- Soars, Norman, “A Derelict Fort in Northern British Columbia”. Museum and Art Notes, Vol.2 No.2, The Art, Historical and Scientific Association: Vancouver, 1952.
While Fort McLeod can claim the distinction of being the first trading post established west of the Rockies and the oldest continuously operated post in British Columbia, nevertheless, Rocky Mountain Fort, the subject of this article, later known as Fort St. John, preceded it by some seven or eight years.
In the Canadian Archives, among the Masson Papers, there is a journal, “The Rocky Mountain Fort Journal, fall, 1799,” covering a period from 5th October, 1799 to 20th April, 1800. It is endorsed, probably by Masson, “sans aucune importance,” but time and events have given the due importance of its being the only written record we have of the proceedings at the first trading post established in what is now British Columbia.
The location of this fort, the forerunner of the present Fort St. John, has been established by the late J. N. Wallace, D.L.S., as being on the bank of the Peace, some five or six miles above, or west, of the present townsite of Fort St. John and forty-five miles below Rocky Mountain Portage, the present Hudson’s Hope. Alexander Mackenzie first selected a site, at the mouth of the South Pine River, or Sinew [Moberly] River, as it was then called, on his voyage up the Peace in 1793, but there is no record of a fort being constructed until its mention in the “Journal.” Statements in this journal show that this, the winter of 1799-1800, was not the first winter of the post, so that it must have been built in 1798 or earlier. In 1797 [John] Finlay made an exploratory trip to the headwaters of the Peace River, and it seems probable that this fort was built during or in consequence of this journey. This would date it as being built eight years before either Rocky Mountain Portage or Fort McLeod, both of which were built in 1805. Wallace, in fixing the location of this fort, actually followed the courses both of Mackenzie and David Thompson. Thompson’s last course reads: “N–82W — two miles to the House, thank God!,” and his latitude confirms the site exactly, for he records it as 56, 12′, 12.”
The journal mentions three men being sent to the west end of the portage, a trip which took them six days. Since the portage itself is only twelve miles, this would confirm the fact that the fort was some forty-five miles below or down stream from Rocky Mountain Portage, the fort which Simon Fraser built in 1805.
There are two references in the journal to men being sent down to the “Lower Fort,” or to “Mr. F. [Finlay?] Fort.” This would be Mackenzie’s Fort at the Forks, now marked by a cairn, a few miles above the present town of Peace River. This journey took them nineteen days, which would be a reasonable time for the distance. There is no certain proof as to who built the fort or who kept the journal, but Mr. Wallace, in his book, “The Wintering Partners on Peace River,” favours Finlay as the builder and Fraser as the writer of the journal. The Post was apparently closed in 1805, but the need for a fort in that locality was soon proved and Fort. St John was established a few miles down stream, and has been in existence, except for a short period, ever since.
Fort St. John can therefore claim the distinction of being, in a sense, the oldest white settlement in British Columbia, by some eight years.
Fort St. John has seen many vicissitudes. It has been moved at least five times, from one side of the river to another. This frequent moving of a fort, as in the case of Fort St. John, was no uncommon thing on the Peace. The Hudson’s Bay Fort, St. Mary’s on the Peace near the Smoky, occupied three sites in four years.
The moving was due to a variety of causes; a better site for the Indian visitors; lack of wood for fuel and, according to one historian, the difficulty of getting rid of the vermin with which the log buildings became infested. Had D.D.T. then been available, the early traders would have been saved a lot of discomfort.
In 1823 it was the scene of one of the rare Indian massacres, when five employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company were killed by the local Indians. One version of the story is told by John McLean, in his book, “Notes of Twenty-five Years Service in the Hudson’s Bay Territory,” published in 1849.
He visited the scene in 1833, when the Fort was still a desolate ruin, and he tells the story as it was told to him by Mr. McIntosh, who was then in charge of the District. The post was to be closed and the business transferred to Rocky Mountain Portage, later known as Hudson’s Hope, the trading place of the Tsekennie Indians, who were great hunters.
But the Tsekennies and Fort St. John Indians had a long-standing quarrel, and the local chief regarded the move as an insult and an advantage to his rivals.
Guy Hughes, the Clerk-in-Charge of the Post, had sent his four canoe-men off with a load of trade goods to Rocky Mountain Portage, some forty-five miles up stream. In their absence he was walking alone on the river bank when two Indians shot him down. They carried his lifeless body into the building where McLean states, “his blood still marks the floor.” When his four men returned unsuspecting to the Fort they were met by a volley from the Indians in ambush.
That is the Company’s version; but local legend tells another story, a tale of a cache of ruin hidden in the Fort, and of drink-crazed Indians demanding more than the Company’s meagre allowance. Another story attributes the fight to trouble over the Indian women and this, judging by other experiences in the North, may well be the true one. In any case, old-timers in the Fort St. John country still cherish hopes of finding that cache of rum, mellowed by the years.
