Anderson and Wilkes

Fort Nisqually and Puget Sound

This drawing of Fort Nisqually was done by Steve A. Anderson and is used with his kind permission

Alexander Caulfield Anderson was the gentleman in charge of Fort Nisqually when Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, with his United States Exploring Expedition, arrived at that post in May 1841. As I said in the last post in this series, I have plenty more to tell you about Charles Wilkes’s visit to Fort Nisqually, and of his relationship with Alexander Anderson. The problem was finding the records, but I finally did: they were filed under Charles Wilkes rather than Fort Nisqually! So let’s begin Anderson and Wilkes’s story with “Diary of Wilkes in the Northwest,” as found in Washington History Quarterly, Volumes XVI and XVII. 

So Anderson and Wilkes: when Wilkes arrived at Fort Nisqually, he “had the pleasure of an introduction to Capn. McNeill of the Steamer and a partner, and a Mr. Anderson, the agent at the Fort of the H.B.C. They took tea with me and appear desirous of affording us all the assistance in their power, at least such was their offer — a few days will show the extent of it.”

So that was the first meeting between Anderson and Wilkes: Wilkes was not a generous and trusting man, it seems. A day or two later Wilkes “returned the visit of Capn. McNeill and Mr. Anderson, the agent of the Fort. It is constructed with Pickets some 20 feet high, quadrangular, with Bastions at each corner, covering less than an acre; sufficient, however, to accommodate the first Establishment. But this having become one of their (the HBC’s) farms, they find it very much contracted. There is indeed, as I am informed, little or no necessity for a fort or defence now, the Indians few in number, some 60 to 100 and perfectly peaceable. The fort is of this shape [crude drawing], the bastions thus serve the whole side and the defenders being entirely under cover are enabled to fight against great odds. Besides having the bastions, the galleries extend all around the pickets. I was also shown their garden in which, among other things, the peas were about 8 inches in height, strawberries are in full blossom and will be ripe in a few days. The gooseberries were in full bloom also, but what surprised us most was salad that had gone to seed, some 3 feet high & very large, and thrifty.” I wonder what garden plant Wilkes called “salad?” Lettuce, perhaps?

Wilkes had some immediate requests, and Anderson granted them. First: the observatory. Wilkes looked for a site for this observatory and found it at the top of a hill or bluff about 200 feet above the low water mark. He visited Captain McNeill aboard the Steamer Beaver, and wrote that it was about 120 tons, stern mizzen mast and has a double engine of 70 horse power.” Then McNeill, Anderson, and Mr. Wilson (who was attached to the Methodist Mission close by) “dined with us, also several officers — Rec’d from Mr. A a present of two bullocks, he stated that his orders would prevent a constant supply, being limited to that number by the Govr’s instructions.” W. H. Wilson lived in the same house as the missionary, Dr. Richmond, and his wife and family of “four fine fat children, rosy cheeks, quite a novel sight to us.” Wilkes also admired the situation of the mission house, which was “on a plain girted by fine woods and the distant snowy mountains in sight.” 

The Exploring Expedition finally found horses enough to set off on one of their first expeditions, and Wilkes set off with “three servants with a guide (Canadian) and two Indian boys and together with our baggage horses they amounted to 13, all of them kindly loaned to me by the Company’s agent Mr. Anderson, in charge of the Fort, to whom I feel under many obligations for the trouble he took in fitting us out. If it had not been for his kindness we should have made very sorry work of it — horses are difficult to be procured.” It is May 19, and Wilkes is heading off to Fort Vancouver, I believe. The now-retired Simon Plomondon was Wilkes’s guide on this expedition, and he brought his wife and child and 2 servants along with him. 

More on the developing relationship between Anderson and Wilkes: Wilkes returned to Fort Nisqually and his ship on June 23, and on the 29th “rode with Mr. Anderson to the Nisqually Dairy, the country is beautiful. Park Scenery to perfection…” On July 3 the Expedition ships returned to Fort Nisqually in time to celebrate the Fourth of July — “the 4th falling on a Sunday it was therefore kept on the 5th.” I have already covered this celebration in the previous post, , and so I have no need to write of it again. However, one person missed the party: Dr. John McLoughlin, chief factor at Fort Vancouver, arrived early the next morning, saying that he had “missed his way” and was “much disappointed.”

On July 9, Anderson and Wilkes departed Fort Nisqually and travelled south to explore the Shutes River, and Anderson “intended to visit the Bute Prairies, for the purpose of examining them.” Now, in French, the word, “Bute” can also mean “Mounds,” and this is the same set of Mounds, now known as the Mima Mounds, that the men who paddled to the Fraser River from Fort George [Astoria] in 1824 came through — see here: 

So more on Anderson and Wilkes’s expedition to the Mima Mounds. “An early start on the 10th brought us to [the] falls by 11 o’clock. The weather had become disagreeable with rain showers. We found the horses had been waiting for us all the morning. This Arm is of about 9 miles deep and the Shutes River (or more properly, creek) falls with its head down a fall of some 65 feet in height. It is here about 10 feet wide and two feet deep. It forms a basin of 50 feet diameter at its foot from which the land rises, and makes a cool pleasant retreat in summer.” Wilkes’s men set up their camp near the foot of the falls, and Wilkes sent them on an expedition, while he and Anderson “took our horses and several of the men with shovels & pickaxes and started for the prairie, which we reached about 5 o’clock.” By the time they arrived at the Mima Mounds they were drenched, both by rain and by the wet branches they pushed their way through, but that did not appear to slow them down at all. They set up their encampment at the Buttes Prairie, and chose the mounds they wanted to open on the next day. 

