John McTavish brings news of war to Spokane House in mid-November 1812.

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 12/15/2010
  • Essay 9666

In mid-November, 1812, John G. McTavish (ca. 1778-1847) of the North West Company brings news of the outbreak of War of 1812 to Spokane House (near present-day Spokane). This is the first knowledge of the war for the dozens of British and American citizens who are working for fur trading companies in present-day Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Oregon.

Urgent News of War

McTavish was the clerk in charge of the North West Company's Columbia District, with headquarters at Spokane House, a post built in 1810 at the confluence of the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers. He had departed Spokane House in April 1812, accompanying the annual brigade delivering furs to eastern Canada. At a supply depot on Lake Winnipeg, he dropped off his furpacks and loaded his canoes with fresh trade goods for the company's posts in present-day Eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana.

In late July or early August, as he was preparing to depart for the return trip west, a courier arrived with an urgent message: President James Madison and the United States Congress had declared war on Great Britain on June 18.  The North West Company partners, gathered for their annual meeting on Lake Superior, had received word via an express canoe from Montreal, and they had immediately realized the threat to their operations not only in Canada but also in the Northwest, which was claimed by both Great Britain and the United States. The partners quickly dispatched a messenger to alert McTavish to the situation.

North West Company (Canadian) Meets Pacific Fur (American)

By mid-November, McTavish and the Columbia brigade had paddled upstream to the foot of the Rockies, crossed Athabasca Pass, and canoed down the Columbia to Kettle Falls, where they switched their cargo to horses for the last leg of their journey. As they approached Spokane House, they would have discovered that during their six-month absence, a new post had been erected nearby.

For two years the Canadian traders had enjoyed a monopoly in the region, but in August competition had appeared in the form of a party of men from the Pacific Fur Company, a new enterprise bankrolled by entrepreneur John Jacob Astor (1763-1848)of New York City. The Americans had built Fort Astoria near the mouth of the Columbia in spring 1811 and Fort Okanagan at the mouth of the Okanogan River that October, and then had moved farther east in the summer of 1812. A party headed by Donald Mackenzie (1783-1851) had built a small outpost on the Clearwater River (near present-day Lewiston, Idaho), and John Clarke (1781-1852) traveled with an entourage to the Spokane country and established Fort Spokane to compete with the North West Company.

In mid-November, Donald Mackenzie paid a visit to Fort Spokane and was admiring the fur prospects at Clarke's new location when the North West Company's annual supply brigade arrived under the command of John George McTavish. Upon meeting his new competitors, McTavish shared the news he had learned while in eastern Canada, and produced a copy of President Madison's proclamation of war that had been delivered to him at Lake Winnipeg.

A clerk who worked for Mackenzie recorded an account of the meeting in his journal: "While at Mr. Clarkes the NW goods & traders had come in under the charge of Mr. McTavish. This gentleman had been as far down as Lake Winnipeg where an express had been sent him from the Grand Portage containing a declaration of War between the United States and G Britain. He showed James Maddisons proclomation dated June 19th 1918 to that effect" (Seton, 107). McTavish also informed the Astorians that a North West Company supply ship was due to arrive at the mouth of the Columbia the following spring, escorted by a Royal Navy warship. 

The Race to Inform Fort Astoria

Donald Mackenzie and John Clarke realized that it was imperative that the residents of Fort Astoria be informed of this alarming development as soon as possible. They decided that the most sensible course of action would be for Mackenzie to return to the Clearwater, close his small outpost, and proceed downriver with his men. By November 25, he had made the three-day horseback ride south to the mouth of the Clearwater to cache his supply of trade goods and prepare for the journey to the coast.  

After celebrating the New Year with a dinner of horse pie, Mackenzie put into the Snake River along with 20 men, one boy, and one woman on January 2, 1813. A week later, they portaged Celilo Falls on the Columbia, then spent five days windbound on shore. When they were finally able to put back onto the river, they found themselves benumbed by cold. "One can easily suppose," wrote clerk Alfred Seton (1793-1853), "how uncomfortable it must have been setting in a canoe from day light to sun set in the month of January in the high lat. we are in, where every drop of water from the paddles was ice in a moment & when at night we would put ashore to sleep, barely sufficient wood to cook our Kettle" (Seton, 110).

Despite the discomfort, the crew made steady progress and arrived at Fort Astoria in mid-January "to the great surprize of all hands within" (Seton, 110).

One of the the hands within, clerk Gabriel Franchere (1786-1863), noted the event: "On the 15th of January 1813, Mr. McKenzie arrived from his post, which he had abandoned, coming for the express purpose of informing us of the declaration of war between the United States of America and Great Britain. The news reached him through some Nor’Westers who gave him a copy of the President’s proclamation to this effect" (Franchere, 117). Duncan McDougall (178?-1818), the proprietor in charge of Fort Astoria, noted that "the President’s Proclamation of War, a copy of which Mr. Mackenzie brought down, leaves us no room to doubt of its authenticity" (McDougall, 150).

The Astorians pondered the possible repercussions of the international hostilities. Unlike the North West Company, which had a long-established overland supply route, the Pacific Fur Company was completely dependent on a ship from New York for trade goods and other necessities. They realized that the British had undoubtedly blockaded the ports on the Atlantic coast, which would prevent Astor's scheduled supply ship from sailing.

Anxieties, Divided Loyalties, and a Decision

In addition to their concerns of resupply, many of the Astorians were torn by loyalty to their homeland, for the many of the Pacific Fur Company clerks and voyageurs were Canadians who had been recruited by Astor for his new venture. Canadian clerk Gabriel Franchere wrote: "On learning the news I devoutly but vainly wished to be back in Canada" (Franchere, 117).

McDougall and Mackenzie, the only Pacific Fur Company partners in residence at the time, considered their circumstances and came to a resolution. "A council of war was held and after the situation in which we found ourselves was studied -- trading under the American flag, being almost all born British subjects, having no hope of receiving help ... because of these factors it was decided that the post be abandoned in the following spring" (Franchere, 117).

As soon as travel was possible the next spring, they decided, Mackenzie would travel upstream to Fort Okanogan and Fort Spokane to inform the workers at those posts of the decision to close the trade houses. They then planned to meet at an appointed staging area, purchase horses for the trip across the Divide, and descend the Missouri River to St. Louis.

Sources: Gabriel Franchere, Journal of a Voyage on the North West Coast of North America during the Years 1811, 1812, 1813 and 1814 (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1969); Washington Irving,  Astoria, or Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964); Duncan McDougall,  Annals of Astoria: Headquarters Log of the Pacific Fur Company, 1811-1813, ed. by Robert F. Jones (New York: Fordham University Press, 1999); Kenneth W. Porter, John Jacob Astor: Business Man, Vol. 2 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1931); James P. Ronda, Astoria and Empire (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990); Alfred Seton, Astorian Adventure: The Journal of Alfred Seton 1811-1815, ed. by Robert F. Jones (New York: Fordham University Press, 1993). 

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