Biography of John Flett

JOHN FLETT. – Among the schemes of the Hudson’s Bay Company, in 1839 and 1840, to acquire occupancy and secure British title to the territory on the north side of the Columbia river, was an immigration to the Cowlitz and Nisqually Plains from the Selkirk settlement in the valley of the Red river of the North. It will be remembered that the Hudson’s Bay Company was present in the territory west of the Rocky Mountains by virtue of a license of trade from the British Crown, which precluded it from acquiring landed possessions. Its right was a mere tenancy for years. To evade this provision, the attempt was made to form the Puget Sound Agricultural Company, which, though not consummated, yet fostered this scheme of colonization and occupancy. Under its auspices was formed the Red river colony of 1841, of which John Flett, now an aged farmer residing on Steilacoom Plains in Pierce county, is the lat survivor of the then married men or heads of families who, with their families, flocks, herds and worldly possessions, constituted the Red river immigration to the Oregon territory in 1841.

Mr. Flett gives the following graphic description of the journey to Oregon of that colony:

“An agreement was entered into by Duncan Fenelon, acting governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, on the one side, and a party of immigrants on the other, to the following effect:

“That the company should furnish as captain James Sinclair, Esq., should also furnish each head of a family ten pounds sterling in advance (which all accepted by A. Buxton and John Flett) also, goods for the journey, and horses and provisions at the forts on the route as needed; and on the arrival at Puget Sound the company should furnish houses, barns and fenced fields, with fifteen cows, one bull, fifty ewes, one ram, and oxen or horses, with farming implements and seed. On the other part, it was agreed that the farmers should deliver to the company one-half the crops yearly for five years, and at the end of five years one-half the increase of the flocks.

“To this agreement twenty-three heads of families appended their names. White Horse plain, about fifteen miles west of Fort Garry, at the junction of the Red and Assinaboine rivers, was appointed as the rendezvous, and on the fourth of June, 1841, our twenty-three families, containing eighty persons all told, were assembled, with about fifty carts, seven oxen, two cows and sixty horses. On the morning of the 5th of June we broke camp, and, turning our backs to the rising sun, plunged into the wilderness. Our route lay along the north bank of the Assinaboine. We crossed the Mouse and Qu’Apelle rivers, and then turning north past Fort Pelly started for the Saskatchewan. On this vast plain we met our first buffalo, immense herds being seen feeding on the rich grasses of the valley. Here Mr. James Bird overtook us and became our guide. In this region we also met Doctor Tolmie and his party from the Columbia, and were passed by Sir George Simpson, on his tour around the world.

“We reached the south branch a few miles above where it joins the Saskatchewan. The crossing was a difficult and dangerous work. The river was about a mile in width. A portion of the party passed safely to a small island in a small boat. The other portion, putting their cars and effects on a hug raft of dry logs, attempted to pole their raft across. The current was very swift; and they soon lost bottom and drifted down at a fearful rate towards the rapids, a short distance below. As they went by the island on which the first party had landed, they passed so near that a rope was thrown to them; and, after a long struggle,, the raft was secured to the bank. When a crossing was at last effected, we passed on through open country until we arrived, on the 28th of June, at Fort Charlton, on the banks of the great Saskatchewan. We secured some horses, replenished our stock of provisions, and on the thirtieth resumed our journey. Dangers were now thickening around us. On the ground over which we were passing a great battle had been fought between the Crees and Blackfeet, the Crees being worsted. We kept men on guard night and day. War parties were on every side. We now began to believe what others had told us, that we should never get through. Still we forced our way on, and on the 10th of July crossed the Saskatchewan river to Fort Pitt. Here we found many wounded Crees, who had fled to the fort for protection. Here we rested two days, and on the 12th again broke camp, traveling on the north side of the river until we reached Fort Edmonton, on the twentieth, where we recrossed the river. We had traveled far out of our direct route for safety, but now must face the unknown dangers. The region through which we had to pass was a fine hunting ground, buffalo being very plentiful; and the different tribes – Blackfeet, Assinaboines, Piegans, Crees – were continually striving for it, many bloody battles being fought.

