The Fur Trade in 1816

During the first part of the nineteenth century, the fur trade continued to be one of the important economic engines in North America. Driven in large part by European fashion, beaver pelts had great value. Traders obtained the pelts from Indians using goods such as blankets, guns, beads, knives, whiskey, tobacco and other items as trade goods.

Gift-giving and ceremonial exchange were important elements in trading with Indians: traders soon found that if they didn’t participate in the ceremonies and provide the Indians with gifts that the Indians wouldn’t trade with them. In general, the “Opening Trade Ceremonies” began with the traders dispensing “high wine” or “Indian rum” (a diluted alcohol). Next would come the passing of the pipe which would be accompanied by speeches.

By 1816, the fur and hide trade in North America was dominated by three groups: (1) the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) which had been founded in 1670 and was controlled by investors in London; (2) the North West Company (Nor’westers) which had been founded in 1776 by a group of traders in Montreal; and (3) a number of smaller American fur companies, often short-lived, which generally traded out of St. Louis.

The Columbia River Basin—an area which includes much of the present-day states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho—was claimed by both the Britain and the United States. In 1811, John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company had established Fort Astoria near the mouth of the Columbia River with the intention of controlling the region’s fur trade. In 1813, however, with war waging between the United States and Britain, the Nor’westers acquired the holdings of the Pacific Fur Company. In 1816, what had been Fort Astoria was now Fort George.

Originally, the fur trade centered on Indians trapping and preparing the furs. The Indians would then trade them for European goods. By 1816, however, the fur trade companies were more frequently using their own trappers and trading with the Indians primarily for horses and food supplies.

Donald McKenzie was appointed the leader of the North West Company’s new Columbia Department. While the company had traditionally gone into Indian country and opened posts for Indian trade, McKenzie decided to change this approach. Geographer John Allen, in one of his chapters in North American Exploration. Volume 3: A Continent Comprehended, reports:

“McKenzie, however, concluded that the fur trade could be made more profitable by eliminating the middlemen, that is, the Indians. Instead of building posts for trading purposes, the North West Company decided to trap rather than trade.”

As a result, large numbers of non-Indian trappers—French-Canadian, American, English, Hawaiian—began to invade Indian country. Also included in the trapping brigades were a number of Iroquois.

In Montana, Iroquois leader Big Ignace and a number of his people settled among the Flathead who welcomed these well-armed reinforcements in their clashes with the Blackfoot. Historian Larry Cebula, in his book Plateau Indians and the Quest for Spiritual Power, 1700-1850, writes:

“The Iroquois taught the Flatheads at least some of the outward forms of Catholicism, including the sign of the cross, morning and evening prayers, baptism, marking graves with a cross, and Sabbath day—which the Iroquois marked by raising a flag, as they had seen white traders do.”

Some of these new religious elements diffused to other neighboring tribes.

In Washington, the North West Company established Fort Nez Perce at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia Rivers to establish trade with the Nez Perce, Cayuse, Walla Walla, and Palouse.

In New Mexico, fur traders operating out of Taos adopted a strategy of trapping rather than trading. Geographer John Allen reports:

“Rather than seeking Indian tribes with whom they could trade for furs, they themselves trapped the beaver—in the rich valleys of the Sangre de Cristo, San Juan, and other ranges of the southern Rockies—and then returned to Santa Fe, where they sold the furs to merchants who had crossed the Santa Fe Trail from St. Louis.”

Métis

While the first Native American-European fur trade exchange happened about the year 1000 with Norse (i.e. Viking) entrepreneurs from Greenland, the fur trade didn’t really have a major impact on Native cultures until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The fur trade not only brought new goods into Indian nations, but also resulted in the emergence of a distinct cultural group known as Métis in Canada.

The French approach to American Indians was very different from that of the English, Spanish, and Russian invaders. The French viewed Indians as trading partners and potential markets for their goods. Instead of requiring their Indian partners to learn European ways as a prerequisite for trade, the French learned Indian ways.

Trade between nations was nothing new to American Indians: they had been engaged in trade for thousands of years by the time the French arrived. In what is now Canada, Indian trade involved both ceremonies and kinship. French traders understood this and became participants in the pipe ceremonies and gift giving that preceded formal trading. Since the French traders, all of whom were men, did not belong to any Indian clans, they had to acquire kinship connections through adoption and/or marriage.

Thus an important part of the French-Indian fur trade involved the marriage of the French fur traders into the Indian tribes. The French fur traders adopted many aspects of Indian culture and became as Indian as they were French. William Eccles, in his chapter on French exploration in North American Exploration. Volume 2: A Continent Defined, writes:  “These marriage alliances were regarded favourably by the Indians, since they strengthened the bonds between the two races, but they were frowned on by the royal officials and the clergy, who maintained that the offspring of these marriages combined the worst features of both races.”

One of the consequences of marriage is often children. The children of these fur trade marriages grew up in bilingual, bicultural households and often became important players in the expanding fur trade. While the fathers were often French, there were also Scots and Irish traders who married Indian women. The mothers most frequently came from Algonquian-speaking tribes, most often Cree or Anishinaabe (Ojibwa). Historian Barry Gough, in his biography First Across the Continent: Sir Alexander Mackenzie, writes:  “The descendants of these families became a distinct and important people in Canadian history, the Métis.”

Dan Asfar and Tim Chodan, in their biography Louis Riel, write:  “The Métis were a French-speaking people living in western Canada who drew their ancestry from both whites and Natives. They were the offspring of French fur traders and Native women who married during traders’ sojourns in Rupert’s Land.”

Rupert’s Land refers to the area granted to Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Asfar and Chodan also report:  “Over time, the Métis (French for “half-caste”) formed a distinct population. They developed buffalo-hunting practices of their own and competed against bordering Natives for hunting grounds.”

From the Native American perspective there was no such thing as race, and thus the Métis were not viewed as an interracial group. Culturally and linguistically, the Métis blended European and Native American features into a new culture. As with other indigenous people, there were a number of different Métis cultural variations. Josephine Paterek, in her book Encyclopedia of American Indian Costume, reports:“The Southern Métis were the offspring of the French coureurs de bois and Ojibway or Cree women; they were typically Catholic and lived in and around the Red River Valley. The Northern Métis, in the vicinity of the Saskatchewan River, were the offspring of Scottish and English traders and Athapaskan women and usually followed the Anglican religion.”

One of the characteristics of Métis men was the wearing of a red, finger-woven sash which was usually about 60 inches in length.

During the nineteenth century there were a number of conflicts between the British and the Métis. In 1814, for example, a conflict known as the Pemmican War broke out in Saskatchewan when the governor attempted to stop the pemmican trade.

After Rupert’s Land became a part of the Canadian Federation and was opened to homesteading, the Métis system of land distribution—narrow, river front lots—did not mesh with the Canadian homesteading squares. The Métis during the 1880s repeatedly petitioned Ottawa for official recognition of their lands and their concerns were ignored.

By the twentieth century, Canada recognized the Métis as a distinct people. In 1901, for example, the Canadian government offered land script to Métis who had been born between certain dates. As a result, many Canadian-born Metis returned to Canada from the United States.

In Canada today, the Métis are recognized as an indigenous people. The United States, with its obsession for race expressed in the concept of blood quantum, does not recognize the Métis.

 

An Iroquois in Oregon

In 1857, Enos Thomas, whose tribal identity is simply listed as Iroquois, was transported from Fort Vancouver to Port Orford, Oregon to be tried for war crimes committed during the recent Rogue River War. When the primary witness against him failed to appear, the Justice of the Peace William Copeland ordered the sheriff William Riley to free Enos. As soon as the blacksmith had freed him from his chains, a mob seized him, gave him some whiskey to drink, took him to the historic Battle Rock, and hung him. His body was buried at Battle Rock.

This type of incident—a mob hanging an Indian for “crimes” committed during a “war” with the United States—was common in the nineteenth century West. The interesting question is, however, how did an Iroquois, whose homelands are in the Northeast, come to be a war leader among tribes in southern Oregon?

The answer to this question lies in the early nineteenth century fur trade. The fur trade in the Pacific Northwest (in what would become Washington, Idaho, and Oregon) was dominated by two major fur companies: the London-based Hudson Bay Company (HBC) and the Montreal-based North West Company (the Nor’westers). As the Nor’westers moved into the area, they brought with them a number of Iroquois who were employed as trappers. These Iroquois had been educated by the Jesuits at the Caughnawaga Mission near Montreal in Canada. It was relatively common for these Iroquois to leave their employer and to settle among the tribes in the region.

The designation “Iroquois” does not refer to a single tribe, but is most frequently used to refer to the six Indian nations of the Iroquois Confederacy: Seneca, Cayuga, Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, and Tuscarora. The Iroquois homeland had originally included most of what is now New York and Ontario. Following the American Revolutionary War, many of the Iroquois settled in Canada.

Since many of the Iroquois who came to the Pacific Northwest spoke French as their primary European language, it was common for American settlers in the region to view them as French-Canadian. In most cases, the historic record does not indicate which of the Iroquois nations these trappers came from.

While there are no records regarding the early life of Enos (whose name is also indicated as Enas and Eneas and who is often described as a Canadian Indian), it is likely that he came into the region in the employ of HBC after the merger with the Nor’westers. He may also have grown up in a community of former HBC employees who had settled in Oregon. If this was the case, then his mother was most likely from an Oregon tribe or a Métis whose family was associated with the fur trade.

