Fort Vancouver
Historic Structures Report
NPS Logo
Volume II


History and location

The earliest known information concerning the location of the storehouse for furs at Fort Vancouver is found on the ground plan drawn by George Foster Emmons on July 25, 1841 (see Plate III, vol. I). Emmons placed the "Building for Furs &c." along the south stockade wall near its western end, only a few feet east of the brick powder magazine that stood in the southwest corner of the fort. [1] As shown by the Henry Eld sketch of approximately the same date, this 1841 fur store was a substantial two-story or one-and-a-half-story, gable roofed structure (see Plates IV and LIII, vol. I).

By December 21, 1844, however, the location of the fur warehouse had been changed. On that date Clerk Thomas Lowe noted in his diary the erection of a new flagpole "within a few feet of the East end of the Fur Store." [2] From the ground plan drawn by Lieutenant Vavasour late in 1845 (see Plate VI, vol. I) and from the actual remains of the flagstaff recovered during archeological excavations in 1972, it is known with certainty that this new flagpole was situated about nine feet east of the structure designated on the present site plan of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site as Building No. 8. [3] It follows, therefore, that the structure whose site is now termed Building No. 8 probably was the 1845-period Fur Store. [4] Unfortunately, Vavasour's detailed plan merely identified this warehouse as one of two "Stores" ranged parallel to the south stockade wall in the southwestern quadrant of the fort.

In 1841, when Emmons drew his plan, the site now designated as Building No. 8 was occupied by the "Indian Trade Store--Hospital Dispensary &c." The Eld drawing shows this structure to have been rather low in height, perhaps only one story, and covered by a gabled roof. It was a long building and stood along the south palisade wall some 15 feet east of the 1841 fur store and directly east of the southwest gate.

On the other hand, the structure that occupied the site of Building No. 8 from at least late 1845 until the end of the fort's existence is known to have been a story and a half or a full two stories in height, and it was topped by a tall hipped roof. [5] Although its length and breadth appear to have been the same, or about the same, as those of the 1841 Indian Trade Shop, the 1845-period Fur Store was clearly not the same structure, at least in its entirety. It must be concluded that at some date between July 1841 and late 1845, when Lieutenant Vavasour drew a sketch of Fort Vancouver (see Plates IX and X, vol. I), the 1841 Indian trade shop was either rebuilt or extensively remodeled, and the new structure became the principal depot repository for furs. As has been seen, this change in function had occurred at least as early as December 21, 1844, and it is reasonable to suppose that replacement in the actual physical sense had also taken place by that time. [6]

Because Fort Vancouver, from its beginnings during the winter of 1824-25, was intended as a departmental depot, if only a temporary one, it can be assumed that a fur warehouse was among the first structures to be erected. The safekeeping of the peltries upon which profits depended was a major concern of every commissioned officer. Yet nothing regarding the physical appearance or location of the Fur Store is known prior to the plan and drawings made by Eld, Emmons, Agate, and possibly other members of the Wilkes Expedition in 1841. The fur warehouse of that year, as has been seen, was shifted prior to December 1844 to another structure standing directly east of it. It is this latter structure, here termed the 1845-period Fur Store, which is of immediate interest in connection with the reconstruction program. At the very minimum it had at least two predecessors--that still standing in 1841 and one at the first fort site on the hill, 1825-29.

Little more is known about the history of the 1845-period Fur Store than about the stories of its forerunners. One thing is certain, however: the Fur Store was a busy place during the first several years of its existence. There were gathered the annual fur returns of the entire Columbia District, and there they were stored and cared for until they were packed and shipped off in the Company vessel that sailed for England each fall. The numbers and types of furs are covered more precisely in the section of this chapter dealing with the Fur Store furnishings, but an idea of the quantities involved may be gathered from the fact that the ship Vancouver, which departed from Fort Vancouver on October 31, 1843, carried among her assorted cargo "the collection of furs of the season," consisting of 61,118 whole peltries, large and small, in addition to a number of tails, pieces, and damaged skins. [7]

