Fort Durham rises

Flintlock Guns, Fort Langley

Flintlock Guns

And so, in this blogpost, the HBC men under Chief Factor James Douglas have finally found a good location for Fort Durham, which would become the northernmost HBC post on the northwest coast of what is now British Columbia. Actually, they were in Alaska: Fort Durham was built where the town of Juneau stands today! It is also often called Fort Taku, as you will see from another post that fits into the Robert Campbell story here: 

But Fort Taku’s real name is Fort Durham, and its story begins in this post, if you want to read it first:

On Thursday, July 16, 1840, James Douglas wrote: “Raining the greater part of the day. A few Indians going and coming who trade furs, but none of them bring in provisions, the weather has indeed been so wretchedly bad that it is hardly surprising they should feel reluctant to ramble through the dripping forest.” His descriptions of Fort Durham were good, and his writing is really quite enjoyable — I found that in his York Factory Express journals, and in these journals as well, his descriptions are clear and imaginative, and that they added much to the story he tells.

His notes tell us that, at Fort Durham, it rained heavily all the next day. Nevertheless, by July 18 his men had built temporary accommodations for officers and men. Two Bastions were already finished, a big house was built and two of the stockade trenches were dug, with the pickets lying on the ground ready for erection — all of the logs for these important buildings might have been carried north on the Vancouver. The front gates were fitted (they had been built at Fort Vancouver and shipped north aboard one of the two ships), and the posts of the back gate were morticed. The ship, Vancouver, was discharged of the property for the post, and all the goods were stored inside the fort. And, on July 19, the first salmon was caught in the stream that ran next to the post. 

It stopped raining for two days, and Douglas became quite optimistic about the weather at Fort Durham. His optimism did not last. The rain began again on July 22, and the HBC men would soon learn that it rained a lot here. But it was mid-summer, the rain was warm, if wet, and on Sunday, July 26, Douglas wrote: 

Raining very slightly. Peace and stillness in our camp, we have prayers in the French language every Sunday evening.

“It took some time to build this fort and make it defensible against the War-like Indians in the vicinity,” Roderick Finlayson wrote in his Autobiography. “When it was considered in a proper state of defence, with bastions erected at the angles of the palisades, a party was left to take possession consisting of eighteen men and two officers, of whom I was one, second in command.” In his “History of Vancouver Island and the Northwest Coast,” he says this:

As soon as we got the Stockade up and houses and stores ready, we landed our supplies from the ships and Mr. Douglas, the Commanding Officer, having pronounced the fort defensible named it “Fort Durham” after the Earl of Durham, then Governor General in Canada. He placed Dr. [John Frederick] Kennedy in charge, myself as his assistant, with 18 men — Sandwich Islanders and French Canadians. It was now late in September 1840. Mr. Douglas left us to defend ourselves, provisioned the place, and supplied us with the necessary trading goods — and left with the steamer and barque — promising to send the steamer the following spring with further supplies, and take away our collections of furs during the winter.

The steamer was, of course, the steamer Beaver, and the barque was the Vancouver. This is the second ship named Vancouver, the first having been the schooner lost on Rose Spit, Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) in March 1834. This second Vancouver was a four-hundred-ton barque of British or African oak or teak: it was 103 feet long and twenty-five feet six inches broad, with a draft of eleven feet. It, too, was wrecked: the Vancouver was lost at the mouth of the Columbia River on May 7, 1848, and its loss caused great consternation among the gentlemen of the Brigades then at Fort Langley — but that is another story which will be told in The Brigades book!

So this story continues, with more details on the timeline of building Fort Durham. In August the HBC men built a weir to catch salmon as they ascended the stream near the fort, and as you know from above, they caught some. They completed the stockades in early August, and Douglas said that “the square is now fully enclosed.” On August 11, Douglas

repaired on board the Beaver as my presence is no longer required on shore, the Fort being now in a state of complete security. The men and officers who were until today living outside, are now removed into the interior of the Fort where their huts are now erected: we will leave this as we have taken in the necessary supply of firewood (for the Beaver‘s engines, which burned large amounts of wood), to visit and trade at the harbours at the harbours between this and Cross Sound, in the course of which journey I may also gather some useful information.

So Douglas and his ship, the Beaver, stayed in the locality. The Cadboro, which had come north with supplies for Fort Durham, sailed down the bay looking for the fort at or near the mouth of the Taku River, and the Beaver towed the little ship back to Fort Durham. On August 20, the Beaver again returned to Fort Durham, anchoring safely in the bay while a “dreadful” south east gale blew through. “It fell calm on the evening of the 24th [August],” Douglas wrote, “and this morning at 3 o’clock we got under way in the Steam Vessel for Stikine.” Note that in his “History,” Roderick Finlayson said that Douglas did not leave until late September, but he was wrong. It is, after all, a secondary source, written from memory many years after the events happened.

