Tag Archives: Hudson’s Bay Company

The Kanakas of British Columbia

When Captain Cook came to the islands of Hawaii in 1778, he named them the Sandwich Islands, after his patron the Earl of Sandwich. Since that time, ships from Britain and France arrived at this new mid-ocean way station. Hawaiians, known as ‘Owyhees’, were recruited to work on the ships. They called themselves Kanakas, the Hawaiian word for ‘people’.

1851. Kanaka Village at Fort Vancouver, Washington.

1851. Kanaka Village at Fort Vancouver, Washington.

By the 1820s, the practice of recruiting Kanakas for work on the Northwest coast was firmly established. When the North West Company merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821, the merger meant that Kanakas were brought up north from Oregon Territory. As a result of a head tax on Sandwich Islanders that came into effect in 1845, there were few who wanted to stay behind. Many returned to Hawaii.

The Hudson’s Bay Company offered Kanakas three year contracts that included room and board and a wage of ten pounds a year. They worked at the Belle Vue Farm on San Juan Island where they looked after sheep under the direction of the foreman Charles Griffin and maintained a presence for the British. The Kanakas had a reputation as one that was willing to “fight the local Natives” and for this reason they were employed as guards. When a Washington Territory sheriff named Barnes was sent to San Juan with a group of assistants to seize some of HBC’s sheep for non-payment of taxes, “there was a whoop from the hill and Griffin, together with some twenty Kanakas brandishing knives were seen charging down toward them.” They retreated however, after Barnes and the others fired their revolvers.

In 1851, James Douglas, then the chief factor of Fort Victoria, set up a militia group comprised of “eleven Kanakas and two negroes” known as the Victoria Voltigeurs. It existed for 7 years as a rifle corps to guard the fort. Douglas relied on them frequently to apprehend Natives who threatened the HBC. He wrote of a case where the Voltigeurs chased a Cowichan Native into the woods, captured him and another and brought them back on board the Steamship Beaver. The two men were later hanged for the crimes.

During the mid-1850s the Voltigeurs were often used on more routine patrol duties on horseback “to visit the isolated settlements for their protection.” In 1856, eighteen Voltigeurs were sent a s part of a large expedition to Cowichan after the attempted murder of a white man by a Cowichan Native.

The Voltigeurs continued as a force until the gold rush began in 1858. The following year, the HBC’s monopoly on trade officially ended and many of the Kanakas left Victoria to join the gold rush in the Fraser Canyon. Kanaka Bar was one place where they left their mark. Many of them lived in Victoria on what was known as ‘Kanaka Row’ – a line of shacks at the head of Victoria harbour where the Empress Hotel is located.

There was a strong connection between Victoria and Hawaii (still referred to as the Sandwich Islands) in the early years of the gold rush. The Kanakas held onto their Hawaiian culture and customs. In 1862, it was noted that “A steady and increasing trade is carried on with S. Francisco, the Sandwich Islands, Oregon, Washington Territory and the coast of British Columbia.”

Russell Island near Salt Spring Island (visible from the Swartz Bay ferry terminal) was once owned by a Kanaka pioneer. Parks Canada operates a visitor centre on Russell Island in conjunction with the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.  Descendants share their family stories about life on Russell Island with visitors.

Fort Victoria before the Fraser River gold rush

Fort Victoria in 1860

Fort Victoria before the Fraser River gold rush

It may be hard to believe but at one time the Hudson’s Bay Company Fort Victoria was surrounded by farmland and most of the buildings were stables and barns.  Here are the recollections of an early pioneer, Mr. J.R. Anderson:

“First of all, the Fort with its buildings. On the site of the present Arcade Block there were two buildings 25 feet long; the northern one was a bakery and the southern one Governor Blanshard’s residence. Then between View and Yates a small fort was erected in 1851, and Mr. Douglas occupied it as an official residence and office. The stockade was about 50 yards square. At the junction of Douglas and Johnson Streets at the ravine there was a little cemetery.

Between the present post-office and Bastion Street were two log houses about 20 feet long, used by employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company.  On the left of Fort Street, just above Douglas, were the Hudson’s Bay Company’s stables and barns, consisting of two buildings, one about 60 by 40 feet, the other 40 by 25 feet.  The area contained within the present Fort, Vancouver, Courtney, and Broad Streets was cultivated area.

