The building of Fort Victoria

Fort Victoria

Fort Victoria in 1846, painted by Henry James Warre, Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

In summer 1843, Fort Victoria was built on Camosun Harbour or Inlet, on the southern end of Vancouver’s Island. Although it was at first sometimes called Fort Albert, that name was never actually given to the fort. Nor was Camosun ever the name given to Fort Victoria: it was the name of the harbour or inlet that the post stood upon.  

We know that James Douglas arrived at the future site of Fort Victoria on March 13, 1843, and he left again sometime on or after March 24. He returned to the location of the future fort in early June, after closing down a number of forts on the northwest coast and bringing their men south to build the new Fort Victoria. So, let’s find out what happened. One of our major sources of information on this time is, of course, Roderick Finlayson, who was at Forts Stikine and Simpson, on the northwest coast, when all these decisions were made. This is what he said:

From Fort Stikine, in the spring of 1842, I was directed to go to Fort Simpson to relieve a clerk there who left on sick leave, and placed in the trade shop there. About this time it was found that the steamer “Beaver,” with a trader on board, could do all the trade carried on at Fort Durham and Stikine, with that at Fort McLoughlin on Millbank Sound, so that it was decided at headquarters [Fort Vancouver], to abandon this place, concentrate the forces there with the supplies and remove them to the south end of Vancouver Island, where a new fort was ordered to be built. I was in consequence removed from Fort Simpson, which I found a comfortable pleasant place, embarked on board the “Beaver,” which with the schooner “Cadboro” had the Stikine and Taco parties on board on the way south. In passing Milbank Sound, Fort McLoughlin was dismantled and its inhabitants taken on board. Mr. Douglas, later Sir James, had command of the whole party…

That’s actually not quite what happened, of course. Fort Durham [Taku] was dismantled and its men and goods were loaded aboard one of the two ships and taken south — as we know from this blogpost: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/fort-durham-closure/ 

Fort Simpson was not closed down, but would become the storehouse for all the goods for the northwest coast. The goods would be delivered to them in the summer when the London Ship came to Fort Victoria, and their furs would be loaded directly aboard the London ship when it arrived in their harbour. There were no longer any posts to deliver goods to: what would happen is that the Beaver, which would be trading up and down the coast, would pick up goods at Fort Simpson and carry them to all the trading points near the closed down forts. Furs that were traded on the northwest coast would then be delivered by the Beaver to Fort Simpson, where they would await their being loaded aboard the London Ship in the summer. So Fort Simpson was the storehouse for the goods to be traded on the coast every summer by the Beaver, which were dropped off in the summer by the London Ship — and the furs that were stored until the next year’s London Ship came to pick them up.  I think it was a pretty efficient system!

Fort McLoughlin was closed down, however, and we have a little information on that event. Charles Ross, the man in charge, wrote to Donald Ross (no relation) of Norway House, and described the dismantling of his post. “I need not dwell further, then to observe that all was managed very quietly. The greater part of the Indians of Millbank [Sound] were absent at their fisheries when the event took place — and thus no doubt we escaped a good deal of annoyance from them.” However, in his report to Governor Simpson he gives further information on the closure of his post:

Shortly after this event [whatever it might have been] poor old Fort McLoughlin was abandoned. In spite of every precaution to the contrary, the Indians soon got it among themselves that this was to happen, and, accordingly collected about us in great numbers. Observing us, however, busy with our ordinary occupations — planting Potatoes, breaking up new ground &c — they began to disperse by degrees, and finally betook themselves to their fisheries, so that when the Steamer returned from the North few remained except the families of the absent men. Thus we got off with the utmost possible harmony. 

Fort Stikine was not closed down immediately, however, although closure was definitely in its future. We all know what happened here, I believe: Thomas Lowe recorded that in 1842, John McLoughlin Jr. was killed at Fort Stikine, in a “wild disturbance in the garrison,” and Governor Simpson, who arrived just in time to save the fort, put Charles Dodd, chief mate of the Cowlitz, “in charge of the fort, giving him as assistant Mr. George Blenkinsop, a well educated young man then serving as an ordinary seaman on the Cowlitz.” In February 1844, Dodd wrote to his brother of his experience at that place. According to this letter, he took charge “of a parcel of murderers in a fort surrounded by Indians who would murder us all, if they had the opportunity, for the value of the buttons upon our jackets…” The murderers inside the fort? This, too, is part of Fort Victoria’s story. See this post and the one that follows: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/fort-victoria-murderers/ 