But activity in the Fort Vancouver Fur Store slacked off beginning in 1845. The determination of the Company to shift its main Columbia District depot from Fort Vancouver to Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island has already been adequately discussed. [8] As one of several moves in that direction, Gov. George Simpson in January 1845, ordered Chief Factor McLoughlin henceforth to collect the furs from the entire Columbia District at Fort Victoria, from whence the annual ships would take them to London. [9] McLoughlin responded during the spring by instructing that the returns from the Northwest Coast were to be left at Victoria instead of being brought, as usual, to Fort Vancouver. [10] That September, after the furs from New Caledonia and the upper Columbia posts, as well as those gathered at Fort Vancouver and its immediate dependencies, had been assembled in the Columbia depot, they were placed on board the schooner Cadboro and sent to Fort Victoria. There the combined returns of the Columbia District were picked up by the barque Cowlitz for transport to England. [11] The Fort Vancouver Fur Store had ceased to be the principal repository for the Company's returns west of the Rockies.

Exactly what this change meant in the number of furs handled at Fort Vancouver is difficult to determine. Statistics on the returns of all the individual posts for Outfit 1845 (mid-1845 to mid-1846) have not yet been encountered by this writer, so it has not been possible to compute the number of furs that passed through the old Columbia depot during the summer of 1846. Because the returns from New Caledonia and most of the interior districts still reached the sea by way of the Columbia River, the volume continued to be substantial.

But further curtailments were to come. The Treaty of 1846 brought all of the Oregon Country south of the 49th parallel within the boundaries of the United States. Although the pact guaranteed the trading rights and the property of established British subjects and the Hudson's Bay Company south of the border, the political change brought increased difficulties for the firm. For several reasons it became desirable to supply the interior posts north of 49° by an all-British route from Fraser River. In 1847 a pack-horse trail was pioneered across the mountains from Kamloops to the lower Fraser, and the next year the fur returns of the northern posts, including Colvile, which was south of the border, were brought out by a land route. Although it required several years to perfect the new system, it is safe to state that in general the rich fur harvests of New Caledonia and Kamloops ceased to flow through Fort Vancouver after 1847. [12]

Concurrently the fur trade, which along the lower Columbia in particular had been declining for several years, showed a marked decrease as American settlements grew. Indian wars and the policy of concentrating the natives on reservations further disrupted the trade. By 1856 Fort Walla Walla, Fort Boise, Fort Hall, and Fort Umpqua were among the posts south of the boundary that had been abandoned by the Company. The annual flood of furs th at once poured into Fort Vancouver had been reduced to a trickle. [13]

By the fall of 1849 the reduction in fur returns had seemingly reached such a degree that the Company was willing to accommodate the need of the United States Army for additional storage space in the fort buildings. It will be recalled that on May 14, 1849, two companies of the First Artillery had established a military post on the land surrounding the stockade, and on June 1 the army's quartermaster had executed an agreement to rent certain Hudson's Bay structures. [14] As military operations expanded, additional buildings were rented from time to time.

Evidently it was on October 6, 1849, that the Company's officers in charge of Fort Vancouver began to rent "Half lower floor of Fur Store" to the army for $20 per month for use as a "commissary's store-house." [15] This arrangement continued without substantial change for several years, except that the rental appears to have fluctuated somewhat as time went by. Then, beginning in August. 1852, the available rent records cease to list "Half lower floor of Fur Store" and merely indicate that the "Fur Store" was one of the structures leased to the military. [16] The accounts are somewhat difficult to interpret, but they seem to indicate that about the same time, and surely by 1853, the rent for the "Fur Store inside Fort" increased from approximately $200 per year to $900. [17] Thus it would appear that by 1853 the army was renting all of the Fur Store instead of merely half of the lower floor.

