Captain Wilkes 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

So Captain Charles Wilkes, of the United States Exploring Expedition, has arrived at Fort Nisqually, on Puget Sound. The year is 1841, and clerk Alexander Caulfield Anderson is in charge of the small HBC post, with Captain Henry William McNeill commanding the steamer, Beaver. The steamer was anchored just offshore of the fort, and Wilkes also visited it. “To return Captain McNeil’s visit I went on board the steamer, which is called the Beaver. She is of one hundred and twenty tons burden, and fitted with a low-pressure engine, similar to those in use in the English boats. She was now very much out of repair…” [Life in Oregon Country before the Emigration, by Charles Wilkes].

So, from my Timeline file, this is what is happening in the district in spring and summer of 1841, when Wilkes makes his surprise visit to Fort Nisqually. On March 6, 1841, the London ship, Cowlitz, arrived at Fort Vancouver and remained in the Pacific coast until October 20, 1842, on an extended visit. James Douglas wrote a letter to Anderson, telling him of his visit to California, and warning him that there were rumours that the Indians at Fort Nisqually did not like him. On April 29, the two ships under Wilkes’s command almost crashed into the rocks north of Puget Sound. On May 11, 1841, the two ships arrived off Fort Nisqually. On May 24, McLoughlin talks about converting the Beaver to a sailing sip [Her sails are still at Fort Vancouver, in storage somewhere], and the Cadboro is doing the Beaver‘s job on the coast this summer. On June 16, Anderson wrote to Chief Factor McLoughlin at Fort Vancouver, telling him that he was planning to leave the HBC to make a move to the Sandwich Islands. He had requested from McLoughlin free transportation to Hawaii, and from Governor Simpson he asked for a reference. On July 5, 1841, the seamen aboard the USSEX ships threw a July 4 party at Fort Nisqually, and John McLoughlin reached Nisqually in the morning of July 6 — missing the party entirely. Chief Factor John McLoughlin knew that the HBC Governor (now Sir George Simpson) was planning a visit to Fort Vancouver and the Northwest coast in 1841: Simpson would arrive on August 25. And in August, just before Governor Simpson arrived at Fort Vancouver, two ships of the United States Exploring Expedition sailed into the river. From Wilkes, Simpson would learn that one of the USSEX ships had been pounded to pieces on the Columbia River bar.

When Governor Simpson travelled to Lachine from London, he joined a pretty interesting group of men. Among them were: Edward M Hopkins, his secretary; John Rowand of Edmonton House, and his brother Dr. Alexander Rowand; Peter Warren Dease; Donald Manson; Alexander Christie and his son; and M. Nicolas Von Freymann, a Russian gentleman who was travelling from St. Petersburg to Sitka. Which of these gentlemen travelled with Governor Simpson all the way to Fort Vancouver? I don’t know. The Russian, Freymann, certainly did, as he was on his way to Sitka. Edward Hopkins did, because he was left in charge of Fort Nisqually when Anderson was sent back to Fort Vancouver. Donald Manson went all the way to Fort Vancouver, and travelled up the coast with Simpson. Chief Factor John Rowand did: Simpson wrote that Rowand remained at Fort Stikine from September 20 to October 3, 1841, after John McLoughlin Jr’s death at the place. If Rowand Sr. came to the northwest coast, so, too, did his brother, Alexander Rowand. Alexander Christie was on his way to Moose Factory, so he was not there. And Peter Warren Dease? He wasn’t at Fort Vancouver either, but he attended the annual meeting at Norway House in 1841 and then went on to Red River.  

In June, 1841, Alexander Caulfield Anderson wrote Simpson a letter congratulating him on his planned visit to the Columbia, and telling him about the arrival of the United States Exploring Expedition at Fort Nisqually. “About a month ago Nisqually Bay was enlivened by the arrival of the Vincennes and Porpoise, two of the vessels attached to the United States Exploring Squadron,” he said. “The first of these has since lain at anchor here, and Commander Wilkes is now on a visit to the Columbia. The intention of their [visit] is, besides surveying the vicinity to perform a series of magnetic and sidereal observations, for which latter purpose they are erecting an observatory onshore. Heavy demands were made on their arrival, for assistance in goods, for hiring guides, and purchasing horses to dispatch parties in various directions, and I assumed the responsibility of supplying them, where practicable, without injury to our own concerns, to the full extent of their wants, at an advance of 100 per cent or upwards on prime cost: first stipulating the condition that there should be no interference, either public or private, with the trade in Furs — a measure which, I am happy to understand, seems to have met with Dr. McLoughlin’s approbation. A pretty heavy bill will the the result: but the trade must eventually suffer to a certain extent, owing to the quantity of merchandise which thus becomes thrown into the hands of the natives, added to the large amount put into circulation by the crews for the purchase of provisions. Nisqually could ill afford this additional drawback on its prosperity, seeing that the returns of Outfit 1840 were miserably low: and since I had the misfortune to close the accounts of that Outfit, I fear the whole onus of the decrease becomes transferred to my shoulders, though my administration included but three months of its conclusion.”

In his book, Life in Oregon Country before the Emigration, Charles Wilkes spoke of his admiration of the beauty of the mountains that lay behind Fort Nisqually. “The scenery around Nisqually is very much enhanced in beauty by the splendid appearance of Mount Rainier, which lies nearly east of it; and from some of the open prairies there are three of these magnificent snowy peaks in sight. They are all nearly regular cones, with cleft tops, as though they had a terminal crater on their summits. I was exceedingly anxious to make the ascent of one of these, Mount Hood; but owing to the non-arrival and loss of the Peacock, I found it impossible to do so.”

