Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sam Black

One of the most fascinating characters in Alexander Caulfield Anderson's fur trade was a man named Sam Black. Anderson met Black when he travelled with the 1835 brigade into New Caledonia with Black's good friend, Peter Skene Ogden. At the time that Black departed from Fort Vancouver with the outgoing brigade, he was Chief Factor in charge of the Thompson's River post (Kamloops).

Black was born in Scotland in 1780, and his uncle was the James Leith who was probably responsible for getting young Alexander Caulfield Anderson into the fur trade. Sam Black joined the North West Company in 1802, and during his early years in the Company's service, gained a reputation as a bully who used his large size and intimidating manner to frighten the men of the competing Hudson's Bay Company.

A few years later the North West Company sent him north to Fort Chipewyan District where he so harrassed Peter Fidler that the Hudson's Bay man removed himself from Nottingham House. Later still, Black spent 15 years in the Athabasca District where he took part in an argument in which 4 Hudson's Bay men were killed.

In the continuing battles between the Hudson's Bay men and the North Westers, Black became more hated than any other North Wester by the men of the Hudson's Bay Company. But in 1820, Black came face to face with George Simpson, who was in charge of a Hudson's Bay post in the Athabasca Country. Black found Simpson a difficult foe.

Simpson went on to become the Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, and the North West Company began to lose the competition. By the time the Companies merged, Sam Black and Peter Skene Ogden had escaped to the territory west of the Rocky Mountains to avoid arrest. Both had been involved in the most scandalous battles between the two companies and, when the companies merged, both were left jobless. Black's letter shows his bitter disappointment:

"The communication received by one from the agents of the late N.W.Co. dated at Fort William, 17th July 1821, upon the subject of the arrangement with the Hudson's Bay Co. you will readily believe was most distressing to my feelings -- That a termination of the various oppositions betweeen the Companies was greatly to be wished for, and sooner or later to be expected, is certainly true; but I never conceived it possible that some of those whose zeal and exertion during the 'conter' brought about probably the necessity of negotiation on the part of our opponents, would be excluded from the benefits hoped for from that termination...." (North West Company correspondence 1800-1827, F.3/2, HBCA).

Ogden and Black fought for their jobs and within a year or two were granted positions in the Hudson's Bay Company. However, Sam Black was sent to take charge of Fort St. John (near Fort St. John, B.C.) and made a difficult exploration of the Finlay River where it ran through the Rocky Mountains -- a wild and absolutely unexplored area at that time -- while Ogden spent years exploring the Snake River District.

Finally after George Simpson believed that Black had been punished enough, he placed him in charge of Fort Colvile on the Columbia River, and later sent him to Fort Nez Perce (Walla Walla, Washington). However, Black was unable to get along with the natives and was transferred to Thompson's River post in 1830, where he spent many years.

Governor Simpson described Black's nature in his "Character Book" of 1832: "....the strangest man I ever knew. So wary & suspicious that it is scarcely possible to get a direct answer from him on any point, and when he does speak or write ... so prolix that it is quite fatiguing to attempt following him. A perfectly honest man and his generosity might be considered indicative of a warmth of heart if he was not known to be a cold blooded fellow who could be guilty of any Cruelty and would be a perfect Tyrant if he had any power....Yet his word when he can be brought to the point may be depended on. A Don Quixote in appearance, Ghastly, raw-boned and lantern-jawed, yet strong, vigorous and active. Has not the talent of conciliating Indians by whom he is disliked, but who are ever in dread of him, and well they may be so, as he is ... so suspicious that offensive and defensive preparation seem to be the study of his Life having Dirks, Knives and Loaded pistols concealed about his Person and in all directions about his Establishment even under his Table cloth at meals and in his Bed."

In 1841, Sam Black died at the hands of a native person at his Thompson's Lake post. In the late autumn of 1840, Black traded for goods with a local native chief, Tranquille, a man who was given this name by the voyageurs for his quiet good nature and calm. Tranquille arrived at the fort to pick up a gun that he had left behind, but Black refused to release the gun and reprimanded Tranquille. Tranquille returned home, chagrined, but relations between the natives and the Hudson's Bay fort remained in good standing.

But over the winter, Tranquille sickened and died. During the funeral speeches, a woman accused Tranquille's nephew of cowardice and urged him to revenge his uncle. The young man blackened his face and travelled to the Thompson's River fort on a freezing cold day, to sit in front of the fire. Black gave him a pipe, food and tobacco and left him alone. But in the late afternoon, as Black was putting his hand on the door of his quarters, the native shot him in the back, killing him immediately.

The native man made his escape, and John Tod came from Fort Alexandria to take over the fort and deal with the murderer. Fort Vancouver men also came north to hunt for the murderer who had abandoned his village and was hidden in the hills near Cache Creek. The Company men closed the fort to the local natives, causing anxiety and suffering among the people now almost entirely dependent on the fort for their supplies.

After a few days search the Hudson's Bay men found the murderer, and with the help of Chief Nicola's tribesmen, captured him. They tied the murderer's hands together and began their journey back to the Thompson's River fort. At the bottom end of Kamloops Lake the murderer upset the canoe they were travelling in, and floated down the river singing his war song. Nicola, who stood with a group of tribesmen on the south bank of the river, ordered his men to kill the murderer, and the boy disappeared under the waters of the Thompson River.

Peter Skene Ogden wrote about his good friend, Black, in Traits of American-Indian Life (London, 1853, reprinted recently in Oregon): "B... was one of my oldest and worthiest friends. Our intimacy had commenced some twenty five years ago, and been ripened by time into the warmest friendship. We had shared in each other's perils; and the narrow escapes we had so frequently experienced, tended to draw still more closely the bond of amity by which we were united. It was our custom to contrive an annual meeting, in order that we might pass a few weeks in each other's company. This renunion naturally possessed charms for both of us; for it was a source of mixed joy, to fight like old soldiers "our battles o'er again," over a choice bottle of Port or Madeira; to lay our plans for the future, and, like veritable gossips, to propose fifty projects, not one of which there was any intention on either part to realize."

Alexander Caulfield Anderson wrote of Sam Black: "Without having had the advantage of a critically correct education he was a man of great mental as well as literary attainments, and to the geology of the country he paid special attention. The geography too of the then only partially explored regions received through him many important additions. Of enormous stature and with a slow and imposing style of address Mr. Black, though he afforded possibly at times some amusement to his colleagues, commanded also their universal respect by his well recognized good qualities." (History of the Northwest Coast, by A.C. Anderson)

When Anderson died in 1884, he had a copy of Sam Black's 1835 map in his possession. This map has many details not shown on any other map of the area, but is very hard to read. It is now stored in the B.C. Archives, map no. CM/B2079, and R.C. (Bob) Harris writes about this map in B.C. Studies, No. 109, Spring 1996.

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