John Muir – A Man to be Reckoned With
“John Muir: West Coast Pioneer”
Don’t confuse our John Muir with the one who started the Sierra Club, for rather than hug a tree, our John became the first commercial logger in the Pacific Northwest.
In the first person John Muir shares his amazing story of how he and his extended family came to the Colony of Vancouver’s Island in 1849 spurned on by false promises. How his arrival cemented the British foothold on the west coast and guaranteed the continuity of the Canadian provinces coast to coast.
He shares in heart wrenching terms how against insurmountable odds, he and his family fought against the savagery of the land, the hierarchical rule of Sir James Douglas and the Hudson’s Bay Company to become the first European settlers in this new unbroken land.
John shares with you how he transitioned from a humble Scottish coal miner into the largest independent landowner and commercial enterprise north of California. Through sheer sweat and determination he and his families efforts toppled the Hudson’s Bay Company’s stranglehold monopoly on trade throughout the Pacific.
Until the writing of ‘John Muir: West Coast Pioneer’ no one had taken the time to put his legacy to print, let alone do the in-depth research required to do it justice.
This book has been published by Ronsdale Press and should be available in all book stores. If their supply is diminished ask them to restock their shelves easily through Raincoast Distributors.
The book cover of the Sooke Harbour has been graciously donated by the renowned west coast artist ‘EJ Hughes’.
When Queen Victoria Speaks – The Muir’s Listen
“John Muir: West Coast Pioneer”
During the mid 1800’s Britain was in dire straights. Every form of industry had struck for higher wages and better working conditions. This shut down the extensive coal mines in the northwest and the steel industry upon which the nation thrived. If that were not enough, drought has reduced the potato harvest to a shadow of what it once was, driving the title “Potato Famine” to the front page of every daily.
The state of affairs not only crippled the average man but sent the Gentry into bankruptcy from one corner of the country to the other.
Across the Atlantic word had spread that the Americans had their sights on securing every square inch of land north of California clear up to the Russian Peninsula and nothing was going to get in their way. The few trading posts that the Hudson’s Bay Company held in the ‘Oregon Territories’ (a reference to all that land north of California) were slowly being eaten up by the Northwest Trading Co. – an American version of the Bay.
Queen Victoria in her great wisdom decided a British colony had to be established on the west coast to protect British sovereignty and guarantee the vision of Canada sea-to-sea.
With a total of fifty Europeans taking up space on the west coast under the umbrella of the Hudson’s Bay Company, she decreed that the HBC would assume the roll of management in the establishment of the new colony.
In early 1848 an invitation went out across the British Empire and the unemployed Kilmarnock, Scotland coal miner by the name of John Muir was the first to take up the invitation.
Image is of Kilmarnock in 1841.
“John Muir: West Coast 1st Pioneer”
As John Muir made his way onto the East India Docks in south London with purpose to board the Harpooner and set sail to the new land Queen Victoria wished to see settled. He had in tow his wife Anne, four sons, Andrew, John Jr., Robert and Michael; ranging in age from 21 yrs to 16 yrs respectively.
Also ready to board were his widowed daughter Marion with her two infant children, his cousin John MacGregor with wife Anne and their three infants and last but not least John’s nephew Archibald Muir.
Rounding out the list of passengers were Rev. Cridge of the Church of England. A man who would become one of the Muir’s closest and most endearing friends; he being employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company to offer spiritual services within Fort Victoria; Mr. Yates and his wife; venture people looking to make their wealth as proprietors of a dry-goods store in the new colony. Lastly there was a blacksmith under the employ of HBC.
As the captain and first mate received them and showed them to their cabins, they were instructed that fundamental British law no longer applied on board the Harpooner but rather the law as defined by the captain.
Each man was to take up a position during the voyage and participate in the daily requirements of the ship as seen fit by the captain. To renege on his duties would see the individual dealt with in the harshest manner possible under his law.
Little did the Muirs realize just how cruel the captain would be, nor how taxing the voyage would become.
Image is of the Harpooner; a square rigged schooner.
Farewell to Solid Ground
“John Muir: West Coast Pioneer”
On December 1, 1848 John Muir’s eldest son Andrew recorded in the first of his six journals:
“We slipped our moorings early this morning. From our initial company we were joined by Doctor Alfred Benson, a physician, Mr. James Cathie a baker and Mr. William Walker a blacksmith, plus eight labourers and a copper, all of who were to assume a position at Fort Victoria under the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
“As the bow of the ship pointed towards the center of the Thames we could feel the current grab hold of the hull and with the aid of the rudder we safely edged our way past the other ships anchored off shore while patiently waiting to take the vacant berth we created at the docks.
We were instructed by Captain Lewis Morice that there would be one stop 34 kilometers downstream at Gravesend where we would anchor off-shore for a day while the ship’s crew took on a load of black powder destined for the new colony.
It would be two days further until we breached the mouth of the Thames and truly embarked on this new adventure.
On Our Way
“John Muir: The Voyage Begins”
Andrew Muir continues:
“As the Captain promised, a single day passed while tethered to a buoy opposite Graves End. Once the black powder was secure no time was wasted in setting out sights 64 kilometers downstream to the open waters of the English Channel.
“Everyone on board was excited with the new experience as the ship followed the smooth water currents of the Thames. The same cannot be said once we cleared Botany Bay on our Starboard side a week later and the Captain set a southwest course for the open Atlantic 578 Kilometers as the crow flies.
