Robert Clouston

Headwaters of the Canoe River

“The Headwaters of the Canoe River,” painting by James Vanslyk, Valemount Historical Society. Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History, Valemount Historical Society, & Kootenay Gallery of Art, History & Science, image number 0105.0001

Robert Clouston crossed the Rocky Mountains into the Columbia District in 1850, accompanying the botanist John Jeffrey on his journey west. Clouston had plenty to say about the crossing of the Rocky Mountains, and he said it all. When and if I write about the botanist John Jeffrey (and I do know a little bit about him), it will appear here:

But a little background first: Robert Clouston was a member of the Clouston family of Stromness, Orkney Islands (son of Edward Clouston and Anne Rose Stewart). He joined the HBC as an apprentice-clerk, and spent the next twelve years working on the east side of the Rockies: in Edmonton House, Oxford House, Upper and Lower Red River, and at York Factory. He caught tuberculosis from his wife, Jessie, and when she died he returned to England for treatment for the disease (which treatment obviously did not work). In 1850 he returned from his furlough and was sent west over the Rocky Mountains. Interestingly, this following letter was written while he was still at Edmonton House in December, 1850: Clearly he did not cross the mountains in 1850, but in spring, 1851. Nevertheless, this letter to Donald Ross, his father in law, contains plenty of information of the goings-on on the west side of the Mountains. As we know, Donald Ross was in charge at Norway House. 

The news from Columbia are good as you will see from Mr. Ogden’s letter. Lowe is now managing McKinley & Adam’s [Allen’s] business on account of the ill health of the former and the absence of the latter. Poor [Thomas] Lowe’s wife is said to be dying of consumption — [James] Birnie is said to be making money fast. All this will lead others to retire and no wonder — for clerks who are steady get from $1000 to $2,000 a year’s salary, which is a little better than 100 pounds sterling, even with the prospect of a commission. “It’s an ill wind that blows naeboy gude,” says the proverb, and it is applicable here: for the more who leave the service, the better chance there is for those who remain. I shall be able to give you more correct and more explicit information regarding that country next year, if I live.

Cheerful fellow! Robert Clouston’s letter continues:

James Sinclair, after wandering about the plains and the borders of the Mountains, and having six horses stolen by the Blackfeet, made his appearance at Rocky Mountain House about the end of September, looking out for a guide, and he trifled and humbugged so long that the probability is that he was caught in the snow before he got quite through, though we have heard nothing of him since.

Robert Clouston’s brother-in-law was Chief Factor John Ballenden, then of Red River. Clouston appears to have a hate on for Ballenden, as Ballenden’s wife, Sarah (who was Clouston’s sister), was accused of having an affair with a man named Christopher Foss, and the scandal ruined her life.

On the 28th of February, 1851, Robert Clouston was finally preparing to set off on his journey across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia District. “I am now preparing to set out on my long journey: glad to leave this place, which is very wearisome. I suppose it likely that I will become a fixture in the Columbia, either in or out of the service, for I shall never have the means to enable me to retire to my own country.” On March 5th, he addressed another letter to Ross, saying that: “It is now settled that Mr. Jeffery and I will start on the 8th; I have nothing new to say further, than to ask you to give my love and best wishes…”

His journal of that crossing survives, and is found in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, E.117/3, Robert Clouston’s autobiography. Here goes:

On the 26th of April we left Jasper’s House. The road led through the valley of the Athabasca River [as it] winds along between high mountains, some of which were capped with perpetual snow; the rise in the country is great and in some places the river is an impetuous torrent. About 8 miles from he house a spur of mountain juts out to the brink of the river overhanging it several hundred feet; our horses were as sure footed as goats & we ascended a very steep path, and on the summit of the ridge we stopped to take leave of our kind host and friend Colin Fraser, who had accompanied us so far. He is a warm-hearted fellow and would do anything to oblige a friend: he is besides an excellent Indian Trader, a first class traveller and a Crack rifle shot. 

We encamped near a small lake at the foot of a mountain. It is not pleasant to ride through woods when there is no good path; over and anon, a branch comes smack across one’s face, and to save his eyes he is obliged to keep on ducking his head and swerving from side to side like a rider in a circus.

I think I told you he had plenty to say of the journey, did I not? He obviously did not enjoy it much! 

On our third day we reached the Moose encampment, where the river winds through a level plain with little lakes on either side and stupendous mountains all around rising far above the limits of vegetation. We stopped here two days and I went to see the grave of an old acquaintance [John Charles Jr.] who was shot by accident while passing through this road… Poor Charles: he was in the prime and vigour of youth and then got charge of a large party.

