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Field Division of Education
History of Glacier National Park
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I. The Northern Approach - The Fur Companies

Although it was early French enterprise to the west which led to the formation of the Hudson's Bay Company and the ultimate penetration of our area, it appears to have been left for a young employee of the Hudson's Bay Company to visit the great plains first, this being the first step toward the Glacier region. Pierre Esprit Radisson and Medard Chuoart Groseillers, two French adventurers seeking fur, were the first to visit the Mississippi River, perhaps even touched the Missouri, and first visited Hudson's Bay by land. Discredited and plundered by French officials, they turned to the English. After a successful voyage to Hudson's Bay, the Hudson's Bay Company was formed in 1670, although Radisson and Groseillers were given only the part of employees. The charter of the Hudson's Bay Company gave it title to all the land drained by waters flowing into Hudson's Bay and Hudson Strait. Thus, at a pen stroke by the dissolute Charles II, in 1670 the story of the Hudson's Bay Company is first linked to the history of Glacier National Park, for the northern streams of the Park flow into Hudson's Bay and are hence within the area granted to the company.

The desire of Radisson to penetrate and explore the interior was in large measure thwarted by the initial and 1ong-enduring policy of the company to restrict its posts to the shoreline and wait for the Indians to bring in furs. It remained for a London gutter urchin, Henry Kelsey, who knew and perhaps was inspired by Radisson, to be the first Englishman to reach the plains, the time being 1691 and 1692. His journey was for many years in doubt, and only the recent discovery and publication of his journals makes it clear that he was also the first Englishman to see and shoot the buffalo and grizzly bear. Even yet it remains obscure whether Kelsey was sent by the company or took "French leave," but the probabilities appear to favor the first theory.

Kelsey, in his journey, was far from reaching the Glacier National Park area. He did not even see the Rocky Mountains. But for over half a century he was the only Englishman to reach as far as the Plains east of the Rockies. (Among sources for the preceding are: Burpee, Search for the Western Sea; Pinkerton, Hudson's Bay Company; Laut, Conquest of the Great Northwest; Kelsey Papers. So chaotic are the accounts of the area that both in this case and most of the rest of the paper it is impracticable to give detailed citations. While the various sources give more or less detailed accounts of events and places, no two seem to have singled out the same series, so the problem of detailed citation becomes too complex to be handled in this type of paper.)

The next venture into the Plains was that of Pierre Caultier de La Verendrye. This zealous Frenchman spent his life and fortune in attempts to reach the western sea. With only the help of a trading license to finance his efforts, he built posts further and further into the wilderness. He eventually reached the Mandan villages in 1738. In 1742, his son, Pierre, with a younger brother, set out for the west from the Mandan villages. On January 1, 1743, they first saw the Rocky Mountains, reaching their base on January 15. Just where the brothers arrived is not certain, but the present weight of opinion places them furthest west at about the site of the city of Helena, Montana, several hundred miles further west than was formerly believed to be the case. This brought them within the region surrounding Glacier.

La Verendrye died in 1749 and his sons were not permitted to carry on his explorations. Instead, Captain Jacques Repentigny Legardeur de Saint-Pierre was sent to take over their posts. He ordered a party to ascend the Saskatchewan river. On their return they claimed to have built a post near the Rocky Mountains in 1751. There is no documentary evidence that this post was ever built and the fact that Hendry three years later heard nothing of Frenchmen anywhere near the mountains suggests that the whole story is a fabrication. See: Burpee, Search for the Western Sea; Stuart, Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana; MacInness, In the Shadow of the Rockies; Burpee, Pathfinders of the Great Plains.)

The next known visitors to approach the region were all representatives of the Hudson's Bay Company. In 1754-5, Anthony Hendry wintered with the Blackfoot, probably wandering the region of the Bow river in Alberta and passing down the Red Deer and South Forks of the Saskatchewan in the spring. He found a French post near the Grand Forks of the Saskatchewan. His journey brought no results, for his stories of Indians on horseback were not believed and his whole account was discredited.

