Childhood & Early Life
James Douglas was born to John Douglas, a Scottish planter, and Martha Ann Tefler, a free person of mixed European and African ancestry. They had many children together but were not formally married.
In 1812, James was sent to Lanark, Scotland, for schooling. Later, he went to school in Chester, England, where he learned to speak and write in fluent French.
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Career and Later Life
In 1819, 16-year-old James Douglas joined the North West Company’s fur trade, and moved from Liverpool to Lachine, Lower Canada. For a year, he was stationed at Fort William, Ontario, as a clerk.
He was transferred to �le-�-la-Crosse on the Churchill River in northern Saskatchewan in 1820. There, ‘The Hudson’s Bay Company’ (HBC), a powerful competitor, was also active, and minor armed skirmishes were common.
He began acquiring knowledge by reading books brought over from Britain. He developed warm relations with the various Aboriginal people, or the First Nations people who were neither Inuit nor M�tis, in Canada.
In 1821, the rivalry between the companies ended with the merger of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company. Douglas became an employee of the HBC, and was rapidly promoted in the company.
In 1827, he established Fort Connolly on Bear Lake. He made a very good impression on William Connolly, his superior, with his skills, and they got along very well.
His relationship with the First Nations received a setback in 1828, after he shot dead a native for murdering two Hudson’s Bay traders. Fearing for his life, Connolly had him transferred to Fort Vancouver.
He served for 19 years in Fort Vancouver in the Company’s Columbia District, as Chief Accountant. In 1834, he was promoted to the key position of Chief Trader.
In 1840, he became the Chief Factor, the highest rank for field service with the HBC. He visited California, and received permission to create a trading post in San Francisco from its Mexican administrator.
Douglas founded Fort Victoria, which proved invaluable when, in 1846, the Oregon Treaty extended the British North America/United States’ border along the 49th parallel, from the Rocky Mountains to the Strait of Georgia.
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In 1849, when Britain leased Vancouver Island to the HBC on the condition that a colony was to be created, Douglas moved the headquarters from Fort Vancouver to Fort Victoria.
In 1851, the British Government appointed Douglas as the Governor of Vancouver Island. To counter the expansionist pressures of the United States of America, he created the Victoria Voltigeurs, Vancouver Island’s first private army.
His governorship saw the creation of public elementary schools, alcohol control, and the construction of the Victoria District Church. He also established an elected Legislative Assembly which later opposed him on several issues.
In 1856, gold was discovered in the Fraser River. To exert British jurisdiction over the territory, he stationed a warship at the mouth of the river, and issued licences to prospectors and merchants.
In 1858, the British Parliament created the Colony of British Columbia, and appointed him as Governor. He continued his service as Governor of Vancouver Island. He resigned his position with the HBC.
The Legislative Buildings for the Colony of Vancouver Island nicknamed ‘The Birdcages’, due to their old-fashioned style, were officially opened in 1860. Their architect was H.O. Tiedemann.
The British government entrusted James Douglas with the construction of a hospital at Esquimalt harbor, and to improve harbor capacity. The area became crucial in 1865, when the North Pacific Squadron headquartered at Vancouver Island.
Between 1850 and 1854, James Douglas negotiated treaties with the Native American tribes and acquired fourteen parcels of land for the Crown from them, totaling 570 sq. km., in return for paltry compensation.
In 1862, when the Cariboo Gold Rush began, he ordered the construction of the Cariboo Road, running 400 miles from Fort Yale to the gold fields of Barkerville, in three years’ time.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1828, James Douglas married Amelia Connolly, the daughter of New Caledonia’s Chief Factor, William Connolly. The couple had thirteen children, only seven of whom survived to reach adulthood.
He died in Victoria at the age of 73. His funeral procession was possibly the largest in the history of British Columbia, and he was interred in the Ross Bay Cemetery.
Many roads, schools and natural landmarks have been named after him. ‘Sir James Douglas Elementary School’ was built in Victoria, in 1910, on the property that used to be Sir James Douglas’ farm.