“The men found minimal trouble finding their sea-legs, but the women folk were stricken with sea-sickness forenoon of the first day. As the waves rebounded off the opposing French and English shores only to meet the incoming or outgoing tide, our wee ship yawed like a drunken sailor making his way with blurred vision from one tavern to another.
“All without exception sought the comfort of their cabin bunks where they each wrenched up whatever they ingested into the swill bucket provided. Once we cleared the grip of the channel and set our course for the Azores Islands off Portugal, the ship settled allowing the women to creep from below to the upper deck and take in fresh air for the first time in a fortnight.”
It Was No Picnic
“John Muir: The Voyage”
Andrew Muir continues: “During most of our time within the English Channel our ship was knocked about with such fury that cooking on the upper decks open stove was simply out of the question. For that duration of time we were rationed to salted beef, cold fish and biscuits with jam.
“Now that we are free of that dreadful stretch of water and enjoying the open Atlantic, all men were expected to assume their duties about the ship with no complaint. I spent a percentage of my time preparing the stove each morning and making certain their was sufficient gruel for everyone on board. Gruel being the primary sustenance of my homeland, this represented a pleasant change from the salted meat and biscuits during the past three weeks. It seemed our diet would consist of processed meat for as long as it lasted, scones, shortbread, soup and potatoes prepared on the open stove, plus a wee toddy as a nightcap. The later of which may well prove my downfall later in life.
“We soon picked up the trade winds and started moving with speed towards the Islands of West Indies.
“Cold storage was at a premium, hence fresh meat and vegetables spoiled quickly and were replaced with tainted port. Our discontent registered with Captain Morice fell on deaf ears. Many refused to eat the spoiled meat and determined to go without until one of the boatswain put a small portion of the meat on a hook and snagged a large shark on a hand line. This we welcomed for our evening meal for a few days hence.
“A few days following Gedion the store keeper let fall a comment that the ship’s officers were eating good beef while leaving the tainted for the deckhands and passengers. This new quickly spread into a mutiny.”
“John Muir: West Coast Pioneer”
Andrew Muir writes:
“Our captain confessed that this is his first voyage around the tip of South America to the west coast of the new continents. This added little to no comfort to our already uncomfortable conditions as his sole source of navigation appears to be a couple of incomplete charts with coordinates for our destination provided the Hudson’s Bay Company. I for one pray his celestial navigating talents are more skillful than his provision of stores.
I approached Mr. Wright, the First Mate of the ship about the now rancid meat we are being served, but he was unyielding and claimed we could either eat it or go without as he and the captain are consuming the same. Fortunately we are just over a week out of the Islands of West Indies where we will be able to refresh our food lockers and top up our fresh water barrels which were depleted the day before last.
Since the day we slipped our moorings at the East India Docks, Mr. James Yates (the independent fellow who believes he will make his fortune in the new colony) has refused to complete his assignments about the ship as was stipulated on our boarding. Captain Morice grew tired of his insubordination a week past and had him placed in irons and locked away from his family in the forward steerage. There he remained on nothing but bread and water. This morning his spirit broke and has now agreed to tow-the-line.
Had my father known this voyage would place his family at such discomfort and risk, I am confident he would not have been so eager to sign on.
Image is of James Yates, his wife Mary and son Harry at the time of the voyage.
The Issues Continue
“John Muir: West Coast Pioneer”
Andrew continues: “As planned we made port in the Islands of West Indies. There we took on fresh produce. I am told substantial stores were also acquired and my brothers and I topped off our fresh water barrels before we made our way back into the turquoise oceans east of South America.
Now that thirty-two days have passed the fresh produce we never managed to consume has long since spoiled and been tossed overboard. The stores of fresh beef must also be passed or it too has gone bad, as tainted and rancid meat once again is being served.
The crew have been ordered to prepare for a westerly tack as we round Cape Horn and make for the Pacific. The wind is fierce and the waves mountainous as a gale has held us in its grip for the past couple of days.
We no longer have the sun to our backs so we must have cleared the southern tip of South America. The crew now refuse to return to their posts as they say without fresh meat their energy has been tapped and they no longer have the ability or will to do heavy labour. They insist the Captain has retained the best of the salted beef and fish for himself and the first mate; the same of which the Captain vehemently denies.
We are currently adrift in the fiercest of storms with our main sails in tatters. God only knows where we are heading and what will befall us as we have been at the mercy of the storm for four days. My father, brothers and I are doing our best to attend to those sails we have left but I must confess we are ill equipped for such work.
We have been without direction now for five days while the crew remain in their bunks. The Captain has finally come to his senses and release some of the meat he has hoarded for himself. The bellies of the crew are now full and satisfied so work has begun to replace the shredded sails and plot our new course northward.
My younger brothers are referring to the Captain as a righteous ‘Coollyshang’; an old Scottish term for a ‘good-for-nothing’. I can’t disagree as it seems fitting. Clearly he has purchased stores that were already of age and due to turn in order to maximise his potential for profit. He is a most greedy man if I had ever seen one.
Image of the Harpooner heading north.
“John Muir: Voyage to the New World”
“With the bellies of the crew and passengers now full of good meat, the task at hand is to determine how far off course we had drifted and what setting we would need to locate a quality source of food and fresh water.
