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Peter Skene Ogden is one of the most energetic and controversial figures to have left his mark on the North American fur trade. At the age of four, he moved with his family to Montreal, where his father had been appointed puisne judge and where, with two brothers already lawyers, he grew up in a family wedded to the law. But late-18th-century Montreal was a city which derived much of its atmosphere from its vocation as the organizing centre of the Canadian fur trade and, although Ogden seems to have received some tutoring in law, the legal profession evidently held few attractions for him. After a brief spell with the American Fur Company in Montreal, he joined the North West Company as an apprentice clerk in April 1809. This was a critical period in the rivalry between the NWC and the Hudson’s Bay Company and during the final years of turbulent competition before the coalition of 1821 the young Ogden earned an unenviable reputation for violence.
An indictment against Ogden for murder was drawn up in Lower Canada in March 1818. To put Ogden out of reach of the HBC he was transferred to the Columbia department in 1818, and there he served variously at Fort George (Astoria, Oreg.), Spokane House (near Spokane, Wash.), and Thompson’s River Post (Kamloops, B.C.). At about this time he took as his country wife Julia Rivet, a Spokan Indian, having left behind him at Green Lake the Cree woman who had borne his first child. The terms of the coalition agreement between the HBC and the NWC, signed in March 1821, excluded Ogden and Black, among others, from the new organization because of their violent conduct during the years of conflict between the two companies. Nevertheless, at the slightly abashed request of the HBC, Ogden remained in charge of Fort Thompson for the winter of 1821–22 before journeying east in 1822, first to the Canadas, and then to England, where he sought to persuade the company to reconsider its ban. A daguerreotype of Ogden, taken in London at this time, shows a firm-jawed, sturdy figure and hints at his physical strength and determination. Influenced by HBC governor George Simpson, who was concerned about the possible damage Ogden and Black might do in opposition and who on reflection considered that their behaviour in the period of competition had been no worse than that of others, the London committee of the HBC relented and in 1823 agreed that both men should be appointed chief traders. In July the HBC’s Council of the Northern Department, meeting at York Factory (Man.), confirmed these appointments and posted Ogden to Spokane House with instructions to fit out a trapping expedition to the Snake River country for the spring of 1824.
Ogden’s combative temperament was now to be given full rein, for the Snake country, which covers a large area to the south of the Columbia River between the continental divide and the Pacific coast, was an area of grim natural hazards, menacing and unpredictable Indians, and rival American traders. After an initial expedition sent out under the direction of Alexander Ross, Ogden himself took charge of the HBC campaign in this country, which in 1818 Great Britain and the United States had declared temporarily open to joint occupation by the subjects of both nations in default of a permanent boundary agreement. Usage rather than geographical exactitude has given Ogden’s activities here the title of “Snake country expeditions,” for although they encompassed the Snake River that stream was only a starting point, and Ogden travelled, explored, and trapped a much wider area, covering present-day Oregon and Idaho, and parts of California, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming, before returning to the Snake on his homeward run. Despite Spanish explorations from the south in the 1770s and the first hesitant American ventures following in the steps of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the geography of the Snake country was a bewildering puzzle of several different watersheds and drainage areas. Rumours of westward-flowing rivers and inland seas proliferated, but accurate maps were non-existent. It was this puzzle which Ogden now began to untangle, teasing out the knotted skeins one after another, and by 1830 he had a better, though still by no means faultless, knowledge of the area than any other explorer.
Geographical knowledge, however, was not his only, nor even his main, object and for the HBC it was clearly secondary to the task of trapping the country bare. Here the normal rules of company policy did not apply. If, as many believed, the region south of the Columbia was eventually to go to the United States, a careful trapping program of conservation would benefit only the Americans. Furthermore, the less profitable the Americans found this area, the less attracted they would be towards the established company trapping grounds farther north. At a meeting at Spokane House in 1824, Governor Simpson stated Ogden’s task in bleak, unambiguous terms: “If properly managed no question exists that it would yield handsome profits as we have convincing proof that the country is a rich preserve of Beaver and which for political reasons we should endeavour to destroy as fast as possible.”
