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

The Big House, Lower Fort Garry

by George Ingram

Appendix D: Adam Thom

Adam Thom brought trouble wherever he appeared in Canadian history. "A man of considerable legal learning and of an acute intelligence, he was nevertheless vain, pompous and lacking in judgement. Arrogant of mind and tactless of manner, Thom was endowed with a knack for irritating turns of speech and with a restless tongue and pen. He was moreover, a standing invitation to trouble in a colony more than half French."1 He spent 14 years in the Red River Settlement, arriving as the highest judicial agent in 1839 and leaving in 1854 when the Métis forced the Company to remove him from his official position in the courts. From 1839 to 1846, he lived in the Big House at Lower Fort Garry, and before he left unceremoniously in 1854, he stayed for a short time in the house while awaiting passage in the Company boats to York Factory.

Thom was born 31 August 1802.2 He was educated at King's College and graduated with an M.A. in 1824. After a short period teaching school in Scotland,3 he came to Canada where he edited first the Settler in 1833, and then the Montreal Herald, chief mouthpiece of the British Party, between 1836 and 1838. At the same time he read law and was called to the bar in 1837. His unsympathetic views of the French Canadians and their aspirations were evident and he made no attempt to disguise them in the 1830s when political, economic and social issues were fast bringing Lower Canada to open rebellion; in fact, his "Anti-Gallic Letters," published in 1836 under a pseudonym, Camillus, added to the tendency to rebellion. In them he denounced "the perfect novelty of the absurdly exclusive doctrine of French nationality," and had warned that "Lower Canada ought to be English, at the risk, if necessary, of not being British."4

Following the rebellion, Thom continued to represent the views of the "British Party" and criticized the commission of Lord Durham sent to investigate the causes of rebellion and to recommend solutions. Perhaps to quiet his criticisms, he was appointed an "assistant Commissioner of Enquiry into the Municipal Institutions of Lower Canada," one of the investigations being conducted for the commission.5 And later as one of Durham's secretaries he travelled to England where he remained in 1838-39 during the drafting of the report of the Commission. The extent of his involvement in the actual writing of the report is not known, although at least one contemporary British newspaper attributed a great deal of the report to his authorship.

In 1839, Thom was appointed Recorder of Rupert's Land by George Simpson who probably knew of Thom's abilities and his biases from his sojourn in Montreal. As recorder, he would become the active head of legal affairs in the settlement, legal adviser to the Company and the Governor of Assiniboia, and a member of the Council of Assiniboia. Before leaving for his new post, Thom married Anne Blachford and then came out from England by way of New York.

The Thoms resided in the Big House at the lower fort for the first seven years that they were in the colony. They shared the accommodation with John Black, the clerk in charge of the operation of the fort and also occasionally with Simpson on his visits to Red River. Their son, Adam Bisset Thom, was born 2 August 1843, probably in the Big House. In 1846 when Captain Moody of the Royal Engineers arrived to prepare the fort for the Sixth Regiment which would occupy the fort between 1846 and 1848, he took over Adam Thom's rooms in the Big House. The Thoms had moved to a house three or four miles south of the fort. In 1847, they purchased the home of Chief Factor Charles (later Bishop's Court), and resided there until they left the settlement in 1854.6

As recorder, Thom's duties were extensive. Simpson often called upon him for legal advice concerning the Company's operations not only in the settlement but throughout the country. He also remained on very friendly terms with Simpson, sending him long letters filled with Red River news and gossip, and this continued even after he fell from favour.7 And he edited Simpson's account of his Journey Round the World before it was published. But the bulk of Thom's duties were taken up in the settlement and it was this role which brought his downfall. Thom's stay in Red River was predictably stormy. As the only person with a knowledge of law he was often called upon to give advice, especially in the 1840s when the Company was caught up in the lengthy struggle to put down the Métis' free trading. His involvement did nothing to improve his relations with the Métis, who were well aware of his Francophobic views.

