Sunday, April 03, 2016

C is for Christmas and Class

Well, I certainly didn't expect to revisit Christmas this soon, but my intrepid gang of voyageurs arrived at Fort Vancouver on December 8, 1846, after a harrowing trip over the Rocky Mountains by foot and snowshoe in sometimes waist-deep snow. 

Paul Kane reports being thrilled to sleep in a bed once again. Despite the rain, the rest of the party must have been very grateful for food, drink, shelter, and companions as they settled in at Fort Vancouver. I lived several decades in Oregon and yet remember our first winter there when the incessant rain led us to feel we might drown.

Fort Vancouver 1845 (Wikipedia)
Fort Vancouver in 1846 was the center to the Hudson's Bay Company's Columbia Department. More than a fur trading center, Fort Vancouver shipped furs, lumber, agricultural products (including salted salmon), and other trade goods to ports as far flung as San Francisco, Sitka, Honolulu, and England.

Fort Vancouver also reflected sharp class distinctions between officers and gentlemen, craftsmen, voyageurs, and unskilled workers who were called 'servants'. Most were Metis, a mix of European, native, and Hawaiian heritages. They worked a 6-day week, and, to the chagrin of the Fort's priests and pastors, often preferred to work or garden on Sundays.  The 'servants' also received a weekly allotment of food, somewhere between 20-60 pounds of dried or salted salmon and a bushel of potatoes or 10 pounds of biscuit (1). No wonder they were motivated to cultivate their own gardens!

Each day began with a work bell rung at dawn. The bell rang again at 8 am for breakfast, at 1 pm for dinner, and at 6 pm to mark the end of the day. Holidays like Christmas represented a remarkable break in routine. Starting several days before Christmas until well after New Year's, all could expect extra rations of food and drink, for the 'servants' in 1845 called "rum and eatables," while the officers and gentlemen drank wine and ate roast beef and plum pudding (2). 

During the holidays, the officers and gentlemen dressed in their best to call on friends, play cards, attend balls, and card parties.  Even the visiting ship H.M.S. Modeste was decorated from stern to topsail with garlands of greens and the site of dancing, well lubricated with toasts. Servants celebrated with horse races, gambling, and their own parties. 

When the holidays ended after New Year's, life returned to normal. Long days. Hard work. Sharp divides between social classes. But I have a hunch folks then were pretty much as they are now -- and that's where the storytelling fills in the gaps.

Gentlemen's Dining Room at Fort Vancouver (Camp 2015)

Read what others are writing for the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge.

Read more at (1) Barb Kubik's paper on The Village(2)  
Greg Shine's National Park Essay on Christmas at Fort Vancouver, Parts 1-2, or (3) Dr. Edward and Alice Beechert's 8-part study on History and Culture of Hawaiians in the PNW.