George Traill Allan

Bison hunt

This is image na-1406-189, Glenbow Archives, and used with their permission. While this is a later bison hunt, those York Factory Express men who took part in the bison hunts on their way down and upriver would have not differed from these men.

In 1841, George Traill Allan took out the York Factory Express to Hudson Bay, ten years after he had come into the territory in the 1831 Columbia Express. He is in my family tree (as many of these Express leaders are), but we did not know exactly how he fitted in. Well, Thomas Lowe says in his Fort Vancouver journal, that George Traill Allan is the uncle of James Allen Grahame, who married a daughter of my g.g.grandfather James Birnie. So now we know!

Here is what Bruce McIntyre Watson says of George Traill Allan in his 3-volume book, Lives Lived West of the Divide:

It would seem natural that George Traill Allan, a slight, five foot tall, even delicate person of about one hundred pounds, seemingly not cut out at all for the rough and tumble fur trade, would start his career selling books and stationery in Glasgow. However his brother, Dr. Allan, who had been Lord Selkirk’s attending physician in North America, secured a position for him in 1830 in the HBC, as a writer at York Factory. He was more needed at Fort Vancouver and so made his way overland [in the 1831 Columbia Express] to that Columbia River post. During his ten-year stay at Fort Vancouver, he had a name exchange with a Cascade native and was nicknamed “Twahalasky”, or coon. Around 1841, he was appointed joint agent with George Pelly in the Hawaiian Island post. In 1845 he was promoted to the rank of Chief Trader and during his stay on the islands he found the visiting American commodores much more arrogant than the English admirals. This bias may have worked against him for, in 1847, when he was replaced by Dugald McTavish, Simpson explained Allan’s recall to him in a letter dated June 28, 1847:

“I hope you may not be disappointed by your recall from the Island… The plain matter of fact is that we consider MacTavish a better man of business and accountant than you are, and politics and party spirit have been so high of late that, we think it is a well a stranger, who can have no bias, should be associated with [George] Pelly, instead of you and that Gentleman continuing longer together.”

In 1847, Allan went on furlough for a year. While he was waiting for him to return to Fort Vancouver, Douglas wrote this: “Allan has not made his appearance here yet, and does not appear anxious to return to the country; he is rather weak, at the best of times for the rough and tumble of the service.” Douglas also knew Allan well enough to consider that “Allan might object to service under a junior,” in the Sandwich Islands, “but I think he might be induced to [waive] the point of etiquette for he is neither proud nor aspiring.” As you can see above, Governor Simpson disagreed with Allan returning to Hawaii [Sandwich Islands].

Allan may well have been offended by Governor Simpson’s opinion, as many were. In October 1848, he gave notice to retire and settle in San Francisco.  In 1849, however, Peter Skene Ogden very much appreciated the fact that Allan remained at Fort Vancouver when he could have left. The Columbia River headquarters was suffering desertions of men from various causes — the California gold rush, death by measles and tuberculosis, retirement of clerks and no one to replace them, desertions of seamen from ships that delivered their goods, and numerous other causes. This is what Peter Skene Ogden had to say of Allan in 1849: 

I had hitherto enjoyed [un]interrupted good health but I now find my constitution has received a severe shock, for twenty days was I confined to my bed and since and prior to that have been a martyr to the intermittent fever [malaria]; the latter however although it tended [to] weaken me still does not prevent my doing my duty. While laying on [my] bed of sickness Mr. C.T. Allan provided me Secretary [Archibald] Barclay’s letter of 16th February duly accepting his resignation but not one line  was forwarded me on the subject — on receipt of his resignation it was optional with Mr Allan to have availed himself of this, however, from my weak state of health, he very handsomely declined and from the present prospect not only in this quarter but also in California with his experience of of realizing an independence which may never happen again, I consider he has made a great sacrifice for the interest of the fur trade and trust you will represent the same to their Honours that some compensation may be made to him — he will I presume after the arrival of the Fall Express take his final leave of the service with the same prospects before [him] — few men are to be found who would have acted so honourable a part and lost sight of their interest as he has done and I expect he is truly deserving of compensation. [D.5/26, fo. 92-93, HBCA].

Peter Skene Ogden’s letter gives more information on the work that Allan did in California that year:  

This gentleman, when in California, appointed… to dispose of a consignment of goods for [Fort] Victoria and also one of the [Sandwich] Islands and having disposed of the same to the considerable advantage and collected Captain Sutter’s debt amounting to four thousand dollars and seven hundred due at the [Sandwich] Islands in the securing of these debts to avoid encurring [sic] expenses to the Company he performed a long journey on foot and during his stay at San Francisco with the same object in view resided in his Tent exposed to the inclemency of the weather while murders were perpetrated on all sides around him. He then promptly responded to the call of the Board, returned to this place and rendered important services and during my long and severe illness my duties devolved chiefly on him..

The gold-fields in California was a very violent place for a few years, and lots of men, including Canadiens from Fort Vancouver, were murdered there. But here we have a historian’s account of the work that George Traill Allan did for the HBC, in regards to the money owed by Captain Sutter of Sutter’s Post, on the Sacramento River. 

This article has a lot of information on Captain John Sutter that I had not been aware of. It’s a very interesting little piece of history, but not one that I will be writing about. My interest in George Traill Allan is his two York Factory Express journals. They are secondary accounts, written years after he travelled in those express. Yet the stories he told of the express journey were fascinating, although they showed him to be a bit of a bully. Here is how he described the bison hunt, as it occurred in the incoming York Factory Express of 1831:

Mr. [John] Rowand accompanied by Messrs. [Duncan] Finlayson, Douglas [George McDougal] & I went out on horseback to hunt buffalo. After a ride of about two hours, we suddenly perceived on immerging from a kind of gully, a very large bull, who no sooner discovered us, than he set off at his utmost speed in another direction. We lost no time in giving him chase, nor did our horses require either whip or spur to induce them to follow, for being broke into hunting they seemed to enjoy it as much as their riders, at least if I may judge from my charger, who was so unwilling to be restrained that in attempting to do so, the saddle which had not been sufficiently tightend, came under his belly and as might have been expected, down came I full tilt upon the ground, but fortunately without injury. Having put my saddle to rights, I was soon in full pursuit again, but Mr. Rowand, being an old hunter and better mounted than the rest of us, soon came up with and wounded the buffallo who took refuge in a small thicket of wood, where he soon expired. As he proved to be very lean, we only carved off his tongue and left the rest of his body a prey to the wolves who are very numerous in the plains of the Saskatchewan.

The spelling is his. After his retirement from the Hudson’s Bay Company, Allan became a Commission merchant in a partnership with Archibald McKinlay and Thomas Lowe, both recently retired HBC men. I don’t think he ever made it to San Francisco as a Commission merchant, but his partner, Thomas Lowe, did. In 1861 Allan  settled in Cathlamet, Washington Territory, and was still alive, though crippled, in 1888. As he was a very small man, he almost certainly suffered from osteoporosis. My records tell me he died in 1890, and he is buried in the Wahkiakum Pioneer Cemetery in Cathlamet, WA, alongside my great-great-grandparents, James and Charlot Birnie. 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2019. All rights reserved.

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