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13.4: The Canadian Cordillera

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  • David Thompson (1770-1857) is famous for two accomplishments: his work as an explorer and surveyor (which includes crossing the continent and descending the Columbia River to its mouth, as well as mapping a prodigious amount of North America) and for having the longest marriage on record in the history of pre-Confederation Canada (58 years).

    Thompson was raised in poverty in London, indentured to the HBC at 14 years, and spent much of the rest of his life in the fur trade. In 1797 he literally walked away from his job with the HBC, trudging 80 miles in the snow from one trading post to another where he took up work with the NWC. It was in his capacity as a surveyor for the Montrealers that he was dispatched to the far west in 1806 in order to block American plans to exploit the route mapped by Lewis and Clark, and to access the sea otter resources that had been enriching fur traders from other nations.

    Thompson arrived at the mouth of the Columbia on July 14, 1811, only to find Astor’s crew of Americans and defected Nor’westers already on the scene, building Fort Astoria. Their arrival preceded Thompson’s by a few months, but events in the east were to catch up with the Astorians. The War of 1812 would result in the loss of much of Astor’s operations in the Great Lakes and in the far west, to the benefit of the NWC.

    The NWC in the Interior

    The Montrealers purchased Astoria and its tributary posts in 1813 and changed the name to Fort George. They then renewed and extended a chain of forts up the Columbia with one branch heading east through the Arrow Lakes to the southern Prairies and the other through the Okanagan Valley to Tk’əmlúps (aka Kamloops), where they established Thompson Rivers Post in place of the PFC’s Fort Cumcloups. This early land-based fur trade was, thus, linked back to Canada and not to Britain. On the ground the NWC in the farthest west was mostly Canadien, not Canadian, with a large and growing share of Métis women as well. Regardless of its Laurentian links, it was very much a British claim nevertheless.

    One of Thompson’s contemporaries in the NWC, Simon Fraser (1776-1862), made a comparable assault on the far west in 1803-1808. Fraser came to Canada from New York as a child in the Loyalist diaspora, but he was conscious of his ancestral Scottish roots. While in the north he applied the name “New Caledonia” to the region, which later would have a broader use, covering much of what is now British Columbia. Before descending the river that now bears his name, Fraser’s expedition, made up of mostly Canadiens, Métis, and some Iroquois, established a chain of posts that included Fort St. James and Fort George (later Prince George). In 1808 the voyageurs took on the river, stopping briefly at Camchin (Lytton) where the Nlaka’pamux impressed them with their hospitality, their string of about 1,000 ponies, and a robust human population of roughly 1,200. Fraser and his crew carried on to near the mouth of the river where they irritated the Musqueam (a.k.a. Xwméthkwiyem or xʷməθkʷəy̓əm), who chased them back up the river. Regardless of Fraser’s failure to complete his mission, he had laid the groundwork for the northern leg of a chain of forts that would complete the link between Fort George of the north and Fort George of the south (formerly Fort Astoria) and British North America. This was the setup that the HBC inherited in 1821.

    Fur trade society in New Caledonia and the Columbia District was consistent in many respects with personnel and practices east of the Rockies: Canadiens and Iroquois provided much of the muscle while direction was in the hands of a closely connected set of Anglo-Scots-Canadians and their métis or native wives. After the merger in 1821, the HBC’s structure made these distinctions even more apparent: the chief traders and factors were all drawn from the Anglo-Protestant side of the house while the voyageurs and traders were overwhelmingly Canadien, Métis, and Iroquois. Hierarchical social stations were reinforced through a dress code, the layout of the forts, and the size and state of employee accommodations. This sort of physical display of paternalistic rank was intended to impress upon the “servants” of the HBC their relative position; it was also ritualized in ways to impress the Aboriginal trading partners.

    The Interior posts were remarkably fragile. At the far end of supply lines originating in Montreal or perhaps even London, they were vulnerable to any number of events that might delay or prevent the arrival of food, gunpowder, clothing, and trade goods. Every one of the inland forts at some time or another depended heavily on local salmon fisheries, all of which were zealously controlled by Aboriginal peoples. And they were isolated from one another: boats could make it down the Columbia from the lower Okanagan (south of the 49th parallel) to the sea and canoe travel that was possible between Alexandria in the Cariboo to Stuart’s Lake in the north, but all of the rest required packhorses. Famine was common, as was the consequent eating of horses and dogs.[1] According to one historian,

    New Caledonia (mainland British Columbia) was particularly despised for its “misery and privation” and “poverty of fare.” Chief Factor John Tod recalled that in HBC Governor George Simpson’s Day (1820-1860) the district was “looked on in the light of another Botany Bay Australia; the men were in dread of being send there.”[2]