June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
He was born in 1784, on a farm on the lower St. Lawrence River. An apprenticeship to a Quebec physician led to employment at nineteen as an assistant surgeon at Fort William, the North West Company’s fur-gathering post on the shore of Lake Superior. He remained proud of the title of physician for the rest of his life, but in truth he was a good deal more successful as a trader. The Indians dealt readily with him, impressed by his quick mastery of their languages and by his enormous physical stature—his massive frame towered six feet four inches in a land where most tribesmen were comparatively short.
In 1814 he became a partner in the North West Company, then engaged in bloody competition with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Appalled by the violent struggle—and by the dwindling profits accompanying it—McLoughlin took part in negotiations that led to an amalgamation of the two rivals. The giant doctor was then named one of the twenty-five Chief Factors, or district managers, of the continent-wide Hudson’s Bay Company monopoly that resulted, and he was placed in charge of the Columbia Department. Thereafter, McLoughlin ruled some 600,000 square miles stretching from Spanish California to Russian Alaska, with twenty-two posts manned by about 460 employees. From his headquarters at Fort Vancouver on the north bank of the Columbia River near present-day Portland, Oregon, he supervised land and marine trade with the Indians of the entire Northwest; inaugurated commerce in salmon and timber with California and Hawaii; and, after 1839, supplied Russian Alaska with produce. And he managed all this under considerable pressure: no boundary yet separated British and American possessions west of the Rockies; under jointoccupancy agreements, Americans were entitled to equal rights of trade and commerce throughout the Northwest, but any sizable incursion of Yankees would necessarily jeopardize his domain.
In spite of this, he ruled like a not-always-benevolent dictator. The officers’ mess gleamed with fine china and silver, and visitors at his table agreed that McLoughlin presided graciously, was a scintillating conversationalist, and could be grandly generous. But he also had a frantic temper. He quarreled so intemperately with one friend that the offended man, who was ill, left Fort Vancouver during a storm and died of exposure. When the fort’s chaplain cast slurs upon McLoughlin’s half-Indian wife, the outraged doctor caned the smaller man.
He seemed temperamentally unable to brook any inter- ference with his policies—even from his superior, Sir George Simpson, with whom he bickered almost constantly. Animosity turned to rage when Simpson ordered that the marine operations of the Columbia Department be altered; McLoughlin objected with such monumental lack of tact that the two men never spoke to each other again, though the doctor retained his position.
During these altercations the influx of American settlers in the Oregon country grew steadily. For years, McLoughlin’s trappers and traders had turned back would-be American competitors, but he had greeted some emigrants, especially Protestant missionaries, with more warmth than the company thought wise. The forebodings of the doctor’s superiors proved sound. Glowing letters sent home by the missionaries helped quicken American migration. In 1843 McLoughlin sold—on credit—$31,000 worth of supplies to scores of destitute arrivals who had crossed the continent on the Oregon Trail. His motives were at once humane and practical, for this was a period of intense anti-British feeling in the United States, and the pioneers might have pillaged Fort Vancouver rather than starve. But from London the debts, most of them never repaid, looked like more mistaken generosity.
Finally there were the mills at Willamette Falls. Simpson and McLoughlin had long contemplated developing the water power there but had done little until American settlers started eyeing the site. McLoughlin then filed a claim, platted what he called Oregon City, and began using company funds to build saw and grist mills. Because he foresaw that the region would become American when the boundary problem was settled (as it was in 1846), and because foreign corporations could not file on land claims within the United States, he declared the mills his and sent to the company personal checks covering all costs. Simpson—doubtless with relief—accepted the payment, knowing that McLoughlin would have to resign in order to manage the property.
McLoughlin did resign, and during the California gold rush built up a thriving commerce of his own. But he remained a storm center. He tried to protect his claims by applying for U.S. citizenship when Oregon Territory was organized in 1849, but political opportunists insisted that he was a front for a foreign monopoly, and slipped a special clause depriving him of his holdings into a homestead bill passed by Congress in September, 1850.
Because of protests by many of the people he had befriended, he was never actually dispossessed. But his monumental pride had been shattered by both the nations to which he had given allegiance, and he died brokenhearted on September 3, 1857.
Five years later his claims were restored to his heirs, and in 1953 the state of Oregon unveiled a statue of him in the National Capitol—one of the two men chosen to represent the state in an august, if silent, collection of American notables. With a compassion born of hindsight, Oregon had decided to remember the good he had done and let his mistakes be interred with his gigantic bones.