Tag Archives: fur trade

The Oregon Treaty and the British Corn Crisis of 1845-1846

What did the British Corn Crisis have to do with the Oregon Treaty?

In the autumn of 1845 the potato and wheat crops in Britain failed. Famine threatened. Grain from other countries such as the United States were too expensive because of an old tax known as the “Corn Laws” which applied to all cereal crop imports.

At the same time, James Polk was elected president of the United States.  In his campaign, President James Polk promised to expand American territory and push back the borders all the way to the 54th parallel in the north. His slogan “54°40‘ or fight” summed up his intentions.

Why 54°40′?

map before Oregon Treaty signed

disputed area highlighted in yellow before Oregon Treaty was signed

For many years, the northern coast was controlled by two fur trading monopolies—the Russian-American Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company.

After years of clashes between the two  rival companies and conflicts with the Natives, Governor Wrangel decided to hand over the Alaskan panhandle to the Hudson’s Bay Company.

On June 1, 1840, chief factor James Douglas formally took possession of the territory from Governor Wrangel and the Russian-American Company Fort Redoubt St. Dionysius was renamed Fort Stikine. The city of Wrangell, Alaska sits on that same site.

Oregon Territory – land of plenty

The Hudson’s Bay Company had forts and trading posts throughout the Oregon territory which covered a vast area from the 42° parallel (the border with Mexican province of Alta California) to the border with Russia at 54°40′. Competition from American trading vessels was virtually non-existent. The Hudson’s Bay Company had trading posts in Mexico. One of the HBC’s most southerly trading posts was Yerba Buena (the present site of San Francisco).

The Willamette Valley in Oregon (known as the Columbia District) turned out to be a boon for the HBC. They established farms and raised cattle and grew wheat and vegetables which they exported to their own forts as well as Mexican communities in California. They even exported their flour to the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Manifest Destiny

President Polk was determined annex the entire territory of Oregon for the United States. He didn’t necessarily want to start a war with Britain but what better way to take over an enemy’s land than by simply moving in?

Wagon trains of American settlers arrived hungry and destitute at Fort Vancouver. The chief factor John McLoughlin took pity on these new arrivals and provided them with beef and cattle to raise for themselves. Eventually it became obvious that the sheer numbers of new settlers were going to overwhelm the Hudson’s Bay Company’s resources. It wasn’t long before the settlers demanded a democratic government to represent their interests.

The HBC tried to sound the alarm that it was about to lose control of the entire Oregon territory. The American military began surveying the coastal waters and the Columbia River. It didn’t help that the newly elected British government was critical of the Company.

Irish Famine

For the vast majority of Irish farmers, their main crop was one variety of potato. When a fungus  arrived in 1845 it quickly spread across Ireland. By harvest time there was nothing. Famine was imminent. During the winter of 1845-1846 the British government spent £100,000 on American maize which was sold to the poor. For those who could afford it, the maize was hard to grind down and make a meal out of.

Seeing as how they would be dependent on the United States for food, Britain wanted to keep good relations with the United States. The new foreign secretary, Lord Aberdeen, decided to give away the Columbia territory without a fight. On June 15, 1846, The U.S. and Britain signed the Treaty of Oregon which established the boundary between their territories at the 49th parallel.

The HBC received some compensation for the loss of their southern forts, but it was a blow to their operations.

Goldseekers came north for the Fraser River gold rush just twelve years after the Oregon Treaty was signed. Many American miners still believed in ‘Manifest Destiny’ and that the land up to 54°40′ was rightfully theirs.

What is the significance of 54°40′ today? This is the latitude of the border between British Columbia and Alaska.

Muskets and Revolvers in the Gold Rush

From its beginning in 1670, the Hudson’s Bay Company traded muskets to First Nations trappers for beaver pelts. Many of the firearms introduced during the early fur trade period were of inferior quality, and were known to sometimes blow up in the hands of the person using it. Often times, these trade guns were returned to an HBC post where a blacksmith would make repairs. Supplies of amunition were also relatively costly and had to be purchased through trade. For these reasons, traditional forms of weaponry and hunting equipment continued to be used side by side with firearms, and depending on the circumstances, the guns were less effective than the bow and arrow.



Factories in Birmingham and London, England manufactured trade guns for the Hudson’s Bay Company. A distinctive feature of these guns was the dragon or serpent shaped side plate.  This was considered a mark of quality and most Natives would not trade for a gun that did not have the serpent plate.

