Like John Cole before them, fur traders James King of the North West Company, and the New Nor’Wester’s clerk Joseph-Maurice LaMothe, made history along the North Saskatchewan River. No, neither of these men ever had anything to do with the territory west of the Rocky Mountains, but every man who crossed the mountains and traveled down the North Saskatchewan River heard the story of the murder of James King by LaMothe.
My introduction to story began in this fashion: In 1848, Thomas Lowe is bringing the Saskatchewan brigades up the North Saskatchewan River toward Fort Pitt, when he says: “Had a sail wind for some time in course of the day. Camped opposite old Fort de L’Isle.” (Actually, he’s at the wrong Fort de L’Isle, I discovered. This is the Pine Island post, often also confusingly called Fort de L’Isle. Still I have to figure out the story).
I need to know what he is talking about — in regard to the Fort de L’Isle post in Alberta, not this one in Saskatchewan. Here is the story, briefly: The XY Co. constructed the first Fort de l’Isle in 1799, on an island in the North Saskatchewan River, in Alberta west of Fort Pitt. In 1801 the North West Company set up a competing fort on the island, and the HBC followed. One year later two of the three forts closed after the HBC’s James King tried to take some furs from the XY Company man, Joseph-Maurice LaMothe, and LaMothe killed him.
So what’s the story? I keep finding bits and pieces of it everywhere, and so to make sense of it I have to put it all together in one place. I am happy that there is a great deal of information available, in bits and pieces. When I wrote this story before, I could learn almost nothing.
So the NWC bully James King was at Fort George, and twenty year old Joseph-Maurice LaMothe worked out of the XY post of Fort de l’Isle. The HBC post of Buckingham House was also located on or near this island, but played no part in this story.
I said “bully” in the above statement. A bully is a real position in the fur trade, and he is a man who controls or competes by using his fists — generally in a boxing match. That tells us that James King is a big, strong, mature man, with an intimidating personality.
The HBC post and the NWC fort were both first situated just north of a town called Clandonald, according to James MacGregor, author of Blanket and Beads: A History of the Saskatchewan River [Edmonton, Institute of Applied Art, no date]. “Fort George was established by Angus Shaw in 1792,” MacGregor writes, “at the same time that Buckingham House was built opposite it, across a small stream, by Tomison of the Hudson’s Bay Company. This post is not far south and east of Elk Point. It was occupied for nine years, after which the traders moved up the river about twenty miles and built fresh posts on Fort Island.” At this point these two posts are next to LaMothe’s Fort de l’Isle, but MacGregor has little more information to add to this story.
Here is what Canada’s Historic Places has to say about Fort de l’Isle (Fort Island), near Myrnam, Alberta, Canada. The posts were constructed in 1799, “Fort de l’Isle archaeological site represents the remains of three trading posts used by the XY Company, the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company during the years 1799 to 1801. The area is situated northeast of Myrnam, on approximately 43 hectares of land on an island in the North Saskatchewan River. The three forts, commemorated with a cairn and plaque in 1960-61, are currently represented by cellar depressions, chimney rock piles, and assorted cultural materials such as buried wood fragments, animal bones and metal fragments…
“The original fort at Fort de l’Isle was established in 1799 by Alexander Mackenzie, (nephew of Sir Alexander Mackenzie), after he became a ‘wintering partner’ in the XY Company (also known as the New North West Company). The purpose of the fort was to compete with the trade conducted downriver at the paired forts of Buckingham House (HBC) and Fort George (NWC). By 1801, Duncan McGillivary at Fort George decided to move the North West Company’s trade to the island and commission a man named Decoigne to built the fort. James Hughes was put in charge of the new post. The Hudson’s Bay Company also built a fort on the island at about this time, putting Henry Hallet in charge.
“The unique events that transpired between competing traders housed at this site influenced Canadian legal history and augment the heritage value of the site. The three forts at Fort de l’Isle were only occupied for a short period of time. Their coexistence was disrupted by a disagreement between clerks of the North West Company and the XY Company during the winter of 1802. Although the three companies had agreed to avoid trouble by trading only with Aboriginal people who had been granted credit at their particular post, North West Company clerk James King found this unprofitable. As a result, while he and XY Company clerk LaMothe were trading at a nearby Aboriginal camp, King insisted on taking some of the furs LaMothe had collected in payment. After a struggle, LaMothe killed King in an act of self-defence. LaMothe travelled to Montreal to submit himself for trial and was convicted by a grand jury for murder. As Fort de l’Isle lay outside the boundaries of Upper and Lower Canada, however, it was unclear if a Canadian jury could rule on the matter. As a result, LaMothe was eventually set free.
“The trial of LaMothe, and the legal controversy it sparked, led to the enactment of the Canada Jurisdiction Act in 1803 by the Imperial Parliament of England, to ensure Canadian courts were provided with jurisdiction over crimes committed outside Upper and Lower Canada. After 1811, the Act was used as weapon by both the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company during their conflicts, when members of both companies were sworn as magistrates and began a campaign of arresting competitors to send them east for trail and remove them from western fur trading activities.”
