The Bully of Fort Nisqually

Fur trade building at Fort Langley

Fur trade warehouse at Fort Langley, the same as found in any fur trade fort. This is probably very similar to the warehouse or storehouse at Fort Nisqually, that was emptied of its goods so that the Fort Nisqually men, and those of Fort Colvile, could have their dance.

With a little luck and a lot of hard work, my book, The HBC Brigades: Culture, Conflict, and the Perilous Journeys of the Fur Trade, will be published by Ronsdale Press in May 2024. You may order or pre-order the book here:

There is another brigade trail which I keep forgetting to mention: of course, until recently I did not know a lot about it. In fact I was quite surprised, only a few years ago, to discover that the celebrations that went on at modern-day Fort Nisqually are based on the arrival, at that post, of the 1855 brigades from Walla Walla and Fort Colvile.

Since 1852, the Fort Colvile brigades returned to their Columbia River route and were no longer taking out their furs to Fort Langley. But they were doing things differently: Their pack-horses would leave the post in early summer and pick up their goods at The Dalles, upriver from their headquarters of Fort Vancouver, on the lower Columbia. In this way, all the now-useless Indian trade-goods at Fort Vancouver were cleared out of the warehouses and sold at Fort Colvile, where there was still a market for them.

Perhaps the Fort Vancouver warehouses were emptied, as in June 1855, Dugald Mactavish advised the London Committee that “The returns of Colvile & Walla Walla will this season be taken out to Nisqually, with horses, and it is my intention to go over there in a few days for the purpose of meeting Mr. [Angus] McDonald, who I am in hopes will reach Puget’s Sound with his brigade by the 1st May [July was meant].” [B.223/b/41, HBCA] As at Fort Vancouver, there was a surplus of Indian trade goods at Fort Nisqually, which were not useful to the Americans who now lived nearby.

The brigades came out to Fort Nisqually by Naches Pass, which was the only trail the HBC men were familiar with at that time. In the evening of June 27th three Canadien employees arrived at Fort Nisqually, requesting a supply of flour for the incoming brigades. Edward Huggins, clerk at the post, later wrote:

On the 2nd of July about midday, I was startled to see a tall, rather slim man ride into the Fort, dismount and walk toward the large house where he was met and kindly received by Doctor [William Fraser] Tolmie. This was Angus MacDonald [McDonald] of Fort Colvile, and now in charge of the Brigade of upwards of 200 horses, most of them packed with furs..

I had heard a great deal about MacDonald and was anxious to meet him, which desire was soon gratified, for Doctor Tolmie brought him to the packing room where I was working and gave me an introduction to him. He was rather a good-looking man, about six feet in height, straight and slim, but was said to be very wiry and strong. He had a dark complexion, with long jet black hair reaching to his shoulders and a thick, long, and very black beard and mustache. He wore a dressed deer skin over shirt and pants, a regatta or rowing shirt, and had a black silk handkerchief tied loosely around his neck. He had a black piercing eye and a deep sonorous voice, with a low and rather monotonous manner of speaking. [Terry Pettus, “Frolic at Fort Nisqually,” Beaver Magazine, 1961]

McDonald had found the road from the Yakima “very wet & stony,” which meant the trail was not a good one for horses. (In fact, twelve pack-horses had been left behind on the trail). Mactavish reported to Governor Simpson that: “McDonald came out in high style by the new road. He is a very experienced man.” [D.5/40, HBCA]  The Fort Colvile brigades spent some time at Fort Nisqually: the packs of furs were opened and packed into larger bales that would be sent on to Fort Victoria. But another part of any brigade journey was the story-telling and singing that occurred while the men were at their destination post. Again, Edward Huggins tells the story:

The men accompanying MacDonald were a cosmopolitan crowd. There were Scotchmen, French Canadians, Halfbreeds, and Iroquois Indians. The foreman was a Scotch Highlander and when at home was in charge of the little trading post amongst the Blackfoot Indians [Kootenais House, I presume]. The Canadians were strong, wiry fellows, and amongst them were men who had been in the employ of the company for fifty years. The Iroquois or Half breed Iroquois were the best looking men in the band. The handsomest and strongest man amongst them was a halfbreed Iroquois and French Canadian. He was very strong and agile, and being the champion athlete amongst his own people, he challenged our hands to run a foot race and other games requiring strength and endurance. Although amongst our staff were some strong and powerful fellows, this Iroquois beat them all, and at running a foot race he beat them badly. [Terry Pettus, “Frolic at Fort Nisqually”]

