Blog #35 Alexander Ross: Travelling to Sandwich Islands/Hawaii Today and Yesterday

Tags: Alexander Ross; Travel by Sailing Ship  to Sandwich Islands; Hawaii Big Island; Oahu

My last post ended on February 10, 1811, when Ross and his fellow Pacific Fur Company employees had just caught sight of Hawaii – known at that time as the Sandwich Islands – on their way from New York City to the mouth of the Columbia River aboard a sailing ship called the Tonquin. People today might be surprised at the route followed by the Tonquin, as shown on the map below. Until the construction the Panama Canal early in the 20th Century, it was necessary to round Cape Horn in order to pass between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Modern people might still wonder why it was necessary to sail by way of Hawaii instead of directly to the mouth of the Columbia River. It was because ocean currents and trade winds made it the quickest route for boats powered by sail to travel.




Hawaiian Islands


In my last two postings I have compared the ocean cruise which my husband Don and I made around Cape Horn in January 2019 with Ross’ trip in 1810-11. Although we did not go to Hawaii this year, we did fly there in the winter of 2014 and spent three weeks on the Island of Hawaii (otherwise known as the Big Island).  The men on the Tonquin first anchored in Karakakooa (Kealakekua) Bay on the Big Island within a mile of the place where Captain Cook — thought to be the first Westerner to visit the Hawaiian Islands — was killed in 1779. One day we took a boat trip during which we visited the Captain Cook Monument near where the Tonquin first landed.

Big Island



Captain Cook Monument.JPG


The Tonquin immediately began trading for food stuffs with the local people, but they soon learned that the chief of the island resided at Kawaihae – or Tocaigh Bay, as the first English-speaking visitors called it. Because Captain Thorn expected a better supply of food at Tocaigh Bay, he ordered his crew to weigh anchor and sail northwest along the coast. After passing the town of Kailua Kona, they turned northeast along the Kohala Coast.   Tocaigh Bay is about two-thirds of the way along the Kohala Coast near modern- day Spencer Beach Park which we visited on our trip. The first horses and cattle brought to Hawaii were unloaded at Kawaihae, one of two major ports on the island.

Spencer Beack 2

Spencer Beach 1


When the Tonquin arrived at Tocaigh Beach, Thorn and two of the partners spoke to the governor, an Englishman named John Young.  Young told the partners that the sale of pork had been prohibited by royal proclamation. That meant that no one could sell meat without the permission of the king.

Since the king lived on the island of Oahu, the Tonquin almost immediately left for Oahu, arriving there on February 21. Oahu is the third largest of the Hawaiian Islands, the site of the city of Honolulu, and home to two-thirds of the population. Washington Irving, in his history of the Pacific Fur Company, described the Tonquin’s visit there. He thought Oahu was the most beautiful of the Sandwich Islands with its volcanic mountain ridge “rising into lofty peaks, and skirted by undulating hills and rich plains, where the cabins of the natives peep out from beneath groves of coconut and other luxuriant trees.” [Irving, p. 44]

Ross described the rather unusual housing arrangements of Hawaiian people. He wrote that each family, “however poor, invariably occupies three houses.” King Kamehameha (also spelled Tamaahmaah) lived in a palace consisting in 13 houses forming a square. The king occupied three of the houses – one each for eating, sleeping, and the conducting of business. Each of his queens also occupied three houses – one each for dressing, sleeping and eating. Neither king nor queens ever entered each other’s houses. There was  yet another house whose exclusive purpose was as a  place for them to meet. [Ross, p. 37]

While the Tonquin was at anchor “much ceremonious visiting and long conferences” took place between the king and the fur company partners. The king boarded the ship ceremoniously from his royal boat paddled by 16 chiefs.  He was accompanied by his chief counselor and by   three of his wives who were almost as tall and “quite as corpulent as himself.”  The partners received the king dressed in scarlet coats. In the king’s honour, the American flag was displayed and four guns were fired. The partners told the king  that they were chiefs in a trading company about to be established on the northwest coast of North America and that they were interested in possibly opening trade with him.

The following day, the partners met the king on shore. In honour of the occasion, some of the partners appeared dressed in Highland plaids and kilts. The partners hired 12 men for the company and Thorn hired 12 as ship’s crew.   Thorn successfully negotiated for water, meat, and vegetables while the partners were entertaining the king. [Irving, pp. 45-6]

After landing at the Kona International Airport, my husband and I  spent a few days in the town of Kailua Kona at Uncle Billy’s Kona Bay Hotel before driving to the interior of the island where we had rented a room with shared kitchen and bathroom facilities near Volcano National Park. During the remainder of our stay, we drove around most of the island in a rental car. Although neither Ross nor Irving specifically said that the Tonquin only travelled between Karakakooa (Kealakekua) Bay and Tocaigh Bay, it seems unlikely that they travelled anywhere else along the coast or went inland before leaving for Oahu because only 11 days passed between their arrival at Karakakooa and leaving for Oahu. We, on the other hand, spent quite a bit of time visiting the Volcano National Park near where we were staying. We did not see any actual lava flows; however, after dark we could see the orange glow in the sky of lava which was virtually invisible in daylight. We drove as far as Kalapana where the road ends because the two villages beyond were destroyed by lava flows. Since our visit, however, much of the area we  saw has been destroyed or rendered off-limits to travellers because of the 2018 eruption of the Kilauea Volcano’s.

On March 1, the Tonquin set sail for the final leg of her voyage to the Columbia River. Matters went well until March 12, when the weather turned squally and cold with snow and sleet. The partners decided to open some of their bales in order to issue warm clothing to the men, but Captain Thorn refused to allow them to do so. As a result, civil war almost broke out. David Stuart again succeeded in calming things down but was unable to change the captain’s mind. The men were so cold that many had to take to their hammocks.

A violent gale began on March 14 and lasted for four days, carrying everything on deck overboard or dashed it to pieces – including all the livestock and much of sails and rigging. Finally, on March 22 they sighted land. It was Cape Disappointment, a promontory forming the north bank of the Great Oregon or Columbia River. Everyone was delighted to see the end of their voyage; however even worse problems were to come. Since the coast appeared wild and dangerous, Captain Thorn had the ship lie-to until he could decide where the safe entrance of the river was. He ordered first mate Fox to go in a small boat to check for the entrance. Thorn only allowed one experienced sailor plus four Canadian voyageurs to accompany Fox. When Fox protested, Thorn said he had no one else to spare.  Then the partners protested and told Thorn he should wait until the weather improved — especially before sending out a small unseaworthy boat with inexperienced hands.  Thorn refused to wait and ordered Fox to leave immediately.  The boat quickly got into serious difficulty and disappeared from view.  None of the six men were ever seen again.

Maps are from Google Maps, modified by D. Gordon.  Photos by D. Gordon


Franchère, Gabriel. Adventure at Astoria 1810-1814, translated by Hoyt C. Franchère.  Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967

Irving, Washington. Astoria; or Anecdotes of an Enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains.   Project Gutenberg Ebook, 2016.

Ross, Alexander. Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River: Being a Narrative of the Expedition Fitted out by John Jacob Astor of the Pacific Fur Company.  London: Smith Elder & Co., 1849

Print copies of all my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website at:


or by e-mailing me at

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.





Blog #34 Ross: Travelling around Cape Horn Today and Yesterday Part Two

Tags: Alexander Ross; Sailing around Cape Horn; Modern Cruising around Cape Horn on the Star Princess; Gabriel Franchère;

In my last post I described how Alexander Ross and other employees of John Jacob Astor, head of the Pacific Fur Company, began their journey from New York City to take up their employment in Columbia River Country on the Pacific Coast of North America. Today we learn about the terrifying experience nine of the men (including Ross and Franchère) had when they went ashore on the Falkland Islands.

You can trace the Tonquin’s voyage on the map below from New York City, to Cape Verte, to the Falkland Islands south of Buenos Aires, around Cape Horn, to the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, to the outlet of the Columbia River.


The Tonquin faced another serious gale off the coast of Uruguay. It lasted for upwards of 40 hours, resulting in two new leaks and many sails being torn to shreds. Six of the Tonquin’s 12 guns broke lose and rolled about on the deck for some time before they could be secured again.  For 17 hours the Tonquin scudded before the wind, travelling 220 miles during that time (a speedy 13 miles per hour on average). Nothing alarming occurred until the following morning when an exceptionally heavy sea broke over the ship’s stern and passed 10 feet over the deck before breaking about the main mast. Surprisingly,  everyone was able to cling to the ship’s rigging so tightly that no one was lost.

