Fort Victoria was constructed to the same plan as the fort it replaced, Fort Vancouver on the northern shore of the Columbia River in Washington State. The State built a replica of Fort Vancouver. This is a photograph of that replica.

Fort Victoria was constructed to the same plan as the fort it replaced, Fort Vancouver on the northern shore of the Columbia River in Washington State. The State built a replica of Fort Vancouver. This is a photograph of that replica. Photo: Denton Pendergast

Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was headquartered out of Fort Vancouver. The fort was located on the north shore of the Columbia River where a faithful replica now stands in its original location in the city of Vancouver, Washington. From there the HBC controlled nearly all trading operations in the region. The Fort’s influence reached from the Rocky Mountains to the Hawaiian Islands, from Alaska into Mexican-controlled California. At its pinnacle, Fort Vancouver managed over 34 outposts and 24 ports through 600 employees and six ships.

American Westward Expansion

The American President (1845-1849) James K. Polk had his eye on the Oregon Territory and Mexican California. Polk encouraged large numbers of settlers to travel west over what became known as the Oregon Trail, then claimed the US had a legitimate claim to the entire Columbia/Oregon district though was prepared to draw the border along the 49th parallel. Under recommendation from the great Scottish explorer and surveyor David Thompson the British position was that since the HBC effectively controlled the territory north of the Columbia River, the boundary should be drawn along the Columbia River. Negotiations broke off, giving rise to the Oregon Boundary Dispute (1846). Polk’s American expansionists increased the pressure on the British by claiming to the entire district north to Russian Alaska under the slogan “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!”. If successful, all of what is now British Columbia would have been American.

With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) Polk’s diverted his resources to the winning of California so the US was again prepared to compromise on the Oregon issue. The dispute was quickly settled by the Treaty of Washington in 1846. It established the border between British North America and the United States along the 49th parallel from the Rocky Mountains to the sea, with Vancouver Island retained as British territory.

The Founding Fort Victoria

The Treaty of Washington effectively destroyed the geographic logic of the HBC’s Columbia Department with Fort Vancouver as its headquarters. The Company subsequently moved its headquarters north to Fort Victoria in 1846, which had been founded three years earlier by James Douglas in anticipation of the treaty.

Fort Victoria

Accreditation: City of Victoria Archives

Esquimalt Harbour was considered for the new fort’s location but was rejected due to its heavy forested shoreline. On March 16, 1843 work began on the construction of Fort Victoria. James Douglas chose the site, and Charles Ross was in charge of construction.  French-Canadian employees of Hudson’s Bay Company did most of the clearing, digging, and axe work. The people of the Songhees Nation provided the cedar logs to form the palisades from Mt. Douglas. They were paid one HBC blanket for every 40 logs supplied.

The fort measured 330 feet by 300 feet and had a single bastion in the southwestern corner near what is now Fort and Broughton.  At this time the northern palisade ran south of Bastion Square behind what is now the Board of Trade Building – roughly the lane now informally called “Hudson’s Bay Lane” along the back of the building.

HBC introduced a number of valuable trade goods into the indigenous culture including wool blankets, trad axes, iron- and copperware, knives and firearms.

The Fort’s Expansion

In 1846, with the signing of the Treaty of Washington, HBC moved its headquarters to Fort Victoria and enlarged the fort to accommodate more warehouses.  The extension pushed the northern palisade of the fort to where Bastion Square is today.  A line of bricks in the pavement in front of the Law Chambers and Board of Trade Building marks the position.  A second bastion was built at what is now the head of Bastion Square, at Government Street.  The exact location of the northeast bastion is outlined in brick with a brass Hudson’s Bay Company crest in the centre.

Victoria becomes the Capital of Vancouver Island

In 1849 the British government created the Colony of Vancouver Island.  The HBC was given a 10-year contract to manage the colony, and James Douglas moved from Fort Vancouver to take charge of the operations.  At the same time, the British government appointed Richard Blanshard to be the first governor of the colony. He had little to do and resigned in 1851. James Douglas was appointed to replace him.

Activities at Fort Victoria

Life at Fort Victoria was typical of most Hudson’s Bay Company posts. Men (mostly French Canadians) lived in large barracks. Local native people came to trade at the “Indian Store.” Furs from throughout British Columbia were collected and stored in large log warehouses. Small ships (such as the SS Beaver) and canoes transported most of the furs and trade goods along the coast. Supplies and trade goods arrived once a year by ship around Cape Horn from England. Farms were established near the fort. Hunting, fishing and riding were the main pastimes of the men. Dances with fiddle music and occasional plays were some of the few entertainments.