Another Step Forward

Fort Nisqually and Puget Sound

This drawing of Fort Nisqually was done by Steve A. Anderson and is used with his kind permission

On April 22, 1840, Chief Trader James Douglas took another step forward, moving toward the eventual building of the HBC’s Fort Victoria in 1843. This blogpost is a continuation of that series of posts, which begins at and continues here. 

On April 22, 1840 (or perhaps April 26, as you will see below), Chief Trader James Douglas travelled north from Fort Vancouver, via Fort Nisqually, to Russian-American territory on the Northwest Coast, to take control of the Russian American Fur Company’s post at the mouth of the Stikine River. He was also to build a new post on the Taku River, well to the northward of Fort Stikine. On May 23, 1840, John McLoughlin reported to the Governor and Committee in London, on the expedition made by James Douglas:

Mr. Chief Trader Douglas, who left this on the 26th Ulto [April], with thirty-three men to embark at [Fort] Nisqually on board the steamer to proceed to the Coast, met Mr. Yale’s messenger on the Cowlitz.

The Cowlitz Prairie was a flat, open valley south of Fort Nisqually and northwest of Fort Vancouver, where the Puget Sound Agricultural Company, a subsidiary of the Hudson’s Bay Company, had taken another step forward and established a farm in 1839. The above-mentioned “Mr. Yale” was James Murray Yale, the Chief Trader in charge of Fort Langley, on the Fraser River. From this meeting of Yale’s messenger on the Cowlitz River (or perhaps on the prairie itself), James Douglas learned that Fort Langley had been consumed by fire. Douglas sent the messenger on to Fort Vancouver to bring the news to Chief Factor John McLoughlin, and to tell him he was sailing for Fort Langley, before continuing his journey to the northwest coast.

Roderick Finlayson (nephew of Chief Factor Duncan Finlayson, I believe) had come west via the incoming York Factory Express of 1839, with the group of men who were to man Fort Stikine. He, and they, were all part of the party which Douglas led north, and this is what young Finlayson had to say, in later years, of his journey north to Forts Stikine and Taku (Tako):

In the spring of 1840 the party to which I belonged left again [from Fort Vancouver] in boats down the Columbia to the Cowlitz River, up which we ascended to a farm on the Cowlitz Plain, where we took horses to Nisqually, a fort at the head of Puget Sound kept there for the fur trade and sheep farming. At this place we found the steamer Beaver waiting for us, on board of which we took our passage along the Coast, passing Vancouver Island on our left, the mountains of which appeared plain to the westward… On the way north, in the Beaver, we called at Fort Langley, Fort McLoughlin, Fort Simpson, stations belonging to the company, the last on 54 degrees, the boundary between British and Russian territory. [Roderick Finlayson, Autobiography]

In his “History of Vancouver Island and the Northwest Coast,” Roderick Finlayson says this of the ship journey north, including his visit to Fort Langley. It was of course necessary to take another step forward, delaying their journey to the northwest coast and instead, pausing to rebuild Fort Langley, ensuring its men were safe. 

In the spring of 1840, was here again reorganizing with Mr. Douglas as commanding officer, assisted by Mr. W[illiam] G[len] Rae, Dr. John [Frederick] Kennedy, Mr. John McLoughlin Jr., and myself, with about 50 men. We descended the Columbia in boats to the mouth of the Cowlitz River, which we ascended as far as navigable, then left the boats, crossed the land on horse back till we reached Fort Nisqually on Puget Sound. At this place I saw salt water for the first time since leaving York Factory. At Nisqually we left our horses and embarked on board the steamer Beaver…The next day after leaving Fort Nisqually we entered the Gulf of Georgia. Saw the mountains of Vancouver Island away to the left or West. I then had not the remotest idea that I was looking at my future home, that on these shores my future lot should be cast. From the Gulf of Georgia we crossed the sand heads off Fraser River, ascended that river about 30 miles to Fort Langley, a trading station for furs and salmon, established in 1825 [1827]. On our arrival at Fort Langley we found it in ruins, it having been burnt some days previously. The officer in charge, Mr. Yale, and his men living in tents, & surrounded by Indians ready for plunder, but our opportune arrival frustrated their plans. Our men with the force at Langley at once set to work to rebuild the Fort, which delayed us some time at this place. After having re-built the Fort and made matters secure there by remounting the guns and placing the different arms in position, etc., we steamed down the river, crossed the sand heads and anchored for the night, Sikada [Texada] Island, where we replenished our stock of firewood. [Roderick Finlayson, “History of Vancouver Island and the Northwest Coast.”]

Normally the ship channel was the north mouth of the Fraser River while the canoe channel the south. The sand heads are off the southern most mouth, but perhaps there are additional shallows off the north — I do not know. Another bit of information: The Beaver was a steamer, which meant she burned a lot of firewood in her travels up and down the coast!! And another step forward, as we go back to Roderick Finlayson’s Autobiography. I will probably be switching between these two documents throughout this post. I hope this does not confuse you [or me] too much. 

From Fort Simpson, we proceeded to Fort Stickeen [Stikine], one of the Russian Forts on the coast, which was manned by thirty-two men and a gun brig for defence. According to agreement we took possession of Fort Stickeen, which the Russians evacuated and left us, an officer with eighteen men, in charge, to carry on the trade and defend ourselves against the wild natives then on the coast. It was not my lot to remain here then, after settling matters at Fort Stickeen the rest of the party, under command of Chief Factor [Trader] Douglas, proceeded in the Beaver to Sitka, the head staton of the Russian American Company on the coast….

In Roderick Finlayson’s “History,” he says more of the HBC takeover of the Russian fort, Stikine. Combining these two manuscripts allows us to take another step forward in understanding what was happening on the coast. This is what he says in this second manuscript:

It is necessary to mention here, that the Hudson’s Bay Company entered into an agreement with the Russian Fur Co by which the latter leased a large portion of their territory to the former for ten years for trading purposes…Consequently the Russian officers handed over the Territory to us, and Mr. Rae and Mr. McLoughlin, formerly mentioned, were appointed to the charge [of Fort Stikine] with with 18 men, and were left there. The Russian officers at the time mentioned said that we could not hold the Fort secure with the small force we had, stating the Indians there were very troublesome, and the chief possessed a large number of slaves who were bound to do their bidding on pain being shot. That their force within the Fort was 30 men in addition to that on the armed Brig, 32. But we informed them that we kept our other stations with a smaller number, say 18 men and two officers, secure, and would do so with Stikine. After receiving formal possession from the Russian officer, he withdraw all men to the Brig, and left for Sitka, their headquarters on the Coast. Mr. Rae & Mr. McLoughlin with 18 men were then left in charge and provisions for six months. The rest of the party proceeded for Sitka, Mr. Douglas, in charge, with Dr. [John Frederick] Kennedy and myself. On our arrival there we were received in grand style by the Governor and the officers; from the Fort of Sitka we received a salute of 9 guns, which we returned from the Beaver. We then landed and were very handsomely entertained by the Governor and his officers. We remained at Sitka for about a week, receiving formal possession of the Territory as agreed upon, in which the Fort at Sitka was not included, the Russian Company still keeping it as their headquarters on the Coast. The Fort at Sitka was then manned by over 500 men, with two or more guard ships. It is built on a hill, and was then well fortified. The Governor was a Russian Admiral, his second in command a Post Captain and several other officers. We found about eight ships in the harbour, at the time… [Roderick Finlayson, “History of Vancouver Island and the Northwest Coast”].

It is very interesting, and more than a little shocking, to note that, at this time, James Douglas had permission to force his way up the Stikine River in order to set up a fur trade post upriver, if the Russians were not amiable to the wishes of the HBC. In fall 1838, a private dispatch had been sent to James Douglas, then in charge at Fort Vancouver as McLoughlin was on furlough in England, beginning in 1838. The letter instructed Douglas make provisions for a strong expedition that would, if need be, force its way up the Stikine River in summer 1840, and build a trading post beyond the Russian territorial limits. This plan was to be kept a “profound secret,” and Douglas was advised to lie, if necessary, in order to conceal the expedition’s true purpose. [E.E. Rich, ed: The Letters of John McLoughlin from Fort Vancouver, Third Series, 1844-46, Introduction, pp. xii-xiii [London: Hudson’s Bay Record Society, 1884]

Another step forward, perhaps, but a very dangerous step indeed! Editor E.E. Rich wrote that Douglas did not visit the Stikine Post at that time, but as we can see, Roderick Finlayson’s journal disagrees. Chief Factor John McLoughlin was left out from this secret: he likely departed Fort Vancouver March 20, 1838, with the outgoing Express, and arrived in London by the London Ship from Hudson Bay that autumn. He left London on March 20, 1839, and returned to Fort Vancouver in October of the same year, with the incoming York Factory Express. 

If you want to skip the Fort Durham story (below) and read the history of what happened after Fort Taku was built, then go here: Otherwise, you should continue on this page.

