Shipping at Fort Vancouver

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

A Sailing ship in a bottle, from early 1900’s

It is time to write a little more about Thomas Lowe’s experiences at Fort Vancouver, and so we will now do it. We have just come through the Fort Vancouver fires: that story, in Thomas Lowe’s own words, is found here —

It is early October, 1844, when we begin this blogpost, and we will notice a major change in the arrival of the London ships at Fort Vancouver. In 1844, the Barque Columbia entered the mouth of the Columbia River on September 17, 1844, and only arrived at the anchorage on October 7: she had been detained in the river for a month by the same Easterly winds that had fuelled the Fort Vancouver fires. According to Thomas Lowe, she came down  “from the Northwest Coast, bringing the Returns of Fort Victoria and of the other Posts whose Furs are in Depot there.” Without knowing of the Columbia‘s delayed arrival at Fort Vancouver — and almost at the same time as the ship was actually delayed in the river — the Governor and Committee in London instructed the next London ship, the Vancouver, (which would probably be preparing to sail from London for the northwest coast) to make her 1845 destination the harbour at Fort Victoria. And there you have it: the Columbia is the last of the London Ships to sail for Fort Vancouver: all others would be sent to Fort Victoria.

Thomas Lowe’s journal continues: “Fine breezes up the River. The Columbia discharging her cargo.”

9th, Wednesday [October]. Strong E. wind. Mr. [Angus] McDonald started late in the afternoon in a Boat which he was to take as far as Walla Walla. The Rev. Mr. De Smet and Father Mongariney [?] went as passengers, and the Boat’s cargo was principally composed of their goods. Report was brought by an Indian that the Mill Plain was again in danger of fire. Mr. [James] Douglas and Mr. [Henry Newsham] Peers rode up there, but fortunately found the fire distant. The woods are burning a little behind the Old Fort.

The Old Fort was the first Fort Vancouver, built in 1825-26. I am presuming (perhaps incorrectly) that it stood where the United States Army later built their Fort Vancouver. Am I right, or am I wrong? I know it was built on high ground above the newer location of the fort, and that is the only high ground I remember seeing when I visited Fort Vancouver so many years ago.

Now, this is interesting: “10th, Thursday. In the evening Patrick McKenzie arrived in a canoe from Colvile, bringing prisoner one of the men who had threatened to commit murder there. Mr. [Archibald] McDonald and family had left Colvile for the Boat Encampment on their way across.” If it was 1842 I would know that William Thew was the man who threatened Archibald McDonald, because A.C. Anderson’s wife, Betsy, was present for the threat. But in 1844 — who was this man? I do not find him mentioned in Jean Murray Cole’s This Blessed Wilderness: Archibald McDonald’s Letters from the Columbia 1822-44.

On October 15, “Baron with a few men began to shingle the new Store next the Sale Shop. Another gang of men employed building a new potato cellar at the upper end of the back road. The New Bake House is also nearly completed. Several Americans arrived from the Willamette Falls, where 6 of the new Emigrants have already arrived.” On Friday, October 16, Lowe wrote that “Several of the new Emigrants from the U.S. arrived here today, and the others will soon make their Appearance.” I don’t know how many Emigrants arrived at Fort Vancouver this year, but there was a substantial number in other years so it is likely that the numbers were also high this year. Lowe’s journal continues: “Began to load the Columbia today with the Furs. Rode out in the afternoon with Mr. Peers and K. Logan to Chalifoux Lake.” Chalifoux Lake was a common destination for Lowe’s rides. 

21st, Monday. Heavy rain he whole day. The Stoves put up in the different Houses. (Did they dismantle them over summer?)

22nd, Tuesday. Rain continues. Strong equinoctial Gales from the S.W., and a good deal of lightning last night…

28th, Monday. Late in the evening Captain [Alexander] Duncan arrived across the Portage from Nisqually where he had left the Steamer to come here to take command of the Barque Columbia for England. He brought two prisoners from Stikine who it appears had been conspiring against the life of Mr. Dodd. He brought them as far as the Cowlitz Farm and came on ahead himself, All quiet on the coast and the returns good. The Modeste had arrived at Fort Simpson and [is] to return South. Much rain at night.

This Charles Dodd is the same man who was clerk-in-charge at Fort Stikine from 1840-1842, after the murder of John McLoughlin Jr. by his own men. And now, it appears, it is 1844 and Dodd was back at Fort Stikine, being threatened by his own men! Here is his story, with one small error: the David Manson mentioned in this biography is actually Chief Trader Donald Manson. 

