Chapter 13. The Farthest West

13.4 The Canadian Cordillera

David Thompson (1770-1857) is famous for two accomplishments: his work as an explorer and surveyor (which includes crossing the continent and descending the Columbia River to its mouth, as well as mapping a prodigious amount of North America) and for having the longest marriage on record in the history of pre-Confederation Canada (58 years).

Thompson was raised in poverty in London, indentured to the HBC at 14 years, and spent much of the rest of his life in the fur trade. In 1797 he literally walked away from his job with the HBC, trudging 80 miles in the snow from one trading post to another where he took up work with the NWC. It was in his capacity as a surveyor for the Montrealers that he was dispatched to the far west in 1806 in order to block American plans to exploit the route mapped by Lewis and Clark, and to access the sea otter resources that had been enriching fur traders from other nations.

Thompson arrived at the mouth of the Columbia on July 14, 1811, only to find Astor’s crew of Americans and defected Nor’westers already on the scene, building Fort Astoria. Their arrival preceded Thompson’s by a few months, but events in the east were to catch up with the Astorians. The War of 1812 would result in the loss of much of Astor’s operations in the Great Lakes and in the far west, to the benefit of the NWC.

The NWC in the Interior

The Montrealers purchased Astoria and its tributary posts in 1813 and changed the name to Fort George. They then renewed and extended a chain of forts up the Columbia with one branch heading east through the Arrow Lakes to the southern Prairies and the other through the Okanagan Valley to Tk’əmlúps (aka Kamloops), where they established Thompson Rivers Post in place of the PFC’s Fort Cumcloups. This early land-based fur trade was, thus, linked back to Canada and not to Britain. On the ground the NWC in the farthest west was mostly Canadien, not Canadian, with a large and growing share of Métis women as well. Regardless of its Laurentian links, it was very much a British claim nevertheless.

One of Thompson’s contemporaries in the NWC, Simon Fraser (1776-1862), made a comparable assault on the far west in 1803-1808. Fraser came to Canada from New York as a child in the Loyalist diaspora, but he was conscious of his ancestral Scottish roots. While in the north he applied the name “New Caledonia” to the region, which later would have a broader use, covering much of what is now British Columbia. Before descending the river that now bears his name, Fraser’s expedition, made up of mostly Canadiens, Métis, and some Iroquois, established a chain of posts that included Fort St. James and Fort George (later Prince George). In 1808 the voyageurs took on the river, stopping briefly at Camchin (Lytton) where the Nlaka’pamux impressed them with their hospitality, their string of about 1,000 ponies, and a robust human population of roughly 1,200. Fraser and his crew carried on to near the mouth of the river where they irritated the Musqueam (a.k.a. Xwméthkwiyem or xʷməθkʷəy̓əm), who chased them back up the river. Regardless of Fraser’s failure to complete his mission, he had laid the groundwork for the northern leg of a chain of forts that would complete the link between Fort George of the north and Fort George of the south (formerly Fort Astoria) and British North America. This was the setup that the HBC inherited in 1821.

Fur trade society in New Caledonia and the Columbia District was consistent in many respects with personnel and practices east of the Rockies: Canadiens and Iroquois provided much of the muscle while direction was in the hands of a closely connected set of Anglo-Scots-Canadians and their métis or native wives. After the merger in 1821, the HBC’s structure made these distinctions even more apparent: the chief traders and factors were all drawn from the Anglo-Protestant side of the house while the voyageurs and traders were overwhelmingly Canadien, Métis, and Iroquois. Hierarchical social stations were reinforced through a dress code, the layout of the forts, and the size and state of employee accommodations. This sort of physical display of paternalistic rank was intended to impress upon the “servants” of the HBC their relative position; it was also ritualized in ways to impress the Aboriginal trading partners.

The Interior posts were remarkably fragile. At the far end of supply lines originating in Montreal or perhaps even London, they were vulnerable to any number of events that might delay or prevent the arrival of food, gunpowder, clothing, and trade goods. Every one of the inland forts at some time or another depended heavily on local salmon fisheries, all of which were zealously controlled by Aboriginal peoples. And they were isolated from one another: boats could make it down the Columbia from the lower Okanagan (south of the 49th parallel) to the sea and canoe travel that was possible between Alexandria in the Cariboo to Stuart’s Lake in the north, but all of the rest required packhorses. Famine was common, as was the consequent eating of horses and dogs.[1] According to one historian,

