Category Archives: North America

Shoo-fly Switchback

From From the River to the Sea: The Untold Story of the Railroad War That Made the West, by John Sedgwick (Avid Reader / Simon & Schuster, 2021), Kindle p. 111:

A shoo-fly is a type of switchback, but with a pronounced zigzag that allows a train to ascend a steep mountainside. Sketched out, the route looks like a child’s drawing of the edge of a Christmas tree; each curved-up branch is a shoo-fly. To ascend, a train fires up its engines to run as high as it can on the bottom “branch.” When the going gets too steep, the engineer throws the train into reverse to run back up onto another set of tracks that are set at a higher elevation than the previous one. After rolling back as far as it can, the train then charges up the mountain once more, this time on another set of tracks that are placed still higher, and so on and on, forward and back and forward again, until the train catapults itself over the top.

There was nothing like it anywhere in North America, but Robinson had heard of its use in Europe. Morley hoped the Santa Fe could get by with two such shoo-fly branches, but when he ran the numbers on the train’s weight, the locomotive’s thrust, and the track inclines, he realized that one locomotive could not provide enough power. He tried to add a third shoo-fly, but there wasn’t room, so he added another locomotive. When that wasn’t enough, he threw in a third. It worked.

Zigzag railways can be found in many mountainous countries. The first one the Far Outliers encountered was in 2011 on the Hōhi Main Line across central Kyushu between Oita and Kumamoto. Earlier this month on a trip around the Canadian Rockies, we experienced another method of avoiding steep grades on railway lines: the spiral tunnels through the Big Hill at Kicking Horse Pass in British Columbia.

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A Year Without Summer, 1816

From Bolivar: American Liberator, by Marie Arana (Simon & Schuster, 2013), Kindle pp. 181-182:

Eighteen sixteen was the year without a summer. As Lord Byron put it, the bright sun had vanished and stars wandered “darkling in the eternal space.” The colossal eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia on April 10, 1815—the largest volcanic event in recorded history—had traveled the globe to spew a fine ash over Europe and the Americas. A year later, the earth’s atmosphere was so saturated with sulfur that brilliant sunsets inflamed the English skies, torrential rains washed away European crops, and a persistent gloom hung over North America. At the time, few imagined that a single geologic event in a remote location could affect the entire globe, and yet there was so much evidence of a freak imbalance: stinging frosts carpeted Pennsylvania in the middle of summer, killing the livestock; in Germany, harvests failed, causing a crippling famine; a typhus epidemic swept through the Mediterranean. There were surprising ramifications. Food riots gripped England and Ireland; Luddites torched textile factories with renewed frenzy. In a dark castle in rain-pelted Switzerland, Mary Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein. In northern Europe, J. M. W. Turner was so stunned by the fiery skies that he recorded them in magnificent canvases for years to come. In France, rampant disease prompted a new age of medical discovery. And in the Caribbean, where Bolívar prepared to relaunch his revolution, a perfect calm preceded the hurricane season, which arrived a month sooner than usual, tossing the sea with singular fury.

Eighteen sixteen also became the revolution’s cruelest year. There were wholesale beheadings, hangings, firing squads—all in the name of “pacification.” General Morillo had installed draconian laws to rid Venezuela—Spain’s most defiant colony—of revolutionaries once and for all. The royalists arrested suspects in rural backwaters and relocated them to heavily defended towns, where they could be overseen. Anyone found wandering the countryside was a candidate for the gallows. Morillo’s men burned crops, purged the forests of fruit trees, killed farm animals, impounded horses, and executed any blacksmith capable of forging a lance’s head or any other weapon. Royalist commanders exacted taxes and punitive fines, making themselves rich and powerful in the process. Patriots, on the other hand, were stripped of whatever property they had.

