ust before Christmas of 1824, Peter Skene Ogden packed up his gear to set out to open new territories to fur trapping. Having been working the district for more than eight years already, just picking up and moving wasn't as easy as it once was. Along with his Native American wife Julia Rivet and their children, he departed the Flathead Post, trailing south to Missoula and down the Bitterroot Valley. Ogden's entourage included Julia's stepfather, Francois Rivet, 10 engag & eacute;s, seven Americans, 45 freemen and boys, 30 women, 35 children, 22 leather lodges, 268 horses and 352 traps. It must have looked more like a roving refugee camp than a group of prospective trappers.
The 1824-25 Snake River expedition reached the Bear River country in present-day Utah and followed that drainage to the Great Salt Lake. Ogden's first report back to the company governors reported good success in trapping beaver, but a brief letter dated June 27, 1825, closed with a hint of troubles to come: "Gentlemen I trust you will excuse this scrawl once, if I have not been more particular I trust you will attribute it to my being surrounded by nearly Two hundred Indians and anxiety of mind which I labour under."
Somehow the list of desertions, dangerous confrontations with Americans and various tribes, domestic disputes, severe weather conditions and general misery did not prevent Ogden from bringing back enough furs to warrant five more excursions to the south under his command. The following year, he found good trapping around the Weber River. The town that grew up in the area now bears his name: Ogden, Utah.
Peter Skene Ogden embodied all the energy and contradictions of the Northwest's early history. Short and round, he was also physically agile and astonishingly durable. Many acquaintances remarked on his keen sense of humor, but others noted his profanity, difficult disposition and brawling ways. Ogden could be brutally spiteful of natives, but married a tribal wife who traveled the West beside him. He was a lifetime fur trapper who worked first for the North West Company, then for their bitter rivals from Hudson's Bay.
Serving as trader, field boss, explorer and diplomat, his assignments ranged from northern British Columbia to Baja California, and spanned the Northwest's transition from disputed territory to statehood. During his long career, Ogden always seemed to spiral back to Eastern Washington, and the events that began his most rigorous journeys and then codified his most powerful legacy were rooted in the landmarks of Spokane House and Fort Nez Perce (later called Fort Walla Walla).
But Ogden's chapter in local history also illustrates how natives and newcomers mixed. He took a country wife (his second) in Julia Rivet, a woman who had her own impact on Northwest history. Her husband's job took him from Alaska to Baja, but they still managed to raise a family together and leave a living legacy that traces progeny to the 21st century.
Julia was the stepdaughter of Francois Rivet, a legendary French-Canadian furman who had worked for Lewis and Clark in the Mandan villages in 1804-05 and David Thompson at Saleesh House in Montana in 1809-10. Thompson saw Rivet again in the Colville Valley in 1811 and 1812, where the French-Canadian and other free trappers had settled with their country wives — presumably women connected to the local Salish-speaking allied tribes, especially Flathead, Kalispel/Pend Oreille and Spokane.
Although the identity of Julia's real father remains a mystery, her mother was listed with Francois Rivet in later Catholic mission records as "Therese Tete Platte," and some historians believe that Julia herself was a full-blooded Flathead. Since the ceremony at Spokane House was not officially recorded, and later in their long union, Peter Skene Ogden refused to go through with a formal church wedding that would have codified their marriage, most aspects of Julia's life remain unknown.
More is known about Ogden, whose ancestors lived in New York state, where a pilgrim forebear settled in 1640 and gave rise to a line of fiery lawyers and judges. Some Ogdens were sympathetic to the cause of the American Revolution, but not all them — in late 1783, shortly after the close of the conflict, Isaac Ogden and his Loyalist family sailed from New York City to the safe haven of England.
When Isaac returned to the New World in 1788, it was as a judge for eastern Canada's Admiralty Court. At that time, he already had nine children by two marriages, so it is not surprising that there is some dispute about son Peter Skene's actual birth date. Until recently, most biographies listed the year as 1794, but it now appears clear that he was born in Quebec City in 1790, then rebaptized in Montreal four years later when his father took on a new judgeship.
