Fort Simpson

Walter Birnie Anderson's painting

This painting was done by Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s son, Walter Birnie Anderson, who was a member of the B.C. Police in the Comox area. It is quite possible it was painted at Port Simpson (Fort Simpson), where he lived for a while. I think while he was there he was Inspector of Indian Orchards.

Fort Simpson, on the Northwest Coast, was built by Peter Skene Ogden and his men after the Russian fur traders had turned them away from the mouth of the Stikine River, where they had attempted to build a new post. When I write about this dangerous adventure, it will appear here: But this post will concentrate on the short time when Alexander Caulfield Anderson, my great-grandfather, was with Peter Skene Ogden and others at McLoughlin Bay, where the new Fort Simpson was being built.

The first Fort Simpson, originally called Fort Nass, had been constructed in 1831 near the mouth of the Nass River, at a place on tidewater now named Graveyard Point and previously known as Fort Point. To the Nisga’a First Nations who lived there, it was Suskanimilks. [Marius Barbeau, “Old Port Simpson,” Beaver Magazine, September 1940.]

The old Fort was positioned at the end of a Grease trail that led into the interior from the coast, and it was also close to the Nisga’a fisheries. But it was an unfriendly location for a fur trade post: the Nisga’a who lived around the fort had on a number of occasions besieged it, putting its safety at risk. Its surroundings were rocky and there was little to no fresh water; it also had a bad harbour that was exposed to the strong cold winds that swept down the Nass River for nine months of every year. And when the winds blew the air was cold and the waters dangerous, preventing the Nisga’a and other First Nations people from travelling to trade. All in all, it was a bad location for a fur trade post. 

Peter Skene Ogden was one of the men who had built the original Fort Nass (now named Fort Simpson, for Lieutenant Aemillus Simpson who died and was buried at the post.) Those of you who have read my book, The York Factory Express, will realize that Lieutenant Aemilius Simpson was one of the men whose journal is in the book — he arrived on the coast in November 1826. This is part of what I have to say of Simpson:

In the second half of this book, we will also hear from Aemilius Simpson, who was not the leader of the York Factory Express but a passenger in it. His cousin and childhood friend, George Simpson, governor of the Company, had strongly encouraged the London Committee of the HBC to employ this man as a combined surveyor, hydrographer, and ship captain in the Columbia District. [page 145]

Aemilius Simpson “did not survive for many years after he arrived at Fort Vancouver. He captained the ships that helped build the lower Fraser River post of Fort Langley in 1827 and the first Northwest Coast post, Fort Simpson, in spring 1831. On that voyage he sickened and died of liver disease, and his body was buried outside the gates of the post.” [The York Factory Express, p. 249].

It was now 1834, and Ogden was willing enough to admit the original Fort Simpson was in a bad location, Now that he and his team-members had been chased away from the mouth of the Stikine River, where they had hoped to build a post up the River, he had a ship filled with building material and trade goods. Ogden decided he would find a better location for a fur trading fort, and remove the three-year-old Fort Simpson to the new location. As Anderson himself wrote, in his “History of the Northwest Coast,”

The original intention with regard to the Stikine River having been frustrated, the same party, commanded by Governor Ogden, and accompanied by Mr. Anderson, determined upon removing Fort Simpson from its position at the mouth of the Nass River to a more eligible position which it now occupies, some 40 miles lower down and outside of the entrance of Portland Channel. This object was effected during the summer.

None of the HBC gentlemen aboard the Dryad foresaw that removing the old fort at Nass might be almost as dangerous as attempting to found a new post on the Stikine River. But I am getting ahead of myself here, this will appear somewhere a few blogposts down the road, and it will not be Alexander Anderson who tells the story, but his good friend, Dr. William Fraser Tolmie, who is also here. We previously met Dr. Tolmie in the Fort McLoughlin series of posts: here he is again!

The Dryad sailed into McLoughin’s Harbour on Saturday, July 13, at 5 pm, according to its log, and dropped anchor. (McLoughlin’s Harbour is not where Fort McLoughlin was built in 1833, but it is a bay or anchorage at the mouth of the long and narrow Nass Estuary (Portland Channel), named by the Company’s mariners for Chief Factor John McLoughlin.) There is some disagreement on dates in the records for this post. According to Dr. Tolmie’s journal, they had “anchored here on Saturday the 12th Instant, at 5 pm.” Tolmie’s description of McLoughlin’s Harbour continues:

It is properly speaking a bay, about 5 miles in breadth from Point to Point and is situated a short distance to the S’ward of Point Maskelyne. Before anchoring, [James] Birnie and [Alexander] Anderson set off in a boat to explore and soon after [Captain Alexander] Duncan and myself on the same errand. We found a good spot for building at the southern extremity of bay but destitute of suitable timber. Reported accordingly. Birnie and Anderson were not so fortunate. 

Ogden had long thought that this bay would be a good place to build the new fort, and it proved relatively easy to find what appeared to be a perfect spot on Sunday, July 13. But, according to Dr. Tolmie’s journal:

Next morning before breakfast Ogden and Duncan examined the spot [at the Southern end of the Bay] and the former was well satisfied, but wishing to be nearer Point Maskelyne for the convenience of the Kygarnie and Tumgass Indians [who lived immediately across the water to the northward], Birnie & Anderson were dispatched in that direction. In the afternoon they returned, having met with no favourable spot. Duncan and I proceeded to the S.E. part of bay where there is a good sized burn, larger than the Millbanke one [at Fort McLoughlin]. Followed its course for some distance upwards — its banks are level and all around there is an abundance of tall pines, no scarcity of picket wood. On making this known all desiderata being provided for, it was determined that the spot visited on Sunday evening should be selected, as more advantageous for the shipping and better situated for an extensive prospect, etc., then that seen on Sunday.

