GEORGE SIMPSON, “Little Emperor” of a Hudson’s Bay Company empire stretching from Montreal to the mouth of the Columbia, was born a bastard in Scotland, and in America became a prodigious amorist among Indian women, a generous father to his own half-breed bastards, an unequalled business manager, a meticulous historian, a geopolitician of genius and a statesman who, better than any man of his time, had grasped the future of Canada and the North American continent.
He was also a shrewd, disillusioned judge of men and he wrote down his judgments by the campfire at the end of every day’s travel in a secret diary, locked in a stout box. For double secrecy no name was attached to any of these dossiers but each was numbered by the writer’s private code for future reference.
One of these notations, deciphered long afterward, described Dr. John McLoughlin, whom Simpson had met on a western trail some time in the 1820s, and who was to become one of the decisive figures in North American history—a figure of triumph, agony and ruin.
In Simpson’s clumsy and pompous prose McLoughlin thus emerges upon the Canadian record:
He was such a figure as I should not like to meet on a dark night in one of the bye lanes in the neighborhood of London, dressed in clothes that had once been fashionable, but now covered with a thousand patches of different colors, his beard would do honor to the chin of a Grizzly Bear, his face and hands evidently show that he had not lost much time at his Toilette, loaded with Arms and his own herculean dimensions forming a tout ensemble that would convey a good idea of the highwaymen of former Days... Wanting in system and regularity but a man of strict honor and integrity...ungovernable violent temper and turbulent disposition.
These two Canadians—Simpson with his cannonball head, barrel-shaped torso and tough practical mind, McLoughlin with his mane of white hair, his eagle face and lank body long hardened by paddle and portage—were bound for the Pacific coast in 1824; bound also for the inevitable quarrel in which the ultimate boundary of Canada would be settled. For the whole wide west could not hold two such men long in company. Could it hold two nations, or must it fall into the hands of the young and ambitious American republic by what the Americans would soon be calling Manifest Destiny?
That was the historic and doubtful question inherent in the meeting of Simpson and McLoughlin. Its answer must settle the future of Canada.
McLoughlin’s life so far had been an unconscious but systematic apprenticeship for the final adventure of the west.
This unique and apocalyptic creature was born at Rivière du Loup, Que., in 1784. His father, a bush farmer of mixed Canadien, Irish and Scottish blood, was of little account but the boy’s rich maternal relatives educated him.
After a sketchy two-year course in medicine he reached manhood as a giant of six feet four inches with a face already hardening into the graven lines of an Old Testament prophet and a lust for the wilderness.
The young doctor joined the North West Company, quickly became one of its chief traders and, having fathered a son by some Indian woman, married a pretty half-breed woman, widow of Alexander McKay, who had accompanied Alexander Mackenzie to the Pacific and been murdered by the Indians of Vancouver Island.
McLoughlin arrived on the Canadian prairies at the moment when the North West Company was about to strike its last suicidal blow at its ancient rival, the Hudson’s Bay Company. That blow was the massacre of Seven Oaks in the summer of 1816, where a posse of Nor’Westers attacked the Hudson’s Bay settlers of Red River, shot down twenty-three men in cold blood, drove the remainder into the northern wilderness and celebrated the victory with a brutal orgy.
McLoughlin, though trading on the prairies, had no part in this crime. But he was among the North West Company leaders arrested at Fort William, on Lake Superior, by young Lord Selkirk, who had arrived there with a private army to avenge the destruction of his Red River colony.
McLoughlin and the others were sent east by canoe as prisoners for trial in Montreal. They had not gone far from Fort William before their fleet of canoes was swamped by a sudden squall and McLoughlin crawled ashore half drowned. Escaping his captors, he set out immediately for York Factory, on Hudson Bay, where he demanded instant trial on Selkirk’s baseless charge of murder at Seven Oaks. His honor, he said, must be vindicated.
The jury promptly acquitted him. He was ready for the incredible work of his life. It was made possible by the merger of the two great fur-trading companies after the exhaustion of their long war.
When Simpson picked McLoughlin to command the strategic post of Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia, the Hudson’s Bay Company, having absorbed its rival, was the undisputed master of western America. Simpson, however, was wise enough to see, even then, that this mastery might not last long. It must face the challenge of the ravenous American republic, now marching slowly but surely toward the western sea. If anyone could hold the line of the Columbia that man, in Simpson’s judgment, was McLoughlin.
