From the heart-wrenching drama of Outlander to the dark and gritty Taboo, it seems that we're in a golden era for historical dramas. Released earlier this year, Netflix's Frontier takes full advantage of the of this new-found love for period dramas in its depiction of the North American fur trade in the late 18th century. According to series executive producer Allan Hawco, Frontier is a "dramatic historical fiction" that draws heavily from a "history of colonialism".
While Jason Momoa's Declan Harp takes the lead in Frontier, the history of the fur trade almost becomes a character in its own right. From the various companies engaged in the competitive — and often aggressively cruel — fur trade, to the Canadian indigenous tribes and the show's main locations, here is the truth that lies behind Frontier's fiction.
The North American Fur Trade
The trading of animal fur was, for centuries, the main economic activity in North America, prompting fierce competition between the French, British, Spanish, Dutch and even Russians until 1670. This was the year when the Hudson Bay Company was incorporated by a British Royal Charter — taking over the reigns from Hudson Bay. Frontier focuses on the later half of the 18th century, just as the French, Scottish and American traders and companies struggled to break HBC's monopoly over the fur trading business.
The Fur Trading Companies
The HBC (Hudson Bay Company) controls the majority of fur commerce when Frontier takes off, but some other smaller companies slowly begin to get their own slice of the pie. The North West Co. and the Brown Bros. are two such companies and, while the latter is a fictional one (at least as far as fur trading is concerned), the North West Company actually existed.
Created by a group of Montreal-based traders, the North West Company aimed to break the stranglehold that the HBC had on the North American fur trade. The company was successful in taking over some of HBC's trading posts, but following intensifying hostilities between North West and HBC, the two companies merged in the early 1800s.
Declan Harp might be a fictional character created for Frontier, but many real-life fur traders may have inspired Jason Momoa's performance. According to Momoa himself though, he didn't focus singularly on fur traders when looking for inspiration for his character. Instead, his portrayal of Harp was heavily inspired by Momoa's own experience as a father and "what he would do" if he had to face Harp's losses.
The Canadian Indigenous communities also played a part in the fur trade, both in Frontier and in real life. Series's producer Allan Hawco credits Frontier to the recent efforts of the Canadians to reconcile with these communities. According to him, "twenty years ago it'd be a white person's show. It'd be the trials and tribulations of the Europeans". As it is, the First Nations and their participation in the Canadian fur trade feature heavily in Frontier — with Declan Harp acting as their half-breed Cree middleman.
Aside from following Declan Harp in his expeditions inland to broker deals with the First Nations, Frontier's main location is the fictional Fort James. From there, the almighty HBC controls its fur trading business, the shipping to and from England, and all the fort's traffic. While a Fort St. James exists in Canada, it wasn't used by the HBC until it merged with North West — way into the 19th century.
The HBC had control of the Hudson Bay, but it was the original trading post's job to assert that control. In its early years, the HBC built six posts around the Hudson Bay, of which York Factory seems a more likely candidate for the fictional Fort James. The York Factory was the second post to be built by the HBC, and it would serve as their headquarters from the 17th to the 19th century.
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Netflix's Frontier is a great example why period dramas are so successful on TV; it features a fair amount of history entwined with a light and entertaining narrative — plus, Jason Momoa's best performance to date.The show's six episodes offer but a glimpse of the intricate and violent history of the North America fur trade, but the good news is Frontier has been renewed for a second season even before the first premiered. So, be sure to catch up with Declan Harp, his Cree friends and their endeavour to destroy the HBC before #FrontierSeason2 debuts.
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