Sunday, August 14, 2011

Potatoes at Fort Alexandria

You may wonder why I am writing about such an obscure subject as potatoes in the fur trade, but I have had an interesting conversation with one of my readers that might lead us to some interesting places.
You will not read about the beginnings of that story in this posting, but you will learn what I have so far learned about the types of potatoes that might have been at Fort Alexandria.
I have to qualify this statement -- Fort Alexandria was constructed by the men of the North West Company in 1821, but immediately run by the HBC.
I can so far only tell you what potatoes the HBC might have brought north from Fort Vancouver -- not those the NWC men might have imported from Lachine.

Now, from the Fort Alexandria journals, I am going to find all mentions of potatoes so that we can determine what kinds of potatoes might have been grown there.
How interesting -- on the 31st December 1842, after the shooting contest which I may or may not have mentioned previously, the "Indians got 6 kegs potatoes & 1 yard tobacco by way of festive."
So Fort Alexandria grew enough potatoes that they could give them to the Natives as a gift.
Did the Natives eat the potatoes, or did they plant them?

In May 1843, the "men of the establishment busy getting seed into the ground." Potatoes can be sown from seed, but for the most part potatoes are grown from seed potatoes -- that is, sections of cut up potatoes that contain the "eyes," or seeds for the future crop.
On June 15th 1843, "Michel [Ogden] & 2 Indian lads hoeing earth round potatoes in garden, which are now long enough."
On July 8th, "Our potatoes & turnips which have been duly thinned & hoed are thriving well. The barley is earing fast."
On the 13th, "Linneard earthing up potatoes at barn with the plough aided by Indian lads with hoes," and a day later, "Finished the potatoes at barn. Nothing new occurring."
There is a mention that the men of Fort St. James arrived at Fort Alexandria in September, telling Anderson that 60 bushels of the potatoes had been harvested at that northern post.
As it happens that year, the journal that covers the fall harvest is missing and there is no mention of how many potatoes Fort Alexandria harvested in summer 1843.

On 24th of April, 1844, "Finished ploughing our potato land -- transported potatoes to field preparatory to planting tomorrow."
On the 30th, "Finished planting our potatoes, say about 60 bus[hels] in all -- at farm and in the vicinity of the fort & little river."
Their farm work had been delayed by the brigade's arrival from Fort St. James, and departure for Kamloops over the new brigade trail.
On June 12 the men "harrowed the potatoes with a light harrow;" on the 22nd they "finished earthing our potatoes, which have a good appearance."
At the beginning of July, "we cut the heads off of the potatoes planted at Little River, as the stalks were too long."
They harvested their potatoes in early October: "Fine. Finished taking up potatoes at Barn, 35 1/2 kegs, which wt about 15 or 20 already [illeg.] form 50 kegs or so out of that patch. Rain during night."
On the 7th of October: "Dug up onions, carrots, &c. Gendron & Therouiac are now the only men about the estab. The former, who is cook &c, transports the potatoes in the cart. The latter remains encamped at potato field to superintend operations there."
The men also camped at the potato fields to prevent theft!
On October 18th -- "Finished taking in our potatoes on Wednesday last, say 420 kegs only housed -- The crop failed naturally, not having advanced anything since brigade time."
That summer foul weather ruined many of the crops that grew around Fort Alexandria.

In 1845 the Fort Alexandria started their planting in early May, "planting 15 kegs potatoes by little river & continued at barn. At the latter place (the ground being more exhausted) we are transporting manure to be placed in the drills. I prefer to plant a smaller quantity & give them this advantage, but I shall strive to get a good stock into the ground."
On the 10th: "Finished planting potatoes at barn, where 22 kegs have been put in with manure in the drills. Say 37 kegs in all at the farm. The May/45 slips are small and shrunken, so that a larger piece of land than ordinary is this year under potatoes. And now may God grant us a good return in due season. We are 12 days later than last year."
It was a difficult spring, with snow lying late in the year and the river flooding some of their fields -- "the Indians [agreed] in stating that the water never yet to their knowledge attained its [present] height."
June 11th -- "Linneard dressing the potatoes with a light harrow."
June 14th -- "Last night a sharp frost cut nearly all our potatoes to the ground. Though they will doubtless recover, this check will injure them materially. they had previously a very fine appearance."
The men hoed the potatoes on June 24th; on July 4th, "Linneard giving the 2nd earthing up to potatoes very lightly with the plough."
At the end of July, "All hands with ploughs & hoes earthing up potatoes. This is the fourth working they have had. 1st with the light harrow; 2nd with the hoe; 3rd a light earthing with plough; 4th now again. One of the fields is thriving well. That by the barn, however, does not at present promise very favorably."
On the 3rd of September they began working on the potato fields, after all the wheat was in.
"Liard with a number of Ind. lads, began digging potatoes, the crop of which promises to be abundant."
On the 16th of October, "We finish bringing down our potatoes today,632 kegs in all rendered to root house."
On the 31st December the Natives once again received their "treat of potatoes &c with a good smoke. I availed myself of the opportunity to speak a few words of incitement in regard to their marten hunts, which have been neglected lately."

