On the way to Sitka

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

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

This post is about Thomas Lowe’s journey north to Sitka, the Russian headquarters on the Northwest Coast, in what is now the Alaska Panhandle. 

I do have to correct something I said in a recent blogpost: I now know how Chief Factor John McLoughlin came to the Sandwich Islands. I located this information in a letter from James Douglas, who wrote on December 2, 1841, to the Angus McDonald who was then in charge at Fort Nisqually (a different Angus McDonald than the one at Fort Colvile): “In the absence of Chief Factor McLoughlin, who has accompanied Sir George Simpson on a visit to California and the Sandwich Islands, I have to address you on the affairs of Fort Nisqually…”So that is how John McLoughlin made it to the Sandwich Islands.

But now we are addressing Thomas Lowe’s journey north to Sitka, and eventually, to Fort Taku. I am still a little uncertain how he made it to Fort Taku, but perhaps I will solve the problem in this post. 

We ended the last post with this information, in Thomas Lowe’s words:

12 Saturday. When ashore today, I was very much surprized when Sir George Simpson handing me an open note, addressed to Captain Brotchie, desired me to give it to him, but in the first place to read it myself. On reading it I found that Captain Brotchie was requested to receive me and my luggage immediately on board the Cowlitz, as I was to take passage in her, but where he did not at the time think proper to tell me…The Cowlitz is to sail for the Russian Settlement at Sitka and thence to some of the Company’s Forts or Stations on the North West Coast, but at which of these Forts I am to be stationed is, as yet, merely conjectural. Sir George is to proceed in her to Sitka, and from thence via Achotsk, across Siberia. In the evening, I got everything I possessed removed on board the Cowlitz, and slept there. 

So the London Ship Vancouver, on which Lowe had travelled as far as the Sandwich Islands, would proceed for the mouth of the Columbia River, but it would not carry Thomas Lowe there. Instead, he was heading north, in the Cowlitz, to Sitka and beyond. We will continue with Thomas Lowe’s journal.

14, Monday [March 1842]. Orders came from the Governor for the “Cowlitz” to get all ready for Sea by tomorrow afternoon and all is now bustle and confusion on board. The “Vancouver” sailed this forenoon with a favourable breeze, and met with no detention from the intricacy of the Harbour. She fired a salute of 7 Guns, which the “Cowlitz” and Fort returned, as did likewise and American brig in harbour, in honour of Dr. McLoughlin whom she carries to the Columbia River. I took farewell of all on board of her, with whom I have been on terms of intimacy for the last 6 months. God send her a speedy and happy voyage. 

15, Tuesday. It is impossible for us to sail today as there still remains so much undone. I find the “Cowlitz” just as comfortable as the “Vancouver,” and have no doubt that I will take as well with Captain Brotchie, who is likewise a Scotchman, as I did with Captain Duncan. 

Captain William Brotchie was an HBC seaman who is closely connected to my home town of Victoria, B.C. He was good-natured and even-tempered — a rare thing among these seamen it seems. He leaves his name behind in Victoria. Apparently, “at an unknown date he ran ashore off Dallas Road, Victoria, giving the name Brotchie Ledge to the reef.” [Bruce McIntyre Watson, Lives Lived West of the Divide, volume 1]. To continue Lowe’s journal:

16, Wednesday. It blew a complete gale all day, which prevented us from getting out of the Harbour — the Pilot would not take the vessel out in such weather. The dust in the streets is flying furiously, and renders it very unpleasant walking. In the afternoon the gale moderated a little, but still blew too hard to venture out. 

17, Thursday. This morning all was in readiness for Sea, & after taking leave of every one with whom we had formed acquaintance while at Honolulu, we loosed the hawzer with which he was secured to the wharf, and stood out. An American vessel fired a salut of 7 Guns in honour of Sir George Simpson — the Fort fired another salute, and we returned both. The wind being fortunately fair, we got easily out of the harbour, and when outside the reefs backed the Sails, to let the Pilot and a number of Gentlemen, who had come thus far to see us off, have an opportunity of leaving the vessel. They gave us three cheers which of course we returned. 

