The HBC Post on the Stikine River, 1834

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

A Sailing ship in a bottle, from early 1900’s

When Robert Campbell met the Stikine chief, “Shakes,” at the rendezvous in the mountains, he was unaware that Shakes had already frightened off another HBC man who was attempting to build a post on the Stikine River near the coast. This is how that story began. As my great-grandfather Alexander Caulfield Anderson was there, this is told, briefly, in my book, The Pathfinder.

It seemed important that there be a fur trade post set up on the Stikine River. Robert Campbell attempted to do so from Dease Lake to the east, and Peter Skene Ogden was leading his group of fur traders north to set up a post close the coast, but in British Territory east of the ten mile wide strip that the Russians owned. Ogden and his men set off from Fort McLoughlin [Bella Bella, B.C.], heading north in the ship, Dryad, to build the new post. The Fort Simpson mentioned in this post was not the headquarters of the Mackenzie district on the Mackenzie River, but Fort Simpson on the Nass River, just south of the then Russian territory. 

Six days later the fur traders reboarded the cramped vessel and set off with the small crew — 6 gentlemen including [William Fraser] Tolmie, James Birnie and his wife and children, and 11 French Canadians — who were to build a new fort on the Stikine River, 200 miles north of Fort Simpson. Chief Trader Peter Skene Ogden was in charge of the expedition.

The Stikine River flowed west through rugged coastal mountains and a narrow strip of land claimed by Russian fur traders. In 1833, Ogden had visited the river mouth, where he heard stories of the rich bounty of furs that travelled down the Stikine from the Interior. According to the 1825 Treaty of St. Petersburg between the Russian and British governments, the HBC had the right to use rivers that passed through Russian territory to reach their own territory inland, so Ogden planned to build a fur-trade post 30 miles up the Stikine River in British territory…

On June 18 Ogden stood on the ship’s deck and stared in astonishment at the collection of rough log buildings huddling on a grassy point at the mouth of the river. Baron Ferdinand von Wrangel, governor of the Russian-American company at Sitka, had heard of Ogden’s earlier visit, and ordered that a post be built at the mouth of the Stikine River to establish a Russian presence.

Alexander Caulfield Anderson wrote of this incident in his manuscript, “History of the Northwest Coast,” now preserved in the B.C.Archives.

Returning to Fort Vancouver, Mr. Anderson was reappointed in the spring of 1834 to accompany an expedition commended by the late Peter Skene Ogden… the object of which was to found an establishment up the Stikine River with British Territory — that is, ten leagues up the river — as stipulated by the convention of 1825 between the British and Russian forts.

The Russian Governor, Baron Wrangel, had however, through some means obtained knowledge of their intentions, and when they reached the anchorage near the mouth of the Stikine in May [June], 1834, they found two vessels strongly armed awaiting them, and the Russians had already commenced to build a fort near Point Highfield. Intimation was sent to the English that should they attempt to ascend the river, force would be employed to prevent it…

In the book, Peter Skene Ogden, Fur Trader, author A. Binns writes:

At Sitka, Baron Wrangell, Governor of Alaska, had other ideas. From afar he had watched Ogden exterminate the beaver in the Snake Country, and from not so far he had watched his vigorous warfare against American traders on the north coast. In a report, he wrote: “Mr. Ogden injured the Americans quite considerably this year…he sent three vessels to such localities where the Americans are putting in and begins to pay twice or three times as much as the Americans, who never hold out very long but hasten to leave the place and proceed to another, where they are immediately followed by Ogden’s ships…”

 And so, the HBC men proceeded north to build their new post some thirty miles upriver from the coast, in Russian territory. When Ogden had visited the mouth of the Stikine a year or two early, there was no fort there. But, there was a Russian fort there when the Dryad arrived at the mouth of the Stikine in 1834. In his report “of transactions at Stikine 1834,” [McLoughlin’s Fort Vancouver Letters, first series, 1825-38, Appendix A, HBRS] Ogden wrote:

