Art I. A Compendium of Material Culture ; Or, What We Dug Up. By Jeff & Angela Gottfred.
When we started Northwest Journal in 1994, one of our goals was to help reenactors of the Canadian fur trade by providing them with accurate information about our history. Material culture (the things made and used in a particular place & time) is very important to reenactors since they invest time & money in historical reproductions to help their portrayals. Until now, however, getting accurate & reliable information has been difficult.
In this issue of Northwest Journal we present a compendium of material culture which lists a large variety of items that were used by fur traders in the Northwest between 1775 and 1825. We provide brief information on the best evidence for the existence of each item, and an estimate of each item's abundance during this period. This list is meant to serve as a quick summary ; future editions of Northwest Journal will look at items in more detail, in articles similar to 'Seed Beads in the Northwest', 'Tents in the Northwest', &c.
The Intent of the List
This list is intended to provide a solid base of background information for all club members. It should be of special interest to those members who are interested in doing public demonstrations (e.g. Beaver Club members), and are especially concerned about presenting an historically typical look.
This list is the first word on this subject, not the last word! It is intended to be a living, changing, growing list. Review it, and then send us your evidence and leads for items either not on the list, or for which you have better evidence than that which is currently on the list. (See the end of this article for more details.) We will print updates to this list periodically as the list grows and matures.
Time and Area Covered
This list provides the evidence for European trade goods and personal items from 1775 to 1825 in what is now Canada, west of Fort William (Thunder Bay). Note that this list excludes all Native items, items found only in Upper or Lower Canada, items from the Great Lakes area, and items used by the Lewis & Clark expedition.
The list includes articles used by North West or Hudson's Bay company traders operating in what is now the northwestern United States. Items from Fort George/Astoria are also included in the list.
This list has been constructed by a careful and detailed examination of a wealth of data, including :
The archeological reports for excavations carried out at Rocky Mountain House, Fort George (Alberta), Fort Wedderburn II, and Boyer's Post.
The fur trade displays at the following museums : Glenbow Museum, Provincial Museum of Alberta, Royal Saskatchewan Museum, Manitoba Museum (formerly the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature), Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site's museum, and Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site's museum.
Fur trade era collections at Fort George-Buckingham House Provincial Historic Site, Fort Langley National Historic Site, Fort Carlton Provincial Historic Site, Old Fort William (Thunder Bay), Dunvegan Provincial Historic Site, Heritage Park (Calgary), Fort Edmonton Park (Edmonton).
Journals and memoirs covering about 100 man-years of fur trade life by James Bird, Thomas Connor/John Sayer, Hugh Fairies, Peter Fidler, Gabriel Franchère, Simon Fraser, Cuthbert Grant Sr., Daniel Williams Harmon, Samuel Hearne, Alexander Henry (the elder), Alexander Henry (the younger), John Macdonnell, Duncan McGillivray, Alexander Mackenzie, Archibald Norman McLeod, George Sutherland, David Thompson, William Tomison, Philip Turnor, and Edward Umfreville.
The artwork of Peter Rindisbacher, George Heriot, William Berczy, William Bent Berczy, Francis Ann Hopkins, John Lambert, Thomas Davies, and James Peachey, and others.
The list also includes the leads and folklore provided by a host of secondary sources, historic site interpreters, & museum staff.
How Items are Categorized
For each item, we have tried to describe two main things : how good the evidence for it is, and how abundant (common or rare) it was in the fur trade.
Evidence is placed into one of four main categories : proven, good evidence, some evidence, and questionable. Each of these categories has sub-categories, which serve to describe the kinds of evidence used to classify items. The abbreviations and categories of the evidence provided are as follows:
The Proven Category
This category lists items that are definitely known to have existed in the Northwest.
Many fur post sites have been wholly or partially excavated, and these sites have yielded a wealth of useful and important data about fur fort life.
Archeological remains can tell us very precisely what kinds of items were present at a fur post. For example, if a shard of 'blue willow' china is discovered at a fur post sited dating to 1800, then it is pretty clear that china was at that site at that time. Unfortunately, the remains do not tell us why it was there, or who was using it. It must also be remembered that the remains that are recovered by archeologists usually represent only the preservable garbage left at the site. (The exception to this are few buried goods caches whose locations were apparently forgotten, and the buildings themselves, which were left to rot when a fur post was abandoned). This means that there is an inherent bias in the archaeological record. It really only tells us what was broken and discarded, or lost and not recovered by the people working at the posts. Valuable items (with the exception of the odd piece of small jewelry) are rarely found at these sites. Archeologists find no gold or silver coins, watches, &c., as such items would never be intentionally abandoned. (Even if broken, expensive items would be carried away by the owner in the hopes of repairing them.) What is left to examine are bits of broken crockery tossed out the window, table knives that have fallen through the floor boards, buttons, and other small items that the owners did not miss until they had no hope of knowing where to look for them.
