Robert Tomlinson was born on 15 February 1842 at Corville glebe, Tipperary, Ireland1,2,3. He was the fourth son, and fourth child of Thomas Tomlinson and Sophia Berry. The newspaper notices at the time of Robert’s birth indicate Corville glebe (glebe is the house built for the clergy in the parish4). Robert joined his older brothers Thomas, Sterling and William Winslow. All four boys had been born in a 5-year time span starting with Thomas in 1838, Sterling 1839, and William 1840.
During his childhood he moved around a lot with his family before his father settled at a church in Dublin (based on the various birthplaces of the other children). His parents continued to add to the family. Robert’s sisters Dorthea (1842) and Alicia (1845) were soon added. This was followed by three more boys: Samuel (1846), Charles (1848) and Francis (1849); and three more girls: Sophia (1850), Anna Lucretia (1852) and Fanny (1855). Fanny and Samuel each lived less than a year, Alicia died in her teens, Charles and Francis both died as young men. However, the remainder of the siblings lived to old age.
Robert’s mother was not as lucky. Sophia died shortly after Fanny was born, at Bray, Wicklow, where Thomas was Curate, leaving her husband and 10 children5. Family story has it that it was her death from TB that gave Robert his future interest in medicine.
Robert entered Trinity College in Dublin in 1861 at the age of 196following his older brothers Thomas and Stirling’s footsteps. The story is that in the first two years, before he was far enough along to tutor other students, he worked at a livery stable grooming horses. He had to get up at 4:00 a.m. so he rigged up a pulley system with a clock weight, a razor, and various thicknesses of string that would pull off his blankets so that he would wake up8,9. He graduated from Trinity College in the summer commencement with a bachelor of Divinity in 18667 and was ordained 23 December 1866.
He then took a medical internship at the Adelaide Hospital in Dublin. Adelaide Hospital was a hospital where the staff members were required to be protestant and it was set up to treat the protestant poor from around the St. Patrick’s Cathedral11. He did not finish his internship as he heard that the Church Mission Society (CMS) was in need of doctors and missionaries in British Columbia. He did not finish his internship to receive his doctor’s papers. Whether it was because he thought it might sway him to become a doctor rather than a missionary10, or whether he felt the need for his services was too great8or he did not have the patience to complete his degree9is a matter of opinion and I’m sure the tale depended on the listener.
It took Robert three months to travel from London to Victoria, British Columbia. Robert travelled to New York on the SS City of Boston arriving 20 January 1867 a sailing that took 10 days12. He then travelled southward to Panama, crossed Panama – likely by train, which occupied “but a few hours” and another voyage up to San Francisco12. He then boarded the Active arriving in Victoria on 13 March 1867 at 10:45 at night after a very windy four-day trip from San Francisco (the trip was normally 2 days).41. He was a curious person, and while he was travelling on the ships learned about how the sailors used their telescopes. He would later use that information to estimate the elevation of places he travelled and mountains in northern BC8.
He had expected to go north on the Otter, which left the week before he arrived in Victoria and he was therefore delayed12. It was during this delay that he met and fell in love with Alice Woods9. Alice and Robert were asked by her parents to wait a year before being married to allow Robert time to go north and establish his mission and make it ready for her9. After that year, Robert arrived in Victoria on 18 April 1868 with a crew of 5 men, 2 boys and one woman in a first nations canoe12. They were married less than a week later on 24 April14,15,16and they left Victoria on the 28 April. Robert had chosen to bring Alice back to the north by canoe rather than by steamship as on the steamship even though the expenses would be double the cost. He felt the steamship was not an option as the seventh commandment (adultery) was openly violated and he did not want his new wife travelling in that kind of atmosphere. He paid for the excess costs of the difference in travel from his own pocket12.
Robert and Alice were married more than a year when he wrote to the CMS as he had not yet received his increase in salary. The increase in salary from a bachelor to a married man was an additional £50 per year (that’s about $10,000 Canadian in current dollars)12.
Robert as a missionary was many things as well as devout. He was loyal, full of fanaticism35, impetuous17, impatient, energetic18, and apparently could also be absent minded19. Evidence of this is perhaps found in the 1881 Census. Although Robert was the enumerator for the natives for the 1881 census in the upper Skeena with first nations he indicated in places such as Kitzigukla, Kitwingack, Kitwinskola, and Kishgagass (all spellings his own). These were all in the area of his mission20. However, somehow his wife and children were not enumerated in any census that year, with the exception of Richard who was in Victoria (see his history).
Robert and Alice’s first child, Robert was born in Kincolith9 as was their second child Sophia. Alice contracted typhoid fever when she was near confinement with Sophia and the child lived only a few hours. Robert said in his letter to the Church Missionary Society
On this one day I had to fill the place of Father, Husband, Mourner, Doctor, Nurse, Clergyman.43
Alice (1872), Lily (1876) and Richard (1878) were also born at Kincolith. Anna Lucretia (1880) and Edward (1882) were born in Ankitlas.
Their youngest natural child, Nellie (1883) was born in Victoria. The adopted twins Harold and Hazel joined the family in 1901 (see Alice’s story).
