The new Fort Simpson

Fur trade building at Fort Langley

Fur trade warehouse at Fort Langley, the same as found in any fur trade fort

On July 16, 1834, the HBC’s ship, Dryad, was moved a little closer to where the new Fort Simpson was to be built, and “Disembarked the passengers & baggage & other necessary things for building & quantity provisions. Mr. Birnie, Mr. Tolmie, Mr Anderson disembarked.” This blogpost is, of course, a continuation of the earlier and long-abandoned Fort Simpson post, put aside so that I could write Fort Durham’s story. You will find the earlier blogpost here:

You will recognize all the people mentioned in this first sentence: Mr. Birnie is my g.g.grandfather James Birnie; Mr. Tolmie is Dr. William Fraser Tolmie; and Mr. Anderson my g.grandfather Alexander Caulfield Anderson. Together they are to build the new Fort Simpson, replacement for the original Fort Simpson, built in 1831 near the mouth of the Nass River, at a place of tidewater now called Graveyard Point, and previously known as Fort Point. This old post had been built at the end of a Grease Trail that led into the interior, and it was also close to the Nisga’a fisheries. But it was an unfriendly place, with a bad harbour and exposed to the strong cold winds that swept down the Nass River every year.

So let’s continue the story of the new Fort Simpson being built on the northwest coast in 1834. On July 16, a Tuesday, the Dryad “run out of harbour & run up the Nass. At 10 p.m. came to at Nass [that is, the old Fort Simpson, at the mouth of the Nass River.]” They left the new Fort Simpson at 2 pm, as you will see below. Even sailing before the wind, as they did on this day, it took most of a day to “run” up the narrow channel of the Nass River estuary to old Fort Simpson itself, and that is part of the reason why the post was being moved. The journal entry continues: “Mr. Ogden & Capt. Danken went on shore.” Mr. Ogden is Peter Skene Ogden, and Captain Danken is Captain Alexander Duncan, a sea-captain on the Hudson’s Bay Company ships, and one of the few captains who drew praise for his work throughout his long career on the northwest coast of North America. 

The new Fort Simpson post journals tell us that on Tuesday, July 15, “Dryad sailed for Nass about 2 pm.” But Tolmie, who kept a personal journal that is now published under the title, Physician and Fur Trader: the Journals of William Fraser Tolmie [ed. Janet R. Mitchell, Vancouver: Mitchell Press, 1963], tells us in his journal entry for Tuesday, July 19, that “on Saturday the Dryad set sail, beating out of the bay.” The entries may confuse, but the dates agree. Tolmie’s story continues:

She had not yet disappeared when two shots were fired on board and immediately a faint report was heard from without. Birnie and I hurried across the sands to the island and spied a brig off Dundass place [?] bearing for the Straits. She communicated with the Dryad outside and towards sunset came in and anchored on the opposite shore of the bay. Birnie and Anderson took her for Llama and Anderson went off in our boat to conduct them across. Returned at dusk accompanied by the Commander of the brig (Bolivar), Captain Dominis, an Italian, and a Capt. Merryl, who had been formerly on the coast in a subordinate situation. The Bolivar was built as a gunbrig for the Mexican Republic but was not purchased — she can mount 18 guns and sails like a Water Witch, was trading on this coast in 1832. Dominis was in the Columbia and Willamit [Willamette] River in ’28 or ’29, and is believed by the Chinooks and other Indians of that quarter to have let loose the Intermittent Fever [malaria] amongst them, in revenge for their not giving him all their beaver. Dominis is a gentlemanlike person. Have not been visited by them since Sunday — prescribed for two of his men. 

I think we are learning something new about Captain John Dominis, sea-captain of the Bolivar Liberator from 1834 to 1837. He is an interesting man, and yes, he was a fur trader in the Columbia district in 1827, when my g.g.grandfather, James Birnie, was sent to The Dalles to build a post to oppose him — see this post:

This is what Bruce McIntyre Watson has to say of Captain John Dominis, in his Lives Lived West of the Divide

