Farming the Frontier: The Agricultural Opening of the Oregon Country, 1786-1846
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
Joe Cherwinski is a history professor at the Memorial University of
The history of the Hudson’s Bay Company as the story of the development and growth of the fur trade in Canada has been well exposed by historians, and most recently by amateurs, and thus is well known. Less familiar but no less important is the company’s contribution to the growth of agriculture. James R. Gibson’s Farming the Frontier goes a long way toward filling this major gap, tracing the growth of farming in the Pacific Coast territory operated by the Company during the first half of the nineteenth century.
Dr. Gibson, a York University professor, brings to the historical study the uniquely skilled eye of the geographer, as shown by his penchant for “the stuff of bookkeepers,” consolidated lists of production figures assembled by company officials. By cataloguing what appears to be every cow and pig raised and every bushel of grain grown, he records the progress of the Euroamerican conquest of the region. However, those not interested in detailed lists of grain and livestock are able to skip the statistical data with ease and concentrate on the fascinating literary accounts which he draws upon to make his case. In addition, the text is judiciously sprinkled with maps, drawings, and contemporary illustrations to complement the verbal evidence.
The Hudson’s Bay Company pursued agriculture on the Pacific Coast for two very practical reasons. One was to cut the costs of transporting necessities from England and from the base on Hudson’s Bay, the second was to firmly establish the British presence in the Oregon Territory. In time, with the right conditions, some of their endeavors paid off with surpluses available for sale.
But, while the development of this agriculture frontier was steady, it was by no means easy. Poor soil, periodic flooding, insects, animal diseases, extreme climatic variations from year to year, and the problems of clearing huge stands of trees and thick vegetation combined with indifferent management, primitive farming techniques and technology, and insufficient financial support from the center; the result was poor production. Even this region, with its lush growth and relatively mild climate, was not ideal for farming. Moreover, all agricultural settlements on the coast suffered from the perennial problem of agriculture everywhere — the shortage of cheap, skilled labour. In short, what Gibson has produced is a detailed description of the principles, practices, and problems associated with most of early nineteenth century North American agriculture.
Whatever the pitfalls farming experienced, progress continued, though sometimes at an imperceptible pace. Yet the HBC’s efforts were in vain, as unrelenting American settlers slowly pushed the British northward and the reality was formalized in the 1846 settlement. Nevertheless, the experience in the Pacific Northwest no doubt helped prepare the Company of Adventurers for its successful transition to a holder and developer of land after the demise of the fur trade in the second half of the nineteenth century.