The Legend of Blue Ruin
The story of the fur trade, a blue whisky, and tribes of early America.
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Who was William Johnson?
The high sheriff of the Oregon provincial government seemed to be living a double life. And his moonlighting appeared to be as a trader, using a colorful potion to subdue his trading partners, the local tribes.
Is the legend of Blue Ruin true? And what can it teach us about life on the frontier, the fur trade, and our history?
To Oregonians, he would be known as the one time High Sheriff and earliest European settler to the region known as the Willamette Valley, at the western end of the Oregon Trail.
Ask William himself, and he would tell you that he was a new breed of American, a pioneer, brought to the country as a soldier on a British warship, one that he would ultimately desert, for life in the new world.
He would brag to anyone that would listen, that his first duties for his new country were aboard U.S.S Constitution and that he had earned the scar on his head thanks to the cutlass wielded by one of the Redcoats he confronted during the historic battle of Old Ironsides and the British warship HMS Guerriere.
According to Johnson, after the war, he moved west becoming a fur trader, trapper, and hunter for the North West Company and then for the Hudson’s Bay Company after it swallowed up its rival. He would marry his wife Polly and the two would settle down on the Willamette River, south of Oregon City and Fort Vancouver.
But there were other stories that would also surface about William Johnson. Stories of a much more sinister nature. This darker legend revolves around a type of illicit whisky trade that both the British Parliament and American military leadership had tried to rid the continent of for years.
So who was the real William Johnson? A soldier, lawman, and respected pioneer? Or was he the stuff of a darker legend. A legend built around a blue tinted potion, used as a weapon to stifle and incapacitate his trading partners?
LEWIS AND CLARK'S RELATIONSHIP TO DRINK
The story that captivated a nation and opened the west to Americans, might never have happened the way we know it now, if not for a heavy night of drinking.
Shortly after playing a part in bringing an end to the Whiskey Rebellion a young Merriweather Lewis, under the command of General Mad Anthony Wayne, would find himself in a political debate with a fellow officer in the Summer of 1795. The debate would be doubly heated thanks to excessive drink and soon, Lewis would find himself charged with being drunk, insulting his superior officer, and disturbing the peace. Apparently he had also challenged the man, Lieutenant Eliott to a duel.
Lewis would plead not guilty and would be acquitted. Wanting to avoid any further inflammation of the situation, Wayne would have Merriweather Lewis transferred to the Chosen Rifle Company, and there he would meet and be under the command of Captain William Clark.
And when Lewis was assigned by Thomas Jefferson to chart the Missouri River and points west to the Pacific Ocean, he chose Clark as his partner and the two would set off on an expedition of discovery. And two would bring with their team 120 gallons of whisky - the spirits would never see the Pacific Ocean as the barrels met their end at Great Falls, Montana.
It’s not really covered in your history books, but when it came to Lewis & Clark, it could be truly said that whisky fueled America’s path west.
For those that followed in Lewis and Clark’s path, life on the frontier would be harsh and many of them would find comfort in barrels of rum and whisky.
But alcohol would become more than just a soother of shattered nerves and a way to escape the hardships of the day. It would also become a very lucrative weapon for the British, French Canadian, and American fur traders negotiating with the many tribal nations they encountered throughout the west.
And one of the growing regions attracting this lucrative fur trade could be found at the mouth of the Columbia River and the end of the Oregon Trail.
FUR TRADE AND AGRICULTURE
For German born John Jacob Astor, the fur trade had been a very lucrative endeavor. Drawn to Canada after the Jay Treaty opened up trade to Europe and Britain, he would make his fortune shipping furs that he had procured in the Great Lakes region to London.
Thomas Jefferson’s embargo act of 1807 would shut off Canadian trade with the United States and Astor would seek permission to expand his business to the newly opened Pacific Northwest. His Pacific Fur Company would establish Fort Astoria near the mouth of the Columbia River in 1811. But some 15 years later, Astor would abandon the fort. And the British Hudson’s Bay Company would fill the void building Fort Vancouver under the leadership of Dr. John McLoughlin.
