Monday, April 9, 2018

Americans and British-Canadian Fur Trappers Meet Along Portneuf River [otd 04/09]

Peter Skene Ogden.
Oregon Historical Society.
On April 9, 1826, Peter Skene Ogden, for whom the Ogden River is named, wrote in his journal, "About 10 a.m. we were surprised by the arrival of a party of Americans and some of our deserters of last year, 28 in all."

Ogden led the Snake Brigade, a band of trappers and support personnel working for the British-Canadian Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) [blog, Jan 1]. The column had left Fort Nez Perces (near later Walla Walla, Washington) in November 1825 to trap first in eastern Oregon. They entered Idaho in mid-February and trapped the Boise River, then the lower Wood River area.

On March 12, Ogden wrote, “We are now encamped within 100 yards [of] where the Pacific Fur Company traders lost a man by the upsetting of one of their canoes.”

That incident [blog, Oct 28] occurred in 1811, and Ogden's reference to it places the party about fifteen miles west of today’s Burley, on the north side of the Snake River Canyon. They soon crossed the river, scouted the Raft River and continued on to American Falls. The Brigade reached the lower part of the Portneuf River at the beginning of April. Ogden knew this country well: “a finer country for beaver never seen.”

On Ogden’s first venture into the area, in 1825, the Brigade had trapped many watersheds in southeast Idaho, including the Blackfoot and Bear rivers, along with the Portneuf. However, they had also encountered trapper parties working for American firms based in St. Louis, Missouri.  The men Ogden referred to as “deserters” had succumbed to the temptation of the vastly better fur prices offered by the Americans.

Previously unfettered by competition, HBC prices amounted to economic servitude: minimal allowances for furs received, inflated prices for anything their “employees” wanted or needed. Trappers and camp keepers did well to break even. The Company didn’t mind carrying their debts on the books because profits more than covered any losses if the debtor was killed, died, or fled the country.

Soon though, the Company would be forced to increase what they paid to attract the men back. (They could afford to do so and still make a profit because their bases were much closer to beaver country, and supplied in part by cheaper ship transport.) Considering all that, Ogden was not pleased to encounter more American intruders at his Portneuf River campsite.
Jim Bridger. National Park Service.

The Americans represented the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, the HBC's only serious competitor at that time. Thomas Fitzpatrick and James "Jim" Bridger led the Americans. Their two bands had joined forces after a swarm of Blackfeet raiders attacked them. Although the whites had "won" the encounter, losing three horses for six Indians killed, they could not easily hunt for beaver with so many hostiles around.

After some trading, the parties separated, each hoping to find beaver country they could have to themselves. The Canadians doubled back over their Idaho route as they returned to Oregon. Considering the competition and some unseasonably-bad weather, Ogden concluded that matters could have been worse: “Had we not been obliged to kill our horses for food, the success of our expedition would have yielded handsome profits.”

Intense competition between the Americans and the HBC continued for another decade.
References: [B&W]
J. Cecil Alter, Jim Bridger, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman (1962).
"Jim Bridger in Idaho," Reference Series No. 245, Idaho State Historical Society (1972).
John English (Ed.), Dictionary of Canadian Biography, University of Toronto (© 2000).
Peter Skene Ogden, T. C. Elliott (ed.), "Peter Skene Ogden's Journal – Snake Expeditions," Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society (1910).

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