Author Tags: 1800-1850, Art, Forts and Fur, Theatre
“The scenery was grand in the extreme; similar in form to
the Alps of Switzerland.” —Sir Henry James Warre
The first artist’s impressions of the Canadian Rockies were made by Lt. Henry James Warre while travelling as a British undercover agent in 1845, accompanied by Lieutenant Mervin Vavasour of the Royal Engineers. Warre’s ostensibly amateur drawings and paintings were undertaken as military reconnaisance in case the Anglo-American territorial dispute over the Oregon Territory degenerated into war.
Disguised as two gentlemen seeking “the pleasure of field sports and scientific pursuit,” Warre and Vavasour left Montreal in May of 1845 to examine transportation networks, British defences and American military capabilities between Montreal and the Oregon Territory, taking the HBC route from Fort Garry on the Red River to the Rockies, then taking the White Man Pass (named for Father Pierre-Jean De Smet) to Kootenai Lake, reaching their coastal destination of Fort Vancouver on August 25, 1845.
After half of their 60 horses died en route, Warre, an English army officer, concluded: “Our passage over the magnificent range of the lofty mountains was not accomplished without much difficulty and a fearful sacrifice of the noble animals that aided us in the transport. We left Edmonton with sixty horses; on our arrival at Fort Colvile, on the Columbia River, we had only twenty-seven, and several of these so exhausted they could not have continued many more days. The steepness of the mountain passes, the want of proper nourishment, the fearful falls that some of the animals sustained, rolling in some instances many hundred feet into the foaming torrent beneath, combined to cause this great loss....The idea of transporting troops...with their stores, etc., through such an extent of uncultivated country and over such impractable mountains would appear to us quite infeasible.”
What he was suggesting was that it would be impractible to dispatch British forces from eastern Canada to travel overland to the Pacific Ocean.
At Fort Vancouver, Warre and Vavasour played to the hilt their roles as monied gentlemen, purchasing beaver hats of the highest quality, frock coats, cloth vests, tweed trousers, nail brushes, hair brushes, fancy handkerchiefs, shirts, tobacco, pipes, wines, whiskeys and a quantity of extract of roses.
At Fort Vancouver, Warre also had the pleasure of witnessing the first theatrical production in Oregon when the crew of H.M.S. Modeste performed two plays, Mayor of Garratti and The Deuce is in Him, before an assembled audience on its deck of 300 people. Warre noted the “Ladies” in the plays were particularly charming: “The sailor boys made rather large Women & had (as was remarked by a nice little girl of Mr. Douglas) ‘very red necks.’ Some of the ladies (nearly all of whom are half-breeds) wondered that they were not before aware that ‘any Women lived on board’—So that the deception was perfect.”
British interest in controlling the Pacific Northwest was complicated by the presence of American settlers north of the Columbia River led there by Michel Troutman Simmons, a wagon train colonel, and George Washington Bush, a black pioneer, as well as French-Canadian farmers along the Willamette River.
By 1843, a provisional American government for the Oregon Territory had been improvised at Champoeg on the Willamette River (in Oregon). The vote to establish regional government was 53 in favour, 50 against.
Warre and Vavasour noted the increasing influx of Americans to the West Coast, as well as the relatively weak defensive fortifications of the Hudson’s Bay Company forts. “Till the year 1842–43, not more than thirty American families were resident in the country,” Warre wrote. “In 1843 an emigration of about one thousand persons with a large number of wagons, horses, cattle, etc., arrived on the Willamette having traversed the vast desert section of the country between the Missouri, the Rocky Mountains and the Columbia....
“The American immigrants have as yet confined themselves principally to the valley of the Willamette which has by far the richest soil and finest land in the whole country. The cultivable part of it, however, cannot be said to extend more than sixty to eighty miles in length, and fifteen or twenty miles in breadth. Nearly all the Prairie land is now taken up, and the Immigrants are too indolent to clear the woods. They are consequently forming new settlements on the banks of the Columbia at the mouth of the same river and on the beautiful but not very rich plains to the north, in the neighborhood of Nisqually and Puget’s Sound.”
