I know I have used the word “fabulous” before when I describe a fur trader. But some are fabulously interesting, and Chief Trader Sam Black is certainly a member of this group. Alexander Caulfield Anderson met this man in 1835, and this is what he said of him:
Without having had the advantage of a critically correct education he was a man of great mental as well as literary attainments, and to the geology of the country he paid special attention. The geography, too, of the then only partially explored regions received through him many important additions. Of enormous stature and with a slow and imposing style of address, Mr. Black, though he afforded possibly at times some amusement to his colleagues, commanded also their universal respect by his well recognized good qualities. (History of the Northwest Coast by A.C. Anderson)
So that was the Sam Black that Anderson knew. He did not know him well. By 1841, Sam Black was dead, shot in the back by a Native inside the Thompson River post. And that, too, is a story!
Sam Black was born in the Parish of Pitsligo, county Aberdeen, in May 1780. His parents were John Black and Mary Leith, and he had two sisters named Mary and Ann. He joined the fur trade of the XY Company in 1802. When that company was absorbed by the North West Company (hereafter NWC) in 1804, Black was accepted as an employee of the second company. He was the NWC’s bully in the Athabasca district and at Ile-a-la-Crosse, and he and his close friend, Peter Skene Ogden, terrorized the HBC forts in the area.
In 1818 the HBC under Colin Robertson and John Clarke built Fort Wedderburn at Lake Athabasca, close to the NWC’s Fort Chipewyan where Black was employed. Black interfered with the HBC’s trade, and an angered Colin Robertson apparently threatened to hire Natives to slaughter the NWC men. Black was one of the NWC men who forced their way into the HBC fort and kidnapped Colin Robertson, keeping him a prisoner in their own post over the winter. They planned to take him down to Montreal to face charges, but Robertson escaped them and returned to Fort Wedderburn.
By this time the HBC gentlemen had also become concerned about Robertson’s behavior, and they replaced him with a new man — George Simpson. Simpson, the future Governor of the Company, increased the returns of the Company at Fort Wedderburn and decreased its expenses; causing the NWC men at Fort Chipewyan to take a sharp loss. By this time Black had been threatened with arrest by Canadian lawmakers and and escaped the threat by fleeing to the NWC posts West of the Rocky Mountains (as had his friend, Peter Skene Ogden).
When in 1821 the North West Company and the HBC merged under the name of the Hudson’s Bay Company, both Sam Black and Peter Skene Ogden were denied positions in the new Company. Black’s letter shows his bitter disappointment:
The communication received by one from the agents of the late NWC dated Fort William, 17th July 1821, upon the subject of the arrangement of the Hudson’s Bay Co you will readily believe was most distressing to my feelings.. That a termination of the various oppositions between the Companies was greatly to be wished for, and sooner or later to be expected, is certainly true; but I never conceived it possible that some of those whose zeal and exertion during the ‘conter’ brought about probably the necessity of negotiation on the part of our opponents, would be excluded from the benefits hoped for from that termination (North West Company correspondence 1800-1827, F.3/2, HBCA)
Black was presented with a ring on which was engraved: “To the most worthy of the worthy Northwesters,” according to Bancroft in his History of the North West Coast, II. (He may have received that information from Anderson, though it is not recorded in any of Anderson’s writings.) At that time Black was somewhere in the Columbia district: perhaps at Fort George [Astoria], or Thompson’s River [Kamloops]. In 1822 both Ogden and Black were at Cumberland House travelling out of the country, and over the winter of 1822-23 Black and Ogden sailed to England. Ogden pleaded for his job in London, but there is no record of where Black spent his time in Great Britain.
Ogden was successful in his plea for their jobs, and in 1823, Sam Black was back in the country at York Factory, having been admitted into the HBC. He was sent on a difficult exploration of the Finlay River — a wild and unexplored region at that time — and Ogden spent years exploring and trapping in the Snake River district. Black’s story is told in A Journal of A Voyage From Rocky Mountain Portage to the Sources of Finlays Branch And North West Ward In Summer 1824 [London: The Hudson’s Bay Record Society, 1955], and it is a delightful read. I inherited a copy of this book, and I now understand why Sam Black is described, so often, as a geographer.
