|Chapter 6 – Fur Traders and Missionaries
Soon after the sea and land explorers, two
other groups of people began moving west. During the early 1800s, fur traders and missionaries came here. These were the first permanent white settlers to live in the area that is now Washington. Each group came here for different reasons. The fur traders were sent by their companies to obtain valuable fur pelts. The missionaries were sent by their churches to teach the Native
American Christianity. In the end, both the fur companies and missionaries had little success in
reaching these goals.
They were, however, much more successful
in other ways. The fur companies built trading posts and forts throughout the region. These forts and posts strengthened the claims of various countries for the region. Christian missionaries built missions. They also strengthened political claims. Both groups established friendships with the Indians. In the end, American fur traders and missionaries helped the United States claim the land south of the 49th parallel.
The Fur Trade Era 1811-1846
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Great Britain
and the United States had an economic interest in the Oregon Country. The interest was valuable animal pelts from the beaver and otter. These animals lived in the waterways, forests, and mountains. Trying to take advantage of the valuable animals, British and American fur companies sent trappers and traders to the region.
The Native Americans were hired by the traders to help trap these animals. The Native Americans then traded their fur pelts for guns, liquor, and other goods at the trading posts. Trading posts then loaded the furs on ships
destined to markets around the world. The furs were traded for tea, silk, and spices. The tea, silk, and spices were then sold to other markets by these fur companies. These companies made a handsome profit on the trade.
Fur Trappers and Barter
During the early 19th century, the most valuable fur-bearing animals—sea otter, fox, and beaver — were plentiful in the Pacific Northwest. As you know, this region has cool winters, mountainous terrain, abundant waterways, and lush forest lands. This is a perfect habitat for these animals. In most of the other northern
areas of the continent, many fur-bearing animals were nearly trapped to extinction. Fur trappers learned from the Lewis and Clark expedition about the plentiful supplies of fur-bearing animals. So, these trappers moved west into the Cascade and Rocky mountains.
Who were the fur trappers? The Native Americans who were familiar with the land were excellent trappers. Both the coastal and the plateau Indians understood the importance of these fur-bearing animals. They never overhunted. They only trapped what they needed to
provide warmth and protection. The white trapper had a different view of the American. The white trappers gathered more than they needed. The white trappers learned all they could from the Native Americans. The Indians taught them how to find and trap the animals. Naturally, the men working for British and American-owned fur companies were also excellent fur trappers.
Eventually the trappers bartered their pelts to the traders for needed supplies.
Who were the fur traders? The Native
Americans had traded furs among tribes for thousands of years. However, in the early 19th century this all changed. Now furs and pelts were traded not with tribes but with companies. Four major fur trading companies worked within the Oregon Country. These companies used
trading posts to store goods bartered for the furs. How did the barter system work? To barter is to trade goods and services without the use of money. Money was of no use to either the Native American or the trapper. Supplies such as guns, traps, food, and other supplies were much more important.
The trappers traveled to the trading post to
trade their pelts for supplies. Traders negotiated with the trapper until both parties agreed on the value of the furs. Once the value of the furs was determined, the trapper would get supplies equal to the value of the pelts. Both the trapper and trader were usually satisfied without the
exchange of money.
Getting Furs to Market
To make access easier, trading posts were built on major rivers. This was very important. The easiest way into the rugged country was by river. If these companies wanted to stock their posts with supplies, they needed an easy way to get to the post. Rivers allowed the companies to get supplies in and furs out. Two of the most important forts were Fort Astoria and Fort Vancouver. They were both located on the Columbia River.
The Columbia River allowed sailing vessels
to pick up a load of furs after unloading fresh supplies at the post. Once the ship was loaded with valuable furs it would then set sail for one of three major fur markets.
During the early 1800s, fur pelts were in strong demand, especially beaver hats and coats. The three major market areas were: the eastern United States, western Europe, and China. Frequently, beaver and otter pelts were taken to northern China. The furs were then traded with the Chinese for valuable tea, silk, and spices. The ship would depart China with its new cargo for western Europe.
The trading companies traded cheap trinkets for fur pelts. Pelts were then traded for valuable silk, tea, and spices. These trades made the trading companies large amounts of money. The fur business was a highly profitable venture from 1800 to the 1840s. The profits decreased as the beaver and otter populations declined. By the end of the 1840s, most of the fur-bearing animals had been trapped.
