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Scots in the North American West
Scottish Explorers and Fur Trappers

The 1790's to the 1850's

Initial interaction between Scotland and the North American West might best be grouped under two general headings: the fur trade and exploration. From the 1790s forward, Scots pioneers played crucial roles in each area. That they did so can be directly linked to the complex cultural forces that have molded the Scottish people. Since the explorers usually hailed from the Lowlands and the fur trappers from the Highlands, the Western Isles, and Orkney, perhaps it is best to begin with a bit of Scottish geography.

Situated at the northwesternmost point of Europe, Scotland is blessed with some of the most spectacular wilderness areas on the globe. Even in modern times, however, it is a harsh and demanding land. Though Scotland is a country of 520,411 square miles, only slightly over one-fourth of it is arable. Lacking an Ireland to break the Atlantic storms, it is both colder and wetter than its English neighbor to the south. In the Western Isles, for example, rain falls, on average, seven out of every nine days. The Scottish Tourist Board recently compiled a pamphlet professing to show that the climate was not really as bad as reputed, but even it noted that Paisley, near Glasgow, received only 1.3 hours of sunshine during the entire month of December 1890. The cotton barons of the early nineteenth century favored Lanarkshire for their mills because the steady moisture in the air kept the cotton fibers from breaking. Eighteenth-century Highlanders used to wish their departing guests "good weather" as they saw them off.

The east-coast city of Edinburgh receives much less rainfall than the west of Scotland, but fronting the North Sea brings challenges of its own. In a famous essay on Edinburgh, Robert Louis Stevenson credited it with having one of the "vilest climates" under heaven. Said Stevenson, "The weather is raw and boisterous in winter, shifty and ungenial in summer, and a downright meteorological purgatory in the spring." Even the Edinburgh Review complained that their climate "would scarcely ripen an apple." While other countries have climate, the old adage has it, Scotland has weather.

But the Scots have been known occasionally to overstate their case. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, the west coast of Scotland provides an ideal climate for growing tropical plants, as seen today in the world-famous Inverewe Gardens. The sheltered Lowlands and the fertile northeast region also belie some of these observations. The proximity to the sea means that the northeast receives late frosts—roses may bloom until December— and the rich black soil of the land beyond the Grampian Mountains has supported cattle and sheep for millenia. Oats, barley, peas, and rye grow well, and when potatoes were introduced there and in the Western Isles in the early eighteenth century, they transformed Scottish agricultural life. Other root crops such as rutabagas and turnips, introduced at approximately the same time, flourished as animal and human food. Grass for cattle and sheep still grows abundantly in Orkney, and the sheltered Tay Valley teems with berries of all varieties. Harsh though the climate was, in short, the Scots ate well. Variety, however, was another matter. Green vegetables remained rare until the early twentieth century, and Samuel Johnson’s jibe that the English fed oats to the horses but in Scotland oats served as the staple for the people had a degree of truth throughout Scotland’s long and complex history.

Historians believe that the Scottish nation emerged from the union of several diverse peoples: the Picts, the Scots, the Britons, the Angles, and the Scandinavians. But over the centuries, these divisions were less important than a more famous dichotomy: the Lowlands versus the Highlands. Eighteenth-century travelers frequently observed the differences between the "house Scots" and the "wild Scots." The "wild Scots" spoke Gaelic, whereas the others spoke a distinct tongue related to English. Lowland Scotland had cities and culture: Edinburgh, Perth, Aberdeen, Stirling, Glasgow; Highland Scotland had scenery and romance. Perhaps, as contemporary poet Maurice Lindsay has phrased it, Scotland was really only an "attitude of mind."

Lowland or Highland, however, Scotland in the eighteenth century remained very much an outpost of Europe. Even though the Scottish border lay but three hundred miles from London, as late as 1753 the Edinburgh stage made the trip only every two weeks. Travelers who ventured south frequently made out their wills as a final preparation.6 Regular ship service from Orkney to Aberdeen did not occur until 1834.

The lack of roads and bridges in the Highlands was notorious. Since the numerous rivers generally ran parallel to each other on their way to the coast, they formed remarkable barriers to overland travel. Local guides were necessary, but even they knew only their specffic regions. The Hanoverian monarchs began a series of road-building projects in the early eighteenth century in order to open the region to commerce as well as to pacify Highland supporters of the ousted Stuarts, but it was not until the railways penetrated the region in the mid-nineteenth century that Scotland became relatively easy to access. Tobias Smollett’s character Mrs. Tabitha, for example, believed that one could reach Scotland only by sea.

To Scotland’s geography must be added the steady pressure of population. A population explosion from c. 1750 to the late nineteenth century placed increasing pressure on a nation already short of arable lands. During the 1745—1811 period, for example, the population of the Outer Hebrides rose from 11,500 to 24,500. At least 6,000 Highlanders left for North America during the first five years of the nineteenth century. At the close of the Napoleonic wars, the Scottish growth rate approached 15.1 percent a decade. Periodic food shortages— the two most memorable being the seven ill years of William and Mary’s reign and the potato famine of the late 1840s— fueled the exodus.

