Constructing Fort Victoria

Fort Victoria

Fort Victoria in 1846, painted by Henry James Warre, Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

There is actually very little information on the actual work of constructing Fort Victoria, on the southern coast of the HBC’s Vancouver’s Island, and Roderick Finlayson’s journals may give us the best information on this interesting history. We can say that it was constructed in the same manner as any other HBC fort in this part of the world. We will begin this blogpost with a quote or two from Finlayson’s “History of the Northwest Coast and Vancouver’s Island,” which manuscript is in B.C. Archives. When this quote begins, he is employed at Fort Simpson, on the northwest coast.

In the Spring of 1843, Mr. [James] Douglas again visited the Coast and according to instructions from the Governor, Sir Geo: Simpson, the trade at Tako [Fort Durham] and the neighbouring Islands was to be carried on by the Beaver, steamer, as a trading vessel along the Coast there. That Fort was consequently abandoned, the men and officers distributed at other stations. In passing Fort Simpson on his way South, I was taken away from that place, leaving another officer in my place. I consequently took up my quarters on board the “Beaver.” After leaving Fort Simpson, we called at Fort McLoughlin, in Millbank Sound, which was then abandoned, as was the Fort at Tako [Durham], and the men at these two stations were taken on board the Beaver, with the goods and stores at the Forts. This course was adopted in consequence of instructions of our Govr. Sir George Simpson, to establish a depot for whalers on the south point of Vancouver Island, as there were many whalers then visiting the North Pacific.

I don’t think the work of constructing Fort Victoria was done especially to serve the whalers that might be sailing up and down the coast, but obviously Finlayson thinks so. But can you imagine the little steamer, Beaver, and an accompanying ship, the Cadboro, loaded with both men from the forts, and also trade goods and supplies and the actual buildings which had been dismantled! That’s a pretty heavy load for a little ship like the Beaver, and the schooner, Cadboro was not much larger than the Beaver, if any larger at all! Finlayson’s story continues, as he tells us that:

we proceed to the south point of Vancouver Island, in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, and entered what is now Victoria harbour, a place selected by Mr. Douglas early in the Spring for the erection of a Fort. On the 1st of June, 1843, we landed from the Beaver, took all the stores and other articles from the two abandoned forts on shore, where we erected a few log huts for the storage of the goods and our own accommodations. A large number of the natives then encamped around us, all armed [and] without any of the wives or children, which looked suspicious.

Yes, the First Nations men were suspicious, and they expected trouble. Rightly so. Firstly, they, too, had seen the comet that Douglas and the other HBC men had noticed on their first visit to this site in the spring of 1843. But as they were employed by and working for the HBC men, cutting down the logs for the fort over the spring, it is likely that this was also only a temporary camp for the men who were doing the heavy work. Interestingly, now that I think of it, I don’t believe there were any horses, or oxen, yet helping in the constructing of Fort Victoria: does that mean that the First Nations men were also skidding out the logs they had cut at Mount Doug, well north of the harbour,  into the place where the HBC men were constructing Fort Victoria? 

Finlayson’s story continues:

On that occasion, seeing our huts well guarded, having then a force of over 50 men with us from the two abandoned stations, and others sent from the Depot at [Fort] Vancouver, they contented themselves by looking on to see what articles they could pick up, for they were desperate then. Mr. [Charles] Ross, the officer in charge at Fort McLoughlin, being senior officer, was appointed in charge of the party, with myself as second, Mr. Douglas then being in the capacity of travelling agent. In three months from the date of our arrival at this place first named “Camosun,” that being the Indian name, taken from the rush of Natives [sic] at the Gorge — we succeeded in putting up Stockades in the usual manner with Bastions at the Angles for protection, mounted with heavy guns: blunderbusses, muskets, &c. [We] then erected storehouses for the goods and dwelling houses for men & officers within the stockades. Mr. Douglas in October, then finding we could defend ourselves, left with the Beaver and a Schooner named the Cadboro, sent round from the Columbia River with supplies for us. The Beaver with Mr. Douglas proceeded up Puget Sound, at the head of which we had a Fort named Nisqually, where an extensive sheep and cattle farm was carried on…

