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The Passing of the Fur Lords

When Astoria passed to the Nor'westers, with it came, as we shall see, an opportunity of acquiring for Great Britain the whole of the vast region west of the Rockies, including California and Alaska. Gray's feat in finding the mouth of the Columbia, and the explorations of Lewis and Clark overland to the same river, gave the United States possession of a part of this territory by right of discovery; but this possession was practically superseded by the transfer of Astor's fort to the British Canadian Company. Yet, today, we find Britain not in possession of California, not in possession of the region round the mouth of the Columbia, not in possession of Alaska. The reason for this will appear presently.

The Treaty of Ghent which closed the War of 1812 made no mention of the boundaries of Oregon, but it provided that any territory captured by either nation in the course of the war should be restored to the original owner. The question then arose: did this clause in the treaty apply to Astoria? Was the taking over of the fur post by the British company in reality an act of war? The United States said Yes; Great Britain said No; and both nations claimed sovereignty over Oregon. In 1818 a provisional agreement was reached, under which either nation might trade and establish settlements in the disputed territory. But it was now utterly impossible for Astor to prosecute the fur trade on the Pacific. The 'Bostonnais' had lost prestige with the Indians when the Tonquin sank off Clayoquot, and the more experienced British and Canadian traders were in control of the field. At this time the Hudson's Bay Company and the Nor'westers were waging the trade war that terminated in their union in 18201821; and when the united companies came to assign officers to the different districts, John M'Loughlin, who had been a partner in the North West Company, was sent overland to rule Oregon.

What did Oregon comprise? At that time no man knew; but within ten years after his arrival in 1824 M'Loughlin had sent out hunting brigades, consisting of two or three hundred horsemen, in all directions: east, under

John M'loughlin
Photographed by Savannah from an original painting

Alexander Ross, as far as Montana and Idaho; south, under Peter Skene Ogden, as far as Utah and Nevada and California; along the coast south as far as Monterey, under Tom Mackay, whose father had been murdered on the Tonquin and whose widowed mother had married M'Loughlin; north, through New Caledonia, under James Douglas - 'Black Douglas ' they called the dignified, swarthy young Scotsman who later held supreme rule on the North Pacific as Sir James Douglas, the first governor of British Columbia. If one were to take a map of M'Loughlin's transmontane empire and lay it across the face of a map of Europe, it would cover the continent from St Petersburg to Madrid.

The ruler of this vast domain was one of the noblest men in the annals of the fur trade. John M'Loughlin was a Canadian, born at Riviere du Loup, and he had studied medicine in Edinburgh. The Indians called him 'White Eagle,' from his long, snow white hair and aquiline features. When M'Loughlin reached Oregon - by canoe two thousand miles to the Rockies, by packhorse and canoe another seven hundred miles south to the Columbia - two of the first things he saw were that Astoria, or Fort George, was too near the rum of trading schooners for the wellbeing of the Indians, and that it would be quite possible to raise food for his men on the spot, instead of transporting it over two watersheds and across the width of a continent. He at once moved the headquarters of the company from Astoria to a point on the north bank of the Columbia near the Willamette, where he erected Fort Vancouver. Then he sent his men overland to the Spaniards of Lower California to purchase seed wheat and stock to begin farming in Oregon in order to provision the company's posts and brigades. It was about the time that his wheat fields and orchards began to yield that some passing ocean traveler asked him: 'Do you think this country will ever be settled? ' 'Sir,' answered M'Loughlin, emphasizing his words by thumping his gold headed cane on the floor, 'wherever wheat grows, men will go, and colonies will grow.' Afterwards, when he had to choose between loyalty to his company and saving the lives of thousands of American settlers who had come over the mountains destitute, these words of his were quoted against him. He had, according to the directors of the company, favored settlement rather than the fur trade.

Fort Vancouver
From a print in the John Ross Robertson Collection, Toronto Public Library

Meanwhile, M'Loughlin ruled in a sort of rude baronial splendor on the banks of the Columbia. The 'Big House,' as the Indians always called the governor's mansion, stood in the centre of a spacious courtyard surrounded by palisades twenty feet high, with huge brass padlocks on the entrance gates. Directly in front of the house two cannon were stationed, and piled up behind them ready for instant use were two pyramids of balls. Only officers of some rank dined in the Hall; and if visitors were present from coastal ships that ascended the river, Highland kilties stood behind the governor's chair playing the bagpipes. Towards autumn the southern and eastern brigades set out on their annual hunt in California, Nevada, Montana, and Idaho. Towards spring, when the upper rivers had cleared of ice, the northern brigades set out for the interior of New Caledonia. Nothing more picturesque was ever seen in the fur trade than these Oregon brigades. French Canadian hunters with their Indian wives would be gathered to the number of two hundred. Indian ponies fattened during the summer on the deep pasturage of the Willamette or the plains of Walla Walla would be brought in to the fort and furbished forth in gayest of trappings. Provisions would then be packed on their backs. An eager crowd of wives and sweethearts and children would dash out for a last goodbye. The governor would personally shake hands with every departing hunter. Then to bugle call the riders mounted their restive ponies, and the captain - Tom Mackay or Ogden or Ross - would lead the winding cavalcade into the defiles of mountain and forest, whence perhaps they would not emerge for a year and a half. Though the brigades numbered as many as two hundred men, they had to depend for food on the rifles of the hunters, except for flour and tobacco and bacon supplied at the fort. Once the brigade passed out of sight of the fort, the hunters usually dashed ahead to anticipate the stampeding of game by the long, noisy, slow moving line. Next to the hunters would come the old bell mare, her bell tinkling through the lonely silences. Far in the rear came the squaws and trappers. Going south, the aim was to reach the traverse of the deserts during winter, so that snow would be available for water. Going east, the aim was to cross the mountain passes before snowfall. Going north, the canoes must ascend the upper rivers before ice formed. But times without number trappers and hunters were caught in the desert without snow for water; or were blocked in the mountain passes by blizzards; or were wrecked by the ice cutting their canoes on the upper rivers. Innumerable place names commemorate the presence of humble trapper and hunter coursing the wilderness in the Oregon brigades. For example: Sublette's River, Payette's River, John Day's River, the Des Chutes, and many others. Indeed, many of the place names commemorate the deaths of lonely hunters in the desert. Crow and Blackfoot and Sioux Indians often raided the brigades when on the home trip loaded with peltry. One can readily believe that rival traders from the Missouri instigated some of these raids. There were years when, of two hundred hunters setting out, only forty or fifty returned; there were years when the Hudson's Bay brigades found snowbound, stormbound, starving American hunters, and as a price for food exacted every peltry in the packs; and there were years when rival American traders bribed every man in Ogden's brigade to desert.

The New Caledonia brigades set out by canoe - huge, long, cedar lined craft manned by fifty or even ninety men. These brigades were decked out gayest of all. Flags flew at the prow of each craft. Voyageurs adorned themselves with colored sashes and headbands, with tinkling bells attached to the buckskin fringe of trouser leg. Where the rivers narrowed to dark and shadowy canyons, the bagpipes would skirl out some Highland air, or the French voyageurs would strike up some song of the habitant, paddling and chanting in perfect rhythm, and sometimes beating time with their paddles on the gunwales. Leaders of the canoe brigades understood well the art of never permitting fear to enter the souls of their voyageurs. Where the route might be exposed to Indian raid, a regale of rum would be dealt out; and the captain would keep the men paddling so hard there was no time for thought of danger.

