Tag Archives: James Douglas

The Oregon Treaty and the British Corn Crisis of 1845-1846

What did the British Corn Crisis have to do with the Oregon Treaty?

In the autumn of 1845 the potato and wheat crops in Britain failed. Famine threatened. Grain from other countries such as the United States were too expensive because of an old tax known as the “Corn Laws” which applied to all cereal crop imports.

At the same time, James Polk was elected president of the United States.  In his campaign, President James Polk promised to expand American territory and push back the borders all the way to the 54th parallel in the north. His slogan “54°40‘ or fight” summed up his intentions.

Why 54°40′?

map before Oregon Treaty signed

disputed area highlighted in yellow before Oregon Treaty was signed

For many years, the northern coast was controlled by two fur trading monopolies—the Russian-American Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company.

After years of clashes between the two  rival companies and conflicts with the Natives, Governor Wrangel decided to hand over the Alaskan panhandle to the Hudson’s Bay Company.

On June 1, 1840, chief factor James Douglas formally took possession of the territory from Governor Wrangel and the Russian-American Company Fort Redoubt St. Dionysius was renamed Fort Stikine. The city of Wrangell, Alaska sits on that same site.

Oregon Territory – land of plenty

The Hudson’s Bay Company had forts and trading posts throughout the Oregon territory which covered a vast area from the 42° parallel (the border with Mexican province of Alta California) to the border with Russia at 54°40′. Competition from American trading vessels was virtually non-existent. The Hudson’s Bay Company had trading posts in Mexico. One of the HBC’s most southerly trading posts was Yerba Buena (the present site of San Francisco).

The Willamette Valley in Oregon (known as the Columbia District) turned out to be a boon for the HBC. They established farms and raised cattle and grew wheat and vegetables which they exported to their own forts as well as Mexican communities in California. They even exported their flour to the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Manifest Destiny

President Polk was determined annex the entire territory of Oregon for the United States. He didn’t necessarily want to start a war with Britain but what better way to take over an enemy’s land than by simply moving in?

Wagon trains of American settlers arrived hungry and destitute at Fort Vancouver. The chief factor John McLoughlin took pity on these new arrivals and provided them with beef and cattle to raise for themselves. Eventually it became obvious that the sheer numbers of new settlers were going to overwhelm the Hudson’s Bay Company’s resources. It wasn’t long before the settlers demanded a democratic government to represent their interests.

The HBC tried to sound the alarm that it was about to lose control of the entire Oregon territory. The American military began surveying the coastal waters and the Columbia River. It didn’t help that the newly elected British government was critical of the Company.

Irish Famine

For the vast majority of Irish farmers, their main crop was one variety of potato. When a fungus  arrived in 1845 it quickly spread across Ireland. By harvest time there was nothing. Famine was imminent. During the winter of 1845-1846 the British government spent £100,000 on American maize which was sold to the poor. For those who could afford it, the maize was hard to grind down and make a meal out of.

Seeing as how they would be dependent on the United States for food, Britain wanted to keep good relations with the United States. The new foreign secretary, Lord Aberdeen, decided to give away the Columbia territory without a fight. On June 15, 1846, The U.S. and Britain signed the Treaty of Oregon which established the boundary between their territories at the 49th parallel.

The HBC received some compensation for the loss of their southern forts, but it was a blow to their operations.

Goldseekers came north for the Fraser River gold rush just twelve years after the Oregon Treaty was signed. Many American miners still believed in ‘Manifest Destiny’ and that the land up to 54°40′ was rightfully theirs.

What is the significance of 54°40′ today? This is the latitude of the border between British Columbia and Alaska.

How E. B. Lytton changed the course of BC history

In 1858, gold miners swarmed to the Fraser River. It was also the year that the longstanding Palmerston government was defeated and E. B. Lytton became the Colonial Secretary, responsible for overseeing the Hudson’s Bay Company.

In the past, there had been a push to settle Vancouver Island and the British Parliament had gone so far as to make it a colony, but the mainland was strictly under HBC’s monopoly. There were no settlers there and they liked it that way. As one member of parliament put it, “The Hudson’s Bay Company is by its very existence and its character the enemy of colonization” whose main purpose was to extract the resources of the land and not cater to the whims and needs of the populace.

Until 1858, the Hudson’s Bay Company had an ally in Parliament — the Colonial Secretary Henry Labouchere. That was about to change under Edward Bulwer Lytton.

E. B. Lytton - Colonial Secretary

E. B. Lytton – Colonial Secretary

The new Parliament made its mandate clear that it wanted to colonize the lands that the Hudson’s Bay Company possessed. The first step was to not renew their license which was slated for renewal May 30, 1859. In addition, the government aimed to bring into question the legality of the original Hudson’s Bay Company charter of 1670, this having been assigned to lands which were then under France’s control.

