Peter Skene Ogden’s Illness

Canoe on a lake in the Okanagan

In 1823, Peter Skene Ogden and John Work paddled west to Spokane House in a canoe brigade. At Moose Portage, near Lac la Biche, Ogden became ill. Was it malaria, or some other illness? 

In 1823, Peter Skene Ogden traveled west with John Work to Spokane House. We have been following John Work’s journal in the Two Canoes series: in the last of John Work’s journal they had reached Moose Portage, on the Beaver River, on Tuesday 26th of August. There they found that no provisions had been left for them there, as arranged. From the lake just south of modern-day Lac la Biche, John Work walked to Edmonton House, at this time on the White Earth River at the north bend of the North Saskatchewan (where Victoria Mission is today). He arrived on September 3, and returned to the Moose Portage on Tuesday 9th. There he found that Peter Skene Ogden and his men had moved on up the river.

Mr. Ogden left a letter for me, informing me that having remained two days longer than the time he had expected my return, and having scarcely any thing to eat for the people, he had been induced to move up the river about half a days march to an Indian encampment, where he expected to get a small supply of provisions, to enable him to proceed to Lake Sabish [Lac la Biche? did John Work mishear its name?] where he learned there were some freemen & Indians, from whom he could get a further supply…

Work caught up with Ogden just beyond the Indian encampment, and found that Ogden had managed to get some 60 pounds of Pemmican “from a man who was going with a supply to meet Mr. Connolly.” Mr. William Connolly was not yet in charge of Fort St. James, but was at Lesser Slave Lake. In the years before the York Factory Express existed, the Lesser Slave Lake brigades brought their furs out via the Athabasca, Clearwater, and over the Methye Portage, to the Saskatchewan River and York Factory. So, John Work and Peter Skene Ogden obtained some of the food supplies intended for Connolly’s brigades.

But on his return to camp, John Work found that Ogden had been sick for a week and a half. He wrote, on September 10th:

Mr. Ogden has been in ill health since I went off, the cause of which he attributes to the poor living & the anxiety of mind in which he was, the fatigue of walking all day along shore (the river is too shallow to allow of any one being in the canoes) contributed to keep him from recovering. He thought last night when I arrived that he had got nearly well, but this evening, though he had rode along shore all day, he was seized with a violent shivering of cold and taken very ill indeed.

Does it sound like the malaria that everyone knows Ogden suffered from in later years? Yes, but history says he didn’t yet have malaria. However, there are two kinds of malaria, according to medical historians:

Uncomplicated malaria is characterized by a rhythmicity of symptoms that is pathognomonic [meaning: symptoms characteristic or indicative of a particular disease or condition]. So-called tertian malaria shows itself in bouts of chills, fever, and fits of shaking every second day, with no symptoms at all on the intervening days; in quartan malaria the picture is different only in that there are two symptom-free days intervening. Thus when Lady Simcoe recorded in her diary that she had “the ague” every second day…, we can say with considerable certainty that she suffered from tertian malaria. Even in this exceptional disease, however, our certainty is limited to cases of typical, uncomplicated malaria. It is possible for a patient to have tertian and quartan malaria simultaneously, in which case the rhymicity of the recurring bouts is lost, as is our assurance of the diagnosis. Moreover, patients can, and do, have totally unrelated diseases at the same time that they have malaria. [from: “Saturnism at Hudson’s Bay: The York Factory complaint of 1833-1836,” by Charles G. Roland, on the website of the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, at ]

On September 10th [above] Ogden was ill. On the 12th Work wrote: “Mr. Ogden a great deal better this morning, he was very ill the forepart of the night but rested pretty well towards morning.” So he was sick on the evening of September 9th?

On September 13th: “Mr. Ogden who appeared to be nearly recovered was again seized with another shivering fit and taken very ill this evening [Sept. 12].” The next day [September 13] Work reported that: “Mr. Ogden was ill the greater part of the night and appeared at times in some measure delirious, but he was a great deal better in the morning and continued so all day.”

