On the broader canvas of Washington State history, the Nisqually River Basin has played a central role during key events and movements which have shaped the region. From the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Nisqually to the Indian fishing rights struggle of the 1960s and 70s which resulted in the landmark Boldt decision, the Nisqually River has been witness to many cultural, ecological and economic changes.
Hudson’s Bay Company & Fort Nisqually
The Hudson’s Bay Company was founded in England during the seventeenth century as a New World fur trading venture. By assimilating their major competitor, the Northwest Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company gained exclusive control of the fur trade north of the Columbia River by 1821.
The Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Vancouver in 1825 on the Columbia River as their regional headquarters. Soon after, Fort Langley was established on the Fraser River in British Columbia. From a strategic and commercial standpoint, it soon became apparent to company officials that a lower Puget Sound presence was necessary. Consequently, in 1833 Chief Trader Archibald McDonald arrived at Nisqually Reach. Here began the period of interaction between Hudson’s Bay European fur traders and the Nisqually Indian people. Construction of Fort Nisqually soon began with a tentative effort on the beach near the mouth of Sequalitchew Creek, just east of the river’s delta, in close proximity to a traditional Nisqually village. This was a temporary measure and a more permanent fort was soon constructed on the bluff above the beach, on the west side of the creek. The trading of manufactured commodities by the British, such as blankets, steel traps, pots, guns and ammunition for pelts trapped by Indian people began almost immediately. The pelts were primarily beaver skins but also included otter, wolf and weasel. In addition to the pelt trade, the Hudson’s Bay Company presented employment opportunities for Nisqually people as guides and laborers.
The Hudson’s Bay Company was an alien presence in the land of the Nisqually people. Yet they could not have established Fort Nisqually without at least the passive permission of their Native American hosts. The Nisqually people tolerated this intrusion because of several advantages. Fort Nisqually brought a new kind of material wealth, stature and a veil of protection. However, it brought these benefits with a price, as two disparate cultures struggled to coexist. Cecelia Svinth Carpenter chronicles the struggle of the Nisqually people in great depth in Fort Nisqually: A Documented History of Indian and British Interaction. Over the next 36 years, the Nisqually people’s way of life was inexorably changed.
Certainly, the prior daily existence of Sequalitchew Village was fundamentally altered. Indian people from all over Puget Sound, including many who were traditionally hostile to the Nisqually, would visit for extended periods of time while trading with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Despite often being outnumbered and intimidated, Nisqually custom determined that visitors be at least tolerated if not welcomed.
Fever epidemics, occurring in 1830 and again in 1836, claimed many lives. The introduction of alcohol as a trading commodity extracted a great social price as incidences of drunken fighting increased. Despite the severe language barrier, European religious values began to infiltrate into Indian life. Official missionary conversion attempts by Roman Catholic priests were met with limited interest. Methodist efforts to convert Indian people were an abject failure.
Ironically, while Hudson’s Bay officials and missionaries may have looked down on certain customs held by the Nisqually people, it is also important to note that without the skill, knowledge and help of Native American people, this European venture could not have succeeded. By sharing their knowledge they enabled fort employees to prosper in a strange land. The basis of the fur trade at Fort Nisqually was the skill of Indian trappers who supplied the pelts so fashionable on the streets of mid-nineteenth century London and Paris. Initially, there was a stable, if uneasy coexistence between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Sequalitchew Indian Village. As time passed, marriages between Nisqually Indian people and the British created strong ties.
By 1845, under the able leadership of both Dr. William Fraser Tolmie, physician, botanist and chief trader, and Chief La-ha-let, leader of the Sequalitchew Nisqually people, Fort Nisqually was a highly successful Hudson’s Bay outpost. While the number of furs being brought to the fort for trade was already declining due to over trapping, farming operations in the lower Nisqually Valley were expanding. Cattle and sheep herds, as well as a wheat farm, supported Hudson’s Bay employees not only locally but at Forts Vancouver and Victoria, Spanish San Francisco, Russian Alaska and the Hawaiian Islands.
Beginning in 1818, the entire Oregon Territory was in a peculiar, complicated limbo. A joint occupancy treaty determined that this contested area would be under the control of both Great Britain and the United States of America. This treaty stated that neither of the two superpowers owned the contested territory, but were entitled the right to utilize it. In practicality, United States influence was predominate south of the Columbia River while the British, through the influence of Fort Vancouver and Fort Nisqually, controlled the contested area north of the Columbia.
The fact that this created many ambiguities for all involved, British, Yankee and Native American was generally tolerable, due in large measure to the low population density of the Puget Sound area. The well-established reputation of the Hudson’s Bay Company enabled it to act as a sort of de facto government. However, the stability and structure which Fort Nisqually brought to southern Puget Sound soon began to attract American settlers, who were migrating to the Northwest in increasing numbers.
Source: The Living River: A Guide to the Nisqually River Basin