Why Northwest Fur Trade Boomed
Fur trade in the Oregon Country boomed for
several reasons. First, most of eastern North America had been over trapped. The only areas remaining to trap for furs were the forests and waterways of the northwest. The region teemed with highly prized animals. These animals were the beaver, otter, and fox. The second reason for the fur trade boom is the vast river system of the Oregon Country. These rivers provided access to the interior of the region. Rivers were the transportation system to the ocean. Once the ships were loaded with furs, they sailed to the Orient. The Native Americans provided the third reason for the success of the fur trading business. They provided skilled and cheap labor. Currency had no value to them. They worked for inexpensive trinkets. Finally, there was limited competition. Fur companies, in order to prevent competitive bidding for furs, isolated themselves from other companies. If there had been more competition,
it would have been more costly to barter.
The Four Fur Companies
Who were the fur companies that made this
trading possible? During this era, four companies
controlled the fur industry. Two of the companies
were American owned. They were the Pacific Fur Company and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. The British owned the Northwest Fur Company and the Hudson’s Bay Fur Company.
Each company hoped to control the fur industry
in the region. These companies operated within the northwest from 1811 to 1846.
The Pacific Fur Company
At the beginning of the 19th century, a recent
German immigrant, John Jacob Astor, founded the Pacific Fur Company. Astor was a successful New York fur trader and businessman. His dream was to expand his trading activities into the Rockies and the American West.
Astor decided to send a ship named the
Tonquin to the mouth of the Columbia River. Once there a trading post would be built. At the same time, he also sent an expedition overland. Its mission was to build several trading posts along the way into the Oregon Country. Both expeditions would eventually meet at the mouth of the Columbia River.
Astor chose Duncan MacDougall to lead the sea expedition. MacDougall set sail on the Tonquin from New York on August 2, 1810. The Tonquin reached the mouth of the Columbia River during a violent storm on March 22, 1811. The ship’s captain, Jonathan Thorn, was ruthless and impatient. He ordered eight men to
enter the mouth of the Columbia River. These orders came during the storm. All eight drowned after two attempts failed to reach land.
Captain Thorn and his crew eventually
off-loaded supplies and men on the southern bank of the Columbia River. Thorn left Duncan MacDougall behind to build Fort Astoria. It was the first permanent United States settlement on the Pacific Coast. Captain Thorn and his 26 man crew sailed north to Nootka Sound. This was a deadly decision by Captain Thorn.
Astor’s overland expedition was led by Wilson Price Hunt and Donald McKenzie. They left St. Louis in September 1810. The expedition was nearly a total disaster. The men encountered hostile Indians,
struggled through a harsh environment, suffered from hunger, and were poorly led by Hunt. The expedition split into several smaller groups. Some went back east while others deserted. Still others continued on to Fort Astoria arriving in January 1812.
McKenzie’s group was the first to arrive at
Fort Astoria. Other groups, led by Hunt and John Day, did not reach Fort Astoria until several months later. Despite tragedy and hardship, Astor's expeditions did establish settlements in the Pacific Northwest.
Between 1811 and 1813, the Astorians constructed and managed trading posts at Fort Astoria, Fort Okanogan, and Fort Spokane. In 1813, the Astorians received word that Great Britain and the United States were at war. This was the War of 1812.
There were only two fur companies operating west of the Rocky Mountains. The Pacific and Northwest Fur companies were owned by the United States and Great Britain, respectfully. Both countries were also at war.
Representatives of the Northwest Fur Company offered to purchase the Pacific Fur Company. This would prevent the British government from attacking and taking over the Pacific Fur Company’s trading posts. Shortly before the arrival of the British war ship Racoon,
Duncan MacDougall agreed to sell. The Pacific Fur Company sold its possessions and trading rights to the Northwest Fur Company. The brief, sad chapter of the Astorians in the Oregon Country was closed. Immediately the Nor’westers changed the name of Fort Astoria to Fort George. They did this in honor of the
reigning British monarch King George III.
The Northwest Fur Company
The Northwest Fur Company was a newly formed British company. It controlled the fur trade west of the Canadian Rockies. The Northwest Fur Company formed when several small fur trading groups joined in 1784. The company was mostly made up of men who had split away from the largest fur company in Canada, the Hudson’s Bay Fur Company. The Northwest Fur Company focused on trapping and trading in western Canada, particularly in the Canadian Rockies.