According to some historians, Enos may have worked as a guide for the 1843-1844 exploring expedition of John Charles Frémont: in 1843 Frémont hired two Indians—neither their names nor their tribal affiliations are recorded—to guide him from The Dalles to Klamath Lakes. According to Frémont’s records, one of these Indians had been to Klamath Lake and bore the battle scars of encounters with the Native people of that area. The physical description of this Indian appears to match that of Enos.

By 1855, Enos was living among the Tututni and had a Tututni wife. He was also friends with Benjamin Wright. In 1852, Wright had organized a party of volunteers in northern California for the purpose of killing Modocs. The Americans wanted to punish the Modoc for supposedly attacking wagon trains as they passed through Modoc territory. Wright then invited 46 Modocs to a peace conference. They first attempted to poison them with strychnine, but the Modoc declined the feast which was offered to them. The volunteers then opened fire with rifles on them. The Modoc had no guns. Only five of the Modoc, including Schonchin John and Curly Headed Doctor, escaped. The bodies of the dead Modoc were scalped and mutilated. The volunteers were proclaimed heroes and the state of California paid them for their services.

The following year, a group of Indians were invited into Wright’s camp under a white flag in order to negotiate peace. In a well-planned attack, Wright’s volunteers killed 38 Indians and scalped them.

In 1854, Benjamin Wright was appointed as special sub-Indian agent to handle affairs in the Port Orford, Oregon district. Enos and his wife gained Wright’s trust and he brought them into his confidence and sought their counsel.

In 1855, the so-called Rogue River War broke out between the Americans (particularly gold miners) and the various Indian nations along Oregon’s Rogue River. In 1856, Enos asked Benjamin Wright to meet with him at the Tututni village to discuss a possible peace. Wright, together with John Poland who represented the mining communities in the area, went upstream to meet with Enos and the Tututni. Both men were then killed and their bodies mutilated. Their bodies were never found by the Americans. These murders were the first step in a well-planned Indian uprising. The following day, the Indians attacked a volunteer regiment on the north side of the Rogue River and then went downstream to attack the community of Gold Beach. Under the leadership of Enos, the Indians burned about 60 non-Indian cabins and killed 31 people. The Americans branded Enos as a war criminal.

The siege of Gold Beach lasted for about a month and the Americans easily recognized Enos riding a white horse and encouraging the Indians in their fight. When U.S. Army troops reached the area, the Indians retreated upstream. According to one account, Enos was wounded in the thigh at a skirmish at Pistol River.

In late July, 1856 (perhaps the 26th or 27th), Enos was at the camp of Tututni Chief Taminestse at Port Orford where the Indians were awaiting transportation to the Siletz Indian Reservation. Indian agent William Chance describes his arrest:  “He made no resistance, said he could not keep away. He did not know why but it appeared to him that he had to come to the reservation.”

Among the Indian leaders of the Rogue River War, only Enos was arrested and singled out for trial. While Indian Superintendent Joel Palmer advocated the execution of all Indians who were known to have killed non-Indians during the war, only Enos was chosen for punishment. Enos was transferred from the coast reservation to Fort Vancouver where he was to be held awaiting a civil tribunal. The charges against him were murder and inciting to massacre.

In the spring of 1857, Enos was transported from Fort Vancouver to Port Orford by steamer. Due to bad weather, the ship had to dock to Crescent City to the south, when Enos was held in the local jail. When the weather cleared, he was taken north to Port Orford where he would be hung without a trial.

While it seemed to be important to the Americans to have a legal ritual (trial) before executing an Indian, in reality most Indians accused of crimes at this time were simply killed without this formality.

Fort Manuel Lisa and the Indians

When the Corps of Discovery under the leadership of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark returned to St. Louis after their journey to the Pacific Ocean in 1807, they brought back reports of the rich beaver country at the headwaters of the Missouri River. As a result, the Upper Missouri in Montana became one of the most sought after prizes of the fur trade. In St. Louis, 12 separate companies were formed to exploit this newfound source of wealth.

One of the first fur traders to enter into the upper Missouri River area of what is now Montana was Manuel Lisa, a Louisiana Spaniard by birth. Lisa established a fort at the confluence of the Bighorn and Yellowstone Rivers. The venture was under the auspices of the Missouri Fur Trading Company of St. Louis and included four men who had been with Lewis and Clark. The expedition had a total of 42 men, including 37 French Canadians.

The trading post was named Fort Raymond by Lisa, but most people called it Fort Manuel. Some historians claim that the log cabin, consisting of two rooms and a loft, was the first permanent building in what would become the state of Montana. This claim, however, either ignores or is unaware of the permanent structures which had been built centuries earlier by Indian peoples.

Fort Manual was unusual it that it had coal for fuel. This was a luxury which was rare in the upper Missouri area.

Fur trading companies at this time would establish a trading post at a location convenient for several tribes, then have the Indians come to them bringing in the furs to trade. The new fort was located in Crow country. However, the Yellowstone Valley at this time was also used by the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Blackfoot hunting parties. This meant that the new trading post was also positioned to trade with these Indian nations as well as the Crow.

Lisa departed from the usual practice of waiting for Indians to bring in furs to trade by sending out his own trappers. He ignored any possible concerns that Indians might have about taking their animal resources.

In 1807, John Colter, one of Manuel Lisa’s employees, set out from Fort Manuel to make trade alliances with the Absaroka (Crow). He found the Crow to be friendly and travelled with them into the area that is now known as Yellowstone National Park. When he later reported about the geysers and other sights that he had seen, many non-Indians did not believe him.

In 1808, John Colter set out from Fort Manuel (now also known as Lisa’s Fort and Fort Ramon) on the Yellowstone River, crossed the Bozeman Pass and encountered a Flathead buffalo hunting party. He convinced them to return with him to the fort to establish trade relations. Near Bozeman Pass they were attacked by a large Blackfoot war party. Colter was wounded in the thigh. As the Flathead were about to be defeated, the Crow entered the battle and the Blackfoot were driven off. As a result of this battle, the Blackfoot considered the fur traders to be allies of their enemies and treated them accordingly. As a result, the Blackfoot attacked the fur trading and fur trapping parties.

The following year, John Colter was trapping when he was discovered by a Blackfoot party. From the Blackfoot perspective, he was not only trespassing on their hunting grounds, but he was also stealing their resources. Colter is captured. Instead of killing him, they strip him naked, and tell him to run for his life. This was a traditional punishment for people who were banished. Colter managed to escape and his story became legendary.

Lisa had hoped to monopolize the Missouri River fur trade and to establish trade with the Blackfoot. However, when he failed to establish peaceful relations with the Blackfoot, the fort was abandoned in 1811. The Blackfoot had not only refused to patronize the fort, but they had also run off the fort’s livestock and harassed the traders.

Old Fort Benton (Photo Diary)

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Fort Benton was originally established as a trading post in 1846. It traded with the Blackfoot Indians primarily for buffalo robes which were then sent by boat down the Missouri River to St. Louis. While the fort was originally made from timbers, it was soon reconstructed using adobe brick.  

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Typical of trading posts, it was walled for protection and had a contained a large courtyard surrounded by a number of buildings. It has two blockhouses on opposite corners which have rifle slits and cannons. The entrance to the fort was-and still is-a large gate which faces the river. The gate leads into a large courtyard which today contains some wagons and Indian tipis and provides a setting for activities such as concerts.

Across the courtyard from the main gate is the agent’s quarters and the clerks’ quarters, two story adjacent structures. The lower story of this structure currently houses a gallery of art by Karl Bodmer and Bob Scriver.

To the right of the main gate is a building which housed the carpenter shop and the blacksmith shop.

To the left of the main gate is the warehouse and the trade room. The warehouse currently houses an extensive display on the Blackfoot and the trade room allows visitors to experience the feel of a trading post.

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Shown above is an 1860 photograph of the fort.

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Shown above is a model providing an overview of the original fort.

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Shown above is a replica of a buffalo hide press. The buffalo hides would be folded, hair side out, into a three-foot square. Then 10-12 hides would be pressed into a bundle which weighed about 150 pounds.  According to the display:

“The long tree pole of cotton-wood is anchored into the ground at one end. It is lifted up at the other end with the gin pole which opens up the bed of the press. The folded robes are placed on the lower bed and the cottonwood log is lowered with the top bed of the press. With the men adding their weight, the furs are tightly pressed together and tied before they are removed and carried to the boat for shipment down river.”

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Shown above are photographs of the outside of the reconstructed fort. The blockhouse is original and is the longest continually utilized structure in the state of Montana.

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Shown above is the inside of the blockhouse.

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Shown above is the blacksmith shop at the fort. This was an important part of the fort during the fur trade era as many tools, including axes and traps, were manufactured here.

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Shown above is a tool display at the blacksmith shop at the fort.

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Shown above is a Red River Cart. These carts were characteristic of the Métis of Canada. The large wheels meant that they would not get mired down in mud. No grease was used and consequently they were more than a little noisy.

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Shown above is Bruce Druliner (Burnt Spoon), a living history interpreter, demonstrating equipment in the wood shop.

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Natawista, a Trader’s Wife

American Indians were involved in trade for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the European and American fur traders. Traditional Indian trade was about relationships as much as it was about the material which was traded. In order to trade, a person needed to have trading partners, primarily relatives. An individual gained these trading partners through marriage and/or by being adopted into a family. The first fur traders quickly understood this and subsequently they usually married women from the tribes with whom they carried on trade.  

In 1829, Fort Union, located on the boundary between Montana and North Dakota, was established as a trading post for the American Fur Company at the request of Iron Arrow Point, an Assiniboine chief. It soon became a trading center for many of the Northern Plains tribes, including the Blackfoot, Crow, Cree, Ojibwa, and Hidatsa. In order to strengthen their trade relations with these tribes, all of the traders took Indian wives, thus creating a web of alliances. This type of alliance was generally called a country marriage (le marriage á la façon du pays).

Alexander Culbertson, the trader with the American Fur Company, insisted that Fort Union was a stable outpost of civilization and therefore there had to be white linen on the table as well as milk and butter. Culbertson would sit at the head of the table and the visitors and clerks would be seated according to rank.

Natawista (also spelled Natoapxíxina, Na-ta-wis-ta-cha and Natoyist-Siksina), the daughter of Kaina (Blood) chief Man’stokos (Two Suns) and sister of the chief Seen From Afar, was Culbertson’s second wife. Her name translates into English as Sacred Serpent or Medicine Snake. She was fifteen years old when she was brought to him in 1840 to be married. She arrived at Fort Union in a procession of Blood and Blackfoot warriors. It is unlikely that she had selected Culbertson as her husband: it was more likely that the chiefs and Culbertson saw this as an economic opportunity. Natawista helped her husband by cultivating friendly relationships between Indians and Americans and thus enhancing her husband’s profitable trade. She also adopted the children from his first wife as her own.

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The Blood, whose homelands are in Alberta, Canada, are closely related to the Blackfoot and were often close allies. Chief Seen From Afar was a great Kainai chief and had influence in many of the other bands. He had ten wives and more than 100 horses. Culbertson’s relationship with Seen From Afar through his wife Natawista enhanced his credibility with the Blackfoot tribes.

In 1846, Culbertson established Fort Lewis (later renamed Fort Benton) at the confluence of the Marias and Missouri Rivers in Montana to accommodate the large number of buffalo robes offered by the Blackfoot. Natawista became invaluable to this trade by advising her husband.

At Fort Lewis, Natawista had a run-in with Father Point, a Jesuit priest. Her daughter Julia had become sick and the medicines used by the American traders were not working. She turned to traditional medicine and had a medicine woman come in to treat her daughter. When Father Point heard the chanting, he asked Culbertson what was happening. Culbertson explained that a Kainai medicine woman was healing his daughter. Furious, the priest rushed into the room, seized the woman by her throat, and threw her down on the ground. Natawista, holding her temper, told the priest to mind his own business, and asked the woman to continue with her treatment. Following the traditional sweat lodge healing ceremony and chanting, Julia recovered.

While she did not speak English well, Natawista did adopt American dress and manners. At the many balls held at the trading posts, Natawista was well-gowned in European fashion and performed as a model hostess. While there were times when her taste for raw liver and calf brains was disturbing to some guests, her beauty and social skills charmed nearly everyone. Among the notable visitors who met her were John J. Audubon, Swiss artist Rudolf Friedrich Kurz, Father Pierre DeSmet, Lewis Henry Morgan, and others.

In 1843, John J. Audubon described Natawista, whom he called Mrs. Culbertson, this way:

…the Ladies had their hair loose and flying in the breeze and then all mounted on horses with Indian saddles and trappings. Mrs. Culbertson and her maid rode astride like men, and all rode a furious race, under whip the whole way, for more than one mile on the prairie; and how amazed would have been any European lady, or some of our modern belles who boast their equestrian skill at seeing the magnificent riding of this Indian princess-for that is Mrs. Culbertson’s rank-and her servant.

Rudolf Friedrich Kurz described her as

One of the most beautiful Indian women…would be an excellent model for a Venus.

Natawista and Culbertson played important roles in the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty Conference, in the 1853 Fort Benton Council, and in the 1855 Judith River Treaty Conference with the Blackfoot. While the Blackfoot were not present at the 1851 conference, Natawitsa and Culbertson helped the treaty council understand the extent of Blackfoot tribal territory. In 1854 she told the American treaty commissioners:

My people are a good people but they are jealous and vindictive. I am afraid that they and the whites will not understand each other, but if I go, I may be able to explain things to them and sooth them if they should be irritated. I know there is great danger.

In 1846, the Blackfoot suggested, probably through Natawista, that Fort Lewis would serve them better if it were located on the north side of the Missouri River. In 1847, the log palisades of Fort Lewis were dismantled and floated to the new post on the north side of the river. In order to provide a more comfortable home for Natawista, Culbertson then had the men start making adobe bricks. The first adobe building at the new fort, which would become Fort Benton, was the two-story house for Culbertson and Natawista.

At Fort Benton, Natawista’s cousin, Chief Little Dog, became very protective of the American traders at the trading post. While at Fort Benton, Culbertson and Natawista would often travel among the various Blackfoot tribes which enabled her to maintain contacts with her relatives and for Culbertson to encourage them to come to in to trade. In addition, small groups of her relatives would often stop by the fort to visit and to trade.

In 1857, Culbertson retired from the fur and hide trade as a very wealthy man. He moved to Peoria, Illinois where he built a large manor house which he called Locust Grove. In order to persuade Natawista to join him, he had to make a number of concessions, including having a tipi in the front yard.

In Peoria, Natawista was baptized as Nelly and the couple was married by a Catholic priest in an ornate ceremony that hit the social column in the local newspaper. She enjoyed the fast horses and the private paddock of buffalo on the large estate. The tipi on the front lawn of her magnificent mansion, however, did not please the neighbors.

Each year until 1861 Culbertson and Natawista returned to the Upper Missouri .

The Civil War ruined Culbertson’s fortune and so they moved back to Fort Benton, Montana where they struggled to make ends meet. In 1870, Natawista left Culbertson for John Riplinger.

In 1870, the army attacked a peaceful Blackfoot camp in what came to be known as the Baker Massacre. Many Blackfoot fled to Canada for sanctuary. Natawista also fled north to her Blood people in Alberta. In 1877 she accepted treaty status as a Blood Indian in Canada. There she died in 1893 and was buried at the Catholic Church in Stand Off. Natawista Lake, also known as Janet Lake, in Glacier National Park is named for her.

Natawista’s story leaves us with many unanswered questions about Indian wives, country marriages, and the frontier. We don’t know to what extent she was a slave-wife or a concubine. We do know that she was an important part of her husband’s fur trading business, but she does not appear to be a true business partner, nor does the marriage appear to have been based on romance. Her story was a common one during the nineteenth century and most of the women involved have been forgotten by history, and in some cases, by their families.

Blackfoot Fur Trade (Photo Diary)

By the end of the eighteenth century, the two largest fur trading companies in North America-the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC, headquartered in London) and the North West Company (Nor’westers, headquartered in Montreal) were vying with each other to establish trading relations with the Blackfoot. With their homelands stretching along the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, the Indian tribes of the Blackfoot Confederacy (South Piegan, North Peigan, Kainai (Blood), and Siksika) were in prime beaver territory.  

In 1807, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark returned to St. Louis from their journey across North America with reports of the vast wealth of beaver in the Rocky Mountain area. At least a dozen fur companies were almost immediately organized to go up the Missouri River and establish trade with the Blackfoot. None were successful: the Blackfoot, with a reputation as being a fierce and warlike people, did not look favorably upon the American fur traders who were invading their land.

In 1846, Alexander Culbertson and his wife Natawista (the daughter of Blood chief Two Suns) established Fort Benton at a site favorable for trade with the Blackfoot. By this time, the European market demand for beaver was basically dead and the 60 million beaver which had inhabited the headwaters of the Missouri River in 1800 were now almost extinct. On the other hand, the market demand for buffalo robes was strong, and the Blackfoot were located in prime buffalo country.

Today there is a modern replica of Old Fort Benton on the original site-the original blockhouse has been incorporated into it. The warehouse in the Old Fort Benton is dedicated to displays on the Blackfoot Fur Trade. Photographs of these exhibits are shown below.

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Shown above is a display showing how the Blackfoot captured eagles. The trap was baited with a dead rabbit. The hunter then waited concealed in a hole for the eagle to come to the bait. According to the explanation on the display:

“Golden eagle feathers were used by the Blackfoot for ceremonial regalia. Tail and wing feathers were collected by grabbing the eagle by the legs, pulling it into a hole and crushing it. It was high risk work, with injury from beak and talons almost a certainty.”

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Shown above is a display of stone pipe bowls. The pipe is an important part of Blackfoot spirituality.

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Shown above are Indian saddles. While there is a popular stereotype perpetuated by Hollywood movies that Indians rode bareback, in reality they not only used saddles, but also made them.

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Shown above is a Hudson’s Bay Blanket, a very popular Indian trade item which was introduced in 1740. Each short line or “point” woven into the edge of the blanket indicated the number of beaver pelts to be exchanged for the blanket.

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Shown above is a display showing the inside of a tipi.

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Shown above is a medicine bundle. The bundle contains items which symbolize the individual’s personal spiritual power.

