A Long Winding Road

Fort Nisqually on Puget Sound

This well-researched Fort Nisqually painting was done by Steve A. Anderson and is used with his kind permission. The early Fort Victoria may well have resembled its old cousin on Puget Sound. 

A long winding road through history must be travelled before the Hudson’s Bay Company could build a new headquarters, on the southern end of Vancouver’s Island: but it was travelled, and here is the story. The journey began ten years before the new post was finally constructed, and it included many stories of interest to all of us — and a few stories that none of us have yet heard. What I have to say here is not the final word, of course, but it follows through in a nice, clean line and seems to make sense. The story begins at the Stikine, so far as I am concerned. At least, that is where I am beginning it. 

As we know by my Fort McLoughlin story, that post was built in the summer of 1833 on the HBC’s Milbanke Sound. Peter Skene Ogden, who was in overall charge of establishing the post, left the work of construction in the hands of his experienced fort builders, and sailed up the northwest coast on a journey of exploration. At this time, the HBC thought it possible that they might be able to construct a new fort east of the ten-mile wide strip of land that the Russian American Company controlled (now the Alaska Panhandle). A treaty between the Russian and British Governments granted the HBC men the right to trade on the east side of the Russian-owned strip of land on the northwest coast, and to use the rivers to reach the interior — as long as they did not interfere nor trade with the First Nations on the coast, in Russian-American Company territory.  So that interest in establishing a new post up some river or another was the start of all that came before the building of Fort Victoria; it was the beginning of the long winding road through our city’s special history.

The stated goal of the HBC’s expedition was to find a location for the fur trade post some distance up the westward-flowing Stikine River, where they sought to cut off the flow of furs to the Russians on the coast. As the ship could not sail up the Stikine, they must have rowed up the river in the ship’s boats, which seems a wild idea considering the ferocity of the local First Nations. Nevertheless, Ogden, who was afraid of no one, explored up the Stikine River in open boats until he found what he thought would be a good location for the new post.

One year later, on June 18, 1834, Ogden and his team of fort-builders came in sight of the mouth of the Stikine River, where, 3 miles below Point Highfield (the limit of ship’s navigation), they saw a half-built Russian post which had not existed one year earlier. Standing offshore from the rough pile of logs that was the future Redoubt St. Dionysius lay the ship Chichagoff, well-armed with 14 guns and carrying a crew of 84. The Russians refused to allow the HBC men to go up the Stikine River as they had planned. According to Ogden, the Russian commander, Captain Sarembo, told Ogden’s representatives that he would “make use of the force he had against us, if we attempt to proceed up the river in our boats; he did not deny we had a right to erect an establishment in the interior on English Territory, but we had no right to navigate these Straits.” And, so, the long winding road through history was paused while the HBC men and the Russians argued.

The Stikine chiefs, Seiks [“Shakes”] and Anacago, joined the argument, fully supporting the Russians in their desire to prevent the HBC men from ascending the river. These two chiefs boarded the Dryad to talk directly to Ogden. “They assumed a tone I was not in the habit of hearing,” Ogden said, “and requested to know if we had come here with the intention of erecting an Establishment…” The Stikine chiefs had no objection to the HBC men setting up a post at the mouth of the river, in direct opposition to the Russians. But on learning Ogden intended to go upriver, the chiefs told him, bluntly, that he and his men would not go.

Finally, on June 29, 1834, Ogden admitted defeat and the Dryad sailed away from the Stikine River. As he still carried fort-building materials aboard his ship, Ogden decided to remove Fort Simpson from its inconvenient position deep in the estuary of the Nass River, to a much better location closer to the Pacific Ocean. 

On December 14, 1834, Ogden return to Fort Vancouver with the news of his failure to build his post up the Stikine River. Three months later, in March 1835, Chief Factor John McLoughlin forwarded his report to the London Committee with the outgoing York Factory express to Hudson Bay. “I am sorry to inform you that the Russians have prevented Mr. Ogden’s forming the Establishment your directed us to build on the banks of the Stikine River,” he reported, “and for which he had selected and marked out a situation in 1833 as you will see by the accompanying copy of the correspondence between Mr. Ogden and the Russian Officers, Captn. Sarembo, Captn. Etoline, & Baron Wrangell… I presume these Documents will fully prove that our rights have been violated by the Russian authorities.”

In his report, McLoughlin also claimed that the financial loss of the failed expedition had cost the Company more than 22,000 Pounds Sterling. The reports reached York Factory in June 1835, and London, England, in the Autumn of 1835. [It was carried in the Paper Box of the outgoing York Factory Express of 1835, under the charge of then Chief Trader James Douglas, whose fingerprints are all over this story.]