In later years, the Hudson’s Bay Company began to order firearms with percussion caps for use as trade goods. The HBC guns were made so that a hunter could shoot while wearing a glove or even a mitten. As well as the serpent sideplate, on the gun itself was an indented image of a fox, identical to that of the fox on the Hudson’s Bay Company’s coat of arms.



Revolvers were brought north by the American goldseekers. This type of gun allowed the user to fire it multiple times without reloading. This was a big change from the single-barreled smoothbores of the horse-pistol type. The caliber of the pistol was the same as the rifle or musket carried by the owner, so that a single bullet mold could serve both guns.

Here is an advertisement from the June 24, 1859 edition Daily Colonist:

35 tierces [casks] of  fine corned beef at 7 cents per pound. 40 Colt’s Revolvers at prices less than in California, suitable for parties fitting up for the North.
Apply to H. Holbrook at the Hotel de France, or at the wharf of J.T. Little, Wharf St.

Rifle muskets were another type of gun used during the BC gold rush. Volunteer militia groups known as ‘rifle companies’ were actively promoted. The town of Victoria had two.

In September 1864, a concert was held at the Victoria Theatre as a fundraiser for the Victoria Rifle Volunteer Corps.  In a review of the concert, the British Colonist newspaper wrote that the theatre was elegantly decorated with muskets, bayonets and flags of all nations. The program included “Rifle Fever” sung by the Germania Sing Verein.

Handbook to the Gold Fields

June 1858

Amid the excited crowd gathered at the wharf in San Francisco, Rube Rains held the last copy of “The Hand-book and Map to THE GOLD REGION of Frazer’s and Thompson’s Rivers” by Alexander C. Anderson – late Chief Trader Hudson Bay Co’s service

Two days later, Rains walked aboard an overcrowded ship with his mining provisions. Everyone was talking about gold as they lined up to buy tickets on the next ship bound for Victoria.  There were people from all sorts of backgrounds and professions gathered together for the sole purpose of the pursuit of becoming rich. As an actuary, Rains hoped he would be among the percentage that would succeed.

The steamboat swayed and rocked forward with the waves. When he wasn’t being pitched about he found a small area to read the handbook.

Alexander Caulfield Anderson had several pages of words in the trading language called “Chinook” which Rains found interesting. Every now and then he shut his eyes and tested his knowledge before looking at the page.

“What are you reading?” someone asked.

“I’m learning a few phrases in Chinook in case I need to acquire a canoe.” Rains held up the handbook.

The two chatted for a bit and Rains learned his name was Silas Crane, a seasoned gold prospector from the California gold rush.

Over the course of the trip, Rains read aloud snippets from the handbook to a small crowd of gold seekers.

“Frazer’s River discharges itself into the Gulf of Georgia, a little to the north of the 49th parallel. At the distance of 160 miles from its mouth, it is joined by Thompson’s River, a large stream flowing eastward. Here, and in its immediate vicinity, the diggings which are now creating so much excitement, have been in progress since last Summer.”

Rains looked up and saw the other men were mulling over this fact.

He continued reading:

“Horses are not procurable here, nor if procurable, is the country suited for their subsistence. The navigation of the Falls at high water cannot be accomplished; nor indeed, is the upper portion of the river to be navigated without difficulty at that stage.
At the lower, stage, these difficulties are so far modified that they may be overcome by portages; but it is to be premised that a certain amount of skill and experience in canoe navigation is a necessary condition of the undertaking.

Rains looked up. “How many here have paddled a canoe?”

“Paddling the canoe is easy, just a case of dipping the oar into the water, nothing to worry about.  I can’t believe they don’t have horses up there, though. It would sure make packing supplies much easier,” Crane said.

When the ship dropped anchor at Fort Victoria, Rains was pleasantly surprised to find  comfortable lodging. It was hard to imagine anything about the hardships that lay ahead of them while staying in this bucolic village.

The first order of business was to purchase a mining licence for five dollars from the Hudson Bay Company. For an extra fee they converted his American money into British coins. He was persuaded to buy food supplies including some dried pemmican and tobacco for possible barter or exchange. Fortunately, Rains had brought with him a pan and a pickax which were rumoured to be in short supply.

After spending more money than he’d anticipated, Rains decided he wouldn’t have enough for a ticket on a steamboat. Instead, he went down to the beach where large cedar canoes were lined in a row with several native paddlers on the beach offering to take prospectors as far as Fort Langley. Rains tried a few words in Chinook but the man spoke English well enough that it wasn’t necessary.

Rains and two other gold seekers boarded a large canoe. There was more than enough room for their supplies and the paddlers set off.

