Dugald Mactavish

Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River

Fort Vancouver and its gardens and orchards, on a misty day. Chief Factor Dugald Mactavish has the charge of this post 1854-1858. The Columbia River is on the other side of the fort, and the US Army barracks is behind the photographer.

With a lot of hard work and a little good luck, my book, The HBC Brigades: Culture, Conflict, and the Perilous Journeys of the Fur Trade, will be published by Ronsdale Press in May, 2024. You may order or pre-order the book here: 

Who was Dugald Mactavish, who took over Fort Vancouver after Peter Skene Ogden’s death in 1854? Bruce McIntyre Watson, in his book “Lives Lived,” tells us he was born in Scotland in 1817, and was a nephew to John George McTavish of the North West Company and HBC. The famous John George McTavish [please note the many different spellings of this famous surname] joined the North West Company in 1798, working with John McDonald of Garth, and explorer David Thompson west of the Rockies. In 1812, John George was made a partner in the North West Company, and in the rivalries between the NWC and HBC in 1817, he was arrested and sent to England to be tried. The case was dismissed by the British courts, and when he returned to Canada McTavish traveled with the incoming HBC Governor-to-be, George Simpson, and became friends with him. At the coalition of the two Companies in 1821, John George McTavish became a Chief Factor.

So Dugald Mactavish is nephew of this very famous Nor’Wester and HBC Chief Factor. Young Mactavish acted as clerk at Fort Vancouver, Columbia district, from 1839 to 1847, and went on to become Chief Trader while he was employed at the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii]. I have found him in some of the York Factory Express Journals as well, so at some point he took his furlough in Scotland and returned to Montreal and York Factory. From Thomas Lowe’s 1848 York Factory Express journal:

[June] 30, Friday. Found ourselves this morning at daylight at Pennygataway River. Sailed most of the way afterwards, and arrived at York Factory at 8am. Mr. Sinclair with the Lac La Pluie Boats only got here this morning and Mr. Mactavish with the light canoe two days ago. [A/B/20.4/L95jA, BCA]

This was 1848. Four years later,  in 1852, Thomas Lowe wrote that “MacTavish looks very stout, and rather oldish.” Lowe had met Mactavish in San Francisco, when Mactavish was on his way to England:

Mactavish arrived here a few days ago from the Sandwich Islands on his way to England. He is now a Chief Factor, but seems to be still the same old sixpence. Besides calling people brutes or rather d–d brutes he now varies the expression a little and merely styles them d–d  jaugers. He desires to be kindly remembered to you. [Thomas Lowe to Dr. Barclay, E/B/L95A, BCA]

Somewhere in my piles of papers, I know that someone said that Mactavish had “a Chief Factor’s belly.” Of course, I cannot find it, but sooner or later I will. The story continues, however. In 1853, on his return from furlough, Dugald Mactavish/McTavish is assigned to Fort Vancouver. He travels there via the Panama Isthmus. After walking across the Isthmus, he would take a steamship to San Francisco and Fort Vancouver. This was a very dangerous passage, as you will see:

I regret to state I cannot report the arrival of Mr. McTavish. A Mr. Marten an English gentleman who left London on 2nd June, states that he left him at Panama ill of the yellow Fever and that twenty six passengers had died of it. From his non-arrival here at this late date, and my not receiving any letter from the Secty by the last four mails I apprehend Marten’s statement is correct. What object could he have in deceiving us; and if true, I fear, from my knowledge and experience of Panama, Mr. Mactavish will never reach Oregon. [Peter Skene Ogden to Duncan Finlayson, July 14 1853, B.223/b/41, HBCA]

In August 1853, Thomas Lowe wrote from San Francisco to say that “There is no word of Dugald MacTavish yet. There is a report that he was seen on the [Panama] Isthmus lodging at a Hotel, where many were dying of the yellow fever, and it is feared that he may have been attacked by it. I sincerely trust such is not the case.” [Thomas Lowe to George Traill Allan, E/B/L95A, BCA]

Whether he had yellow fever or not, Mactavish arrived in San Francisco in mid-August, where he met Thomas Lowe’s brother James. James wrote:

