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Fort Vancouver and the Overland Fur Trade


As otter furs along the west coast of Vancouver Island became scarce, the fur trade shifted to beaver pelts and the Columbia River. Unification of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in 1821 put the fur trade in the hands of a governor, George Simpson, whose policies prioritized commerce over settlement. It was assumed that Americans would take control of the land south of the Columbia, so Simpson decided to abandon the British fort at Astoria and move to land on the Columbia north of Portland, present-day Vancouver, Washington.


The absorption of the North West Company into Hudson’s Bay Company provided what historian Jennifer Brown has described as a “hothouse atmosphere in which social conflicts seemed to grow and flourish,” whereby people were divided into occupations based on race, into which language must have been a key identifying factor (Lang 2008, p. 87). The Native people of the region—Chinook, Chehalis, and Clatsop—would be met with Bostons (Americans), King George’s Men (English), and Oywhyees (Hawaiians) at Fort Vancouver.


Contrast that analysis with these excerpts from the National Park Service brochures… The village was the heart of the diverse population living in the area at the Fort. Not only did the Hudson’s Bay Company purposefully hire a diverse workforce, but the fur trade, as an industry, offered opportunities to many different types of people. Employment and Catholic Church records, two of the main sources for estimating the diversity of the village population note French-Canadian, Scottish, Irish, Hawaiian, Iroquois, and people from over 30 different regional Native American groups. As the number of marriages à la facon du pays (contracted without clergy) increased, they gave rise to the Métis, a culture of mixed European and Native heritage. Though all in the Village worked long hours for little pay, historical records and archaeology give a sense of a colorful, generally harmonious settlement. After work, families and neighbors may have gathered at communal fires to cook their supper. Doubtless there was singing, and maybe dancing or games of skill. A good place to call home.


Was Fort Vancouver a hothouse or a harmonious multicultural village created intentionally by the Hudson’s Bay Company?

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