I think now that I have mentioned my great-great-grandfather, James Birnie, in a recent posting (he planted the first potatoes at Fort Colvile and was in charge of nearby Spokane House), I can now publish his full story -- the result of many years of research and numerous accidental discoveries.
The best discoveries are, of course, always accidental...
If anyone who stumbles on this posting is a descendant of James and Charlot Birnie -- there are many of us scattered around -- by all means, please get in touch with me and I will give you access to the large family tree on ancestry.ca.
James and Charlot Birnie, Laird and Lady of Cathlamet
The Hudson's Bay Company took over the Columbia district from the North West Company in 1821, and for the next two decades the British traders and their Chinookian neighbours remained relatively undisturbed by the Americans, who by agreement between the British and American governments, jointly owned the territory the fur traders occupied.
The HBC men knew their business would eventually be threatened by American settlers, but it was not until the men of the United States Exploring Expedition returned home from Puget's Sound, that the settlers came in larger numbers.
By the mid-1840's Americans had settled the territory in sufficient numbers to negatively affect the fur traders' business, but one trader saw opportunity.
James Birnie, a Scottish born company clerk with 28 years of anticipation and disappointment in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company, retired to build a home at a place he called "Birnie's Retreat." The Retreat became Cathlamet, and the settlement's founder thrived and became relatively rich.
The self-satisfied James Birnie considered himself to be the Laird of Wehkaikhum and Charlot his lady, but they were unlikely royalty.
Neither James nor Charlot had begun their lives at the top of the social heap -- anything but, in fact.
Born in Scotland in late 1796 James Birnie was baptized in St. Nicholas' parish, City of Aberdeen, on December 18 [Endnote #1 below].
The baptismal certificate recorded that James' father was a tanner named Robert, and Robert's birth record stated he was born in the City of Aberdeen in 1765 [#2].
Robert's father, James, was a shoemaker when he married Isabel Moir in Old Machar, Aberdeen City, on February 9, 1763[#3].
Cathlamet's founding father was descended from three or more generations of labourers who worked with leather and hides in the old part of Aberdeen City.
The younger James Birnie chose no such career as shoemaker or tanner, but joined the fur trade of the North West Company.
It is possible that, at that time, the NWC was hiring men familiar with tanning and leather, and that Birnie's future job in the NWC might have been to tan and stretch the beaver pelts trappers brought into camp.
Whatever his fur trade job may have been, James Birnie would have been optimistic about his chances of success: one line of the song he and his shipmates supposedly sang on board the ship included the line, "There's wealth in honest labour."
Local historians say Birnie wrote down and kept the words of the song:
"Cheer, boys, cheer! No more of idle sorrow
Courage, true hearts, shall bear us on our way
Hope points before, and shows us the bright tomorrow
Let us forget the darkness of today!" [#4]
There is no record of the date Birnie arrived at the NWC headquarters in Lachine, but it was probably in summer or fall, 1816.
Family stories say he stayed in Lachine for two years, learning the French language of the fur trade from a priest.
It is likely he left Lachine in spring 1818 with the outgoing canoes for the interior, and entered the Columbia district at Boat Encampment in early November of the same year. [#5]
Birnie may have travelled all the way downriver to the company's headquarters at the mouth of the Columbia River, but it is more likely he left the canoes at Donald McKenzie's newly constructed Fort Nez Perces, on the Walla Walla River.
The primary purpose of McKenzie's Fort Nez Perces was to serve as headquarters for his trapping expeditions into the Snake River basin.
On the banks of the Boise River McKenzie's trappers found beaver, and a month later they hunted the fur-rich territory between the Snake and Green Rivers.
James Birnie arrived at Fort Nez Perces too late to join the first party of trappers, but by the time clerk William Kittson reached McKenzie's Boise River camp in May 1819, he found Birnie already there. [#6]
In spring 1820, Birnie accompanied the men who delivered the beaver pelts to the company's headquarters at Fort George [Astoria].
With Birnie travelled the then fourteen-year old daughter of an ex-North West Company employee named Beaulieu.
At Fort George, the gentleman in charge (likely James Keith) married Birnie to Charlot Beaulieu. [#7]
Charlot Birnie's gravestone in Cathlamet's Pioneer Cemetery indicates she was born in Red River in 1805.
Her children recorded her mother was Cree, and her father a French Canadian free-trader named "Bolio," [Beaulieu] who trapped in the North West Company's Kootenae district for many years.
Historian T. C. Elliott suggested that this Beaulieu might have been David Thompson's engage who remained in the district when Thompson returned to Montreal in 1812. [#8]
No primary sources identify David Thompson's Beaulieu as Charlot's father, but a number of secondary sources strongly suggest the possibility.
Firstly, a genealogy written by a Birnie descendant states that "the only sister of Charlotte Beaulieu married a [Joseph] Rondeau and lived at or near St. Paul, Minn., supposed to be very well to do." [#9] No records exist for the sister Josephine's birth, but census indicate she was born around 1808-1810, and her son's death certificate records she was born in Montana. [#10]
Montana was not a state until 1889, but David Thompson's Beaulieu traded for furs in the area around Saleesh House, now known to be near present day Thompson Falls, Montana.
Another secondary record states the belief, or knowledge, that Charlot's father was Thompson's engage. Along with Joseph and Josephine Rondeau's descendants, other residents in St. Paul, Minnesota, included descendants of Basile and Paul Hudon dit Beaulieu, two French Canadian brothers who worked in the North West Company's fur trade south of the Great Lakes.
Clement Hudon dit Beaulieu (1811-1893), son of Bazile, noted that the Beaulieu who accompanied Thompson in 1807-11 was a man named Henri, a member of the Hudon dit Beaulieu family.
It is important to know that Clement did not know his close relative, the Henri Beaulieu who entered the fur trade; Clement received correspondence, perhaps, that stated Henri worked in the NWCo's fur trade, and he did not know where Henri was employed, other than somewhere along the Saskatchewan River.
