Anderson at Fort Nisqually

Fort Nisqually and Puget Sound

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

In 1840 and 1841, Alexander Caulfield Anderson was put in temporary charge of the Cowlitz Farm, and later posted to Fort Nisqually, on Puget Sound. The location of the future Fort Nisqually had been hastily explored by John Work, some nine months before the fort’s actual establishment in spring, 1833. A storage shed had been built on the beach in 1832, and in May, 1833, construction of a new post was begun on the grassy flat at the top of the bluffs above the beach. Archibald McDonald (later of Fort Colvile) was in charge of constructing the new post, which at that time consisted only of a small trading house and a naval depot for the Hudson’s Bay Company ship on the northwest coast. The Beaver had not yet arrived on the northwest coast, by the way, and so it was the tiny Cadboro that served the northwest coast in the years 1833-1836. (The Beaver finally arrived on the coast in April, 1836.)

Chief Trader Francis Heron was the first gentleman to be put in charge of Fort Nisqually, and apparently he, and the newly-arrived Dr. William Fraser Tolmie, built a better post in the woods to the south of McDonald’s temporary post. In October, a road was built from the fort to the beach. On October 20, a gale blew down the newly erected stockade but did not damage the store and dwelling houses. By November, the erection of the stockade was completed, and the work of squaring the timbers for the bastions was begun.

Fort Nisqually’s location was on the eastern shore of Puget Sound, near the south end of the sound and about sixty miles north of the Cowlitz Farms (which did not exist as an HBC entity before 1839, except perhaps, as a place for grazing horses). The fort stood on a plateau about half a mile inward from the abrupt two hundred-foot cliffs, and it had a fine view of the sound and some large islands to the northwest. The plains surrounding the post were treed with pine, cedar, oak and ash, arbutus, birch, and poplar. The grasslands were covered with a luxurious growth of wildflowers of every colour, including sunflowers and lupin. 

On Fort Nisqually’s completion, it measured about two hundred feet square and had four corner bastions instead of the usual two. Half a dozen houses inside were built of logs and roofed with bark; there was a store, dwelling house, kitchen, an Indian hall, and farm buildings of all descriptions. The main house was fifty-five feet by 20 feet, with twelve foot walls. When built it was considered quite large, but by the time Anderson arrived at Fort Nisqually, the post was cramped and crowded with all the farm buildings needed for equipment and storage. 

It was a beautiful place — well, it should have been a beautiful place, but it wasn’t. Steve Anderson, who knows a lot about Fort Nisqually, told me that “few understand what an armpit Fort Nisqually was in the 1830s-1840s — away from everything and a death-knell to a career if you were posted there.” 

So how did A.C. Anderson get to be posted to Fort Nisqually? Well, I always thought he was a farmer in the fur trade, and that he was posted to Fort Nisqually because of his farming skills. That is not so, it seems. Or maybe it is so, but it is not the reason he was posted to Fort Nisqually. 

Alexander Caulfield Anderson came down from New Caledonia with the outcoming Brigade of 1840. He had served at Fraser’s Lake post, and more recently, at Fort George [Prince George]. He wrote in his manuscript, “History of the Northwest Coast,” that

In the fall of 1839 I was removed to Fort George, and in the spring of 1840, in consequence of orders from the Governor-in-council, I accompanied the outgoing Brigade commanded by Mr. [Peter Skene] Ogden to Fort Vancouver, and in the autumn of that year was appointed to the charge of Fort Nisqually, on Puget Sound.

Interestingly, I just re-discovered that Orin Oliphant wrote in his article, “Old Fort Colvile,” that Anderson said “he was at Colvile first in 1832, again in 1840, and again the spring and in the autumn of 1842.” The first date is when he arrived on the Columbia River with the incoming Express; the third is when he took out the York Factory Express. Fort Colvile was always short of men to bring out their furs to Fort Vancouver, and so the second date is when Anderson travelled overland to Fort Colvile, to help them bring the Fort Colvile boats and furs downriver to Fort Okanogan, where they joined the rest of the Brigade. 

“In 1840, on my arrival at Vancouver by boat from the Upper Country,” Anderson wrote, “I found there a ship called the Lausanne, which had just arrived from New York, and on board of which were a number of Wesleyan missionaries, some having their families with them, which had come as passengers. They were received as guests at the Fort, and after a delay of some weeks departed in various directions. It is needless to add that every facility at the command of the H.B. Co. to assist their location was cheerfully accorded them by Dr. McLoughlin, the Chief Factor in charge.” The Lausanne, Captain Spaulding, had entered the Columbia River with missionaries Rev. Jason Lee and 51 passengers, on May 16 1840. 

So, the New Caledonia Brigades arrived at Fort Vancouver on June 10, 1840, and they departed again on June 29, for the interior, leaving Anderson and his wife and child behind them.

From Fort Vancouver, Anderson was assigned to the Cowlitz Farm. “I accompanied the late Chief Factor McLoughlin thither in July 1840. the farm had then been established about two years. Mr. Charles Forrest was in charge. I was appointed to remain there for a while, executing temporarily a general superintendence, not interfering with the duties, but with power to exercise authority in case of emergency. A large force of men were stationed there at the time for the purpose of securing the harvest…” He wrote this in 1865.