“Moving southward through this region, keeping careful watch for hostiles, we again reached the waters of the South branch on the 30th of July. Here the writer and a younger brother had a narrow escape. While out hunting we were surrounded by hostile Indians. We concealed ourselves until dark, and in the twilight swam the cold, swift river. Having stripped off our outer clothing, we fastened it on our horses and plunged in. The water was cold, icy cold, the river was very swift, and about two hundred yards wide. twice we swam the river, and after wandering about for two days at last reached camp in safety. Of all the dangers I have seen in a pioneer life of fifty years, the dangers of those two days were the worst. we overtook our party encamped at old Fort McLeod, an abandoned post of the Hudson’s Bay company, now known as British Pass, or Rocky Mountain. Here we were compelled to abandon our carts and pack our goods on the backs of the oxen and horses. After long debate about what should be taken and what should be left behind, we at last had our train in readiness, and again started on our way. The oxen, however, were unused to this mode of traveling, and becoming frightened, a stampede ensued. Then what a sight, – oxen bellowing, kicking, running; horses neighing, rearing, plunging; children squalling; women crying; men swearing, shouting and laughing; while the air seemed full of blankets, kettles, sacks of pots, pans and jerked buffalo. At the last the cattle were again secured. All our goods that could be found were gathered up, the remnants repacked, and we again started.

“Crossing the South branch, we entered the timber, sometimes following an Indian trail and sometimes traveling where there was no trail. On the second day after we entered the mountains, James Bird, our guide bidding adieu to his friends and relatives, started on his return. On the 5th of August we reached the summit, and found ourselves on a small plateau. here we saw a huge snow-drift whose melted waters formed three little rills, one running east through a deep cañon, and finding its way through the Saskawatchan into Hudson’s Bay, another running southeast into the Missouri, and at last into the gulf, while the third sent its waters through those ‘continuous woods were rolls the Oregon.’ On the ninth day after we entered the Rocky Mountains we emerged on the western side, at the Kootenai plain, then through a belt of timber, and then over the Tobacco prairie. To avoid some marshy land which lay in our course, we climbed the projec5ting point of a high mountain, said to be one of the Bitter Root range. Then our route lay through a flat, marshy country until we came to a deep, sluggish river, called by the Indians, Paddling river. Then our course lay to the southwest, through a rich country with plenty of grass, until we came to Lake Pend d’Oreille. While traveling along a rocky cliff jutting towards the lake a horse, ridden by one of our women, slipped; and horse and rider rolled into the lake, being rescued with some difficulty. We crossed the lake where it is about one mile in width; and while we were engaged in crossing, our first horse was stolen. Here we left two families, who on account of sickness were unable to proceed farther.

“We arrived at Fort Walla Walla on the 4th of October. On the next day the fort was burned. Our party assisted the men of the fort to save their goods. The Indians were so numerous that it was not deemed safe to camp there; and so we traveled down the Columbia until midnight. In about four days we arrived at The Dalles, at the Methodist mission, then in charge of Daniel Lee and Mr. Perkins. On the twelfth we crossed the river; there one horse was drowned. When we reached the Cascades we found some boats on which the families, with some of the oldest men, sailed down the river; while the horses and cattle at Colville were driven to Vancouver, at which all arrived on the thirteenth.

“There we met Sir George Simpson, Peter Skeen Ogden, John McLoughlin and James Douglas; and there Sir George informed us that the company could not keep its agreement. As I remember, this was the substance of his speech: ‘Our agreement we cannot fulfill; we have neither horses nor barns nor fields for you, and you are at liberty to go where you please. You may go with the California trappers; and we will give you an outfit as we give others. If you go over the river to the American side we will help you none – very sickly. If you go to the Cowlitz we will help you some. To those who will go to the Nisqually we will fulfill our agreement.’ Of course we were all surprised and hurt at this speech. After some discussion the party divided, some going to California, several families to the Cowlitz Prairie, some to the Willamette valley, and the rest to Nisqually, where we arrived November 8, 1841, having traveled nearly two thousand miles without the loss of a single person, while three children were born on the way.

