FINLAYSON, Roderick




Author Tags: Early B.C.

Roderick Finlayson literally 'held the fort' during an attack on Fort Victoria by Chief Tzouhalem in 1844. More than anyone, Finlayson witnessed the rise of British Columbia's capital city from its founding in 1843 until his death there on January 20, 1892, during which time he was honoured as "the Father of Victoria."

Born in Lock Alsh, Scotland on March 16, 1818, Finalyson emigrated from Rossshire at age nineteen. He immigrated to New York, went to Montreal in 1837 and joined the Hudson's Bay Company. As a young clerk he travelled with Dr. John McLoughlin during their overland journey to Fort Vancouver in 1839. Usually characterized as a dutiful employee, he also accompanied James Douglas to Vancouver Island in 1843 for the selection of the site of Fort Victoria. Initially the fortress was called Fort Camosun, then Fort Adelaide (for the Queen of William IV), then Fort Albert (for Queen Victoria's consort) and finally, by decree of the Canadian Governors of the HBC during at meeting at Fort Garry on June 10, 1843--Fort Victoria. But originally the site was known to Aboriginals as Kusing-a-las, meaning "the place of strong fibres" in reference to the willow trees there whose bark provided strong fibres for fish nets.

Finlayson, James Douglas and fourteen other men arrived at Camosun harbour on the Beaver on March 15, 1843. He watched Douglas take control of the situation, appropriating what he called "a perfect Eden" and bargaining with the Songhees to cut pickets for a pallisade at the rate of forty pickets for one blanket.

Finlayson remained at Fort Victoria as second-in-command to builder Charles Ross until Charles Ross died in 1844, whereupon Finlayson became the senior HBC officer. In his autobiography he recalled one of his finer moments: "In the spring of 1845, a party of natives came from Bellingham Bay to trade with us, and traded a large quantity of furs, for which we gave them the goods they wanted in exchange. On leaving the fort in their canoes, they were waylaid about Clover Point, by a party of Songhees and robbed of their goods, after which they came back to the fort and complained of their treatment and asked to be allowed to pass the night within the fort as they were afraid for their lives. This was a clear case in which I was bound to interfere to protect friendly Indians coming to trade with us. I sent the interpreter to get them to restore the goods they took from these friendly Indians, as otherwise I would have to take action on their behalf, as they came to trade with us. After considering the matter for a time these robbers came to the fort and delivered up the goods; the Bellingham Bay Indians then left with their property, contented, and to prevent further trouble, set a party of our men, armed, to Trial Island, to see them safely homewards. Thus these wild savages were taught to respect British justice."

Finlayson is more renowned, however, for his defence of the fort during a seige on it by Chief Tzouhalem and his Cowichan warriors when Finlayson was age 26. The story goes that Tzouhalem had peppered the fort with musket balls and threats for two days, during which Finlayson refrained from returning fire. Eventually he warned he could destroy his attackers with cannon fire if they persisted. When Chief Tzouhalem did not believe him, Finlayson arranged for women and children to be evacuated from a large cedar-bark hut, then fired this nine-pounder to annihilate it with one well-aimed blast. Supposing this destruction might have been an act of magic, Chief Tzouhalem asked for a second demonstation. Finlayson set adrift an old canoe in the harbour, then had his gunners blow it to bits. The Cowichans withdrew.

When Chief Factor James Douglas was transferred to Fort Victoria in 1849, Finlayson was demoted to serve as chief HBC accountant. That year he married Sarah Work, John Work's daughter, and they subsequently raised one of the first families in Victoria. Finlayson has provided a description of the arrival of Reverend Robert Staines and his wife in 1949. "At this time there were no streets, the traffic cut up the thoroughfares so that every one had to wear sea boots to wade through the mud & mire. It was my duty to receive the clergyman, which I did, but felt ashamed to see the lady come ashore. We had to lay planks through the mud in order to get them safely to the Fort. They looked around wonderingly at the bare walls of the buildings and expressed deep surprise, stating that the Co. in England had told them this & that & had promised such & such."

Finlayson, arguably a toady for Douglas, served on the Legislative Council of Vancouver Island from 1851 to 1863, retiring from HBC service in 1872. He managed his farm and some properties, and also served one term as mayor in 1878. Not known as a literary man, he nonetheless wrote The History of Vancouver Island and the Northwest Coast, transcribed in Bancroft's history of B.C., as well as a 27-page autobiography in 1891 that summarized his many years with the Hudson's Bay Company from 1837 to 1872. A copy of the latter, published in Washington Historian, volume 2, 1900, is in the B.C. Archives. Today there is a small plaque in Victoria that marks the founding of Fort Victoria, by Finlayson and Douglas, where it originally stood near the harbour, between Wharf and Government streets.

BOOKS:

Finlayson, Roderick. The History of Vancouver Island and the Northwest Coast (within Bancroft's History of B.C.).

Finlayson, Roderick. Biography of Roderick Finlayson (Victoria?: Private circulation, 1891?).

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2005] "Early B.C." "History of B.C."