Friday, August 21, 2009

The Politics of Fur

The Red River colony and the Hudson's Bay Company - Between 1774 and 1821, traders from the HBC and Montreal built rival posts throughout the Canadian northwest. It was during this period that the competition for furs and the building of rival trading posts reached their peak. Following 1804, the NWC and the HBC locked in an increasingly ruinous competition. Both companies reduced the number of posts operating in the Northwest and explored ways in which they could encroach upon rival ones. After 1813, the two companies again increased their number of posts and this expansion could not be sustained. It led to the merger of 1821, which was the start of an era of monopoly in the Canadian fur trade.

To stay ahead in the market, the NWC quickly sought a trading offensive of traveling to Indian country before the Natives could transport their furs to the posts of the London-based HBC. For a long time, Cree and Assiniboine middlemen had been obliged to make an annual or biannual journey of hundreds of kilometers to and from the bayside posts and to accept the English traders' valuations of their furs if they wished to keep having access to guns and kettles. With the arrival of the NWC, the Indians frequented the HBC posts less and drove harder bargains in each company's posts. As competition increased, the Nor'westers built "flying posts"1 that brought them closer to Native groups, allowing them to visit Indians in their hunting grounds during the winter. This "en dérouine"2 trading was intended to reduce the trader's risk of losing the winter hunt to a rival in the spring.

This forced the HBC to rethink its strategy of limiting its trading post locations to a handful of strategic tidewater locations. Also, in 1811, the HBC granted 116,000 acres for the purpose of settlement in the Red River and Assiniboine valleys. This grant was made to Thomas Douglas, Lord Selkirk, who intended to develop a colony of Scottish immigrants. The settlement was called Assiniboia and was 5 times the size of Scotland. It even included parts of modern-day North Dakota and Minnesota.

Later in that year, Selkirk sent out a party of settlers under newly appointed Assiniboia governor Miles Macdonell by way of Hudson Bay. Two groups of settlers arrived at Red River in 1812 and began establishing themselves. Despite his honest motives, Selkirk failed to consider the interests of the NWC, who resolved to break up the settlement. Indeed, the colony laid a hostile move right across the major rivers connecting the fur country to the plains where food supplies such as pemmican were obtained through trade. Alexander Mackenzie denounced this settlement project as a "mad scheme" as it were to ruin the fur trade of the NWC. In turn, the Nor'westers opened a systematic plan to waste the settlement with petty irritations and what were called "terrorist" actions.

In January 1814, the governor of Red River, Colin Robertson, issued a proclamation to forbid the export of pemmican from Assiniboia without a license granted by him. In July 1814, he followed up his so-called "Pemmican Proclamation" by expropriating stocks of pemmican from trading posts in the territory and blockading rivers to stop the traditional NWC brigades as they approached Lake Winnipeg. He further forbade the export of meat, grain, or vegetables procured and raised within the colony. In his view, the settlers alone were to enjoy these products. He also forbade the hunting of bison by the mounted Métis.

The NWC traders violently rejected these orders and triggered the alarm among the Métis. Indeed, determined to protect their interests, the Nor'westers persuaded the Métis to join their cause by stimulating already developing nationalist feelings amongst them. The Métis and NWC partners attempted to empty the Red River colony with harassment talks of poor prospects, violence and arson. Twice, they forced many settlers from their homes. In March 1816, in retaliation, the NWC's Fort Gibraltar at the mouth of the Assiniboine River was captured and pillaged.The violence culminated at Seven Oaks with the death of 21 HBC men, including Robert Semple, the local governor, following a small battle with a group of Métis. When news reached Selkirk of this battle, he seized the NWC headquarters at Fort William on Lake Superior. Under the provisions of the Canadian Jurisdiction Act, traders used laws as a weapon of war by having each other arrested. Some appointed themselves as magistrates and arrived in the interior with warrants for the arrest of anyone who got in their way. At Fort William, Selkirk seems to have found evidence that the NWC had stolen furs from the HBC and that the NWC had rewarded the Métis for Seven Oaks. But, the Montreal company was not to be dislodged this easily and had Selkirk arrested. In all, Selkirk laid 150 charges against the NWC and, in return, the Nor'westers laid 29 suits against him. The trials were a mockery as prisoners skipped bail or escaped from prison, cases were deferred and many proceedings were cancelled. Despite the failure of the settlement project and the return of Selkirk to England, some settlers remained in the area and became the first body of colonists in Manitoba history.

From The Politics of Fur

1 - "Flying Posts" were small encampments which were set up during the winter as close to the bison herds as access to woods would permit and thus, were shifted from year to year.

2 - "en dérouine" was used in the fur trade to indicate when a trader made an extended sojourn in an Indian village to trade; the actual word "derouine" still eludes definition, it seems, but the idea that it's a corruption of "drouine" is suggestive...To be "en derouine" may mean to go out with a backpack of items for sale - a traveling salesman?