise a flagpole. At some posts these were enormous, 75' tall in one case! There seems little doubt that there was a certain "mine is bigger than yours" symbolism about the whole thing. I suppose one might make the argument that a tall flagpole would be an aid to navigation, however, as they only flew the flag on Sunday, and probably produced columns of smoke hundreds of feet high on a daily basis, this argument seems groundless.
Today there are many excellent examples of historic sites where the buildings have been reconstructed with as much accuracy as possible. These sites are an excellent and valuable resource for learning about how the fur traders lived and worked. However, you must remember when visiting these sites that unlike the original fur posts, they have been built to last for generations, designed with the safety of visitors in mind, and are subject to budgetary and political constraints wholly different from the originals. The chimneys must be of stone and concrete, not mud. The stockade walls must be robust and securely fixed so that no-one is crushed by a toppling wall. Parchment for the windows is too expensive and fragile. Buildings must rest on proper foundations. Seasoned wood is used for building, so the effects of shrinkage do not happen. Roofs must be properly weather and fire-proof and easy to maintain (hence the widespread use of shingles). Chinking must be secure and not fall out, hence the use of caulking, the grounds must be clean and free of wood scraps and other garbage, and perhaps most often overlooked, the ground itself must be covered with pea gravel, (or something equally unhistoric), as mud will simply drive away the tourists and ruin the floors. Consequently, as a visitor you are seeing a somewhat idealized version of what the original would have looked like, and a friendly, well-fed summer staff of students with perfect teeth fitted out in one-size-fits-none costumes are a poor facsimile of trail-worn hivernants trying to avoid another work detail. Still, keeping these differences in mind, a visit to one of these sites is an excellent way to gain an appreciation for what the fur traders were able to accomplish a thousand miles from civilization, and the amazing level of comfort that they were able to provide for themselves with some simple tools and a few strong backs.
See "A Year In The Life of a Canoe Brigade" for how to select a good site for a fur post, and the type, size, and number of buildings constructed, &c.
See Historic Site Links for a reproduction fur post near you.
References and Additional Details
Arthurs, David W. p. 203 in C. S. "Paddy" Reid (ed.), Northern Ontario Fur Trade Archeology: Recent Research. Archeological Research Report No. 12. Historical Planning and Research Branch, Ontario Ministry of Culture & Recreation: Toronto, 1980.
Back, Admiral Sir George. Arctic Artist : The Journal and Paintings of George Back, Midshipman with Franklin, 1819-1822. C. Stuart Houston, ed. Commentary by I. S. McLaren. McGill-Queen's University Press : Montreal, 1994. ISBN 0-7735-1181-4
Barka, Norman F. & Anne. Archeology and the Fur Trade: The Excavation of Sturgeon Fort, Saskatchewan. National Historic Sites and Parks Branch, Parks Canada: 1976.
Burley, David K.; J. Scott Hamilton; Knut R. Fladmark. Prophecy of the Swan: The Upper Peace River Fur Trade of 1794-1823. UBC Press: Vancouver, 1996. ISBN 0-7748-0544-7.
Duckworth, Harry W. (ed.) The English River Book : A North West Company Journal and Account Book of 1786. McGill-Queen's University Press : Montreal, 1990. ISBN 0-7735-0714-0
Fidler, Peter. A Southern Alberta Bicentennial : A Look at Peter Fidler's Journal. Bruce Haig, ed. Historical Research Centre : Lethbridge, Alberta, 1991. ISBN 0-921624-04-2.
Fraser, Simon. The Letters and Journals of Simon Fraser, 1806 - 1808. W. Kaye Lamb, ed.. Macmillan : Toronto, 1960.
Gates, Charles M. Five Fur Traders of the Northwest : Being the Narrative of Peter Pond and the Diaries of John Macdonell, Archibald N. McLeod, High Faries, and Thomas Connor. Minnesota Historical Society : St. Paul, Minnesota, 1965.
Harmon, Daniel Williams. Sixteen Years in the Indian Country : The Journal of Daniel Williams Harmon, 1800-1816. W. Kaye Lamb, ed. Macmillan : Toronto, 1957.
Henry, Alexander (the Younger). New Light on the Early History of the Northwest : The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry... Volume I. Elliot Coues, ed. Reprint-Ross & Haines : Minneapolis, 1965. Originally published 1897.
Henry, Alexander (the Younger). New Light on the Early History of the Northwest : The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry... Volume II. Elliot Coues, ed. Reprint-Ross & Haines : Minneapolis, 1965. Originally published 1897.