The Foreign Office in England immediately opened legal discussions with the Russian Government, and four years later a settlement was reached. The agreement between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Russian American Company was signed in Hamburg, Germany, on January 25, 1839, by Governor George Simpson for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and Baron Ferdinand Wrangell for the Russian American Company. In this settlement, the Hudson’s Bay Company leased from the Russians the mainland portion of the Alaska Panhandle south of Cape Spencer, on Cross Sound (50 degrees 40′ N. Latitude) a distance of 350 miles, for a period of ten years. A better was to say this, perhaps, is that the HBC leased the ten-mile wide strip of the Alaska Panhandle all the way from Portland Inlet, across the way from where Fort Simpson now stood, northward 350 miles to Mount Fairweather, which lay directly east of Cape Spencer and well north of the mouth of the Stikine River. This is another big step in the long winding road through history that will lead us to the establishment of a post on the south end of Vancouver’s Island.

The HBC took possession of the establishment of Redoubt St. Dionysius, the Russian post at Point Highfield, where Peter Skene Ogden lost his argument with the Russians four years earlier, in 1834. The HBC also made plans to set up a new post on Taku Inlet even further north (present location of the Alaskan city of Juneau), where they hoped to capture the furs from the Yukon River and its tributaries. This was a territory that Governor Simpson always desired to open to the HBC fur trade, but which he and his men were unable to reach until, in June 1844, Chief Trader John Bell crossed the Richardson Range from the Mackenzie’s River post on Peel’s River, and explored the Porcupine River south to the banks of the Yukon. 

The agreement also stated that the Hudson’s Bay Company should pay for the lease by providing the Russians with furs and goods. An annual rent of “2000 seasoned Land Otter Skins, excluding Cub and damaged Skins) taken or hunted on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, during the said term of Ten years; the first payment of the said rent to be by the delivery of the said 2000 Otters Skins on or before the 1st June 1841 to the Agents of the Russian American Company on the Northwest Coast.”

In addition to the annual payment of rent in furs, it was further agreed that, every year, the Hudson’s Bay Company would sell to the Russian American Company another 2000 Land Otter skins, collected on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, at the price of 23 shillings per skin. Further, (as the skins on the west side of the Rockies were not as rich as those on the east) the Hudson’s Bay Company agreed to sell to the Russians another 3000 seasoned Land Otter Skins taken on the East side of the Rocky Mountains, at a price of 32 shillings per skin delivered to Sitka from Edmonton House, on the North Saskatchewan River. These were the furs that were carried into the Columbia District every year with the incoming York Factory Express, from Edmonton House all the way to Fort Vancouver. This long winding road through history connects everything that was happening at this time, as you can see!

In addition to the above, Thomas Lowe also stated that the HBC “had also to surrender to the Russians, at cost price, whatever Sea Otter Skins they might have obtained in the ceded territory.” It is actually stated in the contract that the HBC coud not “trade nor hunt any Furs or Peltries on any other part of the Russian Territory on the Northwest Coast or Islands than that ceded to them.” Thomas Lowe was right: sea otters were found in the kelp beds off the islands, which were not ceded to the HBC, and so they could not be kept by the Hudson’s Bay men. Another part of the long winding road through history that leads us to the post on Vancouver’s Island.

As well as the furs listed above, the Hudson’s Bay Company agreed to sell the Russians wheat, “to the extent of 4000 Fenagos per annum afterwards at the price of Ten Shillings and Nine Pence Sterling per Fenago.” What a Fenago is, I do not know. An immediate result of the signing of this contract was the setting up of the Puget Sound Agricultural Company. As A.C. Anderson wrote, “The grain” grown at Cowlitz Farm, one of the PSAC farms, “was sold to the H.B. Co., who required it for their own local purposes, partly, and partly to aid in fulfilling contracts for grain entered into with the Russian American Co. at Sitka, and which they supplied from the extra produce in the country..” And so, as you can see, the forming of the Puget Sound Agricultural Company was part of the long winding road through history that started with Ogden’s attempt to ascend the Stikine River in 1834.

As you can see, everything that was happening on the Pacific Coast and in the York Factory Express was connected, although much of this is not the story I am pursuing. If you want to learn more about the York Factory Express, however, you can order my book here: http://ronsdalepress.com/york-factory-express-the/ 

If you want to learn more about Fort McLoughlin (at the beginning of my story) you can do so here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/fort-mcloughlin/. But let us also continue the story to its natural conclusion.

On February 6, 1839, the agreement between the Russians and the HBC traders was completed, and on May 11, 1840, the London ship Vancouver sailed from Fort Vancouver with a full cargo of goods for the Russians at Sitka. According to John McLoughlin’s report, these were the plans:

As soon after the arrival of the ship from England as the season will permit, Mr. Chief Trader Douglas will proceed in the Vancouver to the North West coast with the Officers for our Establishment, men, goods &c., and grain for the Russians, he will receive the Fort of Stikine from the Russians, establish a Post at the River Tacow [Taku] on our territory, if the river is navigable so far for the Vessel, but, if this is not practicable he will build at the entrance of the River, or as nigh as circumstances will admit; deliver to the Russians the grain we promised them and return after effecting this with the Returns of the Coast. The Steamer will accompany the Vessel to Stikine and Tacow, and the Cadboro will replace her for the time on the Coast.

Another big step forward on the long winding road through history. When the next step is taken, it will appear here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/what-shall-I-call-it?/

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