William Tolmie

Quick Facts
Doctor and naturalist
Place of Birth:
Inverness, Scotland
Date of Birth:
February 3, 1812
Place of Death:
British Columbia, Canada
Date of Death:
December 8, 1886
Place of Burial:
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Cemetery Name:
Ross Bay Cemetery

By Jack Nisbet

William Fraser Tolmie, freshly graduated from the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, arrived at Fort Vancouver with colleague Meredith Gairdner in May of 1833. On their second day there, “after scrambling though brush and brake and stumps,” they entered a large plain “diversified with clumps of trees and lakes of water and profusely bedecked with beautiful flowers.”

The young doctor was soon assigned to Hudson's Bay Company forts on the northern coast, but he returned to the Columbia in 1836. For the next five years he served at the company headquarters as surgeon and clerk, fully engaged in all aspects of a fast-changing community. “The removal to Fort Vancouver, that year,” he wrote, “was like restoration to civilized life.”

The journals and letters from Dr. Tolmie’s residence at Fort Vancouver cover natural history, medicine, the everyday work of the fur trade, and the social upheaval of the American entry into the Northwest. He shipped packages of diverse materials back to museums in his native Scotland that included items from sugar pine cones to halibut hooks.

Tolmie paid close attention to native languages, recording two different words for the fertile wetland that had been transformed into the Fort Vancouver farm:

Tshinook: Skit-so-to-ho
Klikitat: Ala-si-kas, the place of mud turtles

His entry for May 7, 1837, catalogs 30 trees noted along the river, with tribal words and uses for many of them. Number four, referring to the vine maple, reads:

4 Acer Circin—Tuanuass                                    
Cascade Indians bend its boughs into hoops to which the bay nets are fastened. Kliketats make their Kamass sticks of the branches

Dr. Tolmie treated patients at his Fort Vancouver surgery and sometimes sent prescriptions far upriver. He advised a sick trader at Fort Okanagan to take thirty drops of laudanum three to four times a day, and to get up two hours before breakfast and “walk two or three miles at a gentle pace.” When dealing with tribal members, he took their belief in the spiritual power called tamanowas into account: “instead of ridiculing tamanowas, I always allowed it full swing.”

In his late thirties, Tolmie married Jane Work, the Métis daughter of Hudson's Bay Company agent John Work. Together they had fourteen children, and retired to a thousand-acre farm near Victoria, British Columbia. By the time he passed away, Tolmie’s name had been applied to mountain peaks and island channels, a number of shrubs and flowers that he collected, including youth-on-age (Tolmiea menziesii), and the secretive MacGillivray’s warbler (Oporonis tolmiei) that he first saw in underbrush near Fort Vancouver.


Tolmie, William. “The Journal of William Fraser Tolmie” Washington Historical Quarterly 3 (July 1912) 229-241.

Tolmie, William. The Journals of William Fraser Tolmie, Physician and Fur Trader. R. G. Large, ed. Mitchell Press, Vancouver BC: 1963.

__________“A letter from Dr. Tolmie” Transactions of the 12th Annual Re-Union of the Oregon Pioneer Association. E.M. Waite, Salem, Oregon: 1885

Watson, Bruce. Lives Lived West of the Divide. Vol 3. Kelowna, B.C.: University of British Columbia Okanagan, 2010.

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site

Last updated: March 5, 2019