Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 531Comments
This is the grave of John McLoughlin.
Born in Quebec in 1784, Jean-Baptiste McLoughlin grew up Catholic, despite a Scots-Irish father. His father married a Quebecois woman and so the boy was baptized as a Catholic. But he was raised in the Anglican church. He started studying medicine, such as that study really existed, in 1798 and in 1803, he received a license to start practicing the art, and it wasn’t much more than that, in Quebec. He was then hired as the physician at Fort William, a fur trading post on Lake Superior. He really took to that frontier lifestyle. He learned several indigenous languages and became interested in the fur trade. While still practicing as a doctor, he started getting involved in fur trading and became a partner in North West Company in 1814.
In 1816, the two main fur trading companies out there, the North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company were engaged in increasingly hostile rhetoric over territory. That year, at the Battle of Seven Oaks, in modern-day Winnipeg, the two sides opened fire on each other. The North West Company, which had Métis allies, wiped out the other side. Twenty-one of the twenty-eight with the HBC died, with only one fatality on the other side. McLoughlin was charged with complicity in the massacre. But he was acquitted and the HBC shown to really be at fault for the thing. In any case, McLoughlin helped negotiate the merger of the two companies in 1821. He was then given the job of running the Lac la Pluie district, today on the Minnesota-Ontario border.
In 1824, the HBC appointed McLoughlin as Superintendent of the Columbia Department, in the modern U.S. Pacific Northwest. He instantly moved the fort from Astoria to modern Vancouver, Washington. Fort Vancouver opened for business in 1825. The area was under the theoretical joint control of the British and Americans, but of course it was the tribes that really ran things out there, even as disease was starting to wipe them out. McLoughlin’s job was to run the fur trade and other trading goods. He was good at the job, largely because he developed a reputation, going back to his days in Ontario, of being genuinely fair to the tribes. McLoughlin and his men got the beaver pelts to Fort Vancouver and it became a big hub of trade for the HBC, as well as a trading post for the Pacific World as the Northwest began to be relevant in it.
But the British place in the Northwest was pretty dicey. For them, white settlement in the region was highly undesirable. They were there to get furs and other goods, not settle people. To do that would bring in competition that would be murderously hostile to their Native trading allies and undermine profits. The Americans had very different views. They wanted to control the Oregon Country. In 1838, Senator Lewis Linn of Missouri called for a U.S. Naval force to take Oregon. There were threats of American settlers, always land greedy, moving to Oregon. Worried about this, McLoughlin and the HBC attempted to create some farms in the region of what is today southwest Washington, forming the Puget Sound Agricultural Company in 1840. About two dozen Métis families moved to the region to farm. But this was nothing compared to the onslaught of Americans about to begin
When the first Americans started arriving, they were militantly anti-British and ready to fight. McLoughlin realized this and tried to undercut this by offering them aid. It worked, though the most militant were bitter about it and hated him for it. Britain saw the writing on the wall and the fur trade in the Columbia River region was drying up anyway. The Hudson’s Bay Company ordered McLoughlin to move north of the 49th parallel in 1843. But he refused. He was not willing to move. He had set up a good life on the Columbia and did not want to start over as a nearly 60 year old man. Instead, he would try to guide Oregon into the future. By 1842, there were enough Americans to form a government. McLoughlin advocated creating an independent nation, but the settlers decided against this. Instead, they established a provisional government in 1843 and waited for the U.S. to annex them. That happened in 1846, when the 49th parallel boundary was extended to the Pacific, despite 54’40 or Bust rhetoric from extremist nationalists who wanted war with Britain.
McLoughlin left the Hudson’s Bay Company for good in 1846, moving his family from Fort Vancouver to Oregon City, southeast of modern Portland. He became a U.S. citizen in 1849 and was seen as a sort of senior pioneer. But those who hated him, partially because he converted back to Catholicism and actually had the Knighthood of St. Gregory bestowed on him by Pope Gregory XVI, inserted a clause into the 1850 Donation Land Claim Act that stripped McLoughlin of his land claims. He was able to forestall this from being enforced, but the fact that the people he tried to help hated him so much really made his last years bitter. He did run for mayor of Oregon City in 1851 and won, showing he had at least some authority still. He died in 1857.
John McLoughlin is buried outside of his home, now part of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, Oregon City, Oregon.
If you would like this series to visit other people involved in American expansion to the modern West, you can donate to cover the required expenses here, not that anyone really does that anymore. Kit Carson is in Taos, New Mexico and Peter Skene Ogden, who worked with McLoughlin, is also in Oregon City as it turns out. Previous posts in this series are archived here.