Betsy was the eldest daughter of James and Charlot Birnie, born in 1822 at the North West Company’s Spokane House. She was a toddler at Fort Okanogan. When she was five, her father brought his family down to the bustling headquarters at Fort Vancouver, and she grew used to its noise. Two years later she was living in the isolated post her father had established at The Dalles of the Columbia River, and when she was 11 she travelled north with her parents to Fort Simpson, on the Northwest Coast. Alexander Caulfield Anderson was one of this party of men sent north to establish the new fort, and Betsy met him at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1833. I describe her in my book, The Pathfinder:
As a child of the fur trade, Betsy dressed in the simple handmade dresses, leggings and leather moccasins that every girl and woman at the trading posts wore. These practical but unfashionable garments were a mixture of Native dress and English clothing — long-sleeved, high-waisted gowns with shapeless gathered skirts that drooped to her ankles, worn over leggings of red or blue cloth and moccasins that she sewed herself. Before her marriage, the bodice of Betsy’s dress would have been modestly high, but when she became a mother, her dress would be cut low over her breasts to enable easy breastfeeding, with the neckline filled in with crossed scarves. Like other women of her time and place, Betsy braided her chestnut hair in a single thick braid that hung down her back, and in public she covered her dress with a blanket thrown over her shoulders. Like every other man, woman and child at these fur-trade posts, she probably smoked tobacco in the elegant, long-stemmed pipes readily available by the dozen in the post stores.
Chief Factor Peter Skene Ogden was the HBC man in charge of New Caledonia, where clerk Alexander Caulfield Anderson was then posted. Ogden liked Anderson, and was willing to play “cupid” for him. He led out the brigades to Fort Vancouver, where he collected Betsy and her brother, Robert, and brought them north to Fort Alexandria, where Anderson would meet them. We know Robert Birnie was there: he wrote this of his time in the brigade and at Fraser’s Lake, where Anderson was posted:
From there [Fort Simpson] I was sent back to Fort Vancouver, I believe in the year 1835, to school (such as it was) kept by some seamen kept on shore from one of the Hudson’s Bay Company vessels…In 1837 I went up to Frazer’s Lake in British Columbia and remained with a Brother-in-Law named Mr. Alexander C. Anderson [who] was then a clerk of the H.B.Co in charge of Fort Frazer. In the spring of 1840 I left that place in Company with Mr. Peter Skene Ogden, one of the Chief Factor[s] of the H.B.Co. who was then in charge of all the Northern district division called the New Caledonia district, accompanied by Mr. Anderson and Mr. [Archibald] McKinlay. We arrived at Fort Vancouver in the Columbia in the month of June 1840. [Personal Adventures of Robert Birnie, born at Astoria, Oregon, 1824. Mss C-E65:33, Bancroft Library, U of California Berkeley]
At Fort Vancouver, Ogden asked the new missionary, Reverend Herbert Beaver, to baptize Betsy Birnie before her journey north to be married. The missionary was horrified by this request, and refused to approve the marriage, arguing that any marriage not performed by him would be illegal. Beaver also expressed shock that Betsy was marrying a man she had not seen in four years, and declared she was not “acquainted with the principle of religion.” True enough but this last accusation was as true for Betsy as it was for everyone who grew up in a fur trade fort. Ogden was amused but not upset, and mildly stated that he would have Betsy baptized by the American Missionaries at Waillatpu Mission, 25 miles from Fort Nez Pérces, and that he, a justice of the peace, would perform the marriage.
Of course, this enraged Beaver even more, and he refused to end the argument. He sent out a ream of correspondence — to Ogden, to Anderson, and finally, to the Governor and Committee of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The letters he wrote were “delightful,” but not in the way delightful is usually meant. His letter to the Governor and Committee was written on October 10, 1837:
First I have to state that, on the return of the summer Brigade, a daughter of Mr. Birnie, one of your clerks, stationed at Fort George, accompanied it from this place to New Caledonia, being consigned over to a state of concubinage with another of your clerks, Mr. Anderson, who is quartered at that district. Chief Factor Ogden, with whom she departed, spoke to me on the subject, and at the same time requested me to baptize her. Being thus made, as it were, a party concerned, I deemed it my bounden duty to oppose to the utmost of my power, the immoral and disgraceful connexion, and I therefore wrote the two following letters, knowing that it would be useless to attempt to dissuade from it the girl, who was a perfect automaton in the affair, and whose mind might thus, to no purpose, be rendered uneasy. [Reports and Letters of Herbert Beaver — Chaplain’s Report]
The New Caledonia brigade was still at Fort Vancouver on June 17, 1837, when Reverend Beaver wrote his letter to Ogden. He stated, among other things, that Betsy was “unacquainted with the principles of religion.” The letter to Anderson was a little different:
As when, I am told, you expressed a desire, that a daughter of Mr. Birnie should accompany the Brigade on its return, you was probably not aware of the appointment of a Chaplain by the Honourable Company, and of his arrival in this country. I consider it to be a part of my public duty… to state… that all such unions, as that apparently contemplated, are, now regular marriage can be had, both irreligious and illegal.
