Sir James Douglas

In 1858, James Douglas sent word to the Black Community in San Francisco inviting them to the colony of Vancouver Island.  Douglas desperately needed settlers on the island to help quell the tide of gold-seeking Americans and their potential attempts to annex Vancouver Island to the U.S. Several hundred Blacks responded to his invitation.

James Douglas was born in Demerara, British Guiana, which is now Guyana, in 1803, the son of a Scottish merchant with commercial interests in sugar plantations, and a “free woman of colour.” In the records of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), he is referred to as “a Scotch West Indian.” One biographer suggests that his mother “was probably a mulatto servant on his father’s plantation.”

At the age of 12, he was taken to Lanark, Scotland, for schooling. In 1819, at 16 years old, he was apprenticed to the North West Company, and became an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company when the two great fur-trading companies merged in 1821.

James Douglas worked with HBC for about 20 years, rising to the top. He became Chief Factor for HBC at Fort Vancouver, Washington, in 1839, and later Governor of the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island, which was established in 1851 under the direction of the Colonial Office in London.

In the early 1840’s the western boundary between Great Britain and the United States was in dispute. During this period, Americans were flooding from the east and had contributed greatly to the success of the United States in the Oregon boundary settlement. Very early, James Douglas realized that the Columbia District headquarters of the HBC at Vancouver, Washington; was in danger of being annexed by the Americans. At the headquarters of HBC in London, there was also concern.

Douglas recommended to the Governor-in-Chief, George Simpson, that HBC move its Columbia District headquarters from Fort Vancouver (located in what is now Washington State) to the southern tip of Vancouver Island. HBC Chief Trader Charles Ross supervised the building of Fort Victoria in 1843-44; the new fort became the HBC headquarters for the Columbia District. In 1852 Victoria was laid out as the capital of the new Crown Colony of Vancouver Island that was established a year earlier.

Fort Victoria circa 1859
Fort Victoria: Looking east along Fort street. On the left is the building that housed the officer’s mess and Chief Factor’s house. On the right is the schoolhouse. (Public domain)

Gold was discovered in the Queen Charlottes in 1850 and American gold seekers to those islands flooded Victoria. Douglas ruled with an iron hand, asserting the rights of the Crown over the island’s new inhabitant.

In 1858, the year he became the Governor of British Columbia, Douglas sent word to California that he desperately needed settlers on Vancouver Island. Several hundred Black people responded to his invitation and started north.

Some people were skeptical, saying that one year with a failed crop would send the settlers right back toward the south. Douglas disagreed. At this time, the Fraser Gold Rush, which started in 1857, was in full swing. Excerpts from the historical writings of H.H. Bancroft state that “from 30,000 to 40,000 miners left the United States for the gold fields of the Fraser and Thompson rivers.”

Merchants were swarming into Victoria eager to make their fortunes supplying the miners with goods on their way to the gold fields, and relieving the lucky ones of their assets when they returned by selling them real estate at ever-rising prices.

The Blacks that had come at James Douglas’s invitation were looking for land to farm and to own, and for a place where they could raise their families, build homes, churches and schools and conduct business.

Some Blacks went to the Fraser gold fields to find gold, but most settled on Vancouver Island, farming in Saanich and on Salt Spring Island. Some started businesses in Victoria and elsewhere in British Columbia, while others worked in other trades and professions.

The settlers flourished, as did James Douglas and British Columbia. After the civil war in the US, some Blacks returned to the US believing in the promises of reconstruction and expected to be allowed to live as citizens in the country of their birth.

Because of his energy, resourcefulness and intelligence as founder of the first major British settlement on the west coast, he is remembered as “The Father of British Columbia.” This was more than an honorary title, for without his strength, his administrative abilities, and the experience gained in his 30 years as he rose from the lowest to the highest ranks in the fur trading empire the HBC, the Province he fathered might not exist today.

Queen Victoria knighted James Douglas in 1863 for his invaluable service to the Crown.

Sir James Douglas died from a heart attack on August 2, 1877 at the age of 74. He died at his residence in Victoria. His family was by his side.


Quick Facts

First Governor of British Columbia
Birth: August 15,1803, British Guiana
Death: August 2, 1877, Victoria, British Columbia
Spouse: Amelia Connolly
Parents: John Douglas, Martha Ann Telfer
Siblings: Alexander, Cecelia Eliza