As McLoughlin set out for Astoria (now renamed Fort George) he was followed, some weeks later, by Simpson from York Factory. To demonstrate the superior speed of the Emperor, Simpson overtook his lieutenant by racing from the shores of Hudson Bay to the Columbia in eighty-four days, a new transcontinental record.
In 1824 the two men, so far friendly but hastening toward their certain quarrel, wintered on the Pacific and in their lonely fur post discussed the chance of repelling the tide of American settlement.
It was hardly a trickle yet. Only a few independent fur traders had ventured into Oregon but they could be bought off or driven out by cutthroat competition among the Indians. Still, Simpson, the practical man of business, was not deceived. He knew what was coming and wrote his opinion in the locked diary (meanwhile gallantly resisting the efforts of the Indian Princess Chowie to bribe him into marriage with a dowry of a hundred beaver skins).
The principal western depot of his company, Simpson noted, “should be situated North of this place, about Two or Three Degrees, at the mouth of Fraser’s River.” Such a post might hold the international boundary at or near that river, if Oregon was lost to the Americans, and it could launch Simpson’s favorite project of transpacific trade with the fur markets of China. *
That suggestion of a more northern fort was only a shot in the dark then, but a sure shot. As Simpson surmised, the Fraser, not the Columbia, was the river of Canadian destiny, and it contained more in gold, adventure and politics than he or any man could guess. McLoughlin at once opposed the projected second line of defense. Oregon, he said, was the supreme prize and Oregon must be held.
The Last King in America
Simpson told him to hold it if he could. The fort of Astoria accordingly was moved to a better site, ninety miles up the Columbia. Simpson raised the Union Jack, broke a bottle of rum on the flagpole and named the new post Vancouver, a gesture of British power, after the captain who had wrongly claimed the river’s discovery. Then the Emperor started eastward. To him Fort Vancouver was a brief stopping place in his perpetual roamings, a depot of trade and a doubtful gamble in international power. To McLoughlin it was the New Jerusalem.
He was now installed under the Emperor as king of a kingdom lying between the Rockies and the sea, from Russian Alaska to Spanish California— the last king in America and perhaps the most successful. His court was a massive banquet hall where no woman was ever allowed to enter; his attendants, Scottish pipers playing behind the throne his subjects, a handful of traders and eighty thousand Indians; his methods. Spartan discipline mixed with devout religion and prodigal generosity to everyone. But no kingdom could long resist the western thrust of the republic.
The international boundary now ran unquestioned from the Atlantic to the Rockies. But both Britain and the United States claimed the wilderness of Oregon, occupied it jointly and left it under the patriarchal rule of McLoughlin.
Wherever he went the splendid figure of McLoughlin, with his silver mane, his flowing cloak and gold-headed walking stick, was reverenced by the northwest tribes only this side of idolatry. As “Dr. John” he treated their diseases with extract of dogwood root, labored night and day through their plague of 1829, watched them leap, crazed with fever, into the Columbia and wept over their dead. Everyone, Indian or white, was welcome under his sprawling roof and many curious men turned up at Vancouver from the ends of the earth.
One of them was David Douglas, botanist of the Royal Horticultural Society of London. The natives held him in awe for his mysterious power over the creatures of the forest—an innocent fiction invented by McLoughlin. Often Douglas went short of clothing so that he might carry paper for his records and sketches as he added over a thousand strange plants to the science of botany and named the giant Douglas fir, containing within its wrinkled trunk the economic future of the Pacific coast.
Another guest at Vancouver was the British sea captain, Aemelius Simpson. He always wore kid gloves and, pulling them from his pocket one day, discovered some forgotten apple seeds presented to him by a lady in London for planting in the soil of Oregon. They were planted by the fort’s gardener, Robert Bruce, their seedling shoots were eagerly watched by McLoughlin and their first apple was handed around so that all could taste it. That was the beginning of Oregon’s great fruit industry.
Not all visitors were welcome. Herbert Beaver, a repulsive character who came as a missionary from England, sent home reports suggesting that McLoughlin’s marriage was not quite legal. Hearing of this, McLoughlin caned his guest publicly in the yard of the fort but apologized next day. Beaver rejected the apology, preferring to return to London and spread more slanders.
