The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Indians

I just read “The Hudson Bay Company and the American Indians,” a three-part series Alvin originally published in 1971 in The Westerners: New York Posse BrandBook (I love the Westerners! See November 2010 post) that was reprinted with color photography as “By Fayre and Gentle Meanes,” in American West Magazine.

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.”

Of course it was not that simple, and the good efforts of the company men to obtain furs and keep peace among the tribes so that they would not lose sources, and would in fact gain new ones as they moved west, in practice led to tribe fighting tribe for privileged station and Hudson’s Bay competing against other companies for the trade. In practice, guns used as trade goods meant tribal violence, and alcohol, specifically prohibited as a trade good by the Hudson’s Bay office in London, was used and raised its havoc with Indians with little or no immunity to its effects. In practice, traditional cultures, land uses, and livelihoods were disrupted.   

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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