Well-Dressed Explorer
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ART.VI. The Well-Dressed Explorer, By J. Gottfred.

In which some notes and theories on the dress of such explorers as David Thompson, Alexander Mackenzie, and Peter Fidler are presented.

On the north side of the town of Elk Point, Alberta, there stands a tall wooden statue of Peter Fidler. Fidler was a Hudson's Bay Company explorer, and factor of Buckingham House from 1796 to 1797. Fidler is shown dressed in buckskin from head to toe, complete with fringes and beadwork, and topped off with a 'coon skin cap. He stands holding a sextant to his eye, gazing at the horizon in heroic tribute to his explorations. For many of us, this is the popular image of the early explorers and traders — but is it correct? How did these men really dress?

The Giant Peter Fidler at Elk Point, Alberta

The journals of these men contain very little in the way of physical descriptions of their authors (or their colleagues), but they do contain some clues to how they dressed.

On October 19, 1801, the tailor at Chesterfield House was making 'a fine blue cloth coat' for Fidler, and on October 26, he was making Fidler a 'pair of yellow trousers' (Johnson, 297n). On December 24, Fidler had the tailor making him another waistcoat, and apparently Fidler's cassette contained 24 waistcoats on July 8, 1813 (Johnson, 304n). On January 27, 1802, Fidler had 'the Taylor making me a red Coat' (Johnson, 308n), and making yet another waistcoat for him on February 15 (Johnson, 310n). Clearly this is a man who is interested in keeping up a civilized appearance!

What is meant by 'trousers' is not clear. Samuel Johnson's dictionary of 1756 defines trousers as 'Breeches ; long breeches ; pantaloons.' (S. Johnson, 760). By 1800 long-legged pants were coming into style, but Fidler's 'trousers' might have been breeches — the clothing manifests often list long wool stockings!

A more accurate image of Fidler might be to have him dressed in a waistcoat, blue top coat, yellow trousers, and pointing his sextant towards the ground about ten feet in front of him, where his mercury filled artificial horizon would be placed. (See Northwest Journal volume 3, p. 15 for details of how to use a sextant on land.)

C. W. Jefferys produced a much copied image of David Thompson making observations with a sextant. In the engraving, Thompson is pictured seated on the ground, and pointing his sextant at his artificial horizon a few feet in front of him. In this respect the image is absolutely correct. Thompson's dress, however, is questionable. Jefferys pictures the famous explorer in Native style dress — fringed buckskins with bead or quill work on the shoulders. Is this correct?

In October 1787, while preparing to winter with the Peigans, Thompson writes that he was wearing 'a cotton shirt, a blue cloth jacket and leather trousers' and was also supplied with 'another shirt, a leather coat, a blanket and Bison robe.' (Glover, 46) What are these leather garments? Would they be Indian clothes? I personally think not for two reasons. First, vegetable tanned buckskin or sheepskin leather breeches were common amongst tradesmen as durable work garments (Gehret, 127). Second, Indians did not wear trousers. Instead, they wore long leggings, and preserved their modesty with long shirts, and sometimes breech-clouts. I suspect Thompson's trousers and coats were leather garments of a European cut, without decoration, and provided by the tailor at the post.

In 1796, while on a trip to Lake Athabasca with two others, Thompson suffered a mishap in which his canoe sank. He describes his surviving clothing as 'my shirt and a thin linen vest' (Glover, 118). (Fortunately they saved their 'small tent of gray cotton' that they cut up to wrap around themselves until they reached help (Glover, 118).)

Gabriel Franchère described Thompson's arrival in 1811 at Fort Astoria after his epic exploration of the Columbia River : 'Toward midday we saw a large canoe with a flag displayed at her stern, rounding the point we called Tongue Point. The flag she bore was the British, and her crew was composed of eight Canadian boatmen or voyageurs. A well-dressed man, who appeared to be their commander, was the first to leap ashore' (Glover, 358n)

This passage is difficult to interpret, but it must be remembered that the Astorians were supplied by sea, and had most of the luxuries of civilized life. One could make the argument that to them a 'well-dressed man' could be no less than an individual complete with breeches, waistcoat, top-coat, clean neck-cloth and top hat! This interpretation is almost certainly closer to the truth than assuming Thompson was dressed in the Indian style. Such an apparition would be sure to raise comment in those days, as this quotation from July 1806 illustrates :

'I heard my name called at the door of the lodge by a voice which was familiar, and enquiring if I was within. I hastened to the door, dressed as I was in the Indian costume, and was much surprised at seeing Mr. Charles Chabollez, [Jr.], Mr. Alexander Henry [the younger], and Mr. Allen Macdonel [sic], accompanied by three men. Their first salutation was a reproach at my dress...' (Mandan Journal of Mr. Charles McKenzie, cited in Coues, 346)

It seems that Jefferys' engraving, 130 years after the fact, was influenced by modern conceptions of the early explorers' dress. (Incidentally, I have been told that the members of the Lewis and Clark expedition, sans tailor, were reduced to wearing 'rawhide' garments by the end of the three year expedition. Perhaps this is the source of the popular conception of explorers looking like Daniel Boone.)

Alexander Mackenzie leaves us no description of his dress 'in the field' other than the fact that he has a cloak that he sleeps in (Lamb, 329), and that it is made of camblet (Lamb, 342). Camblet is a wool and silk blend. One also gets a sense of Mackenzie's sense of personal hygiene from the following passage, in which he is forced to spend the night with two natives to keep them from running away. Mackenzie records that

'These people have no covering but their beaver garments, and that of my companions was a nest of vermin. I, however, spread it under us, and having laid down upon it, we covered ourselves with my camblet cloak. My companion's hair being greased with fish-oil, and his body smeared with red earth, my sense of smelling, as well as that of feeling, threatened to interrupt my rest...' (Lamb, 342).

Mackenzie certainly does not give the impression of a man who would 'go native'.

A contemporary portrait of Mackenzie after his return to civilization shows him in the typical gentleman's garb of neck cloth, high collared waistcoat, and top coat. This, of course, tells us nothing about what he would have looked like 'on the trail', but I find it hard to believe that a someone who dressed up in quilled, fringed buckskins would then cover it all with a fine silk and wool cloak. Mackenzie also carried a sword and a brace of pistols. With them and his hat and cloak, he might be more accurately pictured as a pirate than as an Indian!

If any club members have any additional information on the dress of the explorers, please send us a letter or an article. We will be happy to put it in Northwest Journal.


Coues, Elliot, ed. New Light on the Early History of the Greater Northwest, the Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry and of David Thompson, 1799-1814. Ross & Haines, Inc. Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1965.

Gehret, Ellen J. Rural Pennsylvania Clothing. George Shumway Publisher : York, Pennsylvania, 1990.

Glover, Richard, ed. David Thompson's Narrative 1784-1812. The Champlain Society : Toronto, 1962.

Johnson, Alice M., ed. Saskatchewan Journals and Correspondence 1795-1802. Hudson's Bay Record Society : London, 1967.

Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language. Barnes and Noble, 1994.

Lamb, W. Kaye, ed. The Journals and Letters of Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Cambridge University Press : London, 1970.


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