McLoughlin, John (1784-1857)

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 9/24/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10617
John McLoughlin was once the most powerful man in the Pacific Northwest. As Chief Factor of the Hudson's Bay Company's Columbia District from 1824 until 1846, he ruled a domain that stretched from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, as far north as Alaska and south into California. From his headquarters at Fort Vancouver, he managed an international trading network, maintained peace among dozens of Indian tribes, and provided critical aid to American missionaries and settlers. He earned great profits for his company and a respectable fortune for himself. But his superiors eventually lost faith in him and settlers who had once relied on his kindness and generosity came to resent his wealth and power. After being forced to resign from the company, he settled in Oregon City (near today's Portland), a town he had founded years earlier. Congress later passed a law that denied him legal title to much of the land he had claimed there. He died lonely and embittered in 1857. The honors were belated but abundant. His heirs regained title to the disputed land; his home and headquarters were preserved as national monuments; his statue was placed in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.; and his name was given to schools, parks, streets, bridges, even a mountain. He was informally christened the "Father of Oregon" in 1907, a title made official by the Oregon Legislature in 1957, a century after his death.

Canadian Boy

John McLoughlin, baptized Jean-Baptiste McLoughlin, was born on October 19, 1784, on a farm near the village of Riviere-du-Loup, Canada, about 120 miles north of Quebec. His father, also named John McLoughlin, was an illiterate Irish-born farmer. His mother, Angelique Fraser (1759-1842), was a member of a prominent Canadian family, of Scottish heritage. McLoughlin was the second of their seven children (and the first of two sons).

The family moved to Quebec when John was about 7. His maternal grandfather, Malcolm Fraser (1733-1815), took on a central role in his upbringing, including raising him in the Presbyterian faith. McLoughlin's father was a devout Catholic and his mother had converted to Catholicism. But his grandfather, a wealthy landowner who had fought on the British side during the French and Indian War and during the American Revolution, was deeply anti-Catholic. Later in his life, McLoughlin returned to Catholicism, a move that would contribute to his difficulties with Anglo-American settlers in the Willamette Valley.

Growing up in French Canada, McLoughlin learned to speak French fluently -- an advantage during his years in the fur trade. But his first career choice was medicine. Shortly before his 14th birthday, he apprenticed himself to Dr. James Fisher (d. 1822), a leading physician in Quebec, apparently at the urging of an uncle who was also a physician. He worked for and studied with Fisher for more than four years, and then petitioned for the right to take the simple examination that would qualify him to practice medicine. He passed the exam and was issued a license on May 3, 1803. But exactly one week earlier, he had abandoned his plans to open a medical office and abruptly signed a five-year contract with the Montreal-based North West Company.

There is speculation that McLoughlin's temper catapulted him from medicine into the fur trade. It is said he had assaulted a British army officer and needed a quick exit from the settled world. Another of his uncles, Alexander Fraser (1861?-1837), was a partner in the North West Company, and may have encouraged him to become a "Nor’Wester" too. In any case, McLoughlin agreed to work for the company for five years and go "whenever whereunto required and into any part of the Indian or Interior Countries" for the very low salary of 20 British pounds (roughly $100) a year (Morrison, 20).

McLoughlin, not yet 19, was an imposing figure despite his youth: six feet, four inches tall, with broad, muscular shoulders; steely blue eyes; and a thick mane of dark hair (which would turn completely white by the time he was 40). He had an odd habit of repeating words or phrases. Some people mistook it for a stutter. He was impetuous, strong-willed, bright, and ambitious. Up to this point, he had led a relatively comfortable life. Now he would experience the privations and challenges of the frontier.

Nor'Westerner

The North West Company dominated the hunt for furs in the Northwest in the early 1800s. Its major rival was the venerable Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), which had the security of a royal British charter (issued in 1670) that gave it a monopoly over all the lands that drained into Hudson Bay -- some 1.5 million square miles. Even so, it lagged behind the Nor’Westers in the fur business. In 1800, the Nor’Westers exported furs worth 144,300 in British pounds to London, while the Hudson's Bay Company sent only 38,463. Trailing a distant third was the New North West Company, which had been started by disgruntled Nor’Westers and was generally called the XY Company, or XYC, because it marked its fur bales with those letters. The two companies merged in 1804, giving the Nor'Westers an even greater advantage over HBC.

McLoughlin was initially assigned to serve as a medical officer at Fort Kaministiquia (later named Fort William), the North West Company's chief depot, on the northwestern shore of Lake Superior. He bled his patients, bandaged their cuts, set their bones, applied homemade poultices to wounds when it seemed like that might work, administered opium compounds when that seemed called for.