Roderick Finlayson’s story continues as the Beaver leaves Sitka. He writes:

After remaining about ten days at Sitka, settling various matters relative to our future trade with the Russian Company, the party left in the Beaver (Having been saluted as before and return from the Beaver) to the Gulf of Taco and River, for the purpose of establishing a fort there for trading purposes. We ascended the river in boats for about 30 miles looking for a place to build but found none of the river and selected a place about 50 miles, in a land locked harbour, where we built a fort on the usual plan, called it Fort Durham in honour of the Governor General of Canada. It took us some time to build this fort and make it defensive against the warlike Indians in the vicinity. When it was considered in proper state for defence, with bastions erected at the angles of the stockade, a party was left to take possession, consisting of eighteen men and two officers, of whom I was one, second in command. Mr. Douglas then left for the south in the Beaver, when we were left to our own resources to make the best of our circumstances. It was now late in October, and the fort built on Taco harbour surrounded with high mountains, as dismal a place as could possibly be imagined, the rain pouring down in torrents adding to our other discomforts. The journal kept at this place showed rain and snow for nine months out of the twelve. [Roderick Finlayson, Autobiography.] 

Establishing another fort on the coast was another step forward, in Chief Factory John McLoughlin’s eyes. He was proud of his string of forts on the coast. Sadly, the post journal for Fort Durham no longer exists: it probably did not make it to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s headquarters in London, or if it did it was one of the many documents that were lost or destroyed through neglect and disinterest. The Hudson’s Bay Company in London was a business, not an archives. Once the journals were read, they were stored in a warehouse and many destroyed by water and lack of care. A lot of fur trade history was lost in London, and it was another major step forward when the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives became the warehouse, or storage place, of so much of Canada’s history. But so much was lost!

I can, however, put together a history of Fort Durham (and for the purposes of these posts I will use this name, as I already have a blogpost re: Fort Taku, here:  

And here is the beginning of the new Fort Durham thread: 

Just remember that they are the same posts: Fort Durham is Fort Taku or Taco. The above blogpost belongs to the “Journeys” thread, because it is part of the Yukon/Robert Campbell series of posts. This new blogpost on Fort Durham — Fort Taku’s  proper name — will belong to both Thomas Lowe’s series, as he was posted here and has left quite a record of his time there. When written, Thomas Lowe’s part of the story will be found by followers of that thread. It will also be a part of the Fort Victoria series. 

By the way, the difference in the titles I am using for all my posts are for SEO — Search Engine Optimization. That is why you will see that each blogpost has a phrase that is repeated throughout: somehow it makes SEO better! It might be annoying at times for the reader, but more people will find these posts with those repeated phrases, or so that is what Yoast tells me. The word or phrase for this post is “Another Step Forward.” I agree, it is annoying. Annoying writing the post, and (I am sure) annoying reading it, too. 

By the way, I have a new author Facebook page, if you wish to follow me through Facebook. It is at least one that will post every blogpost I put on it, rather than just the occasional one. If you have Facebook, you can go to your personal page and search (upper left, I think) either Nancy-Marguerite-Anderson-Author or, I think, @TheYorkFactoryExpress. 

And if you want to buy and read my recently published book, which is about the York Factory Express, you can order a signed copy from me via my Contact sheet or Twitter DM (I have PayPal), or purchase it here: As you can guess, it is much better for the author if you order it from her, or from Ronsdale Press. Take another step forward, and learn to reward the author for his or her work. It’s worth it: I know writers that have stopped writing because it is not rewarding enough to do so. And that is a crying shame!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021. All rights reserved. 

On Twitter: @Marguerite_HBC

On Facebook: (for the York Factory Express story) In Facebook Search Bar, enter “Nancy-Marguerite-Anderson-Author,” or @TheYorkFactoryExpress. I am posting all my York Factory Express blogposts in order, so that it’s very much easier to follow the story than through my website. 

On Zoom: I am resisting a little, but coming to the realization that I will have a series of talks on Zoom, which those who are interested will have to register for as they come along. Spread the word if you wish amongst your historical friends, and we will see what happens. Thanks. 






One thought on “Another Step Forward

  1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

    A note, reported to me by one of my readers/followers. James Douglas was made a Chief Factor in 1839, and so in part of this post he is a Chief Factor, not a Chief Trader. When he travelled up the coast in 1840, he was Chief Factor, even though McLoughlin might not have known. In fact, looking at the time the correspondence took to get to Fort Vancouver, James Douglas would not have known about his promotion until November 1839, when the York Factory Express arrived with the incoming mail.