Seemingly such fur storage and handling activities as continued at Fort Vancouver were transferred at that time to the 1845-period Indian Trade Shop (Building No. 21 on the present site plan of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site). At least such might be inferred from the fact that in 1860, when a board of army officers inventoried the surviving fort structures, they described the 1845-period Indian shop as the "Fur house, long since abandoned by the Company." [18]

The army used the rented Fur Store as a quartermaster and commissary warehouse. That the structure thus employed was indeed the 1845-period Fur Store (Building No. 8) is amply demonstrated by the map that accompanied Insp. Gen. Joseph K. Mansfield's report of March 1, 1855, to Gen. Winfield Scott, commanding the Army of the United States. On that drawing the structure presently termed Building No. 8 was identified as a military "Store," and it was the only building within the stockade for which army use was indicated. [19]

Rental records appear to show that the structure continued to serve as a military warehouse until about the end of 1857. [20] No rents were received for the Fur Store during 1858 and 1859, indicating that the building probably had reverted to the control of the Company. It is not known if the firm made any use of the former fur depository during those years. The building is next mentioned in the available records on June 15, 1860, the day after the Hudson's Bay Company abandoned Fort Vancouver. A board of army officers inventoried it as one of "three large storehouses, useless for any purpose connected with the public service." [21]

Within three weeks after the departure of the Company's employees from Fort Vancouver, the army had pulled down one of the large storehouses. It is not known that this building was the Fur Store, but such could have been the case. At any rate, if the structure survived the first vigorous effort by the army to "police the grounds" where the old fort stood, it did not long remain standing. Vandalism and the ravages of time reduced nearly all the fort building to heaps of rubble by the end of 1865. [22]

Fur Store operations. The primary functions of the staff of the depot Fur Store were to receive the pelts sent in by ship, by boat, and by pack train from the far-flung posts and trapping parties of the Columbia District, to clean and store them, and finally to prepare them for export to England or, beginning in 1845, to Victoria. The returns ordinarily were dispatched from each subsidiary post only once a year, most often with the brigades that visited the depot for the annual supply of trade goods.

The times of these shipments varied considerably. Usually they were made in the spring, at the end of the prime winter trapping season. Posts in distant places, such as New Caledonia, generally closed their year's accounts and packed off their furs somewhat earlier than the forts closer to Vancouver, but such was not always the case. Fort Nisqually, at a relatively short distance from the depot, sent both its accounts and its fur returns for Outfit 1834 to Fort Vancouver in late January 1835. [23] And the returns from the Snake Country and Southern brigades, while they operated, sometimes arrived at unexpected times. But the great bulk of the furs regularly reached the depot early in June with the boats from the interior. Starting at Fort Colvile this "brigade," as it was called, picked up the New Caledonia and Thompson River furs at Okanogan and then paused at Fort Walla Walla for the returns of that post before sweeping on, sometimes nine boats strong, to the Columbia headquarters. For various reasons, often because the returns from distant outposts or expeditions did not reach one of the larger district headquarters posts in time to be shipped with the brigade, furs from one outfit (the trading year from June 1 of the calendar year of the outfit to May 31 of the next calendar year) had to be held over for dispatch the following year. Thus a brigade might bring in returns belonging to two or more outfits. [24]

The furs arrived in tightly bound packs, each weighing about ninety pounds. [25] Each pack ordinarily contained two or more types of skins. That is to say, in the terminology of the trade, they consisted of "mixed skins" as contrasted with the packs of "pure skins" in which all the pelts were from the same species of animal. [26] The dimensions of the packs varied somewhat depending upon the types of furs they contained. Available descriptions are somewhat vague. One writer stated that a standard ninety-pound pack was twenty-four inches long, twenty-one inches wide, and about fifteen inches deep; another gave the dimensions of an eighty-pound pack as twenty-four inches by seventeen inches by ten inches. [27]

The formation of these packs at the individual posts was no casual affair. After being aired, dried, and cleaned, the entire fur returns to be shipped were counted so that the gross weight could be estimated and thus the number of packs determined. Then the different kinds of furs were divided as evenly as possible among the several packs. As one veteran trader stated, the object was to have "as many packs as possible made up of a uniform number of assorted skins." [28] The purpose of mixing the pelts, of course, was to reduce the risk of loss in case of accident during transit. If all the most valuable furs, such as martens, were concentrated in one or two packs and if these were swept away in a boat upset, the result would have been a financial disaster. Next, the larger skins were carefully folded to the proper pack size, and all the pelts were placed in piles and weighted down for about a week.