He spent his summers as a physician at the fort but worked as a clerk at smaller outposts during the rest of the year. He appears to have had only mediocre abilities as a physician. But he quickly established a reputation as a shrewd trader. He managed the inventory, supervised the French-Canadian engages who worked at the posts, and traded with Indians for furs, either at the posts or by going directly to their camps. As historian Dorothy Morrison has pointed out, these experiences gave McLoughlin a chance to develop his skills as an administrator. It was in that field, not medicine, where his talents lay.

McLoughlin’s contract with the North West Company ended in 1808. He was not happy about his pay -- he had expected but had not received extra money for serving as both a clerk and a physician -- and considered leaving the company and opening a medical office in Detroit. Instead he negotiated a better salary and stayed on.

Domestic Life

Sometime in his early 20s, McLoughlin entered into a "country marriage" with an Ojibway woman. Marriages a la facon du pays, or "in the manner of the country," were common between fur traders and Indian or mixed race women. Native wives were invaluable assistants on the frontier. They set up and dismantled camps; collected firewood; gathered roots, berries, and other foods; cooked; cleaned and packed the furs; and made moccasins, snowshoes, and leather clothing. They also served as interpreters and helped strengthen ties between the traders and Native tribes. Both the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company accepted and even encouraged these relationships, although there were no priests or ministers to solemnize them in the Euro-American fashion.

McLoughlin’s first wife is believed to have died in 1809, shortly after giving birth to a son named Joseph. A few years later, he married Marguerite Wadin McKay (1775?-1860), the half-Cree widow of Alexander McKay (1770?-1811), another fur trader. She and McKay had three daughters and a son, named Thomas. Marguerite was 36 and McLoughlin a decade younger when they married. She had no formal education and could neither read nor write but she spoke three languages: French, English, and her native Cree. She and McLoughlin had four children together: John Jr., born in 1812; Eliza, born in ca. 1814; Marie Eloisa, born in 1817; and David, born in 1821.

The union was, by all accounts, a happy one. Marguerite had a calm, gentle manner -- a contrast to her husband’s volatility. After McLoughlin became the Chief Factor at Fort Vancouver in 1824, she began dressing in the style of a cultured white woman. However, her dress and demeanor did not protect her from epithets based on her Indian heritage. The missionary Narcissa Whitman (1808-1847) described her as "one of the kindest women in the world," with "a fine ear for music" (Journal, September 22, 1836), but still dismissed her as a "half breed" (Letters, September 12, 1836).

Throughout his life, McLoughlin honored his wife and insisted that everyone else treat her with respect. When an Anglican minister insulted her by calling her "a female of notoriously loose character" and a "kept Mistress," McLoughlin flew into a rage and beat the man (Clark, 71). He took steps to protect Marguerite's legal status by marrying her in a civil ceremony in 1838. He later had a Catholic priest bless the union.

Chief Factor

McLoughlin became a partner in the North West Company in 1814 and head of the main depot, the newly named Fort William, in 1816. Meanwhile, the company's overall fortunes were declining. Profits had all but disappeared in the wake of a "fur war" against the Hudson's Bay Company. Nor'Westers and Hudson's Bay men undercut each other, outbid each other, raided each other's posts, and sometimes killed each other. By 1820, both companies were on the verge of bankruptcy, their resources nearly exhausted, "like the gingham dog and calico cat who ate each other up" (Morrison, 98).

Dissatisfied with the Montreal-based management of the North West Company, McLoughlin led a revolt that helped bring about a merger with Hudson's Bay Company in 1821. He traveled to London to participate in negotiations that eventually combined the old rivals into one company, under the Hudson's Bay name. He was not happy with the final terms, which he thought favored HBC at the expense of the Nor'Westers. But when he was offered a position as one of 25 Chief Factors in the reorganized company, he accepted. (In the firm's terminology, major trading establishments were called "factories"; they were headed by "factors.")

McLoughlin's first assignment with Hudson's Bay Company was at Lac La Pluie (Rainy Lake), in present-day Ontario -- one of the frontier posts where he had wintered as a young Nor'Wester apprentice. During his two years as Chief Factor at La Pluie, he increased the number and quality of furs being collected in the district; fended off encroachments by American fur traders; and improved relations with local Indians. His accomplishments brought him to the attention of George Simpson (1792?-1860), governor of Hudson's Bay Company operations in North America. McLoughlin was attending the annual rendezvous at York Factory, the company's headquarters on Hudson Bay (in present-day Manitoba), in July 1824 when he received word that Simpson had appointed him Chief Factor of the new Columbia District.