John Dominis was a maritime fur trader, possibly of Croatian descent, who came into direct conflict with the land-based fur trade. Arriving in Boston from Europe in 1819, he may have first come to the coast in 1821 as a junior officer of the brig Inore [Eliab Grimes]. In late 1831, he served as Grimes’ second mate on the brig Eagle on its short trading voyage to the California coast. His voyages have not been tracked until May 1826, when, as captain of the Convoy he sailed from Boston to the Northwest Coast in company with the Tally Ho [William Henry McNeil] for a six month trading voyage… In December of that year, he was given command of the Owhyee which took him to the Columbia for a ten day visit in 1827 under the pretext of gathering wood and spars. The natives were delighted with his visit as he paid two times the HBC price for furs. When he returned two years later, and traded as far north as Kaigarnee [Alaska] he announced that the stay was indefinite for he was on an obvious mission to gather furs for his employers, Josiah Marshall and Dixey Wildes of Boston. HBC officer Dr. John McLoughlin, reacted by sending out parties to intercept the natives before they could reach the river and the Owhyhee. He also sent James Birnie to construct a post at The Dalles for the sole purpose of intervening and opposing a post which had been built by American Bache Goodriche. In spite of these preventative measures, Dominis left the Columbia in July 1830 with 2900 skins and  a large quantity of trade goods. Prior to his departure, he said that he had intended to be in the area until 1832, but he decided against this and attempted unsuccessfully to sell his trade goods to the HBC… When he returned to the East Coast, he was quoted in the New York Gazette as having stated that the HBC was too well established in the Columbia for Americans to work in the fur trade in that area. Nevertheless, he was back on the coast in 1834 commanding the Bolivar Liberator… In the 1840s Dominis began construction of a mansion in Honolulu [now Washington Place, the present Governor’s Mansion, and the final residence of the deposed Queen Liliuokali] but was unable to finish it as in 1846 he was lost at sea in the brig William Nelson in the area of Micronesia. Initial theories had him foundering in a typhoon off Ebon Island, but later evidence seemed to indicate that when he and the other finely dressed officers touched on Ebon Island for fresh water, they were lured inland and stoned to death by the natives for their clothes.

Goodness!! That’s a story and a half! Dominis was certainly a very interesting man. But let us return to new Fort Simpson’s story. On Thursday the HBC gentlemen were invited by Dominis to pass the evening aboard the Bolivar, which they did. On Friday, August 1, they finished the store, and William Tolmie writes: “Birnie has taken up his abode below and I in the garret — Anderson in his tent, a semicircular barricade had been formed in front, reaching the front corners of the store at each extreme, and the people have been indulged with the load of boards to construct their lodges. From the window of the garret close to my bed there is fine prospect of the bay and across the Straits to Clemencity [Clemensity] Harbour.”

The work at the new Fort Simpson continued, with the men cutting pickets on the island, “having on the ground there by account 333 pickets. Four men set to cut pickets on the right hand point,” according to the new Fort Simpson journal. The Dryad arrived from old Fort Simpson about 3 p.m., July 21, with Peter Skene Ogden on board. On July 24 they discharged a raft “composed of part of the store and the house which stood on the left hand of the gate of Fort Simpson.” At the old fort the men were dismantling the buildings and shipping them to the new fort one by one. Four men were removed from the job of cutting pickets and put to work in assembling the old store at the new location. The gentlemen measured off the size of the fort, which would be 150 feet square when built, according to the new Fort Simpson post journal. 

On Friday 25, the last of the wood brought down from old Fort Simpson was carried ashore on two rafts. On Saturday, July 26, the Dryad weighed anchor at 11 a.m., and “hove to at the opposite point in consequence of seeing a vessel at sea.” The ship then continued its journey to Tongass, “where she goes to procure provisions, to return in 8 or 10 days. Vessel anchored in the bay at about 6 pm. Proves to be the Bolivar Liberator, Capt. Dominis, last from Sitka where she had disposed of a great deal of her cargo.” But the Bolivar had already been recorded as having arrived in McLoughin’s Harbour, on which new Fort Simpson stood, on July 19, according to the Fort Simpson post journal. Was this a second visit? Reportedly the Bolivar Liberator had been denied entrance in any Russian-American Company harbour, even to the point where they could not get new spars at Tongass. Clearly, the Russian-American Company was playing hardball with every competing ship at this time, not only the HBC ships. 