In course of time the northern brigades no longer attempted to ascend the entire way to the interior of New Caledonia by boat. Boats and canoes would be left on the Columbia at Fort Colville or at Fort Okanagan (both south of the present international boundary), and the rest of the trail would be pursued by pack horse. Kamloops became the great halfway house of these northbound brigades; and horses were left there to pasture on the high, dry plains, while fresh horses were taken to ascend the mountain trails. Fort St James on Stuart Lake became the chief post of New Caledonia. Here ruled young James Douglas, who had married the daughter of the chief factor William Connolly. Ordinarily, the fort on the blue alpine lake lay asleep like an August day; but on the occasion of a visit by the governor or the approach of a brigade, the drowsy post became a thing of life. Boom of cannon, firing of rifles, and skirling of bagpipes welcomed the long cavalcade. The captain of the brigade as he entered the fort usually wore a high and pompous beaver hat, a velvet cloak lined with red silk, and knee breeches with elaborate Spanish embossed leather leggings. All this show was, of course, for the purpose of impressing the Indians. Whether impressed or not, the Indians always counted the days to the wild riot of feasting and boat races and dog races and horse races that marked the arrival or departure of a brigade. New Caledonia, as we know, is now a part of Canada; but why does not the Union Jack float over the great region beyond the Rockies to the south - south of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the 49th parallel? Over all this territory British fur lords once held sway. California was in the limp fingers of Mexico, but the British traders were operating there, and had ample opportunity to secure it by purchase long before it passed to the United States in 1848. Sir George Simpson, the resident governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, advised the company to purchase it, but the directors in London could not see furs in the suggestion. Simpson would have gone further, and reached out the company's long arm to the islands of the Pacific and negotiated with the natives for permission to build a fort in Hawaii. James Douglas was for buying all Alaska from the Russians; but to the directors of the Hudson's Bay Company Alaska seemed as remote and as worthless as Siberia, so they contented themselves with leasing a narrow strip along the shore. Thus California, Alaska, and Hawaii might easily have become British territory; but the opportunity was lost, and they went to the United States. So, too, did the fine territory of Oregon, out of which three states were afterwards added to the American Union. But the history of Oregon is confused in a maze of politics, into which we cannot enter here. As we have seen, Bruno Heceta, acting for Spain, was the first mariner to sight the Columbia, and the American, Robert Gray, was the first to enter its mouth, thus proving Heceta's conjecture of a great river. Then for Great Britain came Vancouver and Broughton; then the Americans, Lewis and Clark and the Astorians; and finally Thompson, the British Nor'westers and the first man to explore the great river from its source to the sea. Then during the War of 18 12 the American post on the Columbia passed to the North West Company of Montreal; and if it had not been for the 'joint occupancy' agreement between Great Britain and the United States in 1818, Oregon would undoubtedly have remained British. But with the 'joint occupancy ' arrangement leaving sovereignty in dispute, M'Loughlin of Oregon knew well that in the end sovereignty would be established, as always, by settlement.

First came Jedediah Smith, the American fur trader, overland. He was robbed to the shirt on his back by Indians at the Umpqua River. There and then came the great choice to M'Loughlin - should he save the life of rivals, or leave them to be murdered by Indians? He sent Tom Mackay to the Umpqua, punished the robber Indians, secured the pilfered furs, and paid the American for them. Then came American missionaries overland - the Lees and Whitman. Then came Wyeth, the trader and colonizer from Boston. The company fought Wyeth's trade and bought him out; but when the turbulent Indians crowded round the 'White Eagle,' chief of Fort Vancouver, asking, 'Shall we kill- shall we kill the 'Bostonnais'? ' M'Loughlin struck the chief plotter down, drove the others from the fort, and had it noised about among the tribes that if any one struck the white ' Bostonnais,' M'Loughlin would strike him. At the same time, M'Loughlin earnestly desired that the territory should remain British. In 1838, at a council of the directors in London, he personally urged the sending of a garrison of British soldiers, and that the government should take control of Oregon in order to establish British rights. His suggestions received little consideration. Had not the company singlehanded held all Rupert's Land for almost two hundred years? Had they not triumphed over all rivals? They would do so here. But by 1843 immigrants were pouring over the mountains by the thousands. Washington living's Astoria and Captain Bonneville and the political cry of 'Fifty-four forty or fight ' - which meant American possession of all south of Alaska - had roused the attention of the people of the United States to the merits of Oregon, and caused them to make extravagant claims. Long before the Oregon Treaty of 1846, which established the 49th parallel as the boundary, M'Loughlin had foreseen what was coming. The movement from the east had become a tide. The immigrants who came over the Oregon Trail in 1843 were starving, almost naked, and without a roof. Again the Indians crowded about M'Loughlin. 'Shall we kill? Shall we kill? 'they asked. M'Loughlin took the rough American overlanders into his fort, fed them, advanced them provisions on credit, and sent them to settle on the Willamette. Some of them showed their ingratitude later by denouncing M'Loughlin as 'an aristocrat and a tyrant.' The settlers established a provisional government in 1844, and joined in the rallying cry of ' Fifty-four forty or fight.' This, as M'Loughlin well knew, was the beginning of the end. His friends among the colonists begged him to subscribe to the provisional government in order that they might protect his fort from some of their number who threatened to 'burn it about his ears.' He had appealed to the British government for protection, but no answer had come; and at length, after a hard struggle and many misgivings, he cast in his lot with the Americans. Two years later, in 1846, he retired from the service of the company and went to live among the settlers. He died at Oregon City on the Willamette in 1857.

