The History of Washington State

The History of Washington
Chapter 14

 

By Holice, Pam, and Deb

Extra special thanks to Holice B. Young for transcribing this series of books!

 

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CHAPTER XIV.

THE GREAT FUR COMPANIES OF THE NORTHWEST AND THEIR
INFLUENCE UPON AMERICAN EMIGRATION AND SETTLEMENT.

"Strange merchants these, who dwelt alone,
Their roof the spreading tree,
Their lullaby the night wind's moan,
Their home the forest free.
"They breathe the fragrant scent of pine,
They hunt the moose and deer;
The mountain rill supplies their wine,
The woodland wealth of cheer."

--BREWERTON.

As the El Dorado, real or fancied, of the Spaniard obtained notice and settlement from the greed of gold, to discover and secure which has the aim of the early adventurer, so the rich furs and valuable peltries of our own Northwest coast offered the lure that finally opened this country to emigrants of less wandering and more civilized ambitions. A speedy result of the discovery of this new source of wealth was the engendering of enterprises that ended in the establishment of such great corporations as the Russian, and, as more nearly affecting ourselves, the Hudson's Bay, Northwest, Astor (or Pacific Fur) and other kindred fur companies, the far-reaching systems of two of which, both as regards their Indian policy and trade, made them a power in the land, carrying beneath the mask of apparent friendship and extended hand of frank courtesy and good will the spirit of secret enmity and a grasp as of gauntleted steel, ever ready to crush out any and all who attempted to compete with their operations.

It is a fact patent to every intelligent reader of the history of Washington, that these great fur companies of the Northwest exercised as immense influence over our early emigration and settlement by encouraging the English and to the extent of their power disgusting and driving out the American; nor was

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this the result of accident; on the contrary, it was the outgrowth of plans wisely matured and deliberately carried out. Their secret and avowed object to those who were in their confidence was to make this yet unpeopled region from the Pacific to the Rocky Mountains so entirely English that, even if we should finally possess the land, it would require half a century of education under our own flag ere its original inhabitants could be dispossessed of the idea that they still owed an allegiance to the British crown; nor was this action entirely a matter of their own volition. It was, as will be seen, not only Government, which introduced a clause into their charter of exclusive right to trade to the following effect:

"One of the conditions on which this license to trade is granted is that English laws and the jurisdiction of English courts shall be extended over all parts of North America not yet organized into civil or provincial governments"--a condition. Strictly adhered to and most loyally carried out by the factors of the great Hudson's Bay Company, who for years, backed by large capital and endowed with almost unlimited powers, absorbed the wealth and insensibly acquired dominion over the country and people of the whole Northwest.

Let us look for a moment at the forces and plan of operations, admirably disciplined and supplied, of this peaceable army of conquest, who, working under the guise of remunerative trade, were in reality seeking to establish British supremacy and inculcate English sentiment wherever their influence could be felt. First, as to their forces, quoting their own statement as embodied in their petition to the home government, when, finding their original charter about to expire, they applied in 1837 for its renewal with enlarged privileges. They say:

"The company now occupy the country between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific by six permanent establishments on the Coast, sixteen in the interior country, besides several migratory and hunting parties; and they on the coast maintain a marine of six armed vessels, one of them a steam vessel. Their principal establishment and depot for the trade of the coast and interior is situated ninety miles from the Pacific, on the northern banks of the Columbia River, and called Vancouver, in honor of that celebrated navigator. In the neighborhood they have large

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pasture and grain farms, affording most abundantly every species of agricultural produce, and maintaining large herds of stock of every description; these have been gradually established; and it is the intention of the company still further not only to augment and increase them, to establish an export trade in wood, tallow, hides, and other agricultural produce, but to encourage the settlement of their retired servants and other emigrates under their protection. The soil climate and other circumstances of the country are as much adapted to agricultural pursuits as any other spot in America; and with are and protection the British dominion may not only be preserved in this country, which it has been so much the wish of Russia and American to occupy to the exclusion of British subjects, but British interest and British influence may be maintained as paramount in this interesting part of the cost of the Pacific."

So much for the material means at their command. They do not tell us of the number of their servants or the men--one day "to be retired"--under their supervision, with whom "British influence and dominion" was already paramount, but directly and indirectly they must have been a majority in that early day.

Of their system and modus operandi it was, as Evans tells us, simply "admirable." Their discipline was not only perfect, but extended through all the ramifications of their enormous trade, from the superintendent of a post to the far-away Indian gathering their furs as he trapped upon some lonely river. We wish that our space would permit an extended statement of their methods--methods which would seem, looking at results, to have been, so far as their treatment of the natives was concerned, a vast improvement upon our own. For certain it is that British rule in North America has had far less difficulty in its relation with its Indians, considering the extent of territory and the character of the tribes to be controlled, than we have had with our own.

