OKANOGAN – Fur trader Alexander Ross was among the early white settlers of the area that’s now Okanogan County and one of the first non-natives to trek through the North Cascades.
Ross was born May 9, 1783, in Morayshire, Scotland. He moved to the Ontario, Canada, area about 1805.
According to a Library of Congress preface to Ross’ “Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813,” published in 1849, Ross left his father’s home in Scotland in 1804 to seek a fortune in Canada. Only stern Scotch pride kept him from returning, because his fortunes did not flourish in Canada.
“Endowed with a good education, he at first eked out a scanty livelihood by teaching school; but after five years purchased some land in Upper Canada, and turned farmer,” according to the preface.
Reports of John Jacob Astor’s fur trading enterprise and of fortunes to be acquired in that trade tempted Ross to abandon the soil and head west toward the Columbia River, albeit via a circuitous route. He was part of a group of Astor recruits who sailed out of New York in December 1810 aboard the Tonquin, which sailed to the Pacific Northwest via the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa, the Falkland Islands off the east coast of South America and the Sandwich (Hawaiian) islands.
Ross, in “Adventures,” wrote of life on the high seas, including conflicts among the crew and with the captain, encounters with flying fish, stormy seas, a fire on board touched off by target practice, leaks in the hull and other mishaps.
Of one storm, between Cape Verde Islands and the Falklands, Ross wrote, “For 17 hours she scudded before the wind, and went in that time 220 miles; nothing alarming, however, took place until eight o’clock in the morning of the second day, when a very heavy sea broke over the stern, and filled us all with consternation. This wave, like a rolling mountain, passed over her deck 10 feet high and broke with a tremendous crash about the mainmast; yet, fortunately, no lives were lost, for on its near approach we all clung to the rigging, and by that means saved ourselves.”
He described several incidents during the journey, many having to do with the ship’s captain and his harsh disciplinary measures.
At the Falklands, Ross was one of eight or nine passengers left behind when the captain set sail. After several hours in a small boat, the passengers rejoined the vessel, which had been forced to turn around by one of the Pacific Fur Company partners, who threatened the captain at gunpoint.
Ross arrived at Fort Astor at the mouth of the Columbia River and was soon assigned to a post in the interior, according to the preface.
Early in the 19th century, the Pacific Northwest was disputed territory, with the British and the Americans both laying claim to it.
William Compton Brown’s “Early Okanogan History,” a short book published in 1911 by the Okanogan Independent press to commemorate Fort Okanogan’s centennial, said Canadian David Thompson and his party from the British Northwest Fur Company were the first white men to come through the area, but an American party established the fort. It was the first American settlement in what would become Washington state.
Ross was part of that American contingent from John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company. Ross, one of four clerks or apprentices in the party, subsequently wrote three books, including “Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813.”
Thompson, upon arrival at the mouth of the Columbia in mid-July 1811, told the Americans his business in the area, and that he’d established a permanent post on the Spokane River. The Astorians told him they were after the fur trade on the Columbia and all its tributaries, according to Brown.
“Here began the struggle between the powerful Northwest Company and the newly organized Pacific Fur Company backed by Astor, for the fur trade and for the occupancy of the Pacific Northwest,” wrote Brown. “The very first result of the contest was the establishment by the American company of its first inland post at the mouth of the Okanogan River.”
Despite the rivalry, the Astorians and Thompson agreed their parties would travel inland together “for mutual assistance and protection against the Indians and perils of the river,” according to Brown.
They left July 22, 1811, with David Stuart heading the American party.
Although they set off together, they didn’t stay together long. Stuart’s party, in clumsy, weighed-down Chinook canoes, slowed progress. They reached the mouth of the Willamette River July 24 and the Cascades of the Columbia four days later.
On July 31, Thompson pushed out ahead, reaching the mouth of the Snake River on Aug. 8. He then went overland to Spokane House, the fort he’d established earlier.
Meanwhile, Stuart’s party made Celilo Falls (now submerged by water from The Dalles Dam) on Aug. 4, according to Brown, quoting from “Adventures” by Ross.
To the Methow
On Aug. 29, the Americans reached the foot of the Methow rapids, made portage around them, and camped at the mouth of the Methow River. A few days later, they made it to the confluence of the Okanogan and Columbia rivers.
A number of Indians followed, camped with the party and urged the Americans to settle among them, according to Ross in “Adventures.”
“For some time, however, Mr. Stuart resisted their pressing solicitations, chiefly with the view of trying their sincerity; but, at last consenting, the chiefs immediately held a council, and then pledged themselves to be always our friends, to kill us plenty of beavers, to furnish us at all times with provisions and to insure our protection and safety,” according to Ross, as quoted by Brown.
On Sept. 1, 1811, the Americans went back down the Okanogan to the confluence and landed on a level spot within a half-mile of the mouth.
