McLoughlin’s letters 1844-45

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

A Sailing ship in a bottle, from early 1900’s

In writing my blogpost of last week (that is, Thomas Lowe’s journal), I have become aware that I am missing John McLoughlin’s letters for the same period, and it is time to figure out what he has to say. And so I delve, once again, into McLoughlin’s letters, to find any letter that might tell a story of importance to the fort at Vancouver, Washington, 1844-45.

The first of McLoughlin’s letters, 1844-45, is to the Governor and Committee, dated August 12, 1844, and explains that the ship, Modeste, has just arrived in the river. “Since my last of 4th July, H.M.S. Modeste, Captain Baillie, entered the Columbia, and reached this place on the 15th July, Captain Baillie in Company with Mr. [James] Douglas visited the Wallamette & saw the greater part of the Settlers, to whom he was well received, and with whom & the Country he appears well pleased.”

In this letter, McLoughlin also tells of the formation of the new provisional Government by the Americans: “In the spring of 1843 the Americans formed a Government for themselves, and invited the Canadians to join them, but the latter declined.” However, in the Fall of the same year, “so many Emigrants having come from the United States and many more being expected this Year [1844], the Canadians seeing the Country could no remain quiet without Laws agreed to the second invitation of the Americans, but handed them this address to serve as a basis of the plan of Government they desired to see established.” According to McLoughlin’s letters, 1844-45, with the arrival of the incoming batch of immigrants, the population of the Willamette Valley would be above four thousand persons: trouble would almost certainly come, and in fact it was already here. News that a band of robbers was planning to come to Oregon from “Ark-kan-sas,” (with several of these robbers already in the Territory), alarmed the Canadians, and McLoughlin as well. Additional news that an American had set up a distillery in the woods also alarmed McLoughlin, but feelings in the Willamette were so against this sort of activity (they wrote a law to prevent this from happening), that the whiskey-maker was unable to do his work openly, and soon his equipment was discovered and destroyed. All of these sorts of happenings encouraged the Canadians, and McLoughlin himself, to support the Provisional Government’s activities — especially when a man who had murdered someone in the United States turned up in Oregon, assaulting one of the American settlers. The Constable arrested him, but the man rushed him with his bowie knife, “when the Constable drew a pistol and shot him dead on the spot.” Trouble was coming west, whether the Willamette Settlement wanted it or not — and so soon the new Provisional Government seemed a very good thing to support!

McLoughlin’s letter of November 1844 descends almost immediately into a rant about his son’s murder and Governor Simpson’s recent letter, which refers to John McLoughlin Jr. being drunk at the time of his death. But in his November 20 letter [1844], we find that Fort Vancouver received a shipment of shoes from a new supplier: Richard Flint, 46, King Street, London. John McLoughlin wrote that Flint’s shoes “are of a better quality than those from Surridge” — that is, Richard Surridge of Newgate Street, London, the previous supplier of shoes. I wonder if these are the same shoes that later got James Douglas his nickname at Fort Victoria — “Old Square Toes.”

And of course the Fort Vancouver fires occurred at just this time, and I discover that the map of the fires is at the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Map Folder 408A, “Sketch of the Environs of Fort Vancouver embracing a section of about 16 miles in length, shewing the course of the great conflagration, by which the Fort was nearly destroyed, on the 27th day of September 1844. H.N. Peers.” The map is, however, deemed by the publisher to be difficult to reproduce, and so is not included in this volume. And as you know, McLoughlin was not at Fort Vancouver during the fires, but spent his time in the Willamette, where one barn was burned. 

And honestly, what the heck is happening at Fort Stikine, where John McLoughlin, Jr was murdered? It seems that the men at Fort Stikine had threatened to kill Donald Manson when he was in charge, and now they wanted to kill Charles Dodd, who was now in charge of the fort. 

McLoughlin has spent some time in reporting on how he was unable to better support the California post, where Chief Trader William Glen Rae was employed. On July 19, 1845, he writes of Rae’s suicide at that place: “It is my painful duty to report to you that Mr. W. G. Rae, Chief Trader in charge of the Company’s affairs in Calefornia, is no more, having put an end to his life on the 19th January last, as stated in the following extract of Mr. Forbes, the British Vice Counsel’s, letter to me dated San Francisco, 21st January last. “It becomes my painful duty to inform you of the death of the Honble. Hudson’s Bay Company’s Agent at this place, W.G. Rae Esquire, who on the morning of Sunday 19th Instant put a period to his existence with a pistol, the ball of which passed through his brain, and instant death ensued. This dreadful intelligence reached me the same night, and instantly I took my horse, and arrived at Yerba Buena at daylight.” Rae’s letter, written before he died, indicated he felt he had been involved in difficulties with two insurrections in California, because he appeared to have joined the first of these insurrections as a volunteer. Mr. [Robert] Birnie, Jr., however said it was not true, that “several days after the Calefornians had risen in arms against their [Mexican] Government, that Mr. Rae went to their camp to see how affairs were going on, and that though they pressed him to join them in their struggle for Independence, he would not consent, but stayed there as an spectator… I presume, however, that Mr. Rae went in feeling with the Calefornians.” It seems the appearance of support was enough to encourage some enemies of the Company to accuse him of taking part in an insurrection, and Rae worried the he had involved the Company in his difficulties, through the intrigue and malice of others.  

