Fort Vancouver

Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River

Fort Vancouver and its gardens. The Columbia River is behind the fort, and the American army base is on the slope behind the photographer.

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

In my book, The Pathfinder, I included a caption that indicated the size of Fort Vancouver over the years, and how it changed in size. The caption appears on page 161 of my book, under a painting of the post in 1845-46, done by Henry James Warre, who is also mentioned in the caption. I wrote this:

British spies Henry Warre and Marvin Vavasour travelled with the HBC express to Fort Vancouver with Peter Skene Ogden in 1845. When [Alexander Caulfield] Anderson first saw the fort in 1832 it was probably only 318 feet square. By 1836 it was 318 feet x 638 feet, and additions during the early 1840’s extended its stockaded length to 733 feet.

Fort Vancouver was built over the winter of 1824, according to Richard Somerset Mackie in his book, Trading Beyond the Mountains, p 48. What he actually says, of course, is that in April 1824 Fort Vancouver was completed and Fort George [Astoria] abandoned.  This would be the first Fort Vancouver, built on a bluff just upriver from the mouth of the Willamette River, but on the opposite [north] shore of the Columbia.

Fort George [Astoria] had been the first HBC headquarters on the Columbia River, built by the North West Company [NWC] in 1811 or so. On November 7, 1824, Governor George Simpson, accompanied by Chief Factor John McLoughlin, arrived at Fort George to spend the winter there. McLoughlin had come west to take charge of the Columbia district, and Simpson would return to Lachine. Leaving Fort George in March 1825, he stopped to visit the new location of Fort Vancouver on March 19th. [Source: Fur Trade and Empire: George Simpson’s Journals, by Frederick Merk.] The fort did not exist when he came downriver, and it did exist when he went upriver.

It is part of our family story that James Birnie helped to build one or other of the various Fort Vancouvers. However, in 1826 Birnie was at Spokane House and on the York Factory Express. He returned to Fort Vancouver in November 1826. I had always thought that the second fort was built a year after the first, but I was wrong! Even when I published my first book, The Pathfinder , in 2011, I had the information that the first Fort Vancouver was in its original location for 4 years — I just hadn’t noticed that one word!

It did not make a difference to the first book, as A. C. Anderson arrived at the new fort in November 1832, long after it had been completed. But it does matter with James Birnie’s story — and with that of the York Factory Express. Now I have to deal with the new information!

As you know, I first began to suspect the fort was being moved when I read John Warren Dease’s “Memorandum Book of John Warren Dease,” [Transcript], Mss 001, Box 8, File 2, BCA. He arrived at Fort Vancouver on September 5th, 1829, a very sick man:

Sept. 6th. Got my tent pitched there being no house room; all the gentlemen being in lodges or tents.

Oct. 9th… Began to put up the posts of the big house [Chief Factor John McLoughlin’s residence] and began their threshing in the circus [?] with horses.

Nov. Sunday 1st. Towards the latter end of last month got into a room 10 ft by 20. Messrs. [John Edward] Harriot and [James] McDougall in the same building occupying an apartment 20 ft. square… Not a shelf or bench yet in my house nor the gable end finished…

Nov. 26th. Men building a temporary bake house, others at barn.

Nov. 30th. The rain has set in. C. Factor McLoughlin seems determined not to get my room arranged, though the rain drops in it and wind comes through in every quarter.

Dec. Monday 1st. Got Mr. McDougall to ask C.F. McLoughlin to get my room arranged as rain came in. The answer was the weather was not yet very cold…

This is an updated post, as I found so many errors in the first [or I should say, the Fort Vancouver historians pointed out so many errors]. As I said at the time I wrote my original post, “to me, it sounds as if Fort Vancouver was being moved…” This was not news to anyone but me, unfortunately, and I soon learned that the fort had been in its original location, on the bluff, for four years before it was moved to the river valley in 1829! That’s the good thing about blogging — you can make all your mistakes in the blog, and not in the book that follows!

