Peter Skene Ogden was a controversial figure, even to those of his own era. (Wikipedia photo)

T.W. Paterson column: Peter Skene Ogden the latest victim of map mending

Predicted that he’d end his days in dissolution and madness; Ogden proved him wrong.

Hudson’s Bay Co. Governor Sir George Simpson predicted that he’d end his days in dissolution and madness; Ogden proved him wrong.

Although they’re denying that any historical revisionism is involved, another historical icon is about to be cast upon the growing refuse heap of once illustrious pioneers who now fail to pass the test of post mortem correctness.

The latest victim is the Hudson’s Bay Co. luminary Peter Skene Ogden for whom Victoria’s Outer Wharf, site of the landmark Breakwater and cruise ship terminal, is named.

According to an article in last week’s Times-Colonist, Ogden Point is to be re-christened Breakwater District.

All historical considerations aside, how unimaginative can you get? I’m willing to predict that, to most Victorians, this is going to fly like a lead balloon. Certainly for this former Victorian who has warm memories of beachcombing at Ogden Point as a kid and, later, as an aspiring photographer. It will always be Ogden Point and the Breakwater — and ne’er the twain shall meet. Just like it will always be the Memorial Arena, period. (And the Cowichan Community Centre, come to think of it.)

Whatever, let’s look at Mr. Ogden’s record. We’ll begin by consulting the bible of coastal place names, Capt. John Walbran’s British Columbia Coast Names, 1592-1906, which also notes there’s an Ogden Passage between Pitt and Porcher Islands in Hecate Strait.

Born in 1794 in Montreal of an old Scottish family and the son of a judge, Ogden joined the fabled North West Co., the HBC Co.’s arch-competitor, in 1811. When the two giants merged he advanced to chief trader in 1821, and to chief factor in 1834. In the latter role he oversaw the abandonment of the first Fort Simpson while in charge of New Caledonia district which included Forts McLoughlin, Simpson and the vast Stikine River region.

Walbran: “He was one of the noted officers of the [HBCo.] on this coast, and was in the service many years, and is an important figure in Rev. A.G.Morice’s History of the Northern Interior of British Columbia, 1904-1905. Dr. Tolmie often mentions Mr. Ogden in his diary kept during the years 1833, 1834 and 1835…”

Renowned American historian Hubert Bancroft gives us a more personal glimpse of Ogden, describing him as being short, swarthy and “rather rough in his manner” — but lively and witty and popular. (There’s a hint as to his character in that “rather rough” comment but hang on…)

Ogden died, aged 64, at the Oregon City home of his son-in-law in 1854. Both Ogden Point and Ogden Passage were named by officers of the Hudson’s Bay Co. and confirmed by Royal Navy chart makers. Because of his final years below the 49th Parallel in what was Oregon Territory, he’s also commemorated by Ogden, Utah which has him mounted, three-quarter size, in bronze in the city centre.

If we take Capt. Walbran at face value, what’s the problem with Ogden’s stature as an historical figure and waterfront landmark? Well, there’s more to the story, of course. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography terms him “one of the most energetic and controversial figures to have left his mark on the North American fur trade”. As early as 1814, when only a clerk and 20 years old, he’d been given charge of a small post in Saskatchewan. In that position he soon drew unfavourable notice for the “bully-boy tactics” that he and fellow clerk Samuel Black employed against the nearest HBCo. post.

To punish a native who’d had the audacity to deal with the competition, Ogden led a party to the HBCo. Post, forcibly removed the man then proceeded to “butcher [him] in a most cruel manner”. He later dismissed the affair as one of the regrettable necessities of the frontier where fur traders had to serve as “judge, jury, sheriff, hangman, gallows and all” when required.

The man to whom he stated this opinion, rather than being appalled, wrote that he found Ogden to be jovial and pleasant!

But the HBCo. wasn’t impressed by this son of a judge who carried out the cold blooded murder of a man for no more reason than he’d traded with a competitor, and forwarded an account of the Green Lake incident to Lord Bathurst, secretary of state for war and the colonies.

When an indictment for murder was drawn up in Lower Canada, the North West Co. simply transferred Ogden to the Columbia Department in 1818 where he was out of reach of the HBCo. and any legal repercussions. He served variously at Fort George, Astoria, Oreg., Spokane House near Spokane, Wash., and Thompson’s River Post at Kamloops before spending the last of his career in what had become American territory.

When the two fur trading companies joined in 1821 one of the conditions of the merger was that Ogden and Black were excluded although, to the HBCo.’s embarrassment, he continued to manage Fort Thompson for a year before heading east to ‘the Canadas’ then England to try to persuade the HBCo. to rescind its ban. In this he was successful, thanks to the influence of the company’s Sir George Simpson who feared creating new competition with the two rebels, and who thought that, in truth, they’d acted no worse than had others in the jungle warfare of corporate competition.

The result: Both men were appointed chief factors!

In the course of his work Ogden explored and trapped much of present-day Oregon and Idaho, and parts of California, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. During one expedition nine men and 500 furs were lost to Columbia River rapids. Others fell victim to illness and Indian attacks, even the burly Ogden at one point being reduced by poor rations and a high fever to, “skin and bone,” and he described the work as a “most horrid life”.

All of which proved that Ogden had the grit and determination that the Company wanted. He and his men discovered the Humboldt River in Nevada and sighted Utah’s Great Salt Lake. It’s believed that, on his last expedition, he probably reached the lower Colorado River and possibly the Gulf of California.

But he wasn’t done. In April 1831 he established Fort Simpson near the mouth of the Nass River and aggressively competed, with varying degrees of success, with American and Russian traders. In 1834 he was promoted to chief factor in charge of the New Caledonia District. This was despite Governor Simpson’s appraisal of Ogden as “one of the most unprincipled Men in the Indian Country,” who had to be kept in line and who, if he didn’t succumb to “habits of dissipation,” would end his days in a state of madness.

As it happened, he acquitted himself well thereafter, particularly in December 1847 when 14 people were killed and 47 taken prisoner by Caycsue Indians and he successfully negotiated the prisoners’ release. He also played an instrumental role in the Company’s retrenchment after Oregon Territory was ceded to the U.S. For these efforts he earned high praise from both Company and American officials.

But his final years with the HBCo., because of the resulting turmoil of territorial displacement, were said to be frustrating ones. As proof of the extent to which he’d redeemed himself in the eyes of the hyper-critical Simpson, however, that historical giant wrote, in November 1854, “Few persons I believe knew him so well or esteemed his friendship more highly than myself.” What a comeback!

So there you have it, Peter Skene Ogden, fur trader, explorer, murderer and about to be displaced Victoria landmark. In his place: Breakwater District. Go figure.

www.twpaterson.com

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