Fort Durham

Fort Nisqually on Puget Sound

This well-researched Fort Nisqually painting was done by Steve A. Anderson and is used with his kind permission. Fort Durham might have looked much like this post, except of course that it placed in a dismal part of the rainy north coast and was surrounded by trees and mountains.

I am putting this Fort Durham series in front of a few histories that came earlier (ie. Fort Simpson, and the Stikine River story), because Thomas Lowe is approaching the Fort where he will spend a few interesting years. I am beginning at the beginning of Fort Durham’s history, however, with clerk Roderick Finlayson’s stories. So this may seem to be out of order, and it is, but for Thomas Lowe’s thread it is not! So let’s begin, with a whole bunch of backstory and a few stories from Fort Durham’s early years. 

In his manuscript “History of Vancouver Island and the Northwest Coast,” clerk Roderick Finlayson begins his story of the founding of Fort Durham in June, 1840, when he says: “James Douglas with myself as private secretary and Dr. [John Frederick] Kennedy, with the rest of the men, left Sitka in June 1840, after having settled our business there on the Steamer Beaver, and proceeded to the Tako River, with one of our barques [the Vancouver] in tow, laden with our trading goods and twelve months provisions.” In his “Autobiography he wrote, “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 on board as before, and returned from the Beaver) to the Guf of Taco and River, for the purpose of establishing a fort there for trading purposes.” Fort Durham [the proper name for Fort Taku] was to be built well to the north of the Russian American Fur Company’s headquarters at Sitka, and the ability to build a post on that northern site was a part of the settlement with the Russians on the northwest Coast, and the Hudson’s Bay Company. 

So, what came before this? How did the Russians get involved in HBC history? Well, in 1833, Fort McLoughlin was built on the HBC’s Milbank Sound. Peter Skene Ogden, who was in overall charge of establishing the post, left the work of construction in the hands of his experienced fort builders, and sailed up the northwest coast on a journey of exploration. For Fort McLoughlin’s story, see this thread:

This series is now finished: We will continue here and now with Peter Skene Ogden’s story and its connection with Fort Durham, because all these stories are connected. At this time, the HBC men thought it possible that they might be able to construct a new fort east of the ten-mile wide strip of land that the Russian American Company controlled (now the Alaskan panhandle). A Treaty between the Russians and the British governments granted the HBC men the right to trade on the east side of the ten-mile wide strip of land that the Russian American Company controlled, and to use the rivers to reach the interior, as long as they did not interfere nor trade with the First Nations within the ten-mile wide strip owned by the Russians. In 1833, Peter Skene Ogden explored some distance up the Stikine River. One year later, in 1834 the HBC men attempted to build their fort, and I have written briefly about the resulting expedition here, as it also affects the Robert Campbell story in the “Journeys” thread:

On December 14, 1834 (after re-building Fort Simpson in its new location on the Northwest Coast) Ogden returned to Fort Vancouver with the news of his failure to build his post on the Stikine. Three months later, in March 1835, Chief Factor John McLoughlin forwarded his report to the London Committee with the outgoing York Factory Express to Hudson Bay. “I am sorry to inform you that the Russians have prevented Mr. Ogden’s forming the Establishment you directed us to build on the banks of the Stikine River,” he wrote, and his letter continues: 

And for which he [Ogden] had selected and marked out a situation in 1833 as you will see by the accompanying copy of the correspondence between Mr. Ogden and the Russian Officers, Captn. Sarembo, Capt. Etoline & Baron Wrangell… I presume these documents will fully prove that our rights have been violated by the Russian authorities.

So we see that Peter Skene Ogden was ordered, by Governor George Simpson and the London Committee, to explore for and build a post on the upper Stikine River. When the documents reached London, the Foreign Office immediately opened legal discussions with the Russian Government, and four years later a settlement was reached. The agreement between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Russian American Company was signed in Hamburg, Germany, on January 25, 1839, by Governor George Simpson for the HBC, and Baron Ferdinand Wrangell for the Russian American Company. You can read the agreement online at Peel’s Prairie Provinces, University of Alberta Archives, Peel 214, and I believe you can also access it online on the B.C. Archives website. [Did you know that during the pandemic, B.C. Archives loaded a whole batch of historic documents online? Check it out! It’s certainly saving me a little in-person research time.]

In this historic settlement, the Hudson’s Bay Company leased from the Russians the mainland portion of the Alaska Panhandle south of Cape Spencer, on Cross Sound (50 degrees 40′ N. Latitude), a distance of 350 miles, for a period of ten years. A better way to say this, perhaps, is that the HBC leased the ten-mile wide strip of the Alaska Panhandle all the way from Portland Inlet, where Fort Simpson now stood, northward 350 miles to Mount Fairweather, which lay directly east of Cape Spencer and well north of the mouth of the Stikine River. 

The HBC took possession of the establishment of Redoubt St. Dionysius, the Russian post at Point Highfield where Peter Skene Ogden had lost his argument with the Russians four years earlier. This series begins here: (There are two Fort Simpsons in my stories: one of the Mackenzie River, and this one on the northwest coast). As you can see, this series still needs to be completed. 

