Locating Fort Albert

Fort Victoria

Fort Victoria in 1846, painted by Henry James Warre, Courtesy American Antiquarian Society. This fort was originally to be called Fort Albert, and for a short time it actually bore that name.

In a letter written June 24 1842, to the Governor and Committee of the Hudson’s Bay Company in London, John McLoughlin argued that “In a private note dated Taco 24th April Sir George [Simpson] writes “[Dr. John Frederick] Kennedy thinks although the trade is improving the establishment of [Fort] Taku quite superfluous while the steamer Beaver is kept.” McLoughlin was, of course, still arguing against Governor Simpson’s demands that he close most of his beloved Northwest coast posts, and build a new post on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, to be called Fort Albert. But as we know from this earlier blogpost — that is: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/vancouvers-island/ —  Chief Factor James Douglas was in charge, both of closing down the northwest coast posts, and of building Fort Albert. But still McLoughlin argued:

We all know no Indians will keep their furs when they are in want of an article till our Steamer comes to them, when they can get their wants supplied by sending their furs to the Russians. Besides we never will acquire that influence over the natives with the steam or a Sailing vessel that we would with Establishments — if we kept up the posts of Stikine and Taco [Taku/Fort Durham] now that Sir George has settled with the Russians that liquor is not be be issued to the Indians after 1843, in a few years we might without any Difficulty have placed a post in the Interior of Stikine and Taco [Taku] or its vicinity, on British territory, and at the Expiration of the present contract the Company would have found the Advantage of it… No person has had such an opportunity to Examine into this Business as I have, and until Dr. Kennedy or any one Else has had the opportunities I have had, taken the pain I have to acquire information on this subject, and is placed in the situation to have my feelings on the Result, I do not see how his or their opinion can be brought in comparison with mine.

He was wrong: by agreement between James Douglas (who represented the Hudson’s Bay Company)  and the Russians at Sitka, the First Nations would not be able to trade their furs to the Russians. Secondly: it was not easy work to place posts up the Stikine River and the Taku, as Peter Skene Ogden and James Douglas had already found. Delivering trade goods to these upriver posts in small ship boats would prove dangerously hard work, for one thing, and would put the crew members at risk of attack from unfriendly, untrustworthy First Nations people. And thirdly, all of McLoughlin’s information was second hand, coming to him from people who wanted to please him — Peter Skene Ogden was one such supplier of such information. But McLoughlin continued to complain, and on this occasion his complain was in regard to Fort Albert, the new (so far unnamed) fort on Vancouver’s Island. In a letter written to the Governor and Committee, McLoughlin responded to a recently written letter from Simpson:

in your 8 paragraph you write, “We were glad to learn that Stikine & Tacow [Taku] were established agreeably to instructions, and no doubt Governor Simpson will in conference with you have come to some decision on the subject of forming any other new Establishments on the Coast.” Before this I presume you have seen that Governor Simpson has left me instructions to erect an Establishment on Vancouver’s Island, and abandon Tacow [Taku] and Fort McLoughlin, and do the business of these two places with the Steamer, and you will see by mine of 10 Feby, 1842, to Governor Simpson, that I disapprove of his pan and propose to kee up “the present Establishments and to erect another on the North end of Vancouver’s Island, convert the Steamer into a sailing vessel, employ her to take the supplies to the Coast and bring here the Returns, the quantity of Furs the Establishment would procure more than the Steamer, the cheaper rate at which they would be procured by the establishment, will render the Trade much more profitable than if carried on by the Steamer…

Even in his November letter McLoughlin kept arguing to keep his northwest coast posts open. But in a letter written on December 21, 1842, the Governor and Committee instructed McLoughlin to close down Fort McLoughlin and Taku, and to build Fort Albert. “We have considered with much attention Governor Simpson’s suggestions in reference to the abandonment of the Posts of Fort McLoughlin and Tako [Taku], and conduction of the business of those Posts by the Beaver Steamer, noticed in his Dispatch of 25th Novr 1841, and the Governor and Council of the Northern Department, being favorable to the view taken by that Gentleman of this subject as per the 67th Resolve of this season, in which we concur, you will take the necessary steps for the abandonment of those posts as soon as convenient after receipt of this if such has not previously been done: and we hope the Beaver will be kept so actively employed that no falling off in the trade will arise from the change, while by this measure of oeconomy a material saving may be effected.”

