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Peace River History

Peace River History

Peace River History

The History of Fort St. John, British Columbia

by Murray Lundberg

A Guide to Fort St. John, British Columbia

    It surprises most people to hear that Fort St. John is the oldest non-native settlement in British Columbia, as well as being one of the oldest native settlements.

    At Charlie Lake Cave, located 7 kilometers north, archaeologists have uncovered artifacts from a Paleo-Indian settlement that was active there more than 10,500 years ago. The cave is a single room, 4.5 meters wide by 6 meters deep. Under a cover of dry, loose sediment is a bedrock floor. Most activity, though took place on a natural platform outside the cave mouth.

    Excavation began on that platform in 1983, and among the items recovered were a distinctive fluted spear point made of basalt or chert, a variety of stone tools, and a handmade bead. The bead, dated to 10,500 years BP, is the oldest of its type yet found in North America, and the earliest evidence of human adornment yet found in Canada. About 7/8 of an inch in diameter and 1/8 inch thick, it is roughly round, with a hole in the centre.

    Evidence from the Pink Mountain archaeological site, 100 kilometers north of Charlie Lake, shows that people were not just passing through the region. They lived at that location for over 3,000 years. For further study of these significant sites, Early Human Occupation In British Columbia by Luke Dalla Bona has 3 chapters on Charlie Lake Cave and the Pink Mountain site.

    The region is now known as the traditional home of the Beaver people, one of several groups of Athapaskan-speaking people who lived along the route of what is now the Alaska Highway.

    The arrival of fur traders brought change, but not as dramatic as in many areas. There were at least 7 separate trading posts built near the present location of Fort St. John:

  • Rocky Mountain House, built in 1794, was the first white settlement on the mainland of British Columbia. It was located southwest of present Fort St. John, on the Peace River just upstream from the Moberly River. It closed in 1805.
  • Fort d'Epinette was built in 1806 by the North West Company. Renamed Fort St. John in 1821 when the North West Company was bought by the Hudson's Bay Company. It was located about 500 yards downstream from the mouth of the Beatton River, which at that time was called the Pine (d'epinette in French). Closed in 1823.
  • the Revillon Frères company built a 2-storey cabin for trading in about 1806, but did not remain long.
  • Fort St. John, built in the 1860s, was located on the south side of the Peace River, directly south of the present community. Closed in 1872.
  • Fort St. John, built in 1872, was located on the north side of the river, across from the previous fort. Closed in 1925 due to a new wagon trail being built to Fort Nelson. Also see the 1945 obituary of the post's factor, Frank Beaton.
  • the Revillon Frères returned about 1910 and built a trading post along the river, but it didn't last long either.
  • Fort St. John, built in 1925, was on Fish Creek, northwest of the present community, on the new trail to Fort Nelson. They supplied many of the trading posts along the route. Closed in 1975.

    The church was into the Peace River district quite early as well. In 1866, Bishop Faraud, of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, arrived to teach the Beaver Indians about God. Five years later, the Right Reverend William Carpenter Bompas held Anglican services in Fort St. John and Hudson Hope. By 1890, a small chapel had been built for worshippers at Fort St. John.

    The Klondike Gold Rush affected the region, as the Beaver Indians refused to allow stampeders to pass through their territory in 1898. An excerpt from the 1899 Annual Report of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) describes the situation:

    Mr. Fox (the post manager) informs me that the Indians here at first refused to allow the white men to come through their country without paying toll...They threatened to burn the feed and kill the horses; in fact several times fires were started, but the head men were persuaded by Mr. Fox to send out and stop them.
    There is not doubt that the influx of whites will materially increase the difficulties of hunting by the Indians, and these people, who, even before the rush, were often starving from their inability to procure game, will in future be in much worse condition...They are very likely to take what they consider a just revenge on the whitemen who have come, contrary to their wishes, and scattered themselves over their country. When told that if they started fighting as they threatened, it could only end in their extermination, the reply was, we may as well die by the white menís bullets as of starvation.
    The following year, the federal government "negotiated" Treaty 8 with the Beaver and other affected groups. This treaty, however, is often described as one of the worst examples of such agreements.

    In 1913, the first settlers arrived to take up land in the Peace River Block. The 3.5 million acre parcel had been given to the federal government by British Columbia in 1883, to be sold to pay for construction of the BC portion of the national railway.

    The next major influx of people arrived in the late 1920s, when the 2nd Homestead Act allowed prairie farmers to settle in the Peace District after drought had wiped out their farms.

    An expedition in 1934 led by Charles Bedaux passed through the region, providing both an influx of cash for supplies and wages for assisting the expedition, and also probably a bit of comedic relief to farm life.

    The Second War War brought modern transportation to Fort St. John, with the building of the Alaska-Canada Military Highway (the Alcan). In only 9 months, a tote road was pushed through to Fairbanks, Alaska, changing life along the route forever. Charlie Lake was the scene of the worst single loss of life during the construction of the Alaska Highway, when a barge overturned during a storm.

    The year 1951 marks the beginning of the region's fame as a major producer of oil and gas. In that year, the "Fort St. John No. 1" well hit gas at a depth of 1524 meters. A few months later, in January 1952, the first deep well hit gas at 4418 meters. Drilled on the Bouffioux farm, that well is still producing today.

    Transportation improved at a rapid rate after that. In 1952, the Hart Highway finally connected the region to the rest of British Columbia, and in 1958, the Pacific Great Eastern Railway arrived in Fort St. John. That ease of transportation has allowed the region's agricultural and forest industries to compete in distant markets.

    As you head up the Alaska Highway, several community museums offer a great way to get a feel for the country. Particularly now with the mostly-rebuilt highway making the trip so easy, looking back a few years will let you see the incredible hardships faced by the pioneers of the region you're passing through. As is so often the case now, Fort St. John has bulldozed pretty well every hint of their history, and then volunteers have built an excellent museum to try to compensate for that loss. The Fort St. John - North Peace Museum does a particularly good job of preserving the area's past.

Related Links

Communities of the Alaska Highway

Alaska Highway Index