Fort St. James

A section of a Larry Hunter mural in Summerland, B.C., showing the Brigades.

This is a section of a Larry Hunter mural in downtown Summerland, which shows the Brigades that started their journey at Fort St. James, now passing Okanagan Lake.

My book, The HBC Brigades: Culture, Conflict, and Perilous Journeys of the Fur Trade, will be published by Ronsdale Press in June 2024. You can order this book through your local bookstore, or via Amazon. Thank you!

Fort St. James was the centre of the fur trade in north-central British Columbia, and played an important role in HBC’s exploration history. It was also where the HBC Brigades from New Caledonia began, so let’s learn a little more about the history of Fort St. James. To give you the information I have, I am re-reading Jamie Morton’s manuscript, “A Century of Fur Trade on Stuart Lake,” which is found here: I have told you about the Parks Canada History site before now, and a lot more has been added to it — you should check it out.

Fort St. James’s history began with the North West Company under Simon Fraser and his clerk, John Stuart, who arrived via the Peace River and the Parsnip. Here is what Jamie Morton writes on that:

“In 1805… Simon Fraser, a partner in the North West Company, at the meeting of the proprietors that summer, was apparently assigned the task of extending the trade of the Company to the other side of the Rockies. In the fall of the year Fraser, with clerks John Stuart and James McDougall, and about 20 men, established a post at Rocky Mountain Portage, at the foot of the Peace River Canyon. Stuart was left in charge of this post, and Fraser, with McDougall and the interpreter “La Malice” [Jean Baptiste Boucher, or “Waccan”] retraced [Alexander] Mackenzie’s route up the Peace River, following the Parsnip River at Finlay Forks. Entering the Pack River from the Parsnip took the party to Trout Lake, later known as McLeod Lake. They received a positive reception from the Sikani Indians they found there, so a post was established. It was left under the charge of Boucher and 2 men. Fraser and McDougall returned down the Peace River, eventually to winter at Dunvegan on the other side of the mountains in Athabasca Department, where they met with Archibald Norman McLeod, a senior party in the Company.”

In spring, 1806, clerk James McDougall explored the territory to the west, an expedition that included Stuart Lake. While Fraser visited McLeod Lake, a number of Dakelh First Nations from Stuart Lake arrived to trade: the NWC men called them Carriers. The Dakelh’s good reports encouraged the NWC men to visit the lake, and on June 23, Fraser and Stuart set out from McLeod Lake, taking “a circuitous route to the southeast. They followed the Parsnip River to the height of land, and eventually crossed over to the McGregor River, a tributary of the Fraser. They descended the Fraser (which was believed to be the upper Columbia) to the mouth of the Nechako River, and followed it in turn to the mouth of the Stuart River, finally arriving at Stuart Lake on July 26, 1806. This circuitous water route was chosen rather than the much quicker overland route used by McDougall in order to fulfil the part of Fraser’s charge that involved exploration of the upper Columbia (actually Fraser).”

When Stuart arrived at Stuart’s Lake, he found the First Nations apparently “starving,” and received the news that there were few beaver along the lake-shore, but many in lakes and streams some distance away. “We are now busy building [the post later named Fort St. James], and as soon as the salmon comes up and we can collect a few, which I suppose will be between the 20th and 25th of this month, I propose to continue my route down to the borders of the Atnah [Secwepemc] tribe’s Lands.” Because of lack of provisions at Fort St. James, this expedition was delayed, and instead he sent Stuart, Boucher, and another man, to explore Nat-leh, or Fraser’s Lake to the west. Stuart’s report on that lake was so positive that Fraser decided to build another post there. Fraser sent five men on to Fraser’s Lake, and remained at Stuart’s Lake with one man only. 

The supplies of trade goods from the east finally arrived, but so late in the fall [1806] that the arrival severely reduced the fur traders’ profits. In the fall of 1807, two clerks arrived in the district with the outfit from the east, and a new post, Fort George [Prince George], was established on the Nechako River, where it flowed into the Fraser. “Hugh Faries, one of the new clerks, was assigned the charge of this post, while Jules Quesnel, the other newcomer, was to accompany Fraser and Stuart on their exploration of the Fraser River the following spring,” Morton writes. “Fraser, Stuart, and Quesnel, accompanied by 10 N.W.C. men and 2 Indians, set out from Fort George on their exploration of what they believed to be the Columbia River on May 28, 1808. The expedition proved that this river was not the Columbia, as it fell into the Pacific some three degrees north of where the mouth of that river was known to be.”

Fraser arrived back at Fort George on August 6, 1808, and proceeded directly to his Rocky Mountain Portage post on Peace River, where he wintered. Daniel Harmon met Fraser and McDougall at Dunvegan House, on the Peace, as they were making their way to the east and Fort William [Thunder Bay]. Fraser took a year’s furlough [July 1809-June 1810?] and when he returned he managed the Mackenzie’s River district. “The management of New Caledonia seems to have devolved onto John Stuart, whom [Daniel] Harmon entertained at Dunvegan two months after Fraser had passed through. This party had come to get goods for New Caledonia, and returned directly to the west.” 

