John Cole: Who the heck is he?
John Cole was never employed in the fur trade West of the Rocky Mountains — and yet he played a role in its history. Every man who went out with the York Factory Express tumbled down Cole’s Rapids, at the extreme east end of the North Saskatchewan just before it flowed into the Saskatchewan River. Alexander Caulfield Anderson describes Cole’s rapids:
Hence to Edmonton [from Grand Rapids at the mouth of the Saskatchewan River] on the Saskatchewan there are no impediments to the navigation of any moment, save the Coles’ Rapids, near the confluence of the north and south branches, some twelve miles in length, which are navigable with care and skill… [Notes on North-Western America, by A.C. Anderson].
So to find out who Cole’s Rapids was named for, I researched the man — as much as I could. I quickly discovered he was a scoundrel! What is worse: the more I learn about him, the more scoundrel-ish (it isn’t a word, I know) he becomes.
The first thing I did was consult a book that has been sitting quietly on my bookshelf for up to ten years. This book is Blankets and Beads: A History of the Saskatchewan River, by James G. MacGregor [published in 1949]. MacGregor was a fine historian who wrote tons of Alberta and North Saskatchewan River history. He wrote quite a lot about John Cole, so his book gave me a good start with my story. Here’s what he said:
John Cole deserves out attention, not because he was a great or efficient fur-trader, but because he left us his name in Cole’s Falls, downstream from Prince Albert, and because his well-merited death at the hands of the Indians near Battleford provides us with an interesting story. He first appears at Cedar Lake in 1772, but it was not until 1778 that he really warrants our attention. He was one of a group of independent traders who wintered at Pangman’s Post, across the river from the Eagle Hills, between four and five miles due south of the village of Denholm, the second station east of Battleford on the way to Saskatoon. These traders were a dissolute lot who traded rum for furs, and kept the Indians drunk, and debauched them. They kept a supply of laudanum, so that, if a savage got too troublesome, he could be put to sleep. One evening, two doses having been given a minor chief, he failed to wake up. This rankled in the minds of the Indians all winter and, together with other indignities suffered at the hands of the traders, put them into such a frame of mind by spring that they conspired to do away with the traders. As the latter were preparing to take their furs out in the spring, a camp of Indians appeared on the hill behind the fort.
The Indians, all armed, stood around grimly and quietly, until suddenly one deliberately shot Cole. A pitched battle ensued, the Indians finally driving all the whites into the fort. After several voyageurs had been killed, a truce was effected by the traders surrendering forty gallons of rum to their enemies. An uneasy night was spent in the fort, which was not helped by the commandeered rum, which was producing its diabolical effect on the Indians a few hundred yards up the hill. Next day, the Indians decided to let the traders escape down the river but confiscated the remainder of the rum and all the goods and furs.
The shooting of John Cole was one of the few casualties of this nature to occur on the banks of the Saskatchewan. For a while, the supremacy of the white man was threatened. But Cole’s death was such a clear case of retributive justice that it had a salutory and chastening effect on the trade, and future traders heeded the warning for many years.
In Marjorie Wilkins Campbell’s book, The Saskatchewan [published in 1950], I have discovered even more about John Cole:
The Upper Settlement [where Peter Pangman’s Post was] was a frontier of the frontier. The natives along the Battle River and up the Saskatchewan were comparatively numerous. They trapped fabulously rich fur fields [this was in the late 1700’s] and they quickly acquired a taste for rum.. The traders lost their heads in the face of so much cheap wealth… An Irish trader, McCormick, to get rid of the “importunities of a native” put a little laudanum in his grog to keep him quiet. One dose of laudanum might have done little harm, in spite of McCormick’s over-bearing manner toward even important Indian chiefs, but for the coincidence of another trader giving the same native another dose of laudanum. The combined doses were fatal…
McCormick made the mistake of assuming that he had “put the savages in their place.” During the winter there was no outward sign of reprisal, even though the Irishman swaggered about the fort, too often issuing commands with his sword in hand. When spring came five tents were pitched on the hill behind his house and, to pick a quarrel, a horse was stolen. McCormick roared his threat to kill every Indian if the horse was not returned at once. The natives replied that they, too, could shoot. Even then trouble might have been averted if the trader had listened to an Indian who warned him. Insolently McCormick refused to smoke with the old man. He told his interpreter to tell him he should “put on petticoats that he was an old woman and he would cut his tongue out,” and went on with his pleasant morning task [of] sorting pelts beside the river.
