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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 E: Eden Colvile, "The Young Commercial Patrician"

Eden Colvile was thirty in 1849 when he received the appointment of Associate Governor in Rupert's Land, Sir George Simpson's deputy in the handling of the Company's affairs.1 He was born in 1819, the fourth son of Andrew Colvile, the Deputy Governor of the Company since 1839. Educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, he graduated in 1841. After a short sojourn in business in England, he went to Lower Canada in 1844 to manage the development of the seigneury of Beauharnois for the London Land Company, probably due to the influence of his father who was one of the Company directors. In November, 1844, he was elected a member of the assembly for the County of Beauharnois "as a supporter of Governor Metcalfe's administration."2 And in the following year he married Anne, the daughter of Lieutenant Colonel John Maxwell of Montreal.3

The London Land Company's venture in Canada was not a particularly successful one; by 1851, the seigneury had reverted to the Ellices, and the company was no longer in existence. And by some accounts, Colvile's management was not particularly effective; indeed, the historian of Beauharnois describes it harshly as "poor."4 But Colvile had apparently caught the eye of George Simpson, who wrote in 1848 that he "possessed general information, business habits and conciliatory disposition,"5 an assessment which was supported by Colvile's subsequent successful career.

In 1848, Simpson was apparently considering retirement, or at least searching for a way to lessen the arduous duties and travel which the management of the Company involved. He had the opportunity to observe Colvile in Montreal at a time when that man was probably becoming restive with the limited success of the Beauharnois venture.

The two made a tour of inspection to Red River and Norway House in the summer of 1848, and in the fall Colvile returned to England. On 3 January 1849, the Governor and Committee "Resolved to appoint Mr. Eden Colvile a Governor of Rupert's Land to preside at all Councils of Chief Factors, and to attend to all other duties of Governor in the absence of Sir George Simpson. It was also Resolved to appoint Mr. Eden Colvile a member of the Council of Assiniboia."6 The appointment was a means of easing Simpson's arduous duties. In the letter accompanying Colvile's commission, there was a further elaboration of his function: "I am directed by the Governor, Deputy Governor and Committee of the Hudson's Bay Company to hand you the accompanying commission appointing you Governor in Rupert's Land and conferring upon you in the absence of Sir George Simpson all the powers and privileges of Governor in Chief in all places where trade is authorized to be carried on by the charter of the said Company."7 Colvile would in effect be the resident governor of the country, taking up the extensive travel and inspection which had marked Simpson's years as governor. Simpson planned to move his headquarters to London, from which he would act in a supervisory role, visiting "Canada & other places as circumstances may render necessary."8

Colvile wanted to carry on in the adventuresome fashion of Simpson's early travel. He was assigned to the Columbia district for the winter of 1849-50 and proposed to get to his new posting by way of Panama. A concerned directorate soon vetoed his adventure.

As respects Eden Colvile you will learn from the Secretary that his appointment has been agreed on. I do not approve of his attempting to get into the Country by Panama, the route is not yet sufficiently certain that way. I consider it better he should accompany you to Norway House this year, for which purpose he will leave here for Canada in proper time.9

In his new capacity, Colvile returned to Canada in the summer of 1849 and travelled again to Norway House with Simpson. While Simpson returned to Montreal after the meeting of the Northern Council, Colvile continued west of the mountains where he wintered in the Columbia district on Vancouver Island.

A Troubled Red River

Whether it was originally intended that Colvile would be stationed in Red River10 is not known, but his appointment as a councillor of Assiniboia in the original commission seems to indicate that he would spend some time in the colony. The Red River Settlement was undergoing a painful stage in its growth which came to a head at the middle of the century. In 1849, the longstanding dispute between the Company and the settlers over trade outside of the company was brought to a climax in the trial of a free trader, Pierre Guillaume Sayer. Although the courts upheld the Company's exclusive right to trade, the waiving of the penalty by the Company convinced the Métis that the trade was free. The jurisdiction of the Company had been further weakened by the appointment of Major William Caldwell, the commander of the Chelsea Pensioners as Governor of Assiniboia. Caldwell, to be charitable, was ineffective and foolish, commanding no respect from the Métis or English in the settlement. Under his governorship, the civil government carried almost no weight. He was able to do nothing to appease the Métis who were on the point of open revolt against the courts under the jurisdiction of Adam Thom, the anglophile recorder of Rupert's Land. Thom's reputation of Francophobia during the Durham period in Canada had travelled with him to the settlement and his actions there confirmed his earlier stated attitudes. The Métis up in arms, the civil authority ineffectual, and the company image considerably tarnished in the Sayer affair, the settlement was badly in need of a stabilizing influence. On top of this, in 1849-50 the Presbyterian inhabitants of the colony became involved in a dispute with the Company and the Anglican church; and the Company's officials in the settlement were openly split in their reaction to a supposed affair between Mrs. Ballenden and the second in command of the Chelsea Pensioners. As the most troublesome part of the Company's vast empire, it no doubt seemed logical to post the associate governor there.

The Preparations

By January, 1850, Andrew Colvile, a very concerned father, was searching for servants for his son's stay in the Red River; Mrs. Colvile, concerned about the isolation of the settlement, anxiously inquired about the communications with the outside world:

Has anything been settled about a regular post to R.R. in the way you mentioned in a letter of some time ago? Mrs. Colvile is anxious on this subject.... We have not yet found servants for him — and it is not easy to get people who wd. answer & be willing to go.11

A month later he wrote again to report that he had found suitable servants:

I have engaged a man & his wife without children as servants for Eden at Red River which I think will be steady & useful — you have so many things to settle and arrange that you forget some part of what passed. I understand that you & Eden had settled that it would be necessary to send him servants of this description & named the wages for the two at 60 p.m.12

With fatherly concern, Andrew Colvile continued preparation; in April, he wrote to Simpson asking him to

take care to secure in the boats coming up from York Factory after the arrival of the ships room for the man & woman servants going out to him & other things also for the things that will be shipped under his mark — and that you will secure for him out of the store or shop at R.R. such wine, tea, coffee, & sugar and other household necessaries as he may require in case of any deficiency in the store. I shall send him boxes (?) the books, carpeting, & other things that he wrote for — a sufficiency of crockery ware & glass for dinner, tea & coffee, for twelve people, & some house linen & table linen — and some printed cottons for furniture.13

The goods and servants were loaded on the ships in England and W.G. Smith, the Secretary of the Company, wrote to Hargrave at York Factory telling him to take special care.

Will you be so good as to select 2000 manilla cheeroots from those going out this year for the Company & forward them to Red River for Mr. Eden Colvile. Mr. C. is to be charged cost price for them.

There are several packages on board the Prince Rupert to Mr. Colvile's address as you will notice by the Bill of Lading. They are to be put in charge of the Servants who go out by that vessel & Mr. C. our Deputy Governor will be obliged by your giving the necessary directions, so as to insure the whole being sent on this year.

P.S. Since writing the foregoing, I find that ten of the before mentioned packages, say Nos. 12/21, have been shut out of the P. Rupert, & they will, in consequence have to go by the Chartered Vessel Flora. I hope you will be able to get them up this year even should the Flora be later in her arrival than the P. Rupert.14

In the meantime, Colvile travelled east from the Columbia district to attend a meeting of the Northern Council at Norway House in June. He took time out in August to write to Simpson arranging to have a "few things for my wife to come up by the canoes in spring" and also asked for "a file of the Montreal newspapers."15 Mrs. Colvile was travelling to Red River by way of Montreal. On 13 July, she arrived at Fort William on the schooner from Sault Ste. Marie and met Colvile who arrived the same day by canoe from Norway House. The two departed together for Red River, 19 July.

