Tomo Antoine – Thomas Anthony

Tomo Antoine, by his Iroquois name or, Thomas William Anthony, by his official Hudson Bay Company “white man’s” name (1823-c.1869) was, most likely[1], born at Fort Astoria (also known as Fort Astor or Fort George), Astoria, Oregon.

His name is variously rendered in expedition journals, news articles, Hudson Bay Company documents and other documents. His first name is found as: Tomo, Toma, Tomah, Thomas, Tomow, Tomaw, Tolmie and William. His last name is found as: Antoine, Anthony, Omtamy, Omtamny and Williams. He is mostly named and recognized as “Tomo Antoine,” or simply “Tomo,” so for the authenticity of the story this name is used.

Tomo was the son of a French-Iroquois Métis named Toma Omtamny, a daring white-water canoe man and experienced voyageur working in the lower echelons of the Hudson’s Bay Company system. Toma fell in love and married an attractive Chinook Indian maiden from the ruling class at the Columbia River. Soon after he went back to work with the Fur Brigade and was killed in an ambush by hostile Indians near Pouce Coupe in the Peace River Country. Mrs. Omtamny gave birth to a boy child in 1823 she named Tomo for the father he would never know.

Under the protection of the HBC, Tomo played, fought and grew up with both white but mostly Métis children of various forts, one of his playmates being Ranald MacDonald. Since his mother’s people took him from the fort during part of each year to live like an Indian and learn their ways, he became the leader of the “fort brats” when they were outside the fort walls playing Indian games. He chattered in Chinook most of the time, like all the children of the fort, but he could switch to any of several Indian dialects, to French patois or to English without a pause for breath. He discovered he had a natural aptitude for languages and mastered it to perfection.

Records show Tomo was at old Fort Langley in 1830 with young Ranald MacDonald and offspring from the Allards, the Charbonnais, the Lefevres and other young Métis brats who grew up to be the pathfinders of the new colony.

Still in his teens Tomo’s aptitude for language had long been recognized by many HBC senior officials whom had served their time at the various outposts. They were also familiar with his other characteristics.

In his favour there was keen intelligence, loyalty, and unusual physical strength, besides his rare ability with languages. On the debit side, he was moody, quick to take offence, was an accomplished liar and had an explosive temper. He was unlike any other young man, Indian or white, but he passed naturally into the employ of the HBC as an interpreter.

Shortly after the founding of Fort Victoria in 1843, Tomo started to spy out the unknown Chemainus and Cowichan Country for James Douglas of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

According to Indian lore he masqueraded as Hyaltz (Son of the Sun) and he told all Indians to do what he says because he could do magic things and was going to be the Big Chief of all the Indians in the region.

The “Fancy Indian” rather ruled the Indians and country, played God, not always using the best methods of integrity. It is unlikely that James Douglas was completely unaware of what was going on but nevertheless, the information Tomo brought back was well received. Although Tomo could neither read nor write, he could draw a reasonably accurate map of the country he had traversed. He could also give the names, location and numerical strength of the various Indian bands and describe the physical features of a land that was slowly giving up its secrets.

Tomo Antoine would take any risk in the service of James Douglas, for whom he showed an almost dog-like devotion. In later days he served the Government of Vancouver’s Island Colony, but only at the request of the (by then, 1851) governor, James Douglas, or other HBC men who had taken positions of responsibility in the Colonial Government. These were his idols. No other men, white or Indian, heard the truth from Tomo Antoine or earned his respect.

In the spring of 1850, at the request of James Douglas, he served as a guide and interpreter for Reverend Father Lemprit visiting Cowichan Bay. Lemprit was followed some time later by Bishop Demers, who also made use of Tomo’s services. The bishop wrote; “the Iroquois named Thoma, a devout young man, assisted by interpreting sermons and teaching them hymns and prayers in their own tongue.”

