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HOWSE, JOSEPH, fur trader, explorer, and linguistic scholar; baptized 2 March 1774 in Cirencester, England, son of Thomas Howse and his wife Ann; d. there 4 Sept. 1852.

After ten years’ fur-trading experience in the Saskatchewan district, Joseph Howse took part in the exploration of western North America as the first Hudson’s Bay Company man to cross the Rocky Mountains; a pass, a peak, and a river bear his name. Howse also wrote the first grammar of the Cree language, placed next to “the labours of [John] Eliot, [David] Zeisberger[*], [John Gottlieb Ernestus Hackenwelder] Heckewelder, [Henry Rowe] Schoolcraft” by his contemporaries and still recognized as an outstanding document both of the Cree language and of early grammatical practice.

The name Howse has long been common in the Cirencester area. Although his father was a brazier there, Joseph Howse is consistently described, after his return from North America, as a “Gentleman”; the family, which came from nearby Ampney St Mary, belonged to the “yeoman” class of landholders. The handwriting on the contract with the HBC which Joseph Howse signed at the age of 21 is quite mature and differs little from that exhibited in his later correspondence. Aside from his own remark (in 1844) about “some knowledge of Latin, French, and Italian, acquired before I left England,” no more is known about his youth than that he was “originally apprenticed to a bookseller and stationer” at Cirencester.

Following the example of Joseph Colen*, who had left Cirencester for Hudson Bay ten years earlier, Howse and Colen’s nephew Thomas sailed from Gravesend on 5 June 1795. The HBC ship King George carried two other “writers” besides Howse and Thomas Colen and, presiding over this “literary company,” there was Chief Factor Joseph Colen, “educated and articulate,” who appears to have taken a special interest in Howse. When William Hemmings Cook*, another passenger on the voyage, reported to Colen (then in retirement at Cirencester) in 1811 on Howse’s expedition across the Rocky Mountains, he referred to him explicitly as “your pupil.”

On 28 Aug. 1795 the King George arrived at York Factory (Man.) where Howse spent the next two years. His own account suggests that he began his practical language studies without delay: “As long as it was requisite, I had the assistance of an Interpreter; but the absolute necessity of understanding and being understood by those among whom I was to live, made me diligent in endeavouring to learn their language.” In one of his commissions for goods to be sent from England there is a hint of an individual Cree tutor to whom Howse may have apprenticed himself; his order for 1799 not only reflects life in a settled condition but includes, in particular, several items (such as “6 Yds of printed Cotten – lively pattern”) seemingly destined for a woman; the request for “2 pr of red Shoes – for a Child of a year old” supports the inference of a household à la façon du pays. While there are no further glimpses of his domestic life in Hudson Bay, it is reasonable to suppose that Howse had ample opportunity to practise his Cree, and by 1798 he is described as a “good linguist.” Nor did he, as his book orders show, neglect his other languages, and in 1808 there is a request for “1 pair of neat Spectacles with green glasses – to save the eyes when reading by candlelight – not to magnify at all.”

Reading – and writing – dominate Howse’s later life in England, but for most of his 20 years in North America intellectual endeavours had to yield priority to his duties as an inland trader.

The first stage of Howse’s apprenticeship ended in December 1797 when as a writer and accountant he left York Factory for Gordon House on the Hayes River; he spent the rest of the season there and did not return to York Factory until 4 July 1798. Scheduled “to settle a House in the Bungee country near poplar River” for the 1798–99 season, Howse was, in the summer of 1799, characterized by John Ballenden as “being every way qualified and generally approved . . . fit” to take command of a post on the Prairies. Travelling to Cumberland House (Sask.) with James Bird, he was sent to Carlton House on the Saskatchewan River, for the 1799–1800 season, where he was also responsible for the trade at Cumberland House. Howse remained at Carlton, now as master, for another winter, 1800–1. While his post during 1801–2 has not been ascertained, Peter Fidler*’s journal entries for Chesterfield House make it seem likely that Howse was stationed on the North Saskatchewan River. His financial records suggest that he stayed in the same region for a second winter, 1802–3, with his salary raised to £50, and when he took charge of Carlton House again in 1803–4, Howse was described as “Trader.” In 1804–5 he was master at Chesterfield House on the South Saskatchewan River – that is, no longer among Cree speakers primarily – but he returned to the new Carlton House on the South Saskatchewan in 1805–6 and remained there (aside from the summers) until the spring of 1809. The letters Howse wrote during his first decade in the Saskatchewan district illustrate not only his personal style, epistolary as well as managerial, but also his enterprising attitude towards the affairs of the company.

