The Catholic Fur-Trading North

When I had the bookstore all those years ago, I kept a big supply of Bison Books from the University of Nebraska that told the tales of the fur traders and mountain men. It was not my thing; American history was not my thing. I read fiction and short stories, mysteries and books from and about the Ottoman Empire and the wars on the Eastern Front.Read Rich’s Post →

More on Nez Perce gardens and fur traders

I argued against missionary Spalding as the original source of Wallowa Nez Perce gardens in my last blog post, went on a laborious journey through Spokane House, Spokane Garry, the Church of England, and the fur trade as alternative sources of seeds and irrigation techniques. And then got onto the thought that this all happened with people and players—Hudson’s Bay, the North West Fur Company, David Thompson—who end up being on the Canadian side of history, so do not get attention in standard USA history books.

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:

“The curmudgeon can’t resist pointing out that the early Nor’westers tried planting gardens at places they passed, just in hope something might grow.  I think David Thompson even put in some peas, turnips, and barley at the Tobacco Plains on the Kootenay River by 1809 or so. That surely was before Presbyterians at Walla Walla, and Methodists didn’t plant anything until they got to fine land claims in the Willamette Valley.
“Gardening is just a step away from digging roots and tribeswomen were imaginative.  The Astorians were not very pleased with the gardens on the lower river but seeds could have found their way upstream.  Tribes may have been growing corn or tobacco, although I can’t recall seeing any reference to seeds from the HBC [Hudson’s Bay Company] or NWC [North West Company].  Jack Nisbet [author of Sources of the River, a chronicle of Nisbet’s attempt to follow David Thompson’s travels across Western North America to the Pacific] has some comments on growing tobacco if I recall correctly.”
How right that all sounds. Tobacco was a common trade good, and there is nothing like an addictive crop to spur opportunistic gardening in the territory. And those fur traders returned to their posts again and again—even ones built hastily when they ran out of travel season and hunkered for a winter, so a bit of tobacco or some spuds or turnips planted in spring would be welcome in a fall return to old posts and places.
And ships—Russian, English, Spanish, and French—traveled the Pacific Coast long before missionaries and white settlers came overland. A smallpox epidemic, which probably arrived by sea, killed 30 percent of the indigenous population of what we now call the Pacific Northwest in the 1770s. Seeds surely could have traveled the same routes. And once ashore, might have made it to the big fishing and trading grounds at Celilo along with the dentalia so popular in Indian adornment. And from Celilo—anywhere!
So my Jackson informed guesses are: 1. that the Nez Perce gardens on the Grand Ronde River owed somehow to the fur traders; 2. that missionaries kept more notes and diaries than did fur traders—and were better marketers of their exploits; how central Whitmans and Spaldings are to the standard Northwest narrative; 3. that Indian trade networks were extensive and that goods moved up and down the Columbia and across the West way before the Whitmans and Spaldings–so seeds and gardening knowledge were traveling in many directions by the time of the Ws and Ss; and 4. that in this case as in many others we neglect the people and events that were important in their time in the Oregon Territory, but ended up on the Canadian side of the narrative of North American history.
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Nez Perce farmers, missionary squabbles, and the Canadian Border

“Before leaving the southern portion of the Asotin County some mention should be made of the
Indian gardens located on the north side of the Grande Ronde River about half a miles below
the mouth of the Rattlesnake Creek and on other favored spots extending on down the Grande
Ronde to the mouth of Shoemaker Creek, on low benches along the river.
“It appears that Nez Perce Indians maintained gardens in these places before white men came
to the country, and made use of irrigation in growing corn and other vegetables.
“As there appears to be no record or tradition of the growing of vegetables by the Nez Perce
Indians prior to the coming of missionary Spalding, it is safe to assume that the Indians who
maintained these gardens in the early days learned their lessons in agriculture and irrigation
from Rev. Spalding.”
I found this quote from Historic Glimpses of Asotin County, by Judge E. V. Kuykendall, in a Forest Service manuscript, “History of the Northern Blue Mountains,” written by ranger Gerald Tucker in 1940. I have not seen Kuykendall’s book—but am longing to get a copy in my hands! And there is much more to say about Gerald “Tuck” Tucker, a prolific writer as well as a Forest Service ranger on the Umatilla and Wallowa National Forests. (His one published book, The Story of Hells Canyon, 1977)
But for now I want to hone in on this agricultural business—and especially Kuykendall’s conclusion that the Wallowa Nez Perce got their start in vegetable growing from missionary Spalding.
We do know that Spalding came into the Wallowa country in 1838, that he tried to name the lake (Wallowa Lake) after himself, and that he “converted” Old Joseph either here or at Lapwai. There is no record that he stayed in the country for any extended time, and there is no record that I know of that he brought seeds or agricultural tools—although he would have had such at Lapwai and the Indians could have brought them home from there. But Kuykendall’s quote makes it sound as though there is a well-established gardening program on the Grand Ronde River very early. And in another spot in his Asotin County account, also quoted by Tucker, he maintains that there was a Hudson’s Bay Trading Post on Lost Prairie.
I have not found other references to this one, but the information provided by Kuykendall convinces that there was some kind of trading post—whether Hudson’s Bay or not—at Lost Prairie very early. Which takes me back to the entire missionary business—and to Spokane Garry.
David Thompson of the British-Canadian North West Company established the fur trading post, Spokan—or Spokane—House in 1810. A Spokane Indian named Slough-Keetchawas born somewhere in the vicinity about 1811. The Hudson’s Bay Company took over the territory and moved forts and posts around about 1821, and they brought a bit of Anglican religion with them. Hudson’s Bay routinely brought Catholic priests in on behalf of their French-Canadian and French mixed-breed families, but we hear little about the Church of England.
Spokane Garry
At any rate, two young Indians, one of them Slough-Keetcha, are sent from Spokane to the Red River boarding school at Fort Garry in Rupert’s Land in 1825. Slough-Keetcha comes back as Spokane Garry in 1829, and begins preaching and teaching, including teaching agriculture. We also know that the Nez Perce supplied horses to the fur traders at Spokane, so commerce and religion were moving between Spokane and the Nez Perce well before Spalding’s arrival at Lapwai in 1836. Which makes it highly probable in my mind that the Nez Perce were aware of and probably growing corn and other vegetables before Spalding.
In some ways, it is no big deal—a year or two one way or another; Spalding or Spokane Garry. But what this highlights for me is the divisions and rifts among the early missionaries, and our USA centric history, which routinely omits events that happened on the other side of what became the US-Canadian border.
The missionary history of the Pacific Northwest will tell you about the Methodists and the Presbyterian-Congregationalists, and with some digging you can find spats between them—the Methodists did not recognize “mixed” marriages between white trappers and Indian women. You can learn about early Catholics—the Oblate missionaries, Father DeSmet and the Jesuits, Father Blanchet and early missions and dioceses in Oregon and later Washington territories. And we have the Spalding’s testament in the form of a visual aid to teaching Christianity that the Pope and Catholics were headed for hell.
But I find very little about the Anglicans. There was a Christian boarding school for Indians at Fort Garry (now Winnipeg, Manitoba) in 1825! Spokane Garry was preaching some version of Anglicanism in the region before the arrival of Catholics, Methodists or Presbyterian-Congregationalists! Any student of Indian history knows that ideas and goods traveled rapidly from band to band, tribe to tribe across the West. I think that the focus on places, people, and events that years later ended up on this side of a border—much of which was surveyed by the same David Thompson mentioned above—robs us of much of our own history.
Here is a link to the Gerald Tucker Northern Blue Mountains mss: