Fort Nisqually Stories

Fort Nisqually and Puget Sound

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

A year or two ago I was invited to speak to the Anderson Island Historical Society — Anderson is the name of the island off the old location of Fort Nisqually, and it was named for Alexander Caulfield Anderson. The people who live there know who the island is named for — they just didn’t know if any descendants of A.C. Anderson existed. They contacted me through my Anderson-Seton Family History site on — quite a delightful email for me.

I don’t think that Anderson knew that Anderson Island was named for him — nor did any of the other fur traders at Fort Nisqually in the years that followed. Anderson Island was known by a few different names relative to their local history and characters that lived in the area. But no HBC man ever called it Anderson Island. I am not even confident that Anderson ever stepped foot on the island that was named for him.

The island was given its modern name by an important character in Fort Nisqually’s history — Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, leader of the United States Exploring Expedition which arrived at Nisqually in 1841.

But this post is not about him, or about the island. I have a few little stories about Fort Nisqually that I ran across in my research, but which did not make it into my book The Pathfinder. So, here we go!

A description of Fort Nisqually, by Missionary Father Modeste Demers: Anderson himself reached Fort Nisqually in November 1840. But sometime before he arrived, Father Modeste Demers visited the rundown old post. This is what this missionary wrote about Fort Nisqually:

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. The palisade is crowned on the exterior by a species of circular gallery, as much for serving in the defense 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 that these fur trade post had galleries around the inside of the palisades, but Father Demers says this one hung on the outside of the walls. When Lieutenant Wilkes drew his images of the fort there were no outside galleries. But English was not Demers’ first language, and I think Demers meant that the galleries hung on the outside or exterior walls, but inside the fort itself. But I might be wrong…

Another “agricultural” story I stumbled upon, re: Alexander Caulfield Anderson at Fort Nisqually:

I have told stories before, about Anderson attempting to teach the Natives to farm. As I was reading through the various materials I collected on this section of Anderson’s life, I re-read Lieutenant Charles Wilkes’ journals, written while he was at Fort Nisqually. This is what he said:

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

I have run across a number of stories where Anderson is teaching the Natives who live near his residence (where ever it might be) to grow their own food, something he thought was quite foreign to them. Only a few years after he left Nisqually, he watched as the Natives seemed to starve during an early winter. One year later and following a second failed salmon run, Anderson noted in the Fort Alexandria journals that, “Eleven Indians [are] working the soil [at our] suggestion, and I have promised to supply them seed potatoes.”

Later, when Anderson lived in North Saanich, he encouraged the Natives of the Tseycum Reserve to cultivate their clayey soil, and some soon raised pigs and cattle or farmed smaller section of richer soil. He had a particularly strong interest in grafting fruit trees, and a few of his Native neighbours even learned this agricultural craft from him, and now owned small thriving orchards.

But he had no success at Fort Nisqually, mostly because the Natives here did not like him. He had no way of knowing that some Natives near Fort Nisqually already grew their own potatoes, known today as Ozette potatoes.

The Royal Navy Ship Fisgard off Anderson Island in 1846:

This is an Anderson Island story, and not a story about Fort Nisqually, nor about Alexander Caulfield Anderson. Yet it fits here, and I would have told the Anderson Island people this story if I had had the time to do so.

For a little while, Anderson Island was called “Fisgard Island,” and this story came to me from Steve Anderson, retired manager of the replica Fort Nisqually at Point Defiance Park. It is his research, and not mine.

The Royal Navy ship Fisgard was stationed off Fort Nisqually in 1846. Its job was to provide a British presence in the area to support the upcoming Boundary discussions between the United States and Britain. It wasn’t the only ship in this area: the Modeste was anchored off Fort Vancouver, and another ship or two near Fort Victoria.

In the late afternoon of 26th September, 1846, a rare thunderhead formed in the sky to the west, and by evening the fur traders saw sheet lightning. “The thunder roared in the most awful manner,” one man at Fort Nisqually reported, “and its grandeur was greatly increased by the reverberations amongst the neighboring woods, which were set on fire in several places by the vivid flashes of lightning.”

