The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Old Northwest

The Land of Western Canada and the Hudson’s Bay Company

Much of the settlement of Western Canada had it’s origins in the old Hudson’s Bay Company.

In the earlier years, the Hudson’s Bay Company was said to have published a study declaring that the land in western Canada was unfit for agricultural purposes. Perhaps the report was slanted to help keep out the farmer. The report of course was proven to be untrue. Regarding the Hudson’s Bay Company monopoly, there was a contentious trial in 1849 against a trapper who was accused, by the HBC, of trading in illegal furs. The trader was found guilty of breaking the Hudson’s Bay monopoly, but because of an angry armed crowd present during the trial, the judge didn’t fine the defendant.

fort vancouver national historic site
Watchtower at old Fort Vancouver

This 1849 trial was most likely the key event that turned the tide against the HBC monopoly and, by 1870, the government dissolved the monopoly altogether and opened up trapping to anyone.

This was also an event that opened up the Canadian West to farming as well.  It was that year, 1870, in which the Canadian government purchased the rights to the Northwest from the Hudson’s Bay Company. This move in 1870 created opportunities for Canadians in the east who had been thinking of heading west. The completion of the western railroad first to Winnepeg, then on to Calgary and eventually into British Columbia accelerated settlement. To give you an idea of the railroad’s major role in settling western Canada, Canadian Pacific agents operated in many overseas cities. Immigrants were often sold a package that included passage on a Canadian Pacific ship, travel on a CP train, and land sold to them by the Canadian Pacific Railway.

fort vancouver exhibits
Weaponry exhibit at Fort Vancouver

Canadian West Ranching

The year 1870 was also a pivotal year for Canadian ranching. Just as in the U.S., the western ranching industry had the encouragement of government. During 1881 the Canadian government passed an act which allowed anyone to lease up to 100,000 acres at a cost of just one cent per acre per year. Granting or leasing acreage at a very low cost was something done by both the Spaniards and the Mexicans to help settle their territories in Texas, New Mexico and Alta California. The method proved successful for them as well as for the Canadian government decades later.

The ranch land was leased and the cowboy entered the western Canadian culture. While the Canadian cowboy and his American counterpart dressed similarly, there were a few distinctions. The history books point out that, unlike their American brothers, the Canadian cowboy seemed not to have the same negative baggage. Some might say that quite a bit written by the dime novelists of the era embellished the “negative’ exploits of the American cowboy. I think that when all was said and done both the Canadian cowboy as well as his brothers to the south put in a hard days work for their wages.

historic homes at fort vancouver
A home for Army generals built at Fort Vancouver

Visiting Fort Vancouver

Fort Vancouver in Vancouver Washington just across the Columbia River from Portland Oregon is one of the best ways to learn more about the Hudson’s Bay Company and it’s impact on the Pacific Northwest.

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site today is a reconstruction of the old Hudson’s Bay fort as it would have appeared in the early 1800’s. Fort Vancouver at one time served as the headquarters for the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Columbia region.

pearson field museum fort vancouver
The Pearson Air Museum at Fort Vancouver

The reconstructed buildings within the Fort’s walls are on their original sites. Adjacent to the fort is Pearson Field which today is operated as a city owned small aircraft field but does have the distinction of being the oldest operating airfield in the United States.

An excavation of the old site of Fort Vancouver took place beginning in 1947. According to National Park Service information, some two million artifacts were discovered at the excavation site. During the years during and after the excavation there were those who desired to keep the area an archeological site. In  1954, the area was was officially designated a site to preserve the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1965 Congress gave the go ahead for a complete reconstruction.

Two additional Trips Into History articles you may enjoy are found on the links below…

A Trip to Historic Portland Oregon

Visiting The Dalles Oregon

Two excellent books regarding the Hudson’s Bay Company and it’s impact on both Western Canada and the Pacific Northwest include…The Remarkable History of the Hudson’s Bay Company by author George Bryce and Hudson’s Bay Company Adventures : Tales of Canada’s Fur Traders by author Elle Andra-Warner.

columbia river near bonneville dam
View of the Columbia River near Bonneville Dam

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, located on the northern shore of the Columbia River, is easily accessible and makes a great addition to your Pacific Northwest trip planner.

The site is just across the Columbia River from Portland Oregon in Vancouver Washington. The two cities are connected by the Interstate 5 bridge.

When on Interstate 5, turn off at the Mill Plain Blvd exit and follow the signs to the fort’s Visitor Center which is on East Evergreen Blvd. At the Visitors Center you can obtain detailed maps which can be used for your walking tour. The Visitors Center is located on a hill just north of the fort. The walking tour map information contains details of each of the site’s structures.

The Fort Vancouver National Historic Site Visitors Center showcases interesting exhibits and offers visitors the opportunity to view several short films by request. It’s one of the best sites to learn about the settlement of the Pacific Northwest.

(Article and photos copyright 2013 Trips Into History)