But Oregon provided a whole lot more than just fur. The rich soil in the area would soon provide settlers with enough farmable land to grow plentiful supplies of wheat, vegetables, grapes, and apples. But it would be barley that would be one of the area's first great exports, in the form of beer that would bartered with the Hawaiian Islands in exchange for sugar and molasses.
And for the American settlers in the area, the lands bountiful nature had them encouraging friends to join them by taking the trail west up the Oregon Trail, But for McLoughlin his focus was on the great trade advantages the British and French Canadians could leverage if they moved to the area. And soon the tribes of the Multnomah, the Clackamas, and that tribe that first greeted Lewis and Clark, the Chinooks would find their lands being swallowed up by all of the new settlers. And the strange new diseases they brought would have a devastating effect, as the Chinook tribe alone would lose 90% of its people through outbreaks of smallpox and measles. Times were rapidly changing, and the tribes of Oregon Country were losing ground quickly.
OREGON COUNTRY’S DRINKING PROBLEM
Because the area had established a reputation for it’s beer, no doubt, whisky soon took hold around Fort Vancouver along with distilled brandy from area fruits and rum from imported molasses. And soon, residents would witness the building of the area’s first distillery, but it wouldn't take long before Dr. McLoughlin saw a need to remove the scourge of high proof spirits from his town and looked to shut it down.
He warned, “It had a bad effect on our affairs.”
Not long after the distillery opened, the area would find itself with two new prominent residents, Ewing Young and William Johnson. Two fur traders who found farmland south of the Fort on opposite sides of the Willamette River.
Ewing Young was quickly drawn to the idea of the profits he could make if he opened a competing distillery. So he erected one right across the river from Vancouver, on nearby Sauvie Island.
But this quick expansion of the liquor trade drew the attention of Dr. McLoughlin and a local Methodist minister named Jason Lee. McLoughlin took an aggressive approach while Lee tried a softer approach - offering to buy Young and his partner out so they could shut it down. At first Young balked, saying McLoughlin's "tyrannizing" had "hurt (his) feelings." But it would be his friend William Johnson who would suggest that if Young moved into the cattle business, it would be a much more lucrative endeavor. So Young shut down the distillery and formed the Willamette Cattle Company. And for Young the move was truly inspired, as upon his death - he would be the richest man in the valley.
But what about his friend William Johnson? Well, life for him, would fall upon a very different path.
WILLIAM JOHNSON AND POLITICS
If you had to pick out the Willamette Valley’s earliest ambassador, it appears that person would be William Johnson. It seems that he and his wife Polly’s farm was a favorite destination of traveling dignitaries.
When William A. Slacum was sent by President Andrew Jackson to the Pacific Northwest, he made a stop off to visit the Johnsons. William would act as a guide and writer for Thomas Jefferson Fordham, who in turn would write about his stay at Johnson's family farm in his book Travels in the Great Western Prairies (1843) and Charles Wilkes, the head of the United States Exploring Expedition would also write of the time he spent at the Johnson family farm.
When his friend Ewing Young passed away in 1841, William went beyond just being an unofficial ambassador to a much more important role.
You see, Oregon Country was serving two masters. Because of the London Convention Treaty of 1818 neither Great Britain nor the United States could establish a government in the area. So it was loosely overseen by both countries, leading to overlapping rules and chaos. And because there was no defined court in the area, Ewing Young’s will couldn’t be executed. A local government was desperately needed.
Reverend Lee, who had been backing American interests, decided it was time to take the bull by the horns by setting up a provisional American government. He would hold two meetings under the guise of handling the situation of predatory wolves destroying livestock. From the fort, McLoughlin felt the subject was important and encouraged attendance by the French Canadians and British.
Lee stressed that a government needed to be formed to gain control over this and other situations. But to McLoughlin, the intention of giving American’s the upper hand in this new government led him to lobby for a no vote on its establishment.
