44. Assiniboia: Capital of The Pacific Northwest. Part 1.

Assiniboia was a mixed race community at the heart of North America in the early 19th Century. The culture (and violence) created there would shape the creation of modern cultures in the Pacific Northwest for generations. The introduction to this almost-country is in a post from a couple weeks ago: . It’s not a long read, but if you want to move through more quickly, the image below shows you some of the players involved in this scheme to ease political unrest in Great Britain by exporting what the British considered its Indigenous, tribal people, the Scots.

The local guys just got to sit and watch.

So, here’s what you are looking at in that image:

  • Local men and the French had been trading in furs for about 200 years, mostly to the south. For the French, the trade was designed to harvest the wealth of the land through the labour of others, and to turn it into capital and prestige, namely felt hats in Europe in competition with the Russians who were actively doing the same to Siberia. Unlike the Russians, they didn’t turn it into a genocidal slave-and-prison camp, exacting skins from Indigenous people on a tribute system.

The Russians are Still At It. This Time in Ukraine.

Russian servicemen in Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 23, 2022. Ilya Pitalev / Sputnik via AP

  • Instead, the men of New France went rather native themselves, often to escape the rather crippling demands of obedience to an aristocracy in name only.
  • It was often labour for nothing. The more furs that were gathered, the lower the price.
  • And with so many men wandering off into the woods for half a year, a fine life if you can get it, the benefit of trade to a new colony, the use of foreign markets to generate the capital that could support settlement, which could eventually create an economy of its own, didn’t go all that well.

E.E. Rich, Russia and the Colonial Fur Trade. Source.

  • The solution of the King of France was to limit this trade to ensure that money flowed through the hands of his aristocrats in New France — that’s how the economy and political structure worked. Efforts were made to tie the men of New France closely to the land by social and legal means.
  • The French people said nuts to that and went freelance. So did the local guys.

Courier des Bois Heading Home with a Load of Furs

Just in time to plant a subsistence crop of wheat.

  • With French settlers working the winters freelance away from their farms half a continent away, aristocratic rents derived from farmland were minimal, crippling any non-beaver economy and increasing the pressure to control the fur trade to try to increase the price for furs and to concentrate the economy of New France into capital instead of subsistence.

Note: the trek west for seasonal work to relieve the domestic pressures of Quebec life continue to this day.

Pickers from Quebec in the Okanagan Valley in July

I used to be the guy who met them with a bucket and a ladder and showed them the ropes. They taught me just as much. Source

  • Two disgruntled Frenchmen, Médard Chouart des Groseilliers and Pierre-Esprit Radisson, went to England in 1666 to see if the British would expand into beaver country north and west of New France. The French Government had already punished des Groseilliers and Radisson harshly for trying to break the royal monopoly. Everyone else in New France was sneaking out the back of the farm when the snow fell and drifting back in from the woods when it began to melt away, too, but they got caught. You gotta feel for the King, trying to balance the books with a saturated market and plummeting fur prices.
  • The resulting Hudson Bay Company, a consortium of British aristocrats linked to King Charles II of England, traded from forts on Hudson Bay for 142 years before Lord Selkirk compelled it to grant him a large tract of fertile land as a Scottish settlement.
  • The land was occupied by local tribes and retired Metis HBC men, many half Scot, who really shouldn’t have been there, given that the HBC was not supposed to colonize the land in its trade monopoly, which was:
  • a ruse to keep England from going to war over the place, and
  • a way to have an empire it didn’t have to pay for, or at least
  • a way for the King and his friends to have on, in aristocratic fashion, preferably one separate from the oversight of parliament, which, after all,
  • had just tried to eliminate the monarchy forever during the English Civil War,
  • as the Americans did to the English Colonies on the Atlantic Coast of North America after fighting the American Revolutionary War from 1775 to its independence in 1776, and through to the end of 1783.

Evacuation Day” and Washington’s Triumphal Entry in New York City, Nov. 25th, 1783
, E.P. & L. Restein.

