Robert Birnie

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

A Sailing ship in a bottle, from early 1900’s. Sailing ships seemed to have played a major role in Robert Birnie’s life in Oregon Territory and California.

Robert Birnie was the son of James Birnie, of the NWC and HBC. He was born in “Oregon [Territory] in the year 1824, 7th February, place now called Astoria, it was then called Fort George and in the possession of an English Company called the Hudson’s Bay Company.” [Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, Mss C-E.65: 33, Personal Adventures of Robert Birnie, born at Astoria, Oregon 1824, Feb.7] He goes on to say that his father was James Birnie, born in Aberdeen, Scotland, and that his father was a merchant in Aberdeen.

All that I can recollect of myself is since 1834 when I accompanied my Father to the North West Coast, he was then sent to take charge of [a] place called Fort Nass, situated on the mouth of the River called Nass River in British Columbia, which Fort was afterward abandoned, and the present Fort Simpson was built under his supervision and taken charge by him. From there I was sent back to Fort Vancouver, I believe in the year 1835, to school (such as it was kept by some seaman kept on shore from one of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s vessels)… The misfortunes I had that I was never in a good school. The most of my education was taught by my father to read and write, and whatever I have acquired since was by my own exertions. In 1837 I went up to Frazers Lake in British Columbia, and remained with a Brother-in-Law named Mr. Alexander C. Anderson.” [Personal Adventures of Robert Birnie]

And so we learn that Robert Birnie accompanied his sister, Betsy, north to New Caledonia to be married at Fort Alexandria to my great-grandfather, Alexander Caulfield Anderson. We know it was a stressful journey in: coming out the brigade had been under attack by Okanagan Indians, and so they expected trouble. As far as I know, there was none.

Anderson was at that time in charge of Fraser’s Lake, and so Robert accompanied him to that place.

In the spring of 1840 I left that place in Company with Mr. Peter Skene Ogden, one of the Chief Factors of the HBC, who was then in charge of all the northern district division called the New Caledonia district, accompanied by Mr. Anderson and Mr. [Archibald] McKinlay. We arrived at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia in the month of June, 1840. I then at Fort Vancouver clerk[ed] in the office of the Company until June 1841. [Personal Adventures of Robert Birnie]

Lack of education west of the Rocky Mountains was very typical; hardly anyone received an education of any sort at all. There was a school, however, at Fort Vancouver, and Bruce Watson describes it in this fashion:

Inside the post was the old Fort Vancouver school. Aside from the usual tables, slates, rulers, etc., it was well supplied with textbooks covering the three “R’s” — including several religious books, dictionaries, readers — in all several hundred separate items. The school, begun in 1832 with a succession of teachers like John Ball, Solomon H. Smith, Cyrus Shepard, and George B. Roberts [who later married James Birnie’s sister Rose], was successful at teaching mixed descent and native children, one pupil of whom was Ranald McDonald. HBC clerk John Thompson Dunn described its purpose:

“The school is for the benefit of the half breed children of the officers and servants of the Company, and of many orphan children of the Indians who have been in the Company’s employment. They are taught English (sometimes French), writing, arithmetic, and geography; and are subsequently either apprenticed to traders in Canada, or kept in the Company’s service.” [Bruce McIntyre Watson, Lives Lived West of the Divide.]

A little aside here: Rose Birnie was an interesting member of the Birnie family, and when I write about her, I will put the link in here:  But, for now, on to her nephew Robert, who was sent on from Fort Vancouver, to “establish a commercial house in San Francisco, then called Yuerba Buena.”

We left the Columbia River in June, from there to the Sandwich Island in the English bark [barque] called the Cowlitz, belonging to the HBC commanded by Captain [William] Brotchie. We had a cargo of Lumber and Salmon for the Sandwich Island market. After discharging our Cargo, we took a cargo of dry goods that was left at the Islands for our California trade. We left the Sandwich Islands sometime in August and arrived in Monterey, the then Port of Entry under the Mexican government, in September, some time between the 10th and 15th. After paying our dues and clearing from the Custom House we proceeded to San Francisco and arrived at Yerba Buena latter part of the month of September… We took charge of Mr. Jacob P. Leese’s house situated then about halfway between Clay and Sacramento Street in Montgomery Street. Mr. William G. Rae, agent of the Hudson’s Bay Co., purchased the whole 100 acres lot and premises comprising of a dwelling house (frame building), and an adobe store with kitchen… The price of the whole purchase money for the premises was $4600 (part in cash and part in goods.) I remained in the HBC Co’s service until the latter part of December 1841.

