James Douglas (governor)

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Sir James Douglas
Sir James Douglas.jpg
James Douglas with Order of the Bath honours
Governor of British Columbia
In office
Succeeded by Frederick Seymour
Governor of Vancouver Island
In office
Preceded by Richard Blanshard
Succeeded by Arthur Edward Kennedy
Personal details
Born (1803-08-15)August 15, 1803
Died August 2, 1877(1877-08-02) (aged 73)
Victoria, British Columbia

Sir James Douglas KCB (August 15, 1803 – August 2, 1877) was a company fur-trader and a British colonial governor of Vancouver Island and British Columbia (B.C.) in northwestern North America, now part of Canada. Douglas had started working in Canada at age 16 for the North West Company, and later for the Hudson's Bay Company, becoming a high-ranking company officer. In the trade he was known as a Scottish West Indian.

From 1851 to 1864, he was Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island.[1] In 1858, he also became the first Governor of the Colony of British Columbia, in order to assert British authority during the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush, which had the potential to turn the B.C. Mainland into an American state. He remained governor of both Vancouver Island and British Columbia until his retirement in 1864. He is often credited as "The Father of British Columbia".

Early life and fur trader[edit]

James Douglas was born in 1803 in Demerara (later part of Guyana) to John Douglas, a Scottish Planter and Merchant from Glasgow, who was in business with three of his brothers. His mother was Martha Ann Telfer and was a Creole of mixed race from Barbados, according to the Dictionary of Canadian Life Story. The couple had three children together One of them was Alexander, born 1801 or 1802; James, born 1803, and Cecilia, born 1812, but never formally married. Telfer was classified as free coloured, which in that time and place meant a free person of mixed African and European family history. James Douglas and his brothers and sisters this way were all mixed race. He appeared majority white. In 1812 John Douglas returned to Scotland with his children, putting James into school at Lanark to be taught/educated. He married Jessie Hamilton in Scotland in 1819, and had more children with her, making a second family. James went to school or was taught by a French Huguenot manChester, England, where he learned to speak and write in fluent French, which helped him in North America. At the age of sixteen James Douglas left Britain to enter the fur trade in North America in the employ of the North West Company. He sailed from Liverpool for Lachine, Lower Canada (now part of Montreal), in the spring of 1819. From 1819 until 1820 Douglas was placed/assigned at Fort William, Ontario (now part of ThunderBay) as a clerk. In 1820 he was moved (from one place to another) to Ile-Ã -la-Crosse On the Churchill River innorthern Saskatchewan. The Hudson's Bay Company was also active in this area, and Douglas was caught up in at least one argument with the fighting fur traders. At this post Douglas continued a policy of self-education by reading books brought from Britain And meeting with many First Nations people. In 1821 the North West Company was merged into the powerful Hudson's Bay Company, and Douglas' contract was placed onto the HBC's payroll. He quickly moved up the strict (system where things or people are in separate levels of importance) of the company. In 1825 he was put in charge of the founding of the Fort Dark red trading post in what is now northern Alberta. He was next placed/assigned at Fort St. James on Stuart Lake, headquarters of the Company's New Caledonia District in British Columbia. In 1827 he established Fort Connolly on Bear Lake. On April 27, 1828, Douglas married Amelia Connolly, the mixed race daughter of Chief Factor William Connolly, New Caledonia's top-level manager. Her mother was Cree and likely also of mixed race. Douglas was very close to William Connolly, his superior. Connolly was impressed by Douglas' skills and they got along well, resulting in Connolly's Agreeing to the marriage of the couple.

Lady Amelia Connolly Douglas, wife of the governor of British Columbia

In 1828, while Douglas was in charge of Fort St. James in Connolly's absence, two Hudson's Bay traders were murdered with the help of a Stuart Lake native. Douglas was said to march into the Stuart Lake village and seize the accused murderer, but the exact events of the day are disputed. By some accounts Douglas shot the native in the head on the spot with everyone watching. In others, Douglas took him away from the village to be executed at a later time. Another story is that Douglas tried to shoot the man but missed and got his partners to beat the accused before taking him away. Various stories were passed around the area, and Douglas generally acquired a negative reputation among the local First Nations as a result.

Fearing for Douglas' life, Connolly asked HBC Governor George Simpson to transfer the younger man elsewhere. He was reassigned to Fort Vancouver, headquarters of the Company's Columbia District, located near the mouth of the Columbia River in present-day Washington. His wife joined him after the death of their first child in 1830. While they lived in Fort Vancouver, she gave birth to ten more children (five died in infancy). Their son James W. Douglas grew up to become a politician and Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), 1875-1888.

