Fort St. James and New Caledonia: Where British Columbia Began
November 4, 2013
Review By William Morrison
Many residents of British Columbia are probably unaware that the settler history of the province began not in the Fraser Valley but in New Caledonia, the north-central interior, a result not of the explorations of Captain Vancouver and others but, rather, of incursions of fur traders from the eastern part of the continent. Some might object to the title of this book, of course, on the grounds that human occupation of the region began twelve thousand years ago, not two hundred, but clearly the title refers to the settler or newcomer history, which is its main focus.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, fur traders came to northern British Columbia from the east, following the lead of Alexander Mackenzie, and founded a number of posts, some of which grew into towns after the end of the fur trade (e.g., Prince George), while others, like Fort Alexandria, are remembered only by cairns. The fur trade was a major economic enterprise, with its axis east-west rather than north-south (only later on was it attached to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s (HBC’s) headquarters at Fort Langley). Before the era of agricultural settlement it defined the economy of the region, and until the railway came through during the First World War, it continued to dominate the northern part of the province.
What stands out in this fascinating and meticulously researched book is the sheer amount of human muscle power it took to build a fur trade economy in the interior of British Columbia. When we read that a canoe brigade left Fort St. James (the collecting centre for the region’s furs), carried its cargo to Fort William at the head of Lake Superior, and then from there to Montreal, we can hardly comprehend the amount of effort required to paddle canoes that distance and then return the next season with trade goods.
One of the author’s heroes – if that is not too strong a word for a person who was, like most of the HBC’s officials, simply an ordinary man working in extraordinary circumstances – was William Connolly, a native of Lachine, Quebec, who came to New Caledonia in 1824. It was Connolly who, in 1826, first directed the shipment of the HBC’s furs southward, via the Columbia River, rather than eastward, thus redirecting the trade axis of the region. He had to deal with all sorts of difficulties, including tricky relations with First Nations and the murder of two of his employees. Like many of his colleagues, he took a “country wife,” but, like many other fur traders, he did not marry her. After his death, their son challenged the provisions of Connolly’s will, a claim that the courts upheld in a precedent-setting decision.
It has been more than a century since the last comprehensive history of British Columbia’s northern interior was written, and that work, though closer to the period, did not have the advantage of access to the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives. Elliott’s book, very traditional in its approach and tone, brings the wealth of this source to what will likely be the definitive work on the subject for the foreseeable future.