TOLMIE, WILLIAM FRASER, surgeon, HBC officer, and politician; b. 3 Feb. 1812 at Inverness, Scotland, elder son of Alexander Tolmie and Marjory Fraser; m. in February 1850 Jane, daughter of Chief Factor John Work*, and they had five daughters and seven sons, including Simon Fraser Tolmie*, premier of British Columbia; d. 8 Dec. 1886 near Victoria, B.C.
William Fraser Tolmie’s mother died when he was three and he spent some years under the “irksome and capricious authority” of an aunt. He was educated at Inverness Academy and Perth Grammar School. An uncle encouraged his interest in medicine and is said to have financed his studies at the medical school of the University of Glasgow for two years, 1829–31. Although almost invariably referred to as Dr Tolmie, he was not an md: during these two years he worked for credits toward a diploma as licentiate of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, a body independent of the university. Tolmie did well in his studies, won prizes in chemistry and French, and received his diploma in the spring of 1831. He had hoped to study in Paris, but a near-fatal illness prevented him. When he recovered, he served from February to May 1832 as clerk in an emergency cholera hospital organized in Glasgow to cope with the epidemic then raging.
As a youth Tolmie had become greatly interested in botany, a study then closely associated with medicine. This brought him in contact with the famed botanist, William Jackson Hooker, then professor of botany at the University of Glasgow, and with Dr John Scouler, who had made a voyage to Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, Wash.) in a Hudson’s Bay Company supply ship in 1825. In the summer of 1832 the HBC was looking for two medical officers for the Columbia District, and through Dr John Richardson*, the Arctic explorer, they consulted Hooker, who recommended Tolmie and Dr Meredith Gairdner. Tolmie signed in London that September a five-year contract to serve in the dual capacity of clerk and surgeon. As a clerk he would receive an annual salary rising from £20 to £50, and as a surgeon £100 per annum.
Tolmie and Gairdner sailed in the HBC supply ship Ganymede on 15 Sept. 1832. The long, tedious, and uncomfortable voyage by way of Cape Horn was to last more than eight months. Tolmie, however, characteristically looked upon the voyage as “an admirable opportunity for self improvement,” and undertook a methodical programme of reading that he pursued month after month. In addition to medicine, surgery, and natural history, he studied mathematics, geography, history, literature, and French. Whenever opportunity offered he collected bird and fish specimens, described them meticulously, dissected some, and preserved the skins of others. When the ship called at the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands he was able to add botanical notes and specimens to his collection. His voluminous diary of the voyage tells us much also about its author. He was a serious-minded youth, puritanical, and extremely conservative in political and religious opinions. He seems to have totally lacked a sense of humour. All his life he was a tireless worker. At one point in the voyage he found himself dropping into the habit of taking a siesta after dinner and of falling into “an indolent musing mood.” “This habit . . . ,” he noted in his diary, “has rather been gaining ground on me, and its pernicious effects are perceptible in my studies – it is a very insidious enemy and must be crushed in the bud.”
Tolmie arrived at Fort Vancouver in May 1833. There he met Dr John McLoughlin*, chief factor in charge of the Columbia District, and was soon informed that he was to be sent to the northwest coast. He went first to Fort Nisqually (Wash.), then under construction at the south end of Puget Sound, where he expected to take ship for the north, but he remained for six months to tend an injured man. He was soon trading furs with the Indians and showed a marked aptitude for dealing with them. Late in the year he was able at last to leave and he arrived at Fort McLoughlin (Bella Bella, B.C.), a new post on Milbanke Sound, on 23 Dec. 1833. In June 1834 he joined the expedition led by Peter Skene Ogden* that intended to establish a trading post up the Stikine River, beyond the limits of Russian territory. Seeing this move as prejudicial to their trade, the Russians had built a fort at the mouth of the Stikine and refused to allow the expedition’s ship to enter. Although the fort, in Tolmie’s words, was only a “shapeless mass of logs and planks,” Ogden decided not to attempt to force the issue. Later in the summer Ogden moved Fort Simpson from its original location on the Nass River to McLoughlin’s Harbour (McLoughlin Bay at Port Simpson, B.C.) and Tolmie’s diary vividly recounts the pillaging of the old fort by the Indians. In 1835, while at Fort McLoughlin, Tolmie learned from Indians that coal deposits existed at Beaver Harbour, on Vancouver Island. They were found later to be of poor quality, but it was the first discovery of coal on the island.
