Oregon History: Land-based Fur Trade and Exploration

painting of Captain Meriwether Lewis
Captain Meriwether Lewis, an aide to Thomas Jefferson, led the Corps of Discovery. Learn more about Lewis. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
The mariners who sailed the coast or ran their vessels tentatively into the estuaries and harbors of Oregon initiated inexorable forces of change. They introduced trade goods that swept in swift current through the traditional cultures of the native peoples, altering forever their clothing, technology, and means of subsistence. They introduced diseases such as smallpox, measles, and fevers; in time these pathogens decimated the Indian population. However, an event that would have even greater consequence was the November, 1805, arrival at the mouth of the Columbia River of a weary but eager exploring party under the command of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
Dispatched in 1804 by President Thomas Jefferson, this military expedition, financed at public expense and underwritten in part by the American Philosophical Society, was the American nation's belated commitment to the Enlightenment. Ostensibly the party was to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. Jefferson, however, wanted to find a water route, so far as practical, for the transit of commerce across North America. An avid student of nature and civilization, he laid out detailed instructions for the explorers to observe the flora, fauna, geology, climate, and Indian culture. They were to map the land, take temperatures of hot springs, note locations of major geographical features, record Indian vocabularies, and open diplomatic relations between the tribes and the United States.
The scripting of the expedition could not have been more perfect. The cast of characters included two stalwart leaders, young Army recruits, French-Canadian hunters, a Shoshoni woman--Sacagawea--and her infant son--Baptiste Charbonneau--York, an African-American slave of William Clark's, and a shaggy Newfoundland dog. The success of the Corps of Discovery in carrying out its multiple missions gave it luster while heightening interest in western lands and in government-financed exploration.
image of Sacagawea
Shoshoni woman Sacagawea, shown on a one dollar coin, played a key role in the success of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Learn more about Sacagawea.
Lewis and Clark accomplished their mission with verve. They crossed the Rockies, entered the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, followed the Nez Perce Trail west of Lolo Pass, and then embarked by dugouts to descend the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia Rivers. They camped on the north and south banks of the Columbia, portaged at Celilo Falls, passed through the Gorge and established their winter quarters at Fort Clatsop on the Oregon shore near the river's mouth. During the rain-soaked winter of 1805-06, they wrote their journals, boiled salt from seawater on the nearby beach of the Pacific, recorded cultural information from the Clatsop and Chinook Indians, drew numerous maps, and hoped a trading vessel might carry some of their treasured notes safely to the president. None appeared. The following spring the party departed for home, paddling against the swift current until it reached the mouth of the Umatilla River. Having bartered for horses sufficient to carry the party and its supplies, the men set out overland to retrace their steps across the mountains and plains.

News of the Lewis and Clark Expedition enlivened interest in distant frontiers. Already fur seekers were pushing up the Missouri, Arkansas, and Red rivers. The descriptions of swift streams and ponds filled with beaver, mink, otter, and marten in the mountains persuaded several investors to send men with traps and trade goods to exploit those resources. John Colter, a member of the Corps of Discovery, turned around before reaching St. Louis and signed on with a fur trapping party headed for the Yellowstone country. The rush for furs had taken on a new life. This time Americans were major players.
Jefferson turned over the journals of the leaders to Nicholas Biddle, who edited them in an abridged two-volume edition, The Journals of Lewis & Clark (1814). So popular were their accounts of adventure that an eager public literally read the books to pieces.
painting of William Clark
William Clark shared command of the Corps of Discovery. He was an excellent cartographer and the information he collected captivated Americans eager for adventure. Learn more about Clark. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
Lewis and Clark had created a remarkable legacy. They dramatically enhanced the geographical understanding of a far-flung part of North America. They collected 178 plant specimens--140 in the Oregon Country. They made notes upon or brought home specimens of 122 species and subspecies of animals--65 west of the Continental Divide. They expanded a nation's horizon and understanding in noteworthy ways.
The stirrings of change picked up momentum in 1808, when Simon Fraser and other employees of the North West Company, a fur-trading enterprise based in Montreal, crossed the Rockies and descended a mighty stream--the Fraser--to the Pacific Ocean. David Thompson, a skilled cartographer also in the employ of the North West Company, came next. He and his party crossed the Rockies and descended the Columbia. When he reached the ocean in 1811, he found an American fur trade post on the south shore. The Pacific Fur Company had already established a toehold, the first permanent Euro-American settlement in the region, at Astoria.
The new post on the lower Columbia River fulfilled the speculative dream of John Jacob Astor. An emigrant from Germany who prospered as a middleman in the fur trade and investor in New York real estate, Astor had listened keenly to reports of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. One of America's first millionaires, Astor thought big. His vision was to establish a post near the ocean shore in the Pacific Northwest. Land-based trappers and traders would secure furs for his rich trade in Canton. His warehouses on the lower Pearl River would exchange otter pelts for silks and porcelains for the American market. His sailing vessels would supply both his Columbia River post and the Russian American Company in Alaska. These ambitions led Astor to found the American Fur Company for the Rocky Mountain region in 1808, the Pacific Fur Company for the Columbia watershed in 1810, and the South West Company in 1811.
