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(Seattle & Northern 1890)

Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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The most in-depth, comprehensive site about the Skagit.

Covers from British Columbia to Puget sound. Counties covered: Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan. An evolving history dedicated to the principle of committing random acts of historical kindness
Noel V. Bourasaw, editor (bullet) 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
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One Beaver Skin, One Dollar
Fur trading odyssey in northern British Columbia

By Otto K. Pressentin, as told to Ray Jordan, undated Courier-Times article, 1958
(Otto with his pistol)
Otto with his pistol

      Indians seldom had enough material possessions to barter for anything really expensive. During my first trips into the fur country the bow and arrow and muzzle-loading musket were widely used. The bow and arrow he could manufacture himself and use on birds and small animals. Every village had a practice target set up.
      Muskets, though high in price by trade standards, were cheap to operate. A little powder and ball went a long way. Trade negotiations heard at a certain post: A hunter wanted one of those new streamlined 30-30 rifles which could be bought in the States for $12. The post trader asked 50 dark marten skins worth $1,125 cash!
      Crude log cabins were the usual habitations though some tents were used, especially while traveling. Churches, however, were well-built with whipsawed boards, but Indians made little use of type of lumber otherwise.

$100 canoes
      Inland canoes were of the shovel-nose dugout type made from cottonwood trees, the only suitable timber. Prices ranged from $50 to $100. The skins from snared rabbits, cut into strips and ingeniously woven together, provided sleeping robes which would last but one season as rabbit fur is not very durable. But robes made from marmot skins would last for years.
      Snares and deadfalls were widely used in taking fur. They were economical. Indians were successful in catching lynx, marten and muskrat in steel traps, though lynx were often caught in snares. For fisher, coyote and wolf, snares were mostly employed. The deadfall was used for mink, and the bear was taken with both deadfall and snare.
      Beaver were usually speared through holes in the ice near their houses and, after gaff hooks were introduced, both implements were used. At this early date, interior Indians were still bemoaning the coming of the white man and making dire prophecies in regard to the Indian's way of life if the encroachment continued, Coast natives, or ones who had been exposed to the white man's education did not share this concern to such an extent.

Price list
      Here are a few of the standard trade items of the old North. The Hudson's Bay token, made of copper and good at any Company post, was based on the standard — one beaver skin equals one dollar in trade. A beaver skin is worth $5 or more to the Company.
      Does the Indian lady want a bright red or green sweater? She can get one by handing over $35 in furs for a garment that cost the trader $2 wholesale. Or a large, bright colored bandanna? $6.50 in fur, please; cost to trader, 8 cents. A large bright silk scarf? $15 in furs; cost, 83 cents. Three feet of bright ribbon; $5 in furs.
      The chief barters $6.50 in furs for his hunting knife; cost $1.25. Harmonicas, each $6.50 in furs; cost, 25 cents. One fish hook, any size, $5 each in furs; cost 1 cent. Flour, rice, beans, coffee and sugar, were classed as commodities by the Hudson's Bay posts and sold at a flat price of $2.50 a pound, cash or tokens, or $12 in furs.
      Hudson's Bay blankets, which could be bought for $1 a pound in Vancouver, brought $2.50 a pound in cash or tokens at the posts, or $7.50 a pound in furs.

Risks were great
      Exorbitant prices and profit? The apparent profit shrinks greatly when you subtract the tremendous costs of freight and distribution in an unsettled region over great distances; and the risks were great, especially for a private trader traveling alone.
      In the first place, you had to be a good judge of furs and a master at woodcraft and handling dogs. You could drown or lose your outfit while shooting the rapids in a canoe or crossing bad ice. If you froze your own or the dog's feet, you were through. Your bones might be found in the spring.
      A good precaution in crossing ice was to carry a tough, light pole; if the ice gave way the traveler could usually throw himself on the pole and work his way to safety. If he got his feet wet, it was absolutely necessary to strip immediately and get into dry footwear.
      If the dogs got their feet wet, a ball of ice formed almost instantly. In the latter case, the dog would lie down and wile chewing ice off one foot the driver would knock the ice off the remaining feet with a stick.
      Sickness could overtake you; a slip of the ax in cold hands, or you could freeze to death on your feet if caught in a blizzard. I copied from the Indians in watching for signs of these "blows." These things the lone traveler must learn, [in order] to survive.

Little warning
      When the squirrels were unusually busy gathering food and the grouse were stuffing themselves, you had abut twenty-four hours to get ready. Pull into a thicket, make camp and chop a huge pile of wood. Once I was holed up for three days in my little tent, waiting out one of these howlers. The dogs bury themselves in the snow and let 'er blow.
      And then there was the competition of the Hudson's Bay Company in areas where there were no white settlers. The Company originally was granted exclusive trading rights in Canada, but later, as provincial lines were drawn, this monopoly was disputed. Nevertheless, they were firmly dug in, and [they were] experts at trading.
      It worked like this: if a private trader of modest means set up a competing post, trading opening, in a region were no white settlers has as yet moved in to upset the status quo, the Company dropped the price of trade goods and raised the price of furs, which often broke the competitor in a single season.
      For this reason, I kept my own counsel and traveled alone, never showing myself at a Company post. Of necessity, I had to make one trip in the dead of winter before the Indians turned in their furs at the Hudson's Bay post to finance their customary Christmas celebration.

Good strategy
      Later in the winter, before the trappers cashed in at the Company posts in the spring, I would make a second loop and I was successful. These trips consumed about four months of the year. I supplemented my income the rest of the time by carpenter jobs, as canoe man and as storekeeper.
      During 1912, as the Grand Trunk Railroad was building through the interior toward Prince Rupert on the Coast, the country experienced a rush of settlers. On one occasion I assisted a young couple with a small baby 125 miles back over the trails to their homestead. The horse-drawn rig with which they were negotiating the rough trace pitched and bucked so violently that I became alarmed for the safety of the baby and I voiced my fears. I wound up carrying the little shaver the whole distance in my arms.
      The summer of 1914 I made a good stake piloting barges and steamboats on the rough waters of the Fraser river east of Fort George [now Prince George] for the Grand Trunk contractors as the line inched its way through that rugged country.

Bad break
      One summer was spent staking out 10,000 acres of grassland for a cattle outfit for a fee of $5,000, if the deal went through. But there was a change in government land policies meantime and the company decided that it would not be feasible to go through with the proposition, so I lost my fee.
      Canada's entry into the war in 1914 halted development of the interior. Construction on the Grand Trunk Railroad, due to the war and financial difficulties, came to a standstill. Hundreds of tons of equipment rusted away at Fort George before rails were laid again. Many settlers left the country. Business became so stagnated as the years wore on that there was nothing at which to occupy myself profitably during the summers, so I decided to leave.
      In 1921, I sold my house in Fort George, built a boat — which I filled with furniture that I had been unable to sell, and headed down the Fraser river and out of the country. At Soda Creek, a point where the railroad passed near the river, I planned to sell my boat and belongings. But 30 miles above Soda Creek, a settler along the river hailed me and I pulled over. He bought the outfit, lock, stock and barrel. Next day he took me to Soda Creek in his rig and I was soon on my way by train to the States after an absence of ten years.]
      From my eighty-two years I look back longingly to that big free country of long ago, teeming with game, fur and adventure. I wish I were thirty-five again.
      [Ed. note: Born in 1876, Otto was 35 when he began his adventure in British Columbia.]

More stories about Otto and the von Pressentins

Story posted on Feb. 5, 2004
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