So enters the venerable Dr. John McLoughlin onto our Oregon stage, just six years after the 1818 treaty which declared that the United States and Britain should jointly occupy the Oregon territory until they could stop bickering and agree on a line between them in that disputed land.
In this overview of history behind my story in the historical novel The Shifting Winds, we nudge ever closer to the volatile contention between these two nations that resonates through the book’s pages.
Dr. McLoughlin’s Oregon Reign
As mentioned in the last post, the Canadian North West Company, which had bought the US Fort Astoria, stayed on at the post despite terms of the 1814 Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812. Due to the remoteness of this fort at the mouth of the Columbia River, negotiators didn’t know about the sale, and the fort came under terms that all property taken during the war be restored to the original possessor. The restoration became a murky point of history.
Whatever the case, when Dr. McLoughlin of the British Hudson’s Bay Company comes onstage, his company has assumed possession by default of Fort Astoria, now called Fort George by the British in honor of their king.
The British knew how to make an entry.
The daguerreotype shows McLoughlin when he’s a little older than the day he first arrived at Fort George, but he carried himself with this powerful presence throughout his career. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.
McLoughlin arrived at Fort George in full color display in a line of brightly decorated canoes along with his boss, Deputy Governor of the HBC, George Simpson.
Author Johnson describes the scene in his book John McLoughlin. As the flotilla of canoes approached, a sentry at the fort fired a signal gun. From the flotilla a bugle answered, followed by a piper in full Highland dress playing a march of the clans, “‘Si Coma Leum Cradh Na Shee,’ (Peace if you will it, otherwise war).”
The fort responded with a seven-gun salute.
The piper played until the paddlers brought Simpson’s lead canoe to a stop. Then the bugler in McLoughlin’s canoe played a lively chanson. The canoes formed a line offshore, made a smart turn toward the receiving party, then moved as one toward the landing, where the men embarked and joined a procession with McLoughlin and Simpson in the lead.
Many old friends in the fur trade welcomed McLoughlin, a formidable figure in stark contrast to his superior officer, Simpson. McLoughlin was six foot four, well built, his hair almost white even then at the age of 40. His piercing gray-blue eyes could rivet on a person, his clean-shaven face readily turning florid with anger or excitement. Simpson was just over five feet and plump.
Back in 1803 at age 14 McLoughlin had become a medical student in Quebec and obtained a license to practice medicine and surgery when he was all of 19.
Author Johnson relays a story of uncertain merit about McLoughlin that may have changed the direction of his life. While working as a doctor in Quebec, McLoughlin is said to have been walking with a young lady through the muddy streets of that city on a fine spring day. They stepped onto a plank at an intersection to avoid the mud, and a drunken British officer forced the young lady off the plank into the muck. McLoughlin picked up the officer and tossed him into the street.
This insult on “his majesty’s uniform” could have subjected McLoughlin to prosecution, and he supposedly fled into upper Canada.
Whether this incident or something else drew McLoughlin away from Quebec, he found employment as a physician at Fort Williams, a North West Company trading post. McLoughlin soon discovered he had an aptitude for business, and by 1814 he became a partner in the company. Still, he would find his medical skills valuable more than once when he worked at posts with no other doctor.
Somewhere in there, he had a son through a liaison with a Native American woman, “observing the custom of the country,” Johnson writes, meaning the relationship like so many others in that time and place lacked the benefit of clergy, also called a “country marriage” or “fur trade marriage.” Evidently the mother died and McLoughlin took another wife in the custom of the country, Marguerite Wadin McKay, a woman who would follow him to Oregon and happily grow old with him.
Marguerite’s father was one of the original North West Company partners, her mother of Cree heritage. She had previously married Alexander McKay, a Canadian member of Astor’s team who was killed in an incident on Astor’s ship, the Tonquin. Given the dates of events, McKay had probably abandoned her by the time she married McLoughlin, but she had three children by McKay, including Tom McKay who would come to play a significant role in the history of the Oregon country. By the time McLoughlin left for Oregon he and Marguerite had four children together.
