GRAHAME, JAMES ALLAN, HBC chief commissioner; b. 22 Dec. 1825 in Edinburgh, son of James Grahame and Lillias Allan; m. first 5 Sept. 1847 Susannah Birnie, and they had three sons; m. secondly 5 Sept. 1860 Mary Work, and they had six sons and three daughters; d. 19 June 1905 in Victoria.
James Allan Grahame came from a solid bourgeois family in Edinburgh. His father was a clerk to Lord Meadowbank (a Scottish judge) and a writer to the signet. Through his mother he had strong connections to the Hudson’s Bay Company: her brother John had been a medical attendant to Lord Selkirk [Douglas*] and another brother, George Traill, was for many years in charge of the HBC agency at Honolulu (Hawaii) before being transferred to the Columbia district on the Pacific coast. In August 1842 John recommended his nephew to company director John Halkett*. The 16-year-old had “conceived quite a passion” for the HBC, Allan said, as a result of his contact with company men who visited Edinburgh. “He has been a pupil at the Edinburgh academy . . . & has acquired a considerable proficiency in Latin, Greek French & Arithmetic &c. He is of most industrious & correct habits and is strong & healthy, and is . . . the very sort of boy most desirable for the Company’s service.”
Grahame joined the HBC as an apprentice clerk and, recommended by various company officials in London, he sailed for York Factory (Man.) in June 1843. After a winter learning the trade at Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg), he was transferred to the Columbia district in June 1844. He spent the next few years at Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, Wash.), which after 1846 was within the Oregon Territory of the United States. In 1847, at Fort George (Astoria, Oreg.), he married a daughter of retired HBC officer James Birnie, and two years later he was promoted clerk. In 1849–50, during the California gold-rush, many HBC employees on the Columbia River deserted or retired, including Grahame’s uncle George and brother-in-law Thomas Lowe, who formed Allan, Lowe and Company, commission merchants in San Francisco. Grahame, who almost retired himself in 1850, was able to capitalize on the new economic order on the Pacific coast: in 1854 his investment with Allan, Lowe stood at $5,000.
Grahame was promoted rapidly in the 1850s. Placed in charge of Fort Vancouver in 1853, he became a chief trader the following year and, after chief factor Dugald Mactavish*’s departure from Fort Vancouver in 1858, he administered the Oregon Department. During these years the HBC embarked on the retail trade in the American settlements on the Columbia and later in the British settlements on the Fraser River and Vancouver Island. The company thus broadened its corporate structure decades before similar developments occurred in Rupert’s Land.
On 14 June 1860 Grahame handed Fort Vancouver over to the American authorities. He transferred everything of value to Fort Victoria (Victoria, B.C.), depot of the HBC’s Western Department. A few months after arriving there in 1860 he remarried, his wife Susannah having died in 1854; his second wife was a daughter of Josette Legacé* and chief factor John Work*. The following year Grahame was commissioned chief factor and transferred to the Northern Department. He remained there for six years, in charge first of Lower Fort Garry (1861–62) and then of the Norway House district (1862–67).
In 1867 he returned to the Western Department, where for two years he superintended the New Caledonia and Cariboo districts. On 1 June 1870, with his brother-in-law Roderick Finlayson*, he assumed joint charge of the entire department: he managed the Pacific coast while Finlayson handled the interior. On Finlayson’s retirement in 1872, Grahame took sole charge; his second in command was his brother-in-law William Charles. During these years he oversaw the extension of the HBC’s retail trade to the New Caledonia, Cassiar, and Cariboo districts and to the Skeena River, regions in which gold had been discovered. Following a visit to London in 1872, he was appointed to the newly created position of sub-commissioner, a post he held until 1 June 1874, when he succeeded Donald Alexander Smith* as chief commissioner of the HBC in North America. He was posted to Winnipeg.
Great changes had occurred since Grahame’s last posting to the Northern Department. In 1870 control of Rupert’s Land had passed to the Canadian government, and the HBC lost its exclusive trading privileges. In the same year the province of Manitoba was carved out of the Northern Department, and Canadian settlers began to arrive. The HBC, however, retained possession of 7,000,000 acres of land on the prairies, and in this difficult period of transition it sought to improve its transportation network there and to diversify its operations in order to counter competition and capitalize on settlement.
