Biography of James Birnie

JAMES BIRNIE. – Mr. Birnie was a Scotchman by birth. He was born at Paisley, county Renfrew, Scotland, in the year 1800. In 1816 the ambitious lad left his native health and emigrated to Montreal, Canada. Here, under the tutelage of a Catholic priest, he studied the French language for about two years, at the end of which time he entered the employ of the Northwest Fur Company as one of its clerks, and was sent across the Rocky Mountains to Fort Spokane, where he arrived towards the close of 1818. The fort at this time was in charge of a Mr. Haldin, with whom Mr. Birnie remained for several years. He then went to the Kootenai country, where he was married to the daughter of a Frenchman, a Mr. Bianlien, from Manitoba. Here he spent several years trading with the Indians, buying furs, etc., and then returned to Fort Spokane.

In 1821 the Northwest and Hudson’s Bay Company amalgamated as one concern. In 1824 Dr. McLoughlin removed a part of the forces at Astoria up the Columbia river and established Fort Vancouver. During this year, or the beginning of 1825, Mr. Birnie was appointed Indian trader and bookkeeper for the consolidated companies, then known as the Hudson’s Bay Company, and was stationed at Vancouver, where he remained until 1831. He was then sent to the Northwest coast to succeed Captain Simpson, deceased, and to complete the building of Fort Simpson, which work he speedily accomplished. After several years service at Fort Simpson, he returned to Astoria, and for a second time took charge of that trading post. It was while serving this second term that the brigantine Peacock, captain Hudson, and the schooner Shark, Captain Harrison, both United States war vessels, were wrecked on the Columbia river bar. The services Mr. Birnie rendered to the officers and crew of these unfortunate crafts endeared him to one and all; and in testimony of their affection, before leaving the river, the grateful gentlemen presented their friend with a quantity of valuable silver plate. From Astoria he was sent to The Dalles to protect the interests of his company against an encroaching stranger, where he remained for several years.

In 1845, he left the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and settled upon a tract of land at Cathlamet, and at once began its improvement. At that time, in the language of Robinson Crusoe, he was monarch of all he surveyed. There were no trespassers upon his holdings, save an occasional trader and now and then a roving Indian. Here he soon transformed the wilderness into a land of surprising productiveness, and made for himself and family a comfortable and happy home. At the time of his death, in1864, he was the father of thirteen children, – eight boys and five girls.

During his early struggles in Oregon, he made friend of nearly every acquaintance. Open-handed and generous to a fault, the stranger never came within his gates to be sent empty-handed away. He always had a word of cheer for all with whom he came in contact; and when neighbors began to settle about him he was the first to welcome them, and to extend to all whatever aid he could. Of him it may truly be said that his hand was against no man, and that no man’s hand was against him. he possessed a loyal helpmeet in his most estimable wife. She was known only to be loved; and the day of her demise witnessed the taking off of one possessed of those many attributes of character that make the noblest of her sex so much revered. Oregon owes much of her greatness to her early pioneers; and to few does she owe more than to Mr. James Birnie, his most excellent wife and the sons and daughters they left behind them.



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

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