Monthly Archives: February 2021

Old Oregon No Man’s Land

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 280-281:

The European colonial settlement of eastern North America had progressed quickly in the last decade of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century. Cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia had mushroomed after the revolution, and farmland expanded to feed the influx of people and increasingly encroached on the traditional territories of Indigenous peoples. The British, anxious to maintain against the United States a legal claim to the Columbia River, the artery of the fur trade west of the Great Divide, proposed extending the 49th parallel west to the Columbia and then following the Columbia as the border to the sea. To the American negotiators who had their eye on the large, deep harbours of Puget Sound (the only viable harbours for large ships north of San Francisco) this was not ideal. But in 1818, weary from years of inconclusive conflict during the War of 1812, neither the British nor the Americans were willing to grapple over who would lay claim to the land on the far side of the Continental Divide. So they agreed to jointly “occupy” the region, deferring more complicated, and politically charged, questions to the future. (The terms of the Convention of 1818 were reaffirmed indefinitely in 1827, with the provision that either country could cancel the agreement with one year’s notice.)

In February 1819, the United States and Spain signed the Adams–Onis Treaty. In addition to selling the territory of Florida for $5 million, Spain also agreed to the northern boundary of California being set at the 42nd parallel and ceded any rights to the territory north of that to the United States. Russia, in two separate treaties—with the United States in 1824 and with Britain in 1825—bowed out of Old Oregon (but retained the right to trade in the region), agreeing to a southern boundary for Alaska roughly similar to the Canadian-American border today.

Old Oregon, now defined as the territory west of the Rocky Mountains, north of Spanish California and south of Russian Alaska, became a political no man’s land, jointly claimed on paper by Britain and the United States, and open to settlement and commercial development from either nation, although neither had any tangible presence there and they had neglected to inform the local inhabitants of their decision. Of course, the only commercial development was the fur trade, and the traders were more likely to follow the customs of their Indigenous hosts and customers than those of Londoners, Montrealers or New Yorkers. The vast territory remained unchanged for decades, until the 1830s, when the first wagon trains began rolling west along the Oregon Trail.

The Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company faced other challenges east of the Rockies that proved to be more of a threat—their own internecine quarrels.

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Shifting Fur Trade Alliances & Enmities

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 263-264:

THOMPSON QUICKLY LEARNED THAT THE PIEGAN, or Piikani, were in a general state of conflict with the people farther west on the other side of the mountains, the Kutenai, a Plains tribe that had only two generations earlier been pushed west by the Piegan and other tribes of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Siksika (Blackfoot) and the Kainai (Blood). Since Henday’s time nearly a half-century earlier, the confederacy of linguistically and culturally similar peoples had banded together to become the most powerful military force in the region. They were surrounded by many enemies, however, and consequently they were fierce warriors. The political situation was always in flux, with an ever-shifting series of alliances and enmities. There were the Crow, Cheyenne and Sioux (Dakota, Lakota and Nakota) on the Great Plains. There were the Shoshone, Flathead, Kalispell, Kootenai and Nez Perce to the west and southwest in the mountainous regions. For a time, the Blackfoot Confederacy’s greatest challengers were the occasionally allied Plains Cree, the Nakoda or Stony (Assiniboine) and the Saulteaux or Plains Ojibwa of the loosely affiliated Iron Confederacy to the north and east. (The Iron Confederacy also traded European manufactured goods to the Mandan for beans, maize and tobacco.) Later in the nineteenth century the Blackfoot Confederacy’s adversaries included the Métis. The Piegan occupied the westernmost fringe of the Confederacy’s territory and were a fierce people tasked with guarding the frontier from enemies coming over the mountains.

