Author Tags: 1800-1850, Alcohol, Early B.C., Forts and Fur, Physician Author
“... that anomolous Mammoth McLoughlin” —Employee John Tod
Prior to James Douglas, the shrewdest and most powerful administrator in the Pacific Northwest was his mentor John McLoughlin, the white-haired “Father of Oregon” who passed along George Simpson’s instructions (to Douglas) to establish Fort Victoria, having visited Vancouver Island himself in 1839.
According to W.K. Lamb, “Legend has tended to exaggerate McLoughlin’s stature, and to make him an incredible paragon of all virtues.... The man himself was less perfect but more interesting—cursed with passions and a stubbornness that made him a difficult and eventually an impossible subordinate; but blessed with a broad humanity, more than a little foresight, and a constructive mind.” George Simpson initially described McLoughlin as “very zealous in the discharge of his public duties and a man of strict honor and integrity.”
John McLoughlin was born near Rivière du Loup, Quebec, on October 19, 1784, to a poor Roman Catholic father and a well-born Protestant mother. Baptized as a Roman Catholic, he was raised as an Anglican and began his formal studies of medicine at age fourteen with Dr. Sir James Fisher. Upon receiving his medical license on April 30, 1803, he reputedly fled Québec after a scuffle with a British Army officer. Having joined the North West Company, McLoughlin mainly served at Fort William, where he took an Aboriginal wife who bore him five children. Made a NWC partner in 1814, McLoughlin rose to prominence as one of the preliminary negotiators of the merger between the Nor’westers and the Hudson’s Bay Company.
McLoughlin’s hair turned white in the aftermath of the murder of Robert Semple, governor of the Red River colony. Unwilling to see Aboriginals unfairly accused of the murder, McLoughlin had intervened to represent the Nor’westers only to find himself accused of the crime. While McLoughlin was being taken across Lake Superior, the canoe capsized and several men drowned before he could be taken to trial and acquitted of all blame on October 30, 1818.
McLoughlin was appointed Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the Columbia District in 1824, with Peter Skene Ogden to assist him. In 1825, under his direction, Fort Vancouver was built on the Columbia River’s north bank, at Belle Vue Point, to supplant Fort George, formerly called Fort Astoria, as the HBC’s new headquarters on the West Coast. McLoughlin remained as Chief Factor for the HBC when the Districts of New Caledonia (interior B.C.) and Columbia were united in 1826.
Tireless, responsible and humane, McLouglin adopted a relatively liberal policy of cooperation with Aboriginals, sometimes doctoring their infirmities, and became known as White-Headed Eagle. He also gained a reputation for helping hungry and exhausted overland American settlers, offering humanitarian assistance against the wishes of his British employers.
Fond of dancing and reading, McLoughlin established a library at the fort and enjoyed entertaining guests such as the Scottish botanist David Douglas, after whom the Douglas fir is named. McLoughlin initially read church services himself, prior to the arrival of the sanctimonious Rev. Herbert Beaver, with whom he quarreled violently. McLoughlin later opened the first school west of the Rockies in 1832, with John Ball as the first teacher.
Whereas his protégé James Douglas remained a lifelong friend and admirer, the non-deferential McLoughlin began to have serious differences with Governor George Simpson, who began to worry that McLoughlin might defect and form a rival fur trading faction. By 1832, Simpson privately cited McLoughlin’s “ungovernable violent temper and turbulent disposition” and presumed that McLoughlin “would be a Radical in any Country under any Government and under any circumstances.” The more Simpson began to be suspicious of McLoughlin’s republican sympathies, the more McLoughlin and Simpson began to disagree on company matters. Whereas McLoughlin favoured a series of trading posts for commerce, Simpson preferred an ongoing reliance on visiting ships such as the Beaver. Whereas McLoughlin wanted to encourage immigrants, Simpson did not.
The greatest schism between McLoughlin and Simpson arose from the tragic death of McLoughlin’s second son, John Jr. Born in 1812 and sent to Montreal for schooling in 1821, McLoughlin’s son lived with his great-uncle Simon Fraser in Montreal but failed to thrive. Sent to learn medicine in France with his uncle David McLoughlin, John Jr., continued to cause problems wherever he went.
