Forging a Fur Empire: Expeditions in the Snake River Country, 1809–1824
Alexander Ross, the pioneer recorder of the early fur trade in the far northern West, led a beaver trapping expedition in 1824 into the vast, unfamiliar territory east of trading posts in the Pacific Northwest. He and his men ventured deep into Snake River country in present-day Idaho and Montana. In this narrative, based on the accounts left by Ross and others, historian and legal scholar John Phillip Reid describes the experiences of the earliest Hudson’s Bay Company fur-trapping expeditions—ventures usually overlooked by historians—and explores the interaction between the diverse cultures of the Pacific Northwest.
Ross recorded in exquisite detail the endless vexations of managing a brigade drawn from the widest possible mixtures of ethnic backgrounds and nationalities—his men included métis (or mixed-bloods), Americans, Canadians, and Native “freemen” (independent contractors) from over a dozen Indian nations. Ross’s accounts reveal the consequences of running low on supplies and having to butcher the animals, and how hunting game for sport threatened the stock of ammunition and the condition of the horses. Entire expeditions were at the mercy of the most careless trapper and the weakest horse. Hiring guides was chancy, for local tribesmen did not always know the locations of beaver streams, or even the terrain ahead. Religion could be problematic, as well; both French Canadians and Iroquois refused to work on Catholic holy days.
More than merely chronicling Ross’s accounts, Reid uses early trapping expeditions as a lens for examining legal, institutional, and commercial behavior among the diverse population the fur trade drew together. In addition, he assesses broader issues such as cultural conflict between Ross and his men, and the Hudson’s Bay Company’s drive to discourage American settlement in the Northwest by exterminating the beaver there. Those interested in the history of the early Northwest will find this well-crafted saga both engaging and enlightening.