Governor James Douglas
By Danda Humphreys
The motivation and the man behind the blossoming of Fort Victoria.
Governor James Douglas
What does a cherry tree in someone’s backyard have to do with the new exhibit at the Royal BC Museum? Quite a lot, as it turns out. The museum stands on the spot where Governor James Douglas built a home for his family, a century and a half ago.
Douglas, born in Guyana (formerly British Guiana) and schooled in Scotland, was just 16 years old when he joined the London-based Hudson’s Bay Company in 1819. His fur-trading career started in Montreal. Over the decades he journeyed west, worked his way up through the ranks, and by the early 1840s was stationed at Fort Vancouver (now Vancouver, Washington), on the Columbia River.
News of the proposed border dividing British and American property had been of great concern to the British-based HBC. If the border ran west from the Rockies to the coast along the 49th parallel, as proposed, Fort Vancouver would end up on the wrong side of it. Douglas was given orders to find a more suitable site for the company’s western headquarters.
Douglas explored the southern tip of Vancouver Island before choosing the “Port of Camosack.” The harbour, he reported, was safe, accessible, and sported a natural clearing on its east side suitable for building a fort. Fine timber for construction grew all around, and the nearby canal had a tidal force capable of driving the most powerful machinery.
In 1842 his recommendation was made official. The “Port of Camosack” was renamed Victoria after the young queen of the day, the “canal of Camosack” became the Gorge Waterway, and James Douglas took his rightful place in British Columbia’s history.
Seven years later, when Vancouver Island was declared a crown colony, Douglas moved here permanently. He assumed that he would be appointed the colony’s first governor. Stymied by the British Government’s appointment of young lawyer Richard Blanshard, Douglas simply waited him out. Predictably, Blanshard didn’t last long. He returned to England after only 18 months, and Douglas finally realized his dream.
He had lived at Fort Victoria in the quarters allotted to him as Chief Factor, but now that he was governor he could live anywhere he liked. Not for him the sorry excuse for a Government House he’d grudgingly built for Blanshard on the corner of Yates and Government. Unlike Blanshard, who was single, Douglas had a family to care for.
He chose land on the south side of the harbour, overlooking James Bay, as the spot for his new home.
Situated roughly halfway between today’s Belleville and Superior streets, the Governor’s mansion was a spacious, two-storey affair, with dormer windows facing north toward the fort. Gardens sloped down to the water. A rough path followed the water’s edge east, to a wooden plank that crossed the small stream near where the Church of our Lord is today.
Amelia Douglas must have been delighted. The daughter of a career HBC man, and married at 16 to another, she had spent her whole life journeying from fort to fort. Now, for the first time, she had a permanent abode. Theirs was a close family. When oldest daughter Cecilia married Dr John Helmcken, Douglas happily presented them with a one-acre parcel of land. The two homes—one grand, one more simple—stood side by side at the top of the grassy slope, separated by a simple picket fence.
Fast-forward 156 years. It’s 2008. The Douglas home is long gone. A government building bearing Douglas’s name now stands on the rear section of the Belleville-Superior block. Most of the front section is the site of the Royal BC Museum.
Starting this month, the Museum will feature a unique exhibit celebrating the 150th anniversary of the establishment of this province as a crown colony. It’s “everything BC,” from never-before-seen artifacts to stories told by new arrivals, memories of historic events, and tales of everyday life. You’re invited to contribute—add your own story—by visiting the exhibit’s interactive web site: www.freespiritbc.ca.
This is all very interesting, you say, but what does it have to do with the aforementioned cherry tree?
When you’ve enjoyed the exhibit, take a peek around the back of the Museum. Turn right outside the main entrance, follow the outside wall, and turn right again at the corner. You’ll find yourself in Elliott Street Square, created to showcase the Helmckens’ house, built on this site in 1852, and St Ann’s Schoolhouse, which was moved here from its original location in the mid-1970s.
To your left is Thunderbird Park. To your right, treasure awaits! Walk along the pathway that used to be Elliott Street, which once connected Douglas and Government streets, toward the Legislative Buildings. On the right, against the IMAX theatre’s back wall, you’ll find an iron railing. It surrounds the trunk of a cherry tree—a reminder of the Black Prince cherries planted in James Douglas’s orchard, over 150 years ago.
Danda Humphreys has written several books about Victoria and loves searching for historical treasures. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the March 2008 edition of Focus Magazine.