On May 2, 1843, William Johnson and the rest of the convention would vote by a 52 to 50 in favor of an American provisional government. And one of its first acts was to appoint William Johnson as High Sheriff.
ALCOHOL AND THE TRIBES
For European settlers in the New World, drinking beer, Madeira, cider, rum, and later whisky was an everyday part of life. However, for many of the tribes they encountered along the way, alcoholic spirits would take on more ceremonial or medicinal uses, if they were used at all.
The introduction and adoption of spirits into their nations took many tribal leaders by surprise. During treaty negotiations, rum would be used to grease the wheels of diplomacy. In trade negotiations, settlers and fur traders soon realized they could get an upper hand in negotiations if they could get their trading partner soused on liquor. And the tribal leaders knew it.
Scarouady, a leader of the Oneida, pleaded with the invaders to stop being so heavy handed with the liquor. "Your Traders now bring scarce any Thing but Rum and Flour. ... The Rum ruins us. We beg you would prevent its coming in such Quantities, by regulating the Traders. if this Practice be continued, we must be inevitably ruined."
And liquor would be just one point of a terrible triangle that was crushing in on the tribes.
The 1830s would see Andrew Jackson signing a bill called the Indian Removal Act that led the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole into forced relocation west of the Mississippi on what became known as The Trail of Tears.
The era would also see hunters and fur trappers hunting the tribe's food supply, the bison, into near extinction.
And alcohol would internally tear tribes apart, bring violence and death and cause some tribes to be ill prepared when attacked by invaders to their lands.
Several prohibition laws would be put in place over the years, and usually with little to no say from the tribes themselves.
In 1701 a toothless law came out of the Pennsylvania Assembly, prohibiting rum sales to tribe members. Georgia tried to limit sales during the Augusta Conference of 1745. Then
in 1802, Chief Little Turtle of the Miami tribe would push the federal government to pass the Indian Nonintercourse Act, which authorized the president to take action in restraining the trade of alcoholic spirits to tribes. But again this was a toothless law that was lightly used, if at all.
It wouldn't be until 1832, when the Office of Commissioner of Indian Affairs was formed that a government body had been established to deal with the sale of alcohol to the tribes. It provided a fine of $500 for anyone who "shall sell, exchange, or give, barter, or dispose of, any spirituous liquor or wine to an Indian, (in Indian country)." This law would apply to the prairie as well as the reservations. But the prairie was to vast for enforcement and the just like with American Prohibition in the 20th Century, those living around the reservation found ways to get alcohol in.
But it wasn’t just the United States, Canada had its own problems. And much of it was spurred on by the North American fur trade and the policies of two competing companies.
THE FUR TRADE
The market for furs was ramping up in Europe and the British owned Hudson's Bay Company and the Montreal-based North West Company were doing a lucrative business supplying those goods.
And while these companies did have their own trappers, it was less expensive to simply trade with the most experienced trappers in the territory, the tribes living out on the frontier.
The North West Company was aggressive in using liquor to gain an advantage in both trade and negotiations, while The Hudson's Bay Company tried to take the high ground, opposing this tactic. But when the North West Company started stealing their markets away, the HBC relented.
The whisky itself usually came from Europe - brought in twice a year by barrel. The contents would be diluted and placed in skin bags or small kegs for easy transportation. Trading sessions would be held while the supplies were fresh in the Spring and Fall. And while it was quite profitable for the two companies, the mission required hard men who could fight, as knives and guns would more and more become a part of the negotiations.
When the two companies merged in the 1820s, there was an effort by the British Parliament to limit the practice of negotiating and trading with whisky. The Hudson's Bay Company would gradually eliminate trading of whisky, but it was still given as gifts.
But that would change again when the American Fur Company began gaining a foothold near the Canadian border. Soon the Hudson’s Bay Company was back at it again.
Out in Oregon Country, trading whisky with the local tribes was also prevalent. But it wasn’t just the American Fur Company that was taking part. And as the legend goes, a former employee of the North West Company and former high sheriff may have also been working this scheme to his advantage - and making matters worse, his whisky was far from quality European spirits.
