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Title: The Canadian Northwest in 1811 : a study in the historical geography of the Old Northwest of the fur trade on the eve of the first agricultural settlement
Author: Ross, Eric DeWitt
Awarding Body: University of Edinburgh
Current Institution: University of Edinburgh
Date of Award: 1962
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The fur traders of 1811 saw the Northwest as three distinct regions: New South Wales [Hudson Bay Lowlands], the Stony Region [C'anadian Shield] and the Great [Interiorj Plains. To them, the least important of these was New South Wales which was by then functioning primarily as a base from which the Hudson's Bay Company conducted its trade in the Northwest. It was relatively poor in both furs and provisions. Except for migrating ducks and geese, game was both scarce and unpredictable and the three factories maintained there by the company were largely dependent upon provisions from Europe and pemmican from the interior. Apart from the forested margin along its western edge, particularly in the Lake Athabasca area, the Stony Region had always been relatively poor in furs and provisions but, by 1811, it was becoming so hunted out that it was coming to be regarded as more of a barrier than as a productive region in itself - a barrier which had to be crossed to reach the rich provision areas of the grasslands and fur countries of the northern plains. Many of the natives of this area, taking advantage of their geographical position, became "middlemen" and carried the furs and provisions of wealthier countries across their homeland to trade on Hudson Bay. The broken rivers of the Stony Region added to its barrier- like appearance. navigable, river and Mackenzie. In sharp contrast were the three large, highly systems of the Great Plains, the Red, Saskatchewan, These not only enabled the traders to exploit the furs and provisions of the Great Plains but also the fur lands along the western margin of the Stony Region. Two important routes enabled the traders to cross the Stony Region to enter the rivers of the Great Plains. One led from Fort William to Lake Winnipeg and the other from York Factory to Lake Winnipeg. Each was approached from one of the two great waterways which led from the Atlantic into the heart of North America, the Saint Lawrence - Great Lakes system and Hudson Strait and Bay. By 1811, each entrance was controlled by a single fur monopoly, the Great Lakes by the North West Company and Hudson Bay by the Hudson's Bay Company. The latter route was the more economic and the North West Company was then attempting to come to an agreement with the Hudson's Bay Company in order to be able to use it as well. In the Northwest, itself, the two companies competed side by side nearly everywhere in the Red and Saskatchewan countries and in much of the Stony Region. In the Athabasca [ Mackenzi l basin Country, however, the North West Company had so far succeeded in excluding the Hudson's Bay Company from this, the richest fur area in the whole Northwest. The Canadian Company also enjoyed a monopoly in the area beyond the Rockies known as New Caledonia, in which it was then extending its activities. Most of the important trading posts were situated near good fisheries. Exceptions were the bayside factories and a number of posts near the open plains where buffalo were plentiful. All of the principal provision depots and goods stores in the interior were established on lakes forming Part of the "Valley of the Lakes" which separated the Stony Region from the Great Plains. These were Rainy Lake House, Fort Bas- de -la- Riviere, Fort Cumberland, Fort Ile -a -la- Crosse and Fort Chipewyan. In each case, the provisions were brought down stream to the depot with the minimum of effort. Ducks and geese were also plentiful along these lakes during the spring and autumn. The lakeside posts, in common with most posts in the Northwest, were situated near the river junctions. Other posts were usually placed near a sharp elbow in a river or perhaps along its headwaters. In each of the latter cases, the house would probably also be near a portage or an overland Pass. Fierce competition between rival factions led to some fairly irrational choices of location as well. Generally speaking, relations between the trading factions were best where the Indians were most hostile and poorest where the Indians were most friendly. That is, they were best on the plains, where the Indians were not dependent upon the traders and could afford to be reckless in their dealings with them, and poorest in the forest, where the inhabitants could no longer live without the traders' goods. Along the periphery of the trade, which in 1811 corresponded roughly with the borders of the Northwest, relations were poorest of all. For the natives along the trade frontier were anxious that the trade should spread no further geographically because they did not want the natives beyond them- selves, who in nearly every case were enemies, to receive guns and ammunition. Moreover, the peripheral tribes often carried on a very lucrative trade in European goods with their more distant enemy -neighbours, and realized that any extension of the trade might destroy their position as middlemen. To the traders, these middlemen were, at best, mere nuisances who added little to the trade, and they were anxious to penetrate to the Indians of the country beyond them. The peripheral tribes, of course, tried to obstruct the progress of the traders and open hostility was often the result. In order to carry on his trade and, indeed, merely to exist in this harsh new land, the European had to borrow many skills and techniques from the natives. From them, he learned how to use the birch bark canoe and to make pemmican. It was these two things which enabled him to develop his vast transportation system which, more than anything else, permitted him to earn his living in the Northwest. Canoe travel was expensive and only a luxury product like furs could bear the high cost. By 1811, the Napoleonic wars had so depressed the fur markets, that little other than beaver was then worth carrying. The wars had also been responsible for an increasingly serious personnel shortage in the Hudson's Bay Company. This had contributed much to the company's ineffectiveness in dealing with Canadian competition. The company had also been labouring under the handicap of an overly riged organization. Nevertheless, in 1811, it faced the future with confidence. For not only had a more flexible organization recently been adopted by there was real hope that the chronic personnel shortage would soon he solved. Lork Selkirk had just concluded an agreement with the company to supply a large number of men each year in return for a vast grant of land along the Red River for the purpose of establishing an agricultural settlement. In the years to come, it was hoped that the settlement would also provide a source of recruits. The vanguard of the settlers were then wintering along the Nelson above York Factory. During the next century, hundreds of thousands would follow them. And they would change the face of the Northwest. The bold checkered pattern of agriculture would spread across much of the Great Plains, pushing the traders northward and eastward into the Stony Region until all that remained of the old Northwest which had been theirs, was a pile of stones in some farmer's field near the meeting place of two streams, or the fragile remains of a copper kettle below a waterfall, marking the place where a canoe had capsized and a voyageur's song had ended.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available