The first stop that my husband Don and I made aboard the Star Princess was at Montevideo, Uruguay. We enjoyed walking around the pedestrian-friendly Cuidad Vieja (old city) founded in 1724 with its interesting buildings and squares. Plaza Independencia separates the old city from the newer parts. Some of the sights we saw are pictured below. The Metropolitan Cathedral was consecrated in 1804, and the Solis Theatre was built in 1856. A gateway is all that remains of the wall which once protected the citizens of Cuidad Vieja from the outside world.












As previously mentioned, the Tonquin faced a serious storm off the coast of Uruguay. Not surprisingly, they did not stop in Uruguay. During 1810-1811 a revolution involving the Spanish colonial government, the Argentinean population, and Uruguayan revolutionaries took place.

Our next stop on the Star Princess was Puerto Madryn in the Patagonia region of Argentina.  Puerto Madryn is a small city which hugs the ocean front with a nice sandy beach. We visited two museums which were both worth seeing – the Chalet Pujol Museum of Man and the Sea and the Casa Toschke Museum of Welsh history. I was surprised to learn that almost 200 Welsh immigrants settled in Patagonia in 1865.  Many more settled over the years up to the First World War, and a strong Welsh identity remains even today.



The Falkland Islands were to be our next stop, but unfortunately heavy weather caused the captain to change course to avoid a storm and we had to remain at sea. The wind was Force 9 (strong gale), and skies were cloudy.

Water rationing was becoming necessary on the Tonquin by mid November, and by December 2 each man was limited to one pint of water per day. Franchère commented that their need for water was the greater because their diet was largely salt meat. The ship did have a still which could render sea water drinkable, but it required a great quantity of wood or coal to operate so only produced enough water for cooking.

Fortunately, on December 5 the Tonquin reached one of the Falkland Islands.  Captain Thorn, not liking their first anchorage, decided to move. With much difficulty, the Tonquin made its way through a narrow strait interrupted by ledges of rock in many places. These ledges were covered with seals, penguins, and numerous other birds.  Then Tonquin anchored in the very well-sheltered Port Egmont Bay.

All hands were set to work. Some filled the water casks; others repaired the damage caused to the ship by the wind storms.  The partners and the clerks went hunting on shore while the hands were at work. Fowl of all kinds darkened the sky and “stunned our ears” with their noise. They were so tame and “rather stupid” so that they could often be killed with sticks and stones. [Ross, pp. 20-22] Ross said that the only quadruped they saw was a wolverine, but   Franchère said there were also some foxes.

According to Ross, the captain told the partners that they would likely set sail from the Falklands on December 11; however the partners told their men that the ship would not sail until the 12th and that everyone should be on board by the night of the 11th. The afternoon of  the 11th, some men on shore suddenly realized that the ship was heading out of the bay under full sail.  It took them about half an hour to gather the eight or nine men who were still on shore and embark in a boat with scarcely room for half of them.  The sea was very rough. “Against wind and tide” they followed the ship.  Matters soon became even worse. The man who was bailing water out of their boat lost his bailing pail and they broke one of their oars in trying to retrieve the pail. When every ray of hope had vanished, the men realized that the ship was returning to them. “At length, after many ineffectual attempts and much manœuvring, we succeeded in getting on board; having been in the boat upwards of six hours,” Ross wrote. [Ross, p. 25]

It is likely that Ross exaggerated the length of time they spent in trying to catch up to the Tonquin because Franchère wrote, “After having run  some danger and having rowed extremely hard for nearly three and a half hours, we succeeded in regaining our ship.”   [Franchère, p. 19]

Later that same night, the gale increased almost to hurricane force, tearing two sails to shreds and breaking some side railings.  As a result, the ship had to lie-to under a storm sail for six hours.

Irving gave a rather different account of the events on the Falklands than did Ross and Franchère; but even he admitted that Thorn had gone too far in leaving men behind. According to Irving, “this was the third time his [Thorn’s] orders had been treated with contempt, and the ship wantonly detained…so he spread all sail and put to sea, swearing he would leave the laggards to shift for themselves.”  Partner David Stuart was one of the men left behind along with Ross and Franchère. When Stuart’s nephew Robert realized what Thorn intended, he seized a pistol and pointed it at Thorn, saying that he would blow out the captain’s brains if he did not return to pick up the men. Just then,  the wind changed enough to allow the boat to reach the ship and the men to be picked up.

Irving says that he could hardly believe that Thorn actually meant to abandon the men; however, Thorn wrote to Astor that if the wind had not changed he “should positively have left them.”  He went on to say that the loss of these men would “have proved the best, as they seem to have no idea of the value of property, nor any apparent regard for your interest.” [Irving, p. 29]

Not surprisingly, after leaving the Falklands, the Pacific Fur Company men all refused to talk to Thorn. The partners spoke in Gaelic to each other and the Canadians only spoke in French – neither of which Thorn could speak or understand.



(copied from Wikipedia, in public domain)

On December 15 the Tonquin caught sight of Staten Land, with its forked, snow-covered peaks.  Soon after they saw Terra del Fuego and at 9 a.m. on December 19 they saw Cape Horn. Due to adverse winds, however, they could not round Cape Horn until Christmas morning and were afterwards carried as far south as latitude 58° 16′ or roughly half way between Cape Horn and Antarctica.



(copied from Wikipedia, in public domain)

Note the following places on the above map: Straits of Magellan, Beagle Channel, Staten Island (Isla de los Estados),  Cabo de Hornos (Cape Horn),  and Drake Passage.

Franchère wrote that they caught sight of the high mountains of Tierra del Fuego on the morning of December 15, but then the weather “thickened” and they lost sight of them. Then they encountered a furious storm that drove the ship to 56° 18” latitude.  On the 18th a dead calm followed the storm and the current carried them within sight of Cape Horn about 15 or 16 miles away.

When we found ourselves, so to speak, under the Cape, we felt no other desire than to withdraw promptly, so frightening were the rocks there, even for men who had been several months at sea! And by the help of an offshore breeze, we succeeded in standing out to sea. [Franchère, p. 20]

The weather was “frightful” until December 24. Then the wind swung to the south, enabling the Tonquin to finally sail into the Pacific on Christmas Day.

On January 10, Star Princess arrived at Hornos Island, site of Cape Horn, where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet at the most southerly point of South America. I was surprised to see a few scattered houses in the area. I wonder how the residents earn a living. The temperature was 10°, the wind was north-westerly Force 6 (strong breeze) and there were occasional showers of rain.






The following day, we went ashore at Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, on the Beagle Channel.  When the Panama Canal was built in 1914 it was an economic blow to Ushuaia which lost most of its shipping business. Ushuaia was also a former penal colony and we visited an excellent museum in the old prison, which closed in 1947.  Today the city is both an administrative and a tourist centre.



We arrived at Punta Arenas, Chile, in the Magellan Strait, on January 12. There was insufficient depth of water for the Star Princess to dock, so passengers were ferried to shore by tender; however,  by mid morning the tender service   was suspended due to strong winds. As a result Don and I did not get ashore. By noon the wind had reached Force 9 (strong gale). The people who did manage to reach shore had varying experiences.  Some enjoyed their day of sightseeing; others had their tours cancelled.  Gossip was that one group who were booked on a wildlife tour aboard a catamaran had a particularly unpleasant time. Everyone – including the crew – got seasick.

Next day we visited the Amalia Glacier. The wind had abated slightly to Force 8; however wind was not a problem because we were in a fjord.






The Tonquin faced a three-day storm on January 25 with favourable winds so they made good time for 24 hours before the wind changed. February 10 they caught the first sight of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) about 50 miles away. In my next post I will describe the Tonquin’s stay in Hawaii and its arrival at its final destination — the mouth of the Columbia River.



Franchère, Gabriel. Adventure at Astoria 1810-1814, translated by Hoyt C. Franchère.  Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967

Irving, Washington. Astoria; or Anecdotes of an Enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains.   Project Gutenberg Ebook, 2016.

