Category Archives: The Fur Trade

1811-1850 (1600-1850 east of Rockies)

The Fur Trade

The Fur Trade in what is now Northeast Washington did not begin until near the end of 250 years of activity in North America.  Over the period from 1600 to 1850 dominance in the trade shifted from the French to the English and finally to the Americans in the era of the “Mountain Men” from 1830 to 1850.  Its significance for Northeast Washington and interior British Columbia goes well beyond the economic impact that buying and selling furs had on the region.

By the time of the first official contact between White Men and the local natives, the arrival of David Thompson at Kettle Falls in 1811, the trade of iron goods, firearms, blankets and beads had shifted the control of power from one Indian nation armed with guns to the next across the face of North America.

On an personal scale, Thompson’s arrival at Astoria on the 15th of July in 1811 marked the end of his quest to reach the mouth of the Columbia River.  On an International scale, it marked the beginning of a trade route that now stretched from the headwaters of the Columbia to China and back around Africa to England.

Ever since Captain James Cook’s expedition of 1776 charted the Northwest Coast of North America, hopes of finding a “Great River of the West” similar to the Mississippi or the St Lawrence had fueled explorations across the Rocky Mountains.

The fur trading companies were the front lines of nationalist expansion throughout the world led by the seafaring nations of France, Spain, Britain and the Netherlands.  As wars and alliances shifted power between the royal families of Europe, so too did the leadership of the economic powerhouses of the fur companies shift in the New World.

Map of New France
Wikipedia article on New France

From 1600 to 1760 France was the initiator and leader in fur trade starting along the St Lawrence Seaway and carving out an empire, New France, that stretched from the Atlantic Coast of Canada down the Mississippi and across the Great Lakes.  Note that along with trade, fortifications and eventually settlements, the French brought their religion, Catholicism, and Jesuit Missionaries.  They also brought shiploads of French women and sanctioned marriages with native women to balance out the predominantly male population at their forts and trading posts.  Over the 10 generations of fur traders in the New World, the voyagers, descended from these mixed blood French peoples became the backbone of the Northwest Company many years after the French ceded New France to Britain and Spain in 1760.  Freedmen from the Northwest Company settled near Chewelah where the Jesuit, Fr De Smet founded St Regis Mission in 1845 to fill their need for a Catholic Church.  Their French surnames are predominant in the local Indian Nations and local landmarks such as French Point Rocks trace their roots to these first fur traders.

The driving force of the fur trade from 1760 to 1816 was the Hudson Day Company.  After the voyage of the British ship, Nonsuch, in 1668-9 to James Bay on the South shore of Hudson Bay, the British formed the Hudson Bay Company, which with various permutations is actually still represented today in Target Stores.  The French and English fur traders immediately clashed over territory, religion and the allegiance of the Native Tribes.  By 1696, French attacks during the Fox Wars had crippled the Hudson Bay Company, which did not turn a profit for the next 20 years.   The foxes did not fair much better and were all but extinct in the territory where they were trapped by that time.  For the next 50 years, the French dominated the fur trade.  In 1720, the “Golden Age” of the French Fur Trade, there were 24,500 French settlers in New France.  Events during the War of Austrian Succession, 1740-1748, changed the balance of power in Europe.  The war left the French with a weak navy.  The Seven Years war (1756-1763) as it was called in Europe was called the French and Indian War (1753-1760) in North America.  The French had superior fortifications on the ground and repulsed advances made by a young George Washington, then in the employment of, Robert Dinwidde, Governor of Virginia.  The war raged on with the victories going mostly to the French.  But in the end, England’s ability to block French shipping both at the mouth of the St Lawrence Seaway and as French ships left France, weakened the French troops in North America and led to a British victory in 1760.

These wars had many lasting consequences.  They drained the treasury of England which prompted the British to raise taxes in their American Colonies, leading eventually to the American Revolution.  The British Colonies had a population of 1.2 million by 1754.  The French had only 55,000.  Pressure to push westward over the Appalachian Mountains led to conflicts with the British who were upholding treaties and the tribes who had been promised sovereignty in that area.  During the American Revolution, Indian tribes friendly to the French took the American side and those aligned with the British remained loyal.   The Hudson Bay Company kept expanding to the west and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

In 1784, three years after the American Revolution, David Thompson landed at the Churchill factory on the shores of Hudson Bay at the age of 14, as an

North American Foreign Claims 1763
North American Foreign Claims 1763

apprentice to the Company.  That same year, the Northwest Company was formed as a joint stock company by Simon McTavish.  16 years later in 1800 Thompson, by then an accomplished surveyor and fur trader, would join with James Duncan McGillivray and the Northwest Company to explore routes across the Rocky Mountains.  Three years after that, the American Lewis and Clark Expedition was formed and in 1804 set off to discover a route to the Columbia and the Pacific.  They travelled through the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and into the Oregon Territory.

