Wednesday, January 19, 2022
Jan. 19, 2022

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Clark County History: Forbes Barclay

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An unnamed boatswain lost a lottery during the Canadian Arctic winter of 1831-32, which meant his life. The ship, Victory, frozen in ice at Felix Harbour, couldn’t be freed until the spring thaw. Explorer John Ross, the captain, had failed his second attempt to find and explore the Northwest Passage and his men were starving.

The lottery randomly selected one man to die, so the few remaining might survive a while longer, hopefully until spring. Before the crew implemented the grisly plan, Eskimos rescued the few sailors left, among them a young Scotsman, Forbes Barclay (1807 or 1812-1873). If not for the Eskimos, Fort Vancouver would have lost a future surgeon and Oregon City, Ore., a future mayor.

Barclay, born with a cleft palate in the Shetland Islands, dropped out of the University of Edinburgh, seeking adventure aboard the Victory — and the long-sought sea passage through North America. He found more than he bargained for. Ross later discovered the north and south magnetic poles. Barclay, his adventures temporarily sated, returned to Scotland where he re-enrolled at Edinburgh and after that, the Royal College of Surgeons in London, graduating in 1838.

Because his family had connections to the Hudson’s Bay Company, the following year Barclay joined the company as clerk and surgeon. He sailed to Canada, then onto Fort Vancouver, where he relieved Dr. W.F. Tolmie and served from 1840 to 1850 as chief physician with distinction. Barclay became a close friend of John McLoughlin, chief factor, and found a wife at the fort. He was the fort’s librarian and ran the store where Indigenous people could trade for goods from England.

In the spring of 1842, at Fort Vancouver, Dr. Barclay married 16-year-old Miss Maria Pambrun. Chief Factor McLoughlin signed their wedding certificate. Maria was the daughter of an HBC French Canadian clerk and a Métis woman of Indigenous and French descent. Her mother moved their family to the fort after her husband died falling from a horse in 1838.

When HBC moved north to Vancouver Island, Canada, Barclay moved his wife and three children to Oregon City. There he built what is now the Barclay House, and Maria bore four more children. When the Barclays arrived, they and the McLoughlins became close again. They even named McLoughlin their new children’s godfather, and he witnessed one daughter’s baptism. The two men also ran a sawmill.

In 1852, after the company’s withdrawal, Barclay and two others formed the Puget Sound Agricultural Society to colonize Vancouver Island. (Whether this was under the HBC or not is unclear.) Barclay helped about 25 English families immigrate there the following year. However, the society hadn’t prepared housing, and the families made do for themselves.

At Oregon City, Barclay practiced family medicine while holding civic office positions, sometimes more than one at once. He was the first coroner in Oregon (1853-73), a school superintendent (1857-72), a city councilman (1864-73) and even the mayor of Oregon City (1864-73). In his first run for mayor, The Oregonian called Barclay “one of the best men we have in Oregon.”


Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

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