Wednesday, September 12, 2012

George Traill Allan, HBCA

Some of you have noticed I have sneaked into my last post, an express journal written by George Traill Allan of the HBC.
This express journal, and another by him, is in the British Columbia Archives, under A/B/40/AL5.2A and A/B.40/AL5.3A.
I am delighted to have found them, and I will tell you why:
First, I found the journals a delightful read, and Allan a wonderful character who I would like to know more about.
I knew that he was in the Fort Vancouver area and was later connected to Thomas Lowe and Archibald McKinlay in the merchantile business they set up after they, too, retired from the fur trade.
But I did not consider Allan an important man, though I knew I eventually had to know a little about him.
But now I will look forward to writing about him when it comes time, because I read his journals.
I discovered his light-hearted, generous, and fun loving personality.
I laughed my way through his writings, and I hope you laughed your way through the piece of journal I have already posted.
But you will laugh even more when you read Bruce Watson's description of him, in Lives Lived West of the Divide:

Allan, George Traill, British: Scottish
Birth: Perthshire, Scotland, c. 1807
Death: Cathlamet, Washington, 1890
Passenger: Prince Rupert IV (ship), 1830; Clerk, Fort Vancouver general charges, 1831-1842 [he would have been at Fort Vancouver whenever Alexander Caulfield Anderson spent any time there, excluding the summer of 1841 when he travelled out in the York Factory express.]
On his return in the fall he was assigned to Honolulu, and was there until 1847. Afterward he was Chief Trader disposable in the Columbia Department, 1848-1850.

Bruce Watson continues: "It would seem natural that George Traill Allan, a slight, five foot tall, even delicate person of about one hundred pounds, seemingly not at all cut out for the rough and tumble fur trade, would start his career selling books and stationery in Glasgow.
"However, his brother, Dr. Allan, who had been Lord Selkirk's attending physician in North America, secured a position for him in 1830 in the HBC as a writer at York Factory.
"He was more needed at Fort Vancouver and so made his way overland to the Columbia River post.
"During his ten year stay at Fort Vancouver, he had a name exchange with a Cascade native and was nicknamed "Twahalashy," or coon."
And this is about the time we met him in his York Factory express journal, as he travelled out of the Columbia district.
He returned.
"Around 1841, he was appointed joint agent with George Pelly in the Hawaiian Islands post.
"In 1845 he was promoted to the rank of Chief Trader and during his stay on the islands he found the visiting American commodores much more arrogant than the English admirals.
"The bias may have worked against him for, in 1847, when he was replaced by Dugald McTavish, Simpson explained Allan's recall to him in a letter dated June 28, 1847."

Simpson's letter said, "I hope you may not be disappointed by your recall from the Island.
"The plain matter of fact is that we consider MacTavish a better man of business and accountant than you are, and politics and party spirit have been so high of late that, we think it as well a stranger, who can have no bias, should be associated with Pelly, instead of you and that Gentleman continuing longer together."
(Source: D.4/36, p. 59d)

"In October 1848, after going on furlough for one year, he gave notice to retire and settle in San Francisco.
"Using his acquired skills, he became a commission merchant in a partnership with Archibald McKinlay and Thomas Lowe and was in 1850 listed as a merchant living in the house of McKinlay, where he stayed until 1851, at which point he went to Scottsburgh at the mouth of the Umpqua River.
"Under the name Allan, McKinlay and Co., he carried on business until about 1861 when he settled in Cathlamet.
"He was still alive in 1888."

At the bottom of the description Bruce Watson notes that George Traill Allan was a relative of James Allen Grahame of Fort Vancouver, who married Susanna Birnie, daughter of James and Charlot Birnie.
So somehow, even if we don't know how, George Traill Allan is in our family tree -- and I am delighted to welcome him to the Birnie tree.

But now that you know how small and delicate George Traill Allan is, picture him crossing the Athabasca Pass with Dr. Tolmie!
No wonder the two men laughed their way across the mountains!

