Why all Canadians should take a field trip to Fort Langley National Historic Site
You could say Fort Langley National Historic Site is where British Columbia was born. You could also say it is an exemplary example of a historic case where people of all different nationalities and backgrounds came together in cooperation to produce something great.
If you ask me, I’d say it is where us REAL Canadians do our fur trading, blanket weaving, barrel making, canoe sailing, blacksmithing, cranberry preserving and gold panning.
Or at least where we used to do it. Like over a hundred and fifty years ago.
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Wait, actually, I take that back. All that stuff, and more, is still done at Fort Langley! Ok, ok, it’s all make-believe, but equally as cool.
Today, you can go there and see people in costume teaching you how to be that REAL Canadian. It’s like that movie Night at the Museum, only it’s oh so Canadian…plus the action takes place in broad daylight under open skies.
A little history to get us started
Fort Langley started when the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), then owned by the Brits, wanted to expand, as most businesses do. Moving to the West Coast would give them access to the Pacific Ocean, where they could participate in international trade. That meant Canada would have connections to sell and receive goods from all over the world! Sounds like a common thing for us nowadays, but if you think of the transport that was available to them at the time, this was gonna be big.
So they sent 25 guys from different backgrounds to the West. They were, “British, Hawaiian, French Canadian, Metis and Iroquios” according to one of the site’s museum labels. Their mission: set up a profitable, world-class trading post.
But let’s back up a little bit here.
Before the men arrived with business pursuits, the Coast Salish First Nations people had been in the area doin’ their trading with Europeans for about 40 years. When the men who worked with the Hudson’s Bay Company came sailing up this alley, they were in for a surprise. They had two big problems:
#1 – They didn’t know how to survive here. So we have a bit of history that you don’t often hear about: the Indians and the Europeans getting along.
#2 – They needed to get the Aboriginals to like them. And what better way to do that than by marrying Aboriginal ladies!
The Coast Salish people helped the Europeans survive by giving them food (like salmon and cranberries), clothing (like fur), and helping them deliver their letters, navigate their way around the area and working on farms.
The HBC people repaid them in kind by marrying their women, to form family ties. In other words, the same rules that apply today applied back then; if your in-laws need something from you (like fur or riffles), you give it to them. It was a win-win situation that worked both ways…I guess…
Photo description (above): Demonstration and story telling of a Fur Trade Wedding with audience participants. The man in the HBC colours is – you guessed it, an HBC “groom,” about to marry an “Indian princess.”
And thus, the Fur Trade on the West Coast was kicked into full action.
In 1827 Fort Langley was built, and that was when we had a nice little, one-room department store (minus the perfume counters and haute couture – this was no Mr. Selfridge TV show set). Money was not the only form of payment it accepted. You could walk in with some salmon or bear skins and get a blanket, or tobacco, or something…I don’t actually know what the value of anything was, but you get the idea – a barter economy was in swing. Mirrors and ribbons could also be had from the Hudson’s Bay Company, and were considered to be novel luxuries. Imagine how many canoes or furs it would take to buy a ribbon!
Photo description (above two photos): The things you could trade for at the HBC store in Fort Langley.
Then in 1858 came the Fraser River Gold Rush. And they were all like, “fur is so 1827,” so they stopped doing that. Instead, they went into the supply business for miners.
Photo description (above): You can experience the gold rush for yourself by panning for gold at Fort Langley National Historic Site!
But the cool thing is that people lived here. And that’s why Fort Langley National Historic site is so cool to see. You enter into the lives of the men and women that ran businesses, did their blacksmithing, dyed fabric for clothing, got married for fur (or whatever), washed clothes, spun wool into thread, and all sorts of things.
So let’s go on a photo tour!
Defending our stash
When you first enter Fort Langley National Historic site, the most noticeable thing you’ll encounter are very, very large walls made of wood poles. And a defence post. So you find out pretty quickly that they had to take care of keepin’ the homeland safe from intruders because, man, those walls were not meant for climbing. And even if they wanted to, the watchmen could see them from afar…minus all the trees in the way. (Believe it or not, this was a time when the Brits were afraid the U.S. would play a little bit of real-life battleship with us, especially when they found gold).
Photo description (above): Defended by tall walls and an observation tower to scout out ye ‘ol enemies!
Showin’ off our cribs
The museum-like fort was once in real operation, and the buildings demonstrate where money was spent – only where money was had. So the Hudson’s Bay Company Store was painted white and so was the governor’s house, but other than that, the insides and outsides of the houses where people lived were dark and gloomy and really not all that big. Makes you wonder what the price of real estate was back then, if we think it’s bad today.
