Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

Sir James Douglas

Extension of trade in New Caledonia—The Western Department— Fort Vancouver built—Governor's residence and Bachelor's Hall—Fort Colville—James Douglas, a man of note—A dignified official—An Indian rising—A brave woman—The fertile Columbia Valley—Finlayson, a man of action—Russian fur traders—Treaty of Alaska—Lease of Alaska to the Hudson's Bay Company—Fort Langley—The great farm—Black at Kamloops—Fur trader v. botanist—"No soul above a beaver's skin"—A tragic death—Chief Nicola's eloquence—A murderer's fate.

The great exploration early in the century secured the Pacific Slope very largely to the North-West Company. Several of their most energetic agents, as the names of the rivers running into the Pacific Ocean show, had made a deep impression on the region even as far south as the mouth of the Columbia River. On the union of the North-West and Hudson's Bay Companies, Governor Simpson threw as much energy into the development of trade in the country on the western side of the Rocky Mountains as if he had been a thorough-going Nor'-Wester.

In his administration from ocean to ocean he divided the trading territory into four departments, viz. Montreal, the Southern, the Northern, and the Western. In each of these there were four factors, and these were, in the Western or Rocky Mountain department, subject to one chief. Under the chief factor the gradation was chief trader, chief clerk, apprenticed clerk, postmaster, interpreter, voyageur, and labourer.

This fuller organization and the cessation of strife resulted in a great increase of the trade of the Hudson's Bay Company on the coast as well as the east side of the Rocky Mountains. The old fort of Astoria, which was afterwards known as Fort George, was found too far from the mountains for the convenience of the fur traders. Accordingly in 1824-5, a new fort was erected on the north side of the Columbia River, six miles above its Junction with the Willamette River. The new fort was called Fort Vancouver, and was built on a prairie slope about one mile back from the river, but it was afterwards moved nearer the river bank. The new site was very convenient for carrying on the overland traffic to Puget Sound. This fort was occupied for twenty-three years, until international difficulties rendered its removal necessary.

Fort Vancouver was of considerable size, its stockade measuring 750 ft. in length and 600 ft. in breadth. The Governor's residence, Bachelor's Hall, and numerous other buildings made up a considerable establishment. About the fort a farm was under cultivation to the extent of fifteen hundred acres, and a large number of cattle, sheep, and horses were bred upon it and supplied the trade carried on with the Russians in the Far North.

Farther up the Columbia River, where the Walla Walla River emptied in, a fort was constructed in 1818. The material for this fort was brought a considerable distance, and being in the neighbourhood of troublesome tribes of Indians, care was taken to make the fort strong and defensible.

Still further up the Columbia River and near the mountains, an important post, Fort Colville, was built. This fort became the depot for all the trade done on the Columbia River; and from this point the brigade which had been organized at Fort Vancouver made its last call before undertaking the steep mountain climb which was necessary in order that by the middle of March it might reach Norway House and be reported at the great summer meeting of the fur traders' council there. This task needed a trusty leader, and for many years Chief Factor, afterward Sir James, Douglas became the man on whom Governor and Council depended to do this service.

The mention of the name of James Douglas brings before us the greatest and most notable man developed by the fur trade of the Pacific slope. The history of this leader was for fifty years after the coalition of the Companies in 1821, the history of the Hudson's Bay Company on the Pacific.

Born near the beginning of the century, a scion of the noble house of Douglas, young Douglas emigrated to Canada, entered the North-West Company, learned French as if by magic, and though little more than a lad, at once had heavy responsibilities thrown upon him. He was enterprising and determined, with a judicious mixture of prudence. He had capital business talents and an adaptability that stood him in good stead in dealing with Indians. The veteran Chief Factor, McLoughlin, who had served his term in the Nor'-Wester service about Lake Superior and Lake Nepigon, was appointed to the charge of the Pacific or Western District. He discerned the genius of his young subordinate, and with the permission of the directors in London, after a short interval, took Douglas west of the mountains to the scene of his future successes. The friendship . between these chiefs of the Pacific Coast was thus early begun, and they together did much to mould the British interests on the Pacific Coast into a comely shape.

While McLoughlin crossed at once to the Columbia and took charge of Fort Vancouver, he directed Douglas to go north to New Caledonia, or what is now Northern British Columbia, to learn the details of the fur trade of the mountains. Douglas threw himself heartily into every part of his work. He not only learned the Indian languages, and used them to advantage in the advancement of the fur trade, but studied successfully the physical features of the country and became an authority on the Pacific Slope which proved of greatest value to the Company and the country for many a day.

Douglas had as his head-quarters Fort St. James, near the outlet of Stuart Lake, i.e. just west of the summit of the Rocky Mountains. He determined to enforce law and do away with the disorder which prevailed in the district. An Indian, who some time before had murdered one of the servants of the Hudson's Bay Company, had been allowed to go at large. Judgment being long deferred, the murderer thought himself likely to be unmolested, and visited Stuart Lake. Douglas, learning of his presence, with a weak garrison seized the criminal and visited vengeance on him. The Indians were incensed, but knowing that they had to deal with a doughty Douglas, employed stratagem in their reprisals. The old chief came very humbly to the fort and, knocking at the gate, was given admittance. He talked the affair over with Douglas, and the matter seemed in a fair way to be settled when another knock was heard at the gate. The chief stated that it was his brother who sought to be admitted. The gate was opened, when in rushed the whole of the Nisqually tribe. McLean vividly describes the scene which ensued: "The men of the fort were overpowered ere they had time to stand on their defence. Douglas, however, seized a wall-piece that was mounted in the hall, and was about to discharge it on the crowd that was pouring in upon him, when the chief seized him by the hands and held him fast. For an instant his life was in the utmost peril, surrounded by thirty or forty Indians, their knives drawn, and brandishing them over his head with frantic gestures, and calling out to the chief, "Shall we strike? Shall we strike?"

The chief hesitated, and at this critical moment the interpreter's wife (daughter of an old trader, James McDougall) stepped forward, and by her presence of mind saved him and the establishment.

"Observing one of the inferior chiefs, who had always professed the greatest friendship for the whites, standing in the crowd, she addressed herself to him, exclaiming, 'What! you a friend of the whites, and not say a word in their behalf at such a time as this! Speak! You know the murderer deserved to die; according to your own laws the deed was just; it is blood for blood. The white men are not dogs; they love their own kindred as well as you; why should they not avenge their murder?'"

The moment the heroine's voice was heard the tumult subsided; her boldness struck the savages with awe. The chief she addressed, acting on her suggestion, interfered, and being seconded by the old chief, who had no serious intention of injuring the whites, and was satisfied with showing them that they were fairly in his power, Douglas and his men were sot at liberty, and an amicable conference having taken place, the Indians departed much elated with the issue of their enterprise.

Douglas spent his four years in the interior in a most interesting and energetic life. The experience there gained was invaluable in his after career as a fur trader. In 1826, at Bear Lake, at the head of a branch of the River Skeena, he built a fort, which he named Fort Connolly, in honour of his superior officer, the chief of the Pacific department. Other forts in this region date their origin to Douglas's short stay in this part of the mountains. Douglas also had an "affair of the heart" while at Fort St. James. Young and impressionable, ho fell in love with Nellie, the daughter of Mr. Connolly, a young "daughter of the country," aged sixteen. She became his wife and survived him as Lady Douglas.

His life of adventure in the Rocky Mountains came to an end by the summons of Chief Factor McLoughlin to appear at Fort Vancouver, the chief point of the Company's trade on the Pacific slope. In two years more the rising young officer became chief trader, and three years afterward he had reached the high dignity of chief factor. His chief work was to establish forts, superintend the trade in its different departments, and inspect the forts at least annually. His vigilance and energy were surprising. He became so noted that it was said of him: "He was one of the most enterprising and inquisitive of men, famous for his intimate acquaintance with every service of the coast."

Though James Douglas rose by well marked tokens of leadership to the chief place on the Pacific Coast, yet the men associated with him were a worthy and able band. His friend, Chief Factor Dr. John McLoughlin, who had been his patron, was a man of excellent ability. McLoughlin was of a sympathetic and friendly disposition, and took an interest in the settlement of the fertile valley of the Columbia. His course seems to have been disapproved of by the London Committee of the Company, and his place was given to Douglas, after which he spent his life in Oregon. His work and influence cannot, however, be disregarded. He passed through many adventures and dangers. He was fond of show, and had a manner which might well recommend him to Sir George Simpson, Governor-in-Chief.

From a trader's journal we learn: "McLoughlin and his suite would sometimes accompany the south-bound expeditions from Fort Vancouver, in regal state, for fifty or one hundred miles up the Willamette, when he would dismiss them with his blessing and return to the fort. He did not often travel, and seldom far ; but on these occasions he indulged his men rather than himself in some little variety. ... It pleased Mrs. McLoughlin thus to break the monotony of her fort life. Upon a gaily-caparisoned steed, with silver trappings and strings of bells on bridle reins and saddle skirt, sat the lady of Fort Vancouver, herself arrayed in brilliant colours and wearing a smile which might cause to blush and hang its head the broadest, warmest, and most fragrant sunflower. By her side, also gorgeously attired, rode her lord, king of the Columbia, and every inch a king, attended by a train of trappers, under a chief trader, each upon his best behaviour."

But a group of men, notable and competent, gathered around these two leaders of the fur trade on the Pacific Coast. These comprised Roderick Finlayson, John Work, A. C. Anderson, W. F. Tolmie, John Tod, S. Black, and others. These men, in charge of important posts, were local magnates, and really, gathered together in council, determined the policy of the Company along the whole coast.

In 1827 the spirit of extension of the trading operations took possession of the Hudson's Bay Company. In that year the officers at Fort Vancouver saw arrive from the Thames the schooner Cadboro, seventy-two tons burthen. She became as celebrated on the Pacific Coast as any prominent fur trader could have become. It was said of this good ship, "She saw buried every human body brought by her from England, save one, John Spence, ship carpenter." Her arrival at this time was the occasion for an expedition to occupy the Lower Fraser with a trading post. John McMillan commanded the expedition of twenty-five men. Leaving Fort Vancouver in boats, and, after descending the Columbia for a distance, crossing the country to Pugot's Sound, they met the Cadboro, which had gone upon her route. Transported to the mouth of the Fraser River, which empties into the Gulf of Georgia, they, with some difficulty, ascended the river and planted Fort Langley, where in the first season of trade a fair quantity of beaver was purchased, and a good supply of deer and elk meat was brought in by the hunters. The founding of Fort Langley meant virtually the taking hold of what we now know as the mainland of British Columbia,

The reaching out in trade was not favoured by the Indians of the Columbia. Two years after the founding of Fort Langley, a Hudson's Bay Company ship from London, the William and Ann, was wrecked at the mouth of the Columbia River. The survivors were murdered by the Indians, and the cargo was seized and secreted by the savage wreckers. Chief Factor McLoughlin sent to the Indians, demanding the restoration of the stolen articles. An old broom was all that was brought to the fort, and this was done in a spirit of derision. The schooner Vancouver—the first ship of that name—(150 tons burthen), built on the coast, was wrecked five years after, and became a total loss.

In the same year as the wreck of the William and Ann, it Was strongly impressed upon the traders that a sawmill should be erected to supply the material for building new vessels. Chief Factor McLoughlin determined to push this on. He chose as a site a point on the Willamette River, a tributary of the Columbia from the south, where Oregon city now stands. He began a farm in connection with the mill, and in a year or two undertook the construction of the mill race by blasting in the rock, and erected cottages for his men and new settlers. The Indians, displeased with the signs of permanent residence, burnt McLoughlin's huts. It is said it was this enterprise that turned the Hudson's Bay Company Committee in London against the veteran trader. Years afterwards, Edward Ellice, the fur-trade magnate residing in England, said, "Dr. McLoughlin was rather an amphibious and independent personage. He was a very able man, and, I believe, a very good man ; but he had a fancy that he would like to have interests in both countries, both in United States and in English territory . . . While he remained with the Hudson's Bay Company he was an excellent servant."