At the conclusion of the harvest, Anderson “was directed to dispatch Mr. Forrest with a party of men to open a road from Fort Vancouver to Cowlitz Farm. This road was completed for ordinary traffic (not for wagons) about the beginning of October [1840]. I was then directed to proceed to [Fort] Nisqually and assume charge there. I did so, taking with me a party of men to improve the road as I proceeded, built bridges, etc., so as to facilitate our purpose of transport. With certain deviations recommended by a more intimate knowledge of the country in after years, the roads indicated are those which form the main communications of the country. Along the Cowlitz River the road has been shifted to the West side: elsewhere, too, changes have taken place as I have noted, but the general line is the same.” 

All of this farming work that was occurring at the Cowlitz Farm, and at Fort Nisqually, was happening because of the deal with the Russians on the Northwest Coast, to provide them with foodstuffs, etc. Anderson said that “in or about the year of ’41/’42, the post of Nisqually was transferred by sale from the H.B. Co. to the P.S. Agr’l [Puget Sound Agricultural] Association — the latter undertaking not to dispose of the furs traded at the post except to the H.B. Co. The Cowlitz Farm was established exclusively by the P.S. Co. (but with like understanding), with the aid and co-operation of the H.B.C.

At the same time that Anderson was employed in the Lower Columbia and at Fort Nisqually, all this was happening:

On April 22, 1840, James Douglas and Roderick Finlayson, and others, had left Fort Vancouver, via Fort Nisqually and the steamer Beaver, on a visit to Russian territory. It was arranged with the Russians that the HBC would take control of the post at the mouth of the Stikine River. James Douglas also planned to build a new post near the mouth of the Taku River, which they would call Fort Durham. On May 25, Douglas and the Beaver reached Sitka and completed negotiations with the Russians. On May 30, Douglas and his men took over Fort Stikine, and the Russians left. On June 17, the Beaver and the Vancouver anchored off the mouth of the Taku River. On June 23 they found a good location for the new Fort Durham, on Taku Harbour, and by August 11, the building of Fort Durham was almost completed. Douglas returned to Fort Nisqually in the Beaver on September 25, 1840. 

So a lot was happening on the coast at this time. This is the letter that directed Alexander Anderson to Fort Nisqually from the Cowlitz Farm. On September 30, 1840, John McLoughlin wrote from Fort Vancouver that “I received yours of 26th inst and I cannot account for the injury the men did to the wheel, however, fortunately we are able to repair it and as Mr. Forrest has finished the road and done a good job of it, he returns to resume the charge of the Cowlitz Farm and you will proceed to Nisqually and if Mr. [William] Kittson persists in his desire to come to this place you will assume the charge of Nisqually and Mr. Kittson will point out to you the work I wish to be done about that place.”

So Anderson did not know he was going on to Fort Nisqually, which blows my theory that he was sent there because he was a farmer in the fur trade. William Kittson did return to Fort Vancouver, and he died there, on December 25, 1841, after a long and painful illness.

And now I find that William Kittson was married to Finan McDonald’s daughter, Helene. What a history! I already know that Kittson was at Donald McKenzie’s Boise River camp with my great-great-grandfather James Birnie, about 1818. Kittson would have known both James Birnie and Charlot, and their daughter Betsy — now A.C. Anderson’s wife. But Kittson would also have known Betsy’s free-trapping grand-father [Charlot’s father], Joseph Hudon dit Beaulieu, who was almost certainly also at the Boise Camp. This is what I like about taking all the scattered information I have and putting it together — there is always a new story to discover!

Sometime before Alexander Caulfield Anderson reached Fort Nisqually in October 1840, Missionary Father Modeste Demers visited the old fort, and described the post as it was while William Kittson was in charge. It was an “elongated square of about four arpents in area, surrounded like the other forts by a palisade twenty feet high, and flanked by four bastions furnished with firearms.” Unlike the other forts in the area, however, he said that “the palisade is crowned on the exterior by a species of circular gallery, as much for serving in the defence of the fort as for observing the acts of the natives and keeping them in check. In this enclosure are grouped various buildings, such as the smokehouse, the trading house… the commandant’s house, one for strangers, one for the engages…”

It was not unknown in these fur trade posts to have galleries around the inside of the fort walls, but it appears, at first, that Demers says this one hung on the outside of the palisades. When Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, of the United States Exploring Expedition, drew his images of the fort shortly after Demers passed through, there were no galleries on the outside of the palisades. But I think I am reading it wrong: I think Demers meant that the galleries hung on the outside or exterior walls, but inside the fort itself.

The John McLoughlin letter, above, also assigns Anderson another chore: “Mr. Forrest will give you the following men, Joseph Malais Losier [Lozier?], Mr. [Murdock] Nicholson, and D. Leclaire [either David or Dominique], and on your way to Nisqually you will clear the road in the portage, so that loaded horses may pass with ease on the mountain portage, nigh the other end there is a small stream which you will bridge over. When you meet James Douglas, Esq., you will hand him this and follow such instructions as he may give you on your arrival at Nisqually.” James Douglas was returning from Fort Durham, where over the summer he had been building the new post. He would reach Fort Nisqually on September 25, and Fort Vancouver on October 2, 1840. McLoughlin’s letter was written on September 30: it probably didn’t even reach Anderson before James Douglas came through on his way to Fort Vancouver.

