Author Tags: 1800-1850, Alcohol, Early B.C., Forts and Fur

“Never break your word to an Indian, even if it is a promise to give him a licking.” —James Douglas (Advice Given To Settler Andrew Muir)

“The best form of government, if attainable, [is] that of a wise and good despotism.” —James Douglas (Journal Entry)

A practical autocrat who married the boss’s daughter—his father-in-law was Chief Factor William Connolly—James Douglas became widely regarded as the founding father of British Columbia. Born in Demerara, British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1803, Douglas was the illegitimate son of Glasgow merchant John Douglas who had business interests in Demerara. His mother was a Creole remembered as Miss Martha Ritchie, from either British Guiana or Barbados. He once wrote that he had been born on June 5, but his tombstone in Ross Bay Cemetery gives the date as August 15.

It is conceivable that James Douglas’ lifelong distaste for “the abominable traffic in slaves” arose partially in response to his own mixed family background. By 1829, he was well aware that Americans were buying slaves at Cape Flattery and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, transporting them to Haida territory, and trading them for between thirty and fifty beaver pelts per person.
“This detestable traffic and the evils it gives rise to,” he wrote, “are subjects of deep regret to us, but we know of no remedy within our power, or we would use it were it only for the sake of our own interest.”
Although Douglas recognized that slaves had long been “the principal circulating medium on this Coast,” he refused to allow Hudson’s Bay Company traders to procure furs by offering humans for sale or barter, unlike many Russian and American traders, and he disdained the tradition of slavery along the Pacific Coast.

After James Douglas’ father married in Scotland in 1809 and started a second family, James and his brother were brought to Scotland to be educated. James attended school at Lanark, Scotland, where he gained a solid training in French, enabling him to enter the fur trade in the service of the North West Company at age sixteen in 1819. That year he sailed to Montreal in the brig Matthews and spent his first winter in Canada, on the shore of Lake Superior at Fort William, as a second-class clerk.

Known for having a violent streak for much of his trading career, Douglas fought a duel, without any fatalities, in 1821.

After the merger of the North West Company with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821, Douglas was stationed at Île-à-la-Crosse on the Churchill River in northern Saskatchewan. He was briefly sent to Fort Vermilion in the Peace River region in the summer of 1825 before he was transferred to Fort St. James on Stuart Lake in central British Columbia. Here, in New Caledonia, he met and married Amelia Connolly, the sixteen-year-old mixed blood daughter of Chief Factor William Connolly and his Cree wife Miyo Nipiy, in 1828.

The Cree heritage of James Douglas’ wife would prove to be a sensitive matter for Douglas, who once advised his youngest daughter Martha not to mention the origins of her compilation of 14 Cowichan and six Cree stories. “I have no objection to your telling the old stories...” Douglas wrote to her, “but pray do not tell the world they are Mamma’s.”

The most controversial incident in Douglas’s fur trading career occurred in the year he took a wife. Back in 1823 two Aboriginals had allegedly murdered two white fur traders at Fort George (now Prince George). Considering themselves insulted by their victims, the pair of Indians had cut off the heads of the two white men and they had escaped capture for five years.

One fugitive was killed at the hands of another tribe, but the other surfaced in the Stuart Lake District in the summer of 1828 when James Douglas was temporarily in charge at Fort St. James during his father-in-law’s absence. Douglas took several men with him and apprehended the alleged criminal in a nearby Carrier village. There wasn’t a rudimentary trial or hearing. In the words of fur trader John McLean, the Hudson’s Bay Company contingent “executed justice on the murderer,” essentially by beating the man to death.

