A "Scotch West Indian," Douglas was the son of "a free coloured woman" and a Scottish merchant. He was taken to Lanark for schooling when he was 12. At age 16 he was apprenticed to the NORTH WEST CO, and entered the HBC's employ on the merger of the 2 companies in 1821. In 1826, while attached to Fort St James in the New Caledonia district, Douglas accompanied Chief Factor William Connolly on the first annual fur brigade to Fort Vancouver. On 27 April 1828, after the custom of the country, he married Amelia, Connolly's part-Indian daughter, confirming the marriage in 1837.
George SIMPSON, governor of Rupert's Land, who met Douglas at Fort St James in 1828, described him as "a stout, powerful active man of good conduct and respectable abilities," but one who became "furiously violent when aroused," a tendency which brought Douglas into conflicts with the CARRIER Indians and caused Connolly to obtain his transfer in 1830 to Fort Vancouver to serve under John MCLOUGHLIN. There Douglas became chief trader in 1835 and chief factor in 1839. In 1842 Douglas accompanied Simpson to Alaska to negotiate with the Russian American Co. In 1843 Douglas began constructing Fort Victoria on the southern tip of Vancouver Island to replace the northern coastal forts.
Anticipating the eventual withdrawal of the HBC from Fort Vancouver after the British accepted the FORTY-NINTH PARALLEL as boundary in 1846, he had a new brigade trail blazed on British territory from New Caledonia to Fort Langley on the lower Fraser River. Fort Victoria, where the furs from the interior were transshipped, became the main Pacific depot in 1849. The fear of American expansion northward caused Britain on 13 January 1849 to lease Vancouver Island to the HBC for 10 years. Douglas, the supervisor of the fur trade since 1845, was appointed HBC agent on the island.
The British government selected for governor Richard Blanshard, a barrister willing to serve without salary. Blanshard arrived at Fort Victoria in March 1850 to find his residence not completed. Remaining on shipboard, he sailed northward. Blanshard was shocked by the HBC's harsh discipline of striking miners at the Fort Rupert mine and accepted local fears of an Indian attack. Douglas would brook no interference with his Indian policy, which now was based on mutual confidence. Blanshard soon resigned and departed in August 1851.
Without pleasure or satisfaction, Douglas learned on Oct 30 that he had been chosen Blanshard's successor. His worries were great; it would be difficult to reconcile the conflicting interests of governor and company official; the only revenue available for public buildings, schools, a church and road was from liquor licences; and qualified men were in such short supply that he appointed his own brother-in-law, newly arrived from Demerara, as chief justice of the Supreme Court. Blanshard had appointed a Legislative Council in 1851 and in 1856 Douglas was instructed to establish an Assembly for the island. He was opposed to universal suffrage and believed that people really wanted "the ruling classes" to make their decisions. Property qualifications for the franchise and for membership in the Assembly were set so high that only a few landowners could qualify.
The first evidence of impending change on the Pacific seaboard came on Sunday 25 April 1858, when a boatload of boisterous miners from California, the first wave of 25 000 newcomers, arrived on their way to search for gold on the Fraser sandbars. Douglas had taken the precaution of claiming the land and the minerals for the Crown. Now he began to license the miners and, to stem an invasion, to stop foreign vessels entering the river. For this action, which seemed designed to protect the HBC monopoly, he was reprimanded.
With the gold discovery, Britain decided to cancel the special privileges granted the HBC until March 1859. A new colony on the mainland was created by parliamentary Act. Douglas was offered the governorship on condition that he sever his fur-trade connections. He would be given extensive political power since it seemed unwise to experiment with self-government among men "so wild, so miscellaneous, and perhaps so transitory." In November 1858, no longer a fur trader and the rights of his old company west of the mountains having been extinguished, Douglas, who was still governor of Vancouver Island, was inaugurated at Fort Langley as governor of British Columbia.
Douglas expected that a location near Fort Langley would be chosen for the colony's capital. But for military reasons Colonel Richard Clement Moody in January 1859 selected a steep, heavily timbered site (New Westminster) on the north bank of the Fraser. Douglas was concerned about the cost involved in laying it out. He also preferred Victoria as an administrative centre and as his place of residence. His visits to New Westminster were rare, and despite the grant of municipal self-government in 1860, the citizens demanded a resident governor and political reform.
As governor of BC, Douglas was chiefly concerned with the welfare of the miners. He relied on his gold commissioners to lay out reserves for the natives and thus eliminate the threat of warfare, to record mining and land claims, and to adjudicate mining disputes. For the gold colony he devised a land policy which included mineral and pre-emption rights. His water legislation met the needs of the miners who employed rockers and flumes.
During the winter of 1858 he had used voluntary labour to make a pack trail to the mining area above the Fraser gorge. By 1862 he was planning to finance by loans (about which London was not fully informed) a wagon road 640 km long following the Fraser to distant Cariboo, where gold nuggets had been found (see CARIBOO ROAD). It was extended in 1865 to Barkerville, an ebullient mining community.
Perhaps because of sensitivity over his and his wife's background, Douglas had developed a singularly aloof manner. Some of his old friends complained about his pomposity. New associates complained about his despotism. New Westminster merchants complained about having to pay customs duties. The effect was cumulative. Douglas's term as governor of Vancouver Island was up in 1863; since BC was about to be given a more liberal type of government, it seemed to London an opportune time to retire him. Praise for his work and his talents and the award of a KCB softened the blow.
Author MARGARET A. ORMSBY
Links to Other Sites
The Colonial Despatches
View digitized copies of correspondence (dated 1846 - 1859) between the British Colonial Office and the "colonies" of Vancouver Island and British Columbia. Search or browse this site for references to specific individuals, communities, companies, or industries in the province. Also includes digitized images of maps of various locations. From the website for the University of Victoria.
Fort Langley National Historic Site
This website focuses on the history of Fort Langley, early British settlements on the west coast, and Hudson’s Bay Company activities in the region. From Parks Canada.
BC 150: Splendour without diminishment
The CBC Digital Archives celebrates B.C.'s sesquicentennial with a look at the people and the events that have shaped its history.
Begbie Canadian History Contest
Information about this national contest which aims to increase the profile and popularity of Canadian history among students, parents, and the general public. From the Begbie Contest Society.
Attitudes Toward Chinese Immigrants to British Columbia 1858-1885
Download a copy of a thesis about the widespread discrimination suffered by Chinese immigrants in BC during the late 19th century. From Simon Fraser University.
Sir James Douglas
A biography of Sir James Douglas. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
A biography of John McLoughlin, physician, fur trader, and merchant. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.