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Scots and the Fur Trade

Scots and the Fur Trade in North America

The Scots dominated the nineteenth-century fur trade. When John Jacob Astor founded his American Fur Company in 1800, he hired away six disgruntled employees from the North West Company; all were Scots. A later defector from the North West Company, the Paris-educated Robert Stuart, eventually became Astor’s business partner. In 1812 an English traveler ventured onto the Great Plains and met a party of five fur trappers; the Scots outnumbered the French by three to two. The fur trade along the south Atlantic coast was largely controlled by two firms - Panton, Leslie and Company and John Forbes and Company - almost every member of which was born either in Aberdeenshire or in towns bordering the Moray Firth.

In many of these fur-trade enterprises, kinship ties proved far more enduring than company loyalties. Historian James Hunter has described the North West Fur Company as a unique combination of business enterprise and extended family of the Highland type. There were so many Highlanders in the HBC that Lowland employees complained that the lack of a clan name led to discrimination in promotion. The common language was often Gaelic. Because their chief loyalty had been to clan, Scots traders could shift from company to company or from nation to nation as circumstances warranted. For example, in the early 1790s James Mackay moved from British Canada to St. Louis, becoming a Spanish citizen, so as to better engage in the fur trade. Similarly, a generation later Ramsay Crooks from Greenock, Scotland, moved from Montreal to St. Louis, becoming an American citizen, so as to manage the American Fur Company. The St. Louis—based firm Sublette and Campbell, the only serious rival of the American Fur Company, was run with equal skill from 1836 to 1842 by Tyrone, Northern Ireland—born Robert Campbell. Angus MacDonald from the Isle of Skye entered the service of the HBC in 1838 and proved so skillful in obtaining Indian furs that in 1852 he was appointed head of the extensive Colville district, including all traditional posts north of Walla Walla, Washington, far into British Columbia. MacDonald held this position until 1871, when the HBC finally gave up its last posts in the United States, and lived the rest of his life as an American in Montana Territory.

On one occasion, John McDonald of the Canadian North West Company was discussing the fur trade with Alexander Ross, then employed by the American Fur Company. "The Americans have been very enterprising," McDonald commented. "We are called Americans," said Ross, "but there were very few Americans among us—we were all Scotchmen like yourselves."

During their heyday the Scots fur traders amassed incredible power. James Kirker was once termed "the king of New Mexico." Dr.John McLoughlin, chief factor of the HBC in Oregon, lived in regal splendor with a piper who welcomed guests. George Simpson of the HBC took a piper with him whenever he went on an inspection tour. Kenneth McKenzie, who founded Fort Union on the Upper Missouri, presided over a larger territory than many a European monarch.

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