Peter Skene Ogden reports on the California gold rush

Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River

Fort Vancouver and its gardens. The Columbia River is behind the fort.

With a little luck and a lot of hard work, my book, The HBC Brigades: Culture, Conflict, and the Perilous Journeys of the Fur Trade, will be published by Ronsdale Press in May, 2024. You may order or pre-order the book here: 

Peter Skene Ogden, Chief Factor at Fort Vancouver in 1848, was definitely a character, and his private letters prove that. However, the hard part of reading Ogden’s letters is his handwriting” and I clearly am not the only person to complain about that! In the Donald Ross Collection, Mss 0635, British Columbia Archives, Ogden wrote this on March 10, 1848:

Many thanks for your kind and friendly letter. I regret, however, to find you still complain of my writing and difficulty it causes you to read it. The fact is, if I could [I] would most willingly make it more legible, but unfortunately I am rather too old now to reform. My scrawl must accompany me to the grave, and as that probably is not very far distant and has been my constant companion for the last forty years, I cannot reconcile myself to a separation, and we all in the World form attachments to old habits. It is as it were a second nature and I must submit and you and many others patiently endure the sad infliction. [file 143, Peter Skene Ogden, Transcript, Mss 0635, BCA]

I added the punctuation in this letter to make it more readable. For the most part Ogden uses no commas or periods, nor capitals that will separate sentences. As you can guess, combined with his indifferent handwriting, this lack of punctuation makes his correspondence very hard to understand.

In a later letter to Donald Ross of Norway House, written March 6th 1849 [in the same mss collection], Peter Skene Ogden reports on the California gold rush that emptied Wallamette Valley and Fort Vancouver. You will enjoy his writing. He will wander off the point on occasion, but that is Peter Skene Ogden’s way of communicating, and there is some fascinating information in his wanderings:

It was in the latter end of august [1848] the first tiding reached us that a Gold Mine had been discovered in the Interior of Callifornia and in September it was truly confirmed and a rush took place for in less than a week two thousand of our Population started aband[on]ing large fields of Wheat ready for the sickle and others again leaving them in stacks for the benefit of their cattle rely on it Gold has a charm about it that is irresistible we poor Indian Traders have never experienced it for this plain reason we see none of it in the present days in any shape whatever for alas we no longer have any placed to our Credit — the Canada market plan for increasing our Dividends strongly reminds me of a drowning Man grasping at a Straw and will I fear meet with the same success at all events it amuses us in the meantime — by land in ships and in open Boats did they take their departure the same in regard to open Boats did they by hundreds leave the [Sandwich?] Islands and fortunately without an accident if you cannot praise an American in your heart at least you will do them the justice to say they are truly an enterprising race of beings and to attain their ends will surmount all obstacles — it is said in October already had five thousand Men reached the Mines and truly a Golden harvest have they reaped at least all those who have returned, I say rich for they average two thousand dollars each this for Men who before they started were not owners of two shirts and this collected in fifteen days labour was well repaying them this so far is the bright side — the dark side you shall also have in two Months one hundred and fifty lost their lives by murder and fever and many were robbed of all they had collected — in such a medley govt is powerless a Regt of five hundred men station’d at San Francisco all deserted the Col. and Officers finding themselves alone followed the example and went to the Mines it is said by many persons who are competent to give an opinion that these Mines will be rich in fifty years hence. I will not live to see it and still less to derive any benefit from them but this I know they extend over hundreds of miles and lots of room for the numbers that will collect there this Spring. Already the whole of our Population are on the move — Farms Wives and children all are abandon’d a greater state of excitement was never exceeded in a word the lame blind deaf dumb and aged are all in motion — Gold Gold is from the highest to the lowest the sole and only topic of conversation never will the scenes I have witnessed this year be ever erased from my memory indeed it surpasseth all understanding and it would baffle the Pen of the greatest genius in the World to describe it — the Missisippy Scheme of Law in France or south Sea are mere trifles compared to numbers, to the excitement that has prevailed in this Country for the last three Months — not a bushel of wheat has been sown this Fall or Spring fortunately although one third was lost we had a most abundant crop last Fall and we have secured a sufficiency for two years although had we a five years stock it could now be disposed of to advantage as we have already five Ships from Callifornia in quest of Provisions and flour before Summer is over will command 15$ per Barrel at present we sell it at 10$ it is not from Oregon the Miners can be fed but from Ohila and the United States for the consumption will equal not less than three hundred Barrels per diem this appears a large quantity although it is the opinion of many it will not suffice — Per Bark Cowlitz that sail’d in Decr for England we sent a valuable cargo of Furs and also upwards of Seventy thousand dollars and a few Pounds of Gold Dust since then we have secured about four hundred Pounds Gold Dust if we as it appears over value our Beaver last Spring in our accounts and in so doing we only obeyed orders surely the same complaint will not be made in regard to our Gold dust as we have only paid for it at the rate of 12$ per oz in Goods taking precious good care to place 300 p Ct on prime Cost but all would not do we are Bankrupt in Goods but thank God not in Character and we are so anxiously looking for our London Ship there is no doubt on its arrival its Cargo will soon find a ready market and we have some hopes as it appears we are soon to leave the Columbia that its last years may redound with great profits to all concerned and what will prove equally satisfactory to the Board of Management with honor to themselves — you can form very little idea of the state of anxiety we have endured for the last three Months and still endure and when I take into consideration the low state of our Dividens it is to those who suffer no great inducement to remain and did I not expect soon to see an end to the Columbia I would this year send in my resignation — in regard to health I am now in the full enjoyment not so fortunate in the Summer for the fever laid me prostrate and if I had any sins in my Carcase I must have shaken them out if not they must have taken deep root however I am not of this opinion and trust you that know me will agree with me….

