Sunday, May 16, 2010

Alexander Caulfield Anderson and James Birnie

I don't think you could find two more different men in the fur trade than these two men.
Anderson was a gentleman who studied Latin but not Greek, and could quote from Homer and other great classical writers -- Birnie was the son of a tanner who spoke in a rough Scottish brogue (of which he was very proud) and who read little more than "Scott's novels."
Yet, it appears, they got on very well.

James Birnie was the son of a tanner, and grandson of a shoemaker; an uncle apprenticed as a saddler -- but James chose a different career and joined the fur trade of the North West Comany in 1816.
He spent two years in Lachine "learning the French language of the fur trade."
In 1818 he left Lachine and crossed the country with the Lachine brigade and Edmonton brigade, and finally the Columbia express.
By November 1818 he was in the Columbia and a few months later was trapping for furs with Donald McKenzie in the Snake River district.
I suspect he was a valuable man in the North West Company, because he knew how to prepare the furs that the other men trapped.

In spring 1820 he accompanied the men who delivered the beaver pelts to the company's headquarters at Fort George (Astoria), and there he married Charlot Beaulieu, daughter of a free-trader named Beaulieu who hung around Spokane House and the Snake district.
In 1821 the North West Company was taken over by the HBC, and James Birnie was re-engaged while other men were released from the new Company's service.
In 1822 he was placed in charge of Spokane House, and kept the post's journals for two years.
On August 15, 1822, Charlot Birnie gave birth to their first daughter, Betsy, who would eventually marry Alexander Caulfield Anderson.

Birnie was at Fort Vancouver in 1824 when his son was born, and at Fort Okanagan when Governor Simpson arrived at the post.
Simpson took an immediate dislike to Birnie, saying that he was "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 he much firmness: deficient in point of education; a loose talking fellow who seldom considers it necessary to confine himself to the truth."
Simpson always held a poor education against a man, and there is plenty of proof that Birnie did not have a good education.
But I suspect that Simpson, who had worked hard to cover up his illegitimate past in Scotland, found that Birnie's Scottish brogue reminded him of it.

Birnie was in charge of Spokane House in summer 1825, and planted the first crop of potatoes at the new Fort Colvile which was to be built that summer.
In spring 1826, Birnie crossed the Rocky Mountains with the outgoing express, and at Edmonton House they joined the Saskatchewan boats and travelled all the way to York Factory, on Hudson's Bay.
Governor Simpson's cousin, Lieutenant Aemelius Simpson, travelled with Birnie on the return journey from York Factory to Fort Vancouver, and he kept a journal of the trip.

In 1825 Birnie was assigned to the Thompson's River post (Kamloops), but never made it there.
Instead we find him at Fort Vancouver, helping in the construction of the second post.(Fort Vancouver was moved to a location closer to the river shortly after it was constructed for the first time.)
In November 1826 Birnie travelled south with dispatches for Chief Trader A.R. McLeod, leader of the first trapping expedition south to the Umpqua River.
In October 1827, Birnie was sent to the Nez Perce fort to assist and strengthen the express party as they travelled downriver to the headquarters -- one of the two Chinookian tribes at The Dalles had been more hostile than usual and McLoughlin worried about the express' safety.
In July 1828 Birnie signed a new contract with the company; in September he was still at Fort Vanocuver but in October he had built a new post at the Dalles of the Columbia River to prevent the Natives' furs from falling into the hands of an American competitor.
As the best trading place near the Dalles was amongst the Wishram Natives who tended to be more hostile to traders than their neighbours, the nervous American trader set up his camp close to Birnie's post for protection.
By April he had gone, and Birnie closed his post.

In 1830 Birnie was acting as doctor for the many fur traders who fell sick from the "intermittent fever" or malaria that attacked Fort Vancouver that year.
The botanist David Douglas may have been one of his patients; Peter Skene Ogden was also taken seriously ill.
On March 14, 1833, Birnie boarded the Dryad and sailed north to his new posting at Fort Simpson, on the Northwest coast close to Russian territory.
Alexander Caulfield Anderson was one of the men on the Dryad, and he and Birnie became fast friends (probably because Betsy was also travelling north on the Dryad with her father).
On this journey north, Anderson determined to marry Betsy Birnie when she was old enough (she was only 11 years old).

