Coolest School Trip Spotlight: Fort Langley National Historic Site

There are just over two months left to get in your Canada’s Coolest School Trip videos. Still thinking about what topic to choose for your submission? We’re digging deep into Canada’s rich natural and cultural history to help you out with a new feature each week on a different national park, national historic site or national marine conservation area. Last week, we learned how Banff National Park came to be the very first national park in the country. This week, we’ll be heading further west to Fort Langley, a prominent fur trading post just outside of current-day Vancouver. Read on to learn about Fort Langley’s fascinating history and the role it has played in shaping our nation – and check out our suggestions for video topics at the end!

Fort Langley National Historic Site

Long before the days of shopping malls and department stores, the Hudson’s Bay Company was a well-established business – and a very profitable one at that. Originally started in 1670 as a fur-trading company located (as you might have guessed) in Hudson Bay, HBC expanded their operations over the centuries, both in size and in scope.

By the 1800s, much of Canada had been visited by explorers, and settlements along the West coast were becoming more and more common. Competition between Canada and the United States for trade with the local Aboriginal populations was rising, and there was an increasing need for HBC to have more of a presence on the coast – the more trading posts they controlled, the more furs they could get and the more power they would have in the trading industry. The company already operated a handful of trading posts near the US border, most notably Fort George. Located south of the Columbia River which, at the time, was shared territory between the British and the Americans, Fort George was one of HBC’s primary trading posts on the West coast. Anticipating a shift in where the Canada-US border lay and the potential loss of access to the fort if the land it was built on fell into American hands, HBC sent out a surveying expedition to the Fraser River to find the perfect location for their newest planned trading post – Fort Langley.

Built in 1827, Fort Langley quickly became a major part of the Pacific Northwest fur trading network, operating in current-day BC and northern Washington. In the first six years of operation, the Fort became a fierce trading competitor in the region. The traders at Fort Langley were consistently underselling their American competitors (selling the same goods at a lower cost) and it didn’t take long before they commanded the trade with the Aboriginal tribes throughout Vancouver Island, the Fraser River and Puget Sound.

Intensive hunting and trapping soon exhausted the area of its previously abundant supply of furs, and the Fort’s main purpose then switched to providing supplies rather than collecting them. One of the Fort’s most noteworthy accomplishments was the establishment of the west coast’s salmon curing (salting and packing) industry – by 1838, Fort Langley was the main supplier of cured salmon to all of HBC’s operations west of the Rockies. In addition to providing cured salmon, Fort Langley began operating a farm that produced potatoes, barley, peas and wheat and that was home to 200 pigs and 500 head of cattle. This farm enabled Fort Langley to maintain its dominant presence on the coast, as it became one of the primary suppliers of provisions in the region.

It wasn’t until 1858, however, that Fort Langley truly achieved the height of its fame. In early spring, news had begun to spread – gold had been found in the Fraser River! In a few short months, more than thirty thousand people hoping to find gold flocked to the region and settled down as part of the growing population around the Fort. In an effort to maintain British control over the quickly expanding settlement, the British Parliament passed an act in November of 1858 that established the first crown colony on the Pacific mainland – British Columbia – which was officially announced to the public at Fort Langley.

After the colony was established and HBC lost their monopoly on trade in the region, Fort Langley’s operations began to decline. Local competition for trading and supplying provisions became stronger and eventually, the Langley farm was sold off piece by piece and the buildings within the fort itself were either sold or converted to be used for other purposes. Fort Langley was officially closed in 1886 when a new HBC sale shop was built in the nearby village to carry on the remaining operations of the fort.

To pay tribute to the significance of the site in Canadian history, Fort Langley was named a national historic site in 1923 and continues to remain open to the public to this day. If you live in the Vancouver area or plan on visiting sometime soon, make sure to stop by the Fort to check out their exciting schedule of interpretive programs. You’ll get to experience the Fort as it was when it was operational – bartering fur traders, blacksmiths hard at work, the frantic salmon harvest – everything you could possibly imagine!

Think you might want to make your video about Fort Langley? Have a look at this list of suggestions as a starting point for your submission!

  • Imagine that you are Governor George Simpson, a high-ranking employee of HBC, leading the planning of the company’s strategy to eliminate competition with American traders in the Pacific Northwest.  Where were the American traders coming from? How did Simpson plan on out-competing them?
  • Get out your maps and hop in a boat with James McMillan as he leads an expedition up the Fraser River, to look for a potential site for Fort Langley. Who were the men that went on that expedition? What did they find? John Work, a clerk on the expedition, kept a journal of the day-to-day events on the expedition – it’s full of information on what they saw, what the weather was like and where they went so be sure to check it out for some interesting firsthand accounts of the trip!
  • Become an expert negotiator – re-enact some of the interactions that would have taken place between local hunters, trappers and HBC traders in the exchange of goods. What are some of the things the Aboriginal peoples traded for? What were the most common furs that were obtained by the Fort and what were they used for? What was the value of some of the goods being traded at the Fort?
  • Head up the Fraser River in pursuit of your dreams of becoming rich – join the Fraser gold rush! You can talk about where some of the other people looking for gold had travelled from, what types of tools you would have purchased from the Fort, and how you were hoping to find gold.
  • Be a part of the celebration as the establishment of the colony of British Columbia is proclaimed at Fort Langley. You might want to include James Douglas, the first Governor of British Columbia, and the officers appointed to the newly established government.