History of Fort St. James2019-01-15T14:23:02+00:00

Fort St James National Historic Site is a restored Hudson’s Bay Company post on the southern shores of Stuart Lake in the interior of British Columbia. It is commemorated as a centre of trade and commerce in the 19th century fur trade. Originally established by Simon Fraser for the North West Company in 1806, this place displays the largest group of original wooden buildings representing the fur trade in Canada. The story revolves around the relationships and interactions between the fur traders and Native Peoples of the region, namely the Carrier First Nations.

Today, site visitors have the same spectacular view of Stuart Lake that the Carrier and the fur traders knew so well. Not that they all saw this view the same way: while this was “home” to the Carrier people, to the fur traders it was “wilderness” Assignment to one of the cluster of posts in the northern fur district known as New Caledonia was a dreaded posting. Company officers and labourers alike lamented their “exile” to this “Siberia of the fur trade.” Their methods and strategies – first for survival, then for Company profits — were hard learned and depended upon the relationship they could negotiate with their Carrier neighbours.

Hardships, adventures, challenges and changes are all part of the story of this place. In 1805 and 1806, the North West Company constructed the first two permanent fur trade posts west of the Rocky Mountains. The second, Fort St. James, became the centre of the northern fur trade district, known as New Caledonia. Although today it is restored to a single year in time, 1896, the story you will hear spans about one hundred and forty six years, starting with the arrival of the fur traders and ending in 1952, when the Hudson’s Bay Company closed shop on the original site.

The years of early contacts and the decades of trade between Carrier and the Euro-Canadian newcomers were an era of important changes and adjustments. As you wander among the historic buildings, you will meet and talk to site interpretative staff in period costume. You will discover that Fort St James is a place of many stories, and that the array of events and experiences have had different meanings and implications for different people.

Enjoy your virtual tour of Fort St James, and we hope you can come see us in person soon!

General Warehouse and Fur Storage (1888-89)
The general warehouse holds the highest designation Parks Canada can bestow on heritage resources. It is perhaps the finest example of Red River framing (or “piece-on-piece construction”) in North America. This style of construction was perfectly suited to accommodate the changing needs of the fur trade. Because of “bottom log rot,” a post’s buildings had to be renewed about every twenty-five years. Today’s warehouse is from the fourth rebuilding of Fort St James. The walls of this unique type of building are comprised of sections or “bays.” When the fur traders wanted to rebuild, they could easily change the size and shape of the new buildings by reconfiguring and reusing bays from previous structures.

The warehouse is piled high with furs, reproductions of trade goods, and original artifacts to give visitors a sense of the role that Fort St. James played as the distribution and administrative centre of New Caledonia.

Men’s House (1884)
In February of 1884 two men from Fort St James, Long Joe and Vital le Fort, were sent across the frozen Stuart Lake to commence squaring timber for a house, 32 feet by 22 feet. The building served first as a clerk’s house, then as a men’s house, and later as a guest house, a school, and finally, in the mid-1900s, as a private residence.

As the men’s house the building provided accommodation for temporary and permanent fort employees, as well as occasional visitors. The pack train hands, who transported goods between posts, used it as their bunk house between trips or while they were waiting for the arrival of the schooner. The “expressmen,” who carried the mail to Fort St. James, also rested in the men’s house before making their return journeys.

The workforce living and working at Fort St James changed dramatically over the years. While during most of the first century of its operation the post was run by men from the British Isles and from Eastern Canada, by the early 20th century many of the people who stayed in the men’s house were local Carrier people working for the Hudson’s Bay Company. This represented a clear change in the roles taken on by the Carrier — from providing mostly goods (salmon and furs) to providing services, such as day labour at the post, or expertise in boat building and transportation of goods.

Wharf and Tramway (1894-1914)
The tramway is the culmination of many years spent refining trade and transportation routes on the Pacific slope. It recalls the relatively short period of time when schooners and steamers plied the waters of Stuart and Babine Lakes and the mighty Skeena, Fraser, and Nechako Rivers. By then pack trains of horses and mules, and teamsters with draft horses, oxen and wagons had replaced the dog teams, canoes and boats of earlier days. All would eventually fade in 1914, when the railroad, and then cars and highways, forever changed the way goods move and men and women work in the northern interior of British Columbia.

In the 1890s, the tramway was the fur traders’ connection to the rest of Canada and the world. Places such as Fort Langley, Rocky Mountain House, Lower Fort Gary, Fort Walsh, Fort Battleford and the Chilkoot Trail were common points on the travel maps of the day. Today the tramway is a visual link that continues to connect us to these and more places that are now part of the family of Canada’s National Historic Sites. Our vast country and those who built it are commemorated in these special places throughout the land. Collectively they are woven into the tapestry of Canada’s story and are a part of the Canadian spirit.