There was no instant communications in those days. It took many months for a ship to arrive with the mail and when it did reach the office of the Colonial Secretary, it took weeks on end for clerks to hand write copies for officials to read and comment on.

While he was waiting to receive an answer, Douglas made decisions as he saw fit. As the head of the HBC’s Columbia Department which oversaw New Caledonia, Douglas took it upon himself to establish mining fees and pricing controls. He also sought to uphold the Company’s monopoly and did his best to keep out the competition. To this end, he used the survey ships that were based in Esquimalt but most of the miners and merchants slipped in without notice.

Trading Rights

E. B. Lytton soon made it clear that the Company’s monopoly only went so far as exclusive trading rights with the Indigenous people and that it could not be the sole provider of provisions, even though Douglas had pointed out all the efforts they had made to accommodate the gold seekers.

Lytton also organized a contingent of Royal Engineers to come to New Caledonia to help build roads and plan towns, to be paid from the colony’s revenue. The other bit of bad news for Douglas came when he received word that Lytton wished to have future administrative appointments come from ‘home’ rather than someone from the Company.

He chose Chartres Brew to be the head of the colony’s civilian police force and Matthew Begbie, a lawyer, was selected to be the judge.

On the day that Begbie was to sail from England, E.B. Lytton boarded the ship to personally hand over the documents to establish the new colony of British Columbia and the appointments of James Douglas as Governor, and Begbie as its Judge. Each document had been signed by Queen Victoria.

British Columbia

Begbie arrived at Esquimalt November 16, 1858. Three days later, on November 19, 1858 the swearing in ceremony and declaration of British Columbia took place at Fort Langley. This marked the end of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s control of New Caledonia.

The following year, Lord Palmerston’s government returned and Lytton was replaced by the Duke of Newcastle as Colonial Secretary.

Although the legality of HBC’s charter wasn’t settled for another 10 years, E. B. Lytton did succeed in terminating their monopoly of New Caledonia and establishing British Columbia.

Had Labouchere still been the Colonial Secretary when the gold rush broke out, things could have turned out much differently.

Fort St. James – the hub of New Caledonia

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.

James Douglas and murder at Fort St. James

James Douglas and conflict at Fort St. James

Donald Fraser and Land Speculation in the BC Gold Rush

When the Fraser River gold rush was underway so was land speculation. One of the least known figures involved in land speculation in the BC Gold Rush was Donald Fraser.

Fraser was born in Scotland and was a classmate of Alexander Grant Dallas, a future son-in-law of Governor James Douglas. Fraser came to Victoria in 1858, whereupon James Douglas appointed him to the Executive Council of Vancouver Island.

The Hudson’s Bay Company thought that if it could entice gold rush miners to come to British Columbia then it would raise the value of land. What they needed was someone to promote the ‘gold diggings’ to the masses abroad.  As a correspondent for the Times of London, Donald Fraser was the ideal candidate to spread this propaganda.

According to Fraser, miners were finding gold without much effort:

The work is not heavy; any ordinary man can do it. The time at work is generally 10 hours. Every man works much or little, according to the dictates of his own sweet will. This independency is one of the chief charms of the miner’s life. Independence and hope make up the sum of his happiness. The cost of living is $1-a-day. To wash 250 buckets of ‘dirt’ is a short day’s work. The bucket is a common wooden water pail, rather small size. Went up to two men at a place by themselves ‘clearing out’ their day’s work. They ‘guessed’ their amalgam was worth $21 to $22.

In the summer of 1858, James Douglas travelled with Donald Fraser to Fort Yale. Here, even Fraser had to admit that the living conditions were primitive. At Hill’s Bar, Fraser found “a gang of miners dining on fried bacon and potatoes cooked à  la Maître d’Hotel, eating out of the frying pan  in which the edibles were prepared, set upon the stump of a tree…”

Fraser also suggested there were stagecoaches on the as yet incomplete wagon road. Many miners were disappointed to discover that they would  have to walk 400 or 500 miles farther carrying a load on their backs.

Not only was Donald Fraser a key political figure, but in a few short years, he became one of the largest land holders on Vancouver Island.

In 1866 Fraser returned to England. In London he joined a group including Gilbert Malcolm Sproat and Alexander Grant Dallas which wielded a lot of political influence. The group opposed the union of Vancouver Island with British Columbia in 1866 and helped to secure the capital of BC at Victoria in 1868.

Stamp_FortYale

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.

The Flag at Murderer’s Bar

In 1858, W. Wymond Walkem and a group of his fellow Cornish goldseekers panned for gold at Murderer’s Bar, about six kilometres below Fort Hope on the Fraser River.