“Upon reaching Nisqually, Captain James Sinclair made a trip on the steamer Beaver to Whidby Island, with the view to our settlement on that island. Bras Croche, the Cree guide, who accompanied him on his trip, was asked what he thought of the Beaver steamer. ‘Don’t ask me,’ was his reply; ‘I cannot speak; my friends will say that I tell lies when I let them know what I have seen. Indians are fools and know nothing. I can see that the iron machinery makes the ship go; but I cannot see what makes the iron machinery itself go.’ He was a very intelligent Indian, but so full of doubt and wonder that he would not leave the vessel till he had received a certificate that he had been on board of a ship which required neither sails nor paddles. With this paper he said he could go back to his people, and, although they would not believe him, yet they would give full credence to all that was written. Captain Sinclair, on his return from Whidby Island, went to Colville and remained that winter. He crossed over to Red river the next season. Returning to the territory, he was subsequently clerk in charge of Fort Walla Walla until the fall of 1855, when it was attacked and robbed by the hostile Indians and never afterwards occupied by the company. At the Cascades on Wednesday, March 26, 1856, when the Yakimas attacked the place, being in Bradford’s store, he walked to the railroad door to look out and was shot from the bank above, and instantly killed.

“As the company furnished no houses, each man had to build his own cabin. As no plows could be obtained, John Flett and Charles McKay went to Vancouver after iron to make some plows. They spent Christmas day at the fort, and on their return turned the first furrows which were plowed this side of the Cowlitz. Some seed wheat and potatoes were furnished the farmers, but no teams nor cattle, although they were greatly needed. The writer tried hard to get a cow, either as per agreement or for money, but failed. Some who removed got some wild cows, but no sheep. There was much discontent; and loud murmurings were heard. Several at once left the Sound in disgust. The Flett brothers left in June, 1842, for the Willamette, more followed in the fall; and at the end of three years all had left, getting nothing for their labor or their improvements.”

John Flett was born August 5, 1815, in Rupert’s Land, about six hundred miles northeast of Manitoba, in the valley of the Red river of the North, his father then being in charge of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s store for the Cumberland district. When John was about seven years of age the family removed to the Selkirk settlement, where he continued to reside until 1836, at which time he went to the site of the present city of St. Paul, Minnesota, there being at that date three houses where that great city is now erected. Having remained there during a short season, he went to Chicago, Illinois, and stayed there about a year, during which time he assisted as a bricklayer in the building of the third brick house erected in that city of phenomenal progress.

In 1837 he returned to Manitoba, worked for a time as a blacksmith, and at intervals in hunting and trapping in the wilds of Minnesota and Dakota. In June, 1841, he joined the Red river colony, and made the journey hereinabove described in his own language. In June, 1842, he settled in Washington county, Oregon, and was engaged in farming until 1854, when he accepted the position of Indian interpreter under General Joel Palmer, Superintendent of Indian Affairs of Oregon. His services in that capacity were very valuable; and much is due to Mr. Flett for the successful negotiation of the treaties then made. As a recognition of those services, he was continued as interpreter and appointed also subagent, in which capacity he went to Southern Oregon. Alone he visited the war camp of the Rogue river Indians, and induced them to go upon the reservation. He visited the Indians at Crescent city and Port Orford. He accompanied General Palmer and Indian Agent Chris Taylor to Klamath Lake and the Modoc country, that being the first party who visited that region.

In all the meetings and councils of Superintendent Palmer with the Southern Oregon Indians, Mr. Flett accompanied him as interpreter; and on General Palmer going to the Walla Walla council, in June, 1855, Mr. Flett attended. He continued in the service of the Oregon superintendency for three years, and during that time executed many delicate and difficult missions, requiring courage and discretion. In 1859 he settled at South Prairie, in Pierce county, and engaged in farming. He remained there until 1868, when he purchased his present location near Lakeview, about six miles distant from Tacoma. From 1862 to 1878 he was employed upon the Puyallup Indian Reservation as farmer or interpreter. He is a thorough Indian linguist, and adept in understanding the Indian character, and was long recognized as among the most efficient and valuable of the attaché’s of that department. He is a hale, vigorous man, with a family consisting of a wife and six children; and with a competency this fine old christian gentleman is rounding off in comfort a long and busy life.



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

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