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.

Blog # 25 Alexander Ross Begins Fur Trade Career

Tags: Alexander Ross; Pacific Fur Company; Columbia River; Fort Astoria; Duncan McDougall; Chief Comcomly; Fort Okanagan

My last Blog described how Alexander Ross travelled from Montreal to the  Pacific coast via Cape Horn  after joining the Pacific Fur Company as a clerk. After several days exploring the area around the mouth of the Columbia River, the men decided that the best place to build their first  trading post was on the south side  of the  river between Point George  and Tonquin Point, about 12 miles from its mouth.

Mouth of Columbia


On April 12, 1811, the PFC men (including 11 men from the Sandwich Islands) finally were able to leave the Tonquin, the ship on which they had travelled from New York, and set up camp on shore. “However pleasing the change, to be relieved from a long and tedious voyage, and from the tyranny of a sullen despotic captain, the day was not one of pleasure, but of labour,” Ross wrote. The loss of the men in trying to locate the proper channel for entering the river “had cast a melancholy gloom over our most sanguine expectations….Silent and with heavy hearts, we began the toil of the day, in clearing away brush and rotten wood for a spot to encamp on.”  [p. 70 of Ross’ book, Adventures of the First settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River]

Ross found the scenery around the building site “varied and interesting.”  On the other hand, he said that the  building site “might challenge the whole continent to produce  a spot of equal extent presenting  more difficulties  to the settler” due to the gigantic trees up to 50 feet around which grew close together and  were intermingled with huge rocks. The men worked from sunrise to sunset from Monday to Saturday, and had to take turns on watch over night because they were nervous about the intentions  of the local people.  Every man was armed with both an axe for work and a gun for protection, despite the fact that the PFC had received assurances of friendship from Comcomly, the principal chief in the area. The men were all inexperienced – most had never used either axe or gun – but they soon learned. Work progressed slowly. Sometimes it took two days or more to fell one tree.  Then they needed time to remove stump and roots.


COMCOMLY (Wikipedia)

After nearly two months of such labour, they had scarcely cleared an acre of land. During that time, three men were killed by the natives, two were injured by falling trees, and one had his hand blown off by gunpowder. They also suffered from illness due to bad living conditions. The weather was foggy and rainy; they had no shelter; their food was bad and often scarce.  Comcomly told them that the more distant tribes were hostile to the whites; however they concluded that Comcomly had nourished the misunderstanding between the two groups in order to monopolize the trade “by buying up all the furs and selling them again to us at double their first cost” [p. 77]

On May 16, the fur traders finally laid the foundation of their first building which they named Fort Astoria.  The Tonquin left Astoria on June 1. Ross said that the men were aware that the presence of the ship protected the settlement, but no preparations were made to mount guns or raise palisades before the ship left. The first visit of the distant tribes to Fort Astoria following the departure of the ship went well due to the presence of Comcomly.

Fort Astoria


Shortly after this visit, however, a serious event took place. A trader named McDougall  was showing off the properties of a blunderbuss in a tent when it went off unexpectedly, tearing off the corner of Comcomly’s robe and creating a lot of dense smoke. The chief dashed from the tent, calling for help. His people gave a war-whoop and “fiercely menaced the whites with destruction.”  In the mean time, one of the PFC sentries — hearing the gun shot and seeing   Comcomly running from the tent — supposed that he had murdered some one. The sentry then fired after Comcomly, yelling “Treason! Murder!” At that sound, all of the PFC men flew to arms and advanced with fingers on their triggers. Fortunately McDougall and Ross knew what had happened and “hastened to run between the hostile ranks, making signs of peace and after a tumultuous moment, the mysterious affair was explained without bloodshed.”   [p. 84]

On July 22, the PFC sent off its first trading expedition of nine men (Including Ross) in “two clumsy Chinook canoes”, each laden with 15 or 20 bales of goods. Ross said that the “undertaking was extremely imprudent” for a number of reasons, including their lack of skill in managing canoes and their lack of knowledge of conditions on the rivers. For fear that the people they met were unfriendly, the PCF men travelled with a group of North West Company traders who were heading for Canada.  The inexperienced PFC men started the trip in high spirits and oblivious to the many dangers they would face in navigating the rivers.  “After our canoes were laden, we moved down to the water’s edge – one with a cloak on his arm, another with his umbrella, a third with pamphlets and newspapers for amusement, preparing, as we thought, for a trip of pleasure.”   [p. 103]

Although they began their trip in high spirits, they had travelled for less than three miles under sail with fair and strong winds when the wind shifted. Now, their canoes half-filled with water and were dashed unto the shore. They managed to get moving again, but a few miles further along they met worse difficulties.  They were driven onto a sandbar and stuck fast there as the waves dashed over them and the tide ebbed rapidly.