As the HBC prepared to challenge the position of the North West Company in the Rocky Mountains, Howse joined Bird at Edmonton House (Edmonton) in 1809 and remained there until 1811. The itinerary of the HBC’s first foray into the Rocky Mountains is, ironically, documented only in the journals of David Thompson of the NWC. Starting from their neighbouring posts of Edmonton House and Fort Augustus, the two explorers both set off on 18 July 1809. The HBC party consisted of Howse and three others, and its goal was obvious: in Thompson’s words, Howse “went off for the Mountains to examine the Country &c&c.” When Thompson and his party, preparing to winter in the mountains and thus encumbered with supplies and trading goods, reached Rocky Mountain House (Alta) on 26 July, Howse appeared to be several days ahead. The two parties did not meet until 9 August at the head of navigation, at the forks of the North Saskatchewan River, “when Mr Howse & the Indian with him” were already on their way back from the pass. Thompson gave Howse a letter for James Hughes at Fort Augustus, a clear indication that Howse intended no further exploration at this time. At next report, on 23 September, he was back on the Prairies.

A novice at exploration, Howse had crossed the continental divide without delay. That he had also explored a portion of the Columbia River is suggested by a final remark from Thompson’s journal: on 19 August his advance party reported seeing “the Tracks of 2 Horsemen” where it had camped just below the present Lake Windermere (B.C.). Official recognition is expressed in the York Factory account-book for 1810 against the entry for Howse’s current wages of £65: “hopes your Honors will allow him 80£ the readiness wth which this Gentn undertook, the expedition across the Rocky Mountain, merits some attention.”

When Howse returned to the Rocky Mountains in 1810–11, he stayed a full year. On 19 June 1810 Alexander Henry* the younger, NWC partner at New White Earth House (Alta), recorded the departure from the adjacent HBC post of “two canoes for the Columbia, with nine men. . . . They embarked four rolls of tobacco, two kegs of high wine, powder, several bags of balls, a bag of shot, pemmican, etc.” Howse himself began his journey “by land”; as Henry noted on 20 June, Howse had left “with four Cree guides and hunters . . . the whole H.B.Co. Columbia expedition consists of 17 persons.” This time, evidently, there was to be trade as well as exploration. The NWC took the challenge seriously; on 9 July James McMillan “set off for the Columbia to watch the motions of the H.B. in that quarter.”

Opposition to both companies was mounted by the Peigans; at war with the Flatheads, they strove to block all trade across the mountains. While Thompson, travelling in October, chose to seek a more northerly route through Athabasca Pass (B.C.), Howse had reached the Cootana (Columbia) River by 20 August. There he remained some time “to gain further intelligence” in view of the threat the Peigan Indians posed to “him, or any white man” in the summer of 1810. According to one of his Cree guides, Howse was still on the Columbia on 1 September and on 22 October another guide, who had “just come across the mountains,” specified his location to Henry as the “old” Kootenay House, at the head of the Columbia. The NWC’s watch was still being kept, and McMillan did not leave until 12 December, at which time Howse was reported to be wintering on or near Flathead Lake (Mont.). When he returned to Columbia Lake (B.C.), Howse once more crossed paths with Thompson, who was told of Howse’s presence on 14 May.

The only record of the journey by Howse’s own hand is contained in a letter written to HBC governor Sir George Simpson in 1843. In sketching his itinerary Howse writes that he “crossed the Rocky Mounts in the Summer and Autumn of 1810 by ye North Branch of the Saskatchewan – ascended the Kootoonay [Columbia] River – carried into the Flat-Bow (?) [Kootenay] River – descended by the most Southly Bight of it – crossed (Portage Poil de Custer) to Flathead River . . . where we built.” He goes on to describe a further crossing of the continental divide in December 1810: “with a couple of my men I accompanied the Flat-heads to the head branches of ye Missouri – returned to our House – in Feby 1811.”

Meanwhile the Peigan blockade continued in full force; according to Bird their chiefs “declared that, if they again met with a white Man going to supply their Enemies, they would not only plunder & kill him, but that they would make dry Meat of his body.” Bird, consequently, had by the end of March sent two men “with horses and Pemican” to meet Howse at the Columbia River and in May five men were left at Acton House (Alta) “to conciliate the minds of the Indians, and to dispose them . . . to behave friendly towards Mr. Howse, and party.”