On the 27th of March, after 117 days at sea, we inched our way into the small cove of Juan Fernandez Island, a boney ridgeback of land located approximately 400 miles west of Valparaiso, Chile; that being the legendary refuge for the character Robinson Crusoe; a true story based on a fellow Scot, one Alexander Selkirk.
Four Spaniards came to greet us as we anchored off-shore. It turned out there were a total of seven inhabitants on the island, plus a large number of wild goats that spotted the hills behind their encampment.
My brothers were relegated to picking as many peaches as possible from the numerous trees that grew wild across the hillside. Myself and two of the crew set out to find what meat we could hunt to replenish our depleted stores. The balance of the crew and passengers spend their time filling the ships barrels with fresh water from a spring that ran freely into the cove. Once completed, we picked a large quantity of prickly pear and caught a half dozen large turtles which we kept bound and alive on deck until we needed their meat.
With a couple of days lost and appropriate salutations given, we set sail once again towards our future home.”
It Won’t Be Long Now
“John Muir: West Coast Pioneer”
Andrew Muir’s journals were a tremendous help in gaining firsthand knowledge of the ordeal the Muir’s overcame while attempting to make a new life for themselves in the wilds of the unsettled west coast. There is an entry most ever day of their six month voyage if for no reason other than to note the weather of the day, but often there are records of their encounter with other ships far out at sea or brief glimpses of a top sail on the horizon.
Most notable is the record of their near starvation, brutality inflicted by the captain, munity of the crew and the storm conditions; all very new and unacceptable in the eyes of the Muir family. But it strengthened them as individuals whose hardships would not end once they placed their feet on dry land.
Andrew continues with the voyage:
“With our stores full once again we inched our way out of the small harbour and back into the wide Pacific. In order to avoid the larger rolling waves that regenerate off the coastal headlands, the captain positioned our course approximately one hundred miles offshore and then in a northerly direction.
Once again we crossed the equator where the sun sat directly overhead. The heat was so unbearable that the first mate prepared a canopy of canvass on the deck for the passengers to huddle under and gain a sense of relief while enjoying the ocean breeze. My brothers and I remained there during the night rather than sleep in the sweltering confines of our cabin.
Our next port of call was a bustling town of San Francisco in the soon-to-be state of California. The township was near impossible to see until you pass through a narrowing gorge of land with a high abutment on one side and low lying land on the other. This will be our last stop until we reach the proposed new colony which we shall call ‘home’.
Here the fate of the Mexican / American war, which was settled last year, has seen the state of California fall into the hands of the Americans. The harbour is alive with so many large craft at anchor I can scarcely count them as hundreds of bodies mill about the shoreline.
We are told there was a discovery of gold in the northern state and men have sailed from the four corners of the globe in worm ridden vessels considered long past their safe usage to seek their riches. I dare say some will abandon our ship while we are here in search of the elusive yellow ore. I must confess, there is nothing here to pull at my heart strings, hence for me the sooner we are under sail the better.”
Image is of San Francisco at the time of the Muir’s visit.
The Colony Is Within Reach
“John Muir: West Coast Pioneer – Andrew Muir’s Diary”
“The voyage north of San Francisco was more-or-less uneventful. We again sailed well offshore as I am told the headlands of the continent has already claimed its fair share of wrecked ships such that it is fast becoming known as the ‘Graveyard of the Pacific’.
There were no further harbours save the Columbia river which appears deep enough and certainly wide enough to welcome the largest of ships. Having said that, the captain notes from his charts that entering it is not for the faint of heart and can only be accomplished at high tide as its mouth is choked with sandbars which have seized firmly the hull of many a ship before now.
The Hudson’s Bay Company has long since maintained their stranglehold of the Oregon Territories upstream with Fort Astoria at its mouth and Fort Vancouver a hundred miles upriver. I am told this is quickly changing with the influx of the American counterpart, The Northwest Company of Traders; as they are applying pressure to the sole monopoly that has pillaged the bounty of the land for a few worthless trinkets and the help of the native Indian’s ignorance.
A few days further north we reset our course northeast to round the rugged point of land on our starboard side known as Cape Flattery. It is here that we enter The Strait of Juan de Fuca and make our way approximately fifty miles to the harbour of The Colony of Vancouver’s Island.
If our troubles so far had not been enough to stretch the patience of any man, on May 30, 1849 the wind failed us the moment we entered the Strait and there we sat at the mercy of the tides. While it appears we are being sucked back out into the open Pacific, we could just as easily be dashed against the rocks of the Cape with no recourse.
Within the hour our ship was surrounded by forty canoes filled with near naked savages painted in all sorts of ungodly colours. They were clearly angry and yelling in some dialect that none on board could comprehend.
All the natives carried bows and arrows or lances which they waved about in a menacing manner. The captain immediately ordered the women and children below deck and the hatch secured from the inside. As they were being secured the First Mate opened the ship’s munitions locker and issued each man a musket, a small bag of led balls and a horn of black powder.
When we agreed to this venture no one suggested that we would face two gales, near starvation on more than one occasion, the utter brutality of its master, the perils of a ship with shredded sails adrift or the possibility that we would have to fight for our very lives before we reached our destination.
