Thomas Lowe

Fur Trade Utensils

Fur Trade Utensils and Storage displayed at HBC replica Fort Langley

I have a few favourite characters among the enormous cluster of persons who lived West of the Rockies Mountains in the 1840s. Thomas Lowe is one of them. He was Scottish, born in Perthshire November 1824, and his father was a Dr. John Lowe.

In 1841, Lowe joined the Hudson’s Bay Company and sailed from Dundee on August 21. On his arrival in London, he expected to sail to the west coast of North America — to Fort Vancouver, Columbia River. His journal reads:

1841. 7 September. Tuesday. This forenoon I joined the Vancouver at Gravesend, but in consequence of some unavoidable detention, we were obliged to remain stationary all night. The Vancouver is a barque of of 336 Tons Register, belonging to the Honourable Hudson’s Bay Company. It was built in 1838, and returned about 3 months ago from its first voyage to the Columbia, under the command of Captain [Alexander] Duncan.

So, did he sail to the Columbia District in the Vancouver? No, he did not. He did however sail to the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii], arriving there Monday March 14, 1842. On his arrival he found the HBC Cowlitz at anchor, with Governor George Simpson and Chief Factor John McLoughlin aboard. On Saturday he was surprised to be handed a note, addressed to Captain [William] Brotchie [of the Cowlitz], but with instructions that he was to read it also.

On reading it I found that Captain Brotchie was requested to receive me and my luggage immediately on board the Cowlitz, as I was to take passage in her, but where he did not at the time think proper to tell me. I never had the least notion of this change, and always took it for granted that I was bound for the Columbia in the Vancouver, and had made all my preparations for that purpose — it is the invariable practice in the Country to tell one of some change, or to prepare for some journey, only a few hours before he is obliged to start. The Cowlitz is to sail for the Russian Settlement at Sitka and thence to some of the Company’s Forts or Stations on the North West Coast, but at which of these Forts I am to be stationed is, as yet, merely conjectural. Sir George [Governor Simpson] is to proceed in her to Sitka, and from thence via Achotsk, across Siberia. In the evening I got everything I possessed removed on board the Cowlitz, and slept there.

Lowe arrived at Fort Taku on the 1st June 1842. “After this date,” he wrote, “I am unable to proceed with the Journal, as in the hurry of debarkation at this place, by some mischance the Notes which I kept of the subsequent voyage, and on which I mainly depended, were left behind. It was only yesterday, while bringing up the Log, that I discovered this, as during all the time I was with Sir George Simpson, he kept me as busily employed that I found it impossible to enter every morning the events of the preceding day, as I had been accustomed to do on the outward voyage in the Vancouver.”

I can hardly wait to get my hands on the Fort Taku journals, which are in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives. I will, however, have to wait for a while, as I am far too busy right now to order them. I think it is likely that Thomas Lowe kept the post journal, at least after his arrival there. 

Here is what Bruce McIntyre Watson had to say of Fort Taku in his three-volume history, Lives Lived West of the Divide: A Biographical Dictionary of Fur Traders Working West of the Rockies, 1793-1858 (volume 3, p. 1087).

The post was constructed in 1840 by James Douglas with pickets and bastions up and finished by August. Also called Fort Durham, after the Earl of Durham, Governor General of Canada, the post was more commonly referred to by its river name. It was a modest affair having stockades of about 150 square feet with a stream running conveniently through it, and was operated by approximately eighteen personnel. 

So this was where Thomas Lowe spent his first year in the fur trade on the North West Coast. Shortly after its construction, the Taku First Nations tried to exact revenge for killings that had been committed by an earlier American vessel on the coast. That argument was patched up when the Taku realized that the HBC men were not the same people as those who had killed their family members. But conflicts continued to occur, and on one occasion when a Taku man struck an HBC man, his assistant chased him outside the fort and was taken prisoner. When the Chief Trader came out to rescue his clerk, he, too, was captured. Both men were released by the Taku, after being ransomed with a payment of four blankets. (Thomas Lowe says “many blankets” — I wonder if someone at the fort intentionally reported a lower number of blankets to headquarters). On another occasion (likely just after Thomas Lowe reached the place), the Taku chief killed all his slaves and left their bodies on the ground outside the fort gates, forcing the HBC men to bury them. 