Ross, Alexander. Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River: Being a Narrative of the Expedition Fitted out by John Jacob Astor of the Pacific Fur Company.  London: Smith Elder & Co., 1849

Print copies of all my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website   at http/ or by e-mailing me at

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.




















































Blog #33 Ross: Travelling around Cape Horn Today and Yesterday (Part One)

Tags: Alexander Ross; Cape Horn; Travel by Sailing Ship; Modern Travel around Cape Horn; Gabriel Franchère;

At the end of my last post on November 29, 2018, I said that I was going on a winter get-away for most of January would not be posting again for several months.  My husband and I flew from Winnipeg to Buenos Aires, Argentina – via Minneapolis and Atlanta – on New Year’s Eve.  Then, after enjoying several days sightseeing in and around Buenos Aires, we departed by cruise ship on January 4 to sail around Cape Horn and into the Pacific, ending our cruise at Puerto Antonio near the city of Santiago, Chile.


In Blog #24 (published on August 9, 2018) I described fur trader Alexander Ross’ trip in 1810-11 aboard a sailing ship from New York City around Cape Horn to take up a position as a clerk with the Pacific Fur Company in the Columbia River Country (now the American State of Oregon). I used the book Ross wrote in 1849 about his experiences  as the basis of my account. Now I think it might be interesting to revisit Ross’ trip and compare it with my trip taken some 200 years later. I have since discovered two other books describing the trip Ross made.  The first is by Gabriel Franchère, who was one of Ross’ fellow Pacific Fur Company clerks.  The second is by Washington Irving, who was commissioned by John Jacob Astor (head of the Pacific Fur Company) to write an official history of the 1810-1812 P. F. C. expedition to Oregon. It was published in 1836. All of the quotations I have used are from one of these three books.

Ross began his trip on July 20, 1810, by travelling from Montreal to New York City. He did not indicate his mode of travel, but Franchère described travelling by canot de maître (a very large birch bark canoe) following a route that included the Richelieu River, Lake Champlain, Lake George and the Hudson River. The canot de maître was carried by cart rather than portaged in places it was not possible to paddle.


Canot de  Maître

By Frances Anne Hopkins (in public Domain)

The Montreal party arrived in New York City on August 3 so they had a month in the city before leaving on the next leg of their journey.  Ross did not mention how he spent his time in New York, but Franchère said he would have found himself “completely isolated and a stranger” there but for a letter of introduction a woman in Montreal gave him to her brother. The brother, in turn, introduced him to some of his friends.  Franchère wrote that he enjoyed himself immensely with the brother and his friends.  He lodged in an attractive village on Long Island and appears to have explored most of the city.

The few days my husband Don and I spent in Argentina before we left on our cruise might be considered the equivalent of the time Ross and his fellow clerks spent in New York. We stayed in an attractive area of Buenos Aires near the Obelisk, a national historic monument erected 1836. We also enjoyed a tango show at the Teatro Porteño, including all the beer and wine you could drink along with the dinner and show.

Ross and his party left New York City on September 6, 1810, aboard the Tonquin, owned by  Astor and commanded by Captain Jonathan Thorn. The Tonquin was a 290-ton ship, 29 metres long (95 feet), with ten guns mounted, and carrying 33 passengers and a crew of 22.


The Tonquin

(from Wikipedia Commons)

15 Boarding Star Princess.JPG

Boarding the Star Princess

In comparison, the Star Princess, on which Don and I sailed, is   950 feet long (290 metres)and has a tonnage of   108, 977 t. It has room for 2,600 passengers and has a crew of 1,100.

The passengers on the Tonquin soon became aware that Thorn was a difficult man. Although the mechanics (men hired by Astor as tradesmen) were passengers, Captain Thorn decided that they should be accommodated among the common sailors rather than as passengers. When they protested, he punished them by   compelling them to work as sailors. Matters got even worse when one of the partners unsuccessfully stepped in to protest Thorn’s treatment of the mechanics. Thorn responded that he would “blow out the brains” of the first man who dared to disobey him. Ross wrote that one of the other partners, David Stuart, “by his gentle and timely interference, put an end to the threatening altercation.” [Ross, pp. 14-5]  Thorn had an equally bad opinion of most of the other passengers. He said that the only clerk who had more education than a barkeeper was a schoolmaster whom he described “as foolish a pedant as ever lived.” Ross had been teaching school before he signed with Astor. [Irving, p. 26]

Irving had a more positive view of Thorn. He described Thorn, who was on leave from the American navy, as “man of courage and firmness” who had a distinguished military career.  Irving said that Thorn considered Astor as his only real employer and believed that the partners travelling aboard the Tonquin were mere agents of Astor’s who were not entitled to any consideration by him (Thorn).  The partners, on the other hand, considered that Thorn had only been hired by Astor to sail the ship and that he had no right to dictate what they did.   [Irving, pp. 25-7]

Exactly a month after leaving New York, the Tonquin reached the island of Bonavista, one of the   Cabo Verde Islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of northwest Africa.  These islands were an important stopover on the mid-Atlantic shipping lane in the days of sailing ships.  Franchère’s account leads one to believe that they did not stop at Cabo Verde. He wrote that the captain opposed stopping there because of the bad relations between America and Britain at this time just before the outbreak of the War of 1812.  Thorn feared that if they met a British warship, it would impress any of his crew members who had British citizenship into service aboard the warship. Irving, on the other hand, said that Thorn wrote to Astor that the passengers “were determined to have it said they had been in Africa, and therefore insisted on stopping at the Cape de Verdes.” [Iving, p. 27] .

Ross wrote that there were heavy rain and thunder when they arrived at Cabo Verde. He also mentioned immense shoals of porpoises skipping on the surface of the water. They were said to forecast bad weather. Modern writers describe Bonavista as desert-like with white sandy beaches and an important site for loggerhead turtles to nest.

Although Ross appears to have been a rather serious man, he did describe a ludicrous situation that arose early in the voyage when those on board the Tonquin believed that the ship was afire.

In an instant all the people assembled on deck in a state of wild confusion, some calling out to broach the water casks, others running to and fro in search of water — some with mugs, others with decanters — while the maître de cuisine [cook] was robbed of  his broth and dish water. No one, in the hurry and bustle of the moment, ever thought of dipping the buckets along side. [Ross, p. 17]

Soon they discovered that the fire was limited to some junk smoldering in a small boat secured to the ship’s stern, and it was quickly extinguished.

The prevailing or trade winds – along with  associated ocean currents — between 30 degrees north and 30 degrees south of the equator continue to be important to commercial shipping even today, but they were of far greater importance in the age of sail. Ross described an incident just as they entered the area of the trade winds, which caused the Tonquin some worry. A ship about two leagues to leeward gained rapidly on them and followed them all one day. By next morning, the unknown ship was close to their stern. She appeared to be an armed brig “pierced for 20 guns”, but very few men were to be seen on deck. All the men on the Tonquin showed themselves on their deck, and Ross thought their display of numbers may have had the desired effect of causing the strange ship to sail away.

The Tonquin crew and passengers may have been worried about the intentions of the ship in the previous paragraph because of the unsettled state of international relations at the time. As mentioned previously, Thorn feared meeting British ships because of the poor relations between the United States and Britain that soon would lead to the War of 1812. It was also the height of Napoleon’s power. Spain — occupied by Napoleon from 1808 to 1814 — was in turmoil. A British blockade against Spain had moved most of Latin America from Spanish to British economic spheres.

On October 25, the Tonquin crossed the equator off the coast of Brazil.  Ross said that the “the usual ceremony of ducking” was performed on those who had never before entered the southern hemisphere. Franchère called the same ceremony a baptism and said that the day was a holiday.  The weather was dead calm with a temperature of 92° F.

On November 10, a violent gale, lasting for 50 hours, did a considerable amount of damage to the Tonquin, carrying off both the ship’s jib and jib-boom and causing a serious leak. Fortunately the leak was easily accessible, so the crew soon stopped it.

Two weeks from now, I will describe the very scary visit the Tonquin made to the Falkland Islands (or Islas  Malvinas).


Franchère, Gabriel. Adventure at Astoria 1810-1814, translated by Hoyt C. Franchère.  Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967

Irving, Washington. Astoria; or Anecdotes of an Enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains.  Project Gutenberg Ebook, 2016.

Ross, Alexander. Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River: Being a Narrative of the Expedition Fitted out by John Jacob Astor of the Pacific Fur Company.  London: Smith Elder & Co., 1849

Print copies of all my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website  at http/ or by e-mailing me at

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.



