36. Alliances and the Mountains: War by Other Means, Part 3.

To understand why the Hudson Bay Company might have wanted to destroy the stock of beavers in the Snake River country, it’s helpful to go back to 1809, when John Jacob Astor, a German from New York…

John Jacob Astor (Johann Jakob Astor), painted by John Wesley Jarvis

A butcher’s son from a town outside Heidelberg, which is to say, a man with experience of being overrun by the French.

…proposed opening a fur-trading fort at the mouth of the Columbia. Let’s face it, this is war. It’s not directly war against people, but it is a forced separation of water and land, because it’s the beavers that weave them together. If you kill the beavers, you break them apart. Asking Indigenous people to do so is like forcibly moving into a community and tearing it to bits, by separating it from tradition, the anchor of its survival. It’s also a way for fur traders (men) to dominate the labour of fur-preparers (women.) Of course, you can do so on a European idea of Enlightenment and human individual freedom but that helps neither land, communities, water, nor women. Still, it was the game, and in that game an on-the-ground American presence would damage British claims to the land and any possible profit from it. Accordingly, the Northwest Company sent David Thompson overland to beat Astor to it. Because the fur trade was in the business of destroying the source of its wealth, beavers, any business that didn’t expand geographically was doomed. The race was on.

Montreal, 1812, Painting by Thomas Davies

The hired boatmen of both companies were from Montreal, especially from Kahnawake Mission (seen on the far shore of the St. Laurent). This would prove to be a problem.

Astor’s men went by ship. Thompson went overland, and that land is part of the story. It lay at the mouth of a great river an behind a wall of mountains. People such as the Blackfeet had their backs against it, but were armed with horses and guns (from the fur trade.) Many were also on the move, driven south by the collapse of the fur trade in the North and often living on the land of other free peoples.To the west, the people were separated from contact. Often, they used their skills to monopolize trade with Euroamericans, just as the Sioux had done with the French in New France. Effectively, they kept western peoples in a state of innocence and handled the messy business of contact for them.

In effect, the Blackfeet took part in the creation of the image of Indigenous innocence in the far west. They needed it as much as the French had, when their justification for accepting alliance slaves from the Sioux was based on a mythical warrior state to the West, that preyed upon surrounding innocent peoples, rendering their capture and slavery an act of mercy. Now, the Blackfeet were keeping people apart to preserve ignorance. With some success.

Please consult the table of contents to read the slavery story.

Note image below, especially the slave state lake just to the left of the centre of the image below. It doesn’t exist. It was, however, convenient. Later maps have it as the source of the Columbia, labelled “The River of the West”. Also not true.

North America, 1794

For reference, New France fell in 1759

Things were different now, and different attractive deceptions were needed. People had shifted for thousands of miles across the prairies. This was their last stand. Their struggles delayed Thompson in Rocky Mountain House. Precisely, his way was blocked by the Piegan. Stephen R. Bown narrates the difficulty in depth in his monumental history of the Hudson’s Bay Company…

The troubles began a few years before.

The mountains are the Rockies.

Effectively, Thompson was pushing to expand his trade west of the mountain barrier, into a trade already controlled by the Piegan— an updated version of how the Sioux had doomed New France. (As I said, a fur empire without fresh beaver is no empire at all).


Sorry, Buddy.

Now, the French (and the French Iroquois) and David Thompson were being blocked again. While the Piegan were in the Missouri Country to avenge the killing of three of their men by the Lewis and Clark expedition, Thompson snuck across the mountains and established Kootenay House on the Upper Columbia. The Piegan were furious. Bown continues:

So, his route (through today’s Banff) to the mouth of the Columbia was blocked.

It would have been so much easier today. Canmore.

The Piegan were powerful, and wanted to keep it that way. Many American (French) trappers were being harassed to the. south. One group of 42 had already been completely wiped out. Source.

Time was of the essence, so Thompson looked for another way. This was to the North, where one of his boatmen, an Iroquois man from Kahnawake, Thomas (actually Tawatawakon), had once told him of another route (through today’s Jasper). Here is the second point at which Indigenous power determined the course of Euroamerican history in the Pacific Northwest. Tawatawakon was born in Kahnawake, the old slaver’s mission across from Montreal, in 1780, which would have made put him in his mid-20s when he first reported the pass to Thompson. Yet, he knew about it, and Thompson did not. After incredible hardship, they did, in fact, struggle through.

Yes, Over the Glacier.

In winter.

David Thompson, The Romantic Version

Note the horses. Either this is the first day of the trek, or it’s just crazy. At the end, the group was reduced to a few brutalized, sick men and dogs.

It took them some time to recover. Allan Twigg tells the story well in BC Book Look:

After his party descended a 2,000-foot-glacier, three disheartened voyageurs essentially deserted, taking with them a companion who was snow-blind. Thompson and his two remaining able-bodied men, Vallade and L’Amoureux, built a twelve-by-twelve foot hut at a place to be called Boat Encampment. After his men Pareil and Coté returned with a Cree hunter and an additional voyageur, Thompson set his mind to improvising a 25-foot canoe to be built from cedar trees, binding the planks with pine roots. It took him much of the month of March to succeed.


It was now into the second year since Astor had announced his plan. Time was running out. Twigg continues:

After some harrowing paddling and a series of portages, Thompson was able to descend the turbulent Kootenay River, buy horses at Kettle Falls, acquire four Aboriginal paddlers and a new canoe, and begin his descent of the Columbia.