Douglas later recalled the incident for one of his daughters in a letter. “It was a desperate adventure,” he wrote, “which nothing but a high sense of duty could have induced me to undertake.” An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
Douglas’ Hammurabi-like retribution earned him the enmity of the local Carrier Indian Chief Quah [or Kwah], who attacked Fort St. James and overpowered Douglas, binding him hand and foot. According to some reports, his quick-thinking wife Amelia came to his rescue, providing all manner of articles from the fort for his ransom. Another interpretation is that Douglas, threatened with a dagger until he relented, simply agreed to his captor’s terms and his wife hastily provided the necessary ransom of clothes and other trade goods.

Later Douglas and two men were accosted en route to Fraser Lake, and once more threatened with death, until Douglas’ unflinching attitude reportedly convinced his Indian captors to let him go.

To avoid further confrontations, Chief Factor Connolly transferred Douglas and his daughter to Fort Vancouver on January 30, 1830. Connolly recommended his son-in-law to McLoughlin by saying, “wherever he may be placed he cannot fail of being essentially useful.”

Governor George Simpson agreed with this estimation. In 1832, the Little Emperor made the following assessment of Douglas in his confidential “Book of Servants’ Characters”:

“A Scotch West Indian; About 33 Years of Age, has been 13 years in the Service. — A stout powerful active man of good conduct and respectable abilities: — tolerably well Educated, expresses himself clearly on paper, understands our Counting House business and is an excellent Trader. — Well qualified for any Service requiring bodily exertion, firmness of mind and the exercise of Sound judgement, but furiously violent when roused. — Has every reason to look forward to early promotion and is a likely man to fill a place at our Council board in course of time. — Stationed in the Columbia Department.”

At Fort Vancouver, James Douglas became the protégé of John McLoughlin and his marriage to Amelia Connolly was solemnized with an Anglican ceremony performed by newly arrived Reverend Beaver.

Douglas was elevated to Chief Trader in 1835 and he rose to the position of Chief Factor in 1839. Already Douglas was aware of the antipathy between the fur trade and colonization. In 1838 he wrote: “The interests of the Colony and Fur Trade will never harmonize, the former can flourish only through the protection of equal laws, the influence of free trade, the accession of respectable inhabitants; in short by establishing a new order of things, while the Fur Trade must suffer by each innovation.”

In 1840, James Douglas travelled to California on behalf of the Hudson’s Bay Company to establish commercial relations with the Spanish authorities, having conducted similar diplomatic liaisons with Russian Governor Kopreanoff in Alaska earlier that same year. Douglas was much impressed by the Salinas and Santa Clara Valleys, pronouncing California to be “a country in many respects unrivalled by any other part of the globe.” Although he did not publish any memoirs and he is seldom perceived as an author, Douglas kept a journal that was later published as A Voyage from the Columbia to California in 1840.

In 1842, on the strength of recommendations made by Captain McNeill of the Beaver in 1837, Douglas was sent by McLoughlin to conduct preliminary investigations for the site of a new fort near the southern end of Vancouver Island. In 1843, Douglas anchored off Clover Point near the present-day Beacon Hill Park and selected the site for Camosack (Camosun), later renamed Fort Victoria, near the site of Victoria’s inner harbour. “The place itself appears a perfect ‘Eden’ in the midst of the dreary wilderness of the Northwest coast.... One might be pardoned for supposing it had dropped from the clouds into its present position,” Douglas wrote. Having rejected Sooke and Esquimalt as possible building sites, Douglas oversaw some of the initial construction of the new fort that was completed without a single nail the following year.

James Douglas’ attitude to the “natural barbarity” of the Aboriginals he encountered on Vancouver Island in 1843 was expressed in a letter to James Hargrave that year: “What a contemptible thing is the untutored reason of man, I sometimes think that the fools who madly deny the ennobling influence of religion, might learn humility and be cured of their idle fancies, by a few months residence among these desperate savages.”

In 1846, James Douglas succeeded John McLoughlin in command of the Hudson’s Bay Company territory west of the Rocky Mountains. “His affection for John McLoughlin, to whom he largely owed his climb up the ladder of success,” historian Derek Pethick observed, “would seem to have diminished as soon as McLoughlin could be of no further use to him, and he recorded his death in terms which in the circumstances seem callous.”