In September, 1845, McLoughlin was finally hoping to be able to send Dugald Mactavish to the California post to close it down and to bring the supplies back to Fort Vancouver. “After landing Mr. MacTavish, the Vancouver will proceed to Woahoo with her cargo of Flour and Deals, and on her return stop at San Francisco to bring Mr. MacTavish here.” But the ship was driven away from the coast by the easterly winds, and it was not until December 1845, that “the Vancouver, Captain Mott, is about to sail from this to San Francisco to land Mr. MacTavish, who is directed to wind up the Calefornia business.”

In August 1845, Chief Factor Peter Skene Ogden had arrived at Fort Vancouver overland from Red River, and as we all know he was accompanied west by Henry James Warre, Lieutenant of the Fourteenth Regiment, and Lieutenant Mervin Vavasour, of the Royal Engineers. The two men had left Canada in the spring of 1845, “to acquire a knowledge of the character and resources of the country situated between Sault Ste Marie and the shores of the Pacific” — a huge order, I would say! They were only to be identified as “private travellers,” or “tourists,” but the HBC men all knew they were not that!

McLoughlin’s November 20, 1845, letter tells of threats from Americans who wanted to torch Fort Vancouver. “Again, we had to guard against the designs of many desperate and reckless characters, men acknowledging no law and feeling not the restraints of conscience, the outcasts of society, who have sought a refuge in the wilds of Oregon,” McLoughlin wrote. “With their natural turpitude of disposition embittered by national hostility, such men would not shrink from the commission of any crime; they were determined at all risks to intrude upon the Company’s land claims, and they made no secret of their plans if ejected by force. If not supported by their countrymen, they were to seek an easy revenge by firing our premises, destroying our barns, or such like deeds of cowardly villainy. As an instance of their temper and designs, I may mention that last Spring when we were engaged in forcing [Henry] Williamson off the Company’s grounds, Dr. White, the United States Indian Agent, informed C. F. Douglas that Williamson’s party were threatening to burn this Establishment, a piece of intelligence that was doubtless intended to scare us into a compromise of our rights.” It was also reported in McLoughlin’s letters, 1844-45, that Williamson had many “abettors” in the Willamette settlement, “who would seize with avidity any opportunity of creating a disturbance.”

In the same November 20 letter, McLoughlin speaks of the Governor and Committee’s choice to relieve him of his employment at Fort Vancouver. “Mr. Secretary Barclay writes… “the advantages, however, which the Governor and Committee had hoped would be derived from placing the Columbia Department under the charge of one person, have I am sorry to state not been realized. After maturely considering the results which have been obtained up to the present time, and looking forward to the probable circumstances of the future, they are decidedly of opinion that it is not advisable that the charge of so extensive a District should be confined to one individual, however experienced; they have therefore resolved that the Country shall be divided into two or more Districts, each to be represented by a commissioned officer. This resolution will be communicated to the Northern Council in the next general Letter, together with Instructions to the Council to make such a division of the Company, and to appoint such officers as they may think fit. The Governor and Committee have also determined as a necessary consequence that the Allowance of [pound sterling] 500 per annum which was granted to you beyond your emoluments as a Chief Factor, in consideration of the great extent and consequenct responsibility committed to you, shall cease on the 31st May 1845.”

At this point, we have finally ended John McLoughlin’s letters written in 1844 and 1845: I will complete the 1846 letters, perhaps, in my next blogpost. And on a side note: I know that my stories are not terribly exciting right now. I have an “anomaly” in my liver or its environs, which is confounding my doctors and preventing me from taking the medicine they want me to take. We have spent a fair bit of time tracking this down, with me being in the hospital all last week for a series of tests. I am exhausted — but we did determine what the next step will be. Sometime in my past — well, maybe when I fell off that step-ladder and then proceeded to fall on top of one its legs (cracking my breast bone), I also fell rather violently on the vena cava, or whatever the vein that comes out of the bottom of the liver is called, and dented it: compressed it. It’s now causing some problems, and leaking everywhere, and my doctors need to put a stent in it. So one more visit to the hospital for (I hope) a relatively small operation, and then I can recover some of my strength. So just be patient for a few weeks, please, and if I don’t write a blogpost (and I might not) don’t worry.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, all rights reserved.

7 thoughts on “McLoughlin’s letters 1844-45

  1. Tom Holloway

    The long-brewing split between George Simpson and John McLoughlin, which began at least as early as the mid-1830s with the disagreement over land-based posts vs. coastal trading ships, then was greatly exacerbated by John Jr’s murder and the aftermath, is a sad and complicated story.
    I hope your health issues are resolved soon, and satisfactorily!

  2. Gordon MacIvor

    Again, as always, thank you.
    Always most interesting to read.
    You will get better.the doctors work miracles today.
    Then back to the old you!

  3. Dave Martin

    Wishing you well Nancy and hoping to put a smile on your face – Friday night last, by the light of our campfire at York Factory, I read several passages from YF Express to intrigued listeners. Wishing rather it had been you telling the stories, enjoyed and appreciated your company in spirit that starry night on the Hayes.

      1. Dave Martin

        Yes! Several near the mouth of the Nelson, a mother and cub out on the end of the derelict bridge at Port Nelson. Which leads me to ask- I don’t remember mention of surprise encounters with polar bears in any of your blogspots.
        Was it only Grizzlies that menaced the fur trade?