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The “Unhappy Man” Francis Heron

It was a cold miserable January month in 1834 at Fort Nisqually.

Francis Heron, a Chief Trader for Hudson’s Bay Company and manager at Fort Nisqually, was alone in his room with a bottle of genuine Hudson’s Bay Company whiskey, produced at Fort Vancouver at one of the three stills. The blazing fireplace crackled from the damp cedar wood. At the time of the year, if it wasn’t raining, then it was snowing—so unlike his home in Donegal County in Northern Ireland with its mild winters and warm summers. The kerosene lamp was burning but casting more shadows than light in Heron’s private quarters. He took a deep drink to numb himself from the cold.

Three years earlier, things were starting to unwind for Heron.

Heron started to keep to himself, if he could, to get away from the everyday business of conducting the trade (what little of it there was) with the local natives, settling the incessant disputes among the traders and natives, or building up Nisqually House with hardly an adequate number of men and supplies.

It was meant to be a trading post that offered some shelter and respite for those traveling between Fort Langley and Fort Vancouver. His predecessor, William Tolmie knew all about the problems of the area and complained that “in a way of living, the resources of the country [are very] scanty in this part of it—the animal hunters [are] both lazy & selfish however we encourage [them] with an occasional load of Ammunition.”

When Heron was stationed at Fort Colville, about 500 kilometers to the east in the interior, he dreamt often of returning to the rolling green hills of Ireland—a contrast from the dark, cold and inhospitable land that he found here. To get away, he asked for a leave of absence, but Dr. McLoughlin, Chief Factor of the Columbia District, turned him down.

And so Heron grudgingly continued his work at Fort Colville. He was later transferred to Fort Nisqually.

Francis Ermatinger, who was assigned duties under the command of Heron at Fort Colville, thought him “altogether a mean fellow” and refused to serve under him. Already Heron’s erratic behavior, perhaps due to drink and the isolation, had begun to show, as Ermatinger attested: “His private conduct has been in unison with his public and he may deem himself lucky that the effects of his lust are known only in his own department.”

Despite all the criticism from his own men, he performed his duties at Hudson’s Bay Company well enough to be promoted to Chief Trader. In fact, Captain Wyeth attested that Heron “evidently possessed many sterling and likeable qualities” and was under lasting obligation to him. Such reports were more the exception. And when it came to his final days with the Hudson’s Bay Company, his last reprehensible act would end up to be his legacy among Company employees.

After a deep swig from the bottle, Heron, the manager, got back to the business of checking the account books, the work schedule, and updating the journal in which the day’s events and weather were methodically recorded. He dipped his pen into the inkwell, gathered his thoughts about the day’s events and began writing.

At the top of the page, he wrote the date: January 29th, 1834. On this day, it turned out to be an unusual day. As Heron and his men were cutting the wood for the bastions to be set in the corners of the fort, a solitary Indian arrived. Perhaps, it was Waskelatchee from the Snohomish tribe. When Fort Nisqually was built, Hudson’s Bay Company needed a mail carrier for the newly added addition to its route, to carry letters down to the Columbia River and Fort Vancouver and when Wasketlatchee, who could not have been mistaken for anyone else with his cravat and top hat, trundled up the shore from his canoe with the bundle of letters, he told Heron of a strange report he had heard through the grapevine about a vessel “wrecked at Cape Flattery and that all hands perished except two men who are now with the Indians there.” Instead of going to investigate himself, Heron knew just the man who could get the job done. That would be Jean Baptiste Ouvre.

Jean Baptiste Ouvre, a French Canadian who hailed from Montreal, was tireless in performing his multiple duties since 1830 in the Puget Sound area. His job title of Middleman for the Hudson’s Bay Company suited him well as he served as messenger, interpreter, and arbitrator of Indian quarrels. In the Nisqually journals, he was also the general laborer, carpenter, cook and, fur trader extraordinaire around the Puget Sound area.

In a letter from John McLoughlin to a clerk at Fort George, he wrote how Ouvre “just arrived from his Quarters, his Returns amount to 143 Beaver large & small and 44 large & small otters.” He was probably the first white man to go up the Duwamish River, inhabited by the Tuamish tribe. The Company would later reward his efforts by naming a river after him. The years of working outside in the elements, however, were taking a toll on Ouvre who needed to take a “purgative weekly” due to “a course of blistering to the nape of the neck inter-scapular region and sacral area.”

The next day on Friday, January 31, 1834, as the rains poured down, Jean Baptiste Ouvre “set off with an Indian for the purpose...of finding out the truth of the Indian report about the shipwreck.” As they readied the canoe and pushed off from the shores of Sequalitchew Creek, the winds picked up and sent lashing waves against the sides of the loaded canoe. With all his experience in the wind-swept, rain-drenched region, it was nothing that Ouvre had not seen before.

After Heron saw Ouvre off, he got back to business of the building the fort, but for the next few days, the weather continued to get worse. On February 2, Heron wrote that it nearly destroyed the fort itself:

Towards break this morning we were visited by dreadful hurricane of wind which tore up some of the largest trees by the root, broke others and nearly blew down the fort which was only saved by the shelter of the woods to windward and the props we placed to support it.

If it wasn’t the weather deterring his efforts, he blamed the men themselves as he wrote the next day:

All hands employed squaring the frame wood of the bastions, that already prepared being useless—it is in this clumsy manner we have all along got on with our work for want of skillful workmen, most of the jobs having to be done twice.

Heron could have probably used the services of Ouvre, who was not yet back from his expedition up north at Cape Flattery.

One week had passed and late at night with the rains still coming down, Heron was alone in his room thinking how Ouvre made out in such weather conditions or the ineptitude of those under his charge. He drank his whiskey until he heard some clamber outside. Ouvre had returned with news about the shipwreck. Despite his efforts, he reported that “the story…is a mere fabrication which he ascertained at the Challym village at New Duginess.”

Francis Heron no doubt would have just shrugged off the news and returned to his private quarters and his drink. After all, another rumour of a shipwreck earlier had had also proven to be false. He returned to his darkened quarters of the Officer's Dwelling House, thinking only of his home in Ireland and preparing the documents to make another request for furlough.

Little did he know that there indeed was a shipwreck and that the three Japanese survivors were now in the hands of the Makah. Like Heron, they too wanted to escape from the land, thinking of their home on the other side of the world in Japan.

In another year, Heron would be transferred back to Fort Colville, or its Chief Factor Archibald McDonald would put it, “Heron, as usual, stuck at Colville.” In 1837, his behavior deteriorated to such a point that the Council ordered McDonald “to collect evidence and make out affidavits from our men here in the case of that that unhappy man Heron.”

At the end of his career with the Hudson’s Bay Company, he finally managed to get that furlough he initially requested in 1830. In 1835, as his final despicable act for all to see on the banks of the Columbia River, an employee describes the scene as the express boat pulled away upstream with Heron on board:

On the beach stood his young halfbreed wife and babe in her arms both weeping…The brute was as unconcerned at the parting…as if he was only taking few hours excursion. One of his peers refused to speak to ‘old bloat’ Heron forever afterward.

Heron never looked back and finally got his wish to return to his native home, tucked away in the hills of the Blue Stack Mountains in Northern Ireland. He retired soon after his furlough was up and died in 1840. With all the time he spent in solitary drinking, it was not coincidental then that he would be one of the least known of all the Chief traders in the Columbia district.

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