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Christmas in the Hudson's Bay Company Wilds in 1877

Harper's Weekly – Saturday, January 13, 1877

One of the most popular periodicals in North America was the well-known Harper's Weekly that offered national and international news, fashionable styles, advertisements for life's necessities, and the ever-wonderful political cartoons. In the 1870's, the families of Vancouver Barracks were often well-acquainted with the persons featured in Harper's, most had served together less than a decade earlier in the American Civil War.


"On page 32, our readers will find an interesting and picturesque engraving which represents the celebration of Christmas far up in the Northern regions of America under control of the famous and ancient Hudson Bay Company. It is a night scene in the primeval forest. The flames of a huge campfire illuminate the branches of the great pine-tree, about which are grouped a number of hardy hunters drinking to the health of the newcomer who has just halted his dog team within the cheerful circle of light. They all seem to be right jolly fellows, and their Christmas will doubtless be as full of fun and merry-making as if they were gathered about a blazing hearth under the protection of a civilized roof.

"The Hudson Bay Company, among whose servants our artists found the materials for this picturesque sketch, is of quite ancient origin as things go in America, having been formed in 1670. The charter was granted by King Charles II of England, and the company at first consisted of Prince Rupert, the king's cousin, and certain specified associates. It was invested with the absolute proprietorship, subordinate sovereignty, and exclusive traffic of an undefined territory, which, under the name of Rupert Land, comprised all the regions discovered or to be discovered within the entrance of Hudson Strait. Rupert Land was decidedly the most extensive of the dependencies of England, being held to embrace all the lands that poured water into the Hudson Bay or Hudson Strait.

"The whole of this vast territory slopes inward toward the Hudson Bay, and is well supplied with rivers of sufficient magnitude to serve for commercial highways. The mountains of this region, which are chiefly on the boundaries, are of primitive rock, and a great portion of the country is densely wooded. The soil is rich, but on account of the severity of the climate, which is not only of a generally low temperature, but exceedingly variable in summer and autumn, the cereals and other alimentary plants are not cultivated to any extent; in fact, they are only planted in the neighborhood of the trading posts of the Hudson Bay Company and in the agricultural settlement on the Red River, in the southwest. In the north the vegetation and climate are those of the polar regions.

"The chief dependence of the habitants of Rupert Land for food and clothing is on the animal kingdom, which is here most abundantly represented. Beavers are still found, and bears, otters, martens, and musk-rats, are abundant, their skins forming the chief commercial product of the country. There is also a variety of foxes as well as bears, wolves, Canadian lynxes, and other less important animals. Among those used for food are the wapiti [elk], reindeer, moose, and other species of deer, the musk-ox, hares, and an immense variety of wood fowl and other birds.

"For more than a century the original company confined themselves to that part of the vast region bordering on Hudson Bay; but about the time of the formation of the American republic their advance into the interior was accelerated, if not occasioned by the more mature development of an ancient rivalry. From about the middle of the seventeenth century – an epoch antecedent to the charter – New France, besides stretching in name to the Arctic Circle, had in realty advanced to the shores of Hudson Bay, and this position of affairs was virtually recognized by that provision of the letters patent which exempted from their operation any actual possession of any Christian prince or state. Though the claims of France after being confirmed in 1697 by the treaty of Ryswick, were at last abandoned in 1713 by the treaty of Utrecht, yet, in point of fact, adventurers from the Great Lakes, while Canada was still French, had penetrated in search of peltry far up the Saskatchewan toward the Rocky Mountains. Such overland enterprises soon came to be prosecuted with more systematic energy under English auspices, till in 1783 they led to the formation of the Northwest Company of Montreal.

"After an age of stubborn competition, the Hudson Bay Company coalesced, in 1821, with its formidable opponent. In 1870 Rupert Land was surrendered by the Hudson Bay Company, and a portion of it admitted into the dominion of Canada under the name of Manitoba.

"Under the deed of Charles II, the Hudson Bay Company possessed certain powers, now practically obsolete, beyond the limits of Rupert Land, being invested with jurisprudence over its own servants, whether in the adjacent wilderness or on the high seas and being entitled to make war on any non-Christian prince or people. Its internal constitution, as regulated by letters patent, is peculiar in this respect, that, without any such graduated restrictions as generally effect similar associations, the influence of a proprietor is precisely proportioned to his number of shares, one vote being attached to every £100 sterling of stock. Further, the body is required to act at home through a governor and committee, and abroad through a governor and council.

"As to actual organization, the local ruler's advisers are mostly such mercantile as are above the rank of clerk. These mercantile officers, hence, loosely distinguished as wintering partners, receive among them two-fifths of the net profits of the concern, a chief factor getting two and a chief trader one of the eighty-five parts into which the allotment in question is divided. The annual revenue of the company averages about £80,000, yielding about £48,000 to the proprietors, and about £32,000 to the wintering partners. This income arises almost entirely from furs, other articles, such as tallow, oil, timber, etc., never having been of much account in the commerce of that region." (Harper's Weekly, January 13, 1877, p.31-32)

POSTSCRIPT: When this particular article was published in January 1877 as it recounts a wilderness Christmas in 1876, Vancouver's Officers' Row was still in fledgling stages. Department Commander General O.O. Howard lived in Portland, OR, across the Columbia River from Vancouver Barracks. His troops were located at the post in Vancouver and at many posts throughout the Department of the Columbia. By May 1877, all troops in the Pacific Northwest were on the verge of the Nez Perce War. This catapulted Howard and several of his colonels (and subsequent department commanders) Nelson Miles and John Gibbon onto the pages of Harper's Weekly by August 1877. "Live off the land," were the orders sent to Howard when he urgently requested supplies for the troops in the autumn of 1877. Senior officers in San Francisco and Chicago believed that the troops could survive in the wilds without assistance. The superior generals pointed to the illusiveness of the Nez Perce and the continued survival of all indigenous peoples with land-based and nomadic ways of life that they had practiced for thousands of years. Hardy fur trappers roamed throughout the Rocky Mountains and the US Army believed their men could do the same.

People in Vancouver, Washington Territory, likely read this issue of Harper's with keen interest as they realized how recently the characters of the Hudson Bay Company had lived just down the hill from the Barracks buildings and Officers' Row. A number of the townsfolk had known HBC people personally, while others were related as family members. Christmas at Fort Vancouver was a grand occasion and widely celebrated throughout the trading posts from the Rockies to the Pacific, from Oregon to the Yukon. (Harper's Weekly, January 13, 1877, p.31) 

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