Friday, December 14, 2007

Relics of the Fur Trade #1

If Dumpdiggers unearthed a forgotten fur trading post from the mid 1700's, what kind of relics could they expect to find?

This is a good question that was put to me recently by a Kenora Ontario digger with a bad reputation.

Chester Huff claims to know a secret spot on the Lake of the Woods, some distance from the original 'Rat Portage' (referencing the 1821 sketch by James Bigsby), and boasts that he's now excavating the remains of the area's first fur trading post!

But Chester is a big talker (no offense Chester, you know you are) and I'm extra skeptical... yet even the possibility HOWEVER makes me contemplate this delicious subject in extra detail, and institute this blog's first serial post, RELICS OF THE FUR TRADE.

Hudson Bay Trade Axe

Trade axes are the most essential Fur Trade relic, and that's because the axe is such a versatile tool.

Native Americans used the artifact everyday for all manner of chopping tasks. And they had ceremonial applications, and could also be used as weapons. In the 1600s - 1750s these iron axes were imported from England and France by the boatload for trade in the colonies - later, cruder version were forged inside the blacksmiths shops associated with colonial forts and armouries. These relics are more primitive because they were hand forged; they were often made from a single piece of iron, heated and folded over a mandrel to make an opening for the handle, then forge welded together - this closure was sometimes referred to as a lap-weld.

Early "eyes" were round holes. Later the eyes became oval shaped, or tear-dropped and later still rectangular. Handles or helves were made by the natives, but there are first hand accounts of the Voyageurs or courier du bois relaxing against beached 42 foot Montrealers, whittling small hardwood limbs into handles by the campfire at night. Many axe heads bear their parent metalworkers marks - these are commonly referred to as "touch marks".

Touch marks are made by touching the axe head when it's red hot, and leaving a mark on the metal. Cast or factory made axe heads with makers' marks are often referred to as guild marks. The most commonly found style of axe heads known are the Biscay style, since they were manufactured in the Biscay region of France.

Many different sizes and shapes of trade axes were found in the underwater search conducted at Double Rapids on the French River out of Lake Nipissing in 1961, and are dated late 1600's to mid 1700's. One hundred and twenty some axe heads were found in crates in a sunken long boat by amateur divers. These finds were donated to the Royal Ontario Museum in August, 1964.

How much is a genuine 1700's trade ax worth these days? Well let’s investigate that... The very best way to track an authentic trade ax's value would be to find a genuine 1700's trace axe on eBay, and wait to see who pays what, (and where they live.) *Question for the comments: Would you sell a Hudson's Bay Trade Axe, found in Canada, across the border?


Littleneckhalfshell said...

""One hundred and twenty some axe heads were found in crates in a sunken long boat by amateur divers. These finds were donated to the Royal Ontario Museum in August, 1964.""

Were the 'crates' recovered and conserved? I am intrested in the construction techniques of boxes from this time period 1690-1720. Any information on if they were dovetailed, or nailed, pegged, etc?

Robert Campbell said...

well I guess you'll have to get a hold of someone at the ROM and ask about all the particulars of the French River trade ax consignment of 1964 as I haven't seen the crates myself.

Fascinating research subject though, I've sometimes wondered about jointers or 'wood joiners' and their specialized evolution as ship's carpenters. I'm sure there's a lot of medieval design history in European colonial woodworking tools.