Vancouver’s Island fort

Fort George [Astoria]

Fort George [Astoria], west of Fort Vancouver and at the mouth of the Columbia River, where James Birnie spent many years in the service of the HBC. Image from Library and Archives Canada, number C-040856, and used with their permission.

This post is about the Vancouver’s Island fort that will soon be built and, eventually, named Fort Victoria. This series of posts began at and it continues on from this post, — So, here we have the next section of the long journey up and down the northwest coast, and the various conferences and decisions made at Fort Vancouver by Governor Simpson, which he shared with Chief Factor John McLoughlin — the man who was to follow his course of instruction. As you can guess, this will result in the building of a new fort on Vancouver’s Island — to be called Fort Victoria. But we are not there yet. 

It is Winter 1841-January 1842. Governor Simpson had returned to Fort Vancouver from his journey up the Northwest Coast in late October, 1841. Over the next month or two, Governor Simpson told John McLoughlin what his plans were for the Northwest Coast posts, and for new post on Vancouver’s Island as well. Of course 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 up and down the coast. But Simpson disagreed with McLoughlin, as you know from the last post in this series.

Governor Simpson believed John McLoughlin would become reconciled to his plan for the Northwest Coast posts, but he did not. In a private letter to Andrew Colvile (now the Deputy Governor of the London Committee), Simpson said: “The Dr. [McLoughlin] is as much opposed to the abandonment of the posts on the Northwest Coast, noticed in the General dispatch, as he has all along been to the Steamer & for no other reason that I can discover, than that the measure did not originate with himself. To do him justice, however, although he never ceases talking about any measures which are forced upon him, he nevertheless pushes them when determined upon, with as much energy as if his own.” But Governor Simpson was an insensitive men, and James Douglas knew how disappointed McLoughlin was, and why, and pointed out to Simpson that:

You seem to think that the Doctor is laboring under some extraordinary delusion…, but to me his feelings appear perfectly natural and pretty much the same as would be excited in the mind of any other person in such circumstances: the slashing paragraphs in our report, denouncing abuses on shore and afloat gave him inexpressible pain, as they were so many indirect attacks on his management, and he lost thereby, in the exact ration that you acquired merit. In some points of that sort, your remarks were rather severe…

Simpson was called the Little Emperor for a good reason: he was not known for his gentle tongue, nor for his understanding and sympathetic treatment of the men who worked under him. Not only that, but Simpson added fuel to the flames of McLoughlin’s anger by suggesting that a new fort (perhaps a new headquarters) was to be built on Vancouver’s Island. These arguments were still unsettled when Simpson and McLoughlin sailed for California and then the Sandwich Islands in the Cowlitz. It was Simpson’s plan that he and McLoughlin would have their final conference in the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii].

As we know from another thread on this website, on February 13, 1842, Thomas Lowe arrived at the Sandwich Islands in the London Ship Vancouver, on his way to Fort Vancouver. In his journal he wrote: “There were three American vessels lying in the Harbour and one of the Company’s Vessels, the Cowlitz, commanded by Captain Brotchie, which had arrived two days ago from California, bringing Sir George Simpson (the Governor), Dr. McLoughlin (in command of Fort Vancouver), and 4 or 5 other Gentlemen in the service.” Lowe was completely unaware that at this time Simpson and McLoughlin were conferring on the future of the Hudson’s Bay Company on the Northwest Coast. In the end, however, Lowe was

very much surprised when Sir George Simpson, handing me an open note addressed to Captain [William] Brotchie, desired me to give it to him, but in the first place to read it myself. On reading it I found that Captain Brotchie was requested to receive me and my luggage immediately on board the Cowlitz, as I was to take passage in her, but where he did not at the time think proper to tell me…

And so, the Vancouver sailed for Fort Vancouver with Chief Factor John McLoughlin, and Thomas Lowe sailed away from the Sandwich Islands with Governor Simpson in the Cowlitz, on Thursday, March 17.

But back to the conference on the Sandwich Islands: Any letter I write about here was written during or after one or the other meeting that Simpson had with McLoughlin: they discussed things; Simpson then gave his orders to McLoughlin verbally; and then Simpson wrote a letter and handed it to McLoughlin (with a copy kept for himself), so that everyone knew what Simpson had decided. That’s generally how the HBC worked: everyone had copies of all written instructions so that everyone knew what was supposed to happen. Anyway, on March 1, 1842, either during or after the conference, Governor Simpson wrote a letter to John McLoughlin that told McLoughlin that his [Simpson’s] decisions on the Northwest Coast posts remained unaltered. They would be closed down, as he instructed. Later, in the same letter he wrote:

You will observe that I have pointed out the expediency of forming a depot as early as possible at the Southern end of Vancouver’s Island… and I have now to request the favor, that you will take the necessary steps to have the Southern end of Vancouver’s Island very particularly examined in the course of the ensuing Summer, in order that a proper place may be selected, combining, if possible, 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, abundance of timber for Home Consumption and Exportation, and the adjacent country well adapted for tillage and pasture farms on an extensive Scale; and as the selection of the locality is a matter of much importance, I have to beg that it be made either by yourself of Chief Factor Douglas. A complement of from 40 to 50 officers and men will be required for the establishment for a year or two, until the natives become reconciled to our presence among them; and as it may be inexpedient to abandon at one end, and at the same time, the three posts, say Fort McLoughlin, Stikine, and Taku [Fort Durham]– that of Stikine may be continued during the year 1843, but the other two posts, say Fort McLoughlin and Taku, you will be pleased to abandon, removing the officers and people of those establishments to the new depot, and the people so removed, with about ten more from Vancouver, will be an ample complement for the new Establishment, which I have to beg may be placed under Chief Factor Douglas.

