Thomas Lowe’s Summer 1844

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

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

It is summer 1844, and Thomas Lowe, who has faithfully kept up his private journal until September 1843, has now picked up his journalling again. He is still at Fort Vancouver, and I think it is likely that he mislaid or lost the journal that covered those months between September 1843 and June 1844. But I wish he hadn’t: it sure would be nice to know more of what happened during that time.

A little update from the last blogpost in this Thomas Lowe series, when I did not know for sure why there were two London ships anchored in front of Fort Vancouver. The Diamond, a chartered vessel, was the London Ship for 1843, and among other things, it had delivered Charles Ross’s commission as Chief Trader from London to the coast. The Columbia was also here because she had delivered the Russian goods to Sitka, as I said later in the last blogpost. Interestingly, the Vancouver had also been on the coast for the entire year of 1842-1843, although it is likely she had now departed for London once more. This post seems to be a post about ships, as you will see, and there were plenty of ships on the coast this year! A lot was happening in these years, with the Russian deal at Sitka, the California post at Yerba Buena, and the building of Fort Victoria — and, of course, the threatened boundary line between Oregon and British territory that may or may not follow the course of the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. 

So here goes Thomas Lowe’s journal:

June 8. Captain [William Henry] McNeill and Mr. Heath left in a canoe to join the Barque Cowelitz [Cowlitz].

June 10. Brigade men employed beating the New Caledonia furs. Barque Brothers, Capt. Flere, has now discharged the whole of the cargo she brought from England, excepting Coals. 

June 11. Boat started with supply of goods for the Company’s Store at the Willamette [Wallamette] Falls. 

June 16. Mr. Frank [Francis] Ermatinger (Chief Trader) and wife arrived from Willamette Falls.

June 18. Mr. [Henry Newsham] Peers employed unpacking 400 Beaver skins received from Sitka, and I in putting up Outfit for Thompson’s River [Kamloops].

So, according to Thomas Lowe, the New Caledonia and Fort Colvile Brigades were at Fort Vancouver. But what was happening at the Williamette Falls was interesting all by itself: here is an extremely short and incomplete version of the story, which I am just beginning to figure out. As early as 1824, McLoughlin had been interested in claiming the land that surrounded the spectacular Willamette Falls for the company. In about 1830 he claimed land on the east bank of the river, next to the Falls, in his own name, while privately saying it was for the Company. He blasted a canal through rocks [for a mill race, perhaps?] and erected a house, but not a sawmill — mostly because the mill at Fort Vancouver was sufficient for the company’s needs at that time.

Over the years, the land became more valuable, especially as there was a huge influx of Americans into the territory in the fall of 1843, to the point where they drastically outnumbered the British and Canadian settlers in the Willamette Valley at that time. The Methodists were also interested in McLoughlin’s property, and in July of 1840, McLoughlin foolishly gave them permission to build a mission house on his land claim. In 1841 the mission built on the island that was part of McLoughlin’s claim, and shortly afterward, the missionary [Waller], who lived there, questioned McLoughlin’s right to claim the land. In 1842, McLoughlin sent men to build a building at the Falls in order to solidify his claim. An American milling company also questioned McLoughlin’s land claim, and in August 1842 built a mill on the island that the mission stood on, which was part of McLoughlin’s land claim. In December 1842 McLoughlin had the property next to the falls surveyed and he laid out lots for a townsite. In 1843 he erected a rival sawmill in his own name, and on his own property, and began the installation of a flour mill: both still being held in McLoughlin’s name and not that of the Company. McLoughlin stubbornly refused to give up on the Willamette Falls land claim, even while the Americans constantly challenged his right to the land, and he received little to no support from the Company itself: Chief Factor James Douglas told Governor Simpson that he was against any land speculation in the territory. So, according to Thomas Lowe’s journal, it appears that the sawmill is now completed, and that McLoughlin has also constructed a house and a store on the spot. Here is what more Thomas Lowe has to say:  

June 21. Dr. McLoughlin, Chief Factor [Archibald] McDonald, and Capt. [William Henry] McNeill left here in a boat with 12 men to proceed to the Willamette Falls to witness the start of the new Saw Mill the Doctor has erected there… 

June 29, Saturday. The Interior Brigade started this afternoon about 5 o’clock. Mr. McDonald and Mr. [Donald] Manson went with their families, but Mr. [William] McBean remains here in Dr. [Forbes] Barclay’s hands. The Brothers saluted with 6 guns as the 9 Boats were starting, and mustered all hands to give them three cheers, which was feebly returned by those on shore. The afternoon was oppressively hot… 

July 4, Thursday. In the evening an Express arrived from Nisqually, bringing the melancholy intelligence of the death of Charles Ross, C.T., who was in charge of Fort Victoria. He was taken ill on the 22nd Ulto [June], and died on the 27th, of an affection of the heart. Having made no Will, he left verbal instructions for Mr. Douglas to divide his property among the younger children, considering his eldest son, John [now about 20yrs old], capable of providing for himself. The charge of the Establishment devolves for the time upon Mr. Roderick Finlayson…