The vast, sprawling Columbia District was headquartered at Fort George (the former Fort Astoria), which had been taken over by the North West Company in 1813. McLoughlin had been offered a posting there as a Nor'Wester clerk and had refused. But the Hudson's Bay Company assignment represented a significant promotion, and he accepted, quickly. On July 27, 1824, after just two weeks of preparation, he and Marguerite and their two youngest children (Eloisa, age 7, and David, 3) left York Factory for their new home on the other side of the continent. Their older children were either in school or living on their own; it would be years before they would see their parents again.

George Simpson joined the party en route. In two years under Hudson's Bay Company management, the Columbia District had produced only meager returns, and the company's London-based directors doubted it could ever be made profitable. It was also unclear how much of the district would remain in British hands after the settlement of a dispute about the international border in the Northwest. The United States wanted the boundary to be set at the 49th parallel; the British were pushing for the Columbia River. Meanwhile, the two nations operated under the terms of a Joint Occupation Agreement, adopted in 1818 and due to be renegotiated in 1828. Regardless of the eventual border, the British expected to lose control of Fort George, which was located on the south bank of the Columbia. Simpson decided to accompany McLoughlin, scout a new location for the headquarters, and survey the district to decide whether it was worth holding on to.

White-Headed Eagle

Simpson, who would play a major role in McLoughlin's fortunes, met him for the first time when he caught up with him on the trail. In a journal entry dated September 26, 1824, he described the new Chief Factor of the Columbia District:

"He is such a figure as I should not like to meet on a dark night in one of the by-lanes in the neighborhood of London ... his beard would do honor to the chin of a Grizzly Bear, his face and hands evidently Showing that he had not lost much time at his toilette, loaded with Arms and his own Herculean dimensions forming a tout ensemble that would convey a good idea of the highway men of former days" (Simpson, 23).

McLoughlin's "Herculean dimensions" left him towering over Simpson, who, at five feet seven, was nearly a foot shorter. Both men were muscular and powerfully built but McLoughlin projected an almost overwhelming aura of physical strength. His blue-gray eyes, often described as "steely," flashed out from beneath prominent brows. At 40, his "rosy-cheeked face" was crowned with "a magnificent head of prematurely white hair which he allowed to flow down onto his broad shoulders" (Hussey). Coastal Indians soon dubbed him "Chakchak," meaning White-Headed Eagle.

The combined party reached a Hudson's Bay Company trading post in present-day Jasper, Alberta, in October. Marguerite's son, Thomas McKay (1796-1849), was waiting there with horses and men to help them cross the Rockies. Thomas had grown up in the fur trade and had become a well-regarded clerk and trader for the Hudson's Bay Company.

McLoughlin arrived at Fort George on November 8, 1824, three and a half months and about 2,900 miles after leaving York Factory. His initial impression of his new domain was not favorable. "I cannot say that I admire much this Country," he wrote in a letter to an uncle, dated March 15, 1825. "The Climate is very mild but moist and cloudy to a degree indeed since my Arrival on the 8th Novr we have not seen one clear sun Shining day and not ten days without rain" (quoted in Morrison, 132).

McLoughlin and Simpson quickly agreed that the coastal site was unsuitable as a headquarters. Besides being in an area likely to become part of the United States, it lacked enough land to support large-scale agriculture. (Simpson insisted that major forts in the Columbia District grow at least enough food to be self-sufficient and ideally produce a surplus for export.) Additionally, steady ocean winds and more than 60 inches of rain a year made the site too damp to properly store furs.

Simpson delegated McLoughlin and Alexander Kennedy (1781-1832), formerly the Chief Factor at Fort George, to find a new location. They chose a site on the north bank of the Columbia about 90 miles upriver. After several months of construction, a rudimentary post was ready for occupancy. Simpson came out from Fort George to christen it on March 19, 1825. He named it after Captain George Vancouver (1757-1798), whose explorations of the Columbia River had helped the British make a claim to Oregon Country. Simpson and Kennedy left to return east later that day, leaving McLoughlin in charge of the largest and most remote district in the Hudson's Bay empire.

New Domain

McLoughlin's mission was simple: make money for the company and establish a British presence in a disputed land. The details would be largely in his hands. He would need to decide where to locate outlying posts; make sure they were fully supplied and adequately staffed; promote peaceful trade among the Indians; direct the activities of blacksmiths, carpenters, and other craftspeople; decide what crops to grow and what to feed the livestock; organize trapping expeditions; and develop new markets -- among myriad other duties. He was an experienced administrator, with more than 20 years in the fur trade, but he had never been so isolated. If he wanted to send a message to his superiors, either by land across the Rockies to York Factory or by ship to London, it would take a year or more to receive a reply. He would have to make decisions on his own, and risk being second-guessed.