In no small part thanks to Bird’s prudent support, Howse reached Edmonton House by mid July 1811, the first HBC man to have followed the NWC into the land across the Rockies. The rewards were considerable: while the trading goods, stores, and wages for Howse’s expedition had come to £576, the furs brought back were valued at £1,500. In spite of Bird’s plans, however, and the HBC London committee’s hopes to continue this trade, the declared hostility of the Peigans proved effective: no further expeditions across the Rocky Mountains were undertaken by the HBC until after its merger with the NWC in 1821. But Howse, “adventurous, tough and intelligent,” had shown, as Edwin Ernest Rich has put it, that the HBC had men “who could rival the Nor’Westers in their ability to travel, to trade, and to manage Indians.”

When William Hemmings Cook, the HBC officer in charge at York Factory, wrote to Joseph Colen at Cirencester in the autumn of 1811, he claimed that Howse had “explored a Country that European feet had never trod.” Unfortunately, as Colen noted with regret, Howse “was not provided with Astronomical Instruments” and thus, although he had “explored ye Country many hundred Miles,” had not “laid down his track.”

In 1811–12 Howse wintered at Paint Creek House (Alta) on the North Saskatchewan, and in September 1812, after a survey of the Nelson River from York Factory to Split Lake (Man.), he sailed for England on the King George. Aside from family matters, he met with the London committee whose plans for another expedition across the Rockies were well advanced. But whatever Howse’s intentions may have been, he did not in fact undertake another journey into the Columbia. On his return voyage the Prince of Wales, leaving London on 1 June 1813, was late arriving at York Factory because of ship’s fever which had broken out among the passengers under Archibald McDonald bound for the Red River colony (Man.), forcing a month’s delay at Churchill.

On 29 Sept. 1813 Howse left York Factory on a journey that turned into a tour de force: from Knee Lake (Man.) onwards, an early freeze-up forced his party to proceed on snowshoes to Vermilion River (Alta), “a distance little if any short of 1000 miles”; from there he went on “to Edmonton and back drawn by dogs – then . . . on horseback” to the Red River settlement and back, by August 1814, to York Factory.

While at Red River in the early summer of 1814, Howse found himself entangled in the affairs of the colony. Nor was this the first time: in September 1813 he had been among the HBC officers at York Factory who had opened and read letters from Lord Selkirk [Douglas*] to the colony’s governor, Miles Macdonell*. Now, in June 1814, Howse was one of the men sent by Macdonell to seize supplies of pemmican held by the NWC at Fort La Souris on the Assiniboine River. On his way back to Red River, Howse was captured by the Nor’Westers and taken to Fort Gibraltar (Winnipeg); although he was not, in the event, sent to Montreal to be tried for “burglary,” as had been threatened, Macdonell’s demands for his release were ignored. Conciliation was achieved only upon the arrival of John McDonald* of Garth, who had been Howse’s NWC “Neighbour” at Chesterfield House in 1804–5.

Howse’s troubles, however, were not over. Hardly returned to York Factory, on 9 Aug. 1814 he is “just on the eve of another expedition”: he was sent to Île-à-la-Crosse (Sask.) to re-establish the HBC presence at the threshold of the Athabasca country. His NWC opponent there was Samuel Black*, infamous for his ruthlessness, and a quarrel on 14 Feb. 1815 left several men dead. In the spring Howse left Île-à-la-Crosse; whether his retreat was “shameful,” as Colin Robertson* described it two years later, or prudent, remains an open question. The events of 1814–15 may well have decided Howse to quit Hudson Bay. His appointment in May 1815, along with Thomas Thomas*, Bird, and others, as councillor to the governor-in-chief of Rupert’s Land, Robert Semple*, may have been gratifying, but on 19 Sept. 1815 he left York Factory for the last time.

Howse’s life in North America could hardly have been idle. Yet even in 1813–14, when he was forced to travel overland to the Saskatchewan only to become embroiled in the troubles of the Red River colony, he had been able to spare some time for scholarship. Now, at Cirencester, Howse led the life of a gentleman and scholar. But the calm of his country life was enlivened by frequent visits to London and by correspondence with “some of the most eminent men of the Continent from Rome to Berlin, as well as of the greater part of our Universities and even Ministers of our Government.” None of these letters have come to light, and of those which Howse exchanged with his former associates at Red River, notably James Bird, only fragments survive.

