I wonder how many people today know that Fort Victoria was built, in part, by a group of five murderers from Fort Stikine?
Let me tell you the story. There was a lot happening about this time and many stories intertwine and become quite confusing. The story begins with Governor Simpson’s journey to the Pacific coast in 1841-1842. Chief Factor Dr. John McLoughlin was in charge at Fort Vancouver, and it was he who, over the past fifteen years, had built a series of posts up and down the Pacific Coast in order to compete with the American ships that traded up and down the coast. Fort Simpson was built in 1831 at the mouth of the Nass River, and relocated in 1833 some distance up its estuary. Fort McLoughlin was constructed in 1834 on Campbell Island, in Millbanke Sound, near the modern-day First Nations village of Bella Bella.
As early as 1833, Chief Factor McLoughlin had attempted to build a fort at the mouth of the Stikine River, in Russian territory. The project had failed and the HBC men were driven away, but in June 1840, the Russian Fort Stikine was handed to the HBC in a deal made with the Russian fur traders on the coast. And in 1840 Fort Taku (Fort Durham) was built in Russian territory, halfway between the mouths of two rivers — the Sitka and the Taku — in a place where they could trade with the First Nations people who lived in Lynn Canal and Cross Sound.
At the time of Governor Simpson’s expected arrival at Fort Vancouver, the steamship Beaver was in very bad condition and had broken down several times on journeys up and down the coast. McLoughlin loathed the little steamship and wanted it converted into a sailing vessel. No decision on this had been made, of course, as Governor Simpson was coming to the Pacific Coast on his infamous journey around the world. Since Simpson’s last visit in 1829, McLoughlin had enjoyed a free hand in his territory. He did not expect that anything would change.
Simpson arrived at Fort Vancouver on August 25, 1841. On September 1st he left for the Northwest coast on a tour of inspection of the northern posts. He travelled with James Douglas and Captain William Henry McNeill of the Beaver, but not with Dr. McLoughlin who had chosen to remain behind. The Beaver had been specially patched up for Simpson’s visit, and it is presumed that the little steamship impressed Governor Simpson with its efficiency.
Simpson visited HBC posts as far north as Fort Taku [Durham], and went on to Sitka to compete negotiations with the Russian-American fur traders that had been begun by James Douglas a year earlier. He called twice at Fort Simpson, at Stikine, and at Fort McLoughlin on this journey, and in September he removed Roderick Finlayson from Fort Stikine and placed him at Fort Taku. Simpson returned to Fort Vancouver in October 1841, coming down the coast with glowing reports of how well young John McLoughlin Jr. [Governor McLoughlin’s son] was doing at Fort Stikine.
While he was on the coast, Simpson had had many discussion with the HBC men in charge of the various posts, and he had some ideas on how to run the fur trade on the Northwest coast better than Dr. John McLoughlin was doing. Simpson decided on a complete reorganization of the fur trade on the coast, apparently in agreement with the Russian American fur traders. He was aware that there were no more American ships trading up and down the coast in competition with the company, and he also knew that there was no longer any competition from the Russians, as a result of the deal they had reached.
So changes should be made. Simpson decided to close all the northern posts except Fort Simpson, which would serve as a northern supply depot. His plans included carrying on the trade with the First Nations people with the help of the steamer Beaver, which would travel up and down the coast about eight times a year, trading with the First Nations at all their trading spots and transporting the furs down to Fort Nisqually, or even better, to the new trading post he was having built on the coast, on the southern portion of Vancouver’s Island.
On his return to Fort Vancouver Simpson told Chief Factor John McLoughlin his plans.
McLoughlin was furious! Instead of the Beaver disappearing as he wished, it was becoming even more important. He called the little ship a travelling circus. But that was not the only change he objected to: all the posts he had proudly built over the last fifteen years were going to be dismantled and abandoned, and the work he had done in establishing them would be cancelled. McLoughlin also felt that all of these decisions had been made behind his back: that Governor Simpson had come west with the idea of closing these posts but had kept those plans secret from him. Simpson argued that he had not done that, but that he had made these decisions while on the northwest coast.