Grahame’s experience with lake, river, and coastal transportation and with the retail trade on the west coast suited him to the task of modernization. Prior to his arrival, Smith had begun to place steamers on major rivers and lakes. Grahame continued to do so and after 1874 steamers were plying Lake Winnipeg and the Assiniboine, Red, Saskatchewan, and Athabasca rivers. In 1877 he hired engineer Walter Moberly to construct a tramway to bypass the Grand Rapids of the Saskatchewan. With the completion of a railway between Winnipeg and St Paul, Minn., in 1878 and the prairie section of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1883, he built retail stores, sawmills, and grist-mills to cope with settlers’ and commercial demands. He instituted many of these costly changes with reluctance, knowing that fur prices in London were tumbling during the depression of the 1870s, and that such expenditures were opposed by the HBC’s commissioned officers, who accused him of neglecting the fur trade proper.
The HBC’s London directors, however, felt that Grahame’s retailing ventures were not bold enough. They were distressed too at his differences of opinion with both Smith, who had taken up the position of land commissioner for the HBC in 1874, and Smith’s successor in 1879, Charles John Brydges*. Grahame objected to Smith’s visionary schemes for railways and to Brydges’s more aggressive expansion of the retail trade. More serious, the London board condemned the private purchase of old Fort Garry at Winnipeg for speculative purposes by Grahame, Brydges, and two other employees at the peak of the land boom there.
In 1882 HBC deputy governor Sir John Rose* presented a report that questioned Grahame’s ability to handle “the new and varied duties that must be undertaken if we are to carry on an active commercial business.” Another senior official, Thomas Robert Smith, wrote that he found Grahame “much behind the times.” Such doubts, combined with Grahame’s land purchase, led governor Eden Colvile* to request his resignation in March 1883. Grahame acceded in April, though his letter of resignation was not accepted until June 1884, when a replacement, Joseph Wrigley, was found. Despite the opposition he had aroused and his inability to satisfy either the commissioned officers or the London board, Grahame, always a zealous and dedicated employee, had kept his job longer than Smith or any other HBC chief commissioner in the 19th century.
Following his retirement Grahame settled first in Montreal and then, in 1887, in Victoria, where he would die in 1905. An Anglican and a Conservative, he was connected by marriage to British Columbia’s fur-trade, colonial, and provincial élites. His brothers-in-law included chief factor William Fraser Tolmie* and premier Edward Gawler Prior. A keen freemason, he helped form lodges in Oregon City, Fort Vancouver, and Victoria. Mount Grahame in the Cassiar District of British Columbia is named after him, as was Fort Grahame on the Finlay River – until the settlement was obliterated by damming in the 1960s.
BCARS, A/D/20/Q31; E/B/L951; E/C/G763.9; GR 1304, file 1905/2814; W/A/G76. NA, MG 19, A2, ser.2, 1: 5–16. PAM, HBCA, A.10/15; A.11/62: ff.556–59; A.11/107: ff.299–99d; J. A. Grahame file; John Halkett file. Daily Colonist (Victoria), 10 May 1874. Alexander Begg, History of British Columbia from its earliest discovery to the present time (Toronto, 1894; repr. 1972). C. J. Brydges, The letters of Charles John Brydges, 1879–1882; Hudson’s Bay Company land commissioner, ed. Hartwell Bowsfield, intro. Alan Wilson (Winnipeg, 1977); The letters of Charles John Brydges, 1883–1889 . . . , ed. Hartwell Bowsfield, intro. J. E. Rea (Winnipeg, 1981). R. I. Burns, The Jesuits and the Indian wars of the northwest (New Haven, Conn., 1966). Directory, Victoria, 1868–69. H. A. Innis, The fur trade in Canada: an introduction to Canadian economic history, [ed. Mary Quayle Innis et al.] (rev. ed., Toronto, 1956). A. A. den Otter, “The Hudson’s Bay Company’s prairie transportation problem, 1870–85,” The developing west: essays on Canadian history in honor of Lewis H. Thomas, ed. J. E. Foster (Edmonton, 1983), 25–47. The papers of the Palliser expedition, 1857–1860, ed. and intro. I. M. Spry (Toronto, 1968). A. J. Ray, The Canadian fur trade in the industrial age (Toronto, 1990). E. O. S. Scholefield and R. E. Gosnell, A history of British Columbia . . . (Vancouver and Victoria, 1913). Scholefield and Howay, British Columbia, 3: 820–24. Eleanor Stardom, “Twilight of the fur trade,” Beaver, 71 (1991–92), no.4: 6–18.
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Cite This Article
Richard Mackie, “GRAHAME, JAMES ALLAN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 7, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/grahame_james_allan_13E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Richard Mackie|
|Title of Article:||GRAHAME, JAMES ALLAN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1994|
|Year of revision:||1994|
|Access Date:||June 7, 2023|