Alexander Caulfield Anderson at Fort Nisqually

Fort Nisqually and Puget Sound

This drawing of Fort Nisqually was done by Steve A. Anderson and is used with his kind permission

This is a talk I gave in front of the Anderson Island Historical Society, in Puget Sound. Alexander Caulfield Anderson had history here — he spent almost two years in charge of the first Fort Nisqually, in modern-day Tacoma, WA. From this old post Anderson looked across the water at modern-day Anderson Island.

I began with thanking these people for their invitation to talk, and introduced my great-grandfather to them with these words:

Alexander Caulfield Anderson was a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trader and explorer. Today, in British Columbia at least, he is mostly remembered for the four explorations he made across the mountains that separated the fort at Kamloops, from Fort Langley on the lower Fraser River.

I am talking to Americans who have no knowledge of Anderson’s place in British Columbia’s history. They only know that he was at Fort Nisqually, and that Anderson Island was named for him. For me, this was an opportunity to talk about things other than his explorations. These stories differ from any you will find in any other post, so here we go!

Alexander Anderson was born in India, on March 10, 1814. His father, Robert Anderson, had made a mess of his military career in Australia and Tasmania, and rebuilt his life in British India as an indigo planter. By 1810 he was part owner of a plantation near Kishinaghaur, close to Ruttanpoor and north of Calcutta.

Robert Anderson’s partner’s name was Alexander Gordon Caulfield — and that is how his third son came to be named Alexander Caulfield Anderson.

Robert was the seventh child of a commoner, a tenant-farmer named James Anderson of Hermiston, and his noble wife, Margaret Seton. How James managed to entice this foolish gentlewoman, who came from a wealthy family, to marry him, I do not know. But after their marriage James forced Margaret to abandon her inheritance and home, and to bring up his children in brutal poverty near Edinburgh.

Margaret Anderson died after giving birth to numerous children, all of whom then grew up in the indifferent care of their father.

Life father, like son, and Robert (A.C. Anderson’s father) was also a man who was difficult to get along with. After making his fortune in the indigo business at Kishinaghaur, Robert argued with his partner and returned to England with his wife and three sons — a fairly wealthy man. They set up their new home in West Ham, an area in East London then inhabited by the gentry.

Just north of West Ham, on Broadway, stood Rokeby House College, where Alexander and his two older brothers, Henry and James, were sent to be schooled. The boys received what they then called “a liberal education” — an education that meant they studied culture and read books written by intellectuals, old and new. Their father’s receipt for the last year of the children’s schooling, which is in the British Columbia archives, shows that the three boys also took elocution and dancing lessons — they were being trained to be gentlemen, not fur traders.

But wealth that is easily earned is often easily lost, and in London Robert Anderson continued to pursue business interests of his own. He invested much of his fortune in a rope manufacturing company owned, apparently, by his brother, and proceeded to lose his money. About 1821, only 4 years after he had returned to England — a retired Army officer who had known him in Australia met Robert on the London streets, and wrote of their meeting to a common friend:

I conclude you have not forgotten Robert Anderson that was at Norfolk Island and went from thence to India…. He made a handsome fortune, say a capital to produce six or seven hundred a year from trading in Indigo. With this property he returned to England & not being satisfied he entered partnerships with a ropemaker who soon failed, whereby he lost pretty much [all his fortune] and he is now drudging along in that line with scarcely business enough to keep his wife & family, consisting of five or six children. I see him frequently & he inquires after you.

As a direct result of his father’s sudden poverty, young Alexander was forced to abandon his schooling and take a job. This did not happen immediately, but he must have been only thirteen or fourteen years old when he began to clerk at the Leadenhall Street offices of Redman & Co, who traded English goods in China, for Oriental teas and silks. Alexander clerked there for some two and a half years, by which time he was old enough to make a decision on his future.

Harry, his oldest brother, entered the maritime section of the East India Company and worked on one of their ships. Several of Alexander’s cousins chose careers in the British Army or the Army of the Honorable East India Company. Alexander and his older brother James chose the fur trade — a fairly unusual choice for gentlemen like them, but a choice made because their uncle, Alexander Seton, was heavily involved in business with a prominent member of the Board of Directors of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Alexander himself noted that he was drawn to the fur trade because of the rousing stories of American writer James Fennimore Cooper — who wrote, among other stories, The Last of the Mohicans.

So, in 1831, Alexander came to the North American continent looking for adventure. He was sixteen or seventeen years old when he set out on his life’s journey, travelling by ship to Montreal. He spent a long and boring eight months at Lachine, nine miles west of Montreal, where he apprenticed under the elderly fur trade, James Keith — a humorless man who an earlier apprentice described as resembling a “dried spider.”