Remember, only things that can lie in the ground for 200 years without being totally destroyed can be recovered. Usually this precludes any organic material, although wood sometimes survives. Brass, copper, silver, iron, bone, and ceramics are generally all that remain. Iron is often so badly rusted that it falls under the category of 'amorphous iron'. Thin tin-plate is usually so fragmentary that it is impossible to guess what the article might have been.
In short, the archeological evidence can tell us that an item was definitely present that the post at some time during its occupation. However, the archeological evidence alone can not tell us what other goods may have been present at the site and were not lost or not preserved. However, it should be recognized that the presence of an artifact at a site yields absolute proof that the article was there, and so the archeological record provides the most reliable evidence that we have concerning the items actually used at the fur posts.
Probably the second-most reliable source of information comes from inventory lists and business letters between partners or to management. In general, these letters and lists of goods should be reliable. Embezzlement notwithstanding, there is little reason for the authors of these reports to lie, especially about mundane items such as the number of half-inch augers at the post. The main failing of these records is that they are usually business-focused. They tell us little about what life was like at the posts, and only hint at the luxuries that traders tried to smuggle upriver to ease their tenure in the wilds.
These inventory lists and business letters help fill in the archeological record by providing reliable information about the non-preservable and valuable stuff that passed through the fur posts.
The 'Good Evidence' Category
Items listed in the 'good evidence' category are, for all intents and purposes, proven to have existed. However, these items lack the certainty of items listed under the 'proven' category.
The third-most reliable source of information comes from company lists of requisitioned goods. The main failing of these records is that they do not indicate whether or not the requested goods were actually delivered, only that they were needed. However, it is a reasonable assumption that goods would not be requisitioned if there was not a reasonable chance of them being delivered. This is especially true for goods checked off on standard company-provided forms, which you would expect would only list goods that were 'standard' items and therefore readily available.
Probably the fourth-most reliable source of information about life in the Northwest comes from the journals of people who were there. These journals can provide much information pertaining to daily life at the posts, but they are also minefields for the unwary.
Most fur traders' journals were written to be read by the journalist's supervisors or peers; they were reports of the day-to-day events for management consumption. Many have been copied or recopied by the original journalist or others. These copies many change the facts to cast the writer in a better light with the benefit of hindsight. Some journals may be fraudulent in whole or in part, and of course, these journals never cast the writer in a bad light. (How often have you written in a company memo that you were a complete idiot, or scared spitless— or even hinted at it?)
Each journal must be judged carefully for its reliability, but references in journals to mundane daily objects are probably, in general, reliable. Descriptions of fights, mammoth tracks, and distant mountain ranges should be treated with a grain of salt.
The 'Some Evidence' Category
This category lists items for which there is some evidence that they may have existed in the Northwest. One should exercise caution in choosing items for public demonstration which fall into this category.
The fifth-most reliable source of information comes from memoirs of fur traders written after their return to 'civilization'. They may describe events in the recent or distant past.
Memoirs suffer from all of the limitations of journals, but to a greater degree. Usually memoirs are written for the consumption of a much larger audience, and will try to fulfill the cultural expectation of that audience. Consequently, modest humility and perseverance in the face of adversity is the general editorial rule. Most such memoirs read like 'Biggles and the Voyageurs'. A true representation of the thoughts and feelings of the participants is probably lacking. The exotic and romantic may be stressed. Also, some unusual terminology may be used to describe things to readers unfamiliar with them, such as 'wild oxen' for buffalo.
Memoirs are also far less reliable at describing the mundane objects of daily life, as the description of such objects is written in the vernacular of the modern audience, and the meaning of words might have changed over the course of the years. This can lead to erroneous conclusions about what objects were present. For example, if I were describing to you a hiking adventure from my boyhood, I might refer to my 'day pack'. Today a 'day pack' is a small, lightweight, streamlined nylon & plastic backpack without a frame. What I actually had then was a 'knapsack', which is a bulky, unframed, canvas monstrosity with leather straps— a completely different object, but used in the same way. Memoirs are full of such pitfalls!
