Well, now I get to talk about my fur trade secret -- my secret witness who recorded some of the more important incidents that occurred in the Fort Vancouver and the Columbia district in the 1840's and 1850's.
He is also in my family tree, as he married one of the Birnie girls.
So here is his story, and I think you will enjoy it, as he lived through interesting times:
Thomas Lowe was the sixth son of Dr. John Lowe of Coupar-Angus, Perthshire, and was born on November 30th, 1824.
On January 13th, 1841, he was appointed apprentice clerk in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company for a term of five years, and was instructed to proceed to Moose Factory by the HBC ship for that season.
He didn't catch that ship -- instead secretary William Smith ;ut him on the Company's ship, Vancouver, which was due to sail from Gravesend for the Columbia River at the end of August, 1841.
At Honolulu Thomas transferred to the Cowlitz, which was bound for Sitka with HBC Governor, Sir George Simpson, on board.
The Governor used poor Thomas as his temporary secretary on the voyage north to Sitka -- an extraordinary introduction to the fur trade.
The ship arrived at Sitka in April 1842; Governor Simpson continued his round the world trip across Russia, while Thomas was sent on to Fort Durham -- more familiarly known as Fort Taku, on the Northwest coast.
Bruce Watson has this to say of Fort Taku in his Lives Lived West of the Divide:
"Fort Taku was built under the same set of conditions as Fort Stikine, under the 1839 agreement between the HBC and the Russian American Fur Company. Thought to be convenient at the time for trade with the Indians of Taku, Chilcat and Cross Sound, as well as access to the interior, the site, at the head of Taku Harbour several miles distance from the mouth of the Taku River was a poor choice for several reasons. The area had been overtraded during the maritime fur trade which had left hostilities, and there was little trading done from the interior via the Taku River. As well, the area had extensive tidal flats and so boats could access the area only at high tides. Further, the natives rigorously guarded their traditional trading rights, their access to wealth and slaves.
"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 (that is, Upper and Lower 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.
"Memories from the maritime fur trade ran deep and consequently the local Taku tried to exact revenge for killings that had taken place previously from an American vessel. Shortly after construction shots were fired, faces bloodied but all patched up with an agreed payment of furs when the Taku discovered that they were not from the same group that had created the trouble.
"In the fall of 1841, George Simpson, who stated that the local natives were delighted to have a source for which they could act as intermediaries, presented an idyllic picture when he visited.
""The fort, though it was only a year old, was yet very complete with wood houses, lofty pickets, and strong bastions. The establishment was maintained chiefly on the flesh of the chevreuil (deer), which is very fat, and has an excellent flavour. Some of these deer weigh as much as a hundred and fifty pounds each; and they are so numerous, that Taku has this year sent to market twelve hundred of their skins."
"Conflicts due to misunderstanding did disturb this idyllic scene. When one native struck Dr. John F. Kennedy over a disagreement, the native was pursued by Kennedy's assistant outside the fort and was immediately taken prisoner. When Kennedy went out to rescue his assistant, he also was taken prisoner. When warning shots were fired, the "prisoners" were ransomed for four blankets.
"In the summer of 1841, Roderick Finlayson gave an account of the local chief killing ten slaves, requiring the HBC men to look after their dead bodies.
"Fort Taku, along with Fort McLoughlin, was abandoned in 1843 as it was unprofitable and could just as well be serviced by the steamer Beaver. The site is now on privately held land."
Thomas Lowe wrote of his time at Taku: "The natives at that time were a numerous and rather dangerous set; 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 a ... steamer from Sitka."
His biography, which is found in McLoughlin's Fort Vancouver Letters, First Series, 1825-38 [Publication of Hudson's Bay Record Society] does not mention that on leaving Fort Taku, Thomas Lowe also helped to construct Fort Victoria.
But in his article in the Beachcomber newspaper [Saanich] of February 4, 1998, Brad Morrison writes this of Thomas Lowe and his time at Fort Victoria:
"Under the superintendence of James Douglas the men and supplies [from Fort Taku] were taken to the Southern tip of Vancouver Island, where on June 3, 1843, construction was begun at Camosun harbor, of Fort Victoria.
"A report in The Colonist stated: "The Canadian axemen were at once set to work in the surrounding forest to fall trees for a stockade and to square timber for the erection of bastions and dwelling-houses."
"Having by this time acquired some familiarity with the Indian language (Chinook jargon) Mr. Lowe was given the supervision of several squads of natives, to bring the logs and dressed timber to the site previously selected.
"After a week's stay, and when the building of the Fort was well advanced, Mr. Douglas, accompanied by Mr. Lowe, returned to Fort Vancouver ... leaving 40 men to complete the work."
And so Thomas Lowe was at Fort Victoria for only a week or so.
No wonder it has been so hard to confirm that he was at Fort Victoria!
However, his family member (descendant of his brother John) tells me that Thomas Lowe was always proud of the part he played in the construction of Fort Victoria.
Of course he later lived in the city of Victoria.
But if you are interested in the very beginnings of Fort Victoria, take a look at the batch of people who would have been here at this time -- even if for only a week or so!
No wonder this place got built so quickly!
