Thomas Lowe at Fort Vancouver

Fur trade building at Fort Langley

Fur trade warehouse at Fort Langley, the same as found at Fort Vancouver and in any other fur trade fort

On June 15, 1843, Thomas Lowe arrived at Fort Vancouver, about ninety miles upriver from the mouth of the Columbia, after having served both at the northwest coast post of Fort Durham, and at the new Fort Victoria just being built on the south coast of Vancouver’s Island. As you know, we have already followed Thomas Lowe from London to Sitka and Fort Durham in the London Ship thread, beginning here: You may also have discovered a little about Thomas Lowe at Fort Durham, in this fairly recent post, here:

Now it is time for you to discover his life at Fort Vancouver. So, let’s begin with Thomas Lowe’s “Private Journal kept at Fort Vancouver, Columbia River.” You will enjoy this. I may not always know what is going on in the background, especially in the early years of his journal, so if you who do know can keep me in touch with important (and perhaps unimportant) Fort Vancouver occurrences, I would much appreciate it. Lowe’s journal begins:

June 15, 1843. Thursday. I arrived at Fort Vancouver this morning at 9 o’clock in company with Chief Factor [James] Douglas from the Northwest Coast (having come across the Nisqually Portage), after having been with Dr. [John Frederick] Kennedy at Fort Durham since the 24th April 1842. We found the Interior Brigade here which had reached this on the 4th Instant [June], in charge of Chief Factors [Archibald] McDonald and [Peter Skene] Ogden.

The Interior Brigades were, of course, the New Caledonia Brigades, which had begun their journey south from Fort St. James, in modern-day north central British Columbia, bringing out their yearly catch of furs to be shipped out in the London Ships from Fort Vancouver. This is a pretty amazing journey, by boat and by horseback, and you can see some stories of the Brigades under the Brigades thread on my Home Page. Peter Skene Ogden was currently the head man at Fort St. James, and Archibald McDonald was, of course, in charge of Fort Colvile, in what is now northeastern Washington State. These two brigades met at Fort Okanogan and came downriver together. Lowe’s journal continues:

16, Friday. Dr. [John] McLoughlin put me today in the office to assist Mr. Mactavish. I have been given for my exclusive use one of the rooms in the “Bachelor’s Hall” building. There I am to sleep, taking my meals at the general Mess table in the Big House.

As we will see later, this “Mr. Mactavish” is Dugald McTavish, who will eventually become Chief Factor in charge of Fort Vancouver. “Bachelor’s Hall” was the building in which the clerks lived. The “Big House” was the house in which Chief Factor John McLoughlin and his family resided, but it was also where all the gentlemen in the fort ate their meals and had their evening drinks. I described this building in The Pathfinder:

Fort Vancouver stood back 400 feet from the north bank of the river, overlooking Sauvé Island where the Company had its dairy. Forests of pine and cedar covered the surrounding hills, and to the east loomed triangular Mount Hood. Inside the tall palisades that surrounded the fort’s quadrangle clustered the many buildings needed to keep the district running, among them a baker, a blacksmith’s shop, and Indian trading store and warehouses that stored two years’ worth of trading goods. The Big House, or chief factor’s residence, was an imposing one-storey building draped at the front with a grapevine, and two old-fashioned muzzle-loading cannons stood prominently on its front steps. Inside the Big House was the gentlemen’s mess hall, where Chief Factor John McLoughlin steered his visitors to their places at the table, with chief traders seated near the head and clerks at the foot. The table itself was graced with good cut glass and decanters from England, and its tableware was Edgewood’s best Queen’s Ware. Dinner consisted of roast pork or beef, baked salmon and boiled ham, and the vegetables came fresh from the gardens outside the fort walls. Bread baked in the bakeshop was made with wheat grown in the fields and ground in the fort’s gristmill. After dinner, the gentlemen retired to the lounge, where they enjoyed good wine, pipe tobacco and lively discussions. 

On the 28th of June, “Chief Factor McDonald left with the Brigade of boats for Colvile and other Interior posts,” according to Lowe’s journal. Two days later, “the Chartered Barque Diamond arrived from London with a full cargo of goods for the Hudson’s Bay Co.” This does not seem to be the annual London Ship, however, as the Columbia is also anchored off the fort, as we can see from Lowe’s next journal entry: “July 7. The Company’s Barque Columbia sailed for the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii].” 

In his next few journal entries, Lowe’s journal tells us how dangerous the Columbia River was for the men and boats of the New Caledonia brigades coming down to Fort Vancouver. In fact, sometime in the 1850s they stopped using the boats and brought the furs across the scablands from Fort Colvile to The Dalles. [The New Caledonia Brigades were no longer coming down to Fort Vancouver at this time]. Thomas Lowe writes:

July 31. Mr. McLoughlin returned from the Willamette Falls where he has been for several days. Had a swim in the Columbia River. The water pleasantly warm. Joseph Monique with one boat returned from conducting the Brigades (in charge of Chief Factor P.S. Ogden) up the River. One of the crew was drowned by the swamping of a boat at The Dalles, another fell overboard and was also drowned a little above that place.

