Robert Clouston

The Flintlock gun

The Voyageur and his flintlock gun

Chief Trader Robert Clouston wrote pithy letters that were informative and interesting: they are a delight to read, and they also give someone like me a picture of life in the HBC fur trade at Forts Vancouver and Victoria, that I cannot get from official records. 

So, who is Robert Clouston? Bruce Watson, in his Lives Lived West of the Divide, tells us that Robert was the son of Edward Clouston and Anne Rose Stewart, of Stromness, Orkney. He joined the HBC on June 13 1838, as an apprentice, and for the next twelve years was employed at Edmonton House, Oxford House, Upper and Lower Fort Garry, and York Factory. Robert is described as tall and active, and he almost always wore a capot with a red sash. Unfortunately he caught tuberculosis from his wife, and upon her death he returned to Scotland to be cured. The cure did not work, and he died aboard the ship Fanny Major, of a delirium caused by tuberculosis, in 1858.

So it is Robert Clouston who died aboard ship from the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii] and was buried at sea, rather than Hardisty as I thought. It is always useful to write these tiny posts about individuals in the territory, as it helps sort the information out in my mind — and truthfully, though it is hard work going through all my papers, I enjoy doing it.

Robert Clouston wrote good letters, as I said. Some of them survived and copies are found on microfilm in the B.C. Archives, as well as in other archives (in Donald Ross collection). Here are some of his best:

Edmonton, 17th December 1850 [to his father-in-law Donald Ross of Norway House]… The news from the Columbia are good as you will see from Mr. [Peter Skene] Ogden’s letter. Lowe is now managing McKinlay & Allan’s business on account of the ill health of the former and the absence of the latter: — poor Lowe’s wife is said to be dying of consumption. Birnie is making money fast. All this will lead others to retire and no wonder — for clerks who are steady get from $1,000 to $2,000 yearly salary which is a little better than 100 pounds seven with the prospect of a commission: “It’s an ill wind that blows naebody gude” says the proverb, and it is applicable here: for the more who leave the service, the better chance there is for those who remain. [Mss 635, BCA]

There is quite a list of characters here: Thomas Lowe is a son in law of James Birnie, who is also mentioned in this letter — so it was James Birnie’s daughter, La Rose, who was dying of tuberculosis. “McKinlay & Allan” is a business set up by Archibald McKinlay and George Traill Allan, and Thomas Lowe became a partner in that business, or a branch of it, and expanded it to San Francisco. All of these men are retired HBC men who went into business among the Americans in the Columbia district: all were more or less successful. Certainly they made more money than they did working for the HBC!

In 1851, Clouston came into the Columbia district with John Jeffrey, the botanist from Kew Gardens who was later murdered in California. Here is what he later had to say of their impending passage across the Rocky Mountains:

Edmonton House, February 28 1851 [to Donald Ross]… I am now preparing to set out on my long journey — glad to leave this pace which is very wearisome. I suppose it likely I will become a fixture in [the] Columbia, either in or out of the service, for I shall never have the means to enable me to retire to my own country…

5th March — it is now settled that Mr. Jeffrey and I will start on the 8th. I have nothing new to say further than to ask you to give my love and best wishes.

Updated: He left Edmonton with the spring express, which would meet the outgoing York Factory Express in Jasper Valley: 

I left that place in Company with Mr. Jeffrey, a botanist, early in March and in fourteen days reached Jaspers, where we remained until the 26th of April and experienced much warm-hearted hospitality from Mr. Colin Fraser. He has often been placed in very trying circumstances with his large family, from scarcity of food, as the resources of that part of the Country are rapidly diminishing. I was glad to learn he was to be removed to another post.

On the 6th of May Mr. [William] Sinclair’s express reached the grand batture, which from the depth of snow was the limit of horse travelling: the Indians who acted as carriers being unwilling to take all our baggage (which was not much), Mr. Jeffrey and myself shouldered a [word] which with our guns were a considerable load. We reached Boat Encampment in one day and a half… [D.5/30 HBCA]

On his way to the height of land, at Moose Encampment, Clouston visited the grave of an old friend who had been killed there in 1849: the story is told in full in my York Factory Express book so this is a teaser for you! Clouston and Jeffrey were travelling in the incoming Spring express, and their guides were Indigenous men, probably from Jasper’s House.  Generally speaking the Canadiens or Metis carried the gentlemen’s baggage across the portage to Boat Encampment. However, in 1851: 

We had only Indians to guide us to the banks of the Columbia River & as the rascals asked an exorbitant price for carrying our baggage across Jeffrey & myself each shouldered a bundle. We soon constructed a suitable bag & strapped it over our shoulders. I had besides a very heavy double barrelled gun. [Source: secret. Sorry]

He has a very good description of the passage over the mountains by Athabasca Pass in the above document, and he arrived at Fort Vancouver in the spring. By July 1851 he had been transferred to Fort Victoria, from whence he wrote this letter — again it is a private letter addressed to his father-in-law:  

My dear sir; Having come to a terminus pro tempore I shall have the pleasure of sending you a brief sketch of what I have seen and heard since crossing the mountains, believing that you take some interest in the new empires gradually forming on the shores of the Pacific. It is indeed most surprising to view the rapidity with which the Americans have converted the immense wilderness of Oregon into populous cities and well-cultivated fields; to see steamers plying daily upon the rivers, and the busy habits of a mercantile nation changing so suddenly the whole aspect of an extensive country. But I must tell you that I got over the mountains without difficulty, having walked from the Grand Batture to Boat Encampment in a day and a half, carrying a bag on my back and a heavy gun on my shoulder. Going by land from Colvile [Fort Colvile], my guide lost the road and we wandered about for several days through a horrible desert of rocks and sand suffering from scarcity of water and latterly of food. At The Dalles I took a canoe to the Cascades at which portage there is now a wooden railroad for the transport of luggage; there is a saw mill in the vicinity — a steamer on the stocks for plying to The Dalles and several houses erected on the banks of the rapids.

Vancouver [Fort Vancouver] is now a little village, with the American garrison at the foot of the hill behind the fort. Business was very slack when I was there from a scarcity of goods; the last ship having brought out none either for [Forts] Victoria or Vancouver. Any one accustomed to the regularity of our system of business in the north, would be rather surprised to see how things go on at Vancouver: in the first place there is little discipline among the men, who consequently neglect their duty….

This is 1851. In 1847-1848 the California gold rush tempted almost all the men from Fort Vancouver, and those who remained or came later were not nearly so disciplined as they had been in the past. After all, there was freedom all around them: every man who worked for the HBC saw opportunities to make more money than they were being paid, by working for the Americans or going into business for themselves. Many literally refused to do jobs they were assigned to do, and the gentlemen could do nothing about it. It was an impossible position for the HBC gents, who could not abandon the post without giving up the supposed millions of dollars the American government would eventually pay them for their properties and rights of possession.

So, one more letter, and a look at early Fort Victoria in 1851:

Victoria is a stirring place at present — there are a number of houses scattered along the harbour and several settlers established round: Mr. [John] Tod has a farm about four miles from this and Mr. [Charles] Dodd and others are settled up along this inlet: Mr. [Roderick] Finlayson has taken a farm. Dr. [William F] Tolmie is on the eve of selecting another and Mr. [James] Douglas has a house built at the harbour and has also a farm at a little distance — the country looks rocky in the extreme when viewed from the sea but one finds beautiful little spots dotted with oak and cedar trees and containing soil of the richest description — while further inland there are said to exist fine open valleys, though no one has penetrated more than 30 miles beyond Victoria. The weather at present is delightful and Mr. Douglas assures me that there is not more rain here in the course of a year than in England…. If I find a place that strikes my fancy I intend taking some land, which, should I not eventually settle here, will always sell to advantage as the country becomes settled, but at present I must say that I look forward to spending the latter part of my life here as I very well know that I cannot in the present day realize a competence.

His next letter is from Honolulu, Woahoo, in early 1852. He didn’t like the Sandwich Islands much, and still talked of settling at Fort Victoria, where it seems he has “taken a hundred acres of land and a town lot (“en credit” as Jean Baptiste says)…

And I shall bide my time, till settlers and capital increase and then, god willing, I intend to make for myself a Home; it will be a lonely one it is true, and very different from what I once expected, but it will still be my own and if I can induce any of my friends to join me, my lot will not be so solitary or so comfortless as it has been, is, and will be while I am here. [Mss 635, BCA]

Sad. He disliked the Sandwich Island but must have remained there for a number of years, as he died on the voyage from Hawaii to the Columbia River in 1858, and was buried at sea. I don’t know what his birthdate was (his HBCA biographical sheet says ca. 1821), but he had worked for the HBC for twenty years and probably did not join as a youth. He would have been at least forty years old (43 if his biographical sheet is correct). Perhaps he was returning to Fort Victoria to retire there, or to sell his property. We don’t know, or at least that information is not held in the records at the British Columbia archives. 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2017. All rights reserved.

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