So that’s a good start: a much better start than I had when I wrote this story on my old blog many years ago. I have stumbled on little bits of the story in some Hudson’s Bay Record Society books, so let me see if I can find them again. I know that Fort Island is about twenty miles above the first Fort George site at Elk Point, and that the island itself was about one and a half miles long and two hundred yards wide. In their second location on Fort Island, Buckingham House was some 550 miles above Cumberland House, and Fort George a few hundred yards downstream from Buckingham House.
From: The Saskatchewan, by Marjorie Willkins Campbell:
From Island Fort, as elsewhere along the Saskatchewan, men were sent out to smoke with the Indians, thus placing them in their debt, as well as to minimize the dangers of concentration in case of attack. The practice led to almost as much danger from one another as from the natives. Yet with a naivete almost childish, rival white men traveled together to meet their trading Indians though time after time the journey ended in disagreement…
So it was that from Island Fort in the winter of 1802 Nor’wester James King set out on an overnight fur-gathering trip with XY Company clerk La Mothe, also on a similar errand… Accompanied by two or three junior clerks they set out with dog sleds and on snowshoes, an apparently congenial group of young men. As usual they started early in the morning, traveling until about three in the afternoon when they stopped to make camp…
At the Indian encampment each trader and his men slept in tents of natives who had smoked with his company. Next morning, after the usual formalities dear to Indians, King packed up the furs he had collected and then went over to the tent where La Mothe was staying for some pelts due him there. He was told that La Mothe had taken them all. Brusquely King demanded restitution at once.
“You would give them up?” asked La Mothe, coming out of the buffalo-hide teepee.
“I would not!” retorted King.
“Ha! So you do not get these, my friend!”
The two white traders glowered over the bundles of furs while the natives gathered round. Each had forgotten the amiable journey together. Nothing mattered now but to get as many skins as possible. It was one company against the other, and all that that implied.
“Be careful,” warned La Mothe. “Do not force me!”
King looked at him and reached toward a pile of beaver skins. It was too much. La Mothe fired, killing him. In the heat of the moment he threatened any who might interfere. But his ardour died quickly. Remorsefully he blamed his action on the system under which they worked.
The shooting of King created much excitement. La Mothe went east to stand trial, only to return when it became apparent that he must spend months in jail while the limits of the jurisdiction of the Canadian courts were settled. One immediate result was the Canada Jurisdiction Act….
Here’s a little footnote that is quite interesting, found in Saskatchewan Journals and Correspondence, 1795-1802, [London: Hudson’s Bay Record Society, 1967] Volume XXVI, p. 195:
Identified as James King of the North West Company… King, having been in the employ of Grants Company at Edmonton during season 1795-96, was in the service of the North West Company by the end of 1796. On 31 May 1802 William Tomison remarked in his Cumberland House Journal, “James King that robbed your Honours Servants of 30 Beaver a few years Back at Edmonton House, was shot in the winter by a Clerk of the new Company’s, for the like offence and only survived a few hours after…” In his Autobiographical Notes… John McDonald of Garth, writing in his old age, described ‘a Mr. King, an old South Trader in his prime and pride as the first among bullies’ and also as having been his XY Company opponent at Fort Augustus during the first season of its existence… This same Mr. King was, according to McDonald’s account, shot by the ‘new Company’ clerk, La Mothe, near “Fort de l’Isle” in the winter, 1802. King had been warned of La Mothe by Henry Hallet, the Hudson’s Bay Company clerk at Island House.
So King had been warned about LaMothe? I am getting confused. I have found that LaMothe was warned about going trapping with King, but I have to re-find this… That’s one of the problems of researching. You read something and don’t bookmark it and you lose it.
Here’s another paragraph, found in a description of the XY Company, in a section that speaks of the fur traders bullying the Natives: Hudson’s Bay Company, 1670-1870, volume II [London: Hudson’s Bay Record Society, 1959], p. 229:
The most celebrated case of the kind was that in which, in August 1802, the young XY Company’s clerk, Lamothe, murdered the North West bully James King in a dispute in which the young man was defending some furs which he had traded. The resultant stir in government circles revealed the amount of intimidation, pilfering, and incitement of Indians, which was going on. As has so often happened in the history of colonial expansion, it became clear that the traders’ frontier had outstripped government and that it was essential for competent jurisdiction to overtake the traders and establish law and order among them…
But I have seen more, and it is apparently not in the HBRS books at all. I picked up my copy of The Oregon Country under The Union Jack, by B.C. Payette [Payette Radio Ltd., 1962] and found what I was looking for at last. This is “F.A. Larocque (of the North West Company) Journal of a Voyage to the Rocky Mountains from my Leaving the Assinibois River on the 2nd June 1805.” [the spelling is all his]. [If you are a student, researcher, or academic, you should cite Larocque’s journal as: “Journal of an Excursion of Discovery to the Rocky Mountains by Mr. Larocque in 1805 from the 2d of June to the 18th of October 1805.” The sections that specifically mention LaMothe and King appear to have been added sometime after the journal’s conclusion on 22nd October. My thanks to the gentleman who gave me this information.]