Fort Tako, W. Coast of America, 1st June 1842. After this date I am unable to proceed with the Journal, as in the hurry of debarkation at this place, by some mischance the Notes which I kept of the subsequent voyage, and on which I mainly depended, were left behind. It was only yesterday while bringing up the Log, that I discovered this, as during all the time I was with Sir George Simpson, he kept me as busily employed, that I found it impossible to enter every morning the events of the preceding day, as I had been accustomed to do on the outward voyage in the “Vancouver.” However, as the circumstances of the voyage are still fresh in my memory, I will be enabled to state them as they occurred. To continue:

After leaving Woahoo, we steered for the Island of Mowee [Maui], where the King resides, and whom Sir George was anxious to see… After a trip of 3 days, during which we met with four [fore?] winds and strong currents, we

20. Anchored at Mowee on the 20th March. There we found 10 American Whalers at Anchor…. Sir George and the passengers went on shore and did not return that night — I stayed, at least slept, on board there, and all the time we were at Mowee. As it was Sunday we had no Visitors. 

21. Next day I was employed writing home, and I sent a packet of letters by a Schooner to sail in a day or two for California. They were to be forwarded via Mexico… During the time we remained at Lahaina [the harbour on Maui], I was ashore several times seeing the Native dances, which were repeated almost every night during our stay. The King & Chiefs were frequent visitors on board, and were twice at Dinner. I was at the King’s House one night, and shook hands with the Queen, who was unwell at the time we were there. The King Kamehameha III is about 30 years of age, short, but stout for his years. He seemed much darker than the generality of the Islanders, and had more the look of a Negro, he was kind, however, and a great lover of conviviality. Mowee is much the same in appearance as Woahoo, about the same size and nearly the same population. 

25. We remained here 5 days and in the afternoon of the 25th made sail and stood for Sitka. There was as much, if not more saluting here than at Honolulu, and the King was very liberal in presents of curiosities &c. Sir George, Dr. Rowand (his medical attendant) and myself were the only passengers.

This so-called “Dr. Rowand” was John Rowand, Chief Factor of Edmonton House, who travelled with his friend Governor Simpson to Sitka before returning home. He was not a doctor, although he was the son of a medical doctor.

After we left Mowee, every hour added to the severity of the cold, and as I kept a regular account of the relative temperatures of the air and water twice a day, we had certainly no great satisfaction in seeing how gradually the Thermometer fell, rarely indeed did it stand for two days at one point, but continued to fall lower and lower. At first setting out we felt it most for having been so long under a burning sun, we were quite unprepared for encountering the biting & freezing blasts of the North. The whole voyage was one of continual turmoil and agitation — twice were were obliged to “lay to” &c, it was an uncommon occurrence if the Royals, or even Topgallant sails were set. I felt the “Cowlitz,” however, from the arrangements of her Cargo, a far livelier vessel than the “Vancouver” in a heavy sea; she was more buoyant & rose better to the waves. Sir George from a weakness in his eyes never read himself, when he could get another to read for him, so my time was during the whole voyage occupied with reading and writing alternately. Mr. Hopkins, his Secretary, had left at the Islands, and of course all this devolved upon me, and I think it is not to be wondered at, if I had to discontinue my journal. By reading in the Sun, and over exertion of the eyes, I was prohibited for a whole week from looking at paper of any description, and I think this was to me the most miserable part of the voyage, because as I was debarred from reading, I had nothing for it but to trudge about the deck amidst sleet and snow, or be in my bed all day, to which I never could reconcile myself. However, I soon got better and resumed my former functions, at which I was kept busy during the remainder of the passage. Nothing occurred worth mentioning on this voyage, we saw no land, spoke to no vessel, and nothing occurred to note the time as it quickly flew past. 

They soon arrived at Sitka, however, and everything changed. But was quite a journey — they left the Sandwich Islands on March 25, and arrived at Sitka on April 15th. Lowe’s journal continues:

On the 15th of April, we made the land, but as the afternoon was too boisterous to get in we fired two guns and lay off the mouth of the Sound in which Sitka is situated. The mountains were covered with snow near the tops and to the waters edge were covered with wood; the Sound is studded with Islets, every one of which is covered with trees as close to one another as they can possibly stand. There are three entrances to this Settlement, and the wind being favourable we entered one of them. Just as we were casting anchor we saw the Russian steamer come into the Harbour. It had heard our guns last night, and had come out in quest of us, but the winds being fair for entering one of the channels, although rather an unusual one, we got in before her, and without her assistance. 