In 1849, the same year that the British Government ceded Vancouver Island to the HBC for an annual rent of seven shillings, Fort Victoria became the western headquarters for the HBC, replacing Fort Vancouver. Douglas resided for the remainder of his life in Victoria, except for one tour of Europe.

On October 30, 1851, while chief HBC factor, Douglas became governor of Vancouver Island, succeeding Richard Blanshard, an alcoholic, who Douglas had stymied with relative ease since his arrival in 1850. The historian Hubert Bancroft succinctly summarized the neophyte Blanshard’s predicament by saying, “Though backed by the greatest nation on earth, he was more helpless than the seventh wife of a savage.” But the newcomer Blanshard, trained in the law, was no fool. He was, as he noted, mostly victimized by “the whole tendency of the system pursued by the Hudson’s Bay Company, being to exclude free Settlers, and reserve the Island either as an enlarged Post of their own, or a desert.”

To the consternation of Imperial authorities such as Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, who served as Secretary of State for the Colonies, Douglas set up his own Supreme Court in 1853, without lawful authority to do so. He also had few qualms about appointing his newly arrived brother-in-law from Demerara, British Guiana, as the first presiding judge of the Court of Appeal. Yet for all his high-handed tendencies, Douglas chose to follow Bulwer Lytton’s advice to pursue a middle course between the rigid authoritarianism that had resulted in the so-called ‘Eureka Stockade’ incident in Victoria, Australia, in 1854, and the lawlessness that had characterized the California gold rush. Certainly, recent historians have accorded Douglas a great deal of credit for essentially following this middle course.

Unable to serve two masters, Douglas resigned his position as the head of the HBC in 1858 in order to serve solely as the governor of the new colony of British Columbia on the mainland, choosing British imperialism as his new employer. With remarkable acumen, Douglas managed to retain control in both the mainland and Vancouver Island territories after the discovery of gold on the Fraser River. He did so by supporting the law enforcement measures taken by Police Chief Chartres Brew and Judge Matthew Begbie, building roads (including the Cariboo Trail), importing loyal blacks from San Francisco, concocting treaties with Aboriginals and overseeing the development of both New Westminster and Fort Langley. Swift to respond to the influx of gold miners, Douglas issued a proclamation on May 8, 1858, that presumptuously claimed administrative powers that were well beyond his legal rights to assert.

Violence from Aboriginals, especially any assault or murder of settlers, was countered with swift and substantial militarism. Nonetheless, between 1850 and 1854, when Douglas was the Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Victoria, then second Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island, he had had the foresight to generate 14 treaties or land agreements with Aboriginals on Vancouver Island. Known as the Douglas Treaties, these provisions allocated approximately three percent of Vancouver Island to the indigenous inhabitants.
With the exception of the federal government’s Treaty 8 in 1899, which included the northeastern section of British Columbia (and now includes eight B.C. Indian bands), no other treaties were successfully negotiated after James Douglas’ tenure until Premier Glen Clark and Chief Joe Gosnell signed the Nisga’a Agreement in 1998, ratified as law in 2000.

Douglas’ bitter adversary and main critic was Amor de Cosmos, a populist who correctly viewed Douglas as elitist and inflexible. Although Douglas was mostly aloof and stern in public office, he had a rich private life with his wife and their daughters, one of whom married young Dr. John Helmcken. Douglas resigned his governorship in 1864, toured Europe and was knighted in 1866. This was frequently the reward for administrators who had not rocked the boat of Empire in far-flung colonies.

Without being either charitable or condescending, it is easy to suggest Douglas developed the mindset of a would-be Roman general and never lost it. In a letter to George Simpson in 1845, James Douglas observed, “When the Legions were recalled from Britain, and other remote possessions, the Roman Empire fell rapidly into decay; with a territory nearly as extensive, our dominion would suffer from the same course; there is danger in receding; strength, power and safety are to be found only in a bold advance.”

