fur was in great demand for European hatmakers. They pressed the thick
underhair of beaver into a velvety, waterproof felt that lasted a lifetime.
In 17th century London, beaver was so valuable the floors of hatter shops
were scoured for lost hairs. Beavers were trapped to extinction in England
by the 16th century but beaver pelts from eastern Canada and upstate New
York made up the difference.
Investors with a royal charter established the first Hudson's Bay Company
(the Company) posts on Hudson Bay in 1670. They traded knives, axes, guns,
and blankets to Indian trappers for hundreds of thousands of beaver pelts
a year. For 150 years they kept up their trade, pushing further and further
west. At first they only had to complete with freelance trappers. Then
the well organized Montreal-based Northwest Company came in. Then came
the American "mountain men" who trapped along the Missouri and
into the Rockies. The last big prize was the Columbia river drainage basin.
In 1811, John Jacob Astor established the first American posts there,
but these were captured by the Northwest Company during the War of 1812.
By then the U.S. and England had agreed to jointly occupy the Columbia
region. But in 1825, the Company had built the fort at Vancouver determined
to dominate the area.
In 1816, Dr. John McLoughlin was serving as doctor to the Northwest Fur
Company, when a skirmish broke out between Northwest and Hudson's Bay
Company. Some Indians were blamed for the murder of Robert Semple, governor
of the Red River colony. McLoughlin knew they were innocent so handed
himself over as a representative of the Northwest Company so they could
have someone to blame. Instead he was arrested for the murder. While crossing
Lake Superior, his arrestors' canoe collapsed and many drowned. McLoughlin
almost died himself. This was supposedly when his hair turned white over
night. He was tried on October 30, 1818, but all blame was dismissed.
In 1919, he helped negotiate the merger between Hudson's Bay Company and
the Northwest Fur Company. He was temporarily promoted to the Lac la Pliue
district when the merger happened in 1820-21, bringing their total to
173 posts stretching nearly 3 million square miles.
McLoughlin worked as a kind of liaison for George Simpson, the new governor
of the Northern Department. He resolved conflicts with the workers. Simpson
appointed McLoughlin Chief Factor of the Columbia District in 1824. Peter
Skein Ogden would assist him. Many thought the appointment would keep
busy a troublesome employee who was always arguing for better wages for
When McLoughlin arrived at Astoria, he concluded that it was unfit for
a headquarters. It was too rundown and too far from inland trade facilities.
It had too little space, and the land was not fertile enough for crops.
He also knew that when the boundary dispute was resolved, that area south
of the Columbia would undoubtedly become part of the United States. He
built a new fort at Belle Vue Point and named it Ft. Vancouver. It had
good soil and was at the crossroads of three fur trade routes through
the Columbia, the Willamette, and the Cowlitz. The fort was 100 miles
from the mouth of the Columbia. This first site was built in 1824 about
one mile from the river on land now occupied by the Washington State School
for the Deaf. It was rebuilt closer so transporting water and supplies
would be easier. He quickly made friends with the local Indians and was
soon known as the White Headed Eagle and "hyas tyee" or Great
He built and planned the post how he saw fit. It was aobut 750 Ft. long
and 450 Ft. wide with a stockade about 20 Ft. high. Outside the stockade
a small town sprung up that housed the mechanics, laborers, etc. There
were about 40 buildings inside the fort. These included a pharmacy, power
house, chapel, officers, warehouses, and workshops. Behind the fort were
fields of grain, a large vegetable garden, and fruit orchards. There were
also several large farms growing wheat, peas, and potatoes, and food for
sheep, horses, and cattle. He kept a large library, referred to as Columbia
Library. He also had a museum and armory.
The Hudson's Bay men purposely trapped out beaver to beat out the Americans.
At Ft. Vancouver, the fur brigades would bring in 90 pound bales of furs.
A clerk graded them, and laborers would beat out all the moths, flies,
and fleas, then repack them for shipment to London. The laborers were
from many places, notably Indians, British, Scots from the Hebrides and
Orkney Islands, and Iroquois Indians from eastern Canada. The largest
group was the Hawaiians. They called themselves Kanakas, the Hawaiian
word for person or human being. There was even a Hawaiian minister that
had his own Owhyhee church. By 1845-46, Hawaiians made up almost half
of the work force. Nearly all ships sailing to the Northwest coast stopped
in Honolulu where a Company post recruited young men looking for work
and adventure. Many never returned to Hawaii, setting thorughout the Northwest
after their fur trade service. Kalama, Washington, is named for one Hawaiian
who settled there.
