Locating Fort Victoria

Fort Nisqually and Puget Sound

This drawing of Fort Nisqually was done by Steve A. Anderson and is used with his kind permission

In March 1843, James Douglas was placed in charge of the building of the new post of Fort Victoria, on the southern tip of Vancouver’s Island. Many years of discussion and argument came before the location of the post was decided on, however, and this is what I will address in this blogpost. Almost all of the information I am using in this blogpost comes from one source only: that is, W. Kaye Lamb’s article, “The Founding of Fort Victoria,” published in the British Columbia Historical Quarterly, in April 1943. There may be new and different information from other sources as well, but this will not be argued (by me) here. 

As I said above, many things happened before the location of Fort Victoria was actually decided upon. Nor was the new post known as Fort Victoria until after it was built. It was not an easy process to locate a new fort in these times when Fort Vancouver’s Chief Factor John McLoughlin did not want it to happen, and there were a lot of arguments along the way — arguments between Governor (now Sir) George Simpson, and McLoughlin, for the most part. In fact, this article begins with the line, “The founding of Fort Victoria in 1843 marked the climax of a controversy — one might almost say a series of controversies — that had lasted for nearly twenty years.” Apparently when Governor Simpson approved the new location of Fort Vancouver ninety miles up the Columbia River from Fort George [Astoria] in 1825-6, he already felt that the new headquarters should not be built on the Columbia River, but further north up the coast.  

His opinion remained the same over the years, and was reinforced by various expensive shipwrecks at the mouth of the River. In Spring 1834, Simpson instructed McLoughlin to explore Puget Sound and examine the various islands around that place (“Whidbey’s Island” being one of the choices they gave him), mostly because the dangers of crossing the bar at the mouth of the Columbia River were costly for the Company when a ship was lost. In November 1836, Chief Factor Duncan Finlayson visited Port Townsend, Port Discovery, and Whidbey Island, but found no favourable place to locate a new fort.

Vancouver’s Island to the north appeared to be another good choice for a new post. In 1837, Captain William Henry McNeill, travelling in the Steamer Beaver, spent some days exploring the south end of Vancouver’s Island and “found an excellent harbour, of easy access with good anchorage, surrounded by a plain of several miles in extent.” McLoughlin, however, decided that the place would need to be examined again before a choice to locate Fort Victoria, or any fort, could be made. The original of McNeill’s physical report is lost, but James Douglas commented on it when he said, in a letter to Governor Simpson, 

The survey strictly speaking commenced at Newitti [Port Hardy, where Fort Rupert was later built] near the north end of the Island and proceeded through Johnstone’s Straits and the Gulf of Georgia to Pt. Gonzalo [Gonzales]… On reaching the South end of the Island, a decided improvement was observed in the appearance of the Country. Three good harbours of easy access were found west of Point Gonzalo, at two of which, Captain McNeill passed a few days.

The three harbours that McNeill explored were those of Victoria, Esquimalt, and Sooke. “The most Easterly of the harbours…” Douglas’s report continues, as he speaks of Victoria Harbour, “is said to be the best on the Coast and possess the important advantage, over the other, of a more abundant supply of fresh water furnished by a stream 20 Yards wide, which after contributing to fertile the open Country, flows into it.”  A good source of water was always considered important when locating a fur trade post anywhere in this wild country. However, the work of the locating of Fort Victoria would be delayed for another few years. 

At about the same time McNeill explored Victoria Harbour, the Governor and Committee in London, England, informed Governor Simpson that the new post should be named Fort Adelaide, in honour of Queen Adelaide who was the consort of King William IV. One year later, in October 1838, Douglas remarked to Governor Simpson that he was awaiting instructions “for the proposed establishment on Vancouver’s Island.” The delay this time was that Chief Factor McLoughlin opposed the idea of a new fort, and as he was travelling to London in the autumn of 1838, it was decided, once again, to delay the work of locating Fort Victoria, on Vancouver’s Island. It is probable that McLoughlin requested the delay until his return from England.  

Almost immediately after his return to Fort Vancouver in October 1839 (if by the incoming York Factory Express, which is likely), John McLoughlin made his first and only journey to the proposed location of the new Fort on Victoria’s harbour in the early winter, accompanied by John Work and Captain McNeill. They sailed first to Fort Langley, and then, as McLoughlin described in a report to Simpson

On the 10th [December] left Fort Langley. On the 12th reached the plain on the South end of Vancouver’s Island which Captain McNeill examined in 1837 and reported as a fine place for an Establishment. It is a very fine harbour, accessible at all seasons, but it is not a place suitable to our purpose; on the 14th arrived at Nisqually…

And so McLoughlin brushed off the choice of a location for the new post, and the building of Fort Victoria was once again delayed. As it happened, however, his disapproval made little difference to the future Fort Victoria. He may have been pleased that he was instructed to NOT make any decision on building a new post on the coast — but Governor George Simpson was planning a third trip of inspection to Fort Vancouver, which would include a tour of all the posts on the northwest coast. At this time, there were four posts on the northwest coast: Fort McLoughlin, built in 1833 on Milbank Sound; Fort Simpson, established in 1831 far inland, at the mouth of the Nass River, and moved in 1834 to its estuary near the coast; Fort Stikine, the Russian post that was taken over by the HBC in 1840 by agreement with the Russians; and the northernmost Fort Taku, newly built in 1840 and closed down in 1843.

