John McLoughlin

John McLoughlin, a senior man with long white hair in a suit holding eye glasses in 1 hand and a walking stick in the other.
John McLoughlin was one of the most influential figures of the fur trade and settlement periods of Pacific Northwest history. Chief Factor of the Columbia District of the British Hudson's Bay Company, he reigned as a benevolent autocrat, befriended Americans, and eventually became an American citizen at Oregon City. This exhibit provides glimpses of McLoughlin's life through documents held by the Oregon State Archives.

Career With Hudson's Bay Company

McLoughlin was born in the province of Quebec in 1784 to an upper class family. After a brief medical practice in Montreal, he became a partner in the North West Company. Soon after a merger with the Hudson's Bay Company, McLoughlin was made chief factor of the Columbia District and was stationed at Fort George from 1821 to 1825 and Fort Vancouver from 1825 to 1846.

Around 1830 he erected a new Fort Vancouver, a mile from its first location. McLoughlin established a farm of about 3,000 acres and grew quantities of grain, principally wheat. He developed a herd of cattle, constructed saw and flour mills and yearly shipped lumber to the Hawaiian Islands and flour to Sitka. McLoughlin also founded the first school in the Oregon Country in 1832. By 1839 he had established about 20 trading forts and posts in the territory. The Hudson's Bay Company district under his management became the most profitable of all the company's enterprises in North America.

McLoughlin's entire period as head of the Hudson's Bay Columbia District was free of Indian disturbances. His dealings with the natives were generally successful and to them he became known as the "White Headed Eagle." As chief factor of the Columbia District, McLoughlin's duties were to monopolize the fur trade of the region, impose peace on the numerous tribes, and prevent agricultural settlement of the region. He succeeded for a time, but the gradual decline in fur trading due to over trapping and the incursions of white settlement overruled his power and conscience. McLoughlin's friendliness to incoming missionaries helped open the way to settlement.

Early efforts of settlers to form a provisional government in Oregon recognized McLoughlin's power as the following 1841 resolution reveals:

1841 Resolution

Image of 1841 resolution shows black flowing handwriting on yellowed paper.
1841 resolution transcribed at right. Enlarge image >
"On Motion - Resolved - that the committee for drafting Constitution and laws be instructed to confer with the Commodore of the American Squadron and John McLaughlin Chief Factor of the Hudson Bay Co. with regard to forming a Constitution and code of laws for this community."

The United States formally won control of Oregon by signing a boundary treaty with Great Britain in 1846. The treaty set the current U.S./Canada boundary at the 49th parallel and reduced geographic and political uncertainties that had caused tensions.

Tensions were apparent in communications between members of the provisional government of Oregon (formed in 1843) and McLoughlin in the period immediately before the boundary treaty. The provisional government attempted to assert power in 1845 through the "articles of compact." However, its correspondence with McLoughlin shows a continuing respect for McLoughlin.

Because of the rapidly increasing population of American settlers in the area, McLoughlin saw that the Hudson's Bay Company would have to avoid inflaming the anti-British attitudes of Manifest Destiny and leading proponents such as President James K. Polk. He therefore agreed that the company would pay taxes on all goods brought to Oregon for resale. The following three letters reflect the ongoing negotiations made largely moot by the treaty:

1845 Letters

Letter transcribed at right.
Letter to McLoughlin concerning articles of compact. Enlarge image>
Oregon City
August 14th 1845
To John McLoughlin
Chief Factor of the Hudson Bay Company

As a question has arisen in the House of Representatives on the subject of Apportionment upon which we feel peculiarly situated and beg leave to ask of you a question, the answer to which will enable us to come to a definite conclusion upon that subject. The question to which we would be happy to receive an answer is -

Do you think the gentleman belonging to the company over which you preside will become parties to the articles of compact by the payment of taxes and on other respects complying with the laws of this provisional government.

Your answer to this query is most respectfully solicited.
Yours with the highest respect
(signed) J W Smith, H A G Lee, J M Garrison, Barton Lee

Letter transcribed at right.
McLoughlin's response concerning articles of compact. Enlarge image >
Oregon City 15 Aug 1845
To J W Smith, H A G Lee, J M Garrison, Barton Lee

We have the honor to acknowledge your favor of, and beg in reply to say, that viewing the organization as a compact of certain parties, British and American subjects residing in Oregon, to afford each other protection in person and property, to maintain the peace of the community and prevent the commission of crime, a protection which all parties in this Country feel they particularly stand in need of, as neither the British nor American Government appear at liberty to extend the jurisdiction of their Laws to this part of America; and moreover seeing that this compact does not interfere with our duties and allegiance to our respective Governments, nor with any right of trade now enjoyed by the Hudson's Bay Company, we the Officers of the Hudson's Bay Company, consent to become parties to the articles of compact, provided we are called upon to pay taxes only on our "Sales to Settlers"

We have the honor to be Gentleman Your very obt Servants
John McLoughlin
James Douglas

Letter transcribed at right.
Letter from McLoughlin regarding provisional government.
Enlarge image>
To Mesrs. J. McClure Esq
J. W. Smith Esq
J. Applegate Esq Committee

I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of the Resolution of the Oregon Legislature, which you left at my office with Mr. Campbell, and I hope you will do me the justice to believe that it would afford me great pleasure to feel at liberty to acceed to the request of the Legislature - but after again giving the subject the fullest consideration - I am extremely sorry to say, it is not in my power, consisting with the trust put in me, to give any other answer than that in mine of 12th Instant

I have the honor to be Gentleman your obedient humble servant
John McLoughlin
Oregon City August 20th 1845