Birnie and the Missionaries

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle
A Sailing ship in a bottle, from early 1900’s

It seems that James Birnie was the first HBC man to greet the many missionaries who arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River. I have many stories in my files on this, and some of them are quite amusing! Here is a story I collected. I don’t know who wrote it but it seems to be a grand-child — probably a Carmony:

My grandfather [James Birnie], in 1837, was stationed at Fort George at the mouth of the Columbia, where he met the Rev. W. White, Methodist missionary, on his arrival from New York by the ship Hamilton. This meeting is related by Miss Allen in her book previously quoted [?], as follows:

“When they reached Fort George, now Astoria, it was about 10 o’clock in the evening, and they were conducted up a gentle slope perhaps one hundred and fifty years from the landing, to the residence of Mr. Birnie, clerk of the trading post at that place, where they were handsomely welcomed by him and his wife.

“When they entered the house they were much impressed with its homelike appearance. A bright fire blazed cheerfully on the hearth, the fir floor was scrubbed clean and net, and the pine table was of snowy whiteness. Furniture was scarce, indeed, the only seats being low wooden benches…

I don’t know who this William White is: the missionary who was with Jason Lee was Elijah White, according to the information I have. They also arrived on the Lausanne, not the Hamilton. But that does not matter: I also found this interesting little snippet in my James Birnie files, and I don’t know if it has anything to do with anything at all. But it comes from the book, Beside the Beautiful Willamette, by John Parsons [Metropolitan Press, 1924]. Here is what it says about the Missionary Jason Lee, who was exploring the Columbia District:

Methodism drove its first stake in the valley of the Umpqua in 1838. On Friday the 16th of February, Jason Lee, in company with Mr. Burnie, left the Willamette Mission to explore the Umpqua Country, and returned on the 11th day of March. There lies much of the heroic in his experiences on this trip. It was a toilsome and dangerous journey through deep forests, over mountain fastness, and across swollen rivers and creeks.

Who was Jason Lee? He was a missionary, one of the first Protestant Christian missionaries in the Pacific Northwest. As the result of an article published in the Christian Advocate and Journal, Jason Lee and his nephew Daniel Lee volunteered to serve the Methodist Episcopal Church as missionaries in the interior Northwest. They travelled west in an expedition led by trader Nathaniel Wyeth, arriving at Fort Vancouver where Chief Factor John McLoughlin encouraged Lee to locate his mission in the Willamette Valley, near present-day Salem. I presume, perhaps incorrectly, that the man who accompanied him and showed him the way to the Umpqua, was James Birnie.

Here is what Eva Dye, in her book McLoughlin and Old Oregon [N.Y, Wison-Erickson, 1936] had to say of James Birnie and his relationship with the missionaries who arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River, when she talks about Christmas at Fort Vancouver in 1839:

From the mouth of the Columbia came the handsome Birnie girls, whose father, James Birnie, a genial, jolly Aberdeen Scotchman, kept the only hostelry from Vancouver to the sea and from Sitka to San Francisco. Old Astoria, renamed Fort George, had been abandoned; but after the Clatsop trouble Dr. McLoughlin had sent Birnie there to keep a lookout for passing ships. Here he cultivated a little garden, did a little Indian trading in salted salmon and sea-otter skins, kept a weather eye out on the bar over which at long intervals a ship came into the river. Astor’s old post was burned; only the scarified and blackened chimney stood among the ruins that were overrun with brier and honeysuckle. The latchstring of Birnie’s log house on the hillside was out to the trapper, the trader, the Indian, and the sailor. More than one old missionary has paid tribute to the housekeeping virtues of his pretty wife, the daughter of a Hudson’s Bay trader in the north country. [Not true]. Her blazing hearth, clean-scrubbed fir floor, and neat pine table of snowy whiteness, offered cheer and comfort to all the early wanderers who came “the plains across or the Horn around.” Sole Saxon of the forest, Birnie’s flag was first to welcome the incoming ship, and last to wave a farewell from the shore.