A central theme of Scottish history, therefore, has been emigration. Historian George Shepperson has labeled this the Scottish Volkerwanderung. Others have termed it the Scottish diaspora. Scotland’s loss, as the National Trust Monument at Culloden currently phrases it, "has been the world’s gain."

To the factors of geography and population pressures one must add another: the politics of eighteenth-century Britain. The attempt by the ousted Stuart dynasty to recapture the throne culminated in the Hanovenan victory at Culloden on 16 April 1746. Afterwards, the monarchy turned to draconian measures. The crown executed a number of Stuart supporters, confiscated numerous estates, and officially banned the playing of bagpipes and the wearing of the tartan and other Highland garb. A distinct Scotophobia swept through England, and those Scots who ventured south met social hostility on a number of fronts. Since success in eighteenth-century British society depended upon the favors of highly placed patrons in government, the Scots in England found themselves at a distinct disadvantage. As a defense, they usually banded together. "No Scot ever exerted himself but for a Scot," grumbled one observer.

While a Jacobite past might decidedly hinder advance in England, it proved of no significance overseas. Small wonder, then, that James Charles Stuart Strange and others whose names gave their politics away sought opportunity abroad. Indeed, as historian Linda Calley has recently noted, for many Scots "empire became a profession in itself." In certain regions, such as India and British North America, family loyalty to the lost Stuart cause might even prove an advantage. At the very least, it provoked no public outcry. Georgia Scots fur traders wore kilts in the late eighteenth century, and in 1777 a band of Scots, accompanied by pipers, marched unmolested down the streets of St. Augustine in full Highland regalia.

Poverty, the pressure of population growth, and political turmoil were hardly unusual in the history of Europe. But the proximity to the sea gave the Scots an advantage that eluded the inhabitants of countries such as Switzerland, Hungary, or the Ukraine. Surrounded by the North Sea on one side and the North Atlantic on the other, no part of Scotland is more than forty-five miles from saltwater. Aberdeen and Edinburgh maintained a thriving trade with Baltic Sea ports from the fourteenth century forward. Scotland also contains 787 islands, and those who lived in Orkney, Shetland, or the Western Isles met the sea on a daily basis. For example, famed nineteenth-century Arctic explorer John Rae, who grew up on Mainland Orkney, had his own boat when he was fifteen. Legend had it that a person could holler "Hey, Mac" down the engine room of any nineteenth-century steamer and receive a response. During the mid-nineteenth-century wars of empire, so the story goes, a Scottish regiment bound for India found itself stranded by a local sailors’ strike. Undaunted, the soldiers—all of whom were fishermen in civilian life—simply sailed the ship themselves.

This combination of circumstances meant that, from medieval times to the present day, the Scots developed the reputation of being a "people on the move." As early as the fourteenth century, the Germans used the term Schotte as a synonym for trader. In Scandinavia Schotts carried the same meaning. During the Thirty Years War, Scottish adventurers fought all over the continent, a saga fictionalized in Sir Walter Scott’s character Sir Rodenck Dhu. By the late eighteenth century, Scots merchants, fishermen, traders, and adventurers could be found stretching from Russia to the Baltic and from France to Scandinavia. Thus, when Britain began to manifest serious interest in exploring the uncharted interior of the North American continent, the Scots were well positioned to take advantage of this new situation.

One of the most significant dates in British and North American history proved to be 1667. In that year the Hudson Bay Company (HBC)—the "Great Company," as the American Indians would learn to call it—was born in Restoration London. Just emerging from a brutal and protracted Civil War, Britain was thronged with capitalist adventurers who dreamed of untold profits from the furs of North America. Five years later, poet John Dryden celebrated the company’s first public sale with a bit of doggerel:

Friend, once ‘twas Fame that led thee forth
To brave the Tropic Heat, the Frozen North,
Late it was Gold, then beauty was the Spur;
But now our Gallants venture, but for fur.

From the mid-eighteenth century forward, the mainstays of the Hudson’s Bay Company and its eventual rival, the North West Company, lay with its Scottish personnel. The HBC ships sailed from London, but they often made last calls at the Hebrides or Orkneys, where they seldom failed to find recruits. The company maintained agents in Stornoway, the Isle of Lewis, and Stromness, Orkney, for years. Orkney fur trappers in Canada complained so loudly about the unseaworthiness of American Indian birchbark canoes that they eventually brought over a modified version of their own boats to haul New World trade goods. At one time Orkneymen formed almost a majority of HBC employees. Today, Winnipeg, Manitoba, probably has the highest number of Orkney descendants of any city in the world.

Exploration and trading for fur in the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century North American wilderness presented Europeans with some of the most formidable living conditions imaginable. The HBC trading posts established on the shores of James Bay and Hudson’s Bay in Canada were surrounded by terrain known locally as "the barren grounds." Communication with supply depots at Fort York, Fort Albany, and Fort Moose was usually limited to the arrival of an annual supply ship. The winter temperature fell regularly to 40°F below zero, and travel overland was as much by lake as by land. Outside of Siberia or northern Scandinavia, Europe boasted no landscape that remotely approached this region in terms of physical challenges. One needed exceptional skills to survive in such surroundings.

