Author Tags: 1800-1850, Forts and Fur
“Humorous, honest, eccentric law-defying Peter Ogden, the terror of all Indians, and the delight of all gay fellows.” —Trader Ross Cox
A shrewd, violent and enduring trader, Peter Skene (Skeene) Ogden became one of the more influential figures in New Caledonia in the 1830s and 1840s, erecting Port Simpson on the Nass River. Ogden later provided some of the most authentic reflections of how men worked and lived in New Caledonia, prior to the 1850s. “Pity that the Slavery Emancipation Act does not extend its influence to these remote shores,” he wrote, while stationed at Fort Simpson in 1838.
Baptized as Peter Skeene Ogden in Quebec City in 1790, Ogden was the son of Chief Justice Isaac Ogden, a United Empire Loyalist, and Sarah Hanson. Growing up in Montreal, he had two brothers who were lawyers. After a brief association with the American Fur Company in Montreal, Ogden joined the North West Company as an apprentice clerk in 1809 and gained a permanent position in 1811. During his seven years in Saskatchewan he gained his lifelong reputation for violence and “bully-boy” tactics.
At Île-à-la-Crosse, he and fellow trader Samuel Black had serious altercations with their Hudson’s Bay Company rival Peter Fidler. Placed in charge of a trading post located south of Île-à-la-Crosse at Green Lake, Ogden allegedly murdered an Aboriginal who persisted in trading with the rival Hudson’s Bay Company. A HBC agent named McVicar reported that Ogden’s victim was “butchered in a most cruel manner.”
In his own defence, Ogden once confided, “In place, where the custom of the country, or as laws say, the Lex non scripta is our only guide, we must sometimes perform the parts of judge, jury, sheriff, hangman, gallows, all.”
At the behest of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Ogden was eventually indicted for murder in Lower Canada in 1818. The Nor’westers quickly transferred him to their Columbia River department, enabling him to avoid prosecution.
Ogden left behind his first country wife who had bore him two children, Marie Comptois, a
young Métis woman descended from a trapper from Lower Canada (her grandfather, identified as M. Fragnant, and a Cree
woman (her grandmother, unidentified). Marie Comptois is buried at Fort McLeod. All of Ogden’s surviving, mixed-blood offspring would later be included in his will.
Upon his arrival at Fort George, near present-day Astoria, Oregon, Ogden was sent inland to winter at Spokane House, near present-day Spokane, Washington, then north to Fort Thompson, present-day site of Kamloops.
At Spokane House, Ogden met and married his second country wife, Julia Rivet, the Nez Percé daughter of a Canadian voyageur, who would bear him seven more children and prove to be an indomitable force. Having obtained his bride with a payment of fifty horses, Ogden sent for his two half-Cree boys from his preceding relationship, and they were cared for by Julia. Theirs would be a remarkable 31-year marriage, often interrupted by lengthy separations during Ogden’s six Snake River expeditions.
Having been made a partner or “bourgeois” of the North West Company in 1820, Ogden had a career setback with the merger of the Nor’westers with the Hudson’s Bay Company in March of 1821. Due to their records of violence, he and Samuel Black were initially not accepted within the expanded HBC. He was permitted to remain in command at Fort Thompson until he chose to return to England, via Lower Canada, in 1822, to plead his case successfully for reinstatement, along with Black.
George Simpson and the HBC concluded that their penchant for hostilities might be put to constructive use: Simpson also worried that Ogden and Black might succeed in forming a rival company. Better to have them inside the tent than out.
In total, John McLoughlin sent Ogden to lead six “expeditions” into the largely uncharted Snake River country in the east of Oregon and beyond, so-named due to its many deadly snakes. In spite of Spanish claims to it, England and the United States had decided this zone was potentially there for the taking. Assuming this territory would ultimately fall to the Americans, the HBC appointed Ogden and John Work to create a “fur desert” amid less-than-hospitable Nez Percé, Flathead, Blood, Peigan and Blackfoot Indians. Governor Simpson provided blunt instructions to disregard all customary concerns for conservation. “We have convincing proof,” he said, “that the country is a rich preserve of Beaver and which for political reasons we should endeavour to destroy as fast as possible.”
Ogden’s initial Snake River contingent, accompanied by an enclave of Americans led by Jedediah Smith, included 58 men, 30 women, 35 children, 268 horses, 352 traps and 22 leather lodges. Julia, her newborn son and her two young stepsons were among those who passed the winter of 1824–1825 in the Snake Country at the behest of Governor Simpson, who resented the excess expense of wintering in a fort.
