James Sinclair’s letters

The Columbia River, where the ships that stopped at Fort Vancouver anchored

The bank of the mighty Columbia River off Fort Vancouver, on a misty, foggy day in November. 

I am looking at my collection of information, and realizing that much of it will never make it into any book I am writing or can write in the near future. But some of it is so good, and so well-written — and so historically important — that it should be posted. And so, I will continue to post the interesting stories, journals, and letters that I have collected, that have no place else to go. 

For example, Peter Skene Ogden wrote some interesting letters that give clues to stories we don’t know anything about. Robert Clouston had a style of writing that is most amusing, and he is worthy of being written of in this section. One of Thomas Lowe’s brothers made a tour through the posts of early Washington Territory and of the Colony of Vancouver’s Island, in about 1854, and as a new immigrant straight from Scotland he left behind wonderful descriptions of the important people he met and the places he saw. So these are the types of posts that I will continue to post in this series.  

Let us begin with James Sinclair: Who was he? see: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sinclair_james_8E.html

Sinclair has a number of letters stashed away in the B.C. Archives, and I found them quite charming to read. They are private letters, written to a friend named Dr. Cowan, in Red River, in 1854 and 1855. Here is the first piece of information that I thought would fit into this post: a letter written by Robert Clouston who was coming over the Rocky Mountains in 1850-1851: 

James Sinclair after wandering about the plains and the borders of the Mountains, and having six horses stolen by the Blackfeet, made his appearance at R[ocky] M[ountain] House about the end of September, looking out for a guide, and he trifled and humbugged so long that the probability is that he was caught in the snow before he got quite through [the mountains] though we have heard nothing of him since. 

Robert Clouston wrote that from Edmonton House in December 1850. Now, there is a problem here, easily solved by reading Sinclair’s biography, above. Sinclair had made plans to emigrate to Oregon. “Leaving his wife and family at Red River, he went west himself and spent some time exploring approaches to the Rockies… With guides from Rocky Mountain House (Alta) where he bought supplies on 6 October, he again crossed the mountains. After some months in the Oregon and California, he returned via the Panama…” These are two different journeys!

As I said, Sinclair actually made it through the mountains once again, in 1854, traveling with immigrants he was hired to bring with him. On October 26th 1854, from the camp on the “Kootanais River (2 miles from the Lake, the source of the Columbia)” he wrote to his friend Dr. Cowan, at Fort Garry:

Agnes Lucy thrives well and sucks her pemmican soup as well as any other in the party.

Presumably Agnes Lucy is one of Sinclair’s daughters. He arrived at Fort Vancouver on the 30th of December 1854, bringing with him the long-delayed York Factory Express packets sent overland to Walla Walla from Fort Colvile. The incoming express had been delayed by high water all along its route, and Mactavish wrote that: “Chief Factor Sinclair informs me that the Express only left Edmonton on the 4th October, or that Mr. [George] Shuttleworth could not well have got to the Boat Encampment much sooner than he did.”

Sinclair was employed as a clerk, with Chief Factor benefits, to take over the charge of the now-abandoned Fort Nez Perces, or Walla Walla:

I return in a few days to assume my charge of Walla Walla. Sir G [George Simpson] writes me that I am assume charge also of the Snake Country, Fort Hall & Fort Boise — these have all gone wrong, completely disorganized… This will keep me in hot water — in the meantime no ammunition is sold to the Indians.

It was 1854: the Yakima War had not yet begun. This tells me that the Washington territorial government must have prevented the HBC men from selling or giving ammunition to the Indians in the years between the Cayuse War in 1848-1849, and the Yakima War that began in 1855 : a question I had is now answered. The same letter tells us that he and Dugald Mactavish got along very well. “Mr. Mactavish is everything I could wish — we get on very well and Sir G also is disposed to be liberal. Every effort shall be made to meet his approbation…”

Sinclair returned to Fort Vancouver from Fort Nez Perces (Walla Walla) in July 1855, where he wrote another letter to his friend Dr. Cowan:

The confounded gold discovery at Colvile is creating quite an excitement all over the Country, as I expected all our men at Colvile and Walla Walla have cut and run. I had only one man left, which has induced me to come down here to endeavour to hire two or three, but this is a hard matter, in such times as these, no contract will bind men, and it is absurd to expect to get men at the old scale of wages when others are paying 4 to 5 dollars a day. Even an Indian cannot be had for less than $2 per day… Business has been dull but is again gradually improving. So far I have done a good business at Walla Walla. I had Governor Stevens and suit [?] for nearly 4 months..[illegible] and hundreds of Indians; he concluded treaties with them by which they have ceded all their lands up as far as Okinagan and along the Spokane. He left on the 12th ult [June?] for Fort Benton to see the Blackfeet. He was afraid to go near Colvile for fear of his men deserting…

This is the 4th July, the Garrison is firing away and our folks are returning the National salute.

