John Lee Lewes, the fop of the fur trade

Montrose McGillivray was a flashy dresser

This is the lock of a flintlock gun, the type of gun that all fur traders knew and used and the same top of gun that John Lee Lewes shot off his own hand with. It was easy to do, and he was not the only fur trader that had that kind of accident!

With a lot of hard work and a little 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 my book here: 

In 1848, Alexander Caulfield Anderson left Fort Alexandria forever, and took over the supervision of Fort Colvile, on the Columbia River just south of the 49th parallel. The man in charge of the post at the time was John Lee Lewes — one of the most interesting men in the fur trade. Lewes gave Anderson a copy of Joseph Howse’s Book of the Cree language, and Anderson signed it with his name and the date he received it. I have seen the book. It’s worth thousands of dollars, and is now in the possession of someone who lives in the Fraser Valley, I believe.

John Lee Lewes spent a long time in the fur trade. He was born on August 31 1792, at St. George’s, Southwark, England. His father was Charles Lee Lewes, a well-known actor-singer of the day. Lewes’ theater connections might partially account for Anderson’s description of him:

Mr. Lewes was a man of fine personal appearance with many good qualities, and among all the officers of the service was conspicuous for his dashing style of dress.

Oregon historian Hubert Howe Bancroft labelled John Lee Lewes “the fop of the Columbia District.” He did not meet Lewes, nor did he meet anyone who knew him (except Anderson), and so this story must have come to Bancroft through Anderson. But it is stories like this that make research interesting!

To continue Lewes’ career: He entered the HBC service in 1807 when he was fifteen, and served first as a “writer” at Fort Churchill, on Hudson Bay. A writer was a clerk who could write, and who kept the post journals. What that means is if you read the Churchill journals of that time, you will be reading John Lee Lewes’ handwriting.

By 1812 Lewes was at Cumberland House, on the Saskatchewan River. Two years later he is found at Ile-a-la-Crosse, and in 1815 at Slave Lake (Lesser Slave Lake, AB). In 1821 he was made Chief Trader and was found at Spokane House, where my great-great-grandfather James Birnie was working as a clerk.

From This Blessed Wilderness: Archibald McDonald’s Letters from the Columbia, 1822-44, edited by Jean Murray Cole, we see Lewes’ arrival at Fort George [Astoria]:

Archibald McDonald arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River with Chief Factor John Dugald Cameron, a former Nor’Wester, and Chief Trader John Lee Lewes, a fellow HBC man, on 8 November 1821. Two other experienced former NWC officers, Chief Factor John Haldane and Chief Trader James McMillan, were also appointed to the district. Within days of their appearance McDonald and Lewes began the inventory of the headquarters established at Fort George (Astoria). By 6 April 1822, McDonald had completed his report to the council covering all four posts in the Columbia district — Fort George (Astoria), Spokane House, fort Walla Walla (Nez Perces), and Thompson River (Forts Okanagan and Kamloops).

John Lee Lewes did in fact serve at Spokane House but was not yet there in April 1822, when Finan McDonald reported that “Five boats manned by forty men accompanied by two clerks vis Messrs [William] Kittson & [James] Birnie, left this for Fort George…”

On Tuesday July 16, McDonald reported that: “Messrs Lewis & Birnie arrived here at 8 o’clock am, and some time after Mr. Kittson with the people and goods from Fort George having left the boats at the Forks of this river.”

On Friday 26 — “We sent all the wild horses off to the plains for to feed except one Mr. Lews [sic] has kept for to ride upon if he can break him in for the purpose.”

This probably refers to Lewes: “Tuesday 30th — About 6 o’clock am, a party of Ear ring Indians arrived loaded with roots of which we traded 30 kegs. The men have not as yet been at work since their arrival but have received their axes for to… in order as Mr. Lu… intends enlarging the fort & renuing the houses as it is absolutely required.”

Lewes appears quite often in the Spokane House journals. However, in 1823 he returned to the east side of the Rocky Mountains and served at Moose Lake, near Cumberland House — and later at Cumberland House itself. He must have gone all the way out to York Factory and then returned to Cumberland House, because he appears in in John Work’s journal of 1823. Work is travelling from York Factory to the Columbia district, by the old NWC route past Cumberland House to the Methye Portage. John Work’s journal is found in the British Columbia archives, under title: “John Work, Journal July 19 to October 25, 1823, Manuscript, A/B/40/W89.1A, BCA.” An alternate title is: July 18-Oct. 28, 1823. York Factory to Spokane House [transcript]. This comes from the transcript.

