HMS Modeste

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

A Sailing ship in a bottle, from early 1900’s

“The HMS Modeste was an 18-gun wooden sloop that sailed in Victoria waters from 1844 to 1847.” Well, that’s what the Colonial Despatches says, but we know that she also spent a long period of time anchored off Fort Vancouver, Columbia River, and she was still there when the news of the new boundary line came through in November 1846 (I think). To clarify: the boundary line was settled in summer; but the news only reached Fort Vancouver in fall, via the Panama and some ship that forwarded the information to the HBC men. Nope, the news did not come in with the York Factory Express, to my surprise!

So let’s see what we can discover about the Modeste.  The article, “HMS Modeste on the Pacific Coast 1843-47: Log and Letters,” published in The Oregon Historical Society Quarterly, December 1960, tells us that the Modeste was a trim new corvette of 568 tons, carrying eighteen guns and ninety men. Her length of keel was 107 feet, and on deck she was 120 feet in length. Interestingly, she was built with inverted semicircular troughs on each side of her keep, which gave her a good turn of speed. 

Commander Thomas Baillie captained the Modeste while she sailed the Pacific coastal waters from 1843 to 1845. It is probable that in late 1843 or early 1844, the Royal Navy’s Admiral Thomas had received orders from the British government to investigate the state of affairs on the Northwest Coast. He detached the Modeste on that duty, with instructions to visit all points on the coast where British subjects had settled, and report upon conditions there. Apparently, the Modeste was only the fifth Royal Navy ship to have visited the Pacific coast in these early years.

Commander Bailie’s visit to the Columbia River and Fort Vancouver may be described in his own words, as his report to Admiral Thomas, written when he was preparing to leave the river, was found and copied by a researcher in the Public Records office. I quote from that report:

I have the honor to inform you that Her Majesty’s sloop under my command arrived on the 7th July [1844], and anchored in Baker’s Bay, at the mouth of the Columbia River, Mr. Birnie, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s officer in charge of Fort George, immediately came on board, and piloted the ship up to Fort George; feeling convinced that the objects of the present visit would be much furthered by taking the ship up to Fort Vancouver, I determined on doing so, and a person well acquainted with navigation of the river having been sent on board by the H.B. Company, I succeeded in reaching Fort Vancouver on the fourth day from leaving Fort George, having touched on a sand bank, once, for a few minutes only.

Of course you all know that my g.g-grandfather was James Birnie, the HBC officer who came on board the Modeste and guided her to Fort George. 

The Modeste spent some time anchored in front of Fort Vancouver, but the HBC men did not believe that the Captain, Thomas Baillie, appreciated the value and possibilities of the Oregon Country. Baillie sailed out of the river in early August 1844, and as the ship attempted to leave the river she struck the bar and dislodged her rudder: only by good luck was she able to get back to a safe anchorage in Baker’s Bay. The anchor was repaired, and fortunately Captain William Henry McNeill, in the Cowlitz, was able to pilot the Modeste over the bar when his ship set sail for Fort Simpson. The Modeste carried out her remaining plans: she visited Fort Victoria and then followed the Cowlitz north to Fort Simpson, where the Modeste was hauled ashore and more of the damage she had suffered was repaired. From Fort Simpson, the Modeste sailed for the Sandwich Islands, and spent her winter in Hawaii, Tahiti, and in South American ports. The Royal Navy at this time had many interests, and Oregon Territory was but one of them.   

But the Modeste returned to the Pacific shores, arriving at Fort Victoria soon after the departure of the America in October, 1845 (one year after she had sailed away to the Sandwich Islands). Later she moved on to the Columbia River, and on November 30, 1845, she took up her old anchorage in front of Fort Vancouver. There she remained for the next seventeen months: until April 1847. By that time the Willamette had become overwhelmingly American, and those unfriendly settlers had become suspicious of the reason for the Modeste‘s long presence in their river. To ease the situation, Commander Baillie and the HBC men organized a variety of entertainments, including balls and plays in which the daughters of the American settlers could join, and sporting events such as horse races and curling matches. So there you have it: the presence of the HMS Modeste off Fort Vancouver intentionally provided the American citizens with a season of parties, all set up to ease the rising tensions between the Americans and the British. How interesting! Thomas Lowe’s journals will be the source of any information on this subject!