The Hudson's Bay Company came into life by special grant in December of 1821. Its power extended from 42 north to the southern border of the Russian possessions, a state of affairs, lasting for a quarter of a century, during which Oregon, and consequently our State of Washington, of which it was then a

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part, was merely an adjunct, a trading district of the company for the gathering of its furs. Evans puts the situation very tersely thus:

"The Hudson's Bay Company was present in Oregon by virtue of its license for a term of years to prosecute the Indian trade in those parts of North American not included in the chartered territory. Its charter not only conferred corporate existence--it was an immense grant of territory from the King of Great Britain--but that grand did not extend to territory west of the Rocky Mountains. Under the Joint Occupancy Treaty of 1818, as British subjects this corporation extended its operations into Oregon. By the license of trade all other British subjects had been excluded in 1824 by act of Parliament of July 2d, 1821; and the Hudson's Bay Company were the only British subject permitted to trade with the Indians west of the Rocky Mountains."

With the almost regal powers of the predecessor of this company--the corporation known as "the Governor and Company of the Adventurers of England," chartered by King Charles of England in 1670 and ratified by the Parliament of 1690--we have little to do; but we will quote a somewhat curious passage from the immense privileges thereby conferred, whereby they are constituted.

"The true and absolute lords and proprietors of the territories, limits, and places, saving always the faith, allegiance, and sovereign dominion due to us (the crown), our heirs and successors for the same, to hold as tenants by free and common socage and not by knights' service, reserving as a yearly rent two elks and two black beavers."

We fancy that King Charles" elks would be harder to obtain than in the days when he rented that empire of land and sea for two elks and a brace of beaver.

One is simply astounded as one examines this deed of gift to the original company. Their grant is an empire; the owners are lords, subject only in their fealty to their kind; its directors, powerful noblemen, "solid" with the English court; its powers simply unbounded, and excluding all competition.

To return to their (the company of the present century's) treatment of the Indians. It maybe reduced from Evans's summing up as follows, and he may well say that it commands

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favorable consideration. It duplicates in many respects Penn's action in the settlement of the "Keystone States," and ina lesser degree that of the Spanish missions of California. He says:

"How profitable the lesson, how worthy of adoption that system upon which was predicated the successful career of the company in acquiring absolute control and unbounded influence over the aborigines of the territories in which it operated! This policy had a twofold object; first, to hold in moral subjection the native tribes as a matter of self-defense and economical management; and second, to convert them into dependents and allies. Thus did the company draw to itself and retain all the Indian trade as a latter of preference. At the same time, it converted the native tribes into auxiliaries, ready to serve the company should such service be required.

"The gift or sale of ardent spirits to the Indians was positively prohibited." (It is needless to dwell upon the excellent results arising from this rule.) "With comparatively few to defend their posts, oftentimes established in the midst of large bands of Indians, completely isolated and unprotected, yet those posts and the employees continued safe. Under Hudson's Bay rule there were no Indian outbreaks nor wars, and but little bloodshed. The establishment of schools, the effort to educate Indian children, the employment of Indians, all embraced within their Indian policy, continued to assure the confidence and gain the friendship of the native population."

They kept the Indian employed; they excited his zeal and encouraged him to supply their posts with furs, fish and game; they required little or no land for settlement, hence the Indian neither feared the loss of his hunting grounds nor the graveyards of his people. The Indians became, instead of enemies, as with ourselves, their guides, their messengers, the providers of the furs in which they dealt, and their friends. Instead of avoiding, they located their forts among the tribes, at the same time scattering their warriors in pursuit of game, for which and their peltries they were, from the standpoint, fairly and remuneratively paid. Again, the Indians soon came to depend upon the company for comforts which they learned to appreciate and consider necessities of life--weapons, blankets, fishing tackle, wearing apparel, and cooking utensils--all of which served to cement a union advantageous to both parties. But withal they

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held the hand of their power with no feeble or tremulous grasp. If an Indian was violent or threatening he was promptly and severely punished. In this connection Evans tell us:

"No half-way measures were used. Uniformly kind and conciliatory to the well-disposed, punishing with promptness and firmness the wrongdoer, the natives were taught that it was their interest to live on terms of friendship with the company. the influence which the company acquired over the Indian population was eradicated with difficulty. Indian suspicion of Americans resulted from their educated devotion to the Hudson's Bay Company, continuing for many years after the actual withdrawal of the company from the territory."