Little is known of Peter Skene Ogden's education beyond the notion that he was well-schooled as a youth, and the fact that when he was 15, a local reverend tutored him in law. The legal teachings apparently did not take hold, because in early 1810, Peter Skene Ogden forsook the family profession to sign on with John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company. He worked for Astor very briefly before accepting an offer to serve a seven-year clerkship with the North West Company out of Montreal.
The Nor'Westers assigned Ogden to Isle a la Crosse trading post, in the Prairies north of the Saskatchewan River. It was an historic post, and the place where North West Company explorer David Thompson had married his Cree wife Charlotte Small more than a decade earlier. As Ogden moved west for his first posting during that summer of 1810, some of Thompson's crew were working in the new Columbia District, constructing the first Spokane House trading post at the mouth of the Little Spokane River.
Soon after Ogden arrived at Isle a la Crosse, he fell in with a veteran North West agent named Samuel Black, and over the long winter, the two of them began to engage in some systematic harassment of traders at the post of the rival Hudson's Bay Company nearby. Their tactics, which included threats, crude intimidation, slashing clothes with knives, smashing fingers with sticks and open-handed slaps to the face, were clearly described in Bay Company journals that depict Ogden as a bullying lout.
The same pattern repeated itself throughout Ogden's Prairie years and culminated in the well-documented murder and "butchery" of a tribal man named Buffalo, whose only offense was asserting his preference to trade with Hudson's Bay rather than the North West Company. During Ogden's time at Isle a la Crosse, he also took a country wife according to the practices of the fur trade. Usually identified as a Cree woman, she bore him a boy child named Peter.
When furman Ross Cox, on his way east from the Columbia District in 1817, met Ogden at Isle a la Crosse, he reveled in a flood of violent stories from "the humorous, honest, eccentric, law-defying Peter Ogden, the terror of the Indians, and the delight of all gay fellows." While Cox might have considered Ogden a colorful character, others were not amused, and Bayman James Byrd instituted legal action against Ogden that eventually resulted in a murder warrant. By the time an authority figure arrived at Isle a la Crosse to serve the warrant, Ogden was long gone, having skipped across Athabasca Pass to the Columbia Country — and leaving his Cree wife behind. He ended up at Fort George, a North West Company post at the river's mouth on the site of modern Astoria.
At Fort George, Ogden gained some harsh experience in political negotiations when he was assigned to mitigate a violent dispute between some Iroquois trappers and a Cowlitz band. Accompanied by a group of the Iroquois in question, Ogden traveled upstream to a village on the Cowlitz River. But the Iroquois were not there for mediation, and the green envoy stood by helplessly while they massacred a dozen Cowlitz men, women and children. Ogden finally got the situation under control by convincing the Cowlitz headman that Fort George could provide them with a safe haven from the Iroquois, only to have the furmen inside the post mistakenly fire upon the refugees before allowing them entry. Relations between the Cowlitz and the fur companies were soured forever, and Ogden learned a hard lesson.
Whether to get Ogden clear of this mess or simply to give him his own command, the North West bosses assigned him to take charge of Spokane House over the winter of 1818-19. Although no journal survives from that outfit, it is known that he took in reasonable trade receipts — "at least equal to the returns of last year" — and kept order at the post.
It was at that time, and around Spokane House, that Ogden took Julia Rivet as his wife. But soon after their initial union, in a pattern that would repeat itself throughout their lives together, Ogden left Julia in the Columbia District to travel back to Fort William, the North West Company warehouse on Lake Superior.
In the spring of 1819, all the talk there was of amalgamation, which meant that the Hudson's Bay Company was going to absorb his North West Company in what amounted to a hostile takeover. This was not good news for Ogden — not only did the Baymen still have an outstanding murder warrant written in his name, but his bully-boy behavior at Isle a la Crosse had won him a host of lifelong enemies among the Bay Company agents. When the new list of employees appeared, the handful of Nor'Westers who had been deemed unfit to serve in the reformed Hudson's Bay Company included Samuel Black and Peter Skene Ogden.
Ogden responded not by scurrying back to Fort George, as he had two years before, but by consulting with his brothers in the Canadian legal system and then booking passage on a ship to England. He had other family connections there and used them to take his case directly to the Hudson's Bay Company Board of Governors in London. Before the board, he argued that past events should be forgotten, and that he was a man with the experience and fortitude to be a valuable agent in the disputed West. He would serve the Bay Company with the same zeal that he had always devoted to the North West cause.
