THE MINING ERA ON THE CANADIAN COLUMBIA
“One must take the trouble to find out what is peculiar in each nation; and do it without being infected by its greed. One must stand apart, a devotee of none, but profoundly and honestly interested in all of them.”
The Columbia River and it tributaries drain the mountainous southeast corner of British Columbia, an area roughly the size of Nova Scotia or the state of Maine. This triangular region, of some 26,000 square miles, comprising the present East and West Kootenay districts plus the Boundary District, is closed off by the Rocky Mountains on the east and the Monashee Mountains on the west and north. Only to the south, along the international boundary, does the Kootenay-Boundary region lie open to easy entry up the river valleys which drain its mountain slopes. Within this great triangle, moated by the encircling Kootenay and Columbia Rivers, the space is wholly filled by closely spaced, north-south trending mountain ranges, from east to west the Selkirks, the Purcells, the Valhallas, and the Rossland and Boundary Ranges of the Monashees, with their intervening lakes and river valleys. It is a folded and crumpled landscape of high, forested mountains, and deep, narrow valleys with but very few riparian strips suitable for farming. With scant agricultural potential, and formidably difficult of access, except from the U.S., it has always been one of the hinterlands of British Columbia. Indeed, it should have remained as empty as the Omineca, but for one circumstance it contained rich deposits of valuable minerals.
Had it not been for the presence of gold, silver, copper, and coal in quantity, costly mountain railways would never have been built into Kootenay-Boundary. Nor would the Americans have been interested in entering this isolated region to prospect and mine. Without the mineral wealth which brought the railways, there would have been no settlement at all, save for perhaps a few ranchers shipping cattle into the Spokane market.
The Mining Era on the Canadian Columbia, the period from 1854 until 1929, was largely American inspired, American financed and supplied. The mineral deposits of the Kootenay and Boundary Districts were close to the border, in some cases straddling it. They were relatively easy of access by American trails, roads, steamer routes, and railroads from the growing inland entrepot of Spokane. Capital to open and develop the mines was available in Spokane at a time when the coastal merchants of British Columbia had turned their backs on the Kootenays after two unfortunate experiences. For them it was a district too isolated behind its mountains, and too dominated by Spokane interests to make it a worthwhile risk for their capital.
Only when Canadian railroads and steamer lines penetrated this mountain-ringed fastness did Canadian and British investors enter to buy back its mining assets from the Americans who had been first on the scene.
The period of American incursion and the great mining boom left its mark on the Kootenay-Boundary. As the automobile era began in 1920, Interior British Columbians were driving on the right hand side of the road, as did the Americans, while motorists in Vancouver and Victoria drove on the left. Kootenay and Boundary families did their Christmas shopping in Spokane, a few hours away by train or down easy roads, rather than take the longer train trip to Vancouver. If an auto trip to the Coast was necessary, one crossed the border, and used the U.S. highways. There was no road connection at all between the Interior and the Coast until 1927.
The easy entry into Interior British Columbia from the U.S., and the commercial aggressiveness of the Americans had always been a matter of anxiety to British Columbia governments, both Colonial and Provincial. From the year the first group of Oregon-bound settlers laboured across the summit of the Blue Mountains in 1820 into the vast basin of the Columbia River, the Colonial officials of the British lands in the Northwest began to fear an American invasion and possible annexation. These armed and often unruly American settlers were steeped in the doctrines of Republicanism, self government, and, especially dangerous in the British view, “Manifest Destiny,” the assertion that Americans alone had some special, quasi-divine right to rule and enlighten the entire North American continent, from the North Pole to Panama, and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. In the mouths of their jingoistic politicians, “Manifest Destiny” became an incitement to military conquest, and a continuing nightmare to the rulers of British North America.
Had the British reflected, they might have seen that “Manifest Destiny” was simply the American version of their own Imperial Doctrine, which held that the English, by virtue of their uniquely stable government, and supposed talent for wise rule, were favoured by God as the prime civilizers and most capable administrators of the globe.