The Garrison mentioned above was the U.S. Army now established on the slope above the HBC’s Fort Vancouver. The gold discovery at Colvile was, of course, that gold-rush on the Pend-d’Oreille River just north of the post. Governor Stevens and outfit had just negotiated treaties with the Indigenous people that surrounded the post, setting the scene for the Yakima Wars that would soon follow. This was the beginning of tumultuous times in Washington Territory: even the HBC men did not feel safe travelling up and down the Columbia River.  The wars began in the summer of 1855 and in October the Government Indian Agent destroyed the HBC’s ammunition at Walla Walla, ordering Sinclair to abandon the post. He returned to Fort Vancouver, and the oldest continually -running post in this territory, built by the NWC on 1818 and an HBC post for 34 years, was closed down.

However, Sinclair did make an attempt to recover the post. In February 1856, he wrote:

In my last letter (October) I wrote that I was on the eve of starting for Walla Walla, along with 150 mounted volunteers, who were to occupy the Fort. On the way up we met an Express with the intelligence that a few days after I had left the Fort, a large body of hostile Indians, about 1,000 strong, had plundered it and were in possession of it. Deeming our force inadequate to retake it, we were compelled to make a halt 25 miles from it to wait for reinforcements. In the meantime we fortified our position and soon built a stockade Fort — here we were cooped up for 15 days, surrounded by a huge body of Indians. After receiving reinforcements, we made a night march on the Fort, which we found deserted, and a mass of ruins… We had pretty hard fighting for four days — we however drove the Indians from their position and drove them before us for 40 miles. I was with the party who made the first charge. I had no idea of getting into the fight but the excitement was such there was no keeping out of it…

Lord only knows when these Indian troubles are to end. In a few weeks, 3000 volunteers and 2000 regulars will be in the field — a few days ago the Indians attacked the Town of Seattle, on Puget Sound, in open day, and would have destroyed it but the Decatur, sloop of war, got her Broad sides on and with shot and shell drove off the Indians. Here at Vancouver, the sound of the Bugle is to be heard all day and the troops out on drill, on the Shanghai Tactics — all their movements are made on the trot — wherever I go I see some preparations for carrying on the war. For my part for the last four months I have had as much as I want of such military life…. 

 Because of the Yakima Wars, Fort Colvile was cut off from Fort Vancouver and its brigades came out to Fort Langley. Sinclair was assigned the duty of building a new post in British territory north of Fort Colvile and close to the gold mines on the Pend-d’Oreille River. He was on his way up the Columbia River in March 1856, when he and others were killed in a surprise attack by the Natives at the Cascades. Dugald Mactavish reported to Dr. Tolmie, of Fort Nisqually, on this incident, in a letter written March 31st 1856:

You will probably have heard ere you receive this, that a party of Yakima and Klickatal Indians surprised the Settlement on the Cascade portage on the morning of the 28th inst., killing a number of citizens and causing great destruction of property, and it is now with extreme regret I mention, that among those who unfortunately fell on that occasion, was our friend, Mr. James Sinclair, who was shot at the upper end of the portage at the door of Miss Bradford & Bishop’s Store house, and died a few minutes afterwards. 

A woman who I think was James Sinclair’s descendant, D. Geneva Lent, has written his biography titled West of the Mountains: James Sinclair and the Hudson’s Bay Company. It is a very good read, but was published some time ago (apparently in the 1960’s) and so may be hard to find. Look for it in your local University Library or in the Archives.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2017. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “James Sinclair’s letters

  1. Paul Deming

    Lol …been reading “West of the Mountains” during USA thanksgiving this weekend. My copy came on a box of books gifted to me recently. All northwest history.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Oh good. It is a good book, so donate it to a library or archives if you are going to get rid of it (or give it to someone who will appreciate it). Am I right in saying that it was written by a descendant of the man? I believe it was.
      Thanks for your interest.

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