Comcomly (1760s?-1830)

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 3/19/2012
  • Essay 10042
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Comcomly was a leading figure among the Chinook Indian bands who lived along the lower Columbia River during the period of contact between Native American tribes and Euro-American fur traders. Comcomly's career spanned the beginnings of the maritime fur trade on the Northwest Coast, the advent of guns and other manufactured goods, and the establishment of trade houses along the lower Columbia. An intelligent diplomat and shrewd businessman, he was credited by many contemporary observers with helping maintain peaceful relations between the Chinook people and European and American traders and explorers during the early 1800s. He died in 1830, one of the many victims of an intermittent fever epidemic that swept the region.

A Chinook Leader

In mid-October, 1795, the Ruby, a fur-trading ship out of Bristol, England, dropped anchor in Baker Bay in the lee of Cape Disappointment on the north side of the Columbia River. For the next three months, Captain Charles Bishop (ca. 1765-1810) and his crew traded with the Chinook Indians who lived beside the bay, communicating in the trade patois of the Northwest coast known as Chinook Jargon. In his journal, the captain recorded encounters with a chief known as Taucum and two sub-chiefs named Shelathwell and Comcomally. "They are both very good Friends to us," he wrote of the sub-chiefs, "but the latter who is a little one Eyed man has endeared himself to every one on board. He often sleeps in my Cabin and gives me many Proofs of his disinterested kindness" (Bishop, 118). Captain Bishop's reference to the one-eyed sub-chief is the first known record of Chief Comcomly, whose name appears, under various spellings, in the accounts of visitors to the Columbia for the next three decades.

British and American seamen had been trading for pelts with the Chinook villages along the shores of Baker Bay for at least three years before the Ruby appeared, and Comcomly in particular seems to have been adept both at befriending the newcomers and realizing the economic opportunities they presented. Captain Bishop described one excursion that Comcomly led upstream for more than 200 miles to visit tribes from whom he procured furs and leather garments. Upon his return to Baker Bay, he sold these items to Bishop at a considerable markup.

During the next decade, a series of trading ships regularly visited the lower Columbia. When Lewis and Clark encountered a group of Chinooks near Cape Disappointment in 1805, they noted that the men already had large numbers of firearms and other manufactured goods, and upon inquiry learned that 10 sea captains made annual appearances in Baker Bay. While touring Chinook villages on the north side of the river, Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) gave peace medals and a flag to two chiefs, and noted that the second in command was named Com-com-mo-ley.

Diplomat and Broker of Furs

Six years later, in the spring of 1811, when a Pacific Fur Company contingent reached the Columbia to build a trading post, Comcomly was regarded as the leader of the lower Chinooks, with multiple wives and many slaves as proof of his prominence. He greeted the Americans warmly and soon proved to be a friendly adviser. He warned the newcomers of the dangers of navigating Baker Bay in an open boat, then rescued them and their capsized longboat after they ignored his advice. When six workers deserted with the idea of making their way back to New York overland, Comcomly sent a party to track them down and bring them back. After the Americans decided on a building site on the south side of the river and began construction of Fort Astoria, Comcomly and his family regularly crossed the river from their home village to visit, frequently bringing food and furs to trade. Alexander Ross (1783-1856), one of the American clerks, wrote that they "received every assurance of fidelity and protection from Comecomly, the principal chief of the place, and in him we reposed much confidence" (Ross, 90). Although some of the Astorians at first suspected Comcomly of plotting to murder them and seize the post, time proved him to be a loyal ally.

Historian James Ronda notes that Comcomly was not only a talented diplomat but also a shrewd businessman: "The chief had a keen sense of the power that could be exerted by controlling access to the trade. The Astorians discovered just how skillful a politician Comcomly was when a trading party led by Robert Stuart (1785-1848) and Alexander Ross headed north from the post into present-day coastal Washington. The partners had been wondering why so few Chehalis and Quinault traders were coming in with pelts. At several coastal villages Stuart and Ross found the reason. Here were piles of furs waiting to be picked up by Comcomly's people. Plainly the Chinooks were acting as middlemen" (Ronda, 222).

Comcomly's relationship as trade broker between the Astorians and several of the outlying tribes bolstered his influence beyond his own band and tribe. According to Chinook tradition, "other tribes about the mouth of the Columbia became jealous of the power he exerted and several times threatened war." But Comcomly succeeded in intimidating them "by vivid descriptions of the overwhelming force he could bring into the field against them." He would point to a large rock on the top of a prominent hill above his village, and proclaim: "As long as that rock remains in place no one shall question the power of me or my people!"(Ruby, 114).

