Fort Langley was part of a network of trading posts established by the Hudson's Bay Company on the Pacific Slope in the early nineteenth century. Though its trade in furs was initially profitable, its main role became a supportive one including varied economic activities. It operated a large scale farm, initiated the famous west coast salmon packing industry and began B.C.'s foreign commerce. Fort Langley also blazed the first useable all-Canadian route from the coast to the interior and with its sister posts helped preserve British/Canadian interests west of the Rockies.
It was an era when flag followed trade, and fur traders frequently acted as advance guards of empire. The first British interest was sparked by the rich supply of sea otter pelts brought back by mariners working the Pacific coast about 1793 and the abundance of fur collected by the North West Company in its exploration of the inland trade of the Pacific Slope from 1811.
After the union of the North West and Hudson's Bay companies in 1821, a Royal License was issued to the reconstituted Hudson's Bay Company, giving it a monopoly on trade west of the Rockies. The Hudson's Bay Company thus became Britain's custodian of the Pacific Northwest. This monopoly, however, could not exclude American competition. The Pacific region, then known as the Columbia District or the Oregon territory, had been jointly occupied by Britain and the United States since 1818 and commerce between latitudes 40° and 54° 40' was open by international treaty. Although British traders dominated the interior, furs often found their way to American ships, which controlled the coast.
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 inland 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. 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.
Construction of the first Fort Langley commenced on August 1, 1827. The new fort measured 41 meters by 36.6 meters and was solidly enclosed by a palisade 4.6 meters 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.
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 the 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.
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