After these preliminaries were out of the way, the fur press was prepared for action. Three types of presses were employed at the various posts of the Columbia District--lever presses, wedge presses, and screw presses. To describe each of these in detail is not a function of this report, because not all were represented at Fort Vancouver. [29] They are, however, pictured in Plates I, II, III, V. The purpose of all three was the same: to compact the furs into tight bundles that could be transported easily and that were so firm as to be practically impervious to vermin and moisture. First, pack cords long enough to encircle the compacted furs were placed in open channels cut across the breadth of the press base block and were allowed to dangle free at each end. There were generally three of these cords, but the materials of which they were made varied according to time and place. During the earliest days of Company rule west of the Rockies, they were made from buffalo hides, which were obtained in the Flathead country. But by 1828 these animals were becoming so scarce that McLoughlin was sending the cords binding the packs that had arrived with the brigade back to the interior posts for reuse. [30] It is known that by 1835 deerskins were being cut up for pack cords at Fort Simpson and Fort McLoughlin on the Northwest Coast. [31] Undoubtedly the same practice was followed at other posts.

By at least 1848, and probably considerably earlier, it had been found that heavy cod line or a similar type of line made a satisfactory binding material for fur packs. In fact, it evidently was preferred to the old hide cord. When sending Dr. W. F. Tolmie at Nisqually fifty-six pounds of "Baling line" to tie up beaver pelts, the managers at Fort Vancouver warned that if that quantity did not suffice, he "must have recourse to pack Cord which will answer the purpose equally well; though it is always more supple and tougher when dried by exposure to the air in cold frosty weather." [32] By the 1860s, inland posts east of the Rockies were employing either "raw cowhide" or twenty-four-thread cod line for the three cross lashings on the packs, and eighteen-thread cod line for two lashings that ran the length of the packs and that seemingly were applied after the bundled furs left the press. [33] By the end of the century it appears that ordinary hemp rope was being used for binding (see Plate XI).

After the cords were placed, the next step was to provide some type of protective wrapper for the bottom of the pack. In modern times a piece of burlap is put in the fur press to serve as the bottom section of the covering that completely envelops the pack (see Plate VI]). One observer at Fort Colvile during the early 1860s reported that each pack was protected "by a wrapper of buffalo-hide." [34] How many buffalo hides got to Fort Colvile at that late period is a question, but the quotation serves to illustrate the fact that skins of various types, including bearskins but especially deerskins, were at times used as wrappers, particularly when transportation by pack animals was contemplated.

Unfortunately, the practice of the Columbia District in this regard during the 1840s is not known with certainty. In 1840 the Council of the Northern Department, which included the Columbia District, directed that no beaver or prime bearskins were to be used as wrappers or covers for packs in the future; but a common Company procedure in the 1860s and later was to employ one large beaver pelt for the bottom cover and another for the top but to leave the sides of the pack unprotected. [35] A picture of this type of pack is shown in Plate CIX in volume I of this report. It is possible that this technique was employed for packaging the furs that reached Fort Vancouver in 1845-46.

The pelts that were to make up the bulk of the packs were then laid in the press, care being taken to make the edges as even as possible and to see that skin, not fur, was exposed. The top covering was at last put in place, and one end of each pack cord was drawn up over the top of the pack and spaced so that it would run freely through one of three grooves cut in the top plate, which was then lowered firmly over the furs. Next, pressure was applied and the furs compacted to the desired degree (see Plates VI, VII, VIII).