The Dr. Tolmie quotes and descriptions come from the book Physician and Fur Trader: The Journals of William Fraser Tolmie, edited by Janet R. Mitchell [Vancouver: Mitchell Press, 1963]. A good read, by the way.

As perfect as this latter spot might have been, Ogden chose one of the sites that had been explored on Saturday: the site that Captain Duncan and Tolmie had found, and that Ogden and Duncan examined on Sunday morning. “On Monday morning,” Tolmie reported, “Anderson and I landed with the men and commenced a war of extermination against the “leafy denizens of the forest.”” The Dryad‘s ship log [C.1/281, HBCA] records that on July 14, “Mr. Ogden and the gentlemen went on shore & found a suitable [spot] for building a fort and dispatched Mr. [William] Heath & 4 [Sandwich] Islanders and Fanning with the gig to Nass with a letter.” The letter contained instructions for Donald Manson, the man in charge of old Fort Simpson, to begin the work of packing up the fort for its removal. You will remember that we met Donald Manson at Fort McLoughlin: in 1834 he is at old Fort Simpson.

Tolmie’s journal continues with the stories of how the men chopped down the trees to build their fort.

A barricade of fallen trees was formed, within which we all encamped in the evening — the men in huts formed of branches and we in tents. It was a lovely evening and I think a landscape painter would have found a good subject for his brush in our encampment “under the greenwood tree.” The ample bay with its woody islets and rocks and the surrounding peaked and snow dappled mountains — the felled trees — grass and herbs had then the freshness and verdure of life.

One of the gentlemen, likely James Birnie, as senior clerk, started the Fort Simpson post journal [B.201/a/3, HBCA]. It is recorded in this journal that the HBC men began work on the replacement fort on Monday, July 14, 1834, “at 4 pm Commenced clearing and forming an encampment — debarked the baggage &c and all the people slept on shore. Fine weather.” According to the Fort Simpson journal, there were 39 Canadiens and other servants, and 14 Sandwich Islanders [Hawaiians].

On Tuesday the men received the provisions and some trading goods and erected a temporary store-house with oil cloths. “On Tuesday,” Tolmie says, “I entered an office of Indian Trader and procured a vocabulary of the language of this tribe — the Chimmesyan [Tsms’yen First Nations]. Have since been busily employed in that way.

And so new Fort Simpson began its business of trading for furs from the surrounding First Nations people. This series will continue, and when the next post is written, it will appear here:  

So, if you want to order my book, The York Factory Express, either talk to me and I will send you a signed copy (I have Pay Pal), or talk to the publisher at: In this book you will learn more about Aemilius Simpson (a very interesting man), and about Dr. William Fraser Tolmie and others. And there are lots of little stories you will be able to read in this book, too — history that you didn’t know!

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


2 thoughts on “Fort Simpson

  1. Ken Favrholdt

    The story of Fort Simpson is an interesting one. I spent a couple of years in the 1970s as a teacher at Kincolith (now Gingolx) and had the opportunity to explore the Nass River. I went to Fort Point and investigated the remains at the site (depressions and trenches and what appeared to be the wood foundations of buildings). But the site does not fit Captain Simpson’s report in McLoughlin’s Fort Vancouver Letters (Barker, ed., 1948: 309). Simpson suggested an extensive site with soil good enough for growing vegetables which may be farther up the Nass River but too removed for trading vessels.

    Tolmie’s description in his journals (published 1963: 282-283) suggests a location on Nass Bay accessible to ships although hampered by tides and winds, and lacking water and too rocky for gardening, which eventually forced the relocation to the Tsimshean Peninsula. My superficial (above-ground, non-intrusive investigation of the Nass site) made me lean to Fort Point as the short-lived location of the HBC post.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Here is what Marius Barbeau had to say of Old Fort Simpson, in his article published in Beaver, September 1940. I should probably have put all of this in the article.
      “The early annals of Fort Simpson show how arduous a task its factors — Chief Trader Aemilius Simpson, John Work and Peter Skene Ogden — had taken upon themselves. The establishment was many times besieged by the natives, and its safety was threatened.
      “Originally known as Fort Nass, it was founded in 1831, near the mouth of the Nass River close to Portland Canal, at a place on tidewater now named Graveyard Point, previously known as Fort Point or Cemetery Point, and to the Indians, Suskanmilks. We may wonder why its founders had so unwisely selected this inhospitable shore, which was rocky, almost devoid of fresh water, without a harbour, exposed to the strong winds of the Nass sweeping down the river for nearly three months in the year, where the cold in the winter prevented the Indians from approaching, and made it risky in other seasons for the coast Indians to venture forth in their canoes because of the treacherous disposition of the river natives. Perhaps it was because the point seemed sheltered, was close to the Russian frontier and less than a score of miles from fishery Bay on the Nass where three nations — the Tsimsyan, the Tlinkit and the Haida — gathered in the spring for oolachen (candlefish) fishing and barter. Fishery Bay with its rows of huts extending mies on both shores near the end of tide water, stood at the head of Grease Trails (so called because of the oolachen or candlefish grease, a vital commodity) reaching out fan wise into the interior.”
      Hmmm. He says the wind blew three months a year, but I have other information somewhere that says nine months of the year. I think it is in a Peter Skene Ogden bio that I also have somewhere.