Sir James Douglas returned to live as a wealthy man in Victoria until his death in 1877. “There was something grand and majestic about Douglas,” his son-in-law John Sebastian Helmcken observed. But there was also something base and hostile about him, too. Derek Pethick, an admirer of Douglas, once concluded he was “a judicious blend of the Christian and the Machiavellian.” He combined the anti-democratic, corporate tradition of George Simpson with the benevolent, paternalistic tradition of John McLoughlin, the two most influential figures in his life.


Douglas, James: James Douglas in California, 1841, Being the Journal of a Voyage from the Columbia to California (Vancouver: The Library's Press, 1965). With notes and introduction by Dorothy B. Smith.


R.H. Coats, R.E. Gosnell. Sir James Douglas (Toronto: Morang & Co., 1908)

W.N. Sage. Sir James Douglas (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1930)

Haig-Brown, Roderick. Fur and Gold (Longmans, 1962) [a biographical portrait for young readers]

Dorothy Blakey Smith, editor. James Douglas in California (Vancouver: The Library's Press, 1965)

Derek Pethick. James Douglas: Servant of Two Empires (Mitchell Press, 1969)

Dorothy Blakey Smith; A.H. Siemens. James Douglas: Father of British Columbia. (Oxford University Press, 1971) 0-19-540187-5

Allison F. Gardner. James Douglas (Don Mills: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1976)

John Adams. Old Square-Toes and His Lady: The Life of James and Amelia Douglas. (Horsdal & Schubart, 2001 $18.95 0-920663-77-X)

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2006]

Old Square-Toes and His Lady: The Life of James and Amelia Douglas(Horsdal & Schubart $18.95) by John Adams

from [BCBW]
"What is new here is that Adams puts human faces on the couple sometimes called the George and Martha Washington of B.C." -- reviewer Joan Givner

One of the liveliest chapters in John Adams’ Old Square-Toes and His Lady: The Life of James and Amelia Douglas (Horsdal & Schubart $18.95) — ‘Daughters, Daughters, Daughters’— describes the exuberant social life of the governor’s flirtatious daughters at ‘James Bay House.’ Governor James Douglas’ permissiveness goes far to dispel the stodgy image suggested by his photograph and by the epithet ‘Old Square Toes.’ It is exemplified in a letter informing the Mother Superior of their convent school that he is withdrawing his two daughters because the school rules forbade their attendance at a ball on a Royal Navy man-of-war at Esquimalt. He claimed that his position demanded their attendance, and thereafter they attended dances regularly, and entertained officers, as well as newcomers who arrived in town seeking employment in the colonial civil service.

One wonders if he ever regretted his permissiveness when over the years various scandals rocked the household, with pregnancies and hurriedly arranged marriages occurring more than once. Alice Douglas, the younger of the daughters withdrawn from the convent, later eloped with her father’s part-time secretary. He quickly arranged a formal ceremony but the marriage was unhappy. Alice separated from her husband, became pregnant by her lover, and moved to California to escape scandal. Douglas’ 22- year-old granddaughter, Amy Helmcken, gave birth and got married on the same day, Dr. Helmcken hastily summoning George McTavish, the father, and Bishop Cridge to perform the ceremony.

With Blanshard, Helmcken, Yates, Begbie, Dallas, Finlayson, and Douglas well represented, the index to Old Square-Toes and His Lady reads like a list of Victoria street signs. The historical events that provide the backdrop to the story are also familiar. They include James Douglas’ staunch resistance to the American annexation of the Pacific Coast as far as the Alaskan boundary; his establishment of Fort Camosun on Vancouver Island, later to become Victoria; his tenure as governor of the crown colony of Vancouver Island, and as governor of British Columbia; his stewardship of the colony during the sudden influx of people in the gold rush; and creation of towns like New Westminster and Fort Langley.