Mr. McTavish has arrived safely here at last, and is now staying with me here. The Oregon Steamer left the day after he came from Panama, and he had arranged to [go] with it, up to Fort Vancouver (of which he is to have charge) as my brother [Thomas] was also going; meanwhile Mr. Snowchroup [?] would have him across the Bay to dinner, and the consequence was his being too late next Morning for the Columbia. From him I delight to get news about all the old Country folk, for he stayed about a fortnight at my Father’s. [James Lowe to G.T.Allan, E/B/L95l, BCA]

So, the Lowe and Dugald Mactavish families were friends in Scotland, which might explain why Thomas Lowe joined the HBC — how interesting! In September 1853, Mactavish finally arrived at Fort Vancouver while Peter Skene Ogden was upcountry. Mactavish advised Governor George Simpson that: “I have the honor to advise you of my arrival at this Establishment, on the evening of the 21st inst, where I found Mr. [James Allan] Grahame in charge, Chief Factor Ogden having left for the interior on the 19th inst from whence I presume he will return in the course of a week or ten days.” [Mactavish to Simpson, D.5/37, HBCA]

Young James Anderson, son of Alexander Caulfield Anderson, met Dugald Mactavish at Fort Vancouver, and liked him. These quotes are taken (out of order) from James’s later Memoirs:

It was in the years 1852 and 1854 that at Fort Vancouver I saw Peter Skene Ogden and Dugald McTavish, chief factors of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The former died in 1854 and the latter continued in charge of the Post until 1858 when he was transferred to Victoria and was succeeded at Fort Vancouver by James A. Grahame, who continued in charge of that place until it was finally abandoned in 1860…

Behind the [Fort Vancouver] garden on a slight rise about half a mile from the Fort were the barracks of the United States troops. In front of the Fort and for a mile or more up the river was a flat plain where the U.S. troops exercised. In company with Mr. Dugald McTavish I used to walk up to a mill belonging to the Company and once we were rewarded by the unique sight which was also amusing, of the stampede of the artillery horses at the discharge of the first gun, the drivers utterly unable to control them.

Mr. McTavish was a keen observer, and to this day I remember many of his observations regarding plant life.

In 1862, Mr. McTavish was sent to Washington [D.C.] to observe the proceedings of the Commission sitting there to decide on the claims of the Company in Oregon, under the treaty of 1846; the settlement of the claims of the Company requiring the presence of a man thoroughly acquainted with the business and who possessed besides, the capacity of representing it properly. It was reported that he discharged the duties devolving upon him in a most satisfactory manner. Mr. McTavish was afterwards appointed to Montreal where he died in May, 1871. [Memoirs, James Robert Anderson, BCA]

Mactavish was a good man and a good manager, who got along with everyone he worked with. Angus McDonald of Fort Colvile worked with him well, and James Sinclair, then in charge of Fort Nez Perces, had this to say of him in 1855:

Mr. Mactavish is every thing I could wish — we get on very well. [Sinclair to Dr. Cowan, E/B/Si6, BCA]

In his “History of Puget Sound and the Northwest Coast,” [Mss 557, vol. 1, file 11, BCA] Dr. William F. Tolmie described Dugald Mactavish this way:

McTavish was a bachelor who could at any time start upon a journey at a half hours notice, an excellent account[ant], an office man who had long been manager of the H.B.Co. affairs at the Sandwich Islands. He was a clear-headed able man, small, stout, compactly built man, large head, large perceptive organs, dark complexion, large light eyes, very practical man, not much imagination about him. Sold out Yerba Buena for a song before the gold excitement as agent for the Co.

Yerba Buena was early San Francisco, and the gold excitement was, of course, the California gold rush which forced San Francisco to grow into a city!

As stated above, in September 1854 Peter Skene Ogden died, and Dugald Mactavish took over Fort Vancouver in his place. Unfortunately, Ogden was highly respected by the Americans for his rescue of the American women held by the Cayuse Indians after the massacre at Waiilatpu. Mactavish, a stranger to them all, was not, and that made his job at Fort Vancouver very much more difficult. Mactavish also did not know James Douglas well enough to know that he, Mactavish, should not allow Douglas to interfere with Fort Vancouver business. Ogden had stubbornly battled Douglas for years: Mactavish, a younger man, did not, and the consequences of allowing Douglas to have a say in what happened at Fort Vancouver had far reaching implications for the HBC on the Columbia River.

All this is told in my next/next book, tentatively titled “That Infernal Trail; the Story of the Coquihalla Brigade Trail.”

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2016. All rights reserved.