Category Archives: economics

Vietnam Retrospective, 2007

From Eat Your Heart Out, Ho Chi Minh: Or Things You Won’t Learn at Yale, by Tony Thompson (BookSurge, 2012), Kindle pp. 273-274:

Visiting Vietnam, even the Cu Chi Tunnels, is not like visiting Antietam or Verdun (and if you don’t know what those places represent, shame on you). The country is beautiful; there are few marks of war and the people, arguably the best looking on earth, are intelligent, friendly, and interesting. But there is another level, another dimension, to life in Vietnam. The country you see was paid for in blood.

Hanoi is not really about opera or folk art performances. Basically, Hanoi is about politics. Hanoi will always be to Saigon as Washington is to LA.

To understand the price ordinary Vietnamese paid for a Communist victory, visit the Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi. Despite the name, this is a museum of Vietnamese history and culture.

In a gallery containing examples of Vietnamese living quarters, there is one recreated room showing a truly Spartan lifestyle. The label on this exhibit read: “1975–1986 was a dramatic period and a profound lesson about the laws of social development.”

This is a profound understatement.

During that period after the end of the war, an individual without party connections was rationed to five meters of cloth per annum. The sandals worn by most people were made from old American tires and called “Ho Chi Minh Nikes.” Rice was also strictly rationed because of the failure of collective farming. Hunger was routine. People sat on wooden crates and looked into their empty rice bowls for entertainment because chairs and TV were only for cadres.

And this was the life of the politically acceptable. Hundreds of thousands of the politically tainted were put through reeducation camps. Many died in these camps. Millions had died in the war. There were reminders everywhere of those who were gone.

For years, Vietnam went nowhere spiritually or economically. It was one of the poorest countries on earth.

Over time, younger Vietnamese came to realize that such a life was not endurable. The older party leaders were sidelined. The younger ones cozied up to capitalism, just as in China.

Since 1993 [his last visit], Vietnam has gone through doi moi or economic openness. The boom that started in Saigon has spread to Hanoi. Much of the Hanoi Hilton prison, where John McCain was held, has been torn down for a real estate development. Corruption is rampant and is known as “lubricating oil.” There is a thriving stock exchange and over two hundred listed companies. GDP per capita has more than doubled since 1993. Many women have started tiny businesses.

Officially, Vietnam is a “market economy with a socialist orientation.” Just like Norway or The People’s Republic of Vermont.

The population of Vietnam is among the youngest on earth. They appear optimistic and have good reason to be. Writing and music and art have revived. Vietnam is rich in resources and well placed geographically. A promising future lies before it.

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Back at Yale, 1966

From Eat Your Heart Out, Ho Chi Minh: Or Things You Won’t Learn at Yale, by Tony Thompson (BookSurge, 2012), Kindle pp. 190-191:

The visual difference from the pre-war Yale of 1963 was more in the variety of clothing and in the variety of long hair-styles, and in how the beholder was supposed to respond, rather than in the amount of facial hair—especially in the desired response, these guys didn’t want to look interchangeable, like infantry soldiers or the Kingston Trio. They wanted to tell you something when you looked at them.

So you had the common “I love the workers” style or the basic Bob Dylan clone—the Pendleton-shirted, anorexic lumberjack look. And, to show identity with the people—but with the Russian people—you had the Fiddler on the Roof or Russian peasant type.

Many students were angry—really, really angry—so you had the never-smiling, stubble-faced, T-shirt, and torn jeans “yes, I sleep in my clothes; fuck you” appearance.

Some kids were sensitive—they felt the cruel pain of life and war so terribly intensely—so they wore tattered Sears work clothes and sported a stick-thin, crazy-eyed, greasy-filthy look that proclaimed: “I have suffered a nervous breakdown over this terrible world; I weep for the little people so much; please share the love.”

But the preppy, Shetland sweater and chinos look was still popular; I didn’t have to ditch my clothes….

What you didn’t have, beneath the surface, was much of a change in the social background of the students. A smaller percent came from private schools. There were more Jewish guys from public schools. But, public school or private school, Yale in 1966 was still overwhelmingly a place for white, middleclass, suburban boys.

