Williams, Christina McDonald (1847-1925)

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 5/04/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9802
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Christina McDonald McKenzie Williams (1847-1925), the daughter of Hudson's Bay Company chief trader Angus McDonald (1816-1889), spent her childhood and young adulthood at Fort Colvile on the Columbia River. As her father's assistant and traveling companion, she witnessed the historic changes that swept across Eastern Washington and the Inland Northwest in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Her story has been described as "one of those frontier romances that form the warp and woof of the development of the northwest" (Spokesman, 1925).

Early Years

Christina McDonald, the second child of Angus McDonald  and his wife, Catherine Baptiste (1826-1902), was born on September 20, 1847, near the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Hall (present-day Idaho), where her father was employed as a clerk. A native of Scotland, Angus McDonald had immigrated to Canada in 1838 to work in the fur trade and had served his apprenticeship in the Snake River country, where he met Catherine. Christina later wrote: "My mother was of mixed blood. Her father was an Iroquois Frenchman, long in the employ of the Hudson's Bay Company. Mother was a cousin of  Eagle-of-the-Light the Nez Perce chief" (Williams, Daughter, 107).

Christina was less than a month old when Angus was transferred to the Flathead country (present-day Montana); four years later, in 1852, he was appointed to Fort Colvile on the Columbia River (near present-day Kettle Falls). Christina remembered that "when we moved there I was so small that I had to be tied onto the saddle of the horse I rode" (Williams, Daughter, 108).

Along the way, the McDonalds camped one evening beside the Pend Oreille River. Four-year-old Christina, dressed in a Glengarry tartan frock, was playing with a group of other children when she fell from the bank into the water. Hearing the screams of the children, Catherine "rushed to the top of the bank and saw the top of the head of her little one borne rapidly out and away by the deep and flowing river. The bank was a high, stepless clay cliff. She sprang into the river from the top of it and swam in her clothes to the sinking child. That child with life's last instinct paddled and struggled with her little hands." The tartan frock floated on the water, making a sort of inflated collar around her neck that helped to keep her from sinking. Her mother finally caught up with her, but found she was unable to make any progress toward shore while holding Christina in one had and swimming with the other. "She then laid hold of the back of the head of the child in her teeth, and thus gained the use of both hands" so that she could tow her daughter to shore (McDonald, 206).

Fort Colvile Years

Upon their arrival at Fort Colvile, Angus took charge of the headquarters for the Colville District of the Hudson's Bay Company, the center of operations for a network of posts on the Kootenai, Flathead, and Okanogan rivers. Situated on a terrace above the Columbia, the fur post's buildings consisted of " a dwelling house, three or four store-houses, and some smaller buildings, used as blacksmith shops, etc., all of one story and constructed of squared logs." One wall and one bastion of a former stockade edged the north side of a large square; a short distance away were cattle yards, hay sheds, and huts for laborers (Stevens, 9).

For the next 20 years, this complex of buildings was home for Angus and Catherine McDonald and their family, which grew to include four daughters and eight sons. Surrounded by a multi-ethnic community, the children learned to speak Canadian French from their parents, English from their father, Sahaptin from their mother and her relatives, and Salish from the tribespeople near the post.

In addition to the frequent comings and goings of fur traders, the post and McDonald's hospitality became a magnet for all manner of travelers passing through the Inland Northwest. The daughter whom Angus McDonald called "little Tina" remembered a steady succession of visits from surveying teams, government officials, artists, priests and missionaries, prospectors, settlers, and tribal leaders. "I was just a little girl when Governor Isaac Ingalls Stevens (1818-1862) and Captain McClellan (1826-1885) visited the post in 1853," she later wrote of the governor's rendezvous with McClellan at Fort Colvile to plan the completion of the transcontinental Pacific Railroad Survey (Williams, Daughter, 108).

"I knew Chiefs Kamiaken (ca. 1800-1878) and Spokane Garry (ca. 1811-1892) very well," Christina recounted. "They were both Indian gentlemen and often dined with father at the Fort, and I have waited on them at the table in the old fort. Kamiaken was a notable looking Indian. He used to wear a coat of Hudson's Bay broadcloth with red trimmings and brass buttons ... . Spokane Garry was a stout little fellow. He was the only Indian in that section of the country who had an education and he was doing his best to teach the Indians" (Williams, Daughter, 108).

Education was a subject that was also on Angus McDonald's mind, and around 1856, with four school-aged children, he engaged a tutor known as "Doc" Perkins (1831-1899) to conduct a school in one of the post buildings. Here the McDonald offspring and other children whose parents were employed about the fort learned reading, writing, spelling, and arithmetic. The childrens' schooling was interrupted by the Plateau Indian uprisings in the summer of 1858. Christina felt that "we were never in any danger from the Indians at Fort Colvile. When the war broke out father, however, sent the family to the buffalo plains in Montana" There baby Thomas was born in December 1858 (Williams, Daughter, 109).

