PhD Dissertations: James Scott Hamilton, 1991

Fur Trade Social Inequality and the Role of Non-Verbal Communication

The British North American fur trade is explored to address variability in the physical form and layout of trade posts and the material culture recovered from these sites. Two trade companies, the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company, are the primary focus of study. The period between 1780 and 1821 is of central concern, and is characterized as a time of intensive European competition and rapid expansion of the trade hinterland. The number of men and trade posts needed to carry out the trade increased sharply, resulting in a dramatic increase in the scale and cost of operations primarily due to large payroll and transportation-related expenses.

When considering British-based fur trade companies, work-related social hierarchies are of particular importance. These hierarchies were much more than the organizational structure that assured the orderly operation of the fur trade. Given the isolated nature of the trade posts, and the "pre-Industrial Revolution" authority structure of both major companies, the work-related hierarchy coloured non-work social relations between the ranks, and figured prominently in defining one's social position in the community.

In the case of the North West Company, sharp distinctions based on ethnic affiliation, literacy and social role divided the officers from the labourers. The shareholders and senior clerks were predominantly Anglo-Scots, while some of the clerks, and most of the guides, interpreters, steersmen and labourers were French Canadian. In spite of the important work roles of these latter employees, they had little or no prospect of promotion into the senior ranks. Anglo-Scots clerks with patronage links rapidly moved into positions of responsibility and authority, even becoming shareholders over the heads of much more experienced men of both English and French background. Nepotism and rank-related economic inequities in the North West Company coloured inter-rank relations, and created a measure of social tension.

It is proposed that the North West Company, in particular, sought to control this inter-rank tension by using the built environment and material culture to symbolize and reinforce the status and authority of all men of officer rank. This non-verbal communication of social position and authority was expressed in the physical layout of the posts, and in the size, position and furnishings of buildings exclusively used by the officers. Differential access to portable European luxury goods also was important. Rank-related privileges are readily apparent at the major posts under the charge of the senior officers. However, it is uncertain whether the need to reinforce the authority of junior clerks at the small and remote wintering posts outweighed the costs of transporting luxury goods inland. The comparatively junior members of the officer group were vulnerable to inter-rank tension due to their social isolation, limited trading experience and reliance upon highly experienced labourers. Thus, if material culture was used to non-verbally communicate and reinforce social position, then it would be particularly important to do so at the small wintering stations.

Historic documents are used to identify mechanisms which asserted rank and authority in the more logistically important trade posts, and archaeological data are used to explore the dynamics of non-verbal communication of social position in the remote wintering posts. I conclude this study by proposing that informally derived mechanisms were used to assert status distinctions. European luxury goods have a small but persistent archaeological presence at most remote wintering posts. However, non-conventional means of status distinction, that were either inexpensive or unaffected by transportation costs, appear to be much more visible. These non-conventional mechanisms of symbolizing social position include carefully maintained social isolation, differential dress and work role, distinctive refuse disposal behaviour, and sometimes unequal access to preferred local food.