Gavin Hamilton


A little of his story

The Hudson's Bay Company Archives has put biographical sheets for some of their employees online.  One for Gavin Hamilton can be found at:

From descendant Mark Huston:

     Gavin Hamilton was born 1 Jan 1835 at Stromness, Orkney Islands, Scotland.  His father was Dr. John Macaulay Hamilton and his mother was Marion Sibbald Rae, sister to Dr. John Rae, the arctic explorer and HBC employee.  One of Gavin's grandfathers was Rev. Gavin Hamilton and his grandmother was Penelope Macaulay.  The other set of grandparents were John Rae and Margaret Glenn.

     Young Gavin Hamilton left the Orkneys in August, 1852, aboard the Norman Morison, and arrived at Victoria in January, 1853.  He began his career with the Hudson's Bay Company as an apprentice clerk at Fort Langley.  According to the History of the Northern Interior of British Columbia, by A.G. Morice, "he served under J. M. Yale, 'a fine specimen of a trader, though a very diminutive man,' as Hamilton wrote many years after."

     Morice also points out, that after Chief Trader, Peter Ogden's death, Gavin Hamilton, "heretofore a simple clerk, was at once promoted to a Factorship [at Fort St. James] and entrusted with the direction of affairs."  He continues with, "G. Hamilton had the advantage of being very well connected.  His grandmother was a near relative of Lord Macaulay, the historian, and by his maternal side he was a nephew of Dr. J. Rae, the explorer, while one of his cousins was Sir Robert Hamilton, at one time Governor of Tasmania."

     After leaving Fort Langley, according to HBC records, Gavin Hamilton worked as a clerk at Babine and McLeod Lake before Fort St. James.  He was "Clerk in charge of district" there for 1870-1872, and then Factor for 1872-1878.

     Gavin Hamilton married Margaret Julia Ogden, daughter of Chief Trader, Peter Ogden, and Phrisine Brabant, probably about 1862, in the Stuart Lake region.  They had 16 children, although 2 died very early in life.  The family moved to 150 Mile House in the late 1870s, after he retired from the HBC, so that the children could attend school at St. Joseph's Mission.  According to Branwen Patenaude, in Trails to Gold (Vol. 2):  Roadhouses of the Cariboo, "In the summer of 1878, Hamilton had met Bates, who offered to sell him the 150 Mile Ranch and roadhouse.  This suited Hamilton, and a deal was made.  The asking price of $35,000 included the flour and sawmill machinery."  The family was soon beset with disasters, including fire and flood, as well as the mysterious death of their two-year old daughter, Christine Mary Hamilton.  Coupled with some poor management, the Hamiltons sold the 150 Mile House and moved to the Lac La Hache area, around 1883.  There they were some of the original European settlers, along with the Ogdens and McKinlays, related through marriage and the Hudson's Bay Company.  Gavin Hamilton died in Victoria on 30 Jul 1909, as noted from the BC Archives.


Died: July 30, 1909
Event Place: VICTORIA
Age: 74
Gender: Male
Reg. Number:   1909-09-022127
B.C. Archives Microfilm Number: B13081
GSU Microfilm Number: 1927291

‡ Says Mark, "There is a good book by Ken McGoogan entitled, Fatal Passage:  The Untold Story of John Rae, the Arctic Adventurer Who Discovered the Fate of Franklin.

     Gavin's obituary appeared in the Victoria Daily Colonist July 31, 1909 (and as you read this, please remember that it was written in 1909).  It reads as follows:



The late Gavin Hamilton

Gavin Hamilton, noted Figure in Hudson's Bay Company Died Yesterday

     Gavin Hamilton, a pioneer among pioneers, and one of the notable factors of the early Hudson Bay days of the province of British Columbia, died this morning after a short illness at the Provincial Royal Jubilee hospital, at the age of 74 years.

     He was born on January 1st, 1835, at Stromness, in the Orkney Islands.  He came to Victoria in the ship Norman Marrison, leaving the Thames August 17th, 1853, arriving here in January of the following year.  Many other pioneers of Victoria were passengers on the same vessel.

     His first station in the Hudson's Bay service was Fort Langley, where he served under J. M. Yale.  From the start Hamilton knew well how to win the heart of the natives with whom he came into contact, and even the worst among them took kindly to him.  Yet he resigned in 1847, but was persuaded by Chief Trader Ogden to remain in the service and accompany him to Stewart Lake.

