The Northwest Coast Posts

Fort Victoria

Fort Victoria in 1846, painted by Henry James Warre, Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

In 1841, Governor George Simpson disappointed (and infuriated) Chief Factor John McLoughlin by telling him he was planning to close down two or more of his beloved Northwest Coast posts — Forts McLoughlin and Taku– and build a new post on Camosun Inlet, on the southern end of Vancouver’s Island. Only Fort Simpson and the newly-acquired Stikine post would survive this purge. But that story is still in the future. Like the Fort Durham posts I have been writing, this blogpost is another continuation of: 

We will begin this blogpost with James Douglas’s return from his 1840 journey up the Northwest Coast (which is told in the previous post), but it is only the beginning of the story. All of these stories will eventually result in the building of Fort Victoria on southern Vancouver’s Island in 1843. And of course James Douglas’s return to Fort Vancouver only happened after he completed the construction of Fort Durham over the summer of 1840. You will find the beginning of the Fort Durham thread in the last blogpost as well, should you wish to follow it up. 

James Douglas returned to Fort Vancouver from the HBC’s Northwest Coast in October 1840, as is reported by Chief Factor John McLoughlin at Fort Vancouver. “He returned here on the 2d Oct. after having fully accomplished the object of his voyage, that is after visiting Sitka, receiving Stikine from the Russians, building a Fort at a place called Tako [Taku], and examining the Coast as far North as Cross Sound, and I am happy to be able to report that in our intercourse with the Russians we found them as Anxious to oblige and accommodate us as we could possibly desire.” Another letter written by John McLoughlin on March 20, 1841, says:

On the 2 October Mr. Chief Factor Douglas arrived from the North West Coast having received Stikine from the Russians, and which was placed under charge of Mr. W[illiam] G[len] Rae and Mr. John McLoughlin [Chief Factor McLoughlin’s son] as assistant, and erected a post nigh the entrance of the Tacow and named it Fort Durham, to which Mr. [Dr. John Frederick] Kennedy is appointed with Mr. R[oderick] Finlayson as his assistant, but I regret to observe we have been unable to discover that any route exists by which we could push our Trade to the Country between the Coast and MacKenzie’s River, and for further information in regard to his proceeding on the Coast, I beg to refer you to his able report which accompanied this, by which I am happy to learn in all our dealings with the Russians, we found them straight-forward men of business, at the same time most anxious to do all they could to oblige, consistent with their duty, and I beg to state, that I coincide in opinion with Mr. Douglas that we ought to erect an Establishment in Johnson’s Straits, on the north end of Vancouver’s Island. 

On March 20, 1841, Chief Factor John McLoughlin penned another note to Governor Simpson, saying “I notice with pleasure that we are to have a visit from you, and in the 72d Resolve of Council, I am directed to have two good Boats with the necessary Guides, Boutes, & Provisions at Boat Encampment on or before 20 Aug., 1841, but I beg to observe that I believe it is very difficult and indeed impossible for craft to ascend the Columbia to Boat Encampment, to be there by 20 August. But the Boats which go up in the Spring will be there, and the Guide who goes out with the Express will serve to bring you in and people coming in must form the Crews, but I think you ought not to attempt to come down at that season, as it is too dangerous, and I even doubt if it will be possible to cross the Rocky Mountains. When I came in 1839, though it was only a few days earlier than usual we had difficulty to cross the creeks in several places, and we had to cross our people on horseback at the Creek at the foot of the Grande Cote, where one of our men falling off his horse was nigh drowned, and in coming down the River, it was with the utmost difficulty our people in several places could prevent the Boats whirling round in the whirlpools. At the Rapid below the Rapide des Morts [Dalle des Morts], where our people were drowned in 1838, one of my Boats was carried into the Stream in spite of the people and filled. It is true you will not be so heavy loaded, but then how much higher will the water be? For these reasons, I think you ought to come across land from Edmonton to [Fort] Colvile, and for which purpose I write to Mr. Chief Trader [Archibald] McDonald to get a person well acquainted with the Country between the Kootenais & Colvile to serve as a Guide to the party, and send him out with the Express.”

