Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

The Politics of Education at Fort Vancouver, 1836-1838

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

The Politics of Education at Fort Vancouver, 1836-1838

Article excerpt

Mr. Beaver and Dr. McLoughlin now do not speak to each other and the gentlemen of the Fort have not attended the services for several Sabbaths. The difficulty is about the school and the doctrines that should be taught.

--Narcissa Whitman, 1836

AS THE YOUNG STUDENTS of Fort Vancouver arrived for school in the gray, damp of late winter on the Columbia River, they spoke in Cree, Nez Perce, Klickitat, Chinook Jargon, and French.' Their teacher, an American named Solomon Smith, attempted to calm the "bedlam" by calling them to order. "Having come from a land of discipline," and therefore believing in the necessity of order in the schoolroom, Smith explained to the students how he planned to manage the school. To his surprise, the one student who understood English challenged his authority. (2) At some point during the standoff between Smith and the boy, Dr. John McLoughlin appeared in the doorway. Standing at about six foot four with long white hair and a set of broad, muscular shoulders, McLoughlin was a physically imposing figure. As chief factor of Fort Vancouver, the most western depot of the Hudson's Bay Company in the Oregon Country, McLoughlin was well known throughout the region. Visitors to the fort had described him as fair, generous, and courteous, but he had also earned a reputation for being strong-willed, dictatorial, and short-tempered. It was this last trait, along with McLoughlin's belief in corporal punishment, that spelled trouble for the defiant young student. (3) After McLoughlin was informed of the boy's disrespectful manner, Solomon Smith later reported, he "made such an example of the boy that I never afterward had any trouble in my governing." (4)

If there were any questions about the chief factor's intention to direct the management of the fort's school, it seems likely that they were answered with his thrashing of the defiant young student. McLoughlin had started the school in the remote settlement, and he intended to watch over it closely. This would become even more apparent in the years ahead with the arrival of Herbert Beaver, the fort's first chaplain, who claimed that he--not McLoughlin--was the resident authority on schooling. The subsequent contest that developed between the two men to control the school at Fort Vancouver was the first recorded formal conflict over education in the Pacific Northwest. It began because McLoughlin and Beaver could not come to terms on the school's mission and what it was that they wanted the Native and metis children in the fort to learn.

While the contest between McLoughlin and Beaver received considerable attention in the Oregon Historical Quarterly and other Northwest publications during the first half of the twentieth century, there are several compelling reasons to revisit the dispute. To begin with, the examination of the conflict has been more descriptive than analytical. (5) In addition, little has been written about how each man perceived his own authority vis-a-vis the fort school. For instance, on what grounds did McLoughlin and Beaver base their formal claims of authority with regard to the management of the school? How were those claims of authority influenced by religion, culture, and profession? Some writers have tended to reduce the complexity of the conflict to the personalities of the two principal actors while overlooking the structure and organization of the Hudson's Bay Company. Put simply, how did the Company figure into the dispute?

IN MARCH 1821, the Hudson's Bay Company merged with its former competitor, the North West Company, enabling the HBC access to some three million square miles--roughly one-quarter of North America--stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. "The HBC retained exclusive trade privileges in Rupert's Land. A royal grant of December 1821 extended these privileges, rent free, to land outside the Canadian provinces and to the Pacific slope. By deed of covenant, the Company agreed to abide by the terms embodied in an 1821 Act of Parliament 'regulating the Fur Trade and establishing a Criminal and Civil Jurisdiction within certain parts of North America. …

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