Before long, they started singing and paddled with the rhythm of the music. The canoe pulled forward easily and within a short time Vancouver Island became scarcely visible.
One of the paddlers shouted out instructions to another and with swift, well-practiced movements, a sail was erected and turned in a direction that propelled the craft forward at an even greater speed.

Rains marvelled at the way the sleek craft sliced through the dark blue seawater; it’s speed rivalled that of any steamboat.

They were about half way across the strait when the signal was given to bring down the mast and the waves started rolling forward pushing the nose of the canoe upward. Rains and the others held on while one of the paddlers grabbed a cedar bailer and tossed it in his direction.

“Tlil-a-sit!” He gestured.

Rains took it from him and started bailing. Silas Crane took his tin mug and did the same.
Crane was laughing to the point of being hysterical, raising his cup to see how fast the rain could fill it. “Shall we toast the Queen?” he shouted as the downpour started.

Rains nodded grimly as he pulled his hat down. His teeth were chattering almost uncontrollably.  By the time they reached the mouth of the Fraser, the clouds had blown away and his clothes began to dry in the steady breeze.

“It’s almost as wide as the Mississippi,” marvelled Crane.

Rains looked around as the canoe sped past a sand bar. Just ahead was another canoe and in the distance was the inky grey streak left behind by the steamer.
After two more hours, the canoe pulled up to the edge of a fine gravel shore. In the distance was a large bastion behind an imposing palisade.

Fort Langley, BC 1858 (from "Trading Beyond the Mountains" by Richard S. Mackie)

The paddlers jumped out first, followed by the prospectors. Rains straightened his cramped legs and leaped towards dry ground. Fort Langley at last, he thought to himself.
Upon entering the gate, he could see several sturdy buildings made with large timbers.  Looking around he noticed how quiet it seemed. He had been expecting a town not a place that was scarcely inhabited.

Where was everybody?  Where the canoes he had spotted earlier along the river?  Rains caught up with the others who were talking to a cooper with a few staves at his feet.
It turned out the cooper was interested to know where they were heading.

“Up the Fraser river?  You’re going to have a hard time getting past the Falls,” Rains heard him tell the others.

“We have a map of the route to take,” Rains said as he approached.

The cooper and the others turned to look at Rains as he pulled out the handbook and showed him the map.

With a gnarled finger, the cooper followed the dotted line, nodding his head from time to time.

“You’ll want to take a canoe to Fort Hope and then this route that goes along the Coquihalla River northeast to Fort Kamloops then west along the Nicola and the Thompson.”

He paused for a second, “I’ll be darned – they’ve marked Ballenden’s grave on here.”

“What happened to him?” Crane asked.

The Fraser River is surrounded by tall canyons, the likes of you probably haven’t seen before.  There’s Black Canyon and Hell’s Gate and the only way you can get through there is clinging to those rock faces with your bare hands.  The natives have their own way of  getting down to the river and do their fishing but if you want to bring any supplies around at all, you have to go inland.”

The cooper leaned on a spade and Rains watched as the others set down their packs.
“Back in ’48 the Company taking supplies on a new trail from Fort Kamloops to here, but it wasn’t as easy as they thought it would be. Horses had a difficult time of it – too steep. The fellow who wrote this book, Alexander Caulfield Anderson, well he was stuck with the task of finding a better route for the Company, so he found this route which was only used a few times.

There was a group of them heading up but too many horses for so few men. I knew there were going to be problems, having taken the route myself once. You’ve got to get every horse one by one down the steep embankment to a bridge by the river but each step is precarious.

At that time of year there’s always a large number of Indians who congregate along the banks of the Fraser at that time and you wondered if someone was going to take advantage of the situation. There is no game along there you know, just fish and a lot of times the people go hungry before the fish come along again.

As I was saying, on this one trip the group took some time leaving Simon’s House on the west side of the Fraser. Some of the group got way ahead and the others got stuck behind and the rain was coming down. The horses were slipping and sliding under the weight of their packs and some of them were straying off the trail completely trying to find something to eat. Each man was to look after at least ten horses and it was a trouble to look after them all. By the time they reached camp at the foot of Big Hill it was past night fall after some grub had been served. Some people were upset about it, seeing as there was no food for them or their horses. The next day Ballenden was found shot dead and the Company man said he’d shot himself.”

There was silence for a moment, the Rains asked the question on everyone’s mind:

“Do you believe he shot himself?”

The cooper looked away for a moment and then cleared his throat.

“Ballenden was a good lad and a lot of people were sorry to hear he went like that. Let’s put it this way, the trail will drive you mad, for sure. If you can get through marching up to the gold fields as they say, then you’re an honourable man.”