Douglas retired before Confederation, but his son-in-law, Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken, was part of the delegation that negotiated B.C.’s transition to Canada’s seventh province. What is new here is that Adams puts human faces on the couple sometimes called the George and Martha Washington of B.C. He presents a portrait of a marriage, drawing Amelia Douglas out of the shadows, in spite of the imbalance in the information available on the two partners. Besides being a highly visible public figure, James Douglas wrote extensively, leaving a wealth of official documents and private letters to family members. Lady Douglas, on the other hand, did not speak English well, preferred her domestic setting to social events, and is known only through the writings of others. Yet her influence extended beyond family and home, and she was sought after for her nursing and midwifery skills. It was her friendship with Mary Yates, for example, that ended the hostility between their two husbands.

Both James and Amelia Douglas came from racially mixed backgrounds. One disenchanted observer, a labourer’s wife, wrote that the governor had spent “all his life among North American Indians and has got one of them for a wife so how can it be expected that he can know anything about governing one of England’s last colonies in North America?”

Amelia Douglas was born to an Irish-French Canadian fur trader and the daughter of a Cree chief. Her parents’ relationship, formalized far from churches and clergy, was ‘a marriage in the custom of the country.’ Her father later returned east to make a traditional marriage and have a second family. Decades later, Amelia Douglas’ brother challenged the legality of the will by which his father left everything to his second wife and his family. The claim focused on the validity of the earlier marriage. In a landmark case for Quebec jurisprudence, the Court of Appeals confirmed Amelia Douglas’ “legitimacy” by establishing “the legality of native customs and laws in places where the Council of Trent had not been promulgated and where foreign laws had not been imposed.”

James Douglas was born out of wedlock to a Scots sugar planter and a Guianese woman of mixed ancestry. When his father returned to Scotland, the children accompanied him and never saw their mother again. The father subsequently married in the Presbyterian church and the “illegitimate” sons were sent away to school, and lived in lodgings. At the age of 16, Douglas sailed for Montreal and began the journey that would take him from eastern to western Canada, and from clerk in the fur companies to governor of a crown colony and, on his retirement, to a knighthood.

The events of Douglas’ childhood explain the endurance and warmth of his own marriage and the great importance he attached to family life. Like Amelia’s parents, the Douglases themselves were united in a “marriage in the custom of the country.” It took place in Fort St James in 1828, when he was 24 and she was 16. Eight years and six pregnancies later, they were re-married by an Anglican chaplain. Of their thirteen children, only six survived—-five daughters and a son. The anxiety caused by Douglas’ daughters was nothing compared to the disappointment in James Douglas Jr., the twelfth of their thirteen children, and their only son. His upbringing combined indulgence with unrealistic expectations for his education and future position in the world—-a disastrous combination, especially since he was physically frail. James Jr.’s performance at the schools he attended in England was lacklustre. And he does seem to have been unusually feckless, at one point enraging his parents by pawning the watch and chain given him as a parting gift. The last of the Douglas children to marry, he died at 33, leaving two sons to carry on the family name. When he died, his father had been dead for six years, but his brother-in-law instigated a lawsuit to prevent the widow of James Jr. from raising her sons in the Catholic faith. She prevailed, and moved with them to England.

Thus the Douglas dynasty proved to be short-lived, most of the next generation being dispersed in England, Scotland and California. The destruction of the James Bay House seems symbolic of the clan’s fate. It was torn down in 1906, and its contents sold at auction. Only the Helmcken House still stands on its original site next to the Royal British Columbia Museum. Adams concludes that the existence of British Columbia is the Douglases’ real legacy. And, of course, there is a permanent memorial in the street names of Victoria, most of them prominent, well-traveled thoroughfares. Only Amelia Street is tucked away and hard to find.

[Joan Givner / BCBW SUMMER 2002]