Class Distinctions at fort Nisqually

One of the most fiscally rewarding products of colonialism is the trading post.  This corporate enterprise flourished across North America, fueled by abundant natural resources and successful trade relations with the dynamically complex native populations that already inhabited the continent.  Fort Nisqually is an excellent example of an early to mid-century west coast trading post; the artifacts that we have from this location can help to illustrate class differences and gender experiences within the corporate structure of trading posts.

Fort Nisqually –

Fort Nisqually was founded by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1832 along the beach of Nisqually Reach in South Puget Sound.  It was the first corporate enterprise in the sound, as well as the first non-native settlement.  It was centrally located between Fort Vancouver and Fort Langley, and was jointly occupied by American and British workers of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

These artifacts were recovered from Fort Nisqually – courtesy of

Trading posts adhered to Victorian social principles, and wives of Fort Nisqually workers were subject to a heavily stratified social order; the experiences of these women was widely varied and affected by a multitude of factors.  All of the officers at Fort Nisqually had Native American wives, who by association of position were a higher class.  These Native wives were ambassadors of culture; they embraced the Victorian principles of their husband’s households while simultaneously engaging in their own culture.   This dual role fulfilled the traditional patrilochal marriage patterns reflected within Native culture.  There is evidence that the experiences of European women, however, were occasionally dysfunctional.  The only white women who were specifically recorded entering the Fort between 1833-1860 were laborer’s wives.  Historical records confirm that all three ran away shortly after arriving at Fort Nisqually, one of whom ran away before they even got there.

Spode ChinaSpode Label Jewelry

This may have been due to class distinctions within the fort.  Excavations of workers homes in 1989 indicate that Jean Baptiste Chaulifaux, a carpenter and mechanic who made twice as much as other workers, had a higher class of household and personal goods (see above, courtesy of Archaeology in Washington, 2007).  His wife, who incidentally may have been white, possessed a higher class of jewelry and china goods than her neighbors.  There is no record of a Mrs. Chaulifaux defecting from the fort, so we know at least that she did not suffer the same fate as the other three European frontierswomen.  The experiences of the other three women may have been due to the strictly imposed social order and materialistic focus of the Victorian era; they would have had little opportunity to change their station in life.

2 thoughts on “Class Distinctions at fort Nisqually

  1. What are the small circular items with string or rope around them on the tip of a finger in the above photos? There is no description and I can’t seem to figure out what they are. Thank you for your response.

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