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Shown above is a display of a sweat lodge. The sweat lodge is an important part of Plains Indian ceremony. The small lodge is heated using rocks which have been “cooked” in a nearby fire until they are red hot. Within the lodge, water is sprinkled on the rocks to create steam.

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Shown above is a grass dance outfit which belonged to the Indian artist William Standing. According to the display:

“The legend of the Grass Dance began when a mighty warrior had a vision that carried him to a spacious lodge in the sky. The warrior found only a large white rooster inside the lodge. The rooster instructed him in the ways of the new dance and ordered him to take the knowledge back to his people to unify and bring them closer together. The costume consists of a headdress representing the comb of the white rooster, rightly decorated moccasins, and a whipstock made of wood and rawhide lashes which was used during the dance to punish the unruly.”

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The Astorians and the Indians

John Jacob Astor came to the United States following the Revolutionary War and through his contacts with the North West Company in Canada soon entered into the fur trade. By 1800 he was one of the leaders in the American fur trade. He also began trading furs and other items in China.  

Astor envisioned a chain of trading posts on the upper Missouri River and a fleet of trading ships that would supply posts on the Columbia River. These ships would also be able to trade along the coast and supply the Russian trading posts in Alaska. The ships would then carry the furs to Canton, China where they would be traded for prized Chinese merchandise which would then be transported to the northeastern United States.

In 1808 he established the American Fur Company which sought to control the fur trade in the Great Lakes area.  The Pacific Fur Company was then created as a subsidiary of the American Fur Company with the idea of controlling the fur trade along the Columbia River and providing a direct link between American furs and the Chinese market. Two decades earlier, American traders had discovered that there was an exceptionally high demand for sea otter fur in China and this could be translated into huge profits. The working partners in the new venture included three former partners in the Canadian North West Company: Alexander McKay, Donald McKenzie, and Duncan McDougal.

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Astor is shown above.

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Shown above are some of the Chinese goods which the traders would bring back to the United States.

In order to create his Pacific coast fur trading empire, the Pacific Fur Company John Jacob Astor established Fort Astoria near the mouth of the Columbia River in 1811. The American traders and trappers who worked out of Fort Astoria became commonly known as Astorians. In the Pacific Northwest, the Astorians would enter into competition with the long-established Hudson’s Bay Company (whose investors lived in England) and the North West Company (the Nor’westers made up of working partners based in Montreal, Canada).

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While Astor provided the capital for the new company, several partners were given a small ownership of the company and would be in command in the field. With one exception, the other partners were Canadians who had once worked for the rival North West Company.

To establish his new trading post at the mouth of the Columbia, Astor sent out two groups: one traveled by ship and the other came overland. Astor purchased a first rate ship-the Tonquin-for the voyage and filled it with $54,000 in trade goods. On its way to Oregon, the Tonquin stopped at the Hawaiian Islands where the Astorians engaged in some local trade. When they sailed for Oregon, they carried pigs, goats, sheep, and poultry which they had acquired in Hawaii as well as 24 native Hawaiians.

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The Tonquin had been originally built in 1807 and prior to being purchased by Astor, the ship had made two trips to the Pacific and China. The ship was 94 feet long, 25 feet wide, and 12 feet deep.

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Shown above is a drawing of the Tonquin crossing the Columbia River Bar.

The ship arrived first and the Astorians set about building their new fort. As they were setting up the fort, a party of Nor’Westers under the leadership of David Thompson arrived. Thompson told the Astorians that he had already taken possession of the country upstream and had established a permanent post on the Spokane River.

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The map above shows the location of the Indian nations near Fort Astoria.

After dropping the Astorians at the mouth of the Columbia River, the ship was instructed to sail north to Alaska. Astor had been negotiating with the Russians for supplies and furs and wanted to stop the British from establishing any posts on the Pacific coast. Somewhere near Vancouver Island, British Columbia, the ship’s captain managed to insult a Native chief. The following day, a war party of more than 200 Native warriors attacked the ship. During the battle, the ship exploded killing everyone on board. The Astorians, who were counting on the ship to resupply them, were essentially marooned.

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Shown above are displays of the trade goods the Astorians brought in. These displays are at the Heritage Museum in Astoria, Oregon.

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The map above shows the outline of the original fort and its buildings and the current city park commemorating the fort.

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Shown above are photographs of the reconstructed blockhouse and the mural of the fort at the city park which commemorates Fort Astoria. The designation “Fort George” and the Union Jack in the mural show that the fort is depicted after the takeover by the North West Company. Notice the cranial deformation on the natives. The high forehead, achieved by binding the skull of an infant, was considered a mark of beauty.

Fort Astoria was constructed in Chinook territory, though the Americans simply ignored any possible Indian land claims. The traders dealt primarily with Chief Comcomly’s band. The American traders soon found that Chinook women were as active in the trading process as were the men.

Following the establishment of Fort Astoria, the Astorians quickly spread out to establish other trading posts along the Columbia River and its tributaries. They soon established Fort Okanogan to serve the people in the Upper Columbia River area and to provide competition with the North West Company.

In 1812, the Pacific Fur Company overland party under the leadership of Wilson Price Hunt arrived at the trading post in Astoria. The party left their goods and began the overland trip back with orders for the supplies for the coming year.

By May 1812, the Astorians had purchased 3,500 pelts for the local Indians, including 1,750 beaver, 15 sea otter, 15 squirrel, and 1 red fox.

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Shown above are beaver pelts which are on display at the Heritage Museum in Astoria, Oregon.

In 1812, the Pacific Fur Company established Fort Spokane a short distance from the Nor’wester trading post. It was not uncommon for rival trading companies to set up next door to each other. While they competed for furs, the two groups mixed socially. The American post boasted a dance hall where the Nor’westers and Astorians would mix.

In 1812, Pacific Fur Company trader Donald McKenzie established a fur trading post at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers near present-day Lewiston, Idaho in Nez Perce country. McKenzie soon became discouraged by: (1) the reluctance of the Nez Perce to trap for the company, and (2) the relative lack of fur-bearing animals in the area. Historian Alvin Josephy reports the trading post failure this way:

“The Nez Perce were willing to trade things they owned or produced, like clothing, food, and horses, but they were not willing to become beaver trappers and laborers for the whites.”

In addition, while the Palouse and Nez Perce were interested in the manufactured goods, they felt that the prices were too high.

In 1813, Pacific Fur Company trader Duncan McDougall married the daughter of Chinook chief Comcomly. From Comcomly’s perspective, having McDougall as a son-in-law increased his access to goods which in turn increased his prestige. From the Astorian viewpoint, the marriage into one of the most powerful Native families in the region provided the company with economic and physical security.

In 1813, Pacific Fur Company trader John Clarke traveled from the Spokane River area to the Palouse village of Palus where he prepared his canoes for the journey down the Snake and Columbia Rivers. In order to impress the Indians, he brought out two silver goblets, poured a little wine in one of them, and had a chief drink from it. The next morning, the trader found that one of the goblets was missing. After the goblet was recovered, traders then hung the man believed to have taken the goblet. The incident provoked hostility toward the Americans from all of the neighboring tribes. Americans would later find that Indians have long memories.

In Idaho, the Pacific Fur Company established a trading post at the confluence of the Snake and Boise Rivers. The post was located at a traditional Bannock summer camping area where the people fished for salmon. The Bannock were not happy about the post’s location.

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In January 1813, Donald McKenzie, one of the “working” partners arrived at Fort Astoria with the news that the United States was now at war with Great Britain. There were rumors that two British warships were sailing to Astoria to take over the post. The two working partners at the post, McKenzie and Duncan McDougall, began making plans to abandon Astoria.

In October 1813, 75 Nor’westers arrived at Fort Astoria and set up camp outside the stockade. The Nor’westers and the Astorians were long-time veterans in the fur trade and knew each other well. Talks between the two groups were friendly and soon they struck a deal to sell Astoria to the Nor’westers for $58,000. When the British corvette Racoon arrived in Astoria two months later with orders to seize Fort Astoria from the Americans, Captain William Black was surprised to find the British flag already flying over the fort. He was also surprised at the size and construction of the fort:

“What, is this the fort I have heard so much of? Great God, I could batter it down with a four-pounder in two hours!”

Captain Black was under orders to seize the fort, so he insisted on a formal surrender ceremony. The American flag was once again run up the flagpole, then taken down and once again replaced with the Union Jack. Captain Black officially named Astoria Fort George, after King George.

With the takeover by the Nor’westers, Fort Spokane was also transferred to the new owners and was designated Spokane House. Most of those who worked there, however, continued to refer to it as Fort Spokane.

The Nor’westers continued to operate Fort George until their merger with Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in 1821. At the time of the merger, the Nor’westers had 97 trading posts and HBC had 76. In 1825, the post was abandoned when HBC moved its quarters to Fort Vancouver. Part of the reason for abandoning Fort George was to break Chinook chief Comcomly’s monopoly on trade in the lower Columbia.

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The Pacific Fur Company

The Pacific Fur Company was founded in 1810 for the purpose of exploiting the fur resources of the Pacific Northwest. Half of the stock in the company was held by the American Fur Company which was owned by John Jacob Astor, one of the richest men in America and a prominent fur trader. Astor’s inspiration for this project came from two sources: (1) the publication of Sir Alexander MacKenzie’s book describing his overland journey to the Pacific, and (2) the reports from the American Corps of Discovery led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark which had also traveled to the Pacific. Inspired by the reports of the possible great wealth in this region, Astor set out to establish a trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River.  

