Fur Trade Correspondence

Why does this document exist?

When the North West Company established Fort Alexandria in 1821, it began a correspondence with the partners in Montreal, reporting on the operations of the post and noting that to the west in Tsilhqot’in territory there was a rich supply of furs. The correspondence which survives is spotty, however, until 1824 when the NW Co. merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The Hudson’s Bay Company was incorporated back in 1670, one of the first corporations in the world, and so had perfected a system of communication with the far-flung fur trade posts. Unlike the NW Co., it had a centralized command structure and efficient record-keeping, and so more records survive from this era.

The Hudson’s Bay Company required that each Chief Trader or Factor keep a daily journal recording the various events of the post. A copy of this was sent annually, with the furs collected each year, to London. Correspondence was sent regularly between posts and to the North American governor in Winnipeg to keep the company up to date not only on matters relating to the trade but also their private lives.

Why would we use this source?

The fur trade journals and correspondence provide a detailed record of what interested the Chief Traders, which included furs traded, work accomplished, discipline meted out and weather. It is also the earliest written record that exists about many Aboriginal Peoples. The traders depended on the native people to supply furs and so cultivated good relations with them. Often the traders married daughters of prominent Aboriginal leaders to gain some female companionship and cement good relations. Sometimes they learned the local languages, and if not, had local interpreters who could help provide information. The traders’ accounts were biased by their interest in getting the maximum furs, their Euro-centrism and their masculinity, but through all these cultural filters there is much to learn about Aboriginal People in the early days of their contact with Europeans and about relations between the two peoples.

How do we find and use this source?

The records of the Hudson’s Bay Company are located at the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, which are now part of the Provincial Archives of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Many of these have been microfilmed and are available by interlibrary loan to your local library. The Fort Alexandria journals and the Fort Chilcotin post records are available there.

The finding aid to these records is at

The letters relating to Fort Chilcotin on this website are available at the Provincial Archives of B.C. in File MM/C43, Miscellaneous Records Relating to Fort Chilcotin.

There have been some excellent studies of the fur trade journals and correspondence. See for example, Elizabeth Vibert, Traders' Tales: Narratives of Cultural Encounters in the Columbia Plateau, 1807-1846 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997) and Mary Black-Rogers, "Varieties of 'Starving': Semantics and Survival in the Subarctic Fur Trade, 1750-1850," Ethnohistory, 33(4) (Fall 1986): 353-383.