Within minutes the natives had used every imperfection of the ship to scale the sides. We were clearly outnumbered and they apparently held no fear of our muskets. Neither I, nor any of my brothers considered ourselves to be brave men, but this circumstance definitely tested our mettle. Much effort was made to encourage the savages to leave but our words fell on deaf ears. Before long both sides began pushing and shoving the other. There was no telling how long this charade would continue or if indeed we would see tomorrow.
Image is of Fort Vancouver.
When Will This Nightmare End
“John Muir: West Coast Pioneer”
“The pushing and shoving continued until there was a loud explosion. Everyone including the savages froze and looked about to see who had discharged their weapon and what blood soaked body lay about the deck. This was followed by a second explosion drawing our attention to a fresh breeze that had returned to the sails. The snap resulted as the force of the breeze filled our sails to the full extent of the boom. Once again we were underway; but the question remained; ‘for how long?’
The Captains voice bellowed across the ship ordering every man to start pushing the savages over the rails, giving no thought to whether they could swim or whether their fall would be broken by a waiting canoe below.
With the decks cleared and the sails full we inched our way free of the melee and eastward towards our destination. The captain took a sun shoot and confirmed we were on our final reach and only a few short days from our new home.
Within hours massive snow-capped peaks rose from the headlands of the Oregon Territories to our right with the occasional whiff of smoke rising from what we assumed to be the village of those who overtook us.
To our left were low rolling hills of what we assumed was Vancouver’s Island; the new land we were destined to settle. Tall majestic firs spread from the shore for as far as the eye could see; the likes of which we have not been seen in our homeland since the days of the Normans. To say my heart leaped with expectation would have been an understatement.
The further east we sailed the calmer the seas became. No longer were we fighting the heavy swells of the Pacific but rather seas protected by the mountains on our right and the low rolling headlands on our left.
On our second day we witnessed a break in the forests to our left with a meadow of gold reaching back a fair distance from the shore. Both my father and mother expressed interest in revisiting the location once we are ashore.
With the approach of the third night, the captain took a reading once again and proclaimed we had missed our intended harbour and hence we would anchor for the night in the lee of a small chain of islands merely a stones throw from the now grassy slopes of Vancouver’s Island.
A watch of two men were stationed at the bow and stern of the ship throughout the night per chance we would once again be placed at a disadvantage to the natives. That would prove the longest night of the preceding six months.
Image is the lee of Trial Island, the harpooner’s anchorage of the final night on board. The mountains of the Oregon Territories (Olympics’) rising up clearly in the background.
“It Feels So Good”
John Muir: The Voyage Ended
“While our legs were wobbly and our gait uncertain, if feels so good to once again be on dry land.
As we disembarked, burdened with whatever worldly goods we could carry, four powerful looking Kanakas came out through the Fort’s west gate to offer us assistance. We learned these men were taken from the Sandwich Islands to labour under the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company; whether their departure from their homeland was voluntary or not, we never learned. With dark skin and distinctively native features, we could easily see why they were a popular subject of the British company as they were built well for heavy manual labour and held a degree of natural logic missing from many other nations.
As our property began to pile up on the foreshore, a stern looking man came forward from the Fort and directed us to our lodging. Myself, my brothers and cousin were relegated to the bachelor’s quarters, while our parents and uncle, with his family were offered a private room in yet a separate building, large enough only to support sufficient bunks and a small number of possessions. We were responsible for the preparation of our own meals in a common cooking area, with staples made available at what seemed to be an excessive rate from the company stores.
Other than the native’s village a stone’s throw to the north, there were no other structures within visual range save the fort itself. As a defensive measure the outer enclosure was made up of a palisade of vertical fir logs, buried deep in the earth and sharpened to a point on the top. Whereas there were no firs to be had in the immediate area, each log had to be fallen and brought to the fort from a number of miles to the east. With limited company manpower, the very same natives whom the Company considered of risk, offered to cut and then tow forty logs to the fort behind their canoes in exchange for single blanket.
The hierarchy about the fort soon became apparent and that the Chief Factor James Douglas ruled supreme. There were divine services held each Sunday which Douglas required every man, woman and child to attend, regardless of faith. Every man within the fort, whether under the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company or not were required to pitch in and work for the betterment of the fort, whether they liked it or not. Whereas my family had experience with black powder, father, along my brothers and I were relegated to the task of blasting rock from the headlands in preparation of a permanent dock sufficient to received a steady flow of ships in the future. Uncle John set about to dig a well in one corner of the fort so the occupants no longer had to trudge water in from a spring a few miles inland.
There were only fifty men employed by the Company when we arrived with a few native wives taken in the custom of the land. Most of the men were of British origin, plus a half dozen French Canadians and the remainder Kanakas. All were well kept as personal hygiene appeared to be yet another concern of the Chief Factor.
Here we would stay for three months until a steamer could be commissioned to take us north to a Fort Rupert. This being the place of our three year consignment with the company in repayment of our fare.
Early image of Fort Victoria with the village across the ravine to the left.
The Queen May Rule in Spirit
“John Muir: West Coast Pioneer”
Before too many days had passed we found ourselves adapted to the routine about the fort as dictated on a daily basis by the Chief Factor.
There was clearly a class order about the fort with James Douglas considering himself at the top of the chain and the local natives well below the lowest rung of the ladder. My brother Michael witnessed Douglas’ daughters frolicking about the front their home and decided to venture over and introduce himself. Within a breath of his arrival, Douglas’ wife Amelia scurried out and corralled the girls back into the house but not before casting a disparaging eye in Michael’s direction.
