Connie Lenzen CG

E-mail: ConnieLenzen@comcast.net

Reminiscences of Fort Vancouver on Columbia River, Oregon in 1832.

Author not identified.

Found in Transactions of the Ninth Annual Re-Union of the Oregon Pioneer Association; for 1881. Located at Oregon Historical Society, Portland, Oregon.

Transactions of the Ninth Annual Re-Union of the Oregon Pioneer Association; for 1881, and the Annual Address Delivered by Hon. W. C. Johnson, together with the occasional address by Hon. Medorum Crawford, and other matters of interest (Salem, OR; E. M. Waite, Steam Printer and Bookbinder, 1882), 75-80.

Extract from a letter written in 1832 from Fort Vancouver to a firm in London.

"Fort Vancouver is situated on the northern bank of the noble Columbia, which about ninety miles below, falls into the Pacific. On the east side of the Fort there is a beautiful plain, great part of which is under cultivation and about sixty miles further to the eastward we have a splendid view of mount Hood, which is covered with snow more or less all the year round. To the north the country is thickly wooded, but now and then relieved by pretty small plains, two of which we have cultivated, though one of them is about six miles distant. The Fort itself is surrounded with high stockades and consists of a Governor's house, stores, an office and houses for the gentlemen who conduct the trade. On my arrival at Vancouver I was appointed Indian trader, entered the Indian shop, and was left alone to deal with the natives as best I could. I soon, however, acquired sufficient knowledge of their language to enable me to trade with ease. The mode of trade is simple; there being a regular tariff comprising all the articles in which the natives deal; blankets forming a main item. Liquor we never sell them; and to ammunition they are confined to a certain number of loads; in fact, I consider the Company's manner of dealing with the Indians strictly just and has gained them the influence they possess in the country; as should a native commit a murder on one of their people, which is sometimes the case, the company do not pursue vengeance indiscriminately upon the tribe of the criminal, but follow up the individual until he pays the penalty of his crime with his life.

Having served my probation to the Indian trade, about a twelvemonth, I was next placed in charge of the farm, which consists at present of about seven hundred acres of land under cultivation, and we raise in great quantities peas; barley, Indian corn, buckwheat, wheat, oats and potatoes. The garden produce is apples, peaches, some grapes in front of the Governor's house, and all sorts of vegetables. There are a threshing mill, flouring mill and sawmill, the two last about six miles above the Fort. The lumber is exported to the Sandwich Islands. My duty as Superintendent of the farm consists mainly in seeing the wishes of the gentleman in charge of the establishment carried into effect, and I am therefore almost constantly on foot or on horseback during the day. The two tribes of Indians in our neighbourhood are called Chinooks and Clikitats. The Chinooks support themselves by fishing and the Clikitats by hunting."

End of extract.

Doctor John McLaughlin, who was in charge of Fort Vancouver in 1832 and for many years afterwards conducted the whole of the Hudson Bay Company's business of the Columbia District, as it was then called, has since become a kind of celebrity in Oregon, and merits some description both of person and character as he appeared to me at that period, 1832. The Doctor indeed in personal appearance was a man once seen no easily forgotten; he was over six feet, well and powerfully built, with a commanding countenance and, generally, long flowing grey hair, which greatly added to his striking appearance, which even the Indians noted by calling the white-headed eagle — old man Doctor. Doctor McLaughlin was born in Canada, of Scottish ancestry, in what year I am not aware, but his Grandfather immigrated to Canada. The Doctor although a true Canadian used to tell anecdotes of old Scotland probably furnished by his grandfather; one I can remember of a certain Highland chief, who was in the habit of carrying a yellow cane and of drumming the unwilling of his clan to church with it, so that it came to be called the religion of the yellow stick. I suspect the Doctor kept this story in good remembrance by the way in which he made the men attend divine service at Vancouver. Dr. McLaughlin was a man of strongly marked characteristics and, like many generous tempered men was somewhat passionate, but as said of a celebrated man, Fletcher of Satton, the passion was no sooner on that it was off, and the doctor always regretted any thing of that kind and endeavored to make up for it by kindness to those whom he might have offended. He assisted very materially the early immigrants to Oregon, as will be vouched for by many of the oldest American settlers. Dr. McLaughlin, take him all in all, was an excellent man, and his memory by those who knew him will long be respected. His likeness was painted in a very life like manner by an American artist, Mr. Stanley, and is, I believe, still in his possession.