In the next paragraph the Governor and Committee addressed the construction of the new post on the south end of Vancouver’s Island — that is, Fort Albert.

This is a matter to which we gave much consideration several years ago, and on which we have given repeated instructions, as you will find by reference to some of our communications, but from a variety of causes it has from time to time been deferred. Our views have undergone no change on this subject since first agitated, you will therefore take the necessary steps to have it carried into effect as early as possible if that has not already been done. Chief Factor Douglas, we understand, was to take his departure from Fort Vancouver in June last, with a view of looking for a suitable site for the establishment in which we hope he may have been successful, and that he has found a situation in every respect adapted for the different objects that must there be held in view.

In March 1843, James Douglas set off on his expedition to Vancouver’s Island and the northwest coast, and his journal, though not complete, is in a little red book in the British Columbia Archives. On March 1, he left Fort Vancouver, and spent three days at the Cowlitz Farms (March 3, 4, &5.) On the 9th he reached Fort Nisqually. “Snowed all day to the depth of 18 inches,” his journal read. By Sunday the snow was “melting fast so that patches of the plains are bare.” Sadly, the Journal of Occurrences at Fort Nisqually, transcribed and edited by George Dickey in November 1989, and published by the Fort Nisqually Association, does not contain the records for 1843.

His journal continues: On “Monday 13 March 1843. Left Nisqually at 10 a.m. and anchored at dusk a few miles south of Port Townsend,” which was, of course, a bay and not the town that presently stands there. On Tuesday and Wednesday they were at what he seemed to called “Dungeness,” according to the transcriber who also suggests it is “Camosack.” The HBC men called the harbour on which Fort Albert would later stand Camosack, or Camosun — so they are not at Dungeness, but in Camosun Harbour. 

The Beaver is believed to have anchored in the small bay where Fisherman’s Wharf now stands, a short distance west of Laurel Point. This is, at least, where the ship was anchored during Douglas’s 1840 visit. But as you see below, it almost sounds as if, in 1843 Captain McNeill of the Beaver landed Douglas and some of his men off Clover Point, where they made their way across what is now Beacon Hill Park on foot. McNeill would have continued the short journey to the anchorage in Camosun Inlet or harbour, where he waited for Douglas and his men to join him. This sounds very likely, considering what Douglas wrote in his journal below: 

Landed and saw the plain which is there. It contains probably 208 acres of land, the surface is rocky, large boulders of granite are seen piercing the surface here and there. It is on a high bank on the sea shore at the foot of which runs a fresh water river. There is a large village of Clalams here, and great quantities of salmon are taken in the autumn here. The Indians have small gardens on the plain and grow very fine potatoes. Bought a few fish from the Indians…

As you see, on Wednesday, they are anchored in the harbour itself:

Wednesday 15th March. Went out this morning with a boat and examined the wood of the north shore of the harbour. It is not good being generally short, crooked, and almost unserviceable. On the south shore, the wood is of a better quality and I think we will have no difficulty in getting enough for our purpose; small wood for picketing is scarce, particularly cedar, which answers better than any other kind for that purpose, from its’ lightness and greater durability under ground. We will probably have to bring such as we require from a distance…

I am at a loss where to place the Fort as there are two positions possessing advantages of nearly equal importance, though of different kinds. No. 1 has a good view of the harbour, is upon clear ground, and only 50 yards from the beach, on the other hand vessels drawing 14 feet cannot come within 130 feet of the shore, we will therefore either have to boat cargo off and on at a great destruction of boats and considerable loss of time or be put to the expense of forming a jettie [jetty] at a great amount of labour. 

If Douglas meant that the first location had a good view of the harbour mouth, then the first suggested position of the fort would have been at the location of the Legacy, or any nearby condo building in the Songhees. And yes, if you walk westward along the path that follows the north shore of the harbour, you will run into a patch of woodland that has trees that are, definitely, “short, crooked, and almost unserviceable.”

