A new look at the crucial role of the original Fort Langley.
The British Columbia historical narrative remains to this day largely weighted toward the colonial aspects of its history. For instance, a precolonial Hudson’s Bay Company post located on the lower Fraser River a few kilometers from the present Parks Canada Fort Langley site has been mostly forgotten in spite of much ground breaking work.
The original site (1827-1839) metaphorically represents the contemporary spirit of diversity, inclusiveness, sustainability and modesty. A seminal site for southwest British Columbia history may very well have been overlooked and is worthy of a revisit.
Up to the late 18th century, the Pacific Northwest, spanning what is now Oregon, Washington, British Columbia (BC), Alaska, Idaho and western Montana was exclusively Indigenous territory. From the coastline and without consulting anyone actually living there, Spain, Russia, Britain, and the United States all postured to claim the territory as its own, leading to disputes that took decades to settle (with some remnants left over to this day).
By 1812/1813, the United States and Britain were the main contenders, both claiming the territory from Oregon to the Alaska Panhandle. The first contingent of continental newcomers were already established north in the Peace River area far from the coastline. A second one was arriving in the lower Columbia from the north.
“Canadiens” had ventured across the continent in both cases with the Montreal-based North West Company (NWC). The New York based Pacific Fur Company (PFC) had also brought in the lower Columbia its own contingent of “Voyageurs”, using both naval and land-based expeditions in order to build and operate Fort Astoria.
In 1821, the NWC merged with the London based Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) seeking a monopoly. Governor-in-Chief George Simpson decided to build a new post upriver, but on the north bank of the Columbia, naming it Fort Vancouver (1824).
Simpson hoped a border would be drawn along the Columbia. The river provided excellent access to the Rocky Mountains toward “Rupert’s Land” (the Hudson Bay drainage basin), toward the fur rich territories of “New Caledonia” (central BC) and access to markets in Europe.
With the joint occupation Treaty arrangements of 1818 expiring in 1828, the Americans were pressing for a 49th parallel running all the way to the Pacific, thus cutting off Fort Vancouver. Simpson was hoping to build a post further North on the lower Fraser, in spite of warnings of its impassable canyon. A good map had been produced by explorer Simon Fraser and crew and a friendly Indigenous group had been identified. The existing HBC installations located past the source of the Fraser in the Peace River area would become better linked with operations near the mouth of the Fraser.
The Americans were pressing for a 49th parallel running all the way to the Pacific, cutting off Fort Vancouver.
The early fur trade had started as mainly a maritime based activity. Exchanges with the local populations and among competing tribes had often been violent. Diseased plagued ships had caused much grief. Major changes would soon start threatening south-west British Columbia and its interior.
An exploration crew had to first assess the lower Fraser’s navigability and agricultural suitability. Initial links to an Indigenous group where a post could be constructed would have to be established. So, in the late fall of 1824 a crew of some 43 left Fort Astoria, heading north through Mud Bay, into the Nicomekl river, portaging over to Salmon river and reaching the Fraser at a location nowadays known as Derby Reach.
Over half of the expedition were French Canadians and mixed ancestry people, all calling themselves Canadiens. Another one-third were natives from elsewhere on the continent: Iroquois, Abenakis and Kanakas (Hawaiians). Notoriously absent were Englishmen, who were proxied by a few Scots deemed to be “in charge.”
Most importantly, critical knowledge of the land, languages and cultural codes were exchanged. The group was allowed to establish an encampment and the lower Fraser was recognized as suitable for building a new HBC fort.
1827 building the fort and wintering over
In the summer of 1827, a similarly diverse crew of over 25 returned but traveled the last segment aboard the sailing ship Cadboro via the mouth of the Fraser. Tools and horses were brought in. After surveying several potential sites, the group was welcomed by Chief Whattlekainum, the Kwantlen people and allied tribes. Beaver skins were traded for knives and a rudimentary fort was ready by fall. The men wintered over, and some started to partner with native wives. The first wave of mixed ancestry descendants in southwest British Columbia would soon follow.
After surviving the first winter, the group had to quickly fend for itself. Some of its members and allies were attacked by a hostile tribe when traveling. As a result of the newcomers having proven themselves early on, Indigenous people quickly established themselves nearby for mutual defense and commerce.
George Simpson visited the site during the summer of 1828, coming down the Fraser from New Caledonia. The journey was perilous, and Simpson decided to abandon the lower Fraser River as a conduit into the interior. Instead, he focused the company’s resources into continuing the expansion of Fort Vancouver as the main Pacific depot. Fort Langley quickly lost its strategic business importance.
Self-reliance became vital. In addition, the fur supply turned out to be limited and profit margins were low, as the Americans were also trading along the coast near the mouth of the Fraser. Furthermore, the self-reliant Indigenous population was very skilled at harvesting the abundant salmon stocks. Salmon curing and salting quickly became important, with coopers producing barrels for storage and shipping. The experiment was repeated with sturgeon and eulachon (smelt).
Fort Langley quickly lost its strategic business importance.
Tools made by the local blacksmith enabled farming of new crops at nearby Langley Prairie: grain, potatoes and peas, followed by dairy, cattle and pigs. They experimented too with forestry products such as cedar shingles and became self-reliant to the point of supplying back.
By 1836, the HBC was able to challenge the American maritime fur traders with the Beaver, the first steamship supplying the northern coast. In 1837, the armed incursion of the dreaded Yuculta tribe from Desolation Sound was easily repulsed. The following year, Simpson negotiated an agreement with the Russians to provide food for their posts in Alaska, and secure maritime commerce away from American traders.
With better business prospects in sight, proven local knowledge and solid tribal relationships in place, Simpson could justify investing in building a new post at a better upriver location for expanded operations, closer to farmland, less prone to flooding and more suited to trading goods. The aging fort was abandoned in 1839 after much ground-breaking work.
Throughout its 10+ years of operation, a model of peaceful coexistence with the Indigenous people had generated a local bicultural population of mixed ancestry. This model had been successfully demonstrated on a somewhat isolated post in southwest BC.
The model proved less violent than further south, and less disease-plagued than on the coastline. In the precolonial period, Indigenous tribes were rarely displaced, perhaps because there was less pressure to acquire land and tighter control in the HBC trading policies related to guns, contrary to less sustainable practices of the American fur traders.
Numerous languages coexisted. French was the lingua franca spoken daily throughout trading; English served as the administrative language. The Chinook jargon continued evolving as an exchange language among various Indigenous groups, newcomers, and offspring of mixed ancestry. Halkomelem carried on as the local population’s Salishan dialect.
The model proved less violent than further south.
Numerous cultures interacted, and HBC first began to record unions, births, and deaths. Kin relations were now spanning the Pacific Northwest. Although most men returned to where they came from, sufficient social stability across various groups justified further development, such as basic schooling and clerical support that would soon follow.
The pioneers developed new forms of trading since the fur trade did not work out as expected, thus a more diversified economy resulted. New know-how was acquired in the areas of local farming, food curing, storage, shipping, transportation and even forestry: many premières in south-west BC! Sufficient business stability was reached for the HBC’s management to justify further investment.
Sufficient social and business stability also enabled the HBC to start expanding beyond the new Fort Langley, with Fort Victoria (1843) and many other forts to soon follow. The HBC became less dependent on the Fort Vancouver Pacific hub, first linked with Nisqually House (1832), Cowlitz Farm (1839) and then Fort Nisqually (1843). The Columbia also proved to have major navigation challenges, so the lower Fraser provided a great trading hub up to the canyon, as long used by various Indigenous groups. HBC business interests would therefore shift north, and closer to the coastline.
By 1846, the HBC had enough social and business stability both on the mainland and Vancouver Island to lobby the British government to finalize negotiation of a border. The HBC was able to adjust to the Oregon Treaty final resolution of a 49th parallel border up to the strait of Juan de Fuca. The political stability this created led to a major economic expansion in mining, forestry, fishery and transportation – a workable trade-off for the HBC.
Had it not been for these pioneers first wintering over in 1827, British Columbia and Canada would not have today’s western boundaries. These modest beginnings in south-west British Columbia seem to exemplify well the Canadian spirit of diversity, inclusiveness and sustainability.
Unlike the Americans that have made much of Fort Clatsop where the Lewis & Clark expedition first wintered over in 1805 leaving little behind, British Columbians have generally let an important site go unnoticed. In a metropolitan area where mixed ancestry, in a broad sense, is increasingly common, these humble beginnings could certainly be better recognized and celebrated.
A retired tech worker turned amateur historian, Réjean Beaulieu is fascinated by the history of early settlers in the Pacific Northwest originating from the Saint Lawrence Valley – where he also came from nearly 40 years ago.
- Daniel Marshall shared a mostly-forgotten but harrowing tale from BC’s past – getting lost in the mountains (during a blizzard, naturally) on Christmas Day.
- In July 2019, Jordan Bateman looked at Speaker Darryl Plecas’ book.
- Ken Mather shows the central role the Fraser River cattle market played in the province’s early history and development.