, Research Paper
The Evolution of the Fur Trade and The Lewis and Clark Expedition (essay D & E)
Charles Goodyear began his experiments with rubber in his early years simply trying to make a living. With despairing results, he continued his experiments through jail, poverty, mockery, and hunger. However, one February afternoon while showing off his latest formula, his persistence paid off. Completely by coincidence, a piece of his rubber concoction landed on a nearby wood stove. When Goodyear bent to retrieve it, he found that instead of melting in the heat as all his earlier samples had, the rubber had charred like leather and become weatherproof. Thus, vulcanized rubber was invented. In a similar manner, the founders of the fur trade, setting out on an expedition to conclusively find what is now Alaska, stumbled upon the region s richest and most promising enterprise which would lay the foundation for the expansion and settlement of the Pacific Northwest.
Commissioned by the Russian government, the St. Peter, captained by Vitus Bering, and the St. Paul, captained by Aleksei Chirikov, set sail from the Siberian coast in the summer of 1741. Just as fog had spoiled Bering s earlier exploration of 1728, bad weather again paid the two ships a visit, separating them. Both ships continued in an eastward direction, and in July, both ships sighted southern Alaska. While Chirikov and his crew returned safely that October, the crew of the St. Peter were not so lucky. After wrecking off the coast of Siberia and losing most of the crew, the survivors didn t return home until almost six months later. The importance of the event, however, lies not in the journey, or even the exploration of Alaska, but in the precious cargo these ships brought back. Bering s and Chirikov s crews brought back many
pelts, including over 800 sea otter pelts. These pelts, highly prized and sought after in China, brought in a tremendous profit. As the promising fortune that the pelts could bring in was realized by the Russians, many trips were outfitted to the Alaska area to bring back pelts, mainly of the sea otter. And thus began the foundation of fur trade in Alaska. The fur trade era had begun, but the boom was yet to come. Russia controlled the Alaskan seas uncontested for many years, and the profitable fur trade remained a tightly kept secret until the 1770 s. While the Spanish were the first to pose a threat, the British and Americans would prove to be a great menace.
While Spain was concerned with the southern expansion of Alaska from the Russians, the British James Cook with his ships, the Discovery and the Resolution, sailed in from the south to explore the west coast and look for the Northwest Passage. While at Vancouver Island, Cook s crew purchased 1500 sea otter pelts to use as clothing for their journey. However, to their amazement, what they bought for relatively nothing sold for exorbitant amounts in China. Cook s discovery of the wealth that lie in the sea otter pelts began the boom in the industry and paved the way for many more British and American traders. In 1790, after much war and fighting, the English and Americans were guaranteed trade rights along the western coast. As the Spanish receded their claims in the Pacific Northwest, the English and Americans began to move south. As time went on, the British and Americans continued to lay claim to territories, and fortune-seeking fur traders began to surface. In 1791, George Vancouver was sent by the British to enforce trading agreements. He was the first European to explore the Puget Sound, chart the Inside Passage, and see Mt. Foraker and Mt. McKinley. In 1792, Robert Gray, a businessman and fur trader, discovered the Columbia River in search of natives and Indians to trade with. Yet the idea of exploration and claiming land for America was but an afterthought to most traders.
The fur trade, ignited by exploration and the desire for a new land, also resulted in the expansion of claims in the Pacific Northwest and drove the traders to continue to press the boundaries and search out new lands and new fortunes. However, not all explorations were for profit and personal gain; some had more nationalistic ambitions in mind. Such as Thomas Jefferson who dispatched the Lewis and Clark expeditions in 1804 to 1806.
The Lewis and Clark expedition, the first major federal exploration of the West, marked somewhat of a turning point in the nature of Pacific Northwest exploration. Their predecessors, mountain men, fur traders, and other immigrants looking for the promise the West held, also accumulated knowledge of the West, the inhabitants, and the trade. However, this compilation of data as for personal gain and used only for their profitable interest. The expedition of Lewis and Clark served not only to gather the facts and experiences of the their travels, but to publicize them and make them available to the general public. Jefferson was greatly interested in the West as his personal library at Monticello demonstrated, containing the largest amount of books on the subject. When Congress agreed to support the mission in February of 1803, Jefferson was ecstatic, and worked out the details of the mission. Many scholars believe that even before Jefferson was president, he had already concocted the idea and thought through many of his plans and objectives. With the Louisiana Purchase of the Louisiana Territory from the French in that following April, the expedition changed from a somewhat covert mission across potential enemy lands, to a courageous journey into uncharted territory. Jefferson was interested in mapping the area, the exploration and gathering of information on water routes for future trade, information on the Indians and inhabitants, their rituals, languages, lifestyles, and the possibilities for trade. Lewis and Clark s cataloging and recording of all their information was an incredible feat. Their journey was precisely mapped and described in detail, from where they camped to what they ate,
the lay of the land to who they met. They made relations with the Aridaras, Hidatsas, Mandan, and Chinook Indian tribes. Lewis and Clark went to the West seeking what most preceeding
Europeans had: Indian allies and trade. Jefferson s expectations for the expedition were precisely followed, making information on much of the West available to the common man.
Lewis and Clarks expedition along the Missouri, over the mountains, and along the Columbia to its mouth at the Pacific, opened up not only the overland exploration of the West, but also the minds of future explorers. The expeditions of Lewis and Clark disproved the idea of a Northwest Passage. As the fog of the nonexistent lifted, the exploration for what the West really held could commence. The overland approach also opened up further exploration and allowed it to move from the salt water to land. In the same way, the fur trade also moved inland to include beaver and buffalo with the decreasing numbers of sea otters. Many followed in Lewis and Clark s tracks such as John Jacob Astor. Astor was a New York business man with the Pacific Fur Company and the founder of the trading post at Astoria as well as many others. Many Astorians also later traveled eastward, following a path which would later become the Oregon Trail.
Lewis and Clark s expedition was not only significant to the exploration of the West, but the destiny of the nation. Without the information they made available, the exploration and settlement of the Pacific Northwest would have been severely retarded. Their travels lead the way for many to follow, settle, explore, and expand the region in which we live in today.