After a raid on their camp by rival American freemen (mainly French Canadians and Iroquois), Julia realized that her baby and its cradle board were on one of the stolen horses. She hastened to the enemy camp, mounted the horse, grabbed the lead of another HBC horse carrying HBC furs, and galloped back to safety, ignoring the raised muskets of her assailants.
When Ogden’s six-year-old son Charles contracted a chest cold and fever, Julia Ogden prescribed a “goose” to heal his condition. A HBC hunter obligingly shot one for her, but the goose fell to the earth on the far side of an ice-strewn river and none of the men were willing to retrieve it. Julia promptly shed her garments, swam across the river, grabbed the dead bird, and swam back to cook the goose. After she rubbed goose grease on the boy’s chest and fed him goose soup, he lived.
Wives and children were later prohibited from accompanying Snake River expeditions, most of which were required to live off the land, but Julia Ogden succeeded in participating in Ogden’s fourth brigade. Her on-the-trail pregnancy resulted in a birth during a bitterly cold winter. That child lived for only two weeks.
Over six years Ogden trapped extensively and confronted rival traders in areas that included Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho and California. During his second expedition to the Utah territory in 1828–1829, Ogden saw Great Salt Lake, and in 1830 Ogden visited California — the Mexican region south of the 42nd parallel. The town of Ogden, Utah, bears his name, as does Peter Skene Ogden State Park in central Oregon and Ogden Street in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ogden’s ability to withstand extreme conditions won the praise of his superior John McLoughlin, but freezing temperatures, fever and combative Indians had cost the lives of numerous companions.
“This is certainly a most horrid life,” Ogden wrote. “In a word I may say without exaggeration Man in this Country is deprived of every comfort that can tend to make existence desirable.” To make matters much worse, malaria spread through the ranks of the Columbia River traders, afflicting some fifty men at Fort Vancouver, and Ogden contracted the disease. His convalescence delayed his departure to the lawless hinterlands of New Caledonia where, as selected by McLoughlin, he would be required to create a new trading post on the Nass River.
Having been relegated to her mother’s lodge at Fort Nez Percé with four children, Julia Ogden waited several years before she took the initiative to re-unite with her ailing husband at Fort Vancouver. Consequently, she and her children were aboard the Cadboro in April of 1831 when it sailed from Fort Vancouver under the command of Lieutenant Aemilius Simpson, a Royal Navy officer on half pay, who had been hired in 1826 to supervise the HBC’s maritime operations.
Perhaps a word should be added about Aemilius Simpson, a distant relative and school associate of George Simpson who hired him for his “high character and respectable abilities.”
Having helped build Fort Langley, Lieutenant Simpson gained the distinction of sailing the first European vessel up the Fraser River on June 22, 1827. In the spring of 1831, the Cadboro sailed with two other ships, the Dryad and the Vancouver, and reached the Nass estuary after one month’s voyage. After Aemilius Simpson hastily chose the upriver location for Fort Nass, he followed his instructions to sail further north into Russian waters and investigate reports of a large river. He located the mouth of the Stikine River, approximately 140 miles north of the Nass, and reported his findings to Ogden at the nearly completed Fort Nass, but he erroneously concluded the river to the north was the Babine.
At age thirty-eight, Lieutenant Simpson suddenly fell victim to inflammation of the liver and died at Fort Nass, having suffered severely for several days. Ogden changed the name of the new trading post to Fort Simpson in his honour.
To assist Ogden at Fort Simpson, Chief Factor McLoughlin sent him Donald Manson, the clerk on Samuel Black’s Finlay River expedition, who undertook a detailed survey of the lower Nass River and determined that the Nass would not be suitable as a navigable route to the Interior. Manson’s survey shifted the HBC’s attention to discover the potential of the Stikine.
Sailing on the Cadboro in the spring of 1832, Ogden was met by Baron Ferdinand von Wrangel, the newly appointed governor of Russian America, in Sitka harbour, whereupon Ogden attempted to negotiate a new contract to provide the Russians with various supplies.