New Caledonia (mainland British Columbia) was particularly despised for its “misery and privation” and “poverty of fare.” Chief Factor John Tod recalled that in HBC Governor George Simpson’s Day (1820-1860) the district was “looked on in the light of another Botany Bay Australia; the men were in dread of being send there.”[2]

Fines, beatings, and jailings were part of life in the forts of the far west. Relations with the Aboriginal neighbours and trading partners were also often characterized by brutality.[3]

Obviously the Interior trade was not concerned with sea otters. Whatever was brought in at the Columbia River posts was part of the package sent northeast to Hudson Bay each spring, but beaver, wolf, wolverine, muskrat, and a great variety of other hides came from the inland posts. As for imported goods from European and Euro-North American sources, there was the usual stock of rifles and shot, blankets and axe heads. There was also a thriving trade in leather: whether for ecological reasons or due to overhunting, the Interior Plateau was home to few large mammals, so the import of moose, deer, elk, and bison hide was quickly regarded as essential. As one study states, “in the 1827-28 outfit year, New Caledonia required two thousand fathoms [3650 metres] of pack cords, seventy bounds of babiche [string], and thirty pounds of sinews.”[4]

The HBC on the Coast

The newly unified HBC after 1821 had growing concerns regarding the leakage of furs from the Interior to the coast, where they fetched higher prices. As well, the company under the leadership of George Simpson wanted to improve its position on the coastal market. So long as First Nations trading villages were prepared to wait for two or more competing vessels to arrive in port before initiating trade, they would be able to play off the newcomers against one another and drive up prices. American ships in particular were prepared to pay premium prices for furs, a practice that was hurting the HBC bottom line.

The solution to this was the establishment of land-based trade in centres that would entail a shift from a maritime-based trade strategy. The HBC established regional headquarters at Fort Vancouver in 1824-25 and at Fort Langley among the Stó:lō and Kwantlen in 1827. Two successive forts, both named Fort Simpson, were erected in Ts’msyan territory in 1831 and 1834, Fort McLoughlin was built on Heiltsuk lands in 1833, and Fort Taku (a.k.a. Fort Durham) in 1830 and Fort Stikine in 1840 were both in Lingít (Tlingit) territory. The north coast posts were intended to provide a permanent trading presence in the hope that a deeper commitment to the locale, better intelligence on the marketplace and supply lines, and lowered costs (due to an end to wandering trading vessels) would result in higher profits. By the late 1830s the strategy was deemed a success. American shipping and competition in the region declined sharply.

This had two collateral effects.  First, the Russians in Alaska were affected. The Lingít nation of what is often referred to as the Alaska panhandle resented Russian posts and resisted their presence in a long-running war. In the absence of friendly local suppliers and faced with intolerably long supply lines back to Russia, the Russian American Company purchased foodstuffs from American captains. Second, the Americans, for their part, could only afford to pay high prices for sea otter and beaver if their costs were covered by Russian purchases of groceries.[5] The new forts were intended to be self-sufficient and to produce a food surplus that could be sold to the Russian forts cheaply. This cut directly into the American coasters’ trade, removed them from the northwest coast equation, and made the Russians dependent on the HBC.

Whatever the forts may or may not have become over time, the agenda of the HBC was never colonization. That was something forced upon them by the Colonial Office in the 1850s; the HBC was simply interested in business on the coast. However much fur trade society might have been evolving within the walls of the forts along the coast, there is no denying that they were little citadels. A description of Fort Simpson from 1850 provides a sense of the traders living uncomfortably in Aboriginal territory:

The gates were massive structures about six or seven inches thick, studded with large nails, to guard against their being cut down by the natives. There were small doors within so as to admit only one person at a time…. The pickets surrounding the establishment were of cedar, about twenty-two feet long by nine to twelve inches thick; they were square internally, to prevent bullets from passing between…. An inside gallery ran around the whole enclosure of pickets at about four feet from the top, and afforded a capital promenade and a means of seeing everything…. A regular watch was kept all night in a small turret, surrounded by the flagstaff, over the gate.[6]

Fort Simpson was conceptualized by HBC Governor George Simpson as a means of starving out Russian and American traders in the region. Even if the returns on investment were not especially good, at least the furs traded at Lax Kw’alaams and from upcountry sources were not finding their way into the hands of competitors. Certainly the size of the traffic at the fort suggests the strategy was working: in 1841 roughly 14,000 Aboriginal people — mostly Ts’msyan but also Haida — came to Fort Simpson, and about 800 Ts’msyan formed the homeguard.[7]

