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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County History: Marguerite McLoughlin, the first lady of Fort Vancouver

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: November 4, 2023, 6:11am

Before Marguerite McLoughlin (circa 1775-1860) became first lady of Fort Vancouver, she was married to Alexander McKay, a clerk at the North West Company’s Fort William in present day Canada. He later took their son, Thomas, to help John Jacob Astor found Fort George at the mouth of the Columbia River, leaving Marguerite behind with their three daughters.

Husbands “casting off” in this way was common in the fur business because of men’s mobility. It nullified country marriages, the term for common-law marriages between European fur traders and Indigenous women.

In 1811, McKay died in a conflict with the Indigenous people living at Clayoquot Sound when they blew up the Tonquin, leaving no survivors. Marguerite had lost a man important in her life before. As a 7-year-old, Marguerite watched a fur trader murder her father, Jean-Etienne Waddens. How she and her mother survived afterward isn’t known.

While she was at Fort William, Marguerite met Dr. John McLoughlin (1784-1857), who worked as a North West Company clerk there. When McKay died, Marguerite befriended the younger McLoughlin, whose wife had died in childbirth, leaving him with a child. Although he was trained in Western medicine, Marguerite added her understanding of native herbs and plants to assist with patients’ health care. When the British government pressured the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company to merge in 1821, the two were paired in a country marriage. They had four children together: John Jr., Elisabeth, Eloisa and David.

In 1820, Marguerite McLoughlin’s husband sailed to England to work on the merger, returning in 1822. Two years later, McLoughlin, now a Hudson’s Bay Company employee, took Marguerite, David and Eloisa to the Manitoba York Factory on the west side of Hudson’s Bay. John Jr. and Elisabeth stayed behind. There, her husband received orders to move to the Columbia River and build Fort Vancouver.

Although the fort eventually held a large population, giving it a vibrant and quasi-cosmopolitan flavor, Marguerite and other upper-class ladies led reclusive lifestyles separate from the men, never eating in the same mess or meeting visitors. Theirs was a domestic role. For example, Marguerite managed the servants, looked after the household and children, and did handiwork.

Once Rev. Herbert Beaver arrived at Fort Vancouver, the McLoughlins immediately clashed with the arrogant and overbearing Anglican. The outspoken Beaver considered country marriages sinful. He also criticized Marguerite in letters back to his church. One day, John McLoughlin and Beaver crossed paths and argued. The quick-tempered McLoughlin hit the reverend with his cane, only to apologize the following day. Whether this conflict was about McLoughlin’s informal marriage isn’t known.

In the 1840s, Marguerite received an exquisite gift: a Chinese Chippendale-style sewing cabinet filled with hand-carved, tiny sewing utensils. The Chinese made it for export to America and Europe, adding beautiful designs that often adorned the most commonplace, practical instruments of the day. The sewing cabinet sat atop a small table, and each is covered with artwork. The gift was passed down through the family until 1947, when it was donated to the McLoughlin House in Oregon City, Ore.

The McLoughlins married in the Catholic Church in 1842. After her husband’s forced retirement from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1846, Marguerite opened their Oregon City home, turning the McLoughlin House into a hospitable community hub.

Columbian freelance contributor