Thursday, February 7, 2013

George Washington worked for Hudson's Bay Company

No, not that George Washington.
          I've been collecting information on Hudson's Bay Company employees at Fort Vancouver, and since February is Black History Month it is a good time to share some of what I've come up with.
          A page on the NPS website focuses on African Americans in the HBC era, highlighting two men at very different points in the Company hierarchy. At the top is James Douglas, born in the British sugar colony of Demerara (part of what later became British Guiana, now the independent country of Guyana, in northern South America). His father was John Douglas, a Scottish planter, and his mother was a Creole (native-born person, Black or of mixed ancestry), who was probably free. At about age 13 he was sent to Scotland for schooling, and in 1819, at age 16, he left Europe to join the Northwest Company, in the Great Lakes region. When that company merged with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821 he began a distinguished career with HBC.
          James Douglas is second only to John McLoughlin as a leading figure in the administration of HBC's Columbia District. He arrived at Fort Vancouver as a clerk in 1830, and was commissioned as a Chief Trader in 1835. While McLoughlin was in Europe in 1838-39 Douglas filled in as superintendent of the Department, advancing to the rank of Chief Factor in 1839. When McLoughlin retired from HBC service in 1846 James Douglas was a member of the trio (along with Peter Skene Ogden and John Work) put in charge of Fort Vancouver. When British Columbia became a Crown Colony in 1858, Douglas was appointed its first Governor. Although Douglas was partly of African ancestry, it would be appropriating his legacy to call him African American. Culturally and politically he was British and Canadian.
          Much less is known about George Washington, but we know that he was American, of African ancestry, and that he worked for the Hudson's Bay Company. According to the information Bruce Watson collected on Lives Lived West of the Divide, George Washington was born in Virginia possibly about 1812, and worked often as a cook either at land posts or on board ships. He first appeared in HBC personnel records in 1830, as seen in the last line of the "Abstract of Servants Accounts" for that year reproduced below. (1)

There is no age listed, but his "Parish" of origin was "United States." His "capacity" (job title) was Middle Man, the generic term used for the bulk of the company's labor force, those without professional skills that would have warranted a higher salary than the rank and file.(2)  In 1830 he had been in Company service for one year, his current contract was to expire in 1833, and his annual salary was £17 per year, standard for most Middle Men. While other Servants listed on this page had either debits against or credits toward their salary account, no such plusses or minuses were recorded for George Washington.
         The best known mention of George Washington in published literature was made by American missionaries Daniel Lee and Joseph Frost, in their account of their Ten Years in Oregon. They arrived at the mouth of the Columbia on May 28, 1840, and wrote about their encounter: "The next day we were joined by a coloured man from Vancouver, bringing, as a foretaste of the kind of reception which awaited us at that post, some excellent fresh bread and butter, from the larder of John M'Laughlin, Esq. The name of the coloured man was George Washington, who reported himself to be a good pilot, and that part of his errand was to see the Lausanne [their ship] safely up to Vancouver."(3)
         Lee and Frost met Washington not long before he retired from active company employment and moved to the Willamette Valley to become a farmer. Like other such former employees he was kept on HBC personnel records as a "settler" with no annual salary but with debit or credit on Company accounts, as seen in line 3 (no. 640) of this excerpt from the Abstract of Servants Accounts for 1841. (4)

           If estimates of his year of birth are correct Washington would have only been about 29 or 30 years old in 1841. If so, he did not retire from active service due to age alone. But he was surely still in the good graces of John McLoughlin (and thus HBC), because only trusted and well regarded employees were set up to farm wheat in HBC's Willamette settlement, maintaining credit (literally, in account books) with the Company. The record shows that as of June 1, 1841 George Washington had credit of £14.9s.2d on the books. That amount would have come from delivering items of that accumulated value, probably wheat produced on his farm, to HBC stores. He was then eligible to withdraw goods and supplies up to that amount in value, without going into debt. (5)
          George Washington apparently married a woman of the Quinault Tribe and had children, but his date of death or place of burial are not recorded.(6)
          There is another George Washington in fur trade and Pacific Northwest history, full name George Washington Bush, who apparently was associated with Hudson's Bay Company for a time early in his career and later settled in the area of Tumwater, Washington state. George Washington Bush (Pennsylvania, c. 1779-Thurston County, Washington, April 5, 1863) is not to be confused with the George Washington who brought bread and butter to Daniel Lee and later settled in the Willamette Valley.(7)

(1) Abstract of Servants Accounts, Columbia District. Hudson's Bay Company Archives (HBCA) B/223/g/2, Outfit 1830. I thank Curator Theresa Langford and Museum Technician Meagan Huff of Fort Vancouver NHS for facilitating access to these records.