The work day lasted from dawn to dusk, six days a week.. Infractions of
the army like discipline were punished by tying the culprit to a cannon
in front of the chief factor's residence and flogging him mercilessly.
The traders, clerks, doctors, ship's officers, and other "gentlemen,"
lived within the stockade and enjoyed sumptuous meals and fine wines in
John McLoughlin's house. There was a surgeons quarters maintained by Dr.
Forbes Barclay. There was also a blacksmith shop, the largest manufacturing
facility west of the Rockies. By the mid-1840s the best furs were gone,
and the fort was turning to agriculture and mercantile oeprations for
its livelihood. Its grazing lands had thousands of head of cattle and
sheep, enough to feed itself and sell surpluses to Russians in Alaska.
Its sawmill sent lumber to Honolulu. It sold tools, ammunition, and other
supplies to the thousands of American settlers coming into the Willamette
American expansion was the death of the fort. The Company gradually moved
north to Vancouver Island at Fort Victoria. McLoughlin quit the company
and became an American citizen. He settled near the original fort. David
Douglas his assistant moved north and became the first governor of BC.
Fort Vancouver was neglected as the company scaled back its operations.
The post was turned over to the army in 1860. There was really no use
for it and eventually the army tore down and burned the stockade and buildings.
The guns were never fired in anger.
In 1840, he sent his son-in-law, daughter, and son to Ft. Stikine, to
establish a new post. The following year he sent the same son-in-law,
William Glen Rae, to Yerba Buena, to establish a post there. This town
later developed into San Francisco. Hudson's Bay was important in the
growth of city; the original fort buildings and the Rae home were the
foundation. Establishment of these posts was one of McLoughlin's goals
to expand the Hudson's Bay Company. He also established Ft. Nisqually
in 1834 at Puget Sound and Ft. Langley in 1827 on the Fraser River in
Canada. He built Ft. Simpson in 1831 and rebuilt it in 1834 on the coast
of British Columbia, north of Vancouver Island. Ft. McLoughlin was built
in 1834, near the same spot.
By the 1840s, Simpson and McLoughlin were in complete disagreement about
how the district should be run. Simpson had ruled the Company from about
1833 to 1860 when he died. It hand prospered greatly under his tutelage.
He had been knighted in 1841 by Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. Simpson
and McLoughlin disagreed over the matter of establishing posts on the
coasts and keeping ships in port. McLoughlin did not want ships because
of the unpredictability of ships crews and their harassment and problems
with Indians. McLoughlin did not like Simpson's callous handling of his
son's murder. Also, Simpson did not like the Yerba Buena idea, especially
since it was sure to be U.S. territory, south of the Columbia.
It was Hudson's Bay Company policy to only lend cattle to settlers, not
sell them. Many didn't like the Company because of this and because they
felt that it had a monopoly on trade and services. No one could complain,
however, about their treatment by John McLoughlin when arriving in Oregon,
bedraggled and out of supplies. McLoughlin had to compete with American
companies, so he gave Indians more money per fur. He also gave them guns
in trade, which he didn't like, but did it because the Americans were
doing it. He also traded used clothes. He was very successful in maintaining
relations with the Indians. He also doctored them when necessary. Diseases
were worse among some tribes who frequently prostituted their own women,
who then spread diseases. In 1833, two doctors, Merideth Gairdner and
William Frazer Tolmie, arrived to take care of the sick. In 1840, Forbes
Barclay came, replacing Tolmie. Marriage to Indian women was common since
white women weren't available. But this gave them several advantages,
one of which was that Indians would be less likely to attack if Indian
women lived there.
In 1838, McLoughlin established a cattle operation organized under the
Puget Sound Agricultural Company (PSAC). The PSAC was formed to fulfill
Company contracts with the Russian American Fur Company, to sell it agricultural
goods, and to settle claims of British territory north of the Columbia.
In 1835, he was given the authority to appoint Justices of the Peace.
In 1837-38, huge profits from beaver pelts were seen by the company, but
this was the last of the really big years. By 1839, the fur country had
been trapped out by Hudson's Bay Company, American Fur Company, Pacific
Fur Company, and Rocky Mountain Fur Companies. But by then, it didn't
matter. Beaver hats were being replaced by silk hats. McLoughlin knew
the fort had to diversify its earnings.
-Copyright 2000 by Beth