Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site of Canada
The capote, or long greatcoat, is closely associated with the fur trade in North America. It is not surprising that the wide-scale harvesting of furs for European markets coincided with the development of this uniquely Canadian garment. Indeed the capotes – or more specifically the wool blankets from which they were sewn -- became one of the most sought after trade items, replacing furs as the quintessential winter clothing for Aboriginal people and newcomers alike.
The capote came to be associated with the Hudson’s Bay Company and is sometimes referred to as the “Hudson’s Bay coat.” But it is also associated with the French habitants and voyageurs, as it originated in New France. The term “capot” or “capote” comes from the French word for cloak. The term capote was used in North America since the early 1600s when French sailors were trading their coats with the Micmac on the Atlantic coast. Pierre Radisson (1636-1701) mentions wearing a “cappot” or “capot” in his autobiographical journal long before any Hudson’s Bay Company records mention such an item.
Types of Capotes
On occasion the term capote was used for greatcoats made from various types of hide or leather. Some descriptions suggest that the earliest capotes may not always have been hooded. Others claim that the early Canadian-made capotes resembled the aristocratic “justaucorps” coats – tight fitting above the waist and flared below to the knee. But while originally referring to a variety of coats, over time the term capote came to refer specifically to the hooded blanket wrap coat widely worn by European fur traders and Aboriginal traders. Of course, these also had variations in style and fabric. But mostly capotes are described as being made from some form of wool blanketing or heavy woven cloth, such as the homespun “etoffe du pays” made in New France. From the late 1700s on they were most commonly made from “point blankets,” (woollen blankets marked on one edge with dark lines or “points” denoting their size). While some capotes, particularly in later years, were closed with buttons or some form of toggle, the most common capotes were simply tied shut with attached ribbon ties or with a long woven belt called an Assumption sash.
Capotes were cut to different patterns. The most prevalent pattern of capote was very plain, without fringes or tassels, and with a simple cowl-like hood. But more complex patterns for fancier coats can be found. The Royal Ontario Museum, for example, has published a pattern for a blanket capote with some decorative fringing on the hood based on a late 19th century capote in the museum’s collection. (See Dorothy Burnham, Cut My Cote, Toronto, Royal Ontario Museum, 1973.)
Given the variety of available materials, it is not surprising that capotes were made in many different colours and decorative patterns. The early capotes made from locally-woven cloth in New France would have been primarily grey in colour, but coats made from point blankets or manufactured and sold as ready-made capotes came in many colours and stripe patterns.
Fur traders from Montreal – the Nor’Westers and others -- adopted the capote very early. After 1821, when the Hudson’s Bay and North West companies amalgamated under the Hudson’s Bay Company name, the use of capotes became, if anything, even more universal. Throughout the 19th century, at sites such as Rocky Mountain House, Fort St. James, Lower Fort Garry, York Factory and Churchill, capotes would have been the most common type of winter coat.
Two good examples of simple, unadorned capotes. Some sources suggest that capotes were knee length. These photographs indicate that longer coats were also made.
Many surviving photographs show capotes that were locally-made from trade blankets. A high proportion of these photos show coats made from white point blankets with coloured stripes, sometimes called “chief’s blankets” (probably because chiefs were more likely to be photographed). Blankets in any of the available colour and stripe patterns would also have been sewn into capotes. The strong preference for Aboriginal hunters was white, as it provided camouflage in the snow. In the 19th century ready-made capotes were also available. The HBC purchased capotes from several manufacturers in England for sale to its employees and Aboriginal customers. These pre-made capotes came in several colours. York Factory records show that it supplied both “dark grey mixed” and “light blue mixed” capotes for sale, with the latter being more highly valued.
The long Canadian tradition of wearing these unique coats made from woollen point blankets is celebrated to this day in the form of parkas, in the traditional colours and stripes, still sold at The Bay.
See Canada’s National History Society’s www.furtradestories.ca/
For an article on capotes in the Northwest Journal, see: www.northwestjournal.ca/XIII3.htm
See the Hudson’s Bay Company’s website "Our Heritage Our History” for basic information on blankets: www.hbc.com/hbcheritage/history/blanket/history/