Old Fort Simpson

Fur trade building at Fort Langley

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

The work of building the new Fort Simpson continued, with clerk James Birnie keeping the post journal and taking overall charge of building the new post on the northwest coast, and Alexander Anderson and William Fraser Tolmie acting as construction managers. Peter Skene Ogden, who was in charge of the entire project of moving the old Fort Simpson’s goods and buildings to the location of the new Fort Simpson, was kept busy in the Dryad. It is 1834, and the old fort was to be abandoned, and the new Fort Simpson would stand on McLoughlin’s Harbour for many years to come. So let’s continue with this sometimes exciting story!

For the most part, the lives of these HBC men — gentlemen and employees — was mundane, involving a lot of skilled, but heavy work from the gang of experienced fort builders. On Monday, August 4, the men dug trenches in which to place the pickets that would surround the post. “Discovered some clay on the small island which, although considerably mixed with sand, will probably serve for making chimney,” the writer of the post journal, James Birnie, noted. On Wednesday, August 6, two men squared posts for the fort gate. “Discharged two rafts at the fort composed of 200 pickets from island.” They were at last ready to erect the palisades around the fort — a big job indeed! On Friday August 8, the post journal recorded that:

Fifteen men employed carrying. Finishing squaring gate posts. Discharged a raft 700 pickets. Unfortunately our boat got adrift at night, and we have as yet not been able to find her. Borrowed a boat from Capt. Dominis and searched in all the adjacent bays where it was likely to find her; and offered a reward to Indians if they are successful in searching.

The boat never did show up. The men continued to raft pickets from the island to the fort, and curious First Nations men visited, but brought no skins to trade. The Bolivar (Captain John Dominis’s ship) took her departure on Thursday, August 14, and the HBC men received a note from Peter Skene Ogden which told them that the Dryad had arrived at old Fort Simpson on August 11, having been storm-bound by a S.E. gale at Tongas, across the water in what is now the Alaska Panhandle. On August 16, the men began installing the pickets that were to surround the fort. On August 17, Ogden and the Dryad returned to the new Fort Simpson, and on the day following the flooring was installed in the house they must have brought down from old Fort Simpson on their first trip. Maurice, who had arrived with the Dryad, and another man, were employed cutting alder for making coal for the blacksmith, and two more men were employed making a cellar under the store-house. 

On August 20 and 21 the new Fort Simpson received the remainder of the Dryad‘s goods, brought down from old Fort Simpson. In his journals, Dr. William Fraser Tolmie recorded that on her first journey to old Fort Simpson, the Dryad had met with foul weather off McLoughlin Bay (the harbour or bay on which the new Fort Simpson was being built), but “she proceeded to Nass after her return to Tumgass [Tongas] where she had found the American vessel Europa.” At this period of time, the Americans were a real nuisance on the coast, as you see from the presence of the Europa, and Capt. Dominis’s ship, Bolivar Liberator. The HBC men eventually drove the Americans away from the northwest coast, but that was not yet, and competition between the HBC and the Americans was intense, though friendly. 

The Dryad returned to the new post in late August, after a three-week absence. On the evening of August 30, she was ready to depart again for Nass, when, as William Fraser Tolmie says, “an express arrived from Mr. [Alexander] Kennedy, stating that one of the men the day before has sustained a compound fracture of the leg — and another a fracture of skull, and a request that I should be sent up with surgical instruments as he had none. Embarked half an hour after and with a favourable wind we sailed.” And so, on August 30, Dr. Tolmie was on his way to old Fort Simpson.  

From the logs of the Dryad: On its first journey up the channel, the Dryad had first arrived at old Fort Simpson on July 16. On the following day the men cleaned the ship and re-arranged the goods that were in the hold, to make more room. They took in timber and bales of goods from the old Fort Simpson, and by Saturday they had stored, in addition to timber and deals, “24 bails and other trading goods for the new fort, which completed the hole [hold].” Deals, in the HBC, always referred to cut lumber, planed floor boards, and such.

