Sunday, August 12, 2012

How did Sauvie Island get its name?

Many people associated with Fort Vancouver NHS know that the Hudson’s Bay Company had farming operations on Sauvie Island, the large island northwest of where the main channel of the Willamette River enters the Columbia River. HBC acquired its Sauvie Island holdings in January 1838 by buying out Nathaniel Wyeth’s Pacific Trading Company, the first concerted land-based effort by Americans to intrude on the monopoly of trade that HBC had established in the Columbia District under the terms of the Treaty of Joint Occupancy.(1) At the time Wyeth established his trading post, which he called Fort William, the location was called Wapato Island, after the edible root that grew in wetlands there.(2)
            So how did the island get the name “Sauvie”?
            It was named for long-time HBC employee Laurent Sauvé, who was posted to the island to supervise the dairy herd there. The dairy operation, eventually numbering 100 milk cows and 300 additional cattle, became an important source of dairy products for consumption and trade, as well as oxen for draft animals in Fort Vancouver’s extensive farming and lumber activities and a source of livestock for building the meat supply in the region.(3) One advantage of a livestock operation on an island: if the animals strayed, they didn't get very far before meeting an impassable water barrier.
            What do we know of Laurent Sauvé? He was born in Deboulés, Lower Canada (what we now call Quebec), probably in 1788.(4) He joined the fur trade around 1817 and by 1829 he was listed in company records as a “cowherd” at Fort Vancouver. In 1831 his “capacity” was listed as “dairyman,” meaning he had nearly a decade of working with the dairy operation by the time John McLoughlin bought out the Wapato island claims from Nathaniel Wyeth. This seasoned and experienced servant of the Company then went to live on the island, with considerable day-to-day responsibility for an important part of the productive activities of HBC in the region. He retired in 1844 at age 55 and moved to French Prairie, in the Champoeg area, where he operated a farm on his own, while still appearing in HBC personnel records as a Willamette Settler. He died in 1858 and was buried in St. Paul, Oregon.
            By the early 1840s HBC, in post inventories and similar documents, began to refer to the island as “Sauve’s” while Laurent was still in charge of the dairy, and the name of the US Post Office there was changed from “Mouth of Willamette” to “Souvies Island” in 1852. The rest--with a little slide in spelling over time--is history.
            According to HBC personnel records, in 1841 Laurent Sauvé was assisted by three other dairymen: Philip McKay, age 22, from Crawlestay, Scotland, Malcolm Smith, age 25, also from Scotland, and James Taylor, a 28 year-old Orkneyman. Those accounts also provide a glimpse of the economic condition of such company employees, showing their annual salary, debits or credits against the salary, and the amount of debt they had accrued by buying merchandise in the HBC Store. These records were important because employees were not paid any actual money until the end of their contracts, at which time accounts were settled up and if the servant had a positive balance on the books he was provided with a bank draft (like a check) redeemable at the Company agent nearest the home he was expected to return to.

From Abstracts of Servants’ Accounts, Fort Vancouver, June 1, 1841(5)
(British currency noted in £[pounds]/shillings/pence)
Name                Salary      Debits       Credits     Book Debts
Sauvé, Laurent     £22       £3/11/7                          £25/8/7
McKay, Philip      £22                         £18/2/9        £11/3/4
Smith, Malcolm    £22       £4/14/1                          £13/6/9
Taylor, James      £17                         £1/4/6          £17/11/9

(1) Wyeth’s efforts and John McLoughlin’s dealings with him are discussed in Dorothy Nafus Morrison, Outpost: John McLoughlin and the Far Northwest (Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1999), Chapter 7 Part 1, “The Boston Ice Man,” pp. 321-242. The acquisition of these substantial holdings on the left ("south") bank of the Columbia was also a significant deviation from previous HBC policy, reflected in the 1824 decision to abandon Ft. George (formerly Astoria) in favor of the Ft. Vancouver location, of confining its permanent operations to the north side, in hopes that the international boundary would eventually be set along the course of the Columbia.

(2) Wapato (also spelled Wapattoo and similar variations),  is the indigenous name for an edible root that was an important staple in the diet of the native peoples of the lower Columbia basin, of the genus SagittariaThere is evidence to suggest that Lewis and Clark named the island “Wappato” as they returned up the Columbia River in the spring of 1806. But if we look at the details in Lewis and Clark’s journals, available onlinewe see that apparently someone substituted ”Wappato” for an erased word in the original draft, which leaves the question of whether the name came from Lewis and Clark or from someone who altered their journal at a later date.

(3) Details of Laurent Sauvé's career are in Bruce Watson, Lives Lived West of the Divide: A Biographical Dictionary of Fur Traders Working West of the Rockies, 1793-1858 (Vancouver, B.C.: Centre for Social, Spatial and Economic Justice, 2010), p. 855. This is an exhaustive 1200+ page compilation of biographical and other information on HBC personnel and activities in the Columbia District, including information on the wives and children of those listed. It is available for full and free download (that’s right—legally and at no cost) at this WEBSITE . Anyone interested in the people, including USAmericans and native American leaders, who were active in the fur trade west of the Rockies during the period covered in the title should have this source saved on their hard drive.

(4) Watson lists Sauvé's year of birth as 1794, but the Abstract of HBC Servant’s Accounts at Fort Vancouver in 1841 (HBC Archives B:223/g/2/1841/42) clearly states his age as 53, which would put his birth in 1788.

(5) Husdon's Bay Company Archives, B:223/g/2/1841/42, available in the Fort Vancouver NHS Library on HBCA microfilm roll 1M796, "Abstracts of Servants' Accounts, 1827-1842." There is more on HBC activities on Sauvie Island in the 1992 Cultural Landscape Report on the Park's NPS website. 

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