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Fort Langley National Historic Site of Canada

History

The New Fort Langley is built

The Plans for A New Fort

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 in land 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. Clerk John Work wrote a journal about the expedition. 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.

The First Fort is Built

Construction of the first Fort Langley commenced on August 1, 1827. The new fort measured 41 m by 36.6m and was solidly enclosed by a palisade 4.6m 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.

From the first years of the fort's existence, the Company men married local native women, and these families lived at the fort. The employees were a unique social and ethnic mix of people, including English, French Canadian, Scottish, Hawaiian, Iroquois, and Coast Salish. Country marriages were encouraged by the Company and supported by the Native peoples, as inter- cultural relations and economic trade were enhanced. Coast Salish wives in the fort became linguists and cultural intermediaries, and also became an unofficial workforce doing essential work for the fort.

Map showing geographical location of first, second forts and farm
Map of Fort Langley on the Fraser River
© Parks Canada

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 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.

Economy and Trade at Fort Langley

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.

Bountiful salmon in the Fraser River had long been a staple of the Coast Salish, and could be traded with natives for blankets , vermillion and tobacco. Salting and packing of 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 km 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.