There was at least one Henri Beaulieu in the fur trade records of that time, and it is impossible to prove that Henri Hudon dit Beaulieu was the Beaulieu who accompanied Thompson [and I think he did not] -- but a handwritten note in the same file strengthens the argument that Josephine (Beaulieu) Rondeau, of St. Paul, understood she was a descendant of David Thompson's Beaulieu:
"The Christian name of Saskatchewan Beaulieu was Henry H -- The Rondeaus of St. Paul are his descendants on the maternal side." [#11]
Clement Hudon dit Beaulieu could only have received that last piece of information from Josephine Rondeau.
Between 1810 and 1820, the North West Company men west of the Rocky Mountains had little competition from the Hudson's Bay Company, but it was a different story for the fur traders on the prairies, and in the Athabasca district to the north.
For ten or more years a fierce competition for furs raged among the competing traders of the NWC and HBC, who had its headquarters at York Factory, on Hudson's Bay.
Because of its long supply lines between Montreal and Red River, the NWC eventaully lost the competition and, in 1821, the two companies merged under the name of the Hudson's Bay Company.
At this time, Chief Factor John Haldane shared with J. D. Cameron the command of the Columbia Department, with Haldane posted at Spokane House and the other man at Fort George.
After 1821, the Governor of the new company, George Simpson, made severe cuts in the numbers of men employed in the forts west of the mountains, and Haldane gave his opinion that, of the men who worked in his district, five clerks and two apprentice-clerks might be re-engaged when their contracts expired, and the rest released from the Company's service.
Apprentice-clerk James Birnie was one of the men who Haldane chose to re-hire at 75 pounds a year. [#12]
In April 1822, clerk Finan McDonald recorded in the Spokane House journals that Birnie had left for Fort George with seventy-five packs of furs. [#13]
On July 16, Birnie returned to Spokane House, and on July 23 he took over the Spokane House post journals.
Now twenty-six years old, James Birnie expected that the HBC's fur trade would provide him with a rewarding career, with promotion to chief trader in time.
Each HBC clerk anticipated being made chief trader -- a position that not only offered a marked increase in wages but included a share in the company's profits.
James Birnie's Spokane House journal entries noted that the men constructed new buildings and maintained a fish trip, or barriere, that sometimes provided them with fresh fish.
The express men passed up the Columbia River near the fort, and horse brigades arrived from the Snake River district.
Birnie's spelling is sometimes creative, but his notes are well written and give a good deal of information on the life of a fur trader -- for example:
"The men in the woods have cut & squared on two sides 175 pieces of 11 feet long & 80 pieces 13 feet long. The sawyers have cut 60 pieces which makes 120 palisades. The two men employed cutting hay. Dephance was sent out to assist them in drying it. Today a party of young Spokans left this for to join a war party at Okanagan. Before leaving this, they went round the fort thrice for to show that they included us among their friends. They were all equipt in warlike array & now and then giving the war whoop." [#14]
On August 15, 1822, Charlot Birnie gave birth to their first child, Betsy.
Birnie's Spokane House journal ends eight months later, though there is no indication he is leaving the fort.
However, the Birnie family was at Fort George in February 1824, when Charlot gave birth to their second child, Robert. [#15]
Birnie was employed at Fort Okanagan when, on November 1, 1824, George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, and Chief Factor John McLoughlin arrived at the post. [#16]
McLoughlin had crossed the Rocky Mountains to take charge of the Columbia district, and Simpson travelled with him to assess what was happening in this district so new to the HBC.
Simpson noted the expensive imported provisions the ex-NWC men had become used to, and ordered that the forts west of the mountains grow more of their own food.
There was good farming land one hundred miles inland from Fort George, and Simpson decided that the new HBC headquarters should be built at that spot, and Fort George abandoned.
As other posts in the interior would also be required to grow more of their own food, Simpson instructed that the inconveniently placed Spokane House be replaced with a new post built near the Ilthkoyape (Kettle) Falls, where there was more good farmland.
McLoughlin placed Birnie in charge of Spokane House in summer 1825, and Birnie planted the first crop of potatoes on the plains that surrounded the place where John Work was to begin construction of Fort Colvile later that summer.
In August 1825, McLoughlin moved Birnie back to Fort Okanogan, and in the spring of 1826, Birnie crossed the Rocky Mountains with the outgoing express to Edmonton House, where they joined the Saskatchewan brigade that carried the year's furs to York Factory.
By July. Birnie was at the HBC headquarters on Hudson's Bay.
A literate young man, named Lieutenant Aemelius Simpson, travelled west with the Saskatchewan boats on his way to Fort Vancouver. [#17]
Simpson reported that the Saskatchewan brigade crossed the top of Lake Winnipeg to the mouth of the Saskatchewan River on August 1st, 1826.
Twenty days later the boats arrived at Carlton House.
At the end of August, James Birnie and others took to horseback across the plains, expecting to reached Edmonton House in four days time, while the slower brigade boats arrived on September 9.
Three days after the boats' arrival the usual party was thrown for the expressmen at Edmonton House. On September 13 the men of the Columbia express started their journey over the horse portage with eighty loaded horses, and a day later James Birnie rode away from Edmonton House with the remaining gentlemen.
On September 18, Simpson's party reached Fort Assiniboine, but Birnie's party was delayed by rain and mud for five additional days.
Two days after the latter party's arrival, the Columbia express headed upriver in boats toward the Rocky Mountains, and on October 6 reached Jasper's House.
The express-men crossed the mountains on foot to Boat Encampment; on October 21 they arrived at newly constructed Fort Colvile.
Further downriver they traded with Nez Perces Natives for horses, and Birnie left the express boats behind to help drive the horses overland to the newly constructed headquarters of Fort Vancouver.
Fort Vancouver had just been built on the north shore of the Columbia River opposite the mouth of the Willamette, and was completed in April 1825.