Least welcome of all were the occasional American fur traders. None was molested, some were bought off, others driven out by cutthroat price competition. When Jedediah Smith, the famous trader and “praying man” of Salt Lake, was attacked by Indians on the coast, McLoughlin rescued him, recaptured his stolen furs and entertained him all winter. The two became fast friends, but by his presence in the fort Smith, quite innocently, was undermining his host’s kingdom.
Smith’s report to Washington warned the government that McLoughlin’s influence over the Indians was “decisive” and described in minute detail his flourishing fields of grain, his cattle, apples and grapes. In thus whetting the American appetite for the rich coastal soil Smith was too honest to hide his ambitions from his friend. The Americans, he said, would surely colonize Oregon. A few years later the Comanches murdered Smith on the Cimarron. McLoughlin grieved deeply.
Perhaps unconsciously his mind already was reconciling itself to Smith’s prophecy. So far, however, he had never admitted to himself, much less to Simpson, that Oregon could be lost to Britain. He was constantly expanding his domain with a sawmill on the Willamette River, new posts in the mountains, a farming community on Puget Sound, a depot in Spain’s San Francisco Bay, an agency in the Hawaiian Islands to sell his lumber and salmon, and, on the far northern coast, Fort Stikine, to trade in furs with the Russians in Alaska. Vancouver’s sphere of influence now stretched from California to the latitude of fifty-four degrees, a parallel soon to enter international politics and the folklore of the American people.
Simpson watched this expansion with distrust. McLoughlin had been instructed to build an empire of fur. He seemed to be building something like a colony which, in the end, might prove fatal to the fur trade, and actually was building the foundations of the American republic on the Pacific. In any case, the Little Emperor could tolerate no rival. He was secretly jealous of McLoughlin’s power and contemptuous of his openhanded ways with the American competitors.
McLoughlin had indeed grown a little dizzy with success. His salary of twenty-nine hundred pounds a year was kingly. His word was law. No one in his great dining hall ventured to interrupt his oracular pronouncements on business, politics, philosophy, religion and the virtues of Napoleon Bonaparte. On a canoe journey across Canada to England in 1838 he regaled the startled Hudson’s Bay factors of the prairies with praises of Papineau, the newly exiled rebel. Where would all this end? As the subtle mind of Simpson may have suspected, it would end in tragedy.
If he was too easy-going with the competitors and too prodigal with the company’s money to suit Simpson, McLoughlin could be ruthless. The Clallam tribe having killed five of his traders he punished them by destroying their village and massacring twenty-five inhabitants.
The king’s rule was absolute but at the heyday of his power the tragedy of McLoughlin had begun. He appointed his worthless son, John, to command the Stikine fort and there the youth was murdered by a mutinous crew in a drunken riot. The father was wild with grief and then with anger on learning that Simpson had released the confessed murderer. The quarrel between McLoughlin and Simpson, long growing out of business disputes but mostly out of their egocentric and incompatible natures, was now past curing. McLoughlin’s furious letters to the company’s headquarters in London attacked Simpson’s policies, methods and lavish sexual morals.
Still, the business of the company must go on. Simpson foresaw the future more clearly, or at least admitted it more frankly, than McLoughlin. In Simpson’s mind the original guess that the Columbia line could not be held, that the company must establish itself on the defensible line of the Fraser, had been confirmed by the American pressure on Oregon.
He had ordered the construction of Fort Langley, near the Fraser’s mouth, in 1827. A single stake driven there did not satisfy him. Cruising up the coast in the Beaver, the company’s steamship, he was struck by the possibilities of Vancouver Island, for it thrust well southward of the forty-ninth parallel into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Its southern extremity and a safe harbor would make an ideal site for a fort to hold the island and, if necessary, a boundary through the strait. This was to prove Simpson’s most important inspiration. It would largely determine in the end the western division of the continent.
The man who would thus anchor the boundary had lately arrived at Vancouver. He was a towering Scot of mysterious origins, swarthy skin, courtly manners, hard mind and glacial cold. Young James Douglas had learned the fur trade in Fraser’s New Caledonia and narrowly escaped with his life from the Indians there. He immediately took over the management of McLoughlin’s business and became his silent alter ego. The two men, with their lively half-breed wives and numerous children, lived apart as a remote aristocracy. McLoughlin and “Black” Douglas dined with visitors in the central hall while their women were forbidden any company.
