We know now that the fur trade in North America began in the 1500s with English, and French and Spanish Basque, fishermen off the Atlantic coast. When the fish weren’t enough—or when economies suggested—the fishermen went ashore and took and traded for beaver pelts and other animal hides, and Indian slaves. (That’s how Squanto got to Europe, learned English, and returned to become a translator for the New England colonists.)
Category: fur trade
Salmon and Beaver; Politics and Biology
President-elect Trump’s promise to promote coal mining and open more public lands for development of natural gas and oil is not new politics. And the Indian-centered and inspired movement to stop the Dakota Access pipeline is not the first fight by Native Americans against the Euro-American drive to exploit natural resources.
I thought about this as Nez Perce Fisheries workers joined my class (AG 301- ECOSYSTEM SCIENCE OF PACIFIC NW INDIANS) in La Grande last week to talk about salmon and treaties. They explained that the beaver and salmon had developed an intricate symbiotic relationship that had been totally interrupted by the extermination of the beaver almost 200 years ago.
They knew the biology; I could fill them in on the history.
The biology: a series of beaver dams forms perfect habitat for salmon, providing pools for growth and rest, avenues for running up river, and spurts of fast water from the dams’ depths to flush smolts downriver. Beaver dams also create the hydrology and habitat for flora and fauna on rivers’ extended banks.
The history: One of the peculiar junctures in American history occurred when two countries “jointly occupied” the region the US called the “Oregon Country” and Great Britain’s surrogate, the Hudson’s Bay Company, called the “Columbia District.” The region stretched from the Mexican border (now the California border) far into present-day Canada, and from the Pacific to the Continental Divide. The joint occupation, set originally in 1818 to last ten years, held until an 1846 resolution.
The Americans, hungering for a Northwest Passage and the resources of the region, had sent Lewis and Clark on a reconnaissance exploration in 1804, and in 1811 John Jacob Astor, in consultation with his friend, Thomas Jefferson, had set out to secure a port—Astoria—and establish a foothold for a new state or friendly new country on the Pacific Coast to take advantage of the beaver and otter trade from North America to the rest of the World.
The jockeying for the region went on for some time before Joint Occupancy, with the British Crown’s Hudson’s Bay, the Canadian North West Company, Astor’s American Fur Company, and “free” trappers and traders working the territory, shipping beaver pelts back over the Rockies or around the Horn and eventually on to Europe and Asia. Then there was a war—the War of 1812; The North West Company bought Astor out in 1813. In 1818 the two countries agreed that they would “jointly occupy” the territory. In 1821 Hudson’s Bay absorbed North West, and became the British presence in the region.
The region was, of course, already occupied by Indians of numerous tribes. And the European presence was miniscule—Russian, English, and Spanish ships along the coast, fur trappers and traders inland. But the resources in the territory were tremendous—beaver and otter were the prime targets, but settlement and further exploitation were alive in some eyes. They would come to dominate activities in the Oregon Country until a final resolution was reached in 1846.
The British thought Americans should be held at the Columbia; the Americans lobbied for a boundary further north (Polk’s “54 40’ or fight” election campaign). Hudson’s Bay moved settlers from Red River in Canada to the region and built a fort at Vancouver; the British sent David Douglas to scout the territory and put their stamp on it; American frontiersmen trapped and traded and, eventually guided the missionaries to the Oregon Country.
The real mover and shaker over the middle years of Joint Occupancy was Sir George Simpson, Governor-in-Chief of the Hudson’s Bay Company. From 1820-1860 Simpson was in practice, if not in law, the British viceroy for the most of Canada. The Columbia District was under the direct leadership of John McLoughlin at Fort Vancouver, but Simpson was the law. And his law said:
Strong trapping expeditions should be sent south of the Columbia. These may be called the “Snake River Expeditions.” While we have access we should reap all the advantage we can for ourselves, and leave it in as bad a state as possible for our successors.
Simpson chose Peter Skene Ogden to lead the operation. In less than six years, operating with military precision, Ogden and his men trapped the region bare, from the Upper Columbia and Snake Rivers to California and Nevada. The “scorched earth” policy was ruthless. Mountain men were drowned, murdered, starved, and exhausted. Most of Simpson’s own men died along with the beaver.