With that, the cooper left them thinking about things. Then Crane jumped up, “I’m going to find us a canoe for Fort Hope.”


Note: Tlil-a-sit is a Chinook word meaning bail out

Gold Fever hits Fort St. James

Fur trader wearing capote (coat) with tumpline across forehead

1856 – Fort St. James, BC

A fur trader named Perrault arrived at Fort St. James wearing a capote, with its hood concealing his face. A few people had noticed him trudging through the snow on his snowshoes, holding the tumpline by its straps. He must’ve had a strong neck to support that heavy load of furs on his back.

His breath came out in puffs of vapour in the cold and he was sweating.

A short while later, McIntosh came down to see him.

“Where are the others?”

“Leonnard took the dogs on a round a bout trip.”

“But the salmon! You were supposed to bring the salmon and the roll of tobacco!”

“They’ll be here soon enough,” Perrault said as he carefully let down the beaver pelts from his back.

He rubbed his neck and shoulders while McIntosh hoisted them onto the counter.

“Thirty nine.”

Perrault leaned over as McIntosh opened the log book.

“What’s wrong with that one?”

“It’s been damaged,” McIntosh said without looking up.

Perrault plunked three small nuggets of gold on the dark wood counter.

He looked up at Perrault and then back at the nuggets. Even in the waning afternoon light the deep yellow was apparent.

“Forty” Perrault said again.

“I’ve got plenty more nuggets where that came from,” Perrault said.

McIntosh sniffed and blew his nose into a well worn handkerchief. “We can’t chew on gold. It was salmon that we needed. We have hardly enough to feed ourselves, that’s why we sent you down to Fort Yale in the first place.”

“True, but you can trade it for guns at least.”

“Where did you leave Leonnard?”

“I had to meet up with one of the trappers. He said he had some good pelts. Leonnard and James were still idling around the camp when I left.”

“What did you trade for the gold?”

Perrault rubbed his face. “The trapper gave it to me and I told him on my word that if it’s worth anything then next time I see him then I’d pass it on.

“What is the trapper’s name?”

Perrault thought about it. “I don’t know, but I can remember what he looks like and where he lives and all that. He was travelling east and we crossed paths. He told us about a golden cache. I told Leonnard and James that we didn’t have time for it, but they were going to follow the trapper back to where he said the gold was from.”

McIntosh looked at the nuggets on the counter, then at Perrault. “Until Leonnard and James return with the provisions as they were supposed to, I will be recommending to the chief factor that a search party be undertaken, with you as the leader.”

Perrault shook his head, “not in this weather!” He shoved his red and swollen hands in front of McIntosh. “The winds were so fierce just barely a day ago that I had to hang onto every shrub and rock along the way!”

“If you don’t want to follow orders, then I will recommend that you be transferred!”

Perrault grabbed the nuggets off the counter and trudged off. He was tempted to say something in retort, but he held his tongue. It was more important to get some food in his belly and find a fire where he could warm his weary bones.

Mount Robson: Fraser River Headwaters

In 1865, on their way through the Yellowhead Pass area, adventurers Milton and Cheadle wrote,

“On every side the snowy heads of mighty hills crowded round, whilst, immediately behind us, a giant among giants, and immeasurably supreme, rose Robson’s Peak.”

From this peak, a tiny trickle appears.  This is the start of the Fraser River and the beginning of its journey of almost 1400 km, growing ever larger as it collects water from its tributaries all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Mount Robson was named after Colin Robertson, an official for the Hudson’s Bay Company who sent a group led by Ignace Giasson in command and the blonde multilingual Iroquois, Pierre Bostonais nicknamed Tête Jaune, as their guide.  Tête Jaune means Yellow Head in French and both the pass and the current highway bear his name.

‘Yuh-hai-has-kun’ or ‘The Mountain of the Spiral Road’ was the name given Mount Robson by the Texqakallt First Nation, referring to the layered appearance of the mountain.

Mount Robson from Northeast by Lawren Harris 1929

At 3,954 meters, Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies is quite a sight. At its base lies the brilliant blue Berg Lake, fed by chunks of ice that have fallen from the glacier above.  The glacier has shrunk considerably since Lawren Harris made his famous painting.

John M. Sellar, one of the Overland party of gold seekers, bound for the Cariboo, who passed the peak on August 26, 1862 wrote these words in his diary:

“At 4 p.m., we passed Snow or Cloud Cap Mountain which is the highest and finest on the whole Leather Pass. It is 9000 feet above the level of the valley at its base, and the guide told us that out of twenty-nine times that he had passed it he had only seen the top once before.”