Author Tags: 1800-1850, Forts and Fur
“This outlaw is so callous to every honorable or manly feeling that
it is not unreasonable to suspect him of the blackest acts.”
Samuel Black was an illegitimate child who was baptized in Scotland in May of 1770. Raised in County Aberdeen, he left Scotland at age twenty-two and joined the North West Company in 1804 where he soon gained a reputation for terrorizing members of the “Honorable Company” with his swashbuckling behaviour, sometimes in concert with his kindred spirit Peter Skene Ogden. Fiercely loyal to his employers who acknowledged he was “a desperate character,” Black intimidated most of the Hudson’s Bay Company traders except for George Simpson who, when entering Black’s Lake Athabasca trading territory in 1820, declared, “I am however armed to the Teeth, will sell my Life in danger as dear as possible and never allow a North Wester [to] come within reach of my Rifle if Flint Steel & bullet can keep him off.”
The personal animosity between Simpson and Black explains why Black, along with Peter Skene Ogden and Cuthbert Grant, did not initially receive positions when the Hudson’s Bay Company amalgamated with the Nor’westers in 1821, placing Simpson in charge of the Northern Department. At age fifty-one, Black was temporarily forced into retirement and he received a ring from his comrades that was engraved, “To the most worthy of the Northwesters [sic].” But the shrewd Simpson was not one to allow personality conflicts to overrule his practical sense of business. He hired Ogden and Black as chief traders about a year later, and also hired Cuthbert Grant at a lower rank. At their meeting in July of 1823 at York Factory, Simpson described his former adversary Black as “a Donquixote [sic] in appearance, ghastly, raw-boned and lanthorn jawed, yet strong vigorous and active... the strangest man I ever knew.... A perfectly honest man and his generosity might be considered indicative of a warmth of heart if he was not to be known to be a cold blooded fellow who could be guilty of any cruelty and would be a perfect Tyrant if he had the power.”
It would suit Simpson’s purposes if Black served as a "perfect Tyrant" as far away as possible, so Black was placed in charge of the Finlay River expedition that was sent to explore the western side of the Rocky Mountains, north of Fort St. James, in 1824, in keeping with Simpson’s plans to expand the fur trade of New Caledonia into the far northwest. Having long yearned to make his mark as an explorer along the lines of Alexander Mackenzie, Black was eager to accept Simpson’s unrealistic guidelines for the expedition. In addition to finding the source of the Finlay River, Black was instructed to find a parallel, Arctic-bound “sister” river west of the Mackenzie River to enhance the fur trade. To satisfy Simpson’s hopes, Black would have to travel approximately 1,500 miles in mostly uncharted territory. Ironically, it would be Black’s failure to follow his own unruly instincts, and his unusual adherence to Simpson’s directions, that would prevent him from joining the ranks of his legendary predecessors Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser and David Thompson.
In the spring of 1824, Black and his clerk Donald Manson set out from Rocky Mountain Portage on the Peace River accompanied by six voyageurs, a Métis interpreter named La Prise and the interpreter’s wife. Two canoeists, Louis Ossin and Jean Bouche, soon deserted the arduous upstream expedition at a place that is still called Deserters Canyon. This pair made it all the way to the Churchill River before they surrendered and were sentenced before the Council of the Northern Department at York Factory to “... be immediately Handcuffed and in that situation that they be publickly exposed during one full day on the roof of the Factory, afterwards that they be imprisoned during one week, fed on bread and water, and in winter that one of each be sent to winter among the Europeans at Churchill & Severn Forts.” It is possible the deserters Ossin and Bouche received relatively lenient sentences because Black was notorious for being unreasonable.
Despite the necessity of continually towing their canoes in near-freezing, waist-deep water, Black’s contingent averaged about twelve miles per day up the unknown river. To secure his place in history, Black kept a journal of this adventure (published in 1955) in which he wrote, “men complain of numbness in their Arms their hands & wrists & Galled by the Snow Water.” Disdainful of the scarce Sekani Indians they met, whom he described as “phlegmatic sheepish looking Gentlemen,” Black was also disappointed by the lack of game, the poor prospects for fur trading and the caution of his experienced Iroquois foreman, Joseph La Guarde. “The lofty brakers dancing majestically in the Sun beams before us have begun to dance in La Guarde’s brain,” he wrote. By late June they succeeded in reaching Thutade Lake, the source of the Finlay and Peace Rivers.
Obliged to continue “to the northwestward,” in accordance with Simpson’s instructions, Black, on July 8th, secured some unenthusiastic assistance from the Sekanis. As his men grudgingly carried packs weighing 120 pounds, Black and Donald Manson were obliged to carry packs weighing less than half as much. After one week heading north, Black met members of a Tahltan band he described as the Thloadennies. During a nine-day resting period, a joint council of the Sekanis, Thloadennies and HBC voyageurs was held at which Black advised them “to tell no lies, for the White People hated Liars.” The Thloadennies truthfully alerted him to the fearsome presence of the so-called Trading Nahannis who controlled their access to a large, westward flowing river that Black understood was called the Schadzue. With a superior food supply and access to Russian trade goods from the Pacific Ocean, the Nahannis were so formidable that none of the Thloadennies would agree to accompany Black any further north.