Two days later, on the evening of September 15, Work said, “Ogden was again taken very ill this evening with a shivering of cold the same as these evenings past.” Again, two days later, on September 17: “Mr. Ogden was seized with a rather violent fit of shivering in the night, but got a little better towards morning. He was again attacked with a shivering in the evening [of Sept. 17] & continues very ill.” On September 18: “Mr. Ogden was taken very ill in the evening [Sept. 17], but he rested pretty well in the afterpart of the night.” On September 19: “Mr. Ogden was very ill the greater part of the night [Sept. 18-19?] but got better towards morning.” On September 20: “Mr. Ogden had not such a severe attack last night [Sept. 19?] as usual.” On the 21st: “Mr. Ogden was attacked with a violent fit of shivering in the night.” Is this September 20th night, or the 21st, evening?

On Tuesday 23rd, Work wrote: “Mr. Ogden was taken violently ill in the night and the shivering fit continued much longer than usual.” It is, again, the last post he made for the day and like the post immediately above, might refer to the attack the night before, or the one on the evening of the 23rd.

That is the last mention of the illness that Ogden suffered from on this journey, but it might be that John Work did not mention it again. A John Work descendant suggested that Ogden suffered from a malaria, which we all know he did (but not yet). But would an attack of malaria just “disappear” like this? I think it probably would not, and so I am curious to see if anyone else knows what he suffered from.

As a food-service professional in my past-life, I immediately think “food poisoning” whenever anyone gets sick. But no one else, including the other gentleman, John Work, were sickened. Peter Skene Ogden might have been eating a different food than all his employees, although it seems he starved along with his men when there was no food.

There are the “beaver fever” illness, or Giardiasis. This is a common intestinal infection caused by eating contaminated food or drinking water contaminated by human or animal waste (commonly beaver, hence its name). The symptoms, however, do not match Ogden’s, and an Ogden descendant once told me that he has had giardiasis and it is not the same illness. So I think that is not the disease he encountered.

Another illness, called Leptospirosis, is a possibility. It is a bacterial infection caused by a strain of Leptospira, and most commonly transmitted from animals to humans through a break in the skin when the human comes into contact with soil or water contaminated with animal urine. In mild Leptospirosis the patient experiences muscle pains, chills and headache; some people get more serious attacks. Among the people who may get this disease are those involved with canoeing — sounds good. But would Ogden have survived a serious attack of Leptospirosis, and would a mild attack have caused him so much trouble? The next question is: as this is a disease found in tropics and sub-tropics, would he have contracted it when he was in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan? I don’t know. 

Another fur trade person told me this sounds like the disease that results from the “eating of a beaver that has eaten a food that is poisonous.” She was very vague on this, but said it was written up in a California history magazine, and did not give the sources. I presume she is talking about “poison beaver,” a most interesting food-poisoning issue and one that Ogden did run into in later years, on the Malade River in Oregon. Here, free-traders had long known to not eat the beaver. From Ogden’s journals, November 1827:

Wednesday, 7th. This day at 8am we raised camp following the defile for six miles, rather a hilly road when the country became open with level plains covered with buffalo The men started in pursuit and we with the camp continued on until we reached a fork of Salmon River [Pahsimeroi River] called and named by Mr. [Alexander] Ross new Malade River, his men having been attacked with the beaver illness. [Ogden’s Snake River Journals, 1827-1829]

So, from Alexander Ross’s book, Fur Hunters of the Far West, in a chapter titled “Poisoned Beaver,” this: 

We now turn our attention to Riviere aux Malades. On reaching that stream we found beaver in considerable numbers… But here a misfortune clouded our hopes and made beaver but a secondary consideration. For after breakfast the second morning a number of the people were taken ill, and the sickness becoming general throughout the camp, it struck me that there must have been something poisonous in our food or water. Not being able to discover anything, I began to enquire more particularly what each person had eaten that morning and found that all those who had breakfasted on the fresh beaver taken out of the river were affected! While those who had eaten other fare remained in good health…

The symptoms don’t seem to be the same as those that Ogden suffered from. Ross treated his sick men [with gunpowder, and then pepper] and investigated the meat. It had been whiter, and those who had eaten it said “sweeter,” than normal. Ross thought the beaver had eaten a plant that didn’t hurt them, but that poisoned their flesh, and gave the river its name. 

