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.”
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/www.ireneterniergordon.ca or by e-mailing me at email@example.com
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