Friday, December 16, 2011

Angus McDonald

James Robert Anderson, son of Alexander Caulfield Anderson, was about ten years old when he first met Angus McDonald, his father's clerk at Fort Colvile.
James wrote of Mcdonald in his memoirs, "Notes and Comments on early days in British Columbia," and it is very obvious that he adored the man.
The story I am telling below took place in either 1849 or 1850, by which time young James knew Angus quite well.
"A few days before the date of my Father's expected arrival on his return journey from Fort Langley," James wrote, "Mr. Angus McDonald the gentleman in charge of the post in the Flathead country, made his appearance to await the brigade and convey his outfit to the post.
"Two days before my father was due, Mr. McDonald suggested to my Mother that he and I should proceed a day's journey to meet my Father.
"This having been decided upon, we made a start after breakfast on our horses for the Mission where we were to cross the Columbia, but what was our chagrin when we espied my Father cantering towards the Fort by another road.
"Having his eyes fixed on his destination he did not see us, and we had to follow ignominously in his wake.
"Needless to say, we were most unmercifully chaffed...."

Angus, who liked to surprise and tease people, would have been especially humiliated at missing the return of Anderson to Fort Colvile.
He must have felt very humbled when he and James rode into Fort Colvile, long after Anderson had arrived at the place.
But Angus would have recovered his good mood almost immediately.
McDonald entertained the Anderson family with his poems and music on many occasions, and that evening would have been one of them.
James wrote that "it was a treat to hear him sing in Gaelic, strutting about as if in the act of playing the bagpipes and to see him dance the sword dance."

James continued with McDonald's story -- a short biography:
"Angus McDonald lived and died in the interior; he was always employed in the Flathead country and vicinity and as late as 1860 was in charge of Fort Colvile....
"He was a rough specimen of a Highlander and despised many customs as effeminate.
"I met him last at Fort Vancouver about 1865 and on that occasion he expressed his contempt of the galvanic battery offering to take the highest charge.
"Dr. Benson accepted the challenge and I was deputed to work the instrument; it was an old-fashioned concern and in the act of increasing the voltage the bar slipped and the highest charge was given.
"McDonald gave a yell and dropped to the ground much to his consternation and disgust."
Another humiliation for Angus McDonald...

According to Steve Anderson's biography, called "Angus McDonald of the Great Divide: The Uncommon Life of a Fur Trader, 1816-1889," [Museum of North Idaho Press, 2011] McDonald was born in seaside village of Craig, in Ross-shire (Scotland) in 1816 -- which date makes him only a few years younger than Alexander Caulfield Anderson.
McDonald's parents were farmers who moved to Dingwall when their child was quite young, and Angus went to school in that town and for a short time clerked in a Dingwall business.
In 1838, Angus joined the fur trade and in spring 1839 he was assigned to his great-uncle Archibald McDonald's post of Fort Colvile.
Angus McDonald travelled west with Roderick Finlayson, Dr. John McLoughlin, and apprentice clerk Dugald McTavish (who kept a journal of the journey west); he was rescued from death by drowning in a Columbia River whirlpool by Big Michel, Fort Colvile's French-Canadian/Cree steersman.
All in all he had enough of adventures by the time he reached Fort Colvile -- but that thirst for adventure would not long be diminished.

After a short stint at Fort Colvile, Angus was sent into the Snake District, to work with Francis Ermatinger -- a man who could "equal any free trapper when swilling whiskey or injecting foul language into a conversation."
But Ermatinger was a good trader and a willing teacher, and taught his young protege a great deal about the Snake District's fur trade.

Angus McDonald was a writer and a poet, and because of this common interest, he and Anderson got along very well.
His writing and poems are featured in Steve Anderson's book; McDonald described the voyageur Joseph Monique's "personal appearance was as proposing as was his singular address in the prow of his canoe or barge...One glance of that fiery black eye of his read leagues of the turbulent stream at once."
But Monique drowned on one of his river journeys, and Angus wrote his first poem after the voyageur's death:
"Up! Boy up! The day stands blue to his steep
I hear the hoarse cheer of the winds rushing strong from the deep
Quick! Boy! Quick! [Up] from the frost covered yoke where you kneel
And ride the bold pride, of the torrents that long for your keel...."

