Bold Northwestern Man, The [Laws D1]
DESCRIPTION: A band of Indians, come to sell furs, find weapons aboard the "Lady of Washington"; they try to capture the ship. Eventually they are defeated, losing some sixty/seventy of their number. The Europeans raid the Indian village to reclaim their property
EARLIEST DATE: 1831 (broadside, according to Lane/Gosbee-SongsOfShipsAndSailors)
KEYWORDS: fight Indians(Am.)
1791 - Attack on the Lady Washington
FOUND IN: US(NE) Canada(Mar)
REFERENCES (5 citations):
Laws D1, "The Bold Northwestern Man"
Lane/Gosbee-SongsOfShipsAndSailors, pp. 118-119, "The Bold Northwestmen" (1 text, 1 tune)
DT 843, BOLDNW*
ADDITIONAL: F. W. Howay, "The Ballad of the Bold Northwestman, an Incident in the Life of Captain John Kendrick ," article in _Washington Historical Quarterly_, Volume 10, No. 2 (April 1929) (available online via journals.lib.washington.edu), pp. 115-117, "Bold Nothwestman" (1 text, apparently from the Deming broadide)
Scott Ridley, _Morning of Fire: John Kendrick's Daring American Odyssey in the Pacific_, William Morrow, 2010, p. 305, "The Ballad of the Bold Northwestman" (excerpts from the Deming broadside)
NOTES [3550 words]: In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the newly independent United States became interested in western North America and the fur trade. A group of Boston merchants in 1787 chose to fit out two ships to try to trade in the areas of what became Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. The larger was the Columbia Redivivus or Columbia Rediviva (the sources seem to disagree on the name), the other, smaller and more maneuverable, wgas the Lady Washington (Dietrich, pp. 63-64). Initially, the Columbia was commanded by 47-year-old John Kendrick, the Lady by Robert Gray (who was not particularly thrilled about being under Kendrick's orders; Ridley, p. 21. Kendrick seems to have been a real pain to serve under; in his first few months in command, he drove his first and third mates and ship's doctor off the ship; Ridley, pp. 30-32).
It was basically a moonshot -- with the American economy in the doldrums, people were seeking Big Ideas. The voyage would be hard -- two years, in small ships that would have to make it around Cape Horn and then manage to trade in country that hadn't even been fully explored by Europeans! (Ridley, pp. 13-15). What's more, the Spanish -- who owned the coast of South America that the ships would have to pass, and also had claims to the more northern area the ships would visit -- were hostile to the whole idea and might well attack the vessels (Ridley, pp. 39, 42, etc.).
The Lady Washington, according to Ridley, p. 19, "was a coastal sloop of sixty feet and ninety tons, built low and tough in the shipyards north of Boston as early as 1750, probably with two-inch oak planking on her hull. Her single, gaff-rigged mast was stepped at an angle." Hardly the ship one would pick for an around-the-world voyage -- she was just too small! But the Columbia (212 tons) would be able to carry more cargo. At least, that was the idea....
Both ships were armed, although not very heavily; Ridley, p. 20, says the Columbia had ten cannon plus swivel guns, and the Lady Washington fewer.
The trip to the west coast was long and hard; they took the short but dangerous route around Cape Horn, and it hit them hard. The ships were separated, and Gray used this as an excuse to set out on his own (Ridley, p. 46), though they would later meet again. Both ships were hit by scurvy in the weeks after they rounded the horn -- on the Lady Washington, it struck seven of the eleven crew, some of them very badly (Ridley, pp. 58-59).
The Columbia would be the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe, and would also be the ship that discovered the Columbia River, though she by then had changed captains and lost several of her crew to scurvy along the way (Dietrich, p. 64).
It was the Lady, still under Gray, that had had the first fatal adventure, though. Gray, more willing to take risks than most captains of the period, went into what is now called Tillamook Bay, which is almost due west of Portland, Oregon. The Tillamook Indians were cautious, but a party from the ship went to shore.