By the time the family returned to Fort Colvile sometime in 1859, the U.S. Army had established a post in the vicinity that housed almost 300 soldiers. The following year, American and British survey teams from the Northwest Boundary Commission set up depots nearly, greatly enlivening the social life of the area. "Father was very much the Scotch laird," Christina recalled. "He entertained the officers of the post with great hospitality and was very particular with our manners and would not allow us children to meet and associate with everyone" (Williams, Daughter, 109).

Hostess and Rider of Horses

Christina often waited on the table when her father was entertaining, and later wrote that he taught her to be ladylike and would never allow her to dance the Highland fling at the frequent dances he hosted at the post. He did, however, allow her to indulge in the sport of horse racing, for she mentions racing against an Army captain and the daughters of a Colville Valley settler on several occasions. According to one source, Christina wore the first hoopskirt in Eastern Washington "when a consignment of the garments was received at the military post and some of the young army officers dared her to put one on. She did so and thus acquired the honor" (Spokesman).

Lieutenant Charles Wilson (1836-1905) of the boundary survey happened to be visiting Fort Colvile in November 1861 and recorded "the departure of Macdonald, the Hudson's Bay officer here, and his family on a hunting excursion. They went off mounted by twos and threes; Mrs. Macdonald, a French half-breed, leading, perched high up on a curious saddle used by women here, one of her younger daughters behind her and the baby swinging in its Indian cradle from the pommel; next came Miss Christine, with her gaily beaded leggings and moccasins and gaudy shawl flying in the wind, she had a younger sister behind her and in front a small brother perched like a small monkey on the high pommel" (Wilson, 165).

Christina, who would have been 14 years old that fall, soon began taking on greater responsibilities in the household. Her mother, who chafed at the confinement of life inside the post, occasionally made extended visits to relatives and friends, leaving Christina to act as hostess during her absence. Massachusetts schoolteacher Caroline Leighton (1832-1919), who visited Fort Colvile in 1866 and was entertained by Angus McDonald, was curious "to see how this cultivated man, accustomed to the world as he had been, had adapted himself to life in this solitary spot on the frontier, with his Indian children for his only companions ... . Christine, the oldest daughter, resembled her father most. She kept house for him, because, as she explained to us, her mother could not be much in-doors. She spoke, too, of disliking to be confined." Leighton concluded that Christina was "quite a civilized young lady" despite her fondness for the delicacy of berries boiled in buffalo blood (Leighton, 49-50).

Belle of Colville Valley

The diaries of W. P. Winans (1836-1917), who moved to the area in 1861, hold frequent mentions of dances and holiday feasts at the "Old Fort," of visits with "McDonald and daughter," and pleasant evenings with "Miss Christina" and her father (Winans, Diaries). When the "Forty-Nine," the first steamboat on the upper Columbia River, was being built above Kettle Falls in 1865, "Miss Christina McDonald and Miss Mary L. Brown (c. 1848-1921) drove the first nails" (Winans, Stevens County, 9).

Remembered by some early residents as the belle of the Colville Valley, Christina made a lasting impression on a passing cattleman in 1867 who was honored to meet "McDonald, one of the last of the old factors, and his charming daughter Christine, a half-blood Indian. She was a girl of education, possessed of a fine intellect, a strong personality and a noted horsewoman. She was beloved by all who knew her" (Splawn, 227).

Looking back on her relationship with her father, Christina explained that "as I grew older, I became his special companion and acted as interpreter for him most of the time" (Williams, Daughter, 109). Fluent in at least four languages, she became a valuable asset in his business dealings throughout the Northwest. She kept the books for him, and would accompany him and the company brigade to Kamloops each year to deliver furpacks, carrying the records in a buckskin sack. The first part of the journey was along a trail up the Kettle River (present-day Ferry County), and at one point the horses had to be swum across and a raft built to carry the goods.

On one memorable trip, "the raft on which Christina was crossing went to pieces and she was thrown into the rushing water along with the buckskin sack containing her father's HBC books and papers. She was carried down for some distance before being rescued, but when finally dragged ashore still had hold of the satchel of books, thereby saving its precious contents" (Haggen).

The Trip to Astoria

In the fall of 1865, Angus McDonald was summoned to Astoria to give a deposition regarding the property claims of the Hudson's Bay Company after the settlement of the boundary between the United States and Canada. "Father was reluctant to go," Christina recalled, "and talked first of going alone by bateaux down the river, but I persuaded him to let me accompany him. He brightened up at the thought of company ... and ordered the hack and his best driving horses and we started off in style."

After a five-day journey along the primitive wagon road from Colville to Walla Walla, they reached the Snake River and flagged the steamer heading downstream. When the captain asked for their tickets, Christina opened a small valise full of gold dust and instructed him to take his payment. "The Captain's eyes widened at the sight of the gold and he walked off and didn't come back until dinner time, by which time he had discovered who we were. Father was dressed at the time in a buckskin suit. The Captain treated us well and we became great friends" (Williams, Daughter, 112).

Four steamers and two portages later, Angus and Christina arrived in Astoria, where they met a representative of the United States who wore a band of crepe around his hat in mourning for President Lincoln. After a visit to the site of the Hudson's Bay Company's old Fort George and stopovers in Portland and Fort Vancouver, the McDonalds returned upriver. Disembarking from the steamer, they discovered that the horses they had left at the mouth of the Palouse River had been stolen, and had to buy replacements for the overland trip back to Fort Colvile.