The Fort Nisqually men who accompanied them were taking good soil for their gardens from the mounds that they opened up, so it is likely they did most of the work of digging. Wilkes described the Mounds: and they are larger than I pictured! “They are composed of alluvial soil,” Wilkes said, “and are remarkably rich, of a of a mellow black mould. Their dimensions are generally 15 feet in diameter, and six feet above the gravelly soil… The whole prairie is covered with them, almost all perfect in their form, the sub-soil is a hard reddish gravel.” Three mounds were opened on this occasion, and “the hole was dug directly in the centre, about 4 feet in diameter, and continued until the subsoil was reached, on which we found in all a pavement laid of paving stones such as on streets. No kind of articles, bones, or anything was found in them — This is the same in many parts of the country, the Indians have no traditions respecting them whatever.” 

Having finished their examination, Anderson and Wilkes parted company: Anderson to return to Fort Nisqually, and Wilkes to join his men at the foot of the falls where they had set up their camp. Captain Wilkes returned to Fort Nisqually about July 15th, and “found all well on board & ready for Sea. Mr. Johnson’s party having returned all well — the Cadborough HBC’s schooner — Scarborough, master — arrived today from Frazer’s River.” The Captain of the schooner, Cadboro, which had just returned from Fort Langley, was Captain James Allan Scarborough.

After a short description of his just-completed exploration, Wilkes then criticized the location of Fort Nisqually. “Nisqually, as a scite [sic] for trade is badly located and I should also think even so for the purposes of the Company,” he began his journal entry,

The anchorage is small & the toil of taking things up the hill great, although they have comparatively a good road for that purpose. My observatory occupied the brow of this hill & by levelling I found it to be 190 feet above half tide, and the bob of my Pendulum clock 174 feet 3 inches above the same. Tide rises 18 feet spring tides and about 12 ordinary or neap tides… Much better places than Nisqually could be found for the location of town or for the purpose of trade, just below it — between it & Kittson’s Island — the shores make a small indentation & this small harbour, although the water is deep, is well sheltered by Kittson’s Island, from all those [winds] which blow with any violence… The Farm of the Company extends back towards the plain on which their Dairy is situated. The country is thought to be remarkably healthy around these Salt Water Inlets, which afford abundance of fine fish &c &c. The winter is represented to be mild, snow seldom falling and of but short duration…

I am not going to write about what Wilkes said of the First Nations who lived here. He was very unpleasant — extremely intolerant and racist and I think it not worth repeating. But, he also said:

Mr. Anderson informed me had had or was making an experiment with some of them [the Nisqually Indians] to till the land, but he found them disinclined to work, atho’ they were more apt than he had given them credit for. 

I found another few instances in his life that Anderson was teaching the First Nations how to grow their own food. Only a few years after he left Fort Nisqually, he watched as the Fort Alexandria First Nations returned home in an early winter snowstorm, and he knew they had little food to spare because the salmon run had failed that summer. Only a year or two later, after another failed salmon run, he wrote in the Fort Alexandria journals that, “Eleven Indians [are] working the soil [at our] suggestion, and I have promised to supply them seed potatoes.” When he lived in North Saanich in 1860 to about 1872, he encouraged the First Nations of the Tseycum Reserve [near Brentwood Bay] to cultivate their clayey soil, and some soon raised pigs and cattle or farmed smaller sections of richer soil. According to his son, James Robert, Anderson had a particularly strong interest in grafting fruit trees, and a few of his Tseycum neighbours even learned this agricultural craft from him, and now owned small thriving orchards. I would love to know if these orchards still exist on the Tseycum Reserve!

And of course, even before I found Anderson teaching the First Nations how to grow their own food, I discovered that William Fraser Tolmie had done this exact same thing at Fort Vancouver, sometime in the 1830s, if I remember correctly! Anderson would have learned this from Tolmie. 

However, the Nisqually Indians did not like Anderson. That was one of his problems at this place. He drove hard bargains with them in trade, and the reason for this is simple: Anderson had just come down from New Caledonia where Peter Skene Ogden was forcing the First Nations to abandon the Debt system in that territory, and Anderson probably carried that training south with him to Nisqually, a place where the debt system had never existed. That was my argument for the dislike the Nisqually Indians had for him in The Pathfinder, and I believe it was partially true, at least. Training a new employee the tricks of the trade in his new territory is an important part of the job the retiring gentleman must do: but of course, William Kittson, who Anderson replaced, was extremely ill and in pain when he left Fort Nisqually. 

I think the next post will have little to do with the relationship between Anderson and Wilkes: I will have some letters from Captain William McNeill, with complaints about Anderson’s work at the place. I also have a few quotes from other men on the Exploring Expedition, which describe Anderson. There may also be some other descriptions of Fort Nisqually which I have not yet used. Or maybe I will write about Wllkes’s visit to Fort Vancouver, as published in his book, Life in Oregon Country Before the Emigration — we will see. As you see, I have lots to write about. When this new post is written and published, it will appear here: 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2023. All rights reserved.