The first task was to move the supplies, trade goods, furs, and other items that had accumulated at Fort George to the new headquarters at Fort Vancouver. Everything had to be moved by boat, since there were no wagons or roads. It was an arduous process that took months.

Another priority was the development of farms and orchards at Fort Vancouver. About 300 acres were ploughed, fenced, and planted with potatoes, peas, beans, and various garden vegetables that first year. Grains were added the next year. By 1828, the fort was warehousing a surplus and sending food to outlying posts.

McLoughlin inherited three major trading posts that had been established or acquired by the North West Company in what is now Washington state: Fort Nez Perces (later called Fort Walla Walla), at the confluence of the Columbia and Walla Walla rivers; Fort Okanogan, on the Columbia at its confluence with the Okanogan River; and Spokane House, on the Spokane River. He closed Spokane House and replaced it with Fort Colvile, on the Columbia at Kettle Falls. He established a string of new outposts along the coast, from Juneau, Alaska, to Yerba Buena, in the heart of what is now San Francisco. He was soon shipping Northwest lumber and salted fish to California and Hawaii (then called the Sandwich Islands); he later found new markets for beef, grain, and other agricultural products in Russian-controlled Alaska. By far the most profitable export, however, was fur, particularly beaver.

Iron Hand

McLoughlin recognized that the fur trade depended upon Indian trappers and hunters. He established and maintained good relations with Northwest Indians by treating them fairly, respecting their customs and beliefs, and punishing whites who abused them. As he wrote in a report to the London directors in 1843, "we will manage our business with more economy by being on good terms with Indians than if at variance." He also noted that "the Indians of the Columbia are not such poltroons as to suffer themselves to be illtreated," especially when they outnumbered the whites 200 to one (Morrison, 174-175). But he also ruled with an iron hand, and did not tolerate attacks on company property or personnel. For example, when members of a Klallam band killed five Hudson's Bay Company men in the Strait of Juan de Fuca area in 1828, he immediately sent forces to retaliate. His men attacked and burned two Indian villages, killed about 20 people, and destroyed all the food and canoes they could find.

McLoughlin was equally ruthless when it came to his competitors in the fur trade. When word reached him in the spring of 1829 that two American ships had entered the Columbia River and were trading with Indians, he sent a group of men downriver to outbid the Americans and regain control of the trade. He also carried out a policy, ordered by Simpson, to scour the streams in the Snake River country and harvest all the beaver that could be found, creating a "fur desert" to discourage American trappers from moving into the region.

Profits from the Columbia District increased steadily. A London-bound company ship left Fort Vancouver in 1836 with a cargo of furs worth $380,000 (more than $7.8 million in 2013 dollars). That fall, McLoughlin received word that Simpson had recommended and the Council of the Northern Department had approved a resolution praising his work, and had given him a bonus and a salary increase. He appreciated the extra money but valued even more the "general approbation" of his services (Morrison, 220).

"New York of the Pacific"

By 1836, Fort Vancouver was a bustling commercial center and supply depot. A 20-foot-tall palisade enclosed some 40 buildings, including housing for company officials, a two-story dining hall with smoking and sitting rooms, a school, bakery, pharmacy, retail store, warehouses, and workshops. McLoughlin's residence, fronted by a plaza and flowerbeds, stood in the center of the complex. Outside was a multicultural village with cabins for workers and their families.

With a population of about 800, Fort Vancouver was the largest and most diverse settlement on the West Coast, home to Hudson's Bay Company officers, who were mostly British, Scottish, or Irish; French Canadian trappers and traders; Hawaiian laborers (called "Kanakas" or "Owyhees"); Iroquois and other Native Americans from the East Coast, and representatives of more than 30 Northwest tribes. At one point, in 1834, it even served as a temporary haven for three shipwrecked Japanese sailors.

The fort's orchards, fields, and pastures stretched for 15 miles along the Columbia. There were barns, granaries, dairy buildings, a sawmill, a flourmill, and a boat house. Grazing nearby were more than 1,000 cattle (raised from an initial herd of about 20). Among other livestock were 700 hogs, 200 sheep, 80 oxen, and 450 to 500 horses.

To early travelers, arriving after long, hard journeys across the continent, Fort Vancouver seemed like a fairyland. "What a delightful place this is," gushed Narcissa Whitman, who arrived in September 1836 with her husband, Marcus (1802-1847), and another Presbyterian missionary couple, Henry (1803-1874) and Eliza (1807-1851) Spalding. "Here we find fruit of every description, apples, peaches, grapes, pears, plums and fig trees in abundance; also cucumbers, melons, beans, peas, beets, cabbage, tomatoes and every kind of vegetables too numerous to mention. Every part is very neat and tastefully arranged, with fine walks, lined on each side with strawberry vines." It was, she concluded, "the New York of the Pacific" (Letters, September 12, 1836).