There was a nervous tension in the air as two men made their way in a flatboat along the river. Concealed on the skiff, under heavy blankets was their payload meant for an upcoming swap, a 20 gallon batch of a locally made concoction that the tribes they were to visit called "lumm" or "blue lu," but to the people of the Willamette Valley, it carried a more fitting moniker - Blue Ruin.
No one really knew the exact recipe of Blue Ruin, and likely no one really wanted to know. Originally it was a type of hybrid between rum and moonshine, made with Hawaiian molasses, wheat, and filler. But not long after the only requirement was to find any starchy resource that could produce sugars for fermentation purposes. And ingredients like tobacco juice, rotten food, strychnine, and wood shavings from the mill room floor would be acceptable additions to the recipe.
It carried with it a mysterious blue tint. A tint that likely came from poisonous wood grain alcohol, normally stripped out during the distillation process, that was left in to help increase output and thus profits.
This wasn't the first shipment of Blue Ruin to make its way through Oregon Country. Four years prior, a former Hudson's Bay Company trader named James Conner would set up a still at his farm near Oregon City, producing enough Blue Ruin to draw the attention of local authorities.
Conner's main adversary would be a man named Dr. Elijah White. The self-important White would claim that he was the de facto governor of the region, since he had been sent by congress, and was the highest level American authority in the area.
White was vehemently opposed to the whisky trade, which had been outlawed in the United States, but not by the local provincial government. A foe to both the British and provincial government authorities, he took his message to the people and soon found pockets of support.
For many, they had seen first hand, the effects of the whisky trade with the local tribes, when in 1842, a merchant ship called the Blanche arrived at Fort Vancouver with the expressed purpose of trading whisky with the Chinook tribe. The mission would end up leading to bloodshed on both sides.
But it didn’t take long for the over-exuberant White to wear out his welcome, when he started arresting people simply for owning whisky. His hypocrisy was revealed though by one of his detainees, who pointed out that White himself kept a store of liquor at home. Additional pressure by McLoughlin would cause him to back down off of his hard line.
But Conner's Blue Ruin was too much for Dr. White to take. When he heard of the operation, he sent 10 men out to destroy the stills. Conner would be arrested and fined $300. But Conner saw the great profits his concoction was bringing him, so enlisted the help of partners and built another still. White would again discover the still and had it destroyed as well.
Fed up with this pesky advisory, Conner would challenge White to a duel. Being a tactic that was illegal in the new provincial government, Conner would be fined an additional $500. The incidents would lead the provincial government to pass the North American Continent's first ever regional ban on the import, manufacture, and sale of ardent spirits within its borders. Only medicinal whisky could be sold and no more than a gallon at at a time.
But the hardline law wouldn’t stand for long, later amended in 1846, stepping back from total prohibition and replacing it with a sky high licensing fee and strict prohibition on sales to the tribes. Conner would eventually see his judgment overturned.
So the question becomes, did James Conner and his partners continue their illicit distilling of Blue Ruin after the law changed? And who were James Conner’s partners?
And that brings us back to the little skiff drifting down the river. The first of the two rifle baring men was a wild French born frontiersman named Edouard Chambreau. Educated in Montreal, he took up arms for the Americans in the Mexican-American War. His time in the US Army would lead him to Oregon Country.
His partner in crime, as the story goes, was none other than the now retired high sheriff of the provincial government William Johnson.
It is thought that the two men had struck up a friendship soon after Edouard arrived in Oregon City. Somewhere the two made a business arrangement to trade whisky with the local tribes and we know of the account, thanks to a book Chambreau wrote years later, after he found God - offering up this and other stories to help young men avoid falling into the same life of sin and debauchery he had lived.
This was his account:
“The next morning the skiff was made ready with a 20 gallon keg of Blue Ruin. This was hid under the things in the bottom of the boat. … There were quite a number of Indians camped here, and they were anxious to ‘swap for lumm’ (the word for whiskey)….