Holding Her Own

On February 2, 1870, Christina married James McKenzie (d. 1873), a Scotchman who had been chief clerk at the post. Nine months later, the newlyweds were attending a meeting at the Hudson's Bay Company headquarters at Fort Victoria, British Columbia, when their son Alexander was born. At the conclusion of the meeting, McKenzie was appointed Chief Trader at Fort Kamloops, and he and Christina moved there with their infant son. During the next two years, Christina frequently visited her parents at Fort Colvile, and when that post was closed in the early summer of 1872, she and her husband were entrusted to carry the official post records to Fort Victoria.

Later that year, McKenzie decided to resign from the Hudson's Bay Company and open an independent trading post in competition. The business was apparently prospering when he died suddenly in 1873, leaving Christina with two small children (their daughter Catherine had been born in January 1872).

"On Mr. McKenzie's death," she later wrote, "I was appointed administrator of his estate and took charge of and ran the trading post at Kamloops in competition with the Hudson's Bay Company and the independent traders, and a woman and with limited capital. I more than held my own with them, for I was raised in the fur-trade, and had been a companion of my father so long that I knew the business thoroughly. I have made lots of money" (Williams, Daughter, 115).

Later Years

After four years of widowhood, Christina married Charles Williams (1847-1920). She promptly sold her trading post and they moved to a ranch on the Thompson River. Here their daughter Mary was born in November 1877 and their son Charles in October 1878.

Ten years later the family relocated to Montana and then to Spalding, Idaho. There Christina renewed a correspondence with her old friend W. P. Winans, then living in Walla Walla. Writing to him in 1903 about a rather fanciful description of the social scene at Fort Colvile in Eva Emery Dye's book McLoughlin and Old Oregon, Christina commented: "In that book you will see something about me that is not true. I was not born in 36 nor did dance the highland fling in my bead moccasins ... some times I have to laugh how white folks write something." She continued, "Don’t you think what that woman wrote about me was a lie? You know that my Father never taught me to be so unLady-like as to go & dance the Highland fling like a wild mad girl" (Williams to Winans).

In 1917, when she was 70 years old, Christina was contacted by William S. Lewis of Spokane, who was collecting information from early residents of the region. During the interview, she recounted a Coyote legend she had heard from elders of the Spokane tribe about the creation of Spokane Falls.

Three years later, suffering from rheumatism, she came to live with her daughter Catherine (nicknamed Kate) in Spokane. On December 11, 1925, age 78, she died at Kate's home. The author of an obituary in the Spokesman Review noted: "Born in a Hudson's Bay Company trading post, reared in a rough village among Indians and boisterous trappers, and at one time one of the few women fur traders of this virgin territory, Mrs. Williams' life is part of the greater story of the west itself" (Spokesman, 1925).

Sources: Eva Emery Dye, McLoughlin and Old Oregon (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1900); Rupert W. Haggen, "Origin of Place Names in Boundary District," manuscript dated 1945, Place Names File, Provincial Archives of British Columbia; James Hunter, Scottish Highlanders, Indian Peoples: Thirty Generations of a Montana Family (Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 1996); Caroline Leighton, West Coast Journeys, 1865-1879 ed. by David M. Buerge (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1995); "Lone Woman Fur Trader Beat Hudson's Bay Firm at Own Game," Spokesman Review, December 13, 1925, p. 10;  Angus McDonald, "A Few Items of the West," Washington Historical Quarterly Vol. 8 (April 1917), pp. 188-229; Andrew Splawn, Ka-Mi-Akin, the Last Hero of the Yakimas (Portland, Oregon: Kilham Stationery, 1917);  Richard F. Steele, An Illustrated History of Stevens, Ferry, Okanogan and Chelan Counties (Spokane: Western Historical Pub. Co., 1904), 173; Isaac Stevens, "Letter from the Secretary of State to the Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, communicating the report of Governor Stevens, of Washington Territory, to the Department of State, of June 21, 1854, relative to the property of the Hudson's Bay and Puget's Sound Company in that Territory," Senate Executive Doc. No. 37, 33rd Congress, 2nd Session, 1855; Christina Williams, "The Daughter of Angus McDonald," Washington Historical Quarterly Vol. 13 (April 1922), pp. 107-117; Christina Williams, "The Origin of the Spokane Country," typescript dated 1917, Box 2/1, William S. Lewis Papers, Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, Spokane, Washington; Christina Williams to W. P. Winans, ca. 1903, 15-B, Box 1, Winans Papers, Manuscripts and Special Collections, Holland Library, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington; Charles Wilson, Mapping the Frontier, ed. by George Stanley (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1970); W. P. Winans, Diaries, 1857-1892, 66A-4-8, Box 9, Winans Papers, Manuscripts and Special Collections, Holland Library, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington; W. P. Winans, "Stevens County, Washington: Its Creation, Addition, Subtraction," typescript dated 1904, 10-B, Box 1, Winans Papers, Manuscripts and Special Collections, Holland Library, Washington State University, Pullman.

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