GRANT, WALTER COLQUHOUN, soldier and settler; b. 27 May 1822 in Edinburgh, Scotland, the only child of Colquhoun Grant and Margaret Brodie; d. 27 Aug. 1861 in Saugor, India.
Walter Colquhoun Grant was born to a military family, his father having been chief of the intelligence department of the army commanded by the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo. Both of Grant’s parents were dead by 1829, and he was raised by a cousin, William Brodie, in Forres, Morayshire, Scotland. Grant followed family tradition and at age 24 became the youngest captain in the British army, in the 2nd Royal North British Dragoons, known as the Scots Greys. In 1848 he was at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. The loss of a reported £75,000 inheritance through the failure of his bank, however, forced Grant, now beset by rising debts and pressing creditors, to leave the army.
In the summer of 1848, before he left Sandhurst, Grant learned that the Hudson’s Bay Company was to be given proprietary rights to Vancouver Island, which he considered “a grand field for fresh & vigorous enterprise.” In communication with the HBC, Grant agreed to purchase 200 acres of land, and, in accordance with the company’s provisions, establish settlers on it. The HBC, which officially took possession of the island on 13 Jan. 1849, was in urgent need of maps of Vancouver Island to facilitate land sales, and appointed Grant its surveyor at a yearly salary of £100. After initial difficulties in attracting settlers, Grant did succeed in recruiting eight Scots, including a farm manager, labourers, and house builders, who sailed for the island at the beginning of 1849, their passages paid by Grant. He also arranged that the Church of Scotland would supply a clergyman to be schoolmaster on Vancouver Island, but the minister died on the voyage out. Grant dispatched carriage harnesses, sawmill machinery, sporting rifles, tools, seeds, cricket equipment, and surveying devices, but the expenses involved in his immigration plans plunged him into further financial difficulties before he left England. With the assistance of his uncle, Sir Lewis Grant, he purchased 100 of the 200 acres he wanted, and he obtained from the HBC an advance on his first year’s salary as surveyor.
In the spring of 1849 Grant sailed from Scotland via Panama (where he ran out of money and drew on the HBC for £100), and California, to Fort Victoria, which he reached on 11 Aug. 1849. Approaching the fort from his landing near Clover Point, he mistook a milk cow for a buffalo and shot it, much to the consternation of the company. He found his eight settlers disgruntled from their two months’ wait for him. He set about claiming the quantity of land he had bought, expecting to find 200 acres of “prairie land” near Fort Victoria, but this land was still in the company’s possession. James Douglas*, the chief factor, suggested that he settle at Metchosin; instead he chose a site on Sooke Basin, 25 miles northwest of Fort Victoria, suitable for building a sawmill. Grant and his men began building a house, named Achaineach (Gaelic for Ravensfield), which was constructed of squared logs and cedar shakes and defended by two cannon. Soon he and his men had some 35 acres under cultivation. In 1850 he installed a small water-powered mill at the mouth of a stream at the northeast end of Sooke Basin to cut the abundant timber found nearby.
The increasing involvement with his estate made Grant’s surveying duties take second place. Pressed by the company to send back sketches on tracing paper to London as soon as possible, Grant in his role as company surveyor of Victoria district completed the base lines for the proposed municipal area and established the perimeter for the acreage of John Tod* (the only other colonist to have come to the island by September 1850), but did not complete his assignment of dividing the area into sections. Hampered by lack of assistance and time, Grant tendered his resignation in March 1850 and finally gave up the survey in September, leaving the colony without a surveyor’s services.
Grant, however, was now short of capital and was betraying a lack of ability in managing men. He ran up large accounts with family, friends, banks, and the company; Sir George Simpson* observed that Grant had “a peculiar talent for getting into the pockets of his friends.” Grant claimed in March 1850 that he had been forced to dismiss half of his men for misconduct and had lost others through desertion, although most of them later settled on land of their own. He had some difficulty with the Sooke Indians over theft and vandalism and urged that two regiments be stationed on Vancouver Island, but he received no protection from the authorities in Fort Victoria or London. Later, Grant claimed that he had established “a friendly intercourse with the native tribe of savages.” By late 1850 the depressed condition of the economy, caused in part by the California gold rush, which affected prices and drained off settlers and labour, hit Grant hard. His spirits, also, were much affected by the solitariness of his existence as a colonist and in October 1850 he visited the Hawaiian Islands, returning to Sooke in February 1851. During the summer he rented his farm to one of his former servants and left for the Klamath gold mines in Oregon. After spending almost two years there, he arrived in San Francisco in August 1853. He returned to Vancouver Island for the last time in September 1853 and sold his property to John Muir*, another non-company settler, who went on to develop a profitable lumber business at Sooke. Grant quit Vancouver Island in mid November 1853.