The author takes occasion to remark here: Why were we more unfortunate in our early experiences with the Indian tribes on Puget Sound and the interior? Why did they evince a desire to expel the American white and permit the English to remain? Was it the result of a less conciliatory policy on our part, or jealousies secretly fomented by our British friends (?) of the Hudson's Bay Company?

Meanwhile, it is but fair to admit that the company's treatment of Americans as individuals was worthy of all praise so long as that American did not come to trade, thereby touching that most sensitive nerve of our English cousin, "John Bull"--his pocket. If he did so, his trading post soon found a rival, and competition "froze out" the new-comer. But to the traveler of consideration, the army officer or missionary of our nationality they were uniformly courteous and kind.

Evans says: "The hospitality of the officers in charge of their posts to the first American emigrants entitles the company to the lasting gratitude of the early settlers." After all, "blood is thicker than water," and the whites of both races have many a time stood shoulder to shoulder in bitter perils by land and sea, forgetting sectional jealousies, and only remembering the claims of a common origin and the same mother tongue. It would seem to be the mission of the Anglo-Saxon to dominate and drive out the black, the yellow, and the red of amore effete manhood.

But, as we have just suggested, when it came to a competition of trade Evans tells us:

The American who made an effort to trade with the Ind-

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ians, to trap, hunt, or do anything in which the company was engaged, found in the company a rival and competition. In such opposition the result was generally that the American trader was obliged to retire from the field. Whenever an American established a trading house, post, or kindred enterprise, immediately the company formed a counter establishment in the vicinity; American vessels were obstructed--nay, defeated in obtaining cargoes upon the coast; Hudson's Bay Company vessels were not allowed to import from the Sandwich Islands goods or supplies ordered or purchased by American merchants. They were without mercy for a rival trader, yet the unfortunate who suffered by land or sea was freely offered shelter or food in the various establishments of the company."

After all, looked at from a financial standpoint, was it not a "fair fight"? If all methods are considered allowable in contests of love and war, why not those on the broader battle-fields of commerce? Let such merchants as the late A. T. Stewart answer the question, or, haply, the heavy operators on the stock exchanges of our own day.

Turning from their Indian and rival trader policy, let us look for a moment at their treatment of their own employees. There were no "strikes" in those days, their subordinates, by a Deed Poll of June, 1834, executed by the company, were divided into four classes--chief factors, chief trades, clerks and servants.

Evans's details of their contracts wit their people are so elaborate and instructive as compared with our wages of to-day that we feel it impossible to condense or resist the temptations to give them in extenso. He says:

"The chief factors superintended the affairs of the company at the trading posts. The chief traders under their direction managed the trade with the natives. The clerks served under both. Extra allowance of necessities, free of charge, was made to chief factors wintering at inland posts. Personal and private trade with the Indians for individual benefit was not tolerated. The failure to annually make strict account was severely punished by the council, who possessed the power of reprimand, impost penalties, or suspend a servant. Three chief factors and two chief traders were annually allowed to leave the country for one year. Wintering three years in the country entitled a factor or trader to retire with full share of profits for one year, and

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half profits for four years. Wintering five years entitled the same officer to half pay for six years. Three chief factors, or two and two chief traders, were permitted annually to retire, according to rotation. The legal representatives of a deceased chief factor, who had wintered in the country, were entitled to all the benefits deceased would he have received had he lived. A proportionate allowance was made for a shorter duration of service. After the payment of all expenses, sixty per cent of all the profits went to the shareholders and forty per cent to the chief factors and chief traders in lieu of salaries. The next grade below were clerks, who received from $100 to $500 per annum."

So far the company's arrangements seem fair and even liberal in their provisions. It is to be remembered, too, that the clerk hire of that day was far less then our own, not to mentioned the fact that the dissipations and dress of the wilderness-gambling excepted---were by no means extravagant. "Dudeism" was confined to some squaw's elaboration of a suit of buckskins, and the game dinners of the wilderness, though superior in flavor, were less expensive than those of Delmonico's.

