James Birnie, 1826-1827

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, cold morning in November.

James Birnie traveled out with the 1826 York Factory Express, and he crossed the mountains with the incoming Columbia Express. He is mentioned in Aemilius Simpson’s 1826 York Factory Express Journals. It is fairly clear they did not travel in the same boat, as he is not mentioned often — but then Simpson did not consistently mention any of the other men either.

At Fort Assiniboine, on the Athabasca River, Simpson wrote: “Saturday 23rd [September 1826]. Commenced with heavy rain, still retarding the arrival of Mr. Stewart’s party — Mssrs. Birnie & [Thomas] Linton sent off for Jasper’s House this forenoon, with a loaded boat and strong crew, so as to enable her to get in advance as much as possible before we start in our birch canoes.”

Simpson and the remaining men started upriver on Monday 25th, and on September 29:

A frost during the night with a slight fog in the morning followed by fine pleasant weather during the day… We encamp at 6pm. We heard a musket fired a short distance above us which we concluded was a signal from Mr. Birnie’s boat to acquaint us with their situation.

Saturday 30th. Frost with fine clear weather. Embarked at 5 am, at 7 we came up with Mr. Birnie’s boat. Altho’ she had left Assinaboine [sic] two days before us & was well-manned, which shews the superiority of the Birch canoe over any other species of craft for this kind of navigation. [B.223/a/3, 1826, HBCA, with help from “Lieut. Aemilius Simpson’s Survey from York Factory to Fort Vancouver, 1826,” Journal of the Hakluyt Soc., August 2014, for the words I couldn’t read on the microfilm].

Birnie and Linton were then dispatched on foot to Jasper’s House, and the canoes reached the post at 3pm, October 6. There they found that the land party had arrived only that morning. Simpson continued upriver in the canoes, while Birnie traveled with the horse brigade. On Sunday 15 they crossed the mountains and arrived at Boat Encampment, on the big Bend of the Columbia River. On October 21, they were at Fort Colvile. On the 24th they were at Fort Okanogan, where Francis Ermatinger showed Simpson his gardens.

Ermatinger also had a conversation with James Birnie, who he knew quite well. It is probable that this is when James Birnie learned about the death of his daughter four months earlier, as the result of the supposed neglect of his wife, Charlot, who was said to have had an affair with a Native man at Spokane House. See: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/birnie-four/ for more information.

James Birnie bought a gun from Edward Ermatinger, at Fort Okanogan. We know this because Francis wrote to his brother, Edward, at Fort Vancouver.

Okanogan, 24th October 1826: Dear Edward, The express from York arrived today and altho’ they remain here some time… Mr. Birnie has taken the new double barrel Gun from me, and I have to request that you will credit me with the Depot sale price for it — upon his account.

Okanogan, 25th October 1826. Dear Ed, Get my pistols from [Donald] Manson and show them to Birnie, who will, if he takes them, pay 105 pence for them, which, with the Gun, I must be credited with. [Source: Fur Trade Letters of Francis Ermatinger, by Lois Halliday McDonald, pp 70-71]

The incoming express did not stop at Spokane House: did Charlot and her children join the express at Fort Okanogan? I don’t know. From the Okanogan post, the Columbia Express continued its southward course down the Columbia River to Fort Nez Perce, where Sam Black was in charge. “Orders having been received to send a supply of horses to Vancouver by a detachment of hands from our Brigade the occupying arrangements will detain us here for the day,” Simpson wrote.

[October] Sunday 29th. Rainy weather. The forenoon was occupied in sending the horses across the river which was a very real caution for these poor animals, some of the young ones were nearly drowned. 53 horses & 4 colts succeeding in crossing, with which Messrs. Birnie & [George] Barnston, with five men, proceeded to Fort Vancouver. We will resume our journey in the morning. [B.223/a/3, HBCA]

So Birnie arrived at Fort Vancouver on horseback, riding one of the Native horses the HBC men had purchased from the Walla Walla and Cayuse Natives who lived in that area. We don’t know where Charlot was, but presumably she arrived at Fort Vancouver with the express, or came later in the Spokane House canoes. Whatever happened, in November 1826, Chief Factor John McLoughlin sent James Birnie with dispatches for chief Trader A. R. McLeod, leader of the first trapping expedition south to the Umpqua River. On his way south toward the Umpqua Post, James Birnie met the visiting Kew Gardens botanist, David Douglas, and shared a meal with him. This paragraph is from Journal Kept by David Douglas During his Travels in North America, 1823-1827, by David Douglas [Cambridge UP]. I found it online by googling “David Douglas and James Birnie.”

[Nov.] Sat 18th. On our arrival in the evening I found Mr James Birnie and B. La Zand, the Columbian guide, and a party of six men, who had arrived there in the interval on their way to the Umpqua River, where I had just left. He kindly provided a comfortable supper consisting of venison steaks, a few potatoes, and a basin of tea, which he had brought from Fort Vancouver.

In mid-December, McLeod returned to the old Umpqua establishment to find Birnie waiting for him. Birnie would have arrived on the 19th of November, probably, so he and his men waited almost a month for McLeod’s return. On December 20, Birnie and two men set off on their return journey to Fort Vancouver. We have no further news of Birnie until October 1827, when he was sent to Fort Nez Perces [Walla Walla, WA] to assist and strengthen the Columbia Express party as they traveled down the Columbia River to headquarters. One of the two Upper Chinookian tribes who lived at the Dalles (the Wascos or the Wishram) had been more hostile than usual, and Chief Factor John McLoughlin worried for the safety of the incoming  express. In fact, there had been threats made as the 1826 York Factory Express traveled through the Dalles and Chutes, on their way out of the territory in March 1826:

After we got everything to the upper end of the [Chutes] portage the Indians began to be rather troublesome and pushing forward towards the Baggage and in putting back from it one of them put an arrow in his Bow and as he was taking an aim at me Mr. Douglas (as he was paying attention all the time) uncovered his gun and backed it. Two of the Owhyhees took the muskets immediately when Mr. Ermatinger and myself joined and advanced with our gun[s] cocked toward the crowd and pushed them back. A Cayouse [Indian] joined us and spoke to the rascals for their bad Conduct… The Cayuse informed me at the Dalles [that] the Indians at the Chutes were ill inclined towards us. [John McLeod, Journal, March 20-April 17, 1826]

There appears, however, to have been no trouble between the fur traders and the Natives in 1827, and Edward Ermatinger’s express reached Fort Vancouver in safety.

So as you can see, James Birnie continued to play small but important support roles in the HBC fur trade along the Columbia River. He hoped, of course, for better. Like everyone else in the trade, he hoped to be promoted to Chief Trader. It never happened, and every year James Birnie suffered the disappointment of again being passed over. Many a clerk did the work of a Chief Trader without ever earning a promotion, and some men were never considered for promotion. But James Birnie did not know that yet.

My story will be continued in a future post, but if you have just stumbled on this, and want to start from the beginning, then click here:  https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/birnie-one/

The link to the next chapter is found here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/birnie-six/

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2014 [Updated October 2016]. All rights reserved.

One thought on “James Birnie, 1826-1827

  1. Tom Holloway

    Very interesting, especially on the Russian-British rivalry in tha Alaska border area. Thanks for posting.
    As a boy, age 10, in 1954, I came down with what was called “yellow jaundice” (yes redundant-two words in different languages meaning the same thing). Later it began to be called by a more modern medical term: hepatitis. Could be what Birnie had, in some form.