Fort Colvile Mill

Fur trade building at Fort Langley
Fur trade warehouse at Fort Langley, the same as found in any fur trade fort

With a little luck and a lot of hard work, my book, The HBC Brigades: Culure, Conflict, and the Perilous Journeys of the Fur Trade, will be published by Ronsdale Press in May, 2024. You may order or pre-order the book here:

My great-grandfather Alexander Caulfield Anderson built one of the many Fort Colvile mills that existed at that fort over the years between 1829 and 1851. However, I really have little first hand information on them, because all of Anderson’s later writings were of British Columbia history, and Fort Colvile, as we know, is 40 or so miles south of the 49th parallel.

However, I do know a little, and most of the information I have comes from an article written by J. Orin Oliphant, titled “Old Fort Colville,” and published in the Washington Historical Quarterly (Now the Pacific Northwest Quarterly), vol. 16, 1925. It’s in two parts, one being in January and the other in April. Oliphant has a lot of information about Fort Colvile generally, but he includes information of the various mills that were at that place. So, I will pick it apart for you:

As we know, when the 1826 York Factory went out in spring, nothing had been done at Fort Colvile except James Birnie had planted a crop of potatoes. On the return of the Express, Lt. Aemilius Simpson reported that the fort was “merely in progress, a few Houses only being completed, & no Stockades up for defence.” Clearly there was no mill here yet. So when did the first mill arrive?

According to Oliphant, the fort was situated “in a little nick just above the falls on the South side of the River.” The nick, he says was later called Marcus Flat, near the then-town of Marcus. The fort was surrounded by steep hills, and was located on a sandy ridge about 600 yards from the river side. In 1847, Paul Kane wrote that “Fort Colvile stands in the middle of a small prairie, about one mile and a half wide by about three miles long, surrounded by high hills. This little prairie is extremely valuable for agricultural purposes, as it is, in fact, an island of fertility, surrounded by barren rocks, sandy plains, and arid mountains, to the distance of three or found hundred miles along the river…”

In 1829, Joshua Pilcher, an American fur trader, wrote:

It consisted, when I saw it, of log houses for the accommodation of the company, and for storehouses for the merchandise and furs. A stockade was begun before I left there…About 60 or 70 acres of ground were under cultivation, and the crops were fine and abundant. Wheat, barley, oats, Indian corn, Irish potatoes, peas and garden vegetables of every description, grow well…The wheat was ground at the post on hand mills, though a windmill was erecting, and a plentiful supply of flour obtained.” [Oliphant]

So 1829 Fort Colvile was erecting its first mill — a windmill. Many visitors to the fort over the years describe the fort and its fields of grain and animals, but none seem to mention the mill. Until, of course, we come to Governor George Simpson, who wrote, in 1841:

Cattle thrive well, while the crops are abundant. The wheat, which weighs from sixty-three to sixty-five pounds a bushel, yields twenty or thirty returns: maize also flourishes, but does not ripen till the month of September; potatoes, pease, oats, barley, turnips, melons, cucumbers, etc. are plentiful. A grist mill, which is driven by water, is attached to the establishment; and the bread that we ate was decidedly the best that we had seen in the whole country. [Oliphant]

So now we have a grist mill run by water, and not a wind-mill. I wondered if this was one mill, or two, and looked at Jean Murray Cole’s book, This Blessed Wilderness: Archibald McDonald’s Letters from the Columbia, 1822-44. I found this, in a letter written by McDonald to John McLeod on January 25, 1837:

Last season, to complete our independence I had a handyman from the sea & in three months got us up a new mill & new stores, the best between Cape Disappointment & Fort Coulonge. [This Blessed Wilderness, page 123].

According to Oliphant, in 1841 Lieutenant Johnson of the United States Exploring Expedition spent three days at Fort Colvile. Clearly the flour mill was located in the rear of the fort, as he noted that:

There are two entrances to the fort, from one of which road leads to the flour mill, from the other there is a path extending along the bank of the river. [Oliphant]

How interesting. I found another mention of a mill in This Blessed Wilderness, and here it is, on page 202, in a letter written by Archibald McDonald to James Douglas at Fort Vancouver, January 18, 1842. This cannot refer to the mill mentioned above, but must be a new mill: 

 Enclosed is a list of the few things we absolutely require per the Express Boats… I shall be allowed one boat exclusively for the conveyance of a threshing mill this way next summer…

Alexander Caulfield Anderson let out the 1842 York Factory Express. Did his boats carry up a new threshing mill for Fort Colvile? It appears they did!

At the time of the Treaty of 1846, which guaranteed the rights of the Hudson’s Bay Company in Oregon Territory, the HBC men made lists of all the improvements made to the forts in their territory. The mill appears in the list for Fort Colvile, as “One flour mill complete, with one pair of stones and bolting machine, 30 x 20 feet.” [Oliphant] A bolting machine is a machine that separates the finished flour from the other grain components after the grain is milled. Chaff is the husk of the grain which no one eats — so does the bolter “separate the wheat from the chaff,” or is this process done during winnowing, as it was in Biblical times? I don’t have the answer to that question, I’m afraid.   

In 1847, Thomas Lowe gave his recollections of the fort, which recollections he wrote on August 5, 1856. 