Compared with the army, blacks were still almost invisible at Yale in 1966, despite the brand-new, fervid, vocal desire of so many at Yale to raise, liberate, or merely improve the lot of black Americans.

That the army was already doing these things for hundreds of thousands of typical young blacks was simply beyond the comprehension of these white suburban Yalies—who didn’t know any black Americans.

It would be many years before Yale had a sizable, representative cross-section of intelligent black American students, as opposed to a small, self-segregated cadre of handpicked, cosseted, and atypical blacks.

Whites and blacks also mingled far less at Yale than they had in the army. But at least they didn’t fight with each other.

In contrast with the army, I witnessed no overtly gay behavior back at Yale. Probably I didn’t know where to look.

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U.S. Army Clerk in Germany, 1960s

From Eat Your Heart Out, Ho Chi Minh: Or Things You Won’t Learn at Yale, by Tony Thompson (BookSurge, 2012), Kindle pp. 94-95:

In the brief periods when we weren’t playing soldier or cleaning our military kit, we were completely free but only to go anywhere we wanted within Grafenwohr. Men wandered from shed to shed, checking on what kind of gambling was going on and on what was being traded. A vigorous commercial undercurrent existed everywhere in the army.

Watching men shooting craps one afternoon, I ran into Specialist Fourth Class Chandos, who worked for our first sergeant. Chandos was a loan shark and was checking on the activities of his clients, most of whom were our senior sergeants. The craps shooters had pulled a blanket taut over a cot and were shooting dice on it.

Though it was strictly forbidden for soldiers to lend money, and especially not to their non-commissioned officers, this was obviously a great business. The sergeants shooting craps were born losers and were soon cleaned out by a street-smart black soldier. Then they needed a further loan to go on shooting.

Chandos himself only played poker and almost always won since he played exclusively with the battalion’s most stupid sergeants on payday. Chandos was a short, funny Greek from some northeastern American city. He boasted that his time in the army was going to buy him a Pontiac convertible. I hope Chandos succeeded in this; he was a friendly, amusing man and only charged 50 percent interest per month. In other companies, the rate was 100 percent.

We immediately liked each other. Chandos was finding that his orderly room job got in the way of his loan business, especially when he needed to work on collections. He asked me if I could type.

Could I type? After churning out all those midnight essays at Yale, I could type like gangbusters. He said that he would work on the first sergeant and get me transferred to the orderly room. I thought this was a terrific idea; the other occupants of the orderly room were the captain and the first sergeant. So it was no coincidence that every time I went there, the orderly room was warm as toast, even when we were out in the field and the orderly room was in a tent.

Chandos was as good as his word. Within months, I made my first upward career move in the army, becoming the orderly room flunky.

In the barracks or in the field, decisions were made in the orderly room. In our company, the captain merely signed off on decisions made by the first sergeant. This was not taught at West Point, but our first sergeant was infinitely more experienced than the captain—and infinitely wiser. I did whatever the first sergeant wanted done. Apart from making dozens of pots of coffee day and night, this work varied a lot.

On a Monday morning, for example, I’d be writing letters for our linguistically and vertically challenged Puerto Rican company commander, when the first sergeant, who in practice ran everything, shouted for me to retrieve Blicksen, our toothless cook, from the custody of the MPs.

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Impressions of Army Basic Training, 1963

From Eat Your Heart Out, Ho Chi Minh: Or Things You Won’t Learn at Yale, by Tony Thompson (BookSurge, 2012), Kindle pp. 68-70:

To my utter surprise, I found that my WASP background had prepared me well for basic training. I’d already lived in a tent at summer camp with boys I didn’t particularly like. I’d gone away to school years before; I didn’t miss anyone but our family dog. Army food was better than Yale’s and the army in-processing system no more impersonal than Yale’s. Most of my fellow trainees were friendly and much more interesting to me than the suburban types at Yale.

At Yale, I was a sub-mediocre athlete. But in the army I was a near star.

Most of my fellow trainees had never played any sport. Sports were mandatory at my school; they weren’t in the nation’s public schools. Most of these new soldiers had never run anywhere. At my school we ran all the time, just as we now did in basic training.

The result was that I played end and caught passes in football games. Wearing combat boots, I ran the fastest mile in our training company. Going on marches was no problem after hiking in the White Mountains as a ten year old.

