By Parks Canada
Welcome to Fort St. James!
You're about to step back to a time when the fur trade was the economic powerhouse in British Columbia, and Fort St. James was the capital of New Caledonia. Enjoy your experience at Fort St. James National Historic Site!
You're following in the footsteps of Douglas, Fraser and thousands of the Dakelh people who have called this area home for millennia. As you make your way along the grassy banks of Nak’al Bun (Stuart Lake), you’ll find a set of stairs: Climb them! At the top, you'll come across a flagpole with the Hudson's Bay Company flag flying in the breeze, seemingly sending you back in time to 1896.
In these buildings in the summertime, our knowledgeable costumed interpreters tell of how the fur traders and Dakelh people worked together, lived, and died more than a century ago.
Along the lakeview pathway
Stroll along the lake to the stairs leading to the historical grounds. As you wander here, enjoy the view of Nak’al Bun. Walk along the pathway to the staircase and then ascend to the flagpole.
In summer, the staff raise the Hudson's Bay company flag every morning when the site opens. This maintains a tradition that dates back over 100 years when this place was an operating fur trade post. Strong winds off Stuart Lake are an almost constant part of the experience here.
Let's explore the buildings!
The site's many boardwalks were built to connect the core buildings of the fur trading fort. The boardwalks also made wheeling heavy carts with goods, supplies and furs easier by being raised off the ground. Today, the boardwalks create a pleasant walking experience for visitors
The Fur Warehouse
The Fur Warehouse is one of the finest surviving examples of a Red River frame fur trade building in Canada. This style of construction was originally used at fur trading posts in the Red River Valley of Manitoba, thus the name.
Built in 1888
The warehouse was built in 1888. Over time, the wood has revealed marks left behind by the people who built it. The oils in their hands left distinct prints that can be seen on the ceiling of the warehouse to this day.
The warehouse walls are also covered in tally marks and the signatures of people who worked at the fort. As the workers counted hides, they marked the walls to keep track. Even the beams themselves still have evidence of the axe blows needed to hew these timbers from raw logs.
The Fish Cache
The idea for the Fish Cache came from the Dakelh First Nation. The building is raised by the four corner elevated posts to discourage predators.
The Dakelh (or Carrier) people built elevated fish caches to store dried salmon for the winter. Dakelh fishing technology was highly specialized and sophisticated. Fish were appropriated with seven different types of weirs and traps depending on water conditions. There are many other descriptions of this fishing technology, many expressing wonder and praise for these machines.
Fort St. James residents in 1820–21 had a daily allowance of four fish per person; individuals who worked in the winter, together with their dogs, received eight fish per day.
A winter on just fish?
Often, life at the fort was difficult during the winter. Dried salmon provided the workers with food and protein during the darkest of months. If game was scarce or fort provisions low, the trade of salmon was a critical lifeline for survival at Fort St. James
Step inside the guest house
The Guest House was built in 1884 as a residence for company employees, pack train hands, boat crews and visitors. A simple building, it kept the occupants warm and hosted many important and colourful characters during the height of fur trade operations in New Caledonia.
Imagine yourself living here.
The Guest House also served as an early schoolhouse and as a private residence in the 1930s and ‘40s. The walls were often wallpapered with magazine articles such as these: effective at keeping the cold breeze from coming inside and also providing a source of literary comfort!
In the 1896 era, if you walked out on the fort grounds, you may have met George Holder, Vitalle LaForte, Louis Grostete, Donald Todd and many more. These men performed tasks such as cutting firewood, threshing hay, and manning the schooner.
Pack trains were integral to the function of the fort, and their operators were often colourful characters who would bunk down in the Men’s House. Perhaps the most colourful character of all was a fellow named “Cataline,” a Mexican packer who operated on many northern BC trails.
There is a statue of Cataline at the modern-day visitor centre in Hazelton—a testament to the linkages of today's interior BC towns forged through the travel and provisioning on fur trade trails of old.
The Interpreter’s House was erected in 1889; it was a building similar to the one that stands here today. It was called the Interpreter's House because a Hudson's Bay employee would live here while working as an interpreter for the site. The original building burnt down in 1926;
You are looking across one of the oldest gardens in northern BC. As early as May 22, 1811, fur trader Daniel Harmon reported, “We have planted our potatoes, and sowed barley, turnips and corn. . . which are the first that we ever sowed."
In the early years of the fort, the poor soil and unpredictable frosts hampered efforts to produce crops on a large scale. As the years went by, the ground was slowly transformed from unyielding clay to fertile soil suitable for farming. George Simpson noted that in 1862 Fort St. James had "vegetables of all kinds" growing in the gardens. Additionally, livestock also played a key role in supplying food for the fort: Simpson noted that thirty head of cattle and a dozen horses were kept. Nowadays, the garden is maintained by Parks Canada staff and community volunteers.
The Trade Store
The trade store was where furs were exchanged for supplies and money.
The store held all the trade goods and an attached office was where the clerk would sleep. You could buy anything here: food, traps, fabric, and even hair dye (as long as you didn’t mind black ink in your hair)!
The store hadn’t always been well supplied. In the early days, it was difficult to transport materials up to the fort, but by 1896 there were plenty of products to buy. One of the more popular items was “Perry Davis Vegetable Painkiller.” It was named such because it contained vegetable oil as well as 8 ounces of opium and 5 gallons of alcohol. Perry Davis may not cure you of much, but it would certainly relieve your pain!
The Officer's Dwelling House
The Officer’s Dwelling House was home to many of Fort St. James’s “chief factors” over the years, including A.C. Murray and his family in 1896. From an office in this home, Mr. Murray oversaw a vast operation of fur trade posts and routes across the region.
A bustling hub in New Caledonia
The Officer’s Dwelling House was a centre of activity for the fort, with the workers and labourers often sharing in social gatherings hosted by the Murrays on holidays and special occasions.
One of the finest experiences in this building, is the food!
Good food was an important part of life in the officer's house and was shared from this house with the workers on special occasions. Today's site interpreters may be encountered baking bread or cookies, delicious beef stew or serving up afternoon teas. Much the same as 1896.
The Officer’s Dwelling House was a centre of activity for the Fort, with the workers and labourers often sharing in social gatherings hosted by the Murray’s at times of holidays and special occasions. The home served as a private residence following the end of Hudson's Bay Company operations and was lovingly restored to it’s present condition in 1977 following the acquisition of Fort St. James by the Canadian Parks Service .
World Class Chicken Races?
In summer, today’s site staff offer world famous chicken races right here at Fort St. James. Although these grounds were a common place for fort workers to gather —often with gambling at the heart of it—chicken racing, (as far as we know) wasn't around in 1896!
And now, we leave the historic grounds of the heritage buildings and return to the site's visitor centre!
Leaving the historical buildings behind, you are now standing in the middle of the festive event space at Fort St. James. During the summer months, this is often the beating heart of the historic site, where events are held and the community comes to gather. At these times, you’ll witness a defining aspect of Fort St. James: the community’s deep connection to its history.
Beyond the fences and fields of this fort are spectacular lakes, cultural sites, and rich history, as well as hiking and boating opportunities for a wide range of visitors. Take the time to enjoy and explore them!
Friendly interpreters at Fort St. JamesParks Canada
Be sure to plan a visit to Fort St. James this summer season
Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to visit Fort St. James National Historic Site in this virtual way!
For more information about travelling here for real, visit us at our website.
A view of Stuart Lake with red chairsParks Canada
Content sourced from plain language excerpts on the onsite audio tour. (2022)
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