Dr. John McLoughlin

With just two days to go until the launch party for my book, The Shifting Winds, I want to introduce you to another historic personage you will meet in the book’s pages, Chief Factor Dr. John McLoughlin, commanding officer of Fort Vancouver, the British Hudson’s Bay Company headquarters in the Oregon Country in the nineteenth century. I have mentioned him in previous posts, but would like to focus on him today. Sometimes called “the Father of Oregon,” he was an important man in the days of our story.

John McLoughlin DaguerreotypeNational Park Service

The daguerreotype above offers a hint of the dynamic energy of Dr. McLoughlin. He stood 6 foot 4, with a powerful build and long unruly white hair, and had a commanding presence. Yet he was known for his kindness and generosity. His humanitarian instincts wouldn’t let him ignore the desperate needs of many American settlers, even when he knew their arrival in Oregon meant trouble for his Company and his nation.

He offered them tools and supplies, giving these things on credit if the Americans couldn’t pay. But at the same time he did what he could to discourage their efforts to establish a government, which might stand in opposition to his own powers and those of his country. Before the first American wagon trains came west, he essentially ruled the land like a baron. As long as he maintained his position in the Company, he managed to keep the peace with the Native American tribes. They called him the White Headed Eagle and tended to respect him.

His wife Marguerite was half Cree, and from many accounts they shared a deep affection. Most fur traders on the frontier married Native American or mixed-blood women without the sanction of the clergy. Dr. McLoughlin eventually married Marguerite in a civil ceremony to protect her legal status, then later had a Catholic marriage performed by a priest.

We get a sense of an underling’s awe of the man when Alan Radford, the clerk courting protagonist Jennie, gets a call to come to McLoughlin’s office.

“[Alan] bounded up the half-circle stairs to the wide veranda and charged inside, lunging to the open door of McLoughlin’s office to the left of the entry. It wasn’t wise to leave the good doctor waiting.

“The giant of a man sat fidgeting at his desk, looking out the window. He showed no sign he’d even noticed Alan come in. . . . For a moment the doctor’s unruly shock of long white hair gave Alan the impression of a madman. But of course Dr. John McLoughlin was no madman. While his temper might be as unruly as his hair, he was the most competent commander Alan had ever worked under. And most exacting. . . .

“With a sudden grunt McLoughlin pivoted to face him. The man’s bushy white brows drew together over piercing gray-blue eyes that had a way of holding another man’s gaze. The florid complexion appeared redder than usual.

“Alan’s shoulders tightened. Have I done something? Something to incite his rage?

“Perspiration prickled across Alan’s flesh, and he fought back the sense of inadequacy he so often felt in McLoughlin’s presence, wanting always to be in command of himself. But what man didn’t feel this way before McLoughlin when the old Chief Factor was in such a mood?”

NEXT: The Elkton Connection