When Indigenous People Get Written Out of History

The Hudson’s Bay Company never had all the power.

Peter Stanton
7 min readMar 13, 2024

Everyone should know that Native peoples have often been written out of history.

(And by “history,” I mean the mainstream narratives of the past typically written by white professional historians in wealthy countries.)

I am someone who is especially aware of how Native people have been discounted in historical narratives. After all, I’ve started fights on Instagram about the historical power of Indigenous nations, I promote the use of Indigenous place names in my community, and I’m writing a book about the nineteenth-century history of the Lingít (Tlingit) nation. Not to mention, I teach about Indigenous perspectives in my high school history classes all the time.

But, even for someone like me who is well aware of the many ways history has been skewed, it can still be shocking for me to read books that completely dismiss or ignore the power and actions of Native peoples.

Such was the case when I read John S. Galbraith’s book, The Hudson’s Bay Company as an Imperial Factor, 1821–1869.

title page of John S. Galbraith’s book “The Hudson’s Bay Company as an Imperial Factor, 1821–1869”

I checked out Galbraith’s book through an interlibrary loan provided by the amazing University of Alaska Southeast Ketchikan Campus Library. (Everyone in Ketchikan can and should get a library card there.) And, I’m very glad I checked out the book: I had seen it cited in other sources, and I knew it would give me a ton of great details on the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which it did.

However, I was shocked by how Galbraith could describe the actions of the Hudson’s Bay Company during this time period in such detail, and then completely write off the roles Indigenous people played in those actions.

Given that it addresses the time period of 1821–1869, I would say Galbraith’s book covers the “mid- to late” period of the fur trade in northwestern North America. The bonanza of the trans-Pacific fur trade, when ships of many nations came to the Northwest Coast for furs to sell in China, began in the 1780s, but after 1821, the Hudson’s Bay Company moved to consolidate control over much of the fur trade in the region.

Native nations in northwestern North America gained a great deal of wealth for themselves trading furs to Europeans and Americans during both the early and middle periods of this fur trade.

For Galbraith, however, the pivotal roles Indigenous people played in the fur trade—as hunters, trappers, suppliers, sellers, middlemen, and even monopolists—are an afterthought, or just an obvious assumption that does merit any mention or analysis. Of course Native people would supply the furs if Europeans were buying them! There’s nothing more to add.

In Galbraith’s story, the wealth Native people gained through the fur trade deserves only passing reference. For Galbraith, the high earnings Native people received for furs, especially during the 1820s and 1830s, were only the result of “high prices produced by competition” between the British, Russians, and Americans fighting price wars to control the fur trade. Galbraith does not consider for a moment that these were high prices Native people constantly pushed for themselves, and that Native people actively exploited the fact that different groups of outsiders were competing for the furs they had to sell.

The term historians use for this concept is “agency”: How much power does a person or group of people have to make decisions and change history? When we recognize that people have agency, we recognize that everyone has at least some ability to make decisions, and everyone has at least some power to influence the course of events. In Galbraith’s book, essentially the only people who are written about as having agency are ship captains, company officials, and people in the British, Russian, and American governments. Native people have no agency at all.

Of course, I would never claim that the Hudson’s Bay Company, Russian-American Company, and people in the British, Russian, and American governments did not have a great deal of power, and that their decisions did not have major impacts on the history of northwestern North America. They certainly did. However, it should be just as ridiculous to suggest that the Indigenous inhabitants of northwestern North America—the people who made up the vast majority of the population and continued to control most of the region and its resources—did not have a great deal of power as well, and that their decisions did not impact this history.

That’s what Galbraith seems to suggest: The actions of Native people did not matter, or they were simply the automatic result of decisions made by outsiders. It was only European and American higher-ups who changed history, and everything Natives did was because of white people’s choices.

In 1839, when the Hudson’s Bay Company had largely pushed the Americans out of the fur trade, and made a deal with the Russian-American Company, Galbraith claims that the British company then had a monopoly on the region’s furs. He claims the Hudson’s Bay Company could “accustom the Indians to more modest returns for their furs” and that “the days of luxurious living had ended for the coastal Indians” (156).

This map from the awesome website Omniatlas shows northwestern North America around the year 1846, portraying the limited presence and control of the Hudson’s Bay Company and British government in pink.

Again, Galbraith assigns all the agency to the British officials and their company’s decisions. They are always in the driver’s seat. Because they had driven off the Americans and neutralized the Russians, they could seemingly dictate to the Natives whatever fur prices they wanted.

However, this history is not so simple. Even if the British did have more leverage because they became the only foreign buyers in much of the region, that did not mean that Natives had no choices and couldn’t do anything to fight back.

As much as he writes about the Hudson’s Bay Company having a monopoly after 1839, Galbraith does not fully acknowledge that the Lingít (Tlingit) continued to maintain their own monopolies over interior trade routes. He does refer to how “coastal Indians” were “middlemen” between the interior and the coast, and how it became an objective of the Hudson’s Bay Company to build trading posts in the interior to “intercept” these furs.

But, Galbraith refuses to tell the full story. After he mentions the British establishing new trade posts in the interior to cut off the flow of furs to the “coastal Indians,” he somehow neglects to mention how this effort actually failed. He fails to mention how the Shtax’héen Ḵwáan (Stikine) Lingít destroyed the British post at Dease Lake in 1839, and how Jilḵaat Ḵwáan (Chilkat) G̱aanax̱teidí destroyed Fort Selkirk in 1852. The British never had a monopoly on furs from the interior lands of the Tahltan, Tagish, or Tutchone nations. That was the Lingít.

Not to mention, the Lingít continued to push the Hudson’s Bay Company on fur prices, even after the American competition had left and the Russians were collaborating with the British. You can read or listen to more details about this history in my article “Between Three Empires.”

Also note that, throughout his long book, Galbraith refuses to refer to any of the nations of the Northwest Coast by name. I never saw the words “Haida,” “Tlingit,” or “Tsimshian” anywhere in the book, or the names of any of the nations to the south. I did see the name “Kolosh” (the Russian name for the Lingít) in a quote from a Russian source, but Galbraith didn’t even bother to explain the meaning of this name to his readers. He also referred once or twice to the “Stikine Indians,” but in general he was perfectly content to refer to the “coastal Indians” and the “Indians of the interior.” That seems to be the only distinction he thought mattered.

Now, some people may go back and look at the picture of the book’s title page that I posted and say, “Hey, I get what you’re saying, but that book was published in 1957! That was a different time!

Yeah, 1957 was a different time, and it was a time when historians like John S. Galbraith made conscious decisions to diminish and dismiss the historical power and actions of Indigenous peoples. It’s also worth saying that, as far away as 1957 may be from us now, history books published in 1957 went on to influence generations of historians, teachers, and students, most of whom are still alive today.

Yes, 1957 was a different time, but it was not as if Galbraith didn’t have all the historical evidence he needed in 1957 to write a different book with different portrayals of Indigenous peoples’ power. In all the historical sources that Galbraith used for his book—the logbooks, company records, letters from traders, and so on—the British, Russians, and Americans who experienced this history firsthand wrote openly about how Natives drove hard bargains, withheld their furs from trade, demanded the highest prices and the best goods possible, and even used coercion and threats of violence to gain advantages over outsiders. And British officials certainly wrote about how their posts in the interior were destroyed by the Lingít. How could they not?

But Galbraith, for whatever reason, chose not to write about those actions. He chose to write about European and American officials as virtually the only relevant historical actors—the only people with agency. He chose to write Native people out of history.

So, using my own agency, what am I going to do? Well, you can bet that I’m going to keep writing and teaching about history in the most fair and balanced ways that I can, always trying to portray the power and perspectives of all the people of the past.

My efforts won’t be perfect, and perhaps historians of the future will need to correct some of the things I’ve written and taught. But, what I can say is that Indigenous peoples have been ignored and discounted in our dominant historical narratives for far, far too long. I’ll keep doing my best to fight that legacy.

Please leave a comment below with your thoughts!



Peter Stanton

I’m an Alaskan history teacher in Ketchikan writing a book on the Tlingit 19th century. I also write regularly about language, reading, travel, and politics.