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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Hungry, thirsty colleagues thwart early Oregon naturalist Townsend

During hungry winter at early trading post on Sauvie Island, one gobbled down his owl specimen; another poured the whisky out of his dead lizard specimen jar and drank it, leaving the lizards to rot

Townsend's Vole-photo from WSU
This photo, from Washington State University, shows a Townsend's
Vole. The vole is a common pest all over Oregon, burrowing into
fields and gnawing at the roots of fruit trees. That's an apple tree "in
pink" behind. Click here for a larger image.
Finn J.D. John — April 2, 2009

From the depths of early Oregon history comes a sure-fire way of determining if you have a drinking problem:

Let’s say you’re on an expedition with a naturalist, who has caught a bunch of snakes, lizards and newts and preserved the lot in a small keg of whisky.

If you, while he’s off scrounging for more specimens, strain off the dead reptiles and guzzle the whisky, well … you might have a drinking problem.

This actually happened to one of history’s most famous naturalists, and one of its more articulate ones at that: John K. Townsend, who came to the Oregon territories from Philadelphia with the trading party led by Nathaniel Wyeth in the early 1830s.

The would-be giant killers

Wyeth’s plan was to establish a trading post, Fort Williams, on Sauvie Island in a direct, frontal challenge to the British Hudson Bay Co., which had had its central trading post just 8 miles away in Vancouver for years. This did not go well. The local Native American tribes, at the recommendation of the British, refused to trade. The salmon run had already trotted upstream and was gone. People at Fort Williams started to get really hungry.

Townsend's Warbler, from National Parks Service
In this photo by Will Elder of the National Parks Service, a Townsend's
Warbler looks for insects in a Monterey Cypress in northern California.

Wyeth himself scarfed down a lamprey eel, which made him very sick indeed. Townsend, having shotgunned down an unknown local owl to preserve it as a specimen to be studied, was appalled to discover when he later returned that a fellow naturalist, Thomas Nuttall, was dining on it. Nuttall ought to have known better, and almost certainly did — but hunger is pitiless.

But perhaps the worst sacrifice of scientific knowledge to the human digestive system in all of Oregon history had nothing to do with hunger. It was, as you’ve no doubt guessed, more related to thirst.

You may be an alcoholic if ...

Townsend was off doing his naturalist thing one day. He had caught a substantial collection of snakes, lizards and a particularly interesting sort of newt, and had preserved all of them in a small container of whisky to bring back to Philly.

Meanwhile the fort’s tailor — a man whose name I have not been able to learn, but whose reputation for alcohol-fueled rages was already well established — got hold of the container. He strained off the dead snakes and lizards and proceeded to fire his boilers with the whisky — which could not possibly have tasted even remotely tolerable; you know what happens to fruit left to soak in strong liquor, right? Now, imagine that “jungle juice” full of shotgunned garter snakes and drowned salamanders.

 

Townsend's chipmunk, from National Wildlife Service
This photo, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, shows a Townsend's
Chipmunk in the Klamath Basin. Click here for a larger image.

Townsend was furious. Months of work had been ruined, and he never did find another specimen of that newt.  For all we know today, it may have died out before it could be re-discovered; today there is a Townsend’s chipmunk and a Townsend’s warbler, but if there’s a Townsend’s newt, nobody’s found it yet.

Frontier justice in the dead of night

The tailor, though, came to a bad end. The post’s gunsmith, Thomas Hubbard, had taken up with a native girl whom the tailor fancied. One night, in an alcohol-fueled jealous rage,  the tailor took a knife and gun to Hubbard’s room to exact a terrible vengeance. Hubbard neatly turned the tables by whisking a pistol out from under his pillow and dropping the tailor dead in his tracks.

At trial, Hubbard’s action was pronounced justifiable homicide. Under the circumstances, this wasn’t surprising — especially considering whom the presiding judge was:

It was the Hon. John K. Townsend.

(Sources: Townsend, John K. Narrative of a Journey across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River. Corvallis: OSU Press, 2003 (written 1836); Sullivan, William L. Hiking Oregon’s History. Eugene: Navillus, 2006; www.ohs.org)

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