Thomas Lowe says he arrived at Fort Vancouver with Douglas in June, 1843, and so James Douglas did not remain stationed in front of the fort, but (as Finlayson puts it) acted as the “travelling agent,” running between Forts Victoria and Vancouver. Thomas Lowe also tells us that he heard, while at Fort Vancouver, that three sides of the palisades were standing by August 8, 1843, and so the men were proceeding quite rapidly at the work of constructing Fort Victoria.

Here is what Roderick Finlayson has to say of the constructing of Fort Victoria in his “Autobiography,” also in the B.C. Archives. 

About this time it was found that the steamer “Beaver,” with a trader on board, could do all the trade carried on at Forts Durham and Stikeen [Stikine], with that at Fort McLoughlin, on Millbank Sound, so that it was decided at Headquarters to abandon this place, concentrate the forces there with the supplies and remove them to the South end of Vancouver Island, where a new fort was ordered to be built. I was in consequence removed from Fort Simpson… embarked on board the “Beaver,” which with the “Cadboro,” had the Stikine and Taco [Fort Durham] parties on board on the way south. In passing Milbank Sound, Fort McLoughlin was dismantled and its inhabitants taken on board. Mr. Douglas (the late Sir James) had command of the whole party. We proceeded south and reached Victoria Harbour (selected in the spring as the fort site), landed there on the 1st June 1843, and commenced building the fort with the forces from the abandoned stations named, consisting of about 50 men and three officers, one of them, a Mr. Charles Ross, a trader, was appointed to the charge, with myself as second in command, the “Beaver” and “Cadboro” remaining as guard vessels until the fort was built.

The weather being fine and pleasant, the operations of building went on rapidly, with 50 men employed. At this time there was a dense forest along the water on the harbour and Camosun Inlet, as the “Arm” [Gorge Inlet] was then called. Where the fort was built there was an open glade with oak trees of large size, where a space of 150 yards was measured off each way, when the Fort was built.

The Natives for some time after our arrival kept aloof, and would not come near. Afterwards some of them came round gradually, and finding them inclined to steal anything they could get, a watch was kept night and day, while we lived in tents before houses could be built. The Natives, however, soon got rid of their shyness, began to move from the village on Cadboro Bay and erect Homes for themselves along the bank of the harbour as far as the present site of Johnson Street.Their houses consisted of wide cedar boards placed on poles stuck in the ground, with cross beams over which the boards were placed.

In the Autumn, Mr. Douglas left us, taking the “Beaver” and the “Cadboro” away, when he considered the place defensible. As second in command it became my duty to look after the men in building, and thus became the pioneer builder of houses on the Island of Vancouver on civilized plans. After the fort was built, consisting of Cedar Pickets 18 feet high, round a space of 150 yards square, with houses and stores within, and two large block houses, bastion at the angles armed with 9 pounder cannonade blunderbusses, cutlasses, &c, taken from the dismantled forts named, with ammunition. Some of the men were employed clearing the land around to raise vegetables and cereals for the use of the place, in those operations we gradually got some of the young Natives to assist, paying them in goods, and found them very useful as ox-drivers in ploughing the land. Horses and cattle were imported from the station at Nisqually, on Puget Sound, to enable us to open a farm here.

A letter written from George Simpson to Mr. Charles Ross might be of interest here. As you know, Chief Trader Charles Ross was in charge of the constructing of the new Fort Victoria (which had not yet received its proper name). 

I have the pleasure to acknowledge your valued communications of 13 April 1843 & 10th January 1844… By the tone of those letters I am exceedingly happy to find that you were in better health & sprits than when I had the pleasure of seeing you at Fort McLoughlin, when I was exceedingly anxious about you, and was really glad when information reached me that you had got over the nervous state in which I was sorry to see you when we last parted.

