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Expansion, The Fur Trade and Western Exploration
Miles Macdonell, Robert Semple, Lord Selkirk, Sir James Douglas, George Vancouver
Bringing all of the northern regions under British rule did not stop the fur trade competition between Montreal and Hudson Bay. The French merchants of Montreal were joined by and gradually replaced by Scots. Gradually the Montrealers formed a cartel, the North West Company (NWC). Competition from the Nor’Westers, as the NWC people were called, forced the HBC to move inland from its posts on the bayshore, and the companies fought a fierce, costly battle from 1775 to 1821. The rivalry accelerated exploration of the west as fur traders sought new routes and suppliers. Nor’Wester Sir Alexander Mackenzie followed the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean in 1789, and in 1793 he reached the Pacific. Nor’Wester Simon Fraser reached the mouth of the Fraser River, near modern Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1808. David Thompson, who followed the Columbia River to its mouth in 1811, mapped much of western Canada for the NWC.
The fur trade shaped development on the Pacific coast. Sea otters, which bear one of the world’s finest furs, ranged along that coast from Alaska to California. Russian and Spanish traders exploited this resource, but Britain pushed them out of what is now British Columbia after explorations by its captains James Cook (1778) and George Vancouver (1792). In a brief period, the fur traders nearly exterminated the sea otter, although a few survived in Alaska.
The enmity of the companies colored the history of western settlement. Assiniboia, the first colony west of the Great Lakes, was begun at Red River in Rupert’s Land in 1812. It was the project of a major HBC stockholder, Lord Selkirk. The Nor’Westers saw it as an HBC attempt to block their east-west trade route, which ran through Red River. The Metis, mixed-blood offspring of fur traders and indigenous people, already had communities in Red River; they sided with the Nor’Westers. The colony’s first governor, Miles Macdonell, set the tone when he issued restrictions on trade. In 1816 the second governor, Robert Semple, and 20 men were killed in a gunfight with Metis while trying to enforce the restrictions. Other violence occurred as the HBC and NWC vied for dominance.
In 1821 the competition between the fur trade companies ended when the NWC merged into the HBC. The HBC took over the NWC’s trading area and also administered the Oregon Country, claimed by both Britain and the United States. Montreal’s fur trade dwindled as Hudson Bay became the major shipping point for furs going to Europe. The HBC came to dominate British interests on the Pacific, developing a network of trading forts. In 1843 the HBC built Fort Victoria (now Victoria, capital of British Columbia) on Vancouver Island as its Pacific headquarters. As population grew around the forts, HBC administrators, notably Sir James Douglas, later known as the father of British Columbia, played important roles in making the transition to colonial government. Gradually the fur trade’s role in the Canadian economy faded, although a commercial fur trade continued in the west and north.
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