So let’s see what I can put together: James Robert Anderson and Thomas Lowe are my sources of information here.

Who was James Anderson, you might ask. He was the son of Alexander Caulfield Anderson, and lived on the Columbia River west of Fort Vancouver from 1851 to 1858. Obviously James did not experience the Modeste‘s visit first hand, but he learned the story from his aunt, Mary Anne Birnie, who would later marry HBC trader William Charles and come with him to Victoria, B.C. (where the Anderson family now also lived). But here is what James has to say of the Modeste and its visit to Fort Vancouver:

The HMS Modeste was the ship sent to the Columbia River pending the negotiations with the United States Government regarding the International Boundary. The Captain’s name was Bailey and the following were some of the Officers: Rodney, Legg, Drake, Dundas, Coode. These Officers were personally remembered by Mrs. William Charles who at that time, about 1846, resided at Cathlamet, with her mother and father, Mr. and Mrs. James Birnie, my grandparents. The ship lay at Fort Vancouver and the Captain and his officers paid frequent visits to Cathlamet. A number of souvenirs were presented by them which would have been invaluable now but I regret to say that only a workbox, which was made by the carpenter of the ship, is at the time of writing, 1919, in existence. This is in possession of Mrs. Charles. It is stated that on the announcement of the Ashburton Treaty in 1846, which placed the Boundary at the 49th parallel, the discontent and indignation of the crew of the Modeste was very great at what they considered to be a most unrighteous decision, a feeling we old-timers fully shared.

A kind of summer house constructed by Mr. Dundas on the brow of the hill to the northwest of Fort Vancouver was known as Dundas Castle. It remained standing a long time after the departure of the ship and was known and visited by old-timers. [James Anderson, Memoirs]. 

There was another building erected outside Fort Nisqually as a school for the midshipmen (probably of the HMS Fisgard), although the HBC men called it the ‘castle of indolence,’ according to George B. Roberts in his Recollections in Bancroft, History of Oregon, I., p. 579n. I had better find that article!

In July 1844, Thomas Lowe, the clerk at Fort Vancouver who left extensive journals of his time there, noted the arrival of the Modeste in the river. “Tuesday July 9. Intelligence was received this evening of the arrival in the River of HMS Sloop Modeste, 18 guns, Capt. Baillie, which was late at Woahoo. She is expected to come up as far as this place.” On Monday, July 19, “In the afternoon H.M. Sloop of War “Modeste,” anchored opposite the Fort, and fired a salute of 7 guns, which the Fort had not the means of returning. The Captain came on shore and brought despatches from the British Government. Saw several of the officers in the evening.” The HBC men socialized aboard the ship, and on the 18th of July, “Mr. [James] Douglas, Captain Baillie, Captain [William Henry] McNeil and several of the officers of the Modeste started on a pleasure trip this forenoon to visit the Willamette Settlement. Dr. [Forbes] Barclay, Mr. [Henry Newsham] Peers, Kenneth Logan and myself dined with the gunroom officers, and enjoyed ourselves much…” On August 5th, a Monday, Thomas Lowe writes that: “Early this morning the Modeste weighed anchors to proceed on her cruise to the N.W. Coast. Captain Baillie intends to visit Nisqually, Victoria, and Fort Simpson, and then to return Southward. In the evening a Belgian Brig named the Indefatigable anchored here, bringing 5 priests and 6 nuns of the the Jesuits persuasion….” I wrote about this visit: of blackberry pies; James Birnie’s pleasant humour; and the nuns’ admiration of the French language that Charlot Birnie spoke, on my old blog:  