 Ross described what happened thus:

Down came the mast, sail, and  rigging about our ears; and in the hurry  and confusion, the  canoes got almost full of water, and we were well drenched: here we had to carry the goods and drag the canoes till we reached deep water again, which was no easy task. This disaster occupied us about two hours and gave us a foretaste of what we might expect during the remainder of the voyage. Cloaks and umbrellas, so gay in the morning, were now thrown aside for the more necessary paddle and carry strap, and the pamphlets and newspapers went to the bottom.[p. 104]

Ross also admitted that he initially was unable to make portages. He described an early attempt thus. Carrying only a roll of tobacco, he ascended the first bank. By the time he had reached the top he was breathless and could proceed no farther. Ross there met an Indian and offered him all the buttons on his coat to carry the tobacco to the end of the portage.  The man agreed; when he reached the end, however, he threw the tobacco down a steep precipice, leaving Ross “to recover it the best way I could.” As he struggled down the precipice and back up with the tobacco, Ross was even more out of breath, plus he had “the wag that played me the trick” and 50 others indulging in a hearty laugh at his expense. [pp. 110-11]

Oregon Country Map


 At the end of August, Ross’ party met Indians who appeared much friendlier than those they had met to date.  As a result, when they found a level spot near the mouth of the Okanagan River, they  built a small house there. They had travelled 600 miles up the Columbia during their 42-day voyage from Fort Astoria.  Four of the men returned to Astoria and the other four (including David Stuart) set off on a month-long trip to the north. Ross was left alone at the Okanagan post.

Stuart’s   month-long trip stretched over the whole winter, leaving Ross very lonely and worried for  Stuart’s safety.   Crowds of Indians visited Ross, who traded with them and began learning their language, “but the evenings were long and the winter dreary” for Ross. [p. 146]. He was so nervous that every night he primed his gun and barricaded the door of his house. Things were peaceful until one night when his dog began to bark. Fearing that some enemy was lurking in the cellar where he kept his goods hidden, he drew his gun and shot before he realized that there was a skunk sitting on a roll of tobacco in the cellar.  The shot blew the skunk “almost to atoms and so delicately perfumed everything in the house that I was scarcely able to live in it for days afterwards.” That was not the worst effect. Ross had to remove all his goods from the cellar to air them out. As long as the Indians did not see the rolls of tobacco and bales of goods in bulk, things went well, “but after the overwhelming exhibition of so much property there was no satisfying them.” [p. 148]

After a time, things finally returned to normal; but, when several more months passed without Stuart’s return, the Indians became troublesome again. Ross finally called all the leading men together and told them that Stuart had probably been delayed because he went off to get more trade goods for them. They should begin exerting themselves in hunting and procuring furs because he (Ross) would report favourably of them to Stuart if they did. This ploy was successful, even though Ross himself did not believe it. Finally, however, Stuart arrived back safely in late March 1812.  Ross had procured 1550 beaver pelts during that time.

My next Blog will describe events at Fort Astoria and the fate of the ship Tonquin and its men following Ross’ departure to Okanogan country.

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 #24 Alexander Ross: Voyage from New York to the Columbia River aboard the Tonquin

Tags: Alexander Ross, Pacific Fur Company, Columbia River, Captain Jonathan Thorn,  the Tonquin, Falkland Islands, voyaging from New York to the Columbia River via Cape Horn

In my last Blog I introduced you to retired fur trader Alexander Ross and his family. This was the last of a series of six Blogs on the topic of education of girls in the Red River Settlement. The name Alexander Ross is familiar to many Manitobans because he was the author of a well-known history book (The Red River Settlement: Its Rise, Progress and Present State) and because he was active in political and religious affairs at the Red River for nearly 30 years.

Alex Ross.jpeg

Alexander Ross in later life (Provincial Archives of Manitoba)

In the process of writing this education Blog, however, I learned that Ross led an interesting (and sometimes exciting) life as a fur trader in what is now southern British Columbia and the US northwest before retiring to the Red River. He also wrote two books describing his fur trade life.  As a result, I have decided to do a series of Blogs on Ross as a fur trader. With luck, they may form the basis of a book on the life of Ross and his family.