John Charles’s story is told here: 

Next day we travelled to the limits of horse navigation and encamped in a level valley called the Grande Batture [Scot Gravel Flats]. Beyond this, the mountains dividing the waters flowing to the Pacific from those falling into the Arctic & Atlantic Oceans were in full view, covered with snow & looking bleak and dismal. Also in view was a lofty peak crowned with masses of ice, and near its base and almost overhanging the valley was an immense glacier, which had suddenly slipped down the side of the mountain. Though several miles distant, we one day heard the thundering fall of a large mass of this ice….

I told you he was travelling across the Rockies with botanist John Jeffrey.

On the fifth day of May we saw a solitary traveller coming along the Batture [?] on us as if almost worn out. It proved to be the forerunner of the party from Oregon [the outgoing York Factory Express of 1851] & we prepared to meet them the following day & exchange our horses for their snowshoes. We met them early in the morning, and I must say that I tied my snowshoes with a very bad grace. We had only Indians to guide us to the banks of the Columbia River, & as the rascals asked an exorbitant price for carrying our baggage across, Jeffrey & myself each shouldered a bundle. We soon constructed a suitable bag & strapped it over our shoulders. I had besides a very heavy double barrelled gun. 

The ascent was not very steep, and as we toiled on we passed several avalanches of snow…. We at length reached a little lake frozen over, called the Committees Punch Powl, but its contents were not more exhilarating than any other water; it is a curious fact that from this little source flows a feeder of the Columbia River, falling into the Pacific and from its other extremity, a small branch of the Athabasca River, falling into the Arctic Ocean. The former was open, and I hailed its appearance with delight as a tributary of the great river of the west. This is called the height of land, but we had afterwards to ascend [descend] the Grande Cote….

As we descended the west side of the mountain, the difference in the trees was most striking, and the snow was thawing quickly; making the walking very laborious; our course lay along the mountain side, and we could hear at a great depth below us a mountain torrent roaring through the glen. Towards sunset we reached the foot of this mountain & had then to cross the Columbia [Wood] River in ice cold water two or three feet deep. We encamped about dark, having walked for nine hours & without having eaten since 4 in the morning. The following day in descending the valley we crossed the river over 40 times, occasionally it was as much as I could do to keep myself from being carried down by the current, as the water dashed up to my shoulders. After passing this valley we had to wade through a swamp for about a mile, with the water a foot deep, & a few miles further on we reached Boat Encampment, where we found a boat with a sturdy crew of Iroquois Indians waiting for us. We had walked for 12 hours.

And the two men got no sympathy from the Iroquois! John Jeffrey stayed at Fort Colvile with A.C. Anderson, and accompanied his brigade out to Fort Langley in the spring. Clouston reached Fort Victoria, Vancouver’s Island, by July 1851, where he would once again meet Jeffrey. On the first day of that month [July], Robert Clouston wrote another letter to Donald Ross:

My dear sir; Having come to a terminus pro tempore I shall have the pleasure of sending you a brief sketch of what I have seen and heard since crossing the mountains, believing that you take some interest in the new empire gradually forming on the shores of the Pacific. It is indeed most surprising to view the rapidity with which the Americans have converted the immense wilderness of Oregon into populous cities and well-cultivated fields; to see steamers plying daily upon the rivers, and the busy habits of a mercantile nation changing so suddenly the whole aspect of an extensive country. But I must tell you that I got over the mountains without difficulty, having walked from the Grand Batture to Boat Encampment in a day and a half, carrying a bag on my back and a heavy gun on my shoulder. Going by land from [Fort] Colvile, my guide lost the road and we wandered about for several days through a horrible desert of rocks and sand, suffering from scarcity of water and latterly of food. At the Dalles I took a canoe to the Cascades, at which portage there is now a wooden railroad for the transport of luggage; there is a saw mill in the vicinity, a steamer on the stocks for plying to the Dalles, and several houses erected on the banks of the rapids. 