Even better, I’d already learned how to shoot a .22 rifle at summer camp. Later, Phinney Works’s father, a World War II major in the army, had taught me how to shoot his World War II M-1 rifle, which the army was still using at Fort Leonard Wood in basic training.

Apart from hitting what you aimed at, the main objective in shooting the M-1 was to keep it from slamming you in the face when you did rapid fire. The trick was not to wrap your right thumb over the stock so that your thumb’s knuckle joint wasn’t subsequently slammed back into your cheek by the recoil. Sergeant Duty warned us of this feature of the M-1, but few paid attention. He was a font of hard-won military lore, but most trainees lacked the frame of reference needed to absorb his advice. There was no war going on so the advice seemed academic.

The randomness of the draft meant that I shared basic training with a wide cross-section of American men, somewhat tilted toward working-class men. We were nicely assorted as to size, shape, and color. The truly odd and quirky types were mostly found among my fellow volunteers.

The draftees were a bit older than the volunteers and more homogenized physically, with a couple of exceptions.

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Impressions of Yale, Early 1960s

From Eat Your Heart Out, Ho Chi Minh: Or Things You Won’t Learn at Yale, by Tony Thompson (BookSurge, 2012), Kindle pp. 26-28:

The required academic work was dreary. Having to write twee little essays for English courses about John Donne’s imagery made me want to smash things. Or to puke. Raising the level of the world’s drivel barometer is demoralizing. Ruining a youthful love of poetry is worse. “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?”

Like my classmates, I wrote essays by the yard. Writing about great villains in novels or who won the Franco-Prussian War was less of a trial than writing about poetry. Also, learning to produce reams of more or less coherent written material about something totally boring and meaningless is good training for would-be lawyers or indeed for anyone who is lucky enough to land a writing job that bills by the column inch.

A few teachers inspired me. Like many ex-prep school students, I had been spoiled at Deerfield by excellent teaching and attentive teachers. At Yale, I quickly recognized that teaching undergraduates wasn’t the point of the institution and that my resentful attitude in the face of great learning and scholarship was childish. Still, I couldn’t help warming to the few professors who tried, however vaguely, to match undergraduate names to faces.

I adored Professor Gordon Haight who taught the Victorian English novel and was the world’s greatest expert on George Elliot. Professor Haight had been one of my father’s teachers, and I had known him as a small child. Academically, Professor Haight was a holdover from Yale’s former tradition of a broad historical approach to the study of literature. This appealed to me. I could never see the point of separating the life and times of John Milton from the poetry of John Milton. At least Milton’s life and times were interesting.

One escape hatch from the required courses in the embalmed world of English literature was accidentally discovering V. by Thomas Pynchon. I added Pynchon to the short list of fiction writers like Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse whose style and attitude speak loudly to me. I must have read V. five times during my first two years at Yale.

Obviously, there were courses that didn’t involve writing reams of drivel or sitting through interminable lectures. Being formally introduced to economics and philosophy was stimulating, regardless of the teaching. And the younger professors didn’t all use the droning, dismal lecture-hall approach. Some showed actual flashes of interest in teaching undergraduates.

I was fortunate to be taught introductory economics by Jan Tumlir, a Czech refugee from Communism. Doing hard labor in the Czech uranium mines after the postwar Communist takeover had wrecked the professor’s health. Without making any specific comments about his experience of Communism, he was a living argument against the collectivist policies believed in, or at least advocated, by so many of the Yale professoriate.

Instead, Professor Tumlir cherished nineteenth-century economic liberalism and ideals like free trade and free markets. He taught us about Ricardo, the great English economist who first stated the law of comparative advantage. Professor Tumlir later became head of economics at GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and predecessor to the current World Trade Organization, but died far too young.

Overall, though, Yale in the early 1960s offered the worst teaching I’ve ever experienced. The benighted, God-stuffed, over-long rambling sermons in the First Church of Deerfield were delivered better and with more conviction. Semi-literate army sergeants proved to be far better teachers, as did even the idlest Oxford dons. And Stanford Business School didn’t give tenure to anyone who received consistently poor student evaluations for teaching.