Astor envisioned a permanent American settlement at the mouth of the Columbia River which would serve as trading hub linking New York City, Oregon country, and China. The basic plan was to load Indian trade goods onto ships in New York City and transport them to the Columbia where they would be used in acquiring furs and pelts. These furs and pelts would then be transported to China where they would be traded for porcelain, silk, spices, and other goods which would then be transported back to New York. It was a business plan designed to increase Astor’s wealth at the expense of the subsistence patterns of the Indians.  

In order to establish his new trading center at what would become Astoria, Oregon, Astor sent out two expeditions: one by sea and the other by land. The sea expedition arrived at the Columbia River in 1811 and established Fort Astoria. As the Astorians were setting up the fort, David Thompson and his North West Company party arrived. Thompson told them that he had already taken possession of the country upstream and had established a permanent post on the Spokane River. This marked the beginning of the struggle between the powerful North West Company (commonly called the Nor’westers) and the newly organized Pacific Fur Company for domination of the fur trade in the Pacific Northwest. The Astorians saw themselves fighting for the supremacy of the United States against British Dominion.

The American traders soon find that Chinook women are as active in the trading process as are the men. The Americans also started the practice of bringing in Native Hawaiians, known as Kanakas, for work in the fur trade.

On the ground in Oregon, many of the Astorians were in fact former Nor’westers and knew David Thompson. From Fort Astoria, the Astorians under the leadership of David Stuart, a former Nor’wester, and David Thompson’s Nor’westers started upstream on the Columbia River together. The two parties, however, did not travel far together. The Nor’westers were traveling light and their canoes were not loaded with any merchandise for trade. The Astorians did not have canoes suitable for up-river work. At the mouth of the Columbia they had obtained two large coastal dugout canoes. While this type of canoe was a good coastal vessel, it was not a good upstream craft. After reaching the cascades on the Columbia, the Nor’westers, who were able to travel much faster, separated from the Astorians.

Near the location of present-day Wenatchee, Washington, the Astorians met a great number of Indians. Chief Sopa presented them with two horses and the Astorians then purchased four more horses from him.

At the mouth of the Methow River, the Astorians found a great gathering of Indians who had many horses for sale. The Indians invited the Astorians to stay with them and trade through the winter. They assured the traders that their country abounded in beaver and that there was plenty of game for food.

After 42 days of travel up the Columbia River, the Astorians reached the mouth of the Okanogan River. Here they established Fort Okanogan to serve the Indian people in the Upper Columbia River area and to provide competition with the Nor’westers. David Stuart wrote:

“The general aspect of the surrounding country is barren and dreary, but to the north the banks of the river are lined with the willow and poplar, and the valley through which it meanders presents a pleasing landscape.”

Fort Okanogan became the first settlement under the U.S. flag in what would become the state of Washington.

The following spring, some of the Astorians made the journey back to Fort Astoria carrying with them about 2,500 beaver skins.  

The Kootenai prophet Kauxuma-nupika (“Gone to the Spirits”), a woman who has taken on the role of a man and has married a women, acts as a courier for the North West Company, carrying letters from Kettle Falls in eastern Washington to Fort Astoria.

The party which Astor had sent overland to Fort Astoria arrived in 1812. The party left the goods they had transported overland and began the overland trip back with orders for the supplies for the coming year. While passing through Montana on their return trip, the Crow liberated all of the Astorian horses.

In 1812, the Pacific Fur Company continued to expand its trading area in the Columbia River basin. The Astorians established their Fort Spokane adjacent to the Nor’westers’ Spokane House. On the surface the relationships between the two adjacent trading posts seemed cordial. One of the Astorians wrote:

“When the two parties happened to meet, they made amplest protestations of friendship and kindness, and a stranger unacquainted with the politics of Indian trade, would have pronounced them sincere, but the moment their backs were turned they tore each other to pieces. Each party had its maneuvering scouts out in all directions, watching the motions of the Indians and laying plots and plans to entrap or foil each other. He that got the most skins, never minding the cost of the crime, was the cleverest fellow, and under such tutors the Indians were apt disciples.”

Under the leadership of Donald McKenzie, the Pacific Fur Company established a fur trading post at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers near present-day Lewiston in Nez Perce country. McKenzie soon found that the Nez Perce were reluctant to trap furs for them. The Nez Perce were willing to trade, but they wanted to trade things they owned or produced, like clothing, food, and horses. They were not willing to become beaver trappers and laborers for the Astorians. While the Indians were interested in the manufactured goods that the Astorians brought to trade, they felt that the prices were too high.

In 1813, the Pacific Fur Company established a trading post at the confluence of the Snake and Boise Rivers in Idaho. The post was located at a traditional Bannock summer camping area where the people fished for salmon. The Bannock were not happy about the post’s location.

In 1813 at Fort Astoria, Pacific Fur Company trader Duncan McDougall married the daughter of Chinook chief Comcomly. From Comcomly’s perspective this increased his access to European goods. From the Astorian’s perspective, this connection provided both economic and physical security.

In the spring of 1813, word reached the Spokane establishments that war was breaking out between the United States and Great Britain. When word of the war reached Fort Astoria, the trading partners held a council. They realized that they were in a vulnerable position as they were unprotected by a British war ship. After much discussion, it was decided to attempt to trade for another year, and trading parties were sent out from Fort Astoria once again.

In 1813, Pacific Fur Company trader John Clarke travelled from the Spokane River area to the Palouse village of Palus where he prepared his canoes for the journey down the Snake and Columbia Rivers. In order to impress the Indians, he brought out two silver goblets, poured a little wine in one of them, and had a chief drink from it. The next morning, the trader found that one of the goblets is missing. After the goblet was recovered, traders then hung the man believed to have taken the goblet. The incident provoked hostility toward the Americans from all of the neighboring tribes. Indians have long memories, and for many years they continued to remind the Americans of this event.

The Nor’westers were quick to see that the war between the United States and Great Britain presented them with an interesting opportunity. The British sloop-of-war, Racoon, was on its way to capture Fort Astoria. In addition, the Nor’wester ship Isaac Todd was also enroute to the mouth of the Columbia. The Isaac Todd was armed and held letters of marque and reprisal and was therefore a duly accredited privateer and in a position to seize Fort Astoria as a prize of war. At the same time, a Nor’wester brigade of ten canoes was hurrying down the Columbia with full authority to purchase all of the holdings and property of the Pacific Fur Company.

On November 12, 1813, Duncan McDougal, the factor in charge of Fort Astoria, sold the entire enterprise to the North West Company. The American flag was hauled down and the Union Jack was raised. The fort was then renamed Fort George. When the Racoon arrived, her captain took formal possession of the country for England.

All of the Astorian trading posts now became property of the Nor’westers. When Fort Spokane was taken over by the North West Company, the name Spokane House was transferred to the new facility. Most of those who worked there, however, continued to refer to it as Fort Spokane. Most the traders who had worked for the Astorians went to work for the Nor’westers.

The French Fur Trade

When the French first entered North America, their primary focus was on gaining wealth through the fur trade. They viewed Indians as trading partners, as important elements in acquiring the furs which would generate great wealth. Following the system of rivers and lakes, French traders using Indian canoes penetrated deep into North America. To be successful, the French traders learned Indian languages, often dressed in Indian style, and married Indian women.  

The fur trade in the seventeenth century was globalized: that is, furs obtained from the Indians in North America were transported to Europe where they were sold for a profit. To obtain the furs, the traders imported European manufactured goods which the Indians wanted.

Over the centuries, the primary engine of globalization has been the transnational corporation. In 1602, the Company of New France, a joint stock company modeled after the English and Dutch companies trading in the East Indies, was given a royal charter and exclusive trading rights from Florida to the Arctic Circle and westward along all rivers flowing into the “Fresh Sea” (the Great Lakes).

The French trading strategy was to travel inland, using Indian canoes to follow the lakes and rivers to the Indian villages. The French wanted to establish firm, long-lasting trading alliances and so they spoke the Native languages. They also recognized that there were traditional ceremonial preludes to trading and they were willing to participate in them.

The French traders usually lived in the Indian villages, so they also dressed in an Indian fashion: they got rid of their cumbersome European dress and wore Native-style hunting shirts and moccasins. They recognized the importance of family relationships in trading networks, so they often married Indian women and were adopted into Indian families.

The marriages between the French traders and Indian women often resulted in children. These children, who were not seen as racially mixed as race was not a Native concept, eventually helped create a new people, the Métis. The Métis are a cultural mixture of European and Indian traits.

The alliances between the French and the Indian nations were often more than just trade agreements. In 1603, the French promised the Montagnais that they would help them in their on-going struggle against the Iroquois Confederacy. The French provided the Montagnais with weapons other than guns and the Montagnais blocked the Iroquois expansion into the Saint Lawrence area.

In 1614, the French established a formal trading alliance with the Huron Confederacy. Once again they had allied themselves with enemies of the Iroquois Confederacy. The following year, the French joined with a joint Huron and Algonquin raiding party against the Iroquois. While the French viewed the war as a failure as it did defeat the Iroquois, it reinforced their alliance with the Huron.