The lands that became the Colony and later the Province of British Columbia never suffered the feared American invasion, but were subject to successive incursions of preponderant numbers of Americans with a single object in view the availability of gold, silver, and copper to the man who would dig it. These sudden rushes of armed and populist Americans across the line, mouthing the slogans of greed, and ruthless exploitation, changed the culture and customs of British Columbia. From a lethargic Crown Colony, with a British Naval Base, ruled and dominated by a single London trading corporation, autocratic, class bound, and unashamedly monopolistic, British Columbia was suddenly plunged into a wild, fast-profit mining economy. Its citizens, influenced by the get rich quick values of San Francisco, became fierce exploiters of the hinterlands, grasping for huge, unrepeatable profits in minerals, fish, timber and ranch lands. The province, for its first fifty years was a turbulent, unruly, scarcely governable region of unrestrained private plunder and official corruption, obsessed by a piratical fever to rush in, seize the resource, and get out swiftly with the gains.
The Colonial Governments were obliged to bend their laws, and even to recast them to accommodate wishes of the overwhelming number of American miners moving onto their soil. Imperial mining laws were revised to conform with those in the U.S. In all but one of the the rushes, Americans outnumbered British fifty to one, and were accustomed to making their own law as they had in California. The Colonials had to accede or risk a confrontation with a superior force. To the horror of the Colonial Office in London, coins were minted of miners’ gold in American denominations. American dollars were the universal medium of commercial exchange, only the Government and the Hudson’s Bay Company kept their accounts in pounds sterling. Further, as the merchants found their own bonanzas in provisioning the successive gold rushes, they actively catered to them, subsidizing ship passage for gold seekers, circulating handbills and advertisements in California and Oregon cities to solicit placer miners, and promising easy and well traveled routes to the gold fields. To accommodate the miners and the B.C. merchants’ efforts to supply them, the government built roads and trails to the mines, and an armed Gold Escort service was maintained to transport the miner’s bullion to the B.C. mint.
The scarcity of arable land and the severe disincentives put in the way of independent agricultural immigration by the Colonial Government prevented the Nineteenth Century province from developing a typically Canadian political base of independent farmers, stable and conservative. Instead, a wholly exploitive society of speculators evolved, not seeking land, but rather its plunderable resources. Miners, gamblers in their souls, later fishers, mining the coastal waters, ranchers, exploiting ever larger acreages of public grasslands, and lumbermen, stripping the mountains of their forests, created the buccaneer values of this isolated Province, values which still dominate its turbulent and murky politics.
The first Colonial Governors had apprehended an American attempt to seize their Colony by force, and discouraged by restrictive legislation, any American immigration which they feared might lead to annexation. The later Governors and Premiers sought to cash in on the gold rushes by advertising them in the manner of a World Fair. Miners, they learned with relief, seldom settled, and could be counted on to safely leave when the gold ran out. Meanwhile they could be provisioned at great profit. This continuing obsession with easy riches, with the high stakes gambles of mining, fishing, and lumbering, left an unacknowledged mark, a looter’s mark, on the consciousness of British Columbians.
In the great railway building era from 1896 until 1916, the Provincial politicians dangled railway charters with huge land grants to entice Americans and Canadians alike to build a railway network into the southeast of the Province to develop the mineral potential there. It became a somewhat cynical game, baiting with grants of cash and lands the American companies to build the lines which would force Canada’s reluctant national railway to extend its own competing tracks into the area. The always commercially aggressive Americans built quickly; the more deliberate Canadian Pacific was forced to respond with tracks of its own.
In the Kootenay-Boundary districts, the American incursion and the inauguration of the mining industry by American capital was chauvinistically forgotten as British and Canadian financiers after 1895 bought back the industry from the Americans, and with the exodus of U.S. mine owners, Kootenay-Boundary society became, for the first time, Canadian, only its distinctively U.S. architecture betraying its origin.
The mining era had brought in the costly railroads to move the ores out and coal and merchandise in. With the decline of mining, the presence of this rail network on the ground encouraged the development of a forest industry utilizing these easy export routes to U.S. markets. In a reversal of mining history, the major forest enterprises begun by Canadians in the 1920s were acquired by American firms in the 1950 – 1990 period. When, as is bound to happen, the profitable timber is gone and the American firms, like their mining companies, leave, the Kootenay- Boundary will likely become another Yukon, living on seasonal tourist catering, and romanticized versions of its past for the entertainment of visitors.
It was the exploitation of minerals, and nothing else, that brought the railways, the population, and supported the tiny pockets of agriculture in this sea of mountains. How that mining era began, flourished and declined, and the changes it wrought along the Columbia, the Kootenay and the Kettle Rivers is the subject of this work.
