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The Fur Trade Gamble: North West Company on the Pacific Slope, 1800-1820

By Lloyd Keith and John C. Jackson

Review By Barry Gough

May 25, 2017

BC Studies no. 194 Summer 2017  | p. 204-205

This is not the first nor will be it the last scholarly or non-scholarly work on the North West Company’s ill-fated “Columbia adventure,” an enterprise in frustration for the investors and participants, both by land and by sea. All the same, it marks a significant advance on previous studies by exploiting the papers of James Keith, who was a partner in the firm and the manager at Fort George, Columbia River, and the former Pacific Fur Company’s Astoria. This is a story of British global reach and far-flung tentacles of commerce linking western North America, including Alaska, with Hawaii and Canton. It is a story of dogged Montreal fur traders facing difficult circumstances of food supply and security from the elements and from the United States during the War of 1812: their position was always tenuous — and the future uncertain. They were indeed cast to the winds of fate.

This book began as an inquiry by Lloyd Keith, a Seattle-based scholar of North West Company enterprise in Athabasca in the era after Peter Pond and Alexander Mackenzie. He then shifted his work to the Columbia watershed. His death in 2008 did not allow him to see the fruits of his toil. His work was taken up by his friend John Jackson, who then died in 2015. It is to the credit of the editors and publishers that they have taken up the task of seeing this work into print. Keith was the careful and meticulous student of the records, and Jackson the writer with a literary flourish and some grand visions — an enticing prospect that reveals itself in the text by those of us familiar with this duo.

In addition to exploiting Keith’s papers, The Fur Trade Gamble uses extensively the Champlain Society’s two-volume edition of Alexander Henry the Younger’s journal (edited by this reviewer), the published journals of Astoria (edited by Robert F. Jones), and the recent literature on the fur trade and Indigenous responses and contributions. The title can be explained by the jacket description that the Nor’westers and the Astorians were gambling on the price of fur pelts, purchases of ships and trade goods, international commerce and its laws, and the effects of the war. Attention to shipping, upon which all depended, is admirable, advancing revelations of the Oregon pioneer scholar Marion O’Neil. As a subject for historical study it is grand to see a work that is not what we might call a “cut and thrust through history,” as current commercial book publishers seem to accept from authors, but a substantial piece of writing based on a thorough knowledge of the sources and, to match this challenge, on fine literary graces employed in relating a magnificent story. That is why this book will have a long residence in many libraries.

The Columbia adventure had great promise but was perhaps before its time and beset by innumerable difficulties. The book ends before Sir George Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC, united with the Nor’westers in 1820/21) could conclude in 1822 that hitherto the trade of the Columbia had not been profitable, and in regards to the future, from all he had been able to learn, the Company was not sanguine in its expectations to make it so in the future. But the HBC girded its loins, cut back its costs, abandoned Fort George as district depot, founded Fort Vancouver on the north bank of the lower Columbia, made new plans for New Caledonia’s development, exploited the Snake River country so as to eradicate free trader opposition, and sent new ships — schooners, brigs and then, in 1836, the steamer Beaver to the Northwest Coast. The HBC turned an unprofitable project into a commercial viability, dominating trade from the Gulf of Alaska to San Francisco Bay.

These latter developments fall beyond the concern of the authors but it is significant that the difficulties faced by the Nor’westers were overcome in the next two decades, as scholars including W. Kaye Lamb, Gloria Griffin Klein, and most notably Richard Mackie have shown. This is a chapter in global history. We are in the debt of Lloyd Keith and John Jackson for elucidating the complexities of international commerce before, during, and immediately after the War of 1812 in the far Pacific, and on what famed author Patrick O’Brian would call ever so magically “the far side of the world.”

The Fur Trade Gamble: North West Company on the Pacific Slope, 1800-1820
Lloyd Keith and John C. Jackson
Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press, 2016