Friday, July 1, 2016

HBC Fur Returns for the Columbia Department, 1826-46

How many beaver and other furs did the Hudson's Bay Company take in? What were the trends over time? This posting supplies some answers to questions central to HBC's existence, and its presence at Fort Vancouver.

Background: The Hudson's Bay Company expanded into the Pacific Northwest when it merged with the Northwest Company in 1821, with Fort George (formerly Astoria) as regional headquarters. In 1824 HBC Governor George Simpson and Chief Factor John McLoughlin arrived from Canada to reorganize operations west of the Rocky Mountains. The regional headquarters was relocated to Fort Vancouver in 1825, and a plan was launched to expand trading operations into the coastal areas from Puget Sound to Russian-held Alaska, complementing the trading posts the NWC had established in its New Caledonia district (in the interior of modern-day British Columbia) and the upper Columbia River. At the same time, HBC began to send large annual trapping expeditions, called brigades, east into the southern Rockies and south into southern Oregon and northern California.

For the next two decades the HBC controlled the fur trade in what it called the Columbia Department--from Alaska to California and from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast. The settlement of the international boundary along the 49th parallel in 1846 and the concurrent transfer of HBC's Department headquarters to Fort Victoria signaled the end of the era dominated by the fur trade. These graphs display the quantitative results in visual terms. The furs acquired, whether by trading (which predominated north of the Columbia River) or by trapping and hunting (which predominated to the east and south) were collected at Fort Vancouver for shipment to England. They were called "returns" followings the longstanding fur trade term for sending trade goods and supplies into the hinterland each fall, with the results of trading and trapping being returned to regional headquarters in the spring.

Each annual cycle was called an "outfit," and the trade goods distributed each fall were matched against the furs returned each spring, to calculate annual profit or loss. HBC accounting practice was to begin each outfit, what would now be called its fiscal year, on June 1, and end it on May 31. The annual data discussed here refer to the outfit years imbedded in HBC records. Thus 1826 starts on June 1 of that year, and ends on May 31, 1827--and so on.

Figure 1, Beaver Returns, by Region, 1826-1846: The main focus of trapping and trading was to acquire beaver pelts, primarily for fur used to make the felt hats that had been popular in Europe (and later in North America) since the 1600s. At first beaver had been acquired in northern Europe, then in eastern North America. By the early 1800s coastal trading ships, mainly from New England (thus called "Bostons" by Natives) were trading for furs on the Northwest coast, and the Montreal-based Northwest Company was trading and trapping in the northern Rockies and along the Columbia River. The Beaver Returns graph shows:
By 1831 HBC's successful trading operations on the Northwest Coast had forced out American competitors, increasing average beaver returns from the northern regions (yellow in the graph, roughly equivalent to modern British Columbia) from about 9,000 to about 13,000 per year.

For the next decade, 1831-41, beaver returns were notably steady about 21,000 per year for the Columbia Department as a whole. About 12,000 per year, nearly 60 per cent, came from the north, Through the early 1840s beaver returns trended downward to just over half what they were at the high point in the 1830s. This reflected both the decline of beaver populations, and a change in men's fashion from felt to hats made of silk, which reduced the market for beaver.

Over these 21 years, 1826-46, HBC took nearly 390,000 beavers from the Columbia Department. That accounts for most, but not all, of the beavers taken from the region--American coastal traders operated through the late 1820s, and there was occasional American competition inland. Of the 390,000 total, about 221,000 (57%) were from what's now British Columbia, 113,000 (29%) were from the middle Columbia River posts and the trapping brigades, and nearly 56,000 (14%) were from the area around Fort Vancouver and the Oregon coast.

Beaver returns for the middle Columbia River posts and the land-based trapping brigades (green on the graph) held fairly steady until about 1835, grew markedly from 1837 to 1840, then trended downward. Beaver returns for Fort Vancouver Indian Trade (the trade shop at Fort Vancouver plus Fort George after it was reopened in 1829 and Fort Umpqua after 1832, blue on the graph) trended slowly downward from the late 1820s.