The New Northwest Company which young LaMothe worked for has now been absorbed by the North West Company, which the man he murdered had worked for. Not an easy situation, I think:
October 1805. Upon my arrival at the River la Sourie I f0und Mr. Pierre Rocheblave who was proprietor and Bourgeois of the Department in Mr. Chaboillez head or place who was transferred to Fort Dauphin Department. I passed a very pleasant winter with this gentleman and J. N. Lamothe, nothing remarkable occurring during the whole winter….
At the latter end of September the Brigade for this Department arrived under the command of Big John McDonell [McDonnell] the Bourgeois of my first year in the country who was then coming from Montreal… Mr. McDonell continued me the command of the Fort being that in which I summered and gave me as companion Mr. Lamothe. This young man had done very well at R.[illegible]. It seems that no withstanding in the junction of the two companies and the resolution they have taken of burrying in oblivion all the differences, quarrels &c… which the animosity of rivalship in trade had caused that the North West Company could not forget the Death of the villain King which this Mr. Lamothe killed in his own defence on the Sassratchivin [Saskatchewan] or Fort Des Prairies Dept., or rather Mr. A[rchibald] N[orman] McLeod being the kind of man who can never think themselves forgiven by a person they have grossly injured, because they are themselves incapable of forgiving and who will continue their hate, illwill and offences to a person because they deserve such from him themselves, this Mr. McLeod with some others, having influence enough on Mr. McDonell made him promise that he would render Mr. Lamothe’s situation as irksome and as disagreeable as possible in order to make him leave the country they being hurt at the sight of a person who called to their mind the baseness of their proceedings toward him. Mr. McDonell then in order to effect his their design his promise gave no command or employment whatever to the young man, would neither see nor speak to him and send him to pass the winter with no hoping that such treatment would effectually rid them of him. Mr. McDonell at different times confessed his sorrow at being obliged, he said, to use Mr. Lamothe in the manner whom he knew did not deserve it, but urged in excuse the necessity he was under of following the directions of his fellow partners, and the acquittance of his promise. Mr. Lamothe bore this treatment with indignation but concentrated within himself however not to a degree as to influence his usual good humour; I found him an excellent companion and in a course of time a friend. He rendered me all the service in his power, and volunteered them anytime that the interest of the Company required it, which was very often in dangerous as well as disagreeable trips to the Indian tents &cc… and often did the duty of a common engage to promote the interest of those that ill-treated him. I was absent 22 days at one time from my Fort, during which time I gave him the charge of it, although I thought it would displease the Bourgeois. I found everything on return in the best order possible; in short I had numberless obligations to him and we passed an agreeable winter together…
Mr. McDonell wishes me very much to remain, as the young men that remained in land did not possess his entire confidence and the time prognosticates a hard and disagreeable summer to them, few men could be left with them and there was much work to be done. On the 3rd June I left Pine Fort….
The brigade with us — Mr. Lamothe has been sent off with a single canoe 3 days before with directions to wait for us at the bottom of the River Ouinipegue [Winnipeg]. We joined Mr. Henry at fork of the Red River and Mr. Lamothe at Lake Ouinipegue… I embarked in the same Canoe with Mr. Lamothe. Mr. McDonell gave us a profusion of the best kind of provision the country could afford for our voyage, he and other Bourgeois in half loaded canoe well manned sat off ahead and got much before us at Ranimistcola [Kaminisikwia], at Lake La Pluie Fort I found some letters for me from Mr. McDonell in which he empowered me to take everything I wanted at the Fort to make our voyage pleasant, that the Fort being well stored with every kind of provision.
I left my companion Lamothe at the Mountain being the last portage on the way to Ranimisticola, there was a temporary establishment there and Lamothe was directed to remain there until a brigade for Montreal was ready to leave Raministicoia where he would be sent for. This was the last morification [sic] the poor young man had to endure from his employers. We slept but one night on our way down and the next morning we all arrived at the Grand Portage…
Hmmm. I have always liked Archibald Norman McLeod. Well, not anymore. What a mean, petty, bully he has proven himself to be! I know he died two hundred years ago, but Shame On Him! What a shame we cannot change history, and talk to people who lived in the past.
But I think LaMothe came out of this quite well, actually. He is a better man than the men he worked with, with the possible exception of Larocque. If you want to learn more, here is Joseph-Maurice LaMothe’s biography in Dictionary of Canadian Biography online: http:///www.biographi.ca/en/bio/lamothe_joseph-maurice_6E.html
Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2015. All rights reserved.
- The Orkney Islands
- Drowned Horse Lake to North River (Little Fort)