On the 18th June we came in sight of the Russian Establishment on Point Highfield, within a distance of 15 miles, when a Russian boarded us, and the officer not understanding the English or French language, we could only comprehend a few words of no import; he handed me a proclamation signed by Baron Wrangell… and shortly after took his departure. About two hours after, as we were casting Anchor, another Russian boat with a Russian officer boarded us, and by signs, and with the assistance of an Indian interpreter gave us to understand we must not cast anchor, but immediately depart. To this order I paid no attention. Having invited him down to the Cabin all I could comprehend from him was, that they were determined to use force against us…

In his journal, Dr. William Fraser Tolmie said this of the second Russian officer’s visit [Tolmie called him Boxum], followed by a third Russian visit:

Soon after a bidarka approached — paddled by two men — the officer sitting in the middle seat — he was a thin elderly man of very dark complexion — dressed in a blue surtout, and white vest (unmentionable not observed) — he was accompanied by a short thick set goodnatured vain-looking man, the Indian Interpreter and both were ushered into the Cabin — the sq. vitea etc produced and we all seated round. The officer who spoke a few words of English intimated that if we attempted to ascend the river, the instructions at the Fort were to “boxum,” ie. to oppose us by violence. Boxum after swallowing more than a pint of brandy in “good healths and goodnights” took himself off. Lastly the boat again appeared, armed as formerly under commend of No. 3 — a tall thin stern looking fellow, with a threadbare surtout, buttoned close up to throat — he was attended by a man who understood a little Spanish, and Anderson and myself set ourselves to work to translate by means of our Latin gear. By guessing and conjecturing we at length made out that no person at the Fort understood either English, French or Latin and that a bidarka was to start immediately for Sitka to make known our arrival and intentions. No. 3 was very sparing in his libations and seemed anxious to go, when it was seen that nothing could be done. 

A bidarka was, of course, a skin boat. The next Russian visitor invited the HBC men to visit the Russian fort. Ogden looked around at his men and chose his companions, based on those who had the best clothes and could therefore dress to impress the Russians. 

Yesterday morning No. 3 again came out and invited Mr. Ogden to visit his commender. Mr. O said that after breakfast I should go and I proposed that Captain [Alexander] Duncan should go likewise which was agreed to. We accordingly set out in the gig, manned by four men having each a musket. I was armed with bidag [?] and pistols on my person and carried gun also. After a pull of nearly 5 miles, reached the point which now conceals Fort from our view. On rounding it were surprised to observe a light little brig lying at anchor a stone’s throw from the fort. By signs, were directed to proceed to the brig. On boarding met Capt. Zarembo at the gangway and were at once shown into the cabin. Now learnt from the Capt. who spoke a few words of English, that “It was not possible” that we could either trade in Stikine Sound, or proceed up the River to settle… The cabin was neat and clean — the decks clear, but in rather a filthy state, were occupied by 12 cannon and four swivel guns — at each gangway a brawny fellow stood, armed with cutlass and pistols, and a stout bulwark about 2 1/2 feet stretched across the deck immediately posterior to the forecastle — from behind which the decks could be easily cleared by musketry. Took some wine with the Captain and immediately after departed… [William Fraser Tolmie, Physician and Fur Trader: the Journals of William Fraser Tolmie. ed. Janet R. Mitchell (Vancouver: Mitchell Press, 1963)].

So the Russians were serious, and the HBC men already more than a little intimated. But the the Stikine chiefs also visited them aboard the ship. Ogden reported on the first of these visits, which apparently took place June 19:

In the afternoon we had a visit from two of the principal Chiefs of the Stikine tribe Seiks and Anacago; they assumed a tone I was not in the habit of hearing, and requested to know if we had come here with the intention of erecting an establishment, and that although the Russians had one they had no objections to our building also in the Sound, but were determined to prevent us if we attempted to proceed up the River, as by so doing we would injure their trade with the interior. To all this I replied that although we intended building we had no intentions of injuring their trade with the Natives, nor did we intend going very far up the River. They again remarked we should not go. They were politely treated, and in the evening took their departure.

