American fur trader John Clarke sentences a Palus Indian to hang for stealing a goblet on June 1, 1813.

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 12/30/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9680

On June 1, 1813, near the mouth of the Palouse River, Astorian John Clarke (1781-1852) sentences a Palus Indian to hang for stealing a goblet.

Returning to the Palouse River

The Astorian brigade, leading 28 packhorses laden with furs collected over the winter at Spokane House, arrived at the mouth of the Palouse River on May 30. Nine months earlier, the furmen had stopped here after canoeing up the Columbia and Snake rivers from Fort Astoria. Finding a Palus village near the confluence, they had purchased horses for the journey overland to Spokane House and had cached their canoes nearby, entrusting them the care of the Palus chief. On their return trip to the coast the next spring, they planned to switch the fur bundles from the horses to the canoes for the run downriver.

Upon learning that the boats were all safe, John Clarke, the Pacific Fur Company partner in charge of the brigade, rewarded the chief with a gift of ammunition and tobacco. Some of the canoes needed minor repairs, and while these were being taken care of, the Astorians pitched camp near the Palus village. After setting up his tent, John Clarke apparently unpacked one of his prize possessions.

The Silver Goblet

Washington Irving (1783-1859), who had access to primary sources no longer extant, wrote that Clarke "was a tall, good-looking man, and somewhat given to pomp and circumstance ... . He was stately, too, in his appointments, and had a silver goblet or drinking cup, out of which he would drink with a magnificent air" (Irving, 448). One source, who was not present but heard of the incident soon afterward, maintained that Clarke treated the chief and some of the prominent Palus men to a drink:

"The chief was delighted, and turning the goblet over and over in his hands, and looking at it with intense interest, handed it over to the next great man, and he to another, and so on till, like the pipe of peace, it had gone round the whole circle. The precious curiosity was then laid aside, and the Indians retired" (Ross, 212).

As was his habit before retiring, Clarke replaced the goblet in a large chest that he kept in his tent. Irving suggested that some of the tribesmen, noticing the great care with which the goblet was handled, "like a relic in its shrine, concluded that it must be a "great medicine" (Irving, 449). 

According to Ross Cox (1793-1853), a young clerk in the party, "Our tents were pitched close to the village, and not suspecting any dishonesty on the part of the natives, we kept no watch the first night. Our confidence, however, was misplaced, for in the morning we discovered that a daring robbery had been committed during the night" (Cox, 117). Apparently Clarke had forgotten to lock the chest the night before, and upon awakening discovered that "the sacred casket was open -- the precious relic gone!" (Irving, 449).

After searching the entire camp with no success, Clarke concluded that the goblet had been stolen by someone from the Palus village. He "immediately assembled the principal Indians, told them of the robbery, declared if the property were returned, he would pardon the offender, but added, if it were not and that he should find the thief, he would hang him. The chief, with several others, promised they would use their best exertions to discover the delinquent and bring back the property; but the day passed over without tidings of either" (Cox, 118).

Clarke's Doctrine of Intimidation

When the goblet had not been returned by nightfall, Clarke ordered two sentinels to keep a sharp lookout through the night. "Shortly after midnight they observed the figure of a man creeping slowly out of one of the tents, and carrying with him a bundle of clothes, a powder horn, &c. They silently watched his progress, until they saw him in the act of jumping into a small canoe, and seized him" (Cox, 118).

After searching the canoe and finding the silver goblet along with other stolen items, Clarke resolved to carry out his threatened punishment. 

The next morning, June 1, Clarke "assembled the chief and all the Indians of the village, and made a short speech, in which he told them that the prisoner had abused his confidence, violated the rights of hospitality, and committed an offense for which he ought to suffer death; that from an anxiety to keep on good terms with all their nation, he had overlooked many thefts committed while he had been there last August; which lenity, he was sorry to say, had only led to more daring acts of robbery, and that as a terror to others, and in order to show that it was not fear that prevented him for taking an earlier notice of such aggressions, he had now resolved that this robber should be hanged" (Cox, 118).

Ross Cox maintained in his memoir that the Palus elders acquiesced in the decision, claiming that the man did not belong to their tribe, but clerk Alfred Seton (1793-1859), who met the party two days later, recorded in his journal that many of the Astorians were opposed to Clarke's actions. He was also told by first-hand observers that the Palus leaders begged Clarke to spare the thief's life, "desiring he might be whipped or any thing done to him but taking away his life" (Seton, 115).

The Hanging

But Clarke remained inexorable, being "a firm believer in the doctrine of intimidation" (Irving, 449). After ordering his men to erect a scaffold from the culprit's lodgepoles, he appointed one of his clerks as executioner. Alexander Ross (1783-1856) was told by participants that the culprit "was told of his fate; but he kept smiling, thinking himself, according to Indian custom, perfectly safe; for the moment the stolen article is returned to the rightful owner, according to the maxims of Indian law, the culprit is exonerated. Mr. Clarke, however, thought otherwise, and like Herod of old, for the sake of his oath considered himself bound to put his threat into execution, and therefore instantly commanded the poor, unsuspecting wretch to be hung. The Indians all the time could not believe that the whites were in earnest, till they beheld the lifeless body. The deed was, however, no sooner committed than Mr. Clarke grew alarmed. The chief, throwing down his robe on the ground, a sign of displeasure, harangued his people, who immediately after mounted their fleetest horses, and scampered off in all directions" (Ross, 213).

Perhaps realizing the vulnerability of his position, Clarke hurried his men into the canoes and embarked down the Snake. When they reached the Walla Walla River three days later, they met other members of the Pacific Fur Company who were assembling for the trip to the coast. Clarke told the other Astorians of the robbery and "the signal punishment he had inflicted, evidently expecting to excite their admiration by such a hardy act of justice, performed in the very midst of the Indian country, but was mortified at finding it strongly censured as inhuman, unnecessary, and likely to provoke hostilities" (Irving, 451).

Alfred Seton, who was on the scene for Clarke's recital, wrote that "this action was very much blamed by the Company, & will no doubt in the end be productive of bad consequences, if we consider only the policy of the thing; but when humanity is considered, it is a dreadful crime & no doubt one of these days it will weigh heavily on the conscience of the actor" (Seton, 115).


Sources: Ross Cox, The Columbia River, ed. by Edgar I. Stewart and Jane R. Stewart (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957); Washington Irving, Astoria, ed. by Edgeley W. Todd (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964); Alexander Ross, Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986); Alfred Seton, Astorian Adventure: The Journal of Alfred Seton, 1811- 1815, ed. by Robert F. Jones (New York: Fordham University Press, 1993); Roderick Sprague, "Palouse" in Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 12 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1998).

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