Downsizing in Fort Langley
Currently over 2700 people live in this fantastic community
New Fort Langley had been occupied just ten months when it was consumed by fire and had to be completely rebuilt. In May, 1840, construction commenced on a new complex which eventually enclosed an area 192 by 73 meters and contained three to four bastions and about 15 buildings. It is on this site that the present reconstruction has been made.
Two decades of intense activity followed the establishment of the new fort. Grain production increased, beef and pork were salted for the Company ships and two dairies were kept in full production. Salted salmon continued to be popular in the Sandwich Islands and an annual export of 2,000 barrels was not uncommon in the years between 1845 and 1854. Cranberries traded from the Indians and packaged at Fort Langley sold at substantial profits in San Francisco.
When the Company established Fort Victoria as future Pacific headquarters in 1843, Langley's Chief Trader Yale felt the importance of his post was being undermined. He so resented the supremacy of the nearby fort that he misjudged its effect. In fact, the reorganization of HBC Pacific operations occasioned by the settlement of the Oregon boundary in 1846 increased the value of Fort Langley.
The international line drawn at the 49th parallel limited Company access to the Columbia-Okanagan supply route, just as Simpson had predicted, and forced a re-examination of the Fraser River as a possible artery to the interior. By 1848, a new route for the fur brigade was established by horse from Fort Kamloops through the Cascade Mountains to Fort Hope and from there by the flat-bottomed cargo boat or bateau down the Fraser. Fort Langley, at the head of navigation, became the transshipment depot for the interior, finally making Simpson's plan for the Fraser a reality.
The urgent duties of brigade terminus were added to the normal occupations of fishery and farm. Trade goods and supplies shipped from Fort Victoria were packed at Fort Langley for distribution inland; bateaux were built for river freighting to Fort Hope; iron goods were manufactured for inland forts; and provisions and fodder were grown for the horse brigades. In addition, outgoing furs were sorted, cleaned and packed in 113-kilogram (90 pound) bales for shipment to England.
Fort Langley was part of a network of trading posts established by the Hudson's Bay Company on the Pacific Slope in the early nineteenth century. Though its trade in furs was initially profitable, its main role became a supportive one including varied economic activities. It operated a large scale farm, initiated the famous west coast salmon packing industry and began B.C.'s foreign commerce. Fort Langley also blazed the first useable all-Canadian route from the coast to the interior and with its sister posts helped preserve British/Canadian interests west of the Rockies.
It was an era when flag followed trade, and fur traders frequently acted as advance guards of empire. The first British interest was sparked by the rich supply of sea otter pelts brought back by mariners working the Pacific coast about 1793 and the abundance of fur collected by the North West Company in its exploration of the inland trade of the Pacific Slope from 1811.
After the union of the North West and Hudson's Bay companies in 1821, a Royal License was issued to the reconstituted Hudson's Bay Company, giving it a monopoly on trade west of the Rockies. The Hudson's Bay Company thus became Britain's custodian of the Pacific Northwest. This monopoly, however, could not exclude American competition. The Pacific region, then known as the Columbia District or the Oregon territory, had been jointly occupied by Britain and the United States since 1818 and commerce between latitudes 40° and 54° 40' was open by international treaty. Although British traders dominated the interior, furs often found their way to American ships, which controlled the coast.
During his first visit to the Columbia District in 1824, Governor George Simpson of the Hudson's Bay Company worked out a plan to end American competition. He aimed by intensive hunting and underselling, to win control of the coast and the Columbia River region and to establish them as frontier zones to protect the company's valuable resources in the northern interior.
The heart of Simpson's strategy was a new depot to be erected near the mouth of the Fraser River. The existing depot, Fort George, was south of the Columbia River, which the Governor expected to become the United States border. In that event, the Company's supply line to its inland posts might be blocked.
Looking to the Fraser River to provide a new access to the interior, a reconnaissance party led by Chief Trader James McMillan made a preliminary survey of the lower Fraser Valley in November 1824. Three years later, a site on the south bank of the Fraser, near the Salmon River, was selected for a prospective depot named Fort Langley in honour of Thomas Langley, a director of the Company.
Construction of the first Fort Langley commenced on August 1, 1827. The new fort measured 41 meters by 36.6 meters and was solidly enclosed by a palisade 4.6 meters high. Buildings in the new complex included the Big House, where the officers were quartered; a building with three compartments to house other ranks; a spacious store; one "good" house; and a smaller house with two rooms and a kitchen. Two bastions equipped with artillery completed the new fort.