In the 1825 Minutes of Council Birnie was assigned to the Thompson's River [Kamloops] post, but remained at Fort Vancouver to help finish construction. [#18]
In the same Minutes of Council, Birnie's name appeared on the list of clerks permitted to retire the following spring.
Whether or not Birnie knew his name was on that list of men is not known, but he apparently remained optimistic he would receive a promotion.
He signed a new contract with the company, and in November 1826 McLoughlin sent him with dispatches for Chief Trader A. R. McLeod, leader of the first trapping expedition south to the Umpqua River.
In mid-December, McLeod returned to the old Umpqua establishment to find Birnie waiting for him, and on December 20, Birnie and two men set off on their return journey to Fort Vancouver, riding their horses northward through heavy west-coast rain. [#19]
On his return journey to Fort Vancouver, Birnie met the naturalist David Douglas and they shared a meal. [#20]
In October 1827, Birnie was sent to Fort Nez Perces to assist and strengthen the express party as they travelled down the Columbia River to headquarters. [#21]
One of the two Upper Chinookian tribes who lived at the Dalles -- the Wascos or the Wishram -- had been more hostile than usual, and McLoughlin worried for the safety of the express.
There appears, however, to have been no trouble between the fur traders and the Natives, and the express reached Fort Vancouver in safety.
In July 1828, Birnie's contract with the Company again expired, but Birnie was rehired at a wage of 75 pounds.
By this time, he was thirty years old and had enough experience in the HBC's fur trade to anticipate a promotion.
In September 1829, John Warren Dease met Birnie at Fort Vancouver. [#22]
By October 4 Birnie was building a new post at the Dalles of the Columbia River, with the goal of preventing the Natives' furs from falling into the hands of an American competitor.
As the best trading place at the Dalles was amongst the Wishram Natives, who tended to be more hostile to traders than the neighboring tribes, the nervous American trader set up his camp close to Birnie's post for protection.
Because of the presence of the competing HBC post, the American was forced to pay high prices for his furs, which his employers disapproved of.
By April 1830, it appeared the American planned to quit the post and join the HBC. [#23]
Probably Birnie closed down his Dalles post at about same time the American left; he was at Fort George in summer 1830 when he was kept busy doctoring the men sick from an illness the fur traders called "intermittent fever."
The unidentified fever hit the district hard that year, and dozens of men fell ill.
It was probably a form of malaria, which appears to have come in on the American ship Owyhee.
On March 14, 1833, Birnie boarded the ship, Dryad, with the other gentlemen heading north to Fort Simpson, on the Northwest coast close to Russian-owned territories (now Alaska). [#24]
At the mouth of the Columbia, heavy breakers falling across the bar stopped the Dryad -- not an uncommon occurrence as ships were often delayed for weeks by weather.
In this case, the ship was delayed a month before the winds and seas calmed enough so that she could sail across the sandbars that almost completely blocked the river's mouth.
On April 24, 1833, Birnie reached his new posting at Fort Simpson, far up the wide estuary of the Nass River.
This tree-bound fort was located on a rocky point deep in the forest, in a dreary location where the fierce north winds whistled around the fort walls for nine months of every year.
No post journals survive for the time Birnie spent at Fort Simpson, but his next adventure began the following summer, when Peter Skene Ogden sailed north to build a fort on the Stikine River.
To get to where Ogden wanted to construct his new post, the HBC men must sail up the Stikine River through the ten-mile wide strip of land the Russian fur traders occupied.
On May 15, 1834, James Birnie brought his entire family on board the Dryad for the journey north from Fort Simpson. [#25]
When the HBC men arrived at the mouth of the Stikine River, they were astonished to find that the Russians had recently established a post on the point of land at the river's mouth.
The Russians did not want their lucrative trade with the interior Natives interrupted by an HBC post up the Stikine, nor did the Tlingit people appreciate have their position as middlemen to the Russians interfered with.
The Russians blustered and threatened; the Tlingit intimidated.
The alarmed HBC men remained as long as they could to argue for access, but after a month at anchor off the Russian post, Ogden finally abandoned his scheme. [#26]
By mid-June the Dryad was back at the Nass River where Ogden had decided to build a new Fort Simpson in a warmer and more convenient location than the old.
On July 15, Birnie and the other fort builders offloaded their supplies at the location of the new fort in the estuary of the river, while Ogden sailed eastward to begin tearing down old Fort Simpson.
By September 6 the palisades of the new fort were complete and the gates locked for the first time.
On September 13 the men erected one of the two houses removed from old Fort Simpson, and on September 30 Birnie moved his family into their new house.
Already the Natives camped outside the fort walls and traded for goods in the Indian store.
On October 17, the flag was raised for the first time inside the post, and the Dryad sailed away from new Fort Simpson. [#27]
There is, again, little information on Birnie's two years on the northwest coast.
Charlot gave birth to a son in November 1834, and a few months later John Work arrived at the fort to find Birnie suffering from a liver complaint. [#28]
By the end of February, Birnie recovered enough to return to work.
At last, on February 26, 1836, James Birnie and his young family embarked on the Cadboro and sailed with a fine, fair wind away from Fort Simpson. [#29]
The so-called "liver complaint" that Birnie suffered from at Fort Simpson could have been caused by abuse of alcohol -- not unusual in these northwest coast forts where a substantial part of the supplies was good quality wines and cognacs.
But alcohol consumption was not the only possible cause of the illness the fur traders labeled liver disease.
Presuming that jaundice was the symptom from which Birnie suffered, there were many other illness that might cause jaundice -- and food poisoning was one.
Jaundice was also a side effect of the intermittent fever or malaria, an illness that might travel up and down the coast with the sailing ships.
Another condition that might cause liver disease (without jaundice) in a man who carried excess weight, as James Birnie did, was the fur-traders' diet of fatty meats and sugary potatoes that the liver turned into fat.