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First Foreign Enclave in Tokyo, 1869

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 164-165:

During Meiji’s stay in Tōkyō, negotiations were opened with the foreign diplomats living in Yokohama on a number of matters: the end of their policy of neutrality in the conflict between the government and the rebels; the destruction of the rebels in Hakodate; the disposition of the Japanese Christians; and the issuance of paper money. The negotiations did not go smoothly. The foreign representatives, headed by the redoubtable Sir Harry Parkes, refused to consider any request that seemed to threaten the sacred right to trade—in Hakodate and anywhere else.

On January 2 a foreign trade center was opened in Tōkyō at Tsukiji, which was also made available to foreigners for residence. Samurai were forbidden to enter the settlement without written permission. This restriction on the passage of samurai into the concessions was probably intended to allay the foreigners’ fear of sworded samurai, but it had the effect of lowering their prestige. Before long, the samurai were given the task of protecting foreign ships, something none of them could have foreseen. Ōnuma Chinzan wrote a poem on their plight:

A little Yang-chou—that’s the new Shimabara;
Our browbeaten Japanese warriors guard the barbarian ships.
“Please don’t come here wearing your swords—
Please come instead with a hundred thousand coins.”

In the winter of 1868, at the same time that daimyo mansions in Tsukiji were demolished to provide living space for the foreigners, a new licensed quarter, named after the old Shimabara in Kyōto, was opened nearby. The last two lines of the poem indicate that for the prostitutes of the new Shimabara, money counted more than a customer’s rank. This surely was no less humiliating for the samurai than the duty of protecting foreigners, despite their jōi [Expel the Barbarians] convictions of a few years earlier.

On January 5 and 6 the emperor received the ministers from foreign countries, evidence of his hope for increased and better relations between Japan and the rest of the world. In Western diplomatic practice, there was nothing remarkable about the emperor’s receiving foreign diplomats and providing refreshments for them, but it was unprecedented in Japan. It is all the more astonishing when one recalls that Kōmei, who considered that the presence of foreigners on the sacred soil of Japan was an unspeakable offense to the gods, had died less than two years earlier. The young emperor was willing not only to meet foreigners but was affable to them.

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Parade of Nations in Katakana Order

I don’t remember how Japan ordered the Parade of Nations when it hosted the Olympics in 1964 (when I was in high school there), but this year the nations were ordered according to how their Japanese names sounded in katakana, the Japanese syllabary used to render foreign names. A full list of the nations in Japanese order can be found in the NPR report about the parade.

Katakana order was used even when names contained kanji (Chinese characters). So Equatorial Guinea (赤道ギニア Sekidou Ginia, lit. ‘Redroad [=equator] Guinea’) appeared between Seychelles (セーシェル) and Senegal (セネガル) because they all start with the sound SE, written セ in katakana.

Similarly, Great Britain (英国 Eikoku, lit. ‘brave-country’) and the British Virgin Islands (英国ヴァージン諸島) appeared after Uruguay (ウルグァイ) and before Ecuador (エクアドル) because the katakana syllabary starts with the five vowels in the order A I U E O (アイウエオ), then proceeds to KA KI KU KE KO (カキクケコ). So the E+I of Eikoku precedes the E+KU of Ekuadoru. (In Chinese, where the name 英国 originated, the character 英 sounds much more like the first syllable of England.)

The last of the vowel-initial names are those that start with the sound O: Australia (オーストラリア Oosutoraria), Austria (オーストリア Oosutoria), Oman (オマーン Omaan), and the Netherlands (オランダ Oranda < Holland). I’ve transcribed the long vowels here as double vowels.

The order of the consonant-initial syllables is KA (カ), SA (サ), TA (タ), NA (ナ), HA (ハ), MA (マ), YA (ヤ), RA (ラ), WA (ワ), N (ン). Most, but not all, of these consonants occur with each vowel. The YA series has YA (ヤ), YU (ユ), and YO (ヨ), but YI and YE have been replaced by the vowels I and E. As a consequence, Yemen is written イェメン Iemen, and its team preceded Israel, Italy, Iraq, and Iran in the parade, while Jordan was relegated to near the end of the parade as the only name starting with Y, written ヨルダン Yorudan. The WA series only has WA (ワ) and WO (ヲ), with WI, WU, WE replaced by the vowels I, U, E. The final sound, N (ン) only occurs at the ends of syllables, as in Iemen and Yorudan.