Despite lacking credentials, he was granted a position as an HBC physician and dispatched to Fort Vancouver, then sent in 1840 to provide token medical services at Fort Stikine. There he gained a reputation as a volatile drunkard. At age twenty-nine, on April 20, 1842, he was shot and killed by one of his own men.
Whereas McLoughlin was convinced his namesake was murdered, Governor Simpson undertook a cursory investigation and concluded McLoughlin’s mixed-blood son was partially blameworthy.
Outright animosities between McLoughlin and Simpson ensued, leading to McLoughlin’s eventual resignation, after he received an officious letter from Simpson that read, in part: “From all I can collect, the whole conduct & management of Mr. McLoughlin [Jr.] were exceedingly bad, and his violence when under the influence of alcohol, which was very frequently the case, amounting to insanity....The occurrence having taken place within Russian Territory, no legal steps against the parties can be taken by me; but my belief is, that any Tribunal by which the case could be tried, would find a verdict of ‘Justifiable Homicide’....The business of the post seems to have been very badly managed....The accots [accounts], I fear, are in a very irregular state....”
John McLoughlin proceeded to undertake his own thorough investigation of his elder son’s death. He soon realized Simpson’s judgement was superficial and simplistic, made hastily to avoid complicating his own dealings with Russian Governor Etolin at Sitka. By gathering first-hand statements, and also some vital intelligence gleaned by James Douglas from an Iroquois named Kanaquassé who had been at Fort Stikine at the time of the death, McLoughlin was able to learn that his son had not overly taken to drink, as was alleged by Simpson’s informants. Instead, his son had rightly tried to prevent his unruly staff from absconding with Company wares and trading them for sexual favours outside the fort.
Forbidden to bring Aboriginal women into the fort, and also forbidden from leaving the fort to meet their mistresses after nightfall, the men at Fort Stikine had drawn up a compact to murder their commander. John McLoughlin, Sr., became especially critical of Simpson’s earlier decision to remove his son’s main assistant and fellow clerk Roderick Finlayson to Fort Simpson, thereby leaving his son without a forceful ally to restrain the ne’er-do-wells who had been exiled to Fort Stikine. An audit of Fort Stikine’s books further revealed that his son’s bookkeeping had only a discrepancy of eleven pounds. Records of his liquor consumption showed only a moderate intake, as confirmed by his country wife.
The murderers at Fort Stikine had collectively lied to Simpson. These findings were sent to Governor Pelly and the Hudson’s Bay Company Committee in London. In 1843, Pelly responded: “From this evidence it appears that the murder of Mr. John McLoughlin was the result of a preconcerted plot, and that there was no just foundation for the charges of drunkenness and of excessive severity in punishing the men under his command, which were brought against him after his death.” But the murderers of John McLoughlin, Jr., were never brought to trial.
Pro-British historians have alleged that John McLoughlin, Sr., essentially “sold out” Canada by helping American settlers and taking American citizenship, but likely he was responding as much to the cynicism of Hudson’s Bay Company management as he was drawn to republicanism.
With the arrival of Catholic clergy, McLoughlin reverted to Catholicism in the 1840s and invited Roman Catholic missionary F.N. Blanchet to solemnize his marriage on November 19, 1842. Until his death, McLoughlin remained loyal to his second wife Marguerite, or Margaret, the mixed-blood daughter of former Nor’wester Jean Etienne Wadin. The Scottish traders were closely knit: McLoughlin met Marguerite in 1812, the year after her husband Alexander McKay was slain aboard the Tonquin. McLoughlin willingly served as a father figure to her son from that previous marriage, Thomas McKay, who himself had three wives.
Family life in the hinterlands was difficult at the best of times. While on the West Coast, McLoughlin attempted to play an active role in the unhappy lives of his mixed-blood children from Fort William. McLoughlin’s eldest daughter Maria Elizabeth (b. 1814) was raised by McLoughlin’s sister, an Ursuline nun. After she married and her husband died, Maria received support payments from her father until his death. A second daughter, Eloisa, born at Fort William in 1817, was reputedly his favourite. She came west to join her father and married the fort’s Chief Clerk, William Glen Rae, who later committed suicide. After her second husband also died, Eloisa and her children lived with her father, then remarried in 1850.
