Author Tags: 1800-1850, Forts and Fur
When the cutthroat competition between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company was at its zenith, it was not uncommon for a man of action and daring, such as John Clarke, to work and fight for both sides, as well as to have affiliations with other companies.
Known to be haughty and arrogant, Clarke’s tumultuous career has been described in a book by his daughter, Adele Clarke, called Old Montreal, and in the files of George Simpson. In addition, Washington Irving, in his book Astoria, described Clarke, who became the founder of Spokane, Washington, as “a tall, goodlooking man, and somewhat given to pomp and circumstance.”
Upon visiting Fort Vancouver, the artist Paul Kane noted that the common Chinook greeting used for all white men along the Columbia River was Clak-hoh-ah-yah, an expression which he believed was derived from the Aboriginals hearing men at Astoria say, “Clarke, how are you?” It has been conjectured that the Chinook word klahowya could be a derivative expression.
Born in Montreal in 1781, Clarke was said to be a distant relative of John Jacob Astor via his mother, whose maiden name was Ann Waldorf. At age fifteen he entered into the service of the fur trade and became a clerk for the North West Company in 1804. He worked at Fort Vermilion on the Peace River during 1804 and 1805 and also along the Mackenzie River. Clarke was placed in control of Fort St. John on the Peace River in 1809. This fort was moved several times after it began as Rocky Mountain Fort, established by Alexander Mackenzie in 1794, until its closure in 1823. It reopened in 1860 and became the basis for Fort St. John, the largest B.C. community north of Prince George, located at Mile 47 of the Alaska Highway.
In 1810 Clarke left the North West Company and joined the Pacific Fur Company of John Jacob Astor, whereupon he was placed in charge of the second expedition to Astoria in 1811.
After a 212-day voyage from New York with Ross Cox and George Erminger, Clarke arrived at Astoria on the Columbia River in May of 1812. It was soon decided that Clarke should travel inland and establish Spokane House on the Spokane River as a deliberate attempt to provide competition for James McMillan of the rival North West Company.
With the onset of the War of 1812, Clarke was summoned back to Astoria to witness its prudent surrender to the North West Company, his former employers.
Refusing to re-enter the service of the Nor’Westers, Clarke led an overland expedition back to the east consisting of 62 people in June of 1813. In 1814 he worked for Lord Selkirk and joined the Hudson’s Bay Company.
From 1815 to 1819 he aggressively opposed the North West Company in the Peace River and Lake Athabasca regions. Most notably, in 1815, Clarke took one hundred men to Potato Island, within present-day Alberta, to build Fort Wedderburn for his new employers. The competition for furs was such that, when Clarke’s construction crew was faced with starvation, the chief factor of the nearest North West Company fort, only a mile away, refused to provide any food. Clarke had to set off from Lake Athabasca with 50 men to reach Fort Vermilion.
Animosities continued. On October 7, 1816, Clarke was arrested and detained at Fort Chipewyan by the North West Company as a disturber of the peace. Established in 1788 by Alexander Mackenzie’s cousin, Roderic Mackenzie, Fort Chipewyan was initially located on the south shore of Lake Athabasca. It was relocated to its present site on the northwest shore of Lake Athabasca in 1798. Visited by David Thompson in 1804 and Simon Fraser in 1805, it claims to be Alberta’s oldest, continuously inhabited European-established settlement.
In April 15, 1817, Clarke was re-arrested on the same charge and held at various locations until his release on December 12, 1817.
Vain and sometimes extravagant, Clarke was occasionally seen as a liability by his Hudson’s Bay Company employers who had censured him for not keeping a journal in 1815, but his vehement dislike for the North West Company was considered an asset.
Eventually Fort Wedderburn, built by Clarke, was abandoned in favour of Fort Chipewyan when the North West Company was absorbed into the Hudson’s Bay Company on March 26, 1821. Despite his volatile behaviour and the objections of the North West Company, John Clarke was made a Chief Factor when the two companies united. At the time, the North West Company had 97 posts and the Hudson’s Bay Company had 76.
After a year’s leave of absence, Clarke oversaw the Lower Red River district but his poor record led to his demotion to the Lesser Slave Lake district, then to the Swan Lake district. Clarke’s performance was continuously unsatisfactory until his retirement in 1835.
At Spokane House, Clarke had “married” Josephte Kanhopitsa. In 1816, he had entered into a somewhat more formal arrangement with Sapphira Spence, the mixed blood daughter of Joseph Spence, but she died soon after their union. In 1830, Clarke married Mary Ann Trutter-Tranclar, of Neuchatel, Switzerland, and they had four sons and four daughters. Clarke remained in Montreal until his death in July 28, 1852.
Rich, E.E. (Editor). Journal of Occurrences in the Athabasca Department. By George Simpson (Champlain Society, for the Hudson Bay Record Society, 1938).
Clarke, Adele. Old Montreal: John Clarke, His Adventures, Friends and Family (Montreal: The Herald Publishing Co., 1906).
[BCBW 2006] "Forts and Fur"