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Jennifer Ott "Ruining" the Rivers in the Snake Country TheHudson's BayCompany's FurDesertPolicy Every year our understanding of human influences on the land and waters of the Pacific Northwest deepens, and the subtleties and complexity of the interaction between people and the land scape are teased out of scientific data and personal experiences. Currently, theweb of relationships that enables a salmon smolt's success fulmigration from river to sea and back again draws the closest scrutiny. Scientists consider everything from hydroelectric dams to buffer zones along suburban streams as theyweigh the factors influencing salmon runs. Yet, there are multitudes of human actions that have influenced how the environment in the Pacific Northwest functions but that other activities and time have obscured. While historianshave heralded and vilifiedthefurtradeforopening the region to non-Indians, they have paid little attention to the effects of trappers on the land. Although the fur trade's role in environmental change has faded from view as farming, ranching, and population growth have affected soil and water quality and biodiversity, extracted elements help define a region as much as what remains. Beaver trapping, for example, produced fundamental changes inhow humans, animals, land, and water have affected each other in theNorthwest, particularly in the Snake River Basin. Between 1823 and 1841, theHudson's Bay Company (HBC) carried out what is known as the fur desert policy ? a strategy of clearing the 166 OHQ vol. 104, no. 2 ? 2003 Oregon Historical Society QHS neg., QrHi 1651,1652 Many of the Snake Country expeditions originated from and returned to Fort Nez Perces on the Walla Walla River,shownhere ina lithograph byJohn Mix Stanleythatappeared in the reports of thePacific Railroad surveys. From Fort Nez Perces, furs continued their trip to market by boat toFort Vancouver and from there to London on the annual supply ship. basin of beaver to keep encroaching Americans from coming west of the Continental Divide. Through their use of efficient Snake Country trap ping brigades, theHBC nearly extirpated beaver in the region and, in the process, redefined the physical space inwhich people would live. The furdesert policy began in response to a territorial dispute over the Oregon Country. The HBC accepted the inevitable loss of most of the region to theAmericans and focused on retaining the area bounded by the Columbia River on the south and east, the Pacific Ocean on thewest, and the forty-ninth parallel on the north, an area encompassing potential Puget Sound ports and the transportation route provided by the Colum bia River.1 The Americans sought control of the entire region. During the negotiations for the Convention of 1818, the United States and Britain agreed to postpone a final decision about what was called the Oregon Question. The article of the convention pertaining to the dispute reads: Ott, "Ruining" the Rivers in the Snake Country 167 It isagreed, thatanyCountry that may be claimed by eitherParty on the NorthWest Coast ofAmerica,Westward of the StonyMountains, shall, togetherwith it's [sic] Harbours, Bays, and Creeks, and the Navigation of allRiverswithin the same,be free and open, for the termof tenyears from the date of the Signature of the Present Convention, to theVessels, Citizens, and Subject [s]of theTwo Powers: itbeing well understood, thatthis Agreement isnot tobe construed to thePrejudice of anyClaim, which eitherof theTwo High Contracting Partiesmay have to any part of the said Country, nor shall itbe taken to affecttheClaims of any other Power or State to any part of the said Country; the only object of theHigh Contracting Parties, in that respect,being toprevent disputes and differencesamongst Themselves.2 Renewed in 1827, the convention remained the region's governing docu ment until the two nations resolved the dispute in 1846. Native people's land rights did not enter into the debate, but the reali ties of the local situation in the Snake Country complicated the process and balanced the power between the British and theAmericans. The HBC did not explicitly gain access to the Snake Country for pelts. For the places where theCompany established posts, however, the local Indians required recognition of their control of the land and demanded compensation for the use of it. Without these posts along the Columbia River and...


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