In 1622, the Iroquois sent ambassadors to the French, proposing a general peace. The French traders opposed the peace treaty, fearing that once peace was established the Iroquois would persuade the Huron to start trading with the Dutch who had established a trading post at present-day Albany, New York. When the French government established peace with the Iroquois the following year, the French traders sent additional traders out to spend the winter with the Huron and make sure they continued trading with the French rather than the Dutch.

The general peace negotiated between the Iroquois and the French was broken in 1627 by the Montagnais, who were French trading partners. The Montagnais attacked the Iroquois and obtained several prisoners. The French persuaded the Montagnais to release the prisoners and sent a party to seek pardon from the Iroquois for breaking the peace. The peace party, however, was captured, tortured, and killed. For the next century, the French dealt with peace agreements which were often shattered by their trading partners. The ensuing war, battles, and skirmishes interfered with trading relations.

In 1632, the French established Trois-Rivières, Québec, as a major center for building Indian birchbark canoes for the fur trade. Canoe sizes became standardized: the Montreal canoe was 36 feet long; the North canoe was 26 feet long; and the Bastard canoe was 28-32 feet long. The Montreal canoe, which was most frequently used on the routes from Montreal to the western end of Lake Superior and on the route to Michilimacinac and down the Mississippi, could carry 8,000 pounds of cargo plus the paddlers.

Overall, the French managed to integrate two very different economic philosophies. European economics was focused on material goods and was guided by a philosophy that emphasized the individual accumulation of goods. French society was stratified, that is, it was divided into social classes. On the other hand, Indian societies were egalitarian. Philosophically, the Indians frowned on the accumulation of individual wealth. Those who acquired wealth, gave it away, and in this way gained social prestige.

Many of the European trade goods which the French traders brought to the Indians-beads, mirrors, bells, and caps-were valued by the Indians for aesthetic, decorative, and/or spiritual reasons. Some of the metal items, such as axes, knives, arrow heads, pots and pans, and awls, were incorporated into Indian cultures as substitutes for similar non-metal goods. While iron arrowheads were popular, guns and ammunition allowed the tribes to expand militarily. Guns, along with the gunpowder and the lead balls that they required, were in great demand among the Indians and were often a prestige item within the Indian nations.

Most of the Indian nations with which the French had trading alliances were agricultural. In these cultures, such as that of the Huron, the women did the farming while the men hunted. With the fur trade, men’s economic importance increased as they now hunted not just for calories, but for trade goods. As their hunting ranges increased, this brought them into more conflicts with other tribes.

The French fur trade ended in 1769 when control of Canada was transferred to the British. Many of the French fur traders continued to work as independent traders or joined Hudson’s Bay Company. Overall, the French fur trade established the basic patterns for the fur trade in Canada and much of the United States.  

Re-Enacting the Fur Trade

As with many other aspects of history, the fur trade in North America has re-enactors who bring this aspect of history alive by acting out the parts of fur traders, mountain men, and trappers. I recently attended a re-enactment, celebration, and historical discussion about the establishment of the Howse House-a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post established by Joseph Howse in 1810-1811. As one of the organizers stated: “The buckskinners provide the touchy-feely part of the program.” Dressed in authentic period outfits, the re-enactors allow people to see, feel, touch, and smell the various aspects of life in the Rocky Mountains 200 years ago. What follows are some of the photos from this celebration.  

Canoes:

Fur traders and trappers often used Indian-style canoes to follow the waterways-lakes and rivers-into Indian country.

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Shown above is a typical canoe used in the fur trade.

Kootenai Canoe

Models are often used to show people the different canoes styles as well as techniques for making canoes. The model shown above is a Kootenai sturgeon-nosed canoe. This style of canoe is unique to the Kootenai people.

Canoe Model 1

Shown above is a model of another style of canoe.

The Howse House:

Howse House

We don’t really know what the trading post built by Joseph Howse looked like 200 years ago. We assume that he built a fairly traditional complex of cabins in the Hudson’s Bay Company style. Shown above is a full-scale mock-up of this type of cabin. The cabins were usually built from short, small-diameter logs. He probably put up two or three of these in a compound: one for storing trading goods and furs, possibly one for the men (he had at least 16 other men, including one free black, with him), and one as the “trading post.”

Trade:

Made Beaver

One of the things that the European traders wanted from the Indians was beaver. Shown above is a beaver pelt, known as “made” beaver since it has been prepared for trade.

Trade Goods 1

When the traders met the Indians at a rendezvous or in their villages, there were no stores and so the trading goods would be simply displayed on the ground.

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Shown above are some of the traditional items which were traded to the Indians for furs. This includes guns, knives, awls, and other metal items.

Trade 2

Not all trade items carried by the traders from Hudson’s Bay Company, the North West Company, the Pacific Fur Company, and others were manufactured goods. Shown above are the traditional ropes and twists of tobacco.

Games:

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At the rendezvous, people would often compete in activities such as knife and hatchet throwing contests.

Flintknapping:

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Pictured above is the flintknapping demonstration. Prior to the European invasion, Indians made many of their tools-arrowheads, knives, axes, etc.-from stone.  

Nor’Westers and Indians in the Columbia Plateau

The fur trade was an important part of the economic history of North America and incorporated American Indian economies into a larger world economy. Furs were valuable, easily portable, and renewable resources. The prime furs-marten, otter, fox-were sold at high prices in the European and Chinese markets. Of less value, but still profitable, were pelts from buffalo, beaver, muskrat, and squirrel.

Today, the best-known fur trading company, and one of the world’s early transnational corporations, is the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). HBC was formed in 1670 when Prince Rupert, a duke, three earls, and other nobles subscribed to the Company of Adventurers of England Trading Into Hudson’s Bay. They were granted a royal charter from the English Crown which gave them a monopoly over all lands which drain into Hudson’s Bay.

Many smaller trading companies were frustrated by the HBC monopoly and in 1776 a group of “pedlars” based out of Montreal established a supply base at the western end of Lake Superior to push around the trading territory of the well-established Hudson’s Bay Company. By 1787 they had become the North West Company, an association of enterprising men agreeing among themselves to carry on the fur trade and remain unattached to any other business concern. Known as the Nor’westers, they competed vigorously with the Hudson’s Bay Company until the Crown forced the two companies to merge in 1823.

In general, the practice of the Nor’westers was to travel into fur country, often by canoe, build a trading post, and then wait for Indians to bring their furs which were to be traded for items of European manufacture. Among most Indian nations, trading networks had been traditionally established through kinship. Thus for the Nor’westers to be successful, they had to become a part of the Indian kinship network through adoption and through marriage. While marriage alliances were regarded favorably by the Indians, Christian clergy often discouraged them. However, the traders were motivated by profits rather than prophets and were not overly concerned with converting Indians to Christianity.

One of the trade items which had a great impact on the American Indian cultures was alcohol. Alcohol was, and still is, an ideal trading commodity: it is quickly and easily consumed, it is expensive, and it is addictive. The Nor’westers traded a delightful, but deadly concoction called “high wine.” This was made from a mixture of brandy, dark rum, sweet sherry, tawny port, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Water would be added according to the circumstances.

Prelude:

In 1793, a mixed group of Indians, voyageurs, Scots traders, and a large dog under the leadership of Alexander MacKenzie set off in a light canoe from the North West Company trading post at Fort Chipewyan to find a water route to the Pacific. The group crossed the mountains,  then travelled down the river to the Pacific Ocean, becoming the first Europeans to cross North America by land.

MacKenzie’s book about this expedition promoted the idea that great wealth could be made in the northwest. His ideas launched the American scramble for the fur trade on the Northern Plains and in the Columbia Plateau.

The Columbia Plateau:

During the first part of the nineteenth century the Nor’westers moved into the Columbia Plateau region of eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana where they established a series of trading posts: Kootenai Post near present-day Libby, Montana (1808); Kullyspel House on the east shore of Pend Oreille Lake in present-day Idaho (1809); Saleesh House, on the Clark Fork River near present-day Thompson Falls, Montana (1809); and Spokane House in Washington (1810).

In the Plateau area, the nature of trade changed. First, the Plateau tribes had traditionally trapped small fur- bearing animals-mink, martin, fisher-for trade. However, this trapping and the trading was done by the women. When the Canadian fur traders tried to persuade the men to engage in this type of trapping, they were told that this was “women’s work.”

With regard to beaver, the best and most valuable pelts were those taken in the fall and winter. However, this conflicted with the seasonal buffalo hunts on the Plains. From the Indian perspective, obtaining subsistence for the coming year was more important than trading for a few manufactured goods.

In the Plateau, the Nor’westers as well as the HBC traders began to employ trappers to obtain the furs for the European and Chinese markets. They relied on the local tribes to trade not furs, but food and horses. The Indians found that providing the trading posts with salmon was less disruptive to their way of life and dried salmon became a staple food in the trading posts.  

A Trip Down the Columbia River:

The Columbia River, which flows from British Columbia through Washington and Oregon to the Pacific Ocean, was seen by the nineteenth century fur traders-not only the Nor’westers, but also their rivals Hudson’s Bay Company and John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company-as the highway which opened up the interior and connected it with the European and Chinese markets. Fort Astoria was established near the mouth of the river by the Pacific Fur Company in 1811.

