Fur traders and merchant ships crossing the Pacific needed to replenish food supplies and water. The maritime fur trade focused on acquiring furs of sea otters, seals and other animals from the Pacific Northwest Coast and Alaska.
The furs were mostly sold in China in exchange for tea, silks, porcelain and other Chinese goods, which were then sold in Europe and the United States.
Needing supplies in their journey, the traders soon realized they could economically barter for provisions in Hawai‘i; for instance any type of iron, a common nail, chisel or knife, could fetch far more fresh fruit meat and water than a large sum of money would in other ports.
A triangular trade network emerged linking the Pacific Northwest coast, China and the Hawaiian Islands to Britain and the United States (especially New England).
Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was a fur trading company that started in Canada in 1670; its first century of operation found HBC firmly focused in a few forts and posts around the shores of James and Hudson Bays, Central Canada.
As early as 1811, HBC had already hired twelve Hawaiians on three year contracts to work for them in the Pacific Northwest. By 1824, HBC employed thirty-five Hawaiians west of the Rocky Mountains.
“(Y)oung Hawaiian males left Hawai’i as workers on whaling ships and traveled to China, Europe, Mexico, and the U.S. mainland. In addition, many ventured into the Pacific Northwest territory, worked in the fur trade, and ended up settling in those areas.” (pbs-org)
Ships sailed from London around Cape Horn around South America and then to forts and posts along the Pacific Coast via the Hawaiian Islands. Trappers crossing overland faced a journey of 2,000 miles that took three months.
On January 21, 1829 the Hudson’s Bay Company schooner ‘Cadboro’ arrived at Honolulu from Fort Vancouver with a small shipment of poles and sawn lumber. Another goal of the trip was to recruit Hawaiians for HBC operations on the Northwest Coast.
One such recruit who later came from the Islands to work with the HBC was ‘Captain Cole’. Cole entered the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company at O‘ahu in 1840.
On the continent, ‘Captain Cole’ was witness to a killing.
“Just after midnight on April 21, 1842, John McLoughlin, Jr – the chief trader for the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Stikine (situated at what is now Wrangell on the Alaska panhandle), in the northwest corner of the territory that would later become British Columbia – was shot to death by his own men.”
“The men were known to have disliked McLoughlin and some had threatened to kill him, but the company’s governor, Sir George Simpson, relied on their accounts of the incident to conclude that the murder was a matter of self-defense”.
They claimed it was “their only means of stopping the violent rampage of their drunk and abusive leader. Sir George Simpson, the HBC’s Overseas Governor, took the men of Stikine at their word, and the Company closed the book on the matter.” (Komar)
It is estimated that by 1844 between 300 and 400 Hawaiians were in HBC service in the Pacific Northwest, both in vessels and at posts.
Journal entries in early 1848 identify Cole as “Captian Cole,” but in later entries for 1848 and 1849 he is simply referred to as “Cole.” He was posted to Fort Stikine in the Columbia District as a ‘midman,’ middleman, from 1841-1843.
Cole continued in service to the HBC until November 23, 1844, when he returned to Honolulu. He re-enlisted in 1847, serving as a laborer at Fort Victoria (1847-1849) and Fort Rupert (1849-1850), where he died of tuberculosis on March 12, 1850. (Fort Victoria Journal)