"A Hearty Welcome"

The Whitmans and Spaldings were not the first missionaries in Oregon Country and they would not be the last. Methodists Jason Lee (1803-1845) and his nephew Daniel Lee had arrived two years earlier. More Methodists would come in 1837, followed by two Catholic priests and three additional Presbyterian missionary couples the next year. Jason Lee returned by ship in 1840 with the "Great Reinforcement" -- 51 American missionaries, laymen, and their families. McLoughlin welcomed them all; sheltered them at Fort Vancouver, sometimes for months at a time; and provided food, supplies, tools, and transportation to help them settle into their new homes. "No person could have received a more hearty welcome, or be treated with greater kindness than we have been since our arrival," Narcissa wrote (Letters, September 16, 1836).

McLoughlin provided vital aid to the missionaries even though he knew they posed a threat to the Hudson's Bay Company. Their presence was likely to disrupt the company's relations with local tribes as well as add to the pressure to set the international border at the 49th parallel, rather than at the Columbia River. In helping them, he was motivated both by compassion and practicality. He was convinced they could not be stopped; and if they could not get their supplies from the Hudson's Bay Company, they would have them shipped from Hawaii, through their connections with missionaries there.

He did what he could, however, to confine the missionaries to the Willamette Valley, south of the Columbia. The more Americans on the north side of the river, the stronger the American claim to that area. He convinced Jason Lee to establish a mission in the valley instead of going north into Flathead or Nez Perce country, as Lee had originally planned. But the Whitmans could not be dissuaded from settling among the Cayuse at Waiilatpu, near Walla Walla; and the Spaldings went farther north, to Nez Perce territory in present-day Idaho.

McLoughlin told the Whitmans that the Cayuse were hostile and unpredictable. He thought the Spaldings would have an easier time with the Nez Perce but it would be safer for both couples to stay in the Willamette. The missionaries, whose seven-month, 3,000-mile journey together had left them detesting each other, ignored his warnings and went their separate ways. Eleven years later, the Cayuse attacked the Whitman mission, killing Marcus and Narcissa and 11 other whites. By that time, McLoughlin was living in the Willamette Valley himself, after being forced to resign from the Hudson's Bay Company.

Man in the Middle

As McLoughlin had anticipated, news that two white women -- Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding -- had crossed the Rockies helped spur an influx of American settlers. Twenty-five arrived in 1841. More than four times that number arrived the next year. In 1843, Marcus Whitman helped guide a wagon train of about 800 emigrants to Oregon. About 1,500 made the journey in 1844; 3,000 the year after.

Many of the emigrants were destitute by the time they reached Fort Vancouver. McLoughlin provided food, clothing, medical care, seeds, tools, and supplies -- mostly on company credit. "We had eaten the last of our provisions at our last camp," wrote Joseph Watt (1817-1890), an emigrant who arrived in November 1844, "and were told ... that we could get plenty at the fort, with or without money; -- that the old Doctor never turned people away hungry" (Watt, 24). "Had it not been for the kindness of this excellent man, many of us would have suffered greatly," another settler recalled (Holman, 76). "Many were relieved from perishing by the benevolence of the Hudson’s Bay Company," wrote a third ("Road to Oregon").

In 1843 alone, McLoughlin advanced more than $35,000 to American settlers, with little expectation that any of it would be paid back. The company's London officers were not pleased. McLoughlin defended himself by saying that the immigrants might have stormed the fort and taken what they wanted if he hadn’t helped them. He also predicted the settlers would eventually become a source of good business. His superiors might have been more receptive to his arguments if the profits from the Columbia District had not begun to decline. Silk had replaced beaver as the fashion for men's hats, and the international fur market was collapsing.

Meanwhile, McLoughlin had also become a target of criticism in Oregon Country. As head of a powerful enterprise with a monopoly on trade, he was an object of suspicion and resentment. There were complaints that he unfairly measured the grain he purchased from settlers, charged too much for the lumber he sold them, and otherwise took advantage of them. Another grievance involved cattle. McLoughlin lent dairy cows and bulls to the settlers but refused to allow any to be sold or slaughtered and insisted the calves be returned to the company. In 1840 and again three years later, settlers in the Willamette Valley petitioned Congress to extend federal jurisdiction to Oregon and protect them from alleged abuses at the hands of McLoughlin and the Hudson's Bay Company.

As more and more Americans moved into Oregon Country, McLoughlin became "the quintessential man in the middle," caught between the contradictory needs and demands of the newcomers and of his company (Morrison, 308).