At this point, Fur Trading companies and explorers with their national interests were converging on the Columbia.  In their travels they planted flags and exchanged gifts with local tribes.  The Northwest Company’s efforts under the leadership of David Thompson developed a route up the Saskatchewan River, over Howse Pass and into the Purcell Trench in 1807.  It would take 4 more labor-intensive years to set up trading posts on a route down the Kootenai River, overland to Lake Pend Oreille, then Spokane and finally Kettle Falls in 1811.   In Thompson’s mind, this gave the British claim to all the territory upstream of the junction of the Snake and Columbia Rivers.  Meanwhile the American Fur company had established a post at Astoria and was developing trading partners up the Columbia.

When Thompson encountered Duncan McDougall, Alexander Ross and David Stuart at Astoria, he was under the impression that his company, The Northwest Company and theirs, the The Pacific Fur Company, a subsidiary of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company, had merged.  In reality they had not but Thomson did not know it at that time.  5 years later, in 1816, the Northwest Company merged with the Hudson Bay Company.  In the meantime, the Northwest Company had purchased Fort Astoria from the Pacific Fur Company in 1813.

The Hudson Bay Company set up a new Headquarters at Fort Vancouver in 1824 and the following year moved their inland headquarters, formerly the Spokane House at the mouth of the Little Spokane River, to Fort Colvile. (Spelled with two “l’s”) established on the rich plain on the Northeast side of Kettle Falls.

In a time when fur is thought to be a minor and somewhat offensive commodity, it is difficult to imagine the wealth or extent of the fur trade.  John Jacob Astor was the richest man in the Americas, much of his wealth stemming from arrangements to export fur from the Northwest Company and eventually through his own company, the American Fur Company.  His ship the Empress of China was the first American vessel to trade with China (1800).  Circumnavigating the world, merchant ships traded fur for China in Asia, picked up spice from the East India Company in India, continued back to England and loaded iron goods from Germany on board that would be traded for more furs in North America.

Beginning with 5 kegs of potatoes, bushels of wheat and farming tools in 1825 and following up with pigs and cows in 1826, the Hudson Bay Fort Colvile commenced to grow huge crops of many kinds that were sent to trading posts north to the headwaters of the Columbia and east into Montana.  Fort Colvile became a key connection in international commerce.  French craftsmen at the fort built large freight canoes, bateaus, that were used to ship furs down the Columbia and haul other trade goods back up the river.

Along with trade goods, the Hudson Bay Company provided Bibles, catechisms and religious instruction.  Many of the Voyagers, particularly those of Iroquois heritage, were Catholics as were many Northwest Company Canadians.  They brought religious instruction to tribes, often with the help of the chiefs.  Fur men married native women and many settled near Fort Vancouver or across the Columbia in the Willamette Valley.  Not until 1838 did Jesuit priests, Rev. Modeste Demers and Rev. Francis Blanchet travel from the Red River Valley to the Northwest to serve this population.

Over the next 8 years of intense activity with encouragement from the Hudson Bay Company, missions were established throughout the region.  In 1946 the Boundary Agreement between the United States and Canada forced the Hudson Bay Company to move its operations North to Fort Shepherd, on the west side of the Columbia just north of the mouth of the Pend Oreille river.  Religion remained predominantly Catholic in the region with strong ties to the Portland area.

Another great influence with its roots in the Fur Trade era was the trade in botanicals.  The most famous collector of new plant species was David Douglas.  A very good account of his activities is available at HistoryLink.org.  He was among several collectors aided in their efforts by the Hudson Bay Company.  An unintended consequence of the dissemination of non-native plants and animals around the world is that they often become runaway environmental disasters in environments with no natural predators.  The intense interest in these new species many of which were being discovered by Charles Darwin in the same time period, led to publication of The Origin of the Species in 1859 and the beginning of the science of evolution.

The Boundary Agreement slowly began to take effect as the 49th parallel was being surveyed by crews from both Canada and the United States.  But the discovery of gold in the Columbia near present-day Waneta in 1852 by an employee of the Hudson Bay Company precipitated a gold rush following on that of the 49ers in California.  Eventually the rush moved on into Southern British Columbia but in its wake it left boom towns, conflicts with native tribes, problems with liquor, the need for fortifications, US soldiers, Chinese Minors and a flood of  pioneers and immigrants from the east.