The significance of the Fur Trade Era to later mining development on the Columbia was the establishment of the first permanent European settlements in the Northwest, and the improvement of the Aboriginals’ trails for use by pack stock, and on the Columbia Plateau by wagon.    Not less important, the question of sovereignty was finally resolved, and a border was surveyed and monumented, dividing the Northwest into American territory and British.

In September, 1805, in an eerie coincidence, the Columbia drainage was being entered by two parties almost simultaneously.   The Canadian fur traders, under Simon Fraser of the Northwest Company of Montreal, were entering  through Howse Pass in the Rockies, while five hundred miles to the south, Lewis and Clark were crossing Lehmi Pass to enter the Salmon River watershed for the Americans.    The Americans returned east the following year to report to their government, but the Northwesters under Fraser and James Thompson stayed, establishing  year-round trading posts from Fort St James in the north to Kullyspell in Montana and Spokan House in present Washington.

The immense distances the furs had to be transported on mens’ backs across the Rockies and by canoe down the rivers and lakes to Lake Superior at Fort William, prompted the Canadian company to find an outlet to the Pacific where furs might be carried back to Montreal in ships and supplies sent out.   In 1811, David Thompson, for the Northwest Company, set out to find that route to the Pacific.   In June 1811, he left Kootenai House near lake Windermere on the Canadian Upper Columbia, and traveled south along the great Rocky Mountain Trench and the Kootenay River to where Jennings, Montana is today.  From there the party took the Flathead Indian  trail south to Saleesh House on the Clark Fork River.   Spokan House was reached in a few days, and from there Thompson and his men took the Indian trail to Kettle Falls on the Columbia River.   They paused there to build  a boat, embarked and descended the Columbia to the Pacific.    At the river’s mouth they found the fort of John Astor’s American Pacific Fur Company which had been established from the sea from New York. 

The question of sovereignty was ticklish.   The Europeans coveted land anywhere, aboriginally occupied or not.   Spain claimed as far north as the Russian settlements at latitude 57º North.   The British claimed on the basis of Captains Cook and Vancouver’s explorations of the coast and Lieutenant Boughton’s ascent of the Columbia as far as present Vancouver, Washington.    The American expansionists cited the explorations of Lewis and Clark and the discovery of the mouth of the Columbia by the American Captain Gray. 

  On the ground, at Fort Astoria, the two parties, David Thompson for the Canadians, and David Stuart (also a Canadian in the employ of Astor) for the American company, being both practical men rather than political zealots, sensibly decided to cooperate and trade jointly.

Stuart moved up the Columbia with his men that year, trading as they went.    They found the Indians well disposed and eager to trade.   At the mouth of the Wenatchee River they traded one yard of calico and two yards of ribbon for four horses, and found Chief Sop eager to trade even more horses.   Stuart founded Fort Okanogan two miles above the confluence of the Okanagan and Columbia rivers and left trader Ross there.   With the rest of his men he ascended the Okanagan, and crossed over the low divide to the South Thompson.   At the confluence of the north and south Thompson rivers he established a post, calling it Fort Kamloops.   A few weeks later a party of Northwesters established their Fort Kamloops close nearby.   Sending most of his party back to Astoria, Stuart and Montigny wintered at Kamloops, Ross at Okanagan.     Trading was brisk and enormously profitable.  In the 188 days Ross remained at Fort Okanagan, he took in 1550 beaver skins worth $12,000 at the Canton, China market at a cost in trade goods of $175.     The Northwest fur trade, the Astorians discovered, was hugely profitable and worth a contest with the Northwest Company.    

