John Kirk Townsend was a naturalist who trekked west to the Columbia River, travelling in with Nathaniel Wyeth’s 1834 expedition. He spent two years in the Columbia district before traveling back to the east coast of the United States via the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii] and Chile. On his return to the east he wrote his Narrative of a Journey Across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River, which has been republished under the same title by Oregon State University Press in Corvallis in 1999. It’s a good read and there is plenty of information in this book.
I am, however, going to talk about one paragraph only, written on February 3d, 1836. The “Fort William” he refers to is Fort George, and James Birnie, not “Mr. Walker,” was in charge.
During a visit to Fort William, last week, I saw, as I wandered through the forest, about three miles from the house, a canoe, deposited, as is usual, in the branches of a tree, some fourteen feet from the ground. Knowing that it contained the body of an Indian, I ascended to it for the purpose of abstracting the skull; but upon examination, what was my surprise to find a perfect, embalmed body of a young female, in a state of preservation equal to any which I had seen from the catacombs of Thebes. I determined to obtain possession of it, but as this was not the proper time to carry it away, I returned to the fort, and said nothing of the discovery which I had made.
That night, at the witching hour of twelve, I furnished myself with a rope and launched a small canoe, which I paddled up against the current to a point opposite the mummy tree. Here I ran my canoe ashore, and removing my shoes and stockings, proceeded to the tree, which was about a hundred yards from the river. I ascended, and making the rope fast around the body, lowered it gently to the ground; then arranging the fabric which had been displaced, as nearly as the darkness allowed I descended, and taking the body upon my shoulders, bore it to my canoe, and pushed off into the stream. On arriving at the fort, I deposited my prize in the store house, and sewed around it a large Indian mat, to give it the appearance of a bale of guns. Being on a visit to the fort, with Indians whom I had engaged to paddle my canoe, I thought it unsafe to take the mummy on board when I returned to Vancouver the next day, but left directions with Mr. Walker to stow it away under the hatches of the little schooner, which was running twice a week between the two forts.
This story was familiar to me, and in my Birnie notes I find I have it written down. The story comes from James Robert Anderson’s Memoirs, Mss 1912, B.C. Archives. James was Birnie’s grandson, and eldest child of Alexander Caulfield Anderson. Here’s what he wrote:
After breakfast they [the Missionaries] were again on their way and had not been long on the river when they passed the tree, high in the branch of which was lodged the body of the “Petrified and preserved sister.”
The story of this body, although it carried with it a strong appearance of improbability, the Doctor had no inclination to disbelieve, as he afterwards heard it from Mr. [James] Birnie repeatedly, and from Dr. [John Kirk] Townsend, who was at the time travelling through the country with Mr. [Thomas] Nuttall, the famous botanist, and others who were acquainted with the facts, for a tale of truth.
Near the place, several years previously, had lived an Indian family of which little was known save the following circumstance. A daughter, perhaps between the ages of 16 and 18 years, was afflicted with a long and painful illness. She had a brother by whom she was passionately beloved, who would sit hours by her bedside clasping her hand in his and bending upon her looks of pity and affection.
When she died his distress and grief knew no bounds and he had her obsequies performed in a manner differing entirely from the usual custom of the tribe. She was dressed in her holiday robes and ornaments and placed carefully upon mats in a canoe and suspended in the topmost boughs of an alder. So far as can be learned these people are unacquainted with the art of embalming and there is, therefore, no reason for supposing that the youth resorted to such means, but certain it is that he visited her weekly, mourning over the dear remains, and after some time elapsed he announced that he did not believe that his sister was dead as she had not begun to decay in the least.
The friends repaired to the spot and found, as he had said, that not the slightest trace of decay could be discovered. This phenomenon continued for seven or eight years, at which time Dr. Townsend happened to hear the wonderful stories of the young girl who had been petrified by her brother’s tears, and determined to get sight of her.
This he succeeded in doing unobserved, and found the body in a most perfect state of preservation, wearing in every particular a semblance of youth and freshness. He was stricken with amazement and immediately resolved to steal her away, and bring her to the United States where he was certain she would be to him of immense value, as never within his knowledge had such a wonder been exhibited there.
He accomplished the business, so far as getting the corpse from the tree and even conveying it to [Fort George] Astoria, when Mr. Birnie was fearful of the consequence if the act were detected. The sequel proved his apprehensions were justifiable, for in a day or two the brother, on his first visit to the tree, discovered that the canoe was vacant and immediately suspected Dr. Townsend or some other white man, for none of his own race would be guilty of disturbing the repose of the dead. Transported with rage and grief he immediately assembled a band of braves, and armed and horribly painted, they presented themselves at the door of the Fort and demanded the body. At first Dr. Townsend disclaimed all knowledge of it, but upon Mr. Birnie representing to him the danger they incurred, himself especially, for they firmly declared they would sacrifice him to their vengeance, he reluctantly consented to its delivery. They received the corpse with every demonstration of reverence and carrying it back, deposited it in its former resting place, where it was not again disturbed…
It was interesting to find this story in Dr. Townsend’s book, and to be familiar with what actually happened. James also remarked: “I believe it is probable from the fact that, in my own experience, bodies placed in canoes — the usual method of sepulture on the Columbia River — wrapped in matts as described, covered with boards and with holes punched in the bottoms of the canoes, retained their form for many years, the bodies becoming quite mummified so that they could be lifted up without falling apart. But as for their retaining any lifelike appearance, that may be put down as fiction without any ceremony.” And yet…
To return to the first post in this James Birnie series, go here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/james-birnie-one/
When the next post is published, it will appear here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/james-birnie-ten/
Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2019. All rights reserved.
- Birnie and the Missionaries
- Oxford House