I have a letter written by Charles Dodd which might be relevant to this story, But. Where. Is. It? If I find it, I will put it here, if relevant. Lowe’s journal continues here:

31st Thursday. About 9 o’clock in the morning the Express from York Factory arrived in charge of Mr. D[ugald] McTavish, who went across in the Spring. There were 3 Boats and 42 men, 35 of whom are new hands, mostly from Orkney. A Mr. [James Allen] Grahame, also apprentice-Clerk who came to the country last Fall, and wintered at Red River, he comes from Edinburgh and is nephew to Mr. [George Traill] Allan at Woahoo. [Although Allen/Allan must be the family-in-common, both of these men spell the name differently]. A Botanist of the name of Gyer from Germany, joined the Boats at Walla Walla, and came down here with the intention of going to England by the Barque, Columbia.

This is Charles A (Karl) Geyer, a German botanist from Dresden, who toured around St. Louis, Missouri, for several years before coming to the Oregon country in 1843. He turned up at Fort Colvile in a near-destitute condition, and Archibald McDonald took him in and encouraged him in his botanical pursuits. He later returned to London in one of the HBC ships, and Hooker [of Kew Gardens] published his record in the London Journal of Botany, vol. 4 [London: H. Bailliere, 1845]. Lowe’s journal continues:

 Mr. McDonald, it appears, had gone with his family to the Boat Encampment, on his way home, and Mr. Pelly from the other side remained in charge of Colvile till another successor is appointed. A Mr. Charles who came out in the same ship with Grahame had been sent to New Caledonia.

This is Thomas Charles, who worked under A.C. Anderson at Fort Alexandria. He is the oldest of the Charles brothers; the second being John, who died in Athabasca Pass in 1849; and the third being William Charles of Boise, and later of Kamloops and Fort Victoria. William married a Birnie girl, and so all these three brothers are in my extended family tree. Lowe’s journal continues:

Mr. McTavish got nearly drowned in going down the York Factory River, and received a severe fall from a horse in the Plains of the Saskatchewan. Three Chief Traders have been made on this side, viz. Mr. [James Murray] Yale, Mr. [Paul] Fraser, and Mr. [George Traill] Allan. The Sandwich Islands have been detached from the Columbia and made a separate department. The California business is to be given up and Mr. Rae is ordered to the other side. Raining occasionally today…

3rd November.In the forenoon Mr. Wm. McKay arrived from the Willamette Falls, and as the Court sits there tomorrow he was sent by Mr. [Francis] Ermatinger to bring Mr. McTavish, whose claims had been taken possession of by an American who is to be tried for so doing. Mr. McTavish therefore set off with him again in the afternoon, as his presence there may be of use. The day has been fair, but very close.

This jumping of British claims by American settlers would become a constant theme over the next few years, as the Americans tried to drive the HBC men out of what they considered to be their territory. This is, I think, the first mention I have seen of Americans jumping a British land claim, but in future years men shot other men over pieces of farmland that had been claimed from the Fort Vancouver farm-lands, fenced, and illegally occupied by American citizens. The journal continues:

4th, Monday. All the furs are now packed and on board the Columbia, and the carpenters are busy on board making berths for passengers. Mr. Grahame, and Mr. [George Barber] Roberts are busy packing the West Side Otters for Sitka. Raining very hard.

5th, Tuesday. Mr. Peers started in the forenoon with 3 men for Umpqua, of which he is to take charge, Mr. Fraser (who has been here since 11th October) being appointed to succeed Mr. McDonald at Colvile. Mr. [William] McBean and family arrived from the Willamette Falls, being too unwell to attend to business. He has been for the last 6 weeks assisting Mr. Ermatinger to post up the Books of the Company’s Shop at the Falls. Heavy showers at intervals during the day. The Cadboro is at the Cowlitz River.

6th, Wednesday. In the Evening Mr. McTavish returned from the Willamette Falls, bringing with him Mrs. [Francis] Ermatinger, Mr. Perkins, Mr. Lovejoy and several Kanakas from the Methodist Mission who are to go to Woahoo. Still raining heavy.

7th, Thursday. Mr. Fraser started for Fort Colvile, where Mr. Pelly has charge in the meantime. Occasional showers throughout the day.

8th, Friday. Captain [Charles] Humphreys left this in the afternoon with a Batteau for Nisqually to take command of the Steamer [Beaver], which is now laying there. He took 50 Sacks [Packs?] Otters for the Russians, and men who came in with the Express to replace expected retirements from the Coast. Mr. Joseph Heath remains behind to wait for the Papers, and then start in a canoe to overtake the Batteau. 

