John Greig

Fur Trade Utensils
Fur Trade Utensils and Storage displayed at HBC replica Fort Langley

John Greig worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company for five years, but after his retirement he told stories of his journey across the continent with the incoming York Factory Express, called the Columbia Express. I introduce John Greig in the opening chapter of my book, The York Factory Express, but of course I haven’t told the whole story. So, here it is — or at least, here is as much of his story as I know.   

John Greig was born about 1825 at Burness, Orkney Islands, according to a Saanich researcher (Greig is buried in the South Saanich Church and is connected to Central Saanich, as you will see). Bruce McIntyre Watson, who wrote the three-volume book, Lives Lived West of the Divide, says he was probably born in Kirkwall, Orkney. Knowing the researcher, who might have Greig in his family tree, I think it is probable that Greig was born in Burness, particularly as the Burness name figured in Greig’s family history. 

Bruce Watson says John Greig was born about December 1822, and his parents were Francis and Amelia [Gaudie] Greig. Watson also tells us that John Greig was a tall, thin, wiry Orcadian, while the researcher told me that Greig, “though relatively short, at 5’6″, was a strong, wiry man with red hair and a fair complexion.” As a nineteen year old [Watson says], Greig worked on Lingro Farm, near Kirkwall, and that he might also have transferred to the local Burness farm to work before he joined the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1844. He sailed to Hudson Bay on the barque Prince Rupert V, and for some reason boarded the ship at St. Ola, in the Shetland Islands.

Greig would have arrived at York Factory in late summer. In his manuscript, clerk Augustus Peers describes the arrival of the London Ship at York Factory in 1842 — some of the Orkney men he described in this manuscript might have resembled young John Greig: 

The York Schooners of about sixty or seventy tons burden now ranged alongside. The powder kegs were got out and quickly transferred to the schooners, all fires and smoking being prohibited pro term. Dr. N and I gathered up our traps and betook ourselves on board one of these small craft, which sheered out and set sail for shore, but ere we got far, the tide having turned, we speedily stuck in the mud. As we were doomed to remain a fixture till the evening tide, we made the best of our lot by leaning over the side, like horses in a pound, and surveyed the scene before us…. The steersman of the schooner, who was an old hand in the country, derived great pleasure in displaying to the wondering gaze of the greenhorns a lump of pemmican, a kind of food much used in the country… It was rather laughable to see the wry faces and shuddering of the poor Orkney lads when they eyed this article with suspicion, and enquired, “an’ what an’ a stuff war that?”

Like all the men who came in with the London Ships, John Greig arrived at York Factory too late in the summer to have travelled out in the York Factory Express to Fort Colvile that year. Therefore, he must have spent the winter at York Factory, which for an Orkneyman, or anyone else for that matter, is an interesting experience. When the York Factory Express and the Saskatchewan Brigades arrived in the middle of June the following year (1845), Greig would be assigned to Fort Colvile. He would travel out in the Columbia boat to the west side of the Rocky Mountains, arriving at Fort Colvile in October 1845.

There are almost no records for Fort Colvile: certainly none of the post journals have survived, and the only records I know of are in the letters written to Governor Simpson by the various men in charge of the post. Greig would not have known Archibald McDonald, was in charge of the post until 1844. McDonald’s replacement was John Lee Lewes, and my great-grandfather, Alexander Caulfield Anderson, arrived at the post in 1848. Of course, Greig is not mentioned in Jean Murray Cole’s book This Blessed Wilderness: Archibald McDonald’s Letters from the Columbia, 1822-44, but Greig’s future father-in-law, who was the blacksmith and miller at Colvile from 1830 to 1851, is mentioned. (Interestingly, Goudie and Greig must have retired in the same year, but Greig came out by the brigade trail so far as I know, while Goudie made his way via Walla Walla to Fort Vancouver, Fort Nisqually, and Fort Victoria, in a journey that took him more than a year to complete.)

At Fort Colvile, Greig worked with above-mentioned miller/blacksmith James Goudie. They would have gotten along well: both men were from the Orkneys (Goudie was born in Stromness), and both were fiddlers, and good fiddlers. In fact, music might have run in Greig’s blood: he is supposed to have had Edvard Grieg as a distant cousin — Edvard is a well known composer of music in Norway.   