However, though no contemporary fur trader ever complained of Birnie being a drunk, Birnie was certainly not an abstainer and there were a few occasions when he was described as "clumsy," or acted as if he was under the influence of strong drink.
On his return to Fort Vancouver, Birnie was reassigned to Fort George [Astoria] and remained there for many years.
In the summer of 1837, Birnie's 15-year old daughter, Betsy, prepared to travel north with Peter Skene Ogden's New Caledonia brigade to be married.
Her husband-to-be, Alexander Caulfield Anderson, was a young Scottish clerk who had accompanied the Birnie family north to Fort Simpson in 1833, and who was also aboard the Dryad when it was delayed by the Russians in 1834.
Anderson was now clerk-in-charge of Fraser's Lake, hundreds of miles to the north; Betsy must travel north with Peter Skene Ogden's brigade to meet her husband-to-be.
At Fort Vancouver, Ogden asked the new missionary, Reverend Herbert Beaver, to baptize Betsy Birnie before her journey north to be married.
But the disapproving missionary refused to approve the marriage and argued that any marriage not performed by him would be illegal.
Beaver also expressed shock that Betsy was marrying a man she had not seen in four years, and declared she was not "acquainted with the principle of religion." [#30]
This last accusation was as true for Betsy as it was for everyone who grew up in a fur trade fort, and Ogden mildly stated he would have Betsy baptized by the missionaries at Fort Nez Perces and that he, a justice of the peace, would perform the marriage.
The enraged Beaver refused to end the argument.
He had brought his old-country values with him to this new world, and he argued with everyone at the fort.
After a final fierce argument with Chief Factor McLoughlin, Beaver stormed away from Fort Vancouver and returned to England.
His ship stopped briefly at Fort George, where Beaver confirmed James and Charlot Birnie's marriage. Charlot could not sign her own name; she wrote an X in the register, and Beaver noted her name beside it. [#31]
Birnie continued his work at Fort George, the recipient of many of John McLoughlin's terse letters.
The post commanded an excellent view of the mouth of the Columbia River and Birnie acted as McLoughlin's eyes.
He reported to McLoughlin any incident in the terrritory; he made purchases from ship captains and collected debts from those who were attempting to escape by ship.
Birnie shipped out salmon and salt and furs and potatoes, he delivered messages to the sea captains and traded for furs with the Natives, but not the free-traders.
In one terse letter, McLoughlin gave Birnie instructions on how to make caviar, and told him to "make as much as you can." [#32]
Finally James Birnie oversaw the salting and pickling of the hundreds of barrels of fine Columbia salmon processed at Fort George and exported to the Sandwich [Hawaiian] Islands and elsewhere.
It was unlikely that Birnie took an active part in the work; Birnie's son reported that "Father was a good trader, a great reader and an expert at accounts, but when it came to shooting or rowing or other work of that nature he let his employees take care of it." [#33]
Salting and preserving salmon was work that Charlot might have done, however.
The method of preserving salmon was an old HBC recipe, used everywhere in the northwest.
The women cut off the head of the fish and removed the backbone, and the "salter" placed the salmon in a large hogshead and covered them with coarse salt [and presumably, water].
After a few days the flesh firmed up and the women drained off the pickle and boiled it in a large kettle, skimming off the blood that rose to the surface.
The salmon themselves were packed in 42-gallon kegs, which were sealed and laid on their sides with the bunghole left open.
The boiled pickle was poured in until the keg was filled; when no more fish-oil rose to the surface of the pickle, the keg was sealed and stored. [#34]
Everyone at a fur trade post had work to do, and Charlot's work also included making dozens of pairs of moccasins from leather, and sewing the caps, mittens, and leggings worn by everyone in the fort and sold in Fort Vancouver's store.
Women hand-sewed their own dresses and their husband's clothes as well; they gathered and dried berries, snared small game such as rabbits and martens, and caught fish for the table and for salting. They weeded the company's gardens and planted and harvested the potatoes that grew outside the fort and scrubbed and washed down the fort every spring.
Men's work varied more than women's, and took them away from the fort more often.
In May 1840, Birnie acted as pilot for the ship Lausanne as it made its way upriver from Baker's Bay, just inside the mouth of the Columbia.
The Lausanne carried Methodist missionaries, including one who later returned to Fort George to set up his mission on the Clatsop Plains nearby.
Missionary John Frost met with a kind reception from the Birnie family; Birnie and Frost put up boards in the Birnie residence so the Frosts would have a private room, and Mrs. Frost began a school for the Birnie children.
Only two days after Frost's arrival, a man salting salmon near Pillar Rock, five or six miles from Fort George, was found murdered in his bed.
Birnie, concerned for the safety of the residents at isolated Fort George, sent across the river to the local Chinook chief for protection.
The Natives responded promptly, also travelling to Fort Vancouver to bring word to John McLoughlin. The murderer was soon captured and hung, and James Birnie was part of this rough justice. [#35]
In 1841 the United States Exploring Expedition visited the area.
When their ship Peacock was destroyed on the bar of the Columbia River, Birnie and the Clatsop missionaries rushed to the crew's rescue. [#36]
In thanks for the help given them, the appreciative crew presented Birnie with some of the fine silver cutlery carried aboard the little ship; the silver spoon now in the Wahkiakum Museum at Cathlamet is likely one of the pieces of silver from the Peacock. [#37]
A few years later, James Birnie attempted a rescue of another group of Catholic missionaries who somehow safely entered the river mouth in spite of ignoring Birnie's attempts to guide them into the safe channel, with bonfires, cannon-fire, and waving flags.
At Baker's Bay, Birnie boarded the ship and agreed with the Catholic missionaries that "God had saved them," he added "but in order that a second miracle might not be necessary he would... guide them through the banks that lay between them and the fort [Vancouver]. [#38]
He also told the missionaries that "Mrs. Birnie would be expecting all the passengers as soon as they landed." The Notre Dame sisters found "Mrs. Birnie and her seven fine-looking daughters waiting to receive them.