As early as June 1842 M'Loughlin had sent Douglas prospecting in Vancouver Island, which was north of the immediate zone of dispute, for a site on which to erect a new post. The Indian village of Camosun, the Cordoba of the old Spanish charts, stood on the site of the present city of Victoria. Here was fresh water; here was a good harbor; here was shelter from outside gales. Across the sea lay islands ever green in a climate always mild and salubrious. Fifteen men left old Fort Vancouver with Douglas in March 1843 in the company's ship the Beaver y and anchored at Vancouver Island, just outside Camosun Bay. With Douglas went the Jesuit missionary, Father Bolduc, who on March 19 celebrated the first Mass ever said on Vancouver Island, and afterwards baptized Indians till he was fairly exhausted. In three days Douglas had a well dug and timbers squared. For every forty pickets erected by the Indians he gave them a blanket. By September stockades and houses had been completed, and as many as fifty men had come to live at the new fort, to which the name Victoria was finally given. Victoria became the headquarters of the Hudson's Bay Company on the Pacific. It was unique as a fortified post, in that it was built without the driving of a single nail, wooden pegs being used instead.

By 1849 the discovery of gold in California was bringing a rush of overlanders. There had been rumors of the discovery of precious metals on the Fraser and in East Kootenay. The company became alarmed; and Sir John Pelly, the governor in England, and Sir George Simpson, the governor in America, went to the British government with the disquieting question: What is to hinder American colonists rolling north of the boundary and establishing right of possession there as they did on the Columbia? By no stretch of its charter could the Hudson's Bay Company claim feudal rights west of the Rockies. What, my Lord Grey asks, would the company advise the British government to do to avert this danger from a tide of democracy rolling north? Why, of course, answers Sir John Pelly, proclaim Vancouver Island a British colony and give the company a grant of the territory and the company will colonize it with British subjects. The proposal was laid before parliament. It would be of no profit to follow the debate that ensued in the House of Commons, which was chiefly ' words without knowledge darkening counsel.' The request was officially granted in January 1849; and Richard Blanshard, a barrister of London, was dispatched as governor of the new colony. But as he had neither salary nor subjects, he went back to England in disgust in 1851, and James Douglas of the Hudson's Bay Company reigned in his stead.

But fate again played the unexpected part, and rang down the curtain on the fur lords of the Pacific coast. A few years previously Douglas had seen M'Loughlin compelled to choose between loyalty to his company and loyalty to humanity. A choice between his country and his company was now unexpectedly thrust on the reticent, careful, masterful Douglas. In 1856 gold was discovered in the form of large nuggets on the Fraser and the Thompson, and adventurers poured into the country - 20,000 in a single year. Douglas foresaw that this meant British Empire on the Pacific and that the supremacy of the fur traders was about to pass away. The British government bought back Vancouver Island, and proclaimed the new colony of British Columbia on the mainland. Douglas retired from the company's service and was appointed governor of both colonies. In 1866 they were united under one government.

The stampede of treasure seekers up the Fraser is another story. When the new colony on the mainland came into being, and the Hudson's Bay Company fell from the rank of a feudal overlord to that of a private trader, the pioneer days of the Pacific became a thing of the past.

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Pioneers of the Pacific Coast, A Chronicle Of Sea Rovers And Fur Hunters, By Agnes C. Laut, Toronto. Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1915


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