This is what Derek Pethick has to say about this busy week or so of building the fort, in his book, "Victoria, The Fort":
He quotes from James Douglas journal, which is in the BC Archives somewhere.
At the point where it breaks of, Pethick writes, "it is thought likely that Douglas, satisfied that the work had been satisfactorily begun, left to pick up the men from the two more northerly posts (Fort Durham on Taku Inlet and Fort McLoughlin on Millbank Sound) which were to be closed down......
"On the first of June, with the personnel of these two posts, Douglas returned. He now had under his authority about fifty armed white men, but realizing that in the event of trouble with the Indians this would be but a weak force, he set to work immediately to construct a defensible compound.
"The weather was exceptionally favorable, and with the help of Indian labour the work went ahead rapidly."
Thomas Lowe was there!
These other men would also have been there, too -- Donald Manson, in charge at Fort McLoughlin, and his clerk, whoever he was; Dr. John Kennedy of Fort Taku, and his clerk [who might have been Roderick Finlayson].
We know that Charles Ross was there, and Roderick Finlayson, too -- they are the two who took over the running of the new Fort Victoria, which was first called Fort Albert, apparently.
Thomas Lowe then came to Fort Vancouver where he kept his private journals -- which is what makes him such an important resource over the difficult years I am now researching.
On June 15, 1843, Thomas Lowe's journal begins with the words:
"Thursday. I arrived at Fort Vancouver this morning at 9 o'clock in company with Chief Factor Douglas from the N.W. Coast (having come across the Nisqually portage) after having been with Dr. Kennedy at Fort Durham since the 24th April, 1842.
"We found the interior brigade here which had reached this on the 4th Inst in charge of Chief Factors [Archibald] McDonald and [Peter Skene] Ogden.
"16. Friday. Dr. McLoughlin put me to day in the office to assist Mr. [Dugald] McTavish.
"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 you can see from the details in his journal, you can get a good picture of a clerk's life at Fort Vancouver.
In fact you learn that year that, on the 31st July, "Joseph Monique with one boat returned from conducting the Brigade (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."
I knew two men had died coming upriver that year, and now I have the details!
This first bit of journal appears to end in October, but it picks up again.
In the summer off 1844, Thomas reports on the presence of the Royal Navy ships at the fort, and the dysentery that is attacking the people at Fort Vancouver:
"15th [July]. 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."
Of course at this time the Brits and fur traders worried about where the boundary line was to be established!
"3rd [August]. Saturday. ...All the officers of the Modeste were invited to day to a public dinner here which passed off well. toasts and healths were drunk and we all enjoyed ourselves. The Barque Cowlitz left this afternoon for the N.W. Coast."
"6th. 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."
On September 10th, 1844: "Baron and a party of men employed at the New Store adjoining the Sale Shop which was commenced last spring. Mrs. [George?] Roberts [Rose Birnie, James Birnie's sister?] 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 5 pounds a head p. annum, and until the children increase, the school is to be kept in her own house."
Besides the boundary line issue, there are other worries -- for example the American immigrants:
"23rd [September]. Monday. In the afternoon Mr. A. McDonald arrived with the Returns of the Snake Country in one boat. He brings intelligence that a large party of Emigrants from the United States are on their way to this place, and may be expected about the same time as last year."
And on the 24th: "The Easterly Gale still continues with unabated force, and the dust is flying in all directions, a fire broke out at the end of the plain, and all the men had to be mustered to extinguish it."
"25th [Sept.] Wednesday. The fire which broke out last night gave more trouble again to day, and a much larger one has been lighted, a few miles above the Saw Mill, which will be very difficult to extinguish. Strong E. Wind."
Fire was always a danger in these fur trade forts!
"26th. Thursday. Easterly gales all day. In the evening rode out with Mr. Douglas and Mr. Roberts to observe the fire which had originated in the Camass Plain, and which has now spread as far in this direction as the Little River on this side of the 1st plain.. A party of men set to watch the Barn behind, and another the Barn on the lower plain. Carting water all night. A watch set at the Fort. I had the morning Watch."
"27th. Friday. Early this morning a report was brought that fire had broke out in the lower plain and that the Barn there was in imminent danger. Mr. McDonald and Mr. David accompanied Mr. Douglas to the place, and succeeded with a party of men and Indians in smothering it. All the men were turned out about 1 o'clock in the morning, and distributed into different parties to guard against an outbreak of fire from the woods, which are now in a blaze all round. Most of the men were employed all morning about the Fort Hill, setting the grass on fire, ploughing the ground, and taking other precautions to prevent the fire running when it emerged from the woods. While most of the men were so engaged, a spark from the woods behind set the Barn in a blaze, when there was only an Indian present, and in an instant the whole was in flames. The few who were in the Fort immediately got wet Blankets ready, and put themselves in positions where the sparks could be most easily extinguished. Meantime Mr. Douglas, Mr [Adolphus Lee?] Lewis, and Mr. K Logan accompanied by all hands from the Old Fort Hill made all haste to the Barn and did all they possibly could in extinguishing the fire, which by this time had run to the camp and set the garden fences of Baron's and Mrs. Latty's house on fire, as well as the Orchard adjoining the Fort garden. Dr. Barclay, Mr. Roberts and I were in the fort when the fire broke out. The Dr. went to the orchard, Mr. R. was employed in putting out the burning grass that surrounded the school rooms, and I mustered a party to protect the clover field next the Fort, which had caught in several places, and after leaving some men to perform the duty, I took charge of the Party at the Barn, and remaining there till the afternoon, when little danger was to be apprehended from it...."
