Thomas Lowe: the London Ship

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

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

In our last Thomas Lowe blogpost, we ran with his account of the 1844 Fort Vancouver fire. This was not the only time that a fire threatened Fort Vancouver: there would be more fires in the future and there were probably a few in the past. You will find the story here: 

So, Thomas Lowe’s story now brings us up to early October, 1844. The next item of interest in his journal is this: that in the afternoon of Monday, October 7, 

the barque Columbia arrived at the anchorage from the N.W. Coast, bringing the Returns of Fort Victoria and of the other Posts whose Furs were in depot there. Captain Humphreys is in command with Mr. Mitchell as Mate. She has been in the River since the middle of last month, having been detained by the strong Easterly Gales which we have had. 

Those strong Easterly Gales were the winds that had fuelled the fires that threatened to destroy Fort Vancouver in September and October! The Columbia had arrived at Fort Vancouver from London, via  the Sandwich Islands, on May 1, 1844, and as was usual, she spent the summer on the coast. On May 21, three weeks after her arrival, she sailed with a load of wheat for Sitka, plus supplies for Forts Nisqually and Langley — the supplies at least were to be deposited in the Fort Victoria warehouses until they could be delivered to those two posts by smaller vessels such as the steamer Beaver and the Cadboro. The Columbia might have been able to sail up to Fort Nisqually, in Puget Sound, but there was no way she could reach Fort Langley up the relatively shallow Fraser River. 

Captain Charles Humphreys was an Orcadian Scot born in Stromness, Orkney, and first appeared on the coast as Captain of the Columbia in 1837. In 1844-45 he became Captain of the steamer Beaver, and in the fall of 1845 he travelled as passenger to London in the current London ship, the barque, Cowlitz. The first Mate, William “Willy” Mitchell, was known as a “generous, goodhearted sailor,” who remained with the Columbia until 1850 and enjoyed a few visits to the coast. The Hudson’s Bay Company was not always fortunate with their pick of captains and Mates, but these two appear to have been good hires! 

Thomas Lowe now tells us that there were still fires in the woods that surrounded Fort Vancouver. On October 9, “Report was brought by an Indian that the Mill Plain was again in danger of fire. Mr. [James] Douglas and Mr. [Henry Newsham] Peers rode up there, but fortunately found the fire distant. The woods are burning a little behind the Old Fort” on the bluffs behind the present Fort Vancouver. 

In the evening of October 10, Thomas Lowe reported, “Patrick McKenzie arrived in a canoe from [Fort] Colvile, bringing prisoner one of the men who had threatened to commit murder there. Mr. [Archibald] McDonald and family had left Colvile for the Boat Encampment on their way across [the Mountains].” I did not discover this story of a threat of murder at Fort Colvile in the book, This Blessed Wilderness: Archibald McDonald’s Letters from the Columbia, 1822-44, but I know it is not William Thew: Thew’s murderous threats were made in summer 1842, and my g.g.grandmother, Betsy [Eliza] Anderson, was a witness to them! And so, the Fort Colvile historians can have fun chasing this story down. I wonder what it is about the place that encouraged this murderous anger, or was it common in the HBC’s fur trade? (And please note, only one of the men were brought down to Fort Vancouver, the others remained at Fort Colvile, and would have become Chief Factor John Lee Lewes’s problem.)

There was a lot of building going on at the Fort at this time: Thomas Lowe tells us that

Baron with a few men began to shingle the new Store next the Sale Shop. Another gang of men employed building a new potato cellar at the upper end of the back road. The New Bake House is also nearly completed. Several Americans arrived from the Willamette Falls, where 6 of the new Emigrants have already arrived.

This is the time of year when the floods of Americans who travelled west in the wagons to settle in the Willamette Valley arrived at Fort Vancouver. And on October 28, 1844, Captain Duncan arrived in his ship from Fort Stikine with prisoners who had been conspiring to kill Charles Dodd, the seaman who had been left in charge of the place after Governor Simpson’s arrival there shortly after the murder of John McLoughlin Jr. Again, all the men who had taken part in the murder of young McLoughlin had been removed from Fort Stikine, and now these new men are threatening to kill McLoughlin’s replacement? Perhaps murders and threats of murders were common in this territory after all!

On the other hand, I am looking at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography‘s article on Charles Dodd, and I find that he came to the west coast as Mate in the steamer, Beaver, sailing under Captain David Home — (And yes, the Beaver sailed from England to Fort Vancouver!) Dodd served first on the Beaver, then, in the years between 1837 and 1840 he “served as first mate aboard the Nereide. Plagued with mutinous crews and frequent desertions, the ship carried supplies to Forts Simpson and McLoughlin… ” One wonders at first if he was the cause of the mutinies, but it appears not. “Dodd’s next appointment was as first mate on the barque Cowlitz. In December 1841, 1841, Sir George Simpson… was impressed by the character and ability of Dodd. When the vessel arrived at Fort Stikine in April 1842, it was discovered that the officer in charge, John McLoughlin, son of Chief Factor McLoughlin, had been fatally shot in a drunken fray. After order was restored and the sale of spirits discontinued, Simpson placed Dodd in charge…” 

But back to Thomas Lowe’s Fort Vancouver: I will get to Charles Dodd at a later date. Life returned to its rainy normal at Fort Vancouver, and we have more information on the current Fort Stikine conspiracies! On October 28, 

Late in the evening Captain [Alexander] Duncan arrived across the Portage from [Fort] Nisqually where he had left the steamer to come here to take command of the Barque Columbia for England.  

