An old trading post at Fort Alexandria.

HAPHAZARD HISTORY: The stories of Fort Alexandria and Fort Chilcotin

In 1793, Alexander Mackenzie became the first European to cross the North American continent by land.

In 1793, Alexander Mackenzie became the first European to cross the North American continent by land.

During his travels, he and his party drifted down the Fraser River to a small village midway between what are now the cities of Williams Lake and Quesnel.

There, he was warned by friendly First Nations people, likely a group from the Carrier Nation, not to proceed downriver because of rapids and other major navigational hazards.

They suggested he return a few miles north and follow a well-known native route to the sea.

Surprisingly, Mackenzie followed their advice, and a month later, with the help from Aboriginal guides, he reached the Pacific Ocean.

Twenty-eight years later, the North West Company erected a fort across the river from this small village, the last fort built by the NWC before it merged wit the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The complex was named Fort Alexandria, in honour of Alexander Mackenzie, and it included a granary, a flour mill, stables, a trading post, living quarters and other associated buildings.

For years, this fort served as the northern terminus of the Pacific Fur Brigade Trail.

Goods were brought up the Columbia River to Fort Okanagan, then sent overland by pack train to Fort Alexandria where they were sorted and distributed by water and pack animals to the more northerly outposts in New Caledonia, located on the Fraser River, the Nechako River, Fraser Lake and Stuart Lake.

Furs from these posts were received, repacked and sent south on the return journey.

It is interesting to note, that by the mid 1820s, the HBC operated more than 600 trading posts west of Toronto.

Of these, there were about 100 forts — enclosed compounds equipped with firearms to withstand attacks and to provide shelter to white settles in case of hostilities.

In 1836, Fort Alexandria burned to the ground, but because it played such a key role in the HBC trade logistics in the Interior of New Caledonia, it was rebuilt.

This time, however, it was relocated across the river on the west side where there was much more workable land available.

There it continued as a trading hub until the gold rush reached the area.

Fort Alexandria was a natural stopping place for the many goldseekers en route to the gold fields.

By 1860, it had become a huge tent camp of would-be miners, adventurers and entrepreneurs.

By 1862, the Cariboo Wagon Road had been completed to Soda Creek, where a sternwheeler could ferry freight and passengers upriver to Quesnel.

By 1864, the wagon road was completed all the way to Barkerville, and Fort Alexandria’s days were numbered.

Another route to the goldfields was planned with its terminus to be at Fort Alexandria. This was the famous (or infamous) Bute Inlet road proposed by Alfred Waddington.

In the spring of 1864, a group of Tsilhqot’in warriors attacked one of Waddington’s work camps, and the “Chilcotin War” was begun.

The road building was abandoned, and that route never did become an access way to the goldfields.

With the advent of the Cariboo Wagon Road and the influx of people into the area, the fur trade declined.

Stores and stopping places were established along the wagon road, and Fort Alexandria became redundant and non profitable.

It close forever in 1867, and eventually became a private farming and ranching operation.

All of the fort buildings were demolished over the years and, today, nothing remains of this important piece of Cariboo history.

In 1829, the Hudson’s Bay Company decided to expand its fur trading operations by building a trading post and fort at the confluence of the Chilko and Chilcotin rivers, a few miles to the west of the present-day town of Alexis Creek.

They named this new outpost Fort Chilcotin.

It consisted only of a few rough log buildings located on a gently sloping area next to the river.

This area is still known today as “Hudson’s Bay Flats.”

It opened in October, but did not do very well, so the following spring it was closed down and the personnel moved elsewhere.

John Tod, the Chief Factor at Fort Alexandria wrote: “That part of New Caledonia called Chill Cotten was settled last fall. Little is expected of it.”

After the HBC men left, the buildings were burnt by the Tsilhqot’ins, but the following year, in 1831, the company rebuilt them and made another effort to establish a fur trade.

The results were very disappointing.

The First Nations people there did not support the post. They preferred to wear their furs rather than to trade them.

They were disinterested in the operation and uncooperative and resentful towards the company men.

However, the HBC was not about to admit defeat, and it mandated that the fort and trading post be manned for a few months each year through the early 1830s, even though it was isolated (four days hard ride from Fort Alexandria) and a difficult assignment for the employees.

In 1836, the fort was closed because of a war which broke out between the Tsilhqot’in and Carrier nations, but it was reopened again in 1838.

It continued to limp along, making marginal profits at best, and even though Chief HBC Factor Donald McLean took charge of it in 1842, it never became the success that the company expected.

In 1844, the HBC closed Fort Chilcotin forever and moved the entire operation north to Fort Kluskus in Carrier territory.

Today, there is no trace of Fort Chilcotin left. In the early 1930s the land was incorporated into the Bayliff Ranch.

The late Dr. John Roberts, a well-known local historian, went out to Hudson’s Bay Flats in the mid 1970s with a metal detector.

Although he could locate no sign of the log buildings, he did find several hand-forged nails and spikes, along with the remains of horse shoes.

These were all that remained of the failed Hudson’s Bay Company trading experience in the Chilcotin.

Author’s note: Much of the information in this article comes from the writings of Diana French and Irene Stangoe.

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