James Birnie, 1828-1836

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

A Sailing ship in a bottle, from early 1900’s

James Birnie had joined the free wheeling North West Company in 1818, and when in 1821 it merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company under the latter’s name, he came with the deal. But in July 1828, Birnie’s contract with the Company expired. Fortunately, he was rehired, at an increased wage of 75 pounds per annum. By this time he was thirty years old and had enough experience in the HBC’s fur trade to anticipate a promotion. It did not arrive.

Birnie was most likely at Fort Vancouver, though we don’t really know for sure. In September 1829, Fort Colvile’s John Warren Dease met him at that post. By October 4th of the same year Birnie was building a new post at The Dalles of the Columbia River, with the goal of preventing the Natives’ furs from falling into the hands of one of the American competitors the Company would have over the next few years. As the new trading post was close to the hostile Wishram villages, the nervous American trader set up his camp close to Birnie’s post for protection.

Additional information: The American trader’s name was Bache Goodriche, and he was an employee of an American firm owned by Josiah Marshall and Dixey Wildes of Boston. Other employees of this firm were American ship captains John Dominis [captain of the Owhyhee, 1827-1830], and Captain Thompson, of the Convoy. It was the Owhyhee that was suspected of bringing malaria into Fort Vancouver in 1830, in fact, but that was the last year the ship was on the coast. In 1834, John Dominis turned up at the fledgling Fort Simpson, where James Birnie was then posted. Dominis was then captaining the ship Bolivar Liberator, which was on the coast every year from 1831 to 1836. For more information on the American ships that sailed up and down the northwest coast, read James R. Gibson’s book, Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods: The Maritime Fur Trade of the Northwest Coast, 1785-1841 [McGill-Queen’s UP Press, 1992]. It is an interesting read!

Because of the presence of Birnie’s post, however, the American was forced to pay higher prices for his furs, which his employers disapproved of. By April 1830, it appears that he planned to quit his job and enter the HBC fur trade. He abandoned his post, and Birnie closed down his post at the same time, as he felt he was no longer needed there.

Birnie was at Fort George [Astoria], in Summer 1830, when he was kept busy doctoring the men sick from an illness the fur traders called “Intermittent fever.” This fever was probably malaria, which appears to have come in on the American ship Owyhee.

On March 4, 1833, Birnie boarded the ship Dryad with the other gentlemen who were headed north to Fort Simpson, on the Northwest coast immediately south of the Russian-owned territories [now Alaska Panhandle]. I am including some excerpts from the Dryad Logs, C.1/281, HBCA.

Monday 11 [March] At 6 am Weight & run down to Fort George [from Fort Vancouver]. At 9 am came to in 5 fathoms Water. Employed people watering the ship & cutting firewood and other necessary work about the rigging.

Thursday 14. At 7 Mr. [Duncan] Finlayson, Mr. Birnie, Mr. [Donald] Manson embarked. I set the sails & weigh, run down the Clatsop Channel. At 9am, came to in Bakers Bay in 7 fathoms Water, there not being any chance of getting to sea.

Friday 15. Heavy sea on the bar so continued lying in Bakers Bay.

Tuesday 19. Repairing sails, cleaning ship, getting water… Mr. Birnie dispatched to Fort George with the gig & 4 Frenchmen.

Wednesday 20. Heavy sea on bar, bread spoiling.

Monday 25. Heavy sea. Dispatched Birnie & 5 men in yawl to Fort George.

Tuesday 26. At 10 am Mr. Birnie returned from Ft. George with his wife and family and camped on shore. Took in his luggage.

Monday 2 [April] Heavy swell but not breaking. All clear for sea. At 9 Mr. Finlayson & Mr. Birnie with his wife & 5 children embarked. At 2 pm proceeded to sea. At 3:15 wind light & found sea so high was obliged to come too close to the South Point. At 6 pm Flat tide, warped back into the bay.

The ship ventured across the bar two more times, and warped themselves back into the shelter of Bakers Bay. At last, on Thursday April 11, the ship crossed the bar and sailed out to sea. On Wednesday 24th they were at Fort Simpson, and Birnie and his family disembarked.

One of the gentlemen clerks who was also on the Dryad, heading north to Milbanke Sound via Fort Simpson, was Alexander Caulfield Anderson. On this voyage, Anderson met:

…the chestnut-haired child who would eventually become his wife. At the time, Betsy Birnie was only 11 years old, and as the daughter of a Scotsman and a women who had a French-Canadian father and a Cree mother, she was one of the whitest women in the territory. [The Pathfinder, p. 35]

[But for those of you who are descendants of James and Charlot Birnie, I believe her father, Joseph Beaulieu, was Metis — Canadien and Cree — from the Athabasca District.]

So, on April 24, James Birnie reached his new posting at the first Fort Simpson [sometimes called Fort Nass], built a few years earlier in a bay far up the wide estuary of the Nass River. Peter Skene Ogden had built this fort in the summer, when the winter winds not not occur. But this tree-bound fort stood on a rocky point close to an unsafe anchorage, in a dreary location where the fierce north winds whistled around the fort walls for nine months of the year!