July 5, Friday. The Barque Brothers dropped down from her anchorage in the forenoon, having completed her cargo for Woahoo [Hawaii]. She has on board 107,000 ft. sawn lumber, 300 Barrels Flour and 300 Barrels Salmon, consigned to the Company’s agents Messrs [George?] Pelly and [George Traill] Allan…

July 6, Saturday. Dr. McLoughlin left this after breakfast to visit the Cowlitz. Mr. [James] Sangster, who is at Nisqually assisting Dr. [William Fraser] Tolmie, has been ordered to proceed to Fort Victoria in order to help Mr. Finlayson until another gentleman is appointed to the charge of that place. [Young John Ross would be assigned the position as second-in-command at Fort Victoria.] Rode up to the Saw Mill in the afternoon, which is the first time I have been on horseback since I broke my arm 7 weeks ago, except a short ride last Saturday. My arm is now completely well…

July 9, Thursday. Intelligence was received this evening of the arrival in the River of HMS Sloop Modeste, 18 guns, Captain [Thomas] Baillie, which was late at Woahoo. She is expected to come up as far as this place. 

July 15, Monday. In the afternoon H.M.Sloop of War Modeste anchored opposite the Fort, and fired a salute of 7 guns, which the Fort had not the means of returning. The captain came on shore and brought despatches from the British Government. Saw several of the officers in the evening. 

The HMS Modeste was was a new ship of 568 tons, carrying 18 guns and 90 men. On this occasion, the Modeste would visit Fort Vancouver from mid-July to mid-August, and then would go on to Fort Victoria, Fort Simpson, and the Sandwich Islands. It may have comforted the HBC men to have her in their river, but in reality, the crew aboard were fairly disinterested in what was happening in the territory. An additional story here: When the Modeste left the mouth of the river in 1844, she proceed first of all to the California post, where Captain Baillie literally FORGOT to deliver McLoughlin’s letters to William Glen Rae. Because of his isolation at the California post, and his inability to communicate with McLoughlin — and also because of other difficulties he found himself in — Rae committed suicide in January 1845.

But that is not yet… and Thomas Lowe’s journal continues:

July 16, Tuesday. Seven or eight of the Officers from the vessel came up this morning and rode down to the lower plain. Most of them dined with us. In the afternoon we accompanied the officers on horseback to the 3rd plain and elsewhere. The Barque Cowlitz arrived about 5 in the afternoon from the entrance of the Cowlitz River where she had been laying for nearly six weeks, taking in about 7500 bushels Wheat intended principally for the Russians. 

July 17, Wednesday. A large party of us started after breakfast on horseback to have a picnic at the mill plain. Went around by the Kamas [camas?] plain and arrived at the Farm about 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Dr. Gordon (assistant Surgeon of the Modeste) met with an accident in crossing a small stream between the fourth and Kamas plain, owing to his horse stumbling when ascending the opposite bank, but no bones broken. After riding round the farm, we met the cart which contained the provisions, and proceeded to have dinner on the grass forthwith, at which the porter and wine were freely circulated. Having dined we again mounted our horses and visited the Grist Mill, from thence to the Saw Mill, and then straight home through the mill plain. 

July 18, Thursday. Dr. McLoughlin, Mr. [James] Douglas, Rev. Mr. Blanchette [Francois-Norbert Blanchet] and the rest of us paid a formal visit this forenoon to the officers of the Modeste. Remained on board about an hour, and several of those Gentlemen returned there to dine with Captain Baillie. Rode out in the afternoon.

July 19, Friday. Mr. Douglas, Captain Baillie, Captain McNeil and several of the officers of the Modeste started on a pleasure trip this forenoon to visit the Willamette Settlement. Dr. Barclay, Mr. Peers, Kenneth Logan and myself dined with the gunroom officers, and enjoyed ourselves much. Took a short ride after coming ashore…

July 22, Monday. Hard work all day in the office. The harvest began at this place on the 9th, and at the Mill Plains on the 16th. The Cowlitz unloading damaged Wheat which she had on board. Some of the Officers of the Modeste take a ride every afternoon, and we sometimes join them.