From the mouth of the Columbia River, Warre and Vavasour travelled up to Puget Sound and onto Vancouver Island. As he provided pencil sketches of Fort Victoria in September of 1845, Warre correctly predicted “it will ere long eclipse Fort Vancouver and become the Head Quarters of the HBCo. West of the Rocky Mountains.” While assessing meagre American military capabilities, Warre made over eighty watercolour drawings, some of which portrayed subjects of military importance. He often placed small figures of Aboriginals in the foreground, so as not to convey the true purpose of his landscapes.
When the sovereignty dispute between Britain and the United States dissolved, Warre published Sketches in North America and the Oregon Territory, including a map and a narrative entitled Sketch of the Journey. It contains some of the earliest and best lithographed views of the Rockies and Pacific Northwest.
Warre’s adventures had been prompted by a meeting at Number 10 Downing Street on April 3, 1845, with Sir George Simpson, governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Sir Robert Peel, British prime minister, and the Earl of Aberdeen, Peel’s foreign minister. The threesome had discussed the latest rhetorical salvo of the newly elected American President, James K. Polk, who, in his inaugural address, had declared the United States would claim the entire area west of the Rockies from Mexico to Russian America in Alaska. His bellicose campaign slogan, "54–40 or Fight!" sufficiently rattled the British that George Simpson proposed sending four war ships, two of which would guard the entrances to Puget Sound and Juan de Fuca Strait.
Peel and Aberdeen were more inclined to interpret Polk’s promises to the electorate as bluster. Peel had therefore decided that two undercover agents should be sent “...to gain a general knowledge of the capabilities of the Oregon territory in a military point of view, in order that we may be enabled to act immediately and with effect in defense of our rights in that quarter, should those rights be infringed by any hostile aggression or encroachment on the part of the United States.”
Warre and Vavasour returned to Montreal in July of 1846. By the time Warre’s report from Montreal reached Prime Minister Robert Peel in London, Peel had already decided to yield the area between the Columbia and the 49th parallel to the Americans. Warre proceeded to have a distinguished military career and was knighted for his services.
It is worth mentioning a few additional facts about Warre’s life. His early years were instrumental in developing his abilities. Born in 1819, at Cape of Good Hope, he enrolled at Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, in 1832. Gaining his appointment as an Ensign in 1837, he spent six months in Paris, studying the paintings at the Louvre and learning French.
After he rejoined the 54th Regiment of Foot in Canterbury in 1839 and sailed from Portsmouth, England, on H.M.S. Pique as an aide-de-camp to Sir Richard Downes Jackson, Commander-in-Chief of the Forces in British North America, he was promoted to lieutenant in 1841.
After his West Coast adventures, Warre reached the rank of Captain in 1847 and published his aforementioned Sketches in North America and the Oregon Territory.
After service in Ireland and the Ionian Islands, he married Georgiana-Emily Lukin in 1855. Promoted to lieutenant-colonel two months later, he departed for the Crimean War where he took command of the 57th Regiment upon the death of Colonel Shadforth. That same year Warre was named Companion of the Order of the Bath and he also published Sketches in the Crimea. He was garrisoned in Malta in 1856 and promoted to Colonel in 1858. He led the 57th Regiment from Egypt to Bombay in 1859, the year he was appointed Brigadier-General. His military career continued with stints in India, New Zealand and Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Henry James Warre died in London on April 3, 1898.
Named in 1918, Mount Vavasour and Mount Warre are located in the Rocky Mountains, east of White Man Pass, through which both men crossed.
Warre, Henry James. Sketches in North America and the Oregon Territory (London: Dickinson, 1848; New York, New York: Imprint Society, 1970).
Warre, Henry James. Overland to Oregon in 1845; Impressions of a Journey Across North America (Ottawa: Public Archives of Canada, 1976).
[BCBW 2006] "Art" "Forts and Fur" "Theatre"