Did the founding party overnight in McNeill Bay?

"The Founding of Fort Victoria" plaque on Beach Drive, opposite the foot of Oliver Street, Oak Bay. Placed by the District of Oak Bay and the Victoria Historical Society, November 1994.
"The Founding of Fort Victoria" plaque on Beach Drive, opposite the foot of Oliver Street, Oak Bay. Placed by the District of Oak Bay and the Victoria Historical Society, November 1994.
“The Founding of Fort Victoria” plaque on Beach Drive, opposite the foot of Oliver Street, Oak Bay. Placed by the District of Oak Bay and the Victoria Historical Society, November 1994

The story is inscribed in bronze and set in concrete: “On the afternoon of March 14, 1843, the steamship ‘Beaver,’ with James Douglas … aboard, anchored in Shoal (McNeill) Bay. The following morning he went ashore at Clover Point to select a site for Fort Victoria.”

McNeill Bay was part of Victoria’s founding narrative. Local colour. Good story — if true.

Two contemporary sources recount the founding of Fort Victoria. One is James Douglas’s penciled diary. About the anchorage or place of landing, the Douglas diary mentioned “nothing whatever” — that’s ethnologist Wilson Duff’s phrase.

The other participant account was the Catholic missionary J. B. Z. Bolduc’s: “[W]e bore away for the southern point of Vancouver’s Island, whither we arrived about 4 o’clock in the afternoon.” That’s in a letter translated from French and published in 1847. There’s no mention of the place — only this clue: “At first, only two canoes were perceived; but, after a discharge of cannon, we saw the natives issuing from their haunts and surrounding the steamboat.”

The first published reference to the place where the Beaver anchored was, as far as I can tell, in Hubert Howe Bancroft’s 1887 History of British Columbia: “[T]hey crossed Fuca Strait to Camosun Bay, and anchored about four o’clock just inside the entrance round Shoal Point.” Shoal Point is a recognized landmark on the south shore of Victoria Harbour, which was then known as Camosun. Bancroft provided no source for locating the anchorage there. Apparently there were already conflicting accounts. Bancroft was adamant: “Some say,” he wrote in a footnote, “this expedition first entered Esquimalt Harbour, some Córdoba Bay; both are in error.” The founding of Fort Victoria was already shrouded in myth, it seems.

Detail, South Eastern districts of Vancouver Island, from a trigonometrical survey made by order of the Honble Hudsons Bay Company. Map by Joseph Despard Pemberton, published by John Arrowsmith, London, 1855.
Detail, South Eastern districts of Vancouver Island, from a trigonometrical survey made by order of the Honble Hudsons Bay Company. Map by Joseph Despard Pemberton, published by John Arrowsmith, London, 1855.

Provincial librarian and archivist E. O. S. Scholefield followed Bancroft in having the Beaver “anchoring off Shoal Point at about four o’clock in the afternoon” in British Columbia from the Earliest Times to the Present (1914).

And that’s where the credible accounts end. Confusion and conflation got the upper hand.

Coats’s and Gosnell’s Sir James Douglas (1908) added significant detail: “[T]he party cast anchor within Shoal Point on March 14th. According to tradition, the spot on which Douglas first landed was knee-deep in clover at the time, from which it received the name by which it is still known — Clover Point.”

Knee-deep in clover … in March? To parse that non sequitur, it’s useful to refer to John T. Walbran’s British Columbia Coast Names (1909). Walbran’s article on Clover Point included this: “The writer has been informed by a descendant of Sir James Douglas (his grandson) that the point now known as Clover point is where Sir James first landed, from the Beaver.” The context was Douglas’s reconnaissance of July 1842 in the schooner Cadboro Walbran mistakenly set it in 1841 and put Douglas aboard the Beaver — in search of the best harbour to establish a fort, following up on William Henry McNeill’s 1837 survey of four harbours. “From Clover point the party walked along the shore to the open ground at the hill now known as Beacon hill, and thence across to the harbour …. On this harbour in the year 1843 the post was established.” The concluding sentence makes it clear that the rest of the article was about the earlier reconnaissance, not the 1843 founding expedition.