He Had to Ruin a Friend
This comfortable life could not continue. The exotic little growth planted by McLoughlin on the Columbia must perish in the storm of imperial power now sweeping across America or become part of the larger growth of the American republic, of which the first portents were a few destitute and starving missionaries from Boston. They had crossed the plains by covered wagon, with ghastly hardship, and slid down the river on rafts.
In 1834 McLoughlin had confronted the visage of Manifest Destiny in the person of Jason Lee, a lanky young Methodist minister “with strong nerve and indomitable will.” Lee had been moved by a delegation of Flathead Indians seeking the word of God at St. Louis, and felt called to duty among them.
The little band of missionaries was guided across the plains and mountains by Nathaniel Wyeth, an enterprising merchant whom McLoughlin liked at first sight. His own Christianity rising above the interests of his company, McLoughlin warmly welcomed the tattered travelers but discreetly directed Lee to the Willamette Valley, south of the Columbia, that essential line of British power.
Wyeth was not to be diverted so easily. He decided, against McLoughlin’s honest advice, to build his own trade post on Sauvé Island, directly west of Vancouver. It saddened McLoughlin to ruin his new friend but, in loyalty to the company, the menace of Sauvé post must be removed. The Indians, accordingly, were persuaded to boycott the American trader. Within two years he was bankrupt.
This kind of interference could not retard the westering tide of American settlement now rising east of the Rockies and fed by missionary fervor, land hunger and the chance of commercial profit.
Soon there arrived at Vancouver, via Mexico, the “penniless and ill-clad” figure of Hall J. Kelley, the ardent Boston schoolteacher who had long preached the American colonization of Oregon. McLoughlin recognized him as the archenemy. Kelley, he noted, was garbed in “a white slouched hat, blanket capote, leather pants with a red stripe down the seam—rather outré even for Vancouver,” and besides, he was a horse thief. This charge, made against Kelley and his guide, Ewing Young, in Mexico, was untrue but McLoughlin believed it and treated the two Americans coldly. After being housed, fed and ignored all winter Kelley went home hating McLoughlin as a “prosecuting monster” and continued his crusade for an all-American Oregon.
Next came Samuel Parker, the “plug-hat missionary” in torn clerical clothes, to spy out the land for his eastern followers. Then, in 1836, Dr. Marcus Whitman and his bride, the lovely Narcissa, on an odd coast-to-coast honeymoon by wagon. They were accompanied by Henry Spalding, a missionary, and his wife, these two women being the first to cross the Rockies.
The American missions, dauntless among the tribes of the coast and interior, and highly practical in their business management, were now firmly established. They asked the protection of Congress for their lands. Lee went east to raise money by lectures on the religious needs and natural riches of the west. The American public was excited by his news, the government disturbed by McLoughlin’s hold on Oregon. It was time to find out what had happened to a joint occupation which apparently had turned into a British monopoly.
Captain William A. Slacum was therefore sent to Vancouver by sea as “a private gentleman.” The disguise failed to deceive McLoughlin but Slacum was royally entertained and the business affairs of the company opened to him.
His report to the government repaid McLoughlin’s kindness by the false charge that the company enforced slavery among the Indians. Slacum’s findings were to prove vital in the future of the Pacific coast. They urged the government to demand the forty-ninth parallel as the international boundary and rightly insisted that the Puget Sound country, providing the only secure harbors north of San Francisco, was too valuable a prize to be lost. The government began to think increasingly of Oregon where the United States had planted a few men of God and a handful of godless traders but no settlement.
McLoughlin also had been thinking his own thoughts. He had long realized that settlement could not be avoided south of the Columbia and had quietly encouraged it there to prevent it spreading north of the river.
The case of Louis Labonté, a Canadien servant of the company, had plainly indicated years before the future of this fertile soil. Labonté had finished his term of service, had secured his discharge and proposed to farm in the Willamette Valley.
Alarmed at this first prospect of settlement, McLoughlin sent Labonté home to Montreal, according to the strict letter of his contract. This determined man paddled back across the continent and cleared his farm. A Canadien from the St. Lawrence had begun the private settlement of Oregon —a small beginning, a few acres. But nothing thenceforth could suppress it.