The Piegan, like the Blackfoot and the Blood, never used canoes but rode horses, of which they were masters, and kept dogs to haul their goods. They tended to dwell in concentrated semi-permanent communities of at least one hundred lodges and lived by hunting bison herds and migrating with them, enlivening their diet with trout from the many cold streams that rushed down through the grassy foothills from the mountains. In the late summer and fall, after the chokecherries ripened and bison wandered west in search of better grasses, bands would congregate to drive vast numbers of bison over cliffs at places such as Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southwestern Alberta.

The Piegan for a time occupied the position as middlemen in the trade with the Kootenay (also spelled Kootenai and Kutenai) and other culturally similar peoples to their immediate west, and were in direct opposition to the North West Company’s plan to expand the trade over the mountains. In particular they sought to maintain a monopoly on guns to preserve their military superiority. In one instance, a band of mounted Piegan warriors followed Thompson when he travelled from Rocky Mountain House into the mountains to meet a band of Kootenay and escort them back to the fort. The intimidation wasn’t entirely successful, and the Kootenay were able to trade pelts of wolverines, fishers, bears and over a hundred beaver. The Piegan did everything short of all-out war to prevent the commerce. Thompson persuaded the Kootenay to send a guide over the pass the following year to help him lead a pack train over the mountains, but the man was killed within a few miles of the fort.

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Nor’Westers vs. Hudson’s Bay Company

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 205-207:

EACH OF THE TWO COMPANIES HAD competitive advantages and disadvantages. Working against the North West Company was the fact that the Hudson’s Bay Company could get its goods by ship right into the heart of the continent, while the Nor’Westers had to transport their goods from Montreal, far to the south and east. But the Company suffered from a lack of manpower. The near-continuous wars that occupied Britain (the American War of Independence between 1775 and 1783 and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars between 1792 and 1815) deprived the Company of easy access to young male workers when they were desperately needed to staff the new inland posts. The Napoleonic Wars in particular made it difficult for the Company to recruit young men into the overseas fur trade, and it increasingly hired the mixed-blood descendants of earlier employees to take on roles within the Company hierarchy. The Company still adhered to its policy of rarely employing Indigenous people for full-time careers because it wanted them out in the bush capturing beaver, fulfilling the supply side of the business equation, for which they were uniquely suited. Over time the connotation of “mixed-blood” or “Indian” denoted economic roles and placement in the hierarchy rather than purely genetic or racial background. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Company still had barely five hundred employees in North America, although it relied heavily upon the contract services of countless Indigenous hunters, guides and labourers.

The Nor’Westers, on the other hand, drew on Quebec’s seventy-thousand-strong local population, whether French or Mohawk-Iroquois. They fielded approximately twelve hundred people along their vast supply line. It was a more expensive and labour-intensive business model, but, as would be seen, the larger numbers would be useful in a fight. The Iroquois were particularly suitable for aggressive conflict, and even the Company began hiring them decades later when the two companies were at war. “I have frequently heard the Canadian and Iroquois voyagers disputed as regards their merits,” wrote Company agent Colin Robertson in 1819, “perhaps the former may be more hardy or undergo more fatigue, but in either rapid or traverse, give me the latter, for their calmness and presence of mind which never forsakes them in the greatest danger.” If you were in a scrape, you’d want a Mohawk-Iroquois companion, and these men were in great demand in the early nineteenth century.

The life of a voyageur could be harsh and often short, full of danger and extreme living, but many would never trade it for any other, signing on for the next season’s work each year for decades and only retiring when they were no longer capable of the rigours of the life. One old man, astonishingly over seventy, reminisced on his life travelling the land as a fur trader. “I have been 24 years a canoeman and 41 years in service; no portage was ever too long for me. Fifty songs I could sing. I have saved the lives of 10 voyageurs. Have had 12 wives and six running dogs. I spent all my money in pleasure. Were I young again, I should spend my life the same way over. There is no life so happy as a voyageur life.”

