Biography of Dr. John McLoughlin

DR. JOHN McLOUGHLIN. – Doctor McLoughlin has been very well called the first real governor of Oregon. As chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company west of the Rocky Mountains, he was more than this; – he was autocrat. He was a great man, – large physically, of large views and ideas, and above all, very large-hearted. He was nearly forty years on this coast, and during that time was the chief man in it. The Indians called him the “white-headed eagle;” and the Whites went to him with their troubles. In a pathetic little manuscript found among his papers, and never published until after his death, he calls himself the father of Oregon; and in a certain way, from a certain point of view, his claim is wholly just.

The circumstances of his life may be briefly told. He was born in Canada in 1784. His parents were Scotch, although his mother, by some, is said to have been French. When but a youth of sixteen he entered the service of the old North West Fur Company, and for twenty-four years thereafter was making his way up, step by step, from the lowest to the highest positions. It was his duty during the years of his initiation to roam through the forests, and to navigate the long rivers of British America, going northward far towards the Arctic circle or to the skirts of the Shining Mountains in the West. He was stationed in lonely forts year in and year out, and made pilgrimages back again to the headquarters at Montreal. He probably took a good brisk part in the “war” between the tough North Westers and the Hudson’s Bay Company in the Selkirk settlement. But, amid all these lonely labors and exploits of the Northern wilderness, he managed to attain a magnificent physical development, and to store his mind with the knowledge necessary to make of him a medical practitioner, and to acquire a commanding and urbane manner, making of him a medieval gentleman.

In 1824, the object of the North West Fur Company having been fully attained, and they having been admitted to the privileges of the Hudson’s Bay Company, whose name they assumed, he was intrusted with the great responsibility of going to Astoria and assuming absolute control of the whole Columbia valley and northern coast. he was to be commander of about a thousand Canadian and half-breed servants of the company, over whom he exercised the unquestioned right of discipline, extending in exigent cases even to life and death; and over the hundred thousand Indians within these bounds he was to assume absolute control and make himself autocrat, with full power to levy war upon them, or to inflict capital punishment if it became necessary. He was to move all the machinery of the company on this coast; to send a shipload of furs every year to London; to destroy competition of the French, Spanish, Russians or Americans; and to hold the country for the Hudson’s Bay Company to the exclusion of all else. He had no means with which to perform all this except his own native faculty and address. Considering the failures of governors before that time, and the difficult circumstances, it is worth while to notice how he accomplished his object.

In the first place, he gained control by superiority of intelligence and priority of will. He had his plans fully laid, and permitted no one to question them. Before others could think, he was acting; and they had nothing to do but acquiesce. In a very short time all subordinates trusted his judgment, and naturally left with him all executive decision. He had, moreover, a commanding physical presence, and a personal magnetism which it was hard for anyone to resist. He was capable also of knocking a man down with his cane or driving him out of the fort with a shovel, if his authority was stupidly defied; and, when this was not practicable, he was full of resources for winding up opposition.

It was but a short time after coming to Astoria that he had the whole department in working order; and, in addition to his masterful energy, he showed a fatherly kindness to the clerks and factors and servants which endeared him to them. He treated them with a rigid honesty which inspired their confidence, and so recognized faithful or meritorious service that all were inspired to do their best. He became to them one of those men whom it seems wicked to disregard.

To the Indians he used the same scrupulous exactitude, paying them precisely the same price for their furs, according to the directions of the company, and thereby established an idea easily implanted among simple people of any race, that the exact worth of their goods would always be recognized, and that he was absolutely reliable. With a handy body of good riflemen, a few cannons and ships, he was ready and able at any time to punish any refractory tribes. At the time of the wreck of the William and Ann at the mouth of the Columbia, when the Clatsop Indians refused to give up the plunder that they had gathered from the wreck, and which they claimed was their own, as it came from the water, he bombarded and burned their village. For the plunder of Americans in the Umpqua valley, he also punished the Shastas. Between fear and reverence, and love and dependence, the native tribes soon acknowledged his sway, and recognized him as their chief of chiefs.

The Spanish and French gave him no trouble; and the Russians kept to their own quarters, accepting with him a trade in wheat and potatoes for their furs. But the Americans made repeated efforts to continue the idea of Astor in establishing a great fur emporium on the Columbia. It took McLoughlin less than a year, however, to break up any one of them by destructive competition. Wyeth, Kelly, Smith, Ashley and Bonneville succumbed. Although in most cases treated with great personal kindness, they found it impossible to make the slightest headway against the Hudson’s Bay Company, or to gain the Indians. As trader and factor, McLoughlin’s operations were a great success. He took and held the country.