Evans goes on to say: "The perfect absolution of the company's system is found in the enlistment of the servants. The pay was abut $85 per annum" (less than four months' wages oftentimes paid to an incompetent female domestic with us), "out of which the servant clothed himself. The term of service, or, more properly to speak, enlistment, was five years from the date of embarkation. He bound himself by indentures to devote his whole time and labor to the service of the company, to obey all orders of its agents, to defend its property, not to absent himself from its service or engage in any other employment during his term of engagement. he was faithfully to obey all laws and defend all servants and officers of the company to the utmost of his power. He engaged also to enroll as a soldier if required, and attend all drills and military exercises. In consideration of his wife and children being furnished with provisions, he obligated that they should render light services upon the company's farms. If a servant desired to return to Europe at the end of his enlistment, he gave a year's notice of his intention before expiration, and entered into an obligation to work a year longer, or until the next ship should leave for England

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If called upon to enroll as a soldier, he as entitled to be furnished by the company with a uniform suit every two years, and be supplied, free of cost, with arms and ammunition. Should he desire to remain the country after the expiration of his term as a settler, he was allowed fifty acres of land, for which eh rendered annually for seven years twenty-eight days 'service. The company retained the right to dismiss the servant during his term or at the conclusion, in which event he was carried back in one of their ships free of expenses. Desertion and neglect of duty were followed by forfeiture and loss of wages without redress. With such a pittance, is it to be wondered at that at the end of his term the servant was in debt for advances? As a consequence, he was obliged to continue service for discharge of his obligations.

"Marriage with Indian women was encouraged. Attachments were formed, and a t the end of his enlistment the servant, surrounded by a family to whom he owed support, could not abandon them. Thus precluded from gratifying the desire of returning to his native land, he was left the election between re-enlistment or acceptance of the grant of land, continuing dependent upon the company for the necessities of life."

Their system in this respect stopped but little short of the "peonage" of Mexico, leaving the man free in name but not in reality, by so enveloping him in a network of ever-increasing pecuniary liabilities that, struggle as he might, he was consigned to a slavery most hopeless, because ever strengthening its chains.

This great corporation surrounded its "license to trade" in 1838, and received a renewal one for a period of twenty-five years. Its terms were sufficiently ample, granting "the exclusive right of trading over a territory embracing the whole country west of the Rocky Mountains between 42 north latitude and the Russian line. The rental was as moderate as the rights conferred were enormous, being nothing for the first five years, and afterward a yearly rental of five shillings, payable on June 1st. The company was, however, obliged to execute a bond to insure the service of legal process within their boundaries, and the rendition of any of its servants accused of crime. The clause which, as Americans, most interests us, is that in which they are enjoined from "claiming or exercising any trade with the Indians on the Northwest coast to the prejudice or

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exclusion of any of the subjects of any foreign State who, under or by force of any convention or treaty for the time being between Great Britain and such foreign state, may be entitled to and shall be engaged in such trade:--a restriction which, so far as they could evade it, they certainly never proposed to abide by.

There is a marked resemblance between the financial methods and policy of the Hudson's Bay Company and the operations, in this day "of trusts," of many of our own great corporations. Like the serpent of the fairy-tale, they simply swallowed and made a part of themselves any opponent too strong for their competition to undermine otherwise. Its one great rival, the Northwest Company, was for years its most persistent and dangerous adversary. But even this was finally bought out and absorbed by the Hudson's Bay--a fitting fate and well deserved, for to its the (the Northwest's) treacherous treatment and to the demoralization of his agents did Mr. Astor owe the overthrow and failure of his company (intended to be American), the Pacific Fur. But ere we treat of that unlucky scheme and the causes which led to its downfall, let us give a page or two to the history and methods of the Northwest Company of Montreal. Organized in 1784, it was, as the name suggests, an outgrowth of Canadian, as well as the Hudson's Bay was the offspring of British enterprise. In 1778 Frobisher and Pond, of Montreal, built a trading post on the Elk River, which, till Fort Chippewyan, was the most distant from the white settlements. This, with other enterprises of a similar nature by merchants of Montreal, was too weak to sustain itself against Hudson's Bay opposition; hence he creation of the Northwest, formed from an ordinary mercantile partnership, but growing, like a descending snowball, which gathers as it goes, into immense proportions. Its partners numbered twenty-three, of whom the wealthiest remained in Montreal and furnished the capital. They were the agents and general managers. The "wintering partners" did duty at and gave their personal supervision to the trading posts. In the prosecution of their trade they employed no less than two thousand persons--clerks, traders, guides, interpreters, and voyageurs. The clerks, young Highlanders of good family, which will account for the array of "Mac" which figure in Astor's later scheme, served a thorough apprenticeship of from five to

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seven years. Merit in the discharge of their duty (as in the case of MacDougal) rendered them eligible to partnership. These clerks traded with the Indians at points selected by the company on lakes and rivers, some of which were hundred or thousands of miles distant from Montreal; the other employees also enlisted for a term of years, with increased pay if faithful to their trust. When disqualified by age or infirmity they were retired with a pension.