The Fort Nisqually men knew that among their own employees was a young fellow who could beat the Iroquois champion — the “bully of Fort Colvile.” They begged him to accept the braggart’s challenge, and the clerk eventually gave in and agreed to compete in a one-hundred-yard race. It is interesting to note that this bragging and challenging was a part of the tradition of the fur trade, everywhere (it would have occurred at Fort Langley, too, and at Fort Vancouver). When the York Factory Express men arrived at their headquarters on Hudson Bay, the same challenges and contests occurred, as the Bully of every brigade tried to beat every other strong man, to become “The Bully of York Factory.” So this was where the men at Fort Nisqually stood: if no one beat this Fort Colvile man, he would be known as the “Bully of Fort Nisqually.” So…

The starting point was down the road, west of the gate. A line was drawn and 100 yards measured off, terminating almost opposite the small gate where another line was made. The first man to cross this line was the winner. Between 6 and 7 pm a large crowd had assembled at the gate, for the coming race had caused quite an excitement and many Indians from the Nisqually and Puyallup rivers had come to witness the struggle, for the clerk was well known to the Indians and was rather a favorite. At the time appointed the contestants appeared. The Iroquois, Edouard Pichette was his name, wore a gaudy, loud coloured shirt fitting tight around his big, barrel-formed chest, a handsome red silk belt around his waist and a pair of thin cotton drawers which showed his handsome, muscular legs to good advantage. He was a splendid figure of a man…

The young Englishman stripped well also, and I noticed that MacDonald was astonished when he saw his well-developed chest and powerful arms, for the young man was a leader in the prevailing games, throwing the hammer, putting the stone and pitching the heavy iron quoits…

Well, all was ready and at an agreed-upon signal from MacDonald a fair start was made. The young Englishman jumping ahead at the start and, to our astonishment, he increased his lead until the end of the first 50 yards when Pichette, the Iroquois, shortened the distance between them to about three yards. From then on to the winning sprint the handsome young Iroquois shortened the distance, but to the intense disgust of MacDonald and his company, the Englishman won the race by a distance of about four or five feet.

Oh, the howling and hurrahing by the English part of the crowd, “Sacree-ing” and other demoralizing French expressions from the Canadians, and the silent jubilant looks of the Nisqually Indians. It was all very pleasant to the English victor [who was probably Edward Huggins himself]… The young man’s reputation as a great runner, who had defeated the Rocky Mountain champion, spread over the Indian country between Colvile and the base of the Rockies. [Terry Pettus, “Frolic at Fort Nisqually”]

I did find an Edouard Pichette here: son of Louis Pichette (Dupre) and a woman he met in the Snake district. This Edouard was born in 1830 or thereabouts, but unless his mother had an Iroquois father (which is quite possible) this is not the Edouard Pichette of Fort Colvile. But it doesn’t really matter: Huggins might have completely misidentified the man, as his story was written years later from memory. Its still a good story, though.

The Fort Colvile horses put on weight and their wounds healed. The Walla Walla brigades left the post on July 18th with 55 packs of goods, but the Fort Colvile goods were still being packed. On Wednesday, July 25th, “Mr. McDonald with the Fort Colvile Brigade started with 151 pieces goods.” [Fort Nisqually Journals]. But before they left, Dr. Tolmie organized a party.

A dance was given by Dr. Tolmie to the MacDonald band of packers before leaving for their homes. One of the large stores was emptied of goods and it became a fine dancing hall. A room about 60 feet in length and 30 feet in width, its floor was rather rough but that didn’t trouble the dancers. One or two of the Canadians were fair fiddlers and, of course, a liberal supply of whiskey was provided and nearly all the young Indian girls and Halfbreeds in the neighbourhood were there…

The Indian women and the Halfbreed women and girls were passionately fond of dancing and almost all the Indian women had an original way of dancing, a step of their own. It was very comical to see them, ten or a dozen at one time. “Jigs” were their favorite dances and they would stand facing their partners and keep time to music by simply bobbing or jumping up and down. No step, no change, but always the same jumping with both feet from the ground at the same time.

We had in our employ at that time about ten Kanakas (Sandwich Islanders) [Hawaiians] and to vary the entertainment I would persuade these men to dance some of their native dances. They would cheerfully comply, and standing in a row would begin a wild and monotonous chant, keeping time by moving their bodies with great exactitude and twisting about, in which I could see no dancing but merely posturing, and sometimes it seems to me to be an unseemly performance in the presence of ladies. [Terry Pettus, “Frolic at Fort Nisqually”]

The Fort Colvile men made it home, in safety, to their fort, but they arrived there just before the Yakima Indian Wars broke out. This was the only time they came out to Fort Nisqually: in future years they would return to the brigade trail over the Tulameen Plateau to Fort Langley. But Fort Nisqually still celebrates this brigade, and if you live in the area, you might want to visit to learn more about our shared history.

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

2 thoughts on “The Bully of Fort Nisqually

  1. Gordon MacIvor

    Thank you
    Another fascinating tale on the story of the Pacific North West!

  2. Joanne Peterson

    Thank you, Nancy! You’ve just given me another thought about how I may have acquired some of my DNA matches!