Why a Trail to Oregon?

Hudson's Bay Company Trading Post

Hudson’s Bay Company Trading Post

In giving this advice the McLoughlin spoke as a Hudson’s Bay man, eager to keep the Americans well south of the Columbia River. Lee accepted the advice and almost at once set out to build his mission. Despite Dr. McLoughlin’s disapproval, Wyeth built a post close to Fort Vancouver, but he was no match for his entrenched rival and after a very discouraging struggle he left the field.

Another arrival at Fort Vancouver in 1834 was Hall Kelley, who had traveled from Boston by way of California. During his first visit, Wyeth had told Dr. McLoughlin of Kelley’s activities and the doctor, ordinarily kind and courteous, had worked up an intense hatred of the man who was trying to stimulate what was, in his opinion, an invasion of a country he had developed. When Kelley arrived, penniless, almost alone, and preceded by a report that he had stolen horses in California, the doctor permitted him to live at the post but treated him as a pariah. Kelley lingered miserably until 1836, his hatred of McLoughlin increasing daily. When Kelley returned to Boston, his stored-up anger found an outlet in a bitter pamphlet in which he accused the doctor of tyranny and of activities unfriendly to the American cause. This pamphlet was called to the attention of the Secretary of State, who at once arranged to have a Captain William A. Slacum investigate the situation on the Columbia River. Slacum’s report, which was not free from bias, aroused considerable feeling in the United States.

In the meantime, more missionaries had arrived along the Columbia River. Other religious people besides the Methodists had been moved by the Flathead plea; in 1834 an interdenominational board appointed the Reverend Samuel Parker and Dr. Marcus Whitman to study the needs. In 1835 the two men traveled with fur traders to the annual rendezvous in the Green River Valley of western Wyoming. When they reached the valley Dr. Whitman had seen enough Indians to be convinced that he need go no farther before reporting to the board that the natives needed religious attention. Parker traveled on with only a few Indians, arriving at Fort Vancouver on October 16 immaculately dressed and wearing a plug hat, as was his wont. Dr. McLoughlin, though somewhat worried by the advent, was courteous as usual; but this missionary was not to be diverted to the Willamette Valley. After looking over sites for missions he left Vancouver for Boston by way of the Pacific.

Not long after Parker s departure for reinforcements, the Hudson’s Bay Company answered the doctor’s six-year-old prayer for a clergyman; the Reverend Herbert Beaver arrived from London with his wife and within a short time managed to set the post by its heels. Neither the clergyman nor his wife had anything but scorn for the Indians and they disapproved of the Hudsons Bay contract marriages, going so far in their dislike of interracial marriage as to snub the doctor s wife, who was a half-breed and married by contract. The situation was made increasingly tense by the severely critical letters the clergyman wrote to London. It culminated in 1838 when Dr. McLoughlin lost his temper and publicly caned Mr. Beaver. The act was unfortunate for Dr. McLoughlin because the Beavers, after their return to England, helped to work up opposition to McLoughlin’s activities. Up to this time, the doctor had been accorded great respect from headquarters. He had extended his posts to the north and east, was raising enough foodstuffs to enable him to have a surplus for exportation, and was also trading in the Sandwich Islands.

Fort Vancouver, Washington

Fort Vancouver, Washington

About the time Mr. Beaver put in his delayed appearance, Dr. Marcus Whitman and the Reverend Henry Spalding arrived at Fort Vancouver with their wives — the first white women to make the overland trip. Dr. McLoughlin treated the party hospitably and, when they insisted on going at once to found missions near Walla Walla and on the Clearwater River, gave them what assistance he could, by permitting them to replenish their exhausted supplies from his stores. He warned them, however, of the danger of isolating themselves inland near the treacherous Cayuse Indians.

In the meantime, Jason Lee had called for reinforcements, and in the summer of 1837 two ships arrived with supplies and more missionaries, bringing the total in the Willamette Valley to 60.

Dr. McLoughlin watched their arrival with mixed feelings; the Protestant missionaries had made slight progress, their type of religion having little appeal for the natives. Indian converts had been few and the French Canadians, who were Roman Catholics, had held aloof. The doctor began to hear rumors that the Americans were turning their attention to real estate and politics and were considering the setting up of a provisional government. As the failure to win the Indians became more apparent, the missionary group became concerned to show some other results to their financial backers. In 1838 Jason Lee determined to visit the East and place a memorial before Congress asking that Oregon be made a part of the Union.

In the same year, the McLoughlin took his first vacation away from the Columbia River since he had arrived there in 1824. He went straight to London to lay before his chiefs his plans for the extension of Hudson’s Bay activities. In addition to obtaining permission to trade into Russian Alaska, with Russian consent, he was also authorized to make settlements south of Puget Sound, as a means of reinforcing Britain’s claim to the territory that is now the State of Washington.

Dr. John McLoughlin

Dr. John McLoughlin

In May 1840, not long after McLoughlin’s return to his post, Jason Lee reappeared, by way of the sea, at the head of a party of 52 persons. When the doctor asked why they had come, Lee assured him that they were to work in the mission. Not long after this, however, it became quite apparent that many were interested in settlement rather than in missionary work. Long afterward the McLoughlin was to learn that Lee on his trip east had traveled widely on lecture tours, mixing his discussion of Indian needs with large doses of propaganda on the desirability of Oregon as a place of settlement. No professional imperialist could have been more enthusiastic than Lee about the justness of seizing Oregon for the United States. Lee’s speeches and the journal of his travels, published in 1838, did much to spread the Oregon fever. The question of the ethical propriety of Lee s imperialistic activities has provided meat for decades of argument. He had accepted much help from Dr. McLoughlin in establishing his mission, with full knowledge that McLoughlin would have opposed him if his announced purpose had been commercial or imperialistic. To Lee, McLoughlin was merely a symbol representing Britain, which the average American believed should be outwitted by fair means or foul.

Less easily condoned was the act of the Reverend Mr. Waller, who deliberately pre-empted land by the Falls of the Willamette River that McLoughlin had taken possession of in 1830 and where he had blasted out a millrace. McLoughlin gave notice of the claim when Waller started to build but permitted the Methodist as a tenant to erect a small building, even giving him some lumber. Later Waller and others ignored the doctor’s claim entirely and did all in their power to take from him the spot to which he had planned to retire.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *