by Dorthea Calverley
The Peace River, explored by Mackenzie in 1793, was not a practical route for carrying furs to the Pacific coast. In 1797 John Finlay, who gave his name to the Finlay River, was sent out to find an easier river to follow. He is thought to have built a post near present-day Fort St. John, the first trading post ever built on British Columbia soil. A journal telling of the winter of 1798-99 (?) still exists. The great surveyor David Thompson walked from Fort Fork near Peace River in the winter of 1804, and located the old fort precisely at the mouth of Tea Creek, where it entered the Peace from the north, four miles directly west of today’s Fort St. John. It was called Rocky Mountain Fort or House. Finlay never got to the Fraser River and did not find that easier canoe route.
He did, however, cross the Rockies for the NorthWest Company and penetrated a few miles up the north branch of the Peace which is named for him. No record remains of the expedition except in the writings of Samuel Black. Twenty-seven years after Finlay’s expedition, this Hudson’s Bay man actually went to the source of the Finlay, writing in his journal that “he had studied Finlay’s chart”.
A journal still exist for the winter of 1799-1800, showing that trading was going on at Fort St. John. Alexander Mackenzie had noted earlier that the mouth of the Sinew River (now the Pine) “would be an excellent situation for a fort or factory”. This would place Mackenzie’s chosen spot across from where Taylor now is. Why it was established a few miles upstream at the mouth of Tea Creek is not clear.
The old Fort St John was still in operation in 1808. Daniel Harmon, in charge at Dunvegan, wrote that “Fred Goedike had left to pass the winter at Fort St. John.” Why it was called “Fort St. John is not clear, for there is no record of its ever having a stockade or bastions.
One fact about this fort is generally forgotten by everyone who is not a Peace River resident. Fort St. John was the first recorded post built on British Columbia soil. There had been trading with the Indians on Vancouver Island, but it was carried on with the ships of Captain Cook as a base of operations.
Fort McLeod is often cited as the first trading post in British Columbia but it was built in 1806. Fort St. John rightly claims to be the oldest trading post in continual operation on the same site, but it was built in 1807 or 1808, when the original Fort St. John had already been in operation for a least eight years. When people at the Coast “correct” me when I state that Fort St. John was the oldest post I admit that the site had been changed when old log buildings tumbled down. I say, “True, but the Peace River country is a very progressive area. When we see something better, we alwaysmove.”
In 1820, according to their records, the Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort l’Epinette. The location is not stated, though rival establishments were usually close to each other.
In 1823 a “new” Fort St. John was built at the mouth of the North Pine, now called the Beatton River. Since the companies had amalgamated by this time, this Fort St. John was a Hudson’s Bay Post. In 1823 the company decided to close it down since the Beaver Indians were not bringing in enough furs. The Sikanni were doing better up the river at Rocky Mountain Portage House (now Hudson’s Hope). Accordingly it was announced that the business was to be transferred. The Beavers were insulted; the Sikanni were enemies, and the company was catering to them.
That is one story. The other is that one of the white men at the post had taken a chief’s wife. The Beavers were, of all the tribes, least likely to intermarry with other tribes or white men either; this was an outrage that many a white man has avenged in the same way. The Indians fell upon Guy Hughes who was in charge of the post, and murdered him. Four other men were also killed when they returned. The company closed down the post in 1823 as a “punishment”. A party set out to bring the guilty men in for trial, but the affair was called off before any trial took place.
The building near the banks of the Peace which was for years known as “Old Fort St. John” may be the oldest structure in British Columbia. The story goes like this. A brigade set out in 1802 from Montreal to set up a new trading post and church on the Peace River. The party included a priest, a Father St. John. Church records in Montreal shown that a one-story log building was constructed for a church in 1803. An old fort, probably built at the same time, was destroyed in a bush fire.
On the door frame of the present building could be seen until a very few years ago Roman numerals, denoting the 13th to 22nd of some month in the year 1813. Not long ago [ca. 1965] a fire licked up the doorway, charring the wood, which has now been covered with a new casing. I regret that a storm prevented my taking a picture of these numbers when I first saw them.
The logs tell a story. On one wall the logs all have a number carved in. These logs are pine. Above the lower nine courses are six courses of unmarked poplar logs. The gable ends revert to the original pine logs. A lean- to at the east end is of poplar logs. All this indicated that an original one story building was taken down, the logs being numbered to reestablish easily the old dove-tailed corners which would have being individually cut and fitted. A second story was added, and the gables were then replaced. The beams were poles with the bark removed. The number nine logs show marks of the original ceiling joists, but the present ceiling is one log higher.
Where the original building stood nobody knows for sure, for it may have been moved. Some of the logs still show the traces of original finish which was fine clay mixed with grass and must have resembled plaster. It was painted with a fleur-de-lis pattern, the paint being made of yellow ochre which is still found in the area. One thinks of the similar decoration in the sanctuary of the old church at Dunvegan, which is still well preserved. Tradition has it that the lean-to was used as chapel, and the upstairs as living quarters.
There was once a riverboat landing at this point. Storehouses were constructed near the old building, and for some time, probably after the mission was closed for some reason, the place was used as a trading post.
Fort St. John was opened again in 1858, on the south bank of the river. Louis Bourassa was in charge in 1869 and the Beavers were doing a good trade. By 1873 Captain Butler described it as “a very tumbled down old place”. Across from it a new log house was being constructed by the Hudson’s Bay, which brings Fort St. John back to the north side of the river again.
In 1902, just seventy years ago as this is being written, Frank Beatton took up his duties as trader. Later, the fort moved to its present side on the high land above the river.
In 1911, the Fort was still on the flat, and consisted of two establishments, The Hudson’s Bay Fort, and the “Diamond P” Revillon Freres Store. The former was in the regulation square with a flagpole in the centre; the latter consisted of four less pretentious whitewashed log buildings, then presided over by the famous Englishman, Harry Garbut, or Garbitt, trader and guide. The new man at the Bay fort, Godsell, described the Indian encampment of “scores and scores” of conical Indian skin lodges, and hundreds of horses roaming the hills.
Godsell was there on the night when an Indian brawl broke out, during a football game between surveyors and Indians. There had been a previous fracas when the Beaver hunter, Wolf, had tried to abduct Godsell’s guide’s Cree wife, and began to urge the Beavers to kill the whites. With characteristic exaggeration, Godsell made the most of an incident. Actually trader Frank Beatton handled the episode with quiet efficiency, but according to Godsell, the Peace Country was on the brink of a massacre. This occurred as late as 1912. Today we would hear it in the morning newscast as a “protest march”. But the capable old Orkneyman, Beatton, who dispersed the unruly crowd, could never have been accused of “brutality”.
Today  nothing remains of the last of the many forts called Fort St John although the town of that name is a thriving community geared to the oil and gas industry in the area. Some professional archeology has been done in the area, mostly under the direction of Knute Fladmark of Simon Fraser University. The 1823 fort at the mouth of the Beatton River was excavated in 1975, yielding a large quantity of small artifacts of the kind usually found at old fort sites — buttons, beads, broken dishes, lead balls and bones