In Spring of 1832, Alexander boarded the brigade boats in Lachine, and began his six-months-long journey across the continent to Fort Vancouver, via York Factory on Hudson Bay. He arrived in early November, 1832. In a letter to his uncle he described his journey west:

I arrived here on the 4th November, after a voyage from York Factory of 3 1/2 months — partly on horseback — in boats & in canoe… This fort is finely situated on the Columbia River, and the soil is very fertile… The river is huge & navigable for 100 miles from its mouth. Salmon are in immense quantity as well as the moose. I have killed only one Buffalo & one deer since I have been in this country and a great many ducks, geese, partridges, etc.

From Fort Vancouver, Anderson was sent north to Fort McLoughlin, on the northwest coast of today’s British Columbia. In 1835, he ended up with Chief Factor Peter Skene Ogden, at Fort St. James and Fraser’s Lake, New Caledonia. But, in the spring of 1840, Anderson accompanied the outgoing bridge to Fort Vancouver, and in the autumn of that year was appointed to the charge of Fort Nisqually, on Puget Sound.

The Columbia district of the HBC, map

The Columbia district included both the lower Columbia around Fort Vancouver, and the New Caledonia district around Fort St. James

He worked under Chief Factor John McLoughlin. Unlike Peter Skene Ogden, who had micromanaged nothing, McLoughlin controlled all aspects of his fur trade. In later years, Anderson politely described McLoughlin as a “man of great force of character, somewhat domineering and of strong opinions.” McLoughlin’s many letters of instruction were terse: for example, this is one note he wrote to Anderson at Fort Nisqually:

Your ewes you will not allow any of the rams of your place get at them. Please send me an account of the number of sheep at Nisqually and if it does not cause too much delay as diligence ought to be used to send Mr. Arthur across I wish you would count the cattle and send the number at least you can send the number in the books, and let me know the quantity of what [is] in the ground and how many ploughs you have fit for use.

Of course Anderson, who had matured in the relaxed and tolerant atmosphere of the New Caledonia fur trade under Peter Skene Ogden, ran into trouble with McLoughlin. He receive one or two dozen of McLoughlin’s letters before he snapped, and wrote an angry response. The letter he wrote no longer exists, but James Douglas read it, and rebuked Anderson for his hot-tempered response.

I have read your letter to Dr. McLoughlin and do not approve of the warm expostulatory style, which I regret is neither proper nor respectful. It was never, my dear Sir, Dr. McLoughlin’s intention to question the propriety of your general conduct — he merely inquired as a matter of justice equally to himself and to you, whey certain specific orders had not been followed to the letter, and I certainly think you would have acted a much wiser part, had your reply to a requisition so simple, been given in a more courteous way… We hear of trifling deviations from orders, now there can be no such things as a trifling deviation, for whether in trivialities or in grave matters, the principle in question is, in both cases, equally endangered and equally outraged.

So Anderson learned the hard way to obey all orders given him, and I think his time at Fort Nisqually was a difficult time for him. I believe that when Anderson arrived in the Columbia district he was pretty cocky; a confident young man with a very high opinion of himself. He was about twenty-seven years old — in the youthful prime of his life and still young enough to imagine that he would accomplish great things. But life in the fur trade under Chief Factor John McLoughlin knocked that cockiness out of him, and he was a different man in later years.

This Map of the old location of Fort Nisqually was drawn by Steve A. Anderson and is used with his permission

This Map of the old location of Fort Nisqually was drawn by Steve A. Anderson and is used with his permission

So, Anderson remained unhappily in charge of Nisqually for the winter, and in the early spring James Douglas addressed a second letter of advice to him:

I am informed that it has been said within the circle of Bathchelor’s Hall that you are unpopular with the Indians of Nisqually. Without reference to the truth of this rumour I wish to caution you against the exercise of any considerable severity towards the Natives. In assuming a new charge it has always been my study to act with the utmost circumspection, until I become fairly established in the opinion of the Indians. Then but never sooner, I would begin to lecture and reform abuses, having recourse, if necessary to the infliction of moderate punishment, but I always did so with apparent reluctance…

James Douglas had hardly been successful in his own negotiations with the Natives of New Caledonia. In addition to this, he was probably unaware of what had been happening in that fur trade district under Peter Skene Ogden. In recent years Ogden had shut down the old “debt system” that had existed when James Douglas was there. Under that system, the Natives received guns and ammunition every fall, which they paid for in the spring when they brought in their furs. But many Natives never brought in furs to pay their debts. So the fur traders forced the hunter to trade furs for guns and traps in the fall, and to make payment on their outstanding debts every spring.

Of course the Natives objected. Anderson described the Dakelh at Fraser’s Lake as “a peaceful race, yet… subject to violent though transitory outbursts of anger.” Probably he witness a few outbursts in the long four years it took to make such a major change to the fur trade.