For an aristocrat, things were definitely going the wrong way

  • Being a wealthy aristocratic, and a shareholder in the HBC, Selkirk wanted an empire at low cost, too. Given how things had been going lately, he also wanted to keep the United States from claiming the area. It had, after all, got all other land claimed by Britain south of the Great Lakes. It was like the English Civil War all over again.
  • Lord Selkirk was sympathetic to the Scots, but deemed them superfluous in Britain, because when they worked on croft farms, they did not produce an excess that could be exported and turned into a cash economy, which could be the foundation of a capital system of finance. They simply ate it. It was the New France problem all over again.
  • When the Highlanders were driven off their ancestral tribal lands, they became as ornery as North American Indigenous people got when driven off of theirs. Well, they were independent-minded long before that, really. Look:

from Colin G. Galloway: White People, Indians, and Highlanders: Tribal Peoples and Colonial Encounter in Scotland and America

from Colin G. Galloway: White People, Indians, and Highlanders: Tribal Peoples and Colonial Encounter in Scotland and America

  • And all this because humans couldn’t be sold. The British slave trade had ended in 1807. Selkirk’s genius (if that is what it was) was to suggest that the tribal nature of the Scots would cause them to naturally stick together and provide a solid bulwark against an American takeover, whereas if they were sent to North America individually, just to depopulate Britain enough that it could produce a surplus of food and wool for sale, they would just become individuals and, well, American. It was rather paternalistic. Ironically, in the individualistic United States, slaves could be bought and sold. Weird.
  • In Selkirk’s thinking, isolating the Highlanders in the middle of the continent would keep them focussed on each other, given how tribal they were. That was the plan. They could be much like an unpaid army holding individualism (Americans, ie revolution) back, and wouldn’t be a drain on the public purse. An old story, really:

Hadrian’s Wall, Separating Rome from the Uncontainable Scots on the Engllish/Scottish Border

After all, if the Romans couldn’t beat the Scots, perhaps Selkirk could convert them to settled life and the husbandry of cash farming.

Note: this particular aristocratic approach, one that essentially converted Indigenous territory into a large British country estate, would soon anchor British attempts to keep Oregon, Idaho and Washington in its hands. To that end, different approaches were tried, including:

Remember, though, that this English experience in the North American north was laid over a region dominated less by London than by Montreal and Quebec — that is, by a new dynamic, neither French nor English but both together and laid on the foundation of French experience in New France which was less about civilizing land than making forays into it, in partnership with Indigenous allies. The British experience in North America after the fall of New France in 1760 and the loss of New England in 1776, was ad hoc. What was left was a rapid replacement the French intellectual class in Lower Canada. The French could become labourers. (As the Highlanders had during the Clearances in Scotland.)

This Was New France. Étienne Brulé at the Mouth of the Humber, F.S. Challener, 1956.

During the dominance of New France, Indigenous men would either set out on year-long canoe journeys of up to 3,000 kilometres to trade at one of the HBC’s forts on Hudson’s Bay, or would deal with middleman (other Indigenous people), who would take a big cut. The practice continued after the fall of New France. This was not a one-sided arrangement. Indigenous people were quite willing to manipulate the trade for their own benefit (largely, to control access to land through violence, which meant guns from the European traders.) For a discussion on the Blackfoot control of access to the Pacific Northwest to monopolize trade with the Hudson Bay Company and the competing Northwest Company (much in the way the King of France tried to control his economy by limiting the Beaver trade and legally demanding that men stay on their farms in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence), using the Rocky Mountains as a kind of Hadrian’s Wall by creating fears of violence on both sides (while claiming that only they could mediate them), please look here: . It was men like the ones below who were controlling access to the Pacific Northwest, not Europeans:

Kehkkene-Sukahs and Tatsicki-Stomick, Karl Bodmer, between 1840 and 1843.

Everything changed rapidly after the French surrendered their North American claim in 1763, after losing Montreal to the British in 1760. French trading networks were heavily disrupted. The citizens of New France were on their own, many in an increasingly racialized and hostile American world. As far south as Texas and New Orleans and St. Louis, they were increasingly under pressure to become American, and English-speaking. At the time that Father Pandosy, the character around whom the history is built, passed through St. Louis on his way west in 1847, almost a century after the French defeat, however, it was still a French city.

St. Louis, 1847

That was changing. An example of the change underway is a comment that Peter Scene Ogden, one of the Hudson Bay Company’s butchers in the West, an Anglo-American from Quebec, made about the man blamed for starting the Indian wars of the West that fall. The man’s name was Joe Lewis (splendidly Scots) and he was Indigenous, from Delaware.

Journeying Through History on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland - Migrating Miss

The Primal Squeeze: Abandoned and Economically Unfeasible Croft House on the Island of Lewis (Scotland)

Definitely not Delaware, but was Delaware definitely not linked to this history through Joe Lewis? Highland Scots (such as those who lived on Lewis) had been fighting as Indigenous people, alongside North American Indigenous people and White soldiers since the early days of British Settlement in North America.)

Whatever the case, Lewis travelled West with Father Pandosy and a caravan infected with measles, which would prove catastrophic. He would soon be telling the Cayuse that the new White settlers would suppress, kill and replace them all, because he had seen it before. For this truth-telling, Oregon popular history remembers him as a demon.

To read more on that, here’s the source:

There are many others. You will meet some of them later on.

To illustrate how racialized even the French-English dynamic was becoming, that had formerly been a political difference. Now Ogden, whose children were of mixed race themselves, called Lewis a creole (or racialized French-Canadian Metis) from Louisiana (the former New France.) We’ll be looking at both Ogden and Lewis and how it all worked out a bit later. Right now, though, I just wanted to point out that partnerships were dissolving and the politically dominant class in British North America was trying to set up both an aristocracy and a working class. By the time Pandosy arrived in the Pacific Northwest, the working class was largely French Canadian (no surprise there) and the aristocracy was Scottish, including the Black chief factor, James Douglas, a product of the colonies himself, in his finery:

Meanwhile, the cultural patterns of New France continued, much in their old forms:

  • In 1779, the Northwest Company was formed in Montreal to draw income to Quebec (and away from the HBC), by following the Indigenous model that had been dominant in New France, with canoe trips west and temporary trading camps, as Indigenous men had been doing for two centuries, always a generation ahead of the French.
  • In 1814, Lord Selkirk officially got his settlement, an awkward placement that did much to inflame the violence that followed, not the least because
  • The USA had a long history of setting aside Indigenous tracts of land, or tracts of land for Metis or half-blood people, and then opening them up for White settlement. These were called Half Breed Tracts. They were much fought-over and not particularly honest in the first place. Have a look at just two of these tracts:

A bit of doublespeak, that. Many sales of these properties were made under force or threats of violence. A large number of these mixed blood people were French— and as unwanted as the French had always been. Note as well that William Clark, of Lewis and Clark fame, who was taken into and protected by Nimíipu’u civilization in the Pacific Northwest in 1805 and 1806 (The Nimíipu’u had hoped to partner with what they generously saw as an equal level of government in the United States), is using arguments for settlement little different than Selkirk’s arguments for settling the Highlanders in Assiniboia. Now, there’s a man of low moral worth, who should have known better.

The “half-breed tract” (so to speak) that lasted the longest was Assiniboia. It became a French-Metis/Scots-Metis/Scots/Black/Indigenous community, repeated in the Hudson Bay Company’s main fort on the Columbia River, Fort Vancouver —also a French-Metis/Scots-Metis/Scots/Black/Indigenous community, with satellite communities of former French Canadian Workers who disobeyed orders to return to Quebec on retirement and started farming with their Indigenous wives and their children instead. Across the Columbia were the Americans who had come on the Oregon Trail, a group of ultra-Individualistic people quite adept at techniques of erasing “half breed tracts.” The tract that ultimately remained, and which we will meet again much later in this history, is British Columbia.

The Crown Colony of British Columbia. 1858

A Half Breed Tract?

There are three more reasons why Assiniboia was the capital of the Pacific Northwest:

  • It became an incubator of violence and geographical enslavement, which it exported across the Rockies.
  • It became the religious and educational centre of the Pacific Northwest, with religious training being used as a form of social control, on the old aristocratic model Selkirk knew so well.
  • Its quasi-legal, extra-parliamentary agricultural nature (settlement-but-not-settlement) was going to eventually lead to American victory in the war for the Pacific Northwest and its dismemberment into extensions of Canadian and American Imperial control, just as it would finish off Assiniboia itself.

We will look at those three in my next post. From there we will step directly into the troubles at last, with a trip to California, in which the world went all to hell. A hell we’re still going through.

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