Clerk Thomas Lowe finally arrived at Fort Durham (sometimes called Fort Taku) in April 1842, and his letters now tell the story of what happened at this turbulent northwest coast fort, built by James Douglas in summer 1840. I ended the last blogpost in this series — https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/fort-durham-dustup/ — with this quote from Thomas Lowe:
Dr. John Kennedy was in command, and while I was there we were besieged by those rascals for a period of six weeks, and only released by the opportune arrival of an armed Steamer from Sitka. During the siege they frequently attempted to burn us out. Knowing that the houses inside the stockade were covered with sheets of cedar bark, a very inflammable material in dry weather, they would muster on the windward side of the Fort during a gale of wind and toss up lighted pieces of bark so as to land on the roofs and set them on fire. We had therefore to be on the alert against their machinations, both by day & night….
So let us hear what young Thomas Lowe has to say of his time at Fort Durham! In fact, in another letter he has more to say of the way the Taku tried to burn them out, and gives us the reason for the First Nations’s besieging of Fort Taku. This is clearly in response to a then-historian who had asked for clarification. Remember that these letters were written from Scotland, well after his retirement from the Company. But his memory was good:
It would not be strictly correct to say “from the adjoining higher ground,” as the wind did not come from that direction, and the brands were, in reality, thrown from the comparatively level ground on the weather side of the fort. The Indians tossed those lighted brands up in the air and trusted to the force of the gale to carry them on the roofs of the houses, and so burn us out. In this, however, they were not successful, but it sufficiently showed the great resentment they felt they felt at the sudden stoppage of the liquor trade… They besieged us for about six weeks, and the several attempts of setting the Fort on fire were made on dark and stormy nights, when they could come quite close to the Stockades. We would, of course, have fired on them, but it was the invariable policy of the Hudson’s Bay Company to keep on friendly terms with the Natives everywhere, and never to take life it if could possibly be avoided.
And then he confirms that John O’Brien (this guy: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/john-obrien/ ) was at the Fort. “The Natives of this part of the Coast had always been numerous and very difficult to get on with. At Fort Durham, during the 5 years of its existence, Dr. John Kennedy was in charge, having as his assistant successively Roderick Finlayson, John O’Brien, and myself, with a garrison of about 25 men.” John Kennedy was, of course, Dr. John Frederick Kennedy, and interestingly enough, he was Métis, having been born at Cumberland House to Chief Factor Alexander Kennedy and his First Nations (and likely Cree) wife, named either Agatha, or Mary.
In another letter, Thomas Lowe tells us that Fort Durham was built “in a snug little bay, with a shingly beach and a considerable space of level ground before reaching the rather steep hillside behind. Looking out across the broad channel which separated it from what I suppose was Admiralty Island, there was on the left hand, somewhat to the rear, in full view, a very high mountain, and on the right, near the extreme point of the Bay on that site, a very small stream, coming from a tiny Lake not very far back. Dr. Kennedy had erected near its mouth a very effective Weir of stakes, to capture the trout on their way up; and we used of a night to scoop out hundreds of these speckled beauties, which we opened up and spread out to dry and cure. The Indians brought us great quantities of halibut, deer, mountain goat, bear, partridges, etc., so that we always had abundance of provisions, besides the crop of Potatoes from an acre or two of ground which the men of the Fort had cleared.” Does anyone know what kind of fish they would have scooped out of the creek at Fort Durham?
Here is Thomas Lowe’s description of Fort Durham:
The Fort was enclosed by a stockade about 20 feet in height, composed of small trees from 8 to 10 inches in diameter, set on end and firmly bedded in the ground. Inside of this, running all around, and reached by 2 stairways, was a planked Gallery, about breast high, below the top of the Stockade. There were 2 projecting Bastions at opposite corners, built of heavy squared timber, with hinged ports for cannon and loopholes for musketry. Each Bastion commanded two separate sides of the Fort, and the upper story, somewhat overlapped the lower, enabled shots to be fired downward through the outer part of the flooring to prevent shelter being taken beneath or too close in.
