Fort McLoughlin was a Hudson’s Bay Company post, built on what the HBC men called “Milbanke Sound,” on the Northwest Coast, in 1833. Alexander Caulfield Anderson had only just arrived at Fort Vancouver in November 1832, and he was assigned to help build the new fort. If you look at your maps of the coast north of the north end of Vancouver Island, and locate Bella Coola and Bella Bella, you will find Milbanke Sound in the outer waters of the straits on which these communities are situated today. But, in 1833, all those waters were part of what the fur traders called Milbanke Sound.
In late June, 1788, British fur trader Charles Duncan, captain of the Princess Royal, sailed into the uncharted waters of Milbanke Sound and traded with the Heiltsuk who lived in its outer reaches. Duncan named the Sound for Vice-Admiral Mark Milbanke (1724-1805), who shortly after this honour was bestowed upon him became the Governor of Newfoundland. In May, 1793, Captain George Vancouver sailed into the sound, and only a few months later, on July 20, the North West Company explorer Alexander Mackenzie followed the grease trails west to the Pacific Ocean, barely missing meeting Vancouver. Then in 1805, a Boston trading ship, Atahualpa, was attacked by the Heiltsuk, and the captain and some of the crew were killed in a violent battle that also took the lives of many Heiltsuk men. Here is how historian Hubert Howe Bancroft described the battle. As you can see, it is likely that this is how Tyeet [Kyeet, or Kaite] received the name “Boston,” which the HBC often used:
Several years previous an American vessel visiting Milbank Sound was attacked by the Bellacoolas [Bella Bellas], and the captain and part of the crew were killed. The deed was done about 9 o’clock in the morning, whilst most of the crew were aloft airing the wet sails. Round the ship a fleet of canoes displayed quantities of tempting furs. With culpable carelessness the savages were admitted on deck armed. Having stationed themselves to suit their purpose, the chief, Tyeet, calling the captain to the gangway to look at the furs, drew his knife, plunged it into his side, and pitched the body overboard, where it was cut in pieces with paddles. The crew fought for their lives, and at last cleared the deck and slipped out to sea.
Anderson called the chief Tyeet, but everyone else knew him as Kyeet, or “Boston.” His descendants call him Kaite. In his book, British Columbia Coast Names, John Thomas Walbran identifies the bay in which this attack occurred as Sturgis Bay, a bay on the eastern shore of Spiller Channel, that is, the channel that separates the Don Peninsula from Leo Island. Sturgis Bay is eight miles from today’s Milbanke Sound.
So, in 1833, a new HBC post was to be constructed among the First Nations people the HBC men called the Bella Bellas, now the Heiltsuk. Other First Nations people also lived in what the HBC men called Milbanke Sound; these were the Nuxalk, who live in the depths of the sound at the western end of a major grease trail that connected their villages with Dakelh fishing and trading lakes in New Caledonia. The Nuxalk, and perhaps also the Heiltsuk, carried their valuable eulachon oil (the “grease”) through the mountains, to lakes where the Dakelh of the interior fished and feasted, and returned home with the dark rich furs the Dakelh people traded. In fact, the reason for establishing the new post on Milbanke Sound was the hope that it would intercept the 3,000-4,000 beaver pelts that American vessels reportedly collected on the Sound annually.
Anderson’s story begins:
The late Sir James Douglas was at that time the head clerk in the office at Fort Vancouver, to which I was relegated as junior. I remained there until 1833, when I was appointed to accompany an expedition, the object of which was to erect a trading establishment in Millbank Sound on the northwest coast. Mr. Duncan Finlayson, the uncle of the present mayor of Victoria [Roderick Finlayson], was the Chief Factor in charge. After much delay, awaiting an opportunity to cross the Columbia bar, we eventually got to sea about the beginning of May. The officers intended to superintend the building of the projected fort were Mr. Donald Manson and myself, and we had as assistance for trading purposes a young man named John Davis (or Dawes), who I understand, afterwards wrote a book on the northwest coast.
The young man was named John Dunn, and on this expedition he was interpreter and Indian Manager. He did, indeed, publish a history of the northwest coast in which he spoke of the incident to come. John Dunn’s story will be interspersed with the many other voices in this narrative.
The Dryad, under Captain Charles Kipling, would sail north to Fort Simpson, on the Nass River, before joining a second HBC ship, called the Llama [Lama], and dropping down the coast to Milbanke Sound to the south. The Dryad was described as a handsome vessel, a brig of 204 tons built at the Isle of Wight in 1825. The Llama was, as we all know, an American ship out of Boston. To continue the story:
On Monday, March 12, the Dryad ran down the last piece of the Columbia River and anchored off Fort George, coming to in 15 fathoms of water. On the morning of March 14, Duncan Finlayson, Donald Manson, and James Birnie embarked, and the ship ran down to Bakers Bay, where it anchored in 7 fathoms of water. Bakers Bay was just inside the mouth of the Columbia River, and the dangerous sand-bars at the mouth of the Columbia River stood between Bakers Bay and the open Pacific Ocean.