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U.S. Economic Boom, 1910s

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 38-39:

In 1910 out of a US population of 92 million, 2.5 million were German-born and 5.8 million of the native-born had one or both German-born parents. Although Wilson believed 90 per cent of America’s people were strongly pro-Allied, he had grounds to fear that rival allegiances would breed civil strife.

The traditional corollary to political abstention was unimpeded commerce. Exporting to belligerents was unobjectionable, the more so as America was in recession and the fighting expected to be brief. But demands for artillery, munitions, steel, machine tools, chemicals, and food and raw materials rose far higher than anticipated, fuelling one of the strongest upsurges in US history. In the winter of 1914–15 German-Americans backed a proposal in Congress to embargo arms exports, but Wilson prevented the move as ‘a foolish one, as it would restrict our plants’. Commerce secretary, William Cox Redfield, and the Treasury secretary, William Gibbs McAdoo, urged the boom must be sustained, Redfield advising that exports were at record levels, and McAdoo using the extra revenue to pay off debt. Between 1915 and 1917 exports to Britain, Canada, France, Italy, and Russia grew from $3,445 million to $9,796 million (184 per cent); those of wheat by 683 per cent; and of copper by 277 per cent; but whereas pre-war trade with the Central Powers had been one-fifth of that with the Allies, now it shrank to 1 per cent. The Allies could find the shipping to transport their purchases and the cash or credit to pay for them; the Central Powers could find neither, so whatever stance America took would benefit one side. Britain had the world’s biggest merchant navy in 1914 (43 per cent of world tonnage—and the Allies in total 59 per cent, against the Central Powers’ 15 per cent). As the Allies converted to military production, however, they had less to export, and were less able to pay. The Wall Street banking giant, J. P. Morgan & Co., became the British government’s purchasing and financial agent and permitted it a growing overdraft, and in the summer of 1915 it advised the Allies to attempt a bond flotation. Following convention, Wilson had prohibited loans to belligerent governments. But McAdoo warned that ‘to maintain our prosperity we must finance it. Otherwise it may stop, and that would be disastrous.’ Finally Wilson approved the bond issue, and even if the primary motive was to sustain the boom and the yield proved disappointing, American policy had clearly altered to the Allies’ advantage. In 1915, 75 per cent of US exports went to the Allies or to countries that had broken relations with Germany and between 1913 and 1916 America’s percentage of French imports rose from 10 to 30. By 1916 bottlenecks on the railroads into New York stretched back for miles.

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Mexico Before Its Revolution

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 21-23:

By the end of Díaz’s reign, Mexico had a population of fifteen million. The majority were mestizo—individuals of mixed blood—but one-third were of pure Indian stock. Chihuahua and Sonora, two of the northern states that lay along the U.S. border, were home to the Tarahumara and the Yaquis. The Cora, Huichol, and Tarascans lived along the Pacific coast and in the hills and valleys west of Mexico City. The Mazahua, Nahuatl, and Otomí had settled in the central highlands. The Gulf state of Veracruz was home to the Huastec and Totonac. The Zapotecs, Mixes, Zoque, Huave, and Mixtec, Tzeltal, Tojolabal, Chontal, and Tzotzil lived in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. And in the Yucatán peninsula, remnants of the ancient Maya had survived.

In 1521, Hernán Cortés conquered Tenochtitlán, the great center of the Aztec civilization and the site of what was to become Mexico City. For the next three centuries, Mexico lived under Spain’s rule, which could be harsh, benign, or indifferent, depending upon the financial needs of the mother country and the temperament of the monarch who happened to be in power at the time. When Mexico finally gained its independence, in 1821, political chaos, internal revolts, and repeated clashes with foreign powers ensued. Texas was lost in 1836 to English-speaking colonizers who had been encouraged by Spain to settle the far reaches of its empire. A decade later, following a war with the United States, Mexico lost another huge chunk of territory to its hungry neighbor—millions of acres that one day would become New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, as well as parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

Exhausted and humiliated, struggling under a huge debt load, Mexico found itself in 1863 once again under the yoke of a European power. This time it was France and Napoleon III, who installed Ferdinand Maximilian von Hapsburg and his wife, Carlota, as emperor and empress of Mexico. The monarchy survived less than five years, defeated by an army led by Benito Juárez, a Zapotec Indian. Afterward, Maximilian was executed, Carlota went insane, the republic was restored, and Juárez was elected president. Juárez died of a heart attack in 1872, after winning a new term in office, and was succeeded by Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada. Four years later, Porfirio Díaz toppled Lerdo from power and began a thirty-year authoritarian regime known as the Porfiriato.