Captain Wilkes visited Fort Vancouver, apparently at the same time the incoming New Caledonia Brigades, under Peter Skene Ogden, arrived there. Of the voyageurs at Fort Vancouver Wilkes wrote: “I have been exceedingly exceedingly amused since my return to the fort with the voyageurs of Mr. Ogden’s party [the HBC Brigades]. They are to be seen lounging about in groups decked off with feathers, ribbons, &c, with the conceit and flaunting air of a finely dressed country girl, evidently looking down upon all those employees who with their somber and business-like air are moving around the fort as if they were total strangers to the pleasure of life, while these jovial fellows seemed to have naught to do but attend to the decorating of their persons and pleasures.” By the way, I always note the use of the word “voyageurs” at Fort Vancouver and elsewhere. Even in the 1840s, the term was still used.

On the fourth of July, as I said above, Captain Wilkes threw a party for the HBC men. This is from W.P. Bonney’s History of Pierce County, Washington [volume 1 of 3, Chicago: Pioneer History Publication Co., 1927]. “Wishing to give the crew a holiday on the anniversary of the declaration of our independence, and to allow them to have a full day’s frolic and pleasure, they were allowed to barbecue an ox, which the company’s agent had obligingly sold me. They were permitted to make their own arrangement for the celebration, which they conducted in the following manner. The place chosen for the purpose was a corner of the Mission Prairie. Here they slaughtered their ox and spitted him on a sapling supported over the fire, which was made in a trench. The carcass could thus be readily turned, and a committee of the crew was appointed to cook him. Others were engaged in arranging amusements. All was bustle and activity on the morning of the 5th, as the fourth fell upon Sunday. Before 9 o’clock all the men were mustered on board in clean white frocks and trousers, and all, including the marines and music, were landed shortly after, to march to the scene of the festivities. The procession was formed at the observatory, when we all marched off with flags flying and music playing… Two brass howitzers were also carried on the prairie to fire the usual salutes. When the procession reached Fort Nisqually, they stopped, gave three cheers, and waited, sailor like, until it was returned. This was done by only a few voices, a circumstance that did not fail to produce many jokes among the seamen.”

Captain Wilkes’s story continues: “On reaching the ground, various games occupied the crew, while the officers also amused themselves in like manner. At the usual hour, dinner was piped, when all repaired to partake of the barbecue. By this time the Indians had gathered from all quarters and were silently looking on at the novel sight, and wistfully regarding the feast which they saw going on before them. At this time the salute was fired, when one of the men, by the name of Whitborn, had his arm most dreadfully lacerated from the sudden explosion of the gun. This accident put a momentary stop to the hilarity of the occasion. The wound was dressed as well as it could be….Although this accident threw a temporary gloom over the party, the impression did not last long, and the amusements of the morning were now exchanged for the excitement of horse-racing; steeds having been hired for the purpose from the Indians. At sunset they all returned on board in the same good order they had landed. The rejoicing ended, the surveying party was again dispatched to complete the survey of the Puget Sound.”

Anderson also described Captain Wilkes’s Fourth of July celebrations at Fort Nisqually. “Captain Wilkes after a few days delay proceeded to Fort Vancouver overland by way of Cowlitz, and returned to Fort Nisqually in time for the celebration of the Fourth of July, this national event was observed with much éclat. The Post was saluted by a cheer from the U.S. crews marching in order towards the picnic grounds in the close vicinity. There, impaled between two oak trees upon an enormous spit an ox had been roasted whole and a party of “Jacks” having been detailed for the important duty, has passed the night in presenting different positions of the animal to the heat, and apparently having enjoyed themselves mightily in the novel occupation.

“A game of baseball among the officers, in which we all participated, and games of various kinds among the sailors, caused the day to pass pleasantly. In the evening a banquet given by Captain Wilkes, in the great room of the observatory, concluded the pleasures of the day.”

In July, a man named Colvocoress, who was one of the officers with Captain Wilkes, described Fort Nisqually in not very flattering words. “Its situation is a bad one for trade, as the anchorage is so small that only a few vessels can be accommodated within a proper distance from shore, and the long hill which it is necessary to ascend, in order to get to the fort, is a serious objection to its becoming a place of deposit for merchandise, as it would very much increase the labour and expense of transportation. Many better places than Nisqually could be found for a location of a town in the same part of the Sound, and it is a matter of wonder to me, why they were not preferred.

“The fort is constructed of pickets inclosing an area of about two hundred and fifty feet square, with four corner bastions. Within this space are the Agent’s stores and about half-a-dozen log houses. The fort, when constructed was thought to be large enough, but since it has become an agricultural post, as well as a trading one, it is found too small, and Mr. Anderson thought it would be enlarged in the course of a year or two. I was in the garden several times, and found it to be under good cultivation, the onions, turnips, pease, &c all looked very thriving.”

Anderson said that: “The squadron left about the middle of July, the Vincennes anchoring near New Dungeness, and Captain Wilkes with his boats proceeded to explore the Strait of Haro, the Porpoise, her tender, having been engaged during the summer examining Rosario Channel. Some time afterward, I think about the end of August, I received a hurried note from Mr. Douglas, the late Sir James, written on his way from Astoria to Fort Vancouver, requesting we communicate to Captain Wilkes the loss of the U.S. Ship Peacock on the Columbia River bar. I at once despatched a light canoe to New Dungeness with the necessary information.” But there is lots more information on Captain Wilkes’s visit to Nisqually that I can talk about, and you will find this in the next blogpost of the series, which will be found here, when written: 

To read the first post of this series, go here:

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



2 thoughts on “Captain Wilkes at Fort Nisqually

  1. John Hansen

    Another GEM.

    Here in Darkest Newcastle upon Tyne, the use of Google Street View brings these places to life.

    A rip roaring party on an unsuitable trading site is never complete without someone getting half their arm blown off.

    Great 150 year old stuff !