There was a house in the vicinity of Burdette and Douglas, where a man named Gullion and his wife lived.  Dr. Kennedy lived in a house on Burnside Road, where it crosses the Colquitz.  Also on Burdette, near Vancouver Street, there was a dairy and cow-stables.  It will be noted that there were very few houses, most of the ground being occupied as farm lands. Among these was Beckley Farm in James Bay, within the area bounded by Government, Superior, Oswego Streets, and Dallas Road.  North Dairy Farm was on Quadra, at the Cedar Hill cross-roads. Staines’s Farm was on some flat ground facing Shelbourne Street.  John Tod had a farm at the Willows.”

In a few words, Alfred Waddington described Fort Victoria before the Fraser River gold rush as a quiet hamlet with “streets grown over with grass” inhabited mainly by ‘Scotchmen’ employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Contrast that with Edward Mallandaine’s account of Fort Victoria in 1860:

“A number of wharves have been constructed this past season; a new timber bridge across the James Bay has been built, giving access to the newly-erected government offices for public lands and the Government House, all in brick and of an ornamental character; streets leading to the bridge have been new graded; several of the leading streets have been metalled over, and are passable at all times. A temporary want of funds alone prevents more being done in this way, as also the completion of two embankments (in lieu of bridges) in a ravine severing two of our streets.

Wooden buildings have ceased to be the order of the day, thus diminishing the constant dread of fire…Some public spirited citizens taking the lead, a hook and ladder company has been organized, and subscriptions, to a considerable amount, made to defray the necessary outlay of building, hook and ladder, engine, etc…

We have a police barracks (which important building holds also the Supreme Court and the Police Court), an extensive warehouse (a large bookstore and dwelling) of two stories, at least two hotels of considerable dimensions, and several houses, all erected in brickwork with stone fronts and some pretensions.

The Hudson’s Bay Company are at this moment erecting a warehouse, of portentous dimensions, of stone, which they take the trouble too import from a distance not exceeding forty miles; and a new bank, the Bank of British North America, …has also, in the same spirited style, built itself an architectural home of rubble-stone faced with squared granite masonry.”

You can see a link to the plan of Victoria in 1860.

Amor de Cosmos: gold rush publisher and politician

Amor de Cosmos

Amor de Cosmos

Amor de Cosmos was one of the most influential people of the Fraser River gold rush.

Born in Windsor, Nova Scotia on August 20, 1825, Amor de Cosmos changed his name from William Alexander Smith years later while living in California. Cosmos came to Victoria as soon as the Fraser River gold rush began in 1858.

At that time, there was only a pro-government publication located on the Hudson’s Bay Company Fort grounds called the Victoria Gazette, later known as the Daily Victoria Gazette, run by two publishers from California.

Cosmos started the British Colonist in December 1858 “to be published every Saturday.”

We intend…to make the “British Colonist” an independent paper, the organ of no clique nor party – a true index of public opinion.

Cosmos was very clear on his opinions and was critical of Governor Douglas’ administration and referred to the competing interests of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s dominance over Victoria as “exclusive”, “anti-British” and “belonging to a past age.” It wasn’t long before the opinions of the British Colonist gained interested readers. Six months later, the British Colonist was being printed three times a week.

Cosmos sold the newspaper to David Higgins in 1863 and campaigned unsuccessfully for a seat in the Legislature of Vancouver Island. Afterward, Cosmos lead the Confederation League which saw British Columbia become a province of the Dominion of Canada in 1871.

Cosmos served as the second premier of British Columbia from December 1872 until February 1874, when he was ousted after trying to change the terms of union. He continued as a Member of Legislative Assembly for Victoria until 1882.

Cox’s gold rush in the Monashee Mountains

The gold rush on Cherry Creek in 1862 in the Monashee Mountains of British Columbia started as a result of a request to find a route through the mountains. It was probably the only one promoted by a gold commissioner.

Early in 1862, W. George Cox was instructed to find out if there were any routes through the mountains between the Okanagan and the Columbia valleys. The purpose was to find an all British route to the gold diggings on the eastern part of the colony.