According to the new Fort Simpson’s post journal, on Monday July 28, the men had finished placing the foundation logs of the store and commenced placing the “lambourdes” — the upright posts. Bruce McIntyre Watson describes how these easily-dismantled, re-usable post-on-sill buildings were constructed: 

Post on sill construction begins with sturdy timbers squared with broadaxes and adzes. These sills are laid directly on the ground or on stone shims to act as the base of the building. Into the base timbers, recesses are made for the upright wall supports [the “lambourdes,” see above]. Next, timbers are squared for the corner posts and uprights are tenoned on each end. Opposite sides are recessed (mortised with saws, chisels, or adzes) for the entire length of each side of the post. This is done for four corners and two or more intermediate wall supports for either wall. Next, horizontal squared timbers with notched ends were set into the grooves of the uprights up to roof level, and the walls were capped with a sill similar to the bottom sill. When they were in place, holes were drilled and three foot oak doweling pounded into the holes to secure the logs. The cracks in between the horizontal logs were chinked with mud and straw or oakum [shredded hemp rope] both inside and out. The roof was framed with rafters and covered in a variety of ways, but most often with layers of bark, sometimes mud and sod, other times with wooden shingles. 

“The putting up of the store throws the other work back much,” the writer of the new Fort Simpson post journal grumbles. It is, however, work that must be done. By the next day, the journal-writer recorded that the men “putting up the filling logs of the store & part of the chevrons. Finished cutting pickets, having in our opinion a sufficiency to surround the fort, say 1050.”

So now you now how many logs it takes to surround a fur trade post such as the new Fort Simpson! And for this very reason, I argue that logging is very much a Métis traditional occupation — as you probably are aware, so many of our more recent ancestors were loggers!

On Wednesday, July 30, the men covered the roof of the store with bark, part of which they had brought from old Fort Simpson, and they planked the lower story. That might mean that they installed a floor in the building, or perhaps the ceiling, as someone would sleep in the rafters — there was little privacy in a fur trade fort such as this one. On Friday, August 1, James Birnie, who his keeping this journal:

took possession of the store & removed camp to the front of it. Formed a barricade with the logs of the small house &c. Four men have been laid up since the last fortnight, 6 for the last week. Forenoon, Rainy. Afternoon fine. 

On August 2 they removed the logs from their old encampment, and the men squared them for pickets. On Sunday, August 3, the HBC enjoyed a day of rest, and played a game of boules — boules being a popular French game that involved throwing steel balls to land as close as possible to a small wooden ball, knocking opponents’ balls out of the way. This is how Tolmie described the game that everyone at the new Fort Simpson seemed to enjoy:

Yesterday putting the stone with Birnie and Anderson and passed them both by a yard or more. Today the Canadians tried it, but are very awkward. McLellan, a Lewis man, gained a prize of a fathom of Tobacco offered to the best thrower. I came within a foot of him. Anderson excelled them all at throwing a large mell Boule, [and] among themselves carried off the prize. 

A “large mell[e] Boule” might translate as “free-for-all-Boules.” So they had fun, but what might have disturbed them, considering that the Dryad was at the old Fort Simpson rather than anchored in front of the fledgling new Fort Simpson, the local First Nations men were flocking to the Bolivar to trade their furs. There was nothing that they could do about that, however, and the Bolivar would soon be on its way. 

When this post is continued, it will appear here: 

The link that will enable you to return to the first post of this series is at the top of the page.

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




4 thoughts on “The new Fort Simpson

  1. Gil Floyd

    Thank you Nancy for being their and bringing us your stories. Brings back lot happy memories
    I’m 85 Grew up in and around Lake Nipissing, Lake Nipigon, Geraldton, Nipigon Shabaqua and other areas of Northern Ontario My brother and I had no one to play with other than Each other and two lead dogs. First school when I was eight. Language in the school yard was Finnish and Swedish. I’ve written short stories about growing up in Northern Ontario. Id like to share them with you in thanks for your stories

  2. Tom Holloway

    Yes, John Dominis was a very interesting character, and thorn in the side of HBC, both in the Columbia District and in Hawaii. His son, John Owen Dominis was Prince Consort of Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii! Bache Goodriche, by the way, took a joy ride through the Long Narrows of the Dalles and was drowned along with 11 others when a whirlpool took their boat to the bottom of the Big Eddy on July 3, 1831. This was on the last leg of Peter Skene Ogden’s sixth and last Snake Country brigade. Ogden’s journals and 500 beaver pelts were also lost. Everyone seems to be connected, one way or another.