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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 4

The Big House, Lower Fort Garry

by George Ingram

Eden Colvile

During the following year, Simpson completed negotiations for the appointment of Eden Colvile1 as the associate governor in Rupert's Land. Simpson planned to travel less frequently and, if possible, to move to England. Colvile would be stationed in the Red River district, a trouble spot in the Company's operations; would preside over meetings of the Northern Council, and would be responsible for the administration of the Northern Department.

Colvile arrived in the settlement with his wife in August, 1850, and settled in the Big House at the lower fort. He shared the main house with Augustus Edward Pelly, the accountant, and his wife, and probably with W. D. Lane, a postmaster (later clerk). George Davis (listed as an interpreter for outfit 1855) may have lived in the house or possibly in one of the other buildings at the fort. Soon after he arrived, Colvile decided "to send Pelly to the Upper Fort to take charge of the accounts and retain young Lane, who seems a swaggering sort of chap, here."2 In the following week, John Ballenden moved into Pelly's quarters with his wife.3

Mrs. Ballenden had recently been the central figure in a libel suit against the Pellys. Captain Christopher Foss, an officer with the Chelsea Pensioners stationed in the settlement, had been seen frequently with her and this had started tongues wagging. Eventually the gentlemen of the Company's establishment in the Red River district and their ladies were taking sides on the issue of Mrs. Ballenden's virtue. In May, the Pellys and others withdrew from the Company mess over which Mrs. Ballenden presided, and in June, Foss posted notice of his intention to take Pelly to court, accusing him of defamation. The case was tried in July, and after the intervention of Adam Thom, the court found against the Pellys who were ordered to pay Foss £200. In August, with the scandal still very much an issue, Mrs. Ballenden was whisked away to the lower fort by her husband. Chief Factor Ballenden departed almost immediately for England.

In the Big House, Mrs. Ballenden renewed her affair with Foss. Her indiscretion revealed her guilt in the first instance beyond a doubt. Colvile immediately related the latest gossip of the scandal to Simpson.

Mrs. Ballenden having at last beyond the possibility of doubt shewn herself in her true colours; Pelly has made up his mind to despatch an express to St. Peters on his own account to let all the world know it, and I will take the opportunity of writing you a few lines. Just as the regular winter packet was departing, about a month ago, Adam Thom with much caution placed in my hands a copy of a letter written by Mrs. Ballenden, to Foss commencing, "My own darling Christopher", and requesting him, as I was to be absent at the Court, to come down and pay her a visit; he was to leave after dark, & she would have a hot supper awaiting him which she hoped he would enjoy, & so forth. The original having been delivered, the said darling Christopher came down & remained closeted in her rooms for two days and nights, but they managed matters so well, that to this hour, though it was of course known that Foss was absent from his own quarters, no one but Thom, myself, and the deliverer of the letter, whose name I cannot even tell you, have been able to prove that he was here. This put me in rather an unpleasant position, as of course I had to put a stop to all association with her, and at the same time was precluded from giving my reason for so doing. However she very soon extricated me from this dilemma, by one fine afternoon driving up to Foss's quarters, and, I believe, passing the night there. This was, with the usual rapidity of scandal at Red River, forthwith made public. She is still residing here, but is, I understand, going to take her departure immediately, at which I shall be very glad.4

As expected, Mrs. Ballenden soon departed. "Mrs. Ballenden left the Fort, of her own accord, on the 11th January," Colvile reported to Simpson, "and is living at the house of one Cunninghame about a couple of miles from Foss' quarters."5

The remainder of Colvile's stay was rather less eventful. Colvile lived in the house with his servants, Mr. and Mrs. Deans, and perhaps with W. D. Lane of whom he had a very good report.