Blog #32 Ross: Buffalo Hunt (Part Two)

Tags: Alexander Ross; Métis; Buffalo Hunting; Pemmican; Red River Carts

At the end of my last post, the hunters had just caught up to the buffalo herd and were ready to begin the actual hunt. Ross described the morning of July 4 when the first buffalo herd was sighted as follows:

 No less than 400 huntsmen…anxiously waiting for the word, “Start!” took up their position in a line at one end of the camp, while Captain Wilkie, with his spy-glass at his eye, surveyed the buffalo, examined the ground, and issued his orders.  At 8 o’clock the cavalcade broke ground, and made for the buffalo; first at a slow trot, then at a gallop, and lastly at full speed.

The hunters approached to within 400 or 500 yards of the herd before the buffalo became aware of them and took flight. The hunters then burst in among the buffalo and the first shots were heard.

All is smoke, dust, and hurry. The fattest are first singled out for slaughter; and in less time than we have occupied with the description, a thousand carcasses strew the plain.  [pp. 255-56]


Buffalo Hunt

By Paul Kane, 1846 [In public Domain]

Ross then backtracked to explain the importance of skilled buffalo hunter horses to the hunt. The best horses lead off the instant the buffalo take flight. An experienced rider with a good horse could kill 10 or 12 animals in the time that a man on an inferior horse would kill two or three. The most skilled hunters seldom fired until they were three or four yards from their target and seldom or never missed. Their horses immediately sprang to one side to avoid stumbling over the kill. Hunters carried a mouth full of balls and loaded and fired at full gallop. They seldom dropped markers to identify the animals they had killed.

Jefferys Buffalo hunt

Métis Hunting the Buffalo

By C. W. Jefferys, (p. 176 of The Picture Gallery of Canadian History, Vol. 2, 1945)

Ross found the hunters’ ability to identify the animals they had shot without using markers almost unbelievable.  He wrote:

Imagine four hundred horsemen entering at full speed a herd of some thousands of buffalo, all in rapid motion. Riders in clouds of dust and volumes of smoke, which darken the air, crossing and re-crossing each other in every direction; shots…everywhere in close succession, at the same moment…dead and wounded animals tumbling here and there…and this bewildering melee continued for an hour or more…yet from practice, so keen is the eye, so correct the judgment of the hunter, and so discriminating his memory, that after getting to the end of the race, he can not only tell the number of animals he has shot down, but the position in which each lies.. [p. 261-62]

Once the hunters left camp, the cart drivers (mostly women) prepared to follow them to pick up the meat. The drivers had to make their way through a forest of animal carcasses, till each found the animals belonging to their families.  As soon as the hunters had killed their last animals, they immediately commenced skinning their carcasses and cutting up the meat. Speed was of the essence because any animals not picked up before dark or caught in a thunder storm had to be abandoned to the wolves.

Although Ross indicated that the women’s work did not begin until the skinning and butchering was completed, this does not agree with the accounts of many other writers.  The women cut up all  the meat which was not to be eaten immediately into narrow strips which were hung on drying frames for two or three days. The best of this meat was then tied up into large bundles for transportation home. The less desirable cuts of dried meat, which were to be made into pemmican, were further dried over a slow fire until brittle enough to be pounded into a powder. This powdered meat was mixed with hot melted fat and dried berries and packed into untanned buffalo skin bags about the size of pillow cases. The bags were sealed with melted tallow and sewn shut.


 Drying Buffalo Meat

By William Armstrong, 1899, (in Public Domain)

A buffalo hunt can be dangerous, but Ross thought that the injuries which occurred on the first day of the 1840 hunt were not “over numerous” considering that 1,375 buffalo tongues were brought into camp at the end of the day. Twenty-three horses and men were sprawled on the ground due to a rocky landscape with numerous badger holes. One of the horses died after being gored by a bull and two others were disabled by their falls. As for the men – one broke his shoulder blade, another had his gun burst and lost three fingers as a result, and a third injured his knee when it was struck by a spent ball.

Another risk attending the hunt was being attacked by the Sioux, who were enemies of the Métis at the time.  Ross described the fate of a man named Louison Vallé. He was skinning a buffalo and was alone except for his young son.  Suddenly Vallé was rushed by a number of Sioux. He only had time to yell a warning at his son before he was felled by “a shower of arrows.” The boy, who was fortunately on horseback,  safely reached the camp to give the alarm. Ten men took off after the Sioux and  caught up to a group of 12 warriors — four escaped and eight were shot by the Métis.

While Ross was not one of the hunters on the 1840 trip, he described an incident that occurred on an earlier trip when he was a hunter. One of Ross’ companions had a buffalo bull turn on him. When his horse made a sudden start to one side to avoid the bull, the man’s saddle girth gave way, leaving rider and saddle between the bull’s horns. The bull tossed his head, throwing the man high into the air. Almost unbelievably, the man landed on a second bull and managed to escape uninjured.

Jefferys Red River Cart.jpeg

The Red River Cart

By C. W. Jefferys, p. 177

This will be my last Blog posting for several months because of preparations for Christmas and going away for most of January on a winter get-away.

Print copies of all my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website at


or by e-mailing me at

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.











Blog #31 Ross: Buffalo Hunt (Part One)

Tags:  Alexander Ross; Métis; Buffalo hunting; Red River Settlement; Pembina

 Alexander Ross almost certainly participated in more than one buffalo hunt. He took to the plains to hunt for fresh meat just after his arrival at the Red River in 1826 because the settlement was starving; and he also described going on the 1840 summer buffalo hunt in his book The Red River Settlement.  In another of his books, he also claimed to be a good shot. See his story about wolf hunting in Blog #28.

On the other hand, despite his acknowledgement of the importance of hunting to provide food for the people at the Red River,   Ross was strongly prejudiced against people who gained their living as hunter-gatherers. He felt that farming was a far superior way of life, and he deplored life on the plains. As he put it:

…the plains had too many attractions for men trained up in the school of idleness and wild freedom.  All eyes, all hearts, were directed to the buffalo; and the plains became the favourite haunt of all the half-breeds. [p. 237.]


 Buffalo Herd

(photo taken by Irene Gordon)

Ross also did not have a good opinion of the Frenchmen from Quebec who were settled at the Red River.   Like Ross, many of them were the fathers of large mixed-race (Métis or country-born) families. Ross calls these people “half-breeds”, a term considered highly offensive today but in common use until the 1950s.

Ross accused the French of being trouble-makers. As a staunch Presbyterian, however, he may also have been prejudiced against them because they were Catholics. He said of them that

[They] never fail to act as prompters, and push the half-breeds forward…while they themselves are shyly lurking behind the curtains. This is always their mode of attack; and the half-breeds, from their ignorance and simplicity, are invariably made the silly tools of their more designing confederates. [p. 240]

Despite his many negative remarks about the Métis, Ross did admit their good qualities as well:

[They] are by no means an ill-disposed people—on the contrary, they possess many good qualities; while enjoying a sort of licentious freedom, they are generous, warm-hearted, and brave, and left to themselves, quiet and orderly. [p. 242]

Ross disapproved of the credit system on which the buffalo hunt had traditionally been financed.  He charged that “the plain-hunters, finding they can get whatever they want without ready money, are led into ruinous extravagances.” He also thought that the hunts were “wild and licentious expeditions” with a baneful influence over the minds and morals of the people. [p. 243]

The number of carts engaged in the hunt more than doubled between 1820 and 1840.

Jefferys Metis brigade blog31

Métis Brigade.

Sketch by C.W. Jefferys (from  painting  by William Armstrong)

The hunters and their families left the Red River on June 15, 1840, and arrived three days later at the Pembina rendezvous where 1,630 people with 1,210 carts answered the roll call. At Pembina, the men met to decide who would be in charge of the hunt and how it would operate. In 1840, Jean Baptiste Wilkie was selected as chief of the ten appointed captains. He was described by Ross as “a man of good sound sense and long experience.” [p. 248]. Each of the ten captains, in his turn, had ten soldiers under his orders.