One in all, the girls were quite captivated by the Sisters, who in turn were delighted with the cordiality of this Protestant family."
The missionaries enjoyed two meals at the Birnie house, and commented on Birnie's "hospitable Canadian wife, whose French was very good."
But they were surprised by one custom; the Birnie women declined to drink wine, and the Sisters, unwilling to offend, also denied themselves their usual wine.
The missionaries would have described 40 year old Charlot Birnie as a pretty woman with bright eyes and dark, glossy hair, as another pioneer woman described her. [#39]
Like other women in the fur trade she would have worn a loose shapeless dress over common wool leggings and moccasins, with a blanket over her shoulders and her hair in a braid down her back. Unlike the other Native women in the territory, Charlot appeared "quite self contained, and she invited me through to room to a sheltered porch in which was a number of seats ... from which was a clear outlook over the bay of the Columbia." 
James Birnie was a big man; a broad-shouldered and deep-chested man who stood six feet tall. 
He spoke in a broad Scottish brogue and was called "Scotty" by his co-workers who, though of Scottish ancestry, were for the most part from Canada or the Eastern States.
In his position at Fort George, Birnie earned the respect of the Chinook Natives that surrounded him, who trusted him and gave him the name Keets-Keets-we-aw-Keet, or the Great Chief. 
Birnie was fair, but he could be tough too.
When dealing with the Natives, James Birnie's motto was "Never show the white feather to an Indian." 
Birnie's life at Fort George remained peaceful and quiet.
By this time, the old pre-Fort-Vancouver headquarters was grown over with brush except for a small patch of ground that produced fine white potatoes.
The Birnie home was a log house that stood one story tall, 60 feet long and 20 wide.
It had a stone chimney, two rooms and an entry room, and there may have been sleeping apartments under its roof.
Close by stood some log and plank buildings, and the largest of these outhouses was the salmon-house that stored the salt and the hundreds of barrels of salmon produced at this place.
Though John McLoughlin always appeared to appreciate his work, James Birnie was disappointed every year when the list of men who received their chief trader's commission was delivered to the fort.
Clerks often waited for their chief trader commission for years before it was awarded, and each year they did not attain it was a year of disappointment and, in some cases, humiliation.
In 1847, another HBC clerk described his disappointment when he did not received his expected promotion.
Although he had never had a complaint lodged against him, he had been superseded in his department by three junior officers -- men who in his opinion could never have run a fur trade fort.
He was so angry at the slight that he considered leaving the Company's service, and so humiliated he could hardly show his face in the fort. [#44]
Birnie must have felt these emotions many times over.
As early as 1835 Birnie had wondered why he was unsuccessful in obtaining a promotion.
His friend Peter Skene Ogden addressed the issue with Governor Simpson, in a letter dated March 30, 1835: "I have also my cause to be well pleased with Mr. Birnie's arrangements, and whom from his long services I beg leave to recommend as justly deserving of promotion." [#45]
By the early 1840's, Birnie had already put in more than twenty years of service, suffering anticipation and disappointment every summer.
Eventually he saw he had no chance of success in Governor Simpson's fur trade, and quietly made his decision to retire.
Birnie's actions even before he left the fur trade showed his determination to leave the Company.
In 1845, when Birnie purchased a quarter-share in a sawmill owned by Albert Wilson, one of the many Americans now flooding into Oregon Territory, Chief Factor James Douglas wrote: "Whenever a man comes to that way of thinking the sooner he goes the better, as lukewarm supporters are worse than open enemies. I do not however mean to cast reflections on Birnie's zeal, as I believe he took the plunge, in sheer despair of any thing being done for him in the service. I would advise you to treat him leniently..." [#46]
On March 7 1845, Birnie sadly penned his letter of resignation to Dr. McLoughlin.
"After waiting patiently for a long time and seeing a number of my juniors promoted over me," he wrote, "I am under the necessity of retiring from the service of the Hon. Hudson's Bay Company, Spring 1846, however painful this step may be to my feelings after 28 years servitude with a large family to provide for and with slender means before me. But I have no other alternative." [#47]
But long before James Birnie realized he was getting nowhere in the Company, his friends knew he would never make Chief Trader.
In 1843, Francis Ermatinger described Birnie in a letter to his brother, Edward -- "Birnie remains at Fort George, and has children enough for a colony. He looks as young as ever, and is as fat and lazy as a man ought to be, when he is thought no more of than he is by Sir George [Governor Simpson]." [#48]
Ermatinger recorded that Birnie believed he had offended the Governor by dropping a bedsheet in the water -- "He [Birnie] told me that Sir George sent two cotton sheets to be washed, and while taking them to the ship one fell overboard, but he intended to send another to London and hoped his offence would be forgiven -- poor fellow." [#49]
The last two words indicate that Ermatinger knew something that Birnie did not -- that in 1842, Governor Simpson had demanded John McLoughlin retire James Birnie with a pension of 60 pound per annum for seven years.
McLoughlin had refused to do so, saying privately that the Governor should do his dirty work himself, and informing the Governor that he had no good replacement for Birnie. [#50]
Birnie's misfortunes had begun years earlier, when the HBC Governor met him at Fort Okanagan in 1824.
Six years after that first meeting, Governor George Simpson wrote in his Character Book:
"No. 10. Birnie, James. A Scotchman about 35 years of age. 14 years in the Service. Useful in the Columbia as he can make himself understood among several of the Tribes and knows the country well; but not particularly active, nor has be much firmness: deficient in point of Education; a Loose talking fellow who seldom considers it necessary to confine himself to the truth. Has no pretension to look forward to advancement indeed is very well paid for his Services at 100 pound per annum." [#51]
The first impression Simpson would have obtained from Birnie was his speech -- the Scottish brogue that Birnie was so fond of.