This was on the Saturday morning, which is the Russian Sunday, and of course the cargo was allowed to remain untouched all that day. Early next morning, however, Sir George & Dr. Rowand took up their habitation at a house prepared for them on shore by Governor Etoline. I was removed there shortly afterwards, and was kept busy at the Russian American Fur Company’s Stores, checking and seeing, as every pack was opened, that it contained the requisite number of furs. 

It is 1842, and these furs were likely the furs that the incoming York Factory Express (called the Columbia Express) had carried in from Edmonton House and were now delivering to Sitka — part of the deal that the HBC had made with the Russian company a few years earlier. If you want to learn more about the York Factory Express, you can order my newly-published book, here: http://ronsdalepress.com/york-factory-express-the/ Alternatively, you can order a signed copy from me, of course, and I have pay pal to make it easy for you to do so. 

So, to continue Thomas Lowe’s story:

This occupied me about two days, during which time I dined at the Russian Mess on shore. All the Officers are in the pay and service of the Government. It is a large Settlement, & well built. There are about 600 Russians, partly in the Service of the Government, and partly of the Russian American Fur Company. All their goods from England are brought out in the Hudson’s Bay Company ships, & Fort Vancouver supplies them with grains, butter &c. There is an Iron Foundry, a Theatre, large stores & shops, and numerous tradesmen, in fact everything is conducted on a very extensive scale. There was one large and a small Steamer besides 6 or 7 sailing vessels lying in the Harbour, and I believe there are about 14 vessels in the employ of this Company. 

After remaining 5 days here we got under weight for Fort Tako, a distance of 180 miles, towed by the largest Steamboat, & after a trip through numerous straits, sounds, & passages, of 35 hours, in which we met with no interruption, arrived at Tako on the afternoon of Saturday the 23rd of April.

And so I now know how Thomas Lowe got to Fort Tako. (In another report he says he made his way to Fort Tako, which sounds like he travelled there in a First Nations canoe.) “The entrance to this place is easy,” he writes, “and the anchorage for shipping good, being completely hemmed in by high mountains rising on every side & wooded to the water’s edge. This is the first place where I have set my foot on the mainland of America, & the Fort seems very comfortable quarters… When we arrived here the weather was indeed beautiful, and Sir George Simpson in case he should not have so good an opportunity again, was determined to proceed to Fort Stikine, as long as the fine weather lasted. He kept the people of the Fort working the whole night, and was ready to start by noon on Sunday, after a stay of only 20 hours.”

We all know what Governor Simpson discovered at the Stikine post, don’t we. You don’t know? Then read this: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/fort-victoria-murderers/ 

To continue Thomas Lowe’s thread, we will go to Fort Durham, although he is not there at the beginning of this series. To do this, see: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/fort-durham/ 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021. All rights reserved. 

On Twitter: @Marguerite_HBC

On Facebook: in Facebook search bar enter “Nancy-Marguerite-Anderson-Author,” or @TheYorkFactoryExpress. I am posting all my York Factory Express blogposts in order, so that it’s very much easier to follow the story than through my website. 

On Zoom: Well, I am resisting. I know.



2 thoughts on “On the way to Sitka

  1. Kees van Weel

    I went back to your post on the Fort Victoria murders, and read ” Russian Fort Stikine was handed to the HBC in a deal made with the Russian fur traders on the coast. And in 1840 Fort Taku (Fort Durham) was built in Russian territory, halfway between the mouths of two rivers — the Sitka and the Taku — in a place where they could trade with the First Nations people who lived in Lynn Canal and Cross Sound.”

    I couldn’t remember a Sitka River; looking in my DeLorme Alaska Atlas I can’t find it either. Could you give me some hint as to where to find it? Has the name been changed?

    Thank you,
    ~Kees van Weel~

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      I got that from some HBRS source (McLoughlin’s letters, I think), but its more than likely an error on my part. Type Stikine, get Sitka… or something like that. The HBC men were very interested in the Stikine River in those years.
      Sorry for confusing you. Taku was built on the present location of the Alaskan town of Juneau.