Thomas Lowe and the York Factory Express

York Boats under sail
This image of York Boats sailing on Lesser Slave Lake is from the Glenbow Archives, na-2283-10, and I have used it with their permission. The HBCA has the same image, though they say it is taken on the Hayes River.

Thomas Lowe worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1842 to his retirement in 1849, and he kept journals of his experiences in the Columbia district the entire time he was employed by the Company. His journals are in the British Columbia Archives: and two of them are his York Factory Express Journals. As Thomas Lowe led out the Express in both 1847 and 1848, everyone who works with the history of the Columbia District and Fort Vancouver will immediately understand that these are very interesting years in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s history. And Thomas Lowe’s journals contribute a lot to that history, if you have access to them. So, as I do, you can imagine that this will be the beginnings of a very long thread of posts.

Thomas Lowe was the sixth son of Dr. John Lowe of Coupar-Angus, Perthshire, and he was born on November 30th 1824. Why he decided to join the Hudson’s Bay Company, I do not know, but he was appointed apprentice-clerk in the service of the Company for a five year term, and was instructed to proceed to York Factory, Hudson Bay by whatever ship was headed that way in that year. This instruction was later cancelled, however, and he was told to join the Company’s ship Vancouver, which sailed for the Columbia River headquarters of Fort Vancouver at the end of August 1842. He ended up meeting Governor George Simpson in Hawaii and being transferred to his party, which was on the way to Sitka. From Sitka Lowe was sent on to Fort Taku, a tiny post on the Northwest coast which, as you know, has already been mentioned in the thread on the Liard River and the Yukon, see here:

When his employment at Fort Taku was done his ship carried him down to Fort Victoria, where he helped to construct the new post in 1843. There are no journals of these early years at Fort Victoria, and unfortunately Thomas Lowe did not keep journals of this time there so can add little information to our story. Nevertheless, when I get this far in the journey, I think I can find a few sources to enlighten us.

From Fort Victoria he went on to Fort Vancouver, finally arriving there on June 15, 1843.

Thursday. I arrived at Fort Vancouver this morning at 9 o’clock in company with Chief Factor [James] Douglas from the North West coast (having come across the Nisqually Portage), after having been with Dr. [John Frederick] Kennedy at Fort Durham [Fort Taku] 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.

And thus begins his “Private Journal kept at Fort Vancouver, Columbia River.” Peter Skene Ogden was in charge of the New Caledonia brigade and had come down from Fort St. James, on Stuart’s Lake, and Archibald McDonald had led out the Fort Colvile brigades to Fort Vancouver. They generally spent a month at headquarters before heading up the Columbia River toward home.

The 1844 section of Thomas Lowe’s journal has a little gossip about the incoming York Factory Express, which arrived at Fort Vancouver on the 31st October. 

About 9 o’clock in the morning the Express from York Factory arrived in charge of Mr. D[ugald] MacTavish, 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 apprentice Clerk who came to the country last Fall and wintered at Red River, he comes from Edinburgh and is nephew to Mr. [George Traill] Allan at Woahoo… Mr. [Archibald] McDonald it appears had 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 with Grahame had been sent to New Caledonia… Mr. MacTavish got nearly drowned in going down the York Factory River [Hayes River], and received a very bad fall from a horse in the Plains of the Saskatchewan. 

And now we know that James Allen Grahame is George Traill Allan’s nephew — both of these men are in my family tree but I had not known the exact relationship before now!

Lowe doesn’t mention the departure of the 1845 Express from Fort Vancouver, but he does talk about its arrival home. It was a little late, coming into Fort Vancouver on the 9th of November — a Sunday: 

Fine weather. At half past seven this morning the York Factory Express arrived, in charge of Mr. Dugald MacTavish, brought down 10 new hands. Chief Factor [John Lee] Lewes and family, and Mr. [Neil McLean] McArthur, apprentice clerk crossed the Mountains with the Express, but both have remained at [Fort] Colvile. Chief Factor Ogden, who went up to Colvile about a month ago, returned here with the Express boats.

So not a lot of news here. Neil McLean McArthur was a nephew of Chief Trader John McLean, and he remained at Fort Colvile for a number of years. I am not aware that Donald McLean, who appears in my Brigades book of the future, has anything to do with John McLean, above, but McArthur had something to do with Donald McLean’s property on the Bonaparte River! Everything and everyone is tied together when you talk history west of the Rocky Mountains.

So, in 1846, what happened? This year Lowe actually mentions the departure of the Express from Fort Vancouver, on its seven-month-long journey to Hudson Bay and return. It left on the 25th March.

Beautiful warm weather. This afternoon about 5 o’clock the Express started for York Factory, Passengers Francis Ermatinger, Esq. C.T.,  Lieutenants [Henry James] Warre and [Mervin] Vavassour, Mr. [Richard] Lane, and Mr. Burke [a missionary], who only goes up to Walla Walla in the Boats. The Fort fired a salute of 7 guns, and as the Boats were passing the Modeste manned the rigging and gave three cheers. Mr. Ermatinger intends going to England on furlough, the two officers go down to Canada, and Mr. Lane returns in the Fall with the Express.

The Modeste was a British ship that anchored in front of the Fort for months at a time. Warre and Vavassour were, as we all know, British spies, here for the same reason that the Modeste was here — to protect (or not protect) British interests in the Columbia District.

The returning Columbia Express was late this year, and on November 14th the Fort Vancouver men were “looking out anxiously for the York Factory Express.” It did not arrive until December 8th!!

Drizzling rain all day. About 4 o’clock this afternoon the Express from York Factory arrived, in charge of Mr. [Richard] Lane, who has been married to a Miss McDermot since he left this in the Spring, and has brought her in along with him…. Mr. Lane has not succeeded in bringing in the 40 Otter packs for the Russians having been obliged to leave them at Fort Assiniboine, on the East Side. He was compelled to do so on account of the lateness of the season, and the uncommon shoalness of the water this year in the Athabasca River.

The Athabasca River tended to be shallow at the best of times, but was often very shoal, as the region from which it received its waters suffered from long periods of drought.  

He has only brought in 15 men, having been obliged to send some of them back to Assiniboine with  the Packs. He had started from that place five days, when he found it impossible to proceed with them, and after sending them back to Assiniboine in one of the boats he pushed up the Athabasca to Jasper’s House with the remainder of the men in the other boat, and narrowly escaped being set fast with the ice in that River. After reaching Jasper’s they started with Horses to proceed across the Mountains, but after three days travelling the Horses were sent back on account of the depth of snow, and the party had to make the best of their way to the Boat Encampment on snow shoes, where they found the three Boats waiting for them. One of the boats narrowly escaped being lost in one of the rapids in the Columbia the second day from Colvile, and Mr. Lane and the others in the boat had a narrow escape…. The new men who came in are principally Iroquois. The Fort fired a salute of 3 guns when the Boats arrived. Receive letters from Home dated 28th January and 30th March.

Some very interesting people were on this journey: Paul Kane was here. Montrose McGillivray was here, as was John Charles — John Charles, however, was one of the men sent back to Edmonton House with the skins, so he never made it into the district until the following spring.

Of course, in 1847 Thomas Lowe took out the Express. Knowing what had happened in earlier years might have given him a feeling of dread — but he did fine!

If you wish to order my book, “The York Factory Express,” you can do so through my publisher, Ronsdale Press, Vancouver, B.C., using the link provided in my pinned post on my Home Page. Thank you!

My Thomas Lowe thread will continue forever, here, when written:

Copyright Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2019. All rights reserved.