At 6-foot-4-inches tall with a leonine crop of white hair capping his head and a broad-shouldered physique, John McLoughlin (1784-1857) appeared overwhelming. His Hudson Bay Company boss, Gov. George Simpson, described him as touchy, reckless, a self-proclaimed righter of wrongs, and a zealot in exercising his duties. Still, Simpson trusted his subordinate sufficiently to leave HBC’s immense Columbia Department in his hands.
At 14, McLoughlin apprenticed to a physician. Five years later, he acquired a medical license. Soon after, he joined Canada’s North West Company fur business. After rising slowly in the company, he gained a partnership and negotiated the firm’s union with HBC. At 31, he’d clocked nearly two decades in the fur trade.
The first 1824 Fort Vancouver (near the Washington State School for the Deaf) offered a beautiful view of the Columbia River. While the fort held high ground, HBC employees lugged materials and water a mile on a rugged uphill road, making it unsuitable as a permanent supply depot. The fort rebuilt to move closer to the river in 1829.
Simpson issued detailed orders for his chief factor. McLoughlin toiled to increase his company’s profitability and his outpost’s survival. He oversaw the creation of a farm and planted the first wheat in the Pacific Northwest. He also introduced fruit and cattle, horses and hogs, although he forbade killing beef to the consternation of visiting sailors and guests.
In 1828, he ordered a small sawmill built and Simpson thought that profitability of the lumber trade might outpace that of furs. As chief factor, McLoughlin also tried trading barrels of dried salmon along the coast. He’d even delved into the possibility of exporting small quantities of beer.
As Americans wandered west, the HBC tried discouraging them. McLoughlin refused to aid Benjamin Bonneville’s expedition and forbade his men from helping. Yet travelers found their way to the fort, including botanist David Douglas, painter Paul Kane and the Wyeth exploration party.
When desperate Americans appeared at the Oregon Trail’s end in the 1830s, his position softened, and he sold them provisions on credit. Defying the HBC, he felt he had no other choice as a Christian. Simpson blasted his softheartedness. He wrote back, “the Bible says if my enemy is hungry, I must feed him, if naked, I must clothe him, but these destitute men and helpless women and children were not my enemies, and I am sure that God does not want me to do more for my enemies than these.”
When his son, John McLoughlin Jr., died in a mysterious shooting accident at Fort Stikine in 1842, McLoughlin doggedly demanded an investigation into his death. The HBC was reluctant, despite the possibility his son was murdered. His charity toward American immigrants, falling departmental revenue and his persistent nagging for an inquiry into his son’s death got him sacked in 1845. He left HBC and moved his family to Oregon City, Ore., where he built the McLoughlin House, practiced medicine and died five years later.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.