Evans gives us a very clean idea of the manner in which their trade was carried on. He says:

"The trading goods imported from England were packed in bundles, each weighing ninety pounds, and distributed among the various trading posts. Furs were packed in bundles of the same weight. These packs were transported by bark canoes by the chain of lakes and rivers, which canoes and packs were carried over portages by voyageurs. Some of these points were three thousand miles distant from Montreal."

The results of these trading operations were twofold; they carried out the plans of their projectors; but, though by no means a part of their scheme, these trading parties became explorers also, opening paths which in the fullness of time should be utilized by those whose aims were far bigger then men who limited their ambitions to a full cargo of furs. The railroad engineer, the settler, the stockman, and the agriculturist have all taken a leaf from the unwritten journals of the trapper and voyageur. The indefatigable Alexander Mackenzie was its mainspring and pilot; but to him and his inscription on the rock we have already referred. MacDougal, the traitorous partner in Astor's enterprise, also figures more respectably in this capacity. They seem to have had one American among their "wintering" partners--Daniel Williams Harmon, a Green Mountain boy, and who did them good service, crossing the Rocky Mountains and wintering upon Fraser's Lake. After a series of adventures he returned to his native Vermont to write them up ion a book subsequently published at Andover. Truly the unknown even in those early days suffered many things at the hands of their journal-writing explorers. The failure of Astor's enterprise in 1813 left the Northwest in full possession of their ill-gotten gains, and without a competitor in the region of the Columbia. In fact, they were in absolute possession of the whole territory west of the Rocky.

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Mountains between the Russian on the north and a trading post or two of the American Fur Company on the extreme southeast. This state of things continued for years, and the unfortunate "Joint Occupancy Treaty' endorsed, and British subjects protected their sovereignty.

Evans tells us that for a period the Northwest Company wielded a powerful influence in British America. Its operations reached far and wide into the unexplored and the unoccupied. It respected no right of territory; it sent out its parties wherever profit was to be gained. The inland voyages of Mackenzie were all made in its interest. In 1804, when advised of the proposed expedition of Lewis and Clarke, it attempted to forestall it b y sending out a party with instructions to reach the Columbia in advance of the United States expedition. It failed, owing to the ill health of its chief. It must be a source of gratification to every patriotic reader of the history of Washington to see how clearly the hand of a higher Power seems to have interposed to interrupt and bring to naught the wily plans and subtle machinations of the British Government and these great corporations, its allies, and lead over our people, a weak and feeble band as compared with these already in occupancy, to finally invade, hold, and secure to our flag and nationality this land of promise, so full of present fruition and teeming with future promise.

Growing by slow degrees from its organization in 1784, the Northwest Company grew to imperial influence in the first decade of the present century. In 1800 it had become the successful rival of the Hudson's Bay company, whose theory of trade was exactly the reverse of (and it seems to us interior to) their own. The Hudson's Bay, relying upon its long establishment, was stationary--furs came to it; on the contrary, the Northwest, so to speak, "drummed" their trade, sending out parties to scout the land; their agents were everywhere; they were visited at regular intervals and at appointed rendezvous. In these palmy days the Northwest Company employed thousands, doubling the salary of their eminently successful men. In the Hudson's Bay let a man work as he might, his salary was fixed, his promotion slow. It was, in fact, the old British red-tape system as opposed to the wide-awake, wise Yankee method of picking out the best man and remunerating him accordingly. And the keen blade of self-interest carved a way when circumlo-

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cution failed to enter. Space does not permit us to enter upon difficulties with various rivals and embarrassments, notably those of the "Selkirk project" and the colony at Assiniboia--difficulties ending at length in actual war, in which, on June 19th, 1816, a battle was fought between the Northwest company and the colonists, in which the company were victorious, killing twenty-two of the colonists, among whom was Mr. Semple, the Governor of Assiniboia. Competition had led both companies to the verge of insolvency when, in the winter of 1819-20, the British Secretary for the Colonies, Lord Bathurst, interposed his good offices to being about their peaceable union, which ended in an agreement in March, 1821, merging both into a single corporation under the charter of the Hudson's Bay; so the Northwest, as such, virtually ceased to exist--a state of things which ended in their entire absorption when, in 1824, the Hudson's Bay acquired all their rights, becoming the sole grantees under the license of exclusive trade of December, 1821. So the spoiler was spoiled, yielding to its rival and enemy even as Astor's company, whose inception and disastrous career we are about to narrate in the next chapter, was plundered and captured by themselves.

 

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