The Early Years of European-Aboriginal Relations

19 February of 2014 by

Simon Fraser’s first task was to establish the fur trade industry in central British Columbia. To do this he first built a series of forts in the region from which to trade and establish relations with the Aboriginal people. Fraser arrived in the summer of 1806. Over the following two years, he oversaw the establishment of Fort McLeod, Fort Fraser, Fort George and the establishment of the primary fort and community of Fort St. James, the capital of the new fur trading district of New Caledonia. The second task the North West Company partners set for Simon Fraser was to evaluate the ‘Great River’ as a safe and convenient trade route to the Pacific. In 1808, the Fraser River was thought to be the Columbia River. So, when Fraser set off on his journey of discovery in 1808 from Fort George, he thought he was traveling south on the Columbia River. Simon Fraser and his crew left Fort George (now Prince George) on May 22, 1808 and arrived in the Vancouver area on July 2. He headed back up the river immediately and arrived at Fort George on August 6. That is, Simon Fraser and his crew took 42 days to travel 1000 km downriver and incredibly, 32 to paddle back up. This physical feat has not been duplicated to date. Remember, in addition to expanding the trading territory of the North West Company, Simon Fraser was also trying to find a trade route to the Pacific. The North West Company wanted this trade route for two reasons. First, it was becoming too expensive and taking too long to transport furs and supplies from British Columbia eastward to Montréal. Second, the North West Company wanted to capture some of the lucrative sea-otter trade that was taking place on the Northwest Coast.

Aboriginal Perspective It is difficult to provide an accurate Aboriginal perspective regarding the effect of the European fur trade on their cultures. The Europeans were definitely from a different culture and possessed technology that the Aboriginal peoples wished to obtain. However, the newcomers also had a number of cultural elements that undesirable to the Aboriginal peoples. These negative cultural attributes generally reflected the differing cultural values of a hunting and gathering society versus an industrial social economy. The Aboriginal peoples and their leaders were quick to realize that, with the arrival of the Europeans, change was coming. They welcomed the explorers and fur traders into their communities and territories. The Chiefs also entered into negotiations to protect their lands, resources, and people, while at the same time entering the new economy brought by these immigrants. However, one must realize that diseases such as measles and smallpox were decimating the Aboriginal world: undoubtedly, the Aboriginal peoples were negotiating from a relatively weak position. From the time of first contact in the early 1800s, until the 1850s, the survival of the European fur traders was completely dependent on the hospitality of the Aboriginal peoples. The fur traders married Aboriginal women and established strong social ties with the local communities. Economically, the Aboriginal population shifted from 100% hunting and gathering economies to become more and more reliant on the fur trade. It has often been argued that this new fur trade economy, from 1800 to 1850, was a time of symbiotic social and economic relations between the two cultures. Each depended on the other: mutual respect was of paramount importance.

The Fur Trade in British Columbia The fur trade was based almost entirely on the collection of beaver pelts. Complementing the beaver were other small fur-bearing animals such as fishers, mink, muskrat, and a variety of weasels. The beaver was used exclusively for the making of top hats, a European status symbol of the 18th and 19th centuries. Other furs were used to ornament clothing. The early fur trade in British Columbia’s interior saw men and supplies coming westward from Fort Chipewyan, across the Rocky Mountains to Fort McLeod, and then on to Fort St. James. Fort St. James on Stuart Lake was the headquarters for the fur trade in the now newly-established district of New Caledonia. These men were of mixed ethnic origins. There were Scottish, British, Irish, Cree, Iroquois, and Metís. Working on the information received through Alexander Mackenzie’s 1793 explorations, the North West Company sent Simon Fraser west of the Rockies to establish a new fur-trading centre. Simon Fraser reached Stuart Lake in 1806 and set about establishing a number of regional trading forts. At Stuart Lake, Fort St. James became the primary trading centre for the newly-established District of New Caledonia. Simon Fraser did not reach his goal of finding a safe route to the Pacific. His descent of the river in 1808 did not ‘open up’ British Columbia. The canyons of the Fraser River were not passable and an overland route was not viable. In the early 19th century, the route from the Prince George area went south to Soda Creek and then overland, eastward to Fort Kamloops, then south along the Okanagan valley to the Columbia River. The route then followed the Columbia River westward to Fort Vancouver in what is now Washington State. The fur trade in British Columbia lasted from 1806 through to the 1850s. It ended with the discovery of gold at Hills Bar near Yale in 1958. During this time period, modern British Columbia was being born. The fur trade had established two districts: the district of New Caledonia with Fort St. James as it headquarters, and the Columbia district with Fort Vancouver (now in Washington State) as its head of operations. At about the same time Britain and the United States signed the Oregon Treaty, which recognized the 49th parallel as the international boundary between the United States and what is now Canada. It would take several years to survey this boundary and resolve minor territorial disputes. The dominance of the fur trade industry started to wane in the mid to late 1850s. More settlers started arriving in British Columbia. Their interest was not furs, but land and resources. James Douglas, the Governor of the Columbia District, petitioned the British government, and the Colony of Vancouver Island was formed in 1849. Nearly 10 years later (1858), the colony of the Mainland British Columbia was established and in 1866, these two colonies merged to form the colony of British Columbia.

The Missionaries and their Early Influence On the heels of the fur trade and the establishment of trading forts, came the missionaries. Between 1808 and 1850, there was a shift in the settlement pattern for most Aboriginal people from traditional village sites to more focused villages. To facilitate trading, the trader encouraged the Aboriginal people to establish a single permanent location or village. It was at this location that he built his trading store. For most Aboriginal people, these locations became the historic villages of the 19th and 20th centuries. Most Aboriginal families built houses and came to the village when the trader arrived. This initial coalescence of people and the identification of a “village” then provided a focus for the missionaries, whose primary goal was to convert the Aboriginal peoples to Christianity. In proximity to the fur traders’ stores, the missionaries built their rectories and churches. The first missionaries came to British Columbia in the 1850s. By 1904, 90% of all Aboriginal people were baptized Christian in name. Think about this: Simon Fraser arrived in 1806 and almost 100 years later almost every Aboriginal person in what is now the province declared him – or herself – at least by title – as Christian. You can imagine how now, more than 100 years after 1904, the Aboriginal peoples of BC find it somewhat difficult to rediscover their –in some cases– almost lost culture. Nonetheless, the church became a focal point for events as weddings, funerals, and ceremonies at Christmas and Easter. The relationship between the Christian missionaries and the Aboriginal peoples became more formalized with the establishment of Residential Schools in the 1860s. These schools gathered Aboriginal children from surrounding regions and immersed them in a program of western culturalization. St. Joseph Mission, one of the last residential schools in British Columbia, closed in the Williams Lake area in the 1980s. The residential school system is very controversial. The government of Canada, the Catholic, Anglican, and United Churches in Canada, as well as other Christian institutions, have been charged with a variety of crimes against the Aboriginal peoples and a program of apology, healing, and reconciliation is now being undertaken.

Significance of 1800-1850 on Fraser River Aboriginal Peoples It is important to recognize this realignment of the Aboriginal settlement pattern as it adapted to the changing economy. First, the settlement pattern was based on a hunting and gathering social economy. The fur trade then brought a move toward a wage-based industrial economy and the establishment of more centralized villages with permanent buildings. These early villages were focused on the trading store and the church. The Aboriginal peoples had to adapt quickly to this shifting economy. Culturally, this era of a new economy and social organization was to present great challenges to Aboriginal leadership.

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