A couple of months remained until the Company steamer would arrive to take us to Fort Rupert, some three hundred miles north. There we are to work off our indebtedness to the Hudson’s Bay Company for our passage by attempting to locate a seam of coal they required to keep their steamer afloat.
Within a first week of our arrival at Fort Victoria, we were stunned to discover that the Company held no intentions to accommodate the settlement of the lands in and about the fort as Queen Victoria had envisioned for a new colony. Chief Factor Douglas has seen to reserve all those lands within a ten mile radius of the fort for the sole benefit of the Company. Anyone who wished to settle within the proposed new colony had to do so at least one days travel beyond any commercial benefit the fort or its inhabitants might provide.
With this in mind, our parents set about to procure a large Indian canoe, plus crew to take us west to the open stretch of land they spotted as we entered The Strait of Juan de Fuca. It was hard to hide the excitement as the day drew near. The land in question fell well outside the ten mile reservation rendering a likely possibility for a future homestead.
The trek turned out to be a strenuous nine hour paddle from the fort’s harbour to the shores fronting the distant meadow, but the effort quickly faded as we wandered up the gentle slope covered in waist high golden grass towards the height of land where my parents envisioned foresaw their future home. Father estimated the open area to be just shy of 100 acres with large tracks of standing firs providing shelter on either side.
Upon our return to the fort, father placed his mark against the land in question as a reservation of his own insuring it would still be available upon the completion of our tenure and our return to the colony. He wished not to be so foolish as to believe that three years hence many more adventurous souls would make their way from Britain to claim their rightful share of this new land. At least now we can be assured a place of our own.
Image is an early rendering of the Muir land and their first cottage.
On The Move Again
“John Muir: West Coast Pioneer”
On August 27, 1849 the steamer Mary Dare finally arrived. According to the captain the majority of his crew had fled the ship for the gold fields of northern California the moment he dropped anchor in the San Francisco harbour. There he spent the better part of a month attempting to coerce a replacement crew before he was able to return for our transport.
After 88 days being marooned within the confines of Fort Victoria, we made out way back out the Strait of Juan de Fuca before setting a northern course along the west side of Vancouver’s Island. No sooner had we cleared the southern tip of the Island we stood witness to a large plume of grey smoke rising up in the region of Fort Victoria. We were to learn some time later that the natives to the north of the fort had accidently lit the dried grass about their village and the same took off in a torrent ahead of the wind towards the fort itself. It took every man, woman and child with a strong back from the village and the fort to bring the blaze under control before it destroyed what stood as testament of a European presence.
As the Mary Dare made it coarse, the captain stopped at a number of villages on route to trade worthless trinkets and a few sticks of tobacco for numerous furs and dried salmon. The captain shared that many of the natives within the coastal villages can turn hostile on a moments notice, hence we stood at ready the entire time while anchored.
On September 24th we slipped from Queen Charlotte Sound into our destination port of Beaver Cove, a crescent shaped body of water some mile or two across. Fort Rupert rose from the earth just back of the gravel beach.
There was no wharf so our belongings had to be tendered in via the ships dories and then carried on our backs to the shelters. It was clear little had been done to render the Fort a safe habitable place. Only a small portion of the outer protective walls were in place and three buildings stood exposed in the open as shelter.
Immediately south of the Fort stood a large village which we were informed housed the Kwakiutl tribe. They were a proud nation some 20,000 strong and very concerned about the Company’s intent to mine their coal. They had for some time scraped away at the surface material and traded it to the Company, but the Company had now made it clear they intended to mine it themselves with no promise of benefit to the natives.
At hearing this news, any sense of well being immediately evaded us all.
Image is of Beaver Cove.
Day 2 – Fort Rupert
“John Muir: West Coast Pioneer”
Note: Please keep in mind that none of the following event are the fabrication of the writer but rather actual historic accounts as recorded by Andrew Muir within his journals.
Joseph McKay oversaw all aspects of the fort, its construction and the people within it and he was not a man to dottle about at the first hint of morning light.
We discovered upon our arrival that the fort was home to twenty Englishmen and an equal number of French Canadian, ten Kanakas, plus a lose knit group of native labours. Upon our arrival, the population nearly doubled.
Before we could fully dress, there came quite a commotion from outside such that we all raced to see what was about. To our shock there were sixteen war canoes pulled up on the gravel beach fronting the fort with I would estimate a hundred painted savages making enough noise to raise the dead.
If that were not disarming enough, each of the canoes were filled to the gunnels with the bloodied heads of their latest conquest and the bow of each craft held a lance upon which was impaled the head of what I would assume was a elder or privileged member of the slaughtered tribe.
One of the men from the fort reported that they had just returned from the village of the Chemainus nation, some two hundred miles to the south, where they had taken a mind to butcher every man, woman and child they could fun down. Clearly their spirits were high at the magnitude of their success. The company man further reported that the leader of this group had heard there were a couple of white women in the fort. Having never seen one, they wanted to pay their respects by offering each any two of the heads they desired. This we learned was no small offering as the trophies were considered a highly treasured gift from such a conquest.