In the summer of 1840, James Douglas had sailed north to Russian America [Alaska] and there took over Fort Stikine [by agreement with the Russians] and located and built Fort Taku. As he returned home, he considered the trading requirements for the entire coast district, and decided that one more post was needed: at Newitti, at the north end of Vancouver Island. And so, at this point in time Douglas appeared to agree with McLoughlin, who said that fur trade posts were a cheaper and more efficient method of gathering furs, than sending a ship up and down the coast to collect them. McLoughlin was delighted with Douglas’s supporting opinion and included it in his report to Governor Simpson. 

Governor Simpson (now Sir George Simpson) arrived at Fort Vancouver in August 1841. A few days later he left Fort Vancouver for the northwest coast on a seven-week-long tour, taking James Douglas along with him as his guide. He visited every post along the coast (with the exception of Fort Langley) and came to the conclusion that, except for Fort Simpson, they should all be closed down. He thought it would be much more efficient if a ship was sent up and down the Northwest Coast to trade for furs directly from the First Nations at stated locations and scheduled times. This is what his letter to the Governor and Committee said: 

The trade of the coast cannot with any hope of making it a profitable business afford the maintenance of so many establishments as are now occupied for its protection, together with the shipping required for its transport, nor does it appear to me that such is necessary… 

McLoughlin disagreed with Simpson, defending his string of posts on the northwest coast, and arguing that ships — and especially the steamer Beaver (which he called a travelling circus) — could not replace them.  He travelled to the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii] where he met Governor Simpson and he argued his case, although he knew he was losing the battle.

(We have an interesting juxtaposition of blogposts happening at this time: Thomas Lowe will arrive in the Sandwich Islands at the same time that Governor Simpson and John McLoughlin are having their conference re: the establishment of Fort Victoria and the closing down of the various Northwest Coast posts. When this post is published, this link will lead you to it: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/thomas-lowe-11/ )

To continue the story: In the first months of 1842, McLoughlin received Simpson’s instructions to abandon Fort Taku and Fort McLoughlin in 1843, and Fort Stikine in 1844. He also lost the argument against his refusal to locate and build Fort Victoria, the possible new headquarters on the Pacific coast. Interestingly, the main reason that Governor Simpson made the decision to find a location for a new post on Victoria’s harbour came because of the long delay he experienced as his ship waited to cross the bar at the mouth of the Columbia River, as he was on his way to California and then Hawaii. This is what he had to say on that subject!

A three weeks detention inside Cape Disappointment, watching a favourable opportunity for crossing the very dangerous Bar off the entrance of this Columbia River, recalled my attention very forcibly to the importance of a depot being formed for such portion of the Company’s business, as is more immediately connected with the Foreign Trade and Shipping department, on some eligible part of the coast instead of continuing Fort Vancouver as the great centre of the business of the west side of the Continent, and exposing many lives and the whole of the valuable imports and exports of the Country to a danger which is becoming more alarming every successive year. 

And so, the job of locating Fort Victoria, and its construction, advanced into the limelight once more. Simpson wrote that “the Southern end of Vancouver’s Island forming the Northern side of the straits of de Fuca, appears to me the best situation for such an establishment as required. From the very superficial examination that has been made, it is ascertained there are several good harbours in that neighbourhood, no place however has as yet been found combining all the advantages required, the most important of which are, a safe and accessible harbour, well situated for defence, with Water power for Grist and Saw mills… I had not an opportunity of landing on the southern end of the Island, but from the distant view we had of it in passing between Puget’s Sound and the Gulf of Georgia and the report of C.F. McLoughlin and others who have been there, we have every reason to believe there will be no difficulty in finding an eligible situation in that quarter for the establishment in question.”

And so, the job of locating Fort Victoria, and the building of the new post, once again reared its head. James Douglas was sent by John McLoughlin to properly re-examine the harbour and to find a location for the building of Fort Victoria. Douglas arrived at Victoria’s harbour and summarized his findings in his report dated July 12, 1842: 

I embarked with a party of 6 men, in the Schooner Cadboro, at Fort Nisqually, and proceeded with her to the South end of Vancouver’s Island, visited the most promising points of that coast, and after a careful survey of its several Forts [I think he means Ports] and harbours, I made choice of a site for the proposed new Establishment in the Port of Camosack, which appears to me decidedly the most advantageous situation for the purpose, within the Straits of De Fuca.

As the author, W. Kaye Lamb, says, “The Port of Camosack was the present Victoria Harbour, and the word Camosack itself a variant of the Indian name usually rendered in English as Camosun.” But even today some people insist that the fort was called Fort Camosun: it was not — that was the name of the waterway. Interestingly, the new post seemed to have many different names over the years: Fort Albert, Fort Adelaide, and Fort Camosun. But by 1843, King George was dead so the name of Fort Adelaide was no longer under consideration. Some people called it Fort Albert [I haven’t discovered why yet.] But Fort Victoria was always its proper name, as was decided  by the Council at Fort Garry, Red River, on June 10, 1843: although no one west of the Rocky Mountains would have known that until October 1843, when the incoming York Factory Express arrived at Fort Vancouver. Nor would the mariners who arrived at their destination of Camosun or Camosack Harbour have known the post’s name. Even the men who worked at the fort would not know it until the news arrived, sometime in October, from Fort Vancouver.

Well, we have done to the work of locating Fort Victoria: in the next blogpost we will be building the post. When it is written, you will find it here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/building-fort-victoria/ 

If you have just stumbled on my blog and am interested to see what kind of books I write, you can order The York Factory Express, here: http://ronsdalepress.com/york-factory-express-the/ To find out more about it, look here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/york-factory-express-introduction/ 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021. All rights reserved.