Pictures, sketches, and paintings of daily life at the fur posts can provide a lot of information about what items may have looked like. Unfortunately, they are not very reliable at telling you which of those objects were actually present at the site. Artists generally sketch out the objects of interest in the field, and then later, in the studio, they may invent backgrounds and insert items of visual interest which were not originally present. Even worse, artists can choose a completely different object to act as a model for the real object when doing a final drawing. A great example of this is the Rindisbacher image of 'A Man and His Two Wives', in which the original sketch clearly shows the man holding a trade musket, yet in the final color print he is holding a Harper's Ferry rifle— probably the only firearm close to hand when the illustrator needed a model. In general, the only time that artwork should be considered more reliable that just 'some evidence', is in the case of an original sketch done on location. In these cases, it is probably reasonable to consider the evidence to be of the 'journal' kind ('good evidence'). However, the sketch must be clear and have good provenance!
The Questionable Category
This category lists items for which there is no clear evidence for their existence in the Northwest for the period of the study. These items should not be used at public demonstrations unless there is no alternative. When such items are prominently displayed at public demonstrations, it should be explained to the public that the item may not have been available in the Northwest.
Items mentioned in memoirs or journals as part of a second-or third-person story that happened before the writer's time.
Items described as having 'lead' evidence have been mentioned by a modern author as having existed in the fur trade from 1775-1825. No other evidence has been tracked down. This category includes all secondary references. Recognize secondary references (including Northwest Journal) for what they are : generalizations of some collection of historical evidence. Secondary sources have two major pitfalls: First, because such references contain conclusions, which are generalizations, they are by definition 'lying' by omission. Just keep in mind that the average situation is not the whole story! Secondly, as readers we have no control over the set of historical information that was used to draw the conclusions. For all we know important information counter to the conclusions may be absent from the data either by incomplete research, unconscious bias, poor methodology, or (hopefully rare!) intentional omission. For these reasons, secondary references should not be used as proof of the existence of an item. Rather, they should be used as sources (leads) to help us quickly find the original data.
Note that secondary sources which do not provide clear references to primary historical material, and all 'tertiary' references (based on secondary sources) should not even count as 'leads'.
Items which were known to have existed in Upper or Lower Canada, but for which there is no evidence that they made it to the Northwest.
This category is used for items which are commonly asked about, or used by interpreters or re-enactors, for which (to our knowledge) there is no solid evidence of their use in the Northwest. This generally applies to a vast array of material which is commonly illustrated in American publications pertaining to the Seven Year's War (French & Indian War), the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the period of the American 'Mountain Man' (post 1820).
Items for which there is (currently) no evidence other than oral tradition or rendezvous or interpreter 'common knowledge'.
Did not exist (X)
Items for which there is no evidence of their existence in the Northwest or in Upper or Lower Canada during the time covered by the study.
This category is used for items which are commonly asked about, or used by interpreters or re-enactors, for which (to our knowledge) there is no solid evidence of their existence.
It should be noted that any item which comes to mind which is not listed would fall into the X or H categories. If you have a source for better evidence for such items please send it in!
Each item is given an abundance code indicating the estimated abundance of the item. Obviously true abundances are impossible to acquire. Note that for each item we assume that the item must exist in a useful quantity. For example, for small beads, we assume that one occurrence is a minimum of 200 beads. For necklace beads and tinkling cones we assume that six constitutes one occurrence, and so on for cloth, shot, cordage, &c.
Note also that we assume that archeological remains suggest a higher abundance than the actual number found. This is for two reasons : First, digs do not always excavate an entire site : often only a few test pits or trenches are dug. Secondly, some items must have been quite common for them to have been lost in the first place.
Finally, it should be noted that all abundances are colored by the frequency that they appear in the archeological or historical records. In general, the abundances say more about how often such items turn up in the remains, or are specifically listed or named in the primary material then they do about how abundant the items actually were. However, one should not take liberties with items that are listed as rare or unique.
Many examples of the item found or mentioned at several locations.
Locally Abundant (LA)
Many examples of the item found or mentioned at at least one locale. Note that in all cases of 'local' items this usually means that the item is also geographically restricted. For example, Clatsop hats are locally abundant at Fort George (Astoria), but are highly unlikely to be seen anywhere else.
Several examples of the item found or mentioned at several locations.
Locally Common (LC)
Several examples of the item found or mentioned at one or more locations.
At least two examples of the item found or mentioned at two or more locations.
Locally Rare (LR)
At least two examples of the item found or mentioned at one location.
