Growth, Power and Purposes of British Fur Companies

The American government made no effort to retake the captured fort until the close of the war of 1812, when, under the treaty of Ghent, which stipulated that “all territory, places and possessions, whatsoever, taken by either party from the other during the war, or which may be taken after the signing of the treaty, shall be re-stored without delay.” Mr. Astor applied to the government for the restitution of his property, since he wished to resume operations on the Columbia River and carry out the plan of American occupation which had been so well begun. In July, 1815, notice was given the British government that steps would be taken to reoccupy the captured fort, but no official response was received. For two years no active measures were taken, but in 1817 the United States government dispatched the war sloop Ontario to the Pacific, to receive the surrender of the fort in accordance with the terms of the treaty of Ghent. This brought matters to a crisis, and a spirited discussion of the subject of title to the country followed, involving the question of abstract rights by discovery and absolute right by possession, both parties claiming tinder both titles. The claim of the United States was fourfold: First, as a portion of Louisiana, purchased from France in 1803; second, by right of discovery by the Spanish explorers Ferrelo in 1543, and later by Perez; Aguilar, Heceta, Bodega, Quadra, and others, the benefit of whose discoveries accrued to the United States by the Florida purchase made in 1819, though the title was not asserted in the first negotiations, as the settlement was made subsequent to the first temporary settlement; third, by the discovery of the Columbia River by Captain Robert Gray, in 1792; and fourth, by reason of the explorations of Lewis and Clark and the establishment of forts at Astoria and two other points by the Pacific Fur Company. It was denied that the sale of these forts under duress of threatened capture by a man of war was such as to affect the right of the United States to the benefits to be derived from settlements made by its citizens, especially since the terms of peace provided that the forts should be surrendered to the United States government. On the contrary, Great Britain claimed that the country north of the forty-second parallel was originally discovered by Francis Drake in 1578. To make this claim effective it was necessary to deny that the prior voyage of Ferrelo had extended as far north as the Oregon line. Since the coast had also been explored by Cook and Vancouver, and had been visited by Meares and other English fur traders, all between 1775 and 1793, these facts were urged as supplementing the original discovery of Drake. It was also necessary to deny that Gray had discovered the Columbia River, and to do this it was claimed that the entrance of the river by him was but one step in a series; that the discovery was a successive one, participated in by Heceta, Meares, Vancouver, Gray and Broughton. Britain’s claim by right of possession was based upon the establishment, in 1805, of a fort on Fraser Lake by an agent of the Northwest Company, and the purchase by the same company, of the property of the Pacific Fur Company. The Northwest Company then held possession of the Columbia region by means of forts at Astoria and other points along the river. With these rights and equities on both sides, a complete surrender by either was impossible, and after full discussion a treaty of joint possession for ten years was agreed upon, October 20, 1818, by which nominal possession of Astoria was given to the United States, but actual possession and ownership was to remain in the Northwest Company. “By this act,” says Judge Deady, “the two high contracting parties virtually admitted to the world, that neither of them had any perfect or acknowledged right to any country westward of the Stony Mountains, or that at most, they had but a claim of right to some undefined part of that comparatively unknown region. This convention, apparently acting upon the admission that neither party had any definite right to the country and that like any other unsettled and unowned portion of the globe it was open to occupation by the first comer, expressly recognized the right of the people of both nations to occupy it, for the time being, at pleasure.”

Thus was sanctioned that occupation of the country by Great Britain which was practically commenced in 1813 by the transfer of the property and business of the Pacific Fur Company to the Northwest Fur Company; and from that date until the government of the pioneers was established, trade, commerce and colonization were decidedly in favor of Great Britain. The English sought to occupy the country for the purpose of carrying on the fur trade with

