Academic journal article Alberta History

The World of Joshua Pilcher: An American Fur Trader in Jasper

Academic journal article Alberta History

The World of Joshua Pilcher: An American Fur Trader in Jasper

Article excerpt

Joshua Pilcher was an American fur trader who in 1829-30 accompanied the York Factory Express across Athabasca Pass and through what is now Jasper National Park. This was part of a two-year, nine-month circuit of some 8,000 km (5,000 miles) of the western interior of North America. To Canadian historians, his brief presence in Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) territory may be but a footnote, but in the United States where the HBC had territorial interests in what later became the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, his journey and subsequent report holds far greater import. His epic journey is tied up in the Oregon Dispute and the collateral struggle for dominance by two fur trade behemoths: the HBC and the American Fur Company (AFC).

The Oregon dispute lasted from 1818 to 1846 and dealt with the unresolved boundary between the United States and British possessions west of the Continental Divide. The United States wanted the 49th parallel boundary east of the mountains to be extended westward to the Pacific Ocean. The British, on the other hand, wanted that parallel extended west only to the Columbia River, with the boundary then continuing along the Columbia to tidewater. The disputed area was that territory, now in Washington state, which was north of the Columbia and south of the 49th parallel.

At the time of Pilcher's tour, this territory was dominated by the HBC which sought to gain its permanent occupation. To do this, it strove to remove any competition from American trappers by creating a so-called 'fur desert' south of the Columbia by extirpating beaver stocks there. It also used its financial resources to undermine any American competition in the area by means of price manipulation. (1)

For local Natives, the competition between British and American fur traders provided opportunities for arbitrage as they sought the best price for their furs. They could either trap the furs themselves or, if the opportunity arose, they could take the furs by force from American trappers and traders. Stolen furs could be taken to HBC posts where postmasters might not inquire too closely regarding their provenance. In 1823, some of Pilcher's furs were taken in this manner. For his partners, the Missouri Fur Company, this was a disaster from which it would never fully recover. Pilcher wrote:

   ... the flower of my business is gone. My
   mountaineers have been defeated, and
   chiefs of the party both slain; the party
   were attacked by three or four hundred
   Blackfoot Indians, in a position on the
   Yellowstone River, where nothing but
   defeat could be expected. [Robert] Jones
   & [Michael] Immell and five men were
   Killed ... I think we lose at least $15,000. (2)

Five months after the attack, Pilcher's furs, marked with the initials MFCo, turned up at Fort Edmonton. Though it accepted them in trade, the Company was anxious to return the pelts at cost and to reach an agreement with the Americans that neither would engage in trading for stolen goods. Regardless of its good intentions, the HBC was wrongly accused of instigating the raid and other Indian attacks upon American traders and trappers. This created hostile feelings on the part of some Americans towards the HBC.

Pilcher, it appears, never did recover his loss. (3)

The American Fur Company was a relative latecomer to the Upper Missouri fur trade, but it was backed by the extensive financial assets of John Jacob Astor. By 1830 it was monopolising the region by buying out or driving away its competition. Astor's plan was to connect the Columbia and Missouri valleys with a series of posts from St. Louis to the mouth of the Columbia thereby opening up trans-continental trade from New York to the Pacific Ocean, and thence by sea to China. By sending his furs to either New York or China he would totally dominate the American fur trade. (4)

So it was in 1827 that Joshua Pilcher, seeking a place between the HBC 'fur desert' and growing AFC competition and dominance to the south, headed towards the headwaters of the upper Missouri River and embarked upon his last chance to recover his diminishing fur trade career. …

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