When the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) established Fort Rupert in the mid-1800s, its immediate interest was in mining coal for use on the new steamships serving the California gold rush.
It soon became apparent that a reliable supply of coal was going to be difficult to obtain in the area, and the HBC tried to break even on Fort Rupert through trade with First Nations.
There were only about four coastal HBC trading posts at that time, and First Nations from coastal and interior areas travelled great distances to bring furs, fish, and other items to barter.
Fort Rupert faced stiff competition from trading vessels, which would anchor in Quatsino Sound, Shushartie or Nahwitti and intercept First Nations who would barter until they had obtained the best trade for their furs.
Fort Rupert did not trade liquor, and employees lamented to their superiors at Fort Victoria that the best furs often passed them by because First Nations would bypass Fort Rupert and trade at Fort Victoria or in the United States, where it was not uncommon for half the value of a trade to be redeemed in rum.
One of the most popular trading items from the HBC were their iconic ‘point’ blankets. Point blankets originated in the late 1700s, when the HBC purchased large quantities of blankets from mills in England in various widths, ranging from two-feet, eight-inches wide to eight feet wide. In order that the size of the blankets could be ascertained when the blanket was folded up, a series of lines were standardized which were woven into the blanket denoting its size. A 1 point blanket was the smallest, and a 3 point blanket was the largest.
HBC blankets were made of felted wool, which was water resistant, did not unravel, and could be cut to use for various purposes. The blankets were available in a number of colours. White and blue were the most popular on the North Island, and the smaller blankets (1 to 2 ½ point) were preferred.
Blankets served as a form of currency, and the value of other items was often measured in terms of the number of blankets for which an item could be traded.
One of the iconic images of the potlatch were heaps of trade goods amassed prior to a potlatch for distribution. When bartering for a bride or making an important announcement, it was not unusual for hundreds or even thousands of HBC blankets to be piled in front of the First Nations village at ‘Tsakis to be given away by local chiefs as a show of wealth and generosity.
One of the more controversial issues related to HBC blankets had to do with the smallpox outbreak on the Coast in the mid 1800s, when there were reports that unscrupulous traders removed disease-ridden blankets from villages and re-sold them, in effect transmitting the disease to new populations.
Correspondence from Fort Rupert to Victoria at one point noted that the daughter of a South Island HBC employee had been accidentally kidnapped at San Juan (probably as a part of ongoing raids between various First Nations). Her captor paddled her all the way to Fort Rupert, but felt that he should probably give her back, and returned her scared but in good condition. The clerk at the Fort gave him six HBC point blankets to thank him for her safe return.
Brenda McCorquodale is a Port Hardy resident and North Island history enthusiast. If you have any stories or local lore you’d like to share, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of her past articles is available on her blog at undiscoveredcoast.blogspot.ca/.