Items which would be owned or possessed by certain classes, trades, or individuals. Applies to some common items.
Only one instance of the item recorded.
Plus Sign (+)
The plus sign is used in certain instances where we felt that the item fell between two categories. If we could just find a little more evidence such items would probably be bumped up to the next abundance level.
Drawing Conclusions from the Data
We know that you will find this list to be fascinating, useful, and quite possibly annoying! You may be surprised by some of the items that appear on the list and their abundances, while at the same time you may question some items that are absent from the list.
For example, one surprising outcome of this endeavor was the realization that rope apparently was not used in the Northwest. Canoes were towed with cod lines, and packs of furs were tied with twine. Wedge tents and tipis do not require rope to stand, and canoes and boats were always beached. In fact, there are no obvious requirements for rope. Rope thicker than Holland twine does not appear on any inventory that we have found. (Unless twine is rope, but it doesn't sound like it as Philip Turnor had 22 skeins of it damaged by mice in 1785.)
Another area of interest was cooking gear. Fancy trivets and fire irons were apparently not used, with the exception of fireplace kitchen cranes at permanent posts. In the field three sticks could be tied together to form a tripod from which a kettle could be hung.
On the other hand, the abundance of cotton and European- style clothing including jackets, waistcoats, breeches, trousers, stockings, socks &c., clearly indicates that these materials were the preferred material with the exception of leather trousers and leather topcoats for use in the bush. It is also clear from the abundance of both cotton and silk handkerchiefs that there is no excuse for re-enactors to be seen without a neck cloth! In fact, from the abundance of shirts and mantlets (bed jackets) &c. destined for trade, it seems clear that even the Natives didn't have to dress like Natives unless they wanted to. The lists also clearly show that 'moccasins', although abundant, were not the only footwear used. Large numbers of 'oxhide shoes' were brought in for the men's use. These oxhide shoes were probably of the 'bottes sauvages' and 'soulier de boeuf ' styles.
By the way, a note on language. At this time the words 'tipi' and 'moccasin' were American terms. These things were used in the Northwest, but were called 'tents' and 'shoes'. Only context tells us that they were tipis and moccasins.
In general, we found that this list demonstrated that the typical western Canadian 'rendevouser' is missing the mark. On the one hand folks are too advanced in their shooting gear (too many rifles & shooting gizmos), cooking gear (too many fancy fire irons & Dutch ovens), camping gear (too many chairs, wall tents, lanterns &c.). On the other hand they are too 'primitive' in clothing styles and materials (lacking waistcoats, neckcloths, and head coverings), in knives (too many 'primitive' antler- & bone-handled 'bowies', and not enough nice clasp knives, & kitchen knives like the cross-L), and in general, not enough clerks with nice china services, pocket watches, and English shoes!
A final note : The item descriptions are faithful to the original document sources where possible. Words inside [square brackets] are additional explanations or comments by the authors of this article.
Rings— This illustration shows four of the many rings recovered at the Rocky Mountain House Site (1799-1821). Three of the rings are brass and are of the inset stone style. The fourth is a silver ring in the claddagh style. The rings are on display at the Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site museum.
Table Knife — This example of a brass openwork-handled table knife is on display at the Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site Museum. It was recovered from the site of the North West Company's Rocky Mountain House which was occupied from 1799 until 1821.
Examples of this style of table knife have also been recovered from the the Northwest Company's Fort George (Buckingham House/Fort George) site (1792-1800), the Hudson's Bay Company's Wedderburn site (near Fort Chipewyan), which was only occupied for the winter of 1817 to 1818, and the Hudson's Bay's Nottingham House (1802-1806),
The knives are iron, with a brass openwork handle inlayed with brown horn or tortoise shell.
It seems clear that these knives were in common and widespread use. Unfortunately we know of no modern supplier of such knives. If any club members have a source for similar knives, please let us know, and we'll put it in the Dispatches!
Small Scissors — These small scissors, on display at the Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site museum, show the style typical for the period.
The Questionable List
As you collect new data, use these blank table entries to record your findings. Please submit your findings to the Northwest Brigade Club. If your source is a book, be sure to include the full name of the book, the author, publisher, ISBN number (if possible), and page containing your reference. If your source is a museum or gallery, please include the address of the museum, the accession number of the item and the name of the curator to contact. If the item is in a private collection, please include the provenance of the item.
Copyright 1994-2002 Northwest Journal ISSN 1206-4203. May I copy this article for my class?