Andrea Kökény is a Senior Assistant Professor of History at the Department of Modern World History and Mediterranean Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. Her fields of research include modern European history, the history of westward expansion in the United States, and the formulation of American identity. Email:
John McLoughlin has been called the “Father of Oregon” for assisting American settlers who arrived in the Oregon Country in the 1830s and 1840s. He was six and a half feet tall, and had white hair already in his early forties, because of which the natives of the Columbia River gave him the name White Eagle. To whites, including the Americans whom he supported after their arrival in the region, he was “Emperor of the West,” and “King of Columbia”, names that befitted the Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who was in charge of a 670,000-square-mile wilderness for more than two decades (Dary 52-53, Walker 182).
The purpose of this paper is to examine his motivations and actions, and his role throughout the transitional period of 1818 and 1846 when the region was under joint British-American occupation.
John McLoughlin, baptized Jean-Baptiste McLoughlin, was born in Riviére-du-Loup, a hundred and twenty miles down the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River from Québec on October 19, 1784. His father was an Irish farmer, his mother was Scottish. His parents moved to Quebec City to educate their children (Walker, 180-181). At the age of fourteen he began to study medicine with Sir James Fisher, a medical doctor who lived near Montreal. He was granted a license in 1803 and hired as a physician at Fort Williams, which was a fur-gathering post of the North West Company on Lake Superior. During his service at the fort he also became a trader. He married a Chippewa woman who bore him a son, Joseph, but died in childbirth (Clark 29; Dary 48, 53; Walker 181). In 1811 he married again. His wife, Marguérite Wadin McKay, was the half-Cree daughter of a Swiss trader, and the widow of Alexander McKay, a trader for the North West Company. She was nine years older than McLoughlin and had four children from her first marriage and bore another four to her second husband (Clark 29-30, Dary 53).
In 1814 John McLoughlin became a partner in the company and played an important role during the negotiations that resulted in the merging of the North West Company with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821.1 In 1823 he was appointed Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company and then, in 1824 Superintendent of the Columbia District. This administrative unit more or less covered the area of what the Americans called the Oregon Country (Dary 48, Pletcher 103). The region was brought under joint occupation of Great Britain and the United States in 1818.
In the Anglo-American Convention of 1818 it was agreed that the 49th parallel would mark the boundary between Canada and the United States from Lake of the Woods in Minnesota to the Rocky Mountains, and that the land west of the Rockies would be under joint British-American occupation (LaFeber 75, Boorstin 151; Faragher 264). The treaty allowed the nationals of both countries to trade or settle on the Northwest Coast of America, westward of the Rocky Mountains (Pletcher 103).2
In the 1821 merger with the North West Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company gained control of all the trading posts west of the Rocky Mountains. The headquarters were at Fort George (formerly Fort Astoria). McLoughlin and other Company officials gradually realized that because of the joint occupation and American expansion, the southern boundary of British territory might soon be the Columbia River. They decided to construct a new factory (trading post) on the north bank of the river. They wanted to use it as the center for the Company’s activity in the Oregon Country, and confound the infiltration of American mountain men who were challenging the Company’s fur monopoly in the Northwest. Their main aim was to carry out a “scorched-earth tactic,” trap beaver to extinction and thus discourage American traders and American immigration (Walker 182, Dary 48, Newman 141).
The new factory was constructed about a hundred miles inland from the mouth of the Columbia, and ninety miles southeast of Fort George on a bluff about a mile above the river and six miles above where the Willamette River flew into the Columbia. The post was opened in the spring of 1825 by George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who named the place Fort Vancouver (Clark 28, Dary 48; Walker 187).3 It soon became evident that the new fort was too far above the Columbia River. Its location on a bluff made it difficult to haul food and supplies from boats to the post. That is why in 1828-1829 a new post was constructed, much closer to the river and situated on a broad meadow. (Clark 55-56)
It was again John McLoughlin who supervised the construction of the new Fort Vancouver. Following the Company’s orders to make the new post as self-sufficient as possible, he decided to plant grain, fruit orchards, and a large vegetable garden on the back side of the fort. A lot of different buildings were also erected, including a pharmacy, a stone powder house, a chapel used as both a church and a school as well as warehouses for furs, English goods, and other commodities, plus workshops for carpenters, mechanics, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, tanners, coopers, and other workers. (Dary 49-50) By the mid-1830s the main post had enclosed offices, stores, workshops, and residences of company officers. The workers’ cabins were nearby as well as the barns, a boathouse and a sawmill. About twenty miles to the south, at the Falls of the Willamette, a gristmill and a sawmill had been set up, and further on was an informal settlement of the retired employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In total nearly 1,000 people resided in and around this center of the Northwest Coast (Meinig 107-108; Dodds 40, 42, Clark 28, 46, 55-56).
