The westward movement of Americans in the 19th century was one of the largest and most consequential migrations in history, and among the paths that blazed west, the most well-known is the Oregon Trail, which was not a single trail but a network of paths that began at one of four “jumping off” points. The eastern section of the Oregon Trail, which followed the Missouri River through Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming, was shared by people traveling along the California, Bozeman, and Mormon Trails. These trails branched off at various points, and the California Trail diverged from the Oregon Trail at Fort Hall in southern Idaho. From there, the Oregon Trail moved northward, along the Snake River, then through the Blue Mountains to Fort Walla Walla. From there, travelers would cross the prairie before reaching the Methodist mission at The Dalles, which roughly marked the end of the Trail.
The fur industry was by extension the face of every world power pursuing a stake in the West, and the rivalries were ruthless. The Mexican border during this era lay far north of its present position, and the Canadian border was as yet nonexistent, pending the outcome of competing British, American, Russian and Spanish interests. Despite the American outpost established early at the mouth of the Columbia River in what would become Astoria, Britain ruled as the preeminent military power in the region. That authority was evident in the vast Hudson’s Bay Company, which imposed its own judicial structure wherever it went, on land or by sea. The Americans responded with rival companies operating out of the Midwest and traveling over Lewis and Clark’s original route.
Among the most prodigious and influential personalities to emerge from that protracted battle was Peter Skene Ogden, a Canadian fur trader and explorer. As a zealous member of Canada’s North West Fur Company, his vicious campaign against Hudson’s Bay Company members marked him as one of the most dangerous personalities on the continent, unpredictable and capable of the lowest tactics for unseating the great British power. So talented was Ogden that when the rivals finally merged in the following decade, he rose to the top echelons of his greatest rival’s industry.
During that period, he traveled the continent in several extensive expeditions, and with the solidification of the American-Canadian border, well to the north of what was originally anticipated, it was Ogden the negotiator who held Russia at bay in the Alaskan country. More than any other individual, Ogden spent years shaping the international dynamics of the beaver fur trade, “continental in reach, [and in] rapacious competition for wealth”, yet no comprehensive biography has been produced for a man who not only served as a central catalyst for a continent but did so in such a colorful manner. As a youth, he was known as “a brawling North Wester” who was likely to commit even capital crimes in pursuit of the slightest advantage, and in the end Ogden took his place as one of the “great captains of industry”.With his newfound prestige came an apparent softening of his former hatred for the Native Americans, and even claims that he had converted adversarial relationships into productive (if not lasting) friendships. Whether or not such suggestions are true, Ogden eventually traded in his youthful flair for intimidation for the edifice of a wise and irreplaceable man of industry.
Peter Skene Ogden: The Controversial Life and Legacy of the Canadian Fur Trader Who Explored the Pacific Northwest looks at the turbulent career of the man who greatly influenced the frontier in the early 19th century. You will learn about Ogden like never before.