July 1823, Friday 18. Having received orders to that effect I embarked with Mr. [Peter Skene] Ogden for the Columbia with two light canoes four men in each. Mr. Lewis [John Lee Lewes] also embarked with us for Cumberland House. It was one o’clock when we embarked. The day was fine and we got on well. We stopped near Penny cutaway. Mr. Lewis killed a deer near York…

The canoes arrived at Cumberland House on Tuesday 5th August:

Cloudy. wind Northerly with showers. Embarked early this morning, and arrived at Cumberland about 9 o’clock. Employed the afterpart of the day getting supplies of guns, Tobacco, & Provisions, and making arrangements to proceed on our journey tomorrow. We were like to be devoured with flies last night and today…. We have now six men for each canoe. As Mr. Lewis’ servant stops with him at Cumberland, and one of the men who came with us from York was left at Norway House.

According to his biography in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, John Lee Lewes joined the HBC fur trade in 1807 and was a writer at Churchill, Nelson House, and by 1814, Cumberland House — “writer” means that he could write and that he kept the journals. He kept moving further north. In 1814 he was at Ile-a-la-Crosse; in 1815 at Slave Lake; in 1816 at Lesser Slave Lake [Athabasca District]. But in 1821, when the HBC took over the Columbia district, he was made Chief Factor and went to Spokane House. In 1823 (when John Work’s journal was written)  he was actually placed in charge of Moose Lake, in the Cumberland House district — not at Cumberland House itself.

In 1829 he made Chief Factor. In 1840, Lewes was in charge of Fort Simpson, Athabasca District, when he shot off his right hand — this was common in the fur trade with the flintlock guns they used, and many were the Gentlemen (and employees) who shot off their hands or otherwise injured themselves when the guns exploded or misfired. For more information on these interesting and historic guns, see this post:

In 1845 Lewes was made Chief Factor in charge of New Caledonia, where he was supposed to replace Donald Manson, but ill health forced him to remain at Colvile. In fact, Lewes refused to go, saying that he could not travel so far because of the pain he was experiencing from his damaged hand. The records don’t say where he actually was, but Lewes was in charge of Fort Colvile when Anderson took it over from him in 1848. Lewes left the territory in the fall of that year, crossing the mountains to Edmonton House where he would spend the winter.

Ah, the pain! I have finally figured it out. I think he had phantom limb pain, from his severed hand. It is an illness not understood today, but known. One of the men to whom I dedicated my book had his leg removed and told me about his experience with phantom limb pain. Though he was highly intelligent and fully capable of understanding and controlling his brain as far as it was possible to do so, he could not stop this phantom pain — which was real, not phantom at all! He knew where it came from, and told me it was fascinating, but he could not stop it. And so I think that John Lee Lewes went through the same, without understanding the unreasonableness of his own brain. I have found him coming down to Fort Vancouver to see the doctor and getting no satisfaction — because no one could help him. It was his brain — not that the doctor of the time knew that. But even if the doctor had understood the reason for the pain, he could not have helped Lewes.

And that’s what makes history interesting — these little stories.

In his “History of the Northwest Coast,” Anderson described Lewes this way:

Entered the service of the HBC some years before the Coalition [1821] and was stationed at various points in the Northern part of Hudson’s Bay. Afterwards in the interior at the posts on English River and Athabasca. While in charge of the District of McKenzie’s River he was accidentally mutilated by the discharge of a gun and lost his sight in consequence. Subsequently  he was appointed to the Columbia department, and remained for some years in charge of the Colvile district in which appointment Mr. Anderson succeeded him in 1848. Mr. Lewes after retiring from the service proceeded to Australia with his family with the intention of settling there, but he finally decided on returning to Manitoba and Red River where when Mr. Anderson last heard from him he was still living.

Lewes did go to Australia. He left some of his sons there, and I have talked to descendants of his who actually bear his name. We fur trade descendants are everywhere (another John Lee Lewes descendant is on my twitter feed)! But this is true of the Andersons, too. Most of Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s descendants are in and around Feilding, New Zealand (they were actually founders of the place) and in Australia. And that is what I find is interesting about the fur trade — that the mixed blood descendants of these Scottish or English fur traders have taken over the world, in a way. Certainly, they have settled everywhere in the world. They are not only in Canada and United States.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2014. All rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “John Lee Lewes, the fop of the fur trade

  1. Michael Kucher

    I think it is more likely that Charles Lee Lewes was this (1792) John Lee Lewes’s grandfather, and that there is another John Lee Lewes, born 1776 is more likely the intervening person. Frances Wrigley, frequently cited as his mother had already died by 1792. I am working on Adolphus Lee Lewes’s Oregon Territory career and would love to be in touch with anyone with information on Adolphus Lee or his brother Fred Lee, or nephew Adolphus Lee Lewes (sometimes Lewis).

  2. Marc


    Interesting Read.
    My Great Grandmother was a Lee Lewes. Her dad was ‘one of the sons left behind in Australia’