Birnie remained at Fort Simpson while Anderson served at Fort McLoughlin to the south.
They met again a year later when both men accompanied Peter Skene Ogden to the Stikine River to set up a post in the interior.
They were repulsed, and returned to Fort Simpson to rebuild it in a new location.
Birnie remained behind, and Anderson followed Peter Skene Ogden into New Caledonia; they would not see each other for many years.

On his return to Fort Vancouver, Birnie was re-assigned to Fort George (Astoria) where he remained for many years.
In 1837 his daughter Betsy travelled up the brigade trail to marry Alexander Anderson.
Birnie acted as pilot for many of the ships that entered the Columbia River, and he guided them upriver to Fort Vancouver.
Some missionaries who arrived at the river mouth wrote their memoirs, giving an excellent description of both James Birnie and his wife, Charlot.
These missionaries had ignored Birnie's signals to find the safe crossing of the bar, but made it safely into the river in spite of that.
They told Birnie it was a miracle they made it across.
Birnie agreed with the Catholic missionaries that "God had saved them ... 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.]"
He welcomed them to his house, and fed them two huge dinners, one of which included some blackberry pies baked by Charlot, his wife.
(I grew up on blackberry pies -- I guess it is part of my heritage.)
The missionaries were delighted by the Birnie family, but shocked that the Birnie women did not drink wine with their dinner.
Out of politeness, they too declined to have wine.

The missionaries would have described Charlot as a pretty woman with bright eyes and dark glassy hair, as another pioneer woman described her.
James was a big man; a broad-shouldered and deep-chested man who stood 6 feet tall.
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 [Simpson]."
Ermatinger knew something that Birnie did not -- that George Simpson had tried to have John McLoughlin retire 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, but telling Simpson he had no good man to replace Birnie.

When a frustrated Birnie finally retired from the HBC in 1846, he chose to settle in a place he called "Birnie's Retreat," on the north bank of the Columbia River halfway between Fort George and Fort Vancouver.
He might have chosen the north bank because he thought it might remain British territory, while the south bank would almost certainly go to the Americans.
It did not; the new boundary line ran along the 49th parallel, hundreds of miles to the north of Birnie's property.

Before Birnie left the company's employee, he had the Fort George men clear his land and build the store and house.
When he moved in, he brought with him some cattle which he had pastured on the Clatsop plains, and sixteen Native employees he had rescued from the slave trade that flourished up and down the coast.
Birnie opened his store to business, and almost immediately did well.
The American settlers travelled up and down the river and almost all stopped at the Birnie store.
Dried salmon sold for $20.00 a barrel, butter was $1.00 lb., lard was 60 cts.; fine shirts sold for $2.50 and whiskey for $3.00 a gallon.
Soon his son in law Anderson retired from the fur trade and settled beside him.

Birnie's Retreat was renamed Cathlamet, and the village became the social centre of the area around Fort Vancouver.
Charlot became a confident, self assured hostess who welcomed visitors into her home and entertained them on the porch that offered a spectacular view of the river and a bookcase filled with Birnie's volumes of Scott's novels.
But Cathlamet has remained isolated; even today it has one gravel road leading in and only one stop sign in the entire county!

But Birnie began to show confusion and Thomas 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."
To Anderson, Lowe wrote of Charlot, "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."
They had plenty to mourn.
By 1854, two daughters and one son were buried in the little churchyard at the top of the hills, and three Anderson children were also buried there.

From early days, James Birnie had flown a handmade American flag above the store, which he cheerfully dipped at every passing ship.
He was sixty eight years old when he died in December 1864.
It was his last wish that he be buried 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 his homemade American flag.

Charlot lived twelve more years in comfort, surrounded by her surviving children.
She died on July 7, 1878, and was buried beside her husband in the little cemetary at the top of the hill.
James and Charlot's shared grave has the largest stone in the pioneer cemetary, befitting of their standing as the founders of Cathlamet.


  1. hello... hapi blogging... have a nice day! just visiting here....

  2. Wonderfully researched story. Very interesting indeed.