The two companies’ different corporate structures also manifested in their interactions with local peoples. While the Company men were ordered to adhere to basic discipline and to respect various Indigenous customs and ceremony, the more chaotic arrangements of the Nor’Westers allowed for more individual discretion, which meant in some cases developing a greater facility with Indigenous languages and a deeper understanding of local customs. But the “pedlars,” as the Company men derisively called them in the early days before they became a dangerous and organized threat, also earned a reputation for bad living and poor relations with Indigenous peoples, the result of the behaviour of a minority tarnishing the reputation of many. As a consequence, they seldom stayed in the same place from year to year for fear of repercussions and kept building new outposts. It wasn’t a stable business plan.

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Hudson’s Bay Company Policies vs. Realities

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 118-121:

Spirits were in great demand as payment for hunting, in ceremonial exchanges and in payment for furs. Throughout the eighteenth century the Company made frequent attempts to restrict or regulate the dispensation of liquor, but these efforts were never uniform. The main obstacle to instituting a more consistent prohibition was that it was impossible to regulate alcohol completely within the factories for their own employees, and they feared that if denied alcohol completely the Indigenous traders would take their business to the French, in spite of the greater travelling distance and inferior trade goods. Potent alcohol was a recurring problem for all who congregated at the Company’s posts; this was a society struggling to develop the social infrastructure and accepted behaviours needed to regulate and control the actions of people under the influence of the new intoxicants. Isham later observed that a custom had evolved whereby men who planned on drinking would send away the women and children along with all the guns and knives. Most of the problems between the employees and officers at the factories also had to do with the abuse of or smuggling of liquor.

The most striking thing is that none of the decision makers on the London Committee ever visited the bay, apart from James Knight, and the yawning gap between reality and theory was also part of life at the outpost. Whether it be admonitions to grow more vegetables, to get more work done during each season, to trade for more furs by exhorting the Cree to work harder, or to get their employees to urge Indigenous peoples from farther inland to breach the Cree hegemony and trade directly at the fort, many directives had to be politely ignored. Life at the factories along the bay revolved around its own unique set of customs and activities, borrowing from Indigenous practices whenever convenient, accommodating Indigenous customs whenever possible and generally creating its own society that was derived from cultural and geographical necessity rather than rigid London imperatives.

One directive from the London Committee to John Nixon must have made his eyes roll when he read it at Fort Albany in 1680. A helpful suggestion on how to save money on food rations, it revealed just how little was appreciated in London of life along the bay: “Upon Hayes Island where our grand Factory is, you may propagate Swine without much difficulty, wch. is an excellent flesh, and the Creature is hardy and will live where some other Creatures cannot.” These types of directives were written by well-meaning dandies, upper-class financiers and aristocrats who had never been to Hudson Bay and experienced its primitive outposts, harsh climate and poor soil, but also had never worked outside the rarefied palatial offices and manors of upper-class English society—people, in short, who ought not be telling servants how to procure their food on a remote distant continent, where they were visitors in a bewildering and deadly land, perched precariously along the rim of a geographical and cultural terra incognita.

On the one hand, there was the London Committee, with its directors planning grand strategy and issuing orders that occasionally indulged in the penchant for micromanagement, and then there were the people who worked for the Company in the outposts with the geographical and climatic constraints of the Subarctic and who worked with, or were friends with or even married to, the Indigenous people of that land. The Company had official policies, but the people bayside interpreted those policies and adjusted them to reality.

RELATIONSHIPS WITH THE HOSTS OF THAT foreign land were at the heart of life and business at the posts. Not only were the local, or Home Guard, Cree often hired for jobs as labourers, hunters, guides, seamstresses, cooks and interpreters, but sexual and romantic relations between Indigenous women and Company men were common. In the earliest days of its operations in the late seventeenth century, the Company’s directors issued proclamations to its officers to prevent or obstruct these relationships. “We are very sensible that the Indian Weoman resorting to our Factories are very prejudiciall to the Companies affaires,” the committee wrote to John Nixon in 1682, “not only by being a meanes of our Servants often debauching themselves, but likewise by embeazling our goods and very much exhausting our Provisions, It is therefore our positive order that you lay your strict Commands on every Cheife of each Factory upon forfiture of Wages not to Suffer any wooman to come within any of our factories.” For obvious reasons, this directive from aristocratic directors, comfortable in their estates in London and surrounded by their families, was not only foolish but unenforceable, human nature and social needs being what they are.

