The Fur Trade Exploits the Region

A top hat
The top hat drove the fur trade.
Portraits of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the Corps of Discovery to the Oregon coast where they spent a long winter in 1805-1806.
As members of the Lewis and Clark expedition complained their way through the soggy and dark months at Fort Clatsop during the long winter of 1805-1806, they probably never imagined that within five years the first permanent white settlement in the region would be established at nearby Astoria. Why would anyone want to live in such a remote, dreary, and godforsaken place? Fashion would provide the answer. No self-respecting European or American gentleman of the times would be without a beaver fur felt top hat, which was more highly prized than hats made of wool or other types of fur. Since much of the Pacific Northwest was teeming with beavers, laws of supply and demand soon led both investors and trappers to cast their gaze on the region.

Pacific Fur Company

John Jacob Astor, spurred by reports of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the promise of profit, engineered an ambitious American toehold at Astoria in 1811. Workers for his Pacific Fur Company soon built a fort which, according to Ross Cox, looked quite substantial: "The buildings consisted of apartments for the proprietors and clerks, with a capacious dining-hall for both, extensive warehouses for the trading goods and furs, a provision store, a trading shop, smith's forge, [and a] carpenter's workshop," all located within the walls of a log stockade. Footnote 1 Despite the initial appearances, the next year brought great privations. After learning of the War of 1812, the Astorians chose to sell the post to a British company rather than risk having it seized by a British naval vessel. While the sale ended a chapter of American involvement in the region, the construction of the fort bolstered U.S. claims to the Oregon Country after the war.

Hudson's Bay Company

Portrait of John Jacob Astor
John Jacob Astor dreamed of big profits.
Other American fur traders would ply the region in the coming decades, but none would rival the dominance of the British Hudson's Bay Company. The company named George Simpson to oversee field operations and he assigned Dr. John McLoughlin to serve as chief factor (manager) in the vast Columbia River watershed. Simpson and McLoughlin set up a hub and spoke system as the basis for operations. Fort Vancouver, built in 1825 near the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, was designated the hub. The spokes reached to distant points in the region such as Fort Umpqua in southwest Oregon; Fort George at the mouth of the Columbia River; Fort Walla Walla and Fort Okanogan in present-day Washington state; and Fort Boise in present-day Idaho. These posts bartered trade goods for furs brought by local Indian tribes. To augment this operation, the company sent brigades of 20 to 50 employees and their families into the field to trap and trade furs for months at a time.

A painting of Fort Vancouver
Fort Vancouver circa 1848. (Image courtesy National Archives of Canada)
The company developed an extensive infrastructure centered around the Fort Vancouver stockade, which measured 750 feet by 450 feet and stood about 20 feet high. Within its walls were 40 buildings including a school, library, pharmacy and chapel as well as houses, warehouses and a manufacturing operation. Outside the walls stood more housing in addition to facilities such as a tannery, sawmill, distillery and dairy. While ships brought trade goods and tools, food was too expensive to transport, leaving company workers to provide for themselves. They responded by planting vegetable gardens, starting orchards, and raising livestock at Fort Vancouver and other posts in the region. These efforts offered early evidence of the agricultural potential of the Oregon Country. At its peak, the company oversaw 34 outposts and 600 employees in the region while Fort Vancouver was by far the largest settlement of non-natives west of the Great Plains.

Politics and the Decline of the Fur Trade

A portrait of George Simpson
George Simpson set larger policies and strategies for Fort Vancouver. (Image courtesy Manitoba Museum & Archives of Manitoba)
International geopolitics played an important role in the operations of the Hudson's Bay Company in the Oregon Country. The British and Americans agreed to joint occupancy of the region beginning in 1818, acknowledging that both nations asserted claims on the land and maintaining a political status quo. Meanwhile, the jockeying continued for advantage in what was assumed to be the endgame—the eventual division of the region into separate British and American territories. This reasoning led Simpson to order brigade leader Peter Skene Ogden to eradicate the fur-bearing animals in the upper Snake River area. The plan had the short-term advantage of maximizing fur production and the long-term goal of making the area less desirable to the growing numbers of American trappers crossing the Rocky Mountains. Simpson assumed any final negotiated division would leave the land in American hands so he had every reason to extract all he could from it.

A portrait of John McLoughlin
John McLoughlin represented "authority" in the Oregon Country for over two decades as chief factor.
While George Simpson developed plans and strategies, it was Chief Factor John McLoughlin who would be the towering daily presence over the region for over two decades as he presided at Fort Vancouver from 1825 to 1846. His role was the closest thing to government in the region until the early 1840s. McLoughlin's instructions were to monopolize the fur trade, keep peace with Indians and discourage agricultural settlement in the region. He succeeded for a time and earned the name "White Headed Eagle" from Indians. Over the years, however, fur trading declined at the same time missionaries and pioneers moved into the region from the U.S. beginning in the 1830s. Faced with this reality, and much to the chagrin of company officials, McLoughlin provided assistance, advice and supplies to settlers—in the process sealing the fate of the Hudson's Bay Company in the region. The 1846 Oregon Treaty between Great Britain and the U.S. set the boundary between British and American territory at the 49th parallel north. While the treaty respected the property rights of the Hudson's Bay Company in the new American territory, operations soon became unprofitable and were closed. By that time, beavers were harder to find and changes in fashion reduced the demand.

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  1. Oregon Secretary of State, Oregon Blue Book 2007-2008, Oregon History Section by Prof. Stephen Dow Beckham (Salem, Oregon, Oregon Secretary of State, 2007) 339.