During a brief sojourn at the mouth of the Columbia in the summer of 1811, North West Company trader David Thompson (1770-1857) visited the home village of Comcomly, whom he described as "a strong, well-made man, his hair short, of dark brown, and naked except a short kilt around his waist to the middle of his thigh; his Wife was a handsome woman, rosy cheeks, and large hazel eyes ... both were in the prime of life." Thompson learned from the Astorians that the chief "by influence and example kept order as much as possible" (Thompson, 278). After his return to eastern Canada the next year, Thompson completed a map of Northwest. On the section depicting the lower Columbia, he labeled the landmark now known as Chinook Point as "Komkomley's Point."

Ross Cox (1793-1853), a Pacific Fur Company clerk who came to Astoria in May, 1812 with a group of reinforcements, recorded his ship's arrival at the mouth of the Columbia. The first mate had been dispatched in a cutter to sound the channel across the bar when the people on deck sighted an Indian canoe coming toward them from the river. "The canoe arrived first alongside," Cox related. "In it was an old Indian, blind of an eye, who appeared to be a chief, with six others." The canoe was soon joined by a barge carrying Duncan McDougall (d. 1818), the partner in charge of Astoria, who "informed us that the one-eyed Indian who had preceded him in the canoe was the principal chief of the Chinook nation, who reside on the northern side of the river near its mouth; that his name was Comcomly, and that he was much attached to the whites" (Cox, 48).

The following winter, Comcomly demonstrated that attachment by crossing the river to warn the Astorians that some of the bands who lived farther north had hostile intentions toward the white traders. "He now tells us that the Indians from the Northward, great numbers of whom live with his people during the summer & fall, intimated their designs of destroying us, and that some of his own people had likewise shown an inclination to assist, but that he, well knowing the consequences that would follow, always opposed it; and to day he made renewed avowals of friendship, and wished to impress us properly with his intentions, that whatever the Indians around us might be disposed to do, we could depend on his good offices to quiet them, and assist us on every occasion" (McDougall, 148). The Astorians rewarded Comcomly for his intercessions on their behalf with a coat he had earlier admired, "handsomely made with large Capes, the whole bound with red binding" (McDougall, 150).

Gifting and Trading

Other gifts that the Astorians bestowed on the chief were two small hogs and a brood of laying hens that apparently flourished at the Chinook village, for the post journal noted that Comcomly delivered up to three dozen hens' eggs on occasion. He and his sons also continued to bring supplies of salmon, fresh game, and furs for trade, as well as horses, cedar boards for canoes, and intelligence (both true and unfounded) of events around the region.

On July 20, 1813, more than two years after arriving on the Columbia, Duncan McDougall noted in the post journal: "For some time past have been in treaty with Comcomly for a female branch of his family to remain at this place; a proposal flattering to the old man, and, as we conceive will be the means of securing to us his friendship more effectually than any other measure that could be adopted, for that which purpose only it was proposed. In the afternoon received a visit from him for the purpose of finally settling the agreement spoken of. The female was brought, and the presents agreed on delivered; after which his people took leave without further ceremony" (McDougall, 203). A few weeks later, a clerk who had been trading upriver returned to Astoria and remarked that "everything there went well owing to Mr. McDougall's marriage with Comcomoly's daughter" (Seton, 116).

According to Chinook marriage tradition, Comcomly would have expected an array of gifts in exchange for his daughter's hand. Although the post journal kept by McDougall is silent on that subject, a contemporary diarist recorded that "Mr McDougall this afternoon completed the first payment of his wife to Comcomly. He gave him 5 new guns and 15 blankets, with a great deal of other property in proportion [and] forms the total payment of this precious Lady" (Henry 732).

Changing Times

The year 1813 marked another event with lasting repercussions on the tribes of the lower river as news of the outbreak of the War of 1812 reached the Northwest. Upon learning that a British warship was enroute to the Columbia to capture Astoria, Duncan McDougall decided to sell the Pacific Fur Company's holdings to the rival North West Company, a British concern headquartered in Montreal. For Comcomly and his people, this meant adjusting to a new management and a new set of faces at Astoria, which was renamed Fort George in honor of the British king. Before departing, the Astorians gave the chief a new set of clothing, consisting of " a Red Coat [of the] New Brunswick Regiment 104th, a Chinese hat, white shirt, crevat, trowsers, cotton stockings, fine shoes &c." (Henry, 694).

Alexander Henry (d. 1814), one of the Nor'Westers in charge of the re-christened Fort George, detailed his first impression of Comcomly: "We saw a large sea canoe coming from the opposite side of the River, which proved to be that of Comcomly, Chief of the Chinook nation, himself seated in the middle of the canoe, with one of his favourite women, LeBlanche, alongside of him. The canoe was paddled by six men, one at each end, and the other four two abreast. They kept regular time in paddling ... . He brought over to trade about 100 fresh salmon, weighing from 5 to 18 lbs and some whale blubber, one of these fish having been cast ashore a few days since" (Henry, 610).

