Murder at Pillar Rock

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 played a role in the punishment of the murderers of the HBC fisherman at Pillar Rock in August 1840. This is the story that I promised you a little while ago. The murder occurred only a few days after the Missionary’s ship, Lausanne, arrived in Baker’s Bay, the anchorage across the way from Fort George and just inside the entrance of the Columbia River. 

(But, as always, there will be one or two mini-stories in this post, as I notice things that I had not noticed previously.)

James Birnie’s life at Fort George, pictured above, remained peaceful and quiet. By this time, the old pre-Fort Vancouver headquarters was grown over with brush, except for a small patch of ground that produced fine White Potatoes. (Though I read this journal a million times, I hadn’t realized what “White Potatoes” were — these are the “new potatoes” that I grew up on, planted every fall, I presume, and dug up in late summer for immediate consumption. They do not keep, and as a result they only appear in our local grocery stores for a few months. I always miss these delicious potatoes when they are gone!)

The beginning of the murder story is this: A man salting salmon near Pillar Rock, five or six miles from Fort George, was found murdered in his bed, and the news was brought downriver to Fort George, where James Birnie was posted. Concerned for the safety of the residents at the isolated post, Birnie sent across the river to the local Chinook chief for protection. The Chinook responded quickly, coming to protect the post and at the same time sending some of their members upriver to Fort Vancouver, carrying a message for John McLoughlin.  

From James R. Anderson’s memoirs:

…A man by the name of McKay, and a boy, were stationed at what is now known as Brookfield, a few miles above Astoria, with a store of goods for trading with the Indians. They were murdered and the goods plundered. Realizing the impotence of attempting aggressive measures with the small number of whites at his command, my grandfather [James Birnie] summoned a conference of the chiefs of the principal tribes in the vicinity to whom he related the facts of the outrage. “Now,” said he, “until this murder is avenged all communication between us must cease and in the meantime a sufficient force of whites will be sent for and the offenders brought to justice by force. Now I ask you chiefs to take the matter in hand in order to avoid further trouble, and bring the offenders to justice when suitable rewards will be made to you.” The result was that the murderers, seven in number, were brought in and hanged and all the trouble ended.

The Chinook chiefs must have quickly identified the murderers, and it appears they did not delay in giving the HBC the information. To find the rest of this story we now go to “The Journal of John H. Frost, 1840-43,” edited by Nellie B. Pipes, and published in Oregon Historical Quarterly, 1934. On August 17, 1840:

A young man at this place [Fort George] expressed great anxiety on Saturday last, and also on yesterday morning, for the welfare of Kenneth McKay, who was near the pillar rock, five or six miles from this, salting salmon. And having obtained leave of Mr. Birnie, he set out yesterday morning to see him; but to his astonishment, when he arrived at the place, he found McKay murdered in his bed, and he also found an Indian boy that was with him lying dead outside of the tent. Being in great agitation, he reembarked with the body of McKay, and the goods which were left, leaving the body of the boy lying on the shore, and arrived at this place a quarter past eight in the evening, and made known unto us the distressing intelligence. After securing the corpse &c, Mr. Birnie became concerned for our safety. Seeing we had but two guns about the house, and but three men to use them, he therefore sent two Indians across the river to Chanamess, the Chinook chief, for men and arms. This request was speedily complied with, and we were soon favoured with the presence of Chanamess and 15 or 20 warriors, three of which he sent on an express to Vancouver, and the rest remained as our safe guard.

Kenneth McKay was a mixed-blood Iroquois, according to the editor of this piece. However, in his book, Lives Lived West of the Divide, Bruce Watson says that McKay was born in the Orkneys to James and Anna [McLeod] McKay, and that he sailed to Hudson Bay in 1828 to join the fur trade. He worked in the Columbia district for twelve years, and was only 34 or 35 years old when he was killed. By the way, Frost’s journal also says he was not knifed, as Bruce Watson says, but shot through the chest. “We committed his mangled remains to the silent tomb,” at Fort George, Frost says, “to await the sound of the last trumpet, when that corruption shall put on incorruption…” (This story is also told in Lee and Frost, p. 270-74, and Hines, Oregon, 390-91. I don’t have those journals, and wonder what they have to say that might differ from what Frost says?)

The first of the HBC men who were to avenge the death of McKay arrived at Fort George on board the Maryland, on August 23. On the 24th:

This morning a party of men left in a large boat, and canoe, to cut off the Indians who instigated and committed the murder of McCay [sic]. They took with them two women which were found yesterday in an encampment on Young’s Bay, these women taken as guides, being wives to the men who were implicated in the crime, they of course knew where their hiding place was. It was quite trying to my feelings to see the boats depart, the men, about 26 in number, all singing and keeping time with their paddles, while a sister of the two women left in a canoe for Young’s Bay with a child of one of the women and two female associates, crying and singing the Indian death song as they proceeded.

