Biography of Dr. W. C. McKay

DR. W.C. McKAY. – One by one the pioneers who braved the wilderness and its dangers, in order that their posterity might enjoy the fruits of their hazardous conquests of the domain of the savage are passing away. As the poet sang of the valorous knights of the days of chivalry, “Their souls are with the saints, we trust,” so, at no distant day, will the same be sung o’er the graves of the last of the pioneers. So, while yet alive, let us honor them as they deserve to be honored; and when dead let their deeds be recorded with loving remembrance on the pages of history.

Of the old pioneers who still exist, Umatilla county can claim but a few. Prominent among them is Doctor William C. McKay, who, together with his father and his grandfather, figured conspicuously in the eventful early history of the State of Oregon. His father, Thomas McKay, was born in Canada. When he had grown into a lusty lad of some fourteen summers, he, together with his father, Alexander McKay, then a partner of the millionaire, John Jacob Astor, left for Oregon to establish a trading-post. The expedition sailed in the ill-fated ship Tonquin, and arrived at the mouth of the Columbia, the beauty of whose rolling waters and massive cliffs were then known to none but the savage.

In 1812, the year of the second war with Great Britain, a company was formed under the title of the Pacific Fur Company; and a trading-post was established on the present site of Astoria. Soon after its establishment, Alexander McKay went up the coast on a trading voyage, the result of which unfortunate expedition is known to every reader of Oregon’s history. His vessel, the Tonquin, was taken by the Indians, the goods confiscated, and every soul on board destroyed. Owing to sickness, the boy Thomas did not accompany his father, and to this is due the presence of Doctor W.C. McKay in Pendleton to-day.

Thomas McKay was then left upon his own resources; but they were sufficient to carry him through and make his name illustrious in the annals of Oregon. Soon after his father’s death, the war resulted in the mastery of the British on the Pacific coast. The vessels of the Pacific Fur Company were intercepted and confiscated by British cruisers; and to prevent its capture, the trading post of Astoria was transferred to the North West Company, a Canadian organization. It soon became a prominent trading station of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the history of whose subsequent extensive operations is known to all readers. With this powerful organization, young McKay became connected; and his services were found to be very valuable. He was placed in charge of all important expeditions; and his word was law. He was at the same time feared and respected by the Indians; and it was probably due to his influences that the trading operations of the company were carried on so peacefully with the red man, who at that time doubtless little suspected that the pale-faces would in the future become their absolute masters. He was one of those remarkable characters of which pioneer history furnishes the only type, – a crack shot, brave but cautious, resolute and determined in his actions; and he was viewed in the light of a terrible and wonderful being, gifted with almost supernatural powers, by the Indians, over whom he exercised a peculiar controlling influence. His life was an eventful one; but its incidents can be recorded in this sketch only as they concern its subject, his son.

Thomas McKay married first a princess of the Chinook tribe; and to-day Doctor W.C. McKay, their first-born child, is chief and ruler of that nation by hereditary right. As a result of this union, three sons were born, William, John and Alexander. On his second marriage, Fortune favored him with a son and a daughter; and the third time two sons and one daughter were born, making quite a large family altogether. William C. McKay with whom we have to deal, first saw the light of day at the Astoria trading-post on the 18th of March, 1824. His eyes opened on a country whose resources were almost boundless, but were yet unknown even to the few adventurous souls who had invaded the Western wilderness. It was the domain of the savage, whose wants were simply and easily gratified, and whose untutored mind was utterly unconscious of the wealth which lay beneath his feet and all around. Little he knew what he was losing when his empire was yielded inch by inch to the encroachments of the pale-face settlers. To-day what a magical scene meets the view of the Doctor; and it is due to such men as he that all this material wealth has been reclaimed. This land is compelled to yield up its riches unto the white man; and the fertile plains of the Oregon are covered with farmhouses, villages and cities instead of the few rude wigwams of the Indians.

Doctor McKay, during his boyhood days, was given over to the charge of his grandfather, Doctor John McLoughlin, who was governor of the territory occupied by the Hudson’s Bay Company, and was stationed at Vancouver. Here it was he first received instruction, his young mind being trained by two Yankee teachers, John Bant of Massachusetts and Solomon H. Smith of New Hampshire, the first school-teachers that ever set foot on the shores of Oregon. They came across the Rockies with Captain Nathaniel Wyeth, the founder of the Pacific Fur and Fishing Company, of Boston, in 1832. Methodist missionaries, who braved every danger of the West in the interest of Christianity, were his next educators; and altogether the young pupil had better training than many youths of the civilized present.

When William was fourteen years of age, his father concluded to send him to Scotland to be educated, and particularly to study the art of medicine; and plans were formed for his safe transportation across the continent and the Atlantic Ocean. It was one of the annual expeditions of the Hudson’s Bay Company to Canada, placed as usual in the charge of his father, that he started; but, reaching the martyred Doctor Whitman’s missionary station at Waiilatpu, the entire plan for the youth’s education was changed. Whitman was a man of singularly impressive faculties, and exercised a powerful influence over those with whom he came in contact. He was moreover truly loyal to the United States government, and at length persuaded the father to have his son educated at home. “Tom,” said he, “I suppose you know that this country will one day become the property of the Untied States, although a British organization, the Hudson’s Bay Company, now has temporary control; but the time is coming when Uncle Sam’s mastery will be undisputed. I therefore wish you would send Bill to the college in which I was educated in the Eastern states. Give him an American education, and let American principles and ideas be thoroughly inculcated in his youthful mind.” His words had a great effect; but the father replied that his money was all in England, and that he hadn’t the means to give his boy a collegiate education in America. “I trade at your post,” answered Whitman; “and I draw my money from Boston. I will pay for the young man’s education; and in exchange you can furnish me with supplies.” The worthy Doctor was so intensely loyal that he did not wish a single useful subject to be lost to the United States; and he carried his point. The matter was forthwith settled; and at Soda Springs, on Bear river, William McKay, with his two brothers, John and Alexander, parted company with their father, and in charge of Missionary Jason lee and party safely made the trip across the plains in the summer of 1838.

On reaching the East, the subject of our sketch entered Fairfield College, Herkimer county, New York, at that time, his two brothers being placed in a Methodist training school at Wilberham, Massachusetts. There he remained, wrestling with his studies in medicine, for five years, and then, grown nearly to man’s estate, and ready to battle with life, returned with another expedition of the Hudson’s Bay Company, starting from Montreal in1843. His two brothers left for the West a year before with the first emigrants who ever crossed the plains. The operation of the Hudson’s Bay Company, notwithstanding the dangers and difficulties encountered in trips through the wilderness, were conducted on a perfect system; and the return journey was made without hindrance or delay. On his return young McKay was established in the mercantile business at Oregon City by the grandfather, and continued in that occupation until the California gold fields were discovered, when he joined a party of eager gold-seekers in the palmy days of 1849 and started for the El Dorado. The Trinity mine, in Northern California, was discovered and operated with profit by this expedition, but its members were attacked by sickness, death decimating their ranks; and in one year those who remained were glad to return to the fair climate of Oregon as best they could. McKay being among the number who survived. He located again in Oregon City on his return; and we find him there a short time after the Whitman massacre, which set the little frontier world afire.

It was this sad event, and the necessity of a stronger organization and protection against the Indians, which warned the settlers that the days of a Provisional government must cease; and efforts were made to bring Oregon Territory under the United States government. This was finally accomplished, Joe Meek being sent to Washington to present the claims of the would-be territory, and Joseph Lane being made governor. One of his first acts was to call the Indians together at The Dalles, in council, to enforce the delivery of the actual murderers of Doctor Whitman and party. The Umatillas, Walla Wallas and Cayuses obeyed the request; and the guilty Indians were yielded up to the avenging white man, and were duly tried and executed at Oregon City. The chiefs of those Indians, who were present at the trial, invited Doctor McKay to establish a trading-post in their midst; and his final settlement in Eastern Oregon is due to that fact. He soon had a post established, locating on the creek which bears his name, a short distance from the present site of Pendleton, and on the spot where the residence of Mr. Fanning now stands, commenced operations. His post was situated on the very outskirts of the country known to the white man, and became the general rendezvous of traders and travelers.

