Ogden, Peter Skene (1790-1854)

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 2/21/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9693
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Peter Skene Ogden, a fur trader employed by both the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company, worked throughout the Columbia region during the first half of the nineteenth century. Many acquaintances remarked on his intelligence and keen sense of humor, while others noted his profanity, difficult disposition, and brawling ways. Ogden married a mixed-blood Salish woman named Julia Rivet, who traveled the West with him and their children. He served as clerk, trader, explorer, and diplomat on assignments that ranged from British Columbia to California.

Ancestry and Early Life

Peter Skene Ogden's ancestry lay in New York state, where a Pilgrim forebear settled in 1640 and gave rise to a line of fiery lawyers and judges. Some Ogdens were sympathetic to the cause of the American Revolution, but others were not -- in late 1783, shortly after the close of the conflict, Isaac Ogden and his Loyalist family sailed from New York City to the safe haven of England. When Isaac returned to the New World in 1788, he settled in eastern Canada as a judge for the Admiralty Court. At that time he already had nine children by two marriages. His son Peter Skene was born in Quebec City in 1790, and re-baptized in Montreal four years later when his father took on a new judgeship.

Little is known of Peter Skene Ogden's education beyond evidence that he was well-schooled as a youth. At age 15, he was tutored in law by a local reverend, but a legal career apparently did not appeal. An acquaintance later wrote that "jurisprudence, and the seigniorial subdivisions of Canadian property, had no charms for the mercurial temperament of Mr. Ogden ... he preferred the wild and untrammeled life of an Indian trader" (Cox, 308). In spring 1809 Peter Skene forsook the family profession to sign up for a seven-year clerkship with the North West Company out of Montreal.

Slashing, Smashing, and Slapping

The Nor'Westers assigned Ogden to their trading post at Isle a la Crosse, in the Prairies north of the Saskatchewan River. He shared the posting with veteran North West Company agent Samuel Black (ca. 1780-1840), and over the long winter the two of them began systematically harassing traders at the rival Hudson's Bay Company post nearby. Bay Company journals depict Ogden as a bullying lout whose tactics included slashing his rivals' clothes with knives, smashing their fingers with sticks, and slapping their faces. The pattern of crude intimidation repeated itself at subsequent postings, culminating in the well-documented 1816 murder of a tribal man who insisted on trading with the Hudson's Bay Company house rather than with Ogden.

Clerk Ross Cox (1793-1853) met Ogden on his way east from the Columbia District in 1817, and described him as "the humorous, honest, eccentric, law-defying Peter Ogden, the terror of the Indians, and the delight of all gay fellows" (Cox, 308). Bay Company employee James Bird (c.1773-1856) did not find Ogden's behavior so amusing, and instituted legal action that resulted in a murder indictment in spring 1818. Before an arrest warrant could be served, Ogden's superiors arranged a quick transfer across the Continental Divide, and Ogden left his Cree common-law wife and young son behind and headed west.

Hard Lessons

Upon his arrival in the Columbia District, he was assigned to Fort George, the North West Company post near the mouth of the Columbia (site of present-day Astoria, Oregon). There Ogden was asked to negotiate a solution to a dispute between a group of Iroquois trappers and a Cowlitz band. Accompanied by the Iroquois, Ogden traveled upstream to a village on the Cowlitz River. But the Iroquois were not interested in mediation, and massacred a dozen Cowlitz men, women, and children while Ogden stood by helplessly. He finally got the situation under control by convincing the Cowlitz headman that Fort George could provide a safe haven for his people, but when he escorted the refugees downstream to the fort, furmen inside the post mistakenly opened fire upon the new arrivals. Relations between the Cowlitz and the fur company were soured forever, and Ogden learned a hard lesson.

Possibly to remove Ogden from this volatile situation, the North West Company factor assigned him to the interior to take charge of Spokane House over the winter of 1818-1819. Although no journal survives from that outfit, it is known that he took in reasonable trade receipts and kept order at the post. He also took a new country wife -- Julia Rivet (1788-1886), the Salish stepdaughter of Francois Rivet (c.1757-1852), a French-Canadian furman who had worked for Lewis and Clark in the Mandan villages in 1804-1805 and for David Thompson (1770-1856) in Montana in 1809-1810. Rivet and several other French-Canadians had settled in the Colville Valley with their tribal wives and mixed-blood families, working as independent trappers and seasonal laborers for the North West Company.