At this post the Hudsons Bay Co. carried on extensive farming operations, and had a grist mill for the manufacture of flour, with which article they supplied the interior posts in the Districts of New Caledonia and Thompson’s River…Including the flour mill, I should appraise the value of all the buildings as it stood in the spring of 1847, at not less than $100,000. In 1849, several important additions had been made, especially by the erection of stockades as a further protection agains the native tribes who had recently been at war with the American government. [Oliphant]

Yes, The Cayuse War frightened all the HBC men in the territory, and when Alexander Caulfield Anderson arrived at Fort Colvile he discovered that the stockades had rotted and blown down some three years earlier. As they had not been replaced, he built new stockades to protect the fort from possible invasion by Cayuse warriors who had retreated from their home near Fort Nez Perces to the nearby Spokane House region. Anderson also gave this following information about the mill:

With respect to the cost of erecting a mill such as the Company owned, between 1848 and 1851, Anderson made an estimate of $20,000. The cost to the company is very large, partly from the difficulty of getting proper mechanics, and again from the heavy cost of transport of the necessary material by boat from Fort Vancouver. The new mill was commenced either in the winter of 1845 or the spring of 1846 by my predecessor, Chief Factor [John Lee] Lewes. On my arrival there in the autumn of 1848, I found the work still incomplete, and it was only by great exertion that I succeeded in completing it about 18 months afterwards; for besides the original impediment to which I have already alluded, the excitement caused by the discovery of the mines in California had arisen, and its effects extended to the very gates of Colvile. Meanwhile the old mill, which had been built many years previously, was kept as far as possible in repair, in order to carry on the necessary grinding. [Oliphant]

In 1854, Governor Stevens gave a description of Fort Colvile as it appeared in 1853. This is what he said about the mill:

Besides the principal establishment, there is a cattle post, about nine miles distance, on the stream laid down as the Slaun-te-us, and a grist mill of one pair of stones, three miles off on the same stream. The latter is in good order. Here formerly the flour for the northern posts was ground from wheat raised at the Company’s farms. The mill is still used by the farmers of the Colvile Valley, and by the Spokane Indians, who bring here their wheat from a distance of 70 miles. The farm at this point was once pretty extensive, but only a small portion is cultivated at present. [Oliphant]

I found it hard to understand exactly where the Mill stood, and so took a look at Thomas Lowe’s York Factory Express journals, to discover if he could explain it more clearly. This is what I read, as he made his way on foot from Spokane House to Fort Colvile. He is approaching Fort Colvile from the east or south-east:

Sunday 11th [April]: Started early this morning, and got to the Colvile Mill Stream in the afternoon. Hired a canoe from an Indian, and went down in the canoe as far as Dumond’s, about 5 miles, at whose house we slept for the night…

Monday 12th: Started this morning on foot, but without snow shoes, as the road is pretty clear between Dumond’s and the Fort.

So he came in by the millstream, but gives no information on the actual location of the mill. Nor does he give up any information in 1848, and John Charles does not mention it in 1849. But I did eventually find more information in Oliphant’s article on the location of the mill, that I missed previously. This is what the American Commissioners had to say of the Fort Colvile mill in 1866: 

With respect to the mill of the Company, the commissioners reported: “About four miles south of the Fort, and upon the stream called Mill Creek, is the Hudson’s Bay Company Mill. It has once been a strong building, about 30 x 40 feet [35 x 50] and 20 feet high; it has been strongly framed, and the walls made of squared timber, grooved into posts in the usual manner. The machinery was driven by a breast wheel sixteen [seventeen] feet in diameter with 30-in [40-in] buckets, and consisted of one pair of stones, three feet [forty inches] in diameter, cut out of the granite common to the vicinity, a bolting apparatus, but no smut mill. The whole structure seems to be entirely rotten, and has not been used for some years, nor can it be until entirely rebuilt [it was run until September 1872]. We value the mill at $500, it has been assessed at $1500.00.

I wonder what a smut mill is? In his declaration in front of the Boundary Commission in 1865, Angus McDonald said of the Fort Colvile mill that: “As for the grist mill…from twelve to fifteen hundred dollars would put it in good repair.” There is one more document that gives us some information about Fort Colvile, if not about its mill. This is the article: “Fur Trading Posts in the Okanagan and Similkameen,” by Jean Webber, published  in Okanagan History, 57th Report of Okanagan Historical Society, 1993. It has a lot of information about Fort Okanogan, by the way, but here is what is said of Fort Colvile’s ability to supply foods to the other posts — from James R. Gibson’s Farming the Frontier: The Agricultural Opening of the Oregon Country, 1786-1846 — a book which I do not happen to own, unfortunately — maybe I should find it: 

In the late 1830s, Fort Colvile supplied Fort Nez Perces with one hundred hundred-pound sacks of flour annually. “New Caledonia also depends on this place for her flour, pork, corn and meal etc. etc.,” noted a member of the united States Exploring Expedition in 1841. In that year from eighty to ninety sacks of grain were packhorsed from Fort Colvile to Thompson’s River for New Caledonia…[In 1842] Chief Factor Archibald McDonald reported to Fort Vancouver that “grain is called for I might say from every point of the compass…” He estimated in 1841 that Fort Colvile needed two thousand bushels of wheat alone to meet its obligations.”

It should be noted that early settlers in Osoyoos were among the Fort Colvile’s flour customers before Barrington Price established his grist mill at Keremeos.

There is no mention of the mill here. From this article, however, we learn that Fort Colvile was finally closed down in spring 1871. The old bastion burned down in the summer of 1911. Then, in 1941, the site of the old fort was buried under the waters of the Columbia River and Lake Roosevelt.  Nothing remains of the old historic fort but memories and stories.

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

One thought on “Fort Colvile Mill

  1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

    AND a little more information sent to me from a reader of this blog: From the spring 1839 inventory of the Columbia District, Fort Colvile, Articles in Use: HBCA B.223/d/115, folio 200, HBCA: l flour mill, two bolting machines, and 7 millstone picks. Presumably the millstone picks are used to clean the groove in the millstones without having to disassemble the entire thing. The list of produce on the next page, fo. 201, begins with 9,000 pounds of fine flour. Thank you!