Falling Out of Favor

McLoughlin fell increasingly out of favor with George Simpson, governor of Hudson's Bay Company operations in North America, and with company directors in London. He was impulsive, often ignored directives, and gave more assistance to American settlers than his superiors thought necessary or desirable. In 1842, on one of his periodic inspection tours of the Columbia District, Simpson ordered McLoughlin to close all but one of the seven coastal posts he had established, including the one at Yerba Buena. To Simpson it was a sensible adaptation to a decline in the fur trade; to McLoughlin, a repudiation.

Simpson also told McLoughlin to move the district's headquarters from Fort Vancouver to the southern shore of Vancouver Island. He thought it likely that the fort would end up on American soil when the boundary issue was settled. Furthermore, its location, upstream from the treacherous bar at the mouth of the Columbia, put company ships at risk. McLoughlin vigorously protested. Heated arguments between the two men went on for weeks, at Fort Vancouver and continuing when they traveled together to Yerba Buena and from there to Hawaii. Simpson remained adamant that the headquarters be moved and the coastal posts closed. They spent about a week in Hawaii. Then Simpson sailed north, continuing an around-the-world journey; McLoughlin, angry and humiliated, returned to Fort Vancouver. They never saw each other again.

A few months later, McLoughlin received another devastating blow: a blunt letter from Simpson telling him that McLoughlin's son John Jr., chief trader at Fort Stikine (sometimes spelled Stikeen) in southeast Alaska, had been killed. Simpson had stopped at the post in April 1842, after leaving Hawaii; he was told then that John Jr. had been shot a week earlier in an alcohol-fueled brawl. In his letter, and in a subsequent report to London, Simpson said young McLoughlin -- age 30 at the time -- had been drunk, had mistreated his men, and that one of them had shot him, in self-defense.

McLoughlin became obsessed with trying to clear his son’s name. He blamed Simpson for accepting at face value the workers' account of what had happened. He pored over reports and depositions, neglecting company business in the process, and trying the patience even of his closest friends and allies in his fixation on the case. Finally, Sir John Pelly (1777-1852), governor of Hudson's Bay Company, told McLoughlin he must either end with the feud with Simpson, move to another department, or retire.

"The Cup of Bitterness"

McLoughlin eventually sent his associate James Douglas (1803-1877) to select a site for a new headquarters on Vancouver Island, but he ignored Simpson's order to close the post at Yerba Buena. He was convinced that the post -- in the heart of what is now the central business district in San Francisco -- would become profitable in time. He also had a personal connection to it: his son-in-law, William Glen Rae (1809-1845), was in charge of it.

In January 1845 McLoughlin received direct orders from London to settle accounts in California and shut down the trading post. By then, he had already decided to give up the cause. He was not able to send word to Yerba Buena until early spring, via the Cowlitz, a company ship. When the ship returned to Fort Vancouver, in June 1845, it brought the news that Rae -- husband of McLoughlin's favorite daughter, Eloisa -- had shot himself in the head six months earlier.

The Cowlitz also brought a letter from the Governor and Committee of the Hudson's Bay Company in London, saying they had decided the Columbia District was too large to be administered by one person and it would therefore be divided into two or more departments, each with its own commissioned officer. Additionally, McLoughlin’s pay as Chief Factor in charge of the entire district would be cut by 500 pounds a year. In November 1845, McLoughlin received more details from Simpson. He would no longer be in charge of the Columbia District but would have to share power as one of three members of a Board of Management. Simpson knew that this would be an intolerable situation for McLoughlin. He therefore offered him the option of either accepting reassignment to a post on the east side of the mountains or resigning from Hudson's Bay Company.

McLoughlin submitted his resignation in January 1846. He received a generous settlement: his full salary was continued for another year; he was given a full Chief Factor's share of profits until 1850, and a half-share for five years after that. Nonetheless, at age 62, he had been forced out of a lifetime career. "I have Drunk and am Drinking the cup of Bitterness to the very Dregs," he wrote to Hudson's Bay Company Governor John Pelly in a letter dated July 12, 1846 (Morrison, 427).

Life in Oregon City

McLoughlin and his wife, Marguerite, left Fort Vancouver on January 4, 1846, traveling downriver in a company boat to Oregon City, the seat of the Provisional Government (and later the Territorial Capital). On the way they passed a log cabin that functioned as a store -- the only structure in a place its builders had named Portland.

They moved into a large, two-story house overlooking the Willamette River, near Willamette Falls. They were joined there by various family members, including their widowed daughter, Eloisa, and her three children. McLoughlin's son David, moved in for a while, as did two of Marguerite's grandchildren. Eloisa eventually remarried and had three more children and they, too, lived in the house.

