The first white settlement on Puget Sound, Hudson’s Bay Company’s (HBC’s) Fort Nisqually functioned as a vital communications, banking, and shipping center, as well as a commodities and livestock broker, annually exporting tons of hides and produce. The newest book from Washington State University (WSU) Press, William F. Tolmie at Fort Nisqually: Letters, 1850–1853, makes rare mid-1800s primary source material available to a broad audience.
In 1818 a treaty opened the land between today’s California and Alaska, the Pacific Ocean, and the Rocky Mountains for “joint occupancy,” allowing Canadian and United States (US) settlers to homestead in Oregon Country. HBC maintained operations in today’s Washington, Idaho, and Oregon in the US, and British Columbia in Canada. Scottish-born HBC Chief Trader William Fraser Tolmie took charge of Fort Nisqually and its outstations in 1843. By then their Puget Sound holdings had amassed over 12,000 head of sheep, 10,000 head of cattle, and 600 horses and oxen. Their possessions at the Nisqually fur trading post covered 252 square miles—roughly the western half of present-day Pierce County, including downtown Tacoma.
However, the International Boundary Treaty of 1846 between Great Britain and the US spawned myriad legal and regulatory problems and, by 1850, HBC agents, government officials, and settlers disagreed over numerous issues, many detailed in Fort Nisqually’s hand-written letter books. In 2006, Steve A. Anderson discovered the volumes at the HBC Archives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Recognizing their importance, he transcribed several from the period spanning January 1850 to the threshold of Puget Sound’s Indian War. It was not an easy task. Tolmie did not pen them as historical records. Anderson acquired some as a single page, and others en masse, as they were originally entered in ledger books. Then he had to decipher the linguistic diversity of the region’s mid-19th century inhabitants.
“The discovery of Tolmie’s letters changed everything,” Anderson says. They offer privileged, private conversations, weighty business discussions, gossip, political intrigue, patterns of commerce, deadly epidemics, and an eyewitness account of San Francisco’s devastating fire. The documents—more than 400 total—also present a rare British perspective on the state of law and international affairs in 1850s Puget Sound, a glimpse of higher-level business operations, and insight into conflicts that followed the 1846 treaty.
Steve A. Anderson managed the Fort Nisqually Living History Museum for ten years. He has published multiple journal articles and books, including Angus McDonald of the Great Divide: The Uncommon Life of a Fur Trader, 1816–1899.
William F. Tolmie at Fort Nisqually is paperback, 7″ x 10″, 302 pages in length, and lists for $34.95. It is available through bookstores nationwide, direct from WSU Press at 800-354-7360, or online at wsupress.wsu.edu. A nonprofit academic publisher associated with Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, WSU Press concentrates on telling unique, focused stories of the Northwest.Print This Post