Fort Victoria’s Missing Years


Fort Victoria

Fort Victoria in 1845, painted by Henry James Warre, Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

There are a few missing years in Fort Victoria’s early history: mainly between Summer 1844, when the Fort Victoria well was discovered, and 1846, when the Fort Victoria journals began. I will try, in this blogpost, to fill in a few of the stories of Fort Victoria’s missing years, but I do not necessarily know when these stories happened. There is also more for me to see in the Archives, but I haven’t been there yet and it might be a while before I get there. Anyway, we ended the last Fort Victoria post with the discovery of a new well that would keep the HBC men in water all year round. Here’s that blogpost:

This series begins, however, earlier, with James Douglas’s finding the new location for the fort, and then beginning the building of it. Here is that first post that will lead you into Fort Victoria’s missing years:

The image at the top of the page was drawn in 1845, when the British spies, Henry James Warre and Mervin Vavasour, visited Fort Victoria. Not all these stories are missing, and this is a missing story that I can fill in from the Fort Vancouver journals of Thomas Lowe and various other records. The two men left Fort Vancouver on September 16, 1845, for Forts Nisqually and Victoria; and returned from Fort Victoria on October 16, 1845, having spent eight days at this place and at Esquimalt Harbour. They apparently both visited and had conferences aboard the two Royal Navy ships that were in Esquimalt Harbour at the same time they were at Fort Victoria. In fact, Warre wrote that “on the occasion of our visit to Vancouver’s Island we were most fortunate in meeting Her Majesty’s ships America, 50, Captain Honorable C. Gordon, and the Modeste, 18, Capt Thomas Baillie, by whom we were most kindly and hospitably received.” Tell me that this meeting was not arranged ahead of time — it almost certainly was!!

The results of the meetings in Fort Victoria’s missing years: The gigantic Royal Navy ship, America, sailed for England sometime in October 1845. And the Modeste arrived for her second visit to Fort Vancouver on November 30, 1845, and she remained at this anchorage for the next seventeen months. For the Modeste‘s story, see:

Now, at Fort Victoria itself: As we know, Roderick Finlayson took over the charge of Fort Victoria on Charles Ross’s death. Ross was taken seriously ill on June 22, 1844, and he died on June 27 of the same year. Roderick Finlayson took his place at Fort Victoria, with Ross’s oldest son as his second-in-command. We have so few records or stories of Fort Victoria’s missing years: so much was not recorded, and Finlayson’s stories are secondary histories, written in later years.

But at Fort Victoria, the adventures that happened over those missing years started almost immediately. Finlayson said that “I was not long in charge, when the Indians killed some of our best working oxen and horses left feeding on the surrounding grounds.” His first crisis of management, and he seems to have handled it well: He…

sent a message to the chiefs demanding the delivery of [the] perpetrator of this unprovoked deed, or paying to be made for the Animals killed, which they declined doing. I then suspended trade or any dealing with them until this matter was settled, whereupon they sent word to some of the neighbouring tribes to come to their assistance, as they intended to attack the Fort. In the meantime I kept all hands at their arms, set watches night and day to prevent surprise.

After a couple of days [word] negotiations, when a large number assembled, they opened fire upon the fort, riddling the stockades and roofs of the houses with their musket balls. It was with the greatest difficulty that I could prevail our men not to return the fire, but wait for my orders. After a close firing of about half an hour was carried on, I spoke to the principal Chief, informing him that I was fully prepared to carry on the battle, but did not like to kill any of them without explaining to them that they were wrong, and giving them another chance of making restitution.

A parley ensured among them, during which I sent our Indian Interpreter out to speak with them, telling him to make it appear that he escaped without orders and to point [out] to them the Lodge I was determined to fire on, and for all its inmates to clear out. This they did at the suggestion of the Interpreter, who upon making a sign to me, as agreed upon, that the Lodge was clear, came towards the stockades and was admitted into the fort by a back gate. Seeing there was no sign of their coming to terms [with the Songhees], I pointed one of our nine pounder cannons loaded with grape shot at the Lodge, which was a large one built of cedar boards, fired, and the effect of which was that it was completely demolished, the splinters of the older [cedar] boards flying in fragments in the air.

After this there was an immense howling among them, from which I supposed a number were killed. But my plan, I was happy to find, had the desired effect. I was aware that these Indians never saw the effect of grape shot fired from cannons. After the excitement…of this shot was over, a deputation of the chiefs called and was [word] that they wanted parley with the white chief. I then arranged with them, that if two of them came in within the stockades to make arrangements with me, I would send out two of our men as hostages, to which they agreed. I then fully explained to them that I had it in my power to destroy all their houses and kill many of them, but that I did not like to do so, and that it was fortunate for them that none of our men were shot — that I was determined to have the offender punished, or payment made for the animals they killed. They preferred the latter, and before that day closed, furs for the full amount were delivered at the gate, after which, on making the pipe of peace, with a promise on their part that our animals would not in future be molested. So we parted good friends, trade was resumed as formerly… [Roderick Finlayson, “History of Vancouver Island and the Northwest Coast.”]