Henry, Alexander (the Younger). New Light on the Early History of the Northwest : The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry... Volume III. Elliot Coues, ed. Reprint-Ross & Haines : Minneapolis, 1965. Originally published 1897.
Hood, Robert. To the Arctic by Canoe 1819-1821 : The Journal and Paintings of Robert Hood, Midshipman with Franklin. C. Stuart Houston, ed. McGill-Queen's University Press : Montreal, 1974. ISBN 1-7735-1222-5.
Johnson, Alice M. (ed.) Saskatchewan Journals and Correspondence : Edmonton House 1795-1800, Chesterfield House 1800-1802. Hudson's Bay Record Society : London, 1967.
Keith, Lloyd. North of Athabasca: Slave Lake and Mackenzie River Documents of the North West Company, 1800-1821. McGill-Queen's University Press: Montreal, 2001. ISBN 0-7735-2098-8.
Kidd, Robert S. Archeological Excavations at the Probable Site of the First Fort Edmonton or Fort Augustus, 1795 to Early 1800's". Provincial Museum of Alberta Human History Occasional Paper No. 3. Alberta Culture and Multiculturalism Historical Resources Division, 1987.
Kidd, Robert S. Fort George and the Early Fur Trade in Alberta. Provincial Museum and Archives of Alberta Publication No. 2. Queen's Printer for Alberta : Edmonton, 1970.
Masson, L. R. Les Bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest, Volume 1. Reprint– Antiquarian Press : New York, 1960. Originally published 1889-90. (Note that most of the book is actually in English.)
Masson, L. R. Les Bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest, Volume 2. Reprint– Antiquarian Press : New York, 1960. Originally published 1889-90. (Note that most of the book is actually in English.)
Moogk, Peter N. Building a House in New France: An Account of the Perplexities of Client and Craftsmen in Early Canada. McClelland and Stewart: Toronto, 1977. ISBN 0-7710-5466-1.
Nelson, George. "A Winter in the St. Croix Valley, 1802-03." Richard Bardon, M.D., & Grace Lee Nute, eds. In Minnesota History, vol. 28, no. 1 (March 1947), pp. 1-14.
Nelson, George. "A Winter in the St. Croix Valley, 1802-03." Richard Bardon, M.D., & Grace Lee Nute, eds. In Minnesota History, vol. 28, no. 2 (June 1947), pp. 142-159. Nelson, George. "A Winter in the St. Croix Valley, 1802-03." Richard Bardon, M.D., & Grace Lee Nute, eds. In Minnesota History, vol. 28, no. 3 (September 1947), pp. 225-240.
Newton, Barry M; and James A. Mountain. "Gloucester House: A Hudson's Bay Company Inland Post (1777-1818)", pp 51-94 in C. S. "Paddy" Reid (ed.), Northern Ontario Fur Trade Archeology: Recent Research. Archeological Research Report No. 12. Historical Planning and Research Branch, Ontario Ministry of Culture & Recreation: Toronto, 1980.
Noble, William C. 'The Excavation and Historical Identification of Rocky Mountain House', in Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History, no. 6, pp 54-163. National Historic Sites Service, National and Historic Sites Branch, Dept. of Indian Affairs and Northern Development : Ottawa, 1973.
Priess, P. J., P. W. Nieuwhof, S. B. Ebell. "Archeological Investigation of the Junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, 1984." Research Bulletin No. 241, January, 1986. Archeological Services, Parks Canada, Winnipeg.
Rempel, John I. Building with Wood and Other Aspects of Nineteenth Century Building in Central Canada. University of Toronto Press. c1980. ISBN 0-8020-2280-4.
Rich, E. E. (ed.) Cumberland and Hudson House Journals 1775-1782. 2 vols. London: Hudson's Bay Company Record Society, 1951.
Rich, E. E. (ed.) Moose Fort Journals 1783-1785. London: Hudson's Bay Record Society, 1954. No ISBN.
Simpson, George. Journal of Occurrences in the Athabasca Department by George Simpson, 1820 and 1821, and Report. E. E. Rich, ed. Hudson's Bay Record Society/Champlain Society : London, 1938.
Thompson, David. David Thompson's Narrative, 1784-1812. Glover, Richard, ed. Champlain Society : Toronto, 1962.
Thompson, David. Columbia Journals. Barbara Belyea, ed. McGill-Queen's : Montreal, 1994. ISBN 0-7735-0989-5
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