The Odd Tod - The Tale of John Tod

By Norman K. Archer


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John Tod was odd. At least most people thought so, and this may be why the house he built in Victoria, 2564 Heron Street, probably the oldest house in Western Canada, is said to be haunted by a ghost with a penchant for Christmas cards and rattling chains.

Renovations to the house in 1952 revealed the skeleton of a native woman buried in the backyard. It may also be the reason the remarkably fascinating Inlet named after him, whose waters lap the shores of Butchart's Gardens, is a place of solitude and seclusion.

John Tod was a gangly youth and all through his life, his limbs never appeared to be properly connected to his body. He used this idiosyncrasy to good effect, when, in a heated debate, his arms would flail the air like a berserk windmill.   The American historian Hubert Howe Bancroft said this of him: "Tod could no more tell his story seated in a chair than he could fly to Jupiter while chained to the Rock of Gibraltar; arms, legs and vertebrae were all brought into requisition, while high-hued information, bombed with oaths, burst from his breast like lava from Etna."

He was born in October 1794, on the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond in Scotland, the oldest of nine children. He resented his harsh religious upbringing; he resented the dull teaching methods of the Parish School; he resented the domineering attitude of his first employer; and he resented the scorn of his family and neighbours who dubbed him a "ne'er do well." His relief came when he heard about Lord Selkirk's ill-conceived agricultural colony of Red River in what is now Manitoba. Excited by the concept, he enrolled for a five-year apprenticeship as a clerk with the Hudson's Bay Company, experiencing some bitterly harsh winters in the most primitive conditions with far from adequate clothing and supplies, but quickly learned the fur trading business.

In 1816, he was posted to northern Ontario, just at the time when the rivalry between the Hudson's Bay Company and the Northwest Trading Company had reached its ugly peak and the Bay men were often on the losing side. John Work, who became a great friend, replaced Tod as District Manager. Work ended his career in Victoria, while Tod became an officer at the Company's headquarters in York Factory.

But Tod always had problems with authority and this weakness of character, together with his quick temper, was to daunt his footsteps throughout his years with the Company. George Simpson was the able but cold-hearted and vindictive Governor of the Hudson's Bay interests in the area. On one occasion, Tod came to blows with Simpson's bumptious Secretary, Tom Taylor, who ran immediately to his superior to report the event.

The irate Simpson demanded an explanation from Tod who characteristically waved his arms in his impassioned response. Simpson thought he was about to be struck, stumbled back, fell over a stool and roared, "You shall hear from me, sir!"  Tod's transfer in 1826 to the harsh and dreaded New Caledonia (which included parts of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon) came swiftly, and when Simpson gleefully announced the move, Tod replied that was exactly the place he hoped he would be sent! He believed it couldn't possibly be as bad as he had heard.

It was a terrible journey through the Peace River country and across the Rockies to Fort George, commanded by a veteran Hudson's Bay Officer James Yale, who also had been banished to these parts because of a disagreement with Simpson.

It wasn't long before Tod was in trouble again and was transferred to Fort McLeod, the worst of all possible Hudson's Bay postings, but where he was provided with a young assistant named James Douglas, destined to become the founding father of Victoria and a future Governor of British Columbia. The situation at the Fort became so unbearable that Tod decided to trek back to York Factory in 1834 and present his resignation in person to George Simpson.

To his amazement, Simpson was warm, friendly and begged him not to resign, offering him a promotion and a vacation in England and Scotland.

On his return, Tod was given several temporary postings across Canada, including a few months with James Douglas in 1839 at Fort Vancouver at the mouth of the Columbia River. Later, he was sent back to the Interior to establish Fort Kamloops, where the natives described him as "the ugliest man at the Fort."

The erratic and temperamental Tod is said to have had seven female companions, four as legitimate wives. He is also reputed to have fathered 10 children. His first liaison was in 1818 with a part-native girl named Catherine Birstone, whom he had met in Lake Winnipeg. He was glad to be rid of her when he was transferred to New Caledonia.

Tod played the flute and the fiddle and was delighted to find another female companion of native descent with a fine ear for music. However, he abandoned her in 1834 when he took his European vacation. On this trip, he married a Welsh lady named Eliza Waugh in London and brought her back to his fur trading posts.  But it was soon evident to his colleagues that poor Eliza had problems and they wondered why Tod would marry a "cracked-brained chambermaid." Only three years later, realizing he had a mad woman for a wife, he took her back to Wales where she was admitted to an insane asylum as a "confirmed lunatic."

In 1843, at Kamloops, a native girl named Sophia Lolo, who was at least 30 years his junior, became his mistress. In 1850, Tod was one of Victoria's first retirees and built his house, The Willows, near the shores of Oak Bay. He busied himself at home by enabling Sophia to produce five children. He obviously did little else because James Douglas described him as a poor old gentleman who was not very enterprising. He was 55.

In Victoria, he dabbled in politics, abandoned the Presbyterian religion of his ancestors, embraced spiritualism, gave up farming, speculated profitably on land, reared his brood of children, but despised his son-in-laws.

After getting the news that his legitimate wife Eliza had died in 1857 in the Welsh Asylum, Tod knew he was free to marry Sophia, but was in no hurry to do so. To complicate matters, Catherine, his first mistress whom he now despised, turned up in Victoria in 1863, claimed she was Tod's wife and insisted she be addressed as "Mrs. Tod." This spurred Tod into legitimizing his relationship with Sophia and the marriage took place the same year, robbing Catherine of her assumed title. 

Tod suffered many personal setbacks, quarrels, health issues and financial losses over the years. He became sad, lonely and morose. He was one of the first Hudson's Bay officers to retire in Victoria and, after 32 years of retirement, was the last survivor of the old Company pioneers. He died of prostate cancer on August 31, 1882 at the age of 87.

SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER ISLAND - April 2009

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