In order to bring Mexico into the twentieth century, Díaz had opened the doors of his country to foreign investors and through them came the Guggenheims, Hearsts, and Rockefellers, Standard Oil and Phelps Dodge, and hundreds of other, smaller land speculators, wildcatters, miners, ranchers, and farmers. The Americans built railroads and sank mine shafts, the Spaniards opened small retail shops, and the French established factories and banks. Vast cattle ranches emerged along the northern tier of states, and huge farms devoted to single crops such as sugar, cacao, coffee, and rubber were carved from the tropical lowlands. For his efforts, Díaz garnered admiration from industrialists, politicians, and even great literary figures, such as Leo Tolstoy.

His popularity was greatest in Mexico City, where wealthy foreigners and daughters and wives of native hacendados lived in walled compounds fragrant with roses, bougainvillea, and hibiscus. The melancholy cries of tamale women and scissors grinders dropped like birdsong into the somnolent quiet of late afternoons, and in the distant recesses of the lovely old homes, legions of cooks and nannies and cleaning girls worked soundlessly, faceless and nameless to the lady of the house. With its colonial languor and lingering Victorian mannerisms, Mexico City seemed like a metropolis enclosed in a shining glass bubble, drifting in its own time. Wearing Paris gowns, London-made tuxedos, or hand-sewn lace, the wealthy shuttled to luncheons and teas and dinner parties in horse-drawn carriages and chauffeur-driven cars. They went horseback riding in Chapultepec Park, organized group outings to the floating gardens of Xochimilco, and in the evenings flocked to the opera.

Pouring through their salon windows was a golden sunlight that made everything seem like a dream. So dreaming, the wealthy foreigners and their Mexican friends failed to see the horrors in their midst: the women crouching behind the waiting carriages picking undigested corn kernels from horse manure; the press gangs who snatched husbands and sons and young girls off the street, the men destined for the army and the women for gunpowder factories; the tubercular Indians who clogged the charity wards and were fodder for medical experiments; the political victims of the firing squads, who spun on their heels in the liquid light, the bullets turning them round and round until they collapsed in front of adobe walls stained dark with old blood.

The modernization and prosperity that Díaz had presided over caused grave dislocation among the country’s peasants, factory workers, and even Mexico’s elite ruling class. By the time the Mexican Revolution erupted, foreigners controlled most of the country’s vast natural resources, its railroads and businesses.

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George Simpson’s Legacy at HBC

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 335-337:

Suspicious by nature, Simpson nosed his way into every aspect of the business looking for things others might have missed. The overarching theme of his governorship was control, and he believed that improving the Company’s efficiency involved not merely optimizing its operations but cutting expenses. Over the years, Simpson gradually phased out the use of transport canoes—apart from his own enormous and speedy executive canoe—and replaced them with the heavy but large York boats that the Company had been using on certain routes for decades. In keeping with Simpson’s philosophy of economy, it was just a matter of math. The inelegant and tubby boats had a greater manpower-to-cargo ratio. They were also cheap to make and maintain and required less skill to use. The real clincher for Simpson was that he could have the boats made larger while the number of men to crew them was kept the same. One of his devious schemes to cut wages was to pressure labourers and officers to renew their contracts during the winter, when, because of their isolation, they had no idea what the prevailing rates and wages were, and they usually agreed to less in the absence of a competitive market.