No post journals survive for the time that Birnie spent at Fort Simpson. His next adventure began the following summer, when Peter Skene Ogden sailed north to build a fort on the Stikine River. To get to where Ogden wanted to construct his new post in British territory, the HBC men must sail up the Stikine River through the ten-mile wide strip of land the Russian fur traders owned. On May 15, 1834, James Birnie brought his entire family on board the Dryad for the journey north from Fort Simpson.

When the HBC men arrived at the mouth of the Stikine, they were astonished to find that the Russians had recently established a post on the point of land at the river’s mouth. They did not want their lucrative trade with the interior Natives interrupted by an HBC post upriver — nor did the Tlingit people appreciate having their position as middlemen to the Russians interfered with. The Russians blustered and threatened; the Tlingits intimidated. The alarmed HBC men remained as long as they could to argue for access, but after a month at anchor off the Russian post, Ogden finally abandoned his scheme and sailed away.

By mid-June, the Dryad was back at the Nass River where Ogden decided to build a new Fort Simpson in a warmer and more convenient location than the old. On July 15, Birnie and the other fort builders offloaded their supplies at the location of the new post in the outside estuary of the river. By evening, the Canadiens had cleared a large area, which they surrounded with a barricade of fallen trees. Inside this enclosure the gentlemen set up their tents, and the Canadiens built rough shelters out of branches.

Ogden sailed eastward to begin tearing down the old Fort Simpson. At the new location of the post, the men erected one of the two houses removed from the old post, and on September 30 Birnie moved his family into their new house. Already the Natives camped outside the fort walls and traded for goods in the Indian store.

On October 17, the HBC flag was raised for the first time inside the post, and the men drank a toast. The Dryad sailed away. There is, again, little information on Birnie’s two years on the Northwest Coast. Charlot gave birth to a son in November 1834, and a few months later John Work arrived at the fort to find Birnie suffering from a liver complaint. By the end of February, however, Birnie was recovered enough to return to work. At last, on February 26, 1836, James Birnie and his young family embarked on the Cadboro and sailed with a fine, fair wind, away from Fort Simpson.

The so-called “liver complaint” that Birnie suffered from at Fort Simpson could have been caused by abuse of alcohol — not unusual in these northwest coast forts where a substantial part of the supplies was good quality wines and cognacs. But alcohol consumption was not the only possible cause of the illness the fur traders labeled liver disease. Presuming that jaundice was the symptom that Birnie exhibited, there were many other illnesses that might cause that — and food poisoning was one! Jaundice was also a side-effect of the intermittent fever or malaria, an illness that might travel up and down the coast with the sailing ships. Another condition that might cause liver disease (without jaundice) in a man who carried excess weight, as James Birnie might have done in his youth, was the fur traders’ diet of fatty meats and sugary potatoes that the liver turned into fat.

However, though no contemporary fur trader ever complained of Birnie being a drunk, he certainly did not abstain. There were a few occasions when he was described as “clumsy,” or acted as if he was under the influence of strong drink.  It is a common presumption that he was an alcoholic, but I found no statement that proved that point. So, curious as we may be about the answer to that question, we just don’t know yet what the answer may be.

To go back to the beginning of James Birnie’s story, click here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/birnie-one/

When the next posting is finished, it will be found here:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2015. All rights reserved.

6 thoughts on “James Birnie, 1828-1836

  1. Tom Holloway

    Very interesting account of Birnie’s adventures. Is there any record of the name of the American trader at The Dalles in 1830, or who he worked for?

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Bache was the American man stationed at The Dalles that James Birnie opposed. Information in Letters of Dr. John McLoughlin written at Fort Vancouver, 1829-32 pp. not noted. Letters, 23rd September 1829-
      His employers might be Dominis and Thompson — does that make sense? I think that’s all I have.

  2. Tom Holloway

    This is great. With your hints and a little digging I can fill in some of the blanks
    To save typing, this is paraphrased from Bruce Watson’s entry for John Dominis:
    “When Dominis, captain of the ‘Owhyhee’ returned in 1829, he was on an obvious mission to gather furs for his employers, Josiah Marshall and Dixey Wildes of Boston. HBC officer, Dr. John McLoughlin, reacted by sending out parties to intercept the natives before they could reach the river and the ‘Owhyhee.’ He also sent James Birnie to construct a post at the Dalles for the sole purpose of intervening and opposing a post which had been built by American, Bache Goodriche. ”
    Another source says the ‘Convoy,’ Captain Thompson, was also in the area, working for the Marshall firm. So everything fits.

  3. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

    Dominis was a ship captain up and down the coast and at Fort Simpson, while Birnie was there. His was also the ship that apparently brought malaria into the district in 1830 or so (which might also make the illness Birnie suffered from at Fort Simpson malaria). Thanks for all this.