Fort Colvile farm

Flintlock Guns, Fort Langley
Flintlock Guns

My book, The HBC Brigades: Culture, Conflict, and Perilous Journeys of the Fur Trade, was published by Ronsdale Press in July, 2024. You may order the book through your local bookstore or via Amazon. For American booksellers, the distributor for Ronsdale Press in the United States is Independent Publishers Group. Thank you!

J. Orin Oliphant wrote an excellent article on “Old Fort Colville [Colvile]”, and I am again dipping into it to discover what farm animals were to be found there over the years. This article, with the name of the fort mis-spelled, was published in two parts in the Washington Historical Quarterly, vol. 16, 1925.

John Work had been put in charge of building the new fort, and he set out from Fort Vancouver on June 21, 1825. His men were inexperienced fort builders, apparently, and by August he realized that the Company would not be able to move from Spokane House to Fort Colvile that fall. The fort store was under construction but none of the logs that would make its walls were laid. The potatoes that had been planted in the spring by my great-great grandfather, James Birnie, were harvested and stored in a little house that had been specially built for them, and they would serve as seed potatoes for the next year’s planting.

The work of building the fort must have continued over the winter, however, as on March 21, 1826, John Work anticipates the final abandonment of Spokane House. Nevertheless, Fort Colvile was still not occupied when the York Factory Express went out in spring 1826. As a matter of fact, John McLeod Sr., said this of the Kettle Falls where the fort was supposed to have been built:

Arrived at the Grand Rapid about 11 a.m….Got to the Kettle Fall about 1 pm, got all Cross but we had to wait some time to Collect the Indians to help in Carrying the Boats so that the sun was sett before we got the Boat packed and loaded. Started from the Portage and Encamped a little above.

Clearly there was no visible fort at the location yet. In fact, when Aemilius Simpson came into the territory with the returning express in October 1826, he described the new Fort Colvile as “a post merely in progress, a few houses only being completed, & no stockades up for defence.” He wrote more about the neighbouring First Nations camp than he did about the fort itself.

But ten years after Fort Colvile was built, Archibald McDonald bragged about the farm and its animals. Though the article does not say so, this letter must have been written to John McLeod Sr., who was now east of the Rocky Mountains. John McLeod would of course have been interested to hear this story, as he had been the man who brought the first of the farm animals to Fort Colvile via Spokane House. How many, you ask?

Your three calves are up to 55 & your 3 Grunters would have swarmed the country if we did not make it a point to keep them down to 150. [Oliphant]

I know that some of these “Grunters” were sent to Fort Alexandria, where A.C. Anderson described them as “lank, long-legged, with a snout like a ploughshare.” He was happy to dispose of the last of these swine, as you can see in this post:

In 1838, Reverend Elkanah Walker, one of the Methodist missionaries in charge of the Tshimakam Mission near now-abandoned Spokane House, noted that at Fort Colvile he saw “the cattle and swine feeding on the plain in large number.” [Oliphant] George Traill Allan, who arrived at Fort Colvile with the outgoing 1841 York Factory Express, said of the place:

Fort Colvile is a very neat and compact little establishment, and nothing I have yet seen in the Indian country can equal the beauty of its situation — placed on a rising ground in the midst of a very pretty plain, encircled by an extensive and well cultivated farm…here and there a band of cattle to enliven the prospect… [Oliphant]

Cattle seemed to have more appeal to the HBC men, than the pigs. Governor George Simpson also had good things to say of the fort: “We descried the now novel scene of a large farm, barns, stables, etc.; fields of wheat under the hand of the reaper, maize, potatoes, etc., and herds of cattle grazing at will beyond the fences…Cattle thrive well, while the crops are abundant.” [Oliphant]

Again, the pigs remain unmentioned. Cattle did not always thrive well here, however. The winter of 1846-1847 blew in hard and cold and many of the cattle died that year. Later, when the fort was in charge of Alexander Caulfield Anderson, many cattle were also killed by the long, cold winter of that year. Here’s what I wrote in The Pathfinder:

Normally 200 horses grazed on the grasslands around the fort, but in 1848 the winter blew in with snow and extreme cold, and all over the territory livestock suffered and died. At Fort Colvile along, 60 cattle and 50 horses perished. The hard winter, combined with the heavy loss of horses during the recent brigades, so depleted the stocks at Fort Alexandria and Kamloops that John Tod feared there were not enough horses to supply the brigade.