Fearful of the Nahannis, the Métis interpreter’s wife persuaded her husband to desert Black’s expedition on July 27. Black pressed stubbornly onward until he had to admit he had only succeeded in reaching the Laird River network at a tributary he acerbically named Turnagain River. By the end of September, Black’s hazardous five-month expedition was over. Had he been able to follow the Schadzue River to its mouth on the Pacific, he would likely have become famous as the European discoverer of the Stikine River in northern British Columbia, a navigable river that would have provided an important avenue for Hudson’s Bay Company commerce. Instead, Black had been obliged to continue to trudge northwards in search of an Arctic-bound river that did not exist. George Simpson acknowledged that Black had undertaken a stalwart journey into “perhaps as rugged a country as ever was passed,” but Simpson failed to understand the commercial potential of the Stikine (Schadzue) River.
Black remained an intemperate character in the fur trade, working in the Columbia River and Thompson River areas. At Fort Kamloops, where Black was Chief Trader, he once challenged the touring botanist David Douglas to a duel after the scientist had insulted the Hudson’s Bay Company during his visit in 1833. “Offensive and defensive preparation seems to be the study of his life,” wrote George Simpson in his Character Book, “having Dirks Knives & loaded Pistols concealed about his person and in all directions about his Establishment even under the Table cloth at Meals and in his Bed.”
Black’s penchant for violence and his low opinion of Aboriginals proved to be his undoing. After Black refused to provide a gun to a Shuswap chief named Tranquille, and that chief died later that same year, his wife believed Black was responsible for the death by supernatural means. A man named Kiskowskin, said to be a nephew of Tranquille, murdered Black in the winter of 1841 by shooting him in the back of the head.
In death, Black played almost as important a role as in life. When the Chief Trader at Fort Alexandria, John Tod, learned the news and arrived in Fort Thompson, he found Black’s frozen body lying where he had been killed. Tod learned the story of Black’s death from the Hudson’s Bay Company interpreter, Jean Baptiste Lolo, whereupon a vindictive and hostile investigation was undertaken for the HBC by Donald McLean.
McLean’s legacy to British Columbia would turn out to be its most notorious outlaw gang, the so-called Wild McLeans, really just a ragtag outfit of misfits consisting of his sons Allen, Archie and Charley, along with Alexander Hare. Having shot and killed a member of the B.C. Provincial Police named John Ussher in 1879, the desperadoes shot another man named Jim Kelly during their getaway. They were taken into custody less than a week later. When the gang was hanged together at New Westminster on January 31, 1881, after they had surrendered for trial on December 13 to end a siege at Douglas Lake, sixteen-year-old Archie McLean gained the dubious distinction of being the youngest murderer ever executed in B.C.
When Donald McLean’s harsh methods proved fruitless, John Tod was obliged to return to Fort Thompson and resume the search. Tod withheld ammunition and other trade goods, thereby making the lives of the surrounding Indians more difficult, and he offered a reward for information. When the HBC received news of Kiskowskin’s whereabouts, Tod’s clerk Cameron was sent with a search party to a nearby village where one of Kiskowskin’s children was taken hostage. This strategy failed to draw Kiskowskin out of hiding, so the child was returned and relations with the Aboriginals worsened.
At this point, John Tod hired a local Indian, Grand Gule, who eventually led Cameron and his men to the fugitive. It was customary for the HBC to execute promptly any Aboriginal who killed a white man, usually by hanging. Knowing his fate, Kiskowskin reportedly leapt from the canoe in which he was being held captive and drowned. The score was considered settled. Grand Gule later became a chief and the ne’er-do-well Donald McLean took charge of Fort Kamloops in 1855. Refusing a transfer in 1860, he homesteaded south of Clinton and was killed by one of the fugitive Tsilqot’ins during the so-called Chilcotin War of 1864.
As for Samuel Black, his white relatives disputed the outcome of his will in which he allocated his resources to his mixed-blood wife and their children. As has been seen, similar court challenges and legal arguments were lodged by the white relatives of traders Peter Skene Ogden, Hugh Faries, John Stuart, Alexander Fraser and William Connolly, all of whom challenged the legitimacy of mixed-blood heirs. Complicating matters, newly arriving clergymen towards the latter half of the nineteenth century were usually willing to lend their opinion that a country marriage or blanket marriage (sous la couverte) qualified only as a conspicuously casual relationship. Yet these marriage were vital to the fur trade. In 1805, Alexander Henry (the Younger) conducted a census of the North West Company’s fifteen departments in Indian country: approximately one thousand men had taken 368 wives and had 569 children with them.
Black, Samuel. Black's Rocky Mountain Journal, 1824 (London: Hudson's Bay Records Society, 1955). Edited by E.E. Rich. Introduction by R.M. Patterson.
Black, Samuel & E. E. Rich & A. M. Johnson. A Journal of a Voyage from Rocky Mountain Portage in Peace River to the Sources of Finlays Branch and North West Ward in Summer 1824 (Publications of the Hudson's Bay Record Society. London: Hudson's Bay Record Society, 1955). Edited by E. E. Rich.
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2006] "Forts and Fur"