The Fur Trade

The Fur Trade


In 1811, David Thompson of the Northwest Company led a fur trading party down the Columbia River and planted a British flag at the mouth of the Snake River, claiming sovereignty over this region for Britain. After meeting Walla Walla Chief Yellept at Wallula he promised to build a trading post for the town. In 1818, the North West Company built Fort Nez Percés at the mouth of the Walla Walla River, which later became Fort Walla Walla, a Hudson’s Bay Company center for outfitting and supplying all the inland empire fur brigades.

Fort Walla Walla was heavily fortified and became known as the Gibraltar of the Columbia. All of the beaver pelts from the vast inland region were shipped through Wallula to Fort Vancouver, and from there they were loaded onto ships for England. The Hudson’s Bay Company was respected by local Tribes, and many of their French-Canadian employees settled in an area of the Walla Walla Valley that became known as Frenchtown. Here they mostly married Indian wives and raised Metis families.

The voyages that fur traders embarked on were not easy. Fur traders were expected to be strong and efficient for paddling, carry large amounts of food, and endure the elements. Such fur trade voyageurs are recorded in folklore and music as heroes. As an unnamed voyageur in his 70’s remembered:

“I could carry, paddle, walk and sing with any man I ever saw. I have been twenty-four years a canoe man, and forty-one years in service; no portage was ever too long for me, fifty songs could I sing. I have saved the lives of ten voyageurs, have had twelve wives and six running dogs. I spent all of my money in pleasure. Were I young again, I would spend my life the same way over. There is no life so happy as a voyageur’s life!”

Songs and singing became a key element of traders’ vogues. They allowed the men to pass the time in a happy manner, despite the hardships. The songs were adapted to accompany the rhythm of paddles rowing in unison. It is likely that the Montreal Agents and Wintering Partners sought out and preferred to hire voyageurs that liked to sing and were good at it. They believed that singing helped the voyageurs to paddle faster and longer.

However, the French Canadian voyageurs were a jovial people and did not need a reason to sing. They sang on just about every occasion and were fond of songs about wind and weather, spring, love and especially fair ladies.

Here is a translation of the lyrics of a voyageur’s rowing song called “Come a Dancing” (1725):

“If you will come and dance with me, if you will come and dance with me,

A feathered cap I’ll give to thee, a feathered cap I’ll give to thee.

Come, my love, a dancing, so far into the night.

Our feet will trip so lightly! We’ll forget that time’s a flight.

…a belt of gold I’ll give to thee….

…a homespun coat….

…a red kerchief….

…two red shoes….

 …a kiss or two I’ll give to you, and all the best I give to you!