The Dalles was the most dangerous stretch of the Columbia River east of Fort Vancouver: this description comes from The York Factory Express, page 27:

A year earlier [in 1826], Aemilius Simpson had described The Dalles as “a long & intricate chain [of rapids] rushing with great force through a number of narrow & Crooked Channels, bounded by huge Masses of perpendicular Rock, the faces very much fractured.” To pass these rapids, the men carried their loads over a nine-mile portage, which took them a full day to cross. 

Thomas Lowe’s Fort Vancouver journal continues:

Aug.4. The Barque Diamond, Capt. Bartholomew Towler, left the Fort today with a cargo of Country Produce for the Sandwich Islands, touching at San Francisco, California, on the way. The Rev. Daniel Lee, Dr. Babcock, and other Americans took passage in her for Woahoo.

5. Rode out on horseback to the Lower Plain in the afternoon. 

6. Mr. Jason Lee, an American Missionary, preached to us in the Hall. 

8. Dr. McLoughlin went to the Willamette, leaving Chief Factor Douglas in charge. 

A little background is necessary here: It is August 1843. In April 1842 McLoughlin’s son, John, who was in charge at Fort Stikine, was murdered by his men at that fort. The news of his son’s death broke Dr. McLoughlin. This following information from The Dictionary of Canadian Biography: Fort Vancouver’s John McLoughlin became obsessed “with the matter and dealt with it at wearisome length in letter after letter to the governor and committee. He also criticized several men under his command, including Donald Manson and John Work, for their lack of initiative in helping him bring the murderers to justice. Although McLoughlin substantially proved his case, Simpson was indispensable to the HBC and McLoughlin was warned that he must make up his quarrel with him or face transfer or retirement. He failed to do so, and by the spring of 1844 London had decided that nothing would then do but McLoughlin’s removal” from Fort Vancouver.

So, in August 1843, we are, firstly, in the middle of McLoughlin’s breakdown — and secondly [from the same source as above]: “The falls on the Willamette River were the cause of further difficulties. McLoughlin had long considered them “the most important place in this country.” He and [Governor] Simpson had visited them in 1828 and in later years he sought to establish claims to properties adjacent to them, both on his own behalf and, on instructions from Simpson, on behalf of the HBC, thus clashing with the Reverend Alvan F. Waller, an aggressive Methodist missionary assigned to the nearly Willamette mission. Under American law, which all realized would probably apply soon, foreign corporations could not pre-empt land and Waller believed that the interests of the HBC, and probably McLoughlin’s as well, could be encroached upon with impunity. In 1842, McLoughlin had the properties at the falls surveyed and subdivided and laid out the town of Oregon City, and in 1844 he was able to arrive at a settlement with the mission, when it was being closed. But disturbing elements had taken place in the interval. In 1843 a provisional government for Oregon had been organized, and in July it had adopted a law regarding land claims, a clause of which was aimed directly at McLoughlin and the HBC…”

So in 1843, the management at Fort Vancouver is in a complicated mess, with Dr. McLoughlin’s breakdown combined with his hopes for the Willamette Falls community and the interference from the Provisional Government of Oregon Territory [which included modern day Washington State].  But little of this is mentioned in Lowe’s Fort Vancouver journals, which continue here:

Aug. 9. Mr. Dugald MacTavish and Mr. David McLoughlin left for a short trip to the Settlements at the French Prairie and Tualitin Plains. 

11. Rode out by myself in the afternoon to the Mill Plain to see how Mr. [Daniel?] Harvey was getting on with the harvest. Oats a heavy crop, but Wheat light. Dr. Elijah White, said to be an Agent of the American Government, arrived here from The Dalles. 

12. A boat arrived with the crew of the batteau of Mr. [Peter Skene] Ogden’s Brigade, which was swamped at The Dalles. Rode to the Saw Mill (about 5 miles up the River) with Dr. [Forbes] Barclay, Mr Harvey returning with us to the Fort. 

13. Sunday. Divine Service in the Hall of the Big House as on every Sabbath. Chief Factor Douglas acting as chaplain and I reading the Lessons. There is generally some one specially fitted for leading the music of the Hymns.

These Fort Vancouver church services might be a little different than you imagine them. In his “History of Puget Sound and the Northwest Coast,” William Fraser Tolmie has this to say of the church services he attended while at Fort Vancouver:

Church of England prayers were read every Sunday by Dr. McLoughlin, a good, pious man. But to one newly from the old country, it seemed odd, that while prayers were being read, saddle-horses were being caught for the officers from a herd of two or three hundred, who had the open space of the large square to gallop about in and escape, if possible, the lasso of their pursuers. The thundering of their hoofs during service was a curious accompaniment to the devotions of the men. 