Tolmie returned to Fort Vancouver in the spring of 1836 and served as surgeon and manager of the Indian trade there until the spring of 1840. Then for a year he was the HBC travelling agent. Tolmie’s contract had expired in 1837 and he had asked for a furlough, but difficulty in securing a replacement caused a delay of almost four years. When notification arrived in 1840 that the furlough would be granted, James Douglas*, deputizing for McLoughlin, informed the governor and committee that he would much regret Tolmie’s departure “as in justice to him, I beg to assure you I have had none here who discharged the laborious duties of his two stations of Surgeon and Trader of this place with such zeal and attention.”
The delay in the furlough had important consequences. Tolmie was of a deeply religious nature; he had conducted a well-attended Sunday school for Indians at Fort Vancouver and had thought seriously of becoming a missionary. But between 1837 and 1841 American missionaries had arrived, and “considerable revolution took place in my ideas. I saw that Missionary labor amongst the Indians was impracticable and fruitless of good results either to the teachers, or taught . . . .” If he were to become a missionary, “it would be among the poor of some of the large cities at home.”
During his eight years in the Columbia District Tolmie developed a keen interest in natural history and the Indians. He sent at least two collections of birds, animals, and Indian artifacts to Scotland, one to the museum at Inverness and the other to Dr Scouler. He was especially interested in native languages and, beginning with the Chinook jargon, “the gibberish by which we communicate with the Indians . . . a vile compound of English, French, American & the Chenooke dialect,” had compiled native vocabularies as his travels and transfers brought him into contact with different tribes; in 1839 he sent 17 of these to Scouler, who published them the following year.
Free at last to take his furlough, Tolmie left Fort Vancouver on 22 March 1841. He travelled overland to Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg) where he had a friendly meeting with George Simpson* and discussed native languages with James Evans*, inventor of the Cree syllabic alphabet. Arriving at York Factory on 4 July, he was promptly put to work preparing furs for shipment to England. Letitia Hargrave [Mactavish*] wrote that “nothing cd exceed his devotion to duties.”
Tolmie sailed from York Factory early in September and was in London by mid October. His leave gave him finally the opportunity to spend some time in Paris, in May and June 1842. He studied and observed in hospitals and other institutions, and engaged in many discussions of phrenology, which was then attracting both public and medical attention and in which he had considerable faith. His religious and political convictions were changing; he became somewhat of a universalist or unitarian, and leaned toward Owenite and radical views in politics. His diary, resumed in Paris after lapsing in 1835, shows him as having discussions with Louis-Joseph Papineau*.
Tolmie decided to continue in the HBC service and sailed from London in the Columbia on 10 Sept. 1842. While in England he had studied Spanish in the expectation that he would be sent to the company’s post at Yerba Buena, on San Francisco Bay, but soon after his arrival at Fort Vancouver in May 1843 letters directed McLoughlin to send him to Fort Nisqually instead. The committee explained that while Tolmie was in London “we had much conversation with him on the subject of farming, to which he seems to have given a good deal of attention.” As this letter suggests, Fort Nisqually had changed greatly since Tolmie had known it in 1833. Originally it was intended to be a trading post for the Puget Sound area and a safer navigational base for the company’s ships in the coastal trade than the mouth of the Columbia. To these functions others had been added. In 1838, when the HBC licence for exclusive British trade west of the Rockies was due for renewal, the governor and committee had decided that they must strengthen British claims to the territory between the Columbia River and the 49th parallel. One step taken was the organization of a satellite concern, the Puget’s Sound Agricultural Company, to conduct farming operations at Fort Nisqually and the Cowlitz River portage. Experience showed that good field crops could be raised at Cowlitz but that the Nisqually area was only suitable for grazing. Livestock could, however, be raised there on a substantial scale. In 1846 there would be 3,180 cattle, 8,312 sheep, and almost 300 horses at Nisqually, and these figures were exceeded in later years.