Finally, ten guides were likewise appointed. Each in his turn was in charge of guiding the camp for a day.  The day’s guide hoisted the hunt flag in the morning as a sign that the camp must rise and that they had about half an hour to prepare for departure. The flag remained up all day until it was time to make camp in the late afternoon or early evening. During that time the guide was chief of the expedition, with all the captains and soldiers subject to him. As soon he lowered the flag, the guide’s duties ended, and those of the captains and soldiers began. Both making and breaking camp moved with the regularity of clock-work.

J B Wilkie

Jean Baptiste Wilkie,

sketch from To the Red River And Beyond by Manton Marble

The rules of the 1840 hunt included the following:

1) No buffalo to be run on Sunday

2) No one to go ahead or lag behind the group without permission

3) No one to run buffalo before the general order.

4) Every captain and his men in turn to patrol camp and keep guard

5) Punishments for trespassing the above laws were:

  • first offense, offender to have his saddle and bridal cut up
  • second offense, offender to have his coat cut up
  • third offense, offender to be flogged

6) Anyone convicted of theft, even of the smallest item, to be brought into the middle of camp and called out as a thief three times. Ross spoke very highly of Métis honesty. He told the story of a man named Saint Matte who found a tin box containing a large sum of money. Despite his poverty, he followed the owner of the box for a whole day before catching up to him and returning the money   [pp. 249-50]


Summer Hunt

by Paul Kane

Although the hunters did not reach the actual hunting grounds until July 3, the hunt officially began on June 21. That morning,   after the accompanying priest said Mass, the flag was raised and the party set off in a line of march stretching some five or six miles. About 2 p.m. the flag was lowered briefly as a signal to rest the animals.  It was then raised again until five or six o’clock when it was hauled down to indicate that it was time to camp for the night. The total distance travelled that day was only 20 miles. Then the men met to discuss the events of the day and plan for the next day.

Ross, who attended the meeting, wrote, “I found less selfishness and more liberality among those ordinary men than I had been accustomed to find in higher circles,” until we touched on politics.  Ross disapproved of their political views. He believed that the Métis “cordially detest all the laws and restraints of civilized life, believing all men were born to be free.”  In view of what Ross wrote about the almost military precision with which the hunt operated, this seems a rather surprising criticism for him to make. [p. 252]


Métis at Rest with Red River Carts

Photo by Benjamin Franklin Upton (Minnesota Historical Society, 1859)

According to Ross, upon strolling around the camp, he found that there was a severe shortage of food. Half of the families on the hunt “were literally starving,” he charged, though this would not be obvious from attending the men’s meeting. “Mixing with the men only, the false side of things is always uppermost,” he wrote. [p. 253] Considering what Ross had previously said in regards to the credit system, it seems surprising  that they would be so short of food.

On July 4, the first buffalo were killed. Some 400 mounted hunters awaited the signal to begin. Captain Wilkie, with spy-glass, surveyed the buffalo and at 8 a.m. he issued the order to advance. The horsemen  began at a slow trot, then galloped and finally went at full speed over a dead level plain. They began about 1 I/2 miles from the herd and were within 400 or 500 yards before the herd became aware of them and took flight.

Blog #32, to be published on November 29 will describe the actual hunt and the all the hard work involved afterwards  in preparing the buffalo carcasses for use – skinning and butchering, making pemmican, etc.

Print copies of all my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website at


or by e-mailing me at

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.



Blog #30 Ross: Early Years at the Red River

Tags: Red River Settlement; 1826 flood at Red River; religion at the Red River; Alexander Ross’ belief in superiority of farmers vs. hunter-gatherers

In the summer of 1826 Ross was finally reunited with his wife and younger children at the Red River Settlement. Most of the family would spend the remainder of their lives there. Although Ross published four books about the fur trade, he wrote relatively little about his personal life. He did, however, make his views on many topics abundantly clear. His intention when writing his book about the Red River Settlement is summed up in its lengthy title — The Red River Settlement: Its Rise, Progress, and Present State with Some Account of the Native Races and Its General History to the Present Day.

Fort Garry.jpg

Sketch of Fort Garry from Ross’ book.

We learn from his books that Ross had a strong religious faith and waged a 30-year campaign to obtain a Presbyterian clergyman for the Red River.  In his account of the history of the Red River Settlement, he listed what he considered the principal conditions under which both the settlers in general and his family personally had come “to seek a home in the wilderness”:

  • They should have a clergyman of their own denomination. Ross believed the majority of the settlers were Presbyterians; therefore that meant a Presbyterian minister.
  • Each family should receive 100 acres of land for a payment of five shillings per acre, payable in produce.
  • They should have a market for all their excess produce.
  • They should enjoy all the privileges of British subjects. [p. 30]

Ross appears to have been more religious than many of his contemporaries, judging by comments scattered throughout his writings. For instance, when describing all the trials the settlers faced due to attacks by the North West Company and the natural disasters such as floods and grasshoppers, Ross wrote that:

None has been so severely felt, nor so deeply regretted, as the want of their spiritual pastor. That source of consolation temporal or spiritual, which alone sweetens life here, and cherishes hope in the hereafter, being denied them, has embittered every other calamity. [p. 52]

Ross was particularly upset that the first non-Catholic missionary sent out was an Anglican rather than a Presbyterian. The accuracy of his descriptions of the work and character of the first two Anglican clergymen sent to the Red River seem questionable.  For example he states that there were not a dozen Anglicans at the Red River at the time.  Although the majority of settlers may have been Presbyterians, many of the HBC employees were in fact Anglicans.

Anglican Clergyman's House

Anglican Clergyman’s House

by Peter Rindisbacher, 1822

(Library and Archives Canada, in public domain)

Most people of British and Protestant background at the Red River felt themselves superior to First Nations, French and Métis people. Ross’ feelings appear to have been particularly strong. Also, in common with most people of British background at that time, he believed that farmers were definitely superior to hunter-gatherers.  He said of the latter that they:

had long since lost all relish for habits of industry, and the pursuits of civilized life… While the old men thus saunter about in idleness, the young are not slow to follow the example thus set before them...[both boys and girls] are alike permitted to grow up in ignorance and thoughtless levity – a perfect model of savage life and manners, taught them by their wandering  and degenerate parents. Such habits…will exert a baneful influence over European children who mix among them…Curiosity soon leads a civilized boy to handle the bow…but it is…almost a hopeless task…to accustom the children of the wilderness to the use of the hoe, the spade or the plough even after they have been made to taste the fruits arising from industry.  [pp. 79-80]


Along the Red River near Fort Douglas

by Peter Rindisbacher, 1822

(Collections Canada, in public domain)

Ross’ views make one wonder if he was unduly severe in his treatment of both his First Nations wife and his mixed-race children. It is known that Mrs. Ross, at least in her later years, rarely ever went out in public except to church.

Shortly after Ross and his family settled at the Red River, one of the greatest disasters yet to befall the settlement – the flood of 1826 — took place. Ross had his boat drawn up to the door of his house, ready for immediate evacuation, when they were faced with a sudden rush of water. Ross went to lock the door of a store room a few yards from the house. By the time he returned, the water inside the house was knee deep and flowing so strongly that he could not close the door. The family pushed off in their boat and headed towards a neighbour’s barn. There, joined by 50 other people, they spent a miserable night.  Next morning they were forced to leave the barn by the still-rising waters. They erected a stage, some four or five feet high, on the plains where they spent the next two days before being forced to take to their boat again and move on in the night, due to the wind blowing a gale and the water still rising. They reached Sturgeon Creek on the Assiniboine River where they remained “in peace and quietness” until the water began to fall.   Ross harshly criticized the behaviour of some of his neighbours.  He accused the de Meurons (retired Swiss military men brought to the settlement by Selkirk) of feeding the other settlers with their (the settlers) own beef and charging them 3 d. per pound for it. [pp. 104-106]

Following the flood, Ross said that a total of 243 people decided to leave the settlement. They included – to Ross’ joy — the de Meurons and “other restless souls”.  The Scotch settlers remained, and started their farms afresh for the fourth time since they had arrived at the Red River in 1812.  “The dross had been purged away from our community, so that we were now one people in thought, word, and deed,” according to Ross. [p. 109]

Despite Ross’ poor opinion of hunter-gatherers, he went along on the buffalo hunt as an observer one year. My next post will describe his experiences on the hunt.

Note: the page numbers within this post are from Ross’ book The Red River Settlement: Its Rise, Progress, and Present State with Some Account of the Native Races and Its General History to the Present Day.

