Author Tags: 1800-1850, Forts and Fur
"The future was full of shadows, clouds and darkness." -- Ross Cox, arriving at Astoria in 1812
Eager for adventure, Ross Cox gained a clerkship with the Pacific Fur Company in New York and sailed with five other clerks, in October of 1811, aboard the 480-ton Beaver under Captain Cornelius Sowles, bound for the Columbia River. In September of 1810, the Tonquin, under Captain Thorne had also embarked from New York, bound for the same destination. The Tonquin reached the mouth of the Columbia in March of 1811; the Beaver arrived in May of 1812. In his extensive memoir Cox was able to provide extensive particulars regarding the "destruction of the Tonquin and crew" that occurred in Clayoquot Sound in 1811.
After a winter at Fort Spokane, Cox returned to Astoria on June 11, 1812, just in time to learn about the War of 1812 and the impending sale of Astoria to the Northwest Company. Cox chose to remain with the NWC rather than return to the United States or Great Britain. Also stationed at Fort Okanogan in 1814, Cox described visiting Rocky Mountain Portage House ("a miserable concern of rough logs"), a provisions depot first built by the NWC on Brulé Lake in 1813. At at an estimated latitude of 53 18' 40" N, Cox met Jasper Hawes who had taken charge in 1817. To avoid confusion with Rocky Mountain House on the North Saskatchewan River, this station to serve travellers using the Athabasca, Bess and Yellowhead passes became known as Jasper's House, a name used to create Jasper National Park in 1907, and later given to the town of Jasper.
In the spring of 1817, Cox (1793-1853) left the Pacific fur trade, travelling with a brigade up the Columbia River to the Athabasca River, eventually returning to his native Ireland. In 1831, he published his popular narrative, Adventures on the Columbia River, the first memoir to recount a transcontinental journey via Athabasca Pass. Released in two volumes, it was reprinted several times by the English firm of Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley.
A frequently humourous raconteur, the God-fearing Cox provided a "curious account of a hermaphrodite chief" and numerous telling observations of the sexual behaviours of traders, halfbreed and Indians. "When a young trader becomes united to an Indian or halfbreed woman he seldom calculates on a family, and foolishly imagines he can easily dissolve a connexion which is unsanctioned by the ceremony of marriage. He is however much deceived. When the period which he had originally fixed for quitting the Indian country arrives, he finds that the woman who had been for many years a faithful partner cannot in a moment be 'whistled off' and 'let down the wind to prey at fortune.' Children have grown up about him; the natural affection of the father despises the laws of civilized society,--the patriot sinks in the parent,--each succeeding year weakens the recollection of home... and in most cases the temporary liaison ends in a permanent union. Those so circumstanced, on quitting the Company, bring their families to Canada, where they purchase estates, on which they live in a kind of half Indian half civilized manner, constantly smoking their calumet, and railing at the fashionable frivolities of fashion."
Cox also records Aboriginal references to either dinosaurs or mammoths: "Some of the Upper Crees, a tribe who inhabit the country in the vicinity of the Athabasca river, have a curious tradition with respect to animals which they state formerly frequented the mountains. They allege that these animals were of frightful magnitude, being from two to three hundred feet high in proportion; that they formerly lived in the plains, a great distance to the eastward; from which they were gradually driven by the Indians to the Rocky Mountains; that they destroyed all smaller animals; and if their agility was equal to their size, would have destroyed all the natives, etc. One man has asserted that his grandfather told him he saw one of those animals in a mountain pass, where he was hunting, and that on hearing its roar, which he compared to loud thunder, the sight almost left his eyes, and his heart became as small as an infant's. Whether such an animal ever existed I shall leave to the curious in natural history to determine; but if the Indian tradition have any foundation in truth, it may have been the mammoth, some of whose remains have been found at various times in the United States."
Ross Cox, who served as the central character in a thinly fictionalized 1949 novel, Up the Columbia for Furs, by Cecil Dryden, ascended the Columbia River nine times, descended it eight, was once became lost in the wilderness for 14 days and provided a description of Peter Ogden Skene. He also provided descriptions of orderly executions, savage attacks, his own "remarkable escape from a rattlesnake," surgical and medical knowledge of the Flatheads, a "remarkable cure of rheumatism" and the even more remarkable arrival by ship of the Portsmouth barmaid Miss Jane Barnes, "a flaxen-haired, blue-eyed daughter of Albion, who, in a temporary fit of erratic enthusiasm, had consented to become le compagnon du voyage of Mr. Mac-----."
Due to Cox's primary association with Astoria/Fort George, the concluding pages of his narrative, in which he includes sensational reports of Aboriginal customs on behalf of fur trader Joseph McGillivray, stationed at Alexandria, are rarely, if ever, recognized as reportage of life in British Columbia. Whether these sensational accounts have been exaggerated to the point of fiction, or were intended to be entirely genuine, they are incomparable as literature. Cox claims, "his description of New Caledonia furnishes the only information we possess of a portion of the American continent respecting which we have been heretofore perfectly ignorant." [See Joseph McGillivray entry]
Cox, Ross. Adventures on the Columbia River, Including the Narrative of a Residence of Six Years on the Western Side of the Rocky Mountains, Among Various Tribes of Indians Hitherto Unknown: Together with a Journey Across the American Continent (London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1831; 1832; 1832; New York: J& J Harper, 1832; San Francisco: California State Library, 1942; Portland: Binfords & Mort, 1957).
Cox, Ross. The Columbia River (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press; Toronto: Burns & MacEachern, 1957). Edgar I. Stewart and Jane R. Stewart, editors.
[BCBW 2006] "Forts and Fur" "1800-1850"