"He seems to have totally lacked a sense of humour." -- W.K. Lamb

Pioneering medical doctor William Fraser Tolmie was not only the father of Simon Fraser Tolmie, a premier of British Columbia from 1928 to 1933, he was one the few Europeans to ever traverse the North American continent, travelling for three months and twelve days, from Fort Vancouver to York Factory, in 1841, without touching a drop of alcohol.

Tolmie Sr. was also builder of the first stone house on Vancouver Island, a pioneering botanist and agriculturalist, a linguist who co-authored an important study on Indian languages in 1884, the first European to attempt to climb Mt. Ranier (at age 21 in 1833) and co-founder of the first lending library on the Pacific Coast.

During his voyage round Cape Horn to Fort Vancouver from England in 1833, Tolmie read Guthrie's Geography, Ellis' Polynesian Researches, Lisiasnsky's Voyages, Maltebrun's Geography, Spectator magazines, Athenaeum magazine and Arabian Nights (in French). Upon his arrival, he dipped into Humboldt's Travels and George Vancouver's Voyage of Discovery. Along with Archibald McKinley at Fort Walla Walla, who is credited with owning the first private library in the western United States, Tolmie was one of the few intellectuals to make his way to British Columbia--and remain there--prior to 1850.

Born in Inverness, Scotland on February 3, 1812, Tolmie was educated in Edinburgh and trained in medicine at Glasgow University. Upon gaining his medical degree in 1832, he joined the Hudson Bay Company and sailed for North America on September 15, 1832 on a sailing ship, the Ganymede. Upon his arrival at Fort George (Astoria) at the mouth of Columbia River on May 1, 1833, he reported to John McLoughlin at Fort Vancouver. First stationed in Fort Nisqually, he accompanied Peter Skene Ogden to the Stikine area of British Columbia in 1834 to erect a trading fort to compete with the Russians. He participated in the resultant evacuation of Fort Simpson on the Nass River to its new site at Port Simpson.

In his journal Tolmie once wrote, "Now three years since I bid adieu to the shores of Britain, and my liking for the Hudson's Bay Service is by no means increasing."

In 1850 William Tolmie married Jane Work, the daughter of Chief Factor John Work, and they had five daughters and seven sons. Dr. Tolmie worked primarily at Fort Vancouver and Fort Nisqually on Puget Sound before moving to Victoria in 1859. The following year he was elected to the House of Assembly for Vancouver Island and served until Vancouver Island merged with the mainland in 1866. He was in favour of Confederation and he advocated a transcontinental railway via Yellowhead Pass to Bute Inlet.

After Tolmie was elected for service in the Legislature in 1874 during a by-election (following the resignation of Amor de Cosmos), he was re-elected in 1875, but defeated in 1878. He retired to his Cloverdale Farm estate in Saanich where he erected his stone house on Vancouver Island and took an abiding interest in public education in the 1860s and 1870s. He fought Governor Seymour who was opposed to a free educational system for British Columbia.

An avid botanist, Tolmie was the first president of the Victoria Agricultural Association and he regularly sent specimens to his friend Sir William Hooker at Kew Gardens in England. Flowers named after him include Saxifraga Tolmei, Corex Tolmiei and Tolmiea Menziesi. In political office he once introduced an Act for the prevention of the spread of Thistles. Tolmie brought seeds of the acacia tree from Hawaii and he also introduced dahlia seeds from Hawaii to the Pacific Northwest. Historian William Kaye Lamb once described Tolmie as "puritanical, and extremely conservative in political and religious opinions" but Tolmie remained concerned with the welfare of Indians for much of his life. His facility with languages had been a factor in the cessation of animosities during the 'Indian War' of 1855-1856. His comparative dictionary of Indian languages, co-written with George M. Dawson, was published two years prior to his death in Victoria on December 8, 1886. Known as a great reader, Tolmie and his colleague Donald Manson co-conceived the first circulating library among the officers of the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort McLoughlin in 1834. The library was housed at Fort Vancouver and operated from 1834 to 1843.

Publication of Tolmie's journals in 1963 was done with the permission of his relative Jean Tolmie Andrews. The text from Tolmie's handwriting was prepared by Janet R. Mitchell, with editorial input from historian Dr. R. Geddes Large of Prince Rupert and collaboration from UBC's Dr. Ian McTaggard Cowan and Provincial Archivist Willard Ireland. Publisher Howard T. Mitchell contributed the foreword.


Tolmie, William Fraser & George M. Dawson. Comparative Vocabularies of the Indian Tribes of British Columbia (Montreal, Dawson Brothers, 1884).

Tolmie, William Fraser. Physician And Fur Trader: The Journals of William Fraser Tolmie (Vancouver: Mitchell Press, 1963).

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2005]