A second step was the encouragement of immigration to give the disputed area a British population. Immigrants were recruited in the Red River Settlement, and in 1841 a party consisting of 21 families totalling 116 persons set out for the Columbia. Of these, 14 families (77 persons) took up land in the vicinity of Fort Nisqually. But the experiment was a failure. The HBC had no legal title to the land and could only offer a settlement plan that amounted to operating the farms on shares; more fertile and attractive lands were available in the Willamette River valley, south of the Columbia. Tolmie took charge of Fort Nisqually just as the last of the Red River immigrants were departing for the Willamette, and when it had become evident that the influx of American immigrants would soon be so great that it was hopeless to compete with it.
Tolmie had gone to Nisqually in a three-fold capacity: medical officer, Indian trader, and manager of the agricultural operations of the Puget’s Sound Company. However, his position was soon complicated by political considerations. A provisional government had been set up in 1843–44 for the Columbia, and American claims to the whole coastal region north to Alaska were being pressed in a militant fashion. The HBC came to terms with the provisional government, and Tolmie was chosen in 1846 to represent the company’s settlers and interests in the Puget Sound region. The same year, under the provisions of the Oregon Treaty, the 49th parallel became the international boundary. Oregon was created an American territory in 1848, and its first governor arrived in March 1849.
Tolmie found himself in a position of increasing difficulty. Although the treaty professed to guarantee that “the farms, lands, and other property of every description belonging to the Puget’s Sound Agricultural Company” were to be “confirmed,” it soon became evident that the local population, viewing the company as a foreign monopoly, was not prepared to honour this provision. The most that the company could hope for was compensation for the properties it would be forced to abandon. Squatters were soon encroaching on the HBC holdings at Nisqually, and Tolmie was subject to harassment of various sorts which continued year after year until compensation was finally paid in 1869. In 1855 the situation was further complicated by the outbreak of an Indian war in Washington Territory (created in 1853) when the governor rashly pressed the cause of settlement. Tolmie was called upon to use his considerable influence with the Indians to protect both the company and the settlers. Yet his very success aroused suspicion; some wondered if the relative immunity of the HBC had not been due to connivance between the British and the Indians.
In 1843, when the governor and committee had directed McLoughlin to place Tolmie in charge at Nisqually, they had also instructed McLoughlin to organize the Puget’s Sound Agricultural Company as an establishment distinct from the HBC proper. Tolmie believed that this arrangement stood in the way of his advancement in the HBC and that promotions would most likely go to those serving the parent company. On 31 March 1847 he was promoted chief trader, an appointment he felt was long overdue. Eight years later, on 26 Nov. 1855, he became a chief factor, for which Simpson’s personal intervention was largely responsible. In 1857 Tolmie returned to the HBC service when he became a member of the board of management of the Oregon Department. But the company’s active days in American territory were obviously numbered if not ended, and in 1859 Tolmie moved to Victoria. In 1861 he was named to the board of management of the Western Department, and from November 1863 he ranked as its senior member. The official date of his retirement from the HBC service was 31 May 1871, but he had been on furlough since 1 June 1870.
Soon after he moved to Victoria the HBC asked Tolmie to stand for the House of Assembly of Vancouver Island. He was elected in January 1860, re-elected in 1863, and was a member until the island colony joined British Columbia in 1866. He was a member of the first board of education, 1865–69, and of the first provincial board of education, 1872–79. He had been a strong supporter of confederation; in 1874 he was elected in a by-election to the provincial legislature, was re-elected in the general election of 1875, but when defeated in 1878 withdrew from public life. Throughout his life he was a temperance advocate, and at a time when such a stand was unusual he favoured extending the franchise to women.