Re-organization and Re-alignment

The merger of the North West Company with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821 was not good news for Ogden. Not only did the Baymen still have an outstanding murder warrant for him, but his behavior at Isle a la Crosse had won him a host of lifelong enemies among the Bay Company agents. When the amalgamation was finalized, the list of Nor'Westers who were not invited to transfer their service to the Hudson's Bay Company included Peter Skene Ogden.

Ogden responded by consulting with his brothers in the Canadian legal system, then booked passage to England. There he used family connections to gain an audience with the Hudson's Bay Company Board of Governors in London. He argued that his past should be forgiven in view of the experience and fortitude he could contribute as an agent in the west. When the board members relented and appointed him to the position of chief trader, he vowed to serve the Bay Company with the same zeal that he had always devoted to the North West cause.

After sailing from England to York Factory on Hudson Bay, Ogden met with George Simpson (1787-1860), the governor in charge of the Hudson's Bay Company's North American operations. Simpson, who realized the value of a hard-driving man, described Ogden as

"a keen, sharp off hand fellow of superior abilities to most of his colleagues, very hardy and active and not sparing of his personal labour. Has had the benefit of a good plain Education, both writes and speaks tolerably well, and has the address of a Man who has mixed a good deal in the World. Has been very Wild & thoughtless and is still fond of coarse practical jokes, but with all the appearance of thoughtlessness he is a very cool calculating fellow who is capable of doing any thing to gain his own ends" (Simpson, Character Book, 30).

As time passed, Simpson gained increasing respect for Ogden, who proved to be an asset in the field. In July 1823, Ogden departed the Bay for the long trip west to resume his duties at Spokane House. "Ogden has gone to the Columbia and determined to do great things," wrote Simpson. "He does not want for ability" (Cline, 42).

Eventful Lives

The following year, Simpson traveled west from York Factory to tour the Columbia District. Ogden met the governor and his party at the mouth of the Spokane River with a supply of horses and escorted them overland to his post, where Simpson discussed many pressing matters, including the Snake River trade, a potential source of handsome profits. "Knowing no one in the country better qualified to do it justice than Mr. Ogden," the governor wrote, "I proposed that he should undertake it and it affords me much pleasure to say that he did so with the utmost readiness" (Simpson, Fur Trade, 46). Over the next six years, from 1824 to 1830, Ogden led five expeditions from Spokane House and Fort Walla Walla into the uncharted regions south of the Columbia.

Julia Rivet accompanied her husband on several of these journeys along with members of their growing family. When she and Ogden paused at Fort Nez Perce before moving south for the 1827-1828 expedition, she was four months pregnant and caring for Peter, 10 (Ogden's child by his first wife), Charles, 8, Cecilia, 6, Michael, 4, and Sarah Julia, 2.

After retiring from the Snake River command in 1830, the Ogdens were briefly stationed at Fort Colville, where one of their sons died of a stomach ailment on January 5, 1831. That spring, Ogden received orders that began a new phase of their eventful lives, far to the north in present-day British Columbia. After Ogden was named chief factor of the New Caledonia District in 1834, the family moved to Fort St. James on Stuart Lake, where Julia gave birth to her last child, a boy they named Isaac, in 1839. She was around 50 years old, and her husband had taken to calling her "The Old Lady."

By 1844, Ogden was long overdue for an extended leave. He brought Julia and the children south to Fort Vancouver, where they remained while he crossed the continent to eastern Canada, then sailed to England to visit family members and company headquarters in London.

British Interests and American Arrivals 

On his return trip in 1845, Ogden escorted British Army officers Henry James Warre (1819-1898) and Mervyn Vavasour (1821-1866) from the Red River west to the Columbia District. The pair, posing as gentlemen sportsmen, were actually on a secret mission to assess the military prospects of key Hudson's Bay Company trading posts in the event of an armed confrontation with the United States over the impending boundary settlement.

Ogden did not particularly enjoy traveling with two British dandies carrying toothbrushes and top hats. "I had certainly two most disagreeable companions," he later wrote, noting the officers' "constant grumbling and complaining" about life on the trail (Ogden, March 1846). Lieutenant Warre, on the other hand, found Ogden "a fat jolly good fellow reminding me of Falstaff both in appearance & in wit always talking, always proving himself right ... on the whole he is a very good & companionable fellow full of information about the country which we are about to visit" (Warre, 26).