I have been very much pleased with the conduct of young Lane this winter. He is very active, zealous and obliging, popular with the customers at the shop & gets on well with the men. He is very steady in his conduct, and correct in his accounts, and I hope you will not think me wrong in recommending to the Council that at the expiration of his present contract, he be placed on the footing of a clerk on his third contract. He writes a very good hand & copies correctly though rather slowly. His fault is, perhaps, having a little too good an opinion of himself, though it is a failing more amusing offensive.6

3 The interior of a room, possibly of the Big House, as sketched by George Finlay in 1847. (Glenbow Foundation.)

Quite probably Colvile entertained frequently, providing a social centre for the settlement, and during his sojourn, the house and grounds took on a gracious air. Bishop Anderson on one of his visits to the fort noted in his diary, "Here we found a changed scene. The Fort has been improved with much taste by Governor and Mrs. Colvile and it began to wear much more of an English aspect; the annuals were above ground, and the lawns smooth and green."7 The veranda appears to have been added at this time and probably many other fine features shown in the Hime photograph of 1858 could be attributed to Mrs. Colvile's fine taste and her husband's high position in the Company.

In May, 1852, a short time before his departure from the settlement, Colvile played host to refugees from the upper settlement. A flood, mere inches short of the record of 1826, inundated the entire area of the forks. The family of Major Caldwell (in command of the Chelsea Pensioners) and Mrs. Mills, the matron of the local girls' school, were invited by Colvile to wait out the high waters in the Big House.

The old Major [Caldwell], as usual, has done nothing. He sent all his family and servants down here; they are lodged at the lower end of this house, living of course at their own expense, but he said, he would not desert his post, & has remained all along in the big house up above, where he has, of course, had nothing to do. I have invited Mrs. Mills and her daughter to stay with us, till she is able to return to her establishment, and the girls at her school, are dispersed through the settlement.8

By the end of the month of May, the waters were falling and his guests were able to leave.

Following the meeting of the Northern Council at Norway House, the Colviles left the Red River Settlement for England. W. D. Lane remained in charge of the lower fort and apparently was the sole permanent occupant of the Big House. He had a number of visitors, and at least one large dinner party in 1854 which he reported in detail to his mother. Like most parents, Lane's mother chided him repeatedly for not writing home frequently. Lane finally sat down in August, 1854, to give a full account of his daily activities.

Well to begin I get up every morning about five o'clock when the Fort Bell rings the men to work, from that time till breakfast (which is at half past seven) is generally occupied in pointing out to the men their various duties for the day/after this is settled I frequently take my gun and wander out in the vast plains to shoot pheasants, pigeons and ducks. . . When breakfast is over I go into my office where I find ample to keep me employed throughout the day paying out & receiving money, cashing bills and orders, receiving furs from Indians and paying them for the same &c&c&c. We also have a large sale shop here which gives me a good deal of employment, our prompt sales . . .amount to never less, than £400 a month and sometimes a great deal more. . . . On Sundays of course I attend church very regularly. . . . When the labours of the week days are over I frequently go and take tea at the parsonage at St. Andrews. . . . I am here all alone, I mean to say I have no mess mates residing with me and am therefore obliged to take my meals by myself which is very solitary work but I frequently have visiters. . .only think I had a very large party but a few days ago. we sat down to dinner about twenty in number. . . . I am sure you will feel somewat at a loss to know how a bachelor in my circumstances could set up a dinner for such a lot of big wigs, the fact is they got it in a plain homely way/ first of all there was a substantial roast of beef, a regular cut, & come again affair, a boiled leg of mutton smothered in caper sauce, boiled fowls and ham, potatoes, pease, broad beans & all the luxuries my garden could produce/ second course, plum pudding, rhubarb, strawberry and raspberry tarts to the mast head, then came the cheese, but when it came to desert I was what you may call fairly fixed, having nothing but melons to give them so by way of a joke I got a large dish of thundering big raw turnips and had them placed at the other end of the table — I of course attributed this misdeameanor to the ignorance of my storekeeper — I have got an old Indian for a cook and a capital cook the fellow is. His name is Egga-na-a-pa-tum but finding it much easier to pronounce I always call him "catch him and eat him."9

Lane may have shared the house with George Davis who remained at the lower fort after Colvile's departure. And in December, 1854, John Ballenden (now separated from his wife) made plans to move down with his family for a stay in the house, perhaps over the Christmas season. He sent down his harp and piano in advance.

Under charge of Bon homme Mr. Ballenden now sends down the Harp & piano &c. as he intends to reside some time at the Lower Fort. Will you please be so kind as to see that they are not hurt in any way, and stand them in the little parlour, with open fire place. Please send me a note by bearer saying how they got down. Mr. B- would be glad if you could succeed in getting Sinclair to tune the piano this week. He has requested me to inform you that he will be down on Monday or Tuesday next with the two Miss's Ballenden & your humble servant kitt & all. You will have quite an Establishment when we are there & I expect to have a jolly time of it.10

By February, the Ballendens had returned to the forks and the chief factor was making plans to have his maid servant Catharine Birston married to George Davis at the lower fort. He left the "arranging of the affair" entirely to Lane.

Catharine is to be married on thursday next the 15 current & I have decided on making a wedding for her at the Lower Fort. I must therefore again trouble you to get a dinner & supper prepared for them, also a good supply of grog. They have both been good servants of the Company. It will be rather expensive but we must give the party both meat & drink & take care we give sufficient. My daughter will bring down cakes for the party. We will attempt nothing fine, only let there be plenty to eat & drink, you may expect about a hundred people of all sizes, so you may calculate upon that number at the lowest. I trust the arranging of the affair entirely to yourself. . . . Annie & Eliza talk of going down & they will be accompanied by the Misses Ross — also Messrs. Logan, Taylor & Fortescue — Retain my room & the bed room alongside for the ladies & the gentlemen will pack any place.11

Like an old mother hen, Ballenden kept close daily tabs on Lane's handling of the affair. It appears that Lane planned to accommodate the young married couple in the Big House after their wedding, at least until spring.

I received yesterday your note of the previous day — George Davis came up & I believe has settled all, his young bride goes down today. Your plan of lodging them is the best & we shall require no alteration in the establishment before early in the spring. Let nothing be neglected on our part to make them comfortable & happy, and see that everything goes on orderly & quietly — I don't wish my daughters to remain too late nor yet to leave too early. If you wish to give them a hint when to leave, speak to Margaret. Messrs. Logan, Taylor & Fortescue will come down on Thursday.12

The night before the wedding, Ballenden sent down a few more "articles" requested by Lane.

I duly received your letters of the 12th instant & I lose not time in forwarding the articles you requested, for the Lower Fort. there are some you ask, of which we have no supply — I forward this evening 3 table cloths which I hope you will return as soon as convenient.,. . I trust to hear that tomorrow will be a pleasant evening & for my sake I hope there will be no hub-bub.13

With a great sigh of relief Ballenden received Lane's message that everything had gone "smoothly." Remembering his own experience he had been afraid of something "occurring."

Your note of yesterday relieved me of much anxiety. I felt when my daughters went down that I was running great risk for fear of anything occurring while they were at the Lower Fort, but I am glad to learn that all went on smoothly. In other respects, I felt no anxiety as I was confident, that they were safe when under the special protection of the gentlemen of the fort. All is over now & I am glad the young people made themselves happy in their own fashion.14

With the exception of Lane's dinner parties and Catharine Birston's wedding, the lower fort appears to have been a quiet place. And there was a considerable amount of room unused in the house which was kept open for the occasional visitor or occupant.15 In June, Simpson suggested that Ballenden, who had been replaced in the Red River district by Chief Factor Swanston, should move down to the lower fort until he left for his new posting in the Columbia district.16

At the end of June, Simpson replaced W. D. Lane at the lower fort with Dr. Cowan.17 The actual change took place early in July with Lane moving to the post at the White Horse Plain where he remained for a number of years. Dr. Cowan and his family moved into the house at the lower fort.

4 Pictured in its setting by J. Fleming in 1857, the Big House emitted a gracious air. (John Ross Robertson Collection, Metropolitan Toronto Central Library.)

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