Tolmie, William Fraser
b. 1812-02-03
d. 1886-12-08
William Fraser Tolmie, having studied medicine at the University of Glasgow, signed a five-year contract to serve as a clerk and surgeon in the Columbia District in 1832.1 A keen and serious student, he used the eight-month voyage to the Columbia as an admirable opportunity for self improvement, studying medicine, surgery, botany, biology, geography, and languages.2
In May of 1833, Tolmie arrived at Fort Vancouver where he met Dr. John McLoughlin, then chief factor in charge of the Columbia District.3 McLoughlin sent Tolmie to Fort Nisqually, where he tended to an injured man for six months.4 Next, Tolmie was sent to Fort McLoughlin where he joined Peter Skene Ogden’s failed expedition to establish a trading post up the Stikine River.5 In late 1834, Tolmie helped move Fort Simpson from its initial site on the Nass River to McLoughlin's Harbour.6
When Tolmie’s contract expired in 1837, he requested a leave; however, he was delayed for nearly four years because a replacement could not be secured.7
Tolmie was successful in building relationships with the Aboriginal people in the Columbia District area. He began trading furs with them, and eventually set up a Sunday school at Fort Vancouver where he shared his faith.8 His Aboriginal allies also taught him that coal deposits existed on Vancouver Island, which was, until then, unknown amongst explorers.9
Forever the student, Tolmie studied the local flora, fauna and languages.10 He sent collections of plants, animals, and Aboriginal art and vocabulary home to Scotland.11 Tolmie published some of the first compilations of Aboriginal vocabularies, including Chinook jargon—an important trading language of the West Coast.12
When Tolmie was finally granted his leave in 1841, he took the opportunity to travel—first to Upper Fort Garry (now Winnipeg) and York Factory, and eventually to Paris and London.13
In 1842, he signed back on with Hudson’s Bay Company and was sent back to Fort Nisqually as a medical officer, trader, and manager of agricultural operations for the Puget’s Sound Company.14 It was hoped that his knowledge would aid in the PSC’s goals to conduct farming operations and encourage immigration of British settlers to this disputed territory; however, when the Oregon Treaty was signed in 1846, setting the 49th parallel as the international boundary, Fort Nisqually became American land and the HBC was later removed from the area.15
Tolmie moved to Victoria in 1859, where he constructed British Columbia’s first large stone house on his 1,100 acres at Cloverdale Farm.16 Tolmie was asked to stand for the House of Assembly of Vancouver Island shortly after his arrival, and was elected to serve in public office repeatedly between 1860 and 1878.17 After his retirement, he continued to publish collections of Aboriginal vocabularies.18 He also persisted in his botany research and at least eight plants were named after him.19
In February of 1850, Tolmie was married to Jane, the daughter of Chief Factor John Work.20 The two had five daughters and seven sons together, including Simon Fraser Tolmie, who would become premier of British Columbia.21
Tolmie died on December 8, 1886 near Victoria, British Columbia.22
  • 1. W. Kaye Lamb, Tolmie, William Fraser, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Ibid.
  • 6. Ibid.
  • 7. Ibid.
  • 8. Ibid.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Ibid.
  • 11. Ibid.
  • 12. Ibid.
  • 13. Ibid.
  • 14. Ibid.
  • 15. Ibid.
  • 16. Ibid.
  • 17. Ibid.
  • 18. Ibid.
  • 19. Ibid.
  • 20. Ibid.
  • 21. Ibid.
  • 22. Ibid.
Mentions of this person in the documents
The Colonial Despatches Team. Tolmie, William Fraser. The Colonial Despatches of Vancouver Island and British Columbia 1846-1871, Edition 2.2, ed. The Colonial Despatches Team. Victoria, B.C.: University of Victoria.

Last modified: 2020-12-02 13:40:34 -0800 (Wed, 02 Dec 2020) (SVN revision: 5008)