David Thompson returned up the Columbia to the Snake River and ascended it to the mouth of the Palouse.   From there he took the Indian trail to the Spokane River and turned west again to Kettle Falls, reaching it on August 28.    Finan Mc Donald had been up the Columbia from Kettle Falls as far as present Revelstoke, but there was still that stretch of the river from the Illecillewat River to Boat Encampment to be explored.   On September 2, Thompson, with 8 canoes of Sinixt Indians began the last leg of his journey.   The first night the party camped somewhere above the site of present Northport, Washington .  On the next day they got as far as Murphy Creek in B.C.   On September 5 they camped at present Castlegar, getting as far as Deer Park the next day.   On the 7th they entered Lower Arrow Lake, and paddled to a campsite somewhere below Edgewood.   All of Thompson’s campsites were most probably the established camps of the Indians in his party.  The Sinixt Indian families had long established summer fishing grounds and camps along the Arrow Lakes.   September 8 the party camped in “the Narrows,” possibly Burton or Mosquito Creek.   Thompson and his men entered Upper Arrow Lake on the next day and got as far as Halcyon.   One the 10th they cleared the Upper Lake and camped somewhere along the river above Arrowhead.   On the next day they reached the Illecillewat at present Revelstoke.   The river above Revelstoke had rapids and white water, and their progress was slowed.   Probably they lined the canoes through the worst of the water.  They camped somewhere near Eight Mile Creek.   On the 13th Thompson reported “a hard day,”making 12 miles, passing through Steamboat Rapids, and camping near Carnes Creek. The next day they passed Downie Creek at noon and then had to ascend or line through Death Rapids (Thompson says negotiating it with “care and safety”) where so many voyageurs and miners would be drowned in succeeding years.   By September 18 they were back at Boat Encampment and Thompson made a short exploratory trip up the Canoe River to examine the country for its fur potential.   Then it was time to head back on foot across the Rockies for supplies and trading goods.

The pragmatic cooperation between the Northwest Company men and Astor’s traders was destroyed the very next year by the news that the War of 1812 had broken out between the British and the Americans.   With war, the men at Astoria felt threatened.  The British had warships in the Pacific, the Americans none.   British naval ships could blockade any American post, preventing  furs from being shipped.   If that happened,. the Astorians were ready to abandon the Fort, and try to take what furs they had back across the Rockies on foot.

The Northwest Company, taking advantage of the state of war, had sent out its ship the Isaac Todd, armed with cannon as a privateer, to sail around the Horn and capture Fort Astoria.

At the same time, the Northwester, John Stuart, came down the Columbia with 70 men to camp

opposite Fort Astoria and wait for the Isaac Todd with her guns.   With the Northwesters at their gates, and the Isaac Todd expected any week, the Astorians, most of whom were Canadians recruited from the Northwest Company, considered a third option.   On the 16th of October, 1813, the men of the American Pacific Fur Company sold Fort Astoria with all of its furs and supplies to the Northwesters for $80,000 in credit notes.    Most of its men then promptly joined their former employer, the Northwest Company.  Astoria was promptly renamed, “Fort George,” and became a Northwest Company post.

This pragmatic solution was to be shortly undone by a glory-seeking British Navy Captain.  Captain Black sailed his frigate, HMS Raccoon, into the mouth of the Columbia two weeks later to “capture” Fort Astoria.   What he found was disappointing to a glory-hungry Naval Captain; a shabby log fort, already British, squatting in the mud at the edge of an impenetrable forest.   “Why I could batter it down with my guns in two hours,” he wrote.   Nevertheless, he came ashore with his marines, took formal possession in the King’s name, raised a flagpole, hoisted the Union Jack, fired a salute, and broke a bottle of wine against the pole.    This was supposed to solemnize the occasion, but the thoughts of the thirsty

Northwesters as they saw the precious wine trickling into the mud could scarcely have been  solemn.

This formal act of Captain Black converted a simple commercial transaction into a “seizure,” an “Act of War,” and was to have serious consequences.    The Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, provided for “Status quo ante;”  all military conquests were to be returned to their original owners, and the Americans prodded by Jacob Astor, were insistent on having Astoria restored to them.    Thus, the British lost the only post south of the Columbia, and with it, any claims to territory south of the river.


The Northwest Company had been formed in Montreal in 1763 to take over the French  Quebecers’ fur trade which had fallen into disarray after the French defeat at the Plains of Abraham.   Its principals were Scots Jacobite noblemen obliged to flee their homeland after their defeat at the battle of Culloden in 1745.   Many were Catholic; all bitterly hated the British.     The rival London based Hudson’s Bay Company had a Royal Charter awarding it a monopoly on trade in all lands draining into Hudson’s Bay.   The Northwesters had begun by moving legally  into those areas south of the Height of Land where the HBC had no exclusive rights.    Gradually, following the beaver, the Northwesters began to invade the territory the HBC considered it own, and set up rival posts.   The HBC countered by sending its trappers south to the Missouri river and west to the Rockies, at that time claimed by Spain.   

