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Throwback Thursday: Gov. Douglas

Throwback Thursday: Governor James Douglas

      James Douglas was born August 15, 1803, in Demerara, a Dutch colony now part of Guyana.  His father, John Douglas, was an aristocrat from a Scottish noble family. John was a cotton and sugar trader and owned a plantation in Demerara. James’s mother was Martha Ann Ritchie, a free woman of colour, meaning she was of black and white heritage and not enslaved. She moved to Demerara from Barbados with her mother, where they opened a hotel and boarding house. Martha and John never married but had three children together: Alexander, James, and Cecilia. In 1809 John returned to Scotland were he started a second family. In 1812 James and his brother Alexander were sent to boarding school in Lanark, Scotland. James would never see Demerara or his mother again.


Demerara, 1823

     At the age of 15 in 1819, James took an apprenticeship with the North West Company. He moved to Canada, where he worked in fur counting houses learning the ins and outs of the fur trade. This was the height of fur wars between the NWC and the HBC. Douglas fought a duel against an HBC guide; the duel was a draw and no one died. Later the HBC sent a letter to Douglas and three of his friends warning that they "better not parade with their guns, swords, drums, and flags, within gunshot of Fort Superior".

     In 1821 the British government, fed up with the constant lawsuits and violence from the Fur Wars, forced the HBC and NWC to merge. James now became an employee of the new HBC. He was assigned to Fort St. James, New Caledonia (now mainland BC). There he met his wife Amelia, the metis daughter of his boss. In Fort St. James he impressed HBC Governor George Simpson with his work ethic and abilities. But James also had a strong and fiery temper which ran him afoul of the local Dakelh people, so Simpson moved him to Fort Vancouver, now in Washington State. He rose through the ranks and eventually became the Chief Factor of the Fort. In 1849 the Oregon treaty moved the US border up to the 49th parallel and Fort Vancouver was closed. James moved to Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island the same year the British made Vancouver Island an official Crown colony to curb American expansion. They sent a Governor, Richard Blanshard, to the new colony. But when he learned that the HBC had control over almost every aspect of the colony and all the citizens were HBC employees, he quickly resigned. The Colonial office then appointed Douglas the new Governor.


Amelia Douglas 

Amelia Douglas

     Douglas was a very aristocratic man who believed in the ruling class’s responsibility to lead the masses. He made the requirements to vote or hold office so high that only a couple of wealthy land owners qualified for the positions. He also made his brother in-law the Supreme Court Chief Justice.

 James Douglas

Governor Douglas in Uniform

      In 1858 gold was discovered in the Fraser River. 25,000 miners coming from the California gold fields flooded into the colony. This was 40 times the population of Vancouver Island and New Caledonia combined. This population explosion worried Douglas and the Colonial office, as these Americans had no loyalty to the British Empire or the HBC, and would support American annexation. To combat this, New Caledonia became its own colony of British Columbia, and made Douglas the Governor with the condition that he resign from the HBC. To offset the miners Douglas recruited black families from California, as they had no loyalty to the US who forbid them from even being citizens. Their lack of US citizenship also allowed them to vote for Douglas in BC and Vancouver Island elections. This policy was short lived as the prospect of having to be on even standing with black people enraged the American miners and only 300 black people moved to the colony. Douglas also tried to appease the miners in regards to the First Nations peoples. He created reservations to keep the miners and First Nations separate, and stated "No abuses would be tolerated, and that the Laws would protect the rights of the Indians no less than those of the white men."

       But some conflicts did arise, like the Fraser Canyon War where some Thompson First Nations Warriors killed some miners who had raped a Thompson woman. The miners retaliated by forming militias and burning any First Nations camps they found. The Thompson Chief Cxiptlum was a friend of Douglas's and appealed to the Governor to restore peace, even though he could have easly destroyed the miners militia's he did not want to start an allout war against "all the white men". Douglas himself showed up along with the Royal Army Engineers to negotiate a peace. Douglas forced the miner's militias to disband and swear allegiance to the Queen and to follow the laws of the Empire.


Fort Victoria 1860

Fort Victoria, 1860

        To aid the miners in their long journey to the gold fields on the Fraser River, Douglas commissioned a trail to be built using the system of lakes that A.C Anderson had surveyed. The trail was built by miners who volunteered, hoping to reach the gold fields sooner. They built three new ports on the trail, Port Douglas at the head of Harrison Lake, Port Lillooet at the foot of Lillooet Lake, and finally Port Pemberton at the head of Lillooet Lake. Port Pemberton was the first European settlement in the Pemberton Valley. Although the settlement did not last, it introduced the outside world to the agricultural wonders of the valley. Gov. Douglas said about the region "It is prettily situated on the mountainside overlooking a rich expanse of arable land covered with a profusion of potatoes, beets, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, and other vegetables, certain proof of the great capabilities of the soil and the climate". 

      Beginning in 1860, the citizens of British Columbia made several petitions to Douglas for a form of popular government in the colony. Meaning allowing the common citizens of British Columbia and Vancouver Island to vote and hold office. Dissatisfied with his response, the people directly petitioned the Colonial Office in London in 1863. For the Office it seemed an opportune time to retire Douglas as Governor of both Vancouver Island and British Columbia, and separate the two positions. So he retired that year and was praised for his work and talents. As a reward for he was invested as a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, the fourth most prestigious award in the British Empire, which earned him the title Sir Douglas. He toured Europe in retirement before returning to Victoria due to the death of his daughter. He died of a heart attack on  August 2, 1877 and is buried in Ross Bay Cemetery.

James Douglas Headstone

James and Amelia Douglas's Headstone