Building Fort Shepherd

Fur trade building at Fort Langley

Fur trade warehouse at Fort Langley, the same as found in any fur trade fort. This is, I believe, a storehouse. Note the shingled roof, and the shutters over the windows. There is glass in those windows, as you may note. Panes of glass were shipped to the west coast in barrels of molasses, to prevent loss by breakage.

With a little luck and a lot of hard work, my book, The HBC Brigades: Culture, Conflict, and the Perilous Journeys of the Fur Trade, will be published by Ronsdale Press in May, 2024. You may order or pre-order the book here: 

In this April 1856 letter to Angus McDonald of Fort Colvile, James Douglas described the HBC buildings that were to be erected at the new Fort Shepherd, on the Columbia River close to the Pend-d’Oreille gold mines, and north of the recently-established boundary line:

Let the Fort be well and respectably built, as we trust it will be a permanent and profitable establishment. Four buildings 50 feet by 30 feet with walls 10 1/2 feet high placed on three sides of a square, with large intervening spaces, as a security from fire, will be sufficient for the present demands of the business. The buildings must be faithfully made and strongly fastened and should have shingle roofs, being greatly more durable and less combustible than roofs formed of cedar bark. You will have to furnish teams to draw the building timber from the woods, and employ a gang of Indians to clean and level the site of this establishment, so that the ground may be ready for the foundation logs as soon as the timber is hewn. [BB.226/b/12, fo. 55a, HBCA]

Why did the HBC men feel they needed a new fort north of the boundary line? One reason was that, after 1846, Fort Colvile was located in the United States, thanks to the Oregon Treaty signed by Great Britain and the U.S. Government. The new fort was built so that the HBC could import supplies to the Fort Colvile area, without paying the heavy import duties that the American customs agents now demanded on their British imports.

Clerk James Sinclair, who had been in charge of Walla Walla, was assigned the job of building Fort Shepherd. However, he was killed in an Indian attack on the Cascades  (now a town) along with eighteen others. No one at Fort Vancouver could communicate with Fort Colvile because of the Indian wars in the interior, and so it fell to James Douglas, at Fort Victoria, to organize the building of Fort Shepherd.

Douglas contracted two Canadiens to build the fort, and sent them by Fort Langley and the brigade trail to Kamloops. From there they were guided south to the Columbia River, by the Kamloops men. James Douglas’s letter of May 1, 1856, gives more information:

I herewith enclose you a copy of the Contract which I have just entered into with Andrew Balthasar and Leo Morel to build a dwelling House and three store Houses, at the new Establishment as per plans herewith. They are to furnish all materials as mentioned in the Contract with the exception of Iron Work for the doors and window shutters. The Floors will of course be laid down rough from the saw, and the material for the dwelling House Floors is to be provided and laid down by them temporarily in the same manner. The stuff must be planed and tongued [illegible words] the partitions, and other inside work done when the material is seasoned, either by the same parties under contract or by our own servants. The Contractors are bound to have one store completed by the first of August next and to deliver a building every two months afterwards until the whole four are completed… James Douglas [B.226/b/12, fo. 58a, HBCA]

In this same letter, Douglas also gave detailed instructions on how the houses should look: “A plan of the principal dwelling house is herewith transmitted. It consists of 4 rooms, a passage of 9 feet through the centre, a stair case leading from hence into the garret, a pantry and kitchen. See that the wood is of the proper strength as described in the specifications and that the whole be well fitted together.
“The stores are to be of the same size as the main dwelling House with the required number of openings for windows, &c, and the roof to be of the same height and make. We now send as per invoice herewith 200 lbs nails in charge of the Contractors for roofing the first house built, and a further supply will be sent with the regular outfit, as well as Locks and [door moorings?] of which a good store will be required. We have ready glazed sashes here for the main dwelling house requiring the opening of the size marked on the plan…”

In the article, “Fur Trading Posts in the Okanagan and Similkameen,” published in the 57th Report of the Okanagan Historical Society, 1993 [also sometimes found online], author Jean Webber says this:

Governor Simpson himself approved a site on the west side of the Columbia River across from the mouth of the Pend-d’Oreille River and approximately thirteen miles south of the present day city of Trail. Just how the location’s relationship to the 49th parallel was arrived at we do not know, but there seems to have been some relief when Captain John Palliser, working out of the fort in 1859,…determined the fort to be three quarters of a mile north of the 49th parallel.