July 23, Tuesday. Fine warm weather. Mr. [George Barber] Roberts putting up some articles for the Northwest coast in the Store, and Mr. Peers gone up to assist Mr. [Daniel] Harvey on the Mill Plain, while K. Logan is helping Mr. David McLoughlin in the sale shop, so that I am left by myself in the office at present…

July 27, Saturday. Six of the crew of the Cowlitz struck work this morning, on account of some quarrel with the boatswain with whom they could not agree. Rode out in the afternoon. In the evening the party returned from the Willamette, and seem to have been pleased with the trip…

July 29, Monday. An investigation took place after breakfast on board the Cowlitz regarding the men who had refused duty on Saturday, and the result of it was that the men returned to their duty having been promised that either they or the boatswain would be transferred into another vessel when an opportunity presented…

August 5, Monday. Early this morning the Modeste weighed anchors to proceed on her cruise to the northwest coast. Captain Baillie intends to visit Nisqually, Victoria, and Fort Simpson, and then to return Southward. In the evening a Belgian Brig named the Indefatigable anchored here, bringing 5 Priests and 4 nuns of the Jesuit persuasion. This vessel’s cargo is entirely made up of property belonging to the Mission, and as she is light the voyage has been a short one.

August 6, Tuesday. Dysentery is very prevalent at this place at present, and several Indians have already become its victims, many of our men are also in a critical state. Weather cloudy…

August 10, Saturday. Rode out in the afternoon, and Mr. Douglas had out the ladies and children in the Gig and Spring cart…

August 15, Thursday. One of the farm Indians died of Dysentery. Many of the Cascade Indians have come down here in consequence of the prevalence of the Dysentery amongst their tribe. Report says that this disease was very fatal in this quarter about 50 years ago….

August 17, Saturday. Intelligence was received today from Fort George that the Modeste  when proceeding to sea had been all but wrecked on the South Breakers, having lost her rudder and two anchors. She will probably have to return to this place to repair, or will require assistance to be sent. The Barque Cowlitz was laying at Fort George and intended to put to sea the next day….

August 20, Tuesday. The small vessel which was built by the Americans at the Willamette Falls and intended to be wrought by horse power, arrived here in the evening under sail with a cargo of Shingles from the Falls, which are to be shipped by the Company on board the Brig Indefatigable for Woahoo…

August 31, Saturday. By letters from Fort George we learned today that the Modeste and Cowlitz were still laying in Baker’s Bay. The harvest both at this place and the Mill Plain is now all taken in, the crops everywhere have been abundant. Took a sail in the afternoon in the green Boat. The apples in the garden are now generally ripe, as also the melons. Joseph Monique and three other Iroquois Boutes started this afternoon in a boat for the Interior to meet the Express from York Factory.

September 1, Sunday. Fine warm weather. The Dysentery which has carried off so many of the Idians and also 3 or 4 of our men, appears now to have run its course, and only a few Indians remain on the sick list. Very few cases of fever and ague as yet, and it is to be hoped that we will not be much troubled with it this season, as the River has been very low.

September 3, Tuesday. Finished packing the 4,000 Sitka Beaver today. Mr. Roberts is now to go on packing the other furs, and I to remain in the office. Mr. McBean is assisting at the Furs…

September 10, Tuesday. Baron and a party of men employed at the New Store adjoining the Sale Shop wich was commenced last Srping. Mrs. Roberts has consented to open a School for the children of the Fort, and has got 10 pupils, which is all that we can muster here at present. The fee will be about 25 p. head per annum, and until the children increase, the school is to be kept in her own house. 

Thomas Lowe did not tell us that Mrs. Roberts was an English woman who George Barber Roberts wed in London in 1843. She would die in childbirth in 1850 and he would go on to wed Rose Birnie, James Birnie’s sister who arrived at Fort Victoria in the Norman Morison in 1852. Rose, too, was a school-teacher while she lived at Cathlamet, teaching both James Birnie’s children and Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s. 

September 23, Monday. In the afternoon Mr. A[ngus] McDonald [later of Fort Colvile] arrived with the Returns of the Snake Country in one Boat. He brings intelligence that a large party of Emigrants from the United State are on their way to this place, and may be expected about the same time as last year. Blowing very heavy all day from the East.

Until the 1840s, the settler population of Oregon was under a thousand people in all, and included both Americans and British subjects in more or less equal numbers. In the early 1840s the American immigration increased, and the numbers began to tip in favour of the United States.The enormous party of emigrants who had arrived in Autumn 1843 changed the balance of power in the Willamette, because it included 875 Americans, with some 290 men over the age of eighteen! Now, according to Thomas Lowe, there were even more American emigrants on their way! Things were changing fast in the territory around Fort Vancouver, and already the HBC men knew they were losing the battle with the Americans: that the delays in settling the boundary line between the United States and British territory, west of the Rocky Mountains, was only helping the Americans, and hindering the men of the HBC. 

To return to the beginning of Thomas Lowe’s time at Fort Vancouver, go here:

When this Thomas Lowe story is continued, it will appear here:

And I hope that by the time I have to write the next section of Thomas Lowe’s journals, I have more of it figured out! Maybe I will even have a better understanding of what is happening in summer, 1844!

Now, if you want to see Thomas Lowe’s York Factory Express journals, you can order my book, The York Factory Express, here: Thank you!

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