Alexander Ross was among the employees of John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company who came by sea around South America aboard the ship Tonquin and landed at the mouth of the Columbia River in March 1811. Wilson Price Hunt’s Overland Astorians were then struggling across what became Idaho after the disaster at Caldron Linn on the Snake River, where one of the company’s most experienced voyageurs had lost his life in the raging river, leading the company to cache its canoes and other goods and set off for Astoria on foot.
The ill-fated Tonquin had arrived after a hellish voyage around Cape Horn with the men whose job it was to build Fort Astoria. She then sailed up the coast to Vancouver Island, where Indians boarded the ship and killed all but one member of the crew, who then managed to blow up the ship, killing himself and many of the Indians on deck.
Alexander Ross was born May 9, 1783, in Morayshire, Scotland. He grew up on his father’s farm before sailing to Canada in 1804. He had enough formal education that soon after his arrival in Quebec, he was hired as a schoolteacher. The following year he moved to Upper Canada, where he again got work as a teacher. By 1809 he had saved enough money to buy 300 acres of land, but he had seen enough of farm life in the old country that he was soon seeking work at something with better prospects for adventure and wealth. The booming North American fur trade was just what he was looking for. In 1810 he met Wilson Price Hunt of the Pacific Fur Company in Montreal, went with him to New York and took a job as a clerk for John Jacob Astor’s company. From there he took the long sea voyage to Astoria. He may have felt that he had enough adventures to last a lifetime, but it was just the beginning of decades of adventure as a fur trader and explorer of the Pacific Northwest wilderness.
On July 28, 1811, Ross went up the Columbia with a trading expedition under the leadership of Robert Stuart. At the junction of the Columbia and Okanagan rivers they built a small trading post, which they dubbed Fort Okanagan. The rest of the company continued north to trap and trade for furs while Ross was left alone in charge of the post. He traded with the Indians for the next few years, during which time he took Sally, an Okanagan woman, as his wife. They were united in Christian marriage on the day before Christmas 1828, after Sally had borne him 13 children. Despite the stigma attached to their being of mixed blood, the older sons did well both professionally and financially.
In 1824, Ross, now working for the renowned Hudson’s Bay Company, led a large brigade of fur trappers up Idaho’s Big Wood River in search of a way through rugged country into Stanley Basin. He discovered Galena Summit on Sept. 18, 1824, and the headwaters of the Salmon River, which led him north through a scenic valley teeming with big game, beaver and other fur-bearing animals. The historical marker near the summit on Idaho 75 is headlined “Alexander Ross.” The text, written by Dr. Merle Wells, tells us, “When he reached Challis on Oct. 6, he had traveled this highway route from Bellevue to Salmon, mostly through unexplored land.” Wells and other historians of the fur trade have followed Alexander Ross’ meticulous journals of his fur brigade’s 1824 travels from April 14 to Nov. 5.
After he retired from the fur trade Alexander Ross moved to the Red River colony, where he served variously as sheriff, captain of police, magistrate, commissioner and court examiner. He wrote several books now considered classics, including “Fur Hunters of the Far West” and “Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813.” Nobody was better qualified to write those histories than he, and two centuries later they are still in print.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.