McCormick ignored the natives folding their tents. He showed no interest when they came and watched him, these silent red men who could stand still and inexpressive for so long. Suddenly a shot rang out, and McCormick’s interpreter [John Cole] lay dead. Another shot felled a white man. At once the fight was on. White men fired from the corners of their houses… Soon only two white men were defending the place, the rest having taken shelter in the houses. The two ran up a flag of truce, and the Indians settled for all the rum at the post, some two hundred gallons. In the end the white men lost most of their trading goods, too. They were lucky to escape with their lives…
One employee escaped and brought the news downriver to the HBC’s Hudson House, where Philip Turnor was in command. As it happens, I have a copy of the Cumberland and Hudson House journals from Hudson’s Bay Record Society, and so I moved on to them to find where Campbell and MacGregor got their stories. Here I summarize what I learned about “interpreter” John Cole. [Interpreter means that he can speak the Native languages well enough to communicate with them].
1772. John Cole was a New Englander and runaway employee of Thomas Corry, who had built an independent fur trade post (possibly NWC) on Cedar Lake this year. John Cole apparently turned up at York Factory where he talked to the HBC’s Andrew Graham. He advised the HBC men to use canoes, not boats, on the Saskatchewan River. Graham engaged Cole at Twelve pounds a year and sent him back up the Saskatchewan River to build canoes for the Company. But in 1773, Cole had completely failed to build any canoes. Not only that, he deserted the HBC to work for Peter Pangman at his post in what the fur traders called “the Upper Settlement.”
1774. Samuel Hearne went inland to build the HBC post of Cumberland House downriver (east) of the so-called Upper Settlement of the NWC including Peter Pangman’s post. He discovered that, for the most part, the advice given to the HBC by John Cole was extremely poor.
1776. In July the men of Cumberland House learned that John Cole was at the little River below the fort with a Canoe killing fish. A few days later John Cole, acting as Interpreter for the NWC men, visited Cumberland House with several other NWC men and Natives.
On April 22, 1779, the Natives attacked Peter Pangman’s Post:
Turnor’s Hudson House entry for April 25, 1779, was this [the spelling is his]:
At 9 am. two Canoes belonging to Geboch came down the River and informed us that they had been obliged to fly and leave about half their Furrs [sic] and all their goods and provisions (to the amount of 25 tents, of Indians supposed to amount to 120 Men or upwards) had fallen upon them and killed John Cole formerly a servant to Honourable Hudson’s Bay Company and one man belonging to Peter Pangman, that in return they had killed 2 Indians and wounded 2 More, this ingagement hapned on Thursday the 22nd April, that they then got a sessation of arms by giving them 5 kegs of Rum containing about 40 gallons, and a great quantity of other goods, on Friday morning they gave them an other keg of rum containing about 8 Gallons and offered them all their goods if they would lett them goe with their Furrs which they refused, and said they would have all their goods and kill them afterwards, this day I was preparing to go up the River with intent to settle the Latitude and Longitude of the place where the Canadians Wintered, but as this disturbance has hapned I think it most prudent to decline it untill we have a farther account.
From the Cumberland House Post Journals, about the same time:
Wind No. Cloudy weather 2 Canoes belonging to Geboch &c came down the River, and informed us that they had been obliged to fly, and leave above half their goods, and all their provisions; for the Indians to the amount of 25 tents, have fallen upon them, and have kill’d one [John] Cole a canadian trader, and one of Pangmans men, that they killed two Indians, and wounded 2, which happened on thursday last. They then got a sessation of arms, by giving them 5 kegs of rum, Contg. about 40 Galls. and a great quantity of other Goods, on Friday morning they gave them 1 more, and offered them all their Goods, if they would but let them go, with their furrs to which they answered, they would have all their goods, and then kill every one of them, these 2 canoes stole away, one left and another in the water but for who I do not no..
May 9th, 1779, from the Cumberland Post Journals:
Mr. Phillip Turnor and Mr. [Robert] Longmoor arrived safe here [having left Hudson House on April 28]… They inform me that an open War has broken out between the Natives and the Canadians at their upper Settlement… [this war forced the Hudson House men to leave before they were ready]. The Canadians have also been obliged to quit their upper Settlement and come down to the lower one to defend themselves; John Cole who was formerly in Your Honors Service has been killed in the fray and several Indians wounded, they have also taken from the Canadian a large Quantity of Goods and drove them off, not allowing them to take a single pipe of Tobacco as also leaving some of their Furs and Provisions behind…
There will be more information in the letters to York Factory but I do not have them, and probably will not need them. But it is interesting to get the full story, even when you will only write briefly about the incident. Moreover, this story answered another question about a person I had no information on: I am positive that Geboch’s [Gibeau?] name is on another part of the river, and so now I know he was a member of the group of fur traders at Peter Pangman’s Post! Nothing else is known about this man.
It is always worth following up the little stories, even if the only real use you have for them is a blog post!
If you want to order my book, “The York Factory Express,” you can do so through my publisher, here: http://ronsdalepress.com/york-factory-express-the/ Thank you!
If you want to learn more about clerk Thomas Lowe’s experience with Cole’s Rapids, read this post: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/eighth-leg/
Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2014. All rights reserved.
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- John Lee Lewes, the fop of the fur trade
- The fur trade “Harangue”