As chief factor, McLoughlin followed specific orders from the Hudson’s Bay Company. He was to develop coastal trade, which the North West Company had neglected. He was to open business with the Russian-American Fur Company, and finish constructing Fort Langley, a trading post on the Fraser River. He took the initiative and guided the building of a chain of permanent posts with the purpose of monopolizing pelt supplies and extending the control of the Hudson’s Bay Company over the region the year round (Dary 50; Newman, 142).
The new factories were established in what are now Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia. Eventually John McLoughlin was responsible for nearly thirty trading posts that were connected to and supplied by Fort Vancouver. He had six ships, and during peak seasons as many as six hundred male employees worked for him. A majority of his officers, clerks, and trappers were from what is now the province of Quebec in Canada. Most of them were of French and Scottish heritage (Dary 52; Newman 127). The voyageurs, plus freelance European and Indian trappers, would trap all winter and then in the summer bring incredible numbers of furs to Fort Vancouver.
It is important to point out that even though Fort Vancouver and the other trading posts were meant to be as self-sufficient as possible and thus grew as much of their own food as possible as a result of which small agricultural communities developed around them, they were company towns and not rooted colonies. The Hudson’s Bay Company did make an attempt to establish a food-producing operation, but the Puget’s Sound Agricultural Company founded for that purpose in 1838 was not very successful (Dodds 47; Clark 122, Pletcher 105). In 1841 the HBC decided to bring in agricultural population from the Red River Settlement to the northern bank of the Columbia River, but the “counter-immigration” project did not work either. The Red River emigrants were dissatisfied with their lands and were annoyed by the company’s restrictions and soon packed up and moved south to join their fellow countrymen in and around French Prairie (Meinig 110, 113).
Thus the establishment of organized settlements in the Oregon Country was carried out by Anglo Americans. And contrary to Company orders, John McLoughlin did not discourage them, but assisted them. He always kept the Hudson’s Bay Company’s interests in mind and they did flourish under his guidance, but unlike many colonial administrators – among them George Simpson, Governor of the HBC – who only concentrated on efficiency and were not much concerned with the welfare of the people and the land they operated, McLoughlin felt he was responsible for them. In fact, while the HBC regarded colonization within its own territories as being “a costly complication and infringement upon the fur business,” he took an active role in formulating a new society in the borderland region (Meinig 117-118; Newman 142). That new society was formulated in three phases: by explorers and trappers and traders, by missionaries, and by settlers. If the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806 paved the way for fur trappers and traders who explored the West, the trappers and traders paved the way for missionaries, and the missionaries paved the way for the settlers who gradually broke the British claim to the Pacific Northwest.
According to the Anglo-American Convention of 1818 on joint occupation and to its renewal in 1827, Americans supposedly shared the riches of the Oregon Country with the British, but the Hudson’s Bay Company gave no sign that they were pleased with the arrangement and forbade all but rudimentary assistance to the Americans who wandered into the Columbia River region. McLoughlin was realistic and also practical about the matter. While he saw the American push toward Oregon as inevitable, he tried to point the settlers toward the Willamette Valley south of the Columbia, and the missionaries to the east.
Some of the churches were responding to the call of the Flathead Indians to receive teachers who would Christianize the Native population. The first missionary to respond was a Canadian Methodist minister, Jason Lee. He was a teacher in Ontario and was involved in missionary work to Indians in that region. He heard about the call published in a Christian magazine (Christian Advocate and Journal) and travelled to Boston, where he was charged to the Oregon mission (White 72). Lee and his companions arrived at Fort Vancouver in 1834. They were received cordially by John McLoughlin, who opened his home to them, and even provided Lee with a temporary place to preach. His first Sunday sermon was attended by a motley flock consisting of Englishmen, Irishmen, Scotchmen, French-Canadians, Indians of several tribes, Sandwich Islanders (Hawaiians), and three Japanese shipwreck sailors (Walker 238).