Scarcely had Fort Langley been comfortably established when Simpson discovered he had been too confident. The Fraser River was an impossible route for regular traffic. A terrifying trip through the Fraser Canyon in October 1828 convinced Governor Simpson that the river was unnavigable and that the Columbia-Okanagan supply route must be retained. The position of the Pacific Depot went to Fort Vancouver on the north side of the Columbia, but Fort Langley was destined nevertheless to become an influential force in Company operations.
From 1827 to 1833, Fort Langley played a major role in the British coastal offensive against the American traders. More than half of the 3,000 beaver collected by the Hudson's Bay Company on the coast in 1831, were from the new Fraser River establishment. Under the astute direction of Chief Trader Archibald McDonald, Langley systematically undersold its American competitors and soon commanded the trade with Indian tribes throughout Vancouver Island, the Fraser River and Puget Sound.
As its immediate area became exhausted, Fort Langley's primary function shifted from fur collecting to provisioning. A network of posts and vessels was gradually built up to expand the Company's control of the coast and the Langley fishery and farm supplied many of their basic needs.
Salmon, abounding in the Fraser River, had long been a staple of coast Indian and fur trader, and could be cheaply traded with the Indians for "vermilion, rings and other trifles". Salting and packing salmon became an industry under Chief Trader McDonald and his successor James Murray Yale. By 1838 Langley supplied all the salt salmon required by the Company's operations west of the Rockies. As the Hudson's Bay Company became linked to the wider commerce of the Pacific, Langley-cured salmon found its way to markets in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and Australia.
Farming was begun on the fertile prairie 11 kilometres from the fort, in the area then known as Langley Prairie. Crops were frequently washed out in the low-lying land, but the agricultural operations steadily expanded until the Langley farm covered over 800 hectares. Producing potatoes, barley, peas and wheat and maintaining a stock of 200 pigs and 500 head of cattle, it supplemented the produce of many Pacific forts and provided food for the SS Beaver and other Company vessels.
In 1839, the Hudson's Bay Company agreed to lease the Alaskan Panhandle from the Russian American (Fur) Company for an annual rent in otter skins and specified farm products. Fort Langley was called upon to produce wheat and butter for the Russian contract. In order to facilitate farming operation, the original fort, now in a dilapidated condition, was abandoned and a new one built four kilometers upstream, closer to the large prairie.
In 1858, Fort Langley achieved world fame as the starting point for the Fraser River gold fields. In March of that year news reached San Francisco that gold had been discovered in the sand bars of the upper Fraser, and within eight months 30,000 prospectors had poured into the area. The Fort Langley post became crowded with strangers eager for news of the latest discoveries, and its sale shop, issuing miners' tools and provisions, had a daily turnover of $1,500.During the "rush", James Douglas, Governor of Vancouver Island and manager of the Hudson's Bay Company's Pacific business, took prompt action to secure British sovereignty and enforce the Company's trade monopoly. Yet the licensing system which he introduced was clearly insufficient to permanently govern the growing population. The era of fur trade guardianship was drawing to a close. In August 1858, the British Parliament revoked the Company's monopoly and passed an act providing for a crown colony on the Pacific mainland. James Douglas was named first Governor of British Columbia.
The "Big House" at Fort Langley provided the background for the official ceremony proclaiming the establishment of British Government on the Pacific mainland. On November 19, 1858, 100 people assembled in the hall to hear the announcement that the Company's license was revoked and to witness the administration of oaths to the officers of the new government. Outside, a 17-gun salute, which pierced the drizzling quiet, marked the historic transition from fur trade domain to British Colony.
The inaugural ceremony at once honoured Fort Langley and signalled its decline. The Hudson's Bay Company received title to land at Fort Langley in 1864 but the revocation of its monopoly created competition for the fishery and farm. In 1858, navigation was extended to Forts Hope and Yale, and Fort Langley's function both as mining supplier and transshipment depot abruptly ceased. The selection of New Westminster as the capital pushed Fort Langley "out of the way of travellers".
In the 1860's, the Fort Langley farm was expanded to support the Hudson's Bay Company's overland transport service to the Cariboo. Local competition was very strong, however, and from 1870 the land was offered for sale or lease. Company officers considered it "the finest land in British Columbia" and terms were kept stringent. Since no one could pay enough for the whole property, the farm was subdivided. Four lots were sold at auction in Victoria in 1878 and the rest by private sale over the next eight years.