I have more information for you: His journal did begin at Fort Vancouver, and though it proceeds quite rapidly through the first part of his cross country travels, it is still an interesting read.
I will include it here, and some of you will especially be amused by the information it contains.
In this post we will go only as far as the Boat Encampment:

Journal of A Voyage from Fort Vancouver Columbia to York Factory, Hudson's Bay, 1841, by Geo. T. Allen:
I left Fort Vancouver on the 22d of March 1841, by the Express, accompanied by the following gentlemen -- Messrs. [Francis] Ermatinger, [Archibald] McKinlay, [Francois?] Payette, and Dr. [William F.] Tolmie -- in four boats -- and twenty eight men chiefly Canadians; all the gentlemen of the Establishment, as usual upon such occasions, accompanying us to the River to see us start.
Mr. Ermatinger, being the oldest Clerk of the party in the Company's Service, the command of conducting the party, so far as he went, of course, devolved upon him.
After a voyage of nine days, during which nothing worth recording took place, we reached Fort Walla Walla [Endnote #1], situated in the midst of a sandy plain upon the Banks of the Columbia & in charge of my friend, Mr. Ch. Trader [Pierre Chrysologue] Pambrun, who received us most kindly, and presented us to dinner a couple of fine roast Turkies -- a rather unexpected sight in this quarter of the world.
April 1st. Having arranged everything for my trip on horseback from Walla Walla to Fort Colvile, I started today at noon accompanied by a man, a boy and an Indian, as Guide, with a band of forty six Horses, the Boats having gone off the day before with the other gentlemen; my object in going across land being to get a-head of the Boats & so gain time to close all the accounts at Fort Colvile [#2] (the last past on this side of the Rocky Mountains) before their arrival.
As the country through which I now passed was all much of the same description, I may here mention, that its general appearance was not particularly pleasing, consisting principally of hills without a stick of wood to adorn their summits or relieve the eye from the sameness of the landscape which now presented itself to an immense extent, the surface of the ground over which we rode at no tardy pace was so covered with badger holes that it required the utmost caution to guide our riding horses clear of them; as for the light horses, we allowed them to look out for themselves.
After a ride of four days we reached Fort Spokane, an old establishment, abandoned some years ago, situated upon the banks of the River of that name in a beautiful spot.
On crossing the River, which we did by the assistance of the two Indians in a small Canoe, I was very much surprised, when gaining the opposite bank, to hear my name distinctly pronounced by one of a band of Indians assembled there to greet our arrival; but on looking in the direction from whence the voice came I immediately recognized my old friend, a young Indian Chief called Garry, who had entered the Columbia with me ten years before.
He had been educated at Red River at the expense of the Company and when I had known him was well clothed and could both read and write; now, however, the march of improvement had apparently retrograded, as he made his appearance wrapped up in a Buffalo Robe a la Savage.
Having presented some Tobacco to the Indians I requested Garry to send for one of our horses which I had been obliged to abandon that morning, he being too much fatigued to come one, and to forward him to Colvile, all which he promised to do, and I have no doubt has already performed.[#3]
The evening before our arrival at Spokane we encountered a very severe snow storm, but we were fortunate enough, that very evening to find abundance of wood, an article of which we had hitherto only procured a sufficiency to boil the tea kettle.
We were therefore enabled to make a very large fire and managed with the aid of my bed oil-cloth to erect a kind of shelter from the pelting of the pitiless storm during the night.
On the night of 7th April we reached Fort Colvile about 10 o'clock to my great pleasure, where I was received with the utmost kindness by my old acquaintance, Mr. Chief Trader Arch[ibald] McDonald & his amiable wife.
Being very desirous, if possible, to reach Fort Colvile to day (the 7th) I had ridden very hard -- so much so, that another of our horses gave in, within a few miles of the Fort.
I had, however, no alternative but to ride hard or go supperless to bed as our provisions were entirely out.
This I do not regret, because it gave me an opportunity of proving the correctness of two old adages, viz. put a hungry man on horse back and he'll ride to the Deil [Devil?]; & keep a thing seven years & you will find a use for it.
To understand however the allusion to the latter of these wise sayings, it will be necessary here to state, that on leaving Fort Vancouver, Mr. Ermatinger, a veritable John Bull and our caterer for the grub department of the voyage, had prevailed upon Captain Brotchie, whose vessel was then laying at Vancouver, to get made for us, a couple of large plum puddings, & the same puddings upon being tried on the voyage from Vancouver to Walla Walla, had been found wanting, not in quantity but in quality, and until our arrival at the last mentioned post had layen neglected and almost forgotten.
While seeing me equipped for the trip on horseback from Walla Walla to Fort Colvile, Mr. Ermatinger had slipped in amongst my eatables a piece of those identical puddings; being this morning therefore pressed by hunger, I had, I presume, dived deeper than usual into the recesses of my haversack and finding poor Brotchie, I made, sans ceremonie & cannibal-like, a most hearty Breakfast upon his remains.
As already mentioned, we reached Colvile on the night of the 7th April about 10 o'clock; for two hours previously we had ridden in the dark, through woods, across River, & over hill & dale, so anxious was I to reach my destination -- not, I beg it to be understood, from the paltry motive of procuring a supper, but from the desire of gaining upon the trip of last year.

