Sunday, January 1, 2017

Snake Brigade Leader Peter Ogden Laments Fur Trade Deaths [otd 01/01]

Peter Skene Ogden.
Oregon Historical Society.
On New Year's Day, 1829, Peter Skene Ogden wrote in his journal, “One of the trappers left in charge of the sick man arrived with his horse fatigued and informed me that our sick man, Joseph Paul, died 8 days after we left, suffering most severely.”

Ogden was then leader of the Snake Brigade, a band of trappers and support personnel working for the British-Canadian Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). They had encamped in northern Utah or southern Idaho. The exact location is unclear, but over the following two weeks they moved by stages onto Idaho’s Portneuf River.

Born in Quebec in 1790, Ogden had around twenty years experience in the fur trade. His career had blossomed, starting in 1809 with his apprenticeship as a clerk for the North West Company (NWC). The job brought out the best … and the worst … in the young man. His good head for the trade, natural aptitude for Native languages, and boundless energy fueled a rapid rise in the company.

However, the youthful Ogden also possessed a considerable temper, with a penchant for violence. The frontier environment allowed those tendencies free rein. At that time, the NWC was engaged in a bitter trade war with the older HBC. Ogden “made an example of” – executed – an Indian who had traded with their rival.

With an indictment for murder in the works, in 1818 the company transferred Ogden west to the Columbia Department. There, he at various times worked at company posts in Astoria, near today’s Spokane, and in British Columbia.

In 1821, the British government forced a merger of the two companies, after which most records refer to the more familiar HBC. Ogden did some fast talking to retain a position with the merged firm. Fortunately, the company decided they couldn’t afford to lose a man with his valuable experience and skills. Three years later, he assumed command of the Snake Brigade. Over the next five years, the Brigade explored and trapped watersheds in Idaho, every adjoining state, and even Northern California.

On this particular trip, they had traveled along the Humboldt River in Nevada and into Utah. A few days earlier, Ogden wrote, “Had a distant view of Great Salt Lake. Heavy fogs around it.”
Idaho mountain vista from north-central Utah.

From there, the Brigade had turned north toward Idaho. After mulling over Joseph Paul’s death, Ogden observed that, “there remains now only one man” out of all those who had been part of the Brigade back in 1819. He went on, “All have been killed – with the exception of 2 who died a natural death – and are scattered over the Snake Country. It is incredible the number that have fallen in this country.”

The Brigade’s 1828-29 hunt was moderately successful: Ogden said, “We have no cause to complain of our returns.” However, HBC management knew all too well how the dangerous and grueling work could wear a man down. The following summer, they gave Ogden another posting and assigned John Work to lead the Brigade [blog, Oct 23].
References: [B&W]
Glyndwr Williams, “Peter Skene Ogden,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography,  John English (ed.), (online), University of Toronto (© 2000).
Peter Skene Ogden, T. C. Elliott (ed.), “Peter Skene Ogden’s Journal - Snake Expeditions,”  Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society (1910).

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