“…to show that we were British we started to make a Union Jack. For the white we used some flour sacks, for the blue we cut up some blue drilling overalls, and for the red we used some red undershirts. After completing the flag we cut out two letters to represent G.B. (Great Britain) and placed them in the center of the flag.

The flag at Murderer's Bar

The flag at Murderer’s Bar

You must understand that these Americans on account of being so close to the international boundary line, imagined that all land they saw belonged to Uncle Sam, and we were determined that if possible they should learn the opposite.

Well, I got a nice pole and fastened our flag to it and then climbed the highest tree at the back of our shack, and trimmed the top of the tree of all limbs and bark for a considerable distance. Then I fastened the pole with the flag attached to it to the top of the tree, where it flew as a landmark to show that our country was British and that Britons were there to defend it.”

It was around this time that there were disturbances at Yale and Governor Douglas passed by on the British gunboat, Satellite.

A few days later, Douglas returned and on his way back stopped at Murderers’ Bar where he made a speech.

“Gentlemen, when I was passing up the river the other day, I noticed your flag with the letters G.B. on it, which I supposed you meant Great Britain. I knew at once that Britons placed that flag there, and I was very pleased to see it…When I return to Victoria I will send back to you a proper flag.”

As a token of appreciation, the miners washed a few pans of dirt and then presented the Governor with ‘quite a little’ gold, which was then wrapped in a piece of cotton and presented to him and “he was highly pleased with it.” As he went away the Cornish miners gave him three hearty cheers.

In a few days, one of Douglas’ personal staff returned with an 18-foot Union Jack. Walkem went down to the river and found a log 80 feet in length. After barking the tree and obtaining a set of halliards and a pulley (probably provided by Douglas as well).

“We set up our pole and hoisted the magnificent flag presented by the Governor. That flag was hoisted every morning at 8 o’clock and lowered at sunset in true military style.”

Shortly afterward, Governor Douglas decreed that Murderer’s Bar would be re-named on official maps as Cornish Bar in homage to the Cornish miners who raised their handmade British flag.

Why was the Cariboo Wagon Road built?

Why was the Cariboo Wagon Road built?

Before the Cariboo Wagon Road was built, the Fraser River gold rush was regarded as diggings for the well-to-do only; as the cost for pack-horses to bring supplies was at least 40cents per pound for food. Freight and mining supplies were even more costly.

Governor Douglas was proud of the Port Douglas to Lillooet trail, however many were critical that this road had cost the Colony a lot of money without providing a huge benefit to gold seekers wishing to make their way north.

What was really needed was a “good wagon road to Fort Yale…which could be kept open at all seasons could be made a moderate expense.”

The expense of building a wagon road was one that must have weighed heavily on the mind of Governor Douglas.

Shortly after James Douglas was named Governor of British Columbia (including the mainland) in 1860, he was granted powers to “raise further revenue for the purpose of opening and improving the communication and roads from Port Douglas and Yale with and to the mining regions beyond.”

“I do hereby declare…that from and after the 1st day of March 1860, every pack-horse, mule, or other quadruped, leaving Port Douglas or Yale for the purpose of carrying a load or burden towards the mining regions beyond…shall be charged with a toll of one pound sterling for each journey…”

“Any person wilfully evading or attempting to evade the toll aforesaid shall be fined treble the amount of the toll or any sum not exceeding £100 at the discretion of the Magistrate.”

The sale of Hudson Bay Company Fort Victoria

early map of Victoria Harbour and Fort Victoria

early map of Victoria Harbour and Hudson Bay Company Fort Victoria (site of Empress Hotel for reference)

On June 4, 1861, the site of the Hudson’s Bay Fort Victoria and adjoining lots were scheduled to be sold by auction.

At the eleventh hour, the citizens of Victoria rallied when they discovered that the Hudson Bay Company was planning to sell over 3,000 acres of land including the fort site, property at Beacon Hill, and much of the town site.

Just days before the auction was to take place, a court injunction was filed.

“The sale of the property of the Hudson Bay Company Fort Site and adjoining lots is postponed! until further notice” read an announcement from the auctioneer.

A few weeks later, on June 19, 1861, Judge Cameron (brother-in-law of Governor James Douglas) decided that the injunction to prevent the HBC from selling the land was not valid and should not have been granted. His reason was the land was in litigation before the Privy Council and the court should not interfere.

“So far as the sale of the waterfront is concerned, the injunction is refused till interrogatories are answered by the Company as to the parties to whom they sold the lots.”

As the land was assessed at $500,000, citizens requested the elected officials hand over the funds of any such sale to the Colony:

“Their constituents may struggle along under the heavy taxes laid upon them; and every year to come many find their taxes increased to a point barely endurable…enough funds could be had from the settlement of the Hudson Bay Company affairs to exempt the colony from taxes for the next five years.”