Early November 1852 Tomo Antoine became engaged in a manhunt for the murder of Peter Brown, a shepherd at the Saanich sheep station. Two Indians of the Cowichan area were the suspects. James Douglas was determined to prevent this kind of outrage becoming a habit with the already troublesome Cowichans and he formed the first militia force on Vancouver Island, named The Victoria Voltigeurs, in which Tomo played an important role. Hudson’s Bay Company factors were the officers of this unorthodox unit, which had a total strength of eighteen men. Since the Voltigeurs would be required to operate in wild and trackless country, the grown up Métis brats of Tomo’s childhood were heavily represented in this unit. The Indian fugitives were captured two months after and both sentenced to death at what is known today as Gallows Point on Protection Island.

In May 1856 Tomo participated in an expedition organized by Adam Horne who became the first white man to make a recorded crossing of Vancouver Island. In doing so, he established a trade route to the Indian villages on the Alberni Inlet and thereafter made this trip an annual affair.

There was hardly a Vancouver Island expedition of any importance in those days that didn’t include Tomo. His presence seemed to ensure success and minimize troublesome incidents with the Indians. When not away as a guide, he was at home in Cowichan near the Indian village of Somenos.

It is speculated[2] that on 21 August 1856 a young Indian named Tathlesit, the son of a Chief of the Somena Indians, resentful of Tomo’s interest in his intended bride, shot Tomo from ambush through his left arm and chest. Seriously injured, close to death he was brought to Victoria and to save his life they had to amputate his arm. This ended his easy relationship with the native bands. James Douglas was much troubled with the incident in which Tomo was considered to be “a British subject.”  A manhunt followed and the suspect (or his scapegoat) was hanged from a tree at Comiaken, Cowichan Bay.

Tomo became gaunt and listless and escaped into the wilderness to heal his wounded chest and regain strength trying to continue his former life with only one arm. It must have been painful mastering the art of making one arm; paddle a canoe, load and fire a musket, chop firewood and the multitude of little acts so simple to a man with two good arms. When he finally returned to Victoria he had regained his arrogant manner, appeared vigorous and confident, and was obviously ready to continue his life’s task of helping to open Vancouver Island to the settlers he despised.

A year after the loss of his arm, in 1857, Tomo Antoine took part in an expedition that had been planned by Surveyor, General J. Despard Pemberton in which they ascended the Cowichan River to the lake and from there followed the Nitinat River to its mouth on the west coast of the island.

By the spring of 1858 a torrent of gold hungry adventurers had poured into Victoria on their way to the Fraser River diggings. By 1859 a backwash of bitter and disillusioned men and women had returned from the Fraser, where it seemed that the gold had been worked out. Many returned to their homes, but a large number remained in Victoria, being either too poor or too proud to do the same. They wanted to take up land and settle in the colony. Tomo continued in the role of pathfinder for this purpose. He led the way for surveying parties, arranged meetings between Indian Chiefs and government officials and he escorted throngs of settlers to the new lands. It was a busy year for Tomo Antoine but he now found himself surrounded by people who did not understand him, nor appreciated his talents. While the Canadians appeared to accept Tomo as a necessary element of frontier life, the colonists looked on him as something of a slightly higher order than an animal. They were the ones who simply could not understand why “Old Squaretoes” James Douglas chose to tolerate such a creature as Tomo Antoine and held him in such high regard. There were grumbles when he was awarded a large tract of land in the Shawnigan District, free of charge in recognition of services rendered to the Government.

Shortly after the arrival of new Cowichan settler Samuel Harris[36-see book], Tomo told him the story, he had heard about, of the Golden Bullet Mine [A story now believed Tomo may have made up himself]. Harris reported the story to Governor Douglas who gave him orders for an expedition. Between February and August 1860 Tomo was involved in three expeditions to and from Cowichan Lake, in search of the Golden Bullet Mine. They did not find the mine but after the expeditions Tomo guided many more (fruitless) parties who came to test the truth for the Golden Bullet Mine. Even today people are still looking for it.

As for skills, in the four years since Tomo lost his left arm, he had acquired abnormal strength in the one that remained. His paddle was unlike any other, having two straps attached to the handle through which he slipped his forearm. Even when so encumbered, Tomo could hold the heavy Hudson Bay musket to his shoulder with one arm, paddle jutting from his elbow, and shoot with tolerable accuracy.

A census conducted in the summer of 1860 between Cowichan and Nanaimo showed the names of exactly eighteen white men living in that area. One of them registered as “Thomas or Tommo” was jointly occupying a piece of property at the mouth of a creek half a mile south of Cherry Point.

Early 1861 Tomo married See-na-toah, assumed to have been called “Jane” at the time of her marriage. She was the daughter of Tsau-see-ah (known by the white men as Old Joe), the Chief of the tiny village of Taatka. As a chief with great influence in the Cowichan area, Tomo could not have made a better alliance in the interests of his future safety amongst these people. The couple settled at a little house Tomo had built at the mouth of Garnett Creek, overlooking Satellite Channel.

In April 1863, at Governor Douglas’ request, Tomo Antoine came out of retirement to act as interpreter and expert on Indian ways for what was called the Lamalchi Expedition. It was an impressive military navy act that started with the murder of William Bradly on Pender Island, followed a few days later by the murder of Frederick Marks and his daughter Caroline on Saturna Island. This provoked a shootout between united Indians with their muskets against the gunboat “Forward” and her canons, which resulted in levelling the Indian village on Kuper Island. The hunt and shootings lasted until 16 May. The Indian leader held responsible for the big riot and several others were tried and found guilty of murder. They were hanged on 4 July 1863, in front of the police barracks in Bastion Square, Victoria.

Early June, just after the Lamalchi Expedition, Tomo’s wife, Jane Anthony, was found dead near their house after a drinking party with her husband. A quickly brought together jury of white men from the Cowichan area rendered a verdict of wilful murder by persons unknown. One Indian had described in detail how Tomo had struck her down, then knelt on her shoulders and wrenched her head back until her neck snapped. Tomo denied the allegations but was rounded up and imprisoned to await trial for murder. He was kept behind bars for almost two months, to be repeatedly brought up and then remanded, while the police vainly sought out the witnesses, until further delay seemed pointless. The final trial, held on 14 August, some said was a farce, the outcome inevitable. Tomo Antoine was discharged for lack of evidence, but he was branded a murderer in public opinion. The magistrate had directed that he was to be brought up again should new evidence be discovered, but this never occurred.

In the late evening of 9 June 1864 at the Indian camp of Somenos [Cowichan], Tomo showed up at the camp [No. 2] of the Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition who were in their 3rd day of the expedition. Having heard that his childhood friend Ranald MacDonald was in the party he applied for a position. Commander Robert Brown already had heard many stories about Tomo, pros and cons. Brown being warned about Tomo realized the value of his wilderness and language experience and that Tomo knew the area they were about to travel into. Brown even carried a map in his pocket originating from Tomo’s earlier explorations. A little doubtful at first, with MacDonald’s word of guarantee, he finally risks engaging him unconditionally for $1.50 a day as a hunter, guide and canoe man. Brown later described Tomo’s introduction as follows; “He stood five feet odd in his ragged trousers and woollen shirt; a grey cap was set jauntily on his head, and a pair of wooden-soled boots, made by himself, were on his feet. More than that he had not. He borrowed a blanket from his friend the chief, and we supplied him with a rifle; so he declares with a big oath, as he squints along the barrel, that “he is a man once more,” and in two minutes is asleep under a tree, with the gun between his legs.” Brown had made a decision he would not regret and Tomo remained with the VIEE until the end. His behaviour was good, except on one occasion when he became violently drunk and the combined weight of all the VIEE members was required to subdue him. At all other times he more than earned his pay, keeping the expedition supplied with fresh meat, interpreting the various native dialects and intimidating the Indians along the way into peaceful co-operation. Brown showed great interest in Tomo’s narratives and later Brown published much of the Indian lore he had learned from Tomo.

Tomo was also a member (as a hunter and guide) of the second VIEE under command of John Buttle in the summer of 1865. This second VIEE seems to be Tomo’s last expedition and after its disbandment in the autumn of 1865, Tomo Antoine slipped into obscurity. His day had passed and the frontier was becoming a (more or less) peaceful settlement.

In July 1868 Tomo’s name pops up one more time when a man called Edward Mallendene holds a petitioning, on behalf of Tomo, for the outstanding payment of $78.00 in wages he earned as an interpreter on the Lamalchi Expedition. The petition was denied.

It was told that the legendary Tomo, at the age of 45, was becoming deaf, and that his eyesight was failing, probably accelerated by his addiction to the same kind of deadly fire-water that was sold to the Indians. He had no friends to protect him and his enemies were countless. One day his cabin door hung open and the ashes on the hearth were cold, its owner having gone from the sight of men. Tomo died sometime between July 1868 and March 1870. The Indians were emphatic that Tomo, the Evil One, was dead, and perhaps they had the best of reasons for being so positive about it.

No image is known of Tomo Antoine. He is remembered as a curious hybrid whose personality was a blending of the best and worst of three racial stocks. In his time he was envied, admired, feared and despised by those who knew him. Fifteen years after the expedition Brown wrote; “During all our long connections none of us had ever reason to regret the day when he joined our party, and to this hour one-armed Tomo, the swarthy vagabond of the western forests, is only remembered as a hearty fellow – prince of hunters and doctor of all woodcraft – whose single arm was worth more than most men’s two, and without whose help the map of Vancouver would have been but a sorry blank yet, and the first Exploring Expedition a forgotten affair.”


Copyright © July 2014, Bart van den Berk.



[1] Researcher and author W. Harry Olsen wrote that Tomo parents trail began in 1822 at Fort Vancouver and that Tomo was born in 1823 at Fort Vancouver. Since Fort Vancouver was built in 1824, one year after Tomo’s birth, it is more likely he was born at Fort Astoria (also named Fort George).

[2] (Updated 03-2015) In 2000 researcher and writer Graham Brazier claimed it was not Tomo Antoine but a different ‘white’ man named Thomas Williams who got shot for the same reasons and it was mere coincidence they each suffered serious injuries to their right arm and chest. Source: Brazier, Graham, Article: On the Trail of the One-Armed Man, p22-24, from; British Columbia Historical News – Journal of the British Columbia Historical Federation, Volume33, No.4, Fall, 2000, Micromedia, British Colombia, 2000; 40 pages.


[Annotated and edited from the following main sources, in order of usage.]

Olsen, W. Harry, Century Scrapbook, 10 Jan. until 4 April 1963. from; Ladysmith-Chemainus Chronicle, 1963.

Brown, Robert, The First Journey of Exploration across Vancouver Island, Article: 1, pages 254, 255; 2, pages 274-276; 3, pages 302-304; 4 pages 349-351. from; Bates, Henry Walter, Illustrated Travels: a record of Discovery, Geography, and Adventure, London: Cassell, Petter & Calpin, 1869, 378 pages.

Hayman, John, Robert Brown and the Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition, Vancouver: UBC Press, 1989; 211 pages.

Brown, Robert, MS-0794, Robert Brown Papers, British Columbia Archives, Victoria, Canada. Vol.2, file 3-9, Journals of Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition, 7 June 1864 – 22 Oct. 1864.

Robert Brown Papers, British Columbia Archives, Victoria, Canada. Vol.4, Macintosh, Winniefreda, Transcripts:, Journals of Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition, 7 June 1864 – 22 Oct. 1864.

Olsen, W. Harry, Water Over The Wheel, Sidney, BC: Peninsula Printing Co., 1963, 169 pages.

Norcross, Elizabeth Blanche, The Warm Land, Duncan, B.C.; 1959, 112 pages.


(Keyword) biography Tomo Antoine / Thomas Anthony