Fur Trade Introduction

In the history of people and places, there are few events more significant than the collisions of vastly different human cultures. In the latter 1700s, the sailors, mapmakers, traders of the industrializing world reached the perimeters of one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems- the Pacific Northwest of North America. Here, in this mountainous, complex landscape, several hundred thousand Native Americans had, over more than 100 generations, co-evolved an intricate ecology within the natural world that emerged from the last great glaciation. These First Nations had developed a complex economy linked to native species such as the salmon runs through the rivers flowing west, the ebb and flow of bison herds across the grasslands and foothills to the east, and the caribou and moose of the vast woodlands to the north. Hundreds of species of native plants further provided resources for human sustenance, shelter, and travel. An intricate array of ancient trails and waterways linked these peoples, and eventually led European travelers through the heartlands of the western cordillera.

2013-12-06 Lens NWFurtrade Chpt1 Native Groups

Certainly cultures of vastly different origins have collided elsewhere around the world, but the northwest is of great interest for several reasons. Most importantly, the first Europeans to enter the region were intent on maintaining the Native American culture wherever possible to peaceably labor and trade to provide furs for the overseas market. Moreover, observing the effects of increased agricultural development further east on the continent, the fur-trader companies had little interest in increasing the number of eastern American and Canadian settlers in the area. The great distance from sources of potential migrants, and the intervening opportunities of the rich agricultural lands to the east favored the early fur traders in this quest. For the period of 1780 to 1850 that forms core period of the fur trade, the population influx of whites numbered less than 1000 west of the Rocky Mountains, and most of these people settled in the Columbia watershed.

Secondly, this gradual and mostly peaceful initial meeting of European and First Nation cultures in the northwest has left us with an amazing legacy of human understanding. It provided time for people from vastly different backgrounds to share knowledge, and this knowledge was often extensively amazingly well-documented. There are the records and naval logs of famed sea-faring explorers such as James Cook, Vancouver, and Grey. Importantly, are the records of the fur trade’s factors and mappers. For example, for historians, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s archives are second to none for the meticulous records of the time. And most significantly, scholars, both of indigenous and other descent, have recognized the wealth of cultural and ecological information available from the traditional knowledge and languages of Native Americans.

Finally, and important for this project, the Pacific Northwest is the one of the first areas in North America where camera images show the landscape change that occurred during the period from traditional to recent cultures. Some of these changes are due to global physical processes such as climate change, many are clearly due to cultural change, and some may be due to interactions between cultural and physical processes. These changes have occurred on iconic landscapes such as the Columbia Gorge or the Canadian Rockies, easily recognized by both past and present peoples, and documented by many photographers over the decades.

In the website Fur Trade section, we compare then and now images through the following temporal/spatial outline:

  • Meeting of Worlds: Locations that were significant in the late 1700’s;
  • Opening the Northwest Passage by Land: The explorations of  Thompson, Lewis and  Clark
  • Astoria and the Columbia District: The Snake and Columbia watersheds
  • Terra Incognita: The Rocky Mountains
  • The Beaver on Salish Sea: The Gulf of Georgia to the Northwest Coast
  • New Caledonia and the Cariboo

So enjoy seeing the great images of past photographers, marvel and the changes, or even in the lack of change visible in today’s views, and contribute your understanding to how Northwest landscapes are changing.

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