From one of the captions in Steve's book I learn that when McDonald took charge of Fort Colvile after Anderson left the place, the fort itself had deteriorated significantly -- a sign of Anderson's unhappiness at Fort Colvile, I presume.
But of course the fur trade in the Columbia district was in serious decline and no one knew how long the British fur traders would be allowed to remain in what had become American territory -- perhaps Anderson felt it was just not worthwhile to maintain Fort Colvile to any degree.
I know that when Anderson arrived the fort, its palisades were long gone.
Because of the Cayuse War that now inflamed the Columbia River south of Fort Colvile, Anderson ordered the construction of new palisades around the main part of the fort.
According to Angus McDonald, this smaller stockaded area enclosed the north side of the fort and the fort's offices.

From a book called "Readings in Pacific Northwest History," [I have no other information on publisher to give] I found a description of the buildings at Fort Colvile, at the time Angus McDonald was in charge.
From an article "Fort Colvile Dispatches the Winter's Fur Catch," from a book by John K. Lord, "At Home in the Wilderness: What to Do There and How to Do it," (3rd ed., London, 1876) pp. 53-63 -- "It may prove interesting en passant, to give a brief outline of the plan adopted by all the far inland fur-trading posts, for the conveyance of the year's furs to the place....
"As a description of one will apply with equal force to all of them, I shall select for description Fort Colville [sic], which is situate on the banks of the Upper Columbia about 1,000 miles from the seaboard.
"This quaint old place, one of the Company's earliest trading stations west of the Rocky Mountains, is worthy of a passing description as affording a good example of the fur-trader's 'Home in the Wilderness.'
"The trader's house is quadrangular in shape, and built of heavy trees squared and piled one upon another...
"The visitor, on entering the somewhat ponderous portals of this primitive mansion, finds himself in a large room dimly lighted by two small windows, the furniture of which, designed more for use than ornament, consists of a few rough chairs and a large deal table, the latter occupying the centre of the room.
"Looking beneath this table one cannot fail to notice an immense padlock, which evidently fastens a trap-door, and if you happen to be a guest of the chief trader, (and here I must add as a result of long experience that the Hudson's Bay Company's traders are the most hospitable kind-hearted fellows I ever met with), the probabilities are greatly in favour of your discovering the secret of the trap-door, very soon after you enter the room.
"The table pushed back, the trap-door is unfastened, and the trader descends into a dark mysterious looking cave, soon however to emerge with a jug of rum, or something equally toothsome.
"Now, if you are of an inquisitive turn of mind, you may find out that in this underground store-room, all valuables are deposited and secured.
"This room beneath which the cavern has been excavated, has some person to occupy it night and day, and the chief trader sleeps in it; hence it is next to impossible that the savages could steal anything unless they forcibly sacked and pillaged the establishment.
"An immense hearth-fire, both warms and lights this dreary sitting room, for at least eight months of the year..."

Then this gentleman goes on to describe the trading shop... "The trading shop, and store of goods employed in bartering with the savages, adjoins the trader's house, although not actually a part of it; and the fur-trader stands therein behind a high counter, to make his bargains.
"The Indians have a curious custom in their barterings, which is, to demand payment for each skin separately, and if a savage had fifty marten skins to dispose of, he would only sell or barter one at a time, and insist on being paid for them one by one.
"Hence it often occupies the trader many days to purchase a large bale of peltries from an Indian trapper....
"In many of the Posts the trade room is cleverly contrived, so as to prevent a sudden rush of Indians, the approach from outside the pickets being through a long narrow passage, only of sufficient width to admit one Indian at a time, the passage being bent at an acute angle near the window, where the trader stands."
Note that this is not necessarily how Fort Colvile was set up; the Natives here were quite friendly with the fur traders and these precautions may not have been needed.
"This precaution is rendered necessary, inasmuch as were the passage straight, the savages might easily shoot him [the fur trader]...
"Over the fur shop are large lofts for storing and drying the furs in as they are collected.
"Beyond this a smith's shop, a few small log shanties, and an immense 'corral,' for keeping the horses in, whilst fitting out the 'brigade,' make up all that is noteworthy as far as the buildings are concerned at Fort Colvile...
"The houses are by no means uncomfortable, and I can truthfully say, many of the happiest evenings of my life, have been passed in the 'big room' at Fort Colvile."