BEFORE THE EUROPEANS
British Columbia’s attachment to Canada has always been tenuous. Not just politically and socially, but geographically as well. In the almost inconceivable reaches of geological time, some billion years ago, whatever continent existed in the western hemisphere of our globe split apart somewhere west of where the Rocky Mountains are now. In the Northwest, the split ran through what is now the extreme eastern parts of Washington State and British Columbia. Whatever land existed west of that split was rafted off on the fiery mantle of the globe as a tectonic plate, much as a lump of butter skids across a hot griddle. It is believed to have skidded off somewhere to the northwest, and probably became part of Siberia and northern China. We believe that because rocks in eastern Siberia and Northeast China exactly match the rocks of western Canada of the same age, while the present rocks of Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia are a total mismatch with the rest of North America.
After the western continent lost its western portion in this way, the Pacific Ocean, or whatever ocean was out there, lapped at a broad coastal plain where the Rockies are now, probably looking similar to the Atlantic coastal plain of today. For about 800 million years nothing happened, at least nothing we know about. But roughly 200 million years ago, things began to move. The Atlantic Ocean opened, splitting the existing land mass into Europe and North America. The opening of the Atlantic Ocean created the continent of North America and pushed it westward. As the Atlantic Ocean opened, shoving North America west, the Pacific Ocean shrank, and old ocean floor was pushed down under the edge of the westward advancing continent.
When ocean floors are driven down into the hot mantle of the earth, they melt. Ocean floors are composed of all the sand, gravel, and silt that eroded from the hills and mountains, ran down the rivers, and formed beds of sediment under the seas. Along with the sand, clay and silt were the minerals contained in the original mountains, ground fine by their long tumble to the ocean. When these old sea floors were shoved down into the mantle and melted, they were lighter than the surrounding rock since they contained water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. This lighter melt rose through the surrounding heavier rock as lava. The water it contained, at several thousand degrees Centigrade, dissolved the mineral grains, and carried them along with the rock to the surface in plumes of mineral-rich superheated liquid. This boiling soup of water and minerals cooled, and deposited those minerals in fractures of the surrounding rock.. If the surrounding rock were limestone, it acted as a sponge and soaked up the mineral soup. If it were impermeable granite, the minerals were laid down in thin veins. If the rising mineral bearing plume encountered a lake or swamp at the surface, it flattened out and spread as a horizontal bed of mineral enriched lake bottom sediment which, heated from below, slowly turned to stone. In time these new, mineral-rich rocks would be shoved up as mountains. And in time these mountains would in their turn be eroded away, and tumbled down the rivers to form new seabeds. Such beds would, in the fullness of geologic time, be shoved under another moving tectonic plate, and melted, recycling the minerals again into ascending columns of superheated water. The earth constantly recycles its constituents in this way, and will continue to do so. In distant time our junk-choked land fills will be worn away, tumbled into rivers, and the old bottles, tin cans, and wrecked cars distributed as tiny grains of mineral in sea floor sediments. And those grains will eventually be melted and dissolved to plume upward into the surface rocks to be mined all over again by whatever or whomever does the mining, some hundreds of million years from now.
In our area of B.C. and Washington, 200 million years ago, with the swallowing of old sea floors, the western coastal plain was crumpled up and forced against the continent. All its sedimentary rocks now form what is known as the Kootenay Arc, a tightly folded belt of limestone and sandy rocks that marks the former western edge of North America. Underneath, the molten ocean floor with its water and minerals rose toward the surface, forming volcanic vents and bulging up huge masses of granite lying below the old smashed up coastal plain. The great Nelson batholith which underlies most of the central Kootenay, was one of those rising bulges of old ocean crust.
As North America continued to be pushed westward across the globe it encountered whatever islands happened to be in the eastern Pacific at that time. Some were large islands on the order of the size of Japan or Borneo or New Zealand. The collision was very slow, a few inches a year, but the force was immense, so great that these small island continents welded themselves onto North America. The first was the Okanagan micro-continent which welded onto the Kootenay Arc some 100 million years ago. The melting of its basement rocks in the mantle formed a chain of volcanoes which erupted about 50 miles inland all along what are now the Okanagan Highlands and Monashee mountains. A new west coast was formed approximately down the line of the Okanagan Valley and the Columbia River into Oregon.