To attain his goals in Oregon, Astor planned a two-prong approach. He outfitted the Tonquin, a ship under Captain Jonathan Thorn, with trade goods, tools, and everything needed to sustain his new fort on the Columbia. Sailing in September, 1810, the Tonquin arrived in March, 1811, at the Columbia River. Astor also ordered Wilson Price Hunt to lead an overland party, which departed from St. Louis in September, 1810, for an arduous and nearly fatal winter crossing of the continent. Ultimately, in spite of drownings at the mouth of the Columbia and terrible privations for the overland party, the Astorians began clearing the dense spruce forest to erect their fort. "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, carpenter's workshop," noted Ross Cox. All was enclosed by a log stockade with two bastions in which the Astorians mounted six-pound cannon.
painting of John Jacob Astor
John Jacob Astor established an early but tenuous American presence in the Northwest fur trade. (Painting by John Wesley Jarvis, Image via Wikimedia Commons)
Although the Pacific Fur Company's outpost appeared substantial when David Thompson arrived at its doorstep in 1812, its tenure proved fragile. The Tonquin was blown up and sank on a trading voyage north along the coast. Supplies were infrequent. The men at Astoria were driven by starvation to establish Willamette Post in the lower Willamette Valley to relieve some of the pressure on stores at the river's mouth. The connections with China were infrequent. When the partners-in-the-field at Astoria learned of the outbreak of the War of 1812, they rightly feared a British naval vessel might enter the river and seize their post. Thus, in 1813, they sold out to the North West Company. The sale ended Astor's dreams for the Pacific Fur Company. His investment, however, proved highly consequential for the United States.
The Treaty of Ghent (1814) provided in the peace terms ending the war with Great Britain that all conditions would revert to "status ante bellum." The Americans subsequently interpreted this clause to mean that the American claim to the Oregon Country--enhanced by the construction of the fort at Astoria--remained unextinguished. To buttress this prospect the U.S. Navy dispatched Captain James Biddle on the U.S. Ontario to the Columbia River. In 1818 Biddle declared American possession of both shores of the estuary. John B. Prevost, an American special agent, arrived later that year and symbolically reasserted his nation's interest by raising the Stars and Stripes on the flagpole at Fort George, the post purchased and named by the North West Company for King George III of England.
During the 1810s the competition between the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company, the older, larger rival for control of the fur trade, erupted into bloodshed in the Red River Valley in Canada. Determined to end the conflict and to bring stability to the frontier, the British parliament in 1821 forcibly merged the companies. One firm survived--the Hudson's Bay Company, founded in 1670. This British corporation took over the interests of the North West Company in the Oregon Country. For the next 25 years the Hudson's Bay Company helped shape the destiny of the region.
The Hudson's Bay Company had a single concern: profit. To satisfy investors interested in return on their money, the directors in London named George Simpson to superintend the field operations. Simpson, in turn, named Dr. John McLoughlin, a former North West Company employee, to serve as Chief Factor in the watershed of the Columbia River. The directions of Simpson and steady hand of McLoughlin proved highly significant in the history of Oregon. Collectively they agreed on a simple, effective set of policies: peace with the Indian tribes, fair prices for furs secured through trade, and self-sufficiency for the posts in the region.
The beaver was at the heart of the fur trade in the Northwest. Beaver pelts were made into fashionable top hats and other clothing.
The Oregon Country was so distant that the company workers in the region had to provide for their own subsistence. Vessels could bring in tools and trade goods, but they could not provide food to sustain the nearly 600 men working for the company and their families. Simpson and McLoughlin thus developed the post system. Fort Vancouver, founded in 1822 near the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers, was the hub. The spokes of connection reached to Fort George at the mouth of the Columbia, Fort Umpqua in southwestern Oregon, Fort Boise on the western Snake Plain in Idaho, and to Fort Nisqually, Fort Okanogan, and Fort Walla Walla in Washington. A series of more distant forts in British Columbia and southeast Alaska completed the system. Post traders were encouraged to plant vegetables, lay out orchards, and raise livestock. These stations tested the region's agricultural potentials. They found considerable promise in their ventures.
Simpson and McLoughlin also instituted the brigade system. In addition to the posts where nearby Indian tribes bartered furs for trade goods, the company outfitted brigades of 20 to 50 or more employees who, with their Indian wives and children, went into the field to trap and trade for months. Brigade leaders in Oregon included John Work, Michel LaFramboise, Alexander Roderick McLeod, and Peter Skene Ogden. The brigades penetrated the far reaches of the state. McLeod, for example, explored the Oregon coast south to the Rogue River in the 1820s. Work led brigades back and forth via the Willamette, Umpqua, and Rogue Valleys to the Sacramento Valley of California. Ogden mounted five brigades to the upper Snake River. His mission, defined by Simpson, was to eradicate the fur-bearing animals of the region. The plan of ecological disruption mounted by the company was to create an area so devoid of furs that Americans crossing the Rockies would become discouraged and turn back. The Hudson's Bay Company largely succeeded in all these objectives.