In recent decades the following step has been to sew up the covering or wrapper while the pack is still in the press, the pack line or rope evidently being applied later (see Plate IX). In former times however, the ends of the three transverse pack cords were cinched tight and securely knotted. The pressure was then released and the pack taken from the press, "almost perfectly square," though after several days it expanded and took on a "rounded shape." [36]

Each pack was then marked in much the same manner as were the "pieces" of trade goods sent from the depot to the outlying posts. Because this process has already been described at some length on pages 248-49 of volume I, it will suffice to say here that the markings on these two types of packages differed in only one major respect: the initials of the post or district name indicated the place of origin on a fur pack, whereas they indicated the place of destination on a piece of goods. Also it was the usual, though not the universal, practice to include the initial of the firm, written HB or occasionally HB C, on the markings of fur packs. [37] Thus the fourth pack in a shipment of Outfit 1844 furs from Nisqually to Fort Vancouver bore the mark 44/HB N #4. [38] Before each pack was closed, a slip of paper was placed in it bearing a copy of the mark and an unpriced list of the contents. "This slip," wrote a longtime Company employee,

served to identify the pack or bale if the branded stave became detached, and also it enabled the person in charge of a shipment, which had got wet on the voyage and required to be opened and dried, to replace the furs belonging to different packs in rebaling them after being dried. The priced packing account of the furs, at the valuation allowed the post in general accounts, was not for the eyes of the men on the voyage with them. [39]

The text of one of these slips might be of interest. The following is extracted from the longer packing account of furs, returns of the Oregon Department for Outfit 1854, forwarded from Fort Vancouver to Fort Victoria via Nisqually on September 16, 1854:

#7 25 large beaver
12 small beaver
2 large beaver damaged
1 small beaver damaged
9 large land otters
3 small land otters [40]

The final step in preparing the pack for shipment may have been to affix a lead seal to discourage tampering. This writer has not yet encountered any documentary evidence concerning the use of such seals in the Columbia District, but a number of the actual items have been found during archeological excavations at the sites of Company posts and related establishments. They are distinctive in appearance, and their function seems unmistakable. They are roughly circular disks of lead, from about one inch to 1-1/8 inches or more in diameter. On the face they bear an impression of the sitting fox crest from the Company's coat of arms, surmounted by the motto "Pro pelle cutem." The reverse is plain, but from the specimens recovered it appears that the person who affixed each seal scratched numbers or letters on it with a knife or other sharp instrument. Some of these notations appear to be dates or outfit numbers, but others cannot be deciphered. [41]

When archeologists first encountered these seals at Fort Vancouver it was supposed that they were for bales of furs shipped to England, but after several were found at inland sites it was speculated that they were employed on packs of goods or furs. In the opinion of this writer it has not yet been established if they were for imports or exports or both.

It may appear that this lengthy discussion of fur-baling techniques at outlying posts is extraneous to a treatment of the depot fur store, but it will be recalled that Fort Vancouver itself became to a certain extent a subsidiary post after 1845. While ordinarily those furs that continued to reach it were sent on to Fort Victoria by ship, there were occasions when, as has been seen above in the case of Outfit 1854, the returns went by a river and land route. At such times the furs necessarily were formed into the smaller packs suitable for inland transport rather than into the heavy bales used for sea carriage. [42]

At any rate, once the packs from the outlying posts and districts reached the depot at Vancouver, they were soon opened and given a close inspection. One reason was to check the classification, because there was an occasional tendency of the districts to appraise their returns at a higher rate than their condition or size warranted. [43] Another was to detect damage. Insect infestation was the most dangerous condition, but dirt and dampness could also do much harm.