Among the traders far up in the interior, in command of Fort Kamloops, which was at the junction of the North and South Thompson, was a Scotchman named Samuel Black. There came as a visitor to his fort a man of science and a countryman of his own. This man was David Douglas. He was an enthusiast in the search for plants and birds. He was indefatigable as a naturalist, did much service to the botany of Western America, and has his name preserved in the characteristic tree of the Pacific slope—the Douglas Fir. Douglas, on visiting Black, was very firm in the expression of his opinions against the Company, saying, "The Hudson's Bay Company is simply a mercenary corporation; there is not an officer in it with a soul above a beaver's skin." Black's Caledonian blood was roused, for he was a leading spirit among the traders, having on the union of the Companies been presented with a ring with the inscription on it, "To the most worthy of the worthy Nor'-Westers." He challenged the botanist to a duel. The scientist deferred the meeting till the morning, but early next day Black tapped at the parchment window of the room where Douglas was sleeping, crying, "Mister Douglas, are ye ready?" Douglas disregarded the invitation. David Douglas some time after visited Hawaii, where, in examining the snares for catching wild cattle, he fell into the pit, and was trampled to death by a wild bullock.

Fort Victoria, B.C.

The death of Samuel Black was tragic. In 1841, Tran-quille, a chief of the Shushwaps, who dwelt near Kamloops, died. The friends of the chief blamed the magic or "evil medicine" of the white man for his death. A nephew of Tranquille waited his opportunity and shot Chief Trader Black. The Hudson's Bay Company was aroused to most vigorous action. A writer says: "The murderer escaped. The news spread rapidly to the neighbouring posts. The natives were scarcely less disturbed than the white men. The act was abhorred, even by the friends and relatives of Tranquille. Anderson was at Nisqually at the time. Old John Tod came over from Fort Alexandria, McLean from Fort Colville, and McKinley and Ermatinger from Fort Okanagan. From Fort Vancouver McLoughlin sent men. . . . Cameron was to assist Tod in taking charge of Kamloops. All traffic was stopped.

"Tod informed the assembled Shushwaps that the murderer must be delivered up. The address of Nicola, chief of the Okanagans, gives a fine example of Indian eloquence. He said: "The winter is cold. On all the hills around the deer are plenty; and yet I hear your children crying for food. Why is this ? You ask for powder and ball, they refuse you with a scowl. Why do the white men let your children starve? Look there! Beneath yon mound of earth lies him who was your friend, your father. The powder and ball he gave you that you might get food for your famishing wives and children, you turned against him. Great heavens! And are the Shushwaps such cowards, dastardly to shoot their benefactor in the back while his face was turned? Yes, alas, you have killed your father! A mountain has fallen! The earth is shaken! The sun is darkened! My heart is sad. I cannot look at myself in the glass. I cannot look at you, my neighbours and friends. He is dead, and we poor Indians shall never see his like again. He was just and generous. His heart was larger than yonder mountain, and clearer than the waters of the lake. Warriors do not weep, but sore is my breast, and our wives shall wail for him. Wherefore did you kill him? But you did not. You loved him. And now you must not rest until you have brought to justice his murderer.'

"The old man was so rigid in expression that his whole frame and features seemed turned to stone.

"Archibald McKinley said, 'Never shall I forget it; it the grandest speech I ever heard.'

"The murderer was soon secured and placed in irons, but in crossing a river he succeeded in upsetting the boat in the sight of Nicola and his assembled Indians. The murderer floated down the stream, but died, his death song hushed by the crack of rifles from the shore."

Thus by courage and prudence, alas ! not without the sacrifice of valuable lives, was the power of the Hudson's Bay Company and the prestige of Great Britain established on the Pacific Coast.

Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.