Donald Henry McNeill’s 1924 memoir perpetuates the misreading of Walbran and adds another error. “[O]n March 14, 1843 … the steamer Beaver, Captain William Henry McNeill in command … arrived at Clover Point … and landed (Sir) James Douglas and party at Clover Point from the steamer Beaver’s row boat. The party walked overland to Camosun Harbour to meet the Beaver which went round to the harbour.” Despite Donald McNeill’s best efforts to mythologize his grandfather, Capt. McNeill wasn’t there. He left the coast for England aboard the Cowlitz in November 1842 and, according to McNeill’s log of the Cowlitz, cleared the English Channel for the return trip on October 14, 1843. One of Brother Bolduc’s letters suggests that Capt. William Brochie was master of the Beaver in March 1843; “I left Vancouver Island on March 24th, bearing with me the liveliest feeling of gratitude for all the good treatment and consideration from the commander of the expedition and from Captain Brotchie, for whose conduct I had had so much praise during the passage from the Sandwich Islands to Fort George.”

1855 uvicDetail, South Eastern districts of Vancouver Island, 1855, showing Shoal Pt at middle L, Shoal Bay at bottom to R, and Clover Pt at bottom to L.

In the 1943 article “The Founding of Fort Victoria,” W. Kaye Lamb wrote: “Douglas arrived off Clover Point, Vancouver Island, about 4 p.m. on the 14th. He appears to have remained on board until the next morning…” No source was provided. The eminent archivist and librarian seems to have, like Donald McNeill, conflated two events.

Others followed Coats and Gosnell in confusing Shoal Point and Clover Point. Thus a 1943 article in The Beaver, a Magazine of the North has the SS Beaver “anchored off Shoal (Clover) Point on March 14.“ No evidence is provided. (Nor does the article have a by-line; Duff guessed it was by Lamb.)

Speaking to the Nanaimo Historical Society in November 1970, a local historian made the same mistake: “Crossing the Straits of Juan de Fuca, they landed from the Beaver at Schole (sic) Point, now Clover Point, on March 14th 1843.” The speaker did provide a source: “Howay & Schofield’s (sic), volume I.” A careful reading of that work — it was Scholefield’s 1914 text, quoted above — reveals no such statement. Interesting to note, however, the invention of historical fact in the statement that Clover Point was originally called Schole Point. (Surely the speaker got that spelling from the historian’s name.)

(The origin of the name Clover Point was provided by Walbran: Douglas ”named the point himself from the fact that a large area of ground here was found covered with a species of red clover, growing most luxuriantly.” Douglas’s grandson was presumably the source of that information. Douglas made passing reference to clover in his July 12, 1842 report to his superior John McLoughlin: “In two places particularly we saw several acres of clover growing with a luxuriance and compactness more resembling the close sward of a well managed lea than the produce of an uncultivated waste.” And in a letter to his colleague James Hargrave of February 5, 1843 Douglas waxed lyrical: “Though the survey I made was somewhat laborious, not being so light and active of foot as in my younger days, I was nevertheless delighted in ranging over fields knee deep in clover, tall grasses and ferns reaching above our heads, at these unequivocal proofs of fertility” [emphasis added]. The letter to Hargrave is the source of Douglas’s much-quoted rhapsody that “The place itself appears a perfect ‘Eden.’”)

Recent histories have parroted these confusions and even added to the mess by mixing up Shoal Point and Shoal (McNeill) Bay. Thus:

“On the afternoon of the 14th of March, the Beaver dropped anchor in Shoal Bay, and the following morning Douglas went ashore at Clover Point” (1969). No source provided. But in his 1968 Victoria: The Fort, the same author had written that Douglas “reached Shoal Point about four in the afternoon of March 14, 1843” (emphasis added). He was right the first time!

“Late on March 14th the Beaver reached her destination and the next day Douglas went ashore at Clover Point” (1975). No source.

“The Beaver anchored off the shoreline on 14 March. Douglas landed at Clover Point and walked overland from there to Victoria Harbour” (2001). No source.

“He landed at Clover Point with a party of men and walked through the area of Beacon Hill Park to Victoria Harbour” (2003). No source.

Apart from the murk of missing evidence, conflated events and mixed-up names, topography argues against anchoring in McNeill Bay. Mariners familiar with McNeill Bay know it has a critical shortcoming as an anchorage — exposure to southeasterly winds, particularly in winter. If it’s ever used for moorage at any time of year it’s news to me.

The notion the founding party overnighted in McNeill Bay, nine kilometres short of their goal, simply defies logic. The Company had already chosen Victoria Harbour as the site for a fort. Douglas’s 1842 map shows the proposed fort in the exact place it was built. As Bancroft put it in his 1887 account: “These shores had been previously visited often enough to enable them to proceed at once to their objective point.”

Besides, SS Beaver was incredibly fuel-inefficient. To keep its paddles turning for a day, five men had to cut firewood for two days. Why would the founders, rigorous pragmatists all, have extended their freighted journey a minute longer than necessary?