Fifty million years ago the Cascades micro-continent, was encountered and welded itself onto that Okanagan Coast. Its chain of Cascaded volcanoes, again about 50 miles from the new coast, are still occasionally active today. The next micro-continent to collide, is the present Vancouver Island, moving inexorably toward the mainland at 2 inches a year. Some millions of years onward, when it is welded onto us, it will have its own chain of volcanoes down its spine as well.
It is evident, that geologically considered, British Columbia does not belong to Canada, or even North America, at all. Our land is a collage of large, Pacific Islands, assembled haphazardly onto the continent by welds of once molten rock.
Spookily, our human history reflects the geological record. Isolated in deep and narrow valleys between the old volcano chains, human communication had always been difficult. The Aboriginals, living in their mountain-divided domains, developed some forty different dialects of seven main language groups, a greater diversity than in any other North American region, a mark of the isolation in which they developed.
And we Ex-Europeans of the B. C. Interior today, dotted in small settlements along winding valleys remote from the centers of culture and power, exist, in some ways not unlike aboriginal societies, culturally self sufficient and socially self absorbed, almost as though these were the still wild Pacific Islands, uncertainly joined to an unknown continent. In the depth of winter, even today, with the mountain passes closed or rendered dangerous by snow and avalanches, we inhabit, in our tiny, fragmented colonies, the ancient Pacific night.
At the time of the first European contact with the Aboriginals, the best estimates are that there were perhaps 100,000 Indians living in what is now British Columbia, and perhaps another 100,000 in what now comprise Washington and Oregon. The more northerly forest peoples lived in mountain valleys and pockets of grasslands along the rivers. All these northern Indians subsisted on the plentiful salmon of the rivers and the game of the grasslands. Trails and river corridors permitted trade during the summers with the Indians of the Coast. Winter brought total isolation, and a dependence on stored food.
South of approximately the 48th parallel of latitude, the dense fir and cedar forest gave way to open grassy plains of the semi-arid Columbia Plateau. The grasslands Indians living here had all acquired horses by the end of the Eighteenth Century. The horses of the Mexicans had been spread northwards by persistent Indian trading and theft, and a semi-nomadic horse culture, similar to that of the Great Plains east of the Rockies, was adopted by the Columbia Basin Indians. The ownership of horses allowed annual treks over the Rockies to kill buffalo, the meat being packed back on horses for winter food. North of the 48th parallel, only the Kootenay Indians had horses, as they had extensive grasslands in the East Kootenay to pasture them. Ownership of horses permitted much more trading and intercourse between bands, and the Salish language, with its many dialects, prevailed as the means of communication. By the time of the arrival of the Europeans, the grasslands Indians ranged over the entire Columbia – Snake Basin and were allied by marriage with their neighbours. North of 48 the Indians lived in isolated pockets of grassland, and only in summer were in communication with their neighbours. The forest trails and mountain passes were the summer links between the Kootenais and the Lakes (Sinixt) Indians, the Shuswaps and Okanagans. As well, the passes though the Bitterroot and southern Rocky Mountains linked the Kootenais with the Flatheads and were used each fall by the buffalo hunters coming and going.
Today our annual auto trips, always dreading snow, across the succession of mountain passes to visit relatives in Calgary or Vancouver, or to consult some obdurate government bureau in Victoria, duplicate exactly the family treks of the Aboriginals two centuries before. In British Columbia, more than in any other province, our geography determines our customs, just as it always had those of the First Nations. Their borrowed horse culture made these trips possible for them; the automobile makes it possible for us. The Columbia Basin Indians counted their wealth in horses; we count ours in automobiles, and deface our homes with two and three car garages.
THE EUROPEAN EXPLORERS
The Aboriginals first contact with the Europeans came in 1744 when the Spanish mariner, Juan Perez made a landfall on the Queen Charlotte Islands, and met the Haida who came out in canoes to trade. Spain claimed the entire Northwest under the Bull of Pope Alexander VI of 1493 which divided the New World lands between Spain and Portugal. It had come to the ears of the Spanish King, Carlos II, that the Russians had been sending out parties to begin a sea otter trade with the Aboriginals of Alaska. The Viceroy of Mexico was instructed to send out expeditions to establish a Spanish claim to the Northwest Coast, and seek for the supposed Strait of Ainan that was believed, on the basis of fictitious maps, to connect the Pacific Coast with Hudson’s Bay.