I think you can see how useful his journal would be, to someone who wanted to know what was happening in Fort Vancouver at this time.
In March of 1847, Thomas Lowe led the York Factory express across the continent and back.
Again, in March 1848, he led the York Factory express across the country and returned.
He would not make this journey again -- he married James Birnie's daughter La Rose [or Rose], and only made short journeys away from Fort Vancouver.
From his journals we hear what Lowe has to say about John Charles' death in the Athabasca Pass in October 1849:
"18th, Sunday [November]. Started from Oregon City on my return to Vancouver at 11 am. in a drenching shower of rain. My horse being much fatigued on account of the heavy state of the roads, I did not arrive at Switzler's until 4pm.
"Crossed the Columbia in a canoe, and on my arrival at the Fort found that the Express from York Factory had got there at breakfast time.
"There were two boats with no loads but the passengers baggage, no other packs having been brought across.
"The Passengers were, Sir Edward Poore and Mr. Franklin, his travelling companion, Mr. Young a master ship-wright, John Fraser an Apprentice post-master, and Frederick Lewes who has come in to see his brother Adolphus.
"Mr. Charles who went across in charge of the Express was unfortunately shot by accident at the Campement d'Original in the Rocky Mountain Portage by Mr. Young.
"In coming down the Columbia (above Okanagan) both the Express boats were much broken, the people's lives endangered, and some of the pieces lost, owing to the low state of the water.
"One of the Walla Walla men likewise got his arm shot off when saluting them on their arrival at that post. "Only 8 new hands were brought down this way, the remainder of the party (17 men) having gone into New Caledonia by way of Tete Jaune's Cache under the command of Mr. Griffin and Robert Logan.
"Very heavy rain in the evening with thunder and lightning."
So while we know what other adventures these voyageurs endured on this journey, we know no more about John Charles' death than we knew before.
Anyway, Thomas Lowe was well liked at Fort Vancouver, and on his first express journey across the country to York Factory, James Douglas wrote to York Factory's Mr. Hargrave that, "Mr. Lowe our young accountant, who (has) taken out the Express, is a fine steady young man, pray be kind to him."
As I have told you, Thomas Lowe married James Birnie's daughter La Rose.
The marriage was short -- La Rose died only a few months later (or a year and a half later, depending who is reporting the story) of "lung disease," and was buried in the Pioneer Cemetery at Cathlamet.
Not long after his wife's death, Thomas Lowe left the HBC and went into partnership with two retired chief traders -- Archibald McKinlay, and George Traill Allen who formed the firm of Allan, McKinlay and Co., at Oregon City, and supplied settlers with general goods.
Thomas Lowe owned property next door to his father-in-law's house in Cathlamet, but when his business expanded into San Francisco in 1853, he lost interest in the property and sold it to his brother-in-law, Alexander Caulfield Anderson.
Between 1853 and 1860 Thomas and his brother, James, alternated their time between the businesses in San Francisco and Oregon.
Thomas was particularly interested in the possibility of developing trade between San Francisco and Vancouver Island, and in many ways he became the eyes and ears of the company men at Fort Victoria, who sold much of their product in the Sandwich Islands and in San Francisco.
Because of his fur trade connections, the San Francisco business flourished, though the Oregon City stores showed big losses; in 1860 Thomas decided to close them down.
By that time, Alexander Caulfield Anderson was a resident in Victoria, and his shares in the Oregon City stores were transferred to shares in two Victoria steamers -- the Governor Douglas and Colonel Moody.
James went to Victoria to establish a new business as Commission Merchants and Thomas joined him 2 years later, in 1862, after he had finally managed to wind up their interests in Oregon.
His business correspondence is dry; but his letters to his relatives James and Charlot Birnie, Alexander Caulfield Anderson, and others, are warm and caring.
One of his English family members states he sounds like a "dry old stick," but Thomas Lowe is definitely not that!
By 1862 his business, called "Lowe Brothers, Commission Merchants," stood at the corner of Yates Street and Langley, in Victoria.
The business did well, and the two brothers opened up a store which sold a variety of stock -- groceries French wines, and cigars!
In 1866 Thomas Lowe purchased the Saint George Hotel and leased it out; this hotel would eventually become the Driard House -- Victoria's leading hotel for many years!
Thomas and his brother, James, remained in partnership in Victoria until 1870, and Thomas decided to retire and return to Scotland in 1872.
He died in May 1912, at age 88, at Coupar Angus in Scotland.
Thomas Lowe is a likeable, interesting, and important Victoria pioneer whose diaries and journals are almost entirely ignored by American historians, which is a shame.
By ignoring Thomas Lowe, they are missing much of their own story.