Fort George didn’t impress McLoughlin or Simpson as an adequate western headquarters for the Hudson’s Bay Company, a major problem being its location on the south side of the river. From word of London’s offers in boundary negotiations, they feared that everything south of the Columbia River would ultimately go to the Americans. McLoughlin also wanted to make his headquarters as self-sufficient as possible, so he needed fertile land to grow food.
Going upstream, McLoughlin found a site on the north bank that offered all he had hoped for. A rich wide plain spread inland from the river. Here he could grow wheat and vegetables, fruit orchards and vineyards, and improve pasture for cattle. He ordered his men to start building a fort and dubbed it Fort Vancouver for the British navigator Captain George Vancouver who’d sent one of his ships up the Columbia shortly after the American Captain Robert Gray dipped into the estuary and named the river. McLoughlin was happy to note that the site of his new fort lay downriver from the highest ascent of the British ship. McLoughlin would soon have the original stockade moved closer to the river for convenience. And from that fort, which has been replicated on the same spot today, he ran the western fur trade empire for his Company, becoming de facto ruler of Oregon.
It might have seemed his land to hold, but not quite so. By treaty the United States held equal interest through joint occupancy. Their citizens just weren’t around much at the beginning.
Joint occupancy of the Oregon country formed a tenuous marriage of Britain and the United States. Both had sought to claim the land. By sea, their navigators explored the coast, with the American guy discovering and naming the Columbia, the British guy sailing farther upstream. By land, Lewis and Clark showed the way through the new US territory of Louisiana, while the Canadian Mackenzie marked a trail farther to the north. And when Astor ventured into the Columbia to start his fur enterprise, the Canadian Thompson trekked out to Fort Astoria to say hello and set up posts along his route, eventually acquiring Astor’s fort for his own North West Company.
Fighting fury between the two nations rose in the War of 1812 for a host of reasons, but Oregon was a prize both still sought. Negotiators for peace finally threw up their hands. It took a second treaty in 1818 to come up with a halfway measure, at which time negotiators told the squabbling nations they could both use the land until they made up and set a line between them. They were given ten years for that, but in the end it would take them almost thirty, and rumors of another war over the matter continued to stir.
This 1833 map roughly shows the extent of the Oregon territory in 1818. It includes all of today’s Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, with parts of Montana and Wyoming, and runs north into British Columbia.
For twenty years or so while the United States became attracted to other shiny objects closer to home, the powerful British Hudson’s Bay Company seemed bent on making Oregon their own private fur reserve under McLoughlin’s adept leadership.
By 1842 when my story opens, the Americans seemed finally to awaken to the desirability of adding the Oregon country to their own. American trappers began to settle in Oregon’s broad valleys around 1840 when the Rocky Mountain fur trade petered out. Missionaries had gone out to save the Indians in the 30s and reported on the richness of the land. Promoters called on the adventurous to strike out across the plains and take up some of that land virtually flowing with milk and honey. They played down the difficulty of the trail–most hadn’t a clue–as they extolled the wonders of the Promised Land at trail’s end.
Native Americans received little consideration. Disease had dramatically reduced their numbers, and the British under McLoughlin’s firm hand kept the peace. Trade with the local tribes was key to the business operation of the HBC.
As more Americans trickled into the area, tensions rose. American farmers and lawyers and storekeepers came with their families, intending to settle and stay. Settlement hadn’t been encouraged by the British during the early days of joint occupancy, but they did eventually encourage settlement north of the Columbia as a counterbalance. Up until that time few white women came to Fort Vancouver. British and French-Canadian men found their wives among the surrounding tribes, or brought their Native American or Métis wives from Canada. Most expected to return to the place they had enlisted with the Company, though a few had chosen to settle in the Willamette Valley, McLoughlin keeping them on the Company books so they didn’t have to go.
The encroachment of permanent US settlers into Oregon brought troubling headaches for the good doctor, McLoughlin.
Carey, Charles H., LLD. General History of Oregon: Through Early Statehood. Portland, OR: Binfords & Mort, 1971.
Johnson, Robert C. John McLoughlin: “Father of Oregon.” Portland, OR: Binfords & Mort, 1958.
Next: Digging Up the Past