Partially raised at Fort Vancouver, McLoughlin’s son David, born at Fort William in 1821, was sent to Paris to live with his uncle. McLoughlin, Sr., persuaded him to forego a military post in Calcutta in order to learn the fur trade at Fort Vancouver. Unimpressed with life at the fort, David McLoughlin resigned from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1849, married a Kootenay Indian named Annie Grizzly, daughter of a chief, and lived for most of the time on 160 acres near the Idaho-Canadian border, squandering his sizeable inheritance before his death in 1903.
Dispirited by his disagreements with Simpson, McLoughlin chose to retire from HBC administration in 1846. In 1847, he was accorded the Knighthood of St. Gregory, bestowed by Pope Gregory. He went to Oregon City where he ran the HBC’s mill and store and was elected mayor in 1851, winning 44 of 66 votes. Known for his philanthropy, he donated large amounts of property for public projects. Although McLoughlin became an American citizen, the U.S. government expropriated a substantial share of his holdings, treating him as if he were a foreigner. Nonetheless, McLoughlin died of old age, wealthy and respected, on September 3, 1857. Nobody has ever resolved the mystery, revealed in his accounts, as to why John McLoughlin was sending quarterly payments of between ten to 50 pounds, from 1838 until he died, to an unknown woman named Catherine O’Gorman.
If McLoughlin was the Father of Oregon, he was the Grandfather of British Columbia, but little is left to mark his name. Located at McLoughlin Bay on Campbell Island in Millbanke Sound, Fort McLoughlin was founded on May 23, 1833. Physician and fur trader William Fraser Tolmie worked there from 1833 to 1836. The fort was abandoned and burned to the ground in 1843. The Hudson’s Bay Company built a store at McLoughlin Bay as a replacement with the advent of the steamers Beaver and Otter. This store gradually gave rise to the coastal community now called Bella Bella.
McLoughlin, John. The Letters of John McLoughlin From Fort Vancouver to the Governor and Committee [First, second and third series, 1825-1846] (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1941-1944). Edited by E.E. Rich. Introduced by W.K. Lamb.
McLoughlin, John. Letters of Dr. John McLoughlin Written at Fort Vancouver, 1829-1832 (Portland: Oregon Historical Society, Binfords and Mort, 1948). Edited by Burt Brown Barker.
McLoughlin, John. The Financial Papers of Dr. John McLoughlin: Being the Record of His Estate and of His Proprietory Accounts with the North West Company (1811-1821) and the Hudson's Bay Company (1821-1868) (Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1949).
McLoughlin, John. McLoughlin's Fort Vancouver Letters, 1825-1846, Hudson's Bay Record Society Publications., London, 1941-1944. Also: Edited by E.E. Rich, with an introduction by W.K. Lamb (Liechtenstein, Kraus Reprint, 1968)
McLoughlin, John. John McLoughlin's Business Correspondence, 1847-48. (Seattle/London, University of Washington Press, 1973). Edited by William R. Sampson.
Holman, Frederick Van Voorhies. Dr. John McLoughlin, the Father of Oregon (Cleveland: The Arthur H. Clarke Co., 1907)
Montgomery, Richard G. The White-Headed Eagle: John McLoughlin: Builder of an Empire (New York: Macmillan, 1934, 1935).
Johnson, Robert Cummings. John McLoughlin: Patriarch of the Northwest (Portland, Oregon: Metropolitan Press, 1935); reprinted as John McLoughlin, Father of Oregon (Binfords & Mort, 1958).
Dye, Eva Emery. McLoughlin and Old Oregon: A Chronicle (Portland: Binfords & Mort, 1936).
Allen, T.D. (pseud.) Troubled Border (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1954). A fictionalized biography.
Johnson, Enid. Great White Eagle: The Story of Dr. John McLoughlin (New York: Julian Messner, Inc., Copp Clark, 1954). Biography.
Allen, T.D. (pseud.) Doctor, Lawyer, Merchant, Chief (Philadelphia: The New Westminster Press, ca. 1965). A fictionalized biography for young readers.
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2006]