Fort Taku


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.

Fort Durham, also called Fort Taku, was built by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1840, on what is called Taku Harbour, in Juneau, Alaska. It only stood for three years, but there was lots of history there.

Here is how I got started on this post: Sometimes when you are in the middle of writing a book, a statement comes up which says something like this: “The Chilkats were not seen for the rest of the summer. Later, in October, the fort had 8 First Nations visitors from the coast, men who were not Chilkats. From them Campbell learned that the Chilkats “have not been well received at the coast & that is the reason they have not come in.” WHAT HAPPENED HERE?

That is actually in my unfinished manuscript, and I still have to find the answer. I thought it would be because of Fort Taku, but of course the years are wrong — I was interested in summer 1851, and Fort Taku was closed in 1843. So, this fort is not the answer. Still, I was always going to write about Fort Taku, and I have a fair bit of information. Perhaps now is as good a time as any.

Here is what Bruce McIntyre Watson, author of Lives Lived West of the Divide, has to say of Fort Taku: 

Thought to be convenient at the time for trade with the Indians of Taku, Chilcat and Cross Sound, as well as access to the interior, the site, at the head of Taku Harbour, several miles distance from the mouth of the Taku River, was a poor choice for several reasons… The post was constructed in 1840 by James Douglas with pickets and bastions up and finished by August…It was a modest affair, having stockades of about 150 sq. feet with a stream running conveniently through it, and was operated by approximately eighteen personnel. 

Roderick Finlayson, who helped to build the post, arrived with James Douglas and John Kennedy, who was actually in charge of Fort Durham/Taku. By the time the fort was secure and Douglas sailed away for Fort Vancouver, it was October. In later years, Finlayson remembered that the post was “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 wild turbulent race so that we only allowed a few of them at a time to enter the fort gate for trade.”

Finlayson also describes how Fort Taku was constructed; 

A stockade or palisade is composed of cedar logs which are planted in the ground 4 feet — 18 feet above ground; constructed with a gallery running all around inside. The logs stood 4 feet apart [and] were joined with stringers. This was effective in keeping hostile Indians out. These stockades were protected by bastions constructed of heavy logs, loopholed for musketry and guarded against the natives by watchmen. The bastion was a round or octagonal tower placed at the corner of the stockade. 

The actual dimensions of the post were not 150 yards square, as stated in some records — the stockade was 150 feet in length on each side. When the fort was constructed, there were no First Nations people living on Taku Harbour. According to Finlayson, in the summer of 1841 some were beginning to settle near the fort. 

From the book, A History of Fort Durham, Hudson’s Bay Company Trading Post located in Taku Harbour, 1840-1843, by Heritage Research, Juneau, Alaska, 1994, we have this description of how the HBC men found the location for the new fort:

A friendly Indian approached the ships in his canoe. The leader of the expedition, James Douglas, invited him on board the Beaver and for convenience sake, gave him the name “Locality.” After explaining their plans to the Indian, as best they could, “Locality” indicated that to the south there was a sheltered harbour. The ships weighed anchor and Locality guided them into what is today Taku Harbour. The ships anchored again and lightered their supplies and equipment to the eastern shore. And so began Fort Durham, named in honor of the Earl of Durham, who at the time was the Governor General of Canada. However, in many reports the fort is called simply “Fort Taku,” and spelled in a variety of ways including Tacu, Tacou, Taco and Tacow.

You might be interested in finding the above-mentioned book, as it has James Douglas’s journal of the building of Fort Taku in it. This is not the post journal, however, which I thought I would find in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives. But it is not there!!! I was so looking forward to reading it, but I guess I will not be able to do so. 

Roderick Finlayson tells the story of the shooting of the slaves, which we all know took place at Fort Taku, apparently before Thomas Lowe reached the place. This is what Finlayson says:

A large number [of Taku Indians] encamped close to our Stockades and after they had traded all their furs with us, they had a grand feast and there being several tribes, each vying with the other who would make the greatest display — Our principal chief stood up, made a speech to the others about his greatness, the number of his slaves, and the quantity he had of other property, and by way of bravado took a pistol and shot one of the slaves on the spot. Another chief followed and shot one on his side, and this awful spectacle was carried on for some time until about ten of the poor creatures were shot and their bodies left on the surface of the ground, as it was considered a degradation on the part of a free born Indian to touch a slave after he was killed. The next day I went outside our Stockade with ten men well armed, and with shovels to bury the bodies of these poor creatures, thus wantonly shot by these fiends in human shape. A crowd came around me and expressed the utmost surprise, that we took such notice of dead slaves — watched the care we took in burying them and placing their mangled bodies in coffins we had prepared for the purpose. I then explained to them, by an interpreter…that there was a God in heaven above, who would punish such evil deeds, and that some evil would yet overtake the chiefs who committed such a wicked deed. But they apparently paid but little heed to my sayings…

Thomas Lowe arrived at Sitka with Governor Simpson on April 16, 1842, coming in from the Sandwich Islands. From another source, James Raffan’s Emperor of the North, I learn that Simpson’s ship was not ready to take him on to Russia, and so he sailed down to inspect Fort Durham and Fort Stikine. “At Fort Durham, all was as expected.” From Debra Komar’s book, The Bastard of Fort Stikine, I see that Governor Simpson was at Fort Stikine on April 25, when he heard of John McLoughlin Jr.’s death. Thomas Lowe would have arrived at Fort Taku about April 23, 1842.   

Thomas Lowe said that “At Fort Durham, during the 3 years of its existence,  John Frederick Kennedy was in charge, having as his assistants, successively, Roderick Finlayson, John O’Brien, and myself, with a garrison of about 25 men.”

