Lighting the Fur Fort & Camp
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Art. III. Lighting the Fur Fort and Camp, 1774-1821 by A. Gottfred.

What happened after it got dark?

After nightfall, how did clerks and partners at fur posts see to keep their account books and journals? How did voyageurs see to repair canoes at the end of the days' journey? How were the fur posts lit for the balls held at the end of the year?


Fur trade records make it clear that candles were available, but they may not have been plentiful. In his memoirs, David Thompson wrote that in 1789 he was studying 'with no other light than a small candle' (Glover, 23). In 1800, at the Hudson's Bay Company's Chesterfield House, Peter Fidler noted that he had made over two hundred candles in the last two days (Johnson, 276n). In 1808, Thompson noted in his journal that he only had enough candles for four or five more nights (Belyea, 81). Wax candles and pairs of 'brass camp candlesticks' seem to have been standard supplies for the North West Company's Columbia Department in 1807 and 1808 (Dempsey, 38).

What kind of candles were used? A North West Company order form specifies wax candles. These were probably made from beeswax, possibly mixed with tallow. Paraffin wax was not available until about 1850 (Minhinnick, 161).

The two hundred candles Fidler made were almost certainly pure tallow candles. I have found no records of beeswax being sent to the Northwest, and it would make little sense for the HBC to ship Fidler beeswax instead of candles. Tallow candles were usually made at home in the Canadas. In the Northwest, buffalo fat was saved for pemmican and cooking grease, so it would have been readily available for tallow candles.

There are three ways to make candles: moulding, pouring, & dipping. There is no evidence that candle moulds were taken into the Northwest. Aside from candle wicks, no special equipment is needed to pour or dip candles. Peter Fidler wrote that he used old sheets to make his wicks, but cotton wicking appears on NWC inventories in the early 1800's.

How many candles would have been used in a year? David Thompson gives us a clue; in 1806, he ordered two pounds of candles for 1807 and three pounds of candles for 1808 (Dempsey, 38). Thompson's two pounds of candles should have given him about 112 hours of light, or about an hour of candlelight per day from late fall to early spring.

I have not been able to find more information about the pairs of 'camp candlesticks' supplied by the North West Company. They may have been similar to the pairs of brass travelling candlesticks available from modern sutlers [see 'Factor's Cassette', p. 45 ed.], but more research is necessary.

Aside from the camp candlesticks, journals do not mention candlesticks or lanterns. A large variety of candlesticks were used in Upper and Lower Canada and the United States at this time, ranging from expensive silver, brass, and pewter candlesticks to more humble candlesticks made from pottery and tin. A popular type of metal candlestick consisted of a tall tube big enough to hold a candle, with a base for the candle to sit on which could be used to lift up the candle as it burned. It is possible that these 'courting', 'hog-scraper', or 'piston' candlesticks were meant to protect tallow candles from the heat of the candle flame, so that they didn't droop. They were made from brass, iron, or tin. (Reproductions of these tube-style candlesticks are available from a variety of sutlers and museums.)

What About Lanterns and Lamps?

There is no evidence of lanterns in any of the journals, inventories, or memoirs I have read. A pierced copper fragment excavated from the Fort George (Alberta) site (North West Company, 1792-ca. 1800) was tentatively identified by archeologists as 'part of a pierced-work lantern or possibly a grater or sieve' (Kidd, 121, 136). I feel that it was more likely part of a sieve for sifting flour. This dig and the Rocky Mountain House dig also turned up fragments of clear flat glass that may have been suitable for use in a lantern; however, it is far more likely that they were used in windows or came from mirrors that lost their silver (Kidd, 128, 142; Noble, 142).

There is also no evidence that fat-burning lamps (Betty lamps and crusies) were used in fur forts, although many of these lamps have been collected from Quebec and Ontario (Russell, 54). Betty lamps were introduced to Upper Canada by Loyalists from New Englanders and Pennsylvania Dutch (actually Germans) who emigrated from the U.S. after the Revolution (Russell, 53). Crusies were widely used in Quebec, and were apparently also popular in the Scottish Highlands.


What was used for light outdoors after dark, then? David Thompson gives us a hint. In his journal and his memoirs, he talks about using 'flambeaux' (torches) for spearing fish at night. The flambeaux were made from birch bark or resinous fir (Glover, 97; Belyea, 55). Frances Ann Hopkins' painting Canoe Party around a Campfire (1850's) shows a voyageur holding a torch to provide light for canoe repairs (Morse, 9).


Often, the only source of light was the fireplace or campfire. When Peter Fidler was travelling with the Chipewyans in 1791, he mentioned that he 'came into the Tent to the fireside to read off the observation [from the sextant]' (Tyrrell, 532). In his memoirs, David Thompson recalled that when he was in the Reed Lake area in 1795, he had 'no tallow for candles nor fish oil for lamps ; the light of the fire is what we have to work and read by' (Glover, 101).


Candlelight, torchlight, and firelight were all used for illumination in the Northwest between 1774 and 1821. Wax candles were probably used the least, judging from the size of Thompson's 1806 order for wax candles. For safety reasons, torches were doubtless only used outdoors. There are only a small number of references to tallow candles and firelight being used for indoor illumination ; however, fur post living quarters were always supplied with fireplaces for heating and cooking. My opinion is that firelight would have been used as much as possible. Candles, if available, were probably saved for close work, reading and writing, and possibly special occasions such as dances at Christmas and New Year's.


Barbara Belyea (ed.) Thompson, David. Columbia Journals. McGill-Queen's : Montreal, 1994. ISBN 0-7735-0989-5

Dempsey, Hugh A. 'A History of Rocky Mountain House,' in Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History, no. 6, pp 8-53. National Historic Sites Service, National and Historic Sites Branch, Dept. of Indian Affairs and Northern Development : Ottawa, 1973.

Glover, Richard (ed.) Thompson, David. David Thompson's Narrative, 1784-1812. Champlain Society : Toronto, 1962.

Kidd, Robert S. Fort George and the Early Fur Trade in Alberta. Provincial Museum and Archives of Alberta Publication No. 2. Queen's Printer for Alberta : Edmonton, 1970.

Morse, Eric. Fur Trade Canoe Routes of Canada : Then and Now (2d ed.). University of Toronto : Toronto, 1979. ISBN 0-8022-6384-5.

Neumann, George C., and Frank J. Kravic. Collector's Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Rebel Publishing : Texarkana, Texas, 1975. ISBN 0-960566-8-6.

Noble, William C. 'The Excavation and Historical Identification of Rocky Mountain House', in Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History, no. 6, pp 54-163. National Historic Sites Service, National and Historic Sites Branch, Dept. of Indian Affairs and Northern Development : Ottawa, 1973.

Russell, Loris S. A Heritage of Light : Lamps and Lighting in the Early Canadian Home. University of Toronto : Toronto, 1968. SBN 8020-1530-1.


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