the natives. It was to be kept from the plough and the sickle and preserved as a breeding ground for fur-bearing animals, except so far as the limited necessities or convenience of the fur traders might otherwise require. For several years the Northwest Fur Company was the dominant power in the country. Its operations were conducted on a thorough system by which it was soon developed into a powerful and wealthy corporation. All its managing agents were interested partners, who naturally did their utmost to swell the business. In the plenitude of its power, – about 1818, – it gave employment to two thousand voyagers, while its agents penetrated the wilderness in all directions in search of furs. Meanwhile the older Hudson’s Bay Company was becoming a strong competitor for the possession of the fur regions of Oregon. The struggle for supremacy became very bitter. The two companies had grown too large to be tolerant of each other, and mutual hostility springing out of a fierce spirit of commercial rivalry finally led to a state of actual war in which each sought to destroy its competitor by actually killing the men and by exciting the Indians to do so. Parliament realizing the precarious state of affairs put an end to the bloody feud, in 1821, by consolidating the rival companies under the name of “The Honorable Hudson’s Bay Company.” By this measure was created an organization far more powerful than either had been before, and England gained a united and potent agent for the advancement of her interests in America.

A short time prior to consolidation the Northwest Fur Company established a post on the north bank of the Columbia, some miles above the mouth of the Willamette, which was christened Fort Vancouver. In 1823 the headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company was removed from Fort George (Astoria) to Fort Vancouver, the latter being a more eligible and accessible point for sea-going vessels, and the center and natural converging point of trapping parties coming down the Columbia from the vast wilderness to the east. Here for full twenty years this great corporation held almost undisputed sway. It had its factors, agents, traders, voyagers and servants, all working in perfect harmony to advance the interests and increase the powers of this giant monopoly, and to destroy every competitor who attempted to trade with the natives for peltries and furs. Its policy was one of uncompromising hostility toward every person or company who interfered with its traffic, or who questioned its exclusive right to trade with the natives within the territory of Oregon. It had at the time the treaty of 1846 was made, twenty-three forts and trading posts judiciously located for trading with the Indians and trappers in its employ. It had fifty-five officers and five hundred and thirteen articled men under its control, all working together to maintain its supremacy and power. The Hudson’s Bay Company and all of its servants within the limits of Oregon were, moreover, under the protecting care of the British government. Parliament, at an early day after the joint occupation of the country commenced, had extended the colonial jurisdiction and civil laws of Canada over all British subjects within the disputed territory. Magistrates were appointed to administer and execute those law, who exercised jurisdiction in civil cases where the amount in controversy did not exceed x’200 sterling, and in criminal cases the same magistrates were authorized to commit persons accused of crime and send them to Canada for trial. In all matters of mere police and trade regulation the company exercised an authority as absolute as that of the Czar of Russia, and flogging was a common punishment which any officer from the governor of the company down to the petty clerk of a trading fort might inflict upon any one of the rank and file of employees.

From 1823 to 1845 Dr. John McLoughlin1 was chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company west of the Rocky Mountains. He was, in many respects, a grand character, and time has proven how just was his exercise of almost unlimited power. For more than two decades he did more than anyone else to preserve order, peace and good will among the conflicting and sometimes lawless elements of population, and well fitted was he to govern both by fear and love. So absolute was his authority that prior to the settlement of the Willamette Valley by Americans, no legal forms were thought necessary, except such as made by the company’s grants, full power being given to the chief actor and council to try and punish all offenders belonging to the company or within the Hudson’s Bay territory. Dr. McLoughlin settled all disputes, and the Canadians and other servants of the company yielded without question to his right to judge and punish. He was a strict and stern disciplinarian, yet his use of authority was rarely, if ever, abused. Purely personal interest would have led him to throw every obstacle in his power in the way of settlement of the country by American citizens, but his kindness of heart would not permit him to refuse aid to those in distress, and the early American emigrants found in him one who at the sacrifice of his own interest was ever ready to lend them assistance and protection. His humanity in this regard caused him to be misrepresented in England and brought him into so much disfavor with the Hudson’s Bay Company that he was finally compelled to resign his position.