A Squire in Red River

By the middle of August, the Colviles were setting up their home in the Big House at the lower fort. "We are beginning to be settled in our new abode," wrote Colvile to Simpson, 15 August, "but we shall not be very comfortable till the boats arrive from York with our goods & chattels & servants."16 The Big House had been extensively renovated in 1849 for the accommodation of the Bishop of Rupert's Land and his entourage. The bishop had conveniently moved out shortly after his arrival in the fall of 1849, leaving the house free for the Colviles. They were forced to share the Big House with John Ballenden and his wife when they first arrived. The scandal involving Mrs. Ballenden and Captain Foss of the Chelsea Pensioners had made it unpleasant for the two to remain in the upper settlement. Ballenden, on a year's leave of absence, soon left for England while his wife remained behind in the lower end of the house.

In a very short time, Colvile established himself in his comfortable surroundings. A little more than a week after his first letter to Simpson, he wrote again.

We are very comfortably settled now, and shall be more so when our goods & servants arrive from York. Johnnie is officiating as our cook, & we found a half breed girl here, a Nancy Fiddler, who makes a tolerable housemaid.17

Mrs. Colvile was pleasantly surprised by Red River but Colvile felt that she would be lonely with no person of her own sex; Colvile could also have added class.

Madame is much better pleased with Red River than she expected to be, but I fear will be rather lonely for want of a companion of her own sex.18

Colvile's goods and servants were duly sent from York Factory by Mr. D. Bannerman's brigade:19

Boat No 4 for Red River Mr. D. Bannerman's Brigade Passengers — 2 servants, for E. Colvile Esqu. & baggage 3 p. ea.

Note: The above six pieces for baggage & provisions alone — personal passage estimates @ 2 pieces each say —

4 p. E.Colvile Esqu.
1Balep. -1
1case #10-3
4Do. #4,5,6,9-6
5Do. ea. 1 p.-5


Colvile had carefully arranged for their safe passage down from the Factory by having John Ballenden write to Hargrave:

Previous to his departure from Norway House, Mr. Colvile requested me to address you respecting two servants—I think a man and His wife—who are to come out for him by the ship this season. He is anxious that they should take their passage hither in any of the boats,—tho' one of which appear to be decent men; and that all property which may come out for him should be sent up in the same boat, so that his servant may look after his several packages.20

Colvile "got on very well" with his English servants once they had arrived safely from the Factory. Johnnie Garton, his native servant, was assigned to work under George Davis, the shopkeeper:

I get on very well with my English servants, and finding no use for Johnnie Garton [John Garton, listed in the Company's books as a "native," was employed in the Fort Coulonge District from 1846-49. He appears to have been attached to Colvile as a servant from 1849 until 1852.] during the winter, I have put him into the Sale shop under George Davis, which he likes very well, as it will teach him how to sell, and he works away in the evening at writing and accounts with George Davis.21

The Routine

The Colviles began immediately to repair the social fences. One week after their arrival in the colony they attended the Sunday service in the Catholic church to the great delight of the Métis and then gathered with the upper crust of the settlement:

We went to the Catholic church on Sunday to the great delight of the Canadians; and on Monday we dined with the Major, who had collected all the Bishops, Priests & Deacons in the settlement, and a dreadfully heavy affair it was. In fact I think the less society one has in this place the better, for the people are very dull, and very fond of scandal; & tongues are unruly members.22

Quite largely the Colviles were allowed to and preferred to keep to themselves, travelling occasionally to the upper settlement, but mostly remaining at their home in the Big House entertaining visitors from the upper settlement. Writing to Simpson in July, 1852, Colvile noted his preference for the lower fort. "Were the Major out of Red River, & I Governor of Assiniboia, I would live at the Upper Fort, though I like things better as they are as far as I am personally concerned."23 Socially the new resident governor and his wife proved a boon for the settlement; and Colvile was very much the gentleman attending to his affairs.