There was no chance of getting to sea that day, as the sea was high and the wind southeasterly, and the breakers broke over the Columbia River bar. The crew watered and wooded the ship and did other necessary chores such as mending the sails, while the HBC gentlemen camped on shore. Alexander Anderson was among these gentlemen: whether he had come downriver with the ship or had arrived at Fort George with the other gentlemen is not known. The captain “landed 4 bullocks & 2 frenchmen on shore in charge of them,” and Mr. Birnie was dispatched upriver to Fort George in the gig, with 4 Canadiens as crew. On a second voyage upriver to Fort George a few days later, Birnie returned with his wife and family. Charlot Birnie had just given birth to another child (also named Charlotte), and the Birnie’s eldest daughter, Betsy (born in 1822), was now eleven years old. In four years’ time, Betsy would become Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s wife.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The bar at the mouth of the Columbia River can be impassible for weeks at a time because of high seas from the open Pacific Ocean, and the shallow sandbars that blocked the entrance. The sea remained rough until Monday, April 8, when it calmed. But there was no wind to carry the sailing ship safely across the bar. Two days later the water on the bar was still smooth and the breeze fine, and the Dryad sailed across the bar and out of the river mouth at 4:30 that afternoon.
By April 18 the ship was sailing past Queen Charlotte Islands, and at 6 pm. there was land in sight to the Eastward, 10 or 12 leagues distant. On Friday April 19, the captain spotted the Cadboro (another HBC ship), and he and Mr. Finlayson visited aboard. Later that day the Dryad anchored at Clemensity, in the outer estuary of the Nass River, before continuing the sailing voyage up the Nass River estuary toward the fort. (To locate yourself, just remember that the north shore of the Nass River estuary is at the south end of the Alaskan panhandle, and the south shore in British Columbia). When they arrived at the fort, the Dryad fired five guns to announce their arrival, which was returned. James Birnie removed his wife and family from the ship, as he was take over command of Fort Simpson. Anderson and Betsy Birnie had spent some weeks together aboard the Dryad and onshore at the mouth of the Columbia, and Anderson already knew he was going to wed Betsy, if he could.
Early the next morning the crew discharged the fort’s cargo, and at 4 in the afternoon the Llama also reached Fort Simpson’s anchorage. On May 2, 1833, both ships sailed out of the estuary, through Dixon Entrance, between Zayas and Dundas Islands. Taking Principe Channel, Estevan Sound, Laredo Channel and Sound, they sailed west of Banks and Aristazabetl Islands, and arrived on Milbanke Sound on May 11. [Robert Harvey’s research here].
Over the next few weeks the HBC men went out in parties to search for good locations for the fort, but had little success in finding a place that offered both wood and a good supply of fresh water. It was not until May 23 that the HBC men found a location, in a then-unnamed bay [now McLoughlin Bay] on the east side of what is now called Campbell Island. John Dunn gives his impression of the land in which they were hoping to build their fort:
The shores here are high, and covered with trees. A little way in the interior are patches of plains, but rocky and covered with short grass and moss. In the neighbourhood, the wood consists of pine, hemlock, cedar, spruce, small fruit, crab, birch, and various kinds of berry bushes.
(Dunn’s birch was probably alder).
The HBC men began to build their fort. The Dryad‘s log tells the story:
Sent all the frenchmen with axes on shore & commenced cutting down trees and clearing away the bush in order to build a fort. Discharged [a] few deals & moored the ship head & astern. Llama in company. At 7 Frenchmen came on board.
“Deals” are the HBC men’s descriptions of a certain amount of sawn lumber. The HBC at Forts Victoria and Vancouver shipped deals of wood to the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii]: I don’t think I know the quantity of wood that was included in a deal, but we will see if someone else does. The Dryad‘s log continues:
Friday 24. Frenchmen at work on shore. At 8 Frenchmen came on board.
Wednesday 29. At 8 discharged frenchmen’s Luggage.
June, Saturday 1. Discharged part of cargo.
June 4. At 3.30 am. Mr. Finlayson & his servant disembarked and embarked on board the Llama with his trunks. At 4 am. the Llama weight & swept out of the bay bound to N.
The Llama may have been sailing North toward Fort Simpson [Nass], or south to Fort Nisqually. Nisqually is likely, as the Captain William Henry McNeill seemed (at times) to make his headquarters at that post.
John Dunn had a lot to say about the building of the fort. This is taken from his book History of Oregon Territory. In his narrative he tells the story of an incident which has only been hinted of in other narratives:
At Millbank Sound, in June, 1833, the company commenced building a fort, and were assisted by the crews of the vessels Dryad and Lama, the former commanded by Captain Kipling, the latter by Captain McNeil. The land department was superintended by Mr. Donald Manson, assisted by a Mr. Anderson and myself; Mr. Anderson superintending the men. I had charge of the Indian Department; and with a complement of between forty and fifty Canadians and Scotchmen set actively to work. The point pitched upon was a bay about twenty miles up the sound, in latitude 52 degrees 6′. When the men first went on shore it was like entering an impenetrable forest. They had not been there long before the trees began to fall, and in a few days a large open space showed itself. A place was soon cleared for tents to be pitched; and in the course of a month or two sufficient ground was cleared for the erection of the pickets, or posts, which are eighteen feet high, placed close together, for the enclosure of the fort. These answer instead of brickwork. As soon as the enclosure was finished, we despatched the brig Dryad to the southward, the Lama having previously left.
During the Dryad‘s stay with us, our men nearly came to battle with the Indians. One of the sailors cutting wood, on shore, had his axe stolen; and to obtain it, another of the men took a blanket from an Indian. This exasperated the natives; and they gave their signal. The Indians then began to muster from all quarters, furnished with fire-arms, knives, and axes; some of them taking position amongst the trees — others on the beach. Our land party being exposed to them, Mr. Manson thought it prudent to come to a parley; and hostilities ceased.
This is a good place to pause this story. I accidentally published this story a little early this morning, and then removed it again: that must have confused a few of you. My apologies. It must be my eyesight!
When the next post in this series is published it will appear here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/fort-mcloughlin-2/
Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021. All rights reserved.
- The Mountain Portage, continued.
- Paul Kane’s “Big Hill”