What food did the Hudson’s Bay Company sell to the Fraser River gold rush miners?
The Farm at Fort Langley
Every Hudson’s Bay Company post was encouraged to be self-sufficient. The sites of HBC forts were chosen to include the most fertile land as well as to be near a transportation route. When the first site for Fort Langley was chosen in 1832, a handful of cows were brought over. Seven years later, it was decided to move Fort Langley further up the Fraser River. Another group of livestock was delivered and sent out to graze on the Langley Prairie about 11 km away.
Among the animals that stepped off the Beaver (HBC steamer) were a bunch of “Wild California Cows.” These Spanish longhorns were a tough and wild breed descended from a group that had been brought to Mexico in the 1600s.
In Oregon, cattle were bred by the HBC subsidiary, Puget Sound Agricultural Company (PSAC). Its original mandate was to provide beef to the Russian-American Fur Company. PSAC raised a mix Spanish longhorns and British short-horns. The British breeds had been bred from cattle that had made the long journey along the Oregon Trail from the eastern United States. These cattle were much larger than the Spanish and more docile.
In a few short years, Fort Langley was growing a variety of crops, and raising herds of beef cattle for export. In addition, the fort took advantage of its location to trade for salmon and cranberries with the tribes that gathered to fish on the Fraser River.
Fort Langley Beef
Some historians have said that the farm at Fort Langley faltered during the Fraser River gold rush for lack of leadership. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that the HBC’s future was in question and that for so long they never had any competition. Nevertheless, the farm kept producing. This advertisement was printed in the New Westminster Times January 21, 1860. “For Sale. 100 Barrels of British Columbia Fresh CORNED BEEF, first quality (grown on the Company’s Farm), and preserved with great care. To be delivered at Langley. Apply to F.V. Lee, Hotel de France.”
The Meat Tariff
As more miners were heading up to the Cariboo in 1859, Governor James Douglas established a 10% tariff on meat imports, based on the purchase cost. Douglas thought that this tax would provide revenue to the colony but not everyone paid their dues. Victoria had been declared a ‘free port’ meaning that American livestock coming there weren’t subject to the 10% tariff.
Despite the cost the overland route to the BC Interior was increasingly used by packers and drovers as the gold seekers went further north. Considering the vast profits to be made, many packers paid their dues, but many did not and slipped over the border unnoticed.
Under public pressure, James Douglas abandoned the 10% tariff the following year, and instead applied heavier customs duties on all goods and animals entering British territory through the Southern Interior.
Urgent need for beef
Six thousand cattle entered the mainland colony in 1861-1862, but that still wasn’t enough to satisfy the demand. It was reported in June 1861 that bacon was selling for 40 cents a pound at Lillooet and 75 cents a pound at Keithley Creek.
By 1862, the need for American meat at the Cariboo mines had become so urgent that the governor directed the Gold Commissioner at Rock Creek to encourage the importation of 2,000 to 3,000 live cattle duty free.