On the 23rd of April, having received the last despatches from Fort Vancouver & having finished the accounts, I started, accompanied by Dr. Tolmie with two Boats and fourteen men; the other gentlemen having dispersed during the route to their different departments.
Fort Colvile is a very neat and compact little establishment and nothing I have yet seen in the Indian Country can equal the beauty of its situation -- placed on a rising ground in the midst of a very pretty plain encircled by an extensive & well cultivated farm -- the fields & fences laid out with a neatness which does credit to the taste of their projector -- here and there a band of Cattle to enliven the prospect and at a considerable distance surrounded on all sides by high mountains covered from the base to the summit with beautiful pines.
Nor does the inside of the establishment yield in any respect to the exterior, for when seated at table with Mr. and Mrs. McDonald & their family, one cannot help thinking himself once more at home enjoying a tete-a-tete in some domestic circle.

After a voyage of ten days up the most rapid & almost most dangerous part of the Columbia River, the country very rugged and rocky, we arrived on Tuesday the 4th of May at the Boat Encampment, which is the highest point that a Boat or Canoe can navigate the Columbia....

Endnotes to above:
[1] 200 miles from Fort Vancouver. River here 3/4 of a mile wide
[2] About 700 miles from the Pacific by the travelled route
[3] N.B. Upon my return from Hudson's Bay I found Garry had returned the Horse. G.T.A.

To continue George Traill Allan's story:
In a document held by Oregon Historical Society Archives, written by a descendant of James Birnie, we have a little more information about George Traill Allan.
The author of the piece copied out a letter Allan wrote in April 1885, telling a descendant a little about James and Charlot Birnie; its a nice letter but has no information new to us Birnie descendants.
But a few pages later, the author of the document tells us more about George Allan:
"Mr. Allen [sic], an employee of the Hudson's Bay Company had become super annuated and was cared for by James Birnie, and his wife after James Birnie's death.
"After the decease of Mrs. Birnie, Mr. Allen was cared for by Alec. D. Birnie in a cottage built on the latter's property and still standing (1922) until Mr. Allen's death."
And so it appears that the entire Birnie family valued George Traill Allan, and were fond enough of him that he was treated as if he was almost a family member -- even if he did not marry one of the Birnie girls.
His good humour and kindness kept Allan in safe hands until his death.
It sounds as if he remained single his entire life.
But what can a five-foot tall, one hundred pound, delicate dynamo like George Traill Allan do to attract a wife?


  1. Part of this post has been updated and is found at

  2. Could we read the remainder of the journey east?