Kettle Falls, The Second Great Trading Centre and Fishery on the Nkwentikwt

Thompson had been there before, in 1809, and had met a syilx man, in all likelihood Chief Pelkamu’lox, whose son Hwistesmetxe’qen (commonly known to White culture as Nkwala, or Nicola) would be faced with the delicate matter of administering justice to a genocidal group in the invasion of gold miners out of Oregon in 1859. At that point, one of Thompson’s Iroquois boatmen, one of the six Iroquois named Legace who left his employ in the Bitterroot Valley and stayed on, had told him that the syilx man was one of the weavers, an accurate cultural and linguistic description, and a fact not lost on the Iroquois. As for weaving, rope was the major trade article of the syilx, and invaluable for fishers, such as those at Kettle Falls. Here’s how the syilx describe it.:

The word “Syilx” takes its meaning from several different images. The root word “Yil” refers to the action of taking any kind of many-stranded fiber, like hemp, and rolling it and twisting it together to make one unit, or one rope. It is a process of making many into one. “Yil” is a root word which forms the basis of many of our words for leadership positions, as well. Syilx contains a command for every individual to continuously bind and unify with the rest. This command goes beyond only humans and encompasses all stands of life that make up our land. The word Syilx contains the image of rolling or unifying into one, as well as the individual command which is indicated by the “x” at the end of the word which indicates that it is a command directed at the individual level. The command is for every individual to be part of that stranded unified group, and to continue that twisting and unification on a continuous basis. It is an important concept which underlies our consideration of the meanings of aboriginal title and rights.

You can read more by clicking here

Apparently, the country and its people were only unknown to the Europeans. Even their fellow Montrealers knew. By the way, by this point, Thompson had traded 20 guns to the west of the mountains, which were subsequently used against the Piegan to the east. Good advertising. Twigg continues:

Prior to reaching the mouth of the Columbia River, Thompson raised a Union Jack on July 9, 1811, and affixed a piece of paper on which he claimed the territory for Britain. “The N.W. Company of Merchants from Canada do hereby intend to erect a factory in this place for the commerce of the country around,” he wrote.


This was at the mouth of the Snake River, where he made a move to forestal Astor. He wrote in his journal:

“Here I erected a small Pole with a half sheet of Paper well tied about it, with these words on it: Know hereby that this Country is claimed by Great Britain as part of it’s [sic] Territories and that the NW Company of Merchants from Canada, finding the Factory for this People inconvenient for them, do hereby intend to erect a Factory in this Place for the Commerce of the Country around”

He gave a copy to the Wallulas on the bar that would soon become Fort Nez Percés, where this story is anchored. Then he was off again. Five days later, he showed up at the mouth of the Columbia, only to find Astor’s fort already under construction. Astor had arrived on March 22, when Thompson was still lashing together his canoe. It took his crew three days to figure out how to cross the bar at the mouth of the river.

Ignore the geography. It’s not like that. More romance.

Eight men died in the attempt. They wouldn’t be the last. Because of this race, and especially because of the political work of the Piegan and because of Tawatawakon’s knowledge of the land, the Columbia District (Old Oregon to the Americans) was eventually divided into two, with one half becoming a land of grain barges and the other a wilderness of wild rivers, not so different than in 1811.

Well, not wild. Managed, let’s say. Well-managed, in fact.

Put it this way: Does this look like a hat to you?

On the other hand, given that the Iroquois and the plains people had been trading for centuries, with the Iroquois usually a generation ahead of the Europeans, it would not be inaccurate to say that the Europeans were being played by powerful trading and warrior people, with different agendas. The wilderness of contemporary British Columbia was created by the Piegan as much as by anyone. What all these Indigenous traders were unable to control (or perhaps comprehend) was the long reach of shipping. Only in that, in the ability of Astor to reach the river by ship without being drawn into the land and its people first, is this a Euroamerican story at all. He might as well have dropped from the Moon.

An Artist’s Vision of Astor’s Fort, “Astoria”, a year later. Do admire the size of that flag!

Romanticized again, by the looks of it. His buildings are even made out of milled timber, and painted. Sure.

A parallel irony is that the fort was being erected under the supervision of Scots and French Canadian métis men, who Astor had lured away from the HBC and the Northwest Company: men who had been transformed by the land. When Thompson showed up, in other words, the French met the French.

Stunx Makes a Statement in the Kwan Kwan Illahie, “The Land of the Thunder”

It must have been bittersweet: in their new partnerships (Astor’s Pacific Fur Company and Thompson’s Northwest Company), the continent was still their claim, but without an administrative class, the actual power wasn’t. This became evident the next year, a war year, for it was 1812, and the United States invaded Canada. But, really, we should ask the experts before we get to that. Mr. Castor?


It is vital to remember that all of this history and all of this talk was based on a struggle that had one ultimate purpose: on the one hand, to use either Indigenous people or their mixed blood sons to kill the beavers that stored water; on the other, to control access to weapons, so that people displaced by that trade could stay on the land of others. It is the story of deliberately making the land dry, of taking it as a slave, of manipulating the traditional Indigenous concept of pity for new ends. In other words, it was modern as all Hell. We should not be surprised at how it turned out.

Wy’east and the Now Barren Columbia Hills

Next: Pity. After that: French and Indigenous sovereignty excised in the War of 1812. After that: Slavery at Fort Nez Percé, to show how Canadians once knew this as much as anyone.

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