Fort Simpson: the historical work of Frederick Alexcee
As an Ottawa-based arts writer who frequently hosts visitors by bringing them to the National Gallery of Canada, I have a set of historical works on my circuit that includes Fort Simpson by Frederick Alexcee (c.1853/1857–1944). On view in the Indigenous and Canadian Galleries, the painting is a documentation of Fort Simpson in northern British Columbia at the turn of the last century. By the time the artist created the work around 1900, the settlement had already been established for about 70 years, as a fur trading post for the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC).
Originally, this trading post existed where the Nass River flows out towards the Pacific Ocean. In 1834, it was relocated to the Tsimpsean Peninsula between the Nass and Skeena Rivers. The Fort, also known as Port Simpson and in 1986 renamed Lax Kw’alaams (Place of the Wild Roses), was part of a strategy to assert trade dominance over American fur traders competing with the HBC for the maritime trade. It was named after Aemilius Simpson, a fur trader, hydrographer, land surveyor and ship captain, who came to work on the fort, but died shortly after arriving. Along with European administrators and HBC workers, the settlement also gathered people from surrounding Indigenous nations – Haida, Tlingit, Nisga’a and Tsimshian, among others. It was successful in maintaining the HBC monopoly on fur coming from the interior. With the spread of the Pacific Northwest smallpox epidemic of 1862, the Indigenous nations experienced devastating loss, as death rates rose to 70% for those living by the settlement, with the Tsimshian suffering the greatest loss of life. Christianity came with an Anglican lay missionary named William Duncan and later with Methodist minister Reverend Thomas Crosby, whose wife Emma established the Crosby Girls’ Home. A school for boys was also founded by 1890, both schools becoming in 1893 part of B.C.’s Indian Residential School System as Port Simpson Residential School.
Fort Simpson follows the typical trajectory of a colonial settlement. What is often lost in the details of narratives that focus on colonial history and perspective is the fact that, at each moment, Indigenous people were also reflecting and seeking to understand the changing landscape, as well as document what they were witnessing and experiencing. For Alexcee, who was Tsimshian, one wonders what his thoughts were when he painted the scene of this community living at the edge where land and water meet.
In his Fort Simpson, the structure of the colonial fort, with its lookout towers, is positioned in the middle, a partition between the hills and the shoreline. In the space between the fort and the water, that fills the lower half of the painting, are the buildings and totem poles that make up the Indigenous village outside Fort Simpson’s walls. The single-storey structures – with raised foundations to accommodate the rise and fall of the water – are the style of buildings that his artistic contemporaries, such as Emily Carr and A.Y. Jackson, also documented. In their work, there is often a noticeable absence of human figures. By contrast, Alexcee’s scene is animated by people – adults congregating outside the ramp of a longhouse, children running together along the beach, people coming and going in boats, a dog standing alongside two figures. Because the painting is relatively small, the figures are tiny. Despite being dominated by the surrounding architecture, they provide a rhythm within the work that compels the viewer to draw closer. Alexcee’s brushstrokes are succinct gestures through which he communicates so much about the period.
Alexcee was also a carver, producing for the curio trade as well as for sacred ceremonies. At a time when the federal government was outlawing ceremonies and other types of cultural practices, and the growing dominance of Christianity was shaming Indigenous spiritualities and worldviews, he trained as a halaayt (shamanic carver) and continued to carve. There are examples of his carving in the collection of the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology. The collection also holds one of several known paintings of Fort Simpson by Alexcee.
In terms of documenting Fort Simpson, in his 1902 painting in the Wellcome Collection in London, UK, he presents the viewer another perspective of the settlement. Here, the fort is dwarfed by the residences of the Indigenous community. The work also includes the HBC steamship The Beaver, which was already in salvage at the time. In an interesting detail, the canvas is lined with the embossed wallpaper from inside of the ship.
In 2013, Alexcee’s Pole Raising at Fort Simpson, B.C. (c.1900) and Carr’s The Crazy Stair (The Crooked Staircase) of 1928–30 made news – Canadian art history – for record-breaking sales at auction, with Alexcee’s work being sold at almost three times the estimate. Both paintings depict the structures and totem poles of the Indigenous peoples of the West Coast.
Interestingly, in 1927, work by Alexcee and Carr had been shown together as part of the Gallery’s group exhibition Canadian West Coast Art: Native and Modern. Director Eric Brown wrote in the catalogue that the purpose of the show was “to mingle for the first time the artwork of the Canadian West Coast tribes with that of our more sophisticated artists in an endeavour to analyse their relationships to one another.” By this time, the artistic production of Indigenous artists from the West Coast was already gaining global interest, but the colonial gaze still interpreted the work through an anthropological lens that kept European art practices and aesthetic as the standard by which to measure. Also, works such as Alexcee’s paintings of Fort Simpson, which fell outside of Western ideals about what Indigenous cultural production should look like, were not as desirable.
Alexcee’s paintings offer a glimpse into his changing world. He invites viewers into the landscape he is witnessing, providing insight at a time when both European and Indigenous people were forming intertwined communities. In his own way, Alexcee allows us to "see" beyond the frame, offering another perspective on history.
Frederick Alexcee's painting Fort Simpson is on view in Room A104 at the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.