While merchant ships from the United States and Europe patrolled the Northwest Coast in search of sea-otter pelts, other fur traders had been making their way across the continent from the east, establishing a network of trading posts all along the interior waterways. This land-based trade, principally for beaver but for other furs as well, was carried out by two large multinational companies: the Hudson’s Bay Company, based in London, England, and the North West Company, with its headquarters in Montreal. For many years these two giants carried on a spirited competition for control of the fur business east of the Rocky Mountains. Initially, British Columbia played no part in the land-based trade. Then, in 1793, Alexander Mackenzie made his historic crossing to the Pacific on behalf of the North West Company, a sign that the inland traders were looking to the Pacific Coast as an outlet for their activities east of the mountains.
The Nor’westers followed up Mackenzie’s lead by establishing several trading posts in the BC interior (they called it New Caledonia) and sending canoe expeditions down the Fraser and Columbia rivers in search of a viable transportation route to tidewater. But it was an American company, the Pacific Fur Company, owned by the New York tycoon John Jacob Astor, that opened the first post actually located on the coast.
Astor hoped to supply the China market with furs from the Pacific Northwest. In 1810, he dispatched the 300-ton sailing vessel Tonquin, loaded with building supplies and trade goods, around Cape Horn to the Columbia River with orders to establish a post. Arriving at the mouth of the river in March 1811, the crew of the Tonquin threw up a cluster of log huts, christened it, rather grandiloquently, Astoria, then sailed away to the north to do some trading. In Clayoquot Sound a party of Wickanninish’s people attacked the vessel, possibly in retaliation for the earlier abduction of a dozen of their comrades by another American ship. All twenty-three members of the Tonquin’s crew were killed, but not before one of them had set a booby trap. As the triumphant Clayoquot warriors plundered the vessel, it exploded, killing as many as two hundred more people. There was only one survivor, an aboriginal interpreter, who after two years in captivity managed to escape back to Astoria with an account of what had happened. It was the bloodiest encounter in the history of the trading period.
Astor’s venture continued to meet with setbacks. With the outbreak of the War of 1812 between the US and Great Britain, the company supply vessel failed to arrive. Then the beleaguered Astorians learned that a British warship was on its way to attack them. Deciding to make something of a bad situation, they sold the post to the North West Company for $58,000. In October 1813, the Nor’westers took possession, re-naming the place Fort George.
But a change of ownership did little for its fortunes. The giant British commercial monopolies were no more willing to permit Canadian traders access to the China trade than they had the Americans. The Pacific Coast remained at the far end of a long, expensive supply line. What’s more, the political situation in the Columbia territory was very cloudy. Americans, British, even the Russians, all had an interest in the Pacific slope. The Americans wanted the British to withdraw north of the forty-ninth parallel since this was already the accepted border between their two territories across the middle of the continent. The British, on the other hand, argued that the Columbia River should be the border. In 1818, negotiators agreed only to disagree, and the two countries settled for joint occupancy of the disputed area for a period of ten years.