Another cardinal sin that reduced the value of furs, because it damaged them "in the middle," was the folding of pelts for packing with the fur outside instead of the hide. [44] Also, failure to remove the genitals of male martens before packing could have unpleasant effects. [45]

For an officer or clerk in charge of a post to be found negligent in packing his furs was no light matter. At the very least he could expect to become an object of the departmental manager's sarcasm. In 1834 McLoughlin wrote to Samuel Black, then in command at Thompsons River:

I am sorry to inform you that we found several of the Thompsons River Beaver much damaged by being moth eaten and swarming with the living animals-- It is strange that these animals formerly abounded at Walla Walla [where Black had previously been stationed] and now there are none--and Thompsons River which then had none at present abounds in them. This is certainly most curious. It is therefore necessary that the Thompsons River Furs be frequently beat and that they not be put in packs till they are ready to be brought here. [46]

As the furs were unpacked they were "hung up on lines like a wash" in the fort yard for dusting and drying. The more fragile furs, such as the martens and land otters, were merely left to air in the breeze, but the larger and sturdier pelts, like the beavers, were beaten with sticks exactly as if they had been carpets. [47]

At Fort Vancouver this work of unpacking and cleaning was ordinarily performed by the men of the brigade that brought them. [48] Presumably the operation was carried on under the watchful eye of a depot officer or clerk, but thus far no record has been found to indicate who this might have been for the 1845-46 period.

During all of these operations, and during the subsequent storage in the fur warehouse, the returns from each post or district were kept separated. This procedure not only made it possible to determine who was at fault for any defects, but it enabled the "Returns of the different places" to be "shipped separate" to England as McLoughlin told the Governor and Committee in 1832. [49] The practice of identifying the sources of the furs in the different bales sent to London was in effect at least as late as 1844. [50] Evidently it was an aid to the Governor and Committee in judging the condition of the trade in the various districts.

After cleaning and airing, the pelts were placed in the Fur Store. One visitor to a Company station on the Northwest Coast in 1868 noted that the "skins of each kind were sorted out into numerous grades and most carefully arranged." [51] And, as has been seen, at the depot they were also grouped by place of origin. The more valuable and fragile furs, such as fox and marten skins, were hung from the beams and from pegs or nails in the walls. The cheaper or tougher pelts, such as those of the beaver, were piled on the floor in "huge heaps." [52] Pictures of the methods of storing furs at various Company posts and depots will be found in Plates XI, XII, XIII.

Because dampness was much feared, the Fur Store was well ventilated. If the pelts were held at the depot for a long period they were regularly checked for evidence of insects and, if necessary, taken into the yard for airing and cleaning. This latter process, accomplished by beating the hardier pelts, was invariably undertaken at least once shortly prior to the final baling and shipping. [53] During the fall of 1843 it took one officer and fifteen men six weeks to beat and pack the returns being sent from Fort Vancouver to London. [54]

Preparations for the final packing got under way during late summer. Clerk Thomas Lowe noted in his diary on August 26, 1844: "Began to get the Fur Store cleaned out preparatory to packing"; and the next day he wrote: "Got the Fur Store washed." The beating of a shipment of beaver skins from Sitka began on the twenty-ninth, and all 4,000 of them were packed by September 3. Packing of "the other furs" continued under the direction of Clerk George B. Roberts. Lowe recorded on September 9 that "Mr. Roberts is busily engaged packing the Furs while this fine weather continues." [55]

From these words it might be inferred that the baling press at Fort Vancouver was outdoors in the depot yard. Such may well have been the case. Outdoor presses were not uncommon at Hudson's Bay Company depots. Yet in view of the frequently damp weather in the valley of the lower Columbia, the press probably was inside the Fur Store. Unfortunately the information required to be positive on this point has not yet come to light.

It is possible to state with reasonable certainty, however, that the press was of the screw type. At the direction of Chief Factor James Douglas, second in command at Fort Vancouver, Clerk Dugald Mactavish wrote on July 10, 1843, to Dr. W. F. Tolmie, in charge of Fort Nisqually, requesting him to send a jack screw to the depot because "We cannot very well do without one to pack our (Furs) with." [56]

Whether the depot had earlier possessed a screw press, and why a jack screw was needed at that particular date, is not evident. It is not known whether Tolmie was able to provide the desired article in time for the fall packing, but it would appear that one did eventually arrive. Early in April 1859, Chief Trader James A. Grahame, then in charge of Fort Vancouver, was called upon to send to Victoria "a Fur Press which has been for many years in use here" but which then found "little employment." [57] Only a screw press would have been the subject of such a request, because the people at Victoria could easily have made either a lever press or a wedge press from materials available locally.