Wrangel shrewdly surmised the well-organized HBC traders were potentially more threatening to Russian commerce than the independent Yankee clippers, whose numbers had dropped on the Pacific Northwest coast from approximately 15 ships per year in the early 1800s to approximately five per year in the 1830s, so he was unwilling to provide Ogden and the HBC with reasonable terms. As a result, Ogden was unable to establish a second trading post north of Fort Simpson in 1834. Fort Simpson relocated further from the Russians, to the south.
Ogden was rewarded for his efforts with a new commission as Chief Factor for the Hudson’s Bay Company in charge of New Caledonia. He took charge at Fort St. James on Stuart Lake in 1835, replacing Peter Warren Dease (1788-1863), a former Nor’wester who had received the posting in 1821.
After approximately seven years, Ogden wrote his “Notes on Western Caledonia,” essentially a memorandum of instructions and advice for his successor, Donald Manson, who took charge in June of 1844. “Having now been stationed seven years in this District, I cannot say much in favour of the Carriers, a brutish, ignorant superstitious beggarly sett of beings....”
Ogden took a one-year furlough in England in 1844. Upon his return in 1845, he was appointed to a board of management for the Columbia district with McLoughlin and James Douglas.
Privately, Governor Simpson had once assessed Ogden as “one of the most unprincipled Men in the Indian Country, who would soon get into habits of dissipation if he were not restrained by the fear of those operating against his interests, and if he does indulge in that way, madness, to which he has a predisposition, will follow as a matter of course.”
But Ogden proved competent as an administrator and remained more or less married to Julia. Upon McLoughlin’s retirement in 1846, Ogden co-managed the area with James Douglas and John Work. In 1847 he played a decisive role in the resolution of a hostage-taking after Cayuse Indians killed 14 people and took 47 prisoners near present-day Walla Walla, Washington, during the so-called Whitman Massacre. Ogden’s reputation and his payment of $500 worth of goods liberated the white prisoners.
Ogden remained prominent in the fur trade until his death in Oregon City on September 27, 1854, leaving an estate worth $50,000. After he was buried in Oregon City’s Mountain View Cemetery, Ogden’s brother and sister enacted legal proceedings to disinherit Ogden’s Julia and their children, despite Ogden’s clear resolve in his will: “...should any relation of mine or any other individual attempt to dispute this my Last Will and Testament I...declare that I disinherit them as fully as the law authorizes me.”
Unlike McLoughlin, Ogden had never solemnized his marriage to Julia with Christian paperwork. McLoughlin intervened in this dispute and provided a compromise solution. (Ogden’s friend Samuel Black similarly refused to solemnize his marriage to Angelique Cameron, thereby enabling his white relatives to challenge the inheritances of their part-Aboriginal kin.)
It is generally assumed that Peter Skene Ogden was the uncredited author of Traits of American-Indian Life and Character, a collection of 16 accounts by “A fur trader.” So much has been written about the pre-colonial history of Vancouver Island and so little, by comparison, exists as a literary record for New Caledonia, that Peter Ogden Skene’s rough accounts still warrant scrutiny by historians.
Ogden, Peter Skene. Fort Simpson Journal (Vol. 1, 1834-1837, Winnipeg: Hudson's Bay Company Archives B: 20 L: A :3, Public Archives of Manitoba, N.D.)
Ogden, Peter Skene. Traits of American-Indian Life and Character (London, 1853; reprinted 1933 San Francisco: The Grabhorn Press, 1933)
Ogden, Peter Skene. Peter Skene Ogden's Notes on Western Caledonia (British Columbia Historical Quarterly, January, 1937). W.N. Sage, ed.
Ogden, Peter Skene. Peter Skene Ogden's Snake Country Journals, 1824-1825 and 1825-1826 (1950). Rich, Edwin E., ed. Peter Skene Ogden's Snake Country Journals, 1827-1828 and 1828-1829 (1971). Glyndwr Williams, ed.
Ogden, Peter Skene. Journal of Expedition to Utah, 1825 (Utah Historical Quarterly 20: 2 1952). David E. Miller, ed.
Ogden, Peter Skene. Mountain Men and Fur Traders of the Far West (1982). LeRoy R. Hafen and Harvey L. Carter, eds.
Elliott, T.C. Peter Skene Ogden, Fur Trader (Oregon Historical Quarterly, 1910)
Binns, Archie. Peter Skene Ogden: Fur Trader (Portland: Binfords and Mort, 1967).
Cline, Gloria Griffen. Peter Skene Ogden and the Hudson's Bay Company (1974).
[Image circa 1822]
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2006] "Forts and Fur"