As the father of Oregon he accomplished a still more remarkable labor. Soon after coming to Astoria, he moved the post up to Vancouver and began at once to nourish agriculture and develop cattle, and to encourage settlement. All this was aside from his official duty, and was due to his humanity, and perhaps political bias. A peck of peas and a little seed wheat, and a few potatoes, he accounted precious, and soon multiplied to large fields of grain and vegetables. The few cows and their mate sent out to supply milk and veal for his own table he cherished as the apple of his eye, on no account slaughtering an animal of any kind except one calf a year for rennet to make cheese. He soon had a fine young herd on Sauvie’s Island. The apple seeds put in the pockets of some Hudson’s Bay gentleman just off for Oregon after a dinner party by ladies in London as a playful memento, he actually had planted; and from them grew the first tress.

All these things were not contemplated by the company; and a start in any line was very hard to obtain. But before 1840 he had quite a system of agriculture under way. As early as 1829 he began advising the discharged servants of the company to settle in the Willamette valley, forming the community on French Prairie. It was the positive order of the company to discharge no servants in the Indian country, but to return them home. The Doctor, however, got an indulgence for these men on the ground that they had Indian families that they ought to take care of, and still kept their names on his books as servants, although they were really settlers. He himself encouraged their marriage with the daughters of Indian chiefs; and, as they had families, he became anxious to provide them with schools. He made these settlers dependent on himself by lending them cattle, the increase of which was to be returned to himself, and lending seed and implements for which they were to pay in wheat at the fort. To get rid of his wheat he established the trade with new Archangel in Alaska, and to the Sandwich Islands. There was no money in the country; and all necessary goods were only to be obtained from the fort.

When it came to American missionaries and settlements, McLoughlin was no less forward to encourage them. In 1834 he treated with the greatest kindness the first missionary, Jason Lee. He offered him every facility, and early made up for him a purse of one hundred and thirty dollars to assist in carrying on the mission school. He furnished him provisions at the usual rates. To Whitman and Spaulding, from 1837 onward, he was no less helpful. He seems to have fully desired the establishment of missions, and to have been glad to assist these little sprouts of civilization. but he attempted to make all such efforts absolutely dependent upon himself for worldly necessities, and in a manner to reduce them to simple Hudson’s Bay posts. He even went so far as to withhold supplies from Whitman, if it happened that the missionary failed to carry out his directions in certain particulars. The other Americans who came as settlers, he would treat in the same manner as he treated the Canadians on French Prairie, encouraging them to settle, to raise wheat for him, and to use his cattle and return the increase. He hoped in this way to make Fort Vancouver dominant, and, while not absolutely stopping immigration, to make the country a dependency of the company.

The English have charged him with playing into the hands of the Americans. By others it has been suggested that he had in view an independent state to be attached to Canada when she had attained her independence of Great Britain. Still others believe that he had no object but to retain the territory for England, and to occupy it exclusively for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and to control the missionaries and settlers whose coming he could not prevent. But by all it is admitted that he nourished the young settlements, and from 1843 onward loaned, without security, goods to the value of many thousands of dollars, in many cases without any apparent motive except to supply the needs of those in want. From the time of the organization of the Provisional government, and the arrival of an immigration of eight hundred Americans in the autumn, the controlling influence in the territory gradually passed out of his hands. Posts and stores, and a government which he did not dominate, began to spring up; and Oregon became a part of the American union. McLoughlin himself severed his connection with his company and began an American citizen. His death occurred at Oregon City in 1857.

It may be well enough imagined that the efforts and scenes through which he passed from 1840 to 1847 were exceeding harassing. Then began the decline of his personal control which, during a long time, he had made exclusive. The Americans first broke the arch of his authority. His human and benevolent treatment of these Americans, who could brook no government except their own, soon drew upon him the censure of the English. Belcher, Simpson, John Dunn, Fitzgerald’s Journal, all stigmatized his policy as imbecile. He was called to a very sharp account by the Hudson’s Bay Company for his generosity; and every cent’s worth goods that he had let go he was obliged to account for. His loss was some twelve thousand dollars.

With the disseverance of his interests form those of Great Britain, his troubles did not cease. Even after he became an American citizen, it suited the purposes of one party of these to make him a scapegoat, and to curry favor by defaming him. He was also drawn through a long and most tedious contention for his claim at Oregon City, which was withheld for a number of years. An examination of his papers convinced so keen an American as Judge Thornton that his affairs had been conducted with absolute honesty, and that in the circumstances the effort to exclude him from his claim was very wrong. To the credit of the state, the wrong was righted before his death. Nevertheless the wreck of his influence, the almost universal condemnation passed the ingratitude of the thousands that he had befriended and well nigh rescued from starvation, was a bitter thing to fall upon his declining years, and his only consolation in that dark hour was his religious faith and hope. He was a Catholic, having joined the Roman church of Oregon City under the labor of Bishop Blanchet; and his body sleeps in a grave in the churchyard by the river bank, underneath a plain slab whose characters declare him to have been the friend of Oregon.

McLoughlin was a grand old man, with a depth of discernment, a force of will and an abounding humanity which gave him a touch of greatness.


Biography, Clatsop,

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

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