Nov. 9th, Saturday. Mr. Heath started at night in a canoe with the Packet for the Coast. Heavy showers during the day…

13th, Wednesday. This forenoon the Barque Columbia left this on her voyage to England with the Returns of the District, 1844. Capt. Duncan is in command with Mr. [William] Mitchell and Mr. [Jonathan] Buck as officers. Mr. Geyer is the only cabin passenger to England, and the two shepherds, McLean and Taylor, have berths in the half deck. Rev. Mr. Perkins and family, Rev. Dr. Babcock and family, and about 15 Kanakas proceed in her to Woahoo. She fired a salute of 7 guns. Tremendous shower of rain…

15th, Friday. The Schooner Cadboro arrived here in the forenoon from Fort Victoria and Nisqually where she had been all Summer. Salmon and butter from Fort Langley is all she has now on board, having delivered her Furs to the Columbia yesterday. Began unloading her. Fair…

23rd, Saturday. A Boat started this afternoon for the Barque Columbia but not with the Papers [that Thomas Lowe is still working on].

25th, Monday. Heavy rain. The Cadboro has been hauled close in shore, and is to get a thorough repair, as the three carpenters who held a survey on her on Saturday pronounced her not sea-worthy. Her crew will probably be ashore all winter.

27th, Wednesday. This evening all the papers for England were ready and had been put on the cart to be taken to the boat, but it unfortunately came on such a heavy shower of rain, and was growing so dark that everything was taken back again to the office. Tremendous showers. 

28th, Thursday. In the morning the Boat with the papers for England started in charge of Captain Scarborough, who obtained leave for a shot time to visit his farm at Chinook. The Rev. Mr. Blanchett went as a passenger in the Boat and is to proceed to England per Barque Columbia, in order to be consecrated a Catholic Bishop, having received intelligence by the Express that he had been raised to that rank. The wind was up the River all night, but during the day it came down [river], attended with much rain.

29th, Friday. The late heavy rains have swollen both the Columbia and Willamette Rivers to an unusual height, and we heard today that Mr. Pettigrove’s house at the Willamette Falls had been washed away, that Dr. McLoughlin’s two mills there were in great danger, the water having risen to the windows, and that another boat with wheat has been lost. Rode out in the afternoon…

December, 11th, Wednesday. Raining. Capt. [James] Scarborough arrived in the evening from Fort George with the boat in which he went down with the papers for the Columbia on the 28th Ulto. She crossed the Bar on the 5th Inst, in company with the Belgian Brig Indefatigable, which has been waiting for a chance upwards of two months, as Captain Mollar was afraid to go out alone, having, when entering the River, come by the South Channel, which was never before attempted, and very nearly lost his vessel through ignorance of the navigation. 

Ah, yes, I remember when the Indefatigable came over the bar in August 1844: James Birnie was then in charge at Fort George. This following is from the book, Willamette Interlude, by Sister Mary Dominica [Palo Alto: Pacific Books, 1959]:

They [the missionaries] were singing the Te Deum together at nine o’clock when Mr. Birnie came aboard with the owner of the ship… Now they learned how that ship had been forced back by the wind and how Mr. Birnie had taken a band of Indians to Cape Disappointment, where they lighted fires, waved flags, and fired guns and cannon to attract the Indefatigable in that direction. [The captain of the ship ignored Birnie and his men, and the ship crossed the bar safely but not in the safe channel]. Certainly God had saved them, Mr. Birnie agreed, but in order that a second miracle might not be necessary he would come aboard again very early in the morning, to guide them through the banks that lay between them and the fort [Vancouver]. He added that Mrs. Birnie would be expecting all the passengers as soon as they landed.

So this has turned out to be a shipping post. I know that when I wrote out my list of all the things that happened near and at Fort Vancouver, from all the journals and records I have in hand, that there was an enormous number of ships, large and small, making their way up the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver, and then out of the river mouth once again. The ship traffic on this river was constant, and many of the ships were large sea-going vessels. As we also know, some of those ships waited long period of times to get into the river over the bar, and to make their way upriver, against the prevailing wind, to Fort Vancouver and its anchorage. This must truly have been the busiest anchorage on the entire coastline at this time, especially when you take into consideration the many American and British ships that also visited this place.

The next post, when it is written, will appear here: 

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

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4 thoughts on “Shipping at Fort Vancouver

  1. Kees van Weel

    “21st, Monday. Heavy rain he whole day. The Stoves put up in the different Houses. (Did they dismantle them over summer?)”

    They may have taken the stoves outside during Summer so as not to heat up the houses. This was often done elsewhere and they were set up on porches or in outbuildings until it was cool enough to use them inside.

  2. Tom Holloway

    The “old fort” built in 1824-25 and abandoned in 1829 was quite a ways east of where the US Army built its barracks starting in 1849. For many years it was thought that the first Fort Vancouver was on the site now occupied by the Washington State School for the Deaf. But recent archaeological research has concluded it was more likely a little further east along the bluff overlooking the Columbia.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Thanks Tom, when I was at Fort Vancouver in the 1990s sometime, I was writing A.C.s biography and was not interested in the first location of the fort. Now, I think, I have to get down to Vancouver and spend some time there, to learn what I need to learn about it.