Quite a span of time passed with no one knowing how to respond until my mother stepped forward and told the lead savage through an interpreter that she felt unworthy of such an offering having just arrived and being unfamiliar with their customs. We all sucked in a lungful of cold air expecting it to be our last as the natives became indignant and aggressive towards us, but in contrast they accepted her comment, turned and set back out across the water as silently as they had arrived.
Without exception, each member of my family openly harbored regret that we so naively considered the Queen’s invitation as a viable alternative to the economic turmoil back home. While in our homeland we may not have been guaranteed a days wages and for that matter enough food to fill our bellies, at least our bellies were ours to care for and not a plausible trophy for those of this hostile land..
Image is of Kwakiutl natives on the gravel beach fronting Fort Rupert.
Life Under Company Rule
“John Muir: West Coast Pioneer”
“With the savages gone and the trauma subsided, Joseph McKay gave orders that we were to become common labours about the fort until such a time as it was completed and secure. This wrangled father’s already tested patience as he had clearly been hired to perform the duties of a Collier or Overseer of the ore, to insure it was of a suitable quality, not someone to toil at every whim of McKay.
Just the same father and uncle John were directed to build the communal cooking chimney to the water side of the fort’s interior, while I and my brothers were relegated the task of digging a ditch around the exterior of the fort’s inland walls to redirect overland rain water from entering the fort itself and mudding the grounds further than what they would normally be.
Without the availability of lime to fix the mortar, father had to crush the clam shells that were piled against the shore; as evidence of the native occupation for centuries; into a powder which he mixed with the sand that was readily available.
Two bastions had already been built on opposing corners supporting a total of four nine-pound cannons.
As we laboured about the fort, the local natives continued to deliver coal that they had scavenged from the surface wherever they could find it. Because of its exposure to the elements it had a strong slate nature to it, rendering it a poor burn and forcing the constant cleaning of the companies furnaces. The company had gained an agreement to provide coal to Her Majesty’s ships which had taken up a presence on the coast. The only alternate choice of supply was San Francisco which was many a days journey to the south. A superior quality of coal needed to be mined and soon if this agreement was going to hold firm.
Images are of the cooking fireplace built by John Muir and John McGregor. The oldest image was taken in 1921 as segments of the fort remained. The colour images were taken by myself in 1998. With no one seeing the historic value of the fixture and the need of preservation, today it is nothing more than a pile of rock scattered across the ground.
“John Muir: West Coast Pioneer – In Search of Coal”
“It will soon be the anniversary of the date we left our ancestral home of Kilmarnock, Scotland and regretfully we have neither settled the land we were promised, nor accomplished anything of significance as repayment towards the Hudson’s Bay Company for our transport to this unwelcoming land.
The fort is all but finished, allowing my family to set about as initially requested by James Douglas in search of the illusive black ore. Father and Uncle John commandeered one of the native’s canoes and combed the coastline per chance the ore had been exposed by the elements. My cousin, brothers and I split up into two groups and followed all points of the compass in search of the precious black rock on land.
We soon found evidence as to where the natives had been scratching the surface and extracting that which they had brought to the fort for trade, but the seams proved so thin the cost of the black powder needed to expose the ore, simply out-weighted the value of the coal itself.
After days of searching, father’s quest proved fruitless, while we settled on a spot about three miles northeast of the fort that showed promise. There we sank the first of two shafts, yet before the din of the blast had echoed from off the surrounding hills we were encircled by a large group of natives clearly agitated at our endeavour.
As protection, Joseph McKay had commissioned a solitary man with a musket to protect our work but as soon as the natives made themselves known, he fled to save his own hide and left us stranded. While we were unable to understand their jargon, it was clear they intended us harm if we continued to pursue the rock they considered theirs and theirs alone to harvest.
At father’s request they allowed us to leave the beginnings of the shaft as long as we left our tools where they lay.
Upon returning to the fort we advised McKay of the situation and requested a strong contingent of armed men if we were to continue our work. With no such inventory in the fort, a dispatch was sent off by canoe to Fort Victoria requesting intervention by the Chief Factor, James Douglas.
Image is of Fort Rupert short after it was completed.
A Company Pawn
“John Muir: West Coast Pioneer”
A number of days passed with no word returning on the matter of an armed security from Fort Victoria. Father and uncle John cautiously made their way back out to the shaft we had sunk to see if any of our tools were still laying about and there were none. McKay sent a messenger to the local village to ask for their return but the chief stated in no uncertain terms that he would return to my father and he alone. This riled McKay as he had already come to consider our family nothing more than pawns in the companies scheme of things. Regardless, he eventually relented and commissioned father to meet the chief at the front gate to the fort to receive all that had been stolen.
A week passed and finally word came from James Douglas that neither the company nor Her Majesties Navy would be able to offer any assistance as they had issues of their own that required all the manpower available.
On receiving this news, McKay ordered my father, uncle and us lads return to the shaft and continue our work to which we refused for fear of our lives. McKay flew into a tirade swearing he would slay every last one of us like a common crow if we continued to disobey his orders. Father was beside himself not knowing what to do with such a reckless man, yet holding the conviction that he must protect his own at all costs.
I and uncle John spoke with the labourers assigned to our aid and convinced them all to stand firm and refuse work until such a time as adequate protection was provided. This action became known as the first labour strike in the Pacific Northwest.
The following morning a loud hammering came from the door of our lodging. There stood McKay and a half dozen armed men. Rather than yield to our demands for security, they seized me and John, placed us in iron shackles and dragged us bodily to the upper level of the unfinished bastion. There he stated we would remain with nothing but bread and water until such a time as our spirits were broken.