One of them, a black man named Marcus Lopez or Lopius who was sailing as Gray's servant, left a cutlass on the ground. Someone picked it up; Lopez took off after him. In the aftermath, Lopez was killed and the rest of the landing party fled back to the ship. Some were injured, and Gray had to fire the ship's cannons to scare off the Tillamook. The ship ran aground in the confusion and barely got off after a very frightening night (Dietrich, pp. 64-65; Ridley, pp. 62-65; Scofield, pp. 92-93). The captain therefore named the place "Murderers' Harbor" (Scofield, p. 220).
The two ships finally met again at Nootka, in what is now British Columbia, in September 1791 (Ridley, p. 76). There were also two British ships there, but they left before Kendrick, who decided to spend the winter. Things got even more interesting when the Spanish, who claimed the entire American west coast (and had bases in Latin America, so they had more ability to control the area than the Americans), showed up. But that's not really relevant to the song.
Interestingly, given his eventual battle with Indians, it seems that Kendrick was much more willing than most men of his time to try to learn about and accept their culture; he spent a lot of time with the Mowachaht of Nootka (Ridley, pp. 88-89).
After that. Kendrick swapped ships with Gray and took over the Lady. Even Gray doesn't seem to be quite sure what Kendrick was up to; he recorded "Captn Kendrick thought it best to change vesels and take all the property on board the Washington and Cruize the Coast himself and for me to take the best of my way to the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii] to procure sufficient provisions to carry me to Canton. Our provisions on the Coast [i.e. what they have managed to gather there] not being sufficient for both vessels to Cruize the Season was the reason for our separation" (Scofield, p. 144; the strange spellings are original). He also reshuffled the crew, giving himself more specialists (Ridley, p. 140), probably arguing that the Columbia would be heading back to port sooner. Interestingly, Kendrick sent his son Solomon on the Columbia rather than keep him on his own ship. The Columbia set off for Hawaii, and Macao, while the Lady went exploring the Canadian coast. He appears to have believed, based on some very confused Indian testimony about Puget Sound (or some such place), that there was a way to get from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Hudson's Bay, offering a Northwest Passage (Ridley, p. 142). This even though explorations of Hudson's Bay had already conclusively demonstrated that there was no passage there.
Where Kendrick went from there is apparently not quite clear -- the little we know comes from outside sources. Historians disagree about whether he circled Vancouver Island or not (Ridley, p. 144; if he did, he was the first non-native to do so). But there is no doubt about where they ended up: they found themselves in a place off the British Columbia coast they called Barell's Sound (Dietrich, p. 146; named after Joseph Barrell, who dreamed up the expedition; Ridley, p. 145, says it's in the Queen Charlotte Islands, now usually called Haida Gwaii, off the northern coast of British Columbia, near the Alaska border). "Barrell's Sound" is properly the Houston Stewart Channel, between the main island, Moresby Island, and the southernmost major island of the group, Kunghit Island.
It was their second visit there; they had been there two years earlier (Scofield, p. 219). Kendrick was ready to trade; he fired a signal cannon and waited for the natives to visit (Ridley, p. 146). But not every native was willing to trade; several of them stole from the ship, including someone who made off with Kendrick's linen as it was being washed and left to dry! (Ridley, pp. 147-148). Eventually Kendrick got fed up and told a chief to return what had been stolen. When the chief, Coyah, refused to, or was unable to, satisfy him, Kendrick took the chief hostage (Ridley, p. 148). Eventually -- perhaps after a beating -- he set him free, but Kendrick's relations with the people were permanently soured (Ridley, pp. 148-149).
Kendrick then headed to China to trade his cargo. This took a while, so he amused himself in other ways (and was sick for a time). Among other things, he had his men add a second mast to the Lady Washington, making her a brigantine (Ridley,p. 190, although on p. 85, he seems to date the conversion much earlier, while still on the Pacific coast. Scofield, p. 216, also dates it to the time in China). This strained his supplies of cordage and such, but he apparently felt that a one-masted ship was too vulnerable to be wandering around the Pacific (Scofield, p. 119. It was probably a good idea, but you have to wonder why he didn't to it in Boston!).