In 1772 the competition from Montreal stirred the Hudson's Bay Company into activity and Mathew Cocking was sent to the Saskatchewan. Crossing the South Fork, he met some Blackfoot at the Eagle Hills and spent the winter with them, confirming Hendry's account. He found French traders who had married into the tribe and adopted native life. Some of these nameless personages were probably the first whites to visit the confines of Glacier National Park, but their doings must remain unknown to history. Cocking returned to the Bay in 1773. That same year the council of the Hudson's Bay Company had ordered establishments to be made on the Saskatchewan, and Cumberland House was built at Sturgeon Lake. From this time on "patroons of the woods" were engaged to live inland with the Indians. A staff of 51 men was kept regularly at Cumberland House. There is no record of how far west some of these men may have gone, but in 1799 Peter Fidler established a post at Lac La Biche above Edmonton, and a year later Chesterfield House was built at the junction of the South Saskatchewan and Red Deer rivers. (See: Hendry; Journal; Cocking; Journal; General sources cited above.)

The building of these inland posts was largely undertaken as a result of the competition of the traders from Montreal, who became the North-West Company. The year after Cumberland House was built, J. B. Cadotte built a post at the Forks of the Saskatchewan and the enterprising Canadians were, no doubt, in general ahead of the Hudson's Bay posts. In 1779 the first association leading to the formation of the Northwest Company took place. By 1783 the company was well established and gave constant and increasingly bitter competition to the Hudson's Bay Company. By 1787 the independents in Montreal had been largely absorbed and trade from that point was almost entirely in the hands of the North-West Company.

While there is a good deal of published materiel on the entry of the North-Westers into the region north of the Saskatchewan, their activities in the direction of Glacier can only be inferred from the movement of the Hudson's Bay Company in that region. Of the independents and free traders we likewise have little data. In 1780 a free trader's post is mentioned at the Eagle Hills near Battleford. A curious note from the "Manuscript Journal of a Gentleman belonging to the army of General St. Clair" remarks on meeting a Mr. M------, who about five years before (which would place the date as 1786) had visited the headwaters of the Missouri with a fur trading party from Montreal. The party consisted of 100 men and had come in contact with the "Great Belly, Blood, Blackfoot, Snake, Ossnobians (Assineboine?), Shiveytoon, Mandon, Paunee, and others." An attempt by this party to cross the "Shining Mountains" was frustrated by hostile Indians. Apparently no other record of this trip is known. The geographical and tribal information given is far beyond what one would expect at the time and, whether the particular expedition mentioned occurred or not, it is evident that there had been an expedition or expeditions to the headwaters of the Missouri before Lewis and Clark which came close to the Glacier Park country. (Massachusetts m Historical Society, series 1, vol. 3, page 24.)

About 1786 David Thompson, most able of all the early explorers, was at Manchester House, 40 miles up the North Saskatchewan from Battleford. wintering with the Piegans in the neighborhood of modern Calgary. This marked the approach of the fur trade to the Rockies on a permanent basis. By 1790 the Hudson's Bay Company had established the South Branch House on the South Saskatchewan. Two years later Peter Fidler left the Hudson's Bay post of Fort George on the North Saskatchewan, and wandered over the Bow and Little Bow rivers. The following year, 1793, he crossed the Red Deer at the mouth of the Rosebud, reached the Bow, and followed it to Chesterfield House at the South Saskatchewan and Red Deer rivers. Thompson, the same year found both a Hudson's Bay and a North-West Company post at the site of South Branch House, but in 1794 an important event occurred. Thompson left the Hudson's Bay Company and joined the North-Westers. By winter of that year he had run a survey from Lake Superior to the Mandan villages on the Missouri. Here he found that free traders, outfitted by the Hudson's Bay Company, had been trading for several years. Insignificant bits such as this are the only hints we have that whites penetrated beyond the established fur company posts and had been nearer the Glacier region than the record shows at this time.

In 1800 Thompson went to the Upper Saskatchewan, spending two years wandering the country between the North and South Forks. Four men sent by him were probably the first whites to paddle down the South Fork of the Saskatchewan from near its headwaters. In 1801 Thompson passed over Howse Pass, discovered by Duncan McGillivray the year before, reaching the headwaters of the Columbia. Some of these parties must have been close to Glacier Park. In 1805 West Chesterfield House was built by John McDonald of Garth near the mouth of the Red Deer river. It was abandoned the following year and for 17 years there were no further efforts to penetrate the area with permanent establishments until the new Hudson's Bay Company reestablished the post in 1822, a venture continued only for a few years.

In the meantime David Thompson had been exploring in the region of the upper Columbia, evidently utilizing Howse Pass. In 1809 Joseph Howse (not Jasper Howse for whom the pass was named) followed Thompson over the pass, and in 1810 he took a Hudson's Bay party onto the Pacific slope. He was followed by James McMillan of the Northwest Company to see that he was not successful. This was the only effort of the Hudson's Bay Company to reach the Pacific Slope before the merger with the Northwest Company was made.

