Friday, June 22, 2012

Who worked at Fort Vancouver?

Many visitors seem to be impressed by how many people made up the community in and around Fort Vancouver during its heyday as the headquarters of Hudson's Bay Company’s Columbia District. Or maybe this is an impression reinforced in the craft shops, where volunteer blacksmiths and carpenters reenact and interpret the role of the laboring classes. 

     One number that appears here and there in NPS informational material is the total population of the Village, the collection of habitations extending from the boat basin on the bank of the Columbia river up along the western side of the Fort proper. We are given to understand that there were "upwards of 600 inhabitants" at the high point, with appropriate emphasis on the ethnic diversity of the Village population dependent in some way on HBC activities, but which lived outside the stockade.(1) That figure, of course, includes women, children, and probably some free trappers, Native relatives, and others who do not appear in HBC employment records.

     So if there were as many as 600 people in the Village, how many were on the HBC payroll? And what jobs were represented?

     I was recently browsing in HBC archival material available here on microfilm, and came across a series of tables laid out in rows for job titles and columns for each HBC establishment west of the Rockies. These “Abstracts of Servants in the Columbia Department,” are yearly listings of all the contract employees (Servant in English, EngagĂ© in French) for all the HBC installations in the Department.(2) Note that the Commissioned Gentlemen or Officer class, which included the ranks of Chief Factor, Chief Trader, and the Captains of Company ships, are not included in these numbers. The table below summarizes the information for the 1840s, showing all Company personnel in the Servant class for the entire Columbia Department, then the total number just for Fort Vancouver itself, and the number of those who were in job classification of "Laborer." As you see, about 3/4 of all Servants/EngagĂ©s  at Fort Vancouver were classed as Laborers, with no further distinction:

            Columbia Dept.            Fort Vancouver(2)
Year           Total                   Total          Laborers
1840            545                     134            103 (77%)
1841            609                     174            145 (83%)
1846            560                     198            155 (78%)           
1847            549                     161            116 (72%)
1848            513                     147            110 (75%)

Some of the details in these tables are hard to recover due to faded ink and fuzzy microfilm, and trying to present them all would soon result in a confusion of data, or number overload. The table for 1844 is in darker ink and a steady hand, and I recorded the complete list of Servants by job title(3) for the entire District, to get an idea of how they break down:

1844                      Columbia Dept.          Ft. Vancouver(4)
Clerks                                 27                       5
Postmasters                        11                      4
Ship’s officers                     10                       0
Interpreters                          15                       0
Guides                                  3                        0
Boutes*                              16                        2
Laborers                            424 (71%)        170 (85% of all Servants at the Fort)
Blacksmiths                        10                        5
Boatbuilders                         8                        1
Carpenters                            4                        1
Coopers**                            8                        3
Sailors & sloopers              40                         3
Stewards                              5                         1
Millwrights                           1                          1
Apprentices                        17                        3
TOTAL SERVANTS       599                    199 (33% of all Servants in the Department)

* “Boute” was the French Canadian term for the steersman in charge of a York Boat. As an HBC job title it indicates what we might call a crew chief of such a boat, requiring more experience and command presence than the rank-and-file paddlers, who were in the Laborer category.
** Coopers were skilled craftsmen who made and repaired barrels of various sizes and kinds, in which many items were shipped over long distances.

In addition to the large proportion of Servants lumped in the Laborer category, it is interesting to note that Clerks, Postmasters, Ship's Officers, and Interpreters, even though they were what would be called today non-manual or white collar employees, and at Fort Vancouver they normally had living quarters inside the stockade, were Servants like all the rest. Among the men in the crafts, there were more Coopers than Carpenters in these years. And half of the Blacksmiths in the entire Columbia District were based at Fort Vancouver.

It would also be useful to have yearly salaries for the various job titles, but that information is not in these lists.  More research.

(1) If you have not explored the Park website lately, it's certainly worth another look. It has a new layout and lots of information, even if you need to click through a several links to get to where you want to go. If you start from the home page the pathway to an impressive array of Historical Studies, most of which are PDF files you can download to your own computer, is:  History & Culture --> Collections --> Research --> Online Publications --> Historical Studies. Sort of like a digital version of archaeology.

(2) The catalog designation in the HBC Archives is B.223/z/l. But if you’re using the microfilm of the archival material in the Library of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, located in the upper floor of the Fur Warehouse building, this material is on Reel No. 1M1672, “Miscellaneous Items, 1824-60,” right after the profit-and-loss figures for 1849 and 1850, and before a series of individual wage accounts of ship crewmen.

(3) This is a complete list of the job titles that show up in these tables. Others might have spent most of their time in specific tasks, in which they gained some skill and expertise, but they were lumped into the Laborer category. Whatever generic tasks they actually worked at, laborers were often called "middlemen" in HBC personnel records, from the time when most of them occupied the middle positions in canoe crews.

(4) These numbers are for the Fort Vancouver Depot, referring to the administrative unit of the headquarters post for the Columbia Dept. Also located at Fort Vancouver but administratively separate was Fort Vancouver Indian Trade, which in 1844 employed 13 Servants, including 3 clerks and 10 Laborers, who handled trade at what we might think of as the retail level in the lower Columbia River (Ft. Vancouver and Ft. George--previously Astoria, and southwestern Oregon (Ft. Umpqua).

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