William Bruce

A view of the garden on the north side of the reconstructed Fort Vancouver.
The Fort Vancouver Garden is a smaller-scale reconstruction of the garden located here in the 1800s.

NPS Photo / Troy Wayrynen

Quick Facts

The Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) rarely commented on activities and commodities that were considered "in-country." In-country were activities or items that did not have either a related expense or profit, and were generally not tracked through the typical HBC accounting systems and reports. Chief Factor Dr. John McLoughlin's garden at Fort Vancouver, vital as it was to the representation of the HBC's role as a colonial power, and to the nutrition and health of HBC officers and their families, was one of these "in-country" endeavors. The bulk of information we have on the garden and its role at Fort Vancouver comes from casual or unofficial observations from visitors and employees. And, like the garden he cared for, William Bruce, the head gardener at Fort Vancouver from about 1833 to 1849, is an enigma.

William Bruce (usually referred to as Billy) possessed a noble surname, but it appears that he was born into the lower classes, as he was initially contracted to the HBC as a laborer, the lowest level in the HBC hierarchy of positions. Laborers generally did not have a formal education and were illiterate, which was fairly common at the time. It is intriguing that Billy managed the garden, for which some reading, writing, and math skills would have been helpful. Even more intriguing, had Billy gained experience as a gardener before signing on with the HBC?

Billy was born in Dornoch in the county of Sutherland, which is located in the Scottish Highlands. Dornoch is a seaside town on the north shore of the Dornoch Firth (a firth is an inlet or strait), near the northern tip of Scotland. At the time that Billy lived there, Dornoch was the only market town in the parish and the only royal burgh in the county, meaning it had a royal charter. The charter was awarded by Charles I in 1628 and allowed the town to govern certain affairs on its own. It was also a parliamentary burgh, represented (along with several surrounding towns) by one member in the British House of Commons. A notable feature of the town was the Church of Scotland's Dornoch Cathedral. The population of Dornoch was 3,100 people in 1821, just previous to Billy signing on with the HBC. There were several large states with titled owners in the local area. Agriculture was the primary occupation, with small farmers being replaced by large scale farming in a series of evictions known as the Highland Clearances, which took place from about 1750 to 1860. This shift in land tenure caused many people to leave Scotland just as Billy did, going to Canada, America, and other worldwide locations.

Billy lived in, or very near, a relatively cosmopolitan town, a seat of both church and state, with extensive alteration of the landscape for estate gardens and lands, and large-scale farming. Billy may well have had access to a limited education through the parish school of the time, and the opportunity to work in these "corporate" landscapes. 

Based on the date of his initial contract, June 20, 1825, Billy would have been born no later than 1810. However, George B. Roberts, another employee of the HBC in the Pacific Northwest, referred to Billy as "old." Roberts was born in 1816, so it's likely that Billy was born much earlier than 1810. Also, he had amassed a significant amount of debt before he signed on with the HBC, suggesting that he had been an adult for some time. Because of the opportunities available to him in Dornoch, it is likely he had enough education and professional experience to succeed in the demanding position of a head gardener in the early Victoria Period. Although his contract continued to list him as a laborer, obviously Dr. McLoughlin saw enough talent or potential that he placed Billy in the role of head gardener. The two of them would have worked closely together, as was typical of the time for property owners and their gardeners, producing a functional and aesthetically pleasing space that was a collaboration of efforts.

There are conflicting accounts as to when this horticultural collaboration began. Billy arrived at Fort Vancouver in 1826. According to Eloisa, Dr. McLoughlin's daughter, in 1827 they "got a good gardener and didn't need an Indian after that," obviously indicating that the garden was cared for by local American Indian workers up to that time. The garden referred to by Eloisa was most likely located near the first fort site, on the ridge to the northeast of the fort's final location on the plain. However, personnel records indicate that Billy was primarily working in the storehouses at that time. It wasn't until 1833 that he was officially listed as the gardener.

Then, in October of 1838, Billy retired from the HBC and returned to England. After arriving there, Billy had a change of heart and begged Dr. McLoughlin, who was in London at the time, for his job back. Records show that Billy started a new contract with the HBC that year. Before returning to Fort Vancouver however, the HBC Directors requested that Bruce be allowed to visit Chiswick House (the Duke of Devonshire's estate outside of London) in order to learn to care for plants that Joseph Paxton, principal gardener for the Duke, had given to the HBC for Fort Vancouver.

It is interesting that Billy was allowed to visit such a location. Status was extremely important, even in the garden setting. Billy's status as an HBC laborer, the lowest position on the HBC hierarchical scale, should have made it impossible. It was also highly unusual for someone of Billy's social status to be the head gardener for such a prestigious establishment as Fort Vancouver. It is possible that Billy visited the Horticultural Society of London's experimental and educational garden, leased from the Duke of Devonshire, also located at Chiswick and referred to as "Chiswick." Joseph Paxton had been trained at this other "Chiswick." However, the letter asking permission for the garden visit is specifically addressed to the Duke of Devonshire. And, according to a letter written to Paxton by Charles Edmonds, the gardener at the duke's estate of Chiswick House, Billy visited the garden there just previous to November 5, 1838. The fact that Billy was allowed to visit the Duke of Devonshire's garden at Chiswick House speaks not only to the power of the HBC, but also that of the position of head gardener at Fort Vancouver, one of the HBC's North American headquarters.

Billy seems to have adopted different stances about his visit at Chiswick and his efforts at Fort Vancouver. Some sources indicate that he intended to emulate the garden at Chiswick, mirroring its style, others indicate that he was dismissive of Chiswick, stating that the garden at Fort Vancouver was quite superior. Working at one of the HBC's primary posts provided access to global resources, making the goal of establishing such a garden - on the frontier - realistic. Contemporary accounts from visitors and employees, and archaeological evidence, illustrate a garden that was highly sophisticated in its variety of species. Historical documents also indicate that the garden was a pleasure ground restricted to those invited in by Dr. McLoughlin, though he also shared its ripe bounty with certain individuals and seeds with arriving pioneers.

William "Billy" Bruce's work at the Fort Vancouver garden was essential to the image of the fort and the HBC both in the Northwest and in England. He continued as head gardener at Fort Vancouver until his death on August 25, 1849.

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site

Last updated: March 26, 2021