As you can see, I love this stuff!!! Stories like this are what makes history interesting. Lowe’s Fort Vancouver journal continues: 

Aug. 14. D[ugald] MacTavish and D[avid] McLoughlin returned from their trip to the Settlements. 

15. Mr. Angus McDonald arrived from Nisqually where Dr. Tolmie has succeeded him in charge of the Post and Farm.

17. Dr. McLoughlin returned from the Falls.

21. Dr. McLoughlin left for Nisqually. Heard from Fort Albert, Vancouver Island. Three sides of the Fort were up and completed on the 8th.

The Tualitin Plains, in the Wallamette Valley, were grasslands created by the First Nations people, who set fire to the flatlands of the valley to clear the land. By the 1830s those First Nations had been decimated by disease, and the HBC used some of these prairies to raise crops for use at Fort Vancouver. By the 1840s the grasslands were being settled by some of the mountain men, and in 1841 a missionary school was begun. 

Note, too, that the Angus McDonald, above, is not the same man who was later in charge of Fort Colvile: two different men with the same name. [The second Angus McDonald will appear, briefly, below]. And finally, Fort Albert is Fort Victoria, which Thomas Lowe had left only a few months earlier. By August 8th, 1843, three sides of the fort were now standing — another little fact to add to the Fort Victoria story, if needed. 

On August 25, Lowe noted that “a slight rain” had fallen in the morning, and it was the first rainfall in 35 days at Fort Vancouver. Interestingly, the Barque Vancouver arrived in the river from the northwest coast, where it would have sailed to pick up the furs collected at Fort Simpson: this is the London Ship that would carry the furs to the London markets. “For the past month a number of us have been in the daily practise of bathing in the River,” Lowe writes on August 30, “but the water is now becoming rather chilly. The Columbia is about a mile wide at Fort Vancouver, which is 100 miles from its mouth, on the Northern bank.” Dr. McLoughlin returned from Cowlitz Farm where he said the crops were good, and John Fenton, millwright, arrived from Wallamette Falls, “where he has been erecting a Mill for Dr. McLoughlin.” Ah, that explains some of Dr. McLoughlin’s visits to Wallamette Falls: but was the mill being erected for the Company, or privately, for McLoughlin?

The normal work of the fur trade went on: on Sept. 2, “A batteau started for the Interior with goods, dispatched, etc., for Walla Walla in charge of Joe Monique, guide.” Later, on September 5, The “Barque Vancouver, Captain [William] Brotchie, arrived at the anchorage.” As you see above, it had arrived at the river mouth on August 25, and, so, it had taken 11 days to work itself upriver to Fort Vancouver! No wonder Governor Simpson wanted to build the post at Fort Victoria! Lowe’s journal continues, with the Vancouver‘s arrival at the anchorage: “Mr. [Alexander] Lattie, 1st Mate off duty, Mr. [John] Oxley 2nd Mate. She has brought the Furs from the Posts on the N.W. Coast, Fort Simpson, Stikine, and Fort Albert [Victoria]. Captain [Alexander] Duncan is in command of the Steamer Beaver with Mr. [James] Sangster as Mate. 

On August 10, Lowe reported that he had a slight attack of fever and ague: this seems to have been quite common at Fort Vancouver. On August 18 he reported that “I have been able to resume work in the office today, having been laid up for a week with fever and ague. Severe attacks every second day.” On August 23 he reported that the Barque Columbia returned to Fort Vancouver, “19 days from Sitka to the Bar” of the Columbia River. So the Columbia had delivered whatever goods had been arranged to be delivered to the Russian Americans at Sitka, and that was the reason why it was also on the coast in 1843. “Apples and pears now all ripe,” Lowe says on August 25, “but grapes in front of the Big House still green. Melons all taken in.”

On September 26 Lowe reported that “Mr. Douglas started for Fort George. Mr. Angus McDonald arrived at Fort Vancouver from the Snake Country with 2 boats, bringing the Furs from that Country. He reports a party of American immigrants — 140 waggons — on their way down River.” [This will be the Angus McDonald that ends up at Fort Colvile]. Lowe’s journal ends at that point, and he will not apparently make another entry until June 1844. 

So, when this journal continues, you will find it here:

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







4 thoughts on “Thomas Lowe at Fort Vancouver

  1. Tom Holloway

    As someone who lives directly across the Columbia River from the site of Fort Vancouver (now partially reconstructed and a National Historic Site), my only quibble, a small one to be sure, is that Fort Vancouver does not directly face Sauvie Island (which is named for HBC dairyman Laurent Sauvé). Sauvie Island begins some 10 miles downriver from Fort Vancouver.

  2. Kees van Weel

    Another fascinating post. However, the first paragraph threw me where you said: “On June 15, 1843, Thomas Lowe arrived at Fort Vancouver, at the mouth of the Columbia River.” It was actually 100 or so miles from the river’s mouth, where the city of Vancouver is now. Mr. Lowe is quoted on August 30 that the fort lies 100 miles from the mouth so all is well.