James Lowe’s 1853 tour

Fort Nisqually and Puget Sound

This drawing of Fort Nisqually was done by Steve A. Anderson and is used with his kind permission

With a little luck and a lot of hard work, 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: 

James Lowe was the younger brother of Thomas Lowe, who in 1849 retired from the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Vancouver, and established himself as a store-keeper in Oregon Territory and San Francisco. His partners in business included Archibald McKinlay, George Traill Allen, James Birnie, and Alexander Caulfield Anderson. Lowe kept in touch with his old HBC friends: James Douglas at Fort Victoria, and Peter Skene Ogden and Dugald Mactavish at Fort Vancouver: Lowe was the eyes and ears of the Company in San Francisco.

In 1853, Thomas’s brother, James, came out from Scotland to join him in the business. In his series of letters we get a good picture of the territory and of the forts at Victoria and Vancouver, WA. At the end of September, James Lowe described the crazy city of San Francisco, in which he lived:

This is beyond question the most extraordinary City in the world, composed as it is of members of every nation, each having their own peculiar custom, dress & speech. In trying to unravel it with something about which you can write as a description, one but makes “confusion more confounded,” but in general the City is flourishing. It has a population of about 50,000, good streets, handsome stores, and has now an Electric Telegraph at work for a short distance, but in a short time this will be extended through the [United] States. Water & Gas are also in process of being introduced, so that you see we are advancing towards civilization. Extravagant houses is [are] still the order of the day here, and in general prices of most articles are high. Morals are rather loose, but feeling very fine, so that Duelling is quite common and almost an everyday occurrence. Rents are very high; we pay $100 a month for two rooms — one the office and the other the Bedroom. We take our meals in Restaurants…

I came back three weeks ago from an extensive tour to Vancouver’s Island, Washington & Oregon Territories, which occupied me about two months. This was for the purpose of making the acquaintance of Tom’s friends and seeing the country. I have [a] rather wild life….

He wrote this last letter on September 30th, and so returned to San Francisco in the first week of September, having traveled to Forts Victoria and Vancouver in the months of July and August, 1853. In a letter to a Dundee friend, Charles Boase, James Lowe tells some part of his travels to Fort Victoria, on Vancouver’s Island:

My brother having the intention of going to Scotland this Season on a Visit, and leaving me here in charge, thought it better that I should first become personally acquainted with all his Correspondents and friends in Oregon and Washington Territory. One of the Hudson’s Bay Company vessels being in port at the time, consigned to my Brother’s firm, and ready for Sea, I sailed from this place in her on the 7th of July for Vancouver’s Island, from whence she had come. A voyage of 1,000 miles in fourteen days brought us to Fort Victoria, the chief settlement on Vancouver’s Island,  and the headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company there. The island is in the possession of Great Britain, but the H.B.Co. have obtained a charter from the Home Government to sell the Land and encourage Emigration to it, and in all respects to manage its affairs. The Home Government appointed a Governor — Mr. [James] Douglas — who resides at Fort Victoria, and he is also a Chief Factor in the service of the H.B. Co. He is thus both Governor and in command of all the Forts in Vancouver’s Island belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Co.

I stayed with Mr. Douglas for about a week, and enjoyed myself very much, as everything was strange and new to me. The Island is as large as England, and thickly populated with Indians who speak a language to which nothing can be compared but the uncorking [of] Champagne bottles, it is such a very peculiar clicking language. Every day I rode on horseback into the Country as far as the thick woods would allow me, and was much pleased with its appearance. The Climate is very like England. To cross to the Mainland, a large War Canoe was provided for me, manned by Seven Indians painted with a hideous distribution of streaks and colours. We crossed the Straits — here 20 miles wide — and paddled up Puget’s Sound and Admiralty Inlet for 3 days, camping always at night on land by the side of a running stream…

That was his departure from Fort Victoria heading south for Fort Vancouver. But in another letter to George McKenzie, also of Dundee, he told this story about his time at Fort Victoria:

What do you think of having a game at Cricket in Vancouver’s Island?… While staying with Governor Douglas at Fort Victoria, the officers of the Fort were invited to a game at Cricket and a picnic by the officers of the Trincomali, frigate, lying about 12 miles distant. Away they went, but as I was staying with Mr. Douglas, I couldn’t go with them, having to take care of the Ladies. About 10 o’clock a cavalcade of six young ladies, Mr. Douglas, two officers of the Fort, & myself, set out on horseback to the place, and they were just finishing the first game when we arrived. However, I wanted a hand at it too, and in the next Game I took my place. As none of us were good players, we enjoyed mutual satisfaction. A first rate Picnic followed — a tent having been pitched below 3 fine Oak trees — the only drawback to it being the multitude of Wasps that came and settled on everything, your nose even not being help sacred by the wretches. However, everything passed off remarkably well.