McLoughlin managed to redirect Jason Lee’s plans to erect a mission house some distance south of Fort Vancouver. The Flatheads, he told Lee, were not disposed to religious conversion. Their tribal lands were an exceedingly wild and dangerous country hundreds of miles to the east. They were a nomadic people, difficult to pin down, impossible to gather up and funnel toward any mission church. He suggested that Lee settle in the nearby Willamette Valley and establish a mission among the natives in that region, the Calapooyas, Umpquas, Clackamas, and Tualatins.
Jason Lee and his party explored the valley and six weeks after they had arrived in Fort Vancouver, they were sleeping in tents among the firs and oaks along the river. McLoughlin provided them with horses, provisions, men, and advice. They located the mission in the Willamette Valley about ten miles north of present-day Salem, and called it Mission Bottom (Faragher 417; Clark 74, 88, 92, Walker 239). In 1838 Lee travelled to New York City to request supplies and more personnel for his mission. In May 1840, he returned with “the great reinforcement:” thirty-six adults and sixteen children. The Methodists had established American presence in the Oregon Country.
The news of the success of the Methodists encouraged other denominations. In 1836 the Presbyterians sent out Dr. Marcus Whitman and Henry Spaulding and their wives, Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding. The Whitmans founded a mission to the Cayuse Indians in Walla Walla, present-day state of Washington. The Spauldings founded a mission to the Nez Perce Indians at Lapwai in present-day Idaho (Boorstin 243; LaFeber 105). McLoughlin again extended his hospitability to the missionaries. He urged that while the men set out on their exploration of mission sites, the ladies be left in his care, then when the sites were selected, the men would gather their wives, building materials, and the laborers they would require. The wives were treated generously at the fort during their husbands’ explorations and McLoughlin helped their husbands, too, even though he was dubious of their chances of success in Christianizing the native tribes (Walker 276-278).
The arrival of American missionaries into Oregon did not go unnoticed by McLoughlin’s superiors, and in June 1836, three months before the arrival of the Whitmans he received a warning from the Company’s headquarters at York.
Were we satisfied that the sole object of those Missionaries were the civilization of the natives and the diffusion of moral and religious instruction, we should be happy to render them our most cordial support and assistance,” the minute read, “but we have all along foreseen that … the formation of a Colony of United States citizens on the banks of the Columbia was the main or fundamental part of their plan, which, if successful, might be attended with material injury, not only to the fur trade, but in a national point of view.” (Walker 281)
The suspicion that these Americans were more interested in colonization than converts to Christianity was no news to McLoughlin. He followed reports in the American press and knew about the different petitions that were sent to Congress requesting that the United States extend its jurisdiction over the area. He also had talks with Americans – explorers, traders, missionaries, as well as settlers―who arrived in the Oregon Country (Meinig 111; Dodds 90; Walker 281-282).
What might explain his hospitable treatment of the Americans who came to Fort Vancouver was his realistic assessment of his and Hudson’s Bay Company’s presence in Oregon. By 1836 he had twelve years in the Pacific Northwest. He enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the fur trade and had expanded the company’s enterprises to the north, south, and east, making good profits for his employer. But he knew that the British foothold and the guarantees provided by the joint occupancy treaty were fragile. The fur business was precarious and as a consequence of different factors – among them overtrapping and a change in European fashion – it was already showing signs of decline. He was aware of these changes. The Americans who had arrived, the missionaries among them, were talking of farms, industry, settlements, and of pushing the British out.
McLoughlin tried to deal with them cleverly and at the same time tried to do his best to protect the Company’s interests. When possible, he diverted the missionaries and the settlers to the Willamette Valley and other locations remote from Fort Vancouver (Walker 282-283) American immigrants, however, soon began to outnumber the inhabitants of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s posts in the Oregon Country. The Oregon Trail became famous as the great overland route that brought the wagon trains of American migrants to the West coast during the 1840s. On May 16, 1842, the first organized wagon train set out from Elm Grove, Missouri with more than 100 pioneers. Despite the Hudson’s Bay Company policy to discourage U.S. emigration, John McLoughlin again offered the American settlers food and farming equipment on credit (Faragher 418).
After several small groups had made their way to the region, a mass migration began in 1843. The immigrants were almost all rural people coming from the river valleys of the Midwest: the Missouri, the Mississippi, and the Ohio. The biggest driving force for settlement was the offer of free land. Many pioneers went to this promised land because of the financial depression that had begun in the US in 1837, and because they had heard tall tales that Oregon was a fertile country. The favorable climate of the region and the fact that it was a healthy country were also important pull factors (LaFeber 70).
Most of the emigrants eventually paid a visit to Fort Vancouver, where John Mcloughlin received them hospitably. He provided them with rooms to rest, food, firewood, and whatever they required– within reason and usually within the rules of the HBC – before they left his domain to travel on south to the land they were claiming (Walker 358).
In 1843 alone, over one thousand settlers traveled the vast plains and mountains to make their home in Oregon. The next year brought 1500 more settlers. And in the following year an additional 3000 arrived. The immigration of 1845, in fact, doubled the number of Americans in Oregon (Boorstin 244; Divine 261; LaFeber 105; White 72; Clark 162, 178, 181).
During the 1820s and 1830s the Hudson’s Bay Company, the French Canadians, mountain men, and the missionaries coexisted reasonably well. But the colonies that the Americans established gradually outgrew the commercial stations of the HBC and the British government. It is important to emphasize that the American emigrants did not drive the British northward, but settled south of the Columbia River. John McLoughlin and other Company agents not only aided them, but through loans and other aid they exercised a type of control over them and prevented them from infiltrating north of the Columbia (Pletcher 106). Still, soon these migrants began to act on their own economically as well as politically and were quick to demand the extension of full American sovereignity over the Oregon Country.
In the beginning the American Congress paid little attention to the small settlements. So, they followed the example of earlier pioneer communities and established their own government. On July 5, 1843, the settlers of the Willamette Valley by a vote of 52 to 50 drafted a constitution “for the purposes of mutual protection and to secure peace and prosperity among ourselves […] until such time as the United States of America extend their jurisdiction over us” (Boorstin 244; Pletcher 216-217). The Organic Act of 1843 officially marked the birth of a Provisional Government. A classically American nine-man committee was established made up of a mountain man, missionaries, Oregon Trail pioneers and a couple of shifty characters. The Hudson’s Bay Company was also invited to join the government, but at that point John McLoughlin refused (Hastings 61-62; Dodds 91; Clark 158-160).
When the number of settlers started to grow in the region the American government could not neglect the distant “republic” of Oregon any longer. In the 1844 presidential elections campaign James K. Polk, ran on a platform calling for the simultaneous annexation of Texas and assertion of American claims to all of Oregon. Polk won the election by a relatively narrow popular margin (Boorstin 250; Divine 264; Clark 182-183).
As the number of American immigrants began to grow and tensions were rising in the borderland region and in national politics, George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company sent several memoranda to England asking for help. As a result, in 1845 the British government sent two officers out to Fort Vancouver as “observers” to scout military sites in the event of war and to gather information on the colonists. Lieutenant Henry J. Warre and Lieutenant Mervin Vavasour gathered little information to support a military defense of Oregon lands. However, they made damaging accusations against the Hudson’s Bay Company’s handling the American influx. They charged McLoughlin with welcoming the colonists to the country in such numbers that they already outnumbered British residents. They reported that they had personally observed immigrants arriving at Fort Vancouver who were sold goods from the Company’s stores at cheaper rates than those offered to British subjects. They said that McLoughlin was also “overly friendly” to American missionaries. Without his aid, they said, “not thirty American families would now have been in the settlement.” (Walker 381-382)
McLoughlin’s response to the charges about supporting American immigrants was clear. “They have the same right to come that I have to be here,” he insisted, and repelled the notion that the Company was duty-bound to defend British territorial rights. His responsibility, he said, was to Hudson’s Bay directors, not to colonial or military affairs. As to being in league with the colonists rudimentary government, he produced copies of letters he had written to England in 1843 describing the potential American threat to Fort Vancouver and asking for protection he never received (Walker 383).