With no care for our wellbeing, there we were left shackled to the bare plank floor with nary a blanket or pillow upon which to place our heads. The bastion had no roof, allowing the rain and night chill to play havoc with my left ear causing significant discomfort. I asked for medical help but he provided none. My mother and aunt Ann grew so concerned that she attempted to gain access to provide us with blankets but was forcibly turned away by McKay’s men.
Father sent word to Governor Blanshard at Fort Victoria, asking if he would kindly intervene. By weeks end he arrived by canoe and attempted to reason with McKay but to little avail. Nine days passed before my uncle and I were released, but not before we agreed to no longer stir up the men about the fort.
Image is of Governor Richard Blanshard.
Freedom is Not Free
“John Muir: West Coast Pioneer”
It matters not where one resides within this world, freedom comes at a hefty price.
The fort’s stores have been barren of fresh meat and produce now for a fortnight with no promise from Fort Victoria or its Chief Factor as to when they might be replenished.
Mother and Aunt Anne paid the local village a visit yesterday and bartered for a number of fresh salmon and a large venison. As they returned with their baskets of meat, the guards at the gates refused them entry, stating the only food permitted within the fort would be that purchased from the company stores; even though there has been none for some time. Mother had no choice but to discard the precious fare upon the ground for the native dogs to consume. The logic of these men have clearly fled their skulls with having spent so many years under the dominant rule of the company.
I have set my mind to flee the bondage that rides with this company for friendlier soil. I slid out in a small canoe to speak with the captain of a schooner at anchor in the bay and he has agreed to provide us safe transport back to San Francisco if we would meet him eight days from now somewhere east of here deep in the Strait of Georgia.
Not two nights earlier, word had reached our fort that two company men had fled Fort Victoria and found passage on this same schooner. McKay had sent a party of well armed men onto the ship in search of the two, but failed as the two received word of the boarding and fled over the side of the ship in favor of the forests north of the fort.
As a last resort, McKay commissioned a handful of the local natives to bring him their men’s heads in exchange for a single blanket. The natives received this invitation as good sport and returned before the second night with the bloodied heads in hand. McKay realizing his folly flew into a rage and demanded that they return their bodies as well for a proper Christian burial. If this is the land and company into which I have pit my soul, I am more determined than ever to flee its grasp.
As night fell, my brothers and I, along with Uncle John and Archibald, quietly escaped the confines of the fort and slipped away from the shore in one of the natives large freight canoes. I had prearranged the use of the canoe with the local natives who had found our family agreeable to their way of life. Michael remained with our parents as he was more inclined to oversee their well being than to risk the hazards of the marauding savages and troubled seas that await us.
Image is of the local natives with a few of Her Majesty’s navy (a Kanaka in uniform on the right) in front of Fort Rupert. Note the proximity of the natives village immediately to the left of the fort.
On The Run
“John Muir: West Coast Pioneer”
My brothers, uncle, cousin and I paddled away from Beaver Cove to the remote islands that cluttered the inside passage of Vancouver’s Island. In preparation, we had spoken with Captain Brown of the barque ‘England’ as it was taking on coal from Fort Rupert, a day prior to our departure. He had agreed to keep watch for us a week hence as he returned from the upper coast on route to California.
It was nine days before the top sails of the ‘England’ broke the horizon to the north. We paddled out into the middle of Queen Charlotte Sound and held our course so that the ship’s watch would not miss us as it passed. True to his word, Captain Brown lowered his sails as he cause sight of us waving our paddles and dropped a rope ladder over the starboard side from which we scrambled, discarding the canoe to the tide.
Setting foot on board was such a relief as we had feared our heads would either be martyred in exchange for a few trinkets, or we would fall victim to a rogue wave or any number of other possibilities.
Captain Brown informed us that the morning following our departure, representatives of the Fort had come aboard his ship and searched it from deck to keel, warning him that should he be harbouring the fugitives from the company, he would face dire consequences. To save himself and his ship, he could have easily betrayed our baring, but he did not and for that we hold him a true gentlemen of honor.
In exchange for our passage we pit ourselves to anything that needed to be done about the ship, no matter how trivial.
It was our determination that once we arrived at California we would seek our riches in the gold fields as so many others before us. Some time later we received work that nary a week had passed from our departure that six other miners, plus the blacksmith fled Fort Rupert for points unknown. Had Chief Factor James Douglas only seen with clear vision he should have been able to predict the poor conditions under which he forced his consignees to exist.
Image is of Fort Rupert.
We Shook the Foul Air of Fort Rupert From Our Hair
“John Muir: West Coast Pioneer”
True to his word, Captain Brown sailed past all the Hudson’s Bay Company outposts and made straight for San Francisco without interruption.
Our voyage was uneventful as we plied ourselves daily on board in an attempt to repay the captain for his kindness.
Upon our arrival the entire crew of the England fled for the gold fields. In contrast we were immediately confronted by a steady stream of men soliciting help from anyone who would lend them an ear. Other men, many in number wandered aimlessly about the street with a lost, gaunt look about their eyes. The gold fields had not proven kind to them, leaving them destitute and hungry.
I estimate a thousand ship lay at anchor within the bay, some looking most sturdy, but many other listing to one side or another, ridden with worms and on their way to the bottom.
