Fort St James was founded by explorer and fur trader Simon Fraser of the North West company in 1806 when he was exploring potential river routes to the Pacific ocean. The location on the side of the lake at the head of the Stuart river in territory inhabited by Dakelh First Nation people (also known as Carrier) proved a lucrative locale.
In 1821, the fort came under the control of the Hudson’s Bay Company, when the North West Company merged with it. Hudson Bay company is one of British Columbia’s oldest permanent European settlements, the fort having been rebuilt four times is now a National Historic site of Canada with some buildings dating back to the 1880′s.
The second picture shows the fabled fur trade warehouse a ‘Red River’ design, it had a wooden pathway running from its door to the dock where the traders would tie up their boats or canoes. Carts would bring the cargoes of furs to the warehouse for trade. There is an example of an old canoe out the front on the lawn. The round pelts are beavers one of the biggest trading furs as beaver skin hats were the height of fashion in Europe at that time. Also hunted was wolf, wolverine, muskrat, fox and skunk amongst others.
The fur trade was slow to take route in the area, since the economy of the Dakelh people had been based on fishing rather than trapping. In addition, there were customary and ceremonial restrictions which placed obstacles in the way of an efficient fur economy. Nonetheless, eventually the post became profitable and continued to function until its closure in 1952.
William E Traill travelled over 88 days from Fort Vermont to take over the management of Fort St James, he bought with him his wife Harriet, son Walter and five young daughters. The arduous journey by boat, train and stagecoach was completed in 1889. It was fortuitous that the fort had modern conveniences such as a separate kitchen with stove and the master bedroom was lavishly decorated with a comfortable bed and storage or Mrs. Traill may well have persuaded her husband to leave again given the isolation of this desolate post.
Food was grown in the kitchen gardens and chickens were kept for eggs and meat. The chickens here now earn their keep from an annual chicken race, check out their racing names and see the run at the end of the garden.
Salmon was also traded by the Dakelh people and in the lean winters months became an important food source, it was dried and hung with meat for storage to be eaten in winter. The salmon cache house is the tall building on the left, the building on the right has been used as a schoolhouse but was mainly a bunk house for the single men.
During the fall (autumn) and winter, First Nations and trappers did the vast majority of the animal trapping and pelt preparation. They travelled by canoe and on foot, to the fort to sell their pelts. In exchange they typically received popular trade goods such as knives, tobacco, kettles, beads, needles and the Hudson’s Bay point blankets. The arrival of the First Nations trappers was one of the high points of the year, met with pomp and circumstance. The first picture shows the warehouse full of furs, the second picture is tobacco one of the trading goods.
Exchange of goods was part of life and people did the most intricate designs of beadwork on gloves and jackets. Here, they are keeping the art alive.
Notice the newspapers lining the walls for insulation and the sparse living quarters for the workers of the fort.
Large stores stocked full of goods were vital as roads were blocked by snow, rivers froze in the harsh winters and the traders needed enough to barter with and use themselves. Here are examples of teas, coffees, oils, candles, blankets and other goods in the store.
The history of the Hudson Bay Company is a long and fascinating one. We only discovered while writing this Blog that its original founders were two Frenchmen who failing to find finance in France turned to the English. The company was incorporated and financed by English Royal Charter in 1670 by King Charles II and functioned as a De Facto government protecting British interests in a vast section of North America until other nations wanted a piece of the action. The war of 1688 between France and England was over trading rights and land as the two countries were both trying to increase their territories.
The Hudson Bay Company virtually ran Canada in the early 1800′s and many of its forts and outposts evolved into towns that still exist today. Canada is a bilingual country with the eastern half of the country still speaking French.
Sensing the demise of the fur trade in the mid 1900′s the Hudson Bay Company shifted their focus from the Fur Trade to Mercantile stores and more recently retail outlets and they now own several big American and Canadian retail chains. In the late 19th century they signed a deed of surrender in which they gave up ownership of their lands in order to form the Dominion of Canada. It was at one time the largest landowner in the world and held title to 1/3rd of modern-day Canada. The company is still in business based in Toronto and has a CAD$7 Billion turnover, they are one of the oldest companies in the world and have been in continuous business for 340 years.
We learnt a lot of history of the trading posts and harsh living out here, we were tuckered out and in need of refreshments. Having seen Little Jimmy Fry’s on the way through town we knew there were ice creams, if fact 24 flavours. It was the largest, best ice cream we’d had all trip.
In town was this delightful church painted so colourfully. Our Lady of Good Hope church was completed in 1873 it was a very basic and plain design of square logs. It remained thus until Father Coccolla remodelled it in 1905 adding the tower, spire and arched windows. The decorative arcs and carvings are unique to this church and the colour was added later.
Our day wasn’t over we still had the river ride with Donny which we were really looking forward to.
Next up – River trip with Donny