As tensions were building up in the Oregon boundary dispute, it was becoming clear for the Hudson’s Bay Company that the border might ultimately be the 49th parallel. Consequently, Governor Simpson ordered McLoughlin to relocate the headquarters of the Columbia District from Fort Vancouver to Vancouver Island (Walker 384; Pletcher 246). John McLoughlin, however, who had grown weary of his responsibilities and whose life was increasingly connected to the Willamette River Valley, refused to move.
In 1829 he claimed land at a place he called the Falls. It was a considerable tract south of Fort Vancouver at the falls of the Willamette River. McLoughlin built a sawmill there and some log houses. Then he hired a surveyor to lay out the town that became Oregon City, the terminus of the Oregon Trail south of the Columbia River. He sold some lots, donated others for churches and schools, built a gristmill and a two-story house on the property (Walker 383-384, 439-440).
In the fall of 1845, the year the American population of Oregon reached 5,000, Dr. John McLoughlin tendered his resignation from the Hudson’s bay Company. He took up residence in Oregon City the following spring. He had intended to seek American citizenship, but with the news in the spring of 1845 of the election of President Polk and the threat of war with England, he could not change his allegiance without being branded a traitor and forfeiting his retirement stipend.4 He would have to await settlement of the boundary issue (Walker 384).
The Oregon Treaty was signed on June 15, 1846. It ended the joint British-American occupation of the Oregon Country and set the boundary between Great Britain and the United States of America at the 49th parallel with the exception of Vancouver Island and provided for British navigation rights on the Columbia River (“The Oregon Treaty,“ in Commager 311-312; Boorstin 251; Faragher 418; Divine 266; Clark 187-188).
The Hudson’s Bay Company formally joined the Provisional Government in August, 1845 and pulled out of Oregon in 1848. They moved their headquarters to Fort Victoria in British Columbia. The United States eventually paid the Hudson’s Bay Company 650.000 dollars for all rights and titles to HBC property and buildings that remained in the U. S. (White 77).
John McLoughlin became and American citizen in 1849, and at his Oregon City store he sold food and farming tools to settlers who were streaming in on the Oregon Trail. His political opponents, however, succeeded in inserting a clause in the Donation Land Law of 1850 that forfeited his land claim. Although it was never enforced, it embittered the elderly McLoughlin. Still, he served as mayor of Oregon City in 1851, winning 44 of 66 votes.
He died from “gangrenous diabetes,” at the age of seventy-three on September 3, 1857. He was buried in an enclosure in the Catholic church of Oregon City and on his tombstone was inscribed the legend, “The Pioneer and Friend of Oregon; also the Founder of this City” (Walker 443).
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1 The British-owned North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company penetrated the Oregon Country from the north, arriving in 1808. (Bumsted, 202-203.) In 1811, John Jacob Astor, a German immigrant from New York founded the Pacific Fur Company and established the first American fur-trading post at Astoria, Oregon. His Company, however, broke down during the War of 1812 and was sold to the British. In 1821 the Hudson’s Bay Company took over all the operations in the Pacific Northwest. As a result, the territory for most of the period was under de facto British administration. However, it was limited to its trading posts and forts and the small settlements which grew up around them (Bumsted, 205, Meinig, 66-68, 70, Boorstin, 243, Divine, 194-195, Brown, 88, 230). ↩
2 The convention was signed for a ten-year period, renewed in 1827 with the stipulation that it could be terminated by either party on a one-year notice (Meinig, 74-75). ↩
3 The post was officially named Fort Vancouver after English Captain George Vancouver, the earliest explorer to penetrate the Columbia River region. It was a pointed reminder to the Unites States that a subject of Great Britain was the first white man there (Dary, 48, Meinig, 104). ↩
4 The Hudson’s Bay Company provided John McLoughlin a generous 500-pound salary for the first year of his retirement, to be followed by a two-year “leave of absence” at full pay, then full retirement at “half-pay,” similar to the British custom for unemployed officers waiting for a war and an active service assignment (Walker, 438). ↩