The new Governor could be very much the squire if he wished, and what with the supervision of the imported livestock, riding, driving and visiting, the time passed plesantly, if a trifle dully. . . .Mrs Colvile played the part of the squire's lady naturally, and her influence soothed the ruffled susceptibilities of the clergy and their ladies, and closed some rifts in Red River's heterogeneous community.24

In September, 1851, they entertained Governor Ramsay of the Minnesota Territory who arrived with 25 dragoons and stayed one night with the Colviles at the lower fort.25

Gradually the various problems disrupting the Red River Settlement were dissipated. With Ballenden in England, his wife recommenced her affair with Captain Foss overtly and the splitting scandal rose its head dramatically but unquestionably, and then resolved itself with Mrs. Ballenden in effect drummed out of Red River society. She, of course, moved out of the lower end of the Big House and removed this sticky presence from the Colviles. The presbyterian question was amicably settled. Caldwell, although remaining ineffectual, was bolstered by the presence of the associate governor of the Company in the settlement and on the Council. Colvile had even gone so far as to preside in his place but was forced to revert to his former position of Councillor by the Company directors who wished to keep the affairs of the Company as separate as possible from those of the settlement. Thom, although retained in the Company's employ, was kept out of the courts to appease the ruffled feelings of the Métis population.

Most of Colvile's time was taken up with the administration of the Northern Department. Shortly after his arrival in the settlement, Colvile wrote to the officers in charge of posts in the department announcing that they should now report to him; for example he wrote to Hargrave at York Factory, saying,

I beg to announce to you my intention of wintering at this place, and have to request that you will communicate with me on all subjects of public interest by any opportunity that may present itself.26

Simpson also wrote to officers telling them of his plans to shift his headquarters to London.

It is not at present my intention to visit the Northern Department next year, the chief superintendence of the business, therefore, will devolve on Mr. Colvile, he will hold a Council at York Factory, whither he will proceed in June. I shall in all probability cross the Atlantic in the course of the ensuing summer, with my family, and make London my headquarters.27

Correspondence relating to the Northern Department which formerly went directly to Sir George Simpson now came to Colvile. And with it came the responsibility for draughting the extensive replies and the daily administration of the department.

In July, Colvile took his wife to York Factory for the meeting of the Council of the Northern Department, arriving late on 4 July.

At a late hour last evening Govr. Colville [sic] and Lady accompanied by Mr. C.F. Ballenden arr. in two canoes from Norway House. A salute of 7 guns was fired this morning.28

The next day the Governor led the public prayers. The Council meetings began 7 July, and on 19 July, the Colviles set out for Red River. The journey and visit with Letitia Hargrave were tonic for Mrs. Colvile who was "all the better for her voyage to York."29

The Colviles continued to collect about them the accountrements of a gracious life. In a letter accompanying the ships from England, W.G. Smith wrote to William Mactavish requesting that Mr. Colvile's goods be sent to the settlement as soon as possible.

There are Eleven packages on board the Prince of Wales to the address of Mr. Eden Colvile and I have to beg that you will endeavour to get them up to Red River by one of the first Boats.30

Donald Bannerman was again selected to carry the important cargo, and in September, Mactavish wrote informing Colvile that he has taken on all your property which came by the ship, besides a few supplies from this place for your use."31

2 boats for Red River: Mr. Don. Bannerman p. Eden Colvile Esq.

15 ps.1large case
1-1/2 ps.11case #4
1/2 ps.1Do 11
2 ps.4boxes in 2 bundles #5,7,
6 ps.6cases #1,2,3,6,9,7


p. General Charges Out. 1851 for Govr. Colvile

5 ps.— 1 Barrel porter

— 1 case sundries # 1

— 1 case Do #2.32

The large case, making up 15 pieces, was a piano which caused Bannerman some concern but arrived safely in the settlement after the tortuous trip from York Factory.

I was very glad to learn from your favor of 5th Dec., that Donald Bannerman had taken up your property so safe, particularly the piano, the bare sight of which had put the unfortunate man into a perfect fever here, his people were not over fond of the package and put all Kinds of nonsense in to his head, and that old ghost Mowat with his jokes did all he could to make things worse.33

The last months Colvile was in the settlement seem to have been pleasant ones. By this time he had accumulated a number of amenities in the Big House which must have made it a comfortable place indeed. The troubles of Red River had largely been taken care of and he could settle back to socialize and to manage the affairs of his department. "He is a very pleasant companion," wrote John Rae of Colvile who accompanied him to Pembina in the spring of 1852, "'Laugh and get fat' should be his motto."34

The relaxed atmosphere was rudely interrupted by the flood of 1852 which came only 18 inches short of reaching the height of the disaster of 1826. The lower fort, well above the flood waters, became a refuge for those at the upper fort: Major Caldwell's family and servants, Mrs. Pelly, and Mrs. Mills from the school all came down to live at the lower end of the house. During the flood, which lasted throughout most of the month of May, Colvile travelled weekly to the upper settlement in a small canoe. His visits were a source of inspiration, especially for the Bishop of Rupert's Land who determined to stay out the flood in his own lodging.

5 May, About 4 P.M. Governor Colvile passed down in a birch-rind canoe, borne rapidly along the stream. His cheerfulness was animating to us all.35

Shortly after the flood waters subsided, the news became public that the Colviles would be leaving the settlement and returning to England. "Heard soon after, with regret," wrote the Bishop of Rupert's Land, "that Governor and Mrs. Colvile are likely to leave the country. We feel indebted to them for much personal kindness; and the settlement in general will, we are sure, feel the loss. The Governor is about to start for the Council at Norway House, and then only returns to take Mrs. Colvile through Canada. . . . In the evening I rode down to the Lower Fort, as the only opportunity I might have of bidding the Governor farewell, as I may probably have left before his return from Norway House."36 Colvile attended the council meeting, made arrangements shifting the responsibility for the Northern Department back to Simpson and then set out for Montreal with his wife. By October, Colvile was back in England.

The reasons for the hasty departure of the Colviles are not readily apparent, although many possibilities could be suggested. Simpson was forced to postpone his plans to go to London in the fall of 1850 because of the illness of his wife, Frances. Her continuing ill-health (she died in 1853) may have prompted him to abandon the shift in headquarters completely. Also, while Colvile was in the country, the Governor of the Company, J.H. Pelly, died and Andrew Colvile, the Deputy Governor, may have wanted his son at home to assist in the managing of the Company affairs. Finally there is a remote possibility that Anne Colvile, who was pregnant and never fond of the country, may have insisted that they return to England to have the child.

On his return to England, Colvile used his experience in the country to good advantage. "He held many directorships. . .and from 1872 to 1880 he was Deputy Governor, from 1880 to 1889 Governor, of the Hudson's Bay Company."37

Artifacts Associated with Eden Colvile

The Colviles appear to have called upon at least four sources in the furnishing of their apartment: a) London (or home), b) Montreal, c) Red River, and d) York Factory.

a) at least two large shipments were sent out from home to the Colviles. In the fall of 1850, Andrew Colvile's shipment of a quantity of goods arrived at York Factory with the two English servants. Some of these articles were specified in Colvile's letter to Simpson (see list below) but a large quantity of goods did not appear on the inventory. The following year another lot of goods arrived from England, this time including a piano. Unfortunately it is not known specifically what was sent out at that time. Both Colvile and his wife probably brought articles of clothing and furnishings when they came, he in 1849 and she in the summer of 1850.

b) From Montreal came files of newspapers which Colvile asked Simpson to send and also small articles (unspecified) which Colvile had sent up for his wife. Because Anne Colvile came originally from Montreal and Eden Colvile had spent five years there from 1844 to 1849, a number of their possessions could be expected to come from that place.

c) From the stores in Red River, the Colviles obtained most of their daily supplies — food, wine, household articles. The variety of goods which were available to them was extensive, in effect, anything which was stocked in the sale shops: lamps, cloth of many types and colours, Drugget carpeting, earthenware dishes, cutlery, and so on.

The Company also supplied a great deal of the furniture used in the Colvile apartment. It was the policy of the Company to supply the basic pieces of furniture for the dwelling houses of its officers, although this was in most cases supplemented by better furniture added by the officer out of his own pocket. In the case of the Big House at Lower Fort Garry, the furnishings were probably elaborate in the beginning, for the house was first intended for the use of Simpson and his wife. After 1831-32, some of the furnishings may have been shifted to the upper fort. In 1849, when the house was prepared for the occupancy of the Bishop of Rupert's Land, the furnishings then in the house were not considered to be up to his standard of living. The shortage of furniture was corrected in 1849-50 when John Ballenden had a quantity of furniture made, some of which was apparently used by Colvile.

In Consequence of the greater part of the furniture at Fort Garry having been made over to Major Caldwell, there was not sufficient for the use of the Company's officers Conducting the Commercial affairs at the Settlement. To supply this deficiency and in order that the residence of the Company's representative might make a respectable appearance, Mr. Ballenden had new furniture made, the cost of which about sixty pounds. . . . The furniture in question I understand is required in order to complete the domestic appointments of the establishment for the use of yourself and the Company's officers in the settlement.38

The items of furniture are listed below. These would supplement the existing supply of furniture.

d) William Mactavish sent down a cask of port and other articles (unspecified) from the York Factory depot in 1851.

Books, magazines, newspapers

Books were sent by Andrew Colvile in 1850. These are not specified but were requested by Eden Colvile. In addition, Colvile had books with him when he was on the West Coast for the winter 1849-50. These were sent forward when he moved to the Red River. Some of these were repacked at Fort Colvile and we therefore have a record; others, however, may have been sent on in an unopened box. The books were "a good deal chafed."39

— 1 vol.Life of Sir T. Munro
— 1 do.Sir John Sutherlandshire
— 1 do.Edinburgh Review
— 1 do.Quarterly Review
"old files of the Times"
— 3 Nos.David Copperfield
A Series of Punch
— 2 Nos.Edinburgh Advertiser

In May, 1850, Colvile requested Simpson to send "a file of the Montreal newspapers."40


"Carpeting" was one of the items sent out by Andrew Colvile to his son in 1850.41 See also Ballenden list below.

Crockery-ware, glass

A sufficiency of crockery ware & glass for dinner, tea & coffee, for twelve people . . . . was sent out by Andrew Colvile.

Linen and table and furniture coverings Andrew Colvile sent out "some house linen & table linen — and some printed cottons for furniture . . . ."


Eden Colvile seems to have been interested in the collection of curiosities while in the country. In 1850, he had eight little ivory figures sent from Fort Simpson. "I do myself the pleasure of forwarding to your address the eight little figures we promised to get made for you.

The ivory which is the best we could get, is not of good quality, nor are they so well made as we could wish though the best worker among the Indians here was employed. Should a chance arise of getting ones of better ivory, and better made, we shall avail ourselves of it. We have nothing else in the shape of a curiosity worth your acceptance, portable enough to send by the express."42


In addition to furniture which may have existed in the Big House up to 1849-50 Colvile also received a portion of the furniture which Ballenden had made in 1850:

C. F. Ballenden to be credited with 56.10.4 for sundry articles of furniture transferred to the Company as per account herewith:

91yds. Kidderminster carpeting.
30yds. Kidderminster carpeting.
3Square dining tables
2half round " Do (ends)
1side board
3round tables
1side table with drawers
1large desk with drawers
4arm chairs
2bed steads
1tea urn
50yds. white Dimity
3toilet covers
1table cover43

By the fall ship of 1851, a quantity of goods arrived including a piano which were sent to Red River.


In the summer of 1851 a portmanteau was sent to Colvile by Simpson, presumably from Montreal. "I am much obliged to you for the trouble you took in sending the portmanteau by the Lakes. The things all arrived safely, and were very acceptable."44

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