Taken as a whole, Simpson’s actions, including his preoccupation with the minutiae of people’s lives, confirm the conclusion that he wielded an unwholesome authority over those who lived in his domain. He enjoyed knowing that he held power over people, that they could be kept in check by having no agency over the bread-and-butter aspects of their lives. Displaying deference and loyalty to him was the surest way of securing a promotion—that and not being Indigenous or of mixed heritage. Simpson rarely promoted the sons of his officers and their Indigenous wives above the position of labourer or interpreter, preferring to bring in Scots from overseas for officer ranks. By the 1830s, many of his officers fumed at this discrimination against their children and sought alternative opportunities for them. “It appears the present concern has stamped the Cain mark upon all born in this country,” wrote trader Charles Mackenzie regarding his mixed-heritage son Hector. “Neither education nor abilities serve them. The Honourable Company are unwilling to take natives, even as apprenticed clerks, and the favoured few they do take can never aspire to a higher status, be their education and capacity what they may.” But native-born people—whether Indigenous or of mixed heritage—were the ones who best understood the Company’s operations and responsibilities, and they chafed at being relegated to positions of subservience beneath imported managers. It was an uphill battle, and by the 1860s the “half breeds” made up only a third of the officer ranks.

Simpson didn’t care if he was liked or hated—he worked for his own benefit and to keep the London Committee satiated with profit. Beneath the surface, his was an information empire as much as a fur empire. The more profitable and secure things seemed, the less anyone was inclined to interfere with his methods or his personal life. Seeing in Simpson an uncommonly astute operative who appeared content to dwell in the hinterland, the Company promoted him to be in charge of both the Northern and Southern Districts in 1824. Simpson became the head of a personality cult that ran a complex commercial, and increasingly political, empire. He was the boss of the only general store for half a continent.

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First American Mountain Men, 1820s

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 358-359:

WILLIAM ASHLEY, AN ASTUTE ENTREPRENEUR, gunpowder salesman and later politician based out of St. Louis, changed the fur trade forever in the Pacific Northwest and set in motion events that would change its politics as well. In the spring of 1823, Ashley and his partner Andrew Henry organized a band of one hundred ragged and unruly ramblers—some wastrels, some thugs, some adventurous youths from the east, and quite a few former Nor’Westers disgruntled after the amalgamation with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821. Ashley’s small band, based out of the ramshackle tavern town of St. Louis, poled their unwieldy flat-bottomed barges upriver along the mud-coloured Missouri River and into the mountains. From there they filtered into the valleys and gulches of western Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado to set traps for unwary beaver. They were the first American “Mountain Men,” and during the 1820s and 1830s they expanded their operations westward toward the Pacific, nibbling at the fringes of McLoughlin’s domain and encroaching on the traditional lands of the Indigenous peoples.

Ashley’s “One Hundred Men” were not hauling into the wilderness back-breaking burdens of trade goods to exchange with the Indians for their furs. Instead they were laden with beaver traps and personal supplies. They had no intention of constructing a trading fort in the mountains. Ashley’s scheme was to have his men do the actual trapping—a role in the fur trade that had previously been the exclusive domain of Indigenous peoples, particularly in the north.

Not surprisingly, the invasion of traditional territories did not help relations between the two peoples. The various tribes didn’t appreciate hundreds of foreigners wandering around their territory trapping all the beaver. Within a few years, a more or less constant low-level war existed between the new trappers and the natives. Both the Mountain Men and the Indigenous warriors proudly displayed the scalps of their vanquished foes, sometimes wearing strings of the shrivelled flesh and hair as accoutrements to their outfits. The American senator Thomas Benton suggested that nearly five hundred American trappers perished in combat with the Rocky Mountain peoples by the close of the 1820s. He made no estimate of the Indigenous peoples that they had killed. The life expectancy of a “free trapper” could be short, and so for mutual protection as they invaded the traditional lands of proud and sometimes militant nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy and the Snake (Shoshoni) or Nez Perce, the free trappers travelled in brigades, or companies, of twenty men or more. Two of the greatest of these brigades were the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and the Missouri Fur Company, although both were later absorbed by the American Fur Company as John Jacob Astor tightened his grip on the American fur trade in the 1830s. Astor rapidly increased the trade along the upper Missouri River with the use of steam-powered ships. By the time the demand for fur had petered out by the 1840s, Astor had sold his interests in the fur trade, and the industry slipped into decline—the age of the Mountain Men was between 1822 and 1840. But the American Fur Company continued to flourish in the decades to follow, beginning the lucrative trade in bison hides that eventually drove the thundering herds to near extinction later in the century.

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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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