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: Hudson’s Bay Company
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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The passing of two friends
There is so much to say about my friend Ray Cook, the man who introduced me to Rupert Costo, the Jesuits, and Father Serra’s journey to sainthood. Ray passed away quietly in California, and, unfortunately, did not see the blog post he inspired—I think it would have made him smile, though the new Pope’s ignorance of California’s Indian genocide would only have disturbed him. Rest in Peace Ray. I am sure that the Indian woman you had to move to make way for a California highway long ago has forgiven you—and if not you built up a store of good deeds and left teachings on behalf of her brothers and sisters in your remaining years.
Ray reminded us that the peculiar relationship of Indians to land is fundamentally different from the notion that land is an “input” into economic equations, a “commodity” to be bought and sold. Being “of” the land is qualitatively different than being “from” a nation, state, farm-size or city-size chunk of ground. Thank you Ray.
John Jackson was a long-time friend of Alvin’s, and although we were not close friends, I remember fondly a meal with Alvin, John and his wife when we were touring with Alvin’s memoir. I might have this wrong, but I think that Alvin promoted publication of John’s first book, Children of the Fur Trade: Forgotten Metis of the Pacific Northwest with Mountain Press in Montana. Oregon State University now has it as a “Northwest Reprint,” a continuing reminder that descendants of European or Canadian fathers and Native American mothers (Johns’ own heritage was here), these mixed-blood settlers called “Metis,” were pivotal to the development of the Oregon Country, and have been generally neglected in its written history. Today we know them by the names they left on the land and the waters: The Dalles, Deschutes, Grand Ronde, Portneuf, Payette, but you’ll have to read John’s book to see the complex society of mixed bloods—the offspring of mostly French trappers and women from Western tribes, with dashes of Iroquois, Delaware, and Sandwich Islander—Hawaiian—in the mix, that comprise this “forgotten” element in our midst, descendants of the people who guided the first settlers and even the missionaries here, who now live on reservations, and, in some cases, in Northwest cities and suburbs mostly oblivious to their ancestry.
Because of John I’ve kept my own eye open for stories of the Metis, and announce to anyone who will listen that theirs might be a singular story of a melding of cultures in North America that created a new culture. Metis is a mixture of blood, language and religion, and one, I might add, that Canada now recognizes as a First Nation. But theirs is a Canadian story as sad as that of the stories of displaced tribes and leaders Joseph, Tecumseh, or Sitting Bull on this side of the border. It’s a story of Metis rebellion on the exit of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the transfer of land to the Canadian government. And then the execution of Metis leader Lois Rial, guilty, so they said, of “high treason” for claiming indigenous lands.
On our side of the border we’ve scarcely heard of Rial. We don’t much know David Thompson, who mapped the Columbia, or the Hudson’s Bay Company beyond John McLoughlin, Chief HBC factor at Vancouver, and, some say, the “father of Oregon.” “What does that mean,” we ask.
Thank you John for showing us these pieces of our Northwest past, and for reminding us that Canada is part of North America too, and that our history—the good, the bad, and the outrageously ugly, is a shared one.
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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.
The Whitman Massacre—a Truer History
Thomas King, G.A. Custer, Lois Riel, David Thompson…..
|King ran for office in Guelph|
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:
Nez Perce farmers, missionary squabbles, and the Canadian Border
Fear of Indians
I keep trying to write about “assimilation,” because I know that Alvin considered it—the ways in which the white power structure has “zigzagged,” as he put it, with policies and actions aimed at “making Indians stop being Indians and turn themselves into Whites”—crucial to understanding the history of America. But I keep finding gems of understanding that seem to precede the concepts of assimilation, and extermination for that matter.
|Peter Rindisbacher, War Dance|
Pictures are worth a thousand words, and another character Alvin wrote about, Peter Rindisbacher, the boy artist who arrived on the Canadian prairie in the1820s and made the first painting impressions of Fox and Cree and Chippewa, paintings that were turned into lithographs and widely distributed in Europe, has over 100 pictures that are worth 1000 words each. (“The Boy Artist of Red River” in American Heritage, February 1970, and The Artist Was a Young Man, a 1970 book.)
A different Oregon history
|Eliza Gale-courtesy Oregon St Lib|
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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