In July 1811 John Stuart was admitted as a partner in the North West Company and assigned to the Athabasca District. [The Peace River posts were part of the Athabasca District, and so that is where he might have been]. Daniel Harmon had been moved from the Peace and had taken over Stuart’s job in New Caledonia. In July 1812, Stuart was appointed to the charge of New Caledonia once again, “and instructed to coordinate his “Plans & Operations” with the managers of the Columbia Department.” He was based at Stuart’s Lake at this time, and spent the entirety of 1815 there, and the spring of 1816. When Stuart left New Caledonia in spring 1816, Daniel Harmon took over his position as man in charge of the New Caledonia District. 

In October 1817, the Fraser’s Lake post was consumed by fire. “Fort George, established in 1807 as a base for Fraser’s exploration, had been abandoned after 1808, but was re-established in October 1820, a week after the outfit (now shipped from the Columbia) had arrived at Stuart Lake.” The salmon run failed in summer 1820, which forced the NWC men to trade goods for provisions. Measles and dysentery also ravaged the New Caledonia posts, and Hugh Faries, who was then in charge of the district, had a terrible year and left the New Caledonia District a disappointed man.

Shortage of provisions and trade goods remained a problem over the years that followed, and in 1822, Stuart said that the post of Fort George [Prince George] had finally been re-established in June 1821. John Stuart returned to the New Caledonia district from the Columbia District and resumed responsibility for the district when Fairies left. “Under Stuart’s leadership the summer brigade of 1821 again went to the Columbia to pick up the next year’s outfit.”

Now, here are the questions I have: how does Jamie Morton’s information on Fort St. James and the Brigades fit in with the information given in Lloyd Keith and John C. Jackson’s The Fur Trade Gamble: North West Company on the Pacific Slope, 1800-1820 [Pullman, WSU press, 2016]. Lloyd and Keith talk about the NWC brigades to New Caledonia being provisioning brigades only, while Morton says that the trade goods also came in by the London ships that visited Fort George [Astoria] every summer (or most summers, at least). To do that, we will go to this post and see what it has to say: 

In 1809-1810, Simon Fraser took his furlough, and John Stuart delivered the Fort St. James furs to Fort William and was then posted on the east side of the Rocky Mountains in 1811. Both groups of men agree on this point. 

Next question: Stuart returned to the New Caledonia district in 1812, and, yes, Jamie Morton agrees with Lloyd and Keith.

1813: According to Lloyd and Keith, John Stuart took the first Brigade out to Fort George [Astoria], leaving Fort St. James on May 13, 1813. Keith and Lloyd also say that the furs went out to Thunder Bay by the old Peace River route. Jamie Morton does not mention to outgoing brigade in 1813 until we reach the Transportation section of his manuscript, where he says: 

Stuart departed Stuart Lake on his voyage to the sea on May 13, 1813, as described by Daniel Harmon: “In the early part of the day, Mr. J. Stuart, accompanied by six Canadians and two of the Natives, embarked on board of two canoes, taking wth him a small assortment of goods, as a kind of pocket money, and provisions sufficient for a month and a half. They are going to join Mr. . G. McTavish and his company, at some place on the Columbia River, and to proceed with them to the ocean. Should Mr. Stuart be so successful as to discover a water communication between this and the Columbia, we shall, for the future, obtain our yearly supply of goods by that route, and send our returns out that way, to be shipped directly for China, in vessels which the company, in that case, design to build on the North West coast.

They two men did not take the furs out, and so means it was another provisioning brigade, not a brigade as we know it today — a brigade of men and pack-horses that carries out and delivers the furs to the London ships at Fort George [Astoria], or later, Fort Vancouver, returning with the trade goods for the next years’ business. 

1820: Keith and Lloyd say that no brigade left New Caledonia in 1814, and the next outgoing brigade was in 1820, when Hugh Fairies and George McDougall took out the provisioning brigade from Fort St. James to the Columbia River and Fort George [Astoria]. I hadn’t until now realized that George McDougall was part of that brigade, and I am happy to see him there (he being a favourite of mine as he is such an important and interesting character in my book, The York Factory Express). Jamie Morton is the man who mentions George McDougall, as he wrote in the Fort St. James journal that “Mr. Faries & my Brother arrived from the Columbia.”  

So, it seems, I do not have to worry about any conflict of dates between the two reports written by Lloyd and Keith, and Jamie Morton.

This post covers the North West Company men at Fort St. James. The next post in this series will begin in 1821, when the Hudson’s Bay Company has merged with the NWC and the brigades are begun again, for a short while anyway. But it isn’t until 1826 that the New Caledonia brigades will be the brigades that we can identify as such: that is, men and packhorses. 

When the next post in this series is written, it will appear here:  (note that historians is spelled incorrectly here)

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2023. All rights reserved.