Thomas Lowe, who was at Fort Durham [Taku] when it was closed, had a bit to say of the event and of the journey south to Fort Victoria: “The 20 men of this Post, and 20 more from Fort McLoughlin, which was also then given up, were brought South to found a new establishment on Vancouver Island. We arrived on Victoria harbour with the Steamer Beaver and Schooner Cadboro on 3rd June 1843… I was the youngest of that party.” In another document Lowe writes more about the sailing journey south to Fort Victoria: 

The late Sir James Douglas, then Chief Factor, had been instructed to build a new Fort on the Southern end of Vancouver Island, and had selected Camosun as the most suitable. He accordingly embarked the men from the two abandoned Posts, with their families and effects, on the Steamer Beaver and Schooner Cadboro. After a tedious passage down the Coast and a good deal of trouble and some danger in getting through Johnston’s Straits, the Expedition finally came to anchor in Victoria Harbour on the 3rd of June, 1843.  

It is not a simple, straight-forward history, is it? Anyway, Roderick Finlayson’s story continues here: 

We proceeded south and reached Victoria Harbour (selected in the spring as the fort site), landed there on the 1st June, 1843, and commenced building the fort with the forces from the abandoned stations named, consisting of about 50 men and 3 officers, one of whom, a Mr. Charles Ross, a trader, was appointed to the charge, with myself as a second in command, the “Beaver” and “Cadboro” remaining as guard vessels until the fort was built.

The weather being fine and pleasant, the operations of building went on rapidly, with 50 men employed. At the time there was a dense forest along the water on the harbour and Camosun Inlet, as the “arm” was then called. Where the fort was built there was an open glade with oak trees of large size, where a space of 150 yards was measured off, each way, when the fort was built. The natives for some time after our arrival kept aloof and would not come near. Afterwards some of them came round gradually, and finding them inclined to steal anything they could get, a watch was kept night and day, while we lived in tents before the houses could be built. 

You will remember the comet that is mentioned in one of the previous posts. The First Nations saw it too, and expected trouble. See here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/fort-albert/   Finlayson’s story continues:               

The natives, however, soon got rid of their shyness and began to remove from the village on Cadboro Bay and erect homes for themselves along the bank of the harbour as far as the present site of Johnston Street. The houses consisted of wide cedar boards placed on poles stuck in the ground, with cross-beams, over which the boards were placed. In the autumn, Mr. Douglas left us, taking the “Beaver” and Cadboro” away, when he considered the place defensible. As second in command it became my duty to look after the men in building and thus became the pioneer builder of houses on the Island of Vancouver on civilized plans. 

I enjoy the quiet reference to the apparently uncivilized houses that the First Nations built. His story continues: 

After the fort was built, consisting of cedar pickets 18 feet high, round a space of 150 yards, square, with houses and stories within, and two large block houses [or] bastions at two angles armed with 9 pounder cannonade blunderbusses, cutlasses, &c, taken from the dismantled forts named, with ammunition, some of the men were employed clearing the land around to raise vegetables and cereals for the use of the place. 

So they had cutlasses at all these forts? Isn’t a cutlass a small sword? This is the first time I have seen this mentioned: did the HBC regularly import cutlasses?

Thomas Lowe says of the building of Fort Victoria and his part in its construction: “The construction of the Fort was at once begun, assisted by some 300 or 400 Songhees Indians. Mr. Lowe had been brought from Taku [Fort Durham], Mr Roderick Finlayson from Fort Simpson [probably arriving two days before Lowe in the Beaver], and Chief Trader Ross from Fort McLoughlin. After the buildings at Fort Albert (as it was first named) were well underway, he [Lowe] accompanied Chief Trader Douglas to Puget’s Sound in the Beaver, and then overland to Fort Vancouver, the headquarters on the Northern bank of the Columbia River.” Note that this was written years later, and it is not likely that the HBC men called the First Nations “Songhees” in these early days. I also suspect that the Beaver arrived at Fort Victoria sooner because it had less trouble in Johnston Strait than the schooner, Cadboro, did — one being a steamer, one being a sailboat.

Charles Ross reported that James Douglas left Fort Victoria on June 9, 1843. On June 15, Thomas Lowe records in his journal that he arrived at Fort Vancouver “this morning at 9 o’clock in company with Chief Factor Douglas from the N.W. Coast (having come across the Nisqually Portage) after having been with Dr. Kennedy at Fort Durham since the 24th April 1842.”

As you can see, this is part of Thomas Lowe’s story, which when written will be continued on his arrival at Fort Vancouver, here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/thomas-lowe-12/  

This is also the Fort Victoria story, which will be continued when written, here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/whatever-I-chose-to-call-it/ 

To go to the beginning of the Fort Victoria story, go here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/northwest-coast-posts/

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2022. All rights reserved. 

Twitter: @Marguerite_HBC

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