In 1872, Thomas Lowe left North America and retired to Coupar Angus, Perthshire. He kept in touch with his friends in the fur trade, and had a little bit to say of his time at Fort Taku. For example: 

The natives at that time were a numerous and rather dangerous lot, and it was found after a few years trial that it did not pay to keep up such a strong force of men as was necessary to safeguard the Fort. Dr. John Kennedy was in command, and while I was there we were besieged by these rascals for a period of six weeks, and only released by the opportune arrival of an armed Steamer from Sitka. During the siege they frequently attempted to burn us out. Knowing that the houses inside the stockade were covered with sheets of cedar bark, a very inflammable material in dry weather, they would muster on the windward side of the Fort during a gale and toss up lighted pieces of bark so as to land on the roofs and set them on fire. We had therefore to be on the alert against their machinations, both by day & night. A chief named Analtass took a very active part in these proceedings. He was a great orator, and was continually haranguing his own people and inciting them to hostilities. The Medicine men also kept constantly beating their drums, firing their guns, whooping & yelling and going through all sorts of antics.

The Chilcats, who caused some trouble at Fort Selkirk, on the Pelly River, also traded at this post but caused little trouble here. Thomas Lowe says, “It was the Taku Indians only who were troublesome, and it was owing to them that Fort Durham had to be abandoned.” Both Fort Taku [Fort Durham] and Fort McLoughlin were abandoned in 1843, and the men sailed south to build Fort Victoria, on Vancouver’s Island. “The 20 men of this Post, and 20 more from Fort McLoughlin (Milbank Sound), which was also then given up — were brought south to found a new Establishment on Vancouver Island. We arrived on Victoria Harbour with the Steamer Beaver and Schooner Cadboro on 3rd June 1843. Upwards of 54 years have passed since then. I was the youngest of that party, and am sorry to say that I fear I am the sole survivor.”

In a later letter, Thomas Lowe has a bit more to say of the journey south from Fort McLoughlin to Fort Victoria, and his life after he reached the Columbia. Although he is speaking of himself in third person, it is he who has written this:

The late Sir James Douglas, then Chief Factor, had been instructed to build a new Fort on the Southern end of Vancouver Island, and had selected Camosun,  (now Victoria) as the most suitable. He accordingly embarked the men from the two abandoned Posts, with their families and effects, on the Steamer Beaver and Schooner Cadboro. After a tedious passage down the Coast and a good deal of trouble and some danger in getting through Johnson’s Straits, the Expedition finally came to anchor in Victoria Harbour on the 3rd of June 1843. The construction of the Fort was at once begun, assisted by some 300 or 400 Songhees Indians. Mr. Lowe had been brought from Taku, Mr. Roderick Finlayson from Fort Simpson, and Chief Trader [Charles] Ross from Fort McLoughlin. After the buildings at Fort Albert (as it was at first named) were well underway he [Lowe] accompanied Chief Trader [Factor] Douglas to Puget’s Sound in the Beaver, and then overland to Fort Vancouver, the headquarters on the Northern bank of the Columbia River, in what was then known as Oregon Territory, but now in the State of Washington. There he remained until 1850; making, meanwhile, two trips overland (each taking up about 8 months of hard travel) across the continent to York Factory, Hudson Bay, in charge of the Express party which annually took out the Accounts and Despatches, as also the retiring servants, bringing back a new set of men to fill the vacancies. Then came the discovery of gold in California, and as the Country was fast filling up, and good openings presented themselves, he (in 1850) left the Service of the Hudsons Bay Co, and with two friends, both former Chief Traders, became a partner in the firm of Allan, McKinlay & Co at Oregon City. In 1852 he went to San Francisco and there started the firm of Allan, Lowe & Co., of which his brother afterwards in 1856, became a partner. After a residence of 8 years in San Francisco, he returned to Oregon (in 1860) and at the end of 1862 joined his brother James in Victoria, and formed with him the firm of Lowe Brothers. In 1864 they purchased the wholesale business of G. Vignols & Co. in Wharf Street, and in 1865 that of Capt. James Johnson Southgate as Ship Chandlers and Navy Constructors. This partnership was dissolved in 1871, Thomas retiring and leaving Victoria in January 1872 for Scotland, where he has ever since resided. As he was only 19 years of age when Victoria was founded, he is now, probably the Sole Survivor of that historic event.

Thomas Lowe wrote this short history, above, in August 1906. I think you can see why Thomas Lowe is such a valuable resource for those of us who study the fur trade in the Columbia district and on the Northwest coast. He kept journals. And if he did not keep a journal, he wrote letters which are preserved in the British Columbia Archives. So, there is a lot more information coming, which will be of interest. Already he tells us that Fort Victoria WAS built at Camosun. There have been arguments about that forever, and there will continue to be and I am adding fuel to the fire, but that’s okay.

Thomas Lowe’s story continues here: 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2019. All rights reserved.