There is more to this story of Fort Victoria’s missing years, and it is quite amusing to read. I can imagine the HBC men after dinner, talking about the events of the day. “The chiefs next day wanted to see more of the effects of our big guns in an amicable way,” Roderick Finlayson wrote. “I told them to place an old canoe in the harbor, that I would fire upon it, and then they would see clearly the effect.

I loaded one of the guns with a cannon ball, pointed at the canoe in the harbour, fired, the ball passing through it. [The ball] bounded over the harbour afterwards [and] into the woods beyond. This news spread far and wide, and had a very salutary effect on them.

And more from Fort Victoria’s missing years: The very next day a group of First Nations from Whidbey Island visited Fort Victoria, and trading their furs departed with the goods they had received. The local First Nations waylaid and robbed them before they got to their canoes, which they had left at Clover Point. “Those poor creatures came back to the Fort, reported what had been done to them &c. I gave them lodging for that night in the Fort, sent for the chief of the tribe who robbed them, and told him if every article was not restored within one day to the Indians robbed, I would stop trade and keep the robbed Indians here until they got back their property — that our laws were to protect all Indians, no matter from what place they came from for trade with us… Seeing I was determined to assert my point, the property was restored in full, after which I sent those foreign traders away under convoy of four of our men in a canoe until they were beyond molestation. After this affair was amicably settled without bloodshed, we again smoked the pipe of peace and were friends, & trade carried on as before.” [Roderick Finlayson, “History of Vancouver Island and the Northwest Coast.”]

Other bits of Fort Victoria history were mentioned in later years, but we don’t necessarily know when they occurred. I think I have already told you about the fire that occurred in the First Nations village next to the fort? The fort, being built of wood, was threatened by the flames, of course, and Finlayson ensured that the residents of the First Nations village moved across the water to what we now call the Songhees. But I do not know when that happened.

More on Fort Victoria’s missing years: well its not really missing, because we know the dates. Still, its another story that interests me, and it does take place during a time when we have no Fort Victoria records. Roderick Finlayson tells us that:

Since 1845 this place became a second Depot for goods, the outward bound ships for England since that year had orders to come here direct to land all the goods wanted for the Coast trade, and after having come so, went to Columbia River with the remainder.

Yes, indeed. The first London ship that came to Fort Victoria rather than Fort Vancouver was the Vancouver, and she arrived at Fort Victoria on February 18, 1845, straight from London. She had set off from London in September 1844, and had taken 5 months to make the journey to Fort Victoria. 

Consequently, the place was rapidly rising into importance, so much so that it attracted the attention of the gold miners… from California. Those rough looking miners landed here from their vessel, which entered the harbour early in 1849. [So far as I can see, this story is not mentioned in the Fort Victoria journals and might not have happened in 1849. They may also have been miners that were searching for gold on the Queen Charlotte Islands and elsewhere.]

I took them first to be pirates and ordered our men to prepare for them. I, however, entered into Conversation with them, and finding who they were, was satisfied as to their friendship to us. They had leather bags full of gold nuggets, which they offered to me in exchange for goods at this time. I never saw native gold in my life, and was doubtful whether to take it or not. Having heard about pure gold being malleable, I took one of the pieces to our blacksmith’s shop, ordered the smith and the assistant to hammer away at in on the anvil, and finding that it answered the description by flattening out as thin as a wafer, I offered to take it at $11 per oz in exchange for goods. This was accepted readily, and as I could not go back upon my word, the trade opened on this basis. I would then have been better satisfied had they complained of the low rate, but no complaint was made. I traded, however, all they had and was doubtful about the correctness of the transaction, until the Express I sent to the Columbia River, to headquarters, came back with the intelligence that the gold was satisfactory and also the rate at which I took it. Other factions followed, so that we had a good remittance of gold that year to send to England, in addition to our furs.

This is why it is impossible to tell how much gold came through Fort Victoria: it is a part of Fort Victoria’s missing years, or perhaps in this case, missing records. Yes, in later years some gold came down from the interior with the Brigades: some was shipped up from Fort Vancouver when James Douglas moved north. Some was shipped from Fort Vancouver straight to London as well. But the amounts shipped received and then later shipped to London are so vague, as you see.

So I done not badly in telling you a few more stories about Fort Victoria’s missing years: I have more stories, and will try, sometime, to fill in the blanks, if I can.  

When the next blogpost in this series is published, it will appear here: 

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

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