So here are the incidents that took place at the old Fort Simpson, the fort which was now being abandoned, after Dr. Tolmie arrived at the place. These stories are taken firstly, from the logs of the Dryad, and later from Dr. William Fraser Tolmie’s now-published journal, Physician and Fur Trader: the journals of William Fraser Tolmie, edited by Janet R. Mitchell, and published by Mitchell Press in 1963.

Dr. Tolmie arrived at the old Fort Simpson with the Dryad on its second voyage up the channel to Nass Bay and the old fort, sailing, as he said above, on August 30. He actually did not arrive in the ship, which was becalmed halfway up the channel — likely a common occurrence, and another good reason for moving the fort. “Next morning,” Tolmie wrote in his journal, “started in the gig with four landsmen sent up to assist and arrived at [old] Fort Simpson at noon — passed a great number of seals in going.” Fortunately on his arrival he found that the man with the supposed fracture of the cranium had recovered, although he had been stunned. The other man, however, had a “supposed transverse fracture of both bones of leg at the lower third with a longitudinal wound near spine of Tibia about an inch long.”

Tolmie had little to do at old Fort Simpson but look after his patient. He reported, however, on the incidents that occurred as the old Fort Simpson was being closed down. “On Saturday morning rum had been sold to the Indians and some of them getting intoxicated were very turbulent…” His story indicates, perhaps, that the Tsms’yen people had become aware that the fort was being moved from their territory, which was a blow to their status as middle-men in trade with other tribes in the region. It was a very dangerous situation: outside the fort walls, emotions were running high: inside, the HBC men took every precaution to keep themselves safe. According to Tolmie, however, the bastions had already been dismantled and stored aboard the Dryad. His journal continues:

and from noon to sunset when we embarked we were all under arms and in momentary expectation of having to fight our way on board or being butchered on the spot. They attempted frequently to beat down the slight barricade raised on the site of the bastions, but were deterred on seeing us ready with firearms to send a volley among the intruders. About a dozen or twenty Indians with muskets were posted on a hill immediately behind, from whence they could fire with deadly effect into the Fort at any part. Outside the pickets they were numerous and armed with guns, boarding pikes, and knives, and endeavouring by their savage whoops and yells to intimidate us. 

For a little while it appeared that the excitement at old Fort Simpson was waning. In what seemed to be a lull, the HBC men carried some more loads down to the shoreline, to be transported to the ship:

Owing to a temporary lull in the clamour outside, [we] ventured to send a few articles to the boats which were in waiting at the beach, one or two had passed down with wooden utensils unmolested — no Indians appearing in sight. Another man was proceeding with a barrel full of miscellaneous articles, and unheeded when at once several armed villains rushed out from amongst the bushes — and one more inebriated and thence more daring than the rest seized the barrel and with drawn dagger drove the man from his charge. He returned to the fort and first meeting me I went out, but seeing the savage advancing with his knife aloft in a menacing attitude I stepped slowly to the gate and procured a cutlass from the door-keeper.

How interesting: it does seem that cutlasses were a standard part of the weaponry that all these fur trade forts stocked! I only noticed them when they arrived at Fort Victoria from the northwest coast. But to continue with Dr. Tolmie’s story:

Thus armed I walked toward the Indian who was surrounded by his friends persuading him to desist, and at the same time Kennedy issued and addressed the savages — the barrel was followed to the beach in the meantime without molestation. Soon after a gun was fired from the woods at one of the people employed at the strand, the ball whizzing past his ear. Everything of value having been already embarked, no further attempts were made to ship what remained. Red Shirt, the Indian just mentioned, was (to prevent his doing mischief outside) admitted into the fort and was immediately assailed by Caxetan, the chief, with a volley of abuse for his conduct. From words they soon came to blows. Red Shirt’s dagger was prevented from doing mischief by two sober Indians, Jones and Couguele, but being a tough active fellow he still retained it in his grasp, and managed with the other hand most cruelly to abuse Caxetan’s visage, who, on his part fought bravely tooth and nail, considerably damaging his opponent’s visual organs. Mr. Ogden at length got Caxetan and Jones to accompany him on board [the Dryad], and once there retained them as hostages for our safety.