As the debate wore on, more fingers were pointed at the elected officials and the influence of the Hudson Bay Company over the town’s affairs. The Company was accused of previously selling a public square and pocketing the profit.

At the close of 1861, the issue showed no signs of abating. If anything, the citizens were becoming increasingly riled up by newspaper accounts of election fraud and the ‘plundering of the Treasury’.

The Whatcom Trail

approximate route of Whatcom Trail

approximate route of Whatcom Trail

Before the gold rush began on the Fraser River, there was a trail used by the Coast Salish which went from Bellingham Bay, beside the Nooksack River to Chilliwack Lake and then eventually met the Fraser River. This trail was used by the Nooksack tribe and they gave place names to settlements and crossings along the trail. Nekiyéy, a settlement at Ten Mile Creek, was such a place.In 1827 the Hudson’s Bay Company built a trading fort at Langley on the Fraser River, opening up new opportunities for trade in the Coast Salish communities. The Nooksack would have followed the trail and were among the tribes that traded beaver pelts and other items there.

The Nooksack route appeared like a good, practical route for gold miners to follow during the early stages of the Fraser River gold rush. Thousands of miners came to Bellingham Bay looking for a short path to the gold bars on the Fraser River.

A group of merchants from the village of Whatcom hired U.S. Army Captain W. Delacy to construct a pack trail of six feet in width. Delacy was familiar with the area as he had spent a few years in the area surveying inland routes in response to the Pig War crisis.

Whatcom Trail

Whatcom Trail

Underfunded and undermanned, Delacy laboriously blazed a trail from the original Whatcom-Fraser River trail past Chilliwack lake and then northeast up the Skagit river watershed north of the boundary to a point where the original Brigade Trail met the Tulameen river. For weeks, The Northern Light newspaper published accounts of Delacy’s exploits building the “Whatcom-Hope Trail” as it was called.

In spite of the law passed by Governor James Douglas that required all gold seekers to purchase a license granted only at Victoria, thousands of gold miners used the Whatcom Trail.

Colony of British Columbia Proclaimed November 19, 1858

Governor James Douglas

Governor James Douglas (creative commons image)

One hundred and fifty four years ago today, the colony of British Columbia was officially proclaimed at Fort Langley.

On July 1, 1858, Britain’s Colonial Secretary Edward B. Lytton introduced a bill in British Parliament to create a crown colony of the Hudson’s Bay Company territories west of the Rockies, referred to as New Caledonia.

One of the chief purposes of the bill was to force the Hudson’s Bay Company to relinquish its control over New Caledonia.

“The Hudson’s Bay Company have hitherto had an exclusive right to trade with the [First Nations] in the Fraser River territory but they have had no other right whatever. They have had no right to exclude strangers, no right of government, or of occupation of the soil.”

The land was re-named ‘British Columbia’ by Queen Victoria and she gave her royal assent on August 2, 1858.

On November 19, 1858, the Governor of Vancouver Island, James Douglas, was sworn in as the Governor of the colony of British Columbia by Judge Begbie at Fort Langley.

Here is a report of the event from the Victoria Gazette on November 25, 1858:

On Friday morning, the 19th instant, His Excellency [James Douglas], accompanied by the Captain Grant disembarked on the wet loamy bank of the Fort and the procession proceeded up the steep bank which leads to the palisade.  Arrived there, a salute of 18 guns commenced pealing from the [steamship] “Beaver” awakening all the echoes of the opposite mountains.  In another moment the flag of Britain was floating, or to speak the truth, dripped over the principal entrance.  Owing to the unpropitious state of the weather, the meeting which was intended to have been held in the open air was convened in the large room at the principal building.  About 100 persons were present.

“The ceremonies were commenced by His Excellency  addressing Mr. Begbie and delivering to him Her Majesty’s Commission as Judge in the Colony of British Columbia.  Mr. Begbie then took the oath of Allegiance and the usual oaths on taking office and then addressing His Excellency took up her Majesty’s Commission appointing him the Governor and proceeding to read it at length.  Mr. Begbie then administered to Governor Douglas the usual oaths of office, viz.: Allegiance, Abjuration, etc.  His Excellency being then duly appointed and sworn in, proceeded to issue the Proclamation of the same day, 19th instant, vis.: one (40) proclaiming the act; a second, indemnifying all the officers of the Government from any irregularities which may have been committed in the interval before this proclamation of the act; and a third, proclaiming English Law to be the Law of the Colony.  The reading of these was preceded by His Excellency’s Proclamation of the 3rd instant setting forth the Revocation of Her Majesty of all the exclusive privileges of the Hudson Bay Company.”