Years in Fort Vancouver and Fort Victoria[edit]

Douglas spent nineteen years working in Fort Vancouver. He served as a Clerk until 1835, when he was promoted to Chief Trader, the second highest rank in the HBC. Being a Chief Trader was a very important position, held by only four others in the large District. He received his commission as one of "the gentlemen of the interior" on June 3, 1835 in York Factory during a meeting of the Council of the Northern Department. In 1838 Douglas was put in charge of the Columbia District while Chief Factor John McLoughlin was on furlough in Europe. While occupying the position Douglas denounced slavery of natives and made settlement with the Russian American Company, which had been active in the northern coastal fur trade. In return for the leasing of fur trading territory on the northern coast from Mount Fairweather south to 54°40′, the Russian-American Company received 2000 otter pelts and a number of other supplies. He also created the Pugets Sound Agricultural Company to try to encourage more settlement by British in the Columbia River valley to overpower the American presence there. In November 1839 he was promoted to Chief Factor, the highest possible rank for field service with the HBC. As a Chief Factor, he traveled to California, where he met with a Mexican administrator and received permission to create a trading post in San Francisco. In 1841 Douglas was charged with the duty of setting up a trading post on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. George Simpson had recommended that a second line of forts be built in case the Columbia River valley fell into American hands (see Oregon boundary dispute). Charged with this task, Douglas founded Fort Victoria, 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.

In 1849 Britain leased the entirety of Vancouver Island to the HBC under the condition that a colony be created. Douglas moved the headquarters of the western portion of the Company from Fort Vancouver to Fort Victoria. He 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 chief employer and person in charge of its finances and land, and he effectively drove Blanshard from the position. Douglas acknowledged the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and had a policy to trade the natives for their land. Costs for each parcel of land were usually in the form of blankets, often three for each man. This policy also stemmed from a desire to have good interactions with natives while avoiding violence. After Blanshard resigned in 1851, the British Government appointed Douglas as the Governor of Vancouver Island. As he was still Chief Factor of the HBC, for several years he was trying to balance his important and time-consuming duties of both positions. He was the subject of controversy in local political debates and editorial tirades.

Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island[edit]

As governor, Douglas faced a number of significant challenges, not least of which was the expansionist pressure of the neighbouring United States of America. Using his meagre resources, Douglas created the Victoria Voltigeurs, Vancouver Island's first militia, using money from the Company and composed of Metis and French-Canadians in the company's service. He also used the sparse presence of the Royal Navy for protection. During the Crimean War, in 1854 the British and French carried out an attack on Petropavlovsk and casualties were sent to Victoria. After facilities of this key port proved inadequate, the British government charged Douglas to build a hospital at Esquimalt harbour, as well as improve Royal Navy supply capacity. This base proved to be important and successful when in 1865 the headquarters of the North Pacific Squadron were moved to Vancouver Island.

In 1859, Douglas also found his colony embroiled in a dispute with Washington Territory over sovereignty in the San Juan Islands. The protracted, twelve-year standoff came to be known as the Pig War. Douglas pressed Britain to exert sovereignty over all islands in the archipelago dividing the Strait of Georgia from Puget Sound. Named for the largest island of the group, the San Juan Islands are immediately adjacent to Victoria and so were of great strategic interest and worry. While opposing troops remained garrisoned on San Juan Island, the dispute was eventually settled by arbitration in favour of the United States.

Douglas' largest problem in the mid- and late-1850s concerned relations with the majority First Nations peoples. These numbered around 30,000 local Songhee, Cowichan, Nanaimo, Nuu-chah-nulth, including raiding Haida from the Queen Charlotte Islands and the Euclataws Kwakiutl of northern Georgia Strait and the Sechelt, Squamish, and Sto:lo peoples of the Lower Mainland. In contrast, Europeans in the Colony numbered under 1000. Meanwhile, in neighbouring Oregon and Washington Territory the Cayuse and Yakima Wars and other conflicts between Americans and indigenous peoples were raging.

Douglas' relations with First Nations peoples were mixed. On the one hand, Douglas' wife was Cree, he had established many close business and personal relationships with indigenous peoples as a fur trader, and he sought to conclude treaties (the Douglas Treaties) with First Nations on southern Vancouver Island. On the other hand, Douglas supplied Washington Territory's Governor Isaac Stevens with arms and other supplies to assist the American government in its conflict with Native American tribes. 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, a few blankets or a few shillings).[citation needed] The treaties, concluded between 1850 and 1854, acquired fourteen 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.[2]

Douglas' administration also founded public elementary schools, worked to control alcohol in the colony, and constructed the Victoria District Church (forerunner to the Christ Church Cathedral). In 1856, as ordered by the British Government, Douglas reluctantly established an elected Legislative Assembly. This was a turning point for Douglas, who had grown accustomed to administering the colony with absolute authority. The council was opposed to Douglas on many issues, and consistently criticized him for having a conflict of interests between his duties to the Company and to the colony.