Apparently he wanted to try to make his way to Japan (Ridley, pp. 219-222), which at that time was still closed to the outside world. He decided to make sure the Lady was well-armed, just in case; she left China with an armament of eight four-pound cannon and twelve swivels (guns which could kill a lot of people at short ranges), plus light guns and a lot of hand weapons (Ridley, p. 222). He managed to contact some fishermen, but there was no real trade, and he soon had to flee; the Japanese authorities were coming after him (Ridley, p. 223-225).
With new supplies, Kendrick headed back to the Pacific Northwest, and back to the Queen Charlotte Islands. The song says that they met the Indians -- the same group they had quarreled with before! -- on June 16, 1791. Despite their previous problems, Kendrick allowed many visitors to come on board his ship rather than talking with them over the side (Scofield, p. 222). It was a mistake; the chief he had earlier fought with, Coyah, was one who came aboard -- and, once he realized that Kendrick and his men were not carrying their arms, seized the arms chest and prepared to attack Kendrick (Ridley, p. 227; Scofield, p. 222). Kendrick apparently told his men, if they had the chance, to jump into the hold and grab what weapons they could. Accounts differ about what they found, but there were some (Scofied, p. 224). It is possible, as the song said, that Kendrick wanted them to blow up the ship rather than give in, but before it could come to that, Coyah made a mistake.
It sounds as if Coyah thought the crew was helpless and wanted to explore his prize. He headed for the hold -- and Kendrick jumped him. Kendrick took a slight wound, but it allowed Kendrick and his armed crewmen to reunite and counter-attack. The undisciplined Indians did not know how to respond, and soon were fleeing the ship (Scofield, pp. 224-225). Ridley, p. 228, says that about fifteen were killed in the fight on board the Lady Washington. With the ship back in their hands, the Americans used their cannon and firearms to attack the Indians. And while there seems to be no reliable record of the casualties their inflicted at this stage, they were certainly many; one account says they killed forty, including Coyah's wife and two children, with Coyah himself being wounded (Scofield, p. 225); another claims fifty locals dead (Dietrich, p. 65).
Impressively, Kendrick lost no men in this conflict; indeed, in a very rare accomplishment for a long voyage of this period, no one under Kendrick's command died of disease on the voyge, although one died of probable suicide (Ridley, p. 206) and Lopius was murdered.
Gray and the Columbia arrived in Boston, having circumnavigated the globe, on August 9, 1790 (Ridley, p. 202), but the expedition was a bust financially; the goal had been to bring home 600 chests of tea, but Gray had only 221, and more than half of that had been ruined on the voyage (Ridley, pp. 203-204). But the consortium that has chartered the expedition decided to send him out again, and in July 1791, just a month after Kendrick's fight, he arrived in the Queen Charlotte Islands. There he learned that Coyah had, in effect, been deposed because of his failures (Scofield, p. 226; Ridley, p. 241) -- although he apparently had regained power by 1794 (Scofield, p. 227); it sounds as if he was a poor chief but an excellent politician/maniuplator. Coyah wouldn't make the same mistake in future; he slaughtered whole crews (Scofield, p. 227). The events of this song perhaps started a long chain of hostilities; Dietrich, p. 144, reports that the Boston, Atahualpa, and Tonquin were sunk by northwestern Indians between 1805 and 1811 -- but then the white men's diseases came and the Indians lost so much population that they were relatively easily shoved aside.
Even though the Haidas never saw Kendrick again, they definitely got their revenge: one of those killed in the massacres on the later trading ships was Solomon Kendrink, John Kendrick's son (Scofield, p. 330), whom he had sent with the Columbia when he took over the Lady Washington.
Some time after the battle with the Haidas, the Lady Washington again met the Columbia, now on her second trip to the Pacific Northwest (Scofield, pp. 235-237). But they would not voyage together; Kendrick was on his own. What his plans were -- if indeed he had plans -- is unknown. He did manage to "purchase" a bunch of land for the United States in exchange for, ahem, ten muskets (Ridley, pp. 233-236), with other "purchases" to follow for even lower values. Obviously a better word for what he did was "swindle"; in the end, in exchange for a few muskets and powder, he ended up "owning" almost 700 square miles of land around Vancouver Island (Ridley, pp, 235-237).
Kendrick would never make it back to the United States, and may not have wanted to (some thought he avoided coming home lest he have to answer for the expedition's failure; Ridley, p. 209; Ridley himself on p. 342 suggests that he preferred staying in the Pacific where he "was a king," in complete charge of what he did). So he went to China to the furs he had collected in the Pacific Northwest, and built a tender for the Lady Washington so that he could keep sailing! (Ridley, p. 280). That ship didn't last long; it was destroyed in a storm that almost took out the Lady as well, but she managed to limp back to Macao, having rescued several shipwrecked locals along the way (Ridley, pp. 281-283).
Kendrick was later killed in Hawaii by a British cannon shot (Scofield, p. xiv; Ridey, p. 359, quotes the news as it reached New England, where it was reported that he died "by a salute, by accident). The circumstances were peculiar. The Hawaiians were fighting among themselves, and two British ships under William Brown were supporting one side, hoping to gain control of the islands themselves. We have two accounts of what happened, which contradict each other (Scofield, p. 309), but it's clear that the British were happy about the outcome of a particular engagement, and decided to fire a salute to celebrate. They arranged with the Americans so that there would be no fighting. The first two guns of the salute, which had been unloaded, were fired without incident, but the British gunner found that the third gun (which was probably intended to be the last) had not been primed, so he went to a fourth gun and fired that -- and it hit the Lady Washington and killed Kendrick (Scofield, pp. 309-310; Ridley, pp. 352-354). Brown is reported to have found Kendrick a pain in the side, so he obviously would have been happy to be rid of him. And what are the odds that the British gun would have been aimed in such a way as to kill the man they most wanted to kill? On the other hand, how could they know where to aim to hit him, especially on short notice? It was certainly a peculiar outcome -- but if it happened deliberately, no one ever admitted to it.
It's ironic that Kendrick the loose cannon died by a loose cannon. His subordinate Gray's record wasn't much better; it eventually became clear that he was a reckless commander who had slandered Kendrick, and he ended up not making much money (Ridley, pp. 284-285).
I must admit that I simply cannot figure out what Kendrick actually wanted out of his voyage, especially after that reunion with Gray in 1791 where he found out that the expedition's backers had written him off. It's almost as if he decided to play at being a Flying Dutchman, sailing the Pacific forever.
The Lady Washington herself was wrecked in southeast Asia (Dietrich, p. 67); according to Scofield, p. 327, it's not clear who commanded her at the time (Kendrick had long since left her), but "at some subsequent time [she] ... 'had been cast away in the Straits of Malacca,' the reef-fanged passage between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra. She would have been on her was to Calcutta."
Gray, too, would have further adventures, and would be involved in further fights with natives (Kendrick, p. 274). In the long run, Gray's discoveries were far more important, and are more often recorded in histories, than Kendrick's battle. (I suspect a lot of modern historians are embarrassed by the massacre.)
Some background on Kendrick: According to Ridley, pp. 4-5, Kendrick was born in Cape Cod in 1740, of a family with deep New England roots. His family moved to Nova Scotia as the American colonies became more rebellious, but Kendrick himself stayed behind. At the end of 1767 he married Huldah Pease. In the years that followed, he commanded a whaler and a ship that sounds like it was a smuggler visiting Spanish territory. His family claimed he was involved in the Boston Tea Party. He certainly smuggled arms at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, then commanded a privateer. The proceeds of his first voyage made him well-to-do, and he used some of the money to found the first school at his new home of Wareham (Ridley, p. 6).
On his second trip, he and his ship were captured; the British tried to convince his men to change sides. Those who wouldn't were eventually set adrift in a boat. But he managed to make it to the Azores, Portugal, and eventually home (Ridley, p. 7). The travels showed clearly his courage, determination, and occasional bull-headedness.
Scofield, p. 222, prints most of this piece, and lists it as one of six accounts available of this part of the Lady Washington's voyage -- an unusually high number of records for events of this period. He calls it "a doggerel ballad perhaps written by a member of the Washington's crew who took part in the affair.... [it] was published as a broadside -- sharing space with a sad little poem about a pair of Swiss orphans -- by a part-time barber named Leonard Deming, whose place of business the sheet lists as 'No. 62 Hanover Street, 2d door from Friend Street, Boston.' The ballad had apparently long been a favorite aboard the fur-traders' vessels and in the home of New England sailors, though Deming did not commit it to print until about 1834. Titled 'Bold Northwestman,' it makes no mention of Kendrick by name."
Deming was a fairly industrious printer; several dozen of his broadsides are catalogued in the Index.
Ridley, p. 305, quotes three stanzas of this song and believes Kendrick would have heard it in the 1790s, but his footnotes show that he has no evidence for this.
I can't prove it, but I suspect that the original tune of this was intended to be "Warlike Seamen (The Irish Captain)" or whatever song was the ancestor of that. This is not, however, the tune transcribed by Barry.
Everyone seems sure that this song is about Kendrick's battle in the Queen Charlotte Islands, but we should perhaps note that, while the song mentions the Lady Washington, it never mentions Kendrick (or Gray). Some versions have a date that matches Kendrick's battle, but some do not. Thus it is at least possible that it might be about, or have conflated details of, some other parts of the voyage or some of Gray's other fights. Still, Kendrick's battle is clearly the best fit, as the following observations will show.
Looking over the Barry and Lane/Gosbee-SongsOfShipsAndSailors versions of the song, the third line reads "'Twas on the Lady Washington at Cowper where she lay"; the Ridley text gives this as "was on the Lady Washington decoyed where she lay." Obviously "Cowper" is an error, and "decoyed" is possible (since the ship's crew was surprised) but seems forced. I wonder if the original didn't mention a local landmark which had its name corrupted (though the best possibility I can think of is "Clayoquot," which is a stretch), or perhaps if there was a reference to "Coyah."
Scofield's reference to "Queen Charlotte Island," found also in Lane/Gosbee-SongsOfShipsAndSailors, is wrong (there was no single island with that name), but Barry's "Queen Charlotte Islands" is acceptable; that was the name of the whole island group.
Different versions of the song give different dates for the tragedy -- e.g. it's November 2, 1791 in the Barry/Digital Tradition and Lane/Gosbee-SongsOfShipsAndSailors texts; Scofield gives June 16, 1791. Neither Ridley nor Scofield seems to give an exact date of the event (!), but it was in the week of June 13, 1791.
The song is correct in saying that the Haida came aboard. The keys to the gun chests apparently were indeed in the locks -- although the song says it was the gunner's fault, and a source quotes by Scofield, p. 223, says that the gunner had warned Kendrick about the natives, and Kendrick abused him. There is no certain record of how many Indians were involved in the attempt to take over the ship, but certainly there were some. The versions of the song disagree on how many weapons the men found when they went below, but so do the other sources; all that is certain is that it was not many. Scofield's version appears correct in saying that the watchword of the men was "blow her up" rather than "fight them off" in the Barry version, the fact that the men did in fact fight off the Indians notwithstanding. The number of Indian dead and wounded was never known; the various versions of the song probably exaggerate.
The conclusion, to never trust an Indian, would surely have been denied by Kendrick himself, who had successful and friendly relations with other tribes; it was just the Haida of the Queen Charlotte Island who gave trouble. - RBW
Last updated in version 6.4
- Dietrich: William Dietrich, Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River, Simon & Schuster, 1995
- Ridley: Scott Ridley, Morning of Fire: John Kendrick's Daring American Odyssey in the Pacific, William Morrow, 2010
- Scofield: John Scofield, Hail Columbia: Robert Gray, John Kendrick, and the Pacific Fur Trade, Oregon Historical Society Press, 1993
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