1724 Awakening Fort Langley

The Untold Stories of Fort Langley
by Michael Wuensche

Self-published: Michael Wuensche, 2022
$18.99  /  9781778031106

Reviewed by Cara Faganello


The Untold Stories of Fort Langley by Michael Wuensche imagines the founding of Fort Langley from the point of view of explorer James McMillan and Whattlekanium, a warrior and leader among the Kwantlen people. McMillan is asked by the legendary George Simpson to survey the land north of Fort Vancouver. His task? Choose a band of strong, capable, and weathered fur trade misfits to find a place for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) to establish a fort on the lower Fraser River. McMillan is reluctant to exchange the comforts of civilisation for what was still an unknown wilderness to the HBC, and he knew that it would be anything but an easy journey. Despite the risk, McMillan cannot resist the call of the wild. He reluctantly agrees to accept the quest, promising Simpson it will be his last. Unbeknownst to Whattlekanium and his people, this sets in motion a course of events that will forever change not only their futures, but the future of Canada’s Pacific province.

Sir George Simpson, ca. 1850. Notman Photographic Archives, Musée McCord Museum, I-78494.0

The story opens sixteen years after Simon Fraser descended the Fraser River in the hope of opening up trade with the rest of Canada. A fort on the lower Fraser is still the missing component. HBC Governor George Simpson tells McMillan that it is imperative that a fort be established to ensure the HBC doesn’t lose control to American fur traders working eastward from the Pacific and the north from the Columbia River system. Simpson promises McMillan a high-level position with the HBC as long as he completes this mission and secures the land not only for the future of the HBC , but also — ultimately — for the Dominion of Canada.

His mission laid out before him, McMillan recruits a band of men from various backgrounds and with varying degrees of experience with surveying and exploration and last but not least, trading experience with the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific coast. Wuensche glosses over the potential for conflict between the fur traders and and the Indigenous people; such history would provide a solid basis for the story and help set the stage for the climactic clash at the end. McMillan and his men are constantly aware of being watched, and this causes a great deal of anxiety and tension. Despite this, the men set out on their treacherous journey up the Fraser River in November, 1824. McMillan struggles at times with himself as he comes to grips with the fact that his men are following him despite his own doubts about the mission and the sober reality of what failure might mean well beyond the edge of fur trade territory.

H.B.Co. Fort Langley, left bank of Fraser River. Langley Buttes in the distance. Watercolour by James Alden, ca. 1857. Courtesy National Archives at College Park, Maryland, via Wikipedia

While McMillan struggles with the rainy winter, the Indigenous peoples of the Fraser River area are gridlocked in their own struggle against one another as they fight to retain control of their land in a rapidly changing world. Whattlekainum and Punnis, Kwantlen warriors and brothers in arms, find themselves growing and maturing at a time when their people are constantly engaged in hostilities with surrounding tribes, from the weak Chilcoyooks to the formidable Yuculta of the Gulf of Georgia. Amongst the constant fighting, there is a fear of what they call the “Sky People,” white settlers of whom Whattlekanium and Punnis have only heard through the stories of their parents. It is decided that there will be an attempt to make peaceful contact with McMillan and his men. Whattlekainum is open to embracing change and peace with the fur traders and put to rest decades of war amongst the tribes, but Punnis fights violently against the change, and the tension between the two men causes an epic clash that spans years.

Fort Langley, 1862. Photo by Frederick Dally. Courtesy British Columbia Archives, Image A-04313, via tidestotins.ca
Michael Wuensche at Fort Langley

Whether it’s braving the Fraser in a canoe or looking the enemy in the eye before the lethal blow is delivered, The Untold Story of Fort Langley brings the reader directly into the epicentre of British Columbia’s early history through through the medium of historical fiction. The book is punctuated by action, from canoe battles to bar fights, and readers will soon succumb to the captivating story of McMillan and Whattlekanium. Those familiar with British Columbia will recognize names and places and glimpse the past through Michael Wuensche’s colourful descriptions. It isn’t hard to imagine the cold winter McMillan and his men faced, or the tranquil beauty of the Fraser River. Wuensche delights with vivid imaginings of his characters’ appearances, personalities, and quirks, and breathes new life into historical figures who may previously have lain flat on the pages of history books. However, while the story is gripping, the plot is often lost as Wuensche bounces back and forth between white and Indigenous narratives. His attempts to intertwine the characters’ pasts and presents, as well as recap centuries of Indigenous history, sometimes fall flat. Lack of a consistent narrator and awkward dialogue disrupt the flow and sometimes left me struggling to follow the plot.

Wuensche promises that this is only the first story in an upcoming series of Untold Stories, so we will have to wait and see if we meet McMillan or Whattlekanium again. In the meantime he has kindled a welcome and warming fire from the dormant and distant embers of Fort Langley.


Cara Faganello

Cara Faganello was born and raised in Nanaimo. She grew up listening to stories of her grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ early days on Vancouver Island, where they did everything from fishing and coal mining to selling eggs and making wine. Her love of reading and history led her to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in History and English from Vancouver Island University and a Master of Arts in History from Western University, where her thesis followed a young First World War soldier from Vancouver to the battlefields of France. When she’s not consumed by a stack of novels or her own writing projects, Cara is most likely being followed around the house or garden by her cats and dog and her wonderfully patient sweetheart, Lee. Editor’s note: Cara Faganello has also reviewed a book by Emily Kirkham for The British Columbia Review.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

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