by Heidi Pierson
It is likely that John McLoughlin never pictured himself as the "Father of Oregon" in his early days. He probably saw himself as a gentelman farmer living out his days ont he St. Lawrence River, or as a doctor in one of the lively cities of Quebec.
The son of John McLoughlin, a Scotch-Irish farmer, and Angelique Fraser, daughter of a wealthy landowner, young John found his chosen profession early in life. At the age of fourteen, he was apprenticed to Dr. James Fisher and five years later, in 1803, applied for his medical license. As it happened, after an altercation with a British soldier that necessitated a hasty departure, he instead signed a five-year contract with the fur trading North West Company (NWC).
McLoughlin's uncles helped him negotiate a deal with the NWC, but it was NWC agent Simon McTavish's lavish promises that convinced McLoughlin to sign a five-year contract for the low annual stipend of £20. This was the fateful moment in Dr. John McLoughlin's life, when he put his foot on the path that led him to the far Northwest. It is evident in McLoughlin's letters - sent during those early years stationed at Fort Kaministiquia (later Fort William) as an assistant physician and apprentice clerk - that he planned to return to his family and try again to make it as a doctor back in "civilization." McLoughlin's letters also reflect his dislike of frontier life, dissatisfaction with his pay and prospects, and unhappiness with the fur trade in general. What happened to make him stay in spite of all this?
For one thing, he turned out to be good at his job. At a height of six feet and four inches, McLoughlin's stature was impressive, but it was his skill as a trader and businessman that distinguished him. McLoughlin's close relationship with his younger brother, David, was also a main factor in his staying with the NWC. David wanted to pursue a medical education in Edinburgh, Scotland, and McLoughlin agreed to help provide the necessary funds. It was a decision that essentially forced him to stay employed in the fur trade. Ultimately, McLoughlin negotiated a three-year contract totaling £200. It was during this time period that he met his first wife.
McLoughlin's first wife is something of a mystery. Sources suggest that she was part of the Ojibway tribe and they were likely married à la façon du pays; that is, "in the fashion of the country." It was commonplace for fur traders to form alliances with Indian or Métis women. In addition to offering companionship, women were important partners in the fur trade. A native woman's ability to gather food, speak local languages, prepare furs, and make clothing was invaluable, and the fact that fur companies frowned upon the tradition did little or nothing to abate these cross cultural unions.
Little is known about the life of the first woman McLoughlin joined with, except that she bore McLoughlin a son named Joseph. She may have died young, since John McLoughlin raised Joseph and married his second wife a few years later.
McLoughlin met his second wife, Marguerite Wadin McKay in 1811, probably at Fort William. Marguerite was the daughter of Swiss fur trader Jean Etienne Wadin, and her mother was Cree or Ojibway. Marguerite herself had been married before, to fur trader Alexander McKay, and had had four children with him: Thomas, Catherine, Marie, and Nancy. Alexander and son Thomas went to Astoria in 1811 to work for John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company. As was the case in many informal fur trade marriages, once McKay left for Astoria his union with Marguerite was effectively dissolved. Later that same year, Alexander was on a fur trading expedition on the HMS Tonquin when he and the ship's crew were killed. Thomas escaped his father's fate, and he and his sisters would soon have a new stepfather: John McLoughlin.
By the time McLoughlin met Marguerite, he was in his late twenties and she her mid-thirties. Many years later, people who knew them would comment on how John doted on his wife, and demanded that others treat her with respect. Often described as a kind and gentle woman, Marguerite could calm her often fiery-tempered husband, and offer sound and reasonable advice to temper his judgments. The year that Marguerite and John married - 1811 - was also significant for McLoughlin in his career, for it was time once again to renew his contract with the NWC.
McLoughlin chose to again renew, this time securing the guarantee that he would be made a partner at the end of the contract. Marguerite bore a son - John, Jr. - in 1812. For a few years the McLoughlin family would live in the Lac la Pluie (Rainy Lake) District near Lake Superior. Times were relatively peaceful, but as the family grew, outside forces would disturb their calm.
Shortly after McLoughlin was made a partner, the family moved back to Fort William. Concerns were rising about the increasing violence between the agents of the NWC and the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), who had been bitter rivals for decades. This hostility would end up being costly to both companies, and to McLoughlin personally, for a number of years.
McLoughlin and others became convinced that the rivalry between the HBC and the NWC would lead to ruin. As he grew in age and influence, McLoughlin joined a splinter group who wished to work with the HBC to create a more profitable environment for all. Representing the interests of this group, McLoughlin traveled to London in November, 1820, to meet with the HBC along with other NWC representatives. Negotiations between the two companies continued until 1821, when the companies were merged under the name of the Hudson's Bay Company.