It has been deemed necessary thus fully to describe the great power and firm foothold secured in Oregon by the Hudson’s Bay Company, in order to give an adequate idea of the great task which lay before any American company which might seek to compete with  it in its chosen field. Long before the period of joint occupancy of the territory had expired British control had become well nigh complete. The interest of the United States had not been promoted in any way, except as already stated by the Florida purchase of 1819, which carried with it the Spanish title to the territory north of the forty-second parallel. In Congress, however, the Oregon question was spasmodically discussed and much correspondence passed between the two governments. The United States urged its Spanish title as its right to the country by original discovery, also that the mouth of the Columbia River was ours by dual right of discovery and settlement, and, therefore, following the general rule which had been observed by European nations in colonizing America, all the country tributary to the river and its confluents was also subject to our dominion. As the Columbia sweeps northward to the fifty-third parallel, it was urged that, by this title alone, the government had undisputed right to the whole region lying between the forty-second and fifty-third parallels. In 1820 Russia asserted exclusive title on the coast from the Arctic Ocean as far south as the fifty-first parallel; a claim which was protested by both England and the United States, but in the negotiations which followed, the Russian title was fully acknowledged by both governments, as far south as fifty-four degrees and forty minutes, which at once became the northern limit of the claim of the United States.


1 Hon. William H. Rees, an Oregon pioneer of 1844, and personally acquainted with Dr. McLoughlin, in an address before the Oregon Pioneer Association in 1879, said of him: “Dr. McLoughlin was no ordinary personage. Nature had written in her most legible hand preeminence in every lineament of his strong Scotch face, combining in a marked degree all the native dignity of an intellectual giant. He stood among his pioneer contemporaries like towering old Hood amid the evergreen heights that surround his mountain home-a born leader of men. He would have achieved distinction in any of the higher pursuits of life. He was born in the District of Quebec, Canada, in 1784, of Scotch parentage, reared under the influence of the Angelican or Episcopal Church, of which he remained a member until November, 1842. At that date he became connected with the Catholic Church, of which he continued a devout communicant during the remaining years of his long and eventful life. Dr. McLoughlin had received a liberal education and was a regular bred physician, in statute above six feet, weighing some 250 pounds; his head was large, his commanding eye of a bluish gray, a fair florid complexion; his hair had been of a sandy color, but when I first met him at Vancouver, in the fall of 1844, then sixty years of age, his great, luxuriant growth of hair was white as snow. A business requiring a residence among the wild native tribes necessarily made the regulations governing the service of the company partake more of the martial than the civil law. Dr. McLoughlin was a strict disciplinarian and in his bearing decidedly military in suggestion; his standard of honor was unviolated truth and justice. The strong distinguishing traits of his character were true courage, a clear, quick perception and firm reliance. He never hesitated in taking upon himself great responsibilities when in his judgment occasion required it. The regulations of the Hudson Bay Company required its officers to give one year’s notice of their intention to quit the service. This notice the Doctor gave at the beginning of 1845 and the following year established himself upon his land claim in Oregon City, where he had already built a residence, large flouring mill, saw mills and store houses. Having located his land claim in 1829, he first made some temporary improvements thereon in 1830. These enterprises gave to the pioneer town quite a business-like appearance at the time of my arrival in the country, and employment to quite a goodly number of needy emigrants. The Doctor’s religion was of that practical kind which proceeds from the heart and enters into the duties of every-day life; his benevolent work was confined to no church, sect nor race of men, but was as broad as suffering humanity; never refusing to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and provide for the sick and toil-worn emigrant and needy settler who called for assistance at his old Vancouver home. Many were the pioneer mothers and their little ones whose hearts were made glad through his timely assistance, while destitute strangers, whom chance or misfortune had thrown upon these then wild inhospitable shores, were not permitted to suffer while he had power to relieve. Yet he was persecuted by men claiming the knowledge of a Christian experience, defamed by designing politicians, knowingly misrepresented in Washington as a British intriguer, until he was unjustly deprived of the greater part of his land claim.

Thus, after a sorrowful experience of man’s ingratitude to man, he died an honored American citizen, and now sleeps upon the east bank of the Willamette, at Oregon City, in the little yard which encloses the entrance to the Catholic Cathedral, beneath the morning shadow of the old gray cliffs that overlook the pioneer town of the Anglo-American upon the Pacific Coast; here resting from his labors within the ever moaning sound of the mighty cataract of the beautiful river, while the humble stone that marks his grave bears this simple inscription:

September 3rd, 1857, Aged 73 Years.
The Pioneer and Friend of Oregon, also the Founder of this City.

Fur Trade, History,

Harvey Whitefield Scott. History of Portland, Oregon: with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Prominent Citizens and Pioneers. Portland, Oregon. D. Mason & Company, 1890.

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