I also have James Douglas’s “Diary of a Trip to the Northwest Coast, April 22-October 2, 1840,” and I will see what he says in this. (This will be another series of blogposts, I expect, at some point.) Douglas says that he left “Taku” (Fort Durham) on Saturday, August 15, and visited a number of First Nations villages in the region. One of the places he visited was Lynn Canal, where he talked of the long journey the Chilkat men made into the Yukon interior, where they traded with the Northern Tutchones.  All of these stories are connected: as we know, the Yukon interior is where Robert Campbell built Fort Selkirk in 1848, and these Lynn Canal Chilkats are the same people who destroyed that Yukon River post in 1852. Interestingly, the Chilkats who traded at Fort Durham were considered a quiet and peaceful people: mostly because they were visitors in the territory of another band of Tlingit peoples. 

To continue Douglas’s journey: He returned to Fort Durham August 20: on August 27 he was at Stikine; on August 30 he was at Fort Simpson. On September 5 he was at Fort McLoughlin, on September 21 at Fort Langley and on September 25 at Fort Nisqually. Fort Durham’s story will now belong to Roderick Finlayson, and the information will be taken both from his “Autobiography,” and from his “History of Vancouver Island and the Northwest Coast.”

In his “Autobiography,” Finlayson wrote: “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.” His description of the fort and its surroundings is very enjoyable:

It was now late in October and the Fort built in Taku 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. We opened trade with the Natives, a vile turbulent race, so that we only allowed a few of them to enter the fort gate for trade.

I guess Finlayson has reason to call the First Nations outside Fort Taku “vile,” as they came close to capturing and murdering him on one occasion! The Tlingits at Taku had plenty of reasons to attack the HBC men, particularly as they thought they were Americans (Boston men). From Finlayson’s “History” we learn why the Taku Tlingits hated anyone they thought might be an American:

At this period and for many years previously, Boston and New York merchants used to fit up vessels with all kinds of liquor, arms, and ammunition, and other goods in trading ventures to the North west coast round Cape Horn, to exchange those articles for Sea Otter and other valuable furs, and liquor being the cheapest articles used in barter for those furs and much preferred by the Natives, large quantities of it got amongst them, which demoralized them so much that it was dangerous for one to go outside our Stockades. Ships dealing with the Natives used to have boarding nettings placed round them to prevent the Natives getting on board, and trade even generally carried on through their port holes. Forts placed on shore for trading purposes had therefore to be well armed and watch kept up night and day to prevent them being taken, hence the necessity of having 18-foot-high Stockades being put up to prevent the Natives scaling them, and when they attempted to do so, they could be fired at from the Bastions at the angles.

In his “Autobiography,” Finlayson gives us a little more background on the conflicts between the American ships and the First Nations at Taku. “A few years before this an American vessel from Boston came to trade in the neighbourhood and had a quarrel with the natives in which a large number of them were killed, and supposing we were Americans, they tried to take revenge for this by attempting to take the fort and murder us all.” Finlayson tells this story in full in his “History”:

A few years before we established the Fort on the Gulf of Taku, a vessel from Boston was there trading, and the Master having quarrelled with the Natives, who in their canoes in large numbers were round the vessel as she rode at anchor, and owing to the quarrel the Natives would not trade. The Skipper therefore opened fire upon them in the Canoes and killed a large number, after which he weighed anchor and left them to their fate.

As you can see, this history of conflict caused much trouble for the HBC, who planned to cut the Americans out from trade on the northwest coast. But, as he says in his “History,” they were successful in the end: “Both the Hudson’s Bay Co and the Russian Company being now fairly established on the Coast for trading purposes, determined to make the New York and Boston ventures fruitless by under-selling them, and also dealing in liquor so as to keep the natives away from the ships. For a time, the trade was carried on in this way, until the ships discontinued coming on such ventures, as they were then not found to pay.” 

The HBC men secured the fort and opened for trade, and the Taku men brought in their furs:  

As soon as we got our fort secure at Taku we opened trade with the Natives, who on coming down from the Interior with their furs, where they were absent all summer, heard of our having established there, visited us in large numbers, and to prevent their taking their furs to vessels and draw them to the Fort for trade, we had to give them liquor, also, as well as goods and ammunition. In dealing with them, for they were numerous and strong, we only allowed two or three within the Stockades at a time. I had the post of Trader, while Dr. Kennedy looked after the men under arms. 

I am sure that whenever there were First Nations men inside the fort, the HBC men stood on guard, both at the gate and on the gallery which ran around the interior walls. There were in fact a few dust-ups at Fort Durham, and I will write about these in the next blogpost in this series, which, when written, will be found here: 

Fort Durham was really a very dangerous posting — it was, perhaps, the most dangerous of all the HBC posts on the Northwest Coast at that time. But as far as I am so far aware, no HBC man died here. Roderick Finlayson survived his time here and went on to clerk at Fort Simpson and at Fort Victoria. The man who replaced Roderick Finlayson at Fort Durham survived to work in the Yukon under Robert Campbell (his story will be part of the next post in this series). And Thomas Lowe, who replaced that man, went on to help build Fort Victoria when Fort Taku was closed down, and then clerked for years at Fort Vancouver. As you know, Lowe also took out the York Factory Express in 1847 and 1848, and so he played quite an important part in Fort Vancouver history — as you will discover in the Thomas Lowe thread that will continue when this Fort Taku thread is finished.

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

On Twitter: @Marguerite_HBC

On Facebook: Nancy-Marguerite-Anderson-Author