James Birnie Retires

Fort George [Astoria]

Fort George [Astoria] where James Birnie spent many years in the service of the HBC. Image from Library and Archives Canada, number C-040856, and used with their permission.

James Birnie was a big man; a broad-shouldered and deep-chested man who stood six feet tall, according to Irene Martin, who wrote the book Beach of Heaven. He spoke in a broad Scottish brogue and was called “Scotty” by his co-workers, who, though of Scottish descent, were for the most part from Canada or the eastern States. In his position at Fort George, Birnie earned the respect of the Chinook First Nations that surrounded him, who trusted him and gave him the name Keets-Keets-we-aw-Keet, or Great Chief. Birnie was fair, but he could be tough, too. When dealing with the First Nations, James Birnie’s motto was “Never show the white feather to an Indian.” The paragraph that this comes from was written by Birnie’s grandson, James Robert Anderson, in his Memoirs:

At the same time, in their dealing with the natives a little rough punishment had to be meted out as witnessed by the following instance, related by Alex D. Birnie:

The chief of a tribe of Indians living at Pillar Rock who were known as the Skookoom Tillihum was inclined to be impudent in his dealings with the Company. On one occasion he was particularly offensive, which so incensed by grandfather [James Birnie] that he reached over the counter and broke a fine cane over the fellow’s head. The lesson was very salutary as no more impudence was attempted. My grandfather’s motto was “Never show the white feather to an Indian.”

James Robert Anderson, “Notes and Comments on Early Days and Events in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, p. 218. Transcript, Mss 1912, Box 9, BCA.

Birnie’s life at Fort George remained peaceful and quiet. By this time, the old headquarters was grown over with brush except for a small patch of ground that produced fine potatoes. The Birnie home was a log house that stood one story tall, 60 feet long and 20 wide. It had a stone chimney, two rooms and an entry room, and there may have been sleeping quarters under the roof. Close by stood some log and plank buildings, and the largest of these was the salmon-house that stored the salt and the hundreds of barrels of salmon produced at this place.

Although John McLoughlin always appeared to appreciate his work, James Birnie was disappointed every year when the list of men who received their chief trader’s commission was delivered to the fort. Clerks often waited for their commission for years before it was awarded, and each year they did not attain it was a year of disappointment and, in some cases, humiliation. In 1847, another HBC clerk described his disappointment when he did not receive his expected promotion. Although he had never had a complaint lodged against him, he had been superseded in his department by three junior officers — men who in his opinion could never have run a fur trade fort. He was so angry at the slight that he considered leaving the Company’s service, and so humiliated he could hardly show his face in the fort.

Birnie must have felt these emotions many times over. As early as 1835, he had wondered why he was unsuccessful in obtaining a promotion. His friend Peter Skene Ogden addressed the issue with Governor Simpson, in a letter dated March 30, 1835: “I have also my cause to be well pleased with Mr. Birnie’s arrangements, and whom from his long services I beg leave to recommend as justly deserving of promotion.”

By the 1840’s, Birnie had already put in more than twenty years of service, suffering anticipation and disappointment every summer. Eventually he saw he had no chance of success in Governor Simpson’s fur trade, and quietly made his decision to retire. Birnie’s actions even before he left the company showed his determination to leave. In 1845, when Birnie purchased a quarter-share in a sawmill owned by Albert Wilson, one of the many Americans now flooding into the Oregon Territory, Chief Factor James Douglas wrote:

Whenever a man comes to that way of thinking the sooner he goes the better, as lukewarm supporters are worse than open enemies. I do not however mean to cast reflections on Birnie’s zeal, as I believe he took the plunge in sheer despair of any thing being done for him in the service. I would advise you to treat him leniently…

James Douglas to Governor Simpson, April 4, 1845, D.4/14, fo. 391, HBCA

On March 7, 1845, Birnie sadly penned his letter of resignation to McLoughlin. “After waiting patiently for a long time and seeing a number of my juniors promoted over me,” he wrote, “I am under the necessity of retiring from the service of the Hon. Hudson’s Bay Company, Spring 1846, however painful this step may be to my feelings after 28 years servitude with a large family to provide for and with slender means before me. But I have no other alternative.”