They took protection seriously, as we can see! The image above is of Fort Nisqually, and I see no projecting upper stories to any bastion there! Of course, having four bastions, and one on each corner, made that unnecessary, I suppose. Let us continue:
Icebergs were frequently seen in the open channel, carried backward and forward by the tide. As to the Mountain referred to, I have good reason to remember it….
Here’s the story: “It was, however, necessary to guard against any attack, especially in the night time,” Lowe tells us. “The men were therefore divided into watches (that is, those who could be spared). There were 26 of us in all, Dr. Kennedy taking 8 and I the same number for four hours each on a stretch. Half of them marched in one direction on the gallery, and the other half in the opposite direction, so as to pass and repass each other and keep them from sleeping. Well, one clear night, when it happened to be my watch on deck, on looking towards the mountain what was my astonishment to see the moon arise, to all appearance, shattered and broken in bits!! The men on watch with me, mostly French Canadians, began to cross themselves and to take to their prayers, thinking, no doubt, that the end of the World had come. I rushed down to awaken Dr. Kennedy, but when we reached the gallery the moon had already nearly developed into its proper shape, and the mystery was solved. On the summit of the mountain, which was covered with snow, there must have been a tree which, as we had no telescope, we had never observed, and thus the moon shining through the bare branches had presented the singular appearance which had given us such a shock.”
Thomas Lowe also tells us that…
Dr. John Kennedy was in charge of Fort Durham from the time of its foundation until the abandonment. He did not then hold the rank of Chief Trader, but became one afterwards… Chief Factor Douglas went to Fort Durham with the “Beaver” and “Cadboro,” [and] carried out the abandonment of that post (which he had established). All the doors, window sashes, planed flooring, and other articles that might be of service at the new Establishment, were taken on board. Captain William Brotchie was the Master of the Steamer Beaver, with William Mitchell as First Mate, and Captain James Scarborough, Master of the Schooner Cadboro.
“In the spring of 1843,” Roderick Finlayson recorded in his manuscript titled “History of Vancouver Island,” “Mr. James Douglas again visited the Coast and according to instructions from the Governor Sir Geo: Simpson, the trade at Taku and the neighbouring Islands was to be carried on by the Beaver Steamer as a trading vessel along the Coast there. The 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.“
Thomas Lowe said that:
The absolute necessity of keeping so many men to garrison Fort Durham was felt to be out of all proportion to the profits of the trade, and this led to the abandonment of that Establishment. Afterwards, and until the termination of the lease [with the Russians], the Steamer Beaver made periodical visits to that part of the country to continue the trade and collect the furs.
After leaving Fort Simpson, we called at Fort McLoughlin, in Milbanke Sound, which was then abandoned, as was the Fort at Taku [Fort 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 having been sent from Red River Settlement, in Hudson’s Bay, then the headquarters of our Governor Sir George Simpson, to establish a depot for whalers on the on the south point of Vancouver’s Island, as there were many whalers then visiting the North Pacific.
Of course, Lowe’s statement that the Red River Settlement was on Hudson’s Bay, and that it was also the headquarters of the Company, was untrue. But as to the whalers … Yes, that seems to be part of the reason why Fort Victoria was set up where it was. And Whalers absolutely visited the fort, according to Roderick Finlayson. But we will find out more in the future Fort Victoria thread, see below for more information.
One of the two threads which will lead out from this post is the continuation of Thomas Lowe’s story, found here, when published: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/thomas-lowe-12/
You should also visit this post, though, if you want all of Thomas Lowe’s story! The second thread that will lead out from this post will be, of course, the continuation of the Fort Victoria story. That was the new Establishment mentioned above by Thomas Lowe, and he would help to build that new post. When its story is written, it will appear here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/fort-victoria/
Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2022. All rights reserved.
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- James Anderson on Lake Franklin
- The building of Fort Victoria