A Peculiar Paradise
a History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940
Chapter One Continued - Into the Wilderness
Beginning in the decade of the 1840's, the character of Oregon began to change. From a small and scattered population of fur traders and trappers, missionaries, Indians, British and American citizens; it was transformed into an American colony by the arrival of the wagon trains. Among those employees of the Hudson's Bay Company who experienced this change and the erosion of their influence was James C. Douglas, later Sir James Douglas, the first governor of British Columbia. He was born in the African colony of British Guiana in 1803. His father was John Douglas, a Scottish merchant, and his mother was a creole woman named "Miss Ritchie". After his education in Scotland and England, he signed on with the North West Company and sailed from Liverpool to Canada at the age of sixteen. The North West Company merged with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821, and four years later Douglas was transferred to Fort St. James, west of the Rockies. He was transferred again to Fort Vancouver in 1830, where he became the chief accountant.
There is some evidence to suggest that Douglas may have inherited some black ancestry from his mother. She was described as a creole, although that in itself would not necessarily signify that one of her parents was black, as in some Latin American countries creole could also mean a second generation European. Douglas was described as a "West Indian" by Governor George Simpson in 1832, and referred to as a mulatto by Letitia Hargrave in a letter written in 1842. Although it has not been established that James Douglas and Letitia Hargrave, the wife of a fur trader, ever met, her comment might reflect a common belief among fur traders concerning Douglas' racial identity.
The Hudson's Bay Company often employed persons of mixed racial ancestry, and racial background was no detriment to advancement within the company. James Douglas' progress was noted in company correspondence for 1831. "James Douglas is at Vancouver and is rising fast in favor.'''~ As chief accountant, he kept the company books and accompanied the annual trek east to Hudson Bay. In 1835, he was promoted to Chief Trader. He was left in charge of Fort Vancouver in 1838 and 1839, during the absence of Dr. John McLoughlin. In 1840 he was promoted to Chief Factor, the highest rank within the company.
The following year, he went on an expedition to California to establish a trading post at Yerba Buena, on the site of modern San Francisco. The growing number of American settlers prompted the closure of Yerba Buena, and the search for another site for company headquarters north of the Columbia River began. In 1842, Douglas explored the south coast of Vancouver Island and selected the site on which Fort Victoria was built in 1843.
The immigration of 1844 alone doubled the population of the Willamette Valley, and in 1845 Douglas and McLoughlin agreed to join the Provisional Government as representatives of the Hudson's Bay Company, to pay taxes on goods sold to settiers, and to comply with the laws passed by that body. Vancouver District was created to govern the area north of the Columbia River, and Douglas was elected to a three-year term as Judge.
Unlike McLoughlin, who was to leave the Hudson's Bay Company and settle in Oregon City, Douglas maintained his identity as a British citizen. As early as 1831 he predicted the consequences of a large migration of American settlers to Oregon.
The interests of the [American] colony, and the Fur Trade will never harmonize, the former can flourish, only, through the protection of equal laws, the influence of free trade, the accession of respectable inhabitants; in short by establishing a new order of things, while the Fur Trade, must suffer by each innovation?
He was often in the shadow of the older and more influential Chief Factor, and like McLoughlin, assisted settlers who arrived in Oregon penniless and without provisions. Peter Burnett met Douglas when he arrived at the Fort in 1843.
Mr. James Douglas . . . was a younger man than Dr. McLoughlin by some fifteen years. He was a man of very superior intelligence, and a finished Christian gentleman. His course toward us was noble, prudent, and generous?
McLoughlin was criticized by company officials for helping the American settlers who without his assistance, he claimed, could not have survived. Under the tenure of Douglas the practice of extending credit for the purchase of wheat was discontinued, to avoid similar criticism. By that time, wheat and flour could be purchased at mills in the Willamette Valley. In May of 1849, Douglas moved north to continue his career at Fort Victoria, at the end of the Hudson's Bay Company operations at Fort Vancouver.
Black people aided settlers on their way to Oregon from Independence, Missouri, which was described as 'a great Babel upon the border of the wilderness."
Here might be seen the African slave with his shining black face, driving his six horse team of blood-red bays, and swaying from side to side as he sat upon the saddle and listened to the incessant tinkling of the bells . . . some [wagons] driven by Spaniards, some by Americans resembling Indians, some by negroes, and others by persons of all possible crosses between these various races.
A black man who lived in Missouri, Hiram Young, helped immigrants begin the journey. He owned wagon factories, blacksmith shops, and even slaves.
Moses Harris, black mountain man and wagon train guide, was by his own admission a native of Union County, South Carolina, although some sources state his birthplace was Kentucky? After a long trapping and trading career which took him with Ashley's expeditions to the area near the headwaters of the Missouri and later as far west as Yellowstone between 1822 and 1826, he began to guide missionaries and wagon trains to Oregon. He was called "Black Harris," or the "Black Squire," and was described by the painter Alfred Jacob Miller, who also painted a portrait of him.
