James Birnie, 1823-1825

Spokane River, at old Spokane House

This image shows the banks of the Spokane River, near the place where James Birnie’s Spokane House stood. This was originally an American Fur Company post, but both the North West Company and the HBC operated out of this post. David Thompson’s older Spokane House stood a few miles upriver.

James Birnie was my great-great-grandfather, and father of the woman that Alexander Caulfield Anderson married in 1837. I will write their story, but in this post we are continuing with Birnie’s story. He worked in the fur trade West of the Rocky Mountains for almost thirty years, without ever receiving a promotion to Chief Trader. No one who studies the Hudson’s Bay Company [HBC] fur trade is shocked by this: it was not uncommon under Governor George Simpson’s rule that some were never considered for promotion. There were always “reasons” for this treatment. It does not matter how unreasonable the reasons might be.

This is the second post in the series: if you want to start at the beginning, go to https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/birnie-one/ 

On Saturday, October 15, 1823, James Birnie departed from Spokane House, as noted in John Work’s journal:

Everything being arranged for the purpose, Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Birnie embarked with 21 men in two boats for Fort George [Astoria]. [Source: John Work, Journal July 19 to October 25, 1823, Manuscript A/B/40/W89.1A, BCA “York Factory to Spokane House” [transcript]

Birnie was at Fort George in February 1824, when his second child, Robert, was born. He was employed at Fort Okanogan, at the juncture of the Columbia and Okanogan Rivers, when, on November 1, 1824, George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and Chief Factor John McLoughlin, arrived at the post. Until 1821, the Columbia district had belonged to the North West Company; now it belonged to the HBC. John McLoughlin had crossed the mountains to take charge of the Columbia district, and Simpson traveled with him to assess what was happening in this district so new to his company.

This is what Governor George Simpson wrote in his journals as he arrived at Fort Okanogan:

Monday Nov 1st [1824] Left our encampment before Day break, had a good deal of Strong current and some heavy Rapids particularly the Dalles [Little Dalles in the Nespelem Canyon] — got to Okanagan at 10 A.M. Mr. Birnie, clerk in charge with two men… This post is agreeably situated in a fine plain near the Forks of the Okanagan and main River, the soil is much the same as at Spokane and produces the finest potatoes I have seen in the Country. Grain in any quantity might be raised here, but cultivation to any extent has never been attempted, indeed throughout the Columbia no pains have been taken to meet the demands of the trade in that way…

It has been said that Farming is no branch of the Fur Trade but I consider that every pursuit tending to lighten the expense of the Trade is a branch thereof… [Fur Trade and Empire, George Simpson’s Journal, ed. by Frederick Merk]

Governor Simpson noted the expensive imported provisions the ex-NWC men had become used to, and ordered the forts west of the Rockies to grow more of their own food. One man scoffed at the idea: and it has been suggested that this man might have been James Birnie. If so, it was a mistake. Governor Simpson took an immediate dislike to Birnie, and that dislike changed Birnie’s fur trade career forever.

There is another reason why Governor Simpson might have disliked James Birnie. Simpson, born in the same Scottish district that Birnie had some family connections to, was trying to forget the rough brogue of his childhood. Simpson was trying to bury his illegitimate past, and Birnie’s speech might have reminded him of it. Birnie, on the other hand, was proud of it. Unlike many of the Scottish fur traders in this district, he was born in Scotland, not Canada. His nick-name in the Columbia district was “Scotty,” because he spoke the brogue of his home country. It is another reason why he would not have fitted well into Governor George Simpson’s prejudiced fur trade, and a reason that James Birnie would never have understood for himself.

To continue with Birnie’s story: Governor Simpson reached Fort George and spent the winter there. He  and Dr. McLoughlin made quite a few changes in the Columbia district. There was good farming land one hundred miles inland from Fort George [Astoria], the current headquarters of the Company on the Pacific slopes. Simpson decided that the new HBC headquarters should be built at that spot, and its farms developed. This new inland headquarters would be called Fort Vancouver. See: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/fort-vancouver/

Other posts in the interior (for example: Fort Okanogan) would be required to grow more of their own food. Simpson instructed that the inconveniently placed Spokane House, built some distance up the Spokane River many years earlier, was to be replaced with a new post built near the Ilthkoyape (Kettle) Falls, on the Columbia River, where there was more good farmland available. John McLoughlin placed James Birnie in charge of Spokane House that summer, and Birnie planted the first crop of potatoes on the plains that surrounded the place where John Work was to begin construction of the new Fort Colvile later that summer.

In the 1825 Minutes of Council, James Birnie was assigned to the Thompson’s River post [Kamloops]. but he did not appear to go there. I understand now that he would have replaced John McLeod Sr., who was to take out the brigades in 1825. That comes clear from this letter, written by John McLoughlin, in March 1825:

Mr. MacLeod [John McLeod Sr] will as agreed come down [from Kamloops] in charge of the interior brigades and Mr. Annance I think should be appointed to the summer charge of Okinagan as Mr. Birnie will be required for the summer charge of Spokane House. Mr. [Finan] McDonald will no doubt accompany the brigade to and from the interior previous to crossing the mountains in the fall… [D.4/5, HBCA]

Those were the plans, it seems, but John McLeod Sr. did not cross the mountains with the new York Factory Express until March 1826. Finan McDonald also left the Columbia district in 1826 and spent the winter at Edmonton House. He would join the 1827 York Factory Express led by Edward Ermatinger at that fort.

The records also show that in August 1825, McLoughlin assigned Birnie to Fort Okanogan once again. Whether he went there I do not know — in fact he appears to have remained at Spokane House. But James Birnie’s contract was coming to a close: in the same Minutes of Council, Birnie’s name appeared on the list of clerks permitted to retire the following spring — an indication of Governor George’s Simpson’s dislike of him. But instead of ordering him out of the territory, when Simpson returned to Okanogan as he was leaving the territory, he removed Birnie from that post and sent him to Spokane House. Why would Governor Simpson have changed his mind about encouraging James Birnie to retire? Both the reason for removing Birnie from the district, and the reason for keeping him, is shown in Governor Simpson’s later note in his infamous Character Book:

Clerks. No. 10. Birnie, James. A Scotchman about 35 years of Age; 14 years in the Service. Useful in the Columbia as he can make himself understood among several of the Tribes and knows the Country well; but not particularly active; nor has he much firmness; deficient in point of Education; a loose talking fellow who seldom considers it necessary to confine himself to the truth. Has no pretension to look forward to advancement indeed is very well paid for his Services at 100 pounds per annum. [Character Book of Governor George Simpson, 1832].

James Birnie never made as much as 100 pounds a year, I believe. Whether he knew he was being encouraged to retire is not known, but he appears to have gotten along well with John McLoughlin and he apparently remained optimistic he would receive a promotion eventually.

So, once again, James Birnie and his young wife, Charlot, were located at Spokane House. It would be from this place that, in the spring of 1826, Birnie joined the outgoing York Factory Express in April 1826. Birnie crossed the Rocky Mountains with the outgoing express to Edmonton House, where the Columbia district men joined the Saskatchewan brigades that carried the year’s furs to York Factory. I frankly admit that I was not aware of the importance of this journey until a year or more ago, when I began to research the York Factory Express. This was the FIRST of many York Factory Express journeys across the continent, and I will write about it in my next blogpost — https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/birnie-three/ 

By the way, my book “The York Factory Express,” is published and you may order it here: http://ronsdalepress.com/york-factory-express-the/ It tells the story of the HBC men who journey to Hudson Bay and return every year, in the York Factory Express and the Saskatchewan Brigades.

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