McLoughlin's ties to the area went back to 1829, when he claimed two square miles around Willamette Falls on behalf of the Hudson's Bay Company. To secure the claim, he began construction of a sawmill on an island at the base of the falls; built several cabins to house Hudson's Bay Company workers; and had company men cut timber and plant crops. Jason Lee, head of the Methodist Mission, recognized the claim by asking McLoughlin's permission to build a church and store on part of the property in 1840. The next year, an agent of the mission built a sawmill on the island -- without permission.

In 1843, McLoughlin took steps to claim the land in his own name. He hired a surveyor to establish the boundaries and lay out streets and lots for what became the first incorporated town west of the Rockies. He named it Oregon City. He built a sawmill and a gristmill at the Falls and, after a failed attempt to have Hudson's Bay Company pay for the work, financed it himself at a cost of more than $20,000. Then, to reclaim the land he had donated to them, he paid the Methodists $5,400.

McLoughlin settled into life in Oregon City as one of the most prosperous of its 500 or so citizens. He owned two sawmills, a gristmill, a granary, and a foundry. He owned and operated one retail store and had a half interest in another. In fact, he owned much of the town, including the ferry landing. He had been generous in donating land for civic purposes, but that did not protect him from envy and censure. Many town residents were living in small log cabins with dirt floors -- in stark contrast to McLoughlin's spacious home. Furthermore, he was a Catholic at a time of anti-Catholic sentiment; and his marriage to a woman who was part Indian made him a "squaw man" in the eyes of some of his fellow townspeople.

Donation Land Claim Act

The boundary issue was settled in June 1846 when Congress approved the Oregon Treaty, establishing the international border at the 49th parallel. The news did not reach the Willamette Valley until November. McLoughlin promptly went to the chief justice of the Provisional Government and asked to take an oath to become an American citizen. The chief justice said he didn’t have the authority. McLoughlin applied again for citizenship in May 1849, after Oregon had become a Territory; this time his application was accepted. Although he would not gain full citizenship until after a two-year waiting period, he was allowed to vote in an election held in June 1849, during which Samuel R. Thurston (1816-1851) was elected as the territorial delegate to Congress.

Thurston, a native of Maine who had immigrated to Oregon in 1847, was a politically ambitious lawyer with ties to some of McLoughlin's enemies. As a delegate to Congress, he could not vote on legislation but he could shape it. As soon as he reached Washington D.C., he began laying the groundwork for the Donation Land Claim bill. He included a provision -- Section 11 -- to deprive McLoughlin of legal title to much of the land he had claimed in Oregon City.

In a letter addressed to the House of Representatives, Thurston claimed that McLoughlin had "wrongfully wrested" the land from American citizens; had forced Americans off the land by threatening to have "the savages of Oregon let loose upon them;" that he was a "British propagandist," and if his claim to the land was upheld, "Dr. McLoughlin will hold, as he has heretofore held, the bread of the people of the Territory in his own fist" ("Letter of the Delegate").

When the House debated the bill, on May 28, 1850, Thurston elaborated on those charges and added others. He sent copies of the speech, the letter, and the proposed bill to contacts in Oregon, asking them to keep it quiet for the moment. They didn't. Rumors began to circulate and eventually reached McLoughlin. He was stunned, and immediately wrote a long (3,265 word) and passionate letter of rebuttal. "I am an old man, and my head is very white with the frost of many winters, but I have never before been accused as a cheat," McLoughlin wrote, beginning a point-by-point denial of Thurston's charges ("Letter to the Editor").

Some of the older pioneers rallied to McLoughlin's defense. At a public meeting in Oregon City on September 19, 1850, 56 people signed a memorial to Congress declaring that Section 11 was "invidious and unjust" and would lead to "irremediable injustice" to a man who "merits the gratitude of multitudes of persons in Oregon for the timely and long-continued assistance tendered by him in the settlement of this Territory" ("Public Proceedings").

It was too late. Congress passed the Donation Land Claim Act on September 27, 1850. Section 11 gave the Legislative Assembly title to most of McLoughlin's land claim, with the proceeds to be used to establish and endow a university. However, no officials in the territory were willing to actually take possession of McLoughlin's property. He continued operating his mills, stores, and other businesses, but he lost income by not being able to sell land he had claimed -- a source of bitterness for the rest of his life.

"A Dieu"

McLoughlin never gave up his efforts to reclaim legal title to his property. He achieved a small measure of success in January 1856 when the legislature passed a measure asking Congress to authorize the return of his land and give the university two townships of public land instead. Congress did not respond.

By that time, McLoughlin's health had deteriorated. His once-vigorous frame became gaunt and frail. He was bedridden with gangrenous diabetes when he died, on September 5, 1857, at age 72. According to a nephew who was helping to care for him, his last words were spoken in French. The nephew had entered the sickroom and asked "Comment allez vous?" McLoughlin replied to the literal meaning of the phrase: "How are you going?" "A Dieu," he said, meaning "To God" (Morrison, 472).