Birnie's rough speech would only remind Simpson of his own humble beginnings as an illegitimate child in the north-eastern Scottish town of Dingwall.
Simpson was sixteen when he left Dingwall for London, but in years afterwards he did everything he could to conceal his humble roots.
Secondly, Simpson always held a poor education against a man, and Birnie's speech clearly indicated a lack of a good education.
Birnie's father and grandfather were tanners and shoemakers who could never have sent their child to university, nor would they have understood a reason for doing so.
Reading suited Birnie's lazy nature, but his reading was limited to Scottish writers such as Sir Walter Scott -- light reading in comparison to that enjoyed by his educated son-in-law, Alexander Caulfield Anderson.
Moreover, in the absence of school-teachers most fur traders schooled their own children, but Birnie's son, Robert, always mourned the fact that he was never a well-educated man. [#52]
That statement, alone supports the argument that James Birnie did not have an education to pass on to his children.
That James Birnie's wife was Native (half or quarter-breed) cannot have affected Birnie's career in Governor Simpson's eyes, as every man in the fur trade had a Native wife.
But Charlot might have affected Birnie's career by the simple birthing of children that Governor Simpson viewed as a drain on the provisions of his fur trade.
When Simpson visited Fort Okanagan in 1824, he seriously considered having the fur traders' many children turned off to the "Indian relatives." [#52]
In 1824 Birnie already had two infant children; by 1840 he had seven daughters and two sons.
When James Birnie finally retired from the Company in June 1846, he had a choice of properties to build on.
He had been offered property in the new settlement of Portland, now springing up across the river from Fort Vancouver, but refused it.
"Malaria, mosquitos and a swamp," Birnie scoffed. "I've chosen a place that will be my Retreat that's high enough on the river bluff to be out of all danger of flood. There's good water, pasture for cattle, space for an orchard. Keep Portland. I'll take the Retreat." [#53]
His new choice for a home was thirty miles east of Fort George on the north side of the Columbia River.
Here it was cooler in summer than Fort Vancouver, but warmer than the foggy summer coastline.
As early as 1844 and during the time he was still employed by the HBC, Birnie sent men to clear a piece of land and erect a little store on the river bank at Cathlamet.
On the curve of the hill above the store, Birnie built his house.
The finished residence was substantial, with window-sills 12 or 14 inches wide and windows that had 9 or 12 panes of glass per sash. [#54]
The lumber for these buildings came from Albert Wilson's sawmill on the south side of the river.
In the summer of 1846, Birnie and his family left Fort George in a small fleet of boats.
He brought with him a lock for his new store, a band of Spanish cattle which he had pasturing on the Plains at Clatsop, and sixteen Native employees he had rescued from the slave trade that flourished among the Natives from the Queen Charlotte Islands to California.
Birnie settled his family into the house on the top of the hill, and opened his store to business.
He had chosen well.
The American settlers who now flooded into the territory settled near Fort George and Portland, and American soldiers constructed their new camp outside Fort Vancouver.
Birnie's Retreat became a stopping place halfway between the new settlements of Upper and Lower Astoria, and Portland.
Dried salmon sold for $20 a barrel, butter was $1.00 a pound while lard was 60 cents. Fine shirts sold for $2.50, whiskey for $3.00 a gallon, and gin, $3.50.
It did not take long for Birnie to gather neighbours at the Retreat.
In 1850, the new circuit judge, William Strong, arrived in the territory and Birnie offered him a piece of property to the west of his house.
Thomas Lowe, clerk at Fort Vancouver, married a Birnie daughter and built his house to the east of Birnie's own residence.
Soon Birnie's on-in-law, Alexander Anderson, retired from the Hudson's Bay Company and, purchasing Lowe's house, brought his family to live in the village, now named Cathlamet.
The little town quickly grew, but the aging James Birnie unhappily grumbled about the many changes he saw happening around him.
At Cathlamet, Charlot became a confident, self-assured woman who welcomed visitors into her house and entertained them on a sheltered porch that offered a spectacular view up and down the Columbia River, and a bookcase filled with James Birnie's volumes of Scott's novels. [#55]
Charlot bore herself with "all the self-assurance of an English dame of long pedigree." [#56]
She owned an enormous canoe which was the wonder of the lower Columbia River, and every fall she loaded it with provisions and paddlers and set out from Cathlamet to pass over the portage to Shoalwater Bay, on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, where they spent a few weeks hunting, fishing, and clamming. [#57]
James Birnie began to show signs of aging and possibly dementia when, in July 1852, his son-in-law, Thomas Lowe, wrote about the confusion that existed between Birnie and Judge Strong as to an exchange of land.
Birnie had returned the deed to Lowe unsigned.
In a letter to his business partners, Lowe warned, "In any transactions you have with Mr. Birnie endeavour to have everything put in black and white, and for God's Sake leave nothing to be understood, as I have always found that these understandings are looked upon by him as the principal part of the bargain, and generally prove a fruitful source of misunderstanding afterwards. Try to settle everything amicably, as any trifling dispute is sure to worry him." [#58]
Whether this confusion came from alcohol, illness, or the natural decline of aging is unknown -- in 1852 Birnie was still a few years away from his sixtieth birthday.
However, he has often been described as corpulent and, if so, may well have been suffering from a disease such as diabetes, or another illness we know nothing of.
In Lowe's correspondence it became obvious that both James Birnie and Charlot were becoming less able to live on their own.
In 1853, Thomas Lowe wrote that Charlotte, Birnie's daughter, was dying.
"Poor old people," he wrote of James and Charlot, "Theirs is a sad prospect." [#59]
The Birnie girl died in July 1853 and was buried in the cemetery at the top of the hill, and Lowe wrote to Anderson, "The old people are sincerely to be pitied, I assure you, I feel for them very deeply. I know you do all in your power to comfort them, but I also know how difficult it is to reason with Mrs. Birnie. Her grief is most poignant at times and in these paroxysms it is fruitless to endeavour to console her." [#60]
But James and Charlot had many losses to mourn.
