Columbia District - North West Company

North West Company

Beginning in 1807, David Thompson, working for the North West Company, explored much of what would become the Columbia District. In 1811 he located Athabasca Pass, which became the key overland connection to the emerging fur district.

Starting in 1811 the American Pacific Fur Company challenged the North West Company's operations in the Columbia District, establishing a number of trading posts. The North West Company was able to buy the entire operation of the Pacific Fur Company in 1813.

In 1815 the North West Company's business west of the Rocky Mountains was officially divided into two districts, the older New Caledonia district in the northern interior, and the Columbia District to the south. Also in 1815 the New Caledonia district began receiving the bulk of its annual supplies by sea from the lower Columbia rather than overland from Montreal. By 1820 the North West Company operated six posts on the lower Columbia River and its tributaries, including Fort George (Astoria), Fort Nez Perc├ęs, Fort Okanogan, Spokane House, Flathead Post, and Kootanae House.

Under the North West Company the Columbia District was bounded, roughly, by the southern edge of the Thompson River on the north, and by the southern and eastern limits of the Columbia River basin. North and west of the Thompson was the New Caledonia fur district, in what is now north-central British Columbia. The Thompson River region was its own fur district, centered on a fur trading post that later became the city of Kamloops. The Thompson River District was the link between the Columbia and New Caledonia Districts.

In the Treaty of 1818 between the U.S. and Britain, the two powers agreed that each had free and open access the Oregon Country. This "joint occupation" continued until the Oregon Treaty of 1846, yet American attempts to conduct commercial operations in the region failed in the face of competition by the North West Company and Hudson's Bay Company. The only sphere in which the Americans dominated was the maritime fur trade along the coast. But the HBC successfully took over the coastal maritime trade during the 1830s.

The North West Company found the Native Americans of the Columbia region generally unwilling to work as fur trappers and hunters. The company depended upon native labor east of the Rocky Mountains and found it difficult to operate without assistance in the west. For this reason the company began, in 1815, to bring groups of Iroquois, skilled at hunting and trapping, from the Montreal region to the Pacific Northwest. This practice soon became standard policy and was continued for many years by both the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company and was essential for the extension of the fur trade into much of the Columbia basin. The Iroquois were intended not only to support company personnel but, it was hoped, teach local natives the skills of hunting and trapping, and convince them to take up the work. This effort was largely unsuccessful. The reason generally given for the unwillingness of the natives to take up trapping and hunting was that their way of life was highly focused on salmon and fishing, and that the abundance of salmon resulted in little incentive for taking up hunting and trapping. Instead of cooperation there were altercations between the Iroquois and local natives. In 1816 parties of the North West Company, including a number of Iroquois, explored the Cowlitz River valley and the Willamette Valley, reaching as far south as the Umpqua River. Both exploring expeditions ended with violent clashes between the Iroquois and local natives. In addition the North West Company began to hire Native Hawaiians, known as Kanakas. This practice was continued and greatly expanded by the Hudson's Bay Company.

The North West Company was unchallenged in the fur trade of the region from 1813 to 1821, when it was merged with the Hudson's Bay Company. During this period the company put into practice the system attempted by the Astorians' Pacific Fur Company. A supply ship arrived each spring at Fort George (Astoria). Fur brigades from the interior of the Columbia and New Caledonia districts would converge on Fort George each spring. Furs were loaded on the ship and supplies carried back to the interior. The ship would then carry the furs to Canton, China, where furs would be exchanged for tea and other goods, which were then carried to Britain, completing a global circuit. Company letters, reports, and personnel were generally conveyed overland along a route between Fort George and Fort William on Lake Superior, making use of Athabasca Pass. Later, under the Hudson's Bay Company, the York Factory Express used this route, reoriented to York Factory on Hudson Bay.

The Columbia District under the North West Company was only marginally profitable at best. There were numerous problems at many posts. The only consistently profitable areas were the Kootenay River and Snake River countries. New Caledonia produced many furs, but its remoteness made it costly to operate. Nevertheless, the North West Company succeeded in creating a functional network oriented to the Pacific via the Columbia River. Another important legacy was the construction of Fort Nez Perces on the Columbia River near its confluence with the Snake River. Fort Nez Perces would long remain a strategic site, located at the junction of a variety of trails leading to vastly different regions. The fort became an important center for the procurement of horses, a base for expeditions far to the southeast, and a focal point for fur brigades preparing to journey through the Columbia River Gorge. The shipping of furs to Canton, China, was a financial failure for both the North West Company and, later, the Hudson's Bay Company, in part due to the East India Company's monopoly on British trade in the Far East.

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