Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tobacco at Fort Vancouver, Tons Of It

How many puffs on a pipe would it take to consume 96,000 pounds of tobacco? That’s forty-eight tons, equal to the maximum cargo weight allowed on two of the largest semi-trailers pulled by today’s 18-wheeler trucks. If you divided that much tobacco into 200-pound loads for pack horses, it would take a string of 480 animals to carry it all. If you separated that much tobacco into one-pound piles, each of the 96,000 piles would look something like this:

(Photo by Tom Holloway, weighing tobacco twists from the shelves in the reconstructed Fort Vancouver Indian Trade Shop. For size, the plate of the scale is 6” square. Thanks to the fine folks at Portland's Culinary Workshop for the loan of the scale.)

          There are approximately 16 ‘twists’ of tobacco in this photo. I’m not a smoker, but I would guess that each twist would be enough tobacco, shaved off into a pipe, for at least 10 pipe-fulls. Let’s allow 40 puffs per pipe-full. Let’s see now: that’s 400 puffs per twist, times 16 gives 6,400 puffs per pound, times 96,000 equals 614,400,000 puffs.
          These last calculations are just idle speculation, of course, meant to push the point: Hudson’s Bay Company did not just deal in tobacco. It dealt in a LOT of tobacco!
          Ninety-six thousand pounds is also the amount of tobacco the HBC had in stock at Fort Vancouver and its subsidiary trading posts in the Columbia District, in the summer of 1844.
          Let’s back up a little and provide some context and detail. NPS Park guide Alysha Bronson has written an informative "Did You Know" overview of tobacco as an HBC trade item. As she points out, the most important point of origin of HBC’s trade tobacco was Brazil.(1) This was in part due to the long-standing commercial ties between British and Portuguese merchants. The Portuguese, in turn, produced large amounts of tobacco in their Brazilian colony. Brazil became independent in 1822, but the commercial chain persisted connecting its tobacco plantations with Portugal, Great Britain, and British trading companies. This means that the annual HBC supply ship sailing around South America on its way to the Pacific Northwest passed right by Brazil, the original source of the tobacco it had loaded on board at the London docks.
          In June 1844 the HBC supply ship Brothers arrived at Fort Vancouver loaded with goods intended to be used in Outfit 1845 (that is, what would now be called the fiscal year running from June 1, 1845 to May 31, 1846). This was consistent with standard Company policy that sought to ensure that a two-year supply of goods would be on hand or in transit, as a precaution in case something happened to the annual supply ship.(2) The shipping manifest of the Brothers included this group of items:

This is the transcription of the tobacco listed:
Quantity          Item                      cost per lb.      Total cost
18,925 lbs.      leaf tobacco                 5d              £394/5/5
11,465 lbs.      Canada roll tobacco   10d             £477/14/2
579 lbs.           Irish roll tobacco        10d             £24/2/6

(followed by 10 “assortments carpenters tools” like those discussed HERE, followed by
700 beaver traps without springs and 200 pairs of trap springs, discussed HERE. Most intriguing are the 41¾ dozen “assorted children’s toys” at an average cost of 2 shillings for each assortment, on the line between the carpenter's tools and the beaver traps.)

          Thus we see that the Brothers carried a total of 30,969 pounds of tobacco—more than 15 tons—to be stored at the Fort Vancouver depot for eventual distribution to the various trading posts, including the Indian Trade Shop and the Sale Shop also located at Fort Vancouver, for Outfit 1845.
         In the spring of each year, in anticipation of submitting an order to the London headquarters requesting supplies for two years in the future, HBC clerks conducted an inventory of "sundry goods remaining on hand." This is the listing of the tobacco in stock in the Fort Vancouver Depot storehouse at the time of spring 1844 inventory, just before the Brothers arrived from London: (3)

This is the transcription of the tobacco listed:
Quantity          Item                        cost per lb.      Total cost
16,200 lbs.      Canada roll  tobacco    10d              £645/0/0
961 lbs.           carrot tobacco                8d              £32/0/8
938 lbs.           carrot tobacco                9d              £35/3/6
467 lbs.           Irish roll tobacco           10d             £19/9/2
1,647 lbs.        Irish roll tobacco           11d             £75/9/9
31,807½ lbs.   leaf tobacco                   6½d           £860/9/1