In 1841, Lieutenant Johnson, of the United States Exploring Expedition, visited Fort Colvile and noted that “this post was established in 1825, at which time a bull and two cows were introduced from [Fort] Vancouver, and from these have sprung 196 head of fine cattle.” [Oliphant] No mention of the pigs, however, though he said the Fort had “30 mares in foal, and 60 grown horses that were little used during the winter, and are usually turned out to shift for themselves.” [Oliphant] The HBC horses were obtained from the local First Nations, of course — the Walla Walla and the Cayuse.

At the time the Treaty of 1846 was signed, Fort Colvile had chickens and pigeons. There were two pig houses, one 60 x 15 feet and the other 8 x 8 feet. There is no mention of how many porkers occupied those two buildings, however. [Oliphant] In the years after he had passed through the fort in 1847 and 1848, when he was in charge of the York Factory Express of those years, Thomas Lowe remembered that “Large numbers of horses and cattle were raised here.” [Oliphant] Alexander Caulfield Anderson, who was in charge of Fort Colvile from 1848 to 1851, said in 1865 that “As far as I can recollect, there were about 200 [horses] attached to Colvile itself, and about 120 came here occasionally from the different outposts. Previously to my residence there I believe there were more, but there was a very heavy loss in the winter of 1846, and again in the winter of 1848.” [Oliphant]

When Governor Stevens of Washington Territory arrived at Fort Colvile in 1853, he noticed that about 30 yards behind the main fort were the cattle yards, hay shed, etc., enclosing a space of 40 x 60 yards, roughly fenced in, and the sheds covered with bark.” [Oliphant]

Angus McDonald, in his testimony in front of the Boundary Commission in 1865, stated that there was chicken house and a pigeon house at Fort Colvile when he was there, and also “from 100 to 130 head of cattle there, and that generally from two to three hundred head of horses were kept there; but he added that at this time (1865) there were few cattle there.” [Oliphant] No one seems to mention the pigs in these later years, and perhaps they had all been consumed. There is little more mention of animals in Oliphant, but I have other sources of information as well. Let’s see what I can find:

A document titled “Fort Colvile (Hudson’s Bay Company), 1825-1871,” that I downloaded years ago, mentions that Lieutenant Vavasour sketched an incomplete map of the fort which included a piggery and cow house. The map is reproduced in David Chance’s book, The People of the Falls. There is also some information about the grist mill which was the subject of my last blogpost, if you remember. But this article is mostly taken from Oliphant’s writing about Fort Colvile, though it does contain some new information. 

Finally, of course, we have Archibald McDonald’s writing. From an article written by Jean Murray Cole, titled “Exile in the Wilderness: Archibald McDonald’s ten Years at Fort Colvile,” [Beaver Magazine, Vol. 303], we have this: 

Jane Klyne McDonald by this time had built up a considerable reputation in the culinary department. Writing to Edward Ermatinger in January 1837, McDonald said, ‘her Butter, Cheese, Ham & Bacon would shine in any ordinary market’. The dairy was no small part of the Colvile farm operation, particularly after the Company’s 1839 agreement to supply all the Russian posts on the northwest coast. in April 1840, McDonald reported ‘Our Dairyman..(old Joachim) is hard at work Scouring up his milk Tureens, in order to meet our Share of a very heavy demand in Butter & Cheese..for the fulfillment of our contract with the Russians…” 

There may be more information in Jean Murray Cole’s book This Blessed Wilderness: Archibald McDonald’s Letters from the Columbia, 1822-44 [Vancouver: UBC Press]. But here’s the question you might be asking: how did the pigs and cattle get up to Fort Colvile?

Monday 20th [March]. Started from Ft. Vancouver at 4 p.m. with 2 boats accompanied by Mr. [James] Douglas & [Francis] Ermatinger, passengers 3 Calves & 3 Pigs…

Tuesday 21st… Rained all Day and Cold. I am much afraid that the calves will not be got up safe…

Thursday 6th [April]. Fine weather. Proceeded 3/4 pst 4 last night having put up very late the Calves were immediately landed as usual and their being very hungry they went out without stopping in quest of a spot to feed. I went after them and seeing them safe near the camp I did not tye them….I again went to look for the calves but could not find them…after about 2 hours search we found them, cut grass and tyed them for the night.  

They got the calves and pigs safely to Spokane House, but I am not sure Chief Factor John McLoughlin ever again used the outgoing Express as transportation for cattle and pigs, small though they might have been. They were very troublesome, it seems — particularly the calves. If you feel like reading John McLeod’s Journal, you can find part of it here: As you can see, my great-great-grandfather James Birnie is here!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.