McLoughlin was also angry that many of his men at the northern posts knew of Simpson’s decisions before he did: and, of course, they did. But McLoughlin himself had made the decision to not accompany Simpson on this journey, so obviously he could have had no idea what had been discussed in the various conferences that Simpson had called for. At these many conferences, Simpson had discussed his plans for closing the posts, and the gentlemen had apparently agreed with his reasoning. Douglas said later, however, that some of the gentlemen had changed their minds after Simpson’s departure, and it is probable that they did not have the courage to oppose Simpson’s plans when he laid them out.
In November 1841, Simpson presented his plans to the Governor and Committee in a long report he wrote from Fort Vancouver, wherein he said that the Company could not make a profit on the coast with the presence of so many expensive northern posts. He felt that the Beaver could be constantly kept busy on the coast, making up to eight trips a year and up and the coast to the various trading spots that the First Nations people had already established. Even if the steamer was broken or lost, this work could be done, temporarily, by one of the sailing ships that the HBC had on the coast. Simpson also stated that even though running the Beaver might be expensive, as McLoughlin argued, it was a fixed cost, and would not change no matter how many furs the Beaver picked up in its journeys up and down the coast.
McLoughlin opposed the abandonment of the posts on the northwest coast. Simpson thought he would become reconciled to the idea, accepting the changes that Simpson demanded. Instead, McLoughlin’s anger and hostility grew. James Douglas pointed out to Simpson that McLoughlin’s feelings were “perfectly natural and pretty much the same as would be excited in the mind of any other person in such circumstances: the slashing paragraphs of your report, denouncing abuses on shore and afloat gave him inexpressible pain, as they were so many indirect attacks on his management… In some points of that sort, your remarks were rather severe.”
Simpson was never a kind man, and he further inflamed McLoughlin’s anger with a renewal of the long-standing argument about building a new headquarters on Vancouver’s Island, which Simpson hoped would eventually replace Fort Vancouver. McLoughlin had basically built Fort Vancouver from the ground up, and had no intention at all of giving up on the place. Simpson worried about the proximity of the Columbia River post to the new American settlements in the Willamette Valley, and he thought they (the Americans) might plunder the post of its large stock of supplies and goods. This worry was not far-fetched: only a few years later, the Americans came close to doing exactly that! Simpson thought that a post on the southern end of Vancouver’s Island would be safe from the Americans, and it would also support the HBC’s claim to the island, should the location of the boundary line between American and British territories ever be decided on.
Governor Simpson left Fort Vancouver for Yerba Buena, the new HBC post in Mexican Territory [San Francisco, California] very recently established by McLoughlin. (Simpson would close it down in 1849). Before he left Fort Vancouver, he arranged that Chief Factor McLoughlin would meet him in the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii], where they would continue their conference, as Simpson did not plan to return to Fort Vancouver.
McLoughlin reached the Sandwich Islands at the latter end of February 1842, where he and Simpson had a long conference, with both personal meetings that were supported by letters, as often happened in the HBC. On March 1st, 1842, McLoughlin received direct orders from Simpson to close down Forts Taku, McLoughlin, and Stikine in 1843, and to build a new post on the southern end of Vancouver’s Island. Simpson and McLoughlin then parted ways, never to meet again.
At about the same time this conference was happening, the London ship, Vancouver. on which Thomas Lowe was travelling, arrived at the Sandwich Islands. Lowe was seconded by Simpson as his temporary secretary and journeyed with him on the Cowlitz, on his way to the northwest posts where he would be placed at Fort Taku. Whether Lowe was present when the Governor arrived at Fort Stikine in April 1842, I do not know. I think he was not. But here’s what happened:
Before heading north to Sitka, Simpson decided to pay another visit to the Stikine Post. The Cowlitz, in which he was travelling, approached Fort Stikine on the evening of April 25, 1842. On his arrival there, Simpson suspected that something was terribly wrong:
My mind was filled with apprehension that all was not right, by observing that both the England and Russian Flags on the Fort were half-mast high, and that Mr. John McLoughlin [Jr.], the Gentleman left in charge, did not appear on the platform; the stillness that prevailed on shore — one man only belonging to the Establishment having made his appearance at the gate, evidently showing that there was a mournful tale to relate, and on landing, I was more shocked than words can describe to learn that Mr. McLoughlin was no more, having fallen on the night of the 20/21 Instant in a drunken fray, by the hand of one of his own men.
Well, I will have to stop here and make you wait for the remainder of the story. When it is published, it will appear here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/fort-victoria-murderers-2/
Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021. All rights reserved.
- The Back River
- Fort Victoria Murderers 2