Evidently the bales of furs produced at the depot for overseas shipment differed from the packs put up at the inland posts in only two major respects. First, they were fairly often composed of "pure skins," though bales of mixed pelts predominated. For example, the cargo of the barque Columbia, which sailed for England from Vancouver in 1844, included nineteen bales containing 175 beaver pelts and four bear skins each, the latter possibly serving as wrappers. There was also a bale of 100 "deer Hides." The majority of the bales, however, resembled bale #20, which contained the skins of ten brown bears, twenty-one grizzly bears, twenty-nine lynx, sixty-nine land otters, twenty-one raccoons, plus three pieces of land otter pelt. Bale #24 contained twenty-four brown bears, forty-five fishers, and forty wolves. [58]

Second and most important, however, the depot bales were much heavier than those designed for inland transport. In 1826 McLoughlin put up his beaver and otter skins for overseas shipment in bales weighing 130 pounds each. [59] But in 1844 a number of the bales sent on the Columbia were considerably heavier than that. In the packs of 175 beaver skins and four bearskins mentioned above, the heaver pelts alone weighed around 237 to 245 pounds, and the bearskins must have added about thirty pounds more or less, so that the total bale probably weighed in the neighborhood of 270 to 275 pounds. [60]

When available, deerskins were used as wrappers. On occasion, when sufficient hide or "parchment" covers could not be obtained, various expedients, such as wooden cases and hat boxes, were devised. [61] At other times the bales, compressed to "almost waterproof resistence," were shipped "without any covering or wrapper." [62] Sometimes such bales reached London in excellent condition, with only a little worm damage at the outer edges, the insects not having been able to penetrate the tight packs. [63] But on other occasions, despite the admonition of the Governor and Committee to tie up the bales with several turns of cord to press together the edges of the skins, the results were unfortunate. "Many" bales of the Columbia returns for Outfits 1838 and 1839 were "much motheaten all around the edges," and many skins in the middle of the packs were much damaged by worms. [64]

For such reasons the London officials on May 20, 1840, directed that furs of little value, such as bearskins and deerskins, should "be used as wrappers to all the Bales if possible, but at all events those containing Beaver and Otter Skins." [65] Records of Fort Vancouver show that this admonition was followed. "Dressed, staged, & damaged" furs used as wrappers included bears, foxes, and lynx, as well as the pelts of such smaller animals as rabbits, raccoons, and otters. [66]

Cords for tieing the bales seem to have gone through the same evolution as those for the inland packs. By 1848 "Baling line" seems to have been preferred to the former cords of buffalo hide or deerskin. [67]

In making up the bales over the years, a number of measures were tried in order to discourage insect attacks during the long sea voyage. One of the most common was to place tobacco between the layers of skins. Although this practice is mentioned in a number of contemporary documents and later accounts by Company employees, there seems to be no detailed explanation of the type of tobacco used and how it was positioned. [68] There are also mentions of rum "being placed between the layers of skins," though how this was accomplished is not made clear. [69]

But the fur returns were not only packed in bales at Fort Vancouver. The smaller, more delicate, and more valuable pelts were packed in puncheons and pipes to provide maximum protection against insects and dampness. In 1827 McLoughlin shipped some moth infested muskrat skins in empty rum puncheons, and they reached London in "very good condition." Two years later he urged the Governor and Committee to send back the fur casks containing the current returns "with a few Gallons of Spirits in each as furs are never injured by insects when packed in casks whose Staves are well saturated with Spirits." [70] The use of such containers was so successful that in 1840 the London office directed that henceforth foxes, martens, and small furs should be packed in puncheons, "which should be perfectly dry at the time of Packing." [71]