The party reached Fort Vancouver on August 26, 1845, and Ogden pushed on downriver to carry out Governor Simpson's orders to take possession of Cape Disappointment at the mouth of the Columbia "on behalf of the Hudson's Bay Company ... ostensibly with a view to the formation of a trading post and pilot's look-out" (Simpson, May 30, 1845). Simpson was hoping to reinforce the British claim to the north shore of the Columbia, but had instructed Ogden to make sure that no U.S. citizens were already occupying the Cape before erecting a house and a fence. When Ogden found that two Americans had already laid claim to the Cape, he set about purchasing their holdings, "being fully aware of the importance of securing the Cape for the services of the British Government" (Ogden, February 15, 1846). But Ogden's efforts proved fruitless; he was building a warehouse on Cape Disappointment in mid-June 1846, when the U.S. Senate ratified the Oregon Boundary Treaty, in which Great Britain ceded all the territory beneath the 49th parallel to the United States. "All is ended in giving the Americans all they possibly wished for or required," Ogden wrote upon learning the news (Ogden, March 15, 1847).

After the boundary settlement, the Hudson's Bay Company continued its commercial operations in the Northwest for the time being, and Peter Skene Ogden and James Douglas (1803-1877) were appointed joint masters of Fort Vancouver in 1847. Ogden took to his new posting with a flair, writing letters to the American newspapers in the Willamette Valley, judging horse races, becoming a patron of the Vancouver Curling Club, submitting acrostic poems to the Spectator magazine, and offering advice to the increasing numbers of American settlers who were pouring into the region.

Violence at Waiilatpu

On December 6, 1847, word reached Fort Vancouver of violence at Marcus Whitman's Waiilatpu Mission. An unknown number of people were dead, women and children were being held hostage, and a tribal coalition of unknown size was rumored to be threatening the white settlers in the territory.

The next day, Ogden set out with a "strong party for Walla Walla ... to endeavour to prevent further evil" (Cline, 188). At Fort Nez Perce, Ogden quickly assembled the headmen of the local tribes, many of whom he was already acquainted with. He made a clear and uncompromising statement of his intentions to retrieve the American hostages, and offered ransom for their safe release. After a tense week of waiting, the captives were delivered to the fort in exchange for a supply of trade goods and seven oxen, which Ogden deemed "a heavy sacrifice in goods, but these are indeed of trifling value compared to the unfortunate beings I have rescued" (Cline, 192).

When Oregon's provisional governor showered him with praise for his success, Ogden modestly replied: "I was the mere acting agent of the Hudson's Bay Company; for without its powerful aid and influence nothing could have been effected" (Cline, 194).

Last Years

Ogden served as chief factor at Fort Vancouver for almost six more years, increasingly beset by the political and economic complications of the fast-growing territory. When his health deteriorated rapidly in 1854, he and Julia retired to the home of their daughter Sarah and her husband, Archibald McKinlay (ca. 1816-1891), in nearby Oregon City. There he passed away on September 27, 1854, at the age of 64. Julia lived for another three decades, dying in 1886 at Lac la Hache, British Columbia, at age 98.

Upon learning of Ogden's death, Governor George Simpson wrote:

 "His loss will be felt by a very large circle of friends and acquaintances not only in the Service of which so many years he had been a distinguished member, but in the Territory of Oregon where his urbanity and personal influence in a conspicuous position had gained him the good will of the whole population. Out of his own family, few persons I believe knew him so well or esteemed his friendship more highly than myself -- our regard for each other had been the growth of years, on my side increasing as I became more and more acquainted with his character and worth; his loss to me is greater than I am able to express" (Simpson, 1854).


Archie Binns, Peter Skene Ogden, Fur Trader (Portland: Binfords and Mort, 1967); Gloria Griffin Cline, Peter Skene Ogden and the Hudson's Bay Company (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1974); Ross Cox, The Columbia River (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957); Peter Skene Ogden to George Simpson, March 20, 1846, Governor Simpson Correspondence, D.5/16, Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg, Manitoba; Peter Skene Ogden to George Simpson, March 15, 1847, Governor Simpson Correspondence, D.5/19, Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg, Manitoba; Peter Skene Ogden to Henry James Warre, February 15, 1846, Foreign Office Correspondence F.O. 5/547, 141, Public Record Office, Kew, England; George Simpson, "Character Book," in Hudson's Bay Miscellany, 1670-1870, ed. by Glyndwr Williams (Winnipeg: Hudson's Bay Company Record Society Publications, Vol XXX, 1975); George Simpson, Fur Trade and Empire, ed. by Frederick Merk (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968); George Simpson to Henry Ogden, November 14, 1854, Governor Simpson Correspondence, D.4/83/fo. 219, Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg, Manitoba; George Simpson to Peter Skene Ogden, May 30, 1845, Governor Simpson Correspondence, D.4/67/fo. 69, Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg, Manitoba; Henry James Warre, Overland to Oregon in 1845 (Ottawa: Public Archives of Canada, 1976).

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