In katakana, voiced consonants are distinguished from their voiced equivalents by a diacritic that looks a bit like a double quote mark: KA カ vs. GA ガ, TA タ vs. DA ダ, SA サ vs. ZA ザ. The consonants with and without diacritics are considered equivalent for ordering purposes. So Canada (Kanada), Gabon (Gabon), Cameroon (Kameruun), Gambia (Ganbia), Cambodia (Kanbojia) are in that order because of what follows their initial KA/GA syllables (-NA-, -BO-, -ME-, -NBI-, -NBO-, respectively). On the same principle, Zambia (Zanbia) precedes San Marino (Sanmarino) (-NBI- > -NMA-), while Singapore (Singaporu) precedes Zimbabwe (Zinbabue) (-NGA- > -NBA-) among the nations whose names start with S/Z.

The same principle applies to the three-way diacritical distinction between HA ハ, PA パ, and BA バ. So Bahrain (Baareen), Haiti (Haiti), and Pakistan (Pakisutan) begin the series of names beginning with HA ハ, which also include Vanuatu (Banuatu) because Japanese has no syllable VA. (However, the V can be represented by adding the voiced consonant diacritic ” to the vowel ウ U, as in ヴァージン Vuaajin for the Virgin Islands.)

Nor does Japanese have a syllable FA, but the syllable HU (フ) sounds close enough to FU to substitute for F in foreign words. So names beginning with F sounds fall into the same group as those beginning with H, P, and B. Thus, the next countries to enter after Fiji (フィジー Fuijii), Philippines (フィリピン Fuiripin), and Finland (フィンァンド Fuinrando) were Bhutan (ブータン Buutan) and Puerto Rico (プエルトリコ Pueruto Riko).

The TA/DA (タ/ダ) series is at least as complicated. When pronounced, the syllables TA TI TU TE TO (タチツテト) actually sound like Ta Chi Tsu Te To and are usually romanized that way in English, while DA DI DU DE DO (ダヂヅデド) sound like Da Ji Zu De Do. So nations whose names start with Ch or Ts sounds are ordered among those whose names start with T/D. So the teams for Chile (Chiri), Tuvalu (Tsubaru), Denmark (Denmaaku), and Germany (Doitsu < Deutsch) entered in katakana order チツテト (TI TU TE TO, which sound like Chi, Tsu, Te, To), keeping in mind that TE=DE and TO=DO for ordering purposes.

Just as the normally syllabic フ FU can be combined with イ I (in フィ) to represent the foreign syllable FI, normally syllabic チ TI/CHI can be combined into チャ (TI+ya=) CHA, チュ (TI+yu=) CHU, チェ (TI+e=) CHE, and チョ (TI+yo =) CHO to represent foreign syllables starting with those sounds, as in チャイナ Chaina (China) or チェコ Cheko (Czech). Foreign words starting with J- can be represented using similar combinations starting with ZI/JI. So ZI+ya = JA in ジャマイカ Jamaica and ZI+yo = JO in ジョージア Georgia, which are sandwiched between ジブチ Djibouti and シリア Syria in katakana order. (Jordan is written ヨルダン Yorudan.)

It’s interesting that the Republic of Korea, Chinese Taipei, and the People’s Republic of China all appear among the nations whose names start with T/D, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would too, if it sent a team to this Olympics. The official name of South Korea in Chinese characters is 大韓民国 (Great Han Republic), which is pronounced in Japanese as Daikanminkoku. This name places South Korea immediately after Thailand (タイ Tai), which starts the T/D section of the parade of nations. Chinese Taipei (Chainiizu Taipei) and Tajikistan (Tajikisutan) immediately follow, so the former is ordered as if it were Taipei, not Chinese Taipei.

