HISTORY OF FRENCHTOWN
The following remarks were presented by Sam Pambrun as part of the 150th Anniversary Observances of the Battle of Frenchtown. They occurred at Frenchtown Hall, Lowden, Washington on December 10, 2005.
This is a famous place.
Frenchtown is the site of the last battle between whites and Indians in the Walla Walla Valley as well as other significant historic events.
This place has entertained many people famous in the settlement of the Pacific Northwest. Included in Frenchtown’s roll of famous personages are:
–The Trappers: Dr. John McLoughlin, Sir George Simpson, David Thompson;
–Explorers: Lewis & Clark, Benjamin Bonneville, and John C. Fremont;
–Missionaries: Jason Lee, Elijah White, Samuel Parker, the Whitmans, Spaldings, Walkers, and Catholic Missionaries Brouillet and Blanchet;
–Soldiers: Ulysses S. Grant, George McClellan, and General O.O. Howard;
–Road Builders: Mullan and Landers;
–Treaty Makers: General Joel Palmer and Governor I.I.Stevens; and
–Naturalists: David Douglas, John Kirk Townsend, and Thomas Nuttall.
This place has weathered the Missoula Floods and the ash of Mounts Mazama and St. Helens.
In 1923 the community of Walla Walla produced and presented a pageant copyrighted by Stephen B. L. Penrose. The play, entitled “How the West was Won,” was presented on June 6 & 7, 1923. My grandfather, Sam Pambrun, played the role of his grandfather, Hudson Bay Company Chief Trader Pierre Chrysologue Pambrun in this 1923 pageant. I planned to use the script to prepare for my remarks here.
However, after studying the history of the Walla Walla Valley presented in the 1923 pageant, I think I’d rather stick a little closer to the truth than what I found in Penrose’s play. What I want to talk about didn’t make it into the 1923 Walla Walla Pageant. I want to talk about those who came to this Valley to live with the aboriginal inhabitants – – – not as conquerors, but as friends and family.
The impetus for the settlement of the Walla Walla Valley began 190 years ago in a community over a thousand miles away – at the Red River settlement, now the great city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
In 1816 the struggle between the Northwest and Hudson’s Bay Companies reached the boiling point at “Seven Oaks,” a pastoral place beside the Red River near the Hudson’s Bay Company Fort Douglas.
There, Cuthbert Grant and a party of Metís [half breed, usually French and Indian] Nor’westers attacked and killed 20 people, including Robert Semple, Governor of Lord Selkirk’s Colony at Red River. [Cuthbert’s relative, Richard Grant, is buried in the Walla Walla cemetery.]
The reaction to this “massacre” was immediate. Besides the ensuing armed conflicts and court cases, the impact of it reached the Oregon Country via the 100-day express. When those first colonists in Oregon, the men of the Northwest Company stationed at Fort George (Astoria, Oregon) heard of the Seven Oaks Massacre, some abandoned their posts and hurried to Red River to check on their families.
Tom McKay left the year before the massacre in 1815. Donald McKenzie, Louis Napoleon Bonnefant’s relative and several others made a dash across the continent in 1816 upon hearing their families may be in danger.
[In addition to AWOL’s there were others who left the Pacific Coast and traveled to Red River under other circumstances. The Astor (Pacific) Company issued engagés five-year contracts and clerks seven- year contracts in 1810. When the Astor Company was purchased by the Northwest Company in 1813 there were probably several different arrangements, i.e. buying out contracts, canceling contracts and issuing new contracts, firing of those who’d proved to be undesirable, and some of the engagés refused to renew their contracts because they wished to become “free trappers.”]
Never missing an opportunity, the Northwest Company, rather than firing the Astorians for being AWOL, used them as guides to send reinforcements back to the Northwest in 1817. These reinforcements, about 20 French Canadian Metís and 20 Objiways, Cree and Iriquois, formed the nucleus of the Frenchtown settlement in the Walla Walla Valley. [Actually, the “reinforcements” scattered. Some went to Fort St. James, Fort Fraser, Kamloops and Alexandria on the Fraser River (New Caledonia). Some were assigned to Donald McKenzie’s Snake River Brigade. Because the Snake Brigade’s supply depot was Fort Nez Perce, those engagés who accompanied McKenzie became intimately familiar with the Walla Walla Valley.]
