CLARKE, JOHN, fur trader; b. 1781 in Montreal, son of Simon Clarke, innkeeper, and Ann Waldorf; m. first about 1812, according to the custom of the country, Josephte Kanhopitsa, and they had one daughter; m. secondly Sophia (Sapphira) Jacobina Spence (d. 1824), daughter of HBC clerk Joseph Spence, a fur-trade alliance entered into in or before 1816 and solemnized on 9 Nov. 1821 in Montreal; m. thirdly by 1822 Marianne Trustler (Tranclar, Trutter), a country marriage solemnized in Montreal on 26 Oct. 1830, and they had four sons and four daughters; d. 19 Dec. 1852 in Montreal.
John Clarke joined the North West Company as an apprentice clerk on 17 Jan. 1800, and that spring he journeyed from Montreal to Grand Portage (near Grand Portage, Minn.) in the same NWC party as Daniel Williams Harmon*. After three hectic weeks at Grand Portage, Clarke left for Athabasca in July with John Finlay and Alexander Henry* the younger. In 1802 he established the NWC post at Pierre au Calumet (north of Fort McMurray, Alta) on the Athabasca River; he served at Fort Vermilion (near Fort Vermilion, Alta) on the Peace River in 1804–5 and in 1809 was placed in charge of Fort St John (near Fort St John, B.C.), farther up the river. This promotion, however, did not work out successfully, and Clarke left the NWC, returning to Montreal in the spring of 1810. A colleague, George Keith, wrote shortly afterwards that “latterly, his conduct in this country was rather reprehensible. . . . A little elevation is apt to dazzle and make us sometimes forget the previous footing we were on.”
Later that year, possibly aided by maternal ties with John Jacob Astor, Clarke became a partner in Astor’s Pacific Fur Company and in October 1811 he was in charge of the PFC party, including Ross Cox, that left New York aboard the Beaver, reaching Fort Astoria (Astoria, Oreg.) in May 1812. Late in June he and a small party travelled up the Columbia River to build a post in opposition to the NWC’s Spokane House (near Spokane, Wash.) on the Spokane River, and that winter the competition for furs between Clarke and the NWC clerk, James McMillan, was fierce. Clarke also ran into difficulties with the Indians. During the return trip to Fort Astoria with his furs in the spring of 1813, he hanged an Indian for stealing a silver goblet, thus obliging his party to flee from attackers seeking revenge.
The instability of American control on the Pacific northwest coast during the War of 1812 forced the sale of the entire PFC operation based at Fort Astoria to the NWC in October 1813, a transfer negotiated by Duncan McDougall*, an Astorian and former Nor’Wester. Clarke spent the winter of 1813–14 in the employ of the NWC at Fort Astoria (renamed Fort George), under the command of John McDonald* of Garth. The following summer he travelled overland with the NWC brigade to the Canadas in company with two other former Astorians, Donald McKenzie and Gabriel Franchère*.
Clarke turned down a commission with the Indian Department before accepting a handsome contract with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1815. Colin Robertson* recruited him, at an initial salary of £400, for the HBC expedition aimed at countering the NWC’s trading activity in the Athabasca country. The party left Terrebonne, Lower Canada, for the interior in May and, after Robertson retired from the expedition at Jack River House (Man.) in July, Clarke was chosen as his replacement by HBC officers Thomas Thomas* and James Bird. From early fall the HBC party faced difficulties. A skirmish with the Nor’Westers at Cumberland House (Sask.) was followed by an amicable exchange of prisoners. Food ran short beyond Île-à-la-Crosse as the NWC diverted Indian provisioners from Clarke’s path. In October he established Fort Wedderburn on an island in Lake Athabasca, across from the NWC’s Fort Chipewyan (Alta). He then took five canoes up the Peace River hoping to winter near Fort Vermilion, but NWC men John McGillivray and William McIntosh succeeded in cutting off his supplies. After three men died of starvation at Loon River (Alta) and another 13 while trying to make their way back to Fort Wedderburn, Clarke was obliged to surrender his goods to McIntosh in exchange for provisions. Although Fort Wedderburn survived what Clarke labelled the NWC’s “starving system,” there were no returns to compensate for the great expenses incurred.