After spending some time with his brother David (now in France), McLoughlin returned to North America in 1822 as the new Chief Factor of the Rainy Lake District, where he stayed for the next two years. In 1824, McLoughlin received a new assignment that would change his life forever.
Founding Fort Vancouver
George Simpson was the Governor of the HBC's North American operations, part of which was the Columbia District - a huge area stretching from the Rocky Mountains in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and spanning the coastline from Mexican California to Russian Alaska. Simpson had been concerned for some time about the dismal returns from the area, and appointed McLoughlin as the new Chief Factor, perhaps hoping that he could bring prosperity to the languishing trade. The post would prove a challenging one.
The Oregon Country was under a joint occupancy agreement between the United States and Great Britain; this meant that neither country owned the land, and that citizens from both countries were allowed to freely move about the area. McLoughlin arrived in Astoria in November, 1824, with Marguerite and their two youngest children - Eloisa and David - in tow. Their eldest two children - John Jr. and Elizabeth - had been left behind in Quebec to be educated.
The first order of business was to establish a new headquarters for the district on the north side of the Columbia River. The HBC believed that join occupancy would be temporary, and that a boundary would eventually be drawn along the Columbia River, with the land north of the river British territory and the are south of the river under American jurisdiction. It was with this theory in mind that the site for Fort Vancouver was decided.
McLoughlin and Simpson explored the northern bank, finally settling on a wide plain near the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. Fort Vancouver would be a grand experiment in self-sufficiency. The district's distance from convenient supply lines meant that McLoughlin would have to ensure that as many supplies as possible would be taken from the surrounding resources, and that crops and livestock would provide food and, hopefully, profitable surplus.
Simpson and McLoughlin got along well at the time, and remained friends for many of the nearly 20 years McLoughlin spent in charge of the district. It was not until the 1840s that an irreparable rift would form between them.
Simpson, who was briefly present at the christening of Fort Vancouver in 1824, visited again in 1828, and found the Columbia District much improved. New farms provided food, flour and saw mills had been built, salmon salting operations took place at the waterfront, a schooner (the Cadboro) had arrived to help trade for furs along the coastline and inland waterways, and a change in management had significantly reduced the costs of the Snake fur brigade - a seasonal fur trading expedition based out of the fort.
Simpson was impressed with what McLoughlin had accomplished and heaped praise upon him and his administration. Things were going well, and the prosperity of Fort Vancouver would only increase. As Fort Vancouver and its operations grew in scale and reputation, more American citizens began to immigrate to the area. American missionaries also immigrated to the Northwest, often stopping at Fort Vancouver.
Newcomers to the Northwest
Three groups of missionaries came to Fort Vancouver in the 1830s: the Whitmans and Spauldings, Jason Lee's group, and later Fathers Blanchet and Demers. McLoughlin and Fort Vancouver were known for providing excellent hospitality, and it is from guests that we often get our best descriptions of the fort and its inhabitants. Narcissa Whitman provides excellent descriptions of the gardens, meals in the big house, and Marguerite and daughter Eloisa. From her letters we learn that, unlike American and European women, Marguerite rode horses "gentleman fashion" (astride), and that McLoughlin requested that Narcissa teach his children songs in the evenings.
McLoughlin dealt with American visitors kindly, offering them supplies and the hospitality of the fort. This was a calculated move. McLoughlin knew that refusing to trade with Americans would only encourage them to create their own supply lines to the Northwest - creating unnecessary competition for the HBC. However, the wealth and power displayed by McLoughlin and the HBC at Fort Vancouver caused much comment and consternation among American visitors. Reports were sent back to the United States urging prompt settlement of the area to counter the British presence.
McLoughlin found himself in the geographical and ideological center of the storm - American immigrants moved West not just to find a new home, but also to forward what they perceived as the Manifest Destiny of the United States. At the same time, his superiors in the HBC urged him to discourage and even turn away American settlers, and to continue to strengthen British corporate and cultural ties to the area. McLoughlin's persistence in assisting American settlers and missionaries would later become the cause of increasing strife in his relationship with the HBC.
An Irreparable Rift
In 1838, McLoughlin was summoned to London to meet with the HBC officers and committee. The meetings were successful for McLoughlin, and he received praise for his handling of affairs in the Columbia District. The Puget Sound Agricultural Company was formed during these meetings, based at Fort Nisqually, and McLoughlin was given official superintendence over that company as well as an additional £500 per year.