Fraser Canyon Gold Rush[edit]

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. Thousands of Americans flooded into British Columbia, beginning the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush. Although without political authority on the mainland, Douglas worked to exert British jurisdiction over the territory. He stationed a warship at the mouth of the Fraser in order to issue licences to prospectors and merchants. A major task during the huge inflow of settlers was to prevent violence between the recent arrivals and the local First Nations peoples. Due to the Indian Wars in the United States West, American animosity against natives was often high. In the fall of 1858, escalating tensions between the miners and the Taklamakan people of the central area of the canyon broke into the Fraser Canyon War.

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 a new colony encompassing the mainland.

Governor of two colonies[edit]

In 1858 the British Parliament created the Colony of British Columbia, and appointed Douglas as governor. After this, he was asked to resign as Chief Factor of the western portion of the Hudson's Bay Company. The Crown did not renew the Company's trade monopoly on the mainland, nor Douglas' position as Chief Factor. Matthew Baillie Begbie (the so-called "hanging judge") was sent out to help Douglas maintain order and uphold British law in the area. Along with the judge came a contingent of Royal Engineers, to construct the infrastructure (mainly roads and bridges) needed to help open the resources of the land to be exploited by the colony. Soon after his appointment as governor, Douglas was awarded with an appointment as a Commander of the Order of the Bath in recognition of his service as Governor of Vancouver Island.

In August 1858 news reached Douglas that two Vancouver Island miners had been killed by natives. He believed that the whole region was on the verge of war and went out to investigate. Numerous minor clashes between natives and whites had concluded without fatalities. After investigating the situation he found that alcohol had been a major cause, and prohibited the sale of liquor to natives. While on the trip to the murder scene, Douglas brought the Crown Solicitor of Vancouver Island in order to uphold the law and make a show that demonstrated British law was still in effect. During this trip he encountered a great number of squatting foreigners, reducing the total possible revenues for land sales to the government.

In attempt to suppress unlawful acts, Douglas appointed regional constables, a Chief Inspector of Police (Chartres Brew), and a network of intelligence officials. He also created Assistant Gold Commissioners (he appointed Chartres Brew as Chief Gold Commissioner) to look after mining and civil cases. Such preventive measures helped ensure that the chaos accompanying the California gold rush was not repeated in British Columbia.

Continuing his service as Governor of Vancouver Island, Douglas authorised construction of the government buildings known as the "Birdcages" in 1859. In 1862, with the discovery of rich gold deposits in the Cariboo region, sparking the Cariboo Gold Rush, Douglas ordered the construction of the Cariboo Road. This engineering feat ran 400 miles from Fort Yale to Barkerville through extremely hazardous canyon territory. The Cariboo road was also called the "Queen's Highway" and the "Great North Road".

Near the end of his rule as governor, Douglas was criticized for not developing the colony as a self-governing body. His only such political reform had been to initiate an elected Legislative Council. His argument against the creation of a self-governing colony was the state of the population: few were British subjects, most held permanent residence within the colony, and of those few owned property.

He was friends with Robert Ker the First Auditor General of the Two Colonies of British Columbia, and John Sebastian Helmcken a future Speaker of the House of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. Like Douglas, they are both considered founding fathers of British Columbia. Helmcken married Douglas' daughter Cecilia.

Retirement and death[edit]

When Douglas ended his service to the Empire, Queen Victoria promoted his position in the Order of the Bath to Knight Commander. Upon his retirement, Douglas was honoured with banquets in both Victoria and New Westminster, the capital of the mainland. He also received a thank you on paper signed by 900 people. In 1864 and '65 Douglas toured Europe. He visited relatives in Scotland and a half-sister in Paris. He had to return early when his daughter, Cecilia, 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 B.C., and he was interred in the Ross Bay Cemetery.

Places named for Douglas[edit]

Grave of Sir James Douglas at Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria, BC
Preceded by
John McLoughlin
Chief Factor of Hudson's Bay Company
Succeeded by
A.G. Dallas
Preceded by
Richard Blanshard
Governor of Vancouver Island
Succeeded by
Arthur Edward Kennedy
Preceded by
Position Nonexistent
Governor of British Columbia
Succeeded by
Frederick Seymour


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]