James Birnie, Alexander Caulfield Anderson, and Reverend Herbert Beaver

Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River

The modern-day replica of Fort Vancouver and its gardens: photograph taken a few years ago. The Columbia River is on the other side of the replica fort, and the orchards are to the right hand side of the photographer.

In this section of the James and Charlot Birnie thread, we left Birnie’s story as he and his family were sailing south from his posting at Fort Simpson in 1836. Birnie arrived at Fort Vancouver, and was assigned to the charge of Fort George [Astoria] where he remained for many years. A short time later, in summer 1837, Birnie’s 15-year old daughter, Betsy, prepared to travel north with Peter Skene Ogden’s New Caledonia brigade to be married. Her husband-to-be, Alexander Caulfield Anderson, was the young Scottish clerk who had accompanied the Birnie family north to Fort Simpson in 1833, and who was also on board the Dryad when it was delayed by the Russians in 1834. Hence he knew Betsy well, and Betsy knew him.

Anderson had long intended to marry Betsy, and he told his new friend, Dr. William Fraser Tolmie, of his intentions as early as Christmas, 1834. From The Pathfinder:

Anderson’s replacement, Doctor William Fraser Tolmie, arrived with the Cadboro a few days before Christmas. Tolmie and Anderson immediately struck up a friendship…. “We have unbosomed a good deal to each other,” Tolmie wrote in his journal. “A[nderson] intends he says to espouse the daughter of Mr. Birnie’s at Nasse (with a halfbreed woman) as soon as she is marriageable…” [Physician and Fur Trader: the Journals of William Fraser Tolmie, ed Janet R. Mitchell, p. 260]

In 1837, Anderson was clerk-in-charge at Fraser’s Lake, a thousand miles to the north by the old brigade trail up the Columbia River. Betsy must travel to New Caledonia with Ogden’s brigade to meet her husband-to-be. On the arrival of the New Caledonia brigade at Fort Vancouver in June 1837, Peter Skene Ogden asked the new missionary, Reverend Herbert Beaver, to baptize Betsy before her journey north to be married. But the missionary refused to approve the baptism. Here are a few paragraphs from Beaver’s letter to clerk Alexander Anderson:

Sir; As when, I am told, you expressed a desire that a daughter of Mr. Birnie should accompany the Brigade on its return, you were probably not aware of the appointment of a chaplain by the Honorable Company, and of his arrival in this country, I consider it to be a part of my public duty in that capacity, to state, for the information of those whom it may concern, that all such unions, as that apparently contemplated, are now that regular marriage may be had, both irreligious and illegal.

On what they may have hitherto been, in the absence of clerical assistance… I do entertain, and [dare?] to express, in earnest hope, that, for the future, an example may not be set by officers in the Company’s service, which it will be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to prevent their inferior servants from following; and I need not point out to one, who must be much better acquainted with them than myself, the evil effects of the dreadfully demoralized state of civil society, which exists in the Indian Territory, and which, therefore, it is highly incumbent upon all to endeavour to counteract… [Reverend Beaver to A. C. Anderson, June 17 1837, Mss 559, volume 1, folder 1, BCA]

Beaver’s letter to the Governor and Committee of the HBC in London, written October 10, 1837, from Fort Vancouver, has more information on Betsy’s situation. He started off the letter with a long perambulation on his “sense of duty.”

 First, I have to state, that on the return of the summer Brigade, a daughter of Mr. [James] Birnie, one of our clerks, stationed at Fort George [Astoria], accompanied it from this place to New Caledonia, being assigned over to a state of concubinage with another of your clerks, Mr. [Alexander Caulfield] Anderson, who is quartered in that district. Chief Factor [Chief Trader Peter Skene] 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, 1836-1838, by W.N. Sage, 1961]

In his letter to Peter Skene Ogden, Beaver wrote: “Relative to the Baptism of the young woman which you requested me to perform, as I cannot conceive her to be acquainted with the principals of a religion, which she is about, according to your statement, to violate, so I must decline the administration of that Sacrament in her case, until I have reason to suppose that she understands and desires to comply with the requisitions it implies.” [Reports and Letters of Herbert Beaver, 1836-1838]. This last accusation was as true for Betsy as it was for everyone who grew up in a fur trade post. Ogden mildly stated that he would have Betsy baptized by the missionaries at the Waiilatpu Mission near Fort Nez Perces, and that he, a justice of the peace, would perform the marriage. It is likely that Ogden carried out his wishes and Betsy was baptized on her way up the Columbia River, in July 1837. That means that her record of baptism is (probably) available in the archives of Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA. That is where you go for the early missionary records of Oregon Territory, I am told.

Betsy’s brother, Robert, was probably also baptized there. Robert Birnie traveled to New Caledonia with his sister, and spent a few years at Fraser’s Lake with Betsy and her husband. I was quite surprised to fall upon this story, and when I blog about it (which will be soon, I think), I will post it here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/robert-birnie/ 

Betsy Birnie was married to Alexander Anderson at Fort Alexandria by Peter Skene Ogden, on August 21st, 1837. The newly-weds set off in their own canoe to Fraser’s Lake (the incoming New Caledonia brigade caught up with them a few days later). In April 1838, Anderson addressed his letter to Reverend Beaver:

By favor of my friend, Mr. Ogden, I duly received your epistle of 17th June last; and since from the tenor of that document, you apparently expect some reply on my part, I proceed to address you…

You state that “all such unions as that apparently contemplated are, now regular marriage is to be had, both irreligious and illegal.” I on the other hand deny, indignantly deny, that the union then contemplated, and now accordingly effected, is neither irreligous, illegal, or indeed in any manner censorable. The difficulties intervening to prevent the calling in of clerical aid formally to conclude it, if not insufferable, were of a description offering very serious obstacles thereto…. Marriage, according to 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….

The spiritual head of the Established church has expressed his opinion that, in a moral — and consequently, by permissible inference, in a religious — point of view, marriages contracted in these wild and secluded regions, in portions where the intervention of a person duly ordained may not be immediately available, are valid and irreproachable; and to a decision emanating from an authority so high and respectable it behoveth us in all due acquiescence to bow…[Letters of Rev. Beaver and Reports, B.112/b/19, HBCA]

Anderson’s letter is long: I think about seven handwritten pages! Written with Peter Skene Ogden’s legal help [Ogden had trained as a lawyer], it demolished all Beaver’s arguments. Beaver received the letter in June 1838, when Ogden’s incoming brigades arrived at Fort Vancouver. It is likely Beaver was infuriated: but he was already arguing with everyone at Fort Vancouver so it made little difference to the outcome of his story. After a final fierce argument with Chief Factor John McLoughlin (in which Beaver insulted McLoughlin, and McLoughlin raised his cane and struck Beaver), the Reverend stormed away from Fort Vancouver, sailing for England. It should be noted that, shortly after the argument, McLoughlin apologized to Beaver for his assault, but Beaver did not apologize to McLoughlin for his insult.

Beaver left Fort Vancouver by ship in November 1838. The ship stopped briefly at Fort George, where Beaver confirmed James and Charlot’s marriage. Charlot could not sign her own name; she wrote an X in the register, and Beaver noted her name beside it.

For those of you who do not know this: Reverend Herbert Beaver’s original Fort Vancouver Church Register is here, in Victoria, in the Christ Church Cathedral Archives. I don’t know if the Christ Church Cathedral folk will let you look at the original register (I saw it many years ago), but there are transcriptions at Christ Church Cathedral, and also in the B.C. Archives.

To return to the beginning of this series, click here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/birnie-one/

When the next James Birnie post is written, I will post it here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/james-birnie-eight/

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