The whole matter came to a head with the Sayer trial in 1849 when John Ballenden, the chief factor of the Company in Red River, foolishly decided to bring one of the free traders to trial.8 On the day of the trial, an armed band of Métis gathered outside the courtroom. With courage, Thom proceeded with the trial, and even allowed Sayer to be represented by James Sinclair who chose a jury not unfriendly to the defendant. In the ensuing trial, Sayer was found guilty, but the Company applied no penalty, giving the impression that the free traders had won. From that point, the trade was in fact free and the Métis, encouraged, pressed other demands forward. Following the trial, the Council of Assiniboia drew up what it thought were the demands of the Métis. First among these was "the immediate removal of Mr. Recorder Thom from the Settlement."9 Although Thom stated his willingness to speak to the court in both languages in cases involving Canadian or halfbreed interests, his concession was not enough. When Simpson arrived in the settlement in June, he persuaded Thom to abstain from the exercise of his office. He also made arrangements for the inclusion of suitable Métis on the Council of Assiniboia and apparently also for their appointment as local magistrates.10

Thom restrained himself until February, 1850, when sued by a carpenter for payment for services, he entered the court and insisted that he be tried by an English judge and jury.11 When the court refused his request he left in a rage. Arriving in the settlement in June, Simpson was met with a delegation of the Métis equally enraged by Thom's appearance in court. Thom's position in the settlement became wholly untenable in July when he appeared in court in the Foss/Pelly case.12 Captain C.V. Foss of the Sixth Regiment had sued A.E. Pelly, the accountant at the upper fort, for slander in connection with his relationship with Mrs. Ballenden, the wife of John Ballenden, the man in charge of the Company's operations in Red River. The scandal was a sordid affair which had the community in an uproar and the Company's officers at loggerheads. Thom first advised Foss and Mrs. Ballenden in the conduct of their case, and then, when the court proceedings became complex, was asked by Governor Caldwell, the presiding judge, to enter the court. He was allowed to do so only with the sufferance of the Métis who were consulted before his appearance. Once in the court, Thom dominated the proceedings and almost browbeat the jury into a decision favourable to Foss by holding Mrs. Ballenden's innocence as the main issue at stake. Thom's actions seemed even more reprehensible when it was discovered that Mrs. Ballenden and Foss had indeed committed an indiscretion; they continued their affair later in the year following the trial.

Thom's action in the Foss/Pelly case drew him into disfavour with the Governor and Committee. They had received reports of Thom's inability to get along with the Métis but were reluctant to lose face by removing him from office. With this new development a general court of the Company was called in order to dismiss Thom from the office of recorder; but to leave the council and courts with a legal adviser, Thom was appointed Clerk of the Court and Council.13 Even this minor position was unacceptable to the Métis who were insistent that Thom not enter the courts in any capacity.

With reference to Thom's new position I am sorry to say that, although he accepted the new appointment, contrary to the expectation of all his friends, it has in no way conduced to the peace of the settlement, or contributed to rendering him more popular. Before the May Court I took the opportunity of seeing Rielle & others of the Canadian agitators, and explained to them the change in Thom's position, and that he was now the servant of the Court instead of Master as heretofore. They replied that in their opinion the people would not let him into court even in the capacity of constable. And this proved to be the case, for I found the excitement so great among the French half breeds, that I believe if Thom had made his appearance he would have been maltreated. I thought it, therefore, better to take it upon myself to desire him to abstain from coming to the Court at all, which he at once consented to do.14

Thom was prevented from pursuing the duties of his position but he still continued to draw his full pay of £700 per annum. At the meeting of the Northern Council in July, 1852, the officers of the Company objected to Thom's salary which came from the fur trade and asked Colvile to make their concern known in London. By the following spring the Governor and Committee had made an arrangement with Thom whereby he would vacate his office.15 He left in the fall of 1854 by the Prince of Wales from York.16

It is difficult to assess the contribution of Thom to the history of the Red River Settlement. He has been called the "father of the bench and bar in western Canada" because he was the first recorder in Rupert's Land and did much to organize the administration of justice in the colony.17 Most of his influence was more negative. His presence so stirred up the Métis that their demands for recognition became insistent to the point where they could no longer be ignored by the Company. Thom's removal from the courts and the council, and his replacement by F. G. Johnson, a person much more acceptable to the Métis and the increased representation of Métis sentiment on the Council of Assiniboia were in part attributable to the animosity inspired by Thom's presence and views.

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