Before the Fraser River Gold Rush, the Hudson’s Bay Company ruled New Caledonia (British Columbia) like a company town.
Fort St. James on Stuart Lake was considered to be the hub of fur trading activity and the fort’s chief factor was responsible for the entire New Caledonia. Chief K’wah of the Dakelh was considered by the HBC to be a key ally.
By the time James Douglas started working at Fort St. James, there had been several attacks and reprisals between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the neighbouring Dakelh. Douglas’ first assignment was to make sure that Fort St. James had enough fish. Salmon was the staple diet, not just for the Dakelh but also for the HBC workers and their families.
Although it seemed on the surface that the HBC had a good relationship with the First Nations, on further reading it becomes apparent that in fact the HBC allowed their chief factors to mete out punishment as they saw fit. Sometimes they were equally harsh with their own voyageurs and clerks who were basically stuck in the middle of nowhere and had to wait for the next brigade trip to get away.
An illustration of this prevailing attitude occurred in 1828, when James Douglas took it upon himself to deal with the alleged murderer of an HBC employee, when the Chief Factor, William Connelly (Douglas’ father-in-law), was away.
In his book, “The History of the Northern Interior of British Columbia (formerly New Caledonia)” Father Morice (1859-1938) wrote:
For some reason, the nature of which cannot now be ascertained, two young men had killed two of the Company’s servants… One of them had already paid the penalty of his crime by being secretly slain by the Company’s people, who had burned his remains in such a way as to suggest an accident as the cause of his death. Several years elapsed when, in the summer of 1828, his survivor, Tzœlhnolle [or Zuthnolly], hazarded a visit to the Stuart Lake Indians. These, however, he found to be absent to a man, and of the women-folk left in the camp only one is mentioned, who had but lately been delivered of a child. Mr. Connolly was likewise away, having gone down to [Fort] Alexandria to take up the outfit for the following year, so that Mr. Douglas was left temporarily in charge of the place.
On being told of the presence of Tzœlhnolle, that gentleman [James Douglas] immediately took with him a few of the fort men, armed with hoes and other garden implements, and made for the untenanted lodges of the Indians.
Douglas fired at him with his blunderbuss (a type of short musket) as Zuthnolly tried to get away.
…the [musket] ball went wide of the mark, whereupon, with hoes and the remnants of a camp-fire near by, his assistants stunned the Indian and reduced his lifeless body to the condition of a shapeless jelly. Then, by order of Douglas, they passed a stout rope around his neck and proceeded to drag him in the direction of the fort.
“The man he killed was eaten by the dogs; by the dogs he must be eaten,” declared the inexorable clerk.