Among other clerks in the Company's service at Vancouver in those times was rather a curious compound, Thomas McKay, or Tom, as he was generally called, a half breed son of that Mr. Alexander McKay, who came out in the Tonquin to Astoria and from thence sailed to Puget Sound and was cut off by the Indians, as described in Mr. Washington Irving's Astoria. Tom had remained at Astoria, and so escaped his father's fate. He was an original in his way and amused us young fellows greatly by the tales of his wonderful escapes and feats among the Blackfeet Indians into whose country he had led many a trapping party. Tom with a rifle was a dead shot, but in telling a story he often drew a long bow and almost invariably introduced one with "It rained, it rained, and it blew, it blew," and frequently in his excitement would throw in by way of climax to his tale, regardless of all consistency, "And my G-d, how it did snow." I regret now that I kept no note of Tom's tales, which I can recollect were very amusing and lost nothing in his way of telling them. He was very young when out in the Tonquin, but I can well recollect his details of the passage and loss of life on the Columbia bar. He was a very good and amusing personage. Peace to his ashes.

Another man of note at Vancouver in those early times and who with Mr. Douglas, afterward Sir James Douglas, governor of British Columbia, succeeded Dr. McLaughlin in charge of the Hudson Bay company's affairs in Oregon, was Chief Factor Peter Skene Ogden, native of Canada, who had passed many years in the Indian country. Mr. Ogden bore the reputation of having been a pretty wild youth before leaving Canada and carried his love of fun and frolic with him I may say almost to the grave. One of his tricks played at home was, as I have often been told, and played, to, on his own mother, was to send notes to all the midwives in Montreal asking them to repair to the house of Mrs. Ogden at a certain hour, greatly of course to the astonishment and indignation of that lady. Mr. Ogden possessed considerable ability as a writer or literary man and wrote some very interesting sketches of his adventures in the Indian country, which I perused in manuscript and partly copied for him in 1849 I believe they were afterwards published, but I have never seen the book. During my earliest years at Vancouver our intercourse was almost entirely confined to the Company's people when in, I think, 1835, Captain Wyeth of Boston, arrived with his party across the plains; an excellent man and duly appreciated by us all. When he returned home he sent out a keg of choice smoking tobacco, with a handsome letter to the gentlemen of Bachelor's Hall, as we called our smoking room. The doctor and he became great friends and corresponded for many years afterwards. The doctor was fond of argument, and especially on historical points connected with the first Napoleon, of whom he was a great admirer, and often entered into them with Captain Wyeth, and upon one occasion which I well remember he appended to be dressing my hand which I had lately got hurt, and when in the height of debate on the Peace of Amiens he treated my poor hand so roughly that I heartily wished Napoleon and the Peace of Amiens far enough. To show how attentive the doctor was to every mater appertaining to strangers and which he conceived might involve the honor or reputation of the Company whom he represented, I may here mention that a young American gentleman, Mr. Dwight of Salem, Mass., having crossed the plains and been rather imposed upon by the Hudson Bay Company's then agent at For Hall by having to leave his rifle in deposit for provisions supplied him there, complained or rather spoke of the matter to me, then at the Sandwich islands. I wrote and explained the case to Dr. McLaughlin, who immediately sent orders to for Hall and had the rifle forwarded to Mr. Dwight free of all charge, and I had the pleasure of returning it to him.

The months of June and July were generally a busy time at Vancouver, when from the 1st to the 10th of June, at which season the Columbia is high, the Brigade of Boats, as they were called, descended from the interior with the furs and carried back the winter supplies. Then the men composing the crews, principally Canadians, Iroquois and Half-breeds, would be indulged, after their long abstinence, with an allowance of liquor, port and flour, as a regale; then would come the tug of war, with many bloody noses and black eyes, but never with any fatal result. After the departure of the boats, the Snake party of trappers would arrive, headed by Mr. Work, who had then succeeded Mr. Ogden, formerly mentioned as leader of trappers into the Sake and Blackfeet countries, often a perilous undertaking, as during my time at Vancouver those parties have returned with wounded men, and left several killed behind them. The mode adopted with the trappers was to furnish their supplies at a moderate rate, and allow them a fair price for their furs. A large beaver skin, so far as I recollect, was eleven shillings sterling. The horses and traps were also furnished them, and on being returned, placed to their credit. A good hunter often made it a profitable business, and many of those men were the first settlers in the valley of the Willamette, who when they began to raise wheat the company received it, and gradually, as settlers increased, dropped their own farming at Vancouver. All trapping parties were accompanied by an officer of the H. B. Co., who regulated the encampments, kept accounts, etc. Mr. Work, an Irishman by birth, a kind-hearted and generous man, often amused us by his murder of the French tongue, but the men generally managed to understand him. On one occasion Mrs. Work, who also spoke French, left her husband in the tent in charge of the baby, who, becoming rather unruly, tried the patience of its father, who asked his wife on her return where she had been, when she laughingly replied that she had been looking for a beau, to which Mr. Work rejoined in French, si vous chozios les garcon aporte toujour le petit avoz vous, and which meant, when you again look for a beau, pray carry the baby with you.