June 20th. This morning the Chiefs again came on board, and requested some liquor as a present. Finding them all provided with Russian liquor reduced on third only, I made them a present of a Gallon reduced two thirds. They then remarked “you may build in the Sound in any place that suits you, but not in the River,” and therefore departed.

Tolmie reported on the second visit by these chiefs. Everyone has a slightly different date, and on occasion Tolmie was away from the ship botanizing, so he may have missed one of the visits: 

Saturday, June 21: Rainy all day. Visited by Seiz the Stikine Chief for the second time, and after a long conference he still refuses to permit our going up the River to establish, although he is perfectly willing that we should settle at the entrance — he has undoubtedly been egged up to the line of conduct by our opponent the Russians, who have not failed to point out to him the danger of our intercepting his supply of furs from the interior tribes — he is a tall well formed Indian, rather corpulent but that adds to his dignity of deportment — countenance on the grecian model, encircled by flowing locks of jet black hair, bushy whiskers, mustachios and beard of the same hue — his dress is fox skin robe — he looks somewhat like Colonel Anderson [Tolmie’s nickname for Anderson], but his features are larger — is forward and presuming.

Peter Skene Ogden continued the story in his Report from the Stikine: “From the threats of the Russian Commander here, the opposition evinced by the Chiefs against our proceeding up the River, and the state of alarm which it appears our men are in, I have now determined to await the return of the Express from Sitka before I make an attempt. It is to be observed, by the treaty of convention between Great Britain and Russia we have every right to navigate these Straits, and in enforcing it I should be perfectly justified, but as the Russians and Natives appear to be combined against us, I am of opinion were we now to make the attempt, and the Russians to oppose us (independently of the Natives) in our open boats, we should experience not only loss of lives, but, in the event of not succeeding, be lowered in the estimation of the Natives..” Point Highfield was the end of ship navigation, so they had planned to go upriver in the ship’s boats to build the fort. I hadn’t realized that!

On June 29, “the two Russian Boats arrived from Sitka,” Ogden reported, “and I received an answer to my letter from Captain Etoliny [which said that Wrangel was away from the fort], and shortly after I had an interview with Captain Sarembo, who informed me he had not received any contrary instructions and was determined to prevent our proceeding up the River… I have no alternative left but to leave this quarter without making any further attempt, and however galling it is to be obliged to yield, under present circumstances I cannot act otherwise without sacrificing lives, and I am firmly convinced after all would not succeed.” His notes continued:

The Stikine Chiefs observing our making preparations to leave them, were most anxious we should remain and erect an Establishment in the Sound, but to the last hour were decidedly opposed to ascending the River.

So the HBC men sailed away, but Anderson wrote of of the results of the complaints the Government of Great Britain made to Russia: 

I have already mentioned the interruption that was given to our proceedings at Stikine, in the year 1834, when two Russian ships under orders of the Governor or Sitka, Baron Wrangel, prevented the execution of our designs. I have also stated that subsequently through an arrangement between the two governments… the whole trade of the coast of that portion of Alaska… was ceded to the H. B. Co. under lease, was prosecuted by them until some time later than 1860. The skins of 2000 land otters were paid annually by the H.B. Co., for the privilege of this lease. In addition to this, a large quantity of furs of various descriptions, which were especially in demand by the Russian American Co., were sold to them annually, a large proportion of which were transported by the overland route of the Annual Express from York Factory, and other posts in the vicinity, to Fort Vancouver, and thence to Sitka. [Alexander Caulfield Anderson, “History of the Northwest Coast.”

Yes, those furs were transported regularly in the incoming York Factory Express, for years and years. The building Fort Taku was also a part of the taking over of the southern section of Russian Territory, and when I begin to write of this post, I will begin the series here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/fort-taku/

In the meantime, the next post will, I think, return to the Liard River. When published, it will be found here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/liard-4/

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2019. All rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “The HBC Post on the Stikine River, 1834

  1. Bobbi-Lee

    A fascinating read! Thank you gir sharing, Nancy! Having recently discovered that my lineage included the infamous Peter Skene Ogden, it is with great interest that I read of his adventures!

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