This writer also described the brigades to Fort Hope, though he was very critical of the brigade system.
"This journey from Colvile to Hope occupies nearly three months for its accomplishment.
"About the beginning of June preparations commence at Fort Colvile for the Brigade.
"The horses (the Hudson's Bay Company never use mules), in number about 120 to 150, are brought by the 'Indian Herders,' who have had charge of them during the winter, to a spot called the 'Horse Guard,' about three miles from the fort, where there is an abundance of succulent grass and a good stream of water.
"Here the animals are taken care of by the trustworthy Indians until their equipment or 'rigging' is ready, which process is at the same time going on at the fort.
"Here some thirty or forty savages may be seen squatting round the door of the fur-room; some of them are stitching pads and cushions into the wooden frames of the pack-saddles; others are mending the broken frames; a third group is cutting long thongs of raw hide to serve as girths, or to act in lieu of ropes for lashing and tying; and a fourth is making the peltries up into bales, by the aid of a powerful lever press.
"Each bale is to weigh about sixty pounds, and the contents to be secured from wet by a wrapper of buffalo-hide, the skin side outermost."
[I think it more likely the bales were ninety pounds each, but maybe he's right..]
"This package is then provided with two very strong loops, made from raw hides, for the purpose of suspending it from what are called the 'horns' of the pack-saddle.
"Two of these bales hung up each side of a horse is a load, and a horse so provided is said to be packed.
"When all the preparations are completed the horses are driven in from the 'guard' to the fort, and the packing commences.
"They use no halters, but simply throw a lassoo round the animal's neck, with which it is held whilst being packed; this finished, the lassoo is removed, and the horse is again turned loose into the 'corral,' or on to the open plain, as it may be."

"Let us imagine a horse lassooed up awaiting the operation of packing.
"First a sheep or goat's skin, or a piece of buffalo 'robe', failing either of the former, called an 'apichimo,' is placed on its back, with the fur or hair next to that of the horse, and is intended to prevent galling; next the pack-saddle is put on.
"This miserable affair with its two little pillows or pads, tied into the cross-trees of woodwork, is girthed with a narrow strap of hide, which often, from the swaying of the load, cuts a regular gash into the poor animal's belly.
"Next a bale is hung on either side, and the two are loosely fastened together underneath the horse by a strap of raw hide.
"This completes the operation of packing, and the horse is set free, to await the general start.
"When all the animals are packed, each of the hands who are to accompany this cavalcade mounts his steed; then waving their lassoos round their heads, and vociferating like demons, they collect the band of packed animals, and drive the lot before them as shepherds do a flock of sheep.
"The principal trader, as a general rule, takes command of the brigade, the journey being anticipated by both the master and his men as a kind of yearly recurring jubilee."

If you think that the voyageurs are acting like a bunch of cowboys, then you will appreciate this description of the arrival of the brigade at Fort Hope, from Susan Allison's "A Pioneer Gentlewoman in British Columbia:"
"From the doorway of our shack we could see the Hudson's Bay Company's Post and watch the pack trains come in from Colvile, Keremeos and other places.
"Sometimes there would be a grand stampede and the pack trains would disrupt.
"Horses and men could be seen through a misty cloud of dust, madly dashing all over the Hope flat, lassos flying, dogs barking, hens flying for safety anywhere.
"Suddenly the tempest would subside as fast as it had arisen, the pack boys would emerge from the clouds of dust leading the ring leaders in the stampede..."

Young Susan also described the horses -- "These Hudson's Bay Company horses, though called "cayooses," were most of them splendid animals, hardy and enduring, with lots of good horse sense."
She was told that they were "descended from the Spanish Barb brought to American three hundred years ago by the Spaniards and left to run wild."

And on one occasion, Susan took a walk up the brigade trail to pick berries, and met Angus McDonald on his way to Hope:
"..I heard bells tinkling and looking up saw a light cloud of dust from which emerged a solitary horseman, the most picturesque figure I had ever seen.
"He rode a superb chestnut horse, satiny and well groomed, untired and full of life in spite of the dust, heat and long journey.
"He himself wore a beautifully embroidered buckskin shirt with tags and fringes, buckskin pants, embroidered leggings and soft cowboy hat.
"He was as surprised to see me as I was to see him, for he abruptly reined in his horse and stared down at me, while I equally astonished stared at him.
"Then as the Bell Boy and other horses rode up, he lifted his hat and passed on..."

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