William Fraser Tolmie, one of the leaders of the expedition, returned to Fort George to say he had seen nothing of the guilty party. On the 27th, however, a canoe returned to Fort George with one of the young slave women who had been wounded in a gun-fight with the murderers. “One of the murderous slaves was dead,” they reported. Frost wrote: “However necessary it may be to avenge the death of the white men, and to prevent these savages from shedding more blood, yet it is painful in the extreme to be a witness to these scenes.” 

(“Slaves” here were kidnapped First Nations men, women, and children from up and down the coast, kept as slaves by the kidnappers. This was a common practice among the coastal First Nations everywhere.)

Most of the party returned to Fort George on the 28th, and the slave girl died of a wound that was worse than reported previously. On the 19th McLoughlin came down from Pillar Rock with his men, bringing with him:

an Indian who was with the slave, one of the murders who was shot on the 27th, and as there was no doubt that this Indian was as deeply implicated as the slave he was consequent adjudged worthy of death, according to the laws of Great Britain & America. He was therefore, by order of the Governor, hung by the neck until he was dead, at 1 o’clock pm. This was the first execution of the kind I ever witnessed, and I hope it may be the last.

James Birnie’s children always claimed that their father never killed any person or animal. But they were wrong. He was present when a man was hanged. In fact, a footnote here tells us that Hines (mentioned above) said that “Frost was the only white man present who did not take an active part in the hanging of the murderer.” Therefore, James Birnie did.

At this point it appears that pages of John Frost’s journals are missing, and so to find the full story we may have to go to the other two journals mentioned: that of Hines, and of Lee and Frost. No Oxford comma, and so I presume that the journal of Lee and Frost is not the journal I have, written by Frost — but an article that will have information from both Lee’s journal, and Frost’s. “Lee” will probably be Daniel Lee, who is one of the missionaries mentioned at the beginning of Frost’s journal. Hines is not mentioned in this journal, but it seems he is Reverend Gustavus Hines, who also arrived at Fort George on the Lausanne. 

In January 1841, John McLoughlin wrote to James Birnie to ask him to “draw out a statement of the murder of poor Mr. McKay and the Indian Boy and of our proceedings on the occasion as far as came to your knowledge and you will be as good to make by complements to the Revd Mr. Frost and request him also to do me the favor to draw out one also.” Birnie’s report was sent to McLoughlin but it seems Frost’s was not, and McLoughlin asked for it for a second time, in February. 

Yours by the Indian, dated 10th Inst, came to hand and I hope you will apply again to Mr. Frost for a statement of what he knows of the murder of the late Mr. McKay and of the punishment inflicted on his murderers. My object is merely to have a correct statement in case one of a different character gets into circulation as was the case in regard to the Clatsop affair. It is no favor but a matter of justice to himself as well as to me and all concerned.

Many years later, in 1903, a local resident named John Minto wrote to local historian Eva Dye with some additional information. Minto had known William Fraser Tolmie before Tolmie died, and said that Dr. McLoughlin had trusted Tolmie…

and his judgement by putting him in command of the pursuit of the murders of the company trader at Pillar Rock (the first and about the only murder of an H.B. Co.s servant for purposes of robbery) which led to killing of one of the murderers and two women dressed as men, and the execution of the principal murderer under McLoughlin’s supervision at Fort George in 1841. When the American, French, and English, and Indian Chiefs were present by the White Headed Chief’s invitation to see, as he said, “The Boston Man, the Pys.. (Frenchman), and the King George’s men (British) were as one to punish with death any one who murdered for purposes of robbery. Mr. Tolmie was, I think, proud of his service in that particular instance.

The White Headed Chief was, of course, John McLoughlin.

So that is all I have of that ugly murder, but there is more to know — I just don’t have those journals.  (But I am happy to say, that in digging through this information, I found a little bit more about Francois Payette, the Oregon Territory’s folk-hero that I keep stumbling upon. So when I have enough, I can add to his story.)

To go back to the beginning of James Birnie’s story, go here: 

When the next episode is written, it will appear here: 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2019. All rights reserved.

One thought on “Murder at Pillar Rock

  1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

    A regular reader has given me the sources for “Lee and Frost,” mentioned above. It is a book written by Daniel Lee and J.H. Frost, titled “Ten Years in Oregon,” and published in New York for the authors in 1844. In this story, McKay is shot but the Indian boy killed with a knife. One of the murderers was captured early in the chase but Birnie left him unbound and he made his escape at first opportunity. A bounty was offered and he was recaptured and delivered over to Dr. McLoughlin, who brought him to Fort George where he was hung. The Americans and British were all in agreement on the punishment and the First Nations people had no say at all, but “were made to understand.”