This was worrying. You might not know that ships such as the Fisgard were at great risk of lightning strikes in storms such as this. If a bolt of lightning struck the ship’s mast, it could splinter the mast and send it tumbling to the deck. A strike could kill a man; worse, it could find the powder magazine and blow the entire ship to bits, killing everyone on board. Lightning was a serious hazard to all sailing ships at this time!

However, before she left London, the Fisgard had installed a new-fangled, untested, experimental lightning conductor consisting of copper rods, plates and nails on the ships spars and hull. Though no one aboard the ship really believed it would work, as one observer said: “considering the grave number of ships which have been damaged or destroyed by lightning, it is not without considerable interest we witness and record such [events].”

So, a mile and a half from Fort Nisqually, the tall masts of the Fisgard jutted up into the lightning-bright sky. At 7:45 pm a powerful bolt struck the ship’s main spar and battered the Fisgard. “A sudden report, as if many guns had gone off, threw all hands into the utmost consternation.” The men watched in amazement as the lightning followed the trail of copper down the mast: those who were standing nearest described the fluid-like “strike” as illuminating the mast with a most beautiful stream of purple light. To their joy, the bolt of lightning grounded in the sea, leaving the ship undamaged.

It was a history making moment, and when the Fisgard returned to London, she was greeted with fanfare — largely due to the fact that she had beaten that lightning strike at Anderson Island.

The Perseid meteor Shower over Fort Nisqually in 1841:

This is another story from the same Steve Anderson mentioned in the last story. As it happens, no Fort Nisqually journals exist for the time that Anderson was at Nisqually — mostly because they were supposedly brought north to Victoria and lost. Fortunately for us historians, however, those other important visitors to Nisqually recorded their own versions of the stories, which then were filed away in various archives. This story comes from John Clarke, who came to Fort Nisqually with the Charles Wilkes Expedition in 1841. On May 31, he wrote:

At ten minutes past 8 o’clock [on this day], a meteor of immense magnitude and brilliancy shot across the heavens in a north-west direction, illuminating the heavens to such an extent that there was a resemblance to a sheet of fire, till it nearly reached the horizon, when it exploded, sending off myriads of coruscations in every direction. When it first commenced its flight, it was exceedingly slow in its descent, but as it increased its distance toward the horizon, it increased its velocity considerably, until it burst. Many old seamen on board never witnessed a meteor half so large, nor one whose light remained so long visible. From the time it was first seen until it entirely disappeared, was one hour and twenty-five minutes.

This, Steve tells me, was a Perseid meteor shower, which takes place every year in August — not any longer in May as written above. The HBC traders would have been very familiar with this shower, and would not have mentioned it in their journals. They would have enjoyed it, though, and perhaps Alexander Caulfield Anderson stood outside the fort and watched as this meteor made its grand descent to earth. We don’t know if he did. He never wrote about it.

But if you want more information about the Perseid shower, click here: http/  Do it soon. The next perseid meteor shower will be in August, 2014, and is apparently already visible. There is, as always, lots of information on this site.

If you want to learn more about Anderson Island, then find and read this book: Island in the Sound, by Hazel Heckman [Seattle: UWPress, 1967] My copy is in its sixth printing, 1997.

If you want  more information on fur trade potatoes, see this post:

Enjoy! Learn! oh, and “coruscations” in above quote means “glitter” or flashes of bright light. Expect to be amazed, if you get a chance to view the meteor shower.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2014. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Fort Nisqually Stories

  1. Tom Holloway

    Great post, Nancy. I think it’s great that you provide links to additional material. Your readers might be interested to know that vol. IV of Lt. Wilkes’s “Narrative,” which you quote above, is available for complete free download:
    If this link does not work, just go to Google Books and search for Wilkes Narrative.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Thanks, Tom. There’s another book, too, by him which I am very interested in and think it might be based on A.C. Anderson’s writings (one of his missing manuscripts) Darn, I have to write about those!!!