James Douglas Biography

James Douglas, a prominent figure in Canadian history, made significant contributions to the development and governance of British Columbia. Rising through the ranks of the fur trading companies, he became a Chief Factor and championed the rights of Native Indians. Despite clashes with the interests of the company and the Crown, Douglas remained steadfast in his denouncement of slavery. As Governor of Vancouver Island, he established the Victoria Voltigeurs, the first private army in the region, to protect against American encroachment. Recognizing the threat posed by the American gold rush, he strategically stationed a warship and issued licenses to prospectors and merchants. His efforts were instrumental in the creation of the colony of British Columbia, where he served as Governor and oversaw numerous infrastructure projects. Knighted by Queen Victoria, James Douglas is rightfully hailed as the Father of British Columbia.

Quick Facts

  • British Celebrities Born In August Died At Age: 73
  • Family: Spouse/Ex-: Amelia Connolly, father: John Douglas, mother: Martha Ann Tefler, or children: Cecilia
  • Political Leaders
  • British Men
  • Died on: August 2, 1877
  • Place of death: Victoria, British Columbia
  • Awards: 1858 – Order of the Bath in recognition of his service as Governor of Vancouver Island

Childhood & Early Life

James Douglas was born to John Douglas, a Scottish planter, and Martha Ann Tefler, a free person of mixed European and African ancestry. They had many children together but were not formally married.

In 1812, James was sent to Lanark, Scotland, for schooling. Later, he went to school in Chester, England, where he learned to speak and write in fluent French.

Career and Later Life

In 1819, 16-year-old James Douglas joined the North West Company’s fur trade, and moved from Liverpool to Lachine, Lower Canada. For a year, he was stationed at Fort William, Ontario, as a clerk. He was transferred to �le-�-la-Crosse on the Churchill River in northern Saskatchewan in 1820. There, ‘The Hudson’s Bay Company’ (HBC), a powerful competitor, was also active, and minor armed skirmishes were common.

He began acquiring knowledge by reading books brought over from Britain. He developed warm relations with the various Aboriginal people, or the First Nations people who were neither Inuit nor M�tis, in Canada.

In 1821, the rivalry between the companies ended with the merger of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company. Douglas became an employee of the HBC, and was rapidly promoted in the company.

In 1827, he established Fort Connolly on Bear Lake. He made a very good impression on William Connolly, his superior, with his skills, and they got along very well.

His relationship with the First Nations received a setback in 1828, after he shot dead a native for murdering two Hudson’s Bay traders. Fearing for his life, Connolly had him transferred to Fort Vancouver.

He served for 19 years in Fort Vancouver in the Company’s Columbia District, as Chief Accountant. In 1834, he was promoted to the key position of Chief Trader.

In 1840, he became the Chief Factor, the highest rank for field service with the HBC. He visited California, and received permission to create a trading post in San Francisco from its Mexican administrator.

Douglas founded Fort Victoria, which proved invaluable when, in 1846, the Oregon Treaty extended the British North America/United States’ border along the 49th parallel, from the Rocky Mountains to the Strait of Georgia.

In 1849, when Britain leased Vancouver Island to the HBC on the condition that a colony was to be created, Douglas moved the headquarters from Fort Vancouver to Fort Victoria.

In 1851, the British Government appointed Douglas as the Governor of Vancouver Island. To counter the expansionist pressures of the United States of America, he created the Victoria Voltigeurs, Vancouver Island’s first private army.

His governorship saw the creation of public elementary schools, alcohol control, and the construction of the Victoria District Church. He also established an elected Legislative Assembly which later opposed him on several issues.

In 1856, gold was discovered in the Fraser River. To exert British jurisdiction over the territory, he stationed a warship at the mouth of the river, and issued licences to prospectors and merchants.

In 1858, the British Parliament created the Colony of British Columbia, and appointed him as Governor. He continued his service as Governor of Vancouver Island. He resigned his position with the HBC.

Major Works

Between 1850 and 1854, James Douglas negotiated treaties with the Native American tribes and acquired fourteen parcels of land for the Crown from them, totaling 570 sq. km., in return for paltry compensation.

In 1862, when the Cariboo Gold Rush began, he ordered the construction of the Cariboo Road, running 400 miles from Fort Yale to the gold fields of Barkerville, in three years’ time.

Awards & Achievements

In 1858, James Douglas was appointed ‘Commander of the Order of the Bath’ in recognition of his service as Governor of Vancouver Island. On retirement, Queen Victoria promoted him to ‘Knight Commander’.

Personal Life & Legacy

In 1828, James Douglas married Amelia Connolly, the daughter of New Caledonia’s Chief Factor, William Connolly. The couple had thirteen children, only seven of whom survived to reach adulthood.

He died in Victoria at the age of 73. His funeral procession was possibly the largest in the history of British Columbia, and he was interred in the Ross Bay Cemetery. Many roads, schools and natural landmarks have been named after him. ‘Sir James Douglas Elementary School’ was built in Victoria, in 1910, on the property that used to be Sir James Douglas’ farm.


One of the pioneering personalities in British Columbia history, he became the second Governor of Vancouver Island, taking over from Richard Blanshard. Frederick Seymour replaced him as Governor of British Columbia.

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