(2) The term "Middle Man" (sometimes written middleman, milieu in French) originated in the era when many rank-and-file fur trade employees worked mostly rowing canoes in the vast lake and river system west from Hudson's Bay and Montreal. Middle Men knelt in the middle of the canoe and paddled. In the excerpt reproduced here, note that the first man listed, Louis Vandalle, was a "Boute," originally referring to the steersman in charge of a large freighter canoe, bateau, or York boat, usually manipulating a steering oar at the stern. (The French Canadian term for the bow and stern of such river craft was boute, English "boot.") It evolved into the term for the rank of worker just above Middle Man, whatever activities those workers were employed in. Note that Vandalle's annual salary was £24, and at the time the information was recorded he had a debit of £5.18s.10d (5 pounds, 18 shillings, 10 pence) against the salary due. Such debt was accrued by acquiring personal items on credit at the Company store. Blacksmiths may be interested to note the third man on this list, André Vielle, age 30, from Montreal. He was a blacksmith at Fort Vancouver with an annual salary of £25, and £11.1s.9d in credit accumulated.

(3) Daniel Lee and Joseph H. Frost Ten Years in Oregon, (New York: J. Collord, 1844). p. 224. This is one of the many books on the history of the Pacific Northwest available for free download on GoogleBooks. Click on the title to get the full text. I discuss other internet resources on Fort Vancouver in the earlier posting, Fort Vancouver Online.

(4) Abstract of Servants Accounts, Columbia District. HBCA, B/223/g/6, Outfit 1841.

(5) John McLoughlin's practice of allowing retiring employees to become farmers in the Willamette Valley, in the area that became known as French Prairie, where the Saint Paul Catholic Church was built, served several purposes: First, as an administrative device, it circumvented the Company policy, as provided in its Royal Charter, that employees were to be returned to their place of origin at the termination of their contract--whether the employees wanted to go "home" or not. Often such former employees had been in the west for many years, and considered the region their home, as it was for the native wives many of them had connected with. As long as such "settlers" were kept on Company books they still had a financial obligation to HBC, and were exempted from the requirement that they return to their place or origin. Second, the Willamette settlement became a significant source of foodstuffs, especially wheat, for consumption and commerce. Third, it constituted a resident population loyal to--its critics would say dependent on--the Hudson's Bay Company and British political interests. On these points see Dorothy Nafus Morrison, Outpost: John McLoughlin and the Far Northwest (Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1999) pp. 354-356.

(6) Other notes on George Washington's background and family connections, from Quinault oral history traditions, are recorded 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. 971.

(7) As an aside, it happens that Washington is the "blackest" surname among Americans today. In the 2000 US census there were just over 163,000 people named Washington, of whom less than 9,000 were white. More than 90 per cent of the "Washingtons" in the USA are black. The usual explanation is that at the point of emancipation when many African Americans established surnames for the first time, George Washington (the first US President) was a well known and respected figure among blacks, especially because he freed all of his own slaves in his will (pending the death of his wife, Martha--the couple had no direct heirs). The case of the George Washington discussed in this posting (and George Washington Bush, for that matter) suggests that the voluntary choice of the name among free African Americans preceded the Civil War and final emancipation by decades.


  1. Hi Tom, I'm interested in Andre Vielle who was a blacksmith at Fort Vancouver. Can you give any more details or a source in HBC records? Thanks for any help.

    1. Hello, Drifting. If you look at the first clip from HBC Archives above, from 1830, you'll see Andre Vielle listed, third from the top. You'll see he was 30 years old (i.e., born c. 1800), from Montreal, a blacksmith, 2 year's service, contract to expire in 1832, had £11, 1 shilling, 9 pence in credit on the books, annual salary £25. That's about all we know about him.