Today’s Blog describes Ross’ trip aboard the sailing ship Tonquin from New York to the Columbia River via Cape Horn in 1810-1811 after he was hired as a clerk for the Pacific Fur Company.   All quotes in this Blog are from his book Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River Being a Narrative of the Expedition Fitted  Out by John Jacob Astor to Establish the “Pacific Fur Company”. This book was published in London in 1849.

The Tonquin set sail from New York on September 6, 1810, with a crew of 22 and 33 passengers. Almost immediately, Ross began to disapprove of the captain, Jonathan Thorn, formerly of the American Navy. A group of mechanics, who had signed contracts with the Pacific Fur Company (PFC) indicating that they were entitled to the same treatment as the clerks, were ordered to accommodations on the Tonquin among the common sailors. When they complained and showed Captain Thorn their contracts, he punished them by ordering them to work as common seamen during the voyage.

Capt. Thorn

The PFC partners on board remonstrated with the captain to no avail, both parties “getting into a violent passion.” Alexander MacKay of the PFC said that his people would defend themselves “rather than suffer such treatment.” The captain responded that “he would blow out the brains of the first man who dared to disobey his orders on board his own ship.”

Another of the PFC men named David Stuart “by his gentle and timely interference put an end to the threatening altercation.”  However, bad feelings continued throughout the entire voyage. The captain restricted the partners to the starboard side of the quarter-deck; the clerks were forbidden to set foot on the quarter-deck altogether; and “as for the poor mechanics and Canadians, they were ruled over with a rod of iron,” according to Ross. [pp. 14-5]

Ross also had a poor opinion of the crew and their management of emergencies. One evening an alarm of fire was given. Ross, gave a farcical description of what happened next.

[Everyone 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 mȃitre de cuisine was robbed of his broth and dishwater – no one, in the hurry and bustle of the moment, ever thought of dipping the  buckets alongside. [p. 17]

On November 10, a violent gale began which lasted for 50 hours “without intermission”. It caused considerable damage.  A second and worse storm also occurred in November. Many sails were blown to rags; six of the ship’s guns were dismounted and rolled like thunder on the deck for some time. On the second day of the storm a huge wave “like a rolling mountain, passes over her deck ten feet high, and broke  with  a tremendous crash about the mainmast.” No lives were lost for everyone clung to the rigging. [p. 20]

On December 5 they were happy to reach the Falkland Islands because they were running short of drinking water. They also made repairs to damage done to the ship in the two storms. The captain originally said that they would set sail from the Falklands on December 11, but then (according to the partners) he changed the date to the 12th. As a result, nine men (including Ross) were ashore when about 2 p.m. on the 11th they saw the ship leave without them. It took them half an hour to reach the shore and the ship was three miles to sea by that time. They squeezed into a small boat which was scarcely large enough for half of their number. In this boat they followed the ship against wind and tide. Then the man who was bailing lost his bailing pail and one of their oars was broken in trying to recover the pail. The wind grew more violent and darkness was coming.  Then, just as “every ray of hope” vanished, the ship turned back toward them. “At length, after many ineffectual attempts and much manœuvring, we succeeded in getting on board,” Ross wrote.

The men then learned that Captain Thorn was only prevented from abandoning them    by a man named Robert Stuart, who seized a brace of pistols and told the captain to order the ship to go about; otherwise, he said, “You are a dead man this instant.” [p. 25]

Cape Horn and Falklands

Cape Horn and the Falkland Islands

On December 19 they saw Cape Horn, but due to adverse winds, they could not round it until Christmas morning.  They spent several weeks on the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) before leaving on the final leg of their journey to the mouth of the Columbia River on March 1, 1811. Ross wrote that the first sight of the Columbia “filled every heart with gladness.” Little did they know how premature such feelings were because the worst was yet to come.   The weather was stormy and Captain Thorn lay-to until he had satisfied himself that they had reached the entrance to the river.  Then, despite First Mate Fox protesting that sea was too rough to go out even with experienced men, Thorn sent Fox out in a small boat with five men — only one of whom was experienced in handling small boats — to locate the proper channel to enter the river. None of the men were ever seen again.  [pp. 54-5]

Ross map 1849

Mouth of Columbia River  –  Map from Ross’ 1849 book

Mouth of Columbia

Mouth of Columbia River  –  Modern map

Several more unsuccessful attempts were made to find the navigable channel. In the last attempt, five men set out and three drowned. Finally, on March 26, they reached shore with a loss of nine lives – which Ross blamed entirely on Thorn.


 Tonquin  at the mouth of the Columbia  (from Wikipedia)

My next Blog will describe the beginning of Ross’ fur trade career.

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.