Tuesday, July 3, 2012

HBC Blanket Capot: Tradition Continues

The Portland Oregonian newspaper is currently running a series of reports on recent developments in the coal industry of the Northwest. The July 2, 2012 installment focused on the effect of increased railroad traffic when coal from Montana is shipped to west coast ports en route to Asia.
     On page A4 of the article this photo appears:

The caption reads “A coal train runs past Yakama leaders near Wishram, Wash., in April. The Yakama are among those who’ve asked the federal government for a comprehensive review of coal exports, citing pollution, impacts on tribal fishing grounds on the Columbia River, and a ‘breathtaking’ increase in train traffic.” Photo by Darla C. Leslie/Yakama Nation Review.
     As a volunteer reenactor at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, what caught my eye was the coat worn by the Yakama leader in the foreground. It is, of course, a ‘capot’ made from a Hudson’s Bay Company point blanket—just like the point blanket I bought in a Le Baie department store (the successor company to HBC) in Montreal some years back. It is the classic off-white blanket with four broad stripes. From the bottom, the stripes are blue, yellow, red, and green.
     I find it interesting that today when a leader of the Yakama Nation makes a public appearance emphasizing his native identity and Native Americans’ expression of concern with environmental issues and fishing rights, he would choose to appear literally draped in the colors of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Whatever else it might call to mind, it confirms the lasting imprint of the time when native cultural patterns were formed in part by their commercial connection with HBC.
     Point blankets were one of the most important of the many trade goods native people acquired from HBC over its two centuries of operation as a fur trading company in North America, including nearly half a century (1821-1870) west of the Rocky Mountains.  Among the goods in just one shipment in 1844, intended for sale or trade in Outfit 1845, the Columbia District of HBC headquartered at Fort Vancouver received 4,230 point blankets. The Company spent £1,130.4.10 on the blankets in that single shipment.(1) Measuring Worth suggests that would be around £88,200.00 or $126,000.00 today.
     More than half, 2,500, were white (‘plain’) with colored bars in various sizes, 1,000 were scarlet, 330 were green, and 200 were blue. The most expensive was the green 4-point blanket, which cost the Company 9 shillings 7 pence each; only 30 of them were in the shipment. The least expensive was the plain 1-point, at a Company cost of 2 shillings 1 ½ pence each. Half of the 1,100 plain 3-point blankets, the most numerous single type in this shipment, cost the Company 4 shillings 9 pence; the other 550 cost 4 shillings 8 pence each.
To get a handle on these amounts, compare them to the trade value of one prime beaver pelt of 10 shillings, in an earlier post below. Also recall that when calculating trade value, what we might call the retail price for trade purposes, 50% was added to the Company’s cost. Thus a 3-point blanket that cost the Company 4 shillings 8 pence would have a trade value (retail price to the trade store customer) of 7 shillings.
Back to the blanket capot: The 1844 shipment also included 1,025 'common cloth capots' in various sizes and 200 'common blue Indian capots' in various sizes. There were also 60 large  'white blanketing capots,' which probably looked something like the one in the photo above, at a Company cost of 14 shillings each, and 60 slightly smaller ones at a cost of 13 shillings 1 pence each.(1) The total cost to the company of all capots in the 1844 shipment was £736.11.0. That works out to about £57,500.00 or $83,300.00 in today's values.

(1)The full listing of the 1844 shipment is in Lester A. Ross, “Fort Vancouver, 1829-1860: A Historical Archaeological Investigation of the Goods Imported and Manufactured by the Hudson’s Bay Company,” (Typescript, Fort Vancouver NHS, 1976),1,384-1,410. Point blankets are listed on p. 1,386, capots are listed on pp. 1,388-9.

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