Friday, August 08, 2014

Naval Surgeon John Gibson, and Curling on the Columbia River in 1847

by Bob Cowan

It is often glibly stated that Scotsmen took the sport of curling wherever they went, especially in North America. It is rarely possible to document exactly when curling was first played in any given area. Here's an unusual story of how serving Royal Navy personnel played the sport in the Pacific Northwest in 1847.

On November 26, 1845, a Royal Navy warship crossed the bar of the Columbia River to sail upstream. No doubt the ship's captain, Thomas Baillie, progressed cautiously, as his charge, HMS Modeste, had damaged her rudder on a previous visit to the Columbia in the summer of 1844. This time all went well, and by November 29, 1845, HMS Modeste was safely anchored 100 miles upstream, off Fort Vancouver, an outpost of the British Hudson's Bay Company.

HMS Modeste, a sail powered sloop of some 560 tons, had been built at Woolwich Dockyard and launched in October 1839. She carried eighteen guns and a crew of a hundred and twenty. She saw service in the Anglo-Chinese war (the first Opium War) in 1842, see here. Then in 1843 she was commissioned to the British fleet in the Pacific. In 1844 her captain was ordered to visit and report on British settlements on the Northwest Pacific Coast, which were mostly posts of the Hudson's Bay Company. Although a small vessel by Royal Navy standards, nimble enough to be capable of navigating the Columbia, she would have been a significant military presence at Fort Vancouver.

Some background is needed here. In the early nineteenth century, the modern-day US states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and most of the Canadian Province of British Columbia, were part of what Britain called the Columbia District, and what the United States called the Oregon Country. In 1818 the United States and Great Britain had agreed to a 'joint occupation' of the area in which citizens of both countries could settle.

The return visit of the Modeste to Fort Vancouver in November 1845 was a consequence of the election of James K Polk as the eleventh President of the USA earlier that year. Polk now claimed the entire Oregon area for the United States, from California northward to the southern boundary of what is now Alaska. Britain and the USA were on a path towards war. Positioning HMS Modeste at Fort Vancouver was an early example of what might be called 'gunboat diplomacy', and was a warning that Britain was not prepared to give up the area without a fight. The reality was that neither country was prepared to go to war over the disputed territory. A compromise was eventually agreed, with Britain accepting the 49th parallel as the northern US border, excluding the southern tip of Vancouver Island. The deal to resolve the 'Oregon Question' was sealed on June 15, 1846.

Although the danger of war had receded, HMS Modeste remained anchored off Fort Vancouver for a second winter, that of 1846-47. One reason for this was that it took time for Captain Baillie to be reassured on the details of the political agreement, in the days when information had to be conveyed across the miles by sea. That winter was a severe one, and the Modeste was icebound on the Columbia. One has to imagine that keeping morale high among the crew was difficult. Captain Baillie and the ship's officers and crew needed to stay on cordial terms with the Americans, as well as those associated with Fort Vancouver. It is recorded that the British crew put on plays several times; there was a ball, and horse races. The log also records that curling matches were played!

John Gibson, the ship's surgeon, sent a letter to the Secretary of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club, back in Edinburgh, describing the curling activities. This letter was printed in the Royal Club Annual for 1847-48, and can be studied today. Gibson writes:

Columbia River, 27th January 1847
Dear Sir,
Knowing the interest which you take in the prosperity of our manly game, at home, as well as in foreign lands, I beg to acquaint you, that in this the Far West, upon the noble river Columbia, a friendly Match was yesterday played (the first in Oregon) between a party of the Officers of HMS Modeste, now frozen in, and of the Honourable the Hudson's Bay Company's Officers.

Gibson goes on to explain that one of the ship's marines had helped to procure suitable stones with which to play: "To procure stones of a proper shape, (Brother Masons being as yet scarce in this corner of the Globe,) was a difficulty at first; but by the aid of a Marine of the Ship, a kind of Cowan, I was enabled to muster a few, which although minus the polish of surface and handle, yet they led well up to the tee."

(A 'Cowan' in this context probably meant someone who had worked in stone, such as a drystane dyker.)

Gibson describes a series of three games. On one side there was the team representing HMS Modeste (Captain Baillie, Lieutenant Coode, Gibson himself, and Mr Grant, a midshipman) against the Hudson's Bay Company team (Dr Barclay, and Messrs Lowe, Sangster, and Grahame). Each game was the first to 21 points. The Modeste team won the first match, the Hudson's Bay team won the second. The Modeste side won the third. The rink was 32 yards in length, and Gibson describes the matches with these words, "The ice was roughish, with occasional snow showers, but the sooping being well attended to, I assure you that shots were taken by some of the parties, sons of 'keen keen curlers' at home, that would be no disgrace to our crack clubs."

The games were considered a great success. Afterwards, the participants dined on board the ship with traditional curlers' fare of 'beef and greens' and plans were laid for the formation of a curling club.

Can we say anything of those who took part? Captain Thomas Baillie, who was from Earlston in the Scottish Borders, continued to serve with distinction in the Royal Navy, reaching the rank of Vice-admiral. Lieutenant Coode is likely to be Trevenen Penrose Coode (see here), who went on to have his own commands. On the Hudson's Bay Company roster, the Dr Barclay would have been Dr Forbes Barclay, originally from the Shetlands, and there is much about him here.

There would seem to be little doubt that John Gibson, Modeste's surgeon, was the curler with the most experience of the group, and probably the instigator of the curling activities. He joined the Doune Curling Club in 1835, some years before he was appointed to the Modeste in 1843. On his return from the Pacific Northwest he served as the surgeon on the convict ship Scindian in 1850, and again on the Minden in 1851, both three month voyages to Western Australia. The National Archives has a document commending his 'judicious treatment of convicts'.

