Source: courtesy Wikimedia Commons
OGDEN, PETER SKENE (baptized Skeene, he also signed Skeen and Skein), fur trader and explorer; baptized 12 Feb. 1790 at Quebec, son of Isaac Ogden*, jurist, and Sarah Hanson; d. 27 Sept. 1854 in Oregon City (Oreg.).
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.
His first station was at Île-à-la-Crosse (Sask.), where soon after his arrival at the end of September 1810 he and fellow clerk Samuel Black* were involved in a fight with Peter Fidler* at the nearby HBC post. By 1814 Ogden was in charge of the post at the north end of Green Lake, about 100 miles south of Île-à-la-Crosse. What little is known of his activities during these years comes from HBC records, which note with growing disapproval the bully-boy tactics he and Black employed. In May 1816 Ogden crossed the boundary between physical assault, which had become a commonplace in the trade war, and killing, which had not. According to HBC officer James Bird, in charge at Edmonton House (Edmonton), Ogden and a small group of his men forced the HBC clerk at Green Lake, Robert McVicar*, to hand over to them a local Indian who had persisted in trading with the British company. When McVicar complied, the Indian was “butchered in a most cruel manner” just a short distance from the fort. A year later Ogden dressed his violent behaviour in a legal guise for the benefit of a visiting Nor’Wester, Ross Cox: “In this place, where the custom of the country, or as lawyers say, the Lex non scripta is our only guide, we must, in our acts of summary legislation, sometimes perform the parts of judge, jury, sheriff, hangman, gallows and all.” Cox found his host “humorous, honest, eccentric, law-defying . . . and the delight of all gay fellows,” but to the HBC he was a dangerous man, whose actions were particularly to be deplored in light of his family background. In February 1818 an account of the incident at Green Lake was forwarded to Lord Bathurst, secretary of state for war and the colonies, by Governor Joseph Berens of the HBC, who pointed out that with a judge for a father Ogden “cannot surely shelter himself under the plea of not knowing right from wrong or grounding thereupon an excuse for murdering an Indian in cold blood, merely because the Indian was attempting to trade with [the HBC].”
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.”
On six separate expeditions between 1824 and 1830 Ogden did this, and more. The first expedition ran into trouble when Ogden lost many of his freemen, independent traders outfitted by the company, and their furs to a larger American group; the final expedition experienced tragedy near the end when 9 men, 500 furs, and Ogden’s papers disappeared in the swirling cascades of the Dalles on the Columbia River. But between these misfortunes Ogden’s returns delighted Chief Factor John McLoughlin, his immediate superior, who wrote enthusiastically that the Snake country ventures were yielding 100 per cent profits. They were profits made at a cost, however, for even by tough fur-trade standards the hardships of the Snake country were exceptional. Men and horses fell sick and died, were killed by Indian arrows, froze in winter, and suffered from heat and fever in summer. In June 1827, as Ogden’s party was heading northeast from Goose Lake (Calif.), a region where liquid mud was their only drink, he wrote that “this is certainly a most horrid life in a word I may say without exaggeration Man in this Country is deprived of every comfort that can tend to make existance desirable.” Later that month the once-sturdy Ogden noted with disgust how illness, low rations, and excessively high temperatures had reduced him “to Skin and Bone.” His journals, sometimes cynical in tone and often outspoken, give the overriding impression of a persistent and tenacious personality. With his men and horses Ogden discovered the Humboldt River (Nev.) and sighted Great Salt Lake (Utah). On his last expedition he probably reached the lower Colorado River and possibly the Gulf of California. Either to carry out exploration or to trap furs was an achievement over such terrain and to combine the two was a remarkable feat.
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.
Ogden left New Caledonia in 1844 for a one-year furlough, much of which he spent in England, where the HBC London committee was preoccupied with the looming Oregon question [see George Simpson]. On his return to Canada in 1845 he accompanied two British army officers, Mervin Vavasour* and Henry James Warre*, on their secret surveying trip from Lachine, Lower Canada, to the Columbia. In 1845 Ogden had also been appointed to the newly formed board of management for the Columbia district, with McLoughlin and James Douglas*, and after his arrival at Fort Vancouver in August he carried out his instructions to purchase Cape Disappointment at the mouth of the Columbia for the HBC. Regardless of this apparent claim to sovereignty, the Oregon Boundary Treaty of June 1846 fixed the frontier between British and American territory at the 49th parallel, placing the lower Columbia in the United States. Ogden, who together with Douglas and John Work* ran the Columbia district after the retirement of McLoughlin in 1846, now faced the problems of operating in an area which had passed under foreign control. Not least of these problems was the arrival of increasing numbers of settlers from the east, disrupting the stable relations with the Indians upon which the trading activities of the HBC depended.
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.”
Ogden’s last years at Fort Vancouver were frustrating ones as he coped with the problems of a fast-changing environment in which settlers and prospectors were more in evidence than fur traders and Indians. In August 1854, in ill health, he left Fort Vancouver for Oregon City, where he died in September at 64 years of age. He died a man of some substance, and his will made careful provision for a division of land, cash, and bank stock between his children (one son from his first country marriage and seven from his second), his grandchildren, and other relatives. Unlike other fur traders such as McLoughlin, Ogden never formalized by Christian rite his country marriage with Julia and after his death his brother Charles Richard* and his sister Harriet Lawrence began legal proceedings to have Julia and the rest of Ogden’s family disinherited. As one of the executors of the estate, Simpson worked towards a compromise by which the property was divided. Over the years Simpson’s views on Ogden had changed. Mellower now than he had been, Simpson still did not give his friendship easily, and it was a measure both of Ogden’s professional competence and of his personal qualities that the governor noted in November 1854, “Few persons I believe knew him so well or esteemed his friendship more highly than myself.”
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.