The Oregon Fur Trade
In 1808 Simon Fraser, employed by the Northwest Company, made his way across the Rockies and came down what is known now as the Fraser River to the Columbia. The next to come along was David Thompson, who was also employed by the Northwest Company. He too crossed the Rockies and made his way to the Pacific Ocean by way of the Columbia River. He reached the ocean in 1811 and found an American fur-trading company. This was the Pacific Fur Trading Company. It was the first permanent Euro-American settlement at Astoria.
John Jacob Astor found the American Fur Company in 1808, The Pacific Fur Company in 1810 and the South West Company in 1811. He was the first millionaire in American history.
Astor loaded a ship called the Tonquin with everything needed to sustain his fort on the Columbia. It sailed in September, 1810 under Captain Jonathan Thorn. The ship arrived in March, 1811. Astor also sent an overland party led by Wilson Price Hunt. The party departed from St. Louis in September, 1810.
Although the fort at Astoria seemed to be doing quite well when Thompson arrived, it was actually quite fragile. Supplies came few and far between. The men were driven by starvation. This led them to establish the Willamette Post to relieve some of the pressures. When the war of 1812 broke out the partners in the field at Astoria were afraid of their post being seized. In 1813 they sold out to the NorthWest Company.
In 1814 the Treaty of Ghent helped to end the war with Great Britain. The Americans thought that this meant that they still held claim to the Oregon country. In 1818 Captain James Biddle declared American possession of both shores of the estuary at the Columbia River.
In 1821 the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company merge. The new name was the Hudson’s Bay Company because it was the older of the two. The Hudson’s Bay Company’s only concern was profit. To make the investors happy and ensure return on their money, the directors in London named George Simpson to superintend field operations. Simpson named Dr. John McLoughlin to serve as Chief Factor. Simpson and McLoughlin started what they called the brigade system. The mission of the brigade system was to eradicate the fur-bearing animals of the region. By doing this, they planned to an area with no furs so that Americans would get discouraged and turn back.
In 1820, Hall Jackson Kelley noticed the success of the Hudson’s Bay Company. He began to promote the colonization of the region. He printed pamphlets that talked about the region’s potentials, which would make Americans rich if they would settle in Oregon. Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth responded to this but when Kelley’s colony failed he started the Pacific Trading Company to help develop Oregon. Wyeth’s competitors were too strong. The American Fur Company had command on the fur trade in the Rockies and the Hudson’s Bay Company had command on the fur trade in the Pacific Northwest. In 1836 he gave up.
By the 1840’s the fur trade was beginning to decline. The change in fashion was a big part of this decline. Men’s hats made of beaver pelts were no longer in style. Furs were no longer abundant or cheap.