Christmas at Fort Pitt, 1884

Further to the previous item about WJ Maclean of Gisla, who was a Chief Trader with the Hudson’s Bay Company:  an account of the one Christmas he and his family spent at Fort Pitt before it was burned to the ground in April 1885.  This is from an article by W Bleasdell Cameron in The Beaver, December 1945.

Christmas was coming to old Fort Pitt on the North Saskatchewan, still in that year of 1884 an outpost of the white man’s civilisation, and preparations were afoot to celebrate in becoming manner, according to custom, that time-honoured festival of peace on earth, good will toward men.

Under the supervision of beloved and motherly Mrs McLean, the chief trader’s wife, and her three comely daughters, Otto Dufresne, the white-haired diminutive French-Canadian “company” cook (Muskawatchakoos, or “the Little Oak”, to the Cree because of his remarkable strength) had outdone himself.  There was delicious wild rice soup, roast young beaver, tender and succulent as lamb, which it much resembled, roast prairie chickens and partridges, berry pemmican, pies, cakes and of course the one item lacking which no Christmas dinner could be complete – a royal plum pudding with brandy sauce.

Then there were the decorations: the walls of the dining-room draped in white and navy blue, with sprays and festoons of spruce intertwining cross arms of muskets and revolvers; four wreaths of spruce enclosing the symbols HBC (Hudson’s Bay Company), NWMP (North West Mounted Police), ID (Indian Department) and Our Guests, worked in scarlet monograms; and on a background of the Union Jack and the Hudson’s Bay Company flag, in white lettering, the words Welcome, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.  In the room of the unobtainable holly, there were cranberries en branche from the neighbouring muskeg.  Not even the mistletoe had been forgotten, bunched clippings of Saskatoon twigs replacing that osculatory indispensable.  A large star of sapin over the centre of the room completed a list of decorations at once pleasing, tasteful and characteristic of the season and the country.

The glorious day opened with the established all-round matutinal greetings among the members of the isolated little community and calls by the personnel of the North West Mounted Police detachment, who were quartered in Company buildings, on Chief Trader WJ McLean and his numerous family. Then there were gifts to the little ones of the brood from individual friends among the chemoginusuk*.  Everybody and his wife received a welcoming handshake and a serving of the refreshments provided by the Company’s head in “The Big House”…

[After checking the trapline] we arrived back at the fort just in time to shed our snowshoes and make ourselves presentable before joining the big Company family and its guests at the Christmas dinner.  One of the guests at the table, I should mention, was Captain Francis Dickens, son of the novelist, in command of the Fort Pitt detachment, NWMP, in which he held the rank of inspector.

Dinner over we adjourned to the office, where Manila cheroots – an article of commerce at that date imported and stocked by the Hudson’s Bay Company – were passed round by our host.

Then, “according to plan,” we divided into two competing groups for the rabbit hunt, which was an important feature on the day’s programme.  One party was headed by the chief trader, the other – if memory serves me – by Angus Mackay.  All the grown-ups in the large McLean family, including the three eldest girls, “shouldered arms” like veteran troopers and marched forth to the “Battle of the Bunnies.” I cannot recall which side got the larger number, but I know we had a lot of fun, snowballing and racing, which not overlooking the main object of potting the prey.

In those short December days the sun “went out”, as the Indians say, early, and it was nearly nightfall when we called off the contest and returned to the fort and another sumptuous meal.  After we had satisfied our appetites and had enjoyed more cheroots int he office, we returned to the reception room in the Big House and played Post Office, Pass the Button and other games or cards, sang songs and thrummed guitars and the piano, to round out a day crammed full of merrymaking and excitement.

Canada’s National History Society provides a wealth of similar material on their website, much of it drawn from The Beaver, which was established in 1920 as a Hudson’s Bay Company staff newsletter and continues now as the Society’s history magazine.  We are trawling the archives for Hebridean stuff.

*I have no idea what chemoginusuk means and this appears to be the first mention of it on the internet.  Anybody know?