McLoughlin returned to Fort Vancouver triumphant, at the height of his career and success. Unfortunately, this shining moment was short-lived, and McLoughlin would soon fall from grace. Within a few years he would no longer be working for the HBC and most of his fortune would be gone, his future uncertain.
George Simpson visited Fort Vancouver for a short time, and then went north to visit the coastal forts. When Simpson returned, he promptly ordered most of McLoughlin's coastal forts to be closed, announcing that the steamship Beaver would be used to take over the trade completely. McLoughlin was furious,and argued with Simpson over the increased cost and difficulty that would come from managing unruly sea captains and expensive ship repairs. Simpson was unmoved, and felt antagonized by McLoughlin - a rift had begun between them, and would continue to widen. Soon Simpson would visit Fort Stikine on the Alaskan coast, a visit that would result in devastating news for McLoughlin.
Simpson arrived at Fort Stikine in April 1842 to find that John McLoughlin, Jr. - posted at the fort in 1840 - had been murdered there a week before. Simpson conducted a cursory investigation, concluding that John Jr. had provoked his own murder through his mistreatment of the men there. Simpson's condolence letter to McLoughlin was accompanied by the official report blaming his son. McLoughlin was devastated by the news and incensed by Simpson's accusation. McLoughlin blamed Simpson for removing support staff and leaving his son in a vulnerable position. Simpson countered with the opinion that John Jr. was a violent and "insane" drunkard. McLoughlin spent years refuting Simpson's claims - eventually proving that the killing was actually a premeditated homicide. McLoughlin's obsession with the matter ultimately alienated him from the HBC and many of his friends.
Leaving the Company
As the 1840s progressed, Fort Vancouver saw an influx of new Americans arrive over the Oregon Trail. The earliest settlers were dependent on McLoughlin's good will for their survival, often arriving hungry and destitute, bereft of their supplies at the beginning of winter. Although official policy required McLoughlin to "send back" the new arrivals, McLoughlin felt strongly that this was not the right thing to do, instead aiding stranded settlers, bringing food and blankets, and providing supplies on credit to help the settlers establish themselves. McLoughlin's rationale is best explained by the following quote: "I am of the opinion if I had acted otherwise than I did, besides Vancouver being pillaged and the Companys [sic] Business Destroyed - England and the United States would be at War."
By 1844, the HBC had decided to remove him from control of the Columbia District. A letter was sent to McLoughlin informing him that his tenure as head of the Columbia District and his supplementary salary would end in May 1845. In addition, the company charged McLoughlin's account £4,173 for improvements to "his" claim at Willamette Falls in Oregon City. McLoughlin had claimed the Willamette Falls for the Hudson's Bay Company in 1829, but was forced to transfer the claim to his own name to prevent American challenges to the British company's presence. This financial penalty effectively wiped out his life savings.
McLoughlin was humiliated and bitter, his plans to move back to his family home in Quebec were dashed, and he was stuck with a highly disputed piece of land in Oregon City. In reaction, McLoughlin, knowing that he must remain there to secure his claim, built his home adjacent to the falls in 1845, and moved there with Marguerite in the first part of 1846. They were soon joined by his widowed daughter, Eloisa, and her three children.
McLoughlin lived out the rest of his days in Oregon City, which officially became a part of the United States in 1846, when the 49th parallel was set as the border between the United States and Canada. McLoughlin became an American citizen in 1851, and was active in Oregon City as a businessman, merchant, and mill owner. Unfortunately, his land claim by the Willamette Falls continued to be in dispute throughout the remainder of his life, and McLoughlin died in 1857 with the issue still unresolved. It was not until five years after his death that the Oregon State Legislature returned the claim to his heirs upon the payment of a nominal sum.
"His benevolent work was confined to no church, sect nor race of men, but was as broad as suffering humanity, never refusing to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and provide for the sick and toilworn," so spoke Willard H. Rees in 1879 at a meeting of the Oregon Pioneer Association. In the years after McLoughlin's death, recognition of his important legacy and his role in teh formation of the Oregon Territory increased, and people began to remember him fondly.
Additionally, Oregonians began to understand the dilemma McLoughlin had faced as an HBC Chief Factor in the center of American expansionism. In 1909, the McLoughlin Memorial Association was formed to save his home, one of the earliest historic preservation movements in the West. In 1957, McLoughlin was officially named the "Father of Oregon." If McLoughlin could have known that his memory would be so honored, perhaps it would have given his family some comfort in those most challenging years.
Last updated: May 27, 2016