The historians told me the move shows best in David Douglas’s journals of the time — which of course I do not have. But re-reading Jack Nisbet’s biography of David Douglas, The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest [Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2009], p.193, I find this:

Douglas would have immediately noticed that great alterations had taken place at Fort Vancouver during his three-year absence The entire post was being moved from the bluff down onto the flats for better access to the river. New features included a boatyard and a sawmill four miles upstream. John McLoughlin had greatly expanded the farm, and the crops for that year included wheat, barley, Indian corn, oats, and three different kinds of dried peas.

So I should have known, but didn’t, and that is what writing and researching is all about — correcting things you thought were right, but were not.

Apparently the historians are not sure where the church services were held, and I cannot help them there. But there is a story about the church services at the fort in 1832-33, when Dr. William Fraser Tolmie first arrived at Fort Vancouver:

Church of England prayers were read every Sunday by Dr. [John] McLoughlin, a good pious man. But to one newly from the old country, it seemed odd, that while prayers were being read,  saddle-horses were being caught for the officers from a herd of two or three hundred, who had the open space of the large square to gallop about in and escape, if possible, the lasso of their pursuers. The thundering of their hoofs, during service, was a curious accompaniment to the devotions of the men. [William Fraser Tolmie, “History of Puget Sound and the Northwest Coast,” Mss 557, volume 1, file 11, BCA]

It is easy to find good descriptions of the new Fort Vancouver. John Dunn, who was at the Fort sometime after its move, described it this way:

At each angle there is a bastion, mounting two 12-pounders, and in the centre there are some 18-pounders, but from the subdued and pacific character of the natives and the long absence of all apprehension, these cannon have become useless.

The area within is divided into two courts, around which are about 40 neat, strong wooden buildings, one story high, designed for various purposes — such as offices, apartments for the clerks, and other officers — warehouses for furs, English goods and other commodities — workshops for the different mechanics; carpenters, blacksmiths, coopers, wheelwrights, tinners, etc; in all of which there is the most diligent and unceasing activity and industry.

There is also a schoolhouse and chapel; and a powder magazine, built of brick and stone. In the center stands the Governor’s [Chief Factor’s] residence, which is two stories high — the dining hall and the public sitting room. All the clerks and officers, including the chaplain and physician, dine together in the hall, the Governor presiding. The dinner is of the most substantial kind, including several courses. Wine is frequently allowed, but no spirituous liquors. [From Historic Oregon, by Philip H. Parrish]

James Robert Anderson, son of Alexander Caulfield Anderson, saw the fort as a twelve year old in the 1850’s, when his father lived at Cathlamet. He described it in his Memoirs, and his photographs of Fort Vancouver reached the British Columbia Archives. But these guns he found especially interesting, and of course, they are exactly what would have most fascinated a twelve-year-old boy who loved guns!

On each side of the front steps of the big house was mounted a large old-fashioned muzzle loading cannon. The guns were looked upon with considerable awe by the natives and some wonderful legends were related of the execution they had done in bygone times. As a matter of fact, I believe the guns had never been fired. [James Robert Anderson, “Memoirs”]

The constant west coast rain would have contributed to the destruction of the guns, but I do know they had been used. Here is the story, as told by Alexander Caulfield Anderson. The story was related to him by Chief Factor William Connolly, on furlough at Lachine, Quebec, in 1831-1832:

In 1829 the annual ship from London, the William and Ann, Captain Swain, bound for Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, was wrecked upon the dangerous bar which impedes the entrance. The crew escaped in the ship’s boats, and effected a landing at Clatsop, the Southern point of the estuary [close to Fort George]. Incited by the hope of plunder to be obtained from the wreck, the Clatsops murdered (or were assisted to have murdered) the survivors of the crew. Large quantities of the cargo were obtained and appropriated by the Indians, and on inquiry being instituted by Dr. McLoughlin, a derisive answer was returned: the murder of the crew was denied: and as to any restitution of the cargo, an old broom was sent, with a message that this was the only portion of the cargo which the Indians intended to restore. Mr. McLoughlin, sending word that they would hear more of the matter shortly, awaited only the arrival of the Brigades from the interior a week or two later, to take active measures to deter the natives from future acts of a similar nature. The boats from the Interior under command of Mr. W. Connolly arrived about the middle of June. A well-armed party of about a hundred voyageurs was organized, commanded by Mr. Connolly and supported by a number of our officers, and dispatched to the scene of action by boats. A small well-armed schooner, the Cadboro, preceded them, and was moored abreast of the Clatsop village, bringing her guns to bear. During the night the boat-party arrived, and the boats, six or more in number, with crews of 15 or 16, were concealed on the outer side of the schooner.

The Indians, meanwhile, were defiant. At early dawn the signal was given, the guns opened fire, and the boats dashed out under a strong force of paddles, the crews uniting in a lively French canoe-song. The distance to the shore was about a quarter of a mile: some shots were exchanged as the boats approached, and on landing a brief encounter took place which ended in the discomfiture and flight of the Indians. There was, indeed, little bloodshed on this occasion, but the effect was in all respects salutary — the submission of the Indians, namely, and their subsequent good conduct. [Story edited for punctuation, length, and clarity, The original is found in A.C. Anderson’s “History of the Northwest Coast”]

In these confrontations with the Natives, the HBC men loaded these cannons onto the ships, and used them to flatten the Natives’s houses! [Talk about loose cannons!] The goods plundered from the wreck of the London ship began to trickle into the fort from the Clatsop village. Can you imagine how the voyageurs would have celebrated this “battle?” Even the HBC gentlemen would have shared a smile or two afterwards.

But more on Fort Vancouver itself. The buildings were, on the whole, extremely plain. William Gray, a member of an American missionary party who reached the fort in the 1830’s, “recorded that in 1836 the partitions in the hewn timber structures were ‘all upright boards planed, and the cracks battened; floors were mostly rough boards, except (those in) the office and the governor’s house, which were planed.” This is from the article by John A. Hussey, “Unpretending but not indecent — Living Quarters at Mid-19th century HBC posts,” Beaver Magazine, vol. 305. His information continues here, and there is much more information in this article that I will not have room to include:

In 1841 French traveller Eugene Duflot de Mofras found the quarters of the clerks to be ‘a kind of barracks, where nothing recalls the comforts of the English’. This opinion was seconded by Assistant Surgeon Silas Holmes of the United States Exploring Expedition who, during the same year, described the houses of the clerks as being unpainted and of the ‘plainest possible’ construction. Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, the leader of the expedition, was a bit more charitable. Though admitting that the interiors of the same quarters were ‘unpretending,’ and ‘simply finished with pine board panels, without any paint’, he reported that they were, on the whole, ‘as comfortable as could be desired.’

Lieutenant George Colvocoresses, of the United States Exploring Expedition, described the fort that he saw in 1842 with these words:

The fort itself, is an oblong square, 250 yards in length, by 150 in breadth, inclosed [sic] by pickets, twenty feet in height. The area within is divided into two courts, around which are arranged thirty-five wooden buildings, used as officers’ dwellings, lodging apartments for clerks, store-houses for furs, goods and grains, and as workshop for carpenters, blacksmiths, coopers, turner, wheelwrights, &c. The building near the rear gate, is occupied as a school-house, and a brick structure as a powder magazine. [From: Four Years in the Government Exploring Expedition, commanded by Captain Charles Wilkes, by Lieut Geo. M. Colvocoresses].

James Robert Anderson, son of A.C. Anderson, described the fort he saw in the mid-1850’s, as being “a quadrangle of about 200 yards, it was surrounded by a palisade about 20 feet high. This space contained all the necessary buildings for the transaction of safety of the business. On the side facing the Columbia River and on the opposite side were gates, large red ones, which were closed and locked at night, and the watchman, a Kanaka [Hawaiian], patrolled the Fort during the night called “All’s Well,” or as near as he could pronounce it, at intervals..” [James Robert Anderson, “Memoirs,” p. 203]

Fort Vancouver played a substantial role in Pacific Northwest history, and it would not be until the late 1840’s that its presence in American territory was threatened. Most of my current research is of Fort Vancouver in the years 1847 to 1858, and there are some very interesting stories from those times. The American Army had set up their post on the hill behind the fort, and were a constant, though friendly, presence at Fort Vancouver. However, the American settlers who now surrounded the post were a problem, and when Chief Factor John Ballenden arrived at Fort Vancouver in November 1851, to take over for a year while Peter Skene Ogden went on furlough, he reported:

The day of my arrival was signalized by a murder committed near the Fort, that however is not an unusual occurrence, not less than three murders having been committed here during the last month. [John Ballenden to George Simpson, December 5, 1851, D.5/32, HBCA]

In 1852, Ballenden reported that: “the immense herds of cattle kept here and elsewhere along the Columbia River have disappeared, or become so wild from being hunted by the American settlers, that we cannot depend upon them for beef. Indeed I believe we have only had 3 or 4 animals during the past winter.” [Ballenden to Governor and Council, March 22, 1852, B.223/b/39, HBCA]. Ballenden left the region in 1853 when Peter Skene Ogden returned and took charge of the district once more.

In July 1855, James Sinclair wrote a letter to his friend, Dr. Cowan, that mentioned one thing that must have happened regularly at Fort Vancouver while the U.S. Army had their base on the hill behind the fort:

This is the 4th July, the Garrison is firing away and our folks are returning the National salute. [Sinclair to Dr. Cowan, July 5 1855, E/B/S16, BCA]

By this time the entire Columbia district was in a state of war: the Yakima Wars. Little could be done to prevent damages to the HBC business, though the HBC men were generally respected by the Natives. Fort Nez Perces [Walla Walla] was plundered and lost, and other posts in the district closed down for the safety of the men who worked in them. The war affected Puget Sound as well, and James Sinclair reported to his friend in January, 1856:

 Lord only knows when these Indian troubles are to end. In a few weeks, 3,000 volunteers and 2,000 [U.S. Army] regulars will be in the field — a few days ago the Indians attacked the Town of Seattle, on Puget Sound, in open day, and would have destroyed it but the Decatur, sloop of war, got her Broad sides on and with shot and shell drove off the Indians. [Sinclair to Cowan, February 10 1856, E/B/Si6, BCA].

The wars died down, however, and Fort Vancouver survived for some time, and did well — mostly thanks to Chief Factor Peter Skene Ogden and the good relations he had with the American Army. But when Ogden died, things changed quickly. Dugald McTavish was a good man, but he allowed himself to be controlled by Chief Factor James Douglas of Fort Victoria, who had no real understanding of what was happening in the Columbia district. Douglas was unwilling to work with the U.S. Army who protected them at Fort Vancouver, and the relationship between the two bodies broke down completely. In 1860 Fort Vancouver was closed down and its goods removed to Fort Victoria, in British Territory. Even the Fort Vancouver Bible was brought north to Victoria: copies of this are found in the British Columbia archives, and the original is in the Christ Church Cathedral Archives.

There you are, Fort Vancouver historians: Thanks for your help. I hope this is an improvement on the original post.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2016. All rights reserved.

On Twitter: @Marguerite_HBC

On Facebook: In Facebook search bar enter “Nancy-Marguerite-Anderson-Author,” or @TheYorkFactoryExpress. I am posting all my York Factory Express blogposts in order, which makes it very much easier to follow the story than through my website.

On Zoom: Yes, I am resisting, but also recognizing that I will have a series of talks on Zoom, whose those who are interested will have to register for as they come along. So spread the word among your historical friends, and we will see what happens.

The York Factory Express: Should you wish to order a signed book from me, then get in touch with me through the contact sheet of this site. Thank you!