That’s a little syrupy, but a fun read. It seems that James Birnie had a lot to do with the missionaries who arrived at Fort George. This, from the book or article: 1843-44, Voyage of the Infatigable, Father de Smet Bicentennial. De Smet was a Belgian missionary who came to the Columbia District, and eventually to Victoria; in fact he is buried outside the Catholic church in Victoria.

After days of tension for crew and passenger, the ship is finally able to anchor in Young’s Bay. In the afternoon a canoe with Clatsop Indians visits the ship coming from the distant port of Antwerp, and from them they [the missionaries] learn how lucky they have been. The mouth of the Columbia has two channels. The one in front of Cape Disappointment is the deepest and is the one that is generally used. The southern channel is not charted and in normal circumstances it is not to be used by large ships, as it is rather shallow. James Birnie, the representative of Hudson’s Bay Company in Astoria, tells the Belgians that he crossed the Columbia in order to show them the way, by making the signals the crew of the Infatigable noticed a few days earlier. The Captain of the Infatigable explained he imagined the signals to be a trap by the natives to run the boat aground and to plunder it. In the evening Birnie provides them with fresh salmon and apples while curious chinook Indians accost the boat.

The captain must await a pilot if he wants to sail his large vessel up the Columbia. De Smet, impatient as always, does not want to waste any more time. He will travel as fast as he can on a canoe to Fort Vancouver…

Cape Disappointment is on the north side of the mouth of the Columbia River. The river mouth is, by the way, blocked with sandbanks and very dangerous, and the bar was never crossed in bad weather. Of course, Birnie had something to say of this incident! This from Willamette Interlude, by Sister Mary Dominica [Palo Alto: Pacific Books, 1959].

They [the missionaries] were singing the Te Deum together at nine o’clock when Mr. Birnie came aboard with the owner of the ship… Now they learned how that ship had been forced back by the wind and how Mr. Birnie had taken a band of Indians to Cape Disappointment, where they lighted fires, waved flags, and fired guns and cannon to attract the Infatigable in that direction. Certainly God had saved them, Mr. Birnie agreed, but in order that a second miracle might not be necessary he would come a board again very early in the morning to guide them through the banks that lay between them and the fort. He added that Mrs. [Charlot] Birnie would be expecting all the passengers as soon as they landed.

I think my great-grandfather had a sense of humor!

Father de Smet declared the next day a holiday, and that, by common ascent, meant a walk in the forest. Such a forest as none of them had ever seen, its giant trees shining rain clean in the morning sun! All the world was bright for the Sisters as they stepped ashore and found Mrs. Birnie and her seven fine-looking daughters waiting to receive them. One and all, the girls were quite captivated by the Sisters, who in turn were delighted with the cordiality of this Protestant family..

Strolling under the giant trees, the Sisters chatted about the hospitable Scotch captain, his equally hospitable Canadian wife, whose French “was very good, and their well-trained children… and Captain Birnie was explaining to Father De Smet that the fir before them was forty-two feet in circumference, and that the blackberries growing on all sides under the big tree made excellent pie.

What an exuberant country! Everything, including the fine dinner at the fort, spoke of a gracious land. But the Sisters were somewhat astonished at certain customs. Here was Father De Smet [Catholic] requested by the staunch Protestant head of the house to ask a blessing before dinner. And what was really disconcerting, the women of the house declined wine. Unwilling to offend, the Sisters had to forego this strengthening concomitant of a Belgian meal.

Governor Birnie advised Captain Moller to wait… The passengers, he insisted, must come ashore for dinner again, and Mrs. Birnie would have blackberry pie for them. Besides, he said, they had not had time to explore the fort on their first visit….

Captain Birnie? Governor Birnie? James Birnie was still a clerk in the Hudson’s Bay Company, and would be that for many years more. In fact, he would retire a clerk. But that’s a story for the future.

The next James Birnie story will appear here when written:

To return to the beginning, go here:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson. All rights reserved.