To this friend, James Lowe had another story of his canoe paddle to Fort Nisqually, Puget Sound, on his way to Fort Vancouver:

When canoeing up Puget’s Sound with seven Indians we had to camp for three nights. This I liked exceedingly, but the first night I was rather doubtful how far the Indians could be trusted, but they proved trustworthy and harmless. Our mode was this: The Sun set about 8 o’clock, after which we put ashore at the first running stream for cooking purposes. The woods afforded materials for a fire, and a jolly one they made. One then acted as Cook, another cut small branches of trees for me to lie on, covering them with my blankets, and the rest cooked their own meal. I assure you I never enjoyed anything so much as this supper, but “hunger makes [a] good kitchen.”

James Lowe reached Fort Vancouver from Fort Nisqually, and found Peter Skene Ogden in charge:

Chief Factor [Peter Skene] Ogden, who now leaves Fort Vancouver at his own wish, is rather an old man and one of the 4 partners of the Great North West Company that were admitted into the Hudson’s Bay Company  as Chief Traders when the HBC bought up the others. He is the author of a book  called, I think, “Experiences Among the Rocky Mountains by a Fur Trader.” When I was staying for a few days at the Fort I lived with him and he was very kind indeed. He wanted me to stay another fortnight and he would go to Fort Walla Walla with me — far up the Columbia River; but this I couldn’t do. He also offered me plenty of employment at Fort Vancouver should I have nothing to do in San Francisco, but of course this I declined.

Peter Skene Ogden is believed to have been the author of the book, Traits of American Indian Life & Character, by a Fur Trader. This is as close as we can come to anyone actually saying that he was the author, and I find that pretty interesting! However, as we all know, the statement that Peter Skene Ogden was “one of the 4 partners of the Great North West Company admitted into the HBC” is, of course, untrue. But James Lowe was fresh out from Scotland, and as you see he was pretty amazed at what he found here!

James Lowe was back in San Francisco by the 15th of September, 1853, when he described his travels to his father:

My dear Father; I promised in my last letter to tell you what I though of the country through which I passed lately, and will now do so briefly. Vancouver’s Island pleased me very much and in climate resembles the south of England. During the day the Sun was rather hot, but the morning and evening delightfully cool. All the island is covered with timber, either oak, cedar, maple or pine of various descriptions, in no place as thickly wooded as Oregon, however, and in some places the Oaks are scattered here and there like some of the Parks in England or Scotland. The Settlement is on a very nice Bay called Victoria harbour, but not so good as the harbour of Esquimalt, six miles distant, where the men of War generally lie.

By “men of War,” Lowe refers to the H.M.S. ships that sailed quite regularly into Esquimalt harbour: the Trincomali was one of them.

The price of land being so high (1 pound an acre), compared with what you got free in Oregon or Washington Territories (under the Donation Land Act), very few have bought much as yet, and only about 150 acres are cultivated amongst 8 or 9 farmers. A good many sheep are grazing, however, and the Indians being very numerous and inoffensive work when asked to do so, the payment being in Blankets or other merchandise, on the sale of which the Company, of course, get good profit. The Fort is about 150 yards square, and surrounded with cedar pickets 20 feet high with an 8 gun bastion in each corner. Besides the Governor [James Douglas] there are about a dozen Gentlemen in the employment of the Hudson’s Bay Co., and they lead a merry enough life all together. The Coal fields are situated at Nanaimo, about 100 miles north of Fort Victoria. I wanted to get there, but at the time could get no other mode of travelling than by canoe, which would take up too much time.

And so in this post we have a very good picture of life at Fort Victoria, with a little additional information about Fort Vancouver to the south. I can tell you that Peter Skene Ogden did not have a dozen clerks hanging around at Fort Vancouver: at this time his fort was almost bare, and Indigenous men did the work the HBC men used to do. The fort was surrounded by Americans who offered opportunities for employment that paid far better than the HBC did: that is why all the clerks quit the Company to become store-keepers, in direct competition with the HBC. The same did not happen at Fort Victoria. In fact the HBC probably shipped men north to Fort Victoria to keep them employed in the company.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2018! All rights reserved.