         This comes to 52,020½ lbs. of tobacco, more than 26 tons. In addition there were 1,592½ lbs. of tobacco in stock in the Fort Vancouver Sale Shop, and 172 lbs. in stock in the Fort Vancouver Indian Trade (which included the Indian Trade Shop at Fort Vancouver itself, as well as the subsidiary posts at Fort George [formerly Astoria] and on the Umpqua River). The same 1844 inventory reported 11,493 lbs. of tobacco in stock at the 13 other HBC trading units in the Columbia District.(4) So the total 65,278 lbs. reported in the inventory, added to the 30,969 that arrived on the Brothers, comes to 96,247 pounds of tobacco in the Columbia District in mid-1844.
          The aggregate total discussed here was intended as a two-year supply, but any way you puff it, it was a lot of smoke.
          The total book value of this tobacco supply, the Company’s wholesale cost, was £2312 pounds, 13 shillings, and tuppence. My favorite online inflation calculator,, suggests that the equivalent value in today’s US dollars would be something on the order of $271,000. Let’s say “about a quarter of a million dollars worth of tobacco in today’s money” and call it good. It would then have been sold at cost plus 50% to employees in the servant class, or cost plus 100% to outsiders--missionaries, settlers, and free trappers.(5)
          As for how much a pound of tobacco was worth in "made beaver" trade equivalents, for simplicity's sake let's take "leaf tobacco," the most common form. In the inventory leaf tobacco was valued at 6½  pence per pound. According to the Standard of Trade for the Fort Vancouver area in 1844, a native trapper bringing in a prime beaver pelt could get 3 pounds of 'twist' tobacco in trade.  (Twists like those pictured above were made from leaf tobacco to prepare it for retail trade or sale.) The 3 pounds of tobacco (three piles like the one on the scale above) cost the Company 19½ pence, or 1 shilling 7½ pence. To put that figure in comparative context I refer the reader to an earlier blog posting, "What Was a 'Made Beaver' Worth?" where tobacco is included in the calculations. 
          Most, if not all, of this tobacco was smoked in pipes. This is the listing of the pipes in stock the Fort Vancouver Depot storehouse reported in the spring 1844 inventory:

The transcription of the lines listing pipes:
Quantity          Item                     cost per gross      Total cost
150 gross      hunters clay pipes     2s/3d              £16/17/6
27 gross        long clay pipes          5s/0d              £6/15/0
2 gross          dutch pipes                2s/9d              £0/5/6

            A gross being 144, there were 25,776 pipes on hand, not counting the stocks already distributed to the various trading units at the time of the inventory. That may have been taken to make up a two-year supply, because no smoking pipes are recorded in the cargo of the Brothers.(6)
          Note also that the clay pipes were very cheap. At 2 shillings 3 pence for 144 pipes, the company's cost for the "hunters clay pipes" was 0.1875 pence per pipe, a tiny fraction of the 10 pence per pound for Canada roll tobacco.
          Unlike tobacco, the pipes used to smoke it, being made of non-perishable materials, have a large presence in the archaeological record. NPS Museum Technician Heidi Pierson has compiled a must-read profusely illustrated overview of Tobacco Pipes, based on material in the Fort Vancouver museum collection, available HERE to read or download. She reports (p. iii) that “of the almost 7,000 tobacco pipe fragments found near the former site of the Sale Shop building, most were concentrated outside the east wall.” This suggests that there was considerable standing around and smoking of pipes near the Sale Shop (the large double building that was located along the west wall of the stockade, where Company employees, settlers from around the region, and Oregon Trail emigrants acquired supplies), perhaps as customers waited for their turn at the counter or visited with one another. A similar concentration of pipe fragments was recovered from around the doorway of the Indian Trade Shop, the building now reconstructed just west of the blacksmith shop inside the Fort Vancouver stockade.
          For more from the archaeological record go HERE for an image and information on a Stepney tobacco pipe bowl fragment recovered in the 2012 Public Archaeology Field School conducted by the Northwest Cultural Resources Institute, Directed by NPS Archaeologist Doug Wilson.