I immediately dispatched a letter to father advising him of our safe arrival. I am certain he and mother would be questioning our demise at the hands of the elements as we fled the fort. I wished to know what the state was with our departure? Was there a bounty on our heads? Had they received any word from James Douglas as to how we would be treated should we return? What is the situation with our parents? Had the stores been replenished with food?
The offers for guaranteed work about the port were too enticing to risk gaining nothing in search of the elusive yellow ore, so we took employment on board the Gegulus at a princely sum of $50 per month.
Here we would stay for a number of months or at least until we had received word that we could return to Fort Victoria at no risk to our well being.
Image is of early San Francisco
An Encouraging Word
“John Muir: The Return of the Exiles”
We received an encouraging letter from father, wherein he stated that with the steady stream of manpower fleeing Fort Rupert, coupled with the lack of any worthwhile seam of coal, James Douglas has agreed to place our indebtedness in abeyance until a more worthy form of work can be found.
Father also wrote that while our contracts stated we were to work 310 days a year at $50 per annum, the company continued to insist that all their needs be purchased from the company store at inflated prices. Furthermore, with the inability to work due to lack of coal and the manpower to extract it, the company has considered fathers situation the same as being unwilling to work and therefore has denied him his rightful salary. Their ability to exist under these conditions was impossible.
At first opportunity the remnants of our family made their way back to Fort Victoria where they took up their land in T’Sooke, just west of the natives village. With a lack of strong backs, our parents employed members of the T’Sooke nation to assist them in the building of a home and preparation of the land. For this they paid them equal to that of the white man, yet in cash on a daily basis.
The nation soon recognized our parents are honourable people and treated our mother with the title of ‘The Great White Mother’ and father with the respect he deserved. Unlike many of our peers, there was never cause for concern with our native brothers and sisters.
Father concluded his letter by saying that James Douglas wants to end the riff between the company and our family and will forgive all our misdeeds if we were to return. This news lifted a huge weight from off each of us. We would be reunited with our family and Uncle John with his.
My brothers and I made immediate plans to return to Vancouver’s Island as soon as passage could be arranged.
The following image is of a remaining cannon from Fort Rupert which I found laying in the grass out front of the local native long house.
Home At Last
“John Muir: West Coast Pioneer”
Surprisingly we received a cordial welcome from James Douglas on our return home. His only cutting comment was to me, as he labeled me a man ‘with a chip on his shoulder’. Notwithstanding, he felt he could put that chip to a positive use and commissioned me the first sheriff for the colony of Vancouver’s Island, hence I never took up residence with our parents but remained about the colony as it grew. (This is a position Andrew held until the day of his passing.)
In turn, father received a commission from the Queen to represent her as the Justice of the Peace for the T’Souke and Metchosin areas. I can think of no better a man to hold such a position.
Our parents had indeed taken up the land of their choice in the area of T’Sooke. They were quick to correct me as the spelling is actually T’Souke and the natives who bare that name have been resident in the area for over 1,000 years. Our cousin Archibald joined our parents in helping them develop their homestead.
Uncle John and his family took up land in an area referred to as Metchosin, which is situated closer to the colony and on the fringe of the 10 mile radius from the fort which Douglas seized for the Hudson’s Bay Company.
I was to learn the T’Souke were once a large and powerful nation with over 2,000 men. A few short years before we arrived, the Makah Nation from Neah Bay, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, (the same group of savages who attacked our ship as we entered the Strait some two years back), attempted to extort the salmon that returned to the T’Souke River each year, being the principal food supply for the natives who live near our parents, but the local natives held them off. This enraged the Makah such that they commandeered the Nitinaht from the west coast of Vancouver’s Island and the Cowichan from the east coast of this island, to join forces and slaughter the T’Souke until all that remain are 60 souls that managed to flee into the surrounding hills. They have since returned to their village and eke out a meager existence under subject to the other nations.
From the anniversary of our parents arrival, they have invited each member of the T’Souke village into their home on New Years day and gifted them with a jar of molasses and a loaf of mothers bread, a gesture which has placed our parents in high esteem with the natives.
Image is of a Makah elder.
Would the True Savage Please Stand Up
“John Muir: West Coast Pioneer”
In the days preceding my departure from Fort Rupert, I wrote a complaint addressing McKay’s order for the natives to slaughter the two company men. I hear now, my letter made it to James Douglas who in turn assigned John Helmcken, Fort Victoria’s physician, as Magistrate to investigate my claim.
As expected, all the men about the fort denied McKay or any of his peers played a part in the men’s execution and laid the blame squarely at the feet of the natives. Helmcken returned to Douglas with his report. In turn Governor Blanshard was sent to the village to encourage Chief Nancy to release his men responsible for a fair trial. Nancy refused.
On Blanshard’s return, Douglas immediately commissioned the Rear Admiral Fairfax Moresby to make his way to their village with the HMS Portland and unload all fifty-two cannon into the village until nothing remained.
Fortunately the natives could smell the foul odor of a traitor a mile out to sea allowing every man, women and child to flee the village into the forests behind. Enough to say the matter did not rest there. The villages moved their lodging to one of the islands off the coast, only to have Moresby follow and repeatedly lay it under siege.
Now I ask you, who is the savage in these lands?
Image is of Joseph McKay.