John McLoughlin

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John McLoughlin

More than any other man, John McLoughlin (1784-1857), Canadian pioneer and trader, opened Oregon to permanent settlement by proving its agricultural potential.

John McLoughlin was born in Quebec of Irish and Scottish parents. He studied medicine in Quebec and Scotland, returning to Canada as a licensed physician. In 1814 he became a partner in the North West Company, a fur-trading firm, and was assigned to the Rainy Lake District in Ontario.

In 1821, when the North West Company merged with the Hudson's Bay Company, McLoughlin was sent as factor of the Columbia District. At this time Oregon was subject by treaty to joint occupation by England and the United States, although when McLoughlin arrived no Americans were there. His duty to monopolize the fur trade and to make maximum profits coincided with British interests in Oregon, but McLoughlin never allowed duty to override his humanitarian impulses.

In 1825 he established Ft. Vancouver (present Vancouver, Wash.) as the capital of his empire. He established farms, orchards, mills, a shipyard, and a dairy to supply the needs of his fur-trapping brigades. Also, he brought peace among the Indians and induced them to gather furs. Ships from England arrived annually with merchandise, departing with furs estimated in value as high as $150,000 per year.

McLoughlin tried to persuade the Indians not to trade with Americans, but he also tried to prevent Indian murders of whites and entertained all travelers. The Indians called him "White Eagle" because of his long white hair, and American travelers described the 6-foot 4-inch "Father of Oregon" as dignified and imposing.

In the mid-1830s, when Americans began arriving in Oregon to farm, McLoughlin extended them credit until their crops could be harvested. Hudson's Bay Company officials complained of his losses from failures to repay these loans, but he replied that on humanitarian grounds he could not refuse to help the newcomers.

In 1846, when the present international boundary was drawn, McLoughlin resigned. He filed a claim for land embracing the falls of the Willamette River, built a mill, and laid out Oregon City. Although he signed a declaration of intent to become an American citizen, in 1850 Congress nullified his claim because of many American protests and gave the land to the territory for a future state university.

McLoughlin never moved from Oregon City, however; he died there on Sept. 3, 1857. Five years later the state recognized his contribution by deeding the land to McLoughlin's heirs.

Further Reading

Standard biographies of McLoughlin include Eva Emery Dye, McLoughlin and Old Oregon: A Chronicle (1900; 4th ed. 1936), out of date but quite good; Frederick V. Holman, Dr. John McLoughlin: The Father of Oregon (1907), which is eulogistic; and Robert C. Johnson, John McLoughlin (1935), a balanced view. Another useful biography is Richard G. Montgomery, The White-headed Eagle: John McLoughlin, Builder of an Empire (1934). Herbert Beaver, Reports and Letters of Herbert Beaver, 1836-1838, edited by Thomas E. Jessett (1959), gives a contemporary view of McLoughlin.

Additional Sources

Fogdall, Alberta Brooks, Royal family of the Columbia: Dr. John McLoughlin and his family, Fairfield, Wash.: Ye Galleon Press, 1978.

Morrison, Dorothy Nafus, The eagle & the fort: the story of John McLoughlin, New York: Atheneum, 1979.

Wilson, Nancy, Dr. John McLoughlin: master of Fort Vancouver, father of Oregon, Medford, Or.: Webb Research Group, 1994. □

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