Although it is true that the Scots explorers and traders lacked the religious motivation of Jesuit missionaries who traversed this wilderness, they had the next best thing. They had grown up in an environment of mountain ruggedness, lochs, and solitude that provided an ideal practical training ground for exploring the North American West. John Rae, for example, positively relished the Orkney gales. As he recalled in his reminiscences:

I delighted in being out in the worst of weather—snow-storms in winter, rain and gales all the year round. Cared nothing for, and felt no harm from being soaking wet either with salt or fresh water all day long—for a waterproof coat was never thought of."

The innumerable challenges of Highland and Island life — especially the necessity of being at the beck and call of the clan leader—produced generations of rugged men and women. The women were as hardy as the men. They often went barefoot, wearing shoes only for special occasions such as attending church. Eighteenth-century traveler Edward Burt observed barefoot Highland women stomping their washing in tubs "when their legs and feet are almost literally as red as blood with the cold." During the herring season Highland women from Sutherland would walk the 130 miles to Wick in Caithness without any type of shelter. When the herring boats unloaded their catch, the women remained outside in all types of weather to gut the fish. They cleaned about thirty-five fish a minute and could keep up the pace for hours on end. Not surprisingly, these women often led Northern crofter anti-Clearance agitation. In the 1841 riot at Durness and the 1842 protest at Lochsheil, women sporting shearing hooks and with aprons filled with stones chased away the evicting officers.

Such a culture thrived on stories of endurance and bravado. Legends told of Highland soldiers on maneuvers who marched overland carrying just a bag of oatmeal and a small stone on which to heat it at night. For rest, they rolled up tightly in their homespun wool plaids and stretched out on the bare ground. When the temperature dropped near freezing, they would occasionally dip their plaids into a stream to freeze them and sleep inside a coating of ice not unlike a snow cave. One clan chieftain was chaffed by his men as "soft" when he was seen making a pillow out of snow (sometimes out of a rock).

Sir John Sinclair, compiler of the first Statistical Account of Scotland in the 1790s, summarized this mood to perfection:

He [the Highlander] has felt from his early youth all the privations to which he can be exposed in almost any circumstances of war. He has been accustomed to scanty fare, to rude and often wet clothing, to cold and damp houses, to sleep often in the open air or in the most uncomfortable beds, to cross dangerous rivers, to march a number of miles without stopping and with but little nourishment, and to be perpetually exposed to the attacks of a stormy atmosphere. A warrior thus trained suffers no inconvenience from what others would consider to be the greatest possible hardships, and has an evident superiority over the native of a delicious climate, bred to every indulgence of food, dress and habitation and who is unaccustomed to marching and fatigue.

Thus, unbeknownst to themselves, Scots Highlanders and Islanders grew to adulthood in the best possible "university" that could prepare them for North American exploration or the western fur trade. Not without reason was the fur-trapping territory of western Canada termed "New Caledonia."

The history of Scotland and the growth of the North American fur trade are forever intertwined. The story of trade and discovery in the American Northwest, wrote nineteenth-century journalist A. Inness Shand, "reads like a muster-roll of the clans," chiefly "the northern clans of the second order": MacTavish, MacGillivray, McKay, McLellan, McDougall, Fraser, and Stuart. Peter C. Newman, the premier historian of the HBC, has observed that virtually all the great names of the company grew up in Scotland: Simpson, Smith, Douglas, Campbell, Murray, McLean, Leith, Stuart. The HBC’s chief rival, the North West Company, was also run by Scots. Its early roster contained such names as Dickson, Laidlaw, Lamont, McKenzie, Kipp, Stewart, and McTavish. The Orkney surnames of Isbister, Linklater, Marwick, Sabiston, Corrigal, and Flett are common today among the Cree and Spokane Indians of Canada and the Pacific Northwest.

The Scots dominated the nineteenth-century fur trade. When John Jacob Astor founded his American Fur Company in 1800, he hired away six disgruntled employees from the North West Company; all were Scots. A later defector from the North West Company, the Paris-educated Robert Stuart, eventually became Astor’s business partner. In 1812 an English traveler ventured onto the Great Plains and met a party of five fur trappers; the Scots outnumbered the French by three to two. The fur trade along the south Atlantic coast was largely controlled by two firms - Panton, Leslie and Company and John Forbes and Company - almost every member of which was born either in Aberdeenshire or in towns bordering the Moray Firth.

In many of these fur-trade enterprises, kinship ties proved far more enduring than company loyalties. Historian James Hunter has described the North West Fur Company as a unique combination of business enterprise and extended family of the Highland type. There were so many Highlanders in the HBC that Lowland employees complained that the lack of a clan name led to discrimination in promotion. The common language was often Gaelic. Because their chief loyalty had been to clan, Scots traders could shift from company to company or from nation to nation as circumstances warranted. For example, in the early 1790s James Mackay moved from British Canada to St. Louis, becoming a Spanish citizen, so as to better engage in the fur trade. Similarly, a generation later Ramsay Crooks from Greenock, Scotland, moved from Montreal to St. Louis, becoming an American citizen, so as to manage the American Fur Company. The St. Louis—based firm Sublette and Campbell, the only serious rival of the American Fur Company, was run with equal skill from 1836 to 1842 by Tyrone, Northern Ireland—born Robert Campbell. Angus MacDonald from the Isle of Skye entered the service of the HBC in 1838 and proved so skillful in obtaining Indian furs that in 1852 he was appointed head of the extensive Colville district, including all traditional posts north of Walla Walla, Washington, far into British Columbia. MacDonald held this position until 1871, when the HBC finally gave up its last posts in the United States, and lived the rest of his life as an American in Montana Territory.

On one occasion, John McDonald of the Canadian North West Company was discussing the fur trade with Alexander Ross, then employed by the American Fur Company. "The Americans have been very enterprising," McDonald commented. "We are called Americans," said Ross, "but there were very few Americans among us—we were all Scotchmen like yourselves."

During their heyday the Scots fur traders amassed incredible power. James Kirker was once termed "the king of New Mexico." Dr.John McLoughlin, chief factor of the HBC in Oregon, lived in regal splendor with a piper who welcomed guests. George Simpson of the HBC took a piper with him whenever he went on an inspection tour. Kenneth McKenzie, who founded Fort Union on the Upper Missouri, presided over a larger territory than many a European monarch.

Since both Highland and fur-trade society were largely oral cultures, the prowess of these men soon evolved into legend. And of all the fur-trade legends, none is as remarkable as the adventures of Hugh Glass. Born in Pennsylvania of Scotch-Irish parents, Glass migrated to the western plains and in June 1823 staggered, exhausted, into Fort Atkinson in Council Bluffs, Iowa. His arrival was greeted with astonishment, because his compatriots had heard that he had been killed on the Great Plains. One version had him dispatched by Arickara Indians; another placed the blame on a white bear.

When Glass recovered enough to tell his story, the astonishment grew. The previous year, Glass had signed up to travel with Major Andrew Henry up the Missouri River. But after several weeks, he was surprised by a large white grizzly bear and badly mauled in his arms, legs, and shoulder. His mates dispatched the animal, but Glass was too severely injured to continue. As it was questionable whether he would survive, Major Henry selected two men to stay with Glass and either wait until he recovered or bury him, whichever came first. After five days the trappers chose a third alternative. They took his rifle and provisions and abandoned him. When they caught up with Henry’s party, they reported that Glass had died and they had interred him as instructed.

Left for dead, the exhausted Glass dragged himself to a nearby spring where he lived for ten days on cherries and buffalo berries. Too weak to stand, he began crawling across the prairie. Fortunately for him, he stumbled onto the partial remains of a buffalo calf recently killed by wolves and thus sustained himself for several days. Fueled by revenge, he eventually made his way to Fort Kiowa, a post on the Missouri River. Shortly afterwards, a party of trappers bound for the Yellowstone River and a Mandan village at Tilton’s fort stopped by the fort, and Glass joined them in pursuit of his tormentors.

When the trading party approached an Indian village, the main group went on ahead, but Glass left the boat to take a slightly different route. This proved fortunate. As he drew near the village, Glass discovered that a band of Arickara Indians had attacked and killed all the traders. Glass immediately fled into the high grasses and escaped capture. He spent the next thirty-eight days alone before he arrived at Major Henry’s establishment on the Big Horn River, where he spent the winter recovering.

Discovering that his main betrayer had moved on to Fort Atkinson in Iowa, Glass volunteered to carry letters to this post. With four companions, he left Henry’s camp on February 29, 1824, for the Powder River, the Platte, and finally the lower end of the Black Hills. There the party was again attacked by a band of Arickara, this time led by Elk’s Tongue, and again Glass barely escaped into the wilderness. As Glass phrased it,

Although I have lost my rifle and all my plunder, I felt quite rich, when I found my knife, flint, and steel in my shot pouch. These little fixers make a man feel right peart, when he is three or four hundred miles from any body or any place-all alone among the painters and wild varmints.°

Fifteen days’ journey brought him to Fort Kiowa, then finally on to Fort Atkinson at Council Bluffs. There he confronted his old antagonist. But his opponent had since enlisted in the army, and Glass found he could not bring charges against him. The officer in command resolved the quarrel by providing Glass with a new rifle and other necessary provisions. Then Hugh Glass went back to life in the fur trade.

This saga remains today as the premier frontier adventure story. Other than Glass himself, however, there is no proof for the tale. Consequently, it probably reflects the Scottish folk legends of endurance and triumph over treachery as much as it does life in the American fur trade. The oral culture of the immigrants proved remarkably flexible.

Although not, perhaps, quite so dramatic, the lives of several other Scots or Scotch-Irish trappers achieved similar regional fame. James Kirker, "Don Santiago Kirker, the king of New Mexico," proved the most notorious of the lot. Born in Kilross, near Belfast, in 1743, Kirker arrived in New York in 1810, where he served on an American privateer during the War of 1812. In 1821 he made his way to St. Louis, where he dabbled in the fur trade and three years later began trapping in earnest in the Mexican Southwest, chiefly in the Rio Gila region of western New Mexico. In 1835 he was licensed to trade with the Apaches of the region and learned their ways well. On occasion he seems to have served as a fence for their stolen goods. Political and commercial difficulties sent him farther south, and the governor of Chihuahua eventually contracted with him to raise a private army to raid the Apaches. Kirker’s army, composed of Shawnee Indians plus assorted renegades, then began a systematic campaign of murder. The Mexican government allegedly promised him two hundred dollars for each Apache scalp. By his own account, Kirker killed 487 people. After this, he accepted Mexican citizenship and a colonel’s commission in the Mexican army. (By this time he had a Mexican wife and family, in addition to a neglected New York wife and family.) When the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846, Kirker again switched sides, becoming both a spy and an advisor for the Missouri Volunteers. In turn, the Mexican government placed a ten-thousand-dollar bounty on his head, which forever prohibited his return to Mexico.

The sole surviving daguerreotype of Kirker reveals a dark-skinned man with a fierce countenance. A profile in an 1847 St. Louis newspaper commented favorably on Kirker’s intelligence, demeanor, and accent, the latter so unique "that few would suspect him of being a son of the Emerald Isle." After serving as guide and scout, James Kirker died in California in 1853, an acknowledged "bad man."

A Scots trader named Craigie earned a much more admirable reputation during his sojourn in the northern Rockies. In the late 1840s through the 1850s he served as the fort master at Fort Walla Walla on the Oregon Trail. Craigie arrived in America as a common laborer with the HBC and rose steadily in the ranks. His home by the Boise River brought him the occasional salmon, but he and his Panack (Bannock) wife existed marginally on hunting and a few vegetables. He had almost no contact with whites save those who came through on the trail.

Craigie’s reputation derived from his understanding of Christian stewardship. Over the years he housed and cared for a number of exhausted travelers who surely would have perished without him. When English visitor Henry J. Coke rode to Oregon in 1850, he found Craigie caring for a Swiss who had been severely injured when his rifle exploded. "Many are the instances of his charitable deeds," Coke wrote, "and many are the travellers on these plains who survive to pray for blessings on this disinterested and generous being, to whom they owe their preservation."

The French trappers were prominent on the northern fur trade frontier. Their Spanish counterparts played the same role on the southwestern frontier. But Scots and Scotch-Irish fur trappers were ubiquitous. No area of the Trans-Mississippi West was without them.


If the Highland and Island Scots dominated the North American fur trade, Lowland Scots often, though not always, led the way as explorers of the West. The motivation of the explorers, however, derived less from the geography of their homeland than from the geography of the mind. And here we must turn to the Scottish Reformation and the Scottish Enlightenment.

The Reformation of 1560 created a sense of Scottish destiny that manifested itself in a myriad of ways. The leaders of the Reformation began to create a distinctive semireligious mythology: like ancient Israel, Scotland was a poor and seemingly insignificant nation. But like Israel, God had chosen it to play a leading role in His plans for the establishment of true religion and the betterment of humankind.

A key means to this end emerged in the scheme devised by reformer John Knox to educate Scottish youth. Knox’s plan was to place a school in every parish to teach reading, writing, and catechism. The goal was to allow people to read Scripture for themselves, for no priest could assist a person in achieving salvation. The second level of schooling consisted of a grammar school in every town to teach grammar and Latin; next came a high school or college in the most important towns to further classical studies. The culmination came with a university system that boasted a three-year arts course plus medicine, law, and divinity. The ancient Scottish universities—St. Andrews (founded 1410), Glasgow (1451), Edinburgh (1583), King’s College, Old Aberdeen (1495), and Marischal (1593)—provided the capstone to a system that far outclassed the educational structures of England or the Continent.

The system was not exactly free, since parents usually paid tuition fees (sometimes in kind, such as peat for the stoves). But the teachers’ salaries were paid in part by a tax on heritors and tenants or from burgh municipal funds. The educational conditions in the Highlands and Islands proved so challenging that the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SSPCK) also established a parallel system of schools. The various Scottish statistical accounts show the enormous influence that Scottish education had in the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century rural Lowlands, the only area that approximated Knox’s ideal.

Scotland’s goal of a basic education for all males proved a far cry from contemporary English distrust of the educated masses. Philosopher George Davie has argued that because of its educational system, Scotland produced a "democratic intellect" with a mythology to match. Indeed, Scots have always valued a man who could "better himself." The popular image of the poor lad (the "lad-o-pairts") carrying oatmeal and herring en route to a university proved a common one. Myth though it was, it reflected a degree of truth. All through the nineteenth century, Scots scored well in any survey of literacy. In the parlance of the day, only the Jews rivaled the Scots in their respect for scholarship.

Knox’s concern for education culminated in the famous Scottish Enlightenment of c. 1750—1810. The names of philosopher David Hume, economist Adam Smith, historian William Robinson, educator William Small, architect Robert Adam, and philosopher Lord Kames reflected the high calibre of Scottish thought. In a manner far different from that of the French Enlightenment, Presbyterian clerics often stood at the very center of the Scottish Age of Reason. Lawyers, economists, and geographers were equally common. In eighteenth-century Edinburgh, it was said, a person could stand at the Market Square and shake hands with fifty men of genius in an hour. Just one statistic will illustrate this point: from 1750 to 1850, the Scottish Universities educated ten thousand medical doctors; Oxford and Cambridge in the same period educated five hundred. Historians are still trying to comprehend the period when Scotland led the Western world in the realms of medicine, economics, history, and jurisprudence.

This emphasis on schooling and scientific advances helped produce some of the first explorers of the North American West. The range of first hand Scottish western adventurers is remarkable. One should probably begin with the story of James Cook. Son of a Scots farm worker who had moved to the Yorkshire town of Marton, Cook rose rapidly in the service of the British navy. Later he entered historical legend as the "Pacific Columbus," for just as Columbus "discovered" America en route to India, Cook "discovered" Hawaii while searching for the elusive Northwest Passage.

On March 29, 1778, Cook’s flagship the Revolution, with a companion vessel, Discovery, sailed into what is now Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. They remained there almost a month, recording detailed scientific, geographical, and meteorological data of the region. Although Cook was a naval officer, not a businessman, he anticipated that great profits could be made by trading British goods for fur from the Natives. Unfortunately, the most famous Scottish sea captain of his generation died the next year in Hawaii; his crew returned to Britain in 1780.

Six years later, a ship named in his honor, Captain Cook, deposited another Scot in the region, surgeon John Mackay. Mackay had volunteered to spend a year living with the Nootka natives. Supplied with paper, pens, and ink, plus a Native wife, Mackay gradually learned the language and customs of his hosts. Although Mackay’s records eventually proved disappointing, his venture still ranks as the first attempt at serious New World ethnography. A contemporary Scottish merchant from St. Louis showed a similar scientific orientation. When he helped outfit Welshman John Evans for an exploratory trip up the Missouri River, he urged Evans to keep an eye out for "an animal which has only one horn on its forehead."

Three further stories illustrate the theme of Scots exploration of the Trans-Mississippi West in more detail.

Alexander MacKenzie

Mackenzie was born c. 1767 in Stornoway, Western Isles. His Voyages from Montreal, on the River St. Laurence, through the Continent of North America, to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans, published in December 1801, became one of the most influential books of its day. Based on two lengthy overland trips that Mackenzie took in 1789 and 1793, the book related the saga of the fur trade as well as his own adventures. These two overland journeys proved landmarks in the exploration of the North American continent. On the first, a journey of 102 days, Mackenzie traversed the region from Fort Chippewayen at the head of Lake Athabasca to the Arctic Sea down a mighty river that currently bears his name. On the second he became the first white man to cross the Rocky Mountains and reach the Pacific Ocean.

Mackenzie’s ultimate goal in each case had been to solve the three-hundred-year question that had animated Captain Cook: was there a Northwest Passage? Publication of his Voyages proved conclusively that there was no practical sea route across the continent. The only way lay by overland travel, and this involved crossing 50 large lakes, 200 rapids, and 130 carrying places, which ranged from 25 paces to over 13 miles.

Mackenzie’s Voyages also revealed the scientific bent of the Scots Enlightenment. Armed with the latest instruments, he carefully recorded latitude and longitude readings at every step, often while his crew anxiously looked over their shoulders in fear of possible Native attack. On occasion Mackenzie would borrow vermilion, mix it with melted grease, and write his name and the date on nearby rocks. On a rock in Dean Channel near Vancouver on the Pacific Coast, he wrote his most famous grease-and-vermilion inscription: "Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three." This rock has been positively identified, and a permanent plaque now marks the spot.

A shrewd observer, Mackenzie made a number of trenchant comments about the terrain and Native peoples of North America. He noted that the climate on the Pacific Coast was far more similar to European climates of the same latitude than was the climate of the interior, although he believed the weather of the interior was improving. He also discovered that the interior tribes, who had had much less contact with white traders, were much easier to bargain with than the coastal bands, who had dealt with traders for generations. Not unnaturally, some tribes viewed his queries about the nature of the land with considerable suspicion. One coastal group, the Bella Coolas, whose leader had once been shot at by whites, treated Mackenzie with great contempt. So eager were they to have him leave, he noted, they provided him with poles and food to speed him along. Mackenzie devoted much space to American Indian matters and the attractiveness of their way of living. So enticing was their life, he observed, that it took less time for Europeans to adopt their ways than for the Natives "to rise to civilization."

Mackenzie dedicated his book to George III, and in February 1802 received a knighthood. Although the rest of his career proved somewhat anticlimactic, the reputation of his Voyages has never faded. It probably influenced Lord Selkirk to try his Highland resettlement scheme in Red River, Manitoba, and it certainly alerted Thomas Jefferson to the potential of British rivalry for the rich lands of the Pacific Northwest. Spurred on by reading Mackenzie’s Voyages, Jefferson outfitted the famed expedition of Lewis and Clark in 1803. Thus, Mackenzie’s account of his trips across the continent proved one of the most pivotal books in the entire history of the North American West.

The Travelling Botanists

Scottish culture has long admired those men and women who could master the intricacies of the natural world. The gentleman or lady farmer remains a highly respected person today. As historian Susan Delano McKelvey has shown in her study of nineteenth-century botanist-explorers, Scots naturalists led the way in the botanizing of the North American West.

Archibald Menzies was the first Scots botanist to explore the Pacific Coast. Born in Weem, Menzies studied flora at his ancestral home, Castle Menzies, but eventually trained as a surgeon at the University of Edinburgh. Appointed assistant surgeon in the British Navy, Menzies sailed to the Pacific Northwest with Captain George Vancouver in 1792, 1793, and 1794. Whilst there he catalogued over one hundred varieties of flowering plants. Menzies’ extensive journal (1792—94; first published, in part, in 1923) is very revealing. It shows Menzies’ awareness that he had stumbled onto a genuinely new natural world. About sixteen species are dedicated to him, and he introduced Britons to a wide variety of trees and plants, including the California poppy, the tree lupin, and the Sitka spruce.

