Of all the magic names that drew men on to open the American continent, none has had more of the authentic ring of romance and adventure than Oregon. Originally applied by some imaginative geographer to a nonexistent river, the name came finally to stand for a vast territory of forests and mountains and green river valleys—the Oregon Country, a shadowy land almost as remote as the far side of the moon but offering a promise that pulled men in for generation after generation. First came the explorers, then the fur traders and the incredible mountain men, and finally the authentic settlers; and something of what each of these people imagined and hoped for and experienced clung to the name until, by accretion, it became one of the great place names of American history.
All of which is just another way of saying that the story of the exploration and development of the Pacific Northwest is one of the most fascinating chapters in our national epic. It tends to be episodic, to be sure, and the very fact that for a number of important decades no one was quite sure what flag would finally fly over the area makes it even more so; yet a sure continuity runs through it, and in a way it compresses into its own compass the whole legend of America—founded on dreams, built on daring and endurance, and culminating in a complex reality that goes beyond anything the builders had dared to contemplate.
An excellent study of one of the great periods in the opening of the Oregon Country is provided by Alexander Ross—one of the men who played a leading part in that operation—in his The Fur Hunters of the Far West , a book which was originally published in London in 1855 and which, excellently edited and introduced by Kenneth Spaulding, is now made available to the general reader.
Ross went to the Columbia River in 1811 as one of the operatives for John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company. Two years later, when the British took over Astoria at the mouth of the river and Astor sold out, Ross went with the Canadian outfit, the North West Company, and a decade later when the Hudson’s Bay Company took over from the North West Company he became a Hudson’s Bay man. This book covers, roughly, his experiences between 1813 and 1825, which marked the height of the fur trade west of the Rockies and which also, almost imperceptibly, show the United States winning the contest with Britain for final possession of the Oregon Country.
The Fur Hunters of the Far West , by Alexander Ross, edited by Kenneth A. Spaulding. University of Oklahoma Press. 304 pp. $5.
Essentially, as Mr. Spaulding points out, this was a contest between the unrestrained individualism of the far-ranging Americans and the ordered, tightly controlled formalism of the British. An untracked wilderness was made to order for the individualists, and they finally won out. Working west from St. Louis, the Americans operated on a freewheeling basis which, even if in actuality it rested on a big business foundation, nevertheless sent the fur traders out every man for himself. The British, on the other hand, operated through solid brigades, which in their way were highly efficient but which did embody a crippling caste system.
Top layer in this set of castes was made up of the British overseers, or leaders. The next stratum was composed of French Canadians, who handled the boats. At the bottom were hired Indians, who did the actual trapping and most of the rest of the work. These last appear to have been exploited to the hilt, and they presently found that they could make a great deal more money by selling their pelts to the Americans than by turning them in to their own employers. Most of them succumbed to the lure, to the intense disgust of their bosses, who felt that company loyalty ought to be more binding.
The hired Indians, indeed, were a considerable source of trouble. They were eastern Iroquois, extremely combative by disposition, and they were forever tangling with the Oregon Indians, which led to any number of bloody fights—which, occasionally, had dire effects on the fur-trading business.
Ross himself was quite an operator, a wilderness man straight out of the books, who ranged all across what are now the states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, not to mention parts of British Columbia and western Montana, shepherding his unruly crews across mountain passes and through unmapped canyons, visiting with Indian tribesmen who were at all times ready to cut his throat if the spirit should happen to move them, serving his employers with a cool competence and, obviously, living a life that he enjoyed in spite of its hardships and perils.
He saw the drawbacks to the British operation clearly enough. A very small party of trappers, he wrote, could get quite as many beavers as a large party; the trouble was that the country was so dangerous that a small party could not hope to survive. It was necessary to send 25 men out to do the work of six, because three-fourths of the party’s time and energy had to be devoted to the simple problem of survival. … But meanwhile, beyond the Rockies, the mountain men were circulating by ones and twos, taking fantastic risks and, often enough, losing their scalps and their lives, but nevertheless encroaching steadily on a closed preserve.
As Ross reflected on all of this, he found time to put down his observations on the western Indians as well. They struck him as a curiously improvident lot; an Indian would gladly trade five beaver skins, he wrote, for an awl or a knife, and would surrender furs worth much hard cash in Montreal for a handful of bullets or an ax worth only a tiny fraction of their value. But the Indian had logic on his side. He was giving up goods which he could easily get, and which were of comparatively little value to him, for articles that were enormously useful and which he could get in no other way. Five beaver pelts for a good knife represented, to the Stone Age man, a marvelously good bargain; from his point of view it was the whites who were daft.
One of the most fascinating chapters in this book tells how Ross led a large brigade far up the Columbia and clear across the Rockies into Montana, from which point he doubled back into Idaho. Few accounts of wilderness adventure in North America offer anything better than this tale of a winter in the remote Indian country, and Ross’s simple recital of the way he brought his party through safely, together with a substantial haul of furs, indicates that he himself must have been a leader of uncommon capacity. Yet even this remarkable expedition closes on a note that hints at final defeat for the British. Deep in the mountain wilds, Ross ran into a small party of Americans, led by the redoubtable Jedediah Smith. The mountain men were coming on; and as the beaver hat went out of fashion, knocking the old profits out of the fur trade, the knowledge they were piling up would pave the way for the great covered wagon trains which— less than twenty years later—would begin to turn the Oregon Country from pathless wilderness into a settled extension of the United States.