In 1849 John Greig wed Goudie’s eldest daughter, Margaret, born in 1835, and Alexander Caulfield Anderson performed the wedding ceremony for this new couple. Margaret was Métis, as her mother was a First Nations woman from the Kettle Falls band. Two years later Greig retired from the company at the end of his five year contract. There is a story that he, in coming out over the trail that brought him through British Columbia to Fort Victoria he “saved the lives of his compatriots,” who were faced by “hostile natives,” by picking up his fiddle and playing for them. Presumably he came out by the brigade trail to Fort Langley in A.C. Anderson’s 1851 brigade to Fort Langley — in which case, it is far more likely that the First Nations people were Similkameen men who were demanding a fee before allowing the brigade to travel through their territory — something that happened all the time. As a miller, Greig would not have previously travelled in the brigades, and would not be familiar with this long-standing tradition.

On the other hand, if his group truly met “hostile Indians,” it was far more likely to have happened in Washington, than in British Territory: so he may have gone out with his father-in-law. I just don’t know how he reached Victoria, and when.

Anyway, Greig arrived at Fort Victoria, where he purchased 30 acres of land in the Esquimalt district. He was Victoria’s first lime-burner; he quarried limestone, found in small deposits around Victoria, and burned it in a small kiln. Burning limestone produced lime, both for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and for his own use. Lime was used for construction and for enriching farming soil, as well as for making whitewash. His lime kiln was located at the end of “Lime Avenue,” now Admirals Road, on the southeast corner of the Esquimalt Indian Reserve. (There is a Lime Bay near Spinnakers Pub, in the Songhees district, but this does not have anything to do with Greig.)

In 1862, John Greig was about 37 years old, and lived on various pieces of land around Esquimalt and in the area around Four Mile House. He also grazed cattle in the Craigflower Creek Valley, and apparently was burning lime in the Thetis Lake area. In 1855, he began to raise a family, and in all he had twelve children by Margaret Goudie. He refused to pay taxes on some of his properties, probably because there was not a good supply of limestone on them, and the government confiscated those properties. He was apparently making money, though. In 1869 he purchased property on Tod Inlet, on the west side of the Saanich peninsula, which he farmed and also continued to burn limestone. This farm he called “Burness” after his birthplace, and it is known that he purchased this particular piece of land because he knew it had a fine deposit of limestone on it. 

Greig was well known for his fiddle playing in early Saanich — he was in demand at local dances and gatherings, where he probably accompanied Fanny Butler’s piano. He is described as humorous, an avid reader, and very religious — though he like his nip of whiskey. He cooked supper for the men he employed to work on his farm, and while they ate he gave them a glass of Scotch and played on his fiddle or reminisced about his journey across the continent from York Factory to Fort Colvile — so stated my researcher! (Wouldn’t we like to hear these stories now?) John Greig died at age 67 in October, 1892, and his obituary said that “British Columbia lost one of those old timers who helped to make her what she is.”

Margaret Greig died well after her husband, and James Robert Anderson, son of Alexander Caulfield Anderson, reported on Mrs. Greig’s Fort Colvile marriage and her later death in his memoirs:

Marriage ceremonies which I witnessed at Fort Colvile were performed by my father between two daughters of Goudy, the blacksmith; one, Margaret, to Greig, an employee, and the other, Sara, to George Mackenzie, the miller… Mrs. Greig died at the close of 1914, and I attended her funeral — sixty-five years after witnessing her wedding.”

John Greig’s grave is in the South Saanich churchyard, at the historic St. Stephen’s Church where my g.grandfather is also buried. Greig’s sons sold their father’s farm to the Saanich Lime Company, and eventually the Portland Cement Company, run by Robert Pim Butchart, took it over. As you can guess, John Greig’s farmland and lime quarry are now part of the world famous Butchart Gardens.  

As you can see, the men who travelled in the York Factory Express had interesting and varied lives, whether they stayed with the Hudson’s Bay Company, or left it to settle in the new districts that were just being established. He must have many descendants in the region. Certainly his name has remained here: in an avenue in Brentwood Bay. An island off the town of Sydney also bears his name. We are still here, in memory at least. 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved. 

4 thoughts on “John Greig

  1. Tom Holloway

    This is very interesting. But it turns out that some material from Fort Colvile has been preserved, including the 1829 annual report, which has lots of information on natives in the area, the 1930 report, and the complete post journal for outfit 1830, which ran from April 1830 to April 1831. Just go to the link in your “digitized records” post and do a keyword search on “Colvile.”

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Yes, you are quite right. However it does not help us with either A.C. Anderson (which was my interest when I was researching in HBCA), nor John Greig. But its good that others do know it does exist! Thanks. According to Bruce Watson, John Warren Dease was in charge in 1829, Francis Heron in 1829-1831, and Francis Ermatinger in 1831-1832.