A peak in one of Peter Skene Ogden’s earlier journals gives me a lot of additional information: On September 13th 1826, Ogden camped on the banks of the “Riviere Malade, or Sickly River.” The footnote says this: 

This stream was probably named by Donald McKenzie of the North West Company in 1819 because some of his men were made sick by eating beaver flesh. Members of later expeditions also suffered the same experience… Poisoning from beaver flesh on Riviere Malade was said to be caused by the animals feeding on the roots of the hemlock water parsnip, a plant of the parsley family. 

Alexander Caulfield Anderson ran across this plant and its poisonous properties at Fort Alexandria, in the 1840’s, when his employees confused it with a root they enjoyed, called Lovage, or Queue de Rat. Once again, his men did not seem to have the same symptoms as Ogden suffered in 1823. James Anderson, his son, and author of the book Trees and Shrubs, Food, Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of British Columbia, said of Poisonous Water Parsnip, that “Cattle have even been known to be poisoned from drinking water contaminated by the juice of roots which have been crushed by being trampled on.” But I still believe that Water Parsnip poisoning is the answer to his illness either. 

So I am nowhere here. I think he may have had one of the two malarias (tertian), and caught the second type of malaria (quartan) later in 1831. But where would he have contracted the first malaria? (The second came with a ship that had touched harbour in Africa, so presumably the first had the same source, different times). I know in his later years Ogden was always sick from the malarial attacks, which seemed to come and then disappear for long periods of time. Is that what happens with malaria? I think it is. But if he had one of the two types of malaria, why was he apparently not ever sick during his years on the Snake River expeditions? Perhaps he was.

It is also to be noted that he died of a brain fever of sorts. It makes me wonder if he picked up a parasite of some sort, which later killed him by attacking his brain. I know this happens even today: is this theory possible? Do the symptoms he suffered in 1823 match up with anything that any experts are familiar with? Can you carry a parasite for thirty years before it kills? Has anyone done research on this subject? Does someone out there have the answer to these questions? If so, I would love to know. Its just curiosity, but I like Peter Skene Ogden, and I have been curious for a while about this illness. I will also be writing about his death in the next book: it would be nice to have the answer.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2017. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Peter Skene Ogden’s Illness

  1. Carryl

    Hi I am doing some research on the murder of Samuel Black. Ogden mentions letters that he based his narrative on Blacks murder
    “After recovering in some measure from the grief and surprise into which the abrupt communication
    of the sad intelligence had thrown me, I returned to the house, and sat down to peruse the
    letters I had received, from which I gathered the following particulars.” Ogden, Peter Skene. Traits of American Indian Life and Character: By a Fur Trader. London 1853. From Chapter XII. Page 187-194 . The Sheewape Murderer. Page 190.

    Do you know if these letters survived, would be very interested in them. Very much enjoy your articles, thanks, Carryl, Secwepemc Museum Archivist

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Hello, Carryl. No, I don’t know if the letters survive. There are no Sam Black letters in the HBCA, so don’t look there. I don’t think they are in the British Columbia Archives either. If they still exist (and that is doubtful) they may either be in a Washington State University, or with the Manuscript for the book itself (and I doubt that, too). So I am not able to help, but if I do find them I will forward them to you. Someone who reads the comments under the posts might also know where they are, or be able to give you a lead — let’s hope this happens.