The Doctor wintered on the site of Pendleton in 1851 and 1852, on the spot where W.H. Jones’ residence now stands, then occupied by a flourishing grove of trees. Then, instead of brick blocks and fine residences, the valley of the Umatilla was covered only with cottonwood trees and thickets of brush and willows. Into the vast and fertile territory of Eastern Oregon even the earliest pioneers had not ventured; and the race of the pale-face was only represented by the trader, driving his traffic with the Indians, and exchanging beads and blankets for valuable furs. In the spring of 1852 McKay returned to Oregon City, but soon came back with a larger stock of goods, and remained, doing the while a “rushing business,” until the Yakima war in 1855, in which he with many others lost all his possessions. The Indians had recognized by this time that the people who came form the land of the rising sun had grown all too numerous; there was menacing danger; the houses and lands of the red men were being taken and occupied by the pale-face settler and miner, who by this time had begun to make their presence felt. The time had come when this number should be lessened, and a few scalps hung to the lodge poles of the tribes; but they began the work of destruction too late, – and in vain.

The primary cause of the war was the treaty with the Indians in 1855, in which all their lands from the east of the Cascades to the Missouri river were purchased, and their occupation by the settlers begun. Another cause was the discovery of the Colville mines in Idaho, and other discoveries of the rich mineral wealth contained in the country of the Snakes, Cayuses and Walla Wallas. These discoveries led to an excitement and consequent influx of population much similar to the one in the Golden state in the “days of gold” of ’49. The savage began to look upon the increasing number of white men with distrust and suspicion. While few in number, nothing could be feared; but now the forest, the plains, the beautiful valley of the Indian, were becoming monopolized. So the hatchet was dug up with a vengeance; and war was declared.

The treaty in question took place on the present site of Walla Walla. General Issac I. Stevens, Governor of Washington Territory, and General Joel Palmer, Superintendent of Indian affairs for Oregon, with their associates, met the head men of the Indians there in council. Dr. W.C. McKay took a prominent part as secretary of council for Oregon; and this explains the subsequent antipathy for him by the Indians, and the total destruction of his property. Almost immediately after the treaty the war began, lasting two years, the Indians finally being forced into submission. Its history is well known; and it is not necessary to particularize it here. Suffice it to say that McKay took a prominent part, and that his services as a scout were found to be very valuable by the campaigning generals, who were as unacquainted with the methods of Indian warfare as the Indian himself would be of military tactics. In the fall of 1856, Doctor McKay acted as guide for the expeditions of Generals Wright and Steptoe; and it was he who selected the site of Fort Walla Walla, a garrison being their established at his suggestion.

After the close of this war, when the power of the Indian had been almost broken, mines were discovered in Southern Idaho and Eastern Oregon and Washington, principal among them being those at Boise in 1864; and to this fact is due the final rapid settlement of this section, the rancher and stock-grower following fast upon the heels of the miner, as he himself had followed the early traders and missionaries.

In the meantime the doctor had taken unto himself a wife, marrying Miss Mary Campbell at The Dalles, then a small settlement, in 1857.

The Indians gain began to make trouble for the now hated pale-face at the close of the Civil war. The red man could not remain quiet and see his possessions wrested from him. The Snakes began a bushwhacking style of warfare, harassing the entire mining section, intercepting and confiscating pack trains and supply outfits, and taking the scalps of struggling unfortunates. Everything was thrown into a state of chaos; miners were compelled to cease operations because of the lack of supplies, which traders were unable to send. The Untied States soldiers seemed powerless or unwilling to take any action; and indeed one wily redskin, familiar with every nook and cranny of his mountain home, was more than a match for a dozen blue-coats. Finally measures for defense became absolutely necessary; and here again we find McKay placed to the fore. A petition was signed by the settlers and sent to Governor Woods, asking, in the name of God, that volunteers be organized as a means of protection against the devastating Snakes. A bill was thereupon introduced in the legislature for three companies of volunteers; but an amendment was proposed by Judge Humason, representative from The Dalles. He said volunteers were all well enough in their way; but his plan was to fight Greeks with Greeks and Indians with Indians. He moved that a company of scouts consisting of Warm Spring Indians be raised, and that Dr. W.C. McKay be placed at their head.

The amendment was carried with a rush. General Steele, commander of the department of the Columbia, proposed that the scouts be equipped with necessary arms and accoutrements, and be regularly mustered into the United States service. As is usual in such cases, a quantity of red tape was wound around proceedings; and we find the Indians waiting at The Dalles for three or four months, impatient for action, but not yet supplied with everything necessary to well-regulated warfare from a tactician’s standpoint. At last, in the dead of winter, the company was inspected by General Steele; and McKay was asked when it was advisable to begin the campaign. “Now,” was his emphatic answer; and he forthwith took the field with his command, being assisted in the leadership by captain John Dauch. It is needless to say that, being acquainted with the modus operandi of the enemy, their campaigning was eminently successful; and they returned with thirty-five scalps, more than the entire regular army of the United States in that section had captured in five years.

In the month of June they again took the field, being then used as the eyes and ears of the command of General Crook, who was in command of this district. The Doctor says that the General, a very affable gentleman, spent much of his time in schooling himself in Indian warfare, using the Indian scouts as his tutors. He was an apt scholar, and gained knowledge which afterwards proved of much value during his famous campaign against the Apaches in Arizona. The result was that in one year after the little band of Indian scouts took the field under McKay, and afterwards placed themselves in the service of General Crook, the Piutes and Snakes sued for peace in solemn council with their enemies. One of their chiefs, in a grave and impressive address, said that once his people were as numerous as the leaves on the trees, pointing to a grove green with verdure; now they were few in number, and had fallen as the leaves in autumn, and were compelled to make peace with the white man. But he told the pale-faced commander that it was not he whom he feared, nor his blue-coated soldiers, at whom the Indians laughed. “It is there,” and he pointed to McKay and the Warm springs scouts, “the salmon-eaters (as the Warm Springs Indians were styled by their copper-colored brethren) who have taken the scalps of my people and compelled us to bury the hatchet ere it is red with the blood of our enemies.”

The chief was right. The Warm Springs Indians, guided by the vigilant McKay and his able assistant; were a terrible force. They knew the customs and habits of the foe with whom they had to deal, and could fight him with his own weapons and in his own style of warfare, and were provided with all necessary supplies by the government. The method employed, says the Doctor, was to march from place to place by night, camp in some obscure retreat during the day, sending out scouts to discover signs and traces of the enemy. When a trail was discovered , it was followed with the keenness of a pack of hounds by lynx-eyed pursuers. The camp of the enemy was discovered; and that night the hapless Indians were swooped down upon and destroyed as the hawk darts upon its prey. That was the method of warfare, and it was a successful one.

With the surrender of the Snakes terminated the eventful portion of the Doctor’s history. He was invited by General Canby to take command of the same company of scouts during the Modoc war, but considered the outbreak a trifling matter, owing to the small number of the Indians, and refused. It was not, however; for it cost the government nearly three million dollars to subdue less than one hundred able-bodied Indians. Donald McKay, a brother of the Doctor, had charge of the Warm Spring scouts during this famous campaign against Captain Jack in the lava beds; and these scouts did about the only successful fighting.

Leaving the Doctor located in Pendleton after the close of the outbreak, we will close our sketch, a brief and unsatisfactory one, considering the variety of events the writer endeavors in a faint way to portray. Should the principal incidents of the Doctor’s life be particularized, a volume would not contain them.

He is now a hale and hearty old gentleman of over three-score years, and has seen churches, buildings and schools spring up magically around him where once was a wilderness. He has seen the pack-train superseded by the iron horse, and the last vestige of the early days of the trader and pioneer obliterated. Here, in the midst of civilization, refinement, and the busy bustle of a world of mortals, we find the Doctor at present, and will leave him to the tender mercies of the future.



History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889.

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