His estate in Oregon was valued at $142,585, not counting $29,414 in debts. More than 200 settlers owed him money for goods he had provided them on credit as a private merchant after retiring in Oregon City. His real estate holdings were valued at $86,170. Half the property was subject to seizure but since the legislature had not formally taken control of it, the appraisers counted all of it as an asset. Assuming that all the disputed land was seized, and that none of the debts could be collected, McLoughlin’s estate still amounted to more than $100,000 in 1857 dollars -- about $2.7 million today.

He was buried in the churchyard of St. John the Apostle in Oregon City under a headstone that read "Pioneer and Friend of Oregon. Also the Founder of This City." Marguerite was buried next to him after her death on February 28, 1860, but only after the city's mayor approved a dispensation to allow a person of Indian heritage to be buried within city limits.

Eloisa and her husband and children continued to live in the McLoughlin house after Marguerite’s death, although their right to do so was clouded. Legally, the property belonged to what was now the state of Oregon (Oregon had gained statehood in 1859). Then, in 1862, the legislature passed a bill enabling McLoughlin’s heirs to gain title to what remained of his land for the token payment of $1,000, to be paid into the University Fund.

"Father of Oregon"

Largely forgotten at the time of his death, within a generation McLoughlin would be virtually canonized. The Oregon Pioneer Association, composed of immigrants and their descendants, published scores of articles praising his contributions and condemning the seizure of his lands. The legislature renamed the 9,495-foot Mount Pitt in southern Oregon in his honor in 1905. Two years later, the Oregon Historical Society christened him the "Father of Oregon" -- a title officially bestowed on him by legislative action on the centennial of his death in 1957.

The McLoughlin house, which had been sold by his heirs in 1867, was threatened with demolition in 1909 when a local group organized a campaign to get it moved, rehabilitated, and opened as a permanent memorial. The house was designated a National Historic Site in 1941 -- the first such designation in the West and only the 11th in the nation. The San Francisco Mint put his face on a half dollar in 1925. Bronze plaques, busts, and other tributes to his memory appeared throughout the Northwest.

In 1953, McLoughlin's statue was placed in the U.S. Capitol as one of Oregon's two representatives in Statuary Hall (along with Jason Lee). He stands there still, depicted with a stern face and confident stance, a cane in one hand and a beaver hat in the other, a cape billowing out behind him, memorialized in bronze as the "Father of Oregon."


Sources: Dorothy N. Morrison, Outpost: John McLoughlin and the Far Northwest (Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1999); Nancy Wilson, Dr. John McLoughlin: Master of Fort Vancouver, Father of Oregon (Medford, Oregon: Webb Research Group, 1994); Narcissa Whitman, The Letters of Narcissa Whitman, 1836-1847 (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1986), and Journal, reprinted in The Souvenir of Western Women, ed. by Mary Osborn Douthit (Portland, Oregon: Anderson & Duniway Company, 1905); R. C. Clark, "Rev. Herbert Beaver," Oregon Historical Quarterly, March 1938, pp. 65-73; George Simpson, Fur Trade and Empire, ed. by Frederick Merk (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968); John A. Hussey, "The Founding of Fort Vancouver," National Park Service website accessed September 2013 (http://www.nps.gov/fova/historyculture/furtradefort.htm); William A. Slacum, "Slacum's Report on Oregon, 1836-37," The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society, June 1912, pp. 175-224; Nathaniel J. Wyeth, The Correspondence and Journals of Captain Nathaniel J. Wyeth, 1831-36, ed. by F. G. Young (Eugene, Oregon: University Press, 1899); Samuel Parker, Journal of an Exploring Tour Beyond the Rocky Mountains (Ithaca, New York: Samuel Parker, 1838, available online at (http://archive.org/details/cihm_39801); Daniel Lee and Joseph Frost, Ten Years in Oregon (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press [1844], 1968); Joseph Watt, "Recollections of Dr. John McLoughlin," Transactions of the Oregon Pioneer Association for 1886 (Portland: Geo. H. Himes, 1887), pp. 24-27; Frederick V. Holman, Dr. John McLoughlin, the Father of Oregon (Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1907); "The Road to Oregon," Oregon Spectator, January 21, 1847, p. 2; Samuel R. Thurston, "Letter of the Delegate from Oregon," Ibid., September 12, 1850, p. 1; John McLoughlin, "Letter to the Editor," Ibid., September 12, 1850, p. 2; "Public Proceedings," Ibid., September 26, 1850, p. 2.

Related Topics:   Biographies | Pioneers

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