Associates of Grant on Vancouver Island, such as Governor Richard Blanshard*, the Reverend Robert John Staines*, and James Yates, were in agreement with his complaints about the company’s lack of interest in colonization. Grant’s objections to company rule, expressed even before he left England, concerning the high cost of land, heavy royalties on the export of lumber, and the exclusive rights of trade of the company, were confirmed by his experiences as a colonist. Yet Grant made numerous contributions to the development of British colonization on the island. He was the first white person independent of the HBC to settle on the island, and its first inland surveyor. He was the founder of Sooke, and a promoter of Scottish immigration. He introduced cricket, and left his equipment to Staines’ boarding school. He imported seeds of broom in order that the hills around him might benefit from it and also take on the hue of his native Scotland. He was a pioneer in the lumber industry at Sooke, though in this as in many of his projects he was unsuccessful. A swordsman, hunter, conversationalist, and spendthrift, he was a unique addition to the colonial society dominated by the company. James Douglas wrote that Grant was “an unfortunate man who has been an absolute plague to me since he came to the Island.” Eden Colvile*, another company servant, thought Grant’s “flightiness almost amounts to lunacy.” John Sebastian Helmcken*, however, remembered him as “a splendid fellow and every inch an officer and a gentleman.”
Upon his return to Britain Grant re-enlisted in the British army, and served during the Crimean War as lieutenant-colonel of the cavalry of the Turkish contingent. At the time of his death at age 39, he was brigade-major of Lucknow in central India. He had retained, however, his interest in Vancouver Island, and wrote from India in December 1857 to the secretary of the Royal Geographical Society that once the mutiny was settled and if Vancouver Island were “not in the meantime provided with a better governor,” he would certainly accept the post “provided government felt disposed to take the [colony’s] affairs seriously in hand.” In 1857 and 1859 he prepared papers concerning the island for the Royal Geographical Society in London which were published. They are distinct contributions to the early literature concerning the potential for colonization on an island that he had been unable, because of circumstances and certain personal traits, to influence as he had wished.
[W. C. Grant was the author of “Description of Vancouver Island, by its first colonist,” Royal Geographical Soc., Journal (London), 27 (1857), 268–320, and “Remarks on Vancouver Island, principally concerning townsites and native population,” Royal Geographical Soc., Journal (London), 31 (1861), 208–13. Important letters are in “Two letters from Walter Colquhoun Grant,” ed. J. E. Hendrickson, BC Studies, 26 (summer 1975), 3–15. b.m.g.]
Royal Geographical Soc. Archives (London), Correspondence files, W. C. Grant to secretary, 16 Dec. 1857, 23 Nov. 1858, 15 March 1859. Scottish Record Office (Edinburgh), Brodie of Brodie papers, box 11, bundle 5, W. C. Grant to William Brodie, 29 Aug. 1848, 8 Aug. 1851. Gentleman’s Magazine, CCXI (July–December 1861), 572. Royal Geographical Soc., Journal, 32 (1862), cviii; Proc. (London), I (1857), 487–90. [C. J. D.] Haswell, The first respectable spy: the life and times of Colquhoun Grant, Wellington’s head of intelligence (London, 1969). D. A. Fraser, “British Columbia’s first settler,” Public School Magazine (Victoria), III (1920), 44, 46, 48. W. E. Ireland, “Captain Walter Colquhoun Grant: Vancouver Island’s first independent settler,” BCHQ, XVII (1953), 87–125; “Pioneer surveyors of Vancouver Island,” Corporation of B.C. Land Surveyors, Report of proc. of the annual general meeting (Victoria), 1951, 47–51. Daily Colonist (Victoria), 12 July 1931, 8 July 1956. Vancouver Daily Province, 10 March 1950 (magazine section). Victoria Daily Times, 2 April 1949.
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Cite This Article
Barry M. Gough, “GRANT, WALTER COLQUHOUN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 3, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/grant_walter_colquhoun_9E.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:||Barry M. Gough|
|Title of Article:||GRANT, WALTER COLQUHOUN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1976|
|Year of revision:||1976|
|Access Date:||June 3, 2023|