Henry later remarked that the Chinooks were cool and reserved toward the newcomers: "It is fully evident that nothing will reconcile them towards us, but the arrival of a vessel belonging to us, when we may expect to gain their confidence and respect ... they are inclined to suppose we are impostors and have succeeded their first and best friends, as they conceive the Americans to be" (Henry, 709). The Nor'Westers did not initially prove to be as friendly as the Americans had been, nor as accommodating. When Comcomly appeared one day with a request for the post blacksmith to fashion piece of bar iron into arrow points, the post factor gave him to understand "that we are not bound to have so much work done for him as heretofore has been the case here. Trifling jobs we are always ready to have done for him, but not to work up whole bars of iron. He has not even brought us a fish nor any thing else" (Henry, 637).

Apparently the North West Company leaders soon came to understand the importance of good diplomatic relations with their neighbors across the river, for Comcomly continued to make frequent appearances at the fort, and in the spring of 1814 received an assortment of gifts, including scarlet cloth, a gingham shirt, trousers, a dimity vest, a silk negligee, a hat with a feather, woolen hose and slippers, as well as Canton plates, four bottles of molasses, flour, and bread.

Peter Corney (d. 1836), first mate on a North West Company schooner that brought supplies from England to the Columbia, left an eyewitness account of his visits to the river in 1814 and 1816. As first mate, Corney remained with the ship at her anchorage in Baker Bay. "About five miles up the river, on the north side, stands the Chinook village," he wrote. "The king of this tribe is called Com Comly, or Madsaw, which, in the Chinook tongue, signifies Thunder. The village consists of about thirty houses, built of wood, and very large; they are formed of boards, with the edges resting on each other, and fastened with stripes of bark to upright posts, which are stuck in the ground on either side of them" (Corney, 144).

Comcomley visited the ship daily, and although Corney believed him to be "the richest and most powerful chief on the river," his remarks indicate a change in the trade dynamic on the lower river. "During summer," Corney wrote, "many of the tribes from the interior visit the fort with furs. Disputes frequently occur between these tribes and King Comley's tribe, in consequence of their having diverted some of the trade out of his hands. He used to take goods up the country, and trade with the tribes there, bringing the furs to the fort, where he had a profit of nearly half, so that it was to his advantage to keep them from the fort, by telling them the white men were bad, and would take them off and make slaves of them" (Corney, 153).

But 10 years later, Comcomly still controlled a sizable portion of the trade at the mouth of the Columbia. George Simpson (1787-1860), who traveled to the Columbia in 1824 to assess the state of the fur business there after the merger of the North West Company with the Hudson's Bay Company three years earlier, noted that three chiefs brokered the bulk of the furs coming in to Fort George. One of these was Comcomly, whom Simpson judged to be "the principal man of the Chinook tribe from the circumstance of his being the most wealthy" (Simpson, 97). Comcomly continued to enjoy considerable influence at Fort George, for another of his daughters was married to Alexander McKenzie, the head clerk.

Hard Times

During his tour as governor of North American operations for the Hudson's Bay Company, George Simpson issued orders to increase the self-sufficiency of the company's posts. Toward that end, he directed that the headquarters for the lower Columbia should be moved upstream to a new depot to be called Fort Vancouver. Simpson noted in his diary that "the poor Chinooks appeared in great distress at being deserted by us and my old Friend His Majesty 'Concomely' actually shed Tears when I shook hands with him at the Water side" (Simpson, 122).

This unwelcome turn of events was soon followed by a family crisis when two of Comcomly's sons fell seriously ill. Naturalists David Douglas (1799-1834) and John Scouler (1804-1871), who reached the Columbia in April, 1825, recorded details of the ensuing events in their respective journals. According to Scouler, Comcomly had entrusted the care of his sons to a neighboring chief "who pretended to great skill in medicine, & cured diseases by singing over his patients. Under this method of cure both the young chiefs died, & the medicine chief was accused of procuring their death by enchantment" (Scouler, 65). To avenge his brothers' deaths, Comcomly's third son assassinated the medicine chief, which set off a chain reaction of threats of retribution between the bands of the two chiefs.

A couple of days later, the two naturalists had an opportunity to meet "the old chief Comcomli, or Madsu, as he is now called. He is an old man of about 60 & blind of an eye. He is at present in deep mourning for his sons; his mourning consists of putting on the worst clothing he can possibly procure, & abstaining from washing; in that condition he continues for eighteen or twenty months" (Scouler, 67).