The HBC also made plans to set up a new post they would call Fort Durham, on Taku Inlet even further north (on the present day site of Juneau, Alaska), where they planned to capture the furs from the Yukon River and its tributaries. The agreement stated that the Hudson’s Bay Company should pay for the lease by providing the Russians with furs and goods. An annual rent of “2000 seasoned Land Otter Skins, excluding Cub and damaged skins, taken or hunted on the west side of the Rocky Mountains,” at a price of 23 shillings per skin. Further, as the skins on the west side of the Rockies were not as rich as those on the east, the HBC agreed to sell to the Russians another 3,000 seasoned Land Otter Skins taken on the East of the Rocky Mountains,  at a price of 32 shillings per skin delivered to Sitka from Edmonton House. These were the packs of furs that the incoming York Factory Express carried over the mountains every year after 1840! In addition to the above, Thomas Lowe said that the HBC “had also to surrender to the Russians, at cost price, whatever Sea Otter Skins they might have obtained in the ceded territory.” It is actually stated in the contract that the HBC could not “trade nor hunt any Furs or Peltries on any other part of the Russian Territory on the Northwest Coast or Island then that ceded to them.” Sea otters pelts were found in the kelp beds outside the outer islands, and so they could not be kept by the Hudson’s Bay Company men. An interesting detail!

So, back to Roderick Finlayson’s story, which continues. “On our arrival there we found that the [Taku] river was inaccessible  for a large part of the year from ice bergs floating about its entrance and the country being so mountainous we could not get a level spot whereon to erect a Fort.” 

In his own journal, James Douglas wrote this: “Wednesday, June 17– Sunday 21. In the afternoon started with an armed party of 20 men to examine the country and explore the [Taku] River, to the distance of 35 miles, where according to my instructions the post of Taco is to be established. This service occupied us during the 18th, 19th & 20th in the evening of which we returned to the vessels. In relation to this journey the first place we landed at was enclosed on three of its sides by mountains, covered with ice and snow, being a low, level point about three miles square, perfectly dry, with many portions of good clear land profusely covered with grasses and flowering plants in full bloom. ” Douglas considered this future post merely a trading Depot for the Natives of Cross Sound and Chilcat Inlet — So, Fort Durham would be dealing with the Tlingit Chilcats that so troubled Robert Campbell on the Yukon River! No wonder the HBC men considered this a turbulent place to set up trade!

According to Douglas’s journal they discovered the limit of ship navigation on the river, where it became rapid and broken by rocks and shoals. Yet, they explored beyond that point, and found no place for a post on the river banks which were inundated — the river was in freshet, like all rivers are at this time of year when snow melt engorges waterways large and small. On their journey downriver they found that “the descent was at times more rapid than we wished; we reached the entrance of the river on the 20th at midday, where we were detained upwards of three hours waiting for the tide, as we found it impossible, at low water, to drag our boats over the shallows on which there was not 6 inches of water. Arrived at the vessels [the Beaver, and the Vancouver] in course of the afternoon.”  

So what is the next step? On June 22, Douglas wrote that they had “visited all the places in this inlet, and find them all objectionable as sites for establishment, two of the best being enclosed by ice in winter and therefore inaccessible at that season, the only other possible spot is in a mountain ravine commanded by a height within 80 yards of the Stockades. I have therefore determined to try our fortune elsewhere as I am informed by an Indian that there is a good place 20 miles south of Point Salisbury, we are with that view taking in wood today and we shall make a move tomorrow morning.” 

In his “Autobiography,” Roderick Finlayson wrote: “we ascended the river in boats for about thirty miles looking for a place to build, but found none, and selected a place about fifty miles, in a land locked harbour, where we built a fort on the usual plan, called it Fort Durham in honor of the Governor General of Canada.” He has additional information in his “History of Vancouver Island…”

While exploring on the way around the entrance of the river and about 50 miles up its course which we ascended in the ship’s boats, we met an Indian Slave — the others having been inland hunting — who we called “Locality.” Locality acted as our Pilot and brought us about ten miles below the Mouth of the river into a small bay where we selected the site of the Fort — and where there is a good harbour. Landed our men & provisions there, the Steamer and Barque [Vancouver] anchored in the harbour in protection. In the first place we built log houses for our own men and then erected a stockade of 150 yards square, 18 feet above the ground, with two bastions at the angles, where we mounted our Cannonades…

Douglas wrote of the recommended location, that on June 23, “We arrived about 10 o’clock at the place indicated by the Indian yesterday whom we induced to accompany us: it is well adapted for our purpose, possessing a safe convenient harbour, sufficient level ground for building and abundance of fine building timber, our choice has accordingly fallen here and we will begin operations without delay.”

They landed the men the next day and “sent the Beaver back to the Vancouver for the rest of the party, whom we left yesterday at Taco. Traced out the site of the Fort, and put up a building for the men.” On June 25 they put up some small houses, and the Vancouver arrived at the new location. By July 11 they had placed one of the guns atop the Block house and fired a salute, and two sides of the trench were dug. “400 pickets drawn out, and a building of 30 feet x 20 feet far advanced towards its completion.” On Sunday, July 12, Douglas reported it was raining every day the last week. He moved into one end of the big house, “and the other with the Bastion is filled up with goods, which we this week landed from the ship. Squared the gate posts, and the wood of the second Bastion, which is now half cut out, carted home a great many pieces for the Stockades, and morticed some of the Posts.” On July 14 he sent the Vancouver to Sitka with a fair wind. “Indians trading a few furs, they are very troublesome and most persevering in their attempts to beat down the price of goods, they gain nothing, however, by their efforts, as we persist in following the same Tariff.” 

Douglas also spoke of the slavery he found here, but he seemed to be more concerned about the HBC’s ability to compete in trade with the slavers. “This detestable traffic, and the evils it gives rise to, are subjects of deep regret to us, but we know of no remedy within our power, or we would use it were it only for the sake of our own interest, which is thereby seriously affected, as the Taku skins are traded before our eyes and carried off from our very door by means of a description of property that we cannot compete in.”

When the next post in this series is published, it will appear here:

This post is part of the Thomas Lowe series, and the last post of this series will be found at This is the story of his arrival at the Russian post of Sitka, from the Sandwich Islands. Eventually he reaches Fort Durham itself, in 1842.   

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

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