In July 1830 Ogden received orders transferring him to the northwest coast and in April 1831 he sailed north from Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, Wash.) to establish a new post near the mouth of the Nass River (B.C.). From this post, initially named Fort Nass and then renamed Fort Simpson, Ogden pursued a vigorous policy of competition against both American traders, active offshore up and down the coast, and the Russian American Company, based at Sitka (Alaska). Using the schooners Cadboro and Vancouver, he successfully countered the American maritime traders, but his attempt to found a post on the Stikine River in 1834 was thwarted by the opposition of the Russians and of the coastal Indians. Promoted chief factor in 1834, Ogden was given command of the New Caledonia district in 1835, to succeed Peter Warren Dease*. This move, strongly supported by Governor Simpson, is a more significant comment on the company’s assessment of Ogden’s worth than Simpson’s oft-quoted entry in his confidential “Character book” of 1832. Recognizing Ogden’s “conspicuous” services to the company, Simpson nevertheless foresaw trouble if he was promoted, describing him as “one of the most unprincipled Men in the Indian Country, who would soon get into habits of dissipation if he were not restrained by the fear of these operating against his interests, and if he does indulge in that way madness to which he has a predisposition will follow as a matter of course.” But these dark hints are perhaps a reflection of Simpson’s own state of mind, for although Ogden retained his reputation for boisterousness, there is little evidence in subsequent years of either the unscrupulousness or the instability conjured up by Simpson.
Ogden reached his new headquarters at Fort St James (B.C.) on Stuart Lake in 1835 where, for the first time in his fur-trade career, he was not faced with direct competition, though there was an echo of his Snake country experience in the company’s determination to trap the country bare. As returns fell off as a result of this policy, Ogden worked at securing good relations and smooth trading arrangements with the local Carrier Indians. According to his “Notes on western Caledonia,” prepared in 1842, he had as low an opinion of them – “a brutish, ignorant, superstitious beggarly sett of beings” – as he had of the Indians of the Snake country. In regard to the methods of trading, Ogden doubted whether the traditional system of allowing debts was preventing a seepage of furs from the Indians of the interior down to the coast.
In spite of the declared American sovereignty over the Oregon, the HBC remained for some time the recognized authority in much of the area. Ogden’s decisive action in December 1847 following the Cayuse Indian attack on the mission at Waiilatpu (near Walla Walla, Wash.), in which 14 people were killed and 47 taken prisoner, served to underline this situation. With an American provisional government at Oregon City inexperienced in dealing with Indians and without the force capable of swift intervention to save the captives, Ogden left Fort Vancouver on 7 December, the morning after he had heard the news, and by 24 December had succeeded in negotiating the release of the prisoners. This was a triumph for Ogden’s experience and judgement, and for the reputation of the HBC; as Ogden pointed out after receiving unstinted praise from George Abernethy, provisional governor of Oregon, and from the HBC directors in London, “without [the company’s] powerful aid and influence nothing could have been effected.”
The journals for five of the six expeditions led by Peter Skene Ogden into Snake country are held at PAM, HBCA. Those for the first two expeditions were published in HBRS, 13 (Rich and Johnson), while the one for the third appeared first as “The Peter Skene Ogden journals,” ed. T. C. Elliott, Oreg. Hist. Soc., Quarterly (Portland), 11 (1910): 201–22, and then in a complete and annotated form as HBRS, 23 (Davies and Johnson). The last two journals are in HBRS, 28 (Williams). Ogden also wrote “Peter Skene Ogden’s notes on western Caledonia,” ed. W. N. Sage, BCHQ, 1 (1937): 45–56. He was likely the author of Traits of American-Indian life and character (London, 1853), a work signed by “A fur trader.” The events related in the 16 accounts that make up this volume correspond closely to Ogden’s career.
ANQ-M, CN1-29, 27 avril 1809. ANQ-Q, CE1-61, 12 févr. 1790. PAM, HBCA, B.60/a/13: ff.14d–15d; 13.60/a/15: ff.37d–38; B.89/a/2: ff.11, 13, 13d–14; E.8/5: ff.95–97d. Catholic Church records of Pacific northwest (Munnick). Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). HBRS, 2 (Rich and Fleming); 3 (Fleming); 4 (Rich). Alexander Ross, “Journal of Alexander Ross – Snake country expedition, 1824,” ed. T. C. Elliott, Oreg. Hist. Soc., Quarterly, 14 (1913): 366–88. Simpson, “Character book,” HBRS, 30 (Williams), 151–236. Quebec Gazette, 19 March 1818. Archie Binns, Peter Skene Ogden: fur trader (Portland, 1967). G. G. Cline, Peter Skene Ogden and the Hudson’s Bay Company (Norman, Okla., 1974). Van Kirk, “Many tender ties.” T. C. Elliott, “Peter Skene Ogden, fur trader,” Oreg. Hist. Soc., Quarterly, 11 (1910): 229–78. F. W. Howay, “Authorship of traits of Indian life,” Oreg. Hist. Quarterly (Salem), 35 (1934): 42–49.