Figure 2, Non-Beaver Returns, by Region, 1826-1846:

While beaver pelts were HBC's stock-in-trade, the Company dealt in the skins of many other fur-bearing animals. Although it receives little notice in fur trade history, the most numerous was the lowly muskrat. Fur from muskrats was also used for felt hats, but they are much smaller than beaver, and their fur is shorter and of lower quality. In trade, HBC valued 15 muskrat pelts as equal to one beaver. Next came marten, mink, and land otters, members of the weasel family whose more valuable pelts were used for coats, capes, and trim on winter clothing.

To get an idea of the relative numbers of non-beaver pelts for the Columbia Department as a whole, outfit 1841 serves as a sample year. In that year, HBC collected 18,599 beavers in the Columbia Department. The non-beaver returns for the entire region ranked as follows, showing that muskrat, mink, marten, and land otter together accounted for 80 percent of non-beaver fur returns for 1841:

Species       pelts      percent
Muskrat    15,333       38.3
Mink           6,763       17.0
Marten        6,214       15.6
Land otter   3,515         8.8
Bear            2,367         6.0
Lynx           1,810         4.6
Raccoon     1,417         3.6
Fisher            667         1.7
Fox                513         1.3
Wolf              464         1.2
Badger           291        0.7
Wolverine      227        0.6
Sea otter        158        0.4

For the northern region (yellow on the graph), non-beaver fur returns: Nearly tripled from 1830 to 1833, Climbed to new highs in 1838 and 1839, After a dramatic fall in 1840 climbed again to new records in 1845 and 1846, Accounted for 64% of the Columbia Department total. For the middle Columbia and trapping brigades (green on the graph), non-beaver returns: Tripled from 1830 to 1834, Held fairly steady, with significant ups and downs through 1846, Accounted for 32% of the Columbia Department total. 

For the area around Fort Vancouver and southwest Oregon (blue on the graph) non-beaver pelts were much less numerous than beaver, held fairly steady with a significant bump in 1843 and 1844, and accounted for just 4% of the Columbia Department overall total. Here land otter was the dominant non-beaver species. From 1826 to 1846, HBC collected 55,748 beavers here, and in that 21-year period 30,365 non-beaver pelts were collected by Fort Vancouver Indian Trade, distributed as follows:

Species           pelts           percent
Land otter     17,016            56.0
Muskrat          8,557            28.2
Mink               1,049              3.5
Bear                   890              2.9
Raccoon             743              2.4
Fox                     534              1.8
Sea otter             480              1.6
Wolf                    363             1.2
Lynx                    304             1.0
Fisher                  201             0.7
Marten                169             0.6
Badger                  50             0.2
Wolverine               8             0.0
Seal                         1             0.0

Figure 3, Beaver and Non-Beaver Returns for the Columbia Department, 1826-1846:

This graph provides a visual comparison of the annual beaver returns (dark grey below) to non-beaver returns (light grey above), for the Columbia Department as a whole. It shows: When individual animals are tallied, from 1831 through 1846 non-beaver pelts always outnumbered beaver. For the 21 years shown, HBC collected just over one and a quarter million (1,269,320) furs in the Columbia Department. Of that total, about 390,000 (31%) were beaver, and nearly 880,000 (69%) were non-beaver species.

For the high point years of 1838 and 1839, more than three times as many non-beaver pelts as beaver were collected. After a sharp drop in 1840, non-beaver returns recovered significantly, while beaver returns continued to decline steadily. In 1846, the year of the Oregon boundary settlement, non-beaver returns reached 67,205, their highest to that date, accounting for 84% of the total 80,163 furs collected in that year.

Sources: For Fort Vancouver Indian Trade: Lester A. Ross, “Fort Vancouver, 1829-1860: A Historical Archaeological Investigation of the Goods Imported and Manufactured by the Hudson’s Bay Company,” (Typescript, Fort Vancouver NHS, 1976), Table 64, p. 1326. Data for 1835 are not available, and have been interpolated. For Columbia Department: James R. Gibson, Farming the Frontier: The Agricultural Opening of the Oregon Country, 1786-1846 (Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 1985), Table 30, p. 201.