Photo description (above): Walking into the show-and-tell demo houses, you can see the stark difference in how the rich lived and how the poor(er) lived by their dining tables and bedrooms. If your bed was in the same room as the kitchen, well, you knew what socioeconomic background you came from I guess!
Photo description (above): The Hudson’s Bay Company Store can be seen here externally, as well as a structure that, at first, makes you a little creeped out. But then you realize it was for pressing packages together (psych!). You can also see a canoe, which was traded for goods, as well as a board that shows how much the Coast Salish people influenced our Canadian English. Except I don’t think they taught us “eh.” Or maybe they did. I don’t know.
A full barrel meant a full stomach and a blacksmith meant…stuff made of iron
The barrels made at Fort Langley were crucial. They had to preserve food that was meant to travel as far as Hawaii. For example, cranberries were needed year-round to help prevent scurvy. And salmon also needed saving, otherwise, ewww, that smell would get gross.
Where did they get their tools? Why, at the blacksmith shop of course! And if you go there, and learn how to barter, you might walk away with a neat twisty thing made of iron, handed to you by a 19th Century blacksmith!
Canadians knew how to downsize
During B.C. Day you might see a lot of tents set up to showcase how people lived in the 1800s when fur trading was all the rage. Whether or not the tents are replicas of real life living situations back then or not, they sure do look real!
Washing clothes the old fashioned way, with hands of strength and luuuv
If you thought laundry was a Saturday bummer thing to do, wait till you try hand scrubbing and roll pressing your clothes, then handing them to dry outside. Come on, you’re Canadian, you can do it! The demonstrators will let you try it yourself, and you can watch a motherly-figure take coals out of a fire to put in her clothes iron. That’s right, irons were not for straightening hair ladies, nor would you have wanted to use them for that purpose. They were heated up with coal. Who needs electricity anyway?
Using pee to preserve fabric dye is like being a resourceful Canadian
If you wanted to wear anything other than white in the 1800s, you had to have it dyed. It was done by ladies like these, who would use a solution that was preserved by peeing in it. Ew gross, I know, but this is the price we pay for fashion ladies. They couldn’t let any air in the jar, and that one jar you see below could dye tons and tons of fabric. The fabric would come out a green-ish colour, but the solution would oxidize until it turned a really dark blue. Watch the transformation!
If you get the chance to see this in real life, I strongly recommend video recording it, to watch the transformation as it gradually changes before your eyes. Don’t have a video camera? Get one on Kijiji Classifieds!
Learning what family life was all about – cooperation!
There were some serious duties to be done during the Fur Trade, other than trading. Who was going to cut firewood, spin wool into thread or help ma and pa? And what about the veggies that needed picking or the animals that needed feeding? Think you have too many chores now? Think again! No PlaysSation-Sega-Genesis-Xbox-Nintento-thingamajig for you kids!
It’s story time
Who doesn’t love a good story? I sure do. The Fort Langley National Historic Site has several demonstrations and story-telling hours where they cover topics of a wide range that delve deep into the Fur Trade. Finding out about the role of women in the Fur Trade (and how they would be abandoned by husbands who would go back to Britain, to the wife and kids they left behind over there), or the general politics and culture of the area at the time. What would people give as gifts? What were peoples’ occupations? How were plants or music used in the home and in ceremonies by Aboriginals? What earned you respect? How did business get done? It’s all told in small story time sessions.
Let’s eat, fur trading style!
What is a Fur Trade experience without some historic food, am I right? One of the buildings on the site has been turned into a café called the Full Barrel Café and it serves food that was eaten 150 years ago. Yes, you can buy bannock bread and chilli with maple in it. And if you just want scones and coffee you can have that too! Are you served by someone in one of those neat costumes? You bet you are! This is a 360-degree, all-round museum-come-to-life experience!
Make a Canadian vacation out of it!
When you make it out to Fort Langley National Historic Site, it will feel like you drove a long way to get to the middle of nowhere. But fear not! There is lots to do in the area, and if you are vacationing, you can get a vacation rental nearby, just outside the town, via Kijiji Classifieds! Aside from other historical sites and a quaint town nestled next to the Fort, there is a shopping mall not terribly far away. If you really want to get to downtown Vancouver, you can make a day trip out of it. You’ll be in between city and country on the beautiful West Coast!
Also, did you know you can spend the night at the fort? Yes! I know! It’s insane, but true. And yes, you’ll have access to showers. This historic site, which is part of Parks Canada, offers a program called oTENTik where families or groups can stay in tent-cabin hybrid structures for reasonable rates. It is a great experience to feel like you’re part of a fur trading mission!
Take your time, try the activities, listen to the stories and most of all, feel what it’s like to be part of Canada’s history!
Photo credits: All images used with permission by Joyce Grace