This Black Harris always created a sensation at the camp fire, being a capital raconteur, and having had as many perilous adventures as any man probably in the mountains. He was of wiry form, made up of bone and muscle, with a face apparently composed of tan leather and ship cord, finished off with a peculiar blue-black tint, as if gunpowder had been burnt into his face?
His years in the mountains served him well in preparation for a career as a wagon train scout. One observer noted:
It was said of him as early as 1823 that he was an "experienced mountaineer" . . . in whom the general [Ashley] reposed the strictest confidence for his knowledge of the country and his familiarity with Indian life. This Harris was reputed to be a man of "great leg" and capable from his long sojourning in the mountains, of enduring extreme privation and fatigue?
His first contact with wagon trains was as a fur trader, while piloting supplies to the annual fur traders rendezvous. In 1836, while on one trip, he escorted the Whitman and Spalding families as far west as the Green River. Two years later he escorted another missionary party as far as Fort Laramie, which he earlier had helped to locate and build.
By 1840, the declining fur trade meant the end of one career for Harris, and he offered his services to guide a group of immigrants to Fort Hall. His price was too high, and another guide was hired. He acted as guide for one of the largest immigrant trains to come to Oregon in 1844. The party, divided into three large sections, included a wealthy black man, George Bush, and Michael T. Simmons, John Minto, Nathaniel Ford and his family, and their black servants Robin, Polly and Mary Jane Holmes. They arrived in the Willamette Valley in October, 1844, and Harris spent the winter there. He left the following spring with Elijah White, who was going east and wanted Harris to guide him. After Harris and White reached The Dalles, Harris decided to return to the Willamette Valley, but as he started back he met Stephen Meek, who was seeking help for a party of settlers stranded in central Oregon. The group had traveled south of the regular trail, trying to cross the Cascades by an old cutoff used by mountain men and trappers. They veered too far south, and became stranded in the desert. Called the "Blue Bucket" party because they picked up some nuggets which were forgotten until gold was discovered in California, more than twenty people died in the desert before Moses Harris rescued them. He secured supplies from Indians and guided them to The Dalies.
Several attempts were made to find a better route over the Cascades than Barlow Pass, which crossed over the mountains near Mt. Hood, and Harris accompanied all these expeditions. A low pass in southern Oregon which was used by fur traders was located, and Harris accompanied Captain Levi Scott, and Jesse and Lindsay Applegate southeast to Fort Hall, and persuaded a party of settlers to try the new route. The first party suffered great hardships crossing over this pass, and it was widely criticized. It was called the Applegate Cutoff, and after initial difficulties it came to be used by many settlers.
Moses Harris remained in Oregon for about three years. His name was listed on the tax rolls of Yamhill County, and he signed a petition from the citizens of Yamhill County addressed to the Provisional Assembly, urging them to finance the construction of a public road in Oregon City. In the winter of 1846, he was again called upon to rescue stranded settlers, who were coming into Oregon across the Applegate Cutoff. Starting from his home near the Luckiamute River in early December with nine other men, Harris headed south with provisions and horses. Thomas Holt, who kept a diary of the trip, noted on December 8th,
We met three families packing, and one family with a wagon. They tell us they have had nothing to eat today--the children are crying for bread. We let them have fifty pounds of flour. Traveled 4 miles through a mirey prairie and camped on a slough?
The rescue party continued south, meeting families that had given up hope and could travel no farther without supplies and fresh horses. Some had not eaten bread for two months. Eventually, all the settlers were located, and Moses Harris returned to his home in mid-January. He left the Willamette Valley in the spring of 1847, returning to St. Joseph, Missouri, where he hoped to guide other settlers to Oregon. He placed a notice in the St. Joseph Gazette advertising his experience and knowledge of the West. He may have returned to Oregon that year, but it is unlikely, as he was back in St. Joseph in the spring of 1849. He obtained a contract to guide a party west that year, but traveled only as far as Independence, Missouri, where he became sick with cholera and died.
During his lifetime he had been a trapper and trader, fond of telling embellished tales around frontier campfires, and a strong advocate for the opening of the West to Americans. In 1841 he wrote a letter to Thornton Grimsley, offering to aid in the settlement of Oregon.
Your name is well known in the mountains by many of our old friends who would be glad to join the standard of their country, and make a clean sweep of what is called the Origon Territory; that is to clear it of British and Indians. I was one of the seven hundred who invited you to take command and march through California, and will be with you if you can get the Government of the United States to authorize the occupancy of the Origon Country. I have been, as you know, twenty years in the mountains?
Continue Chapter One - Into the Wilderness
Blacks in Oregon 1788-1850
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