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The Fur Trade Gamble

North West Company on the Pacific Slope, 1800–1820

Lloyd Keith and John C. Jackson


In an era of grand risk, fur moguls vied to command Northwest and China markets, gambling lives and capital on the price of beaver pelts, purchases of ships and trade goods, international commerce laws, and the effects of war.


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Before Hudson’s Bay Company domination, two companies attempted large-scale corporate trapping and vied to command Northwest fur trade. On one side were the North West Company’s Montreal entrepreneurs, and on the other, American John Jacob Astor and his Pacific Fur Company.

They were businessmen first and explorers second, and their era is a story of grand risk in both lives and capital—a global mercantile initiative in which controlling the mouth of the Columbia River and developing the China market were major prizes. Traversing the world in search of profit, these fur moguls gambled on the price of beaver pelts, purchases of ships and trade goods, international commerce laws, and the effects of war.

In the process, partners and clerks quarreled, surveyed transportation routes, built trading posts, and worked to forge relationships with both French Canadian and Native American trappers. The loss of valuable natural resources as well as the intermixing of cultures significantly impacted relationships with the region’s native peoples. Ultimately, their expansion attempts were economically unsuccessful. The Astorians sold their holdings to the North West Company, who later accepted a humiliating 1821 merger.

Drawing from a reservoir of previously unexploited business and personal correspondence, including the letters of clerk Finnan McDonald and a revealing personal memorandum by Fort George partner James Keith, the authors examine Columbia drainage operations and offer a unique business perspective. Both have written extensively on related subjects. The late Lloyd Keith’s major work is North to Athabaska: Documents of the North West Company, 1800–1821. The late John C. Jackson’s many publications include Shadow of the Tetons: David E. Jackson and the Claiming of the American West, and Children of the Fur Trade: Forgotten Metis of the Pacific Northwest.

Illustrations / maps / notes / bibliography / index / 352 pages (2016)

Additional information

Weight N/A
Dimensions 6 x 9 in

Hardbound, Paperback