Simpson and McLoughlin also launched other initiatives. They established a coastal maritime trade. The Beaver, a steam-powered sidewheeler, brought manufactured items to native villages along the shore north to Alaska. They opened retail stores in San Francisco and Honolulu and offered lumber cut at the company mill on the north bank of the Columbia as well as salted salmon from Pillar Rock and Cascades fisheries on the river. They established the Puget Sound Agricultural Company with farms at Nisqually and Cowlitz Landings.
photograph of Dr. John McLoughlin
Dr. John McLoughlin presided over Hudson's Bay Company activities in the Northwest. Learn more about McLoughlin. (Image via nps.gov)
The legacies of the Hudson's Bay Company were many. Its employees fished for salmon, felled the towering firs, manufactured lumber, grew bountiful gardens, raised cereal crops, tended horses on the plateau and cows on the meadows west of the Cascades, and trapped and traded for furs. The brigade leaders mapped much of the land; their diaries, closely held by the company, contained valuable geographical information. The company had great impact on the Indian tribes. It spread manufactured goods, hastened cultural change, and introduced new diseases. Most of the firm's employees--including natives from Hawaii and Polynesia--married native women creating a mixed-blood population. Their children had connections with both local and foreign worlds and often grew up bilingual. The company spread the Chinook Jargon far and wide. This trade vocabulary of nearly 1,000 words was founded on the Chinookan language of the Columbia River. It became the primary means of communication across tribal lines and with Euro-Americans throughout the region.
The success of the Hudson's Bay Company in the Pacific Northwest did not pass unnoticed. In the 1820s Hall Jackson Kelley, an ardent, visionary schoolteacher in Massachusetts, began promoting American colonization of the region. Kelley printed circulars and pamphlets that raved about the region's potentials. He talked about the "spontaneous growth of the soil" and the "fruits of laborious industry," which would make Americans rich if they would settle in Oregon. Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth, a wealthy Boston ice merchant, responded and, when Kelley's colony failed to develop, he formed the Pacific Trading Company, a joint-stock venture, to develop Oregon.
Wyeth's plans echoed those of John Jacob Astor. In 1832 he set out with uniformed associates to cross the continent and locate forts in the Oregon Country. His plan was to supply his land-based traders from western stations and ship furs and salmon to Asia. Desertions reduced his party to 11. John McLoughlin played the good host and extended the hospitality of Fort Vancouver to the American but did little to encourage his enterprise. In 1834 Wyeth returned to Oregon. He traveled with companions overland, driving wagons across the Great Plains and to South Pass, the subsequent route of the Oregon Trail. His party built Fort Hall on the upper Snake and erected Fort William on Sauvie Island at the mouth of the Willamette. Wyeth then set out to trap for furs in the Deschutes watershed. His diary documented his lonely, fruitless efforts to wrest a fortune from the fur-bearing animals of central Oregon. Wyeth's competitors were too powerful. The American Fur Company commanded the trade in the Rockies; the Hudson's Bay Company had a firm grip on the Pacific Northwest. Wyeth's supply ship arrived late and carried out a cargo of poorly preserved salmon. In 1836 he gave up. His business, which showed so much promise, had foundered on the realities of competition and demanding conditions in Oregon.
drawing of David Douglas
Scotsman David Douglas pioneered the science of botany in Oregon in the 1820s and 1830s. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
A fascinating legacy from the fur trade era was how its operators played host to wandering naturalists. David Douglas was singular among these. A Scotsman in the employ of the Royal Horticultural Society of London, Douglas came to Oregon in 1825-27 and 1830-32 to collect plants of potential uses in European landscapes as well as to obtain herbarium specimens to enlarge the understanding of botany. Douglas was ardent in his assignment. In 1826 he traveled alone into the South Umpqua watershed of southwestern Oregon in a quest for the sugar pine trees that produced the handsome seeds he had viewed at Fort Vancouver. His diaries documented his explorations; his name became popularly attached to Pseudotsuga menziesii, the famed Douglas Fir. In 1834 Thomas Nuttall, of Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum, and naturalist John Kirk Townsend accompanied Wyeth on his second overland journey. Townsend's Narrative of Travels Beyond the Rocky Mountains (1839) gave a positive account of the American West. The duplicates of his bird and mammal skins he sold to John James Audubon. These specimens added to scientific understanding and were rendered into lifelike images by the famed painter in his books on North American birds and the quadrupeds.
By the early 1840s the fur trade was in decline. Changes in fashion had significantly reduced the interest in men's top hats made of hair stripped from beaver pelts. Extermination of fur-bearing animals in vast parts of the American West was another factor. Furs were neither abundant nor cheap. The days of the fur trade were ending, but the legacy of the enterprise was large. The fur trade had opened primary routes of travel, altered Indian lifeways, filled in geographical information, and produced an important literature about Oregon. The Astorians--Ross Cox, Alexander Ross, Gabriel Franchere, Robert Stuart, and Peter Corney--all produced books in the 19th century describing Oregon. More significant, however, were the companion volumes penned by Washington Irving. His works, Astoria or Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains (1836) and Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837), were read by an eager public. Irving described the temperate climate and abundant resources of Oregon, portraying the land as a place of adventure and possible prosperity.

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