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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,017

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This is the grave of Peter Skene Ogden.

Born sometime around 1790 (the date on the grave is almost certainly incorrect) in Quebec, Ogden grew up in the Canadian colonial elite, or what passed for it. His father was the chief justice of Quebec who was a Tory in the American Revolution and had moved up from New York, where he was from. It goes without saying that he was an English speaker in a French colony, though he would later learn French, as well as several Native languages. The family had left for England before going to Canada.

But young Peter was not interested in the kind of life his father had. His father wanted him to go into the law. He wasn’t going to do that. He was taken by the adventures and financial opportunities of the West. So he started working in fur trading. It’s worth noting here that this was a pretty rough life with pretty rough men. First, trapping was disgusting. You had to hide your human smell to work out there. That meant covering yourself in beaver smell. Do you have any sense of how utterly revolting that would be for other humans? Moreover, this was a hard-drinking and often quite violent bunch of men, something that most definitely did not help their relationships with the tribes they relied upon for the fur. That included Ogden.

Anyway, Ogden got his first job as a teenager with the American Fur Company, which was John Jacob Astor’s outfit, but soon joined the North West Company in 1809. That was a British-Canadian firm. He was stationed up in Saskatchewan. This company was a rival to Hudson’s Bay Company and they usually took up their rivalry with violence. That absolutely included Ogden. He was known for his killings. Once, when a Native trapper traded with the HBC, Ogden responded by chopping him to death with I believe an axe, doing the job personally. So yeah, nice guy here. Real pioneer we can admire. The HBC recognized him as a legitimately very dangerous man, largely because he was so personally violent than because of his trading skills. In fact, there were so many issues, he was soon reassigned to what became the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

But hey, genocide was the order of the day. So it’s not like Ogden really suffered for any of this, not to mention he got to get out of Saskatchewan, which has probably been the dream of everyone stuck there forever. When the HBC acquired the NWC, the company was really at a loss of what to do about Ogden since, you know, everyone hated him and he was a horrible person. Even for a fur trader, which is a high bar. But he was good at the job and that’s all that matter, no matter who might die in the process. HBC managers put him in charge of the Spokane trading house in 1823 and then the whole Snake River country in 1824.

During the next several years, Odgen was selected to lead several trapping and exploring expeditions into the Snake River drainage and beyond. These trips led him to be among the first whites to “discover” and explore the Great Salt Lake, the Deschutes River, Mt. Shasta, the Blue Mountains of Oregon, and other parts of the American West. Much of what he did in Nevada and along the Sierra Nevada became part of the California Trail.

In 1830, Ogden got a new job as the head of the trading post at Fort Simpson in modern British Columbia and up to southeastern Alaska. Violent he may have been, but he was still good as his job and was promoted to Chief Factor in 1834, which was the highest position he could hold in the HBC. He became the head of Fort Vancouver, the critically important post on the Columbia River, after John McLoughlin retired.

By the early 1840s, American settlers started coming to the Willamette Valley. This made British control over the Oregon Country increasingly tenuous. Understanding how aggressive and violent Americans were, the British made the smart decision that what would become the Pacific Northwest was not really worth fighting over, especially because the furs were largely gone anyway, trapped out by men such as Ogden and the tribes he bought from. But in the short term, this actually helped Ogden. Sure he was violent. But he wasn’t as violent as an average white American settler. So the tribes preferred to work with him than with American fur traders. He was also a big enough deal that in 1844, London called him to the UK to discuss what to do about Oregon.

What the Americans came to love Ogden for his was intervention with the Cayuse, a tribe he knew well, after the Whitman Mission Massacre, where they decided to wipe the Americans out of southeastern Washington, rightfully blaming them for all the things that had come of their people since the arrival of the Whitmans and other whites. They had taken a bunch of people as “slaves,” which wasn’t really the same thing as chattel slavery but which also was a huge taboo among whites going back to the 17th century, as the fear of interracial sex between Native men and white women was almost as horrible to them as it was with Black men and white women. So Ogden got the Cayuse to return the captives, making him a hero to the white settlers of Oregon.

Over the years, Ogden had married several Native women. This was pretty normal for fur traders. For one, white women were an extreme scarcity out there. Second, most indigenous sexual norms were a lot more lax than they were in white society, so sex between white men and Native women was often encouraged by the tribes, in part because it became a way to make alliances. If the white didn’t keep the woman for her whole life, well, the response of the tribes would differ, but given the power dynamics, most of the tribes would have to accept this. His most famous wife was Julia Rivet, who was a Metis and Nez Perce woman, someone of the intermixing of the era. Anyway, by 1854, he was with his last wife. Now pretty old for the era and having lived a hard life, he retired to Oregon City, at the base of Willamette Falls. He wrote his memoir, Traits of American Indian Life and Character. By a Fur Trader, which I guess is a sort of anthropology by one measure. Anyway, he died shortly after moving to Oregon City. The book was published after his death, in 1855. Ogden was somewhere around 64 years old upon his death.

Peter Skene Ogden is buried in Mountain View Cemetery, Oregon City, Oregon.

If you would like this series to visit other fur traders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Mike Fink is in Calhoun County, West Virginia and John Gantt is in Yountville, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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