The Athabasca campaign of 1816–17 was also obstructed; a large NWC force at Lake Athabasca kept the HBC party immobile at Fort Wedderburn by threats and seizures of men and goods. Finally, on 23 Jan. 1817, NWC partner Archibald Norman McLeod, exercising his authority as justice of the peace, imprisoned Clarke and seized the HBC fort. Clarke’s subsequent detention at Great Slave Lake (N.W.T.) and later at Fort Vermilion destroyed any chance of his organizing a new expedition the next season. Meanwhile, Clarke’s HBC colleagues had begun to find fault with his conduct. In July 1816 Robertson, while praising Clarke’s courage, had noted that “the heroic manner he bore his misfortunes covers a multitude of sins” and in 1818 commented that “his inordinate vanity is such that the management of John Clarke is as arduous a task as that of opposing the N.W.Co.” James Bird at Edmonton House (Edmonton) was equally critical.
Robertson took command of the HBC enterprise in Athabasca in 1818 and sent Clarke up the Peace River where, after a skirmish at Fort Vermilion, he established St Mary’s Fort (near Peace River, Alta). In June 1819 Clarke was with HBC governor William Williams* at the Grand Rapids (Man.) to help with the arrest of the Nor’Westers, Benjamin Joseph Frobisher*, John George McTavish*, and others. After serving two seasons at Île-à-la-Crosse, Clarke was appointed chief factor in the 1821 union of the HBC and the NWC [see Simon McGillivray*], despite Governor George Simpson’s opposition, and was granted a year’s leave of absence before taking charge of Fort Garry (Winnipeg). Clarke’s overbearing assertion of company authority in the Red River colony earned him the deep dislike of both Governor Andrew H. Bulger and the settlers. Particularly at issue were his strictures against the settlers’ conducting any trade with Indians, even for needed provisions, in a narrow-minded effort to protect the HBC fur trade.
Severely criticized by the HBC London committee in 1823, Clarke was removed to the charge of the post at Lesser Slave Lake (Alta) for the years 1824–26 and from there went to Fort Pelly (Sask.) where he competently managed the Swan River district until 1830. Convinced that “to the joint efforts of Mr Robertson and myself are the HB Coy in a great measure indebted for the splendor & importance of their rank & standing in the great Commercial World,” he visited London in 1831 to seek company recognition for his past services. But, in Simpson’s words, “the committee treated him with the contempt he deserved.” In his 1832 “Character book” Simpson portrayed Clarke as “a boasting, ignorant low fellow” showing “total want of every principle or feeling, allied to fair dealing, honour & integrity. . . . He is in short a disgrace to the ‘Fur Trade.’ Although effective in opposition, commanding in appearance, and able to control Indians and servants by his strength of personality, he lacked the social qualities and character favoured in the new generation of officers.
From 1831 to 1833, Clarke served at Mingan, Lower Canada, where he soon came into conflict with James Keith, his superior in charge of the Montreal department. A furlough from 1833 to 1835 was followed by retirement to Montreal where he died in 1852.
ANQ-M, CE1-63, 26 oct. 1830; CN1-29, 17 janv. 1800. PAC, MG 19, E5, 2. PAM, HBCA, A.36/4: f.182; MG 2, A5. PCA, St Gabriel Street Church (Montreal), reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 9 Nov. 1821. Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest (Masson), vol.2. Catholic Church records of Pacific northwest (Munnick). Cox, Adventures on the Columbia. Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). Harmon, Sixteen years in the Indian country (Lamb). HBRS, 1 (Rich); 2 (Rich and Fleming). A. Ross, Adventures on the Columbia; The fur hunters of the far west; a narrative of adventures in the Oregon and Rocky mountains (2v., London, 1855). Simpson, “Character book,” HBRS, 30 (Williams), 151–236; Fur trade and empire (Merk; 1968). Campbell, Hist. of Scotch Presbyterian Church, 125. Adèle Clarke, Old Montreal, John Clarke: his adventures, friends and family (Montreal, 1906). J. S. Galbraith, The little emperor; Governor Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company (Toronto, 1976). J. J. Hargrave, Red River (Montreal, 1871; repr., Altona, Man., 1977), 491–96. A. S. Morton, A history of the Canadian west to 1870–71, being a history of Rupert’s Land (the Hudson’s Bay Company territory) and of the North-West Territories (including the Pacific slope), ed. L. G. Thomas (2nd ed., Toronto [and Buffalo, N.Y., 1973]). J. U. Terrell, Furs by Astor (New York, 1963). J. R. Anderson, “John Clarke of Athabasca,” Family Herald (Montreal), 12 July 1933: 19–20.