Joseph LaRocque, one of the reinforcements, built the first Frenchtown cabin in 1823. The Louis Tellier family, across the field from the LaRocques, arrived in 1834 from Montana. Louis went to work for Marcus Whitman as a millwright in 1836. Tellier was likely stationed at Flathead Post before coming to Frenchtown. [After 1825 Flathead Post supplied the Snake Brigade – but the engagés hated it so much they’d sneak away and return via Fort Nez Perce rather than hike the spine of the Rocky Mountains back to the Flathead Post.]
The Canadian Metís who began settling in the Walla Walla Valley in 1824, recognizing they were “guests” of the Waiilatpu and Wallulapam (Cayuse and Walla Walla) Indians, sought permission to settle there, and in most cases, married into the local tribes.
While the French Canadian Metís generally got along well with their native hosts, other, “white” settlers and traders didn’t do so well. John Clarke, while in the employ of the Astor Company, shortly before its sale to the Northwest Company, hanged an Indian boy who was living with the Palouses while they were camped at Wallula. This event occurred in 1813 and effectively ended Pax Walla Walla.
The Northwest Company began building a post a few miles upriver from the mouth of the Walla Walla in 1816. As a result of Clarke’s indiscretion, a Northwest fur brigade was attacked. The builders of Fort Nez Perce were harassed. The fur traders who had been attending what they called the “Indian Rendezvous” at Wallula every summer since 1811 now found that attending the “Indian Rendezvous” was risky. The Fort Nez Perce stockade was finally completed in 1818, the final work being accomplished under armed guard.
More retired Canadian Metís fur traders continued to settle at Frenchtown and they continued to marry into the Waiilatpu & Wallulapam tribes. The community essentially became a French and Indian village scattered over 50 square miles.
Frenchtown did not have a main street, a saloon, a hotel, livery, blacksmith or a city council. It was simply a community of log cabins scattered among Indian camps. [It is likely that the Metís cabins were located among the Indian lodges, which were at Walla Walla Valley sites claimed by specific Indian families, and handed down for centuries within these families.]
When the Whitmans arrived in 1836 there were over a dozen Metís log cabins surrounding their mission. Although they wrote over 100,000 words during their 11-year stay at Waiilatpu, they never once mentioned their half-breed neighbors in writing.
The Frenchtown Metís prospered, even weathering blame for the Whitman Massacre. By 1847 there were well over 50 Metís families living in the Frenchtown area. Land claims were casual; no surveying, no fences, nothing written, just counsel and agreement with the tribes. Frenchtown residents considered the Indians the governing body of the valley; not the missionaries.
The Walla Walla Treaty Council of 1855 started Frenchtown’s slide into oblivion. The Treaty interpreters were mostly Frenchtown residents, all were Metís and/or had Indian wives. Their empathy for their in-laws did no good in heading off the land rush that followed the Treaty signing by just two weeks. However, the Frenchtown interpreters were somewhat successful in assisting the tribal chiefs in securing the best deal they could. The Walla Walla Treaty, from the perspective of Indian rights, is probably the best of all the Indian Treaties enacted west of the Rocky Mountains.
Descendents of the following 1855 interpreters still live in the area today: William Cameron McKay, A.D. Pambrun, Matthew Dauphin, John Whitford, William Craig, and Patrick McKenzie. Descendents of the natives whose land title was extinguished by the Treaty of 1855 are also still here today.
The death blow to Frenchtown was delivered by Captain George McClellan who rode through the Walla Walla Valley in October of 1855, announcing that the valley was under martial law and only military personnel may stay, everyone else must get out. The Metís questioned this order, seeing no reason why their relatives would do them harm. McClellan persisted, informing the residents of Frenchtown they would be removed by force if they persisted in disobeying US Army orders.