Conflict and Continuing Trade

Comcomly's period of mourning did not preclude trade, and in mid-July, 1825, he journeyed upriver to visit the new Fort Vancouver. As he passed Cathlapotle village on the north side of the Columbia, the home of his son-in-law Cassino with whom he nursed a long-standing quarrel, a party on shore opened fire. Although no one in Comcomley's party was hit, this was a serious threat to peaceful relations along the river.

When John McLoughlin (1784-1857), chief factor at the fur post, learned of the attack, he assigned an armed escort to accompany Comcomly back downriver. Again the chief's canoes came under fire. McLoughlin sent for Cassino and informed him that the traders "were determined to protect those who came with Furs to the Fort in the same way as we protected him when the Comcomlys wanted to prevent his coming to the Fort George and we protected him to and from that place." The chief factor conceded that there was some historic justification for Cassino's behavior: "The Fact is he wants to act the same part here the Comcomlys did at Fort George when they prevented the Indians to the northward coming to the Fort -- We must not allow this" (McLoughlin). Shortly thereafter, McLoughlin arranged a meeting between the feuding inlaws during which the chiefs agreed to a truce, and for the next five years Comcomly paddled unimpeded between the mouth of the Columbia and Fort Vancouver.

Comcomly's Death

In the summer of 1830, a terrible epidemic known as "intermittent fever" or "fever and ague" swept across the lower Columbia. David Douglas wrote that "a dreadfully fatal intermittent fever broke out in the lower parts of this river about eleven weeks ago, which has depopulated the country. Villages, which had afforded from one to two hundred effective warriors, are totally gone; not a soul remains" (Douglas, 148). Several months later, clerk Francis Ermatinger (1798-1858) wrote to his brother in eastern Canada: "we were visited by a most malignant intermittent fever some time ago, and of which we are not totally recovered yet. It carried off King Comcomly with most of his subjects and those of the tribes about him. It is no unusual thing to see two or three dead bodies, in a short excursion along the river" (Ermatinger, 140).

Historians estimate that Comcomly would have been in his mid-60s at the time of his death. His grandson Ranald MacDonald (1824-1894) later wrote that his grandfather was given a traditional Chinook canoe burial near his home village on the north shore of the Columbia. A physician stationed on the Columbia during this period wrote to a friend that Comcomly "had raised himself and his family to a power and influence which no Indian has since possessed in the districts of the Columbia below the first rapids 150 miles from the sea" (Harvey, 166).


Charles Bishop, The Journal and Letters of Captain Charles Bishop on the North-West Coast of America, in the Pacific and in New South Wales 1794-1799 ed. by Michael Roe (Cambridge: Hakluyt Society, 1967); Peter Corney, Early Voyages in the North Pacific, 1813-1818 (Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1965); Ross Cox, The Columbia River (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957); David Douglas to William Jackson Hooker, October 11, 1830, Companion to the Botanical Magazine 2 (1836), p. 148; Francis Ermatinger, Fur Trade Letters of Francis Ermatinger, ed. by Lois Halliday McDonald (Glendale, California: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1980); Gabriel Franchere, Journal of a Voyage to the Northwest Coast of America. ed. by W. Kaye Lamb (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1969); A. G. Harvey, "Chief Concomly's Skull," Oregon Historical Quarterly 40 (1939), pp. 161-167; Alexander Henry, The Journal of Alexander Henry the Younger, 1799-1814. Vol. 2. ed. by Barry M. Gough (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1992); F. W. Howay, "Early Followers of Captain Gray," Washington Historical Quarterly 18 (January 1927), pp. 11-20; Duncan McDougall, Annals of Astoria: Headquarters Log of the Pacific Fur Company, 1811-1813 ed. by Robert F. Jones (New York: Fordham University Press, 1999); Letter, John McLoughlin to John Dease, July 23, 1825, Fort Vancouver Correspondence, B.223/b/1 fos. 14-16, Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg, Manitoba; The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Vol. 6 ed. by Gary E. Moulton (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1990); James Ronda, Astoria and Empire (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990); Alexander Ross, Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986); Robert Ruby and John A. Brown, The Chinook Indians: Traders of the Lower Columbia River (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976); Alfred Seton, Astorian Adventure: The Journal of Alfred Seton, 1811-1815, ed. by Robert F. Jones (New York: Fordham University Press, 1999); John Scouler, "Journal of a Voyage to North West America," Oregon Historical Quarterly 6 (1905), pp. 54-75; Michael Silverstein, "Chinookans of the Lower Columbia" in Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 7 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institute, 1990); George Simpson, Fur Trade and Empire ed. by Frederick Merk (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968); David Thompson, Travels, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

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