There was always a difference between what London directors wrote in their letters as official policy and what chief factors enforced for themselves and their men. Money was usually at the crux of it. Workers who spent many years of their lives in what amounted to remote work camps wanted to improve their lot as much as possible, while the managers didn’t want responsibility for families. But, as Graham noted, “the Company permit no European women to be brought within their territories; and forbid any natives to be harboured in the settlements. This latter has never been obeyed.”

But the Company soon appreciated the benefit of having close ties with their Indigenous trading partners and quietly began supporting intimate liaisons. The shift in opinion was based on the realization that these relationships were not a financial drain but rather an asset. Unofficial diplomatic marriages between Indigenous women and Company employees became common, with Indigenous women seeking kinship ties for more favourable trading privileges, while single Company men sought female companionship and an introduction to the life and customs of the land. In a practical sense these were alliances for mutual aid, companionship and support, both social and economic, much like marriages today.

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Culinary Delights of Canada’s Northwest

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle p. 195:

Hearne’s posthumously published A Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort, in Hudson’s Bay, to the Northern Ocean is a charming and lively account of his years of adventure with Matonabbee, a classic of northern exploration literature and an unvarnished window into eighteenth-century life in the northern interior, a region on the cusp of great change. Hearne was a keen observer of the natural world, such as the seasonal behaviour of animals, the types of vegetation and the climate. He had a particular interest in Chipewyan customs and lifestyle. Food was another favourite topic, perhaps because the cuisine on the Barren Lands was so different from the food at the fort, and perhaps because on his adventures he often didn’t have enough of it. He detailed the many different methods of hunting and of preparing food, which animal parts were the tastiest or most coveted when herbed, boiled or roasted. He described with relish a common hearty caribou stew, and a venison dish called beeatee that was “a most delicious morsel.” Similar to the Scottish haggis, it was made using the animal’s stomach as a vessel, stuffed with blood, chopped fat, tenderized meat, kidneys and heart mixed with seasonal herbs. The beeatee was steamed and smoked over a fire into an aromatic pâté. Hearne found buffalo tripe to be “exceedingly good,” while warm caribou blood sucked directly from the bullet hole was “very nourishing.” Moose stomach, on the other hand, was “rather bitter.” Hearne also savoured raw fish of various types and cuts, which was a common meal of the Chipewyan and remained a mainstay of Hearne’s palate for the rest of his life, a fondly remembered delicacy that he would specially request when dining out in London, perhaps to unobtrusively raised eyebrows acknowledging the culinary peccadilloes of the eccentric traveller.

Hearne wrote in detail about the annual life cycle of the Dene-speaking peoples of the Barren Lands, and the difference between the sexes and their respective roles in society. Narrative examples give poignancy to his anthropological generalizations, and his fascinating insights are written in clear, descriptive and vibrant language.

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The Era of Beaver Pelts and Mad Hatters

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 46-48:

IT WAS A SEEMINGLY RANDOM flight of fashion that began the dramatic expansion in commerce between the English, French and many of the Indigenous peoples of North America. Furs have always had value in winter for warmth, and to a lesser extent had value for their water-resistant properties, but it was their use in the manufacture of felt that drove the demand in Europe. Felt was developed originally in central Asia as an excellent insulating and waterproofing material for tents and tarps; it was also used in ancient times by Roman legionaries as padding under their armour. In seventeenth-century Europe, felt was primarily used in the manufacture of hats, an ever-changing fashion accoutrement that became an indispensable signifier of prestige and social identity first for gentlemen and ladies and then, as the century progressed, for nearly every status of person. The style of hat signalled the level of prestige and the profession of the wearer. Picture the distinctive tricorne or Continental hat; or the cocked hat of the navy; the dignified stovepipe Regent, or top hat, of the financiers; and the somewhat amusing Paris Beau beloved of the young urban rake. Ladies’ hats had their own hierarchy of frivolity, complexity and expense—and attendant etiquette and social flourishes that governed how a hat was worn and with which accessories, how it was donned and with which distinctive and noble gesture it was removed.