He married, and set up home in Doune, in Kilmadock Parish. His enthusiasm for curling continued, and by 1849, he was already one of the two representative members of Doune Curling Club to the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. Sadly he died suddenly on October 10, 1858, aged just 52, leaving behind his wife, and three young children, twins aged two, and a year-old son. The Stirling Observer of October 14, 1858, in recording his sudden death, describes his as 'one of our most active and intelligent townsmen'.

Perhaps you know more about Gibson, and the others who are named in the 1847 games: Midshipman Grant, and the Hudson's Bay Company officers, Lowe, Sangster and Grahame? Let me know if you do.

A report of the curling matches appeared in the Oregon Spectator, the very first newspaper published west of the Missouri. It had been going for just a year in Oregon City, see here.    

The report of the curling matches was on page 3 of the issue of February 4, 1847. Thanks to the website of the University of Oregon Libraries, this newspaper can be read in its entirety (see here), and the curling piece extracted, above.

This newspaper clipping confirms the detail in John Gibson's letter to the Royal Club (other than suggesting that the rink was just 22 yards in length, rather than 32 yards). It does contain an additional piece of information about the proposed 'Vancouver Curling Club'. As with many curling clubs back in Scotland, it was to have a patron, P S Ogden. This has to have been Peter Skene Ogden, the most senior representative of the Hudson's Bay Company in the area. His life story is a fascinating read, see here. For example, Ogden, Utah, is named after him, and was the venue for the curling competition in the 2002 Olympic Winter Games!

In 1847, according to the Oregon Spectator, Ogden says, "... and we doubt not, but in the winters to come, the 'roaring game' will have a place in the pastimes and diversions of Oregon."

Ogden's prediction did not come about immediately. HMS Modeste left Fort Vancouver on May 3, 1847, to return to Britain. The importance of Fort Vancouver to the Hudson's Bay Company diminished as more and more Americans settled in the area, and on June 14, 1860, the Company abandoned Fort Vancouver and moved its operations north of the border. It is not recorded if any of the American settlers took part in curling matches in January 1847. The fact that the 'Vancouver Curling Club' did not survive, suggests perhaps that they did not. (That club name should not be confused with British Columbia's 'Vancouver Curling Club' which dates from 1912. Fort Vancouver, Vancouver Island and the city of Vancouver are all named after Captain George Vancouver, who charted much of the Pacific Northwest at the end of the eighteenth century, see here.)  

Curling did not return to the Oregon area until 1962, see here, and Ogden's predictions DID eventually come true. Last year (2013), as curling's popularity continued to increase throughout the USA, the Evergreen Curling Club opened a dedicated three-sheet facility in Beaverton, Oregon. The club is well aware of the matches in 1847 and on June 12, 2007, staged a reconstruction of the event!

This photo, from the Evergreen CC's website, was composited by Gary Stasiuk, and there are more photos here. We wish the club continued success!

Note. The following documents and websites have been useful in understanding the political context of the positioning of HMS Modeste in 1847: 'The Royal Navy and the Oregon Crisis, 1844-1846' by Barry M Gough, which can be downloaded from here; and 'HMS Modeste on the Pacific Coast 1843-47: Log and Letters', an article in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, Volume 61, No 4 (December, 1960), pp 408-436, found here. The history of Fort Vancouver is here.

Thanks to Eileen Kamm for assistance. 

ADDED LATER (13/8/2014)

Bruce Irvin, the President of the Evergreen Curling Club, has been in touch with the following additional information.

There's a photo of Dr Forbes Barclay, with one of his grave and headstone, here.

According to History of Oregon, 1886-1888, by Hubert Howe Bancroft , p 576, Midshipman Grant's full name was Charles Grant.

Apparently T P Coode was something of an artist as shown here and here.

Lowe was Thomas Lowe, clerk at Ft. Vancouver who served as chief accountant at the post during most of the 1840s. He kept an extensive diary that has been used for restoration efforts by the National Park Service. (Bruce wonders whether any of his early 1847 journal entries mention curling.) Lowe was a Scot, originally from Coupar Angus, Perthshire. A short biography of him is contained within the biography of Francis Ermatinger. When the California gold rush started in 1849, Thomas Lowe deserted the Hudson's Bay Company for California to form Allan, Lowe and Company, commission merchants in San Francisco.

The brief biography of Mr Lowe also mentions another of the curlers, James Allan Grahame, born in Edinburgh in 1825. The two were brothers-in-law having both married daughters of retired Hudson's Bay Company officer James Birnie. Grahame was also a clerk at Ft. Vancouver, became a silent investor in Allan, Lowe and Co., rose quickly through the ranks at Ft. Vancouver, became head and chief trader until the fort was handed over to the Americans in 1860. He continued his career with the Hudson's Bay Company in British Columbia.

Sangster probably was James Sangster the clerk in charge of pilotage at Ft. Vancouver. Apparently Sangster was from Port Glasgow. He later moved to Victoria, BC where he was pilot, harbormaster, collector of customs and Victoria's first postmaster. He committed suicide in 1858. Sangster Elementary school in Victoria, BC is named for him.

Many thanks to Bruce for this information.

The article by Gregory Shine, 'A Gallant Little Schooner: The US Schooner Shark and the Oregon Country, 1846', see here, provides background from an American perspective, and also provides detail about the difficulties on navigating the Columbia River at that time.

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