Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ross, Alexander (1783-1856)

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ROSS, ALEXANDER (1783–1856), fur trader and author, was born in Nairnshire on 9 May 1783. In 1805 he emigrated to Canada, and was for some years engaged in teaching at Glengarry, Upper Canada. In 1810 Ross joined the first expedition for procuring furs which was sent out by the Pacific Fur Company. This company was founded by J. J. Astor to contest the monopoly hitherto enjoyed by the old-established British North-West Company. It was agreed that Ross should have a share in the company at the end of three years. On 6 Sept. he sailed in the Tonquin for the Columbia river with that part of the expedition which was to proceed by sea. During a dangerous voyage the Sandwich Islands were visited for provisions, but the party landed safely in Oregon on 12 April 1811. After some months spent in clearing the country, Astoria was founded and trading operations commenced. In the autumn of 1811 Ross went up the Columbia river, and on 11 Sept., after a voyage of forty-two days, landed at Oakinacken in the region of Mount Baker. He was left in charge of a newly founded settlement there for 188 days. Though he was the only white man and was surrounded by Indians of very uncertain temper, he succeeded in procuring furs and peltries to the value of 2,250l. In January 1812 he was relieved, and on 6 May, accompanied by a Canadian and an Indian, went northwards; he arrived at Astoria, the headquarters of the company, on 14 June. In the course of the year he had travelled 3,355 miles.

In view of the war between Great Britain and the United States, and the neglect and mismanagement of Astor, it was determined to abandon the enterprise, of which Washington Irving published in his ‘Astoria’ an account from the projector's point of view. On 12 Nov. 1813 Astoria was made over to the old North-West Company, whose service Ross now entered. He was placed by them in charge of his former post at Oakinacken. In 1818 he was given command of the newly established fort of Nez Percés. In 1821, when the North-West Company was merged in the Hudson's Bay Company, he joined the latter for two years. In 1823 he visited the Snake country in the south-east of the Columbia district, and reported on the trade of that region. He returned in April 1825, and in the summer of the same year obtained a grant of one hundred acres in the Red River Settlement (now Manitoba) by the influence of General Simpson, governor of Rupert's Land. Thither he migrated, and was followed by his family. When in 1835 the Red River Settlement was acquired by the Hudson's Bay Company, Ross was named one of the council and sheriff of Assiniboine, the capital of the colony. He took a prominent part in its organisation. He died at Colony Gardens (now in Winnipeg, Manitoba) on 23 Oct. 1856.

Ross published in England, in his later years, graphic accounts of the countries he had visited, and gave much valuable information concerning the native races. The titles of Ross's publications are: 1. ‘Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, with an Account of some Indian Tribes on the Coast of the Pacific,’ 1849. 2. ‘Fur Hunters of the Far West: a Narrative of Adventures in the Oregon and Rocky Mountains,’ 1855, 2 vols.; and 3. ‘Red River Settlement: its Rise, Progress, and Present State, with some Account of the Native Races,’ &c., 1856. A portrait of Ross is prefixed to vol. ii. of ‘The Fur Hunters of the Far West.’

His son, James Ross (1835–1871), born on 9 May 1835, was educated at St. John's College, Red River, and at Toronto University, where he graduated with honours in 1857. After having been for a short time assistant master in Upper Canada College, Toronto, he was in 1859 appointed postmaster, sheriff, and governor of the gaol at Red River. From 1860 to 1864 he edited the ‘Nor'-Wester.’ He also for a time conducted the Hamilton ‘Spectator,’ contributed to the Toronto ‘Globe,’ and was admitted to the Manitoba bar. In 1870 he was chief-justice of Riel's provisional government in Manitoba, and, though he drew up the petition of right, exercised a moderating influence over the rebel leader [see Riel, Louis]. He died in Winnipeg on 20 Sept. 1871.

[Washington Irving's Astoria; Alex. Ross's Works; Appleton's Cycl. Amer. Biogr. vol. v.]

G. Le G. N.