Some of the Frenchtown Metís moved to the Willamette Valley, some joined Narcisse Cornoyer’s “French Canadians,” and mustered into service as the Oregon Mounted Volunteers “Company K.” Some Frenchtown Metís joined their native relatives in the hostilities to come.
The Battle of Walla Walla was fought over terrain on the Touchet and Walla Walla Rivers, ending in a siege in the heart of Frenchtown, between the LaRocque and Tellier cabins. Just prior to the battle, Colonel Kelly’s Oregon Mounted Volunteers captured Peopeomoxmox, the great Walla Walla chief, on the Touchet River. Peo was “detained” when he rode up to the OMV carrying a white flag. He was later tied and executed at the LaRocque cabin the third day of his detention.
In a curious circumstance, it seems that Joseph LaRocque’s wife “Lizette Walla Walla,” was either Peo’s sister or daughter. Why the OMV chose to establish their headquarters at a house where Peo’s sister or daughter lived is a coincidence worth further investigation.
After the Battle of Walla Walla, Frenchtown was never the same. Some of the original settlers moved back to their homes; some were displaced by Americans who filed claims on their land. Some of the Metís families who’d called Frenchtown home scattered to other locations around the Pacific Northwest. A few moved back to Red River.
During the 1860’s, 70’s & 80’s the community continued as a Catholic, French-speaking, French culture, French and Indian society of close knit families – – – despite an influx of white Americans.
In 1887 The Dawes Act was adopted, allowing individual Indians to own land on the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Many of the original Metís settlers removed themselves to the Reservation to claim land there. Frenchtown became Lowden, the religion became Protestant, the population became white, the language English, and the culture became Frontier American.
If one studies the community of Frenchtown carefully, one might say that British politics were responsible for its creation, and American politics for its demise. Our task here today is to determine if the place, and the community merits a rebirth, and if so, to take those steps necessary to assure the success of this venture.
If we need a better reason to commemorate a 150-year old battle and a 180-year old community in the Walla Walla Valley, we might listen to the words of Tauitau:
“I wonder if the ground has anything to say? I wonder if the ground is listening to what is said? I wonder if the ground would come alive and what is on it? I hear what the ground says. The ground says it is the Great Spirit that placed me here. The Great Spirit tells me to take care of the Indians, to feed them alright. The Great Spirit appointed the roots to feed the Indians on. The water says the same thing. The Great Spirit directs me, feed the Indians well. The Ground, Water and Grass say, the Great Spirit has given our names. We have these names and we hold these names. The Ground says, the Great Spirit has placed me here to produce all that grows on me – trees and fruit. The same way, the ground says, it was from me that man was made. The Great Spirit in placing men on the earth, desired them to take good care of the ground and to do each other no harm . . .” –Young Chief (Tauitau), 1855 Treaty Council
BIBLIOGRAPHY & Notes
Bergevin Family; Map of Frenchtown
Cox, Ross; Adventures on the Columbia River
Gibson, James R.; The Lifeline of the Oregon Country: The Fraser – Columbia Brigade System, 1811 – 47
Irving, Washington; Astoria
Jackson, John C., Children of the Fur Trade
McDonald, Archibald; This Blessed Wilderness; edited by Jean Murray Cole
Pambrun, A.D.; Sixty Years on the Frontier
Ross, Alexander; Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River
Ruby, Robert C. and Brown, John A.; The Cayuse Indians, Imperial Tribesmen of Old Oregon
Thompson, David; Columbia Journals
Van Kirk, Sylvia; Many Tender Ties
Click here for the 1870 Frenchtown census. Note that in column 6, “color”, many residents were initially identified as “H.B.” (presumably meaning “Half-Breed”), then the census taker went back and crossed out H.B. and wrote in either “W” for White or “Ind” for Indian, H.B. apparently not being an available census category.
A Frenchtown cabin map can be found on p. 8 of our Frenchtown Historic Site Master Plan, which is available online.