Print copies of all my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website   at


or by e-mailing me at

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.

Blog # 29 Ross: Travels across the Rocky Mountains to the Red River Settlement

Tags: Alexander Ross; Governor George Simpson; Rocky Mountains; Committee’s Punch Bowl; Continental Divide;  Rocky Mountain House; Norway House; Red River Settlement


 York Factory Express Map (Wikipedia, created by Pfly in 2008) 

As indicated at the end of my last Blog, in the spring of 1825 Ross began his trip to the Red River along with his son and two other boys, Governor Simpson, and 16 other men.   That summer they reached the Continental Divide, the height of land formed by the Rocky Mountains, which they crossed by way of the Athabasca Pass. Rivers to the west of the divide flow to the Pacific; those to the east flow to Hudson Bay. A small lake at the top of the pass was named the Committee’s Punch Bowl by Governor Simpson.

Ross wrote of their arrival at this lake that Simpson treated the party to a bottle of wine “as we had neither time nor convenience to make a bowl of punch.” Ross felt nostalgic about crossing the Divide.

Here I made a halt…and took a last farewell of Columbia…and in doing so, I felt for the first time that I was in one country, and my family in another. Not withstanding the many anxious days and hair-breadth escapes I had undergone…during a period of fifteen years, I felt at this moment, a pang of regret at leaving it.  [p. 198]

Athabasca Pass

Athabasca Pass with Committee’s Punch Bowl

(Parks Canada photo by Jack Porter, 1998)

At Rocky Mountain House, the first fur trade post east of the Divide, the party changed their mode of travel from horseback to canoe. Here Ross ate his first white fish (titameg). He said that many an argument took place when men from east and west of the Divide met as to whether salmon or white fish was the finest fish in the country.


Rocky Mountain Fort in 1848 with Cree or Assiniboine Lodges by Paul Kane

Finally the party arrived at Norway House near the northern shore of Lake Winnipeg where Governor Simpson presided over the annual meeting of the Council of the Northern Department of the Hudson Bay Company.  Following the meeting, Simpson offered Ross the management of the Snake country if he remained with the HBC.  Ross declined the offer for two reasons. He had already tried the fur trade and been disappointed in it. More importantly, he told Simpson that his strongest motive for leaving the HBC was “the necessity of retiring to a place where I could have the means of giving my children a Christian education, the best portion I could leave them.” [p. 233]


Norway House, Lake Winnipeg, by Paul Kane, ca.  1847

Simpson (on behalf of the HBC) gave Ross a deed for one hundred acres of land, free of all expense “in consideration,” he said, “of your exertions and success in the Snake country.”



HBC Officials  in Express Canoe Crossing a Lake

by Peter Rindisbacher, ca. 1825 (Library and Archives Canada)


Red River North  (map created by Karl Musser)

At sun-rise on July 2, 1825 – after spending eighteen days crossing Lake Winnipeg — Ross arrived at the mouth of the Red River.  He was not favourably impressed with the river and its surrounding countryside, nor with the few people he found living along the banks.  After travelling about ten miles, he met a man with some horses. He purchased a horse and saddle so as to ride the remainder of the way to the Settlement. Everyone else continued on by boat. Finally, after travelling another 15 miles to a place called Image Plains (now known as Middlechurch), Ross caught his first sight of the prairies and fell in with another man travelling his way. As the two men rode along together, Ross questioned him closely about the settlement and its prospects.  From what he had seen since he entered the Red River and what he learned from his conversation, Ross wrote, “I began seriously to reflect the choice I had made, and the result was anything but pleasant.” [p. 260] Finally, Ross arrived at The Forks in what is now the centre of Winnipeg.  It too was a disappointment to him. He had expected a place walled and fortified.

Red River sketch


Red River Settlement  in 1817 (Library and Archives Canada)

My next Blog will describe Ross’ early years at the Red River.

Print copies of all my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website   at


or by e-mailing me at

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.

Blog # 28 Alexander Ross: Final Years in Columbia Country


Tags; Alexander Ross; North West Company and Hudson Bay Company amalgamate; wolf hunting; Fort Nez Percés; Governor George Simpson

After Alexander Ross made his hazardous horse trading trip described in the last Blog he continued his career as a North West Company fur trader and explorer during the next eight years.  Some time in 1814 he married an Okanogan woman named Sarah (Sally) Timentwa, and in 1815 she gave birth to the first of the couple’s 12 or 13 children.

At the annual North West Company meeting held in June 1818 at Fort George, the local traders learned that a new post called Fort Nez Percés was to be constructed and that Alexander Ross was to be factor (man in charge) there, a position he held for five years. During that time (in 1821), the Hudson Bay Company and the North West Company amalgamated. By 1825 Ross had decided to leave Columbia River country and possibly move to the Red River.


 Fort Nez Percés, 1818. (Wikipedia)

Ross did not spend all his time writing about adventures and tragedies. He also described day-to-day trading post life. He said that if a post was organized properly, the business of the year normally proceeded without much trouble and left sufficient time in winter for recreation and family life.

Hunting was the traders’ main recreational activity — unlike for the Indigenous people to whom hunting was necessary work to feed their families. Ross describes in detail how the traders practiced shooting the numerous wolves around Fort Nez Percés. The wolves would stand on small hills or “eminences” on which the men scattered bones or bits of meat as bait to attract them. The men practiced shooting at the bait “until habit and experience had enabled us to hit a small object at a very great distance.”

One day some visiting Indians saw a wolf on one of the hills. When Ross suggested that they should try to kill the wolf from where they were, they “smiled at my ignorance.”  Ross picked up his gun and said, “If we cannot kill it, we shall make it let go its prey.”  The chief responded that he would wager his horse that Ross could not kill the wolf. Ross agreed, although he thought to himself that “the chief ran no great risk of losing his horse, nor the wolf of losing its life.”

Much to the amazement of all present – including Ross – he hit and killed the wolf which was in the act of leaping when shot. The chief cheerfully gave up his horse and asked Ross if he could have the ball which had killed the wolf. The chief wore the ball around his neck for years afterwards. Ross returned the horse to its owner, while the other Indians asked for the skin of the wolf. This they cut into pieces and attached a piece to each of their guns, thinking the token might improve their hunting prowess.  [Vol. 1, pp. 167-68]


 Mackenzie Valley Wolf (Stock photo, Tradebit)

In addition to hunting, Ross seems to have spent the remainder of his free time in more serious pursuits. When he wrote, “You can instruct your family or improve yourself in reading and reflection; you can enjoy the pleasures of religion…and be a far better Christian than were your lot cast in the midst of the temptations of a busy world”, he was undoubtedly speaking of his preference for leisure activities – a preference not likely shared by most of his colleagues.

One of the greatest pleasures of a trader, according to Ross, was “doing homage to the great.” By this he meant carrying out all the ceremonies involved in dealing with chiefs when they arrived to trade at the post. These included going forth to greet the chiefs; seeing them comfortably settled; and giving them food, water and tobacco. “After which,” Ross said,  “you must listen with grave attention to all he has got to say on Indian topics and show your sense of the value of his information by giving him some trinkets, and sometimes even articles of value, in return. But the grand point of all this ceremony is to know how far you should go in these matters, and when you should stop.” [Vol. I, pp. 169-70]


Trading at Fort Nez Percés, 1841. (sketch by Joseph Drayton, Wikipedia)

In April 1825, Ross arrived at the mouth of the Spokane River with the furs from the Flathead and Snake areas. There he met HBC Governor George Simpson for the first time. Ross told the governor that he wished to leave the Columbia and go to the Red River Settlement. Simpson agreed, promising that “I shall have a situation there for you until you have time to look about you.”

George Simpson final
Governor George Simpson 1857, an engraving from a portrait by Stephen Pearce. (HBCA, AM,  P 296 Neg. N5394)

At this time, Simpson asked Ross to attempt to procure two boys aged 10 or 12 to be taken to the Red River to be educated. Surprisingly, two of the chiefs finally agreed to let their sons go with Ross. One of the men made a speech, saying in part:

            You see we have given you our children — not our servants or our slaves but our own children…we have given you our hearts – our children are our hearts; but bring  them back again to us before they become white men.  We wish to see them once more Indians and after that you can make them white men if you like.