Adams, John. Old Square Toes and His Lady: The Life of James and Amelia Douglas. Victoria: Touchwood Editions, 2001, p. 62

Akrigg, G. P. V. and Helen B. British Columbia Chronicle 1778-1846. Vancouver: Discovery Press, 1975, p. 357.

Bancroft, Hubert Howe. History of British Columbia, 1792-1887. The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft, Volume XXXII. San Francisco: The History Company, Publishers, 1887, p. 94.

Barraclough, William. Hudson’s Bay Company’s S.S. Beaver. Presentation to the Nanaimo Historical Society, November 17, 1970. Online at Nanaimo Community Archives: Nanaimo Historical Society fonds: Sound Recording Transcripts. p. 2. (http://www.nanaimoarchives.ca/nanaimoarchives5_054.html).

Bolduc, J. B. Z. Letter of Mr. Bolduc, Apostolical Missionary, to Mr. Cayenne, February 15, 1844. In Oregon Missions and Travels over the Rocky Mountains in 1845-46 by Father P. J. De Smet. New York: Edward Dunigan, 1847, p. 56.

—— Letter of M. Bolduc to M.C., Cowlitz, February 15, 1844. In Notices and Voyages of the Famed Quebec Mission to the Pacific Northwest … Oregon Historical Society, 1956, p 195.

Coats, Robert Hamilton and R. E. Gosnell. The Makers of Canada: Sir James Douglas. London: T.C. & E.C. Jack/Toronto: Morang & Co., 1908, p. 176.

Douglas, James. Letter to John McLoughlin, 12th July 1842. Public Offices document — Pelly to Hawes (Parliamentary Under-Secretary), 1301, CO 305/1, p. 25; received 8 October [1846]. Enclosed with the main document (transcribed). Online at Colonial Despatches: The colonial despatches of Vancouver Island and British Columbia 1846-1871. (http://bcgenesis.uvic.ca/getDoc.htm?id=V465HB02.scx#co_305_01_00022r.jpg).

——. Letter to James Hargrave, February 5, 1843. G. P. de T. Glazebrook (ed.), The Hargrave Correspondence. Toronto: Champlain Society, 1938. Pp. 420-22.

——. Voyage to North West Coast, Wednesday 1 March 1843. Handwritten diary in BC Archives, James Douglas fonds, call number A/B/40/D75.4. Online at Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Victoria: Primary Source Material: Douglas’ Diary: Journey to Sitka, Victoria, and Fort Simpson, A/B/40/D75.4 (http://www.bcheritage.ca/fortvictoria/people/primary.html).

Duff, Wilson. The Fort Victoria Treaties. In BC Studies, No. 3, Fall 1969, pp. 37-38.

The Founding of Victoria. In The Beaver, a Magazine of the North, Outfit 273, March 1943. Winnipeg: Hudson’s Bay Company, pp. 3-9.

Keddie, Grant. Songhees Pictorial: A History of the Songhees People as seen by Outsiders 1790-1912. Victoria: Royal BC Museum, 2003, p. 21.

Lamb, W. Kaye. The Founding of Fort Victoria. In British Columbia Historical Quarterly, VII:2, April 1943, pp. 71-92.

McNeill, Donald Henry. Personal Record of Donald Henry McNeill. Pioneer Reunion, May 9-10, 1924. Typescript on microfilm, BC Archives.

Pethick, Derek. Victoria: The Fort. Vancouver: Mitchell Press, 1968, p. 49.

——. James Douglas: Servant of Two Empires. Vancouver: Mitchell Press, 1969.

Scholefield, E. O. S. British Columbia from the Earliest Times to the Present, Volume I. Vancouver: S. J. Clarke, 1914, p. 467.

Walbran, Captain John T. British Columbia Coast Names 1592-1906: Their Origin and History. Minister of Marine and Fisheries of Canada for the Geographic Board of Canada, 1909. Reprinted Vancouver: The Library’s Press, 1971, p. 96.

3 thoughts on “Did the founding party overnight in McNeill Bay?”

  1. Peter, an outstanding piece of research to unearth the true event in question. From a lifetime scientific researcher I congratulate you. My g-child’s ancestral lineage includes Capt WH McNeil. Genealogy…ah now there is field frought with more errors than accuracies.
    Look forward to reading your other books and articles.

    1. Many thanks for your kind words, Ken. About the prevalence of lousy information in genealogical circles, agreed! I have crafted an illustrated talk about the descendants of Matilda and William Henry McNeill and test-delivered it to a descendant, two archivists and a historian. (They all liked it.) I will be giving a version of the talk at the Royal BC Museum on March 27. For examples of my writing, please visit petergrantwriter.ca.

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