Butter – An Early Staple

We have had several past blogs about butter and I remain fascinated by it and its apparent importance during the settler years of the 1800s. One past blog was on butter making: https://bcfoodhistory.ca/butter-making/  In a second blog I claimed that “How to Make Butter in Five Minutes Without a Churn!” was the first recipe printed in a British Columbia newspaper. https://bcfoodhistory.ca/butter-first-bc-newspaper-recipe/

I read further to try to understand why butter was and perhaps still is a staple food in our lives. The Hudson’s Bay Company encouraged forts in North America to be self-sufficient as much as possible in food production. They recognized it was impossible to supply the forts with all needed commodities from Britain. Thus, Fort Langley like many of the other forts had a farm and the farm became so productive that they contracted to supply the Russian America Company in Alaska with butter among other commodities.[i]

Butter production was laborious and time consuming. Milking was done by hand and a hand milker could spend up to four hours each day milking. It takes at least ten minutes to milk a cow and only three to five percent of the milk is made up of cream suitable for churning into butter. After milking, the milk was cooled to let the cream rise to the top. It would then be skimmed off and stored to accumulate enough for churning. Plunger type churns were used and could take thirty to sixty minutes to produce a few pounds of butter. While other animal fats from both wild and domestic animals were available for cooking and baking, butter was sought after.

The early merchants recognized the importance of butter on the frontier and sold it in quite large amounts. Huntoon and Company in Langley advertised “20 firkins (casks) of choice Butter.”[ii] Lester & Gibbs in Victoria imported from California and Oregon and advertised: “…have received by the above steamers superior groceries of every description selected with great care for family consumption. They have on hand and will be continually in receipt of superior fresh Butter, Cheese, Eggs, &c.”[iii] Dickson, Campbell & Company at the corner of Wharf and Johnson streets in Victoria imported and advertised “Irish Butter.”[iv]

Joel Palmer who packed supplies from Oregon into the Cariboo over the Okanagan Wagon Road brought butter along with all the other commodities he believed were in demand by the miners. https://bcfoodhistory.ca/joel-palmer-pioneer-provisioner-in-british-columbia/

When the Cariboo Sentinel began publishing in 1865, it regularly reported on the price of butter as part of its Market Reports. An acceptable price seemed to be around one dollar a pound. In 1865 the price hovered around $1 to 1.25 and in 1866 it continued much the same. In 1867 prices moved higher to $1.25, 1.50 and $2.00 in May when ham, bacon, butter and yeast powders were all in short supply. The Cariboo Sentinel commented: It is certainly a very singular circumstance that while butter is selling in this market at $1.75 per lb., no enterprising dairyman can be prevailed upon to turn his attention to the production of this article. Surely the price ought to be  sufficient inducement to invite a trial.”[v]

The following month, The Cariboo Sentinel reported on imports to the Colony.

IMPORTS – The imports at the ports of New Westminster and Victoria for the quarter ending 25th March are published in the Government Gazette. The total value is $41,459.57 at New Westminster and $185,837.99 at Victoria. There were imported at New Westminster 9805 pounds bacon and hams, 852 bags barley, 6795 pounds butter, 656 barrels flour, 4339 pounds lard, 345 bushels potatoes, and other articles on the list. All of which can be produced in the colony.[vi]

In August that year, The Cariboo Sentinel lauded the introduction of Sumass Butter a product of the Chadsey families in Sumas Prairie.

SUMASS BUTTER – We have been shown several samples of Sumass butter which is pronounced by judges to be superior to any brought into this market. Now that its quality has become known, it is eagerly sought after by the miners as was the Petaluma butter at one time in California. It is a wonder our farmers and ranchers do not pay more attention to this branch of dairy produce which in view of the great quantities used could not help paying them handsomely, besides retaining so much more of the circulating medium in the country instead of sending it off to enrich the farmers of other countries.[vii]

Later that month, E. Pearson & Bros. of Barkerville advertised “FRESH BUTTER FROM SUMASS DAIRIES, put up in six lb. tins for sale, wholesale and retail.[viii] Throughout 1866 and 1867, The Cornwall Brothers who operated Ashcroft House, a stopping house on the Cariboo Wagon Road advertised Fresh butter as a feature of their House.

Ashcroft House, Messrs. Cornwall’s, at this well-known house, halfway between Spence’s Bridge and Clinton on the Yale Route…The best of living, of Liquors, and of Wines, Fresh butter, milk and vegetables. Good stabling and cheap feed.[ix]

During 1867 and 1868, other merchants such as Thomas L. Briggs & Co in Camerontown advertised Sumass Butter.  Local ranchers and farmers began to produce butter and after 1869 Barkerville merchants began to advertise “Fresh Butter by Express” “fresh supplies of the best butter made in the Colony.” The local supply meant prices declined so that by October of 1870, butter prices dropped to about 80 cents per pound. The Cariboo Sentinel commented:

MARKETS – The supply of fresh butter this year has discouraged importation and the stock of foreign butter is unusually small. Unless the farmers continue sending butter in quantities corresponding to the supply as heretofore, the oleaginous article will soon command the old retail price of $1.25 per pound.[x]

The trend in butter prices over the years illustrates the problem for producers of unstable prices. Prices over a few years in the Cariboo can be summarized as:

Price of butter per Pound

1865    $1.

1866    $1 to 1.25

1867    $1.75

1870    $1.

1871    .60 to $1.

1875    .60

Price of butter in Victoria is reported at:[xi]

1858    .75

1859    .50

1860    .37 ½

1870    .50

1880    .25-.30

1890    .37 ½

1900    .20

A novel story from this era is the building of the “Butter Church” on Komiaken Hill near Duncan BC. Father Peter Rondeault came to minister to the Cowichan people in 1858 and priests needed to be farmers and carpenters in those days as well as priests. Rondeault sold butter produced from the cows on his farm to pay the workers to build the first church, a small stone structure that apparently still stands today! It was used for only about ten years as a church before it was too small for the congregation, but the structure and stories remain.[xii]

Photo of the Butter Church - Vancouver Island

Butter was a valued item in 1800’s British Columbia and judging from the controversy that broke this past winter about Canadian butter not melting as it should, it’s a commodity we still value and attend closely to its quality. https://bcfoodhistory.ca/whats-making-food-history-march-3-2021/


[i] http://bcdairyhistory.ca/PDFs/Pioneer+Butter+Production+in+BC.pdf

[ii] Daily British Colonist, February 5, 1859, p. 4.

[iii] Daily British Colonist, October 12, 1859, p. 3.

[iv] Daily British Colonist, December 20, 1859, p. 4.

[v] Cariboo Sentinel, May 9, 1867, p. 3.

[vi] Cariboo Sentinel, June 27, 1867, p. 2.

[vii] Cariboo Sentinel, August 8, 1867, p. 3.

[viii] Cariboo Sentinel, August 19, 1867, p. 2.

[ix] Cariboo Sentinel, May 10, 1866, p. 4.

[x] Cariboo Sentinel, October 22, 1870, p. 2.

[xi] Nancy Oke & Robert Griffin, Feeding the Family (Victoria: Royal BC Museum, 2011) 21.

[xii] Gene Paxton, “Father Rondeault’s Butter Church” in Canada West, 8(30, 31 & 32), 1978, 34 – 38.