When the speech was over, all present broke out into lamentations. Then the chief put the boys’ hands in those of Ross and they parted. “The scene was very affecting, and I felt great regret at their parting,” Ross said. This was not withstanding his strong belief in the value of white man’s education for Indian and Métis children.

The boys — who were given the names Pelly and Garry — were educated for two or three years. Then Pelly died of an unknown cause. Garry returned home several years later with “a good English education”, according to Ross.  It is unclear what Garry did upon his return home; but whatever it was, he did not meet Simpson’s expectations for him.  [Vol. II, pp. 158-59]

In early summer 1825 Ross began his trip to the Red River along with his son Alexander (aged 11), Governor Simpson, the two boys Pelly and Garry, and 16 other men aboard two boats. Conditions were excellent for travel, and everyone but Ross was cheerful.

            I had to leave my family behind, who had for years shared with me in the toils and dangers of my travels; this was to me a source of grief and anxiety, although it had been arranged that they were to cross over and join me the following year…as it is impossible for women and children to undertake such arduous voyages in the spring of the year. [Vol. II, pp. 160-61].


 York Factory Express Map (Wikipedia, created by Pfly in 2008)

My next Blog will describe Ross’ trip to the Red River Settlement, where he would spent the remainder of his life.

Note: All quotations in this Blog are from The Fur Hunters of the Far West: A Narrative of Adventures in the Oregon and Rocky Mountains, Volumes I and II, by Alexander Ross, London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1855.

Print copies of all my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website  at http/ or by e-mailing me at

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.



Blog #27 Alexander Ross: Becomes a Nor’Wester and Goes Horse Trading in the Yakima Valley


Tags:  Alexander Ross; Failure of Pacific Fur Company; North West Fur Company Takes over Pacific Fur Company; Yakima Valley; Horse Trading with Yakima People; Thomas McKay

Only two years after Alexander Ross began work as a fur trader for the Pacific Fur Company on the Columbia River in 1811, the company was taken over by the North West Company.   In Ross’ view the PCF “fell into the lap of the North-West Company almost without an effort; for misfortunes alone, over which man had no control, sealed the doom of unfortunate Astoria. [The Fur Hunters of the Far West, p. 2] The first of these misfortunes was the outbreak of the War of 1812 between the British and the Americans. The second was that Astor lost three ships – the Tonquin, the Beaver, and the Lark – between 1811 and 1813.  [See Blog #26 for an account of the destruction of the Tonquin and terrible loss of life.]

Astoria 1813 2

Fort Astoria in 1813

The second PFC ship, the Beaver with Captain Cornelius Sowle at the helm, went to Russian America from Fort Astoria in 1812 to purchase furs. While it is extremely difficult to calculate relative values of Russian rubles and American dollars in 1812, one source states that   the Beaver had a cargo valued at over $30,000 US. Another source says that the Russians purchased cargo worth 124,000 rubles from Beaver. Undoubtedly, whatever figures are used, it was a very large amount of money – likely somewhere between one and five million dollars in today’s currency.

Astor, however, likely either did not receive his share of the proceeds of the Beaver expedition – or if he did, the money came too late to save him from losing the Pacific Fur Company.  Captain Sowle, instead of returning to Astoria as he was supposed to after completing his trade with the Russians, took the ship to Canton, China, because he feared capture due to the War of 1812.  It is likely that Sowle sold the furs in China, but he did not return to New York with the Beaver until March 1816.   By that time any profits Astor received would have been too late to assist him in keeping the PFC operating.  Ross evidently did not know that the Beaver ultimately returned to New York because he wrote that it “was lost in unknown seas.” [P. 2]

Finally, Astor lost his supply ship Lark when it apparently sank in a storm off Hawaii late in 1813.

Ross joined the North West Company soon after it took over the PFC in 1813. He wrote that the contracts offered by the NWC to former PFC men were not as favourable as those offered to Nor’Westers with no connection to the Astor company.  Ross claimed that he refused to join the NWC without a guarantee of promotion and that he was “the only one that acted on that principle.”  As a result, he received a written document guaranteeing his promotion in 1822.


Fort Okanogan in 1853

Water colour by John Mix  Stanley

Ross continued to serve at Fort Okanogan as a Nor’Wester until 1816. When he began his career with the NWC in 1813, work was at a standstill at Fort Okanogan due to want of pack horses to transport goods inland. The nearest supply of horses was some 200 miles south-west of the Okanogan at Yakima Valley in modern-day Washington State.  Ross wrote that every spring a great national rendezvous was held in the Yakima Valley at which thousands of Indians met to settle the affairs of peace or war for the year. Thus, horses could be obtained in almost any number at that time. Ross was nervous about making this trading trip, however, because “owing to the vast concourse of mixed tribes, there is always more or less risk attending the undertaking.”  [p. 19] Despite his concern, Ross’ first task as a Nor’Wester was to go to the Yakima Valley to obtain needed horses. He took three other men with him — a clerk named Thomas McKay and two un-named French Canadians. Because no other men could be spared, the Canadians took their wives along to aid in driving the horses. In Ross’ words, “women in these parts are as expert as men on horseback.” [p. 20].

Four days after the Ross party left Okanogan, a friendly chief sent warning that they were in danger and should turn back.  Ross told them that he had to continue even if it was dangerous.  As he put it, “I had risked my life there for the Americans, I could not now do less for the North-West Company.” [p. 20]


Map of Yakima River watershed

Drawn in 2011 by Shannon1

In two more days, they arrived at the large concourse of Yakima Indians. Ross estimated that the camp  contained at least 3,000 men, plus women and children, and 9,000 horses and covered more than six square miles. “Councils, root gathering, hunting, horse racing, foot racing, gambling, singing, dancing, drumming, yelling, and a thousand other things which I cannot mention, were going on around us.” [p. 21] The Ross party made their way to the centre of the camp where the chiefs’ tents were pitched. There, they stopped to pay their respects to the chiefs as they depended on them for their protection.

The chiefs received them very coolly, saying that Ross and his men killed their relations. For the first time, Ross regretted that he had not turned back when advised to because as soon as they dismounted, their horses were driven away out of sight. Despite his fears, Ross decided that he must divert the Yakimas’ attention to something new, “so without a moment’s delay, I commenced to trade in horses.”

Yakima gathering

Buying horses from Yakima

Undated  photo, from article “The forgotten move: the  Yakima” by Phil Ferolito, April 22, 2010

Every horse Ross bought during the next two days was instantly driven out of sight. Despite this, Ross continued to trade as long as he had trade goods remaining because so far no insult or violence had been offered to his party personally. During this time, however, they had been without food or sleep. Finally, Ross discovered that the women were to be killed or taken as slaves; therefore, after dark the women were sent due north through the mountains “without food, guide or protection” to the Pisscows River. There they were to take the first canoe they could find and travel to the mouth of the Columbia River where they should wait for the men. If the men did not arrive by the fourth day, the women should then make their way back to Okanogan.

When the Indians realized that the women had left, they became very angry and took out their ill-humour on Ross’ men.  One of the chiefs, a man named Eyacktana, snatched a knife away from one of the men. The latter demanded his knife be returned. Eyacktana, in response raised the knife as if to strike its owner.  At this moment there was dead silence with people flocking in on them from all sides.  Ross’ first thought was that nothing remained but to sell their lives as dearly as possible. Then, as he was about to draw his pistol, he suddenly decided on another plan. He instead drew a knife from his belt and presented it to Eyacktana, saying, “Here, my friend is a chief’s knife. I give it to you; that is not a chief’s knife, give it back to the man.”

The chief took the proffered knife while everyone watched silently. At last, he handed the original knife back to its owner. Then, after turning over Ross’ knife for some time, he finally repeated over and over again, “Look, my friends at the chief’s knife.”  [p. 26] Now he appeared to be delighted and began to speak to the crowd in the favour of the white men. Several other chiefs also spoke in their favour. Soon they sat down and ordered a peace pipe be brought.  Ross, while the peace pipe was going around, presented each of the six principal chiefs with a small looking-glass in a paper case and a bit of vermillion. In return, the chiefs presented Ross with two horses and 12 beaver while the women brought them something to eat.