Fish Cache (1889)
By the 1890s Fort St. James reflected a combination of Carrier and European influences. Architecturally, no other building illustrates this better than the fish cache. The Carrier used raised buildings for their caches, often including living trees for the upright posts. The Europeans copied the Carrier idea of a fish cache in their own “piece-on-piece,” or Red River Frame, style: a post and beam construction incorporating hewn “filler” logs. Today the hewn logs in the fish cache bear marks of a long and varied past, having spent many years as parts of other buildings in previous constructions of the post, before finally being incorporated into the fish cache you see today.

In the early 1800s when Simon Fraser founded Fort St. James, buffalo was the main staple in the diet of many people living on the west side of the Rocky Mountains. Salmon were the “buffalo” east of the Rockies. In 1815 John Stuart, officer in charge of Fort St James, wrote, “We have no buffalo or deer, except the reindeer and not many even of those; so that, properly speaking, we may say that water alone supplies the people of New Caledonia with food.”

For decades after their arrival, the fur traders found themselves without the technology or know-how to stay alive in this new land. The traders had to rely on the Carrier who had the tools and skills to trap salmon in weirs, then process and sell the dried fish. Buying local salmon cut deeply into the profits of the fur trade. For decades the traders did not achieve their goal of self-sufficiency, until they finally succeeded in establishing reliable trails, waterway routes and a transportation labour system to bring flour, meat and other provisions to the region.

Trade Store and Office (1884)
The trade store is a reconstructed building, as the original burnt down in 1919. The trade store was rebuilt because it is such an important part of Fort St James, being in fact, the heart of the fur trade operation.

In the early years things did not always work out the way the fur traders intended. The Carrier people quickly discovered they could get most of the things they wanted from the trade store without ever bringing in furs. This was because the traders were in such desperate need of salmon and traded them from the Carrier in huge quantities. To encourage the trapping and trading of furs, the Company eventually adopted a policy to accept only furs in trade for the most valued store items, such as blankets or metal pots.

The relationship between the Carrier trappers and the fur traders was often a difficult one. The basic concepts Europeans had about trade were fundamentally different from those of the Carrier. This led to many misunderstandings, especially around debt and gift-giving. While the trade account books record the recurring frustration of the traders, it is likely that the fur trappers were often equally frustrated and disagreed about ‘who’ owed ‘what’ to ‘whom.’ Probably the root of the misunderstandings was that, while the Carrier saw trade as primarily a social act, the fur trade companies saw it, first and foremost, as a business transaction.

Gardens, Fields and Fences
As early as May 22, 1811, fur trader Daniel Harmon reported, “We have planted our potatoes, and sowed barley, turnips, & which are the first that we ever sowed, on this west side of the mountain.” A few years later the Daniel again described the state of agricultural operations at the post:

A few days since, we cut down and threshed our barley. The five quarts, which I sowed on the first of May, have yielded as many bushels. One acre of ground, producing in the same proportion that this has done, would yield eighty four bushels. This is sufficient proof that the soil, in many places in this quarter, is favourable to agriculture. It will probably be long, however, before it will exhibit the fruits of cultivation.

He was correct, and it was indeed many years of frustration, experimentation and determination before the Fort garden may have resembled its present appearance.

The present appearance of the fort itself is largely to the credit of one person — Roderick MacFarlane. Charging bull-like into the district in 1888, he set about the much-needed construction of a “new post” during a time of economic restraint, and without approval from his superiors. With A.C. Murray as his foreman, MacFarlane started on the fish cache, fur warehouse and interpreter’s house only months after his arrival. This involved dismantling and reusing much of the building materials from the previous post. We have MacFarlane’s determination and outright disobedience to thank for Fort St James continued existence, its present layout, its buildings and boardwalks, as well as its approximate mile long of fencing, made up of six types, each suited for its particular purpose.

Visitor Reception Centre
Open the doors to the visitor centre and your adventure in the fur trade begins with a warm welcome from staff. Here you will find washrooms, exhibits and presentations in the theatre. Your experience in the visitor centre will prepare you for your walk out to the historic grounds by providing an understanding of the site’s “national messages”. They are:

1. The strategic importance of Fort St. James and former posts on Stuart Lake (1806-1952) in the fur trade of the Pacific slope and by extension its importance in the history of Canada;
2. The significant role of Fort St. James a centre of trade and commerce with the First Nations of the Pacific slope;
3. The strategic importance of Fort St. James as an administrative centre of New Caledonia (1826-1868);
4. The important role Fort St. James played as a transportation and communications link in north-central British Columbia.