Howse’s advice was sought by the Royal Geographical Society, of which he had become a fellow by 1837, and the Church Missionary Society, which together financed the publication of his Cree grammar. Although the manuscript was almost complete in 1832, the addition of textual illustrations in Ojibwa and continuous revisions and printing difficulties held up publication until 1844. When A grammar of the Cree language finally appeared, it was not only praised but used and cited by linguists everywhere. By 1865 a reprint had become necessary. Now in his mid 70s, Howse travelled to London to read papers before the newly established Philological Society in May 1849 and again in February 1850. The papers contain material, notably in Kutenai and in several Salish languages, which he must have collected during his expedition of 1810–11.

Howse’s will and death certificate suggest that he died a bachelor. But besides the child whose existence is implied in his York Factory commission of 1799, there is Jenny (probably an adolescent), baptized at Red River in 1824 as the “daughter of Joseph Howes supposed resident [in] England and an Indian woman,” and Henry Howes (Howse), who married at Red River in 1830 and in 1831 gave his age as 23; his descendants were later to be found in Métis settlements from the Red River to the North Saskatchewan.

Joseph Howse lived in two worlds: in a frontier territory whose natural rigours were exacerbated by mercantile exploitation and competition, and in the placid country world of a 19th-century British gentleman-scholar. He left his mark in both. As a fur trader, he was justly appreciated for his effectiveness and judgement and as the first HBC man to match the exploratory vigour of the Nor’Westers. The fruit of his scholarly labours, the first Grammar of the Cree language, remains his lasting monument.

H. Christoph Wolfart

Joseph Howse is the author of A grammar of the Cree language, with which is combined an analysis of the Chippeway dialect (London, 1844; repr. 1865) and of two articles published in the Proc. (London) of the Philological Soc.: “Vocabularies of certain North American Indian languages” and “Vocabularies of certain North American languages,” in 4 (1848–50): 102–22 and 191–206 respectively. Apart from the correspondence held in several public archives, the three works appear to be the only writings of Howse still extant. His maps, many of which were sent to British geographer Aaron Arrowsmith, have never been found. Some of his letters are published in HBRS, 26 (Johnson), and others will be included in a forthcoming biography by H. Christoph Wolfart, “Joseph Howse: a linguist’s life.”

AO, MS 25, 10, no.23; MU 2982. British and Foreign Bible Soc. Arch. (London), Foreign corn inwards, 1832, no.3. British Library (London), Add. hiss 32440: f.42. Church Missionary Soc. Arch. (London), G, AC1/8; C.1/XIII. Gloucestershire Record Office (Gloucester, Eng.), Reg. of baptisms for the parish of Cirencester, 2 March 1774; Reg. of burials for the parish of Cirencester, 9 Sept. 1852 (transcript). PAC, MG 19, E1, ser.1–3, 42 (copies). PAM, HBCA, A.I/51; A.5/6; A.6/18; A.10/1; A.16/34; A.32/17; A.36/7; A.64/52; B.34/a/3; B.49/a/30; B.60/a/5–6, 8–9; 13; B.60/d/2b; B.89/d/2; B.239/a/99–101, 114, 118; B.239/b/71; B.239/d/128–29, 132, 147; C.I/398, 424, 779, 783; D.5/8; E.5/5; 6.3/88; MG 4, D 13; MG 7, B7. Royal Geographical Soc. Arch. (London), Council minute-book, 1830–41; Howse corr. Royal Soc. Arch. (London), Letters, 1800–30. HBRS, 2 (Rich and Fleming). New light on early hist. of greater northwest (Coues). David Thompson, David Thompson’s journals relating to Montana and adjacent regions, 1808–12, ed. C. M. White (Missoula, Mont., 1950); David Thompson’s narrative, ed. R. [G.] Glover (new ed., Toronto, 1962). J. P. Pritchett, The Red River valley, 1811–1849: a regional study (New Haven, Conn., 1942). A. B. Braunberger and Thain White, “Howse’s house, an examination of the historical and archeological evidence,” Wash. Archeologist (Seattle), 8 (April–July 1964): 2–89.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

H. Christoph Wolfart, “HOWSE, JOSEPH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 26, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/howse_joseph_8E.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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/howse_joseph_8E.html
Author of Article:   H. Christoph Wolfart
Title of Article:   HOWSE, JOSEPH
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   February 26, 2024