Menzies’ forays remained confined to the Pacific Coast. Thus, John Bradbury has been acknowledged as the first trained botanist to explore the interior of the great West systematically. Historians dispute whether Bradbury was born in England or Scotland, but they agree that his 1809 botanizing journey west from St. Louis was the first of its kind. Working under the auspices of the Botanical Society of Liverpool, Bradbury catalogued almost one hundred of "the more rare or valuable plants discovered in the neighborhood of St. Louis and on the Missouri." The 1817 publication of his Travels in the Interior of America was eagerly read on both sides of the Atlantic, as it provided the first description of the great valley of the Mississippi River.

Menzies and Bradbury had a number of successors. Thomas Drummond of Perthshire botanized through Texas from 1833 to 1835 before dying in Havana while on his way home. William Frazer Tolmie from Inverness, officially employed as an HBC physician and surgeon, was the first to collect plants from the lower slopes of Mount Rainier in 1833. Historians have finally identified the "friend of Mr. Tolmie," who supplied him with scores of additional regional specimens, as HBC fur trader John MacLeod. Tolmie’s colleague, Meredith Gardiner, also did sporadic botanizing in the region before ill health drove him to Hawaii.

The Americans lagged somewhat in this department. Jefferson instructed Lewis and Clark to gather plants on their way west in 1804—1806, but Washington did not formally explore the natural world of the Pacific Northwest until the famed Wilkes Expedition of 1841. The chief botanist for this venture was William Dunlop Brackenndge of Ayrshire, now acknowledged as the first person to assess the natural resources of Washington Territory systematically.

The most famous of all the Scots explorer-botanists was David Douglas. Born at Scone in Perthshire in 1798, Douglas was early apprenticed to William Beattie, head gardener at Scone Palace, who was in charge of the Earl of Mansfield’s estate. Ever curious, Douglas enrolled in classes in science and mathematics; by 1817 he had risen to the position of undergardener to Sir Robert Preston at Valleyfield. While there, he read through Sir Robert’s extensive library of botanical works. Shortly afterwards, he moved to Glasgow’s famed Botanical Garden, where Professor William J. Hooker noticed him and took him along on a botanical trip to the Highlands to gather strange and exotic plants.

In 1824 the HBC and the Royal Horticultural Society sent Douglas, then twenty-five, to the United States on a similar mission. The next year he took a longer voyage around Cape Horn, landing at Fort Vancouver in April 1825. During this lengthy journey he discovered and catalogued a vast range of new animals, including the California vulture and the California sheep. He found several species of pines, but his name will always be associated with the majestic conifer, the Douglas fir, whose Latin name, Pseudetsiga menziessi, also commemorates the botanical efforts of Archibald Menzies.

Douglas delighted in the exploration of the American West. "Not a day passed but brought something new or interesting either in botany or zoology," he noted in his diary on March 20, 1827. Virtually all his writings reveal his sense of wonder regarding the world of nature, in which he saw evidence of "an infinite intelligence and power in the Almighty hand." This combination of scientific accuracy and romantic theism reflected two of the central themes of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Both the Natives and the trappers of the Columbia River basin looked with amusement on the shy, intense explorer tracking "the vegetable treasures" of the region. The Natives termed him "King George’s Chief" and marveled at how he could light his pipe with the sun byway of a lens. They also nicknamed him Olla-Diska, Chinook jargon for fire. As his journal shows, Douglas interacted well with the Chinook. Indeed, he often relied on Natives or trappers to bring him specimens. Later, he also enjoyed the friendship of the Franciscan friars of California. By no means a modern ecologist (he amused himself by shooting seals and killing birds), Douglas nevertheless collected avidly wherever he went.

Over the years, Douglas made several trips to the Pacific Coast. He voyaged to America in 1823 and again in 1824—25. In 1827 Douglas crossed the Rocky Mountains eastward on his way to Hudson’s Bay, and from there he returned to England. Brewster’s Edinburgh Journal published extracts from his letters, and his journals were later serialized in W. J. Hooker’s Companion to the Botanical Magazine. Although he received several offers to publish his travels, he never finished the manuscript. His Journal Kept by David Douglas During His Travels in North America, 1823—1827 did not appear in print until 1914. In the fall of 1829 he sailed again for the West and spent 1829—32 in California; during the next two years he lived largely on the Fraser River in Canada. From 1829 forward, he was lionized in Great Britain, consulted on matters of botany as well as foreign policy. (He stoutly insisted that the Columbia River was the most logical boundary between the United States and Canada.)

Douglas’s years in the public limelight did not prove happy ones. Uncomfortable with all the attention, he became sour and difficult to work with. Even his friends tired of his extreme irritability. His mentor, W. J. Hooker, noted that they "could not wish, as he himself did, that he were again occupied in the honorable task of exploring North West America."

In the summer of 1834 Douglas sailed to Honolulu, where he mysteriously disappeared. Later, his body was found in a cattle trap. The cause of his death has remained an item of speculation. Notoriously shortsighted, he had a habit of wandering into difficult situations. (While in Oregon country, trappers once had to rescue him from a ravine into which he had fallen and had lain injured for several hours.) Others, however, have suggested either murder or suicide.

Still, his fame rests less with his words than with the approximately seven thousand species he sent back to Britain, largely to the Kew Gardens and the Linneaus Society, which made up approximately 13 percent of the then-known species of plants in the world. He single handedly introduced twenty-four plants to Britain. David Douglas was also the first travelling botanist to become a national hero, and even those who have forgotten his actual deeds recall his name through the Douglas fir.

Alexander Forbes

Although Mackenzie and Douglas achieved the greatest reputations, other Scots explorer-writers earned lesser fame as well. One was merchant and adventurer Alexander Forbes. In California: A History of Upper and Lower California (1839), Forbes penned what is probably the first full account in English of the Pacific Coast. A friend of the Franciscan padres, who had established missions in the area, Forbes drew upon their knowledge and experience for his study. He especially relied upon Fr. Francisco Palou’s A Life of the Chief Missionary Father Junipero Serra, published in Mexico in 1787; an unpublished manuscript of a 1715 journey from Sonora to Upper California; and the 1776 journal of the travels of Padres Dominguez and Escalante across the Southwest. Staunch Protestant though he was, Forbes found much to praise in the Franciscan priests.

Although he admired the Franciscans as individuals—especially Father Antonio Peyri, the head of Mission San Luis Rey for thirty-four years—Forbes had little good to say about the Spanish mission system in general. He compared the California mission system to the enslavement of the Blacks in the West Indies and observed that although the Spanish termed themselves "rational creatures" (gente de razon) , they called the Natives "beasts" (bestias).

His descriptions of Spanish agricultural innovations were extensive. He praised California cattle, potatoes, flax, grapes, and olives, but he termed their farming methods "most rude and backward." Still, even Forbes’s cautious praise of Spanish enterprise marked him out as unique, since the Black Legend fueled most British commentaries on early California. For example, English traveler George Ruxton could not find a single redeeming Mexican trait when he visited California in 1847.

Though Forbes dismissed the mission system and Spanish agriculture on the whole, he was fascinated by the California landscape. Since he viewed California as a unique region having nothing in common with Mexico save Spanish culture, he predicted that it would eventually become a major power in its own right. Because Mexico owed Britain monies due on a recent loan, Forbes suggested the Mexican government might cede California to Britain as full payment. The British Isles teemed with a surplus population of "human beings with superior intellects," he noted. If they could only be settled in California, they would turn the region into a breadbasket. If California were placed under good management and with a British population, the region would most certainly realize all that had been predicted for it.

The idea that Britain might colonize California received serious consideration in London. But the vast lands of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand provided sufficient alternative outlets for surplus population, so no serious attempts were launched. By the time of the 1849 Gold Rush, all such ideas had been abandoned.

But others read Forbes’s writings, too. By the late 1830s, native Californians worried aloud about the impending invasion by the Americans. Even though the Russians were firmly established in Fort Ross at Bodega Bay, they were not half as feared as the dreaded "Yankees." If Santa Anna had won in Texas in 1836 (where, incidentally, five Scots, including a piper, died at the Alamo), rumor had it that the Americans would have overrun California within a year. Forbes’s predictions that California would come under civic rather than ecclesiastical control and that an English-speaking population utilizing western management techniques would turn it into a cornucopia were eventually realized, but by a far different group of people than he had envisioned.

Forbes was not the only Scot who tried to make his fortune in pre—Gold Rush California. At least fifty identifiable Scots plied their trade in this region well before the Americans arrived. Their number included Mary Anderson, wife of a Monterey shipbuilder, who is usually cited as the first English speaking woman on the West Coast and the mother of the first child of foreign parents, and Alfred Robinson, the first traveler to sketch the San Luis Rey Mission in 1829. Other Scots included Hugo Reid of Cardross, who had studied at Cambridge. His twenty-two essays, published as Letters on the Los Angeles County Indians (the tribe of his wife), became a valuable source for anthropologists and historians. William Money’s The Reform of the New Testament Church, set in parallel columns of Spanish and English type, has been hailed as the first book published in Los Angeles. Money has also earned the dubious distinction of being the "first outstanding eccentric of Los Angeles," thus inaugurating a lengthy tradition.

The books penned by these Scottish explorers of the American West not only reflected the influence of the Enlightenment, they also achieved the status of classics in western writing. The Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1781), Menzies’ Journals (1792—94), Mackenzie’s Voyages (1801), Bradbury’s Travels (1877), Douglas’s Journal (1828—29), Forbes’s California (1839), and Reid’s Letters (1852) have become vital firsthand accounts for understanding this period. One might also include Canadian Alexander Ross’s studies: Manitoba, Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River (1849), his two-volume The Fur Hunters of the Far West (1852) and The Red River Settlement (1853). In fact, no other books of the era began to approach these Scottish accounts, either for accuracy or for historical significance. The legacy of the Scottish Enlightenment traveled well beyond the north of Britain. It had a major impact on the American West as well.

You can purchase the book - Scots in the North American West,... - at


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