McLoughlin made no serious attempt to stop other settlers and constantly twisted the company’s regulations to help them. The minute but spreading farms on the Willamette, little known to the statesmen of Washington and London, were perhaps the most significant speck of land at the moment in America. If crops would grow in Oregon the land-hungry Americans, now halfway across the dry plains, would certainly try to possess this abundant and well-watered earth. The Hudson’s Bay empire was doomed by such unnoted men as Louis Labonté with his lonely plow. And, though he did not know it yet, even McLoughlin, the Canadian from Riviere du Loup, the Empire’s defender, the king of Oregon, was being sucked day by day into the republic.
In 1841—the year before Elijah White’s first immigrant caravan rolled over the Oregon trail—Simpson’s erratic travels brought him to Vancouver. He and McLoughlin agreed that the final crisis of Oregon was at hand. They masked their quarrel and, outwardly polite, conferred on strategy.
It was essential, said Simpson, that Britain escape without more delay from the long-standing temporary arrangements and assert its control of Oregon before the Americans could occupy it. The crafty Scot, knowing the ways of politicians in London, suspected that they would surrender in the pinch. Therefore, his original project of a second line in the vicinity of the Fraser, with an anchoring fort on Vancouver Island, could be postponed no longer. McLoughlin approved. He saw his kingdom slipping from him.
Who should be selected for the task of holding the future boundary in the Strait of Juan de Fuca? The choice was obvious: “Black” Douglas, the silent man who had long been the king’s prime minister in Oregon, was sent north in 1843 and built the new post of Camosun, soon to be called Victoria. It stood on the east side of a snug harbor, safe from the Songhees Indians’ village on the western side; it fronted on Fuca’s Strait and, though it was only a palisade and a few whitewashed buildings, it must soon become a vital strategic point in the North American struggle.
A New Western Boundary
Douglas, without knowing it, held in his competent hands the future of Canada as a transcontinental state. And far away, on the other side of the continent, in the town of Kingston, Douglas’ unseen partner, John A. Macdonald, was still practicing law, learning politics, drinking too much whisky and little supposing that he would carry Canada to the Pacific some thirty years hence.
In London, meanwhile, the Hudson’s Bay Company was bestirring itself. Governor John Henry Pelly had read with alarm Simpson’s urgent dispatches from Oregon. The agreement of joint occupancy and free trade had ended in 1828 and had been renewed indefinitely, either side free to abrogate it with a year’s notice. Britain and the United States still could not agree on a permanent settlement. Pelly continually urged Foreign Secretary Canning to prepare his final bargaining terms.
Britain’s position looked strong. The American movement into Oregon so far was only a trickle. Washington statesmen seemed little interested in this distant territory, being much more concerned with the Spanish possessions of the southwest. Britain, said Pelly, should propose a boundary from the forty-ninth parallel at the Rockies southwards on the height of land to a point where Lewis and Clarke had crossed the mountains, at about forty-six degrees, then westerly along “Lewis’ River” until it fell into the Columbia, thence straight to the sea.
This settlement, Pelly thought, would be generous to the Americans—so generous that when McLoughlin first heard of it by delayed dispatches he was outraged. Invaluable fur areas, he protested, would be cut out of his kingdom south of the Columbia and Vancouver’s trade ruined.
Already he had seen such Yankee skippers as Captain William McNeill sailing into the Columbia, offering ridiculous prices for furs and delighting the Indians with the new temptations of toys, whistles, wooden soldiers, jumping jacks and other gimcracks from New England.
The company, after its experience of nearly two centuries, thought it knew best. It proposed that Canning demand far more than he could hope to get. He should insist at the beginning on a boundary well south of the Columbia so that, in the ultimate division, he could offer large concessions to the Americans, and feigning surrender, could retreat to the river line.
All this subtle strategy of the last ten years was now obsolete and McLoughlin knew it when, in 1843, Douglas was building Fort Victoria and nine hundred Americans of the “Great Migration” reached the Willamette Valley. A trickle became a flood. The company had brought in a few Canadian farmers from the Red River colony but their numbers only proved that in the contest of settlement Canada must lose. It lacked the population for such a struggle while the republic was bursting with eager immigrants.