The Howse and McMillan parties in 1810 are usually said to have been in the Montana region west of the Rockies, and hence must have passed west of Glacier Park. In the Handbook of General Information regarding Glacier National Park published by the Department of the Interior, Washington, 1933, it is noted that the first whites crossed Marias Pass in 1810 but no authority is given. No evidence for this exists in any of the standard sources for the region. The only parties known to have been anywhere near the area are these two parties of Howse and McMillan, and while it is conceivable that they might have crossed the pass, lacking any detailed journals of the expeditions it is difficult to see how this fact could be determined.

This same year of 1810, Thompson was prevented from using Howse Pass by his old friends, the Piegan, who objected to Thompson furnishing arms to the Kootenay. Thompson then discovered and crossed the mountains by Athabasca Pass. This became the main route over the Rockies. But for the Blackfoot obstacle, the main routes would have been further south and closer to Glacier Park.

For the next few years the Northwest Company was occupied in developing the rich country west of the Rockies, building posts, and sending out trapping companies which reached far south of Glacier Park. They do not appear, however, to have worked back toward the Glacier region because of Blackfoot enmity, and perhaps because of the difficult nature of the country. The Hudson's Bay Company is not mentioned in this vicinity at all after 1810 until the merger was made with the Northwest Company in 1822, when, as noted above, an old Northwester reestablished Chesterfield House for a short time.

In 1832 the Hudson's Bay council ordered the abandonment of Rocky Mountain House "because of the defection of the Piegans", and also ordered the building of a post to be called Piegan House somewhere near the 49th parallel, with the object of intercepting Indians who might be going across the border to trade with Americans. This is the first reference to American competition in the Plains region. In 1833 the Piegan House was established on the Bow River in what is now the Stony Indian Reserve, but after five months it was abandoned and Rocky Mountain House restored. The same year the council of the Hudson's Bay Company, alarmed by the diminution of the beaver, forbade the issuance of traps to any but the Piegan Indians. In 1848 the artist Paul Kane passed through Rocky Mountain House and noted it to be made unusually strong because of the danger from the Blackfoot.

Nine years later, in 1857, Father La Comb paid his first visit to Blackfoot territory, and in 1865 took up permanent residence there. In the years 1857 and 1858 the Imperial Palliser expedition apparently actually reached Glacier Park, or at least its northern Canadian extension, Waterton Park. In 1857 Palliser went up the South Saskatchewan to within sight of Chief Mountain, the earliest mention of the peak in British sources. He crossed the Kananaskis to the Kootenay river, and the following year crossed Kootenay or Blakiston Pass just north of Glacier Park. The expedition evidently saw Waterton Lake, giving it its name.

Them Palliser expedition marks the end of the period of the fur trade in this area from a Canadian viewpoint, although it lingered on for many years. The monopoly of the Hudson's Bay Company was beginning to crumble. Settlers had been moving into the Red River Valley over whom the company could exercise no control. In 1866 American traders began to pour over the border from Fort Benton, establishing posts in Blackfoot territory. The most famous wore Fort Whoop-up at the junction of the Belly and the St. Mary's rivers, Stand-off on the Belly river, and Pincher Creek.

Although there were exceptions, most of these traders were of a very low class. Liquor flowed freely and the Indians were hopelessly debauched. Gambling and lawlessness reached a true "wild west" pitch. Another class of Americans, the "wolvers," made their living by poisoning wolves and bitterly opposed the fur traders, who were encouraging the hunting of the buffalo for their hides. This added a further disordered element to a situation which endured eight years.

Such bad conditions in time created their own cure by causing the formation of the Northwestern Mounted Police. By 1874 the situation was radically changed. Law and order had arrived and the fur trade period was effectively ended. The later history of the area from a Canadian viewpoint is the story of the formation of reservations, the cattle industry, the coming of the settlers and the railroad. Discussion of these later phases will be reserved until after the story of the American fur trade has been presented. (The above story is presented mainly from two sources: MacInness; In the Shadow of the Rockies; Pinkerton; Hudson's Bay Company. Other good sources are: Laut; Conquest of the Great Northwest; Burpee; Search for the Western Sea; Inness; Fur Trade of Canada. Further details may be found in the works of these authors and in the many journals and other sources in the bibliography.)

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