Fortunately, Governor Simpson paid attention to McLoughlin’s letter. James Raffan’s book, Emperor of the North, tells us he came west on horseback, via the Bow River [in the Calgary area] to the present day site of Banff, passing Healy Creek, the Goat’s Eye Mountain, the height of land at “Simpson’s Pass,” and by following the Simpson and Vermillion Rivers to the Kootenay River and Lake, he eventually arrived at Fort Colvile. 

Simpson reached Fort Vancouver on August 25, 1841. On September 1, he left for his tour of inspection of all the posts on the Northwest Coast, travelling from Fort Nisqually in the Steamer Beaver, which although in bad shape had been patched up for the journey. At Sitka, the headquarters of the Russian American Company, Simpson completed the final negotiations on the agreement between the Russians and the HBC for the lease of Fort Stikine. On this tour he visited Forts McLoughlin, Simpson, and Durham [Taku]. He did not visit Fort Stikine, but Douglas had recently done so: he was at the post in the Beaver on Wednesday 16 August — the day after Governor Simpson reached Fort Vancouver. He must have been on his way back from Fort Durham, as the Fort Stikine post journals record that on:

Wednesday, 26th [August] — About 6 PM the Beaver made her appearance at 7, Mr. Douglas landed, the Fort of Taku is now finished. Dr. Kennedy not very well. All on board the Steamer in good health. 

Sat. 29th. The Beaver went off a little before 5 AM…

Fort Taku’s story is being told in this thread, should you want to visit that story:

So Douglas steamed south to Fort Nisqually in the Beaver, and picking up Governor Simpson and his companions [one of whom was John Rowand of Edmonton House, I believe], headed north the the northwest coast once again. A short while after Douglas’s first visit, however, the Fort Stikine Post Journal had recorded an event that had occurred at Fort Taku [“Shakes” or Seix, is the Stikine Chief who drove Peter Skene Ogden away from the mouth of the Stikine River in 1834, and Robert Campbell almost did not survive his meeting with Shakes only a few months later, when he met him at the annual rendezvous of coastal and interior tribes at the headwaters of the Stikine River]. John McLoughlin Jr. wrote: 

On the 22nd [October] received a letter from [Dr. J. F.] Kennedy by Shakes’s wife, they nearly had a serious affair there, the Dr. got a great many kicks & Mr. [Roderick] Finlayson fared no better, they unfortunately went outside and struck an Indian when they were overpowered by numbers — for the season the winter has been poor — what little rain we have falling generally during the night. Shakes’s wife says the Chilcats intend taking Fort Durham…  

(The Chilcats were a Tlingit tribe from Lynn Canal, on the coast, who traded in the interior with the Northern Tutchone and others: they were the same people who, in 1852, destroyed Robert Campbell’s Fort Selkirk, on the Yukon River. All these stories are connected, as you see.)

So, to continue with Governor Simpson’s tour of the northwest coast posts with James Douglas, it becomes clear that Simpson left John McLoughlin Jr. out of any of the conferences he was having with other men in charge of the Northwest Coast posts — according to the Fort Stikine post journals, Simpson did not visit in either September or October. Simpson was not, however, planning to shut down this newly-acquired post, or at least not at this time.  

Simpson visited Fort McLoughlin on several occasions, but there are no records for this period of time. He found the post’s gentleman-in-charge, Charles Ross, in poor shape and suffering from some kind of a nervous condition. Some time later he wrote a letter to Ross from Red River, telling him that “I am exceedingly happy to find that you were in better health & spirits than when I had the pleasure of seeing you at Fort McLoughlin, when I was exceedingly anxious about you, and was really glad when information reached me that you had got over the nervous state in which I was sorry to see you when we last parted.” (There is a really interesting explanation for Ross’s nervous condition, but I am not telling you this now.)

Simpson’s letter to Charles Ross also included this information, referencing an earlier Charles Ross letter written from Fort Victoria in 1843. This Ross letter directly refers to his regret at Simpson’s decision to close down Fort McLoughlin. Simpson replied:

I am quite surprised to notice by your letter of April 1843 that you express regret at removing from Fort McLoughlin, which proves that “habit is second nature,” as it was decidedly the most dismal, gloomy place I was ever in, and surrounded by the most cut-throat looking rascals I think I ever met with.