In 1852, two years after his marriage, Tolmie had acquired some acreage on Vancouver Island, and after his move to Victoria with his family in 1859, Cloverdale Farm became the site of his large stone house, the first such private dwelling in British Columbia. On its eventual 1,100 acres he took a keen interest in farming and imported pure-bred stock. His children followed his own energetic and serious routine: his son Simon recalled lessons at 5:20 a.m. with his father, an hour’s walk into Victoria, and then a regular day in school. After the death of his wife in 1880, Tolmie became somewhat of a recluse. Except on Christmas Day he took all his meals alone in his library.
Throughout his later years Tolmie’s interest in botany and Indian vocabularies continued unabated. At least eight plants of which he collected the type specimen are named after him, and more would have been so named had it not been for the custom of honouring the classifier rather than the discoverer. In 1884, in collaboration with Dr George Mercer Dawson* of the Geological Survey of Canada, he published a collection of Indian vocabularies, aimed at nothing less than the tabulation of “about 211 words of one or more of the dialects of every Indian language spoken on the Pacific slope from the Columbia River north to the Tshilkat [Chilkat] River, and beyond, in Alaska; and from the outermost sea-board to the main continental divide in the Rocky Mountains.”
Hubert Howe Bancroft described Tolmie in 1878 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.” J. S. Galbraith, while placing him below McLoughlin and Douglas, pays tribute to his “amazing capacity to endure irritations with calmness and courage, which won him the reluctant admiration of his most hostile critics.” It has been aptly remarked that he was “a solemn man who could turn almost anything into hard work for his conscience.” But he was an industrious and completely reliable servant of the companies which engaged him, and an outstanding citizen.
[William Fraser Tolmie’s papers are in the PABC, Add. mss 557. They include diaries, which have been published as The journals of William Fraser Tolmie, physician and fur trader (Vancouver, 1963), and, in the form of a transcript, “History of Puget Sound and the northwest coast,” autobiographical notes written in answer to specific questions from H. H. Bancroft, the original of which is held in Bancroft Library, Univ. of California (Berkeley). Tolmie’s writings include: Canadian Pacific Railway routes; the Bute Inlet and Esquimalt route no.6, and the Fraser valley and Burrard Inlet route no.2, compared as to the advantages afforded by each to the dominion and to the empire (Victoria, 1877); On utilization of the Indians of British Columbia (Victoria, 1885); and Comparative vocabularies of the Indian tribes of British Columbia with a map illustrating distribution (Montreal, 1884), which he wrote with G. M. Dawson. Tolmie also contributed vocabularies to John Scouler, “Observations on the indigenous tribes of the N.W. coast of America,” Royal Geographical Soc. of London, Journal (London), 11 (1841): 215–51. A letter from Tolmie defending the Hudson’s Bay Company is in Oregon Pioneer Assoc., Trans. of the annual re-union (Salem), 12 (1884): 25–37. The records of the Puget’s Sound Agricultural Company are in PAM, HBCA, F.8/1-F.26/1. See also: Testimonials; Dr W. F. Tolmie ([Victoria], 1871); S. F. Tolmie, “My father: William Fraser Tolmie, 1812–1886,” BCHQ, 1 (1937): 227–40; [George Simpson], “Simpson to Tolmie,” BCHQ, 1 (1937): 241–42; W. H. Stuart, “Some aspects of the life of William Fraser Tolmie” (ma thesis, Univ. of British Columbia, Vancouver, 1948); J. S. Galbraith, “Conflict on Puget Sound,” Beaver, outfit 281 (March 1951): 18–22, and his The Hudson’s Bay Company as an imperial factor, 1821–1869 ([Toronto], 1957). w.k.l.]
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Cite This Article
W. Kaye Lamb, “TOLMIE, WILLIAM FRASER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 26, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/tolmie_william_fraser_11E.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:||W. Kaye Lamb|
|Title of Article:||TOLMIE, WILLIAM FRASER|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1982|
|Year of revision:||1982|
|Access Date:||March 26, 2023|