It took considerable time for Ogden to make his case, and while he sweated out his fate in the fur business, he had his daguerreotype made in London. In the portrait, a high-backed coat, starched collar and frilly kerchief barely hide his powerful bull neck. Dark hair dances around his ears and brow and his right eye, seen from the side, is cast slightly downward. Young Ogden's lips are set in an expression of firm resolve.
Gov. George Simpson had a large hand in determining the future of the Bay Company, and he would play a big part in Ogden's future. He kept a ruthless eye on the company's bottom line and soon realized that there were places he would need hard-driving men like Samuel Black and Peter Skene Ogden. Simpson restored them both to the payrolls and assigned Black to the Peace River Country in the far north. Ogden was told to return across the Atlantic and make his way, for the time being, back to Spokane House.
"Ogden has gone to the Columbia and determined to do great things," wrote Simpson. "He does not want for ability."
A few years later Simpson, writing in his Character Book, expanded on his view of Ogden. While Simpson was notorious for his quick and harsh assessments of company agents — which often reflected his own personal quirks as much as the men he was judging — in this case his words touched on the complex and volatile nature of Ogden.
"A keen, sharp off hand fellow of superior abilities to most of his colleagues, very hardy and active and not sparing of his personal labour. Has had the benefit of a good plain Education, both writes and speaks tolerably well, and has the address of a Man who has mixed a good deal in the World. Has been very Wild & amp; thoughtless and is still fond of coarse practical jokes, but with all the appearance of thoughtlessness he is a very cool calculating fellow who is capable of doing any thing to gain his own ends. His ambition knows no bounds and his conduct and actions are not influenced or governed by any good or honourable principle. In fact, I consider him one of the most unprincipled Men in the Indian country, who would soon get into the habits of dissipation if he were not restrained by the fear of those operating against his interests, and if he does not indulge in that way, madness to which he has a predisposition will follow as a matter of course."
From England, Peter Skene Ogden started a long and circuitous journey back to Spokane House via New York City, Montreal, the old North West Company warehouse at Fort William on Lake Superior and Hudson Bay. In July 1823, Ogden departed from the Bay and struggled across the Prairies and Athabasca Pass, missing several supply connections and losing 50 pounds during the difficult journey. At Boat Encampment on the Columbia River, he met Alexander Ross, a 10-year furman traveling east with his family. Ogden convinced Ross to turn around and accompany his party south to Spokane House, and in late October they began their duties: Ogden would run the post, while Ross would lead the season's Snake River expedition.
Journeys south into the Snake River country had begun in 1818, when 55 men took 195 horses and 300 traps south from the Walla Walla country to explore what is now southern Idaho and northern Utah. It was difficult work, covering incredible distances, with an entirely different mind set from the network of fur trade posts that the Canadians had built on the upper Columbia, Kootenai, Clark Fork and Spokane Rivers. Those houses depended on long-term cooperation with each tribal nation in its vicinity. In the Snake River Country, however, groups of loosely connected contract trappers — including French-Canadians, Iroquois, mixed bloods and Hawaiians — exploited the resources of the country as thoroughly as possible. The much larger expeditions were designed to take care of themselves in unfamiliar country, with very little participation by local tribes. It was a recipe for confrontation.
From London, Simpson saw these ambitious forays as a backfire that would drastically lower the fur trade prospects of the entire northern Great Basin and discourage American beaver men from any hope of profit there. While this "scorched earth" policy certainly slowed their progress, within a decade it became obvious that nothing was going to stop the flow of American settlers into the Northwest. Inevitably, the Snake River expeditions fueled bitter conflicts among Canadians, Americans, a multitude of tribal cultures and the landscape itself. In the long run, everyone lost.
Alexander Ross ran into difficulties soon after he left Spokane House in 1823 for the Snake River country; he sank beneath the weight of tribal harassment, American interference and a revolt of his own trappers. When he finally decided to retreat to more familiar country, he ended up guiding Jedediah Smith and a handful of his American cohorts to Flathead Post in Montana. Simpson, incensed, called Ross's report of the situation "full of bombast and marvelous nonsense," and tapped Ogden to assume leadership of a remounted expedition.