The trappers and traders for the Northwest
Fur Company had taken important steps. They had explored and settled western Canada and the Oregon Country. The three most important employees of the Northwest Fur Company were Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser, and David Thompson. All three explorers sought to discover the Columbia’s headwaters and to map the mighty river along its journey to the Pacific.
Alexander Mackenzie was in charge of Fort
Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca. In 1789, he left the fort and started to search for the Northwest Passage. He traveled by canoe down a stream flowing from the Great Slave Lake in Canada. The river, however, was not the Columbia. It flowed due north, entering the Arctic Ocean. Mackenzie’s discovery is now named the
Mackenzie River. Mackenzie returned to England in 1789 for additional training. In 1793, he returned to Fort
Chipewyan. Once again he attempted to locate the
great “River of the West.” He again failed to find
the Columbia. He did, however, discover the Upper
Fraser and the Bella Coola rivers. These discoveries
led to other more successful expeditions.
In May 1808, Simon Fraser and a crew of 23
men moved supplies up the Upper Fraser River. Fraser and his crew endured many hardships and dangers. They finally followed the main course of the Fraser River to the Pacific Ocean. Fraser was disappointed and tired from his journey to the ocean. He now realized that the
mouth of this river entered the ocean too far north. It was not the mouth of the Columbia River but the Fraser River. He was yet to find the Columbia River.
The Northwest Fur Company’s most noted
explorer, David Thompson, made a famous discovery. Thompson, a former employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, was a brilliant mapmaker and explorer. He mapped nearly one million square miles of western Canada. For 13 years, Thompson explored, trapped,
and mapped rivers of the central Canadian Rockies. In 1807, David Thompson finally discovered the source of the Columbia River. The Columbia’s headwaters are located in southeastern British Columbia. In the same year, Thompson discovered the Kootenai River. He also built a trading post called the Kootenai House. During the next few years, he built additional trading posts at
Kullyspell and Salish.
In 1810, Thompson learned that John Jacob
Astor planned to build a trading post near the mouth of the Columbia River. Thompson continued mapping the upper Columbia. Along the way, he canoed down the Kootenai River to the Spokane House. Here he resupplied the expedition and continued down the Columbia. Thompson and his men arrived at the mouth
of the Columbia River. They were shocked to find that Astor’s men had already constructed Fort Astoria. Thompson was too late. Astor’s fort strengthened the United States’ claim to the mouth of the Columbia. Britain’s claim was denied. Even though Thompson knew far more about the Columbia River than anyone at Fort Astoria, he could not claim the region. Thompson’s explorations strengthened the British claims to the upper Columbia River. He also helped claim the interior of the Oregon Country. David Thompson’s exploration of this
region played an important role in Great Britain’s claim. His work for Great Britain matches the importance of the Lewis and Clark Expedition for the United States.
The Northwest Fur Company made many
discoveries in its explorations of the Pacific Northwest between 1784 and 1821. It bought Fort Astoria in 1813. It then changed its name to Fort George. They controlled the fur trade in the Pacific Northwest until joining forces with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821. Peter Skene
Ogden, Nor’wester adventurer, continued explorations of the western United States from 1824 to 1831.
The Hudson’s Bay Company
By 1824, the Hudson’s Bay Company decided
to move its headquarters from Fort George, the
former Fort Astoria, to Fort Vancouver. This new location offered several advantages. The new location was more than 100 miles closer to the mouth of the Cowlitz, Lewis, and Willamette rivers. These three rivers were the primary source of furs from the western region. The new inland location also proved to be an important military decision. Naval vessels could not easily threaten Fort Vancouver, as the British had done at Fort George during the War of 1812. The new inland
location also provided better weather for the fort and its employees.
Dr. John McLoughlin
Fort Vancouver became the most active, successful, and important community in the Oregon Country. It was led by Dr. John McLoughlin from 1824 to 1846. He and the Hudson’s Bay Company were the source of economic aid and legal advice for the arriving
settlers in the Oregon Country.
The Rocky Mountain Fur Company
The fourth participating fur company was
formed by Major Andrew Henry and General William Ashley in 1823. This was the unique Rocky Mountain Fur Company. The Rocky Mountain Fur Company was
unique in many ways. First of all, its trappers were granted a great deal of independence. Secondly, the company operated without permanent trading posts. They instead traded furs at summer gatherings, called the
rendezvous. The rendezvous was used by the mountain men of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to barter and trade their pelts.