Robert traveled to the Sandwich Islands and was employed in the House of French and Greenway as assistant book-keeper. The business failed, and he left the Sandwich Islands for California in June or July 1842. He sailed down the coast in the American brig, Bolivar, and at Santa Barbara clerked for Captain Thomas Robbins for about six months. He then joined the Mexican brig Juan Jose, and acted as capacity of Clerk until fall 1844. After another spell of work in Yuerba Buena he returned to Oregon Territory, via the Sandwich Islands and Fort Victoria, and helped his soon-to-retire father clear his land at Cathlamet. So clearly Robert Birnie had enough education to clerk and book-keep, which in those days wasn’t bad.

Back in Yuerba Buena in April 1848, Robert saw the first batch of gold dust to come out of the American River mines; it was worth about $40. The owner of the gold said that he expected to fetch down $1000 worth in about two weeks time, and he probably did. This was the beginning of the California gold rush of 1848, and by August, news of that gold rush had emptied Oregon Territory.

In August 1850 he married a Miss [Anna Maria] Welch, native of California, and went to live at Martinez, Contra Costa, where he farmed. Thomas Lowe went down to visit him there:

Since I wrote you last, I have been to Martinez to pay a visit to Robert. I went up in the evening by one of the steamers to Benicia (which is about 31 miles from this [San Francisco]) and crossed over to Martinez in the morning. There I was shown his house, but it was locked, and I was told that he had gone out to his Ranch which is about nine miles from the town…I rode out, passing through the most beautiful country, in its natural state, I have yet seen. The road led [through] a narrow valley with gentle hills on each side, covered with wild oats and flowers to the very summits…Throwing the scenery to one side I soon got to Robert’s farm, and found that I had passed him on the road. His wife, however, made me welcome on my telling her who I was, and although she could not talk English nor I Spanish, we managed to keep up some sort of conversation and made ourselves mutually understood….In about three hours after I got out Robert came home, having been at Martinez with a wagon for some things. It seems we passed one another on the road, and although I did not recognize him in his farming clothes & slouched hat, he said he immediately knew me but did not like to stop me for fear of being mistaken as he had no idea that I was in California. He made me very welcome to his house — such as it was. [Thomas Lowe Letterbook, E/B/L95A, BCA]

So Robert Birnie was too shy to talk to Thomas Lowe, who he knew. [Thomas Lowe had married one of his sisters]. Birnie’s farm at Martinez did not pay, so he farmed outside Alameda County in 1856 and when that failed he went into real estate and translating in the City of Oakland. After that, he  worked on the Collins Telegraph Trail, an undertaking by Western Union Telegraph in 1865-1867 to lay an electric telegraph line from San Francisco to Moscow, Russia. It passed through British Columbia all the way to Fraser Lake and beyond, and Birnie said he worked on the trail for 16 months! If so, he would have worked with Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s nephew, James Anderson, son of James Anderson (A) of the HBC. Fascinating! I wonder if they knew each other?

It fascinates me how my stories keep bumping into each other, as above. But I don’t know what Robert Birnie did after 1867. He probably returned to his real estate work when work on the Collins Telegraph Trail was abandoned. He was a good looking young man — I have seen a photograph of him but do not have a good copy and no permission to use what I have (even if I could find it in the collection of photos I do have). He played a musical instrument, a trumpet, I believe. He sounds like someone I would like to know more about: I hope others can help fill in the story. My records say he died in California on April 12, 1895, at 71 years of age. The autobiography/memoirs he wrote for the Bancroft Library was written in San Francisco, on the 7th of May, 1872.

If you want to return to James Birnie’s last post, go here:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2017. All rights reserved.