So Captain Humphreys took Captain Duncan’s place on the Beaver, while Captain Duncan transferred to the Columbia and England. And…

He brought two prisoners from Stikine who it appears had been conspiring against the life of Mr. Dodd. He brought them as far as the Cowelitz Farm and came on ahead himself. All quiet on the Coast and the Returns good. The Modeste had arrived at Fort Simpson and [is] to return South. Much rain at night. 

On October 31, the “Express from York Factory arrived in charge of Mr. D[ugald] McTavish, who went across in the Spring. There were 3 boats and 42 men, 35 of whom are new hands mostly from Orkney, a Mr. [James Allen] Grahame, also app. clerk, who came to the country last fall and wintered at Red River. He came from Edinburgh and is nephew to Mr. [George Traill] Allan at Woahoo.” So now we know the connection between the two men: James Allen Grahame married one of the Birnie girls and so is in my family tree, and I am thus allowed to state that he was probably the most boring man in the Fort Vancouver fur trade, bar none! But let us continue with Thomas Lowe’s report:

A Botanist of the name of Gyer from Germany joined the Boats at Walla Walla, and came down here with the intention of going to England by the Barque Columbia; Mr. [Archibald] McDonald it appears has gone with his family to the Boat Encampment on his way home, and Mr. [Augustus] Pelly from the other side remained in charge of [Fort] Colvile till another successor is appointed. A Mr. [Thomas] Charles, who came out in the same ship at with Grahame had been sent to New Caledonia. The prisoners from Stikine have been taken down to Canada to be tried by the laws of their own country, and Smith in the same manner has been sent to Scotland. 

So it is Augustus Pelly who would have had to deal with the men who threatened murder and mayhem at Fort Colvile. I believe I’ve written about Gyer recently; his proper name is Charles A (Karl) Geyer, and I wrote about him in the last post in this particular series. Use the search bar to find the blogppost. Thomas Charles was the older brother of John Charles, whose story is told in The York Factory Express; and also of William Charles, who was employed in the HBC’s fur trade and who later wed another Birnie girl, bringing his two brothers into my family tree. Thomas Charles retired to Victoria, but he worked in New Caledonia district under my great grandfather, A.C. Anderson, and appears in my book, The Pathfinder. And as we know, the “prisoners from Stikine” who murdered John McLoughlin Jr. were released by Governor Simpson, I believe when they reached Norway House. I don’t know who the man named “Smith” was, but perhaps he was the man who threatened murder at Fort Colvile: he would have been sent out in the London ship, I presume. Thomas Lowe’s journal continues:

Mr. [Dugald] McTavish got nearly drowned in going down the York Factory [lower Hayes] River, and received a severe fall from a horse in the Plains of the Saskatchewan. Three Chief Traders have been made on this side, viz. Mr. [James Murray] Yale [of Fort Langley], Mr. [Paul] Fraser [later of Kamloops], and Mr. [George Traill] Allan. The Sandwich Islands have been detached from the Columbia and made a separate department. The California Business is to be given up and Mr. [William Glen] Rae is ordered to the other side [of the Mountains].

I like all the information that Thomas Lowe’s journal contains. The next tidbit is that Dugald McTavish had to travel to the Willamette Valley: his claim had been jumped by an American, and he had to attend court to protect the property that had had been registered in his name. The Columbia still lies off Fort Vancouver, and “the Furs are now packed and on board…” Preparations for her departure continue, as Thomas Lowe records: “The carpenters are busy on board making berths for passengers. Mr. Grahame and Mr. [George Barber] Roberts are busy packing the West Side Otters for Sitka. Raining very hard.” Thomas Lowe has earlier recorded that George Robert’s wife [his cousin] is running the Fort Vancouver school out of their private quarters. She will die of typhoid in 1850, and Roberts will wed Rose Birnie, another school teacher who happens to be the sister of James Birnie, my g.g.grandfather. 

Thomas Lowe now informs us that Paul Fraser has been at Fort Vancouver for a few months, and is dispatched to Fort Colvile to take over for Augustus Peers. On November 8, Thomas Lowe writes that “Captain Humphreys left us in the afternoon with a Batteau for [Fort] Nisqually to take command of the Steamer, which is now laying there. He took 50 sacks Otters for the Russians, and men who came in with the Express to replace expected retirements from the Coast. Mr. Joseph Heath [his second in command] remains behind to wait for the papers, and then to start in a canoe to overtake the Batteau.”

At last, on the morning of Wednesday, November 13, “the barque Columbia left this on her voyage to England with the Returns of the District 1844, Captain Duncan is in command with Mr. Mitchell and Mr. [Jonathan] Buck as officers…. She fired a salute of 7 guns.” Thomas Lowe later reports that the Columbia “crossed the bar on the 5th Inst. [December], in company with the Belgian Brig Indefatigable, 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.” Yes– the Indefatigable. That is another story which I will not be writing here, at least not today. When the next post in this series in written, it will appear here: 

You may order the above-mentioned book, The York Factory Express, here: Thank you! Oh, and if you want a signed copy, talk to me — I also have a few copies of The Pathfinder left as well. 

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


WordPress is stubbornly not allowing me to edit my own post. The next post in this series is now written, and can be found here: