GORDON, JOHN, naval officer; b. 1792, the seventh child of George, Lord Haddo, and Charlotte Baird; d. 11 Nov. 1869 in London, England.
Shortly before John Cordon’s birth his father died. John entered the Royal Navy on 15 April 1805, attained commander’s rank on 15 June 1814, and served for ten months on the Newfoundland station. He was promoted post captain on 31 Dec. 1818. He then went on the inactive list for 26 years. Personal influence, however, may have brought Gordon the command of the 50-gun frigate America on the Pacific station on 22 Feb. 1844. At that time his brother, the 4th Earl of Aberdeen, was foreign secretary, and another brother, William, was a lord of the Admiralty and an associate of Sir George Francis Seymour, commander-in-chief of the Pacific station at Valparaiso, Chile. Gordon, whose duties would include transporting specie to England, could expect his appointment to prove lucrative since about one half of one per cent of all specie conveyed by British ships from Latin America to England was the captain’s legal share.
In February 1845 the British government sent Gordon in the America from England to Oregon to give naval support to the Hudson’s Bay Company during the Oregon boundary dispute. After a laborious voyage Gordon arrived off Cape Flattery on 28 Aug. 1845 and, missing the entrance to Fort Victoria, Vancouver Island, sailed on to Port Discovery. There he ordered Lieutenant William Peel, son of the British prime minister, and Captain Henry W. Parke to proceed to Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, Wash.) to ascertain “the actual state of the Country on the Banks of the River Columbia, and the district called Oregon.” Gordon’s instructions to Peel of 2 Sept. 1845 also told him to give the Americans no “cause of jealousy or offence,” except in self-defence, and to cooperate with Chief Factor John McLoughlin*. At Fort Vancouver Peel conferred with Henry James Warre* and Mervin Vavasour about their secret military reconnaissance in Oregon.
In September 1845 while the America lay at Port Discovery, Gordon spoke about Oregon with HBC Chief Factor James Douglas*, who reported that Gordon “does not think the country worth five straws and is surprised that Government should take any trouble about it . . . He did not appear at all friendly to the Hudsons Bay Company, and told me plainly that we could not expect to hold the entire country.” Roderick Finlayson* at Fort Victoria reported Gordon as saying about Vancouver Island that he would not give “one acre of the barren hills of Scotland for all that he saw around him” and that Gordon, “a great deer stalker,” considered the hunting and fishing on Vancouver Island to be much inferior to that of Scotland. “What a country where the salmon will not take the fly.” He agreed with Peel, however, when the latter returned from his mission, that if the 49th parallel were to be the boundary, Vancouver Island, possessing good harbours, commanding the Juan de Fuca and Georgia straits, and soon to be the company headquarters in the region, must be retained. He also advocated freedom of navigation in the straits. Gordon dispatched Peel with the information that had been gathered to London, which Peel reached by 10 Feb. 1846. It augmented British knowledge about Oregon at a critical time in the negotiations Lord Aberdeen was conducting with the United States on the future of Oregon. Gordon’s recommended boundary, as conveyed by Peel, was the one proposed by the British and accepted by the Americans.
Gordon left Port Discovery in the America on 26 Sept. 1845 bound for Honolulu. Rear-Admiral Seymour instructed him to remain in the northeastern Pacific and watch the movements of the United States Navy because he feared American designs on upper California. Although Gordon appreciated this threat, he came under great pressure to return to England from merchants at Mazatlán, Mexico, who wanted a safe repository for their wealth in case of war. Laden with Mexican specie worth nearly $2,000,000 according to Gordon’s estimate, the America reached England on 19 Aug. 1846. Gordon was court-martialled on 26 August at Portsmouth for leaving his station without orders. The charge was “fully proved” and he was “severely reprimanded,” but the suspicion that he had sought personal gain was removed. Although not relieved of his command, Gordon accepted retirement on generous terms on 1 October. He rose on the retired list pari passu, was promoted admiral in 1863, and died in 1869.
HBC Arch. B. 226/b/1, ff. 35–36d. Maritime Museum of B.C. (Victoria), “H.M.S. America, 1810–1867,” [comp. P. W. Brock] (typescript). National Maritime Museum (London), JOD/42 (Journal of Lieutenant Thomas Davies, H.M.S. America, 1844–47, in the Pacific, and in H.M.S. Cygnet, 1850–52, off West Africa). PRO, Adm. 1/5561–62, 1/5564, 1/5568; 13/103–4; 53/1946. Warwick County Record Office (Warwick, Eng.), CR 114A/414/1 (Seymour of Ragley papers), Seymour order book. HBRS, VII (Rich), liv. O’Byrne, Naval biographical dictionary (1849), 411. Walbran, B.C. coast names. B. M. Gough, The Royal Navy and the northwest coast of North America, 1810–1914: a study of British maritime ascendancy (Vancouver, 1971), 50–83; “H.M.S. America on the north Pacific coast,” Oreg. Hist. Quarterly (Portland), LXX (1969), 293–311.