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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County history: Paul Kane

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: March 2, 2024, 6:00am

Thrown over his horse’s head while pursuing a bison, a stunned Paul Kane quickly remounted, thanks to the Indigenous men who’d caught his pony.

Immediately, they reentered the multitude of running buffalo. Kane shot a large bull. Wounded, it just stood there. He dismounted to sketch it. The bull charged. Kane dropped his rifle and his sketchpad, leapt into the saddle and rode to safety. The bull pawed at his abandoned equipment. Then, suddenly, it trotted back into the herd.

Kane scooped up his materials and pursued the buffalo, wounding it a second time. He wrote in his journal that the beast stood long enough for him to complete a sketch.

A Canadian immigrant from Ireland, Kane traveled through Hudson’s Bay territory with the blessing of George Simpson, the Hudson’s Bay Company governor. The “Little Emperor” supplied Kane with transportation and lodging for his Western trip and commissioned a dozen paintings on behalf of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Voyaging from Fort Walla Walla, he arrived at Fort Vancouver in December 1846, where Chief Factors James Douglas and Peter Skene Ogden welcomed him. He sketched landscapes and Indigenous men and women, and wrote about the fort at that time.

He mentioned that Fort Vancouver was the largest Hudson’s Bay post in the Pacific Northwest and noted that “strong pickets about 16 feet high” surrounded its buildings. The population, he claimed, included 20 clerks and 200 voyagers residing with their wives in a village of log huts “near the margin of the river,” describing the inhabitants as a “mixture of English, French, Iroquois, Sandwich Islanders (Hawaiians), Crees and Chinooks.”

Many of the era had a bipolar view of Indigenous people, including Kane. His paintings portrayed Natives in the Romantic style of the period. In his writings, he considered them pitiable, describing their language as “barbarous” and judging them as “filthy” persons who “abounded in vermin.”

The Chinook cradle-boarded their infants to heighten the foreheads; Kane and others labeled them “Flatheads.” Yet he took a scientific-like interest in describing the process, even using his field drawings to paint a mother with a sloped forehead and her cradled child after he had returned to Canada.

Kane saw the fort’s land as bountiful. The self-educated artist depicted it as fertile and covered with oak and pine trees “of the finest description.” He admired a large farm cultivated 8 miles east of the fort, yielding more grain than the populace could eat. The factors sold excess grain to the Sandwich Islands and Russia.

Kane saw cattle all around, as well as sheep. And he told how the former chief factor, John McLoughlin, forbade any eating of cattle until the herd reached 600. Kane suggested the fort’s importance to the Hudson’s Bay Company by the presence of the British warship HMS Modeste, which had been anchored on the Columbia River for two years.

Americans began emigrating to Oregon in 1841, and the westward flow continued. McLoughlin assisted them, to the company’s consternation.

After a visit to Oregon City, Ore., Kane returned briefly to Fort Vancouver before heading to Fort Victoria. He stopped along the Kattlepoutal (Lewis) River on March 26, 1847, and painted the first picture of Mount St. Helens erupting.

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

Columbian freelance contributor