In general, the waterproof and durable beaver felt hat, which could be dyed and moulded into a bewildering variety of shapes, was perfectly suited to symbolize and reflect the desires of an increasingly stratified and mercenary society. People were marked by their hats, the prices of which were well known and appreciated. Since it took about three to four worn beaver pelts to make enough felt for a single hat, some hats were so pricey that they were carefully tended and repaired for years and then passed down as inheritances. Even wealthy people kept inferior spares to be worn in inclement weather, saving their best beaver for notable occasions—or at least occasions when others might note the quality and make of their hat.

Felt was made using heat, moisture, pressure and mercury nitrate to shrink the fur fibres so that they matted together. Hatters spent long hours toiling away in their poorly ventilated tenements, inhaling clouds of mercury fumes as they bent over their felt-making apparatus, combing, pressing and steaming the pelts into the desired consistency and shape. Mercury was eventually discovered to have debilitating effects on the hatter, causing a type of poisoning called erethism, or mad hatter disease, which was characterized by tremors, depression, delirium, memory loss and hallucinations. Hatter wasn’t a profession or trade conducive to a long and healthy life, but nor were many other occupations of the era, and the dangers were poorly understood while the pay could be high.

By the early eighteenth century, London was not only the principal depot for the wholesale warehouses of prime beaver pelts from the best beaver preserve in the world, but by a coincidence of history it was also becoming the global centre for hat manufacture, which for centuries had been based in northern France. Seventeenth-century Europe was riven with religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Many of the felt and hat manufacturing trades were dominated by French Protestant Huguenots. In the mid-1680s, they began to flee their homes and cross the English Channel to escape religious persecution. They settled in the vicinity of London and brought with them the secrets of their trade, so that soon the best hats in Europe made from the best beaver pelts from North America originated in London. The most distinguished French nobility, and even Catholic cardinals, ordered their distinctive hats from Protestant hat makers in London.

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The World of the Coureurs de Bois, 1600s

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 18-20:

FRENCH MARINERS HAD BEEN TRADING FOR furs intermittently since the second half of the sixteenth century, but it was the founding of Quebec by Champlain in 1608 that marked the transition from a seasonal coastal trade to a permanent enterprise with routes that extended deep into the continent’s interior. With a population numbering only in the hundreds, the tiny French colony nevertheless became embroiled in the regional conflicts of the Montagnais, Algonquin, Huron and Iroquois-speaking peoples, with furs and firearms being the drivers of economic and political activity. Algonquian speakers lived primarily in the Ottawa Valley, the Huron farther west around Georgian Bay and in southern Ontario, and the Montagnais in the north of present-day Quebec and around the mouth of the Saguenay River on the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. The Huron were an Iroquoian-speaking people with similarly settled culture but were not part of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy, to the south and east.

The land was covered in great deciduous forests of oak and maple and elm, interspersed with lakes and rivers. It was humid and hot in the summer and cold and deeply snow-covered in the winter. The more northern Montagnais and Algonquin lived semi-nomadic lives, moving between different regions of their territory according to the season and the availability of animals for food. The Huron and Iroquois, on the other hand, lived in villages of large communal longhouses around fields of corn, squash and beans. Corn was an important trade commodity to northern peoples like the Algonquin. The trade routes were well maintained and regularly patrolled. The lakes and rivers held an abundance of fish, and wild turkeys were plentiful, as were wild game such as deer and migratory geese and other birds. These were affluent societies made even more so in the early days of the fur trade when they had access to European trade goods at cheap prices and, thanks to their role as middlemen, trade with more distant groups.