So back to 1841: The Fort Durham journals also no longer exist (I was really disappointed to learn that), but the Fort Simpson post journals record Simpson’s 1841 arrivals and departures from that post.: 

17 Friday [September]. Fine clear weather, people variously employed in the afternoon, when they began cutting firewood for the steamer, which arrived here at 4 pm, Governor Simpson, Chief Factors Rowand, & Douglas [and possibly Dr. Rowand?] & a Russian Gentleman on board…

18 Saturday [September]… Indians taking off the same to Steamer — which left here for the Northward at 1 pm with the above gentlemen all on board….

5 October… The Beaver made her appearance about 10 am by her Roderick Finlayson arrived [from Fort Durham] who remains at this place, Mr. McDonald [of Fort Simpson] having left for Vancouver. The Steamer received a supply of sundry articles for the trade. The Governor and such were on shore, and embarked again late in the evening…

6 October… Early this morning the Beaver started from here amid a heavy shower of rain, notwithstanding the gloominess of this weather she continued onwards.

By the way, the gentleman who replaced Roderick Finlayson at Fort Durham was John O’Brien, and here is his story: As you can see, he appears in all my stories!

On his return to Fort Vancouver in late October, 1841, Simpson told Chief Factor John McLoughlin what his plans were for the Northwest Coast posts. As mentioned above, he had decided to close two (or more) of them down, and have the steamer Beaver run up and down the coast to service the First Nations people that were left behind. Simpson considered that the deal with the Russian American Company (which included the leasing of Fort Stikine at the mouth of the Stikine River) had completely destroyed any competition for furs on the Northwest Coast, and that so many fur trade posts were both expensive in manpower, and unnecessary, when the steamer Beaver could do the work of collecting furs as easily as the men on the ground could. 

But Chief Factor McLoughlin was upset and angry. He loved his fur trade posts and felt strongly that they were the best way to collect furs from the First Nations people on the Northwest Coast. He loathed the Beaver, which he called a “travelling circus,” and he had literally planned to convert it to a sailing ship. And now the hated Beaver was becoming even more important to the fur trade on the Northwest Coast, and his posts were being closed down.

Most upsetting of all, perhaps, was that John McLoughlin felt that Governor Simpson had made all these important decisions behind his back and without consulting with him. But he himself had declined to accompany Simpson on this journey up the Northwest Coast, and, as Governor Simpson said, he [Simpson] had made these decisions while journeying up and down the Northwest Coast in the Beaver.  

In his letter from Fort Vancouver, written in November 1841, Governor Simpson expressed his opinion that: “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, as I am of opinion that the establishments of Fort McLoughlin, Stikine, & Taco [Durham] might be abandoned without any injury to the trade, and that the establishment of Fort Simpson alone, with the Beaver, Steamer, will answer every necessary & useful purpose in watching and collecting the trade of the whole of that line of Coast, the transport of the supplies and returns to be accomplished in one trip of a sailing vessel from Fort Vancouver to Fort Simpson.”

And so Simpson’s plans were that ALL the furs collected from ALL the places where McLoughlin’s Northwest Coast posts had previously stood would be picked up by the Beaver and stored at Fort Simpson, from whence the annual London ship would collect them every summer. Simple, cost-effective, and time-saving. The Beaver would likely spend its summer on the coast, and would only occasionally travel south to Fort Nisqually to deliver correspondence and reports, and to pick up a new stock of trade goods. Simpson’s letter continues:

Under this arrangement, the steamer would be constantly employed in visiting the principal trading stations between the Quakeolth [Kwakwaka’wakw] village [Bella Bella/Fort McLoughlin] in about Lat. 50 degrees, 30 minutes, to the Northward of the Johnston’s Straits, & Cape Spencer, the Northern entrance of Cross Sound [Fort Durham]. These stations she could visit at stated intervals, six times a year, which would be sufficiently often for the purpose of collecting the trade and of supplying the Indians, and would be more convenient to the natives, generally, than the permanent trading establishments now occupied, which many of the more remote Indians are unable to visit.

It was a good plan. Simpson knew that McLoughlin was angry, but of course believed that he would come around. As we know, he did not. And this story will continue in the next post, which you will find here, when published:

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

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