So Anderson is on his way to Fort Nisqually, and when he arrives there he finds that Mr. Kittson is extremely ill. Anderson knew that Kittson had already written to Mr. Forrest, hoping he would send him horses to bring him down to Fort Vancouver. Anderson, however, sent Kittson to Fort Vancouver with with three Cowlitz Farm men to accompany him. Kittson had not been out of his bed since April of 1840: no one could leave him on his own to reach Fort Vancouver — but it seems that that is what McLoughlin desired. He complained to Anderson, because he had “sent three men to accompany Mr. Kittson. You know how much the people at the Cowlitz have to do and you ought in compliance with your instructions to have sent these men back immediately and made them bring Mr. Kittson’s baggage, if he would allow them to bring it and sent one or two of the Nisqually men to accompany Mr. Kittson if he wished it… besides I named only five men to accompany you and you had six with you, please inform me how these deviations from my instructions happened to occur.”

I am trying to understand what is happening to John McLoughlin: It is November, 1840. I see no real reason for him to be so angry and stressed as he appears to be. His forts are being built on the northwest coast, as he always wanted them to be built. His life’s work is not being threatened by Governor Simpson at this time: that would come later. His son, John McLoughlin Jr., is still alive. It is true that there was a mutiny among the men at Fort Simpson, but John Work sent them back to work — how would that upset McLoughlin? James Douglas was doing all the work that involved travel away from Fort Vancouver. I think John McLoughlin, who had been in charge of Fort Vancouver since 1825, was burned out and exhausted. Chief Factor Duncan Finlayson had been on the coast as McLoughlin’s assistant in 1836, but had left the territory in 1837. I know that McLoughlin missed his helping hand.

But here is what was happening — McLoughlin was facing new instructions from the London Committee: he was being forced to replace his beloved Fort Vancouver with a new headquarters built somewhere outside the mouth of the Columbia River. In November 1836, James Douglas and Duncan Finlayson visited Port Townsend, Port Discovery, and Whidbey Island in an attempt to find a new location for the HBC headquarters on the coast. In December 1836, McLoughlin himself instructed John Work to have William Henry McNeill explore Vancouver’s Island for a site for the new headquarters. In February 1837, the London Committee informed McLoughlin that the new fort was to be called Fort Adelaide. In Summer 1837, McNeill explored three harbours on Vancouver’s Island and chose Camosun Inlet as the best location. In November 1837, unaware of the explorations on Vancouver’s Island, the London Board of Governors suggested to McLoughlin that the south part of Vancouver’s Island should be explored. In March 1838, McLoughlin himself left Fort Vancouver on his furlough to London, leaving James Douglas in charge of Fort Vancouver. And finally, in autumn 1838, McLoughlin arrived in London and met with the members of the London Committee, where he was faced with a final decision on the building of a new headquarters on Vancouver’s Island. In October 1838, Douglas wrote that he was still awaiting a decision and instructions on building the new headquarters, but the London Committee had begun “a policy of delay.” In March, 1839, John McLoughlin left London on his return to Fort Vancouver, and he reached his headquarters on October 3, 1839. He paid his first visit to Camosun Inlet shortly after his arrival at Fort Vancouver. And at the same time as he was viewing the place with apparent disinterest, a dispatch from the London Committee members was sent to him, advising him not to make any decision as to the location of the new post until Simpson’s arrival on the coast in 1841. McLoughlin knew he was losing control of his territory. He knew that Governor Simpson was expected to arrive in the Columbia District in August, 1841, and he felt threatened. 

That’s where his anger came from. 

When I write the next section of this Fort Nisqually series, it will appear here: 

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

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4 thoughts on “Anderson at Fort Nisqually

  1. Mark McLain

    He must have been there when James Sinclair’s 1840 Red River Colonists arrived? Was the reason the colonists not given land because of the change from HBC to PSAC? They made a nice impact south of the Columbia.
    I enjoy your informative epistles😊

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      What a good question!
      Anderson said that there were “No settlers at that time [at Fort Nisqually], save only the Wesleyan Mission under Dr. Richmond, established near the present site of the Fort with the aid and concurrence of the Company.” According to his Biography (Canadian Biographical Dictionary], Sinclair and his party arrived at Fort Vancouver on October 18, 1841, so Anderson saw them there. I will add that to my list of information re: happenings in the region.

  2. Stanley Copp

    The 2nd Fort Langley (moved upstream from the 1st location at Derby Reach), had in interior gallery built on evenly spaced timbers along the interior palisade walls of the east and west fort walls. This was shown from archaeological excavations back in 1988. Round post-holes were found at approximately 12 foot intervals and this evidence was used in the reconstruction of the gallery. Excavations also revealed the presence of mens’ and officers’ houses, and other structures. Parks Canada really should publish some of these findings.