The 1650s were a time of conflict and upheaval along the St. Lawrence region, the Hudson River and what is today southern Ontario. The Montagnais positioned themselves as the fur brokers, as successive Indigenous peoples would do in time, pushing the trade farther north and west, transporting French manufactured goods inland, trading and then carrying the furs back to auction off to the French. In exchange they demanded firearms to help them in their conflict with the Mohawk of the Iroquois Confederacy to the south—a pre-existing struggle that intensified as the beaver population diminished, causing increasing competition between the Iroquois, the Montagnais and the Huron over who would control trade with the peoples farther west and north. The Hudson River region was never the best beaver territory, and by the 1640s it was mostly trapped out, which led to the “Beaver Wars” of the 1650s and 1660s, as the Iroquois sought to become the only middlemen in the trade, controlling all access to the European fur markets. By 1650, the Huron were vanquished as a political force, the survivors abandoning their lands and fleeing to distant regions.

It was common for young Frenchmen to live, work, travel and learn Indigenous languages and customs to secure alliances and smooth commerce. They were called the coureurs de bois, or runners of the woods. The French settlements at Quebec, Trois-Rivières and Tadoussac were traditionally allied with the Huron and the Algonquian-speaking peoples and suffered the animosity and hostilities of the Iroquois. The tiny French colony was entirely dependent upon local peoples for survival—the settlers owed their existence to the conduit they presented to exchange furs for metal implements. These people showed the French how to survive—how to hunt food, avoid scurvy and use furs for winter clothes that were far superior to cloth. Many young men married women from the Indigenous societies to form alliances for protection and to gain access to hunting and trapping grounds. By 1660, the entire French presence in New France was barely 3,200 people, two-thirds of them men, but within a decade it had already doubled. Montreal was founded only in 1642 and for many years consisted of little more than a few dozen families, although it too grew along with the fur trade.

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Hudson Bay Company’s Charter

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 2-3:

King Charles II had granted his cronies a grandiose charter and monopoly absurd in its scope and geographical misunderstanding—absolute mercantile authority in English law over a territory that encompassed the entire watershed of Hudson Bay, some four million square kilometres of land, over 40 per cent of the later territory of Canada, including all of northern Ontario and Quebec, all of Manitoba, southern Saskatchewan and southern Alberta and a good portion of the states of North Dakota and Minnesota. The region held nearly half the world’s supply of fresh water in a vast lowland of swamps, ponds and lakes, and was home to at least ten million beavers, then extremely valuable for their pelts. The Company was not a colonizing enterprise—nothing in its charter had do with missionaries or conquest—but nor was it a purely business enterprise. While commercial transactions for profit were its primary objective for the first century and a half of its existence, it also had other responsibilities, such as searching for the fabled route to Cathay, “by meanes whereof there may probably arise very great advantage to us and our Kingdome.”

The interior of North America in the 1670s was bewildering and unknown, and it was decades before the Company began to appreciate the political and cultural complexity of its trading monopoly. Word of the Company’s arrival spread quickly, and people began canoeing the rivers to its forts or factories along the Hudson Bay coastline each year. The [Algonquian] Cree who dwelt closest to the Company outposts along the bay, and eventually the [Siouan] Assiniboine and [Athabaskan] Chipewyan, became the brokers of the trade, operating their own jealously guarded monopolies and using the Company as a wholesale distributor, while passing on goods to Indigenous peoples farther inland.

After generations of mutually beneficial trade, knowledge and technology had been shared both ways, and many Company employees, including people of mixed genetic and cultural heritage, had learned the secrets of inland travel and survival. When faced with competition from traders of the North West Company coming west from Montreal in the 1780s, the Company moved inland and competition intensified. For most of its life the Company competed most vigorously for the right to thrive without competition.

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