I also now understand why Governor George Simpson described Sam Black in the manner he did, in his “Character Book” of 1832 in Hudson’s Bay Miscellany, 1670-1870:
No. 11 [Samuel Black] About 53 years of age. The strangest man I ever knew. So wary & suspicious that it is scarcely possible to get a direct answer from him on any point, and when he does speak or write on any subject so prolix that it is quite fatiguing to attempt following him. A perfectly honest man and his generosity might be considered indicative of a warmth of heart if he was not known to be a cold blooded fellow who could be guilty of any Cruelty and would be a perfect Tyrant if he had any power. Can never forget what he may consider a slight or insult, and fancies that every man has a design upon him. Very cool, resolute to desperation, and equal to the cutting of a throat with perfect deliberation: yet his word when he can be brought to the point may be depended on. A Don Quixote in appearance, Ghastly, raw-boned and lantern-jawed, yet strong, vigorous and active. Has not the talent of conciliating Indians by whom he is disliked, but who are ever in dread of him, and well they may be so, as he is ever on his guard against them and so suspicious that offensive and defensive preparation seem to be the study of his Life having Dirks, Knives and Loaded pistols concealed about his person and in all directions about his Establishment even under his Table cloth at meals and in his Bed. He would be admirably adapted for the Service of the North West coast where the Natives are so treacherous were it not that he cannot agree with his colleagues which renders it necessary to give him a distinct charge. I should be sorry to see a man of such character at our Council board. Tolerably well Educated and most patient and laborious in whatever he sets about, but so tedious that it is impossible to get through business with him.
How can anyone resist a man with a story like this? Following his 1824 exploration Black spent the winter at Dunvegan, in the Peace River country. He traveled out to York Factory with William Connolly of New Caledonia in 1825, and was appointed to Fort Colvile, on the Columbia River. By 1826 when Aemelius Simpson entered the country Black was in charge at Fort Nez Perces. In 1828 Chief Factor John McLoughlin thought he should be removed from the place:
Nez Perces is such a hell I don’t know what to say about it but Black ought to be changed — he complains of his health and I believe him — to be confined — have nothing to do with such a Suspicious Disposition as he unfortunately for himself is possessed of must make him view everything done with a jaundiced Eye — and with this temper still I believe I know no one more anxious to promote the General Interest than him — and it is necessary he should be changed as he is rather unpopular with his Indians…
Eventually the charge of Fort Nez Perces was turned over to Archibald Barclay (another interesting man), and Black took over the Thompson’s River post in 1831 or so. Little is known of him at Thompson’s River, but in 1835 his friend Peter Skene Ogden was put in charge of New Caledonia, and these two friends met every spring and summer to rehash their past. In the book attributed to Peter Skene Ogden, Traits of American-Indian Life [London, 1853], this is what the author says of Black — well “B…”:
B… was one of my oldest and worthiest friends. Our intimacy had commenced some twenty five years ago, and been ripened by time into the warmest friendship. We had shared in each other’s perils; and the narrow escapes we had so frequently experienced, tended to draw still more closely the bond of amity by which we were united. It was our custom to contrive an annual meeting, in order that we might pass a few weeks in each other’s company. This reunion naturally possessed charms for both of us; for it was a source of mixed joy, to fight like old soldiers “our battles o’er again,” over a choice bottle of Port or Madeira; to lay our plans for the future, and, like veritable gossips, to propose fifty projects, not one of which there was any intention on either part to realize.
In 1837 trouble broke out over a stolen horse along the Okanagan River, and a Native man was killed. Black galloped south from the Thompson’s River post to ensure the safety of Ogden’s incoming brigade, which would be riding into danger, unaware. He arrived in time to participate in a fight where one HBC man was killed and Black’s horse shot out from under him. A little family story here: travelling in this unusually exciting brigade was the woman who was to become Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s wife — Betsy Birnie.
In the late autumn of 1840, Black traded for goods with a Native called Tranquille — a man given that name by the French-Canadians for his quiet good nature and calm. Tranquille came to the fort to pick up a gun he had traded for, but instead received a mild reprimand from Black. Tranquille returned home, chagrined, but relations between the Natives and the HBC fort remained in good standing.
Over the winter, Tranquille sickened and died. During the funeral speeches a woman accused Tranquille’s nephew of cowardice and urged him to avenge his uncle’s death. The youth blackened his face and traveled to the Thompson River post on a freezing cold day, to sit in front of the fire. Black gave him a pipe, food and tobacco, and left him alone. But in the late afternoon, as Black was putting his hand on the door of his private quarters, the Native shot him in the back, killing him immediately.
And that is Sam Black’s fabulous story.
Copyright Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2014. All rights reserved.
- Fur trade genealogy
- A.C. Anderson’s Missing Manuscript