The beaver were gone, but the dams carried on for some time, and then, in 1866, the canneries took over. By 1886, 39 canneries took over 43 million pounds out of the Columbia with their very efficient fish wheels. Those wheels stayed in the Big River until the 1930s!
One wonders whether beaver trapping and fish wheels—politics and economics—might have bled the region of salmon if a big dam had never been built.
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It’s the Water
I’ve been following the protest in North Dakota over the pipeline, watching it swell with tribal people from across the country. The New York Times says that members from over 280 tribes are now involved. Some are coming in caravans, some by plane and foot, some Northwesterners made their final miles in large, brilliant canoes.
The Times profiled a few of the protesters. Thayliah Henry-Suppah, Paiute, of Oregon, wearing a traditional wing dress with ribbons and otter furs, said she kept this Indian proverb in mind: “Treat the earth well. It was not given to you by your parents. It was loaned to you by your children.” In her own words: “We’ve lived without money. We can live without oil, but no human being can live without water.”
Most of the Indians profiled by the Times spoke of water: “We say ‘mni wiconi’: Water is life,” said David Archambault II, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, the site and center of the protest over a pipeline designed to ship oil out of North Dakota, under the Missouri River. “We can’t put it at risk, not for just us, but everybody downstream.”
It’s easy in this lush Wallowa Valley to take water for granted, although murmurs from California exiles and smoke from miles-away forest fires are troubling. This gathering of Indian peoples should be just as troubling.
It has to do with an attitude that natural resources are basically inexhaustible, and that, even as we run out of one, another resource or another technology will rise to take its place. Indians are telling us that water is the fundamental resource, and that the beaver and salmon that were taken almost to extinction by the fur trade and Columbia River canneries in the 1800s were indicators of a fundamentally flawed economy.
Beaver had been exhausted in Europe when that business marched across the middle of North America from the 1600s into the nineteenth century. In a dispute over the “jointly occupied” Oregon Territory, the British set out to trap out all of the beaver in the Columbia watersheds, thinking that this would dissuade American trappers and immigrants from occupying it. Eventually, silk or some other commodity replaced beaver felt for hats, the crisis was averted, and Americans found other reasons to settle the Northwest.
In the first Alaskan oil rush, American whalers, who had depleted sperm whales in the Pacific Ocean, killed over 13,000 bowhead whales north of the Bearing Strait in just two decades in the mid 1800s. Needless to say, Inupiat culture, which had revolved around whaling for millennia, was severely damaged. Survivors are now rearranging lives around the twenty-first century oil business, adapting while trying to hold onto vestiges of sea culture threatened by oil spills and warming and rising oceans. It’s the water.
Our economy seems based on the consumption of whatever resource is readily available in the moment, trusting that science and capitalist good sense will discover and exploit the next resource. Good we found petroleum to replace whale oil, shale oil to replace crude, wind to replace steam and water generated electricity. And, eventually, we’ll mine the moon, asteroids, and distant planets.
The Indians bring us back, back to land and water. The Umatilla Natural Resource program has developed a presentation on “First Foods.” They argue that ancient longhouse ceremonies served foods in order of importance, and if we do the same we will be healthier and will live in a healtier environment. Clean water, of course, is first, and then salmon—think good spawning grounds, deer, roots, berries, etc.
Our Wallowa waters are the envy of many. And while local cattle ranchers argue that “there is no such thing as a bad rain,” and grass growers and ranchers measure the snowpack and gauge hay cutting and pasture moves against the year’s weather, most of us not making our living in agriculture and timber are blissfully unaware of local water dynamics. We like the look of snowcapped mountains and the rush of rivers. We fish, or ski, snowmobile, hunt, run rivers, or sit on the beach at Wallowa Lake and enjoy the sun—and water.
A few people work to rectify twentieth century technology by putting meander back in rivers, cooling water and increasing spawning grounds. Some think about our dam—and how sockeye salmon who once flooded the Lake might be brought to it again. Immigrants from California and Central Oregon shake the dust off and water lawns and pastures. And Washington irrigators follow the dam condemnation and potential reconstruction thirstily—they’ll buy that extra water from us.
Indians from diverse cultures across the country camping in North Dakota remind us that water is not just a commodity to be bought and sold, but the fundamental principle of all life.