But that was in New Caledonia. Here in the Columbia district that debt system had never existed. There was no need to be forceful with the Natives, but I think Anderson had to learn that, and it was a difficult transition to make. He had arrived at Fort Nisqually when the trader in charge was too sick to train him. He was an absolute stranger in this part of the world, and to these Natives, who were quite different from those in the North. Yes, he made some errors. Many errors, in fact.

He was also stuck at the first Fort Nisqually, a place that had been described by historians as the “armpit” of the fur trade. No fur trader yet had advanced his career at this post. Anderson must have been aware of this: but he stayed to do his work. And because he remained at old Fort Nisqually, he became a part of a very important piece of history.

On May 11th, 1841, Alexander Anderson reported to the governor of the Company that “Nisqually Bay was enlivened by the arrival of the Vincennes and Porpoise, two of the vessels attached to the United States Exploring Expedition under Lieutenant Charles Wilkes. Their story is told in Nathaniel Philbrook’s book Sea of Glory, and the red-coat that Wilkes describes is Alexander Caulfield Anderson.

In a second book Puget Sound, author Murray Morgan describes the first meeting of Lieutenant Wilkes, leader of the expedition, and Alexander Anderson. As you hopefully know, at this time Oregon Territory was jointly owned by the British and the Americans, though few Americans were yet here.

For the first time, British and American officials faced each other on the water their countries coveted. Alexander Canfield Anderson, the slight, thoughtful chief trader at Nisqually, and Henry McNeill, the burly short-tempered captain of the Beaver, introduced themselves to Wilkes. They promised the Americans “all the assistance in their power” or, Wilkes added skeptically in his journal, “at least that was their offer. A few days will show the extent of it.”

You will notice the author incorrectly listed Anderson’s name. Still, Morgan’s research was good. On his Donation Land Claim papers, taken out in the early 1850’s, Anderson was listed as “Alexander Canfield Anderson.”

Fort Nisqually on Puget Sound

This well-researched Fort Nisqually painting was done by Steve A. Anderson and is used with his kind permission

According to one of Wilkes’ expeditioners, the Fort Nisqually stockade was oblong-shaped 200 by 250 feet, of “uprights posts eight or ten feet high, at each corner a Sentry Box or house large enough to hold fifteen or twenty persons, perforated with holes of sufficient size to admit the muzzle of a musket.”

A second crew member noted that “the site was never chosen by an Engineer or wasn’t calculated to stand a siege,  as its inmates are compelled to go nearly a mile to get their water.” He noted, too, that the Stockade “was falling to decay and they are about to build another in a better site,” further north and closer to the farm and dairy.

So the hundreds of members of the United States Exploring Expedition arrived at run-down Fort Nisqually in May, 1841. They built a log house they called the “observatory” on a hill near the fort, and stored their instruments there. In short order Lieutenant Wilkes organized surveying parties. The ship’s boats set off to explore and survey the coastline, and in their coastal charting they named many of the islands and straits for the American sailors and scientists on the expedition. Others they named for the fur traders: McNeil Island was named for William Henry McNeill, Captain of the Beaver, while Anderson Island was named for Alexander Caulfield Anderson.

Two other groups of sailors and expeditioners would borrow horses from the Natives and explore the interior of what was then Oregon Territory. Wilkes himself headed south to Fort Vancouver, where he met Chief Factor McLoughlin and Governor George Simpson, who had just arrived there. He visited the Willamette Valley where a few Americans lived, and traveled to the mouth of the Columbia River. There he saw the waves that blocked its entrance, and he realized that the United States needed to claim Puget Sound as theirs, for its excellent navigation and safe waters.

At the end of June, Lieutenant Wilkes and his men returned to Fort Nisqually. On July 5th, the Americans celebrated the 4th of July. They obtained an ox from Fort Nisqually, and barbecued it all night on a spit in the meadow where they planned to have their party. Early next morning, they fired their brass howitzers twenty six times — one time for each state of the Union! One of the expeditioners reported that:

The reports of the guns not only astonished the natives, but waked up the red-coats in the fort, who came running up to the observatory with the Indians, nearly out of breath, to enquire the cause of the racket. We pointed to our country’s flag, which was so proudly waving in the breeze over the observatory — they then called us a crew of crazy Americans.

At nine o’clock or so the American sailors marched toward the old fort with fife and drum in lead, and gave the British  fur traders a loud three cheers. The Brits cheered back, and the sailors were amused that there were only three or four men inside the fort to return their cheer. They continued their march to the picnic grounds near the mission station where everything was ready for their celebration. Sailors raced across the prairie on horses borrowed from the Natives; others played football or cornerball. Some danced on a door to the music of the fiddle. The Nisqually natives, apparently confounded by the music that came from this tiny box with strings, examined the instrument carefully to see  how it could make such a racket.