Spruce Grove
Cox followed Douglas’ instructions and in July 1862 he went to the northern end of Okanagan Lake where there was an Indian community that the Okanagan’s called Nkama’peleks which means  “Head of the Lake”. When the early French Canadian fur traders arrived at Nkama’peleks they discovered a cluster of spruce trees near Tsin-th-le-kap-a-lax (Cayote) Creek, known as Irish Creek. To the fur traders the presence of spruce trees at this low elevation was very unusual and for this reason they called the place Taillis or Talle d’Epinette’s a name which translates into English as Spruce Grove.

In his report to Young, Cox states that he left “Talle d’Epinette’s” on July 17th for the purpose of exploring the road to the Columbia River. He had engaged two Okanagan Indians from Nkama’peleks as his guides and each guide brought one of his sons along. Cox wrote that these men were the only people in the country familiar with the route and their last trip to the Arrow Lakes was made three years earlier.

Highway 6 follows the trail
Between Vernon and Lumby, Highway 6 follows the same path of the old Indian trail as it does from Lumby to the old bridge site, below Shuswap Falls on the Shuswap River. On the left hand side of the map, Cox identified the “Head of Okanagan Lake” and three trails starting at or near the Lake, all of which pass through Vernon. All three trails combined to form a single trail just before crossing Coldstream Creek.

From Vernon to Lumby, Cox noted that the trail passed through “a rich fertile valley.” At Lumby, he indicated that a large swampy area covered the land to the hills in the south and up into the lower reaches of Creighton Valley. From Lumby to Shuswap Falls the trail passed along the north side of Rawlings Lake. Cox states that the standing and fallen timber east of Lumby made traveling difficult and in places the trail was “completely obliterated”.

William Peon finds gold
From his Indian guides, Cox learned that a former Hudson’s Bay Company fur trader named William Peon had discovered gold in 1859 near the northwest shore of Sugar Lake. William Peon was the guide for Father Pandosy and his group of settlers when they walked into the Okanagan from Colville, Washington in the fall of 1859.

Cox put his hand into the bank at Cherry Creek (also known Monashee Creek) and noted that “…fine scale gold was visible amongst the sand that I took out.” In his report he states that he took four handfuls of sand from the creek and washed it in his frying pan. He enclosed the gold dust from his washing with his map and covering letter to the Colonial Secretary.

On his return trip to Rock Creek as gold commissioner, Cox told some miners of his discovery. These miners immediately left for Cherry Creek, named after the wild choke cherries that grew along the banks of the creek. This news sparked a gold rush on Cherry Creek.

Early Log Buildings of the BC gold rush

log cabin

a gold miner’s log cabin

From the 1820s to 1860s, the most common form of log construction in British Columbia was the “pièce sur pièce” style which the Hudson’s Bay Company used. All the HBC forts were constructed in this way. Considering the vast area controlled by the HBC, it helps to explain how the pièce sur pièce method was largely spread throughout the west.  

Prior to the Fraser River gold rush, the first St. Ann’s schoolhouse, built in the mid-1840s, and the John S. Helmcken House, built in 1852, were both constructed in this style and covered with shingle siding to add a veneer of “refinement.”

The pièce sur pièce style also influenced the construction of roadhouses in the Cariboo during the gold rush. First nation pit houses with their sod roof design was another influence. Sod roofs were characteristic of Cariboo log buildings and served to keep out heat in the summer and prevent heat loss in the winter. The roofs were gently pitched to avoid erosion. Examples of sod-roofed buildings can be found at Hat Creek Ranch Historic Site, including a root cellar and two poultry houses, built during the 1860s.

The log buildings constructed by early settlers can be further divided into “permanent” and “temporary” structures. Permanent log buildings often have squared logs with tight-fitting dovetailed or lap-jointed corners, while temporary log structures often have round logs with simple saddle-notched corners.

Donald Clemson’s book Living with Logs: British Columbia’s Log Buildings and Rail Fences (1974) remains the only published source entirely devoted to the subject.

Homes built by Chinese gold miners used a combination of construction styles. The Chee Kung Tong building in Barkerville, consists of a central frame building with two later log additions. Both log additions have round logs with squared dovetailed corners, a feature shared by a number of other log buildings in Barkerville.