Vancouver is now a little village, with the American garrison at the foot of the hill behind the fort. Business was very slack when I was there, from a scarcity of goods; the last ship having brought out none either for Victoria or Vancouver. Any one accustomed to the regularity of our system of business in the north, would be rather surprised to see how things go on at Vancouver. In the first place there is little discipline among the men, who consequently neglect their duty, while one would be apt to infer from what he sees and hears that some gentlemen, while in the service, actually carry on in opposition within the fort: I have been told, (but cannot vouch for it) that one at least purchased goods on a large scale at the clerks tariff and retailed them at the settler’s prices — in the company’s shop– clearing. of course, a large profit, while at the same time one must suppose that the officer in charge must be cognizant of the fact. If so, then a should much wish to know whether the Company have authorized such a privilege to be extended to all and sundry: if they have, private individuals may realize handsome incomes but the fur Trade profit will be proportionally small. But if not, then I should say that the superior officer is to blame — or if he is hoodwinked, the person acting thus in a stelthy manner must have an accommodating conscience. One person is said to have made $10,000 since the discovery of the mines, by speculating, as I have described, and this very person is positively called for promotion…

Victoria is a stirring place at present. there are a number of houses scattered along the harbour and several settlers established round: Mr. [John] Tod has a farm about four miles from this, and Mr [Charles] Dodd and others are settled up along this inlet. Mr. [Roderick] Finlayson has taken a farm; Dr. [William Fraser] Tolmie is on the eve of selecting another, and Mr. [James] Douglas has a house built at the harbour and has also a farm at a little distance. The country looks rocky in the extreme when viewed from the sea, but one find beautiful little spots dotted with oak and other trees and containing soil of the richest description — while further inland there are said to exist fine open valleys, though no one has penetrated more than 30 miles beyond Victoria. The weather at present is delightful, and Mr. Douglas assures me that there is not more rain here in the course of a year than in England. Large quantities of the finest fish are caught on the coasts, such as Salmon, herrings, Cod, Oulachins, &c, which will afford a field for future speculators. If I find a place that strikes my fancy I intend taking some land, which should I not eventually settle here, will always sell to advantage as the country becomes settled. But at present I must say that I look forward to spending the latter part of my life here, as I very well know that I cannot, in the present day realize a competence…

Mr. Douglas is yet undecided whether I shall go to the Island [Sandwich Islands] or somewhere along the coast: I would prefer the former but must of course submit to his dictum. There are at present two ships of war in Esquimalt harbour five miles from this — the Portland, the Admiral’s ship, and the Daphne. Give my kindest & most affectionate regards to my dear friends…..

The next letter to his father in law was written from Honolulu, and dated January 17, 1852. “Nothing can be more beautiful than some of the scenery on this island,” he wrote. But then he said, “I am getting old without getting richer — and it may be — without getting wise. But, be that as it may. I am looking forward, if spared, to a settlement of Vancouver’s Island, where… I have taken a hundred acres of land and a town lot… and shall bide my time, till settlers and capital increase, and then, god willing, I intend to make for myself a Home. It will be a lonely one, it is true, and very different from what I once expected, but it will still be my own, and if I can induce any of my friends to join me, my lot will not be so solitary.”

Robert Clouston didn’t make it back to Vancouver’s Island, but died in a state of delirium while on a sea voyage from the Hawaiian Islands to San Francisco, in August 1858. He had just retired from the Company.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2023. All rights reserved.



6 thoughts on “Robert Clouston

  1. Tom Holloway

    His comments on the lax management at Fort Vancouver are very interesting. One factor only hinted at is the effect of the California gold rush, beginning in 1849, in “deranging” previous patterns of economic activity in Oregon as elsewhere.

  2. Peter Russell

    It is my understanding that John Ballenden was married to Sarah McLeod (mixed race) and Robert Clouston’s sister, Anne Rose Clouston, was the wife of Augustus Edward Pelly. My article “A Clash of Cultures at Red River” can be found by following the link to my website – see below.

  3. John Hansen

    Another spectacular and eloquent reminder of life 170 years ago. No antibiotics, no effective pain killers, and no power tools.

    I lay back in my welded dorry with my Chinese heater keeping my wife and three small dogs warm and cosy and read about the toils of those who had to “just get on with it “.

    So many hints of those times hit the reader in every sentence:

    The threat of illness
    The difficulty of travel
    The racial divisions
    The use of old Norse/Scots terms
    The sheer remoteness
    The key role women silently played
    The way empire and profit ruled
    The relationship with America

    I could go on ….

    Again I am left in no doubt at how I would fall prey to some mishap in such circumstances ( and how my three small poodle crosses would easily become a snack for some local wildlife) 🫤

    Another sobering blast of history neatly cut and prepared by our expert time travelling chef.

    Merry Xmas to all who endure my additions to this inspiring blog.