That such was the regular practice at Fort Vancouver during the 1840s is amply demonstrated by available evidence. [72] A few random examples selected from the invoice of returns of the Columbia District for Outfit 1843 shipped by the Columbia from Fort Vancouver in 1844 demonstrate how these containers were packed. Item 72 in the shipment was a puncheon containing 1,800 martens from New Caledonia. Item 87 was also a puncheon packed with 288 martens and 2,570 muskrats from five posts and districts. Still another puncheon held 103 martens, 960 minks, and 239 muskrats. A smaller pipe contained 305 martens belonging to Outfit 1844. [73]

It might also be noted that the returns of the Columbia District regularly contained a few items in addition to furs. The returns of Outfit 1843, for instance, included a cask containing 136 pounds of "Isinglass" (dried swimming bladder or sound of certain fish [sturgeon in the Columbia District] used, among other things, to clarify wines, beers, and other liquids), and six kegs of castoreum (a secretion of the beaver, used in medicine and by perfumers, as well as to bait beaver traps) totaling 259 pounds. Other products shipped on occasion included feathers (goose and "partridge" largely), whalebone, and whale oil. All of these items, evidently, were packed and shipped right along with the furs. [74]

Mention should also be made of the fact that organizing the annual shipments to London did not constitute the total of the packing activities conducted in the Fort Vancouver Fur Store. There were also the furs to be sent to the Russian American Company in Sitka under the terms of the 1839 agreement by which the Hudson's Bay Company leased the southern coastal strip of Alaska. The details of this arrangement cannot be treated at length in this report, but knowledge that it existed will serve to explain such fleeting references as Clerk Thomas Lowe's journal entry for November 4, 1844, in which he noted that two fellow clerks, J. A. Grahame and George Roberts, were "busy packing the West Side Otters for Sitka." [75]

The final step in preparing the bales, puncheons, casks, pipes, kegs, and other assorted packages for London was to mark them. As with the inland packs and "pieces," little is known about how the identifying symbols were applied, but there is some information avail able about the marks themselves. For instance, package number one (a bale) of the returns for Outfit 1843 shipped on the Columbia in 1844 bore the mark 43/HB #1. Evidently the same mark also contained the initials of the post, expedition, or district where the furs originated, but the invoice does not definitely show such initials in connection with the mark; they are only written after the list of the contents of the bale. Some of the initials thus noted are RAC (Russian American Company), C (Colvile), SC (Snake Country), NC (New Caledonia), FV (Fort Vancouver), etc. The first bale of the 1844 returns shipped on the same vessel was marked 44/HB #1. [76]

After all the packages were marked and when the ship was ready to receive cargo, the returns were placed on board. There was even a fixed procedure for this process. Writing to the captain of the annual vessel for 1833, Chief Factor McLoughlin cautioned: "particular care must be taken in handling Bales that they are not hoisted or carried about by the cords, but that a hand barrow and cradle to hoist them into the Vessel be used for this purpose." [77] Once on board, the returns were sealed in a "tight and well joined" room or "Fur Box" that was constructed each year by the ship's carpenter. [78]

The ship carried with it a bill of lading signed by the departmental manager, listing the numbers of each type of fur and the weights of the other products in the returns, and certifying that "said Goods" were the "growth and produce of the Hudson's Bay Company's Settlements in British North America" and that they were shipped for the account of "the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading to Hudson's Bay." Copies of several of the bills, which were printed forms filled in with ink, are available in the Company's archives. [79]

The Fur Store at Fort Vancouver was not the sole responsibility of any depot officer or clerk. Rather, it was lumped in with the other warehouses and placed under the supervision of the clerk in charge of "Store." [80] As has been seen, this man, from July 1844 to December 1846, was George B. Roberts. And Thomas Lowe's journal proves that Roberts actually did supervise a good deal of the fur packing during that period. But it also shows that other clerks, primarily assigned to other duties, were called in from time to time--perhaps when Roberts was busy receiving or baling trade goods--to take over affairs in the Fur Store or to assist there. [81]

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>
Last Updated: 10-Apr-2003