Thomas Lowe, 1844

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

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

Thomas Lowe kept a series of journals of his time at Fort Vancouver, and they contain a great deal of information about the running of that Pacific Coast headquarters. In earlier posts we covered what happened up to and through Summer, 1844, so in this post we will begin in the winter of that same year. It is not a very interesting end of year, but remember, we begin just after the Fort Vancouver fires that almost burned the place down! For the HBC men, it had been an exciting year.

So, let’s begin — well, I did begin. And then I fell into a rabbit hole that I have to do some research on. I am researching the schedules of the various London Ships that arrived at either Fort Vancouver, or Fort Victoria, in the years between 1841 and, say, 1844! As we know, in Autumn, 1844, The Governor and Committee instructed the London Ship Vancouver, to sail to Fort Victoria, and not to Fort Vancouver. At the same time, the current London Ship, the Columbia, left the Columbia River for London in mid-November 1844. Normally, the London Ships arrived at Fort Vancouver in the springtime and left in the fall or early winter to return to London. But the Columbia had arrived on the coast in May 1843, and so had been here for some time — a year and a half!  

So here is my rabbit hole. There had been changes in the way the London Ships had been visiting the coast: for example, the Cowlitz left Fort Vancouver for London on October 20, 1842, after an extended stay on the coast. An extended stay? Yes, indeed. Bruce McIntyre Watson tells us, in his Lives Lived West of the Divide, that she had arrived at Fort Vancouver in March, 1841, and so had spent a year and a half on the Pacific coast. It is the Cowlitz that sailed to California and the Sandwich Islands from Fort Vancouver in 1841, carrying both Governor George Simpson and Chief Factor John McLoughlin. The Cowlitz  reached the Sandwich Islands two or three days before the current London Ship, the Vancouver, according to Thomas Lowe who was a passenger on the Vancouver. It is becoming clear that the London Ships no longer arrived on the Pacific coast in March, and then departed in the Autumn of the same year. They each remained for about a year and a half on the Pacific Coast, and there would often be two London Ships on the coast at the same time.

As I have said, the normal running of the London Ships was this: the Columbia, for example, left London in November 1837 and arrived at Fort Vancouver in June 1838. After a few months on the coast she left Fort Vancouver in October 1838, and arrived back in London in May, 1839.

But her next voyage was different: she arrived at Fort Vancouver on April 1, 1840, and departed again on November 20, 1841 — after a year and a half on the coast. And in 1843, the Columbia arrived at Fort Vancouver on March 12, and left in November, 1844. And the same again a year later, when she arrived at Fort Victoria in April 1846, and departed from the same place in November, 1847.

The Cowlitz has the same sort of schedule: This London Ship arrived on her first visit to the Pacific coast in March 1841, and left it again October 20, 1842. The same extended stay was required on her second visit: she arrived at Fort Vancouver on July 16, 1844, and departed from Fort Victoria on December 18, 1845. Then March 16, 1847, to December 7, 1848. In 1850, she had a short four-month-long visit here: March 7 to July 9. 

(The Vancouver‘s extended visits on the coast were in these years — June 1839 to November 1840; April 1842 to October 1843; Fort Victoria, February 1845, to December 1846. What her plans were for 1848 are unknown, as she was wrecked at the mouth of the Columbia River in May 1848.)

So extended stays on the Pacific Coast seem to have become the norm for the London Ships. But it only happened for a few years, and only with a few ships: the Columbia, the Vancouver, and the Cowlitz. Later ships, such as the Norman Morison, did not enjoy that long visit to the Pacific shores, likely because all the posts that Simpson considered “in excess” had been closed down, and their goods transported to Fort Victoria. Only Fort Simpson remained on the northwest coast, and the London Ships could visit that place quite easily, picking up whatever furs the Steamer Beaver had managed to collect over the summer. It had become an extremely organized and a very efficient system, and I think it worked well.  

 So I guess Thomas Lowe’s journal led me into a bit of a rabbit hole, but it is important to know what happened, and why. In his journal, Thomas Lowe now tells us that the tiny ship, Cadboro, was rotting and under repairs. On November 25, 1844, Thomas Lowe reports that the “Cadboro has been hauled close in to shore, and is to get a thorough repair, as the three carpenters who held a survey on her on Saturday pronounced her not sea worthy. Her crew will probably be ashore all winter.”