Tanzania, Czech (チェコ Cheko) Republic, Chad (チャド Chado), and the Central African Republic (中央アフリカ共和国 Chuuou Ahurika Kyouwakoku) precede China (中華人民共和国 Chuuka Jinmin Kyouwakoku ‘Chinese [‘Middle Splendor’] People’s Republic’) because the official names of both the CAR and PRC start with 中 ‘middle’, which in katakana is written チュウ Chuu. The official name of North Korea in Chinese characters is 朝鮮民主主義人民共和国, pronounced in Japanese as Chousen Minshuushugi Jinmin Kyouwakoku (‘Korean Democratic People’s Republic’). It would immediately follow Tunisia (Chunijia) because チュ Chu precedes チョ Cho in katakana order.

Finally, because Japanese R renders both R and L in foreign names, and katakana RA RI RU RE RO come near the end of the syllabary, Laos, Latvia, Lithuania, Libya, Liechtenstein, Liberia, Romania (Ruumania), Luxembourg, Rwanda, Lesotho, and Lebanon come after Jordan (Yorudan) at the tail end of the parade, just before the current and future Olympic host nations.

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Filed under Africa, Asia, Australia, Caribbean, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, Europe, Japan, language, Latin America, Mediterranean, Middle East, nationalism, North America, Pacific, South Asia, Southeast Asia

Castaway Healers Without Borders, 1530s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 189-192:

As they traveled, the castaways continued to burnish their reputation as healers. Cabeza de Vaca in particular became more confident in his skills. He became bolder in his interventions; he was no longer content merely to pray and blow. The medical procedures he employed may go some way toward explaining his success. Not far from the Rio Nadadores, he treated a man who had been struck by an arrow below the shoulder. “I touched him and felt the point of the arrow, and I saw that it had passed through the cartilage,” Cabeza de Vaca writes with the precision of a surgeon, “and with a knife that I had, I opened his chest to that place. And I saw that the point had passed through and was very difficult to remove. I again cut deeper, and I inserted the knife point, and with great difficulty, at last I pulled it out. It was very long. And with a deer bone, plying my trade as a physician, I gave him two stitches, and after that he bled a great deal and with scraps of hide I stopped the bleeding.” After the surgery, the patient claimed that he no longer felt pain. The arrowhead was passed around throughout the land, and everyone was amazed by the miraculous cure that Cabeza de Vaca had bestowed. The travelers’ authority over the peoples of central Coahuila became great indeed.

They never traveled alone. Since crossing into northern Tamaulipas, they, and their string of indigenous hosts, had worked out a system that was part processional, part doctor’s visit, and part plunder. It must have been a marvel to behold. When the strangers arrived in each new Indian community, it set an elaborate series of rituals in motion. The natives would offer shelter, food, and gifts to the four men in exchange for access to their healing powers. Festivities would follow, sometimes for days. Then, reluctant to see the medicine men go, the Indian hosts would insist on traveling with them to the next settlement.

The four survivors had set ideas about where they wanted to go: first due south toward Pánuco, and then due west toward the metal-working peoples. They could not, however, simply dictate their route. Their Indian sponsors had their own notions and constantly tried to steer the drifters toward their friends and away from their enemies. The route actually taken by Cabeza de Vaca and his companions was often the result of complicated negotiations, and occasionally of deception. A native group by the Sierra de Pamoranes, for instance, tried to dissuade the four men from going inland by falsely claiming that there was neither food nor people in the direction the healers wished to travel. In that case the wanderers paid little attention and pursued their inland course. Yet in general they were not immune to such subtle manipulation, as they depended entirely upon their indigenous followers for information and knowledge about the terrain and geography of the region.