When the Fort Colvile brigades came into Fort Langley in summer 1857, they carried news of Fort Shepherd:

The parties who contracted to build Fort Shepherd have, as Mr. [George] Blenkinsop reports in a letter dated 5th June, “completed the buildings, in a workmanlike manner, reflecting credit on the contractors, every particular specified in the contract having been fulfilled to the utmost, under no ordinary difficulties.”

The Fort is composed of four substantial one storey houses, of 50 & 40 feet, and a kitchen 21 x 28 feet, say 1 dwelling house and kitchen and 3 store houses, covered with shingles, and the whole sum paid to the contractor was $3,900. The work was done entirely at their own expense, and they furnished all the material excepting nails and hinges for the doors and window shutters. We have therefore no reason to complain of the expense, which may be considered exceedingly moderate. [B.226/b/15, fo. 2-3, HBCA]

It might be interesting to compare the size of the Fort Shepherd buildings, with those of the other fur trade forts. When Fort Victoria was built in 1843, its stockades were to enclose “an area 300 feet long and 330 feet wide, a size large enough to accommodate eight buildings sixty feet long.” [Fort Victoria Letters, 1846-1851, Hudson’s Bay Record Society, p. xix]. In 1846, Roderick Finlayson erected some new buildings:

The progress of improvement at Fort Victoria has been rapid… Two Stores of one hundred feet long, forty feet broad, and two stories high have been added to the number of buildings. [Fort Victoria Letters,  p. 5]

In November 1847, James Douglas reported to the Governor and Committee [in London] that:

The two large Stores which were in the Course of erection last year are now completely finished, and another building of 100 x 40 feet erected on stone piles in the Harbour for the convenience of shipping and receiving grain is now nearly roofed, and we expect to finish the inside work in the course of summer 1848. [Fort Victoria Letters, p. 16-17]

So there were some variables in the size of the buildings, obviously. The flour mill built on the Esquimalt farm in 1848 was 60 feet by 40 feet — still a substantial size.

A year later, in a letter dated 5 December 1848, Douglas says that “the fort,” being Fort Victoria, “was considerably enlarged since last year  [1847], and the Stockade extended, so as to enclose the two new stores, and form large roomy yards behind.” [Fort Victoria Letters, p. 26]. Are these two new buildings, built in 1848? — or are they the same buildings mentioned in the previous letters, built in 1846 and 1847? I do not know, but I think they are probably the same buildings he has already described.

In April 1849, Douglas advises Roderick Finlayson how large a house he should build for the new schoolteacher, Reverend Robert J. Staines:

We must have a School house and accommodation provided for the teachers as soon as possible but that I will arrange when I visit you… I propose to build a house of 46 x 36 feet inside for that purpose, you may therefore get the sills and wall plates squared with the four corner posts 19 ft long of the usual size 12 inches square, the rest of the wood will be cut with the saws. Do not make the hewn timber too heavy, as I am convinced there is no advantages in it. [B.226/b/2, fo. 18a, HBCA].

When the new Governor of the Colony, Richard Blanshard, came to Fort Victoria, he expected to have a house waiting for him. Douglas had received little warning of his coming, and so, of course, the house was not completed. “The Governor’s Complaints were excessively mortifying and have given me more pain than I can describe,” James Douglas wrote.

The size of the Governor’s House is 40 x 20 feet, with a Kitchen 18 x 12 attached, and a house of 24 x 18 feet for his servants. The House is ceiled and painted inside. It has a neat appearance, and is, on the whole, the best finished building in Oregon. [Fort Victoria Letters, p. 118-119]

So that is what I have on the buildings at Fort Shepherd, and at Fort Victoria. Someone asked me that question a year or so ago, and now I am answering it — just a little late. I wonder if anyone else out there has stories about the buildings that were constructed at other forts in the territory, or descriptions of those buildings. If so, share them, if you feel like it. These are all good stories, to be enjoyed by everyone.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2017. All rights reserved.