Born on December 17, 1792, in the Canadian province of Quebec, Pierre Chrysologue Pambrun traveled as far east as England and as far west as the Pacific Ocean in his lifetime. As a young man, Pierre enlisted to fight in the War of 1812 on the side of the British. He served with distinction, rising through the enlisted ranks and finally mustering out as an officer in the spring of 1815 through measure of his deeds. In April, he entered the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
His education won Pierre a clerkship in the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was unusual for a Quebecois; as a general rule, French Canadians served the HBC as trappers, voyageurs, or in menial positions. After several assignments, he came to Fort Vancouver in 1826. He eventually rose to the post of Chief Factor of Fort Walla Walla in 1839.
Pierre brought his wife, Catherine “Kitty” Humperville, to the Oregon Country. Kitty was the daughter of a Cree woman named Ann, and Thomas Humperville, a British officer stationed at Fort York. Kitty grew up speaking her native language and French. After marrying Pierre, she moved from fort to fort with her husband. Like many women on the western frontier, Kitty smoked a pipe. Pierre wanted her to give up the habit so badly that he bought a pair of diamond earrings and promised to give them to her if she would only quit. She couldn’t, and he never gave her the earrings.
After working under Dr. McLoughlin at Fort Vancouver for six years, Pierre was assigned as chief clerk in charge of Fort Walla Walla in March, 1832. This was an important post, as it was the jumping-off point for trapping expeditions into the Snake River wilderness and a center of trade for the Native Americans of the surrounding plains and deserts — most notably the Nez Perce, Cayuse, and, of course, the Walla Wallas. Fort Walla Walla was also an important stop on the cross-country trail to the United States and Canada proper. For all these reasons, it was also a difficult post to manage. Pierre succeeded, however, and was promoted to chief trader, or Factor, of the fort in late 1839.
The solution Pierre seems to have adopted was to draw a sharp division between guests of the fort and potential competitors. He welcomed everyone to Fort Walla Walla except traders and explorers who might serve parties interested in scouting the HBC’s territory with the intent of opening it to competition.
Pierre was remembered universally in emigrant diaries and reminiscences as a generous, friendly man. One early overlander from Illinois, Thomas Jefferson Farnham, wrote in his diary that he considered Pierre to be a “fine, companionable fellow; I hope he will command Walla Walla as long as Britons occupy it, and live a hundred years afterwards.”
Sadly, Pierre was killed on May 15, 1841, when he was thrown from a horse he was trying to break. There is apparently no surviving likeness of him. His will left everything to Kitty and their five sons and four daughters.
After Pierre’s death, Kitty and the children moved back to Fort Vancouver, where she supported the family doing fine needlework. The eldest daughter married Dr. Forbes Barclay of Oregon City and the eldest son later settled in the Walla Walla area and became a prominent rancher.
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