The business of the Hudson Bay Company is conducted on a regular system throughout. When a young man enters the service as a clerk, his wages are small for some years, but he has no expense except in clothing. The salary, should he conduct himself well, is increased from year to year until it reaches L100 sterling, when he becomes eligible to a Chief Tradership, a partner in the concern, and from thence a Chief factor. Their system in regard to the trade with the natives is much the same on the east as it was on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, only with this difference — that the Indians on the east side are allowed outfits like the trappers, in the fall, and bring in their returns of furs in the spring.

In the fall of the year 1832, the fever and ague was very prevalent at Vancouver, and at one time we had over 40 men laid up with it, and great numbers of Indian applicants for la Medicine, as they called I; and as there was then no physician at the Fort, Dr. McLaughlin himself had to officiate in that capacity, although he disliked it, as it greatly interfered with his other important duties, until he was himself attacked with the fever, when he appointed me his deputy, and I well remember my tramps through the men's houses with my pockets lined with vials of quinine, and making my reports of the state of the patients to the Doctor. It proved, therefore, a great relief, both to him and to me, when the annual ship arrived from London, bringing out two young medical men, Doctors Gardiner and Tolmie, one of whom was immediately installed in office at Vancouver, and the other dispatched to the northwest coast, where the Company had lately established several forts.

One rather curious, and, as it turned out, laughable reminiscence of my doctorship, as it now strikes my memory, I may state here: One day, in making my rounds to the numerous patients, I paid a visit to a half-breed Kanaka boy, and handing him a vial of quinine mixture, pointed with my finger to how much he was to take at one dose, but the fellow, mistaking, swallowed the whole concern at once — eight or ten doses in one. I was a good deal alarmed for a time, but need not have been, for he soon got well, and never had the ague again as long as I remained at Vancouver. The Indians in 1832 were still numerous, and used to assemble near the Fort on Sundays and dance in rings, a sort of religious ceremony, accompanied by singing, and as there were no Handels nor Mozarts amongst them, the music was anything but charming to a delicate ear.

The fever and ague first broke out on the river in 1829, and as there happened then to be an American ship in the Columbia, of which Capt. Dominis was master, the Indians superstitiously believed that he had introduced it. The first and second years the fever carried off great numbers of natives all along the river, and in fact cleaned out whole villages; and there was then no quinine in the county, the Doctor being obliged to use the dogwood root as a substitute. From that shock the Indians never recovered, and probably it was better for the whites, when settlers began to come in, as in former times it was dangerous to ascend and descend the river in canoes or boats without a strong crew, well armed. When administering medicine to the Indians in 1832, through the directions of Dr. McLaughlin, I never thought of the danger attached to a doctor or medicine man amongst them. They often kill an unfortunate medicine man, as they called a doctor, and indeed the Klickitats shot one a short distance below the Fort, during my residence there. But the doctor killing brings to my mind a melancholy case in point, which happened at Fort Camloops in 1841: chief Factor Black, of the H.B. Co., in charge of that post, and who had been over forty years in the Indian country, and consequently well acquainted with their habits and superstitions, incautiously gave medicine to a sick Indian, who died soon after. Poor Mr. Black, all unconscious of danger, was one day pacing back and forward in his room, when the brother, I believe, or some relative of that Indian, shot him through the back. On intelligence of this murder reaching Vancouver, the Company, agreeably to their usual custom on such occasions, immediately dispatched a strong party who did not return before the criminal was brought to justice. I have no doubt in my own mind but that the melancholy murder of Dr. and Mrs. Whitman occurred in the same manner. Mr. Ogden, already mentioned, was the person through whose exertions the captive whites were redeemed from the hands of the Cayuse Indians, on that sad occasion, he having gone to their country for that purpose — and for which he deserved more credit than he ever received. I have lately heard of some published remarks reflecting on the conduct of the H. B. Co., and on that of individuals, in their services to the early American Missionaries. I can only remark from my own experience, that while in the Company's service the gentlemen of the missions were invariably treated with kindness and attention; and in fact, so anxious was Dr. McLaughlin to accommodate them and their families, that I can well recollect some of the young clerks grumbling at their being turned out of their quarters, and crowded into others, in order to better accommodate the strangers.

Another man of mark at Vancouver, in my early days, was Mr. Francis Ermatinger, a clerk in the service, a regular jolly, jovial cockney, whom we sometimes styled Bardof, from the size and color of his nose. He was full of humor and had a great fund of talk, of which he was no niggard, and would address himself to the doctor in all his humors, when others took care to stand aloof, so that it was often said he bearded the lion in his den; but sometimes the lion would give a growl, and say that Frank did nothing but bow, wow, wow. Frank, however, was a capital trader, and was dispatched to the Snake and Flathead countries to encounter the American fur trades. He was also frequently engaged escorting the missionaries and from his constant good humor would often make the most staid and long-faced of them laugh heartily, and I am pretty certain that many of them to this day remember kindly the frank and jovial Ermatinger. He afterwards retired from the Company’s service and joined a brother in business in Canada, where he died.


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Connie Lenzen, CG

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