     The late Mr. Hamilton was later chief factor of the Hudson's Bay company, in charge of New Caledonia, which practically comprised all the country between the Fraser and the Skeena.  Peter Ogden, one of the most autocratic and picturesque of all the potentates of the Hudson's Bay company, thought highly of Hamilton.  He married the daughter of the factor.  On Ogden's death he assumed charge of the post.  He left the company a few years ago on a pension, and afterwards engaged in business enterprises, some of which were not fortunate.  He had remained hale and hearty until a little over a month ago, when he came to Victoria to undergo an operation, not so very dangerous in itself.  The operation was successfully performed, but complications ensued, and the end came yesterday morning.

     After his first voyage, however, his father secured him a clerkship in the Hudson's Bay comapny's service, and all his life was bound up in the company's work.  He was recognised by Indians and white men as one of the most fearless whites in the whole country.

     There is an Indian living today up country who tells the following story of Gavin Hamilton as a young man: He was ascending the Fraser with a party in a canoe, and when near Savonas decided to go on shore and shoot some wild ducks.  The Indians urged him not to as the swamps were full of bear.  This only served as a stimulus to Gavin, who landed, taking one Indian with him.  He was armed with a double-barrelled fowling-piece, and his Indian attendant was carrying a single-barrelled sixteen bore muzzle-loader.  They hadn't proceeded far before they saw three bears coming.  They concealed themselves behind a clump of trees close to where the bears must pass if they continued.  The Indian wanted to go back but young Hamilton said: "No, we will wait until they are close.  I will shoot two of the bears with my double-barrelled gun, and you'll then hand me the single-barrelled gun and I'll dispose of the third one."  All three weapons were loaded with ball, and when the bears struck within range Gavin killed the first and then another one.

     Unfortunately he had left the biggest and most dangerous one until the last, and turning around to take his fowling piece from the Indian he found that the Siwash had started for the river, taking the gun with him.  The bear was within sixty yards, and coming towards him.  He emptied some powder by guess out of his horn into each barrel of the gun, beat the stock against a tree, forced the powder home, and dropped a loose ball down each barrell.  The bear was within twenty yards of him, and nothing could have saved him had he not possessed an automatic capper, which used to be much in demand for celerity in getting muzzle loaders ready for action.  As it was, he didn't have time to get the gun to his shoulder, but fired from the hip, killing the brute instantly, but so close was it to him that in its fall it knocked him down.  For many years the Indians of the district spoke of the young clerk who killed three bears.

Knew No Fear

     After this adventure, Hamilton went to Fort Yale where he distinguished himself by another adventure.  Father Morice, who wrote the history of British Columbia some years ago, tells of it as follows:     

"To show this wonderful fearlessness of the man, we may mention that in 1855 he saved from a burning store house 70 or 100 barrels of gunpowder with the assistance of men whom he rallied after the first shock of fright and bouyed up until the end of the terrible ordeal.  For this feat he received the award of one hundred pounds from the company, and the men were also proportionately rewarded."


     Gavin Hamilton came to British Columbia in 1853, when a boy, being one of the band of pioneers on the ship Norman Morrison.  He had previously spent a year at sea, having run away from his home in the Orkneys in consequence of a youthful adventure, which was characteristic of his whole subsequent career.

     A ship had gone ashore on a dangerous reef in the Orkneys, and the occupants were in imminent danger of drowning when Gavin Hamilton, accompanied by two fishermen, went out in a tremendous sea and saved the lives of all on board.  The two fishermen were awarded the Royal Humane Society's medal, but the boy who accompanied them was not given any recognition, although it was mainly through his efforts that the shipwrecked company were saved.

     His father was the local magistrate upon whom devolved the duty of recommending the rescuers for the medal, and Gavin was so indignant at his father passing him over that he ran away from home and went to sea.

     After leaving Fort Yale, Hamilton was transferred to Stewarts lake where he at once became a great favorite with Peter Ogden, who ruled an immense district like an autocrat and a patriarch.  Life and death were in his hands and there was no law in the country except as he considered advisable.  The Indians looked upon him as possessing almost supernatural power, and indeed, in those days a man required to be a strong man to occupy such a position.  The outlying tribes of Indians are bloodthirsty and dangerous and it was only by reason of the personality of the leading men of the Hudson Bay company that they were kept in order.  Life was full of hazard and in that atmosphere Gavin Hamilton seemed to thrive.   

     After a long service with Mr. Ogden as factum and deputy for the factor, Hamilton married his daughter.  Father Morice speaks of him as always having been a prime favorite with the Indians and of his wonderful success in dealing with them.  Medicine had always been a hobby with him and there were few doctors who could let blood or set a broken limb better than he could.

     This story is told that quite recently a half-breed had his leg broken on the Cariboo road and there being no doctor within reach Mr. Hamilton was sent for.  The break was a bad one and while it was being attended to the half-breed made a terrible fuss, Mr Hamilton said to him: "Now I've got no chloroform here, but if you don't remain still while I attend to you I'll have to hit you so hard that it will be as effective as an anasthetic."

     The natives of the country had such a wholesome dread of him that the patient remained perfectly docile until the operation was complete.

     A volume could be written about the adventures of Gavin Hamilton among the Indians.  At the time of his death there was a bullet in his shoulder as a relic of some long gone by fight, while his hands and arms were marked with knife cuts which he had experienced at various times in personal conflicts with the Indians.

     The story of Hamilton's trip to the Babines at that time one of the fiercest and most dangerous tribes of Indians in British Columbia, amongst whom he established trading posts and cultivated friendly relations, is an epic in itself.  Everyday he carried his life in his hands.  But even these fierce and hostile Indians came to regard him as their friend.

     When Ogden died Gavin Hamilton had so demonstrated his ability that he was promoted from a simple clerk in one bound to a factorship and entrusted with the entire direction of affairs over the immense country which had owned the sway of Ogden.

     Gavin Hamilton came of a very excellent Scottish family, being directly descended from the Ayrshire branch of the great Scottish house of Hamilton.  On his mother's side he was the nephew of Dr. John Rae, the explorer who achieved fame as the discoverer of the remains of the ill-fated Franklin expedition to the Arctic.  He was also closely connected with the family of Lord Macauley, and one of his cousins was Sir Robert Hamilton, well known as a prominent and successful Irish administrator during the troublous times which followed the Phoenix park murders.  He was one of the best examples of the type of western pioneers now fast disappearing owing to the advance of civilization.  For money he cared nothing.  For personal integrity everything.  The virtues he esteemed most highly were courage and hospitality.  He was an autocrat, but a benefluient one, and the news of his death will be heard with deep regrets in every quarter of the country tributary to the Cariboo road.  He leaves a widow and a large family, mostly settled in the northern interior of British Columbia.

     W.C. Hamilton of Esquimalt and Z. M. Hamilton of Victoria are cousins of the late factor.

     He was passionately fond of sailing and was the first man to demonstrate to the Indians the use of a sail boat on Stewarts lake.  They could not believe that by means of sails a boat could go otherwise than dead before the wind, and on him starting out for a sail and beating to windward they considered that he had received some supernatural gift to be able thus to defy the element.

     He resigned from the Hudson Bay company some years ago and erected a saw mill and grist mill on the Cariboo road, but his plant was destroyed by fire and his enterprises were not very successful.  Of late years he had retired from active work, content to enjoy his pension, making his headquarters at Lac la Hache, but visiting relatives and friends in Victoria every once in a while.

     Death came quietly and peacefully.  He had looked death so often in the face with coolness and self control that it had lost all its terrors for him.  The end came very suddenly and was almost without pain.

     The funeral will likely take place in Victoria and the arrangements will be announced later.

All information and images presented on this page are the property of Mark Huston unless otherwise noted.

copyright 2002
Mark Huston

Employee Contact Person
Gavin Hamilton Mark Huston

Family information is being sought on Orkneymen who served with the Hudson's Bay Company west of the Rockies to 1858. Can you help?

A biographical dictionary of fur trade and exploration west of the Rockies (from California to Alaska) is being compiled. Since the major fur trading company for this Pacific slopes area was the Hudson's Bay Company and many HBC servants came from Orkney, family information is being sought on the Orcadians who once served in the Company west of the Rockies up to 1858.  Respondents with information are asked to please contact:

Bruce M. Watson
208-1949 Beach Avenue
Vancouver, B. C.,
V6G 1Z2
tel: [604] 684-6786
fax: [604] 871-7100

For more information please see:

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This page created 25 Jan 2002
moved 28 July 2002
updated 21 July 2013