Furs, particularly those of sea otters and fur seals, lured the first European explorers, and later Americans, to the Pacific Northwest and the Columbia River. They came by sea. In the mid to late 1700s, the thick, luxurious and water-repellent furs of sea mammals were highly valued in China as well as in Europe, where they were sewn into coats, hats and bed covers. In China, furs were traded for tea and spices.
A Russian, Semen Dezhnev, may have been the first to venture into the northern Pacific for the purpose of commerce in furs. In 1648, Dezhnev completed the first recorded voyage between the Arctic and Pacific oceans by sailing east from the mouth of the Kolyma River, which flows into the Arctic Ocean, around the northeastern tip of Siberia and south to a point near the mouth of the Anadyr River, on the Pacific Ocean. Historian Stephen Haycox of the University of Alaska calls Dezhnev’s voyage “a remarkable Russian geographical accomplishment,” a highly significant voyage like the later explorations of Vitus Bering in 1728 and 1741 that led to the colonization of Alaska by Russian fur merchants. Bering recognized the importance of Dezhnev’s accomplishment; he reported on Dezhnev’s voyage upon his return to St. Petersburg after exploring the Siberian Pacific coast. Others recognized, it, too. In August 1778, Captain James Cook named the easternmost point of Asia — the northeastern tip of Siberia — East Cape, but Russia has preferred the name Cape Dezhnev.
By leading the way into the North Pacific, Dezhnev inspired those who would follow. And it was the knowledge of Bering’s discovery of Alaska, among other concerns, that influenced the naval officers of New Spain to dispatch their own explorations north along the eastern coast of the Pacific into the Northwest in the mid-1700s and to protect and expand their empire by establishing an outpost at Nootka Sound on the west coast of present-day Vancouver Island in 1789. At the same time, stories about Russians trading Alaskan furs in China, and the continued search for the Northwest Passage, intensified European and, ultimately, American interest in the Pacific Northwest and the Columbia River.
Cook approached the Northwest coast on his third voyage to the Pacific in March 1778. He first sighted the coast near present-day Yaquina Bay, Oregon (Newport), on March 7. Because his instructions were to search for the passage farther north, he spent little time off the Oregon coast, but he did name several prominent capes — Gregory (today called Arago), Perpetua and Foulweather — then was blown out to sea in a storm and missed both the entrance of the Columbia River and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He stopped at Nootka Sound, which he did not realize was on an island, for the purpose of repairing and rerigging his two ships, the Resolution and Discovery. The expedition spent most of April at Nootka, where the local Indians carried on a lively trade with the crew for metal. The Indians possessed some brass and silver objects, apparently acquired from Spaniards who had visited the coast previously, and they wanted more. Cook’s crew traded practically everything metal they possessed — buttons, drawer knobs, kettles — in exchange for sea otter skins, which were needed to mend their worn clothing. The pelts also were beautiful and luxurious, and the crew “was passionately fond of” them, Cook later noted in his report of the voyage. At Canton on the return voyage to England, following Cook’s death in Hawai’i, the crew sold their surplus pelts for $100 apiece, a remarkable price at the time.
News of the fabulous value of Northwest furs sparked the interest of traders in America, England and Spain and led to the beginning of the sea-based fur trade in the Northwest. It was interest in the maritime fur trade following the publication of the official report of Cook’s voyage in 1784 that led to the discovery of the Columbia River. British interest in the maritime fur trade peaked between 1785 and 1794 and gradually declined over the next 10 years as the wars that grew out of the French Revolution diminished Britain’s manpower and investment. The country also concentrated its foreign trade activities in India. But as well, competition intensified as more Americans entered the Northwest fur trade. American merchants sought new business opportunities in the wake of the American revolution and the loss of prior trading relations with Great Britain, parts of Europe and in the West Indies. Robert Gray, who would discover the Columbia River on his second voyage to the Northwest coast, was outfitted by Boston merchants for both voyages, the first in 1787 and the second three years later. The trade grew steadily and remained active and prosperous until war with Great Britain broke out in 1812.
As Cook’s crew discovered, the prized sea otter fur initially brought $100 or more in Canton, but over time the price declined to about $22 — still a lot of money in the early 1800s. At the height of the trade, in 1801-02, 15 vessels were on the coast and 15,000 pelts were carried to Canton. Between 1790 and 1812, American traders sold an average of 12,000 sea otter pelts in Canton annually. The skins of beaver, marten and seals also were traded, but these were less valuable.