So, building on what we now call the Songhees was not a good location, because of the shallow water. Another location offered itself, as Douglas said:

No. 2, on the other hand, will allow of vessels lying with their sides grazing the rocks, which form a natural wharf, whereon cargo may be conveniently landed from the ships yard and in that respect would be exceedingly advantageous, but on the other hand, an intervening point [Laurel Point] intercepts the view so that the mouth of the Port cannot be seen from it, an objection of such weight in the case of vessels entering and leaving the Port. Another disadvantage is that the shore is there covered by thick woods to the breadth of 200 yards so that we must either place the Fort at that distance from the landing place, or clear away the thickets which would detain us very much in our building operations. I will think more on this subject before determining the point. The weather rather cloudy, but dry, and beautifully clear in the afternoon.

Thursday 16. The weather clear and warm. The gooseberry bushes growing in the woods beginning to bud. Put 6 men to dig a well and 6 others to square building timber. Spoke to the Samose [Songhees] today and informed them of our intention of building in the place, which appeared to please them very much, and they immediately offered their services in procuring pickets for the establishment, an offer which I gladly accepted and promised to pay them a blanket (2 1/2 points) for every forty pickets of 22 feet by 36 inches which they bring. I also lent them 3 large axes, 1 half square head axe, and 10 half round hand axes, to be returned hereafter when they have finished the job….

Friday 17th. Clear warm weather. Frost last night. The 5 squarers finished 1/2 pieces of 40 feet and 1 of 32 feet. Saw a luminous streak the in the heavens this evening, which lasted from dusk until 9 o’clock, when the moon rose and obscured it. Its highest altitude was at Betelgeuse in Orion, due south from the position we occupied at the time of its appearance, & extended from thence, in a continuous line to the south west point of the horizon, forming an arc of about 90 degrees… We cannot account for this phenomenon, unless we may suppose that it is produced by the reflexion [sic] of the waters in the Straits of [Juan] de Fuca, although it is difficult to account for its existence even on any such principal. It was also seen last night.

This is an interesting little story, and as you all know I love interesting little stories. This light in the sky is a comet called “The Great Comet of 1843,” or The Great March Comet. It was seen around the world, and its earliest reported observation (by an unknown person in an unknown location) was made on the evening of February 5,1843, with an additional observation on the 11th. It would have been very bright to have been so casually noticed by this anonymous person, and in the days that followed it became even brighter — a brilliant object a few degrees from the sun. But this is not when the HBC men saw this comet: they viewed it first on March 16, and James Douglas mentioned it for the first time on March 17. Shortly after the beginning of March it had begun to merge into the evening sky at dusk, and its elongation also increased. In fact, its’ long, straight, dust trail remained a conspicuous object in the night sky through the entire month of March 1843. You can read all about this comet here: http://rocketstem.org/2020/03/14/ice-and-stone-comet-of-week-12/

James Douglas’s journal continues: 

Six men digging the well. 

Saturday 18th. Men employed as yesterday. The well is now about 11 feet deep. The luminous appearance still visible in the same position it occupied last night. It faded away about 11 o’clock. 

Saturday 18, Sunday 19, Monday 20, Tuesday 21. Fine weather. Luminous column still visible in its former position.

The First Nations people also saw the comet, and they stayed away from the fort, expecting trouble. Roderick Finlayson explained this the best when he said, “The natives for some time after our arrival kept aloof and would not come near. Afterwards some of them came round gradually…” But this will appear, I expect in the next post in this series — or perhaps the one after: I don’t know yet. You see, there was another man here who travelled to the Fort Albert with Douglas and his crew, and this was the missionary Jean Baptiste Zacharie Bolduc, whose story is written up in the book Mission of the Columbia. It is edited and translated by Edward J. Kowrach, and published by Ye Galleon Press, Fairfield, WA in 1979. His story adds to James Douglas’s story in some ways, and in some ways it’s an interruption, but one that might be interesting to hear in a separate blogpost.

Bolduc left the future location of Fort Albert on March 24. We don’t know when James Douglas left, but it must have been after March 24. According to Douglas’s journal, the HBC men are working at Fort Albert until Tuesday March 21. Douglas returned to the future location of Fort Albert on the first of June, 1843, and the men he had brought down from the northern posts now began the serious work of building Fort Albert. That story will be told (as I said) in the next post or perhaps in the post that follows. When the next post is written, it will appear here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/jean-baptiste-bolduc/ 

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