In 1811, a group of Nor’westers under the leadership of David Thompson set off from Kettle Falls, Washington, to travel down the Columbia River. At every fishing camp, Thompson made a point of stopping and introducing himself. He explained:

“My reason for putting ashore and smoking with the Natives, is to make friends with them, against my return, for in descending the current of a large River, we might pass on without much attention to them, but in returning against the current, our progress will be slow and close along the shore, and consequently very much in their power…”

The traders spent their first night with the Sanpoil. Thompson noted that these Indians subsisted mainly on salmon, roots, and berries. They did not have stone or clay pots for storage. They had no forged tools or weapons. Thompson estimates the population of the village at 546.

The next night the fur traders spent with the Nespelem, which Thompson described as prosperous, with many horses. The Nespelem performed a dance to bring the traders luck. After being blocked by Whirlpool Rapids, the Nespelem helped the traders make a two mile portage. The Nespelem reported that there are no beaver in their territory. Thompson noted that the Indians were wearing bracelets and necklaces made from dentalium shells, an indication of trade with coastal tribes. The Nespelem also grew their own tobacco.

Next the traders encountered the Methow who greeted them with a dance. Thompson noted that both the men and women joined in the smoking of the traditional Indian pipes.

The Nor’westers next encountered the Wenatchee, and Thompson noted that one of their lodges was about 80 yards long and that another was about 20 yards long. The village had a population of about 120 people. The Nor’westers noted that many of the Wenatchee wore shells in their noses and sported fine goat-hair blankets.

Near the big bend in the Columbia River, the traders camped with a group of 150 Yakama men.

At the Palouse village of Quosispah at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia Rivers, David Thompson scribbled a few lines on a sheet of paper, hoisted the Union Jack, and claimed the land for Britain.

A few miles down the Columbia River, the North West Company traders met with Cayuse chief Ollicott who showed them the Lewis and Clark medal and the American flag which he had received a few years earlier.

In Washington, David Thompson encountered a party of Nippising and Iroquois on the Columbia River. The Iroquois were Indians whose traditional homes were in Quebec and Ontario, a long distance from the Columbia River. The Indians were journeying to British Columbia to hunt moose and trap beaver. Two of the Iroquois were hired by Thompson.

A Change:

In 1815, the North West Company organized their Columbia Department to exploit the fur resources of the Columbia Plateau. Donald McKenzie was appointed as the leader of this new department. While the company had traditionally gone into Indian country and opened posts for Indian trade, McKenzie decided to change this approach. He felt that the fur trade would be more profitable if the middlemen-the Indians-were eliminated. In order to do this, the Nor’westers were to trap instead of trade. As a result, large numbers of non-Indian trappers-French-Canadian, American, English, Hawaiian-began to invade Indian country and exploit Indian resources with no concern for the Indian ownership of these resources. Also included in the trapping brigades were a number of Iroquois Indians from eastern Canada.

The trapping parties decimated Indian resources in several ways. Not only did they take the fur-bearing animals which were valuable in the foreign markets, but in order to feed themselves, they killed large numbers of deer and elk. In addition, their horses grazed on Indian land and reduced the amount of feed available for Indian horses.

The trapping parties ranged south of the Columbia River into Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada, often trapping all of the game in an area and then moving on. There was little or no concern for sustainability and some of the trappers remarked that their goal was to trap the land bare.

In 1823, the Nor’westers merged with Hudson’s Bay Company and the HBC trappers continued their efforts to trap out all of the fur bearing animals in the Plateau region.  

Fort Vancouver (Photo Diary)

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The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) established Fort Vancouver 100 miles above the mouth of the Columbia River in what is now Washington state in 1825. From this post, it not only carried out trade with the Indian nations of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada, but it also launched trapping expeditions to harvest furs from the area. For the trapping expedition, HBC brought in Métis and Iroquois from Canada as well as Kanakas from Hawaii.

Fort Vancouver was a fort: the main buildings were surrounded by a high wooden stockade.

Fort Vancouver Stockade

The Fort is currently maintained by the National Park Service. Shown below is the warehouse where furs would have been stored:

Fort Vancouver 1

The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was established by royal charter in 1670. The full name of the new corporation was Company of Adventurers of England Trading Into Hudson’s Bay. The original plan was to locate factories (i.e. trading posts) on the coast of Hudson’s Bay, then spread the word of the trading opportunities inland using local natives. These local natives would let other natives know that useful, good-quality trade goods awaited those groups who would come down to the bay to trade. The coast locations of the factories would make it easier to maintain the supply lines to England through a fleet of ships.

By the nineteenth century, HBC’s domination of the lucrative fur trade was being challenged by a Canadian company working out of Montreal: the North West Company. The Nor’westers had a different strategy: their traders went to the Natives instead of waiting for the Natives to come to them. By the time the Crown ordered the merger of the two companies, HBC had expanded its trading posts into the interior. Thus, in 1825, HBC established Fort Vancouver.  

Like all HBC trading posts, the trading post at Fort Vancouver (see picture below) carried both manufactured products from Europe and Native American products. The European products included blankets, beads, and metal items.

Trading Post

In 1780, HBC began using “point” blankets for trade. Each blanket had a small dark mark which was woven into the wool and represented the value of the blanket in made beaver. HBC blankets are still available and are shown below in the trading post.

HBC Blankets

Made beaver refers to beaver pelts which had been processed by the Indians for trade. A made beaver pelt is shown below:

Made Beaver

HBC not only traded the blankets, they also used them. Here is one of the dorm rooms for HBC employees with the HBC blankets on the beds.

HBC Beds

The living quarters for the factor and for the officers and their wives were quite elegant for frontier living. Shown below is part of the factor’s living quarters.

Living Room 2

dining room

Fort Vancouver had its own blacksmith shop where many of the metal goods-including traps and axes-were made.

Blacksmith 1

The fort had a well which was 35 to 40 feet deep. A well sweep-a large, crane-like structure-was used to bring the water up. The well sweep was counterbalanced so that the full bucket could be lifted from the well with minimal effort by one person.

well

Unfortunately, the outhouses lined the stockade wall fairly close to the well. As a result, the water was often contaminated which caused some health problems for the residents.

On June 14, 1860, the Hudson’s Bay Company abandoned Fort Vancouver and moved its operations north of the border.

The American Indian Liberation Army

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In 1836 the Indian Liberation Army was created under the leadership of General Dickson (also known as Montezuma II). Dickson, the Métis son of the British fur trader Col. Robert Dickson. His basic plan was to lead an expedition west across the Great Lakes and to the Red River area of Saskatchewan, gathering supporters as he traveled. Then, the army would turn south, capture and plunder Santa Fe (which was then a part of Mexico), and finally journey west where they would capture California. In California, the plan was to establish an Indian government (or perhaps an Indian monarchy, Dickson is a little unclear on this). In California, the new government would prohibit all without Indian blood from owning land. This was the idea that General Dickson  promoted in Montreal and other cities in Eastern Canada.  

Those most receptive to General Dickson’s message were the Canadian Métis (primarily the sons of Scots fur traders and their Indian wives) and the Cherokee who had been forced from the homelands in the American southwest. A number of Métis sons of North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company fur trading partners soon joined the expedition:  

John George McKenzie, the Métis son of Sir Alexander MacKenzie, was known to have a grudge against the Hudson’s Bay Company and probably saw the expedition to the Red River as a way of getting revenge against the company. McKenzie persuaded his step-brother Charles McBean to join the effort.

John McLoughlin, Jr. was the son of Chief Factor John McLoughlin. He had studied medicine in Paris and at McGill University in Canada. He was known for his extravagant living which often caused quarrels with his uncle Simon Fraser. He had applied to enter the Hudson’s Bay Company but had been refused by Governor Simpson.

Alexander Roderick McLeod, Jr. was the son of one of the Chief Traders of the North West Company.

When the Indian Liberation Army left Buffalo, New York, it had about 60 members. When they reached Sault Ste. Marie nearly a month later, there were only 20 members left. Desertion and sickness had taken its toll. One of the major losses to the party at this time was that of John George McKenzie who became sick.

At Sault Ste. Marie the newspaper took notice of the small band of “pirates of the lake.” Hudson’s Bay Company Chief Trader William Nourse became concerned as the expedition did not have a sanction to pass through Company territory. In addition, there was the concern that the Indian Liberating Army might create unrest among the Métis. After some investigating, Nourse concluded that the expedition would probably “go up in smoke” and concluded that they were harmless.

When the “Army” reached the Red River area of Saskatchewan there were only 11 members left. General Dickson vanished to the south.

The Hudson’s Bay Company, concerned that John McLoughlin, Jr. might cause problems, hired him as a clerk and surgeon. He then joined his father and brother in the far west. A few years later he was murdered by the men of his post. Governor Simpson presumed that he had brought the murder upon himself by his misconduct.

Alexander Roderick McLeod, Jr. was also hired by the Hudson’s Bay Company as an apprentice clerk. His Company career was soon cut short because of sexual misconduct. He left Canada, living for a while in Minnesota, and later joined the Union Army during the Civil War. He died of disease during the War.

Charles McBean returned to live with his father in eastern Canada.

John George McKenzie, who had left the “Army” at Sault Ste. Marie, soon died of his illness.  