The private surrender of McLoughlin also had begun. At first he gave the American settlers credit at his store, contrary to the company’s instructions, to keep them alive, though he knew that many of these debts would never be repaid. The flood still rose. The Indians having assembled around Vancouver for a general massacre and announced that “It’s good for us to kill these Bostons,” McLoughlin rushed among them, brandishing his cane, and forestalled what might easily have turned into a general Indian war and another familiar clash between Britain and the United States.
Under this kind of pressure the ageing man suffered a fierce struggle of conscience. He had recently returned to his mother’s religion, taken the communion of the Roman Catholic Church and ratified by solemn rites the secular marriage of the Canadian frontier. As his mind mellowed the American settlers began to look less like enemies than friends, the American republic more congenial than the rule of a distant London and its hateful agent, the Little Emperor.
Simpson’s worst suspicions would have been confirmed if he had seen McLoughlin board a visiting American ship of war and salute the Stars and Stripes. By this gesture the king of Oregon showed the first outward sign of his conversion.
The increasing settlers of the Willamette—as is the nature of all North Americans — were demanding self-government at their town of Oregon City. McLoughlin was able to postpone this movement briefly by his influence over the Canadiens, his own people. On May 2, 1843, however, an open-air meeting resolved by a majority of two votes to establish a local administration forthwith. Those two votes came from Canadiens who resented Canada’s treatment of Papineau. Even Oregon felt the backwash of the Canadian Rebellion.
McLoughlin abandoned his attempt to control the settlers. They were passing their own laws, levying taxes and seeking admission to the Union. One-man rule west of the Rockies had closed. McLoughlin faced the supreme decision of his life.
A Sad King in Exile
Actually the decision had been taken out of his hands. More immigrants were pouring in, fourteen hundred in 1844. Without British military power behind him, probably without a continental war, McLoughlin could not hold the Columbia line against such numbers. His appeals to London, his hint that he might be elected to lead an independent State of Oregon, went unheeded. He was too old, too tired by his prodigal life, too disillusioned with the company to fight any more.
Next year the settlers elected George Abernethy as their governor. McLoughlin knew this was the end. He formally agreed, on Aug. 15, 1845, to “support the Organic Laws of the Provisional Government of Oregon.” His resignation went to London. The king had abdicated. His retreat to Oregon City with his family was a king’s voluntary exile. It had been his own manifest destiny from the beginning. And when he built a huge house for himself there and applied for American citizenship the long adventure of the boy from Rivière du Loup was complete. There would never be its like again.
He lived eleven years in exile, more as a legend than a man. The Americans eventually granted him citizenship, they observed the giant stooped figure in old-fashioned clothes moving about the streets but he had no influence in a bustling little community which became a territory of the United States in 1848.
He was suspect as a former Briton, a retired dictator and a Catholic. His private land claim was stolen from him by endless litigation, a bitter quarrel with the Methodist Church and some high-class finagling in congressional politics. He was compelled to recoup the Hudson’s Bay Company out of his own pocket for all the credits extended to the American settlers who now refused to honor their debts and treated their benefactor almost as an outcast. Sometimes the old man would fall to sobbing over his old account books, the lost assets, the unpaid debts, the memories of better times.
“By British demagogues,” he wrote in his final testament, “I have been represented as a traitor. What for? Because I acted as a Christian, saved American citizens, men, women and children, from the Indian tomahawk . . . American demagogues have been base enough to assert that I had caused American citizens to be massacred by hundreds of savages—I who saved all I could ... I founded this settlement and prevented a war.”
He got no thanks for this in life. Americans of Oregon had yet to recognize the father of their state. The republic little noted the broken man who, more than any other, had carried it, as a British subject, to the Pacific coast. On his death bed—looking, as a Washington visitor observed, “the picture of General Jackson”— he said he would have been better shot forty years ago. He had now reverted to the French language of his youth on the St. Lawrence.
“Comment allez-vous?” asked his doctor and nephew, Henri De Cheane. “A Dieu,” murmured the deposed king of Oregon and passed into American history. In good time it would vindicate him.
With McLoughlin passed the infancy of the west. ★
NEXT ISSUE: PART SIX
The Two Peers Who Launched The Commonwealth