While Governor Simpson played a very direct role in choosing a direction for British trade on the coast, the day-to-day operations and initiatives came from officers, Canadiens, and Métis. These were the people who forged relationships with the local people, and whose marriages to indigenous women changed their circumstances. As Cole Harris points out, “As time went on, they learned Native languages and had kin in Native villages.”[8] Fur trade society on the coast and in the Interior was invariably made up of women and men who had travelled across great distances, who had witnessed incredible landscapes and hardship, whose mothers may have spoken Cree, and whose fathers may have lived in stone houses in Montreal. The local women drawn into these relationships were often part of the local nobility and so came from backgrounds of some privilege. The company might object from time to time — after all, more marriages with Native women meant more profitless gift-giving to their families — but even Simpson perceived these arrangements as loss leaders, a cost that would be repaid with security and a guarantee of trade.

Innovation and adaptation spread to business as well. Trade on the West Coast presented opportunities to handle different goods in different markets. Salmon, flour, and lumber were wanted in Hawaii and furs had markets in Guangzhou and London. The profits from the fur trade amassed in London and Montreal, not in the HBC’s trading posts on the Pacific; what they needed in return for their exports included sugar, molasses, tobacco, and salt in particular.[9] The sustainability of any of the northwest coast forts was a stretch until the 1840s, certainly were it not for the support of Aboriginal traders.

An Account of Trading at Fort Simpson in the 1830s

The Indians coming from distant parts to this fort, have large canoes, from thirty to fifty feet long.… Besides containing numerous Indians, their canoes are piled up with goods for barter. They remain mustered here for some weeks, making the fort a complete fair. It requires strict and good management, at this time, by the companies of officers, to protect the fort. On landing at the fort, their canoes are piled up in large heaps, covered over with mats, to keep the sun from cracking them. They bring provisions with them, to last during their stay and journey home. Feasts are given by the chiefs; and invitations sent regularly round to the different guests. Should any of the officers of the fort be invited, stools are placed by the side of the fire, covered over with cloth and fine calico; and they are introduced with great ceremony – the chiefs standing to receive them. Skins are given, as presents, to the officers; and in the course of a day or two, the trader returns the compliment, by making them presents of British manufactured clothing.

– John Dunn, History of the Oregon territory and British North-American fur trade;with an Account of the Habits and Customs of the Principal Native Tribes on the Northern Continent (London: Edwards and Hughes, 1844): 281-2.[10]

Key Points

  • The NWC’s presence in New Caledonia and events in the War of 1812 led to the temporary elimination of American interests from the Columbia District and the Canadianizing of a chain of fur trade posts from the mouth of the Columbia north through the Okanagan, the Cariboo, and the Peace District as well as through the Arrow Lakes.
  • New Caledonia was considered by many in the NWC/HBC as a hardship post.
  • The HBC’s post-1821 strategy of building trading posts on the coast was intended to intercept furs headed from the Interior to the maritime-based trade for higher prices.
  • The HBC’s land-based coastal trade strategy broke the back of American seaborne trade and crippled the Russian traders’ business model.
  • Fur trade society west of the Rockies witnessed extensive intermarriage in the context of an often marginal trade. The HBC diversified in the 1830s and 1840s and did more to connect the peoples of the Pacific Northwest with those of Hawaii and China.

  1. Tina Loo, Making Law, Order and Authority in British Columbia, 1821-1871 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), 28-9.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Cole Harris, The Resettlement of British Columbia: Essays on Colonialism and Geographical Change (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997), 44.
  4. James R. Gibson, The Lifeline of the Oregon Country: the Fraser- Columbia Brigade System, 1811-47 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997), 26.
  5. James R. Gibson, "Bostonians and Muscovites on the Northwest Coast, 1788-1841," in British Columbia: Historical Readings, eds. W. Peter Ward and Robert A.J. McDonald (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1981), 77.
  6. Captain David Wishart quoted in Daniel Clayton, "Geographies of the Lower Skeena," in Home Truths: Highlights from BC History, eds. Richard Mackie and Graeme Wynn (Madeira Park: Harbour, 2012), 111.
  7. Richard Mackie, Trading Beyond the Mountains: The British Fur Trade on the Pacific, 1793-1843 (Vancouver, UBC Press, 1997), 129.
  8. Cole Harris, The Resettlement of British Columbia: Essays on Colonialism and Geographical Change (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997), 47.
  9. Mackie, Trading Beyond the Mountains, 250-3.
  10. Quoted in Ibid., 130-1.

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13.4 The Canadian Cordillera by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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