The Columbia River was not a major trading depot for sea otters, but the estuary provided a convenient place for traders to spend the winters. Vancouver's lieutenant, Broughton, found the American trader James Baker in the estuary when he entered in October 1792, six months after Gray discovered the river. During the winter of 1805-06, when the Lewis and Clark expedition stayed at Fort Clatsop, local Indians gave the explorers the names of 14 traders who had visited the river, but it was impossible to identify them based on the Indians’ pronunciation of their names. In the Columbia River, traders often acquired locally made leather “war dresses,” also called “clamons,” which could be traded to Indians elsewhere on the Northwest coast for furs — until the Americans started trading guns for furs and the war dresses became obsolete.
Steadily the relentless pursuit of sea otters diminished their populations in the Northwest, and traders turned to California, where the animals remained in great supply. Enterprising businessmen sought to expand the Northwest trade to embrace the Russian forts in Alaska by using Alaskan native hunters to kill sea otters in California, trade them in Hawai’i or Canton for cash and goods, and then supply the Russian forts in a sort of triangular trade route between the Northwest, Canton and Lima.. The Columbia River provided a suitable location for the Northwest headquarters of such an enterprise, and Captain Nathaniel Winship established a post about 30 miles upriver in May 1810 for that purpose. The site was on the south shore approximately across the river from present-day Oak Point, Washington. Repeated warnings by local Indians that Europeans were welcome to trade at the coast but not settle inland convinced Winship to abandon the project, but it was the first effort to build an American settlement in the Northwest. Historians Dorothy Johansen and Charles Gates say the Winship attempt at settlement also shows that East Coast business interests saw the Columbia as a vital link in Pacific commerce and as the future business center of the region.
It was the nature of the fur trade, Johansen and Gates wrote, that new fields of opportunity needed to be opened continuously to feed the voracious demand for fur. In 1807 the North West Company, a Canadian firm that employed David Thompson, began exploring the region west of the Rocky Mountains. In competition with the Hudson’s Bay Company, the North West Company sought to leave the drainage of Hudson’s Bay to its rival and attempt to dominate the Columbia River fur trade. At the same time New York merchant John Jacob Astor, who had made a fortune in the East Coast fur trade, sought to expand his empire to the Pacific through a succession of separate companies that ultimately would be established in succession across the country and eventually joined. One of these, which he incorporated in 1810, was the Pacific Fur Company. It was an alliance among Astor and three former North West Company principals.
To stake his claim on the Pacific, Astor dispatched two parties to the mouth of the Columbia in September 1810, one by sea in an Astor ship, the Tonquin, and the other by land. The ship arrived in the Columbia River estuary in late March 1811, where eight men died as the ship attempted, and finally succeeded, to cross the bar. Fort Astoria was built, the Tonquin left in June for summer trading, and it never returned, the crew apparently massacred and the ship destroyed in Nootka Sound. The land party would not arrive at Astoria until early 1812, and then in small groups between January and late spring. The outpost was seriously undersupplied, as most of the trade goods and supplies had been stored in the Tonquin and were now lost.
In July 1811, meanwhile, a small party of Astorians who had arrived in the Tonquin decided it was safe enough to journey up the Columbia in search of furs. Shortly, though, they met David Thompson coming down the river. All returned to Astoria, stayed a week while Thompson scouted the area, and then resumed the journey together up the Columbia. Thompson was the only one who had seen the upper Columbia. The Astorians established their inland trading post at the place where the Okanogan River flows into the Columbia in north-central Washington.
The outbreak of war between the United States and Great Britain in June 1812 greatly affected Astor’s far-flung enterprise on the Pacific. Astor’s ship Beaver had arrived at Astoria to resupply the fort with trading goods and personnel, and the Astorians’ upper Columbia party had returned with hopeful news of hunting and trading prospects in the interior, but North West Company employees also returned with plans for their own expanded business and, of course, news of the war. Feeling outnumbered and undersupplied, the Astorians and Canadians agreed to join forces, dissolve the Pacific Fur Company and sell Fort Astoria to the North West Company. This was accomplished on October 16, 1813, and Fort Astoria was renamed Fort George in honor of the British kin, George IV.
Astor later would blame the war for his loss of Astoria, which he estimated ultimately cost him $200,000, but the truth is that the post was sold willingly by the partners present, which was allowed in the articles of the company’s incorporation. As well, Astor’s Pacific adventure simply was poorly supplied and managed, and even without the war he very likely would have been run out of the Northwest business by the better organized and managed North West Company.