The Rocky Mountain Fur Company mountain men were hardy and fiercely independent. These hardy men survived the rugged terrain, harsh weather, and the Native Americans to eke out a simple way of life. By
1826, Ashley and Henry had sold their interests to Jedediah Smith, William Sublette, and David Jackson. The era of the mountain men was over. However, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company did make some important discoveries. The most important discovery was a wagon route through the Rocky Mountains. South Pass, a 30 mile wide and flat opening, opened wagon and trade routes to the West.
End results of Fur Trade Era
The fur companies’ lack of planning quickly
minimized the region’s advantages in the trading industry. This mismanagement of the fur boom became the fur bust of the mid-19th century. Nonetheless, the fur era led to the exploration of the vast interior of the region. It also established permanent settlement of the Oregon Country.
The Missionary Era (1834-1847)
The missionaries soon followed the fur trappers and traders to the West. The missionary era was very short. The first established mission was built in 1834 by Jason and Daniel Lee. The mission was built near Salem, Oregon. Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries continued until 1847. The Whitman Massacre ended this religious period on November 29, 1847. Although the
missionary period lasted only 13 years, the impact it had on the region was significant.
What brought the missionaries to the region?
During the 1820s, three events resulted in an increased interest in religion.
First, the Hudson’s Bay Fur company had
many Roman Catholic French Canadiens. These
employees requested religious services. The company responded by sending missionaries. Secondly, a few Iroquois Indians worked among other Native Americans. They tried to spread “the word of God” and convert others to the Roman Catholic faith. The third event occurred in 1831. Ten Flathead and Nez Perce Indians traveled to St. Louis, Missouri. They hoped to find the “White Man’s Book of Heaven.” Many church members
took this as a clear sign that the Indians wanted
to become Christians.
In the 1830s and 1840s, a few Protestant and
Roman Catholic missionaries were sent by their church to the Pacific Northwest. These missionaries were expected to live and work among the native people. They were to select a site for a mission. They sought a site that would attract white settlers and Native Americans. A small religious community would begin to grow and prosper at these sites.
A missionary was a very special individual.
Each missionary had to be totally committed to his or her work. When people were assigned to missionary work with the Native Americans, there were many challenges. The missionaries lives changed forever. They had to leave the life they had known. They faced unknown dangers and hardships. Each family had to endure the new life style.
Upon arriving at Fort Vancouver, the missionaries had some tough decisions. Should they work with the coastal or plateau Indians? What would be the best location to establish their mission? Could the mission site be easily reached by both Native Americans and settlers?
Would the mission site provide the basic
necessities of life? Would these people accept the missionaries? The goal of a missionary was to convert people to Christianity.
What were the objectives of the Protestant
missionary movement? The missionaries hoped to first Christianize the Native Americans and change their social behavior. Second, was to develop economic activities and provide religious services for fur traders and the arriving white settlers. Third, was to educate the children and strengthen the United States’ political claim
to the Oregon Country.
The Protestant missionaries chose to construct their missions near rivers. The Willamette and Columbia rivers were important sites for their missions. They believed the river location would attract settlers, fur traders, and Native Americans. These missionaries believed the Native American basic life style had to change, especially the nomadic plateau Indians.
The Methodist Church sent its first
missionaries, Jason and Daniel Lee, to Oregon in
1834. Jason Lee wanted to establish a mission among the peaceful and friendly Nez Perce. At Fort Vancouver, Dr. John McLoughlin warned the Lees of the Indian wars involving the Flathead and Blackfoot tribes. So, the Lees instead chose a mission site near Salem, Oregon.
Between 1828 and 1832, before the Lees’ arrival, the Native Americans living in the Willamette River Valley had been ravaged by a serious measles epidemic. Despite the epidemic, Lee’s Mission was very successful among these peaceful coastal tribes. Their success encouraged
the Mission Board to send more missionaries.
In 1836, five more missionaries were selected
to go to the Oregon Country. They were William Gray, Henry and Eliza Spalding, and Dr. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. After a difficult journey, they reached Fort Vancouver. In contrast to the Lee’s decision, they chose to build their missions in the interior. They worked with several plateau tribes. The tribes in the Columbia Plateau area proved to be more challenging.
The Spaldings and William Gray chose to
work with the friendly Nez Perce Indians. The Lapwai Mission was one of the most successful missions in the region. It existed from 1836 to 1847. The mission was closed between 1847 and 187l because of the Cayuse and Yakama wars.