They remained in Kincolith for about 12 years21 then moved to other areas in the northwest. His name is included in the Victoria directories as a missionary in the Naas22-25 and Metlakahtla26. In 1887, Robert and Alice determined that they should establish their own mission village back on the banks of the Skeena. They wintered in Kitwanga9, and in 1888 established Meanskinisht9,17. In 1891, they were living there with their six children27among mostly first nations.
While many beliefs about the first nations that Robert held would not be appreciated in modern society, Robert was ahead of his time with respect to other things. For instance, he attempted to create a written language for the Nisga’a using the Greek alphabet and adding some additions, in particular to get 16 vowel sounds12. He also fought strongly for first nation land claims, not only writing to both the British Columbia and federal governments arguing that as a fundamental principle Indians had title granted by God and had exclusive right to occupy and use traditional lands, but also organized resistance to the reserve allocations by the government35. He wrote to the newspaper arguing that the first nations had three land rights: (1) their unextinquished title to all the land until a proper agreement or treat was made, (2) their right as individual families to land for time immemmorial and (3) their commercial rights42.
The provincial government prevailed, but Robert was not to be outdone. In 1897, Robert received a land grant from British Columbia36. As the first nations were not permitted to own land, he gave those that wanted parts of his land 999-year leases. In his will37he asks that those leases be honoured, or if that is not possible and the land had to be sold, to give the money to the original settlers and to those who are blind and crippled. First nations were allowed to own land by the time of the settling of his estate. They then had a survey done and divided that land into separate lots, each person on the land was charged his price per share of the survey and nothing else in order to own the land17.
In the early 1890s when Canada was just standardizing the telegraphy machines, Robert obtained two machines. He saw it was going to be used in the future and he was determined his children learn the code and how to use the machines. He put one in the main house and one in the children’s annex. Each morning he would send a message to the children regarding their chores and they were required to message back their understanding. It worked, because Lillie became one of the first operators on the telegraph line in northern BC.
By 1901, there were several other white families living in the Meanskinisht area28. Robert and Alice still had five of their children living at home. The oldest daughter Alice was living in Vancouver working as a nurse30.
In 1908, Robert, Alice, Robert Jr. and the Cook twins went to Metlakatla, Alaska to join Duncan at his request9,30. They were not destined to stay there long. In 1911, Robert and Alice were visiting with her sisters in Victoria31. Then, in 1912, they returned to the Skeena and Meanskinisht9breaking with Duncan.
Robert died on 18 September 1913 at his home in Meanskinisht from heart failure38. He was buried in Meanskinisht39. In a newspaper article on his death he is referred to as an “interesting personality”40and he certainly was that.
1Birth Announcements. (1842) The Warder. 19 February. https://www.findmypast.co.uk: accessed October 2018.
2Birth Announcements. (1842) The Freeman’s Jounal. 19 February . https://www.findmypast.co.uk: accessed October 2018.
3Birth Announcements. (1842) The Statesman and Record. 18 February. https://www.findmypast.co.uk: accessed October 2018.
5Death Announcements. (1855) Limerick and Clare Examiner. 21 April 1855. https://www.findmypast.co.uk: accessed November 2018.
6Trinity College. Admission Records 1847-1776. Dublin Ireland: Board of Trinity College. Pp 130-131. http://digitalcollections.tcd.ie/home/index.php?DRIS_ID=MUN-V-23-6_001 : accessed 2018.
7Trinity College. Catalogue of Graduates who have proceeded to degrees in the Univsity of Dublin from the earliest recorded commencements to July 1866 with supplement to December 16, 1869.Pp. 565. Dublin: Hodges, Smith and Foster. https://archive.org/details/catalogueofgradu00trin/page/564: accessed 2018.
8Johnson, Agnes Kathleen. (1962-05) Interview by Imbert Orchard. Track 1. Canadian Broadcasting Company.
9Tomlinson, George with Young, Judith. (1991) Challenge the wilderness: a family saga of Robert and Alice Tomlinson pioneer medical missionaries. Anchorage, Alaska: Great Northwest Publishing and Distributing Company, Inc.
10Large, R. Geddes. (1957)The Skeena, river of destiny.Vancouver, British Columbia: Mitchell Press.
12Tomlinson, Robert (1868). Diary and Letters. Church Missionary Society Papers Archive. Section V Americas, Part 4 British Columbia.
13National Archives (United States). Passenger list for British SS City of Boston arriving New York. 20 January 1867. Collection: Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957. https://www.ancestry.ca: accessed 2018.
14Marriages. Canada. TOMLINSON, Robert and WOODS, Alice Mary. 24 April 1868. St. John’s Victoria, British Columbia.
15Marriage Announcements. (1868) The Kings Chronicle and General Provincial Intelligencer. 24 June. TOMLINSON, Robert and WOODS, Alice Mary. https://findmypast.co.uk: accessed September 2018.
16Marriage Announcements. (1868) The Daily Colonist. 27 April. TOMLINSON, Robert and WOODS, Alice Mary.
17Whitehead, Margaret. (1981) ‘Now you are my brother: Missionaries in British Columbia’.In Reimer, Derek. Sound Heritage Series. Victoria, British Columbia: Provincial Archive of British Columbia
18Lee, Eldon. (1997) Scapels & buggywhips: Medical pioneers of central BC. Surrey, British Columbia: Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd.
19Collison, William Henry. (1981) In the Wake of the War Canoe. Victoria, British Columbia: Sono Nis Press.
20Census. 1881. Canada. Upper Skeena, Coast of Mainland, New Westminster, British Columbia.
21Stock, Eugene. (1881) Metlakahtla and the North Pacific Mission of the Church Missionary Society. With a map.http://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0222392 : accessed October 2018.
22Directories. Canada. 1868. Victoria, British Columbia. First Victoria Directory, Second Issue, and British Columbia guide. Comprising a general directory of business-men & householders in Victoria and the districts; including a large portion of the mainland of British Columbia; also, an official list, postal arrangements, custom house tariff and municipal bye-laws; with prefatory remarks on the commercial and political prospects of the colony. P. 47. https://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0221888: accessed 1 September 2018.
23Directories. Canada. 1869. Victoria, British Columbia. First Victoria Directory, Third Issue, and British Columbia guide. Comprising a general directory of business-men & householders in Victoria and the districts; including a large portion of the mainland of British Columbia; also, an official list, postal arrangements, custom house tariff and municipal bye-laws; with prefatory remarks on the commercial and political prospects of the colony. P. 52.
24Directories. Canada. 1871. Victoria, British Columbia. First Victoria directory, third [i.e. fourth] issue, and British Columbia guide, comprising a general directory of business-men and householders in Victoria and the districts. With full lists of every important district in the colony : also, an official list, &c., &c., with preface and statistics. P. 39. https://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0221894: accessed 1 September 2018.
25Directories. Canada. 1874. Victoria, British Columbia. First Victoria directory, fifth issue, and British Columbia guide, comprising a general directory of business men and householders in Victoria. With full lists of every important district in the province. Also an official list, &c., &c., with preface and statistics. P. 43. https://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0221895: accessed 1 September 2018.
26Directories. Canada. 1889. Henderson’s British Columbia gazetteer and directory : including a complete classified business directory of British Columbia for the year 1889. P. 236. https://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0222239: accessed 4 November 2018.
27Census. 1891. Canada. Skeena Cassiar, New Westminster, British Columbia. https://www.ancestry.ca: accessed 2018.
28Census. 1901. Canada. Lorne Creek, Burrard, British Columbia. https://www.ancestry.ca : accessed 2018.
29Census. 1901. Canada. Vancouver City, Burrard, British Columbia. https://www.ancestry.ca : accessed 2018
30Census. 1910. United States. Metlakatla, Ketchikan, Alaska. https://www.ancestry.ca : accessed 2018
31Census. 1911. Canada. Victoria, British Columbia. https://www.ancestry.ca : accessed 2018.
32Deaths (CR) Canada. 18 September 1913. TOMLINSON, Robert.
33Monumental Inscriptions. Canada. Meanskinisht Cemetery, Cedarvale, Kitimat-Stikine Regional District, British Columbia. 1913. TOMLINSON, Robert. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/141576984/robert-tomlinson: accessed October 2018.
34Daily Colonist. (1913) Aged Missionary Passes to his rest. The Daily Colonist. 20 September. P.5 C 2. https://archive.org/stream/dailycolonist55y240uvic#page/n4/mode/1up: accessed October 2018.
35British Columbia. Supreme Court. (16 June 1992) Delgamuukw v British Columbia. [British Columbia Court of Appeal 1992-06-16] [T]. https://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0018299: accessed November 2018
36British Columbia. 31 August 1897. Crown Grant. 243983.
37Testamentary Records. Canada. Written 27 November 1911. TOMLINSON, Robert. Will.
38Deaths (CR) Canada. 18 September 1913. TOMLINSON, Robert.
39Monumental Inscriptions. Canada. Meanskinisht Cemetery, Cedarvale, Kitimat-Stikine Regional District, British Columbia. 1913. TOMLINSON, Robert. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/141576984/robert-tomlinson: accessed October 2018.
40Daily Colonist. (1913) Aged Missionary Passes to his rest. The Daily Colonist. 20 September. P.5 C 2. https://archive.org/stream/dailycolonist55y240uvic#page/n4/mode/1up: accessed October 2018.
41Daily Colonist. (1867) Passengers. The Daily Colonist. 16 March. P.3. C1. https://archive.org/stream/dailycolonist18670316uvic/18670316#page/n2/mode/1up: accessed November 2018.
42Tomlinson, Robert (1885) Troubles at Metlakahtla and Skeena–Their Present Aspects and Future Prospects. Daily Colonist. 31 March. P.2. C2. http://archive.org/details/dailycolonist18850331uvic/page/n1/mode/2up?view=theater : accessed 12 September 2021.
43Tomlinson, Robert. Letter to the Church Missionary Society. 05 June 1872. Original Papers of Reverend Robert Tomlinson. 1867-1880. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, Empire Online, http://www.empire.amdigital.co.uk.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca : accessed 26 October 2021.