The HBC was a trading company on the model of the East India Company, caste-bound and exclusively British.   Its traders had to be white, gentlemen, and of good family.    All others, French, Metis, Iroquois, were the company’s indentured servants, and could never rise to the rank of Trader.    The Northwesters, on the other hand, were a more egalitarian group, each one of whom was a shareholder in the company and partook of its profits.    A young man, even one of mixed blood, could enter as a clerk and rise by diligence to the the rank of Trader.    The Northwesters to a man hated the English, and by sharp trading, and physical harassment, tried to drive the HBC posts out of the areas they coveted.   The HBC responded by encouraging the Aboriginals, who had some reason to resent the Northwester’s sharp trading practices, to raid their fur brigades and steal their furs, which the HBC would then buy.   In the lands between Lake Superior and the Rockies a kind of post-Jacobite war between Scots and English continued, with no government in place to put a stop to it.   

West of the Rockies was peace.  This was Northwest Company’s preserve; the HBC had no posts on the Pacific Slope.    The furs from “New Caledonia,” the lands north of the Thompson River, went out across Athabaska Pass over the Rockies, and by canoe down the rivers through HBC territory to Fort William on Lake Superior.   From there, large boats carried them down the lakes to Montreal.   

Furs from “Columbia,” the lands south of the Thompson, went down the Columbia River to Fort George (Astoria) where they were loaded on the Isaac Todd.   It was the Isaac Todd on one of her supply trips to Fort George that brought the first white woman to the Northwest.    Jane Barnes was an adventurous barmaid from Portsmouth, England, seeking a well to do husband.   In this endeavour, she shipped aboard one of the supply voyages of the Isaac Todd as the mistress of one of its officers.    At Fort George, however,  she found herself scorned by the Northwesters who found her pretensions to be a great lady simply because she was the only lady, ridiculous.   The pragmatic Northwesters much preferred to take Indian wives who conferred valuable trading alliances to various tribes in the area.   Finding the Fort George Scots more concerned with the trading advantages of a marriage than romance, the indignant Miss Barnes left Fort George with the Isaac Todd, to disembark in Hong Kong where she married a wealthy Englishman.

The Isaac Todd circled the globe on every voyage.   Leaving Montreal with a cargo of provisions and trader’s goods, she called at Fort George to resupply the traders and take on the year’s harvest of furs.   She then sailed to Hong Kong and Canton where the best and showiest furs could be traded for tea and porcelain ware.    From China, the Isaac Todd sailed to England to disembark the remainder of her furs and take on a cargo of trade goods, a good deal of alcohol included.    At Montreal she loaded up with provisions, potatoes, flour, dried cod,and set out again for Fort George.

In the Boundary Treaty of 1819, the Americans and the British, neither feeling strong enough to oust the other, agreed on a dual sovereignty for the Northwest, with citizens of both nations free to enter and to trade.    The Aboriginals, essential parties to this trade, were not, of course, consulted.    With this treaty the  Spanish claims were settled.   It fixed the northern boundary of Mexico from the Pacific to the Rockies at latitude 42º North, the present northern boundary of California, Nevada and Utah.

This anomalous situation of dual sovereignty with non interference in Aboriginal affairs continued without the shadow of a government presence by either country, and was broken only by rare visits of naval vessels along the coast, “showing the flag.”   Peace was kept and a sort of rude order maintained by dialogs between the traders and the chiefs of the various Indian nations.

Troubles erupted only along the coastline where the Northwest Company had no presence, and where American independent trading vessels (“The Bostons,” as the Indians called them) were guilty of depredations among the coastal Indians.   Their practice was to demand that the Indians trade; if they refused, they were harassed and their villages burned under the cannon of the trading ships.   From these abuses, a pervasive Indian hostility toward the “Boston Men” developed that was to last well into the mining era. 

East of the Rockies, a virtual civil war between the two companies had developed, Scots against Englishmen, with the British under Lord Selkirk settling Scots farmers in the Red River Colony.   As the Colony with its fort, blocked the Northwester’s supply route from Fort William, open warfare broke out.   Lord Selkirk’s Colony was attacked, burnt and destroyed by the Northwesters.   It was reoccupied and rebuilt by the Britishers, only to be sacked again.   The Governor General of the Canadas was obliged to send in British troops to arrest the leaders on both sides.   To compel peace, the Colonial Office in 1821 required the two companies to unite.   The Northwest Company was folded into the HBC with each Northwester receiving one HBC share.   The new HBC was then given official warrant to extend its operations to the Pacific.

The reason the HBC was selected to take over the Northwest Company was the British distrust of the Montreallers. The Colonial Office could see that in the Northwest, the sovereignty issue with the Americans was bound to come to a head.   It felt that it was essential that a London company, wholly British controlled, should be the commercial entity in this contentious region. The Montreallers were not trusted by the British; they shipped their furs to New York, not London.    Many of them had built mansions in New York with their profits, and all were on excellent terms with the Americans.   It was feared in London that the Northwest Company might well, for commercial reasons, make common cause with the Americans and lose the Northwest to the Yankees.    Therefore they had to be brought under direct British supervision.  Whether this might have happened is unclear; the point was the British thought it might, and an alliance between disaffected Scots and Americans would be dangerous for all of Canada in the British view.

