The Columbia River was the breadbasket of the Northwest. For thousands of years, the Columbia River was an important fishing and trade route for Native Americans. They traded with other tribes who lived along the Columbia River and along its tributaries all the way up the Okanagan River. Before the international boundary was drawn up at the 49th parallel, the Okanagan people (north and south) were considered as one. Thousands more came from the Plateau region to trade their horses for salmon pemmican, root vegetables, berries and other necessary articles such as hemp.
When Alexander Mackenzie published his account of travelling to the Pacific Ocean in 1801, fur trading companies took note. After reading Mackenzie’s book, John Jacob Astor decided to set up the Pacific Fur Company and ‘cherry-picked’ seasoned voyageurs and traders from the North West Company to start its business.
The newly formed group had just started building ‘Fort Astoria’ when David Thompson came down the Columbia River. Not long later, John Stuart, who had paddled down that first trip with Simon Fraser, started the very first brigade trip from New Caledonia all the way to Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River. Unlike Fraser’s trip, Stuart’s group made part of the journey with horses.
The voyageurs coming from New Caledonia would set out from from an ice-covered Stuart’s Lake in April and by the end of June would reach the mouth of the Columbia River in time to meet the yearly ship coming from London with their supplies. At Fort Astoria, bundles of furs that had been carefully wrapped in buffalo hides were readied to be shipped to China. (The North West Company had a license from the East India Company which allowed them to send their furs there).
When the Hudson’s Bay Company merged with the North West Company in 1821, they took over their forts. The HBC built Fort Vancouver and that became the main fort. Fort Nez Percés was renamed Fort Walla Walla although most people still called it by its old name. The HBC decided not to use the Fraser-Columbia route to supply its forts in New Caledonia, but the alternative route via the Peace River was used. This northerly route required a dangerous and lengthy (12 mile) portage. After losing canoes full of men and valuable furs, Governor Simpson decided that the Fraser-Columbia route was the better option after all.
From 1826 to 1847 the Fraser River – Columbia River route was used by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The overland brigade trail through the Okanagan served as a vital link in that route. The signing of the Oregon Treaty in 1846 which established the international boundary at the 49th parallel put a stop to that. The Hudson’s Bay Company left its forts below the line to the Americans.
The Fraser River – Columbia River route was used again by gold seekers during the Fraser River gold rush.
Note: Fort Astoria was captured by the British during the war of 1812 and renamed Fort George. Its ownership was in question for many years. In later years, the American government began to establish several military forts (in gold) including Fort Walla Walla (near the site of the old fur trading fort Nez Perces).
Here is a map from the 1970s showing the hydro-electric dams on the Columbia River: