Fort Vancouver Fire

The Columbia River, where the ships that stopped at Fort Vancouver anchored

The bank of the mighty Columbia River off Fort Vancouver, where the ships anchored. You can pretend, if you wish, that the fog in this image is smoke from the Fort Vancouver fires! That is what living at the HBC headquarters might have been like in September and early October of 1844. 

In this blogpost, clerk Thomas Lowe, who is my eyes and ears at Fort Vancouver, is readying himself to tell us more of what is happening at this Pacific Coast headquarters in the fall of 1844. So, let’s find out what he has to say!

In the last post in this series, that is: Lowe tells us that on Monday, September 23, 1844, Angus McDonald arrived with the Returns of the Snake Country, “bringing intelligence that a large party of Emigrants from the United States are on their way to this place…” This is the largest party yet to arrive, and it will change the balance of power in the Willamette Valley south of Fort Vancouver. His journals continue, with a story that will become a common experience at Fort Vancouver — fire. Here is the first comment of what will soon be called “The Fort Vancouver Fire.”

“24th [September 1844], Tuesday. The Easterly Gale still continues with unabated force, and the dust is flying in all directions. A fire broke out at the end of the plain, and all the men had to be mustered to extinguish it.

“25th, Wednesday. The fire which broke out last night gave more trouble again today, and a much larger one has been lighted a few miles above the Saw Mill, which will be very difficult to extinguish. Strong E wind.

“26th, Thursday. Easterly gales all day. In the evening rode out with Mr. [James] Douglas and Mr. [George Barber] Roberts to observe the fire which had originated in the Camas Plain, and which has now spread as far in this direction as the Little River on this side of the 1st plain. A party of men set to watch the Barn behind, and another the Barn at the lower Plain. Carting water all night. A Watch set at the Fort. I had the morning Watch.” 

As you are aware, fire has always been a major hazard to all these old posts built of sawn wood and timbers that have dried in the sun, and which are also surrounded by grasslands and bushes that can carry the fire across fields to the walls of the posts. This Fort Vancouver fire is a clear hazard to the Fort itself, and to all its outbuildings, Barns, and sheds that surrounded it, as we will see. Thomas Lowe’s story continues: 

“27th, Friday. Early this morning a report was brought that fire had broke out in the lower plain and that the Barn there was in imminent danger. Mr. [Angus] McDonald and Mr. David McLoughlin accompanied Mr. Douglas to the place, and succeeded with a party of men and Indians in smothering it. All the men were turned out about 1 o’clock in the morning and distributed into different parties to guard against an outbreak of fire from the woods, which are now in a blaze all round. Most of the men were employed all morning about the Fort Hill, setting the grass on fire, ploughing the ground, and taking other precautions to prevent the fire running when it emerged from the woods. While most of the men were so engaged, a spark from the woods behind set the Barn in a blaze, when there was only an Indian present, and in an instant the whole was in flames. The few who were in the Fort immediately got wet Blankets ready and put themselves in positions where the sparks could be most easily extinguished. Meantime Mr. Douglas, Mr. [Adolphus Lee] Lewes, and Mr. K[enneth] Logan, accompanied by all hands from the Old Fort Hill, made all haste to the Barn and did all they possibly could to extinguish the fire, which by this time had run to the camp and set the garden fences of Baron’s and Mrs. Lattey’s house on fire, as well as the Orchard adjoining the Fort garden. Dr. [Forbes] Barclay, Mr. Roberts, and I were in the Fort when the fire broke out. The Dr. went to the orchard, Mr. R. was employed putting out the burning grass that surrounded the school rooms, and I mustered a party to protect the clover field next the Fort, which had caught in several places, and after leaving some men to perform the duty, I took charge of the Party at the Barn, and remained there till the afternoon, when little danger was to be apprehended from it, and then under Mr. D’s directions employed a good many men and Indians in burning a broad strip in the stubble fields from the Barn to the Water’s edge to prevent the fire which was approaching from the Old Fort Hill from running into the clover field next the Fort. All hands were on the move the whole night, firing the grass and looking after the fires. The ladies of the Fort and all the children crossed to the other side of the River immediately after I had taken down the papers and money, for although they had strict injunctions to remain, fear had so taken possession of them that they pulled themselves across without any assistance from our men, several of whom deserted with their families and property during the time the fire was at its height.”

The Fort Vancouver fires continued to burn, but fortunately not as fiercely as before. On Saturday, 28th, Lowe noted: “The woods around present an awful appearance this morning, but all immediate danger is now removed, and I was sent across the River to bring back the women and children, whom I found quietly encamped directly opposite the Fort. We have heard that both the Saw and Grist Mills, as well as the Mill Plain, have been visited by the fire, and that the sheds on the plain have had a narrow escape. Mr. [Daniel] Harvey and Mr. [Henry Newsham] Peers are in charge there, and with the assistance of the Indians have succeeded in preserving everything as yet. Messrs. D. McLoughlin and McDonald are in charge of the party at the Lower plain, where they have also had plenty of employment. Most of the men engaged cutting the grass in the garden and watching the fires.” Happily, the men are winning the fight against the Fort Vancouver fires! Thomas Lowe’s story continues:

“29th, Sunday. The air is full of smoke and has been since this time last week, and the stumps and trees are still burning in the woods. In the afternoon I was sent up to sleep at the Grist Mill, and take every precaution to insure it against fire. I first rode up by the upper road past the old Fort Hill, but found it so blocked up with burnt and fallen timber that I was obliged to take the lower road along the River side. At the end of the plain I found Mr. Roberts with a party of men stationed to protect the shed, as the fire was only a short distance back in the woods. I arrived at the Grist Mill about an hour before dark, and to my delight discovered that the fire was nearly a mile off, and as the night was calm there appeared little danger. The six men that were there I divided into watches, and erected a ladder to reach the roof of the mill, and took every precaution in my power. The fire did not approach nearer during the night, and early in the morning [30th], I rode up to the Mill Plain where I found Mr. Peers. The woods had been on fire all round, and several parts of the Plain had been burnt. The Sheds of grain escaped narrowly, the straw around one having actually been burned to the very base of the Stack. The men were very active, and the large number of Indians who were fortunately encamped there at the time rendered important services. Mr. Peers and I rode down together to the Saw Mill, the road to which was rather dangerous, as the trees were still falling. We met Mr. Harvey near the Hill, and breakfasted with him. The men were all busily employed removing the fences around, and carrying them to the River’s edge. As the weather was calm and the grass and underwood green, there did not appear much danger to the houses unless the wind should blow down the River. After breakfast Mr. Harvey rode down with me to the Grist Mill from whence I proceeded to the Fort. I arrived there in the forenoon, and found most of the people going on with their customary employments. An examination was made today of the Canadians who deserted during the time the fire was raging, and fled to the opposite side of the River. [Caesar] Beaudouin, one of them, was put in irons, and after receiving a severe reprimand was liberated, making many promises of amendment. [Joseph] Monique, Barron, [Charles] Bayfield, and two or three half breed lads, who were the other deserters, only were blamed for running away, but nothing done to them. The Indians who assisted have been well paid today, and appear satisfied. Weather fine. No rain.” 

It is always a pleasure to be able to put names to these men who tried to escape the Fort Vancouver fire. But Joseph Monique? Shame on him! He is the Canadien that travelled upriver every fall to meet the incoming York Factory Express at Boat Encampment, and to guide them home. Thomas Lowe’s story continues: 

“October 1st, Tuesday. Two Kanakas (Tova and Samuhumuhu) who broke into the depense [where they stored the Fort Vancouver liquor] when the Barn took fire, were apprehended and examined today, and being found guilty Tova received 15 lashes at the Gun, and the other ten, and were afterwards put in confinement.” The gun was, of course, one of the big guns that stood in front of the Big House, where John McLoughlin (and perhaps, James Douglas) resided with their families, and where the gentlemen dined. “Parties of men are still kept watching the fires in the woods, which continue to burn, but not fiercely as the weather is calm.

“2nd, Wednesday. Most of the work about the Fort going on as usual. About 10 o’clock at night it rained for about an hour which will do much good.” The next day, the air was free from smoke, “and all danger from the fire is now ended,” Lowe wrote. The Fort Vancouver fire has burned itself out at last!

But where was John McLoughlin during all this excitement? He does not appear to be at Fort Vancouver, where his interests are supposed to be concentrated. He is not, as Lowe tells us on Friday, October 4:

“About 4 this morning Dr. McLoughlin arrived from the Willamette, where he has been for the last 5 weeks. The Willamette settlement and Tualitine Plains had also been overrun with fire and a good deal of damage done to cattle, as well as grain.”

Dr. John McLoughlin may well have been absent from his post for some five weeks, but he did pen the reports to Governor Simpson on November 20, 1844. Firstly he noted that “Since the middle of July up to the 18th October we had no rain, which is unprecedented.” McLoughlin’s report on the Fort Vancouver fire continued:

As you see by the accompanying sketch, the fire burnt part of our garden fence and came to within 300 feet of the Fort, which was preserved from the rage of the dreadful element, under Providence, by the prudent precautions, good management and unwearied exertions of Chief Factor Douglas, aided with the utmost alacrity & zeal, as I am happy to say he informs me, by the Officers whose good example was followed by the Servants, Settlers who happened to be here, and the Indians within reach, who on seeing the danger to which the place was exposed, rushed to our succour and afforded every assistance in their power, except two Sandwich Islanders, who in the confusion broke into the Store, stole Rum and got drunk, and two Canadians and one half breed, who when they saw the Barn on fire (though it was 400 yards in a direct line distant from the Fort) yet when they saw the vast column of flame rise to the sky, conceiving as they say, all was lost and that in a moment the Fort would be in a blaze, the Powder Magazine on fire, and blow up and destroy them all, they lost all presence of mind, ran to the River, crying out as some who heard them say “Sauve qui peut” [to save one’s skin]. In the evening the Canadians returned after the great danger was over; when Mr. Douglas very properly for a short time put them in irons as deserters, and afterwards took them out, leaving them exposed to the contempt and derision of all their fellow servants.

It is these tiny stories that are hidden in the bigger story of the Fort Vancouver fire that makes everything that is happening so interesting, and so human. I always enjoy them: and that is the value of Thomas Lowe’s stories — I suspect he enjoyed writing down these stories.

When the next post in this series is published, it will appear here:   

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2022. All rights reserved. 

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4 thoughts on “Fort Vancouver Fire

  1. Dr Susan Diamond

    Marguerite, I want to thank you for the life’s work you have spent and shared, on the early history of the Pacific Northwest. I, too, descend from the early British Columbia area settlers and First Nations families and its lovely to have your primamry source materials and your interpretations.
    Thank you.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Thank you for your kind words, Susan. I am glad you enjoyed the post. (It was fun to write, except my first version, yesterday, did not get saved and I had therefore to write it twice! Sometimes I hate WordPress!)

  2. Tom Holloway

    Thanks for bringing this dramatic incident to our attention. There is a “Line of the Fire” map that shows how close the fire came to the stockade. If it had burned, what James Douglas described as “the vast amount of valuable property collected here” would have been destroyed, and it would have been a major blow to the HBC—not to mention the food supply and housing for some 200 people, with winter approaching.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Yes, indeed. And I think that telling the story in Thomas Lowe’s words, almost without interruptions, was the best way to tell it too. It would not work in a book, but in a blogpost it does. He was in the middle of the mess!