By 1854, two daughters (including Lowe's wife La Rose) and one son were buried in the little churchyard at the top of the hill behind the house; and three Anderson children -- Birnie's grandchildren -- were also buried there.
Life went on, however, and Cathlamet continued to be the social centre of the district.
General Ulysses S. Grant was an occasional visitor from the military post outside Fort Vancouver, and he drank too much whiskey and borrowed blankets from the Birnie store to sleep of his drunks in the bushes on the river bank.
Another occasional visitor was Dr. John McLoughlin, now unhappily retired from the Company and living at Oregon City.
Steamboats chugged up and down the river and brought many visitors and new residents.
On some occasions, visitors found the Birnie house decorated from top to bottom with evergreens and tables loaded with food.
The Birnies hosted many fashionable parties, celebrations that were attended by everyone of importance in the district, and on these occasions Charlot confidently took her place at the head of the table.
When the artist James Madison Alden arrived on the coast on the ship Active in 1854, he visited the Birnie residence and described Birnie as a full-bearded man with a brood of small children who scurried timidly away. [#61]
Two of those children might have been the half-Native children of Captain James Scarborough, who James and Charlot Birnie raised after their father suddenly died.
Captain Scarborough worked for the Hudson's Bay Company for many years before retiring to Chinook Hill, west of Cathlamet.
Following his retirement, he exported salted fish to England, and it was rumoured that he was paid for the fish in gold ingots that were buried on his property. [#62]
On Scarborough's death, James Birnie became guardian of the Scarborough children while Birnie's son-in-law, Alexander Anderson, administered the estate.
Anderson gained control of Scarborough's funds and invested the money in one of Thomas Lowe's companies, which paid interest on the money for many years after. [#63]
Later Birnie was questioned about the money but, because his health and memory were fading, he could not explain where it had gone.
Anderson had by that time moved north to Fort Victoria, and because Birnie had no answers, it was suspected for many years afterwards that Anderson had absconded with the funds. [#64]
From early days at Cathlamet, Birnie had flown a handmade American flag above the store, which he dipped cheerily at every passing ship. [#65]
He was sixty-eight years old when he died in December of 1864.
It was Birnie's last wish that he be wrapped in that handmade flag on his death.
Auld James Birnie, Laird of Cathlamet, died at home and was buried in the little churchyard at the top of the hill, carefully wrapped in the homemade American flag.
Even though she was now without her husband of forty years, Charlot was surrounded by her children, and her house was comfortably furnished with furniture of a better quality than found elsewhere in the territory.
She died twelve years later, on July 7, 1878, and her surviving children buried her in the little cemetery at the top of the hill behind the house.
James and Charlot's shared gravestone is the tallest stone in the Pioneer Cemetery, befitting of their standing as the Laird and Lady of Cathlamet.
1. General Register Office for Scotland, Registration of Birth in Old Parochial Register, Parish of Aberdeen (Co. Aberdeen). Record 168/A000080 0562, December 18, 1796, at http://scotlandspeople.gov.uk
2. Ibid, Record 168/A000080 0533, December 18, 1765
3. Ibid, Record 168/B000070 0222, February 9, 1763
4. Irene Martin, Beach of Heaven: A History of Wehkiakum County (Pullman, WA: Washington State UP, 1997), p.109
5. Affidavit for Donation Land Claim, Washington Territory, in David K. Hansen's private Collection of James Birnie's records. Birnie recorded he arrived in the territory on November 1, 1818
6. E.E.Rich, ed. Ogden's Snake Country Journals, 1824-26 [London: HBRS, 1950], Appendix A, "Journal of Occurrences in a trapping Expedition to and from the Snake Country in the years 1824 and (25) kept by William Kittson," p. 224
7. Affidavit for Donation Land Claim, WT
8. T.C. Elliott, "David Thompson's Journeys in the Spokane Country," Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. VIII, 1917, p. 185
9. Ben Holladay Dorcy, OHS Manuscript 1092, Transcript, p.126, Oregon Historical Society Archives
10. State of Minnesota Certificate of Death #10858 lists Louis Rondeau's father as Joseph Rondeau, born in Canada, and his mother as Jeanette Beaulieu, born in 'Mont.' The official form asks for birthplace 'State' or 'Country;' if Josephine was born in Montreal her birthplace would have been listed as Canada, as her husband's was, on the same form.
11. Handwritten note [1920?], Clement H. Beaulieu and family papers, 1857-1932, Mss. #P60, Minnesota Historical Society Archives
12. Governor Simpson to Dugald Cameron, July 18, 1822, D.4/1, fo. 62, HBCA
13. Fort Spokane District Journal, 1822-23, B.208/a/1, fo. 1, HBCA
14. Ibid, August 8, 1822, fo. 16
15. Birnie Family Bible, Wehkiakum Historical Society Archives, Cathlamet, WA
16. Frederick Merk, Fur Trade and Empire -- George Simpson's Journal (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1968), p.49
17. Lieut. Aemelius Simpson, Journal from York to Fort Vancouver -- Journey of a voyage across the Continent of North America in 1826, B.223/a/3, HBCA
18. John McLeod Papers, Mss. 1715, fo. 9, BCA
19. Appendix C, "Journal of a Hunting Expedition to the southward of the Umpqua under command of A.R. McLeod, C.T., Sept. 1826," in Peter Skene Ogden's Snake Country Journal, 1826-7, ed. K. G. Davies (London: HBRS, 1961), p. 199-200
