Our History: The Scots who helped build B.C.

During the mid-1800s, thousands of Scots migrated from their homes in Inverness, Edinburgh, the Orkney Islands, Hebrides, Ayrshire and elsewhere to work as labourers in the new Colony of Vancouver Island. In Kilts on the Coast: The Scots Who Built B.C., Nanaimo author and historian Jan Peterson traces the stories of the Island’s most influential Scottish pioneer families and their descendants.


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Doctor, Botanist, Climber and Librarian: William Fraser Tolmie

Chief Factor Dr. William Fraser Tolmie began service with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1832. He was born in Inverness on Feb. 3, 1812, the eldest son of Alexander Tolmie and Marjory Fraser.

His mother died when he was three, and an aunt raised him. His early education was at Inverness Academy, Perth Grammar School and private schools in Edinburgh. An uncle encouraged his interest in medicine and helped finance his studies from 1829 to 1831 at the University of Glasgow’s medical school.

Although often referred to as Dr. Tolmie, he did not have an MD degree. He studied as a licentiate of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, a body independent of the university. He received his diploma in the spring of 1831. A near-fatal illness prevented him from undertaking further studies in Paris.

In 1832, when a cholera epidemic devastated Scotland, he worked in an emergency cholera hospital in Glasgow. In the summer of that year, the Hudson’s Bay Company was looking for two medical officers for the Columbia District, and Tolmie was recommended for the post. On Sept. 12 he signed a five-year contract to serve in the dual capacity of clerk and surgeon for the Columbia District. Three days later, he sailed from Gravesend on the ship Ganymede. He celebrated his 21st birthday on board.

The Ganymede travelled by way of Cape Horn and the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) and arrived at Fort George (also known as Fort Astoria) at the mouth of the Columbia River on May 1, 1833. The voyage had taken more than eight months. Three days later, Tolmie reached Fort Vancouver and reported to Dr. John McLoughlin, the chief factor. Tolmie began work immediately as medical officer. He was assigned temporarily to the new post at Nisqually, on Puget Sound, and would then move to Fort McLoughlin, a new post built in the spring of that year at Milbanke Sound.

Tolmie was an enthusiastic botanist who collected and recorded many new plants, some that would bear his name. He sent some of the specimens to his friend, Sir William Hooker, a celebrated naturalist at Kew Gardens, England. Tolmie was also a climber, and was the first white man to climb in the Mount Rainier area, making observations of living glaciers within what is now the United States. He set out on Aug. 29, 1833, and on Sept. 2 reached the summit of what is now known as known as Tolmie Peak.

He left Nisqually on Dec. 12, 1833, on the Cadboro, for Fort McLoughlin, arriving there on Dec. 23. After celebrating Christmas Day with friends Alexander Caulfield Anderson and Donald Manson, he wrote: “Passed the evening very agreeably. Sang several old Scotch ditties and the other gentlemen also tuned their pipes.”

Tolmie loved to read, and during his stay at Fort McLoughlin, he and Donald Manson conceived the idea of establishing a circulating library among the HBC officers. The officers subscribed, and then ordered books and periodicals from the company’s agent in London. The library was kept at Fort Vancouver, and books were sent out to all the forts and posts. This was the first circulating library on the Pacific coast and was in operation from 1833 to 1843.

Tolmie also studied native languages and, with Dr. George M. Dawson, compiled a dictionary of the aboriginal languages in British Columbia.

In 1835, while Tolmie was stationed at Fort McLoughlin, a number of natives from the north end of Vancouver Island came to trade. The blacksmith was working at his forge, and when he put more coal on the fire, the natives were curious. They asked where the coal came from, and were told it took six months to bring it by ship from Wales.

He noticed they were amused by this and asked what was so funny. The natives told him that it seemed funny that men should carry this soft black stone so far when it could be had without expense close at hand. The blacksmith called Tolmie, and the natives told him where he could get all the black stones he wanted on Vancouver Island.

The result was the discovery of the coalfield at Beaver Harbour and the founding of Fort Rupert [near Port Hardy] several years later. This was the first important coal discovery in British Columbia, and it was this deposit that brought many Scottish miners to Vancouver Island.

Hubert Howe Bancroft described Tolmie as “rather below medium height, broad-shouldered and stout ... high forehead, coarse features, round deep-set eyes glittering from under shaggy brows, large round ruby nose.” Others admired his capacity to endure “irritations with calmness and courage” and observed that he was a “solemn man who could turn almost anything into hard work for his conscience.”

Rather than return to Scotland after his retirement from the company, he decided to remain in Fort Victoria, where he married Jane Work in 1850. Earlier in his life, he had agonized over a decision never to marry an Indian woman. Jane was of mixed blood and one of 11 children born to John and Josette Work.

Tolmie was a man with some influence. When Great Britain had the opportunity to purchase the Alaska Panhandle from Russia, it consulted HBC men in the field, one being Tolmie at Fort Victoria. Until this time, the panhandle had been leased, and negotiations by the company to pay for a renewal were deadlocked, leaving Britain in a bit of a quandary. Tolmie had the foresight to see the opportunity this presented, and he urged that the Russian offer to sell be accepted.

By the time his letter reached London, however, the Company had renewed the lease for another two years. The U.S. purchased Alaska in 1867 for $7,200,000. Britain did not seem interested in acquiring more empire on the other side of the world.

Tolmie purchased farmland near Work’s Hillside Farm, and by 1859 had cultivated 1,100 acres and constructed his home, named Cloverdale, on Lovat Avenue. It was the first stone dwelling house in what is now the province of British Columbia. By any standard, it was a grand mansion, built in three stages with sandstone from Saltspring Island and redwood from San Francisco, walls two feet thick constructed of stone quarried on the farm and logs salvaged from the old company buildings being dismantled within the fort. The thriving farm had everything, including imported purebred stock. Sadly, the house was demolished in 1963.

The Tolmies had five daughters and seven sons. Their seventh son, Simon Fraser Tolmie, was born in Victoria and served as premier of the province from 1928 to 1933.

In 1860, Tolmie was elected to the first House of Assembly of Vancouver Island and was a member from 1860 through 1866. He retired from the HBC in 1871. After the union of the Crown colonies in 1866, he was elected to represent Victoria in a byelection necessitated by the resignation of Amor de Cosmos. He served from 1874 to 1878, when he retired from politics.

One of the legislative measures Tolmie introduced was An Act to Prevent the Spread of Thistles. His interest in plant life continued throughout his life. He died on Dec. 8, 1886.

Several landmarks in Victoria commemorate Tolmie, including Mount Tolmie and Cloverdale Elementary School.


Excerpted from Kilts on the Coast: The Scots Who Built B.C. Heritage House Publishing ©2012 Jan Peterson.

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