Social Aspects of Pipe Smoking at Fort Vancouver

Photo of white clay tobacco pipe fragments
A pile of tobacco pipe fragments excavated at Fort Vancouver NHS.

NPS Photo

By Archaeologist Katie Wynia

Tobacco in the fur trade is often associated with its role as a trade good and its use in business negotiations. It certainly played a significant part in trade, but was also part of the wider fur trade culture as a common habit amongst employees. Documentary and archaeological evidence indicates residents at Fort Vancouver frequently used tobacco. As a shared and social practice, tobacco consumption aided users in the multi-ethnic community to cross cultural boundaries.

Many fur trade participants used tobacco, but their ethnic backgrounds influenced their views on consumption. Europeans viewed tobacco as a recreational, social drug due to its history as "a uniquely social substance" (Norton 2008: 159) since the late 16th century. For some Native American groups the plant had other ceremonial and spiritual connotations. In business relations, fur traders often exploited these connotations to build trading alliances and more easily achieve their goals. The shared usage of tobacco also provided a kind of shared "language and humanity" between Native Americans and Europeans (Von Gernet 1988:245). Other cultural groups in Fort Vancouver's diverse workforce likely brought additional views, as tobacco was available worldwide since the mid-1600s. Despite these differences, evidence points to widespread tobacco usage amongst the fur trade population.

The documentary records at Fort Vancouver indicate most employees and their families used tobacco. Employees could purchase tobacco and clay pipes at the Sale Shop, and their daily work schedule included two smoking breaks. Various historical accounts record tobacco smoking accompanying social activities. For employees, smoking tobacco was part of their daily work routine and their leisure time.

Archaeological evidence suggests tobacco smoking was a common and social activity. Clay tobacco pipe fragments are found in high numbers by archaeologists excavating at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. Occasionally the fragments cluster in certain locations, often interpreted as smoking areas. Inside the fort stockade, these areas include the southeast corner of the Chief Factor's House. This locale is believed to represent a meeting place along the path of traffic between the house and the Bachelors' Quarters - here, smoking was social.

In the fort's Village, pipe fragments indicate smoking areas across the landscape and fragments are found near virtually all house sites. This suggests smoking was a shared practice between households. Sociality is implied by the location of smoking areas. At least five houses have smoking areas next to hearths, representing likely focal points for congregating. Another possible social smoking area is located near the crossroads at the eastern side of the Village. This was perhaps an intentional and/or fortuitous meeting place given its convenient location near the intersection of two high-traffic roads.

Evidence of tobacco use in the fur trade is numerous and suggests it was socially consumed. Traders consumed tobacco with their trading partners to enable trade and employees used tobacco in their daily lives. As with trading relations, the shared practice of tobacco consumption amongst the multi-ethnic residents of Fort Vancouver provided a similarity to relate to one another amongst many differences. The commonality of tobacco usage amongst virtually all players made it an inseparable and significant aspect of the fur trade culture.


Norton, Marcy. 2008. Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World. Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

Von Gernet, Alexander D. 1988. The Transculturation of the Amerindian Pipe/Tobacco/Smoking Complex and its Impact on the Intellectual Boundaries Between "Savagery" and "Civilization," 1535-1935. Doctoral dissertation, Department of Anthropology, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec. National Library of Canada, Canadian Theses Services, Ottawa.

Last updated: November 29, 2017