“We made them sit down in rows with their different things they had to put their Lumm in, and whatever they had to pay for it. They were all on the beach about ten steps from the skiff. … We went to every one before we began to pour it out in their vessels, and agreed on what should be given for this and that measure full. Having done this, Johnson began to pour out and I carried the things to the boat. The principle things we got in exchange was Beaver and Otter skins, and Hudson’s Bay blankets.
An Indian, when he drinks whisky, he will drink as long as he can hold his breath. By the time [Johnson] was getting through with the last ones, the first ones were getting very funny. He shouted to me to run for the boat. I ran to the boat and shoved it until I was knee deep in the water. As he had the whisky, some of them followed him to the boat. He was retreating backwards with his keg under his arm and his long knife in the other (hand). In the meantime, I covered him with my rifle. Before it takes time to tell it, he threw the keg with what remained in it as far as he could toward the camp. This gave him a chance to get away from those who were immediately near him, and he got into the boat.
“We were almost in swimming water, with three Indians hanging yet to the boat. We knocked them over the head and shoved off just in the nick of time, because we had no more than had them loose from the boat than there was a gang of about 30 that came running and yelling with all their might. Then the fighting was among themselves.
“On this trip we made very near $500 apiece,”
Over the years, this story has become part of the legend of Blue Ruin and it creates quite the mystery around one William Johnson. How did this well respected citizen suddenly fall back into the habit of trading whisky with the tribes?
How History Created a Legend
Well part of the issue with this story and the man William Johnson is just how poorly his life was documented. Much of what we seem to know about him actually comes from tales he told of himself.
And it appears that he might have been a little loose with the facts.
Yes, there was a William Johnson that spent time on the U.S.S. Constitution, but the records show him as a 13 year old boy from Maine, not a 28 year old British deserter and war veteran.
And while this incident with Chambreau happened after Johnson left his position of high sheriff, suddenly living a double life seems a little out of character.
Yes he had worked for the North West Company and may have had experience in trading with the tribes, but the legend also suggests that it was William Johnson’s actions that led to the provincial government’s passing of total prohibition, simply to stop him from distilling Blue Ruin, something also attributed to James Conner and with a more believable timeline. Why would they hire him as high sheriff if they were trying to stop his illegal activities?
So, maybe he just started after he left the office? I mean, Chambreau has him dead to rights in his story, doesn’t he?
Well, get an image of these two men in a boat together. Who do you see sitting on a boat next to this 25 year old wild French frontiersman, ready to break the law? A 62 year old former lawman?
That’s right, the two men were 37 years apart in age. It isn’t impossible for the two to be friends, but they seem an odd pairing. And nowhere have I seen Chambreau identify his William Johnston as the former high sheriff. What are the possibilities that this is a different William Johnson? It’s not like that was an uncommon name?
Unfortunately it’s hard to know and we may never know. Records were not well kept on the frontier, and Chambreau’s story unfortunately doesn’t come along with a DNA test.
And another crack in the argument comes from the stories that point to William Johnson as owning a still where he was making Blue Ruin. The legend says that he had a run in with Dr. Elijah White. Apparently Dr. White caught wind that Johnson was brewing up some Blue Ruin, he sent men to bust up his still, which he promptly reassembled - again a story that has also been attributed to James Conner. Maybe the story was just juicier with a former high sheriff as the protagonist, rather than a known distiller.
So another legend looks to remain just that - a legend. Entertaining in its adventure, telling in its depiction of the attitudes toward the tribes during the expansion of American interests into the west.
And while a whisky like Blue Ruin was a fact of life in the old west, it was the specific use of this liquor that should give us pause - and open our eyes to taking a look at history through a different lense.
Not to beat ourselves up over the ways people who may or may not have been in our family tree treated people in the past - since past actions are impossible to change.
But instead to use this story and the history surrounding it, to find, as Lincoln said “the better angels of our nature,” all with the expressed purpose of being better human beings and avoiding the mistakes of the past.
And isn’t that ultimately the great gift of history?
Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life LLC
Production, stories, and research by Drew Hannush
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