20. I have this source amongst my papers somewhere, when I find it I will post it properly.
21. Journal of a voyage from York Factory to Fort Vancouver, Columbia River, 1827, Edward Ermatinger's York Factory Express Journal, being a record of Journeys made between Fort Vancouver and Hudson Bay in the years 1827-28, (Ottawa: Royal society of Canada, 1912), p. 112
22. "Memorandum Book of John Warren Dease," B.A. McKelvie Mss 001, Box 8, file 2, BCA
23. Dr. Burt Brown Parker, Letters of Dr. John McLoughlin written at Fort Vancouver, 1829-1832 (Portland: Binsford & Mort, 1948) p. 57, 62, 69, 103-4
24. The Ships Log of the Dryad (brig), 1833-34, c.1/281-2, fo. 86, HBCA
25. Ibid, fo. 187
26. Archie Binns, Peter Skene Ogden, Fur Trader (Portland: Binsford & Mort, 1967) p.251-61; Mitchell, H.T., ed., Tolmie: Physician and Fur Trader, the Journal of Dr. Tolmie (Vancouver: Mitchell Press, 1963), p. 281-6; and "P.S. Ogden's Report of Transactions at Stikine, 1834," in E.E. Rich, ed., Letters of John McLoughlin from Fort Vancouver to the Governor and Committee, First Series, 1825-38 (Toronto: Champlain Soc, 1941-4) Appendix A, p.317-8. Birnie's future son-in-law, Alexander Caulfield Anderson, was also there.
27. Fort Simpson (Nass) Post Journals, 1834-38, B.201/a/3, fo. 2-10, HBCA. Alexander Caulfield Anderson sailed away from Fort Simpson in the Dryad, as did Peter Skene Ogden.
28. "Journal of John Work, January to October 1835, Part 1," in British Columbia Historical Quarterly, vol. 8, April 1944, p. 137; and Fort Simpson (Nass) Post Journals, 1834-38, fo. 21-22
29. Fort Simpson (Nass) Post Journals, 1834-38, fo. 54a
30. Rev. Beaver to P.S. Ogden, June 17, 1837, B.223/b/19, fo. 4, HBCA
31. Beaver's original Fort Vancouver Church Register, Christ Church Cathedral Archives, Victoria, BC
32. J. McLoughlin to James Birnie, March 7, 1841, B.223/b/27, fo. 137, HBCA
33. Martin, Beach of Heaven, p. 26-27
34. Murray C. Morgan, Puget's Sound, a Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound (Seattle: UofW Press, 1979) p. 50
35. Nellie B. Pipes, ed., "Journal of John H. Frost, 1840-43," Oregon Historical Quarterly, vol. 35, 1934, p. 57-61
36. Edmond S. Meany, "Last Survivor of the Oregon Mission of 1840," Washington Historical Quarterly, vol. II, October 1907, p.13-14
37. Fiddle Thread and Shell design, T. Fletcher, Philadelphia
38. Sister Mary Dominica, Willamette Interlude (Palo Alto, CA: Pacific Books, 1959) p. 129
39. Lulu B. Heron, "Cathlamet in the Early Days," in Wahkiakum County Eagle Newspaper, Special Edition, May 3, 1973
40. John Minto to Eva Emery Dye, October 31, 1903, Mss. 1089, Box 1, Oregon Historical Society Archives
41. Irene Martin, Beach of Heaven, p. 26
42. Heron, "Cathlamet in the Early Days"
43. James Robert Anderson, "Notes and Comments on Early Days and Events in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, Memoirs of James R. Anderson, p. 218," Mss 1912, Box 9, BCA. James Anderson was James Birnie's grandson, son of Alexander Caulfield Anderson.
44. James Anderson to A.C. Anderson, December 24, 1846, A/B/40/An32, BCA
45. P.S. Ogden to Governor Simpson, March 30, 1835, D.4/127, fo [gotta find it, sorry], HBCA
46. J. Douglas to Governor Simpson, April 4, 1845, D.5/14, fo. 391, HBCA
47. James Birnie to McLoughlin, March 7, 1835, B.223/c/1, fo. 231, HBCA
48. Lois Halliday, Fur Trade Letters of Francis Ermatinger, written to his brother Edward during his service with the Hudson's Bay Co., 1818-1853 (Glendale, CA: A.H.Clark, 1980) p. 256
49. Ibid, p. 256
50. Ibid, p. 255-56
51. G. Williams, "The Character Book of Governor George Simpson," in Hudson's Bay Miscellany, 1670-1870 (Winnipeg: Hudson's Bay Record Society, 1975) p. 202
52. "Personal Adventures of Robert Birnie, born at Astoria, Oregon, 1824, Feb. 7," Mss C-E65:33, Bancroft Library
53. Frederick Merk, Fur Trade and Empire -- George Simpson's Journal, p. 131
53. Julie Butler Hansen, "James Birnie refused lots in Portland to begin Cathlamet Settlement in 1846," Longview Daily News [newspaper], Centennial Edition, August 19, 1946
54. Heron, "Cathlamet in Early Days"
55. John Minto to Eva Emery Dye, October 31, 1903, Mss 1089, Box 1/15, OHSA
56. Thomas Nelson Strong, Cathlamet on the Columbia (Portland: Metropolitan Press, 1930) p. 99
57. Ibid, p. 99-100
58. Thomas Lowe to Messrs. Allan & McKinlay, July 30, 1852, Thomas Lowe, Letters outward May 14, 1852 to December 10, 1859, E/B/L95A, BCA
59. Thomas Lowe to David Lowe, April 9, 1853, Thomas Lowe, Letters outward
60. Thomas Lowe to A.C. Anderson, August 3, 1853, Thomas Lowe, Letters outward
61. Franz Stenzel, James Madison Alden: Yankee Artist of the Pacific Coast, 1854-1860 (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1975) p. 24
62. Ruby El Hult, Lost Mines and Treasures of the Pacific Northwest (Portland: Binsford and Mort, 1957)
63. Thomas Lowe to A.C. Anderson, December 10, 1859, Thomas Lowe, Letters Outward
64. "Statement in support of Bill for the Relief of the Heirs at Law of James Allan Scarborough and Ann Elizabeth Scarborough," in David K. Hansen's collection of James Birnie material.