Perez was sent north in the frigate, Santiago, from Monterey in Alta California in 1774, to sail north to latitude 60º north to investigate what other Europeans might be doing in those waters, to make contact with the natives, and on his return voyage to make “Acts of Possession” at suitable places. The voyage was only a partial success. Dangerous shoal waters, cold, and contrary winds, and sickness among the crew, were all reasons Perez gave on his return for failing to make a landing and turning around at latitude 55º N. The truth probably is that Perez was scared. The precipitous mountains, densely forested, descending to the shore, all empty of human habitation, the fjord-like inlets shrouded in perpetual fogs and beset with hazardous rocks daunted this seaman. To be cast away by misadventure on such an inhospitable shore would mean certain death by starvation to a European. His ship’s carpenters dismantled the wooden cross they had made with a message claiming the land for Spain, and Perez sailed for sunny California and home.
But on his way back, on the 18th of July, sailing past the Queen Charlotte Islands, he was sighted by the Haida Indians. Those aboard the Santiago saw a series of fires lighted along the coast to signal their presence as they sailed past. On the 20th large Haida canoes came out, almost as long as the tiny Santiago. The cautious Haida refused to come aboard the Santiago; the prudent Spaniards refused to go ashore. Some trade ensued with the sailors letting down knives and trinkets from the ship by rope, and pulling up furs and Chilkat blankets. They saw that one of the Indians had a harpoon with an iron head. This may have come from the Russians; alternatively, it may have come from Aboriginal Siberian ironworkers by repeated trades down the Alaska coast. Further south, at Nootka Sound, Perez encountered more natives, and these apparently came aboard his tiny ship, for in the lively trading, one of them lifted some silver spoons from Jose Martinez, the second officer.
The Spanish Viceroy was understandably dissatisfied with this timid expedition. He demoted Perez and sent the Santiago north again in 1775, commanded by Bruno Heceta, along with the even smaller (at 36 feet) Sonora under Bodega y Quadra. This was to overcome the mariners’ objection that all would perish should the Santago be wrecked on one of those hostile shores. Heceta was ordered to sail north to Latitude 65º and make the Act of Possession.
But Heceta, even more cautious than Perez, turned around at the southern tip of Vancouver Island and sailed back to Monterrey. Bodega y Quadra however, in Sonora, not larger than a Haida canoe, went as far north as 57º and there made the symbolic Act of Possession. That seemed to satisfy the Viceroy for the time being, since no more northern expeditions were sent out.
The British, too, had heard of Russian activities on the Northwest Coast, and of the secretive Spanish expeditions in that area. In 1776, the master mariner, Captain James Cook was sent out at his own insistence to explore this unknown Coast for the shadowy Straits of Ainan, which, if they existed, the Admiralty was determined, should be firmly held in British hands as an All British route to the Far East.
Cook, sailing around the Horn, came up through the South Pacific Islands to “discover” Hawaii, whose inhabitants, competent seafarers in their own right, thought they needed no “discovery” by anyone. Cook reached the Oregon Coast in March, 1778, but stormy weather prevented a landing. By 29 March he was in Nootka Sound, greeted by the Indians in their canoes, eager to trade, among other things, the same silver spoons purloined from Jose Martinez four years previous.
Unlike the Spanish, Cook came ashore, sent his men into forest to cut spars and spare masts. He replenished the Resolution’s water casks and brewed spruce beer from the local spruce needles as a remedy against scurvy. Cook again sailed north at the end of April getting his ship into the Aleutian Islands and returning to Hawaii for the winter where he was killed in February 1779 in a skirmish with the locals.
His second in command, Charles Clerke, took over, and entered the Bering Sea, sailing north until he was blocked by ice. Clerke died of tuberculosis in August 1779, and Lieutenant Gore took over to sail the expedition south to Canton, where to their surprise, the crew discovered that the sea otter pelts they had traded for with the Indians, brought amazingly high prices. They sailed back to England with the news, which, like the Russians and the Spanish, the British tried to keep secret. But crew members let it out. John Ledyard, deserting to America published his account of the voyage in 1783, telling the world that “skins which did not cost the purchaser six pence sterling, sold in China for 100 dollars.”
The news that these bleak lands, as hostile as the Norwegian Fjords, would support a trade in furs to China more valuable than anyone had dreamed, brought the commercial world to the Northwest. For the next seventy years the Northwest, that dark and mythic land, would see a great commercial struggle for domination of its trade while distant governments fumbled toward a solution to its sovereignty.
THE FUR TRADE INTERLUDE
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 COMPANY WAR
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.