Now [we] prepared to abandon the Fort and held a debate as to the propriety of leaving behind a cask containing 25 gallons Indian Rum. It was left, Kennedy being the only person who wished to take it along with us. Took the precaution of drawing the priming from all the superfluous muskets after each man had been provided with one. As soon as the gate was opened, the armed natives collected around. I went out first and stood at the threshold until the last person had issued. The natives then rushed in to pillage and we reached the boat unmolested.

The two chiefs, Caxetan, and Jones, were released from their temporary detainment as hostages for the HBC men’s safety, and afterwards impressed the HBC men with their behaviour, as Dr. Tolmie reports:

Soon after to our astonishment, Caxetan and Jones from the bank shouted to us, that they wished us to send the boat for the Rum, and on our refusing, offered to bring it on board themselves. They were then told to appropriate it to themselves, and on this intelligence brought the rum on board to be divided by us. This act proved them to be possessed of more prudence and foresight than we would have given them credit for. Had the division been made amongst themselves, bloodshed would in all likelihood have ensued.

All night constant hammering was kept up in the deserted fort and dawn revealed several gaps in the pickets made by those who were intent on procuring the iron spikes which attached the pickets to the bars. 

They would trade these spikes at the new fort. Clearly, these posts were not built entirely without nails, if you count spikes as nails!

It blew a NE. We set sail soon after daybreak, bidding adieu without regret to the inhospitable regime of Nass, and in the evening after a pleasant sail, anchored in McLoughlin’s Harbour, at the new fort.

According to the Fort Simpson post journal, work continued at the new fort during Tolmie’s absence. The men carried up all the pieces of the big house (that is, the gentleman’s house) from the old fort, and began fitting the back pickets (presumably those that would protect the rear of the fort). It rained heavily, which delayed the work somewhat, but they finished fitting in the back pickets and began on those that protected the west side of the fort. It does not appear to take long to install pickets around a post, as on Tuesday, August 28, the west side was completed. On August 30 all the pickets were installed, and the fort was close to being fully protected. On August 31, the Dryad arrived with the last load of goods from old Fort Simpson, and the post journal tells us that: 

Dr. [Alexander] Kennedy came on shore with family — also 18 men. The Indians offered much obstruction to our people before they embarked yesterday, which [finally] they succeeded in doing without bloodshed. Received on shore the bones of the late Lieutenant [Aemilius] Simpson & of the children of Mr. [Donald] Manson & [Joseph] Prevost, which were disinterred at Nass & are brought down to be reburied here.

You will remember that I introduced you to Lieutenant Aemilius Simpson in my book, The York Factory Express, in which you read his journals. In the closing of the book I talk about the constant state of wars between the Americans and the American Indians, and I said: “This had its effect on some gentlemen of the fur trade, who anticipated the HBC’s decline and moved on — if they lived long enough…

Lieutenant Aemilius Simpson, for example, did not survive for many years after he arrived at Fort Vancouver. He captained the ships that helped build the lower Fraser River posts of Fort Langley in 1827, and the first Northwest Coast post, Fort Simpson, in spring 1831. On that voyage he sickened and died of liver disease, and his body was buried outside the gates of the post.

And now his body, and those of two children who also died at the post, were brought ashore and re-buried outside the gates of the new Fort Simpson. All these stories are connected.

If you want to order The York Factory Express, to learn a little more about Aemilius Simpson, than do so here: http://ronsdalepress.com/york-factory-express-the/ 

When I write the next blogpost in this series, which will be the final post, it will appear here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/whatever-i-call-it/ 

And if you want to go back to the first post in the series, go here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/fort-simpson/

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