Wednesday, August 28, 2013

More on Nez Perce gardens and fur traders



I argued against missionary Spalding as the original source of Wallowa Nez Perce gardens in my last blog post, went on a laborious journey through Spokane House, Spokane Garry, the Church of England, and the fur trade as alternative sources of seeds and irrigation techniques. And then got onto the thought that this all happened with people and players—Hudson’s Bay, the North West Fur Company, David Thompson—who end up being on the Canadian side of history, so do not get attention in standard USA history books.

I think that last line is quite true, but my circuitous argument about Spokane Garry and his time at the Red River School under the Anglicans probably was too much. Friend and long-time historian of the fur trade John Jackson—Children of the Fur Trade—made it all simpler in a brief response to my post:

“The curmudgeon can’t resist pointing out that the early Nor’westers tried planting gardens at places they passed, just in hope something might grow.  I think David Thompson even put in some peas, turnips, and barley at the Tobacco Plains on the Kootenay River by 1809 or so. That surely was before Presbyterians at Walla Walla, and Methodists didn’t plant anything until they got to fine land claims in the Willamette Valley. 

“Gardening is just a step away from digging roots and tribeswomen were imaginative.  The Astorians were not very pleased with the gardens on the lower river but seeds could have found their way upstream.  Tribes may have been growing corn or tobacco, although I can’t recall seeing any reference to seeds from the HBC [Hudson’s Bay Company] or NWC [North West Company].  Jack Nisbet [author of Sources of the River, a chronicle of Nisbet’s attempt to follow David Thompson’s travels across Western North America to the Pacific] has some comments on growing tobacco if I recall correctly.”

How right that all sounds. Tobacco was a common trade good, and there is nothing like an addictive crop to spur opportunistic gardening in the territory. And those fur traders returned to their posts again and again—even ones built hastily when they ran out of travel season and hunkered for a winter, so a bit of tobacco or some spuds or turnips planted in spring would be welcome in a fall return to old posts and places.

And ships—Russian, English, Spanish, and French—traveled the Pacific Coast long before missionaries and white settlers came overland. A smallpox epidemic, which probably arrived by sea, killed 30 percent of the indigenous population of what we now call the Pacific Northwest in the 1770s. Seeds surely could have traveled the same routes. And once ashore, might have made it to the big fishing and trading grounds at Celilo along with the dentalia so popular in Indian adornment. And from Celilo—anywhere!

So my Jackson informed guesses are: 1. that the Nez Perce gardens on the Grand Ronde River owed somehow to the fur traders; 2. that missionaries kept more notes and diaries than did fur traders—and were better marketers of their exploits; how central Whitmans and Spaldings are to the standard Northwest narrative; 3. that Indian trade networks were extensive and that goods moved up and down the Columbia and across the West way before the Whitmans and Spaldings--so seeds and gardening knowledge were traveling in many directions by the time of the Ws and Ss; and 4. that in this case as in many others we neglect the people and events that were important in their time in the Oregon Territory, but ended up on the Canadian side of the narrative of North American history. 

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