Manitoba History: Review: J. M. Bumsted, Fur Trade Wars: The Founding of Western Canada

by David McCrady
University of Manitoba

Number 38, Autumn / Winter 1999-2000

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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J. M. Bumsted, Fur Trade Wars: The Founding of Western Canada. Winnipeg: Great Plains Publications, 1999. 272 pp. Maps, May illus., bibliography, index. $19.95.

Say what one will of the end result of their efforts, one must admit that Americans have been far more successful than Canadians at popularizing and mythologizing their past. While not every school child knows about the American Revolution or the Civil War, and present-day historians question the importance of teaching such traditional political topics, nevertheless these events remain iconic in the American consciousness. Americans do refer to the past to explain or justify the present: nary an NRA supporter would not point to the importance during the American Revolution of an armed citizenry as justification for the right to bear arms in the United States of today.

Canadians seem, and this is an admittedly old complaint, blissfully unaware of and unconcerned for their past. A few, for example, know that Thomas D’Arcy McGee was an assassinated Canadian politician; very few could explain by whom or why. Canadians, for the most part, lack any consciousness of historical chestnuts, both old and new.

Fur Trade Wars is a popular account of an important chestnut in Western Canadian historythe competition between the North West and Hudson’s Bay companies that led to violence, the threat of economic ruin to all and the eventual merger of the two concerns in 1821. It is comprehensive and highly readable.

Jack Bumsted was certainly well positioned to write this book, having previously edited portions of the Selkirk papers for publication by the Manitoba Record Society. Fur Trade Wars is based on excellent research (although the more academically inclined will regret the absence of footnotes), and it brings a modern approach to the topic. Gone are the heroes and tragedy of some earlier histories. In their place is a reasoned, forthright appraisal of people and events. Older popular works often concentrated too much on the happenings at Red River and the disturbances in the Athabasca, and did not do enough to situate events in Rupert’s Land in their proper international context. As remote as Rupert’s Land was from the centres of European settlement, its people and economy did not exist in a void. The War of 1812 had a tremendous impact in the region, both Hudson’s Bay and North West company traders having worked in what became American territory. After the conclusion of that conflict, the North West Company, in particular, remained in frequent communication with American fur-trade firms. Earlier authors could be provincial in their approach, and I appreciated the way Bumsted placed the events of the fur trade wars on the world stage. I have wanted this book for some time.

Colin Robertson of the HBC was an active participant in the “fur trade wars” of the Red River Settlement and the Athabasca country.
Source: Library and Archives Canada

Generations of Métis leaders have looked to the era of fur-trade competition in general, and the Battle of Seven Oaks in particular, as pivotal events in the birth of the Métis Nation. Historians and others have noted more recently that the process of ethnogenesis took longer and that it could be mapped on a number of fronts, yet Seven Oaks and other episodes in this process have remained potent symbols. While Bumsted fully details the course of Métis participation in the fur-trade wars, he says surprisingly little of the political and social significance of that involvement. Some account of Métis appraisals of these events, then and later, would have been useful.

This book perpetuates some common errors about aboriginal languages. In the early chapters, when he introduces the people of the fur trade, Bumsted notes that the Cree spoke Algonkian and the Chipewyan, “a variation of northeastern Athapaskan.” This is like saying that the English speak Indo-European. Algonkian and Athabaskan are language families, not languages. Europeans have been making this error about aboriginal languages (often dismissing them as “dialects” in the process) for centuries. The Cree and Chipewyan people speak two distinct languages. Bumsted later notes that the Interior Salish, Kootenay, Chilcotin and Okanagan “were mainly Athabaskan speakers.” Of these people, only the Chilcotin spoke an Athabaskan language. “Interior Salish” is actually an umbrella term that refers to a number of people, including the Okanagan. These people speak several distinct languages belonging to the Salish language family. Kootenay is a language isolate—one that is not known to be related to any other language.

The years of conflict between the North West and Hudson’s Bay companies were complicated and multifaceted and Bumsted has done a good job in telling this story. Fur Trade Wars provides an excellent synthesis and will serve students of fur trade, Western Canadian and Métis history as useful introduction to the topic.

Page revised: 13 October 2012