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.


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 Pemmican War

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When the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was organized in 1670, it was granted a charter by the British Crown giving it a trading monopoly over the watershed of all of the rivers flowing into Hudson’s Bay. This territory, encompassing 1.5 million square miles, was named Rupert’s Land in honor of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, a nephew of King Charles I and the first governor of Hudson’s Bay Company. It included all of Manitoba, most of Saskatchewan, southern Alberta, southern Nunavut, the northern parts of Ontario, and portions of Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana.

Rupert's Land

The HBC fur traders often married into the Indian nations with whom they traded as this provided them access to the traditional trading system which was based on kinship. As a result of these marriages, a new group of people known as Métis emerged with a distinct culture that incorporated Native elements and European (mostly French and Scots) elements.


In 1811, Thomas Douglas, the 5th Earl of Selkirk, set up a colonization project known as the Red River Colony (also called the Selkirk Settlement) on 120,000 square miles of land granted to him by HBC. Selkirk’s interest in establishing a colony in the area was inspired by Sir Alexander MacKenzie’s book Travels from Montreal which glowingly described the economic potential of the region.  

Red River Colony

Selkirk, who had a controlling interest in HBC, also wanted the colony to block the fur trade from HBC’s arch rival, the North West Company (for whom MacKenzie had worked). With the colony in place, the Métis who had been supplying the Nor’westers would be displaced, thus cutting the rival fur company off from the fur and hide supply.

In 1814, the Governor of the Red River Colony issued a proclamation intended to limit the number of buffalo killed by the Métis. The proclamation inflamed the Met Métis is who in response called for a new sovereign nation in the Red River Valley for their people. The proclamation was ignored and the Métis purposefully killed more buffalo than they needed.

The buffalo meat was not exported, but was made into pemmican. It was consumed locally or sold to traders passing through the valley.

The following year, the governor of the Red River Colony forbade the export of staples.  He then confiscated four hundred bags of pemmican belonging to the North West Company. Finally, he ordered the North West Company to close its trading posts. The Nor’Westers and their Métis allies vowed to wage war on the colony. Cuthbert Grant became captain-general of the Métis militia groups and a Métis flag was designed.

Soon there were only 13 colonial families who had not been driven out and the governor surrendered. Bands of Métis razed farms and burned buildings in the colony.  

The Métis asked the Hudson’s Bay Company to remove the Red River Colony and to allow them the freedom to hunt buffalo. In addition, they asked that they not be subject to any local laws and that they share equally in the annuities given to the tribes. They made it clear that the Red River Métis identified themselves as having a distinctive lifestyle with values emphasizing the freedom to claim the benefits and privileges of both their maternal and fraternal heritage, whichever they wanted to choose.

The war escalated the following year when HBC captured and burned the North West Company’s Fort Gibraltar. Under the leadership of Cuthbert Grant, the Métis went to war against HBC by attacking and plundering Brandon House, a HBC trading post.

The Hudson’s Bay Company governor met with the Métis and read them a stern proclamation forbidding them to commit acts of violence against the Red River Colony. In response Cuthbert Grant shot the governor and started a short battle that ended in a Métis victory. The Pemmican War was no longer a commercial struggle between two rival fur companies, but it now became a guerrilla war.

In retaliation, the Earl of Selkirk led a mercenary army against the Nor’Westers and the Métis. He captured Fort William and arrested 15 senior North West Company partners, charging them with treason, conspiracy, and accessory to murder.  This ended the war, but the Red River Colony was never successful as an agricultural enterprise. In 1821, the Crown forced the merger of HBC and the Nor’westers.  

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.