So that was the first visit from the Modeste in 1844, and none of the HBC men were satisfied that the Captain thought that saving the Oregon Territory was important to Britain. But the Modeste returned to the river late in November 1845. Here is Thomas Lowe’s first mention of her presence in the river:

November 24th, Monday… Lieutenants Warre and Vavasour likewise started to go down to the Modeste which is somewhere about the Cowlitz River on her way up…

29th, Saturday. This afternoon the “Modeste” arrived at the anchorage. The Vancouver saluted her with 7 guns which she returned with 5. The Fort then fired 8, and she returned 9. David McLoughlin was sent on board soon after her arrival. In the evening. Capt. Baillie came up to the Fort accompanied by Mr. [James] Sangster who has acted as pilot from Victoria, having been sent on board of her there….

December 1st, Monday. Fair and warm. A large dinner party at the Fort, all the Officers of the Modeste having ben invited. Sat down to dinner at half past 5, and in the evening had a dance in the second Hall which was kept up till one o’clock in the morning…

The parties continued. “A party consisting of Captain Baillie and some of his officers, together with Messrs. Warre and Vavasour, started for Sauvie’s Island on a hunting expedition of 3 or 4 days.” One wonders what information they exchanged on that occasion: certainly Peter Skene Ogden, who was now one of three members of the Board of Management, would not have been pleased about that! Ogden had been told why these two men were here, but everyone else (including Chief Factor John McLoughlin) were told that the two men were “tourists.”

January 1st, Thursday. A holiday of course. More preaching in the evening. Visited all the ladies in the Fort to wish them a Happy New Year, and many returns. A dance in the evening in the large Mess Hall, at which all the ladies were present. Everything went on pleasantly until about 10 when some of the Officers of the “Modeste” (who had been dining) began to drop in and there was then rather too much noise to be altogether pleasant. However, it passed off well…

2nd Friday. A holiday still. Rained the whole day and poured down at night. Another ball this evening at which all the ladies of the Establishment and all the officers of the “Modeste” who could be spared were present. All went off pleasantly. Broke up dancing at midnight and sat down to supper. Adjourned afterwards to Bachelor’s Hall where we continued singing and enjoying ourself until 4 in the morning…

5th Monday. Resumed work today. Weather beautiful. In the evening Capt Baillie gave a Ball in his own House ashore at which we had the most of the ladies of the Establishment and several of the Officers of the “Modeste.” We kept it up until a late hour, after which there was a nice Supper, Songs, and a little more dancing…

I think I can post forever on the parties that occurred aboard ship or at Fort Vancouver, as mentioned in Thomas Lowe’s journals. I believe he attended every one of them. But here is another incident of interest to Fort Vancouver historians, that occurred while the Modeste was anchored off Fort Vancouver. This comes from the article “Royal Navy on the Northwest Coast, 1813-1850, part II,” British Columbia Historical Quarterly, Vol. IX, No. 2

Little had happened to disturb her as she lay in the Columbia in the shadow of Fort Vancouver. The most exciting event of 1846 appears to have been the arrival of the U.S.S. Shark, a 12-gun schooner commanded by Lieutenant Neil M. Howison. She [the Shark] entered the Columbia on July 18 and arrived at Fort Vancouver on the 24th, where her officers and crew were cordially received by the ship’s company of the Modeste and the staff of the Hudson’s Bay Company. She stayed a month, and then on August 23 started dropping down the river in leisurely fashion. On October 10 she attempted to cross the famous bar, and was totally wrecked on the south spit, fortunately without loss of life. As soon as the news of the disaster was received, the Modeste‘s cutter was loaded with provisions and clothing and rushed to the relief of the survivors. The latter were eventually taken to San Francisco in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s schooner Cadboro