And so, from early days, the new fort on Vancouver’s Island, that eventually became Fort Victoria, was placed under the charge of Chief Factor James Douglas, and John McLoughlin had absolutely no involvement nor interest in it. That his why his letters contain so little information about early Fort Victoria!

There’s more to the story: When Simpson handed out those instructions, it was early 1842. James Douglas was to explore for a location for the new fort on Vancouver’s Island in summer 1842. [Did you notice that Governor Simpson was already thinking of timber for exportation?] In summer 1843 Forts McLoughlin and Taku would be closed down and the men removed to the new fort on Vancouver’s Island, with the additional help of ten men from Fort Vancouver. Fort Stikine, the fort that was newly acquired from the Russians, would be allowed to remain open for a year or two longer, before being closed down, with John McLoughlin Jr. coming south. The only Northwest coast post to remain open would be Fort Simpson, and it would be used as a summer headquarters for the Beaver and a place where the captain of the ship could store both additional supplies for trade, and the furs that she collected from the various trading locations (mostly from where the old forts had once stood).

And then, something else happened at this exact time, which complicated everything! On April 21, 1842, John McLoughlin Jr. was murdered at Fort Stikine. The first to hear of it was Governor Simpson, who arrived at Fort Durham on April 24, 1842, where he dropped off Thomas Lowe. Simpson then sailed for Fort Stikine, arriving there on April 25. From Fort Durham, Thomas Lowe reported that, on arriving at Fort Stikine, Governor Simpson learned

that there had been a wild disturbance in the garrison, and that the gentleman in charge, Mr. John McLoughlin (a son of Dr. McLoughlin), had been shot and killed by one of the men, a French Canadian named Urbain Heroux. The Indians had also assembled to the number of about 2,000 to take the Fort and help themselves to the goods and ammunition. He (Sir George) arrived just in time to prevent such a catastrophe, and was able to make arrangements with the Indian Chiefs so as to place things on their former footing. He put Mr. Charles Dodd, chief mate of the Cowlitz, in charge of the Fort, giving him as assistant Mr. George Blenkinsop, a well-educated young man then serving as an ordinary seaman on the Cowlitz.... Sir George Simpson returned to Sitka (taking Heroux with him, to be tried in Canada), and then proceeded on his voyage to Ochotsk [Russia], and from thence overland through Siberia.

 Governor Simpson departed Fort Stikine on April 28. The day before he left, he addressed two letters to John McLoughlin and gave them to the captain of the Cowlitz to deliver on his return to Fort Vancouver. The first was an official report which summed up the conditions he found at the post. It read: “On arrival (from Taco on the Evening of the 25th) off the little Anchorage at this place, my mind was filled with apprehension that all was not right, by observing that both the English and Russian flags on the Fort were at half mast high, and that Mr. John McLoughlin, the Gentleman left in charge, did not appear on the platform… I shall not distress you by a detail of the occurrences of that memorable and fatal night for which I must refer you to the accompanying Depositions of Philip Smith, Thomas McPherson, Benoni Fleury, and George Heron. From all I can collect, the whole conduct & management of Mr. McLoughlin were exceedingly bad, and his violence when under the influence of liquor, which was very frequently the case, amounting to insanity…”

The second letter Simpson wrote to McLoughlin was a private note that has been lost but which apparently pressed McLoughlin to not press for an inquiry. McLoughlin did not receive those letters and depositions until sometime in June 1842, when the Cowlitz returned from its journey north. We all know what happened to McLoughlin: his grief broke him. If you want to learn more about this story, pick up Deborah Komar’s book, The Bastard of Fort Stikine: The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Murder of John McLoughlin Jr.

On May 18, Simpson coldly advised McLoughlin by letter,

The further information I have acquired in reference to the Fur trade of this Coast is confirmatory of that which I previously received as to the total uselessness & waste of means that would be incurred by maintaining the posts of Fort McLoughlin and Taku [Durham]. You will, therefore, be pleased to take the necessary steps to abandon those posts in the course of next Summer, 1843, but the post Stikine, under proper management, may I understand be maintained with advantage & that of Ft. Simpson is necessary for the proper conducting of the business of the Coast, but of course it is to be understood that the Steamer is to be kept in constant operation, & if actively employed, she will be found quite equal to all the inland navigation transport work from the depot in the Straits of [Juan] de Fuca, including Puget Sound and Fraser’s River, up to Cape Spencer [where Fort Durham, the northernmost post, stood] so that no sailing vessel need ever enter that inland navigation, or come to the Northward of the Straits of de Fuca, except when required for transport to Sitka.

Governor Simpson’s mind was firmly made up, and John McLoughlin must follow his lead. As we know, he argued every step of the way for his beloved posts, and James Douglas was in charge of the closing down of the northwest coast posts, and the building of the new post on Vancouver’s Island.

When the next post in this series is written, it will be published here:  

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

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