In Anderson's writings we might also find some information about the potatoes:
In his draft unpublished manuscript British Columbia, Anderson writes "The amount of crop they annually raised [at Fort Alexandria] was generally about five hundred bushels of wheat, several hundred of barley and oats; a thousand or twelve hundred of potatoes, besides a large quantity of turnips...."
From the same source, Anderson writes, "At Fort St. James potatoes, though sometimes raised, are a precarious crop."

This might be of interest to some people who read this blog:
From the Fort Alexandria journals: In April 1846, Anderson writes in the post journal that "Eleven Indians [are] working the soil [at our] suggestion, and I have promised to supply them seed potatoes."
And so there it is -- Natives might have grown the same kind of potatoes that were grown at the fur trade posts in the interior.

So what kind of potatoes did the fur traders grow?

At Fort Vancouver they grew bush potato, red potato, Brotchie potato, early blue potato, Ladies Finger potato, and early ash leaf Kidney, according to Hussey, "Fort Vancouver Farm."

In an early search I was unable to find out anything about the bush potato that might have grown there, but on further research I consider Fort Vancouver's bush potato might be a sweet potato.
Many sweet potato varieties grow on marigold-like vines, but there are varieties that grow on bushes.
I consider that the sweet potato, with its orange coloured flesh and white or orange skin, is probably what the fur traders called the bush potato.

We all know what red potatoes are, but these will be heritage red potatoes that will be quite different than the red-skinned potatoes we purchase in the grocery store today.
I believe they would have red flesh that would whiten as they were cooked, and a red to purple coloured skin, if the British heritage potato site I discovered is correct.

Blue potatoes still exist, and have a blue flesh and a bluish-purplish skin.
They are quite beautiful, in fact.

An early Ash-leaf Kidney potato is listed on heritage potato sites and is a kidney shaped potato with a light buff skin.

Brotchie potatoes are a bit of a mystery.
They are English potatoes which were imported to Fort Vancouver by Captain William Brotchie -- hence their name.
All I know is that it was supposedly an early kidney variety -- that is, another kidney shaped potato.
There are tons of potato varieties in England -- "scotch down," "red down," early pinkeye," white kemp," "ash leaf Kidney," and "brown potatoes" to name a few.
If anyone knows what kind of potato the Brotchie potato is, please let me know.

Finally we have the Ladies' Finger potato, grown at Fort Vancouver and also at Fort Nisqually.
From, here is a description of the modern-day Lady Finger potato, Solanum Tuberosum:
"Lady Finger is a great heirloom variety. Its form is slim, connected tubers, not unlike the form of ginger. The flesh is yellow, and they taste delicious."
The Ladies' Finger potato was grown at Fraser's Lake, if not at Fort Alexandria.
From Anderson's British Columbia:
"Potatoes yielded well. In 1839 from fifteen bushels of cut seed seven hundred bushels were gathered.
"They were of the Ladies' Finger variety, planted in a piece of light sandy soil which had been under uninterrupted crop with little or no mature for nearly thirty years.
"A heavy coating of stable manure was given as a preparation for the crop alluded to, and the season proved very favorable."

Of course, the fur trade potatoes were not the only potatoes that might have appeared in New Caledonia, or modern day British Columbia.
There were always potatoes grown by the Natives in North America -- whether they travelled northward from South America or were given to Natives on the coastline by the Spaniards or Russians, they have existed for many years.
The Haidahs and Alaskan Tlingits have grown potatoes for many years, as have the Nootka people and the Makahs at Neah Bay.
These potatoes have existed for so long amongst the Natives that they consider them traditional foods.
There is also the Wapato, a swamp plant that resembles potatoes and is sometimes used like a potato.
Potatoes, which began their history in South America, have taken many paths in their journeys around the world since the early 1700's.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Nancy,
    I just fell upon your blog - great work!
    Did you happen to transcribe the Alexandria Post Journal, or did you work from a transcribed version? I'm having a look through it myself, and would like to access a transcribed version if one is available. Any help you might offer in finding this would be greatly appreciated!