Each time the explorers approached the next indigenous settlement on their journey, a curious exchange would ensue. Those who had accompanied the medicine men would pillage the new hosts, entering their huts and plundering whatever possessions or food they could carry back to their own encampment. In return, they left the medicine men. A certain sense of reciprocity undergirded the entire transaction, yet the details were unsettling for the explorers. They were initially taken aback by this custom when they first witnessed it in northern Tamaulipas. They were distressed by how badly the new hosts were treated and feared that the widespread sacking would lead to serious altercations. Yet their fears turned out to be unfounded as the plundered Indians offered reassurance. “On seeing our sadness,” Cabeza de Vaca writes, “[they] consoled us by saying that we should not be grieved by that because they were so content to have seen us that they considered that their possessions had been well employed, and that farther ahead they would be compensated by others who were very rich.” And indeed, a few days later the erstwhile victims would plunder the villagers that followed, “and the ones always sacked the others, and thus those who lost, like those who gained, were very content.”

Precise instructions about how to deal with the healers were also passed down from group to group. The hosts were told to lead the foreigners onward, always treating them “with great respect and being careful not to anger us in anything,” Cabeza de Vaca writes, “and to give us everything they had, and to take us where there were many people, and that wherever we arrived to steal and loot what the others had because such was the custom.” Soon the “new custom” became so entrenched and so well known that native villages on the way began to take precautions like hiding their most valuable possessions in advance of the procession’s arrival. Reverence and intimidation were closely intertwined. An approaching band bent on plunder could easily cower villagers into surrendering their possessions and venerating the four outsiders.

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Spaniards Discover Hurricanes

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 65-68:

Unbeknownst to the expeditioners, somewhere in the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico, billowing clouds and localized thunderstorms began to clash and combine with each other, and this mass of clouds, rain, and wind started to rotate around a low-pressure center due to the earth’s spinning motion. In the course of two or three weeks the wind must have picked up steadily, until the system developed into a tropical storm and finally a hurricane. And it drifted toward Cuba.

The great majority of the Florida expeditioners had never experienced such a towering, rotating giant, shuffling erratically from place to place and smothering everything in its path. Because hurricanes require tropical heat and high humidity to form, they do not occur anywhere in the Mediterranean or the northeastern Atlantic. Columbus was the first to report one during his second voyage. European residents of Española and Cuba had some encounters with them in the early decades, adopting the Taíno word for them, hurakan, meaning “big wind.”

Cabeza de Vaca could not hide his astonishment:

At this time the sea and the storm began to swell so much that there was no less tempest in the town than at sea, because all the houses and churches blew down, and it was necessary for us to band together in groups of seven or eight men, our arms locked with one another, in order to save ourselves from being carried away by the wind. We were as fearful of being killed by walking under the trees as among the houses, since the storm was so great that even the trees, like the houses, fell. In this great storm and continual danger we walked all night without finding an area or place where we could be safe for even half an hour.

The following day, on Monday, Cabeza de Vaca and about thirty survivors of the expedition who had remained in Trinidad went to the shore to find out what had happened to the ships. There were only a few traces of them at the anchorage: some buoys but nothing more. Search parties moving along the coast found a rowboat atop a tree close to 1 mile away. At a distance of more than 25 miles, they recovered two bodies so bludgeoned that they were impossible to identify. They also found a cape and some blanket rags. All in all, that day the Florida expedition lost two ships, twenty horses, and sixty men to the strange ways of the New World. The God-fearing survivors could only interpret this violent storm as a divine warning, an unmistakable omen.

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Spanish Women Pioneers in the 1520s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 52-55:

ALONGSIDE THESE THREE caballeros [including Cabeza de Vaca], a microcosm of Spanish society was to travel to Florida. The expedition must have included a full complement of letrados, physicians, merchants, artisans, sailors, all the way down to lowly peasants seeking a fresh start. Five Franciscan brothers were to introduce the Indians to the mysteries of the Catholic faith.

The Florida expedition included women as well. Women were a fixture of early voyages of discovery and settlement. According to one estimate, they comprised around 10 percent of all licenses issued to departing passengers from Seville during much of the sixteenth century. In certain years they accounted for as much as 20 percent and even close to 30 percent of all European migrants to the New World. The majority of these pioneering women were married to members of the expeditions, but unmarried women traveled too, including the daughters of families, female servants, and prostitutes.