But long before Birnie realized he was getting nowhere in the Company, his friends knew he would never make chief trader. In 1843, Francis Ermatinger described Birnie in a letter to his brother, Edward — “Birnie remains at Fort George and has children enough for a colony. He looks as young as ever, and is as fat and lazy as a man ought to be, when he is though no more of than he is by Sir George [Governor Simpson].” Ermatinger recorded that Birnie believed he had offended the Governor by dropping a sheet in the water — “He [Birnie] told me that Sir George sent two cotton sheets to be washed, and while taking them to the ship one fell overboard, but he intended to send another to London and hoped his offence would be forgiven — poor fellow.” Ermatinger knew something that Birnie did not — that in 1842, Governor Simpson had demanded John McLoughlin retire Birnie with a pension of 60 pound per annum for seven years. McLoughlin had refused to do so, saying privately that the Governor should do his dirty work himself, but informing the Governor that he had no good replacement for Birnie.

Birnie’s misfortunes began years earlier, when the HBC governor met him at Fort Okanogan in 1824. Six years after that first meeting, Simpson wrote in his Character Book:

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 pound per annum.

G. Williams, “The Character Book of Governor George Simpson,” in Hudson’s Bay Miscellany, 1670-1870, HBRS, p. 202.

The first “negative” impression Simpson would have received from Birnie was his speech — the Scottish brogue that would have reminded Simpson of his humble beginnings as an illegitimate child in the north-eastern town of Dingwall. Simpson was 16 when he left Dingwall for London, but in years afterwards he did everything he could to conceal his humble roots.

Secondly, Simpson always held a poor education against a man, and Birnie’s speech clearly indicated a lack of education. Birnie’s father and grandfather were tanners and shoemakers who could never have sent a child to university. Reading suited Birnie’s lazy nature, but his reading was limited to Scottish writers such as Sir Walter Scott — light reading in comparison to that enjoyed by others in the fur trade. Moreover, in the absence of school-teachers most fur traders schooled their own children, but Birnie’s son, Robert, always mourned the fact that he was never a well-educated man.

When James Birnie finally retired from the company in June 1846, he had a choice of properties to build on. He had been offered property in the new settlement of Portland now springing up across the water from Fort Vancouver, but refused it. “Malaria, mosquitoes and a swamp,” Birnie scoffed. “I’ve chosen a place that will be my Retreat that’s high enough on the river bluff to be out of all danger of flood. There’s good water, pasture for cattle, space for an orchard. Keep Portland. I’ll take the Retreat.” His new choice for a home was thirty miles east of Fort George on the north side of the Columbia. Here it was cooler in the summer than Fort Vancouver, but warmer than the foggy summer coastline.

As early as 1844, while he was still employed by the Company, Birnie sent men to clear a piece of land and erect a little store on the river bank. On the curve of the hill above the store he built his house. The finished house was substantial, with window-sills 12 or 14 inches wide and windows that had 9 or 12 panes of glass per sash. The lumber for these buildings came from Albert Wilson’s sawmill on the south side of the river.

In the summer of 1846, Birnie and his family left Fort George in a small fleet of boats. He brought with him a lock for his new store, a band of Spanish cattle which he had pasturing on the Plains at Clatsop, and sixteen First Nations employees he had rescued from the slave trade that had always flourished up and down the Pacific coast from the Queen Charlotte Islands to California. Birnie settled his family into the house on the top of the hill, and opened his store to business.

He had chosen well. The American settlers who now flooded into the territory settled near Fort George and Portland, and American soldiers constructed their new camp outside Fort Vancouver. Birnie’s Retreat became a stopping place halfway between the new settlements of Upper and Lower Astoria, and Portland. Dried salmon sold for $20 a barrel, butter was $1.00 a pound, while lard was 60 cts. Fine shirts sold for $2.50, whiskey for $3.00 a gallon, and gin, $3.50.

When this story continues (as it will) you will find it here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/james-birnie-fourteen/

If you wish to return to the beginning of this thread, go here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/birnie-one/

I hope you continue to enjoy my stories of my great-great-grandfather, James Birnie. He was an important man in the Columbia District — perhaps not important in his time, but certainly now.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.