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Tragedy at Fort St. John

For the week of Monday October 27, 2008

On November 2, 1823, Guy Hughes was ambushed and shot at Fort St. John on the Rivière d’Épinette in British Columbia. His death marked the culmination of tensions between the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and Beaver Nation over the fort's closure.

Peace River Valley a few kilometres south of Fort St. John
© Natural Resources Canada 2008/ Geological Survey of Canada/ 2002-595/ R. Couture and G.B. Fasani
The Northwest Company first opened Fort St. John in 1806 at the request of the Beaver Nation who wanted a trading post in their territory, as they could not safely reach similar forts located in Sekanni territory.

By 1820, when the HBC took over Fort St. John, the post was no longer profitable and the local food supply had disappeared; the bison population had been depleted and the moose and elk had moved farther away. The HBC decided to move operations to the previously closed Rocky Mountain Portage House, which would bring it closer to their main trade partner, the Sekanni. This unfortunatley would force the Beaver to trade at Fort Dunvegan, a potential source of conflict, as they did not get along with the Dunvegan tribe. On October 28, HBC Chief trader Francis Heron was sent to calm the Beavers’ fears, but he was under strict orders and could not do much. Heron left for Portage House and clerk Guy Hughes was put in charge.

Hughes was not well liked by the Beaver who believed that he had placed a destructive curse on an Aboriginal man by tapping his shoulder asking for a guide for a trip. The man fell ill a few hours later. The next day as Hughes was returning to the Fort from the river he was shot by two Beaver. The Beaver then pillaged the Fort and the following day killed a party of four men arriving by canoe from Portage House.

Interpretive reconstruction of Fort St. John, ca. 1823
© Knut Fladmark, "Early fur trade fort's of the Peace River area of British Columbia, B.C. Studies, Vol. 65, pp.48-65, 1985

Fort St. John was soon abandoned. The killings were a reaction to immediate problems, such as the post’s closure and the Beaver’s hatred of Hughes, but also to widespread problems that were common to the fur trade. The European pattern of moving into an area, exploiting much of its resources and then moving on left little for the local Aboriginal population. In this case, the Beaver reacted violently. By 1827, tensions in the region had settled and the HBC began to re-open forts closed following the events at Fort St. John.

In 1958, Fort St. John was designated a National Historic Site.

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