The lure of the Americas was all too evident for those women interested in marriage. In Spain there was an overabundance of women due to male migration and early death from war. According to the ambassador of the Republic of Venice, in the 1520s Seville appeared to be “very nearly under the control of women,” many of whom earned their living in manly occupations like peonage, masonry, and roofing. The situation was the exact opposite in the Indies, where European women were notoriously scarce and greatly appreciated by affluent but lonesome conquistadors.

Not surprisingly, most women traveled to parts of the New World already settled by Europeans; they were far less likely to risk voyages of exploration and conquest headed for unknown lands. Some expedition captains refused to take females altogether. But Narváez was not among them. The first European women in Mexico had traveled with Narváez in the imposing armada that was to confront Cortés. In the Florida expedition there were ten women, all of whom were married and traveling with their husbands.

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Seville as Port City in the 1520s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 39-41:

IN SIXTEENTH-CENTURY SPAIN, ALL NEW WORLD explorations originated in Seville, that marvel of a city-port on the Guadalquivir River. As Spain’s only port licensed to do business with the American colonies, Seville became a protagonist in the history of discovery, the starting and end point of all transatlantic voyages. As one contemporary so aptly put it, “Seville is the common homeland, the endless globe, the mother of orphans, and the cloak of sinners, where everything is a necessity and no one has it.” In the 1520s many sevillanos could still recall the stir caused by Columbus’s triumphant entrance in the spring of 1493. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea had paraded around town followed by ten natives and a few resilient parrots that he had brought from the newly discovered lands. The people of Seville had more recent memories of that cantankerous Portuguese commander, Ferdinand Magellan, who had departed in 1519 with five good ships. Three years later a lone vessel with tattered sails and twenty-one famished survivors pulled up into harbor after having circumnavigated the entire globe.

But far from being a backdrop or a silent witness, Seville was a beehive of activity, its workforce specializing in the procurement, outfitting, and manning of fleets bound for the New World, activities that drew men and women from all over Europe and North Africa. The main action centered on a stretch of beach that joined the left bank of the river to the city. Measuring 800 yards long and 350 yards wide, this area, commonly referred to as El Arenal (the Sandy Beach), functioned much like a surgeon’s operating table. On any given day, one could see dozens of ships crowding each other, all floating perpendicularly to the waterline to make the most of the work space. Many of these vessels were surrounded by swarms of carpenters, caulkers, riggers, stevedores, boatmen, pilots, accountants, royal officials, aspiring passengers, and the many other characters that populated this vibrant maritime community. Since the average lifespan of sixteenth-century ships that plied the transatlantic routes was a mere four years, repair crews were ubiquitous. Caulkers skillfully laid ships on one side by shifting the ballast and taking advantage of low tides to expose parts of the hull. They had a few frantic hours to scrub the bottom and add tarred oakum between the planks before the tide turned again. Loading a vessel required less skill but far more stamina. There were no piers or wharves at El Arenal, so the entire cargo—fifty, seventy, 120, or more tons—had to be taken by smaller boats and lifted up with ropes onto the deck, or carried on the backs of stevedores who staggered from shore to the ships over narrow planks.

It took about ten minutes to walk from El Arenal to the city center, where the imperial and ecclesiastical powers resided and expedition leaders wrestled with the overwhelming logistics of raising armadas. Human rivers flowed between the rowdy port scene and the august downtown through two main streets. The principal thoroughfare, a cobblestone street flanked by high stucco walls and wrought-iron grilles, began in the heart of El Arenal and ended at the steps of the Cathedral of Seville. Shipmasters recruited crew members and volunteers from these steps, and in the cool shade of the surrounding archways. Fittingly, the street was named La Calle de la Mar (“The Street of the Sea”), as it was here that crews bid their last farewells and caught their last glimpses of the city before boarding the ships.

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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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Filed under Canada, democracy, economics, labor, migration, nationalism, North America, U.S.

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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