That was the beginning of Ogden's most far-flung travels, starting with the large traveling party he formed at Christmas 1824.
In 1825-26, his expedition pushed through eastern Oregon's rugged John Day country and west across the Cascades to the southern Willamette Valley. He expanded on that trip in 1826-27, reaching Malheur Lake and the Harney Basin, then cutting southeast to touch Klamath Lake in southeastern Oregon, the Humboldt River and Mount Shasta in northern California, and the Rogue River in southwestern Oregon.
His 1827-28 venture explored the Grande Ronde and Snake River, clear to Idaho Falls and back to Boise via the Lost River. And in 1828-29, Ogden revisited Great Salt Lake and the Bear River country.
Ogden's journals for his first five Snake River expeditions, along with supplementary accounts by cohorts such as William Kitson and letters to company bosses, provide detailed accounts of each gritty mile, usually in the terse language of the trade but occasionally leavened by their leader's wit. Together, they leave no question about Ogden's talents as a resourceful leader of men. Despite the host of problems that continued on all fronts — at Goose Lake, on the present border of eastern Oregon and California, Ogden wrote "this is certainly a most horrid life ... Man in this Country is deprived of every comfort that can tend to make existence desirable" — Fort Vancouver chief factor John McLoughlin described the missions as financially successful in terms of furs taken.
Ogden's sixth Snake River expedition outdid all his previous forays. In fact, it's among the most epic journeys in American history. Departing from Fort Nez Perce, he worked through eastern Oregon to the vicinity of modern Winnemucca, Nev., then continued south through the Great Basin along the base of the Sierra Nevada. Beyond the site of the present city of Las Vegas, the party struck the Colorado River and followed it clear to the Sea of Cortez in Baja California. They returned through the Mojave Desert and up California's Central Valley, pausing for a side jaunt to San Francisco before following the Sacramento River north into the Humboldt Country, back through eastern Oregon, and on to the Columbia River. The journal for this expedition was lost in a boating accident at the Dalles, but the general route is accepted by historians.
Julia Rivet Ogden was a very real presence on several of these journeys — rescuing a lost child from Shoshone Indians, dipping into northern California and the Siskiyou country, wrangling her growing family both together with and separate from her cantankerous husband. When she and Ogden paused at Fort Nez Perce before moving south for the 1827-28 expedition, Julia was four months pregnant and caring for Peter, 10 (Ogden's child by his Cree country wife), Charles, 8, Cecilia, 6, Michael, 4, and Sarah Julia, 2. It is not known whether she had anything to say about her stepson Peter's departure in summer 1829 to attend the Red River School at Lake Winnipeg, a common destination for mixed-blood children of furmen. There is no reason given for the fact that Julia and the rest of the children spent the following winter at Fort Nez Perce, while Ogden resumed his boorish, bachelor ways at Fort Vancouver. He had just returned from his sixth Snake River expedition when Julia drifted north to Fort Colvile, where one of her boys died of a stomach ailment on Jan. 5, 1831.
The Ogdens were together again that spring, however, floating downstream to Fort Vancouver. There Ogden received orders that would begin a new phase of their lives, far to the north in the New Caledonia District. They spent the years 1831-34 vying against Russian and American furmen on the Nass River in what is now northwestern B.C.
When Ogden was next named chief factor of the New Caledonia District and posted to Fort St. James on Stuart Lake, they spent 10 full years there, operating a fairly smooth business. It was at Fort St. James that Julia gave birth to her last child, a boy they named Isaac, in 1839. What was really remarkable, however, was that she was reputed to be 51 years old at the time; her husband had taken to calling her "The Old Lady."
By 1844, Ogden was long overdue to go "down on rotation" for an extended leave. He brought Julia and the children who were still living with them south to Fort Vancouver, then left them there as he once more crossed the continent to eastern Canada. He continued on to England to visit family members and company headquarters in London. On his return trip, Ogden traveled with Sir George Simpson, who had become somewhat of a friend, from Montreal to Red River. Along the way, Simpson engaged Ogden to accompany British army officers Henry James Warre and Mervyn Vavasour west to the Columbia District. The pair, posing as gentlemen sportsmen, were actually on a secret mission to assess the prospects of key Hudson's Bay Company trading posts in the event of a confrontation with the United States over the impending boundary settlement.