After the wars, Henry Spalding reopened the
Lapwai Mission in 187l. Henry and Eliza Spalding were successful because of their ability to communicate. The
Spaldings were very good teachers. He printed parts of the Bible for the Nez Perce Indians to read. The Spaldings maintained positive relations with both the Nez Perce and the settlers. This friendship provided protection for the Spaldings during the Indian wars. If the Nez Perce had not respected them, the Spaldings
may have suffered the same fate as the Whitmans.
Dr. Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa
founded the Waiilatpu Mission. Waiilatpu is a Nez Perce word meaning “people of the place of the rye grass.” It was located six miles west of the present day city of Walla Walla, Washington. Their mission was an important stop along the Oregon Trail. From 1836 to 1847, almost every pioneer traveling north to Oregon stopped there. However, the mission location had a
disadvantage. It was within the hostile Cayuse tribe’s land.
Marcus and Narcissa worked very hard to
establish a successful mission. As a medical doctor, Marcus cared for many of the ill and injured. He helped both the Native Americans and settlers. They also assisted the pioneers coming west with supplies and repairs. However, the main reason for the mission was to educate the settlers and Native Americans about religion.
Dr. Whitman was viewed as a medicine man by the local Cayuse Indians. Small pox, measles, and cholera were deadly epidemics. These epidemics struck the local Cayuse and Nez Perce people. The local Indians looked to Dr. Whitman to cure them. When he could not cure them, they believed he had lost his power to heal the sick. The failed efforts of Dr. Whitman, in combination with the Cayuse Indians’ distrust of Narcissa, eventually led to their deaths. On November 29, 1847, the Waiilatpu Mission was attacked by Cayuse Indians. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were killed. So were 13 others. Fortyfive women and children were taken hostage.
The Whitman Masssacre ended the Missionary Era. It also began a long period of Indian wars in the Oregon Territory. The wars halted settlement in present day Washington and travel on the Oregon Trail. All of these
factors, greatly slowed the growth of the Washington Territory.
Other Protestant Missionaries
In 1837, William Gray left the Spalding’s
Lapwai Mission to return east. Gray persuaded the American Board to send more missionaries to the Pacific Northwest. Of these missionaries, two were recently married couples; Elkanah and Mary Walker and Mr. and Mrs. Cushing Eells.
The Walkers and Eells built the Tshimakain
Mission. At this mission, they lived and worked with the Spokane Indians. It is important to recognize the major
contributions of the women who married the Protestant missionaries. Active marriage partners included Mary Richardson Walker, Narcissa Whitman, Eliza Hart Spalding, Anna Marie Pittman Lee, Mary Augusta Dix Gray, and Tabitha Brown. Each wife supported her husband’s tireless work. They endured life in the wilderness, raised their children, and made significant contributions to the history of the region. In addition, these women’s journals provided valuable insight into
the history of their times.
Roman Catholic Missionaries
The Roman Catholics also sent a number of
priests to work with the Native Americans. These Catholic missionaries set up mission sites throughout the region. Three important Roman Catholic missionaries were Father François Blanchet, Father Modeste Demers, and Father Peter John DeSmet. According to most historians, the Roman Catholic missionary was more successful with the Native Americans than the Protestant
missionaries. Catholic missionaries were successful for a number of reasons. For one, they did not encourage settlers to immigrate into the region. Their church ceremonies were attractive to Native Americans. Their mission sites were wide spread and did not attempt to change the Indian way of life. Finally, the missionaries
traveled among the tribes rather than expecting the native people to live near the mission.
The fur traders and missionaries both had a
dramatic effect on the development and settlement of the Oregon Territory. Without either of these two groups, the United States would have had a very difficult time claiming the Oregon Country. This opened the door to
eventually claiming the area we call Washington.
Fur traders and their companies financed expeditions. They built trading posts throughout the region. The posts and forts allowed goods such as pelts to be exchanged for supplies for the trappers. The Native American was happy with some cheap trinkets. The fur trade era was short and profitable for those companies that took the
risk and ventured west.
Missionaries who ventured west paved the
way for one of the greatest movements of people in the history of America. The missionaries came west, simply to teach the Native American about the Bible and religion. Some missionaries paid the ultimate price with their lives. The result for both groups was the devastation of the Native American way of life and an increase of the white population. The whites brought deadly diseases. These diseases killed the women, children, and men of the tribes. The Native Americans believed the only way they could save their way of life was to fight! In an attempt to salvage their way of life,
they fought many savage wars against a young, growing, and determined country.