Ross asked the Yakima what he should say when he returned home and was asked what had happened to all the horses he had purchased from them. Fortunately, the Yakima responded that they would give him all these horses. At this point, Eyacktana and Ross both mounted horses, and Eyacktana told his son to look after Ross’ men and property until their return.  Ross and Eyacktana then spent the remainder of the pitch dark night riding around to all the groups in the camp with Eyacktana calling out to each, “Deliver up the horses.”  After each time, Eyacktana would whisper in Ross’ ear, “I have spoken well in your favour,” – a hint that Ross should give him another gift. Each time Ross would give him the gift of a string of beads, one or two buttons or rings, etc.


Wild Mustangs

From Wikipedia

By daylight they had completed their jaunt around the camp and within two hours all 85 horses had been returned to Ross. They still were delayed and harassed in starting out from the camp, but finally Ross got his men away. When he tried to follow them, however, he found that his only remaining horse was so wild that he was unable to ride it.  Finally a young man (“a young conceited fop”, as Ross described him) trying to show Ross up, jumped on the horse’s back. When the young man was almost killed by the horse, Eyacktana finally ordered that Ross be given a different horse. Now Ross was finally able to get safely away and catch up to his men. They were still so nervous that the previous owners of the horses might follow in an attempt to get their horses back that they continued riding until midnight. Then they took shelter in the woods and passed the remainder of the night with their guns in their hands.

The next day they reached the Columbia River where they were relieved to find their women folk waiting for them along with a canoe to ferry them across the river.  The party,  except for the clerk McKay, who suffered a dislocated hip, finally reached Fort Okanogan safely after being gone for 17 days on what Ross described as “one of the most trying and hazardous trips I ever experienced.” [p. 34]. McKay, who would  remain lame until the end of his life due to lack of medical treatment for his hip, had to be carried home by canoe and arrived a few days after the rest of the party.

Ross carried on as both trader and explorer for the North West Company until 1821. At that time he again found himself needing to change employers. More about these events in my next Blog.

Print copies of all my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website at http/ or by e-mailing me at 

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.

Irene signing

Blog # 26 Alexander Ross: Fort Astoria and Fate of the Tonquin

Tags: Pacific Fur Company, Fort Astoria, Tonquin,


Fate of the Tonquin

My last Blog described how Alexander Ross began his work as a fur trader, including his first expedition to the interior of what is now British Columbia and the construction of a simple shack as the first Fort Okanogan.  Today we learn what happened back at Fort Astoria following Ross’ departure in July 1811 and the fate of the Tonquin, the ship on which Ross travelled from New York City to the Pacific coast.  Today’s Blog, like the last one, is based on one of the books Ross wrote about his life —  Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River — and all page numbers are from that book.

The men remaining at Fort Astoria believed that the local people were hostile to them. Ross wrote that “under the impression of danger, all other labour [was] suspended; the hands and minds of all were employed both day and night in the construction and pallisading of a stronghold for self-defense.” By the end of the summer, however, the indigenous people all left peacefully.  [p. 152]

Fort Astoria


Immediately after building Fort Astoria, the men constructed a 25-ton schooner (the frame of which had been shipped on the Tonquin). It was intended for the coastal trade.  They quickly learned that this schooner was both too small for the coastal trade and unsafe for river use, so after making two or three trips up the river, the schooner “was condemned and laid aside altogether as useless.”  [p. 154]


JOHN JACOB ASTOR (portrait by John Wesley Jarvis)

Ross was very critical of the plans made by his employer John Jacob Astor, head of the Pacific Fur Company (PFC). In addition to complaining of the useless schooner, Ross also accused Astor of not shipping saleable goods for the West Coast market.  Ross said that although Astor well knew what goods were suitable for the market they were entering, he did not send such items. For example, instead of guns, he sent old metal pots; and instead of beads and trinkets he sent white cotton.  “In short, all the useless trash and unsaleable trumpery which had been accumulating in his shops and stores for half a century past, were swept together to fill his Columbia Ships.  That these cargoes were insured need not be told; sink or swim, his profits were sure,” Ross charged. [p. 154] Finally, in Ross’  view the agreements the employees entered into with Astor were violated and Astor let the employees shift for themselves during the War of 1812 between the British and the Americans.



In early August, rumours of the destruction of Tonquin first arrived at Fort Astoria. They were not confirmed until October, however, when a man named Kasiascall (also known as Jack) arrived with a detailed account of what happened. He stated that he was a member of the Wick-a-nook tribe from near Nootka Sound. He said that he had spent some 18 days on board Tonquin in June. One day large numbers of Indians arrived with plenty of sea otter skins; however they did not trade much that first day because they thought the prices offered were too low and the captain refused to give them any presents. That evening, one of the PFC traders, Alexander McKay, and Jack went ashore and were well-received by the chiefs.  Next day the Indians came to trade. Captain Thorn would not let more than ten men on board at the same time. When one man was detected trying to sneak on board by cutting the netting placed around the deck, he escaped in a canoe.  Captain Thorn ordered the chiefs to call him back, but they “smiled and said nothing”, irritating the captain who seized two of the chiefs and threatened to hang them unless they called the escapee back to be punished. The remainder of the Indians fled from the ship while the two who had been seized were kept prisoner over night.  Next day the escapee was returned to the ship, stripped and tied up briefly before being released.  The chiefs were also released, vowing vengeance for the insult they had received.  [pp. 160-61]

The following day no one came to the ship to trade, but one of the chiefs asked McKay and Jack to visit his lodge. They did so and were kindly received.  After McKay returned to the ship, the Indians told Jack they would come to trade the next day.  When Jack told McKay, the latter was concerned. “I wish they would not come….After the captain’s late conduct to the chiefs, I do not like so sudden, so flattering a change.”  [p. 161]. McKay told Thorn about his fears and warned him that all hands should be on alert when the Indians came aboard again, but Thorn ridiculed both McKay’s fears and  suggestion. Jack admitted that he did not share McKay’s fears, especially since women accompanied the men to trade. On the other hand, he was surprised that Thorn did not put up the netting again to restrict people getting on board when they came to trade next day.   Trading went on briskly with the goods thrown into the canoes looked after by the women. Then Jack and a sailor aloft noticed the Indians were armed with hidden knives. They warned the captain who “treated the suggestion as usual, with a smile of contempt.”

Soon the women paddled away and a short, but bloody, massacre began. Jack and several other Indians jumped over board and were picked up by the women. Less than 10 minutes later, the ship was blown up.  Jack believed that it was blown up by the final survivor of the massacre, the ship’s armourer Stephen Weeks. Jack said about 175 Indians died as a result.  [pp. 162-63]



The Astorians believed Jack’s story initially. Shortly afterwards, however, a number of other Indians arrived. They confirmed Jack’s description of the destruction of Tonquin, but they stated that Jack was not on board at the time and was actually involved in the plot against the ship and responsible for the massacre of six men from the ship whom he had convinced the captain to send ashore. Because Jack had beaten a hasty retreat from Fort Astoria when the other men arrived, the Astorians finally concluded that he had not told the truth about his role in the massacre.

For a modern  account of the Tonquin tragedy, a Vancouver journalist named Claudia Cornwall interviewed the great-great grandson of a man named  Nookmis, who  was one of the key players in the event. While   Ross does not mention either the name of the tribe or the location  where the event occurred, Cornwall reports that the people involved were of the Tls-o-qui-aht or Clayoquot tribe and events occurred in Clayoquot Sound on the south coast of Vancouver Island. Nookmis was a war chief who was in charge of negotiations with Thorn. After a day’s negotiations, Thorn got frustrated and slapped Nookmis across the face with a pelt.  Alexander McKay, likely the most experienced trader at Astoria, begged Thorn to leave at this point; he refused. Next day the Tls-o-qui-aht appeared ready to trade, and Thorn let more and more men board the ship. Then suddenly Nookmis gave the order to attack with knives and clubs they had hidden under their clothing. All but one trader were killed. Next day the Tls-o-qui-aht returned to the ship, thinking that the one seriously wounded man aboard was not a threat. He, however, laid a trail of gunpowder to the ship’s magazine and set fire to it once the men were all on board. A few men, including Nookmis, managed to escape; but about 80 were killed.

The next Blog will describe how the Pacific Fur Company was taken over by the North  West Company and Ross’ first task as a Nor’Wester – that of horse trader.


Cornwall, Claudia, “The Suicide Bomber of Clayoquot Sound, Revived”

Ross, Alexander, Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River,  London: Smith, elder and Co., 1849

Print copies of all my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website at http/ or by e-mailing me at

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.