The Company organized an expedition to punish the guilty Indians but, just as it was setting out, wiser councils prevailed and, instead, they closed the Posts at St. John and Dunvegan. These establishments were closed for some five years as a means of punishment.
The closing of these posts is said to have caused great suffering among the Indians, many of whom starved to death, since, by that time they were entirely dependent upon the Posts for ammunition and supplies. Fort Dunvegan was reopened in 1828 and a new post built at Fort St. John.
By 1873 the Hudson’s Bay Company, which since its union with the North West Company, had held undisputed sway in the North Country, was beginning to meet with opposition from the Free Traders.
One of these, at Fort St. John, was “Nigger Dan,” D. T. Williams, a negro trader and trapper of doubtful reputation and ferocious appearance. Colonel Butler tells the story in his book, “The Wild North Land.”
Some four years before, Nigger Dan had squatted on the north bank of the Peace at St. John, opposite the Hudson’s Bay fort and, when the Company decided to move across the river and build beside his cabin he claimed squatter’s rights to all the land around, and embarked upon a single-handed war with the Gentlemen Adventurers.
From his lair across the river he issued manifestoes of a very violent nature. He planted stakes along the riverbank, upon which he painted hieroglyphics of a menacing character. At night he would parade up and down the river bank, shouting curses and threats at his opponents, and varied this by reciting appropriate passages from the Old Testament. Finally, one day, the young clerk in charge of the Hudson’s Bay Post received the following ultimatum: “KENEDY: I hereby worn you that come and gett your persnol property if eny you have got of my prmeesis In 24 hours and then keep away from me because I shall not betrubbld Nor Trod On Only By Her Most Noble Majesty Queen Victoria. (signed) D. T. Williams.”
This might have had serious consequences but for the fact that Colonel Butler, on his trip across the continent, arrived in the nick of time. Before leaving Fort Garry he had been appointed a justice of the Peace for Ruperts Land and the North-West Territories, and both the Hudson’s Bay claimant and the negro occupant appealed to him to support their property rights. As an officer in Her Majesty’s Army, Colonel Butler was familiar with diplomatic procedure and official documents.
He drew up a Judicial Memorandum solemnly warning the “said parties” to keep the peace. The last sentence of this imposing document reads as follows: “Executed by me, as Justice of the Peace for Ruperts Land and the North West Territories this 22nd day of April, 1873.”
This had the desired effect, for “Nigger Dan” had much on his conscience, having been suspected of more than one killing. A lengthy perusal of the word “Executed,” in the final sentence, carried with it the ominous suggestion of strangulation at the end of a rope, a fate he had long feared. The first experiments in agriculture at Fort St. John were made at this time, for in 1872 a traveller comments that “Nigger Dan’s barley was ripe for cutting.” Another colorful “Free Trader” at Fort St. John in those days was “Twelve Foot Davis.” He had been a miner in the Cariboo, where he had staked a twelve-foot fractional placer claim. The original staker had acted on the belief that it was better to stake too much than too little, but the claim was reduced to lawful size following a survey. The oversight earned Davis his name of “Twelve-Foot,” and the sum of ten thousand dollars, which he received on selling the fraction.
With the prospect of the Hart Highway into the Peace River being completed in 1952, and the discovery of oil in the vicinity of Fort St. John, it is important that an effort be made in the near future to relocate the site of this, the first fort to be built in British Columbia. Owing to the nature of the terrain and the fact that development has been principally on the north side of the river, it is quite possible that the original site has been undisturbed. Lending credence to this belief is a story told by Mr. Frank Golata of Dawson Creek, a well-known big game guide.
Many years ago while on his trap-line, Mr. Golata found the ruins of what unmistakably had been a trading post, as evidenced by a circular arrangement of rocks, fireplaces and the remains of chimneys. Large trees were growing from the hole which had been the cellar.
The Northland is being opened up and it would be a fitting task for the Historic Sites and Monument Board to undertake the finding and preservation of this old site before the bulldozers of the oil seekers and the ploughs of the farmers remove all trace of Rocky Mountain Fort. The rich mineral wealth of that area is fast replacing the furs in the order of economic importance.
It is for us to hope that progress will not entirely eradicate this tangible link with the romantic past, with its vision of explorers, voyageurs, traders, trappers and adventurers who were the virile vanguard, pushing ever forward into the unknown.
To such, posterity owes the debt of remembrance. Let us preserve the fireplaces and chimneys of old Rocky Mountain Fort, where, after the toil and hazards of river, portage and trail, they rested awhile before passing into the fabric of history.