American Indian Women: A Trader’s Wife

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American Indians were involved in trade for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the European and American fur traders. Traditional Indian trade was about relationships as much as it was about the material which was traded. In order to trade, a person needed to have trading partners, primarily relatives. An individual gained these trading partners through marriage and/or by being adopted into a family. The first fur traders quickly understood this and subsequently they usually married women from the tribes with whom they carried on trade.

In 1829, Fort Union, located on the boundary between Montana and North Dakota, was established as a trading post for the American Fur Company at the request of Iron Arrow Point, an Assiniboine chief. It soon became a trading center for many of the Northern Plains tribes, including the Blackfoot, Crow, Cree, Ojibwa, and Hidatsa. In order to strengthen their trade relations with these tribes, all of the traders took Indian wives, thus creating a web of alliances. This type of alliance was generally called a country marriage (le marriage á la façon du pays).  

Alexander Culbertson, the American Fur Company trader, insisted that Fort Union was a stable outpost of civilization and therefore there had to be white linen on the table as well as milk and butter. Culbertson would sit at the head of the table and the visitors and clerks would be seated according to rank.

Natawista (also spelled Natoapxíxina, Na-ta-wis-ta-cha and Natoyist-Siksina), the daughter of Kaina (Blood) chief Man’stokos (Two Suns) and sister of the chief Seen Afar, was Culbertson’s second wife. Her name translates into English as Sacred Serpent or Medicine Snake. She was fifteen years old when she was brought to him in 1840 to be married. She arrived at Fort Union in a procession of Blood and Blackfoot warriors. It is unlikely that she had selected Culbertson as her husband: it was more likely that the chiefs and Culbertson saw this as an economic opportunity. Natawista helped her husband by cultivating friendly relationships between Indians and Americans and thus enhancing her husband’s profitable trade.

The Blood, whose homelands are in Alberta, Canada, are closely related to the Blackfoot and were often close allies.

In 1846, Culbertson established Fort Lewis (later renamed Fort Benton) at the confluence of the Marias and Missouri Rivers in Montana to accommodate the large number of buffalo robes offered by the Blackfoot. Natawista became invaluable to this trade by advising her husband.

While she did not speak English, she adopted American dress and manners. At the many balls held at the trading posts, Natawista was well-gowned in European fashion and performed as a model hostess. While there were times when her taste for raw liver and calf brains was disturbing to some guests, her beauty and social skills charmed nearly everyone. Among the notable visitors who met her were John J. Audubon, Swiss artist Rudolf Friedrich Kurz, Father Pierre DeSmet, Lewis Henry Morgan, and others.

In 1843, John J. Audubon described Natawista, whom he called Mrs. Culbertson, this way:

…the Ladies had their hair loose and flying in the breeze and then all mounted on horses with Indian saddles and trappings. Mrs. Culbertson and her maid rode astride like men, and all rode a furious race, under whip the whole way, for more than one mile on the prairie; and how amazed would have been any European lady, or some of our modern belles who boast their equestrian skill at seeing the magnificent riding of this Indian princess-for that is Mrs. Culbertson’s rank-and her servant.

Rudolf Friedrich Kurz described her as

One of the most beautiful Indian women…would be an excellent model for a Venus.

Natawista and Culbertson played important roles in the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty Conference, in the 1853 Fort Benton Council, and in the 1855 Judith River Treaty Conference with the Blackfoot. While the Blackfoot were not present at the 1851 conference, Natawitsa and Culbertson helped the treaty council understand the extent of Blackfoot tribal territory. In 1854 she told the American treaty commissioners:

My people are a good people but they are jealous and vindictive. I am afraid that they and the whites will not understand each other, but if I go, I may be able to explain things to them and sooth them if they should be irritated. I know there is great danger.

Her daughters were taken from her by Culbertson and sent east so that they could be raised in American culture. We don’t know how Natawista felt about this, but there are some who feel that this created some tensions in the marriage.

When Culbertson retired from the fur trade, she went with him to live on a large estate near Peoria, Illinois. Here Natawista was baptized as Nelly and the couple was married by a Catholic priest in an ornate ceremony that hit the social column in the local newspaper. She enjoyed the fast horses and the private paddock of buffalo on the large estate. At one point she pitched a tipi on the front lawn of her magnificent mansion, much to the dismay of the neighbors.

The Civil War ruined Culbertson’s fortune and so they moved back to Fort Benton, Montana where they struggled to make ends meet. In 1870, the army attacked a peaceful Blackfoot camp in what came to be known as the Baker Massacre. Many Blackfoot fled to Canada for sanctuary. Natawista also fled north to her Blood people in Alberta. In 1877 she accepted treaty status as a Blood Indian in Canada. There she died in 1893 and was buried at the Catholic Church in Stand Off. Natawista Lake, also known as Janet Lake, in Glacier National Park is named for her.

Natawista’s story leaves us with many unanswered questions about Indian wives, country marriages, and the frontier. We don’t know to what extent she was a slave-wife or a concubine. We do know that she was an important part of her husband’s fur trading business, but she does not appear to be a true business partner, nor does the marriage appear to have been based on romance. Her story was a common one during the nineteenth century and most of the women involved have been forgotten by history, and in some cases, by their families.  

Here Before Christ: Transnational Corporations & Indian Nations

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Transnational corporations are the primary agent of today’s globalized world. While often thought of as something relatively recent-post World War II, according to some writers-transnational corporations have been around since the age of discovery and have been one of the most important vehicles for resource development outside of Europe. One of the earliest examples of the transnational corporation was the Dutch East Indies Company founded in 1602.  

Transnational corporations are changing the shape of the world and the lives of individuals from every walk of life. The top 100 transnational corporations control 33% of the world’s resources and they employ 1% of the world’s workforce. Many transnational corporations are politically and economically more powerful than many countries. As the power of the transnational corporations have increased, the powers of modern states (countries) have decreased.

The First Nations of North America began to be incorporated into the global marketplace with the establishment of the fur trade in the seventeenth century. Very shortly, First Nations began to become intertwined with transnational corporations or at least one corporation in particular: Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC, sometimes called “Here Before Christ”).

The English Crown granted a charter incorporating the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670. They were given by the Crown the right to govern all of the lands which drain into Hudson’s Bay. This area was designated as Rupert’s Land. Under their Crown charter, HBC had the power to: (1) establish laws and impose penalties for the infractions of these laws, (2) erect forts, (3) maintain ships of war, and (4) make peace or war with the Natives. In other words, HBC had all of the powers of a sovereign state.

With regard to their relationship with the Native peoples of North America, HBC viewed them as trading partners rather than as subjects. While not officially encouraged, many of the HBC traders intermarried with the Natives, thus creating kinship networks that enhanced HBC trade. One of the HBC Governors wrote:

“Connubial alliances are the best security we can have of the goodwill of the Natives. I have therefore recommended the Gentlemen to form connections with the principal Families immediately on their arrival.”

The offspring from these marriages provided several generations of employees for the company-employees who knew both the European culture and the indigenous cultures.

While the focus of HBC was on the bottom line, that is, making a profit, one of its byproducts was religious change. As they extended their trading posts and influences in the western Rockies and Columbia basin, HBC employed Iroquois voyageurs who had some knowledge of the Christian religion but loved to sing Catholic hymns, relying on their rhythms to measure the oar strokes of the trade canoes. The Iroquois inspired both the Nez Perce and the Flathead to later send expeditions to St. Louis to request Christian missionaries.

The most famous trade good developed by HBC was the blanket. By 1740, the Hudson’s Bay Company was making a specially designed trade blanket. These blankets were heavier than other trade blankets and were made of pure wool. Each blanket was assigned a certain number of “points” based on its weight and a series of stripes indicating the “points” were woven into the blankets. In this way the trade value of the blanket was easily seen by both trader and the Indian fur trappers.

The other important trade good was alcohol. Alcohol is an ideal trade item as it is easily consumable, it is addictive (meaning that the Natives always want more), and it meant that intoxicated Indians were less aware of what they were doing during trade negotiations. Initially, HBC had a policy against trading alcohol to Indians, but then in 1776, they suddenly had major competition. A group of Canadian traders formed the North West Company. While HBC was headquartered in London, the Nor’westers were out of Montreal.

The Nor’westers supplied the Indians with a concoction called “high wine:” a mixture of brandy, dark rum, sweet sherry, tawny port, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon, with water added according to circumstances. Rivalry between fur trade companies led to Hudson’s Bay Company abandoning its policy against providing alcohol to the Indians. Soon alcohol supplanted other goods in desirability and become the most important single item in the trade.

The competition between the two companies led to open warfare, including attacking and capturing forts. In 1816, for example, the Pemmican War began when HBC captured and burned the North West Company’s Fort Gibraltar. In the months that followed both sides fielded armies in a guerrilla war. In 1821, the Crown stepped in and ordered the two companies to merge. With that the North West Company disappeared and alcohol sales to the Indians was reduced.

By 1856, the Canadian Indian Department was under the influence of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In Ontario, the Indian agent delayed annuity payments so that a lack of money over the winter would keep the Natives from purchasing goods from free traders.

In 1870, the Hudson’s Bay Company transferred Rupert’s Land and the Northwestern Territory to Canada. Rupert’s Land was the area drained by Hudson Bay and included northern Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba. The Northwestern Territory included Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and the Yukon. With this, the reign of HBC as a sovereign state in Canada was over.