COX, ROSS, fur trader and author; b. 1793 in Dublin, son of Samuel Cox and Margaret Thorpe; m. 1819 Hannah Cumming; d. 1853 in Dublin.
The details of Ross Cox’s youth and his arrival in North America remain obscure. Having left Ireland at an early age, he was in New York in 1811, when John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company was making arrangements for its second supply ship, the Beaver, to be sent to the northwest coast. Cox, who was “captivated with the love of novelty, and the hope of speedily realising an independence in the supposed El Dorado” of the northwest fur trade, signed on as clerk with the company at a salary of $100 per year. In October 1811 he sailed with a party under John Clarke aboard the Beaver for Fort Astoria (Astoria, Oreg.). The vessel arrived in May 1812 and, at the end of June, Cox left with Clarke and three other clerks for the Spokane River to set up a post near the North West Company’s Spokane House (near Spokane, Wash.). The journey was long and hazardous, and Cox, a small and somewhat corpulent man, had difficulty maintaining the pace set by the more experienced Clarke. Near the junction of Cow Creek and the Palouse River he was separated from the other members of the group, who, following an unsuccessful search, continued on to the Spokane River. After wandering for 14 days on foot, he found his way to this river where, hungry and dangerously exhausted, he rejoined the party.
Cox passed the summer months at the new PFC post, Spokane, slowly regaining his strength. In October he left with another clerk for a trading expedition in the Flathead country to counter the NWC activity at Saleesh House (near Thompson, Mont.). He returned to Spokane where he spent the winter and then, at the end of May 1813, made the journey back to Fort Astoria with the party carrying the produce of the winter’s trade. The fort was short of provisions and because of the state of war between Great Britain and the United States its position was seriously threatened by both British naval control of the west coast and the aggressive competition of the NWC, trading under the British flag. In the face of these difficulties, on 25 June 1813 the company partners at Astoria offered to cancel the contracts of Cox and two other clerks if they could find employment elsewhere. Cox apparently took advantage of this proposition to secure a position with the NWC, and early in July he left with Joseph Larocque* to provision the NWC posts at Spokane House and in the Okanagan. The party returned to Fort Astoria in the fall and Cox was there when John George McTavish* negotiated the NWC’s purchase of all of the PFC’s holdings.
In the employ of the NWC, Cox made a number of trips up the Columbia River accompanying Finan McDonald, James Keith, Alexander Stewart, James McMillan, and other NWC servants, before being given the charge of Fort Okanagan (Wash.) in April 1816. Towards the end of that summer, however, he submitted his resignation and in April 1817, after having spent the winter at Fort Okanagan, he left with the overland party, which included Angus Bethune and Duncan McDougall*, for Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.), and then continued on to Montreal. After unsuccessfully soliciting a position with the Hudson’s Bay Company through the influence of Colin Robertson*, Cox returned to Dublin late in 1818 or early in 1819 where he found employment as a clerk in the main police office. He also worked as the Dublin correspondent for the Morning Herald (London) up to 1837 and remained in Ireland until his death in 1853.
In 1831 Cox published his Adventures on the Columbia, the second narrative prepared by an employee of the PFC on the northwest coast, Gabriel Franchère*’s Relation d’un voyage à la côte du nord-ouest de l’Amérique septentrionale having appeared in 1820. Cox’s account was an immediate success and re-editions soon appeared, both in London and in New York. Written in a journalistic style, his tale is thrilling and at the same time very human. However, prepared many years after the events, and constructed from memory and hearsay, the account often credits Cox with an importance out of proportion to his position and is chronologically inaccurate in places. He was not, for instance, as his narrative would suggest, present at Fort Astoria when the lone survivor of the ill-fated Tonquin arrived in August 1813 to relate the massacre of the crew by Indians in June 1811 [see Jonathan Thorn*]. Yet in spite of its factual weaknesses, there is much of value in the work. He presents a day-to-day account of the operations of both the PFC and the NWC in the early years of the trade west of the Rocky Mountains. His descriptions of the Indians and of the country, as well as his vivid portrayal of the life of the traders, its hardships, boredom, and dangers, remain of interest.
Ross Cox is the author of Adventures on the Columbia, which also appeared under the title The Columbia River; or, scenes and adventures during a residence of six years on the western side of the Rocky Mountains, among various tribes of Indians hitherto unknown; together with a journey across the American continent, ed. E. I. and J. R. Stewart (Norman, Okla., ).
Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). Gabriel Franchère, Relation d’un voyage à la côte du nord-ouest de l’Amérique septentrionale, dans les années 1810, 11, 12, 13 et 14, Michel Bibaud, édit. (Montréal, 1820). HBRS, 2 (Rich and Fleming). A. Ross, Adventures on the Columbia. David Thompson, David Thompson’s narrative, 1784–1812, ed. R. [G.] Glover (new ed., Toronto, 1962). H. H. Bancroft [and H. L. Oakes], History of the northwest coast (2v., San Francisco, 1884), 2. Rich, Hist. of HBC. Robert Rumilly, La Compagnie du Nord-Ouest, une épopée montréalaise (2v., Montréal, 1980). W. S. Wallace, “A note on Ross Cox,” CHR, 14 (1933): 408.