The Officers House (1884)
In Fort St. James’ early decades, the officers and men of the fur traders saw themselves in an isolated and hostile land. Daniel Harmon, in charge of Fort St. James in 1811-13, wrote in his journal about life at the post and revealed his attitudes towards his surroundings:

No other people, perhaps, who pursue business to obtain a livelihood, have so much leisure, as we do. Few of us are employed more, and many of us much less, than one fifth of our time, in transacting the business of the Company. The remaining four fifths are at our own disposal. If we do not, with such an opportunity, improve our understandings, the fault must be our own; for there are few posts, which are not tolerably well supplied with books. These books are not, indeed, all of the best kind; but among them are many which are valuable. If I were deprived of these silent companions, many a gloomy hour would pass over me. Even with them, my spirit at times sinks, when I reflect on the great length of time which has elapsed, since I left the land of my nativity, and my relatives and friends, to dwell in this savage country.

Some ninety years later, one indicator of the many changes in the post society is that A.C. Murray, the officer then in charge of Fort St. James, elected to retire in Fort St. James rather than to leave the district. Ultimately, his ties to the local community were stronger than his ties to his place of origin. Unlike earlier gentlemen like Harmon, he regarded Fort St. James as his home.

Carrier Peoples
The Carrier are members of the Athapaskan language group and live in the north central interior of British Columbia on lake and river tributaries of the Upper Skeena and Fraser rivers. Carrier people call themselves “Dakelh-ne” or “Yinka Dene,” or they identify themselves by the community from which they come with the addition of the suffix “t’en” or “whut’en” (people of). There are three dialects of Carrier: “central” spoken by the Carrier around Stuart and Trembleur Lakes; “Babine” spoken by those Carrier around the Bulkley River and Babine Lake; and “southern” spoken by the Carrier groups around Quesnel and in the Anaheim Lake areas.

Many of the Carrier families became trade partners with the newcomers who set up posts in their region in the early 1800s. Some of the more prominent Carrier traders of the 19th and early 20th century fur trade were Qua, Simeon Le Prince, Gross Tete, Tayah, and Joseph Prince. The alliances between Carrier and fur trader were forged through trade ceremonies, gift giving and sometimes marriages between Native women and the fur traders. While the Carrier expectations of this relationship leaned toward mutual loyalty and reciprocal obligation, the fur traders hoped the connections would ultimately translate into smoothly-operating system of profits for the Company’s business.

However, the traditional economy of the Carrier was based on fishing, rather than on fur trapping. And so it was with much frustration — and limited success — that the fur trade companies encouraged the Carrier to adopt the necessary changes in their seasonal round, tools, and activities to get a sometimes-profitable trade in furs established. One obstacle was that, like the salmon fisheries, access to beaver and the beaver lands was proprietary and based on a ceremonial network of potlatching, clans, and inherited titles. The fur traders likely found this social reality both annoying and incomprehensible, and they spent considerable effort to overcome these “obstacles” to rallying a “useful” fur trapping workforce.

Today, while the cash economy is well rooted at Fort St James, it is significant that the ancient systems for the distribution of resources between Carrier families and clans continue to function. In fact, the degree of change over the past century and the persistence and resilience of the traditional Carrier culture at Fort St James are equally noteworthy.

Daily Flag Raising
Raising and lowering the red ensign of the Hudson’s Bay Company occurs daily at Fort St. James. Adopted around 1818 as a symbol of the Company, its forts, ships and personnel, the ensign is made up of the British Union Jack on a red field with the letters HBC, for Hudson’s Bay Company.

In 1670, when the Charter of the Hudson’s Bay Company was granted, the Company was allowed to fly the “King’s Jack,” or the combination of St. Andrews and St. Georges Crosses. Until this time, only the Royal Navy could fly the King’s own flag. But the charter granted the Company of Adventurers not only sole trading rights over the vast territory of Rupert’s Land, but also gave it the power of governance on the King’s behalf, and was authorized, “if Necessary to send either Shippes of War Men or Amunicion unto any theire Plantacions Fortes Factoryes or Places of Trade aforesaid for the security and defence of the same…or otherwise to continue or make peace or Warre…”.

In essence, the Hudson’s Bay Company was the King’s representative and army in Canada. From HBC ships the Union Flag was apparently transferred to the Company’s posts such as Fort St. James.

Daily Play
“A Letter Home” Introduction to Fort St. James

Getting There: The site is located 160 km north-west of Prince George, B.C., and can be reached by road, rail and air. Follow Highway 16 west from Prince George, then turn north onto Highway 27 just beyond Vanderhoof. Fort St. James is 45 minutes off Highway 16.

Making the Most of Your Visit: Allow two hours to explore the fort, and don’t forget your camera! Stop at the modern Visitor Reception Centre, watch a video and stroll through our interpretative displays. Rent our 45-minute audio tape tour and step back in time to the days of the fur trade. Meet costumed interpreters working in the buildings and garden. Watch Carrier people building canoes, tanning hides and preparing salmon for smoking and drying onsite. Visit our gift shop, and relax at the Old Fort Café for lunch with a lovely view of the lake. Enjoy fishing, swimming, hiking, canoeing and spectacular waterfront camping on nearby lakes and rivers. Join the ‘Ghost Walk‘, a special Parks Day event on the third Saturday in July.