Now you might wonder who Peter Skene Ogden was. This is his biography, from Bruce McIntyre Watson’s books, Lives Lived West of the Divide: 

 Ogden, Peter Skene (c1790-1854) Canadian: English

Born to Loyalist [Tory] parents, a teenage Peter Skene Ogden joined the American Fur Company in Montreal for a short time and then the North West Company as a clerk. In 1817 and 1819 he crossed the Rockies, the second time fleeing from the HBC as he had murdered a native only because he had traded with the HBC. To Ross Cox, Ogden was a complex person, “humorous, honest, eccentric, law-defying… the terror of Indians.” Ogden’s aggressiveness was still evident in 1819 when he led a punitive expedition against the Cowlitz to avenge the death of trapper Nicholas Oskonoton. His men got out of hand and killed twelve largely innocent Cowlitz. To make amends, an officer from Fort George, possibly Ogden himself, had to go through an elaborate wedding ceremony to marry the daughter of Cowlitz chief How-How. In 1820 he was made a NWC partner but at amalgamation because of his violent opposition to the HBC he was not taken on. He pleaded his case in London in 1822, and in 1823 he was taken on as a clerk, soon becoming Chief Trader and was appointed to Spokane House. In 1824, and no doubt because of his toughness, Ogden led the difficult Snake River expeditions for the next six years, replacing a disillusioned Alexander Ross. Ogden had his own problems with one mass desertion in 1825 to the more high paying Americans. He wrote extensive journals on his travels but failed to mention his wife and growing family who must certainly have accompanied him. In 1831 he went north and constructed Fort Simpson on the Nass and three years later, as Chief Factor that negotiated with the Russians for an HBC lease of the Russian American panhandle. The following year, he was sent to New Caledonia where he spent nine years. One year after retiring [returning would be the correct word] in 1846, he ransomed the survivors of the Whitman Massacre bringing them down to Fort Vancouver. He worked at Fort Vancouver until August 18, 1854, when an ill Ogden went to Oregon City to recuperate from a “disease of the brain,” however, in September, he died near Oregon City, at the home of Archibald McKinlay and was buried in the Mountain View Cemetery on September 30.

Ogden played a role in Saskatchewan history as well, and this is covered in his biography, which you will find here:

To find out more about what happened with the various gold rushes that occurred after the California gold rush, read this post:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2015. All rights reserved.