“There we unloaded, took our canoes out of the water, and pitched our tents - which operation concluded our long and irksome voyage of forty-two days,” according to Ross. He described the countryside as “barren and dreary,” although the valley itself presented a pleasing landscape.
During the first winter, the Pacific Fur Company, under Ross’ leadership, procured 1,550 beavers plus other pelts worth an estimated 2,250 pounds sterling (about $5.1 million in today’s dollars) on the Canton (Chinese) market, according to Brown.
Ross spent the winter of 1811-12 as the post’s sole human inhabitant.
He became spooked one night when his dog alerted him to an intruder. He grabbed his gun and went to investigate. He found a skunk sitting on a roll of tobacco.
“The shot blew it almost to atoms, and so delicately perfumed everything in the house that I was scarcely able to live in it for days afterwards,” he wrote in “Adventures.”
Around 1813, Ross married an Indian woman, presumably by Indian rites, according to a biography of Sarah “Sally” Timentwa Ross on WikiTree. She was the daughter of an Indian chief.
In 1828, Sarah was baptized and married to Ross in the Anglican Upper Church in Red River Settlement, Manitoba.
They had at least a dozen children, only one of whom survived her. She died Feb. 26, 1884, in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
In October 1813, Fort Astoria had been sold to the British and Ross, upon entering service of the new owners, remained on Columbian waters but also stipulated – in writing - that he should be promoted at the end of seven years.
The next year, while with the Northwest Company, he and three Native Americans crossed the North Cascades on a project of discovery, possibly via Cascade Pass. His biographers have said his account of the journey lacks detail, so it’s not clear exactly where he crossed the mountains.
The pass, at 5,392 feet, is east of Marblemount and connects the Cascade River to the head of Lake Chelan. It’s now inside North Cascades National Park.
Ross Dam and Ross Lake, on the Skagit River, are not named for Alexander Ross, despite his early venture into the North Cascades. They are named for James D. Ross, superintendent of Seattle City Light’s Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, which built the dam.
Alexander Ross was in charge at Fort Okanogan off and on most of the time from 1811 to 1816, when he transferred first to Kamloops, B.C., and later to Walla Walla.
When the Northwest Company merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821, Ross was placed in command of a large brigade for hunting an exploring the area that’s now Montana and Idaho. With crews of Canadians, Iroquois, Hawaiians and others, he spent 1823-25 crossing and recrossing the area explored by Lewis and Clark, including the Snake and Salmon rivers, according to the Library of Congress document.
Back to civilization
Ross found the wilderness had lost its charm, so he returned to the edge of civilization in 1823 to raise his children. The Hudson’s Bay Company granted him 100 acres of land in the Red River Valley, Manitoba. He became one of the earliest and most prominent citizens of what’s now Winnipeg.
He was chosen as the first sheriff of Assiniboia, the present province of Winnipeg, and in 1835 was appointed to its first government council.
Ross accumulated other positions in the colony’s civil administration, including being named magistrate for the Red River middle district and sheriff and, in that capacity was chief officer in the supreme court, according to “The Dictionary of Canadian Biography.” In 1843, he was appointed governor of the new jail and two years later became collector of customs duty. He was named to the committee of finance in 1847.
He was involved in a contentious court case and, with other magistrates, refused to sit on the bench with the area’s governor, said the Canadian publication. He subsequently resigned from his positions.
He also became involved in a religious controversy involving the Presbyterian Church and Church of England.
In his later years, Ross turned to writing, publishing three books detailing different phases of his life.
According to the Library of Congress document, Ross’ 1849 “Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813” made it evident “that the author’s interest in topography was but slight. It is surprising to find a man who has had many years of intimate acquaintance with the interesting regions penetrated transiently by Lewis and Clark along narrow trails, contributing so slightly as does Ross to the world’s knowledge of the country.”
Ross was more interested in ethnology, according to the document.
“His alliance with an Okanagan woman, and his constant contact with the natives of the coast, gave him a command of tribal habits, traditions, and beliefs which makes his work a valuable source for the study of western Indian life,” said the preface.
Several chapters of “Adventures” detail Native American customs, beliefs, lifestyle and other aspects of their lives.
Ross, in his later years, apparently had a change of heart about throwing in with Astor during his early years in the United States. He noted most of the Northwest Company workers were Scots like himself, and his writings became apologetic toward them and included tirades against the associates of Astor and his business management, according to the Library of Congress preface.
The preface said Ross’ “Adventures” is valuable for its observations of the Tonquin and its voyage, Astor’s company, incidents in the Falkland and Hawaiian islands, hardships and trials of the adventurers, and other aspects of his adventures.
“Aside from its historical value, Ross’ ‘Adventures’ possess abundant interest for all who are stirred by clearly delineated accounts of life in the great silent places of earth,” said the preface. “
Ross died Oct. 23, 1856, in Kildonan, Manitoba, at age 73.