Sir James Douglas KCB (1803 –1877) was a Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) fur-trader, then colonial governor of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, now part of Canada. Douglas started working in Canada at age 16 for the North West Company, and later for the HBC, becoming a high-ranking company officer. In the trade he was known as a “Scottish West Indian.” Douglas was born in Demerara (later part of British Guiana, now Guyana) to John Douglas, a Scottish planter and merchant from Glasgow and Martha Ann Telfer, a Creole of mixed race from Barbados.
Douglas spent 19 years working in HBC’s Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River as chief accountant until 1834, when he was promoted to chief trader of the post.
George Simpson, governor in chief of the HBC, recommended that a second line of forts be built in case the Columbia River valley fell into American hands. In 1841 Douglas was charged with setting up a trading post on the site of present-day Victoria, British Columbia. This proved beneficial when, in 1846, the Oregon Treaty was signed, extending the British North America-United States border along the 49th parallel from the Rocky Mountains to the Strait of Georgia.
Douglas was not initially appointed as governor of the colony of Vancouver Island; the position instead went to Richard Blanshard, an English barrister. But most practical authority rested with Douglas as the HBC’s chief factor. He was the colony’s primary employer and in charge of its finances and land. He effectively drove Blanshard from the position. After Blanshard’s resignation in 1851, the British Government appointed Douglas governor of Vancouver Island. He remained chief factor of the HBC.
Douglas maintained a policy of trading with the First Nations for their land, stemming from a desire to have good interactions with natives while avoiding violence. Costs for each parcel of land were usually in the form of blankets, often three for each man.
Douglas’ relations with First Nations peoples were mixed. On the one hand, Douglas married Amelia, a Metis woman, and had established many close business and personal relationships with indigenous peoples as a fur trader. He sought to conclude treaties (the Douglas Treaties) with First Nations on southern Vancouver Island. The treaties he concluded were later criticized as having provided woefully inadequate compensation to First Nations in return for their cession of large swaths of territory, in most cases, for a few blankets or a few shillings. The treaties, concluded between 1850 and 1854, acquired 14 parcels of land for the Crown from the native peoples, totalling 570 km2. The treaty-making was halted after the colony ran out of money to pursue its expansion policy.
The Fraser Gold Rush
In 1856 gold was discovered in the Thompson River, a tributary of the Fraser River, and a year later in the Fraser River itself. This sparked an influx of miners and others, as word of the discoveries spread south to the United States. News of the finds in what was then known as New Caledonia hit California when the California Gold Rush was 10 years past its peak. Thousands of San Francisco’s miners flooded north. Douglas felt he needed to take action to preserve New Caledonia for the Crown. His decision to register the gold miners at Fort Victoria forced Britain’s hand on the status of the British mainland north of the 49th parallel, which had remained unincorporated since the Oregon Treaty of 1846.
Douglas’ actions in asserting British sovereignty over the mainland is generally conceded today to have helped exert control over American miners, and undermine American territorial ambitions toward this part of British North America. Shortly thereafter, the Colonial Office formally ratified Douglas’ proclamation of sovereignty and established the new colony of British Columbia.
See Gold Rush
When Douglas ended his service to the Empire, Queen Victoria promoted his position in the Order of the Bath to Knight Commander. Douglas was honoured with banquets in both Victoria and New Westminster, then capital of the mainland. He also received a thank you on paper signed by 900 people. In 1864 and ’65 Douglas toured Europe, visiting relatives in Scotland and a half-sister in Paris. He had to return to Victoria when Cecilia, his daughter, died.
Douglas continued to be active but kept out of politics in all forms. He died in Victoria of a heart attack on August 2, 1877 at the age of 73. His funeral procession was possibly the largest in the history of British Columbia. He is interred in the Ross Bay Cemetery.