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Finding Rupert’s Land
Marc Jaffe and I have been editing away on a book of Alvin Josephy’s writings for over a year. Our goal is to let Alvin show readers how Indians are intricately woven into the fabric of American history—they are not a “sideshow”; to explore Alvin’s explorations of Indians and natural resources; and to present a brief forum on the miracle of Indian survival.
Indian Gardens—one more time!
|Diorama of Iroquois Indians tending maize caption, New York State Museum|
But it is also true that Indians of what is now the Pacific Northwest were traditionally hunters, gatherers, and fishers, and most of these crops were not found in the region at the time of first white contact, Indians of the region had established economies and food cultures over countless generations before white contact, food cultures built around salmon, game, and readily available roots, bulbs, and berries. Did they have knowledge of corn? And when did tobacco arrive? Did they come through Indian trade routes, or with Delaware and Iroquois who were, by the late eighteenth century, part of the western fur trading business, or were the French and British traders themselves responsible for bringing tobacco, corn, and other domesticated vegetables West?
More on Nez Perce gardens and fur traders
I think that last line is quite true, but my circuitous argument about Spokane Garry and his time at the Red River School under the Anglicans probably was too much. Friend and long-time historian of the fur trade John Jackson—Children of the Fur Trade—made it all simpler in a brief response to my post:
Blinded by the times
When he wrote the essay on the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Indians, Alvin Josephy took great pains to place it all in historical context. And he credited the company with high mindedness in establishing standards for dealing with the Indians—the traders were not to use alcohol as trade goods, not to marry Indian women, and were to build peaceful relationships with them and promote peace among the tribes. Measured against French, American, and other British traders, Josephy gives the HBC good marks.
I thought it would also be good to have a resister, one of the men who had gone to Canada to avoid the War, and mentioned this to writer friend Valerie Miner. “What do you mean, the men who went to Canada?” she said. “What about the women? Who do you suppose made the meals and put together the paperwork?” She had been one of them, and after Canada had moved to Sweden and to England before returning to the States—then only after amnesty was declared.
But Valerie’s remarks brought me up short. Made me remember signs along the route of that march. “Girls say no to boys who go” they shouted. Only years later, as I planned the conference on the legacy of Vietnam, did I realize what that said about boys who did not go—and the girls who supported them. In those pre-feminist or early feminist days, girls’ rights, girls’ minds and bodies were of lesser value and at the service of boys.
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The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Indians
Fayre and gentle was how the Hudson’s Bay company men were supposed to treat, or “Draw downe the Indians” to their purpose. Their purpose was the acquisition of furs. Alvin says that the company did not come to “conquer or dispossess the Indians. It did not covet their land, hunting grounds, or fishing stations. It did not mean to disrupt them or undermine their beliefs, destroy their means of existence, shatter their organizations and ways of life, or change them into white men… It was a commercial enterprise, in business to make a profit by buying furs peacefully from the natives at prices that would bring the highest rewards to its stockholders.”
Most importantly Alvin continues, “The cumulative impact of all these destructive forces impaired the Indians’ ability to cope with the more aggressive whites who followed the fur men into the Indian country, seeking timber, mineral wealth, and land. With the withering of the fur trade and abandonment of posts, the Indians, dependent for so long on the trade, were left impoverished and helpless… In the long run, [this] was to be the most enduring and damaging effect of the fur trade.”
Once again Alvin found a practice and practitioners—the fur trade and the trading companies—and linked them to the flow of Indian and Western American history. The discussion could now go many ways—the role of alcohol in white expansionism; the impact of white and European commerce on Indian lands and the flow of American history; how guns changed Indian tribal relationships; what the Indians taught whites about native foods and survival as fur traders moved across the country, etc.
Or we could burrow into the fur trade. My guess is that Alvin began research on the subject while working on the big Nez Perce book, and the articles sited above grew from that. But later, in the 1990s, he worked extensively on the Duncan McDougall log books and Alfred Seton journals from Astoria. He was editing them for Sleepy Hollow Press in New York, but the project was disrupted by the death of Nelson Rockefeller –but that is another story! (and one we have several folders on in the Josephy Library).
p.s. Alvin allowed Hudson’s Bay reps to respond to his articles, and printed their comments as footnotes. He says they did not dispute the facts, but disagreed on some interpretations. Who knew Hudson’s Bay was still alive and still cared about public perceptions of long ago events.
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