As I browse through Thomas Lowe’s journals, I can see that the parties continued. There are more and more mentions of other Royal Navy ships, both  at Nisqually and at Fort Victoria, so the Modeste is not now the only ship on the coast. In August the first of the year’s American immigrants arrived in the Willamette Valley, and with them came news of the boundary line following the 49th parallel to the Straits of Juan de Fuca — bad news for the HBC men, but still only a rumour. On September 13, someone arrived from Fort George “with letters from Mr. Peers, advising us of the wreck of the U.S. Schooner “Shark” on the spit of the of the South Sands at the entrance of the River.” He continues next morning: “This morning the Pinnace of the “Modeste” was sent down to Chinook in charge of Mr. Montgomery with some provisions from the Modeste, and the Fort for the crew of the Shark, and Mr. Montgomery had orders to render them any assistance in his power. Late at night Captain Howison and Mr. Hollins, the Purser, came up from Fort George, accompanied by Mr. Birnie, confirming the news of the loss of the Shark. No lives were lost, but everything went down with the Ship, nothing was saved.” (And yet, James Birnie, who was now retired from the HBC and living at his farm and store at Cathlamet, ended up with some of the Shark‘s silverware… But that’s another story.)

But the Modeste! On November 1st, 1846, Thomas Lowe wrote this:

David McLoughlin arrived in a canoe from Baker’s Bay where he had left the Barque Toulon, in which vessel he has just returned from the Sandwich Islands… He brings important intelligence for all parties in Oregon. It appears by an Extract of a private letter from A. Forbes, Esq., British Consul at Tepic to Sir George F. Seymour, Admiral of the English fleet in the Pacific, which was published in the “Polynesia” Newspaper, that the Oregon Boundary has been fully and finally settled. The whole of the Territory as far north as the 49th degree is to belong to the United States, but the Columbia River and Puget Sound are to remain free and open to England until the expiration of the present Charter of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which will not be until the year 1863…

And so the news of the boundary settlement arrived at Fort Vancouver. When the Officers and crew members of the Modeste heard this news they reacted strongly, expressing their disappointment with the decision. I have an original quote on this: but do you think I can find it right now? The answer is No: so this will be published without the quote, with the promise to add it when I locate it once more. (So much paper!) 

The Modeste stayed in the river for a few months after the news of the signing of the boundary treaty came through in the fall of 1846. Then she sailed for England, beginning her journey on May 4, 1847. “She anchored in Baker’s Bay on May 10, but Commander Baillie, remembering how narrowly the ship had escaped disaster in 1844, waited for favourable wind and sea conditions before attempting the cross the notorious bar. It was not until June 12 that he deemed the weather suitable, and the Modeste got safely out to sea that day.” [from “The Royal Navy on the Northwest Coast, part II”]. She proceeded to the Sandwich Islands for provisions, and then sailed home to England, reaching Sheerness Harbour on January 11, 1848, having been absent from England for almost five years.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2022. All rights reserved. 


4 thoughts on “HMS Modeste

  1. Tom Holloway

    You covered lots of ground (or water!) in this post. A couple of further details come to mind; 1) At 568 tons burden, the Modeste was likely the largest ship to come up to Fort Vancouver in the HBC era. The largest Company ships, the Columbia, Cowlitz, and Vancouver, were 308 tons, deck 101’ long. 2) As you say, it would surely be interesting to know what Warre & Vavasour discussed with Baillie, as they were all there in the Internet of British military defense of territory the diplomats were in the process of handing over to the USA. And Ogden surely knew what W&V were up to, as he had been the host and guide on their trip west.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Thank you! And I had another piece of information I could not find, which I thought was important. I for sure thought James Anderson wrote about the feelings of the crew aboard the Modeste, but it was not him. Not Thomas Lowe. Not Alexander C. Anderson. Not James Douglas (altho I think it was) Might have been in my James Birnie information but I can’t find it. A long and frustrating search and the information is still not uncovered! Grrr! I was actually thinking you might come up with it, but I guess, no.

  2. Tom Holloway

    I can’t recall coming across anything on what the men of the Modeste thought about the boundary settlement, but I’ll keep an eye out.