He then invited Anderson to travel the thousand miles south to Fort Vancouver so that he could be legally married to Betsy, by him. That was impossible, of course, and it was also untrue that only he could perform a legal marriage. Anderson wrote to Beaver on April 20, 1838, and his letter thoroughly demolished Beaver’s argument. But his writing!!! Considering how well he wrote in later years, he still had a lot to learn:
You state that “all such unions as that apparently contemplated are, now that regular marriage is to be had, both irreligious and illegal”; I, on the other hand deny, indignantly deny, that the union then contemplated in my case, and now accordingly effected, is either irreligious, illegal, or indeed in any manner censorable….Marriage according to the established usage, has always been in a degree available to the denizens of the Indian country. England and Canada, where clerical assistance could be procured, have at all times been accessible. That assistance, once so far removed, is now rendered somewhat more available by your arrival at Fort Vancouver; but to those resident in the interior, circumstanced as I find myself, Fort Vancouver is scarcely more convenient of access than, prior to your coming, were the more distant places of resort which I have mentioned… [B.233/b/20, HBCA].
In my records, Anderson’s letter is 5 typewritten pages long. He had a lot to say, and he used a great many unnecessary words to say it!!!
But Anderson was not only the person that Beaver argued with. Beaver had brought his old-country values with him to this new world, and he argued with everyone at the fort. He was only at Fort Vancouver for a year and a half. After a final fierce argument with Chief Factor John McLoughlin (when McLoughlin beat him over his head and shoulders with his stick), Beaver stormed away from the fort and sailed for England. His ship stopped briefly at Fort George. There he confirmed James and Charlot Birnie’s marriage. Reverend Beaver’s original Fort Vancouver registers are in the Christ Church Cathedral archives, here in Victoria, and I have been permitted to view them. Charlot could not sign her own name; she wrote an X in the register and Beaver noted her name beside it.
But, for me, this is the interesting part of the story: Betsy travelled out with Peter Skene Ogden’s New Caledonia Brigades. Ogden tended to spend a shorter time at Fort Vancouver than other brigade leaders, and so he might have left the headquarters some time in the last half of June, 1837. It is likely that he was at Fort Nez Pérces in early July, when he would have taken Betsy to the Waillatpu Mission to be baptized by Dr. Marcus Whitman. Her baptismal certificate might still exist: it might be in their records. It will not, however, be under her own name, but under the name that her future husband chose for her — Eliza!
Obviously, when I am at the Francophone Northwest History Conference in Walla Walla, WA, in June 2020, I will be asking about the availability of these records! With luck, I may come home with a copy of Betsy’s baptismal certificate! Her marriage certificate is in the B.C. Archives, so wouldn’t her baptismal certificate be a wonderful addition to the collection of documents for this woman — this ancestor — that we know so little about!
“Eliza” (and perhaps “Eliza Charlotte”) may have been the name that young Alexander Caulfield Anderson chose for her — it was his mother’s name. But Betsy was never an Eliza. From The Pathfinder:
At her marriage [this should read “baptism”], Betsy exchanged her childhood name for the more formal Eliza, a name far better suited for the wife of a gentleman. But her new name would not stick, and Betsy never became the gentlewoman that Anderson wanted her to be. In fact, Betsy probably fit in more smoothly at Fraser’s Lake than her young husband did, and she had far more experience in the fur trade than Anderson.
A fitting end for this short chapter in James Birnie’s life, I think. When the next chapter is written, it will appear here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/james-birnie-thirteen/
If you want to go back to the beginning of my James Birnie story, go here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/birnie-one/
Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.
- Revillon Frères
- Fort Colvile Mill