         Several readers have asked in separate emails about the practice of putting leaves of tobacco in bundles of furs as they were packed for shipment to England to guard against insect damage. The inventories and ship manifests used in this posting make no reference to such practice, which is commonly mentioned in interpreting the Fort Vancouver Fur Store for park visitors. This is what I have been able to track down after a quick search:
          In the chapter on the Fur Store in his 1976 Historic Structures Report, NPS historian John Hussey notes that one of the most common measures to reduce damage from insects on the long voyage from Fort Vancouver to London "was to place tobacco between the layers of skins."
          Hussey cites two sources (in his footnote 68). One is Henry Martin Robinson, The Great Fur Land (London: Sampson Lowe et al., 1879--available for download at GoogleBooks). On p. 340 Robinson, discussing HBC practices east of the Rocky mountains in Rupert's Land, notes that “when the brigades depart, the furs are all sorted and repacked, and pressed into bales by an enormous lever—rum and tobacco being placed between the layers of skins to keep out the insects and moths." 
          Hussey's other source is a letter sent by Fort Vancouver Chief Factor John McLoughlin to the Governor and Committee of the HBC on August 5, 1829. On p. 80 of the collection of his letters published by the Champlain Society, McLoughlin reported that The Furs have been repeatedly Beaten and Tobacco put in with the small Furs in the Casks and Cases, the latter had tobacco in them coming here. . ." (Clicking on the colored text should cause a page from the 1941 published version of McLoughlin's letters to appear on your screen.) Note that this does not refer to bundles wrapped in hides, but to furs packed in small barrels (casks) and boxes (cases). The casks and cases in question had been used to ship tobacco from England, and were being recycled. If any readers have information on other sources documenting the use of tobacco as an insect repellent in bundles of furs, or where that tobacco came from (especially if it was grown at Fort Vancouver), please let me know at tomholloway62(at)

          1. For more background on tobacco in HBC’s trading system over time see Marius Barbeau and Clifford Wilson, "Tobacco for the Fur Trade," The Beaver, March 1944, pp. 36-39. I thank Fort Vancouver Park Guide Mike Twist for pointing me to this important source, which explains and illustrates the various types and packing methods that appear in the inventories and shipping manifests discussed here.
          (Readers may be interested to know that much of HBC’s historical magazine, The Beaver, from its first issue in 1922 through the 1970s at least, has been digitized and is available online.)

          2. The full list of the goods shipped on the Brothers in June 1844 is in “Fort Vancouver, Columbia District Account Books, 1843-1844,” Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (HBCA), B.223/d/158, Pp. 6-32. It is transcribed in full in Lester A. Ross, “Fort Vancouver, 1829-1860: A Historical Archaeological Investigation of the Goods Imported and Manufactured b the Hudson’s Bay Company” (Typescript, Fort Vancouver NHS, 1976), Appendix II, pp. 1,384-1,418.

          3.  The spring 1844 inventory is in “Fort Vancouver, Columbia District Account Books, 1843-1844,” HBCA, B.223/d/155. I thank Curator Theresa Langford and Museum Technician Meagan Huff for facilitating access to these archival sources.
          A common way of packaging tobacco was to wrap a bundle of cured leaves in cloth and then bind the bundle with twine or small-diameter rope. These were called "carrots" from their resemblance to the vegetable. Visitors to the Indian Trade Shop at Fort Vancouver NHS can see reproductions of such bundles hanging from the ceiling beams. Photos of modern reproductions of roll and carrot tobacco can also be seen on the website of the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska.

          4. The other units in HBC’s Columbia District trading network were as follows, with the total number of pounds of tobacco each had in stock when the 1844 inventory was taken (in parentheses): Fort Colville (530), New Caledonia (319), Thompson’s River (68), Snake Party (1,241), Fort Nisqually (457), Fort Victoria (1,116), Fort Langley (381), California Establishment (1,254), Steamer Beaver (932), Fort Stikine (650), Fort Simpson (4,545) Fort Nez Perces (0), Schooner Cadboro (0).

          5. These pricing policies are discussed in John Hussey, “Historic Structures Report” Vol. 1 (1972), p. 190-1, note 17, reproduced 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), Table 12, p. 150.

          6. There were reportedly 960 pipes in stock at other trading units in 1844, including 552 at the Fort Vancouver Sale Shop, 336 at Fort Simpson, 48 in the supplies of the Snake party, and 24 on the Steamer Beaver; source same as in Note 3, above.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.