In his later years when he was retired in Scotland, Lowe received letters from Captain John T. Walbran, who was writing a history of place names in British Columbia. One of the place names he needed to know more about was Lowe Inlet, which was named for Thomas Lowe. But he also wanted information on Fort Taku, and Lowe was happy to tell his stories. He was, after all, the youngest man at the post, and at this late date likely the only survivor of that time. As Lowe said, “in 1842/43 I was stationed at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s post at Fort Durham on the N.W. Coast…near the mouth of the Taku River.” His letter continues: 

The natives at that time were a numerous and rather dangerous lot, and it was found after a few years trial that it did not pay to keep up such a strong force of men as was necessary to safeguard the Fort. Dr. John Kennedy was in command, and while I was there we were besieged by these rascals for a period of six weeks, and only released by the opportune arrival of an armed Steamer from Sitka. During the siege they frequently attempted to burn us out. Knowing that the houses inside the stockade were covered with sheets of cedar bark, a very flammable material in dry weather, they would muster on the windward side of the Fort during a gale and toss up lighted pieces of bark so as to land on the roofs and set them on fire.

Apparently the Taku men threw the brands or torches from the level ground on the weather side of the Fort, and not from the hillside. Of course they hoped the wind would carry the brands over the palisades, and it did. But in another document Lowe says that “Fortunately for us these gales were almost invariably accompanied by heavy rain, so that the danger of ignition [of the roofs] was not so very great after all.” Nevertheless: 

We had therefore to be on the alert against their machinations, both by day & night. A chief named Analtass [?] took a very active part in these proceedings. He was a great orator, and was continually haranguing his own people and inciting them to hostilities. The Medicine men also kept constantly beating their drums, firing their guns, whooping & yelling, and going through all sorts of antics.

Interestingly enough, it was the Taku First Nations who were troublesome. The Tlingit Chilcats [Chilkats], as well as the First Nations from Cross Sound [also Tlingits, I believe], came to the Fort; “but they, being strangers, were quiet and easily dealt with.”

According to Lowe, who quoted from Governor Simpson’s book A Journey Round the World, Fort Taku was situated “in a snug little bay with a shingly beach and a considerable space of level ground before reaching the rather steep hillside behind. Looking out across the broad channel which separated it from what, I suppose, was Admiralty Island, there was on the left bank, somewhat to the rear, in full view, a very high mountain, and on the right, near the extreme point of the Bay on that side, a very small stream coming from a tiny Lake not very far back. Dr. Kennedy had erected near its mouth a very effective Weir of stakes to capture the trout on their way up; and we used of a night to scoop out hundreds of these speckled beauties. which we opened up and spread out to dry and cure.” He has more to say of that place:

The Fort was enclosed by a stockade, about 20 feet in height, composed of small trees from 8 to 10 inches in diameter set on end and firmly bedded in the ground. Inside of this, running all around and reached by 2 stairways, was a planked Gallery, about breast high below the top of the Stockade. There were 2 projecting Bastions at opposite corners, built of heavy squared timber, with hinged ports for cannon and loopholes for musketry. Each Bastion commanded two separate sides of the Fort, and the upper story, somewhat overlapping the lower, enabled shots to be fired downwards through the outer part of the floor to prevent shelter being taken beneath or too close in. 

As we know, Taku was closed down and the men brought south to Fort Victoria to help build the new post in 1843. Lowe says: “All the doors, window sashes, planed flooring and other articles that might be of service at the new Establishment were taken on board,” and brought down for the new Fort Victoria. There is a little information on the establishment of Fort Victoria in the HBRS book, Fort Victoria Letters, 1846-1851, p. xix: 

The Council of the Northern Department in session at Norway House in June 1842 approved the building of a depot, and at Fort Garry in 1843, decided the establishment should be called Fort Victoria. Two far northern posts, Fort Taku and Fort McLoughlin, were to be dismantled. To undertake both these tasks, James Douglas left Fort Vancouver on March 1, 1843, travelling by the Cowlitz Portage to Fort Nisqually on Puget Sound, and then crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Camosun… He addressed the Songhee [Songhees] Indians, telling them that a trading post would be built; they gave their approval and volunteered to assist with the work…On March 16, 1843, a fine spring morning so warm that the wild gooseberries were in bud, the start was made at cutting the pickets. The stockade…was to enclose an area 300 feet long and 330 feet wide, a size large enough to accommodate eight buildings sixty feet long. The work continued while Douglas went north. On June 1 he returned on the Beaver, bringing three officers from Fort McLoughlin and Fort Taku, as well as Roderick Finlayson, from Fort Simpson. By October, with the help of fifty men from the dismantled northern posts and others sent from Fort Vancouver, the palisade with an octagonal bastion was completed.

Thomas Lowe, however, left Fort Victoria with James Douglas after about a week, and arrived at Fort Vancouver on June 15, 1843. This blogpost will eventually join the Thomas Lowe thread when his ship reaches Fort Taku, and it will carry on from there. When it does reach this place, you will find the beginning of the thread here:

And the thread that follows will talk of Thomas Lowe’s time at Fort Vancouver: 😉

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “Fort Taku

  1. Rob Fox

    Thanks. as always, Nancy. Sorting out these northern coastal outposts and related events further south is challenging for some of us. This was helpful and most interesting.

  2. Reidun

    I love your curiosity about small unexplained passages in books! I also have that same curiosity, but currently don’t have the time in my life to devote to finding the answers (raising seven young kids). Keep these posts coming, really enjoy them!