The augmented HBC chose George Simpson to be its Governor in Chief in North America.   Simpson was a cold, harsh man, unpleasant in person, but a whirlwind of energy.    He at once made a tour of the Northwest and instituted thoroughgoing changes.    Some posts that had not been productive were closed, new ones in promising territory were opened, and a first  program of agriculture begun.   The posts were now to grow their own food and not depend on costly foodstuffs shipped out from Britain or Montreal on the Isaac Todd.   

In the 1830s the American expansionists were clamoring for the annexation of the Oregon Territory, as they called the entire Northwest.    Governor Simpson, along with his London  masters, foresaw that in any division of territory, the lands south of the Columbia would most likely fall to the Americans.   He therefore closed the indefensible Fort George (though returned to the Americans, Jacob Astor chose not to reopen it as a trading post, and the British had continued their trade out of an American post) on the south bank of the river, and founded a new headquarters for the Columbia Department at Fort Vancouver, 50 miles upstream and on the north bank, opposite the mouth of the Willamette.   The Columbia Department was placed in charge of the Canadian born, former Northwester, Dr. John Mc Loughlin.    Archibald Mc Donald took over at Fort Colvile on the upper Columbia where the Basin grasslands gave way to the northern forests.     William Connolly was in charge of the New Caledonia Department at Fort St James.  All these former Northwesters who liked to live well, had to be chivvied and verbally harassed by Governor Simpson to bring their establishments into line with the much more frugal and self sufficient style of the HBC.

Simpson also had to deal with the American trappers who were now beginning to cross the Rockies and take furs from that same Northwest territory which was by agreement, open to both nations.   Governor Simpson conceived the plan of trapping out the western slope of the Rockies, to render it bare of furs, thus discouraging American entry.   To undertake this dangerous and ticklish task of trapping out the headwaters of the Snake River and the western slopes of the Rockies under the harassment of the Americans, Simpson chose wild Peter Ogden, a Northwester who had skipped west across the Rockies in 1821 to avoid a murder warrant.   “That dangerous fellow, Ogden,” was sent on five successive expeditions to create a beaverless strip around the eastern and southern reaches of the Northwest.   Such expeditions were not without great danger; the American trappers were encountered, and chose to believe the Northwest was American soil, regardless of international conventions.   An uneasy hostility resulted, but both groups were restrained by the presence of superior numbers of Indians.   In a pinch, the whites would stick together. 

Simpson’s scheme worked.   After a few years the American fur traders were discouraged; the HBC bought their Fort Hall (near Pocotello) from them in 1837.    However, a rush of land hungry settlers was something Governor Simpson had not counted on.   Over the trails blazed by Peter Ogden and the American fur traders (“The Oregon Trail”), they came, to settle in the Willamette Valley, south of the Columbia.    The HBC tried to counter this by sending out its own  party of French Canadian settlers, company employees.   But the French Canadians quickly had enough of the autocratic Governor Simpson and the class-conscious  British.   They threw in their lot with the Americans, and settled in the Willamette Valley, south of the Columbia.

The new American settlers at once petitioned their government to annex Oregon.   Jingoist politicians in the East and Midwest took up the cry, and demanded all the lands up to the Russian line at 57º North.    President Polk, elected on an expansionist platform, declared American title to the Northwest was “clear and unquestionable.”   This stunning repudiation of the treaty of 1819 left the British thunderstruck.   Negotiations over a division of the Northwest between the Americans and the British government began in 1846.    The HBC had proposed in 1825 a line that ran down the Rockies from the 49th parallel, cut east through Missoula to headwaters of the Clearwater River, then down to the Snake and Columbia.   In 1846 the British were willing to settle for less, a line along the 49th parallel to the Columbia River, and down the Columbia to the Pacific.   This was reasonable; it placed all of the British occupied and administered area with Britain, and the American settled areas with the Americans.    The Americans, however, insisted on a port on Puget Sound.   They threatened war, and demanded the 49th parallel straight to the Pacific, cutting  Vancouver Island in two.

On the ground the American position was weak.   Their “war hawks” had dragged them that year into a war with Mexico.    Their Army was then in Mexico, their navy in the Gulf of Mexico, while a  British naval squadron cruised the North Pacific facing no opposition.   Had the British stood firm, it is likely they would have got their border down the Columbia. 

