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Hudson’s Bay Company fur trapping policies set stage for modern environmental struggles


The Pacific Northwest has seen its share of major environmental battles. Now a new historical study of the fur trade indicates that early Europeans and Americans in the region struggled with similar issues nearly two centuries ago as they sought to exploit and preserve the area’s natural resources.

In a pilot study examining the historical record for the National Park Service, a University of Washington researcher has found that the Hudson’s Bay Company, the dominant outside force in the region during the early years of the 19th century, set the stage for later environmental struggles through its own sometimes conflicting policies.

Brian Schefke, a UW history doctoral student, said the firm failed as a force for conservation because it was constrained by its business strategy and the constant demand for profits. "The company tried, but the very nature of the fur trade ultimately meant its conservation efforts couldn’t succeed. It had to expand because its old beaver trapping grounds were in decline and this expansion brought ecological stress to new territory," he said.

In addition, it forever altered the Northwest landscape with the introduction of European farming methods and crops to supply its far-flung fur-trading empire. And later, when the supply of beaver pelts began to decline, the company began switching its focus from furs to firs. Export of commodities such as timber, fish and agricultural products from its farms became increasingly important sources of revenue.

Hudson’s Bay Company was the preeminent outside influence on the Pacific Northwest from 1821 to 1846 when the Oregon Treaty fixed the border between American and British territory. That influence, although waning, persisted until 1871 when the company closed its last post in the United States.

The company gained its foothold on the Pacific Northwest when it absorbed a competitor, the North West Company in 1821. George Simpson, head of Hudson’s Columbia Department, was the primary architect of the company’s activities in the Pacific Northwest, according to Schefke.

Simpson directed the shift of the company’s activities in 1825, from Fort George at the mouth of the Columbia River inland to Fort Vancouver, the site of present-day Vancouver, Wash. That site, he believed, would allow the company’s trading activities to expand and be a place to develop a farm. Within a decade he expanded the agricultural side of the business by launching another farm at Fort Nisqually at the south end of Puget Sound.

At the same time, Simpson acted to squelch competition from American traders who could legally operate in what was then called the Oregon country. One of his main concerns was creating a buffer to protect the company’s richest beaver-trapping operations in the interior of British Columbia. To keep Americans at bay, he set out to create what other historians have described as a "fur desert" in the Snake River Basin. This involved trapping as many animals as possible to make the area unprofitable to American trappers. Simpson’s strategy worked, but decimated the beaver population.

Simpson used other strategies along the Northwest coast, where sea otter pelts were at the center of the fur trade. Hudson’s Bay Company was less interested in these furs than in protecting its richer trapping grounds in the interior. Nevertheless, because of the company’s focus on profits, stocks of both sea otter and beaver declined west of the Cascade Mountains.

Schefke said the company considered and tried a number of conservation strategies to prop up dwindling stocks in areas under its control. For example, it discouraged its trappers from hunting beaver in the summer when the animals’ fur was thinner and of poorer quality. However, it is unclear if any of this or other strategies were applied in the Pacific Northwest. In the early 1840s, Hudson’s Bay Company official Archibald McDonald did propose creating a nature preserve west of Puget Sound to allow the beaver population to recover. The plan was never implemented, but nearly a century later much of the same territory was protected by the establishment of Olympic National Park in 1938.

Along with fur trapping, the Hudson’s Bay Company fostered European patterns of land use and exotic crops such as wheat, potatoes and cattle that permanently altered the landscape.

The fur trade also had sweeping impacts on the human landscape, accelerating the precipitous decline in the Indian population by introducing such diseases as smallpox and measles. Schefke notes that in the first century of European contact, native populations declined by as much as 80 percent in parts of the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. And along the lower Columbia River, the Indian population shrank by as much as 90 percent between 1805 and 1855, according to earlier research.

Schefke said the company employed a number of Indians throughout its North American territory and relied on them as partners in the fur trade. In some areas, a number of traditional ways of life gave way to a growing dependence on European goods and trade, but it is not yet clear how big the changes were among Pacific Northwest Indians. In addition, some Indians with no experience in fur trapping or hunting on a sustained basis were encouraged by the company to engage in those activities.

Eventually Hudson’s Bay Company failed, in part, because it viewed nature as something to exploit, Schefke said.

Joel Schwarz | EurekAlert!
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