Heavy rains fell (as they do at this time of year), and according to Lowe “have swollen both the Columbia and Wallamette River to an unusual height, and we heard today that Mr. Pettygrove’s house at the Wallamette Falls had been washed away, that Dr. McLoughlin’s two mills there were in great danger, the water having risen to the windows, and that another boat with wheat has been lost.” That was on November 29th. From the crew of the Chinamis, which was coming into Fort Vancouver with a load of molasses,  Lowe learned that “Texas has been annexed to the United States.” Heavy rain continued to fall, and “Straggling parties of American Emigrants are every day arriving from above. They are entirely destitute of provisions, and several of those who came down here have gone back with provisions to those who are behind.” Lowe’s “Above” would probably refer to Fort Nez Perces and the section of the Oregon Trail that passed close to that place, and so it was quite a journey for these men to have taken.

And again, we hear of the ship, Infatigable, which has finally been able to leave the mouth of the Columbia River. Lowe reports that the London Ship, the Barque Columbia, has left the River, having “crossed the Bar on the 5th instant, in company with the Belgian Brig Infatigable, which has been waiting for a chance upwards of two months, as Captain Moller was afraid to go out alone, having, when entering the River, come by the South Channel, which was never before attempted, and very nearly lost his vessel through ignorance of the navigation.” Oh, yes, my great-great-grandfather James Birnie (who was then in charge of Fort George) had much to say of the Captain’s choice of channel, but he said it very politely. From the book, Willamette Interlude, by Sister Mary Dominica: 

They [the missionaries] were singing the Te Deum together at nine o’clock when Mr. Birnie came aboard with the owner of the ship… Now they learned how that ship had been forced back by the wind and how Mr. Birnie had taken a band of Indians to Cape Disappointment, where they lighted fires, waved flags, and fired guns and cannon to attract the Infatigable in that direction. [The captain of the Infatigable ignored Birnie’s signals, and the ship crossed the bar safely but not in the safe channel.] Certainly God had saved them, Mr. Birnie agreed, but in order that a second miracle might not. be necessary, he would come aboard again very early in the morning to guide them through the banks that lay between them and the fort [Vancouver]. 

James Birnie was still in charge at Fort George in 1844: he must have anxiously watched as the Infatigable crossed the bar!

So we are almost at the end of Thomas Lowe’s 1844 records. On December 18, Captain James Scarborough and his second-in-command, Mr. Stuart, “have taken up their quarters in the Fort, as the Cadboro will be repairing all winter.” Thirty three head of cattle from Snake Country have arrived at the Mill Plain, and a new flagpole was erected that replaced the older flagpole that had come crashing down in one of the early seasonal gales. Fire once again threatened the fort: a large oak tree was in flames and fell while Lowe was watching it. The fire was eventually extinguished and I suspect was not a real threat, but naturally no one wants to ignore a wild fire near a fur trade post that is entirely built of wood!

On Saturday, December 24, the men received their regale in the afternoon — whether food or drink Lowe does not say. On Christmas Day it was showery, and “most of us went out shooting. Divine service in the Church, forenoon and afternoon. Had a card party in Dr. McLoughlin’s room in the evening, and a Supper afterwards.” And on the 26th, “A Holyday also,” Lowe says. “Another card party, and a dance in Bachelor’s Hall.”

On the 27th the Indians reported that “the Barque Cowelitz has entered the River from Sitka. Raining most of the day.” She came with problems: the ship had been delayed off the mouth of the River for eighteen days, and her cargo of wheat had been found damaged when they arrived at Sitka. There were apparently no reports from Fort Stikine [no news might be good news, in this case], and “the supplies for the Outfit have not been forwarded there as yet. Heard from Dr. [Alexander] Kennedy, everything going on smoothly at Fort Simpson. Raining much.”

And this is interesting: on December 31st, 1844, Lowe’s journal entry says “The people engaged erecting a new Belfry, the Bell being placed at the top of a spar 45 feet above ground, the butt end of which was placed in a large cask of Salt in order to preserve it from decay. It is placed behind the small granary, near the North pickets. This being the last day of the year, the men get a regale of beef and flour, also a half pint of Rum. Heavy rain all day.”

And so ended Thomas Lowe’s 1844 section of his “Private Journal kept at Fort Vancouver, Columbia River.” It is perhaps not the most interesting section of his journals, but it provided me with a problem to solve, and that is not a bad thing. 

To go to the beginning of his Fort Vancouver journals, see here:

When the next section of journals is published, it will appear here:

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