Speechmaking began in the early afternoon, when the sergeant of marines read the Declaration of Independence out loud. Dinner was piped in at four, and Wilkes said, “All the officers present dined with me — Mr. Anderson, Capt. McNeill & Dr. Richmond, Missionary. All seemed to enjoy themselves and I gave them as good chow as the Oregon territory afforded.”

Fort Nisqually drawing

This drawing of Fort Nisqually was done by Steve A. Anderson and is used with his permission

Less than a week after that feast, Alexander Anderson accompanied Wilkes on a visit to the Shutes River, intending, Wilkes said, “to visit the Bute Prairies, for the purpose of examining them.” The Bute Prairies is now the Mounds Prairie, or Mima Mounds, near Olympia.  Both Wilkes and Anderson were curious about these mounds, and tried to determine whether or not they were burial sites. As we now know, they are not. “No kinds of articles, bones or anything was found in them,” Wilkes reported. “The Indians have no tradition respecting them whatever… Having finished our examination, I determined to return to my party at the falls, and accordingly parted with my friend Mr. A., who intended to return to Nisqually.”

But back at Nisqually, trouble was brewing. The fort was very cramped, with many farm and fur trade buildings crowded inside its palisades. Both Anderson and Captain McNeill, and their families, lived in the same house. It cannot have been pleasant, especially when it appears the two men did not get along. The captain was a burly man with a fierce temper, a carrier of grudges who reported on Anderson behind his back to Chief Factor McLoughlin. On June 5, 1841, McNeill wrote that: “Very little fur makes its appearance at this place however I have seen some Beaver brought here and taken away again. On August 4th, McNeill reported that:

On the 2nd ulto Mr. Anderson and Andrew St. Martin had a quarrel together. I did not ascertain at the time the real cause of the dispute but have since learned that it was about some order that St. Martin did not execute cheerfully or with dispatch. St. Martin came to me today and said he would not remain at the place but would go and seek redress at Vancouver…

In early September Governor George Simpson arrived at the post on his whirlwind tour around the world, and McNeill complained directly to him. Simpson wrote a note to McLoughlin:

I learn from Captain McNeill that the Indians usually frequenting this place are in a very disaffected state, arising from Mr. Anderson’s want of popularity, & as his recent conduct in reference to St. Martin has been exceeding unpopular, both Mr. Douglas and myself, likewise Captain McNeill consider it advisable that a change of management should immediately take place.

Anderson was not at the fort at this time, and would not return home for another month. In October he found Governor Simpson’s letter awaiting him.

For a variety of reasons which it may not be necessary to detail at present, I think a change of management here is likely to be advantageous in several points of view.

I don’t know if Anderson was relieved, or worried. He packed up his belongings and spent the winter at Fort Vancouver, under John McLoughlin’s disapproving eye. In the spring he took out the York Factory express to Hudson’s Bay, and returned to the Columbia. It must have been a tough journey. After he left York Factory, the bitchy, gossiping Chief Factor’s wife wrote this of him:

The gentlemen here are too apt to thrash and indeed point their guns at their men and Mr. Anderson, who came across from Vancouver last spring was so detested that they confessed that if he had fallen into the river not one would have held out a stick to him.

We don’t really know what happened at Fort Nisqually, but the voyageurs he traveled with did know, and I think they gave him a very hard time. On his return to the West side of the Rocky Mountains, Anderson left the express at Fort Colvile and rode north and west to take charge of Fort Alexandria. He did much of his most important work at this place.

I think he had some hard lessons to learn at Fort Nisqually, but he learned them. In the following years Donald Manson, at Fort St. James, dealt regularly with argumentative employees who tried to abandon the fur trade. Anderson never had much problem with his employees. In fact, while he was later in charge at Fort Colvile his employees remained until their contracts were finished, even though the California gold rush was in full swing at the time.

So Anderson learned a lot at Fort Nisqually, and I believe his time there was pivotal — at least in his personal history.  What happened here might have disappointed him. He may have felt as if he was a failure.

But I think what happened here changed him, and taught him to be a better man. He did his most important work after he left Fort Nisqually. He left the place mature enough to be  the man that the fur traders chose to explore for the new trails they thought they might need, when the boundary line went through. And in 1848, when the massacre of the Waiilatpu Missionaries forced the fur traders to abandon their Columbia River route, his rough trails were already in place and available to them.

As miserable as he was at Fort Nisqually, he did grow up to become the man the fur trade would have to depend on in a crisis.

Copyright Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2014. All rights reserved.