This nervous state had a very interesting reason, and solution, as I was delighted to hear about from a descendent of Charles Ross. I won’t tell you now (some secrets must be kept, after all). Governor Simpson’s letter continues, with information about constructing Fort Victoria:

It is quite evident from the progress you have made in building & agriculture, & among the Natives, that you have not been idle. If you can but get water in sufficient quantity, I think Fort Victoria is likely to become a place of much resort to strangers, especially so if American whalers continue to frequent the northern Pacific, & that a profitable business may be made by the sale of provisions & supplies to those vessels.

And so, Roderick Finlayson was not so wrong after all! This was the plan! And yes, getting a good supply of water at Fort Victoria was always a problem in the summertime, at least. If I remember there was a creek that flowed into the end of James Bay close to the fort; there was also a swamp that they got dirty water from; and they built a well in what is now Fernwood, which has now been rediscovered and reconstructed by the modern-day Fernwood community. Obviously, I am going to have to go and visit that well! So, Governor Simpson’s letter continues here: 

I was not prepared to find the Natives so peaceable & well-disposed, as from the reports we had of them, there was every reason to apprehend they would have been both formidable & troublesome. 

Sea otters were some time ago represented as being numerous outside the islands about Nootka & other parts, but as you do not speak of any important trade in that article, I presume they have been very much thinned out since then. When at Newetti & around the Quakioties in Johnston’s Straits, we understood the few sea otters that were brought to us were hunted outside the Island & at no great distance from the entrance of the Straits of [Juan] de Fuca. Your information, however, must be much better than any we could have collected in the short time we had to communicate with the Natives, of whose language we had a very imperfect knowledge.

Governor Simpson may have thought Charles Ross was in better condition than he was while he was at Fort Victoria. But Finlayson reported that: 

In the spring of 1844, poor Mr. Ross, who was left in charge by Mr. Douglas, was in poor health when he arrived here, and died much regretted in March, and was buried in the old burying ground near the gully on Johnson Street now. On the death of Mr. Ross being advised to headquarters at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, I was appointed to the charge of Victoria, with his son, John Ross, as my assistant.

Charles Ross died of appendicitis in the fort: a painful and unpleasant death, poor man. But he saw to the completion of the construction of Fort Victoria before he died. Unfortunately he left behind him a now-poverty-stricken widow and a large family, whose descendants are still here. 

So we will end this blogpost with Chief Factor John McLoughlin’s reports from Fort Vancouver. On August 1, 1843, McLoughlin reported to the Governor and Committee that: “Chief Factor Douglas is returned from the Coast, Forts Durham and McLoughlin are abandoned, and Chief Trader Ross is erecting an Establishment on the place selected by Chief Factor Douglas on the south end of Vancouver’s Island.” In his November 15 report, McLoughlin wrote that:

Mr. Douglas returned from the North West Coast on the 15 June. On his trip he withdrew the people from the posts of Fort Durham & Fort McLoughlin, and set them to begin to build on the place selected last year, on the South end of Vancouver’s Island, named Camoosan [Camosun] by the Natives, and which we have named Fort Victoria as the Council directs.

And so “Fort Albert” has received its proper name, Fort Victoria. The instructions on its naming would have arrived with the incoming Columbia Express, of course. In his November 18 report, McLoughlin wrote that Captain [Alexander] Duncan had “visited the Forts Takow [Durham] & McLoughlin, on his trip with the steamer, he found these Establishments exactly in the state they were left by our people, and the Indians, particularly at Fort McLoughlin, very friendly.”

And so, this is the end of this thread on the location and the story of constructing Fort Victoria in 1843. To go to the beginning, see this: At least I think this is the beginning — I am getting lost and confused in my own threads, I think. So many stories!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2022. All rights reserved. 




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