From 1813 until 1821, when it merged with its rival Hudson’s Bay Company, the North West Company dominated the interior Northwest fur trade. But dreams of an enterprise that would include England, the Northwest coast and the Orient never were fulfilled, largely because the British-controlled East India Company refused to allow rival North West Company ships to carry Chinese goods to England. The North West Company had a foothold in the Northwest, but not a continental monopoly; the Hudson’s Bay Company had a monopoly within its chartered area in Canada and wanted a monopoly in the West. It made sense for the competitors to merge, and they did so in 1821.
The Bay Company took over Fort George, closed it and relocated at Fort Vancouver, which was constructed about 100 miles inland, the Indians now being more receptive to European settlement. The Columbia Department of the Bay Company included all of the Northwest from the Rocky Mountains west to the Pacific and from Russian Alaska to Spanish California. By 1845, when the company was at its peak, the Columbia Department included 23 forts.
Meanwhile, American interest in the western fur trade was growing. In 1821, the same year the Bay Company and North West Company merged, Congressman John Floyd of Virginia issued a report speculating on the profitability of a transcontinental trade route to tap furs and profits from Oregon. He proposed that a community be established at the mouth of the Columbia with a port, customs house, civil administration and an Indian agent. Floyd was a friend of William Clark and a cousin of Sgt. Charles Floyd, the only man to die on the Lewis and Clark expedition. At the time, Astor’s American Fur Company was beginning to dominate the fur trade in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, and he would eliminate the competition there by 1835.
To discourage competition from American traders in the Columbia Basin, the Bay Company adopted a policy of trapping as many beavers as possible, particularly in the vast area south of the river where the company knew American trappers were working, or would be. Beavers were not the only fur-bearers that were hunted, but they had a high value. The company employed its own trappers and hunters but also traded food and other goods with Indians for furs. Over time, many Indians became essentially wards of the company, trapping and trading in a sort of subsistence round of furs and food.
The Bay Company dominated the Northwest fur trade from its merger with the North West Company until 1846, when the United States and Great Britain ended the joint occupancy of the Northwest that had existed since 1818 and agreed on the 49th parallel as the international border. The interior fur trade had its heyday in the 10 years between 1823 and 1833. Profits could be enormous. H.M. Chittenden, whose two-volume The American Fur Trade of the Far West is an authoritative work on the subject, estimated, for example, that the profits of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, an American firm, were $50,000-$60,000 per year between 1823 and 1827.
After 1833, the aggressive trapping of the Bay Company and the subsequent decline of beaver populations, competition among the various firms engaged in the trade and a shift in public preference away from fur clothing, particularly hats, vastly reduced profitability. The fur trade declined after 1840. In the Columbia River Basin, the Bay Company experienced a decline. Between 1826 and 1830, the company took in more than 51,700 beaver pelts at its Columbia River Basin posts. Between 1841 and 1845, the number was barely half as many, about 26,500. Other business operations, including lumbering and agriculture, steadily grew in importance as the company consolidated its operations north of the new border.
The decline of the fur trade coincided roughly with the decline of the Christian missions in the Columbia Basin following the 1847 Whitman murders. Geographer D.W. Meinig, author of The Great Columbia Plain: A Historical Geography, 1805-1910, described the fur trade as one of three significant cultural impacts on Columbia Basin Indian tribes, the others being the missions and the military posts. None of these specifically was intended to destroy the Indians, but each had its own negative impact. The fur trade, he maintained, attempted to placate and exploit Indians, the missions to convert and civilize, and the military posts to chastise and control. These points of contact, from the standpoint of Indians, “take on the appearance of festering sores whose influences spread gradually and insidiously to infect whole tribes with disease, economic distortion and social disintegration.” Anthropologist Eugene Hunn, also of the University of Washington, has a similar, if less pessimistic, view of the impact of the fur trade on tribes. Indians tolerated the traders and assisted them by providing horses and venison, Hunn says. But there were social and cultural impacts of the traders’ presence, including the introduction of diseases, the easy procurement of material goods and food that made many Indians dependent on the trading posts, and inter-tribal warfare that was exacerbated by guns provided by the traders in exchange for furs. The encounter between Indians and non-Indians on the Columbia, which began with the fur trade, “encompassed a relatively narrow exchange between the ‘discoverer’ and the ‘discovered,’” historian William Lang of Portland State University has written. For Indians, trade was an opportunity to improve their lives, not the context of their lives, Lang wrote. Nonetheless, the encounter was, Lang wrote, “part of a great world-changing experience [that] spun a kaleidoscope of consequences that continue to inform and shape our decisions in private and public matters. The Encounter changed this region, and it would never be as it was before.”