Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on May 2, 2010 - 6 comments

Chapter Two
Part Six - Life at Fort Simpson











The centre of Euro-american activity on the north coast was Fort Simpson where a complement of about two dozen HBC officers and servants mingled with a floating population of as many as three thousand First Nations people, mainly Tsimshian. Simpson was located in a sheltered cove near the tip of the Tsimpsean Peninsula north of the present site of Prince Rupert. The English called the spot McLoughlin’s Harbour, yet another tribute to the crusty old chief factor, John McLoughlin. The Tsimshian knew it as Lax Kw’alaams, “the place of wild roses”, a camping site belonging to a high-ranking chief named Ligeex (or Legaic). Ligeex was a member of the Gispaxlo’ots, one of nine tribes which by 1850 had moved their winter villages to the harbour. They were considered Simpson’s “homeguard”, a fur-trade term denoting a group of local people who lived next to the post for much of the year, acted as intermediaries in the trade with other groups, and took occasional work with the company as hunters, packers, guides, canoe paddlers and general labourers. The homeguard provided much of the “country provisions”--fresh meat, seagull eggs, fish and berries-- without which the survival of the post would have been impossible, company servants being such indifferent fishers and hunters.

Beyond the homeguard, Fort Simpson attracted trade from other Tsimshian groups along the coast and from their related neighbours, the Gitksan of the upper Skeena River and the Nisga’a from the Nass. As well, Tlingit traders came from the Stikine River area to the north and Haida paddled across the strait from the Queen Charlotte Islands.

The fort itself was named for Aemilius Simpson, captain of the HBC vessel Cadboro, who had led the team that established the original post when it was on the Nass River. Simpson subsequently died and his name adhered to the relocated establishment. It was a typical HBC trading post, built to keep employees in and Aboriginal people out. A wall of squared cedar logs about seven metres high surrounded a collection of whitewashed buildings housing the officers and men, the warehouse, trading store, blacksmith’s and carpenter’s shops and the mess hall.

The fort was protected by two bastions at opposite corners of the stockade, each containing four cannon trained on the surrounding area. An elevated gallery running around the inside of the stockade wall was patrolled by armed sentries. The main gate led through the stockade into a central courtyard; a small door in the gate admitted only one person at a time. An outer palisade made of pointed pickets three to four metres tall ringed the fort. Outside the walls were a vegetable garden, a cemetery and a sawpit.

The people who lived at Fort Simpson were a mixed bag of races and cultures. The HBC recruited its employees from many different places. There were French-Canadian voyageurs from Quebec, Scots from the Orkney Islands, the sons of mixed marriages between European or French-Canadian traders and their Aboriginal wives, and Iroquois from the St Lawrence River settlements, highly valued by the company as trappers, interpreters and guides.

Particularly exotic, and unique to the west coast fur trade, were the “Kanaka” servants. These were native-born Polynesians (“Kanaka” means human being in Polynesian), mainly Hawaiians, whom the HBC hired to serve as sailors and labourers. Several hundred Hawaiians were employed at HBC posts west of the Rockies during the fur-trade era. Most returned to their island homes when their terms expired, but some intermarried and remained in BC where they tended to merge with the local communities. Still, there are British Columbians today who trace their origins back to the original Kanakas.

Along with the servants, a number of Aboriginal wives and mixed-blood children were resident at the post. Initially the HBC had discouraged “country marriages”, but the desire of the men for female companionship proved stronger than any company edict. By the 1850s mixed marriages were a fact of life among officers and servants alike. John Work, in charge at Fort Simpson from 1835 to 1846, was married to Josette Legace, daughter of a voyageur father and a Spokane mother. W. H. McNeill, captain of the Beaver for many years and factor at Simpson during the 1850s, was married first to a Haida woman, Matilda, and after she died in childbirth he married Neshaki, daughter of a Nisga’a chief. Of course, the governor of the colony himself, James Douglas, was married for almost fifty years to Amelia Connolly whose father was a chief factor and whose mother was a Cree. These examples could be replicated many times, not just for officers but for ordinary servants as well. Coastal society in the nineteenth century, while not equalitarian, was certainly multicultural.

Next time: more on Fort Simpson