However, the British Foreign Secretary at this time was a pacifist idealist, Lord Aberdeen, determined, like Neville Chamberlain a century later, to appease the belligerent Americans with territory he chose to believe was of no importance to Britain.     Aberdeen got the Americans to draw their line around the southern tip of Vancouver Island and then gave them their boundary and everything north of the Columbia up to 49º north.    The day the news that treaty was signed in Washington, the British Government fell.   The supine Aberdeen was replaced by a spirited Palmerston who would have certainly gone to war rather than concede British occupied and administered territory.    But the deed was done and a furious Governor Simpson, would have to live with it.

With the drawing of the line, the HBC moved its headquarters and depot to a new Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island.   By the treaty the HBC was empowered to continue to operate its posts and to own land in the new Oregon Territory.    The Fur Trade, however was diminishing., demand for beaver was down.    In 1844, some Florentine hatters produced the first black silk top hat.   It was an instant success.  Silk hats were the fashion all over Europe, and the beaver hat became gradually obsolete.   Vagaries in fashion, as well as politics, were determining the future of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Beginning with Governor Simpson’s decrees that each HBC post should become self sufficient in food, the company was now developing an agricultural enterprise.    HBC produced grain, potatoes, dried salmon, cattle, horse, coal, and lumber.    Simpson had noted the absence of refrigeration in San Francisco and beef rotting before it could be sold.   With characteristic energy, he chartered a number of ships and sent them north to the Gulf of Alaska where the seamen chopped loads of ice from the glaciers and icebergs.   The HBC sold this ice to San Francisco butchers.

  In 1848 the HBC set up the first sawmill in Victoria to supply local needs.   Captain Grant and others were beginning an export trade in Douglas Fir logs for spars and masts.   The British Admiralty had tested a shipment of Douglas Fir in 1847 for naval use and found the new species superior to any available in Europe.   In 1860 the Anderson Mill was set up at the head of Alberni Inlet, producing Douglas Fir lumber exclusively for export.   In order to offset the $1 per thousand board feet duty the Americans imposed, the HBC, controlling all resources, lowered its royalty on timber accordingly to allow the Anderson mill to compete in the U.S. market.   This would set the future pattern for the export oriented timber industry in British Columbia; to this day American import regulations determine timber royalties for the B.C. government.   

These HBC products found eager markets in Hawaii, San Francisco, and with the new American settlements on Puget Sound.   All this mercantile trade was kept as a monopoly by the HBC, however, under its amended charter of 1821.   Actually, quite illegally, since the HBC monopoly by proclamation extended only to trade with the Aboriginals.   

With all of Governor Simpson’s energy, and following him, the vigour and determination of Governor James Douglas, the HBC never quite fully converted itself to a mercantile establishment.   Its traders and officials all felt themselves a kind of British Proconsuls charged with bringing orderly rule to a wild and distant land.   Customers in want of supplies, might come to the HBC posts where their wants would be accommodated, but no HBC man would stoop to deliberately soliciting their trade; that was Yankee pushiness, and beneath the dignity of a Royally chartered institution.    

The new government in Britain realized that the ambiguous situation of the lands north of the 49th parallel  continued to make them vulnerable to the American doctrine of “Manifest Destiny” and the U.S. political expansionists.    These lands were not politically organized parts of the empire, but merely British claims, “possessions.”  Accordingly, in 1849, Vancouver Island, but not the mainland, was created a British Crown Colony.   At the same time, so as not to make it a drain on the British Exchequer, it was granted entirely to the Hudson’s Bay Company on the condition that the company establish a settlement of British colonists.   All the island land became HBC property to sell or lease.    In this way the Empire gained a colony but left the expense of its maintenance and administration to a private corporation.    It was a cheap solution, but ultimately unwise.    In those first ten years of its existence, the Colony of Vancouver Island, poor and isolated, with its handful of HBC officers and servants, functioned in fact as a hinterland of San Francisco which was its principal commercial partner.

  All that was to change in September, 1854.    While Peter Ogden, that wildest and most intrepid of the Northwesters, lay dying in his Oregon home where he had deliberately retired out of British control, an HBC teamster, Joseph Morell and his companions at the Fort Colvile HBC post, found gold in the gravel bars along the Columbia River. 


5 thoughts on “THE MINING ERA OF THE CANADIAN COLUMBIA by Bill Laux – Chapter 3

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