By the time this unlikely group reached Fort Edmonton, Lt. Warre had completed several field sketches and watercolors that depicted his intrepid party leader. He had also formed a personal opinion about Ogden, which he expressed in a passage of an unpublished draft manuscript.
"M. Ogden, a fat jolly good fellow reminding me of Falstaff both in appearance & amp; in wit always talking, always proving himself right ... on the whole he is a very good & amp; companionable fellow full of information about the country which we are about to visit, but most difficult to obtain such information from his partiality for joking and 'selling' rendering it nearly impossible to know when he is earnest or not."
For his part, Ogden did not particularly enjoy traveling with two British dandies carrying toothbrushes and top hats. "I had certainly two most disagreeable companions," he later wrote, noting the officers' "constant grumbling and complaining" about trail food and several other matters. But in the end, Ogden not only guided the pair all the way back to Fort Vancouver, but made a personal jaunt downstream to Cape Disappointment on the north bank of the mouth of the Columbia. Acting under orders from his superiors, he negotiated to purchase the cape from an American squatter in the hopes that the land would become deeded as permanent British soil.
The Boundary Treaty of 1846 ceded Washington Territory to the United States but granted the British fur interest some years of grace to continue their operation. Peter Skene Ogden and James Douglas were appointed as joint masters of Fort Vancouver, to share responsibilities in transferring both the fading fur business and the growing community into U. S. hands. Ogden took to his new posting with a flair, writing letters to the American newspapers in the Willamette Valley, judging horse races, becoming a patron of the Vancouver Curling Club and submitting acrostic poems to the Spectator magazine.
On Dec. 6, 1847, word reached Fort Vancouver of the calamity at Marcus Whitman's Waiilatpu Mission. An unknown number of people were dead, women and children were being held hostage, and a tribal coalition of unknown size might be threatening all the white settlers in the territory. American officials knew nothing about dealing with the Plateau cultures and turned to the Hudson's Bay Company officials for advice.
The very next day, Ogden set out with a "strong party for Walla Walla ... to endeavour to prevent further evil." After his party arrived at Fort Nez Perce, Ogden quickly assembled the local tribal headmen, many of whom he would have known from his Snake River expeditions. He made a clear and uncompromising statement of his intentions to retrieve the American hostages, then sat down to wait. In time, the tribes made a counteroffer, and Ogden listened to them. He eventually delivered a ransom of trade goods and seven oxen in exchange for all of the captives, then led them back to Fort Vancouver before the turn of the new year. When Oregon's provisional governor showered him with praise for his negotiating tactics, Ogden, perhaps recalling his calamity with the Cowlitz many years earlier, calmly reflected that "without the [Hudson's Bay Company's] powerful aid and influence, nothing could have been effected."
As his authority steadily diminished, Ogden hung on as chief factor at Fort Vancouver for almost six more years. With his health failing, he and Julia finally retired to live with their favorite daughter in Oregon City. That girl, Sarah Julia, had married Archibald McKinley, one of Oregon's first mercantile traders. It was in their house that Peter Skene Ogden passed away in 1854.
Ogden died as a man of some renown, who had ramrodded crews across a wide spectrum of race and culture; served with the most influential shapers of fur trade and territorial policy; and met all the key early visitors to the Northwest, from botanist David Douglas to Jesuit missionary Pierre DeSmet to artist Paul Kane. He had also made several wise investments and left a sizable estate in the form of both land and liquid assets. Yet he had never formalized his relationship with Julia Rivet, and soon after he died, one of his lawyer brothers and a sister from eastern Canada laid a claim to disinherit all of Ogden's mixed-blood family.
Sir George Simpson, ever on the scene, served as one of the executors of the estate, and followed the legal battle for several years before helping to procure a modest settlement for Julia and her children. When a succession of bad farming years drove Sarah and Archibald McKinley into bankruptcy, Julia moved with them back to the north